Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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The driver who picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Penang suggested things I might want to see while visiting this part of Malaysia. “Of course, you want to spend time in George Town to see the many UNESCO World Heritage buildings. Kek Lok Si, Goddess of Mercy, and the Snake Temple are all interesting. And you must go to Batu Ferringhi; they have a good beach and the most incredible night bazaar.” Indeed, most of my time on Penang Island was spent wandering around George Town, but one day I just wanted to lie on the beach, so I caught a bus up to Batu Ferringhi.

From the moment I set foot on the beach I was disappointed. The sand was coarse and grainy and trash was scattered around. Granted, I’ve been spoiled by sugary white sand beaches in Thailand, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and the Caribbean, but even the water here seemed dirty and signs warned of danger from jellyfish. I walked a couple of miles up the beach, hoping it would improve, but instead the further I went the more erosion was evident, forcing me to walk over sandbags in places.

Coarse sand and less-than-clean water made me scratch this beach off my list

Beaches at Batu Ferringhi are not swimmer friendly

I’d cut back over to the main highway and was making my way to the bus stop when rain came pouring down. I ducked under the first available store canopy and found myself standing in front of something called a fish spa. Intrigued, I peeked in the windows, until one of the proprietors stepped outside and reeled me in.
 

Can’t see the above video of the Fish Spa at Batu Ferringhi, on Penang Island, Malaysia? Click here.

Since he had limited English skills, he handed me a brochure that explained the concept of the spa. Garra rufa, also known as “doctor fish,” occur naturally in the waters of a hot spring in Kangal, Turkey. Locals Read More

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When I learned about the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, I knew I had to visit. Snakes and I have a long-standing relationship, which may have begun back in 1968, when my father brought home the new Bill Cosby album, “To Russell My Brother, Whom I Slept With.” One of the bits was about his parents, who insist there are invisible snakes on the floor so Bill won’t get out of his crib. When they leave, what ensues is an hysterical monologue between Bill and the snakes:

I’m just gonna stick my toe out here, snakes, so don’t you bite me or nothin.’ Just give it a little snaky lick when I stick my toe out. Okay, look. You can bite it, but don’t put none of your juice in it, okay snakes?

For some reason, that bit was indelibly engraved on my memory, and ever since, I have attracted snakes. As a child we had a snake that lived under the foundation of the garage. I can still remember sitting for hours, watching his little hole, willing him to come out. As an adult they have crawled across my feet in botanical gardens, sprawled across trails I hiked, and appeared wherever I lived. My magnetic draw for snakes peaked during the eleven years I lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with a rat snake that lived in my attic crawlspace and a a three and a half foot Red-Bellied Water Snake that took up residence under my side deck. I affectionately named the latter Myrtle and I was the only person who could get close to her; whenever anyone else approached she would make a beeline for the protection of the deck. The idea of a temple full of snakes was just too good to pass up.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

The Snake Temple looked pretty much like any other Chinese Temple, with its obligatory concrete urn outside and red and gold altars inside, although this one was a bit less showy than others I had seen. I wandered around the main hall, watched people light candles and prostrate before the altar, and continued my circuit back to the front of the hall. I was mystified; there were no snakes here. Thinking maybe I was in the wrong place I approached a shaven-headed nun and asked where I could find the snakes. She looked at me like I was mad and insisted, “Snakes everywhere. Look.” My gaze followed her pointing finger to the rear altars, where naked tree branches protruded from china vases and intertwined to form miniature Read More

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I walked cautiously along the edge of the narrow streets, trying not to slip into the concrete gutters that separate George Town’s parading row houses from the road. Beside me, a gaunt Chinese man pedaled an ancient bicycle. The cluster of foot-long hairs growing from his bulbous black chin mole bounced in perfect time with his pumping feet, which emerged from beneath flowing pants with each down-stroke. Distracted by his flowing white hair as he pedaled past, I wandered too far out into the street; a motorbike whizzed past me with only centimeters to spare. On the other side of the motorcycle a horn sounded and for a moment we were three: a car passing a motorcycle passing a pedestrian – a trio hogging both lanes, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming panel van. Focus, I must focus.

