Life at 5 Degrees: Farming in Penang

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Five degrees north of the equator, that is!  For someone who grew up at 45 degrees north, that seems suddenly really close to the middle!
After a relaxing ride on the overnight Bangkok to Butterworth Express (complete with observing the skills of the little old lady smugglers!), we disembarked at the train station, where it is only a five minute walk to the ferry pier.  Twenty minutes later, we land on Pulau Penang…our home for the next 4 weeks.  Three years ago, I visited Penang for about 3 days…and it was the kind of bewitching, wild adventure that left me dreaming of returning there someday.  Well, that day had come, but we had no time to look around, because we had to find the bus to Relau and Wonder Wilder Farm.

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After a bit of confusion, we arrived and met the owner, Meishy, and another volunteer who is here from Canada.  No sooner had we set down our bags before we were whisked off to another farmer’s home near the beach for a feast of durians and blue colored tea (Butterfly Pea Flower, to be exact).  KK, the owner of that farm, learned about permaculture and organic farming from our host…and he is one of the kindest, most genuine people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

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The next day, we began our farmwork in earnest.  Hours of collecting freshly mown grass to use as mulch later!  Over the course of the first week, we weeded and fertilized the papaya, built a frame to support the pumpkin vines, weeded the pumpkin patch, and helped to feed the two rounds of visiting children who came to see the farm.  Despite the hot weather, we have to wear long sleeved shirts with a jacket over the top!  The mosquitoes are so thick in the low-lying area here at the foot of the large hill, we need to suit up and spray down each morning.  Nevertheless, it is very relaxing to be back in farming mode after so many years of the concrete jungle.

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By Friday, we were all ready for a little playtime, so Meishy took us on a little field trip.  First, we ate breakfast at a little roadside stall before heading to a beautiful fishing village on the tidal flats.  The tide was out, so we got to see thousands of crabs and mudskippers lurking in the shallows, along with the long, arching roots of the mangrove trees, as they try to escape the salty water.  Next, we drove to a quiet beach which we had all to ourselves.  Finally, we headed into the larger town in the area, called Balik Pulau, to wander and entertain ourselves for a while.  It was a beautiful morning of chilling out and pretty skies…which turned to a huge thunderstorm for the rest of the afternoon, so we ended up not working that day!

 

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During our rounds, we were able to try several Malay specialties…Roti Kanar and Mee Goreng…Teh ‘O’ and different kinds of coconut-based sweets.  In a fishing village, she took us to meet an old Chinese gentleman who had the most fabulous whiskers ever (sorry, no pictures because it just seemed rude, you know?).  He is turning his home into a homestay where there are to be no clocks.  He spoke wisdom to us as we sat in the cool parlor of his home, sipping water and eating pumpkin treats.

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During the first week, we had to spend several nights at the host’s house on the other side of the island.  In small Pantai Acheh village, we were often invited over to the neighbors house for jackfruit, durian, chempedak (jackfruit’s cousin), Chinese liquor, homebrewed ginger beer, various teas, and Hokkein style coffee (the beans have been fried in a wok, rather than roasted.  Here we would chat for a couple hours, discovering the opinions of the village people on everything from Malaysian politics to K Pop music to dogs vs cats as pets.  However, the dorms became available again by the weekend, so we moved back into the farming complex and Relau town.

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Sunday, June 1st was the date set for the big monthly farmer’s market that Meishy and our farm host…except there was a big problem!  The adjoining area where they set up booths and have performances and classes had been double booked with a Malayan wedding!  So we had to move the market to a location further into the agrarian complex…but we still had an awesome turnout.  Meishy asked me to do a storytelling for the young children who came with their parents…and Sangbyeong and I also taught a mini salsa class and performed an informal dance for the crowd.  As if that weren’t enough, we got to sample delicious goodies from the other stalls…and there were even vegan brownies!!!  We made a lot of friends that day with sellers and patrons, young and old.

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The following week, Meishy had to be away, due to a family emergency…so we were left to run the farm by ourselves!  Well, there were five of us volunteers now.  Arnold the Canadian, Sangbyeong, and I were joined by Craig from California and Sechen from Delhi.  We each had different projects…Sangbyeong was fixing the watering system and the pipes, while I was weeding the massive herb gardens.  The others were working on creating a new fun area, clearing new seed beds, and working on the farm website.  Sangbyeong and I also volunteered to be the chefs for lunch and dinner each day…some days with boring old pasta, some days with tamarind chilli mango tofu experiments some days with creativity, like making scrambled green bananas with corn.  But we were all very happy to have Meishy back by Thursday…just in time, because a large group of parents and children were coming in for a morning session at the farm on Friday.  More storytelling!

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After two weeks of farming, market prepping, storytelling, and wandering the quiet streets of Relau and the back villages of Penang…we were ready for some excitement.  So on our second Friday night, we headed into Georgetown to spend the weekend in one of my favorite places on the planet…the UNESCO heritage listed Old Town area that has been providing the backdrop for my dreams in the three years since I last saw it.

 

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