My new life is filled with colors and trees and old architecture and water. It is, I’ve been told, against the law to cut down any of the trees that shade generous portions of the Penang streets and road ways; even in my somewhat lackluster neighborhood, small green groves punctuate the rooftops below my balcony and leafy plumes lend grace to the ugly thoroughfares.
Only a few miles from where I live, in the hills that range at the edge of the suburban sprawl, is jungle and terraced hillsides where crops are being grown and gigantic, mysterious boulders that are the size of small houses. Small clear streams make audible sounds—it is that quiet—and the air smells moist and cool. An unpaved road holds a handmade sign at its beginning—“the art of living” it says and an arrow points invitingly down the lane. Someday soon I’ll go back there just to see where that art can be found.
The street where Sun Yatsen lived for a while still looks as it might have when he walked along it one hundred years ago, if you ignore the little Euro cafes and galleries and boutiques that fill the buildings that were probably much more utilitarian when Dr. Sun plotted revolution in their midst. A Western woman passed by me as I gaped my way along Armenia Street; she held the leash of a large German Shepherd and together they entered one of the old, refurbished houses. I longed for her life, her house, her dog—but only for a moment.
I moved to Penang because I needed time to step away from Bangkok’s jangling turmoil. Seduced by color and greenery and the promise of natural beauty, I signed away a year of my life to live here, in a small city that isn’t prey to the cognitive dissonance that characterizes Bangkok for me.
In Bangkok, I was whisked from downtown to my neighborhood in minutes on a glacially cold subway—and then climbed into the back of a pickup truck and sat until the driver decided he had enough passengers to make it worthwhile to start his vehicle and drive us all home. For the first six months of my return back to my Thai neighborhood, I thought this was charming and then I began to feel homicidal, especially when the humidity was around 110% and it was raining so the driver had put up his Visqueen walls to keep his passengers dry.
There are no pickup truck transport options in Penang, and no motorcycle taxis. Once you leave the downtown area of Georgetown with its taxis and trishaws, you take a bus. It’s clean and airconditioned and just a tiny bit boring. But on the other hand, I don’t conclude a foray into the larger world with thoughts of murdering a fellow-human—or by racing down a highway sitting side-saddle behind a man whom I pray hasn’t had one too many Red Bulls. Oh wait—that was the good part of living in Bangkok, and I realize now I didn’t do it often enough.
In my new home, I get on a bus and I go to the one place I’ve found that has really good coffee beans and I go to another place where I’ve found I can buy the International Herald Tribune and sometimes I go to the spot near the seawall where I can sit at a plastic table and watch the water as I eat something that is very good indeed. I come home to a place that is bright and pleasant and triple the space of any apartment I’ve had in Bangkok for what I would pay for a studio in Thailand’s capital. There are no mosquitoes and no cockroaches and no rooftops to block out the setting sun or the SE Asian l’heure bleu that I love so much.
And there are no bookstores to tempt me into spending my last cent, and no wonderful eccentric opinionated writers and booksellers for me to drink too much beer with as we chat for hours and hours, and there are no riverboats to call me away from my work. And damn it, when I think about it, I’m a lucky old broad. So why am I crying? Beats the hell out of me…
The sky outside my balcony is golden and pink and dark grey with flashes of heat lightning. A curtain of rain rolls toward me and I remember a student years ago in Bangkok asking me “Can you see the shadow of the rain?” Those kinds of memories have informed my life in Thailand and gave it depth. I look down at the houses below me now in Penang and know I will never have the glimmer of understanding about them that I was lucky to have been given in Thailand—and oh god, at this moment how much I miss all that I was so eager to leave behind,