Streets of George Town on Penang Malaysia

Concrete walkways cross gutters at edge of the street, providing access to multi-level sidewalks

At first, I tried using the sidewalks but in Penang they do not exist in the normal sense of the word. Shopkeepers and homeowners have each poured small concrete pads in front of their buildings without regard for the level of their neighbor’s stoop. In some places, steps access the multi-levels; in others the walkways simply end. Rare stretches of level sidewalk become obstacle courses of parked motorcycles, bicycles, or piles of merchandise for sale. And so, like everyone else, I walked in the street.

multi-level sidewalks in George Town on Penang Malaysia

The occasional stretch of level sidewalk is inevitably clogged with parked motorcycles and bicycles

Shops in Little India neighborhood in George Town Penang Malaysia

In Little India, shops roll merchandise to the edge of the street, blocking sidewalks

Pedicabs fall somewhere in the middle of the traffic hierarchy. One evening I hesitated a nanosecond too long in front of a row of lemon yellow pedicabs wrapped in a rainbow of plastic flowers. Sensing fresh meat, the Chinese driver smiled a gap-toothed grin and launched into his practiced spiel:

“You rike lide rady? Give you good lide. One hour. Thirty Lingit.” My feet were aching from hours of walking. I hesitated. He went in for the kill. “Give you velly, velly good lide, show you all praces in George Town.” Read More

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It is monsoon season here in Malaysia. Every morning dawns clear and sunny with a breeze that freshens, keeping the monstrous heat at bay. By early afternoon., blue-gray clouds roll in and darken the sky, threatening to release a deluge. The wind dies down; humidity and suffocating heat take its place. Everything drips. Inevitably, the rain comes, sometimes in sudden, torrential sheets that stop as quickly as they begin but more often as a steady drumbeat that lasts the afternoon and continues into the evening.

I have not yet adjusted to this pattern. It is my habit to write long into the night and sleep until 9 or 10 a.m. I do not need much sleep these days – five or six hours per night suffice – but even so I am missing the only sunny part of each day. The rhythm of life here is different and I am not yet in tune, but I like it.

Baan Talay Homestay, Tonjong Tokong, Penang

I like being in a homestay with an extended local family, where I can experience the ebb and flow of Malaysian life. Taking my shoes off before entering the house does not come easy and I often catch myself taking a couple of steps into the front foyer before I remember to back up and shed my sandals. I am taking advantage of their onsite library to read real books rather than iPhone books; it is good to hold an actual book in my hand again. My first choice was the newly released “Once a Jolly Hangman,” by Alan Shadrake. Baan Talay Homestay has a very personal connection to this book. The author stayed here while writing this expose about Singapore’s capital punishment policy, which results in secret hangings most any Friday at dawn. When Shadrake traveled to Singapore recently as part of a publicity tour he was promptly arrested on trumped up charges. Now released, he is fighting the charges but he cannot leave the country. Several days ago the owners packed up his computer and drove down to Singapore to deliver it, since he will likely be trapped there for an extended period. I haven’t seen them since, and I worry that they, too, will be in danger of prosecution, due to their association with the controversial author.

I also like the easy blending of cultures in Malaysia. Three major ethnic groups make up the population: Indians, originally from the southern part of India, who speak Tamil; Chinese who hail mostly from the Fujian province of China and speak Hokkien, a dialect entirely different from Mandarin or Cantonese; and Malays, the original inhabitants, who came over from Indonesia and speak Malay, which is so similar to Indonesian that I recognize words from previous travels around Bali. I like the way everyone speaks a minimum of two languages and how almost everyone speaks a little English, even if they claim not to, because English is a mandatory subject beginning in elementary school. I especially like the way everyone bends over backward to help, even if they have only broken English skills.

