Sunday, December 5, 2010

666 Words about Penang

666 Words About Penang

And of course there is sunlight today, not profuse and glorious but more than I’ve seen in a week. I have to remember that if the Brits settled somewhere in SE Asia it was because it tended to be cloudy. I wonder why they never made it to Hanoi; they probably avoided it because it lies inland, gravitating toward the small and misty islands with bad climates instead. The woman who wrote Morning is the Whole Day pointed out the similarities between England and Malaysia. I should have remembered.

Jessie said yesterday that she had been horrified at the change between the woman she first met and the one who had spent two months in music hell. “Your face was so different from when you came,” she said. Ah yes, and I rarely burst into tears in a public place either, as complete strangers walk past.

I’ve read in novels and memoirs how people—usually women-- weather times of crisis without wavering and then become masses of quivering nerves when all is well again, Post-traumatic stress disorder is the term our time and place reduces that to, an envelope of clinical words for the near-panic state that comes from having what is accepted and demanded as normalcy being shot directly to hell. The Vietcong reputedly sent blasting music for hours into the jungle nights as torture for nearby American troops and I can testify that it is extremely effective. I would rather endure 24 hours of something truly horrible and then have it over and done with than ¼ of my waking moments consumed with sound that I can’t abide, when I’m winding down for sleep, for weeks and weeks and weeks.

Lack of sleep plays hell not only with emotions and sanity but appetite too. I know the food here is good; I loved it when I first arrived but now I associate tamarind and shrimp paste and even the lovely fresh orange juice with throbbing amplifiers and bellowing singers and my stomach closes shut.

When the music was going on every night, I found ways to keep from screaming but once it ended I was shocked when I discovered that I couldn’t sink into silence at night. Somewhere inside I waited for the noise to begin, even though it was after the legally bound time of silence, after midnight.

“It will start again,” Jessie said, “You never know when. It depends on the deity.” And another woman told me, “It’s much worse in August, and it goes on longer.”

I know that if I stayed here, the minute I saw a blue plastic structure go up indicating that stage-building is in progress, inwardly I would start to scream and wouldn’t be able to stop.

This is done to benefit Chinese temples. The music doesn’t burst into full glory until after the final call to prayer fades into the night, at around 8 pm. Since the concerts have ended, that last call to prayer has become longer, louder, and more pronounced. It makes me wonder what the Moslem population thinks about the deity concerts and if they ever attend them? I didn’t see a bescarved head among the concert-goers the night of my investigation. Unless it comes up in fiction, or I ask Jessie, I will never know.

I look at the decaying houses that I had dreamed of living in. They stand waiting for renovation or destruction in the part of Georgetown near the historic area and now I know that within their grace and silence lives vermin. I’ve seen rats swimming down the open drains and I have learned in this city exactly what a thriving bed bug colony looks like. Even here in the modern splendor of Symphony Park, I received a spider bite that took over a week to heal. I’m only grateful that I escaped the experience of lice—but then of course I do face another 36 hours or so in Georgetown...

Noise, clouds and vermin. Hello/goodbye, Penang.


Katia said...

Gosh, how I empathize. I'm the type of person who needs LOTS of silence, and too much noise can really drive me out of my mind. Your post reminded me of an overnight trip in a Malaysian bus, many years ago. I came out with my ears ringing because they had been playing very loud music and just as loud videos the whole night.

janet brown said...

Katia, you're lucky you survived that bus ride. The paper was full of traffic deaths, mostly buses, when I was in Penang and 28 Thai tourists just died in a Malaysian bus accident. I will never ever travel in a bus in that country.