Friday, August 30, 2013

Penang begins

Arrived in Malaysia aboard a mammoth Air Malaysia double-decker A380 airbus, featuring 14 emergency slides, great food, and carrying very near its maximum 494 passengers.  One of three checked bags arrived with us. We learned that one of the renegades was still in New York and the other in Kuala Lumpur. After spending two nights on planes getting here, no clean clothes or sandals for K…  T a bit luckier.  All sorted by the next morning.

The school put us up in a once-grand resort right on the beach in Batu Feringgi, not far from the school campus. It comes with an impressive breakfast buffet catering to the tastes of the various home continents of the guests, who seem to include a good number of peninsular Malaysians. Eid al fitr, the end of the Ramadan month of fasting is near, and many people are here at the beach for vacation/celebrations. We have five days/nights to choose an apartment and move in.

It’s a rather odd location. From Batu Feringgi it is a good 20 minute drive (if traffic cooperates) along a windy sea front road to the highly developed tangle outside Georgetown, the charming town the uninitiated think of when one thinks “Penang”.  Penang is actually a whole province, some of which is on the mainland.  Penang island (Pulau Pinang) is connected to the mainland by a 13.5 km (8.4 mi) long bridge. A second bridge, further south, is in the works.

The two apartment buildings where the vast majority of staff lives are the charmingly named Eden Seaview and Miami Green. The former has the attribute of being in easy walking distance to the school and a few minutes’ walk to restaurants and small shops. The latter, a 27 meter (88 1/2 feet) swimming pool and a basic but serviceable gym. But that one requires a commute either by bus (25 minutes) or by car (10 minutes). We were shown only a couple of other properties besides these two, both of them even further away than Miami Green and also further off the main road.

view from our balcony
pool from balcony--don't jump!
In the end, knowing we would soon have a car (prearranged by email), the pool and gym got our vote. Miami Green is a four 28-story tower block condo resort carved into the steep, wooded hillside behind, with gated guardhouse, the above-mentioned 27 meter outdoor pool (no need to heat--ever!), the gym (only one elliptical, draw straws?), and a meandering three-floor parking lot with harrowingly narrow up and down ramps.

The big deal in our flat? Out the front windows, the sea and a picturesque strip of land on the mainland, and out the back windows the jungle. Worth riding up 20, count ‘em 20 floors in the elevator each day (my ears pop!). Washing dishes scanning the steep hillside some 60 feet or so behind for birds and monkeys.   Worth the slightly kitschy d├ęcor: 70s-style light fixtures, one bathroom sporting pink wall tiles and green and clay-colored floor tiles in a checkerboard pattern, lavender walls in the bedroom. But we are luckier than most to have a fairly well stocked kitchen including a convection oven (rare) and a clothes dryer (unheard of).  Sipping tea on the balcony watching the ferry to Langkawi Island go by.
ironing with jungle view

entryway to our apartment

Had to sign a year’s lease but will be on the lookout for possible alternatives. Walking out the door to swim at 8 pm could be habit-forming however.

Apartment, Day One
The washing machine does not work and the dryer stops after 4 minutes. No internet.
BUT the cable TV is hooked up and we have Al Jazeera English and BBC, and we had our first gecko visitor (means good luck)

Apartment, Day Two
Internet working, but our computer, a Mac Book pro less than two years old, has died and would cost $800 to repair, AND an ATM machine ate my US credit card
BUT the washer has been repaired and found a dryer  setting that allows it to run for 30 minutes

Apartment, Day Four
Internet no longer working, swimmer's ear, BUT terrific "wet" (= fruit, veg, fish, chicken) market
The car is a real blessing, purchased with funds reimbursed from the Baku shipping allowance. But it’s orange. The previous Dutch owner no doubt thought that was grand, but call it “copper” all you want, it remains ORANGE, which as you have no doubt deduced is not my fave.  Here it is parked next to a really cute BLUE vehicle.  Well, it is easy to spot in a parking lot. 

Driving on the left took some getting used to, hitting the windshield wiper whilst wanting the turn signal. (One can say “whilst” whilst speaking of British-style driving).  Left hand drive and S-curve coast roads are one thing. The more imponderable element is: motorbikes.  In singles or flocks, passing you on the left or the right, on a curve or straightaway, in your lane, the oncoming lane, no discernible lane, or even in moving in the opposite direction on your side of the road, one must be vigilant and not easily startled. And the dotted line lane markers—what were they thinking? The road to town starts out as two lanes then goes to four, with through traffic often switching from left to right lane, and left turn lanes suddenly appearing and disappearing. You have to be in the know, and generously allow others to go with the flow as well.  All very interesting.

People are absolutely lovely. Being calm and kind are national virtues. Imagine. People smile. The marvelous mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese ethnic groups makes it such a very rich and interesting place. Most people speak English as well as Malayan AND either Hokkeinese (Chinese) or Tamil (Indian). Makes communicating easy and sets the stage for a world-renowned variety of yummy food offerings, which also happen to be CHEAP.  Oh yes!

Seen: Dark haired ethnic South Indian woman in a t-shirt reading: “life is better blonde”.

US Summer. Sign: "We tattoed your parents"

Always a bit of a shock, and a welcome mix of familiar comforts, bewildering disparities and, above all, precious reunions with friends and family. 

After leaving Baku June 16 and having two marvelous weeks in Italy and France, our US summer travel blitz found us in Brooklyn, Big Apple; Montpelier and Brattleboro, Vermont; LaLa Land, CA; University Place and Hood Canal, WA; ending with a grand finale of a White Coat ceremony heralding the start of Cam’s med school in Valhalla, NY. Wow and wow. The boy looked great.

The disparity bit has to do with the striking disconnect between all-powerful corporations, dwindling in number but increasing in might,  that wield control over people’s well-being, making some homeless  and others sick, too poor to pay rigged health costs; and what seems like an increasing number of sensible, creative, far-looking projects that foster wise use of resources and community well-being. The same actors who do these works must be neighbors, how can they think/act so differently?  Greed/money, power vs. conscience/vision, peace.  This makes me hate/love the idea of living in the US again. It would make me crazy if I lived here. 

Then there is the utterly enjoyable comfort level for us returning expats.  Indeed I did pet the vegetables in the first tastefully-lit humongous Safeway I visited. Five kinds of lettuce!      Worlds of possibility DO lay beyond the cabbage and eggplants of the Caspian.  Understanding what everyone is saying, just in idly overhearing the daily conversation of strangers—that is big. In Tacoma, the familiar places, knowing what has changed and what has not, that is very big, the roots alive and well. Seeing familiar faces on the walking trail or at a store, big big big.  Presumably we will have to retire somewhere, someday not too distant.  This trip, we found ourselves more drawn to Washington than we realized.
But for now, on to Asian adventure…