Smoke from my three large joss sticks floats toward Chinese lanterns that line the ceiling at Kwan Yin Buddhist temple in George Town

Me in traditional head scarf and abaya – a long black cloak – on a tour of the Kapital Keling Mosque in George Town

With all this diversity, I am astonished at how well the various ethnic groups seem to accept and respect one another, living side by side in harmony. Signs of peaceful accord are everywhere. In George Town, the capital of Penang, a mosque, Buddhist temple, Hindu temple, and Christian church coexist alongside one another on aptly named Harmony Street. Incredibly cheap Indian and Malay restaurants mount a friendly competition for customers with “hawkers” – open-air food courts surrounded by dozens of shiny stainless steel rolling food carts, each owned by a different proprietor offering his or her specialty.

Viva Food Court is popular for dinner, choose from any one of 20 or so vendors, each whipping up a different specialty

One of these hawker courts occupies the corner at the end of my street. If the rain has dampened my activity level it certainly has not dampened my appetite. Each day I sample something new: steamed sesame buns filled with creamy sweet custard, tempura shrimp fried in the world’s lightest and crispiest Read More

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What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country, we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits…This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling. It is more an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense – that of eternity – then we travel for culture. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.
Albert Camus

If fear lends value to travel, then I have just taken the most valuable journey of my life. I can write about it now, because I’m in Malaysia, sitting on the beach, enjoying the beautiful sunset in the photo below. Today I am calm and serene, but a week ago my confidence was totally shattered.

Sunset,Tanjong Tonkong, Penang

I should have suspected that this would not be a smooth trip, since things began to go wrong even before I left for China. During the two months I was back in the States this summer, I was bombarded with legal, financial, and insurance problems that caused me no end of stress. Every time I worked through one issue, two more would emerge, taunting: You don’t really think you’re going to Asia for six months, now do you? But I decided nothing was going to keep me from going, not even when my bank arbitrarily canceled my debit cards two days before departure. In my gut, I knew these were all signs, but I forged ahead anyway. I finished what I could and hoped I could work on the remainder from the road (fortunately, the debit card issue was resolved prior to leaving, thanks to a wonderful RBC Bank manager at a branch in Smyrna, Georgia.)

As I boarded the plane to Shanghai I breathed a deep sigh of relief and put all the worries behind me. I was finally on my way to China! My euphoria got a quick check on the plane a short while later when the food carts began to roll down the aisle. No, they had no record that I’d ordered a vegetarian meal. It was a very long flight without food. On arrival, I headed for the closest ATM machine to get Chinese Yuan/Reminbi but try as I might it would not accept my debit card. The first fear alarm went off in my head – maybe the bank problems had not been resolved after all. My only backup is my credit card, which would accrue interest from the moment I took a cash withdrawal – horrors! Fortunately, I finally figured it out. Chinese ATM’s have two buttons – one says “Continue,” the other “Correct.” I was putting in the amount I wanted and pressing “Correct” when I needed to press “Continue.” Waves of relief ensued.

Next, I needed a taxi. I let a driver in the arrival hall talk me into going with him rather than finding the real taxi stand. Big mistake. I really should have known better, but I was tired, and hungry. Not only did I pay way too much, he immediately began talking about U.S. money, pulling a $20 bill out of his pocket and indicating it had been a tip. When we arrived at the hostel, he conveniently had no change; oldest trick in the book. I took my luggage without paying him and asked the front desk clerk at the hostel if it was customary to tip taxi drivers in Shanghai. Of course it was not. The hostel gave me change for the taxi driver, who was not a happy camper but I didn’t care; I just wanted to get to my room and lie down.

