Sunday, January 4, 2009

Penang and the Mango Incident

Sounds intriguing doesn't it? As any reader of the brilliant and sorely missed Calvin & Hobbes comic strip will remember, "the noodle incident" is something referred to a couple of times in the strip but never explained. The strip's creator, Bill Watterson, opined that it was sometimes better to leave things up to the imagination of the reader. I'll actually tell you about the mango incident later on, but it's not nearly as dramatic as the title of this entry might lead you to believe. I just liked the sound of it.

I took the picture above from Batu Ferringhi beach on the north coast of Penang. It actually looks quite nice, but the reality is, the beaches there are not Malaysia's best. You can't always believe what you see in photos! As for Penang, it is a Malaysian state, an island, and—colloquially—the name of the largest city on the island, as well. (The proper name is Georgetown.) The state of Penang extends to the mainland, but when anyone here says, "I'm going to Penang," they mean the island. Georgetown, named for England's King George back in Malaysia's colonial days, is not only the largest city on the island, but is indeed the second-largest city in the country. I was warned more than once before the trip, "If you think KL drivers are bad, just wait 'till you drive in Penang." It's about a 4.5-hour drive to reach the island, and it was a nice, leisurely drive with no unexpected surprises from my car. Always a good thing. The highway to Penang is a toll road, like most major highways in Malaysia, and the cumulative tolls were fairly expensive (about RM50 or about US$14), but I can't deny that the road is excellent. It's well-maintained, and nice R&R facilities are sprinkled along the route, too. At some, there are places to eat (mamak food stalls, mind you, not usually a proper restaurant), and at most, there are fruit and snack stands. We got fresh fruit on a couple of stops -- quite nice.

GPS navigation! Hooray! The island of Penang is connected to the mainland by a very long bridge, so I was pretty excited about driving across that. Wow... what a crashing disappointment that turned out to be. The main span, which is cable-stayed instead of the more aesthetically appealing suspension, is okay, but honestly, if there had been a single way at all to make one of the longest bridges in the entire world a complete bore, Malaysians found it. Moreover, they're actually expanding the bridge (from four lanes to six), which is a rather monumental task given its 8-mile length, so they have erected a corrugated tin barrier that all but eliminates any view that might have been present. Now bear in mind they've also started construction on a fantasically expensive second bridge—even longer—linking the island to the mainland, so it begs the question, why expand the existing bridge if you're going to build a whole new one nearby? Furthermore, this new RM3 to 4.5 billion bridge (depending on the source) is being constructed with only four lanes. Brilliant! No planning ahead here! If you live here for even a short time, as I have, things such as this will come as NO surprise. I can say without any fear of contradiction: there's not a whole lot of forethought that goes into transportation planning here. Roads are put in haphazardly, barriers are built at junctions (in lieu of traffic lights), forcing drivers to make lengthy detours and U-turns to go very short actual distances. Massive, dense condo blocks and office buildings are erected without a scrap of attention being paid to traffic studies or infrastructure improvement. There's a whole new development nearing completion in my neighborhood and absolutely nothing has been done to accommodate the increase in traffic that will doubtlessly occur. This is the same sort of myopic "planning" that allows one bridge to be expanded while a whole new one is being built a few miles away. Anyway, sorry for the diatribe. I really do like living in Malaysia, but it's not without its various oddities. Back to the story...

We stayed in a business-class hotel a bit south of Georgetown and the suite was massive. It wasn't opulent or plush, but it was nice and it was big... about 1,000 sq. ft., which is very large for a hotel room. My friends and I spent the first 15 minutes just walking around, looking in the bedroom, checking out the desk and office space, sitting at the dining room table, etc. There was a nice pool and gym onsite, too, and we got this place for RM150... a pretty good price, especially for the New Year holiday. I didn't include the picture of the "please don't cook pork in the oven" sticker on the microwave, but I had to post a picture of the "no durians" sign... it's not the first time I've seen such a sign. Durians are the black sheep of the fruit kingdom, I swear. Two things here whose smell is utterly unmistakable are shrimp paste and durian. Neither is particularly pleasant, and both can be smelled from quite a distance, and there is simply no mistaking their aromas. I've still yet to try fresh durian, but I'm sure I will one of these days. Even apart from the smell, it's an intimidating fruit. Once I take the plunge, I'll be sure to write about it.

The New Year's festivities were at the old colonial fort on the coast called Fort Cornwallis and the event was called "Rock the Fort 2009." We got to see some pretty good live music, and at midnight, of course, a great fireworks show. There were loads of people there, and we went went out for some good street food afterwards, so we didn't get back to the hotel until about 2:30 a.m.

The rest of the trip was fairly straightforward... exploring, going to the beach, checking out the colonial architecture, sampling food, driving around, taking pictures, sleeping late. On the day we left the island, we got caught up in a terrible traffic jam and had the worst meal of the trip on top of that, so we left the hotel at noon, but didn't get off the island until nearly 4:00. Not a particularly good way to wrap up the vacation, but it was the only time we really got snarled up in any memorably bad traffic.

The drive back to KL was not quite as pleasant as the drive to Penang. First, we got to drive through a torrential downpour for a good long time—probably a solid half-hour of sheets of rain falling from the clouds. And then, shortly after nightfall, we were driving along and probably only 25 miles from KL and the traffic just ground to a stop, then proceeded to just barely crawl along. On and on this went, in the rain (which wasn't as heavy by then) for over 40 minutes. We kept thinking it was a police roadblock or something, maybe an accident... but when we finally got to the point where we could see what was actually causing all the mayhem and despair, it was funny and a bit anticlimactic. Mangos. Hundreds of them, all over the road. A truck had lost its load (it was pulled over a bit further on), and crates of mangos were scattered everywhere. Even at the time, it was pretty amusing that after all that delay and drama, it all turned out to be the fault of a bunch of rogue mangos.

So that's the Penang trip. It wasn't spectacular, but it was quite enjoyable, and I'm happy I got to go. In Malaysia, a five-hour drive is considered a "long way," so I'm glad I was able to do it and experience a real road trip here and not have it end with me riding home in a tow truck or having things fall out from under my car on the roadway.

Since returning to work on January 6th, after a wonderful 3 1/2-week holiday break, I've been incredibly busy, so that's why I haven't updated the blog in nearly three weeks' time. (You'll note that the entry date is January 4th, which is when I started writing it, so I didn't ignore it completely... it just took awhile to complete!) I'll try to do better here soon! One of the students I tutor was desperately trying to get numerous essays completed for applications to American colleges and the other student I tutor just started his first semester at a prestigious international school here, so between that and my regular job, I've been somewhat buried. I must say, though, that having nearly a month off (paid!) was really, really nice. If you have the opportunity to try it, I highly recommend it. :)

Next up, a friend of mine from the U.S. is visiting me for Chinese New Year. In an odd coincidence, he's in Seoul, South Korea, teaching English and I'm here in KL. He has the time off, so he'll be flying down to Malaysia and will spend six days here. I get to play host for the first time!

More later... sorry for the delay on this entry!