It had been a long haul on the train from Bangkok to Butterworth. I had only two suitcases but just one of them fit under my seat. The other jutted into most of the aisle until a railway attendant put it on a shelf in the back of the car. "For us to use but for you okay," he told me.
I had barely managed to get the bags onto the train. The small one was full of books, which was stupid but will surprise nobody who knows me, and it was crushingly heavy, while the larger one was light but bulky as all hell. A man had carried one to my seat when I put my belongings in the car, and then helped me when I reached the immigration checkpoint on the border.Two jovial Australians each took one as we went to the ferry to Penang, but even after these many kindnesses from strangers, my back and shoulders ached. I had slept fitfully on the trip down and once I reached my hotel room, all I wanted was a shower and a nap.
The shower was great, the pillows felt as though someone had recently chiseled them from a quarry, and the bedding was all polyester. I squirmed and tossed and felt deep sympathy for the Princess who was kept awake by a pea. I had just lapsed into a form of relaxation when I heard something that sounded like gunfire. "Impossible, this isn't Bangkok," I muttered but then there it was again, repeatedly--a barrage of small explosions.
I got up, went to the window and saw a van, covered with flowers, closely followed by another and a trio of drummers. It's a wedding, I thought and grabbed my camera. But the next thing I saw was a brilliantly pink box tied to a sturdy pole and carried by a large number of men. It was quite obviously a coffin but the mood was so festive it was hard for me to believe I was witnessing a funeral procession.
People scattered flowers in front of the coffin-bearers and a long red rectangle was carefully placed some distance ahead of it and ignited, setting off a jubilant round of firecrackers. Then the coffin was untied from the pole, the men backed away, and a group of men and women repeatedly circumnavigated the coffin, throwing rose petals and bathing it with water from an earthenware jug. They halted, the jug was dashed to the pavement, the coffin was pushed into the back of one of the vans, the people got into cars, and everything moved off down the street. All that was left was pieces of the broken jug, flower petals and remnants of firecrackers.
And that was my first hour in Penang.