I have written previously about how difficult it was to work in China with all the Internet sites blocked by the government, how it was impossible to purchase train tickets from Shanghai to Beijing because absolutely no one – from staff in train ticket offices to concierges in international franchise hotels – spoke English, and about the fiasco of redeeming our World Expo tickets. But even more aggravating were the small things: Chinese who speak to one another in the decibel range of screaming; people who turned their back on me and walked away the moment they heard a word of English; being poked in the forehead by Chinese umbrellas, used rain or shine, whenever I waited in line or stood at an intersection waiting for a Read More

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I ended up in China because of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. My second cousin, Len, sent me a message on Facebook, asking if I’d be interested in going, and suggesting we gang up on his mom, my cousin Loretta, to convince her to join us. My original intention to attend the Expo quickly mushroomed into a month long cross-country trip, especially when Len and Loretta decided to fly into Beijing rather than Shanghai. I arranged for a visit to the Great Wall of China where we were actually able to camp overnight on a remote section of the wall and flew from Shanghai to Beijing to meet up with them. After a whirlwind tour of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square it was back to Shanghai to finally attend the World Expo.

No other pavilion at the World Expo 2010 was allowed to be taller than the stunning China Pavilion

Had my visit to China not expanded to include things other than the World Expo, I would have been sorely disappointed. Problems began before we ever set foot on the grounds. We had ordered our three-day tickets months earlier from Peregrine Travel, China’s officially designated ticket agent in the U.S. They emailed us a “voucher,” which we had to redeem for our actual tickets once we arrived in Shanghai. The morning before we planned to attend, we took a very expensive taxi ride across town in the pouring rain to the Peregrine office.

At the “Modern Universe Business Plaza,” we rode the elevator to the 26th floor and stepped out into a dimly lit narrow hallway where plain brown wooden doors stretched in both directions. Following the fraying carpet around in a semicircle, we eventually located suite 2613 by its tiny stick-on numbers and knocked on the door. Nothing. We knocked again and waited. A young girl finally cracked open the door and peered at us. We held up our vouchers and explained we we’d come to redeem our tickets; she hesitatingly opened the door wider and motioned us to take a seat. With our vouchers in hand, she disappeared behind a screen and began banging on a computer. Some minutes later she emerged shaking her head. “Mei you,” she said; it is an expression I have come to know well in China.

“What do you mean you don’t have any tickets?” I exclaimed.

“You come back Monday. Have ticket then.”

“We leave on Monday. We want to go to the Expo Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.”

With a shrug of the shoulders and a flinging of hands into the air, she repeated: “Mei you,” and insisted we come back on Monday. When we again explained that we were leaving on Monday, she offered a different solution: “We give you refund.”

“Refund?” I asked, growing aggravated. “Are you going to give us a refund for our plane tickets and our hotel rooms? You will owe us many thousands of dollars. Can you pay us thousands of dollars?”

She nodded yes; obviously much was lost in translation. A second girl in the office emerged from behind her screen to explain in broken English that they had run out of three-day tickets for that weekend. Since there are no limits to the number of people who attend each day, what that meant was that they had planned improperly and were too lazy to go get more tickets from the Expo site.

“If you are out of three-day tickets, give us one-day tickets.”

“Oh no, one day not enough for Expo.” she insisted.

“Not one one-day ticket, three one-day tickets each. This is your fault, not ours. You must find tickets for us.”

The two girls exchanged glances, the second one giggled, and I came unglued.

“IT’S NOT FUNNY!” I yelled.

“Yes, I know,”she said meekly.

“Then why are you laughing. This is not funny. Don’t laugh, fix it.”

Len, who had been sitting quietly by my side, finally lost his cool. “We came here specifically to see the World Expo and your company told us we could redeem our tickets at any time. When we return to the United States, I will sue your office. I work for a law firm and can do this easily, and your boss is not going to be very happy with you when this happens.”

That did the trick. Following a hurried conference with a superior ensconced behind a closed door, the now serious giggling girl emerged, dug through a desk drawer and pulled out nine one-day tickets, explaining that they belonged to a “colleague.” In a single hour we had witnessed the height of Chinese incompetence and the ever-present need to save face. Read More