Drenched in History…and Durian: Georgetown and Other Adventures

The second weekend in June, we took a break from our volunteer farming labours and treated ourselves to a weekend steeped in history, as we explored Georgetown, the capital and largest city of Penang state.  Recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2008, it has a well-preserved labyrinth of colonial streets packed with shopfronts, temples, street art, trishaws, and grand historical buildings.

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We arrived mid-afternoon, and (after a coffee) I eagerly dragged Sangbyeong into the warren of streets that captured my imagination three years before.  And all the magic is still there.  He was instantly won over by the tumbledown and mix-n-match beauty of the streets as we wandered past Malay mosques, Chinese clan temples, Hindu shrines, and all the charms in between.  We treated ourselves to a massive vegetarian dinner and then late night salsa dancing.  Two of the girls who took part in our farmer’s market lesson were there…and the special DJ for that night was from Kuala Lumpur!  The DJ and a couple of his KL friends recognized me…from my two nights dancing there three years before.  It was a fun night that challenged all my salsa skills…I got to brush up on my Cuban, on1, chacha on1, as well as get in a few on2 dances. (Too dark for photos…they just looked like smudgy blurs…sad)
The next morning, we were back on the streets.

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Our first destination was Fort Cornwallis, established by the Englishman Francis Light, who was responsible for starting Georgetown and cultivating Britain’s toehold in the Straits of Malacca.  The fort is small, star-shaped, and boasts a lovely sea view, along with a bunch of fun cannons.  While there, we were surrounded by hundreds of high schoolers partaking in a historical scavenger hunt event…running hither and thither in their yellow T-shirts.  A short walk away, we found the sedated Negeri Museum, which charges a mere RM1 per entry…that’s about 35 cents!  Though small, the exhibits were very well-executed and very informative about the three main cultures of Penang, as well as its history.  We spent a long time inside…and enjoyed looking at the smattering of historical vehicles outside…including the Rolls Royce of the former governor, who was assassinated as he stepped out…but 35 other bullets failed to enter or harm his wife and secretary inside.

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We spent the rest of the day with less structured wandering.  We started at the clan jetties, houses built on stilts out into the sea, still owned and lived in by the family members of the original Chinese clans that helped to establish the trade and reputation of Georgetown.  As we wandered the rest of the streets, we poked our heads into various shrines and temples, art galleries and cafes, and went street art hunting well into the evening.  We enjoyed several meals of Malay and Indian food at street cafes and stalls that were overrun with local families…always a testament to their goodness.

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Our weekend in Georgetown came to a close, and we rode the bus back to Relau…but we plan to spend at least one more day soaking in the history and discovering more of the city’s hidden gems.  My host from the first time I visited, Ang, came out to meet us at the farm and promised us an evening of fun in Georgetown before we leave Penang.

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That Sunday evening, we were back at the farm in time to say goodbye to Craig, the Californian, a fellow volunteer.  There was a goodbye dinner in his honour, where we were joined by a coterie of Meishy’s intellectual, interconnected, and just plain interesting friends: Que Lin, a documentary film-maker; Husni, a professional insect photographer; Sam, a vegan entrepreneur…as well as familiar faces like KK the organic farmer and Mirian the baker.  It was a taste of the fun we would have in the week to come.  On Monday and Tuesday, we worked…and stole durian from the neighboring hillside.  On Wednesday, Husni brought his wife, Aisha, and her friends over to the farm and they prepared a feast of durian and sticky rice for us.  It was fun to chat with them…he is well-informed and opinionated about all kinds of current events and history, and his wife is a rabid fan of both Hindi movies and Korean dramas.  Sechen, the Indian volunteer from Delhi, and we were impressed by her interest and knowledge about all our cultures.

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On Wednesday, we had also hosted a camp, and I was once again telling stories (and teaching a song) to the campers.  Thursday was quieter during the day, but we had an exciting afternoon as we went to Tesco (so many new flavours of soymilk!), went to a free tasting at a newly opened vegan cake shop (owned by Sam the vegan entrepreneur and his fabulous girlfriend, Summer), and went to see Maleficent at the local movie theatre, where tickets cost only RM8…that’s about $2.70!  Our big excitement on Friday was finding a large turtle wandering the farm…we are seeing if he likes living in our garden pond.  There were more students..and more storytelling.  But our week’s adventures were far from over…

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We finished work a little early on Saturday and set out in the trusty silver pickup truck to have some adventures around Penang.  It all started with wading through the pools at Titi Kerawang Waterfall, cooling off our toes and people watching.  Seems like it is a very popular spot for locals to come sit before they buy local durian from the famous trees on this side of the island.  Next, we drove down to the entrance to the national park Taman Negara, Teluk Bahang.  We considered hiking for about 12 seconds, but then just found a comfortable place to lay on the pier for a rest.  That inspired our next stop, Miami Beach.  I know, I laughed too.  While none of us went out swimming, we liked watching the local kids squeal and get drenched in the strong waves…and, of course, we had a durian picnic!  Meishy was not finished with us, yet, though!

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We drove high into the nearby hill for the views from Pearl Hill, Tanjung Bungah.  From the temple there, we could see monkeys frolicking in the trees and the sea caressing the shore as far as Georgetown.  Finally, our tummies growling, we went to Annalakshmi, the Temple of Fine Arts.  We could peek into front door and see a traditional Indian dance class…but we could also go to the back for a delicious (mostly vegan!) buffet, while being serenaded by traditional musicians practicing in an adjoining room.

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The rewards of wandering with a local is that you discover all the secrets that would never appear before a tourist.  My love affair with Penang just goes on and on.

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