Monday, February 03, 2014

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

27 January – 3 February

Surat Thani train station, at one in the morning
Cleared into Malaysia on a ninety-day visa after taking the overnight train from Phun Phin. We paid for an extra night at the Queen Hotel so we could pack and relax until one in the morning, and then strolled to the train station and climbed into second-class berths immediately. The rest of the train was already sleeping so we had to creep in, find the right spots, cram our gear in somewhere, and clamber around other people's curtains as silently as possible. I went to sleep as soon as I convinced myself to dig my face mask and ear plugs from my backpack. They left the full overhead lights in the train car on all night long, which I found exasperating until I accepted that it was going to be on and tugged my face mask on snugly.

I slept well except for in the middle of the night when someone's cell phone, deep inside a suitcase, went off and I thought it was mine—exactly the same ring tone as my $5 Samsung tracfone that I carry around and use almost as an alarm clock—I was convinced it was mine and had no idea how I'd get it out of my backpack. I lay awake as it snoozed and tried to argue internally that those phones were as common as dirt in Asia, and chances were good it was someone else's. Sure enough, the next time it went off, I stuck my head out my curtain and confirmed it wasn't mine. Another farang was hissing down from her berth: wake him up! I don't know what happened; I fell back asleep till morning.

K. slept later than anyone else on the entire train, and I finally nudged him awake because I was worried about him sleeping through the border. I don't know if they would have ever woken up. They probably would have let him sleep through customs. I laid awake for a while, worrying, but everything was fine. We woke up in time to clear through and now we're in Malaysia.

It looks like Thailand but I always feel crossing borders changes the way things feel. There is more construction and factories on this side, also cliffs made of karst topped with temples that are beautiful. Containers moving through on long trains and big concrete stations half-completed and with no one using them. Already I miss the Thai stations with the giant photographs of King Bhumibol, and the careful little potted plants and hand-painted signs.

Already I feel how it's different here and if I'm honest I'm uncomfortable being in an Islamic country. The women covering their hair make me feel like a profligate slut for leaving mine uncovered. But then there are the farang girls on the platform in short-shorts or bikinis visible beneath their cut-out tank tops and I think: oh.

I don't think anyone is judging me. I am just a species apart, an alien.

I don't know how to explain how it makes me feel. Like somehow I need to change my behavior, that mine is immodest, even though I cloak my bosom in a modest scarf and wear skirts below my knees. I still wear makeup, earrings, pants, leave my shoulders bare. And more than that, I want the right to do those things. I don't want to live in a world where women feel obligated to change the way they dress. But already I live in that world. Women in our culture feel the need to cover their breasts in public, almost always. What if we thought bare breasts were modest but bare hair obscene? Who am I to decide?

Even though I love the Muslim girls, especially the ones with beaded veils bright as flowers, the ones that wear them over Beatles tee-shirts, leaving elbows bare! The ones that wear jeans and heels. The ones that flaunt their restrictions just subtly, keeping their hijab immaculately in place.

I've seen men in the pillbox hats and long black tunics, which gives me an odd twist, too. Boys wearing them, too, traveling with their fathers. What do they make of me? Do they notice the veiled girls in tee-shirts? Men with the long grizzly unshaven beards. I don't know how to handle it my own head, just my knowledge of their belief, a belief that I really don't understand at all.

My parents are missionaries, meaning that they evangelize people, try to convince them to change their beliefs. My own belief is much closer to Universalism, at least in that I believe the doctrines of heaven and hell are wildly unclear in scripture. I consider myself as tolerant as possible, and I believe there are Muslim feminists and Muslim mystics and Muslim reformers brilliant Muslim artists. Just because a person believes in Islam does not make that person a fanatic or a fundamentalist or an Islamist or a terrorist. Nevertheless, I worry that much of the world's existing Islamic infrastructure exists as an indoctrination system for oppression of women. As does much of Christianity, if I'm honest.

I spent a week traveling in Bangladesh almost fifteen years ago, during my last trip to Asia, and the thing I found most disturbing was the sheer lack of freedom women had, as evidenced by their absence. I saw 100 men to everyone one man as I saw. The women are kept in cages, the cages of their own homes. They just don't leave the house.

Clearly, things are better here. But I still feel more animosity, or just more curiosity, or maybe more lust, in the eyes of Malaysian men. In Thailand I can meet someone's eyes and smile, but here I have the sensation more of being stared at, of being observed. I find myself meeting men's eyes until they look away, one of the things I was taught never to do in Bangladesh. I don't like being stared at, just because I'm not wearing a hijab.

But it's the awareness of one belief system abutting another, and wondering about the contradictions between them. Malaysia in general, and Penang in particular, are famous for their blending of three distinct cultures: Muslim native Malays, Chinese, and Indians. So Malaysia has been doing this balancing act, of cultural blending, for a long time. The food is supposed to be where the big payoff is—Indian and Chinese and Malay all coming together in a magical mystery of flavors.

We took the ferry from the train station to Georgetown, the capital city of Pulau Penang, one of Malaysia's oldest cities and originally built by the British. It's a UNESCO world heritage site now, and this week is the week of Chinese New Year, although if I'm honest none of that is why we're here. We're here because of how easy it's supposed to be to get a sixty-day Thai visa using the services of a guesthouse. So we found ourselves an actual flophouse on Love Lane for 30 Malaysian ringgit a night—only 300 baht! The rooms are festooned with blackened spiderwebs and the common toilet is squat—but the showers are clean and the rooftop garden is luminous. The city is squalid and majestic simultaneously. Multi-million dollar restoration projects and boutique hotels above open sewage drains.

We spent most of the week looking for food. Looking for Penang's legendary hawker stalls, more specifically. There were so many things I was excited about eating: dim sum at a Chinese morning breakfast joint, char kway teaou, the genesis of pad Thai—Thailand's national dish actually stolen from the Chinese. Fried noodles of various kinds, combining the various culinary cultures of Malaysia into epic deliciousness.

I must admit that this trip and this blog is degenerating into the dark pit of foodieness. (See Simpsons foodie-blog song.) But I also must admit that Southeast Asia is inspiring the food blogger hidden deep in my heart. I want to photograph and post about every meal we eat, every stall I see. I guess I've never been that far from food writing anyway. The only travel shows we can agree on in the States are the ones that feature epic international eating: Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, mainly. So I'm thrilled that we ended up eating one of the stalls featured by Anthony Bourdain, unwittingly even.

The one food we kept eating because it seemed easy and we kept running into is nasi goreng, which I can only translate as rice and stuff. You get a plate of rice, and then you choose among the various dishes laid out in front of you. It can be done Chinese style with fried vegetables and scallion fritters and tofu and egg foo young. Or it can be done with Indian curried mutton and fish heads and stewed okra. The problem is knowing when to stop, because everything added to your plate costs at least an extra ringgit. K ended up with a giant 22MR pile with mutton and squid and bean sprouts biryani. I discovered that curry gravy was free and ended up with a soupy pile of rice when the guy gave me a ladle from every dish on the shelf.

We also ate: mee goreng, char kway teaou, kway teou soup, Chinese hot pot, fried noodles, fish sambal, samosas, chicken tandoori, mutton korma, naan, and lime juice with salted plums. And through all of it we found ourselves missing Thai food. Or at least the khrooang boong, the spice machine—the four-part condiment holder ubiquitous in Thailand, with its nam plaa phrick and nam sohm and peanuts and chili powder. People who don't like Thai food don't like how it beats people over the head with the intensity of each dish: every meal is sweet and sour and spicy and salty. Maybe my tongue has lost any notion of subtlety. But I believe the best food is a balance among all of those flavors, and Thais give eaters the respect of offering them the spice machine, so that all of these flavors can be adjusted according to their own taste.

An Australian friend said: yes, but you can taste the complexity in each dish, the subtlety of the flavor. Maybe Thai food has ruined me. Give me nahm plaa prick any day.

And then back on the train, the other half of the night, climbing into berths at 7:59 pm and being called awake back in Surat Thani, back to the Queen Hotel.

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