I'm trying to find a new way to post the photos, but I don't like what it does to the rest of the blog. So bear with me while I try to figure it out - and I realize not everyone loves the photos, and some people think there are too many - but for the artists among our readers, well, this artist will keep posting tons of photos.
We’re currently staying in the neighbourhood of Little India, which feels like another world. People from India were brought to various British colonies as indentured servants as well as free workers; other people came on a voluntary basis to start businesses. And, like anywhere else, people of like cultures and ethnicities tend to gather in the same areas – especially back in the pre-motorized day it was easier to shop, socialize, eat, and worship in the same neighbourhood. So many cities throughout Asia have neighbourhoods referred to as Little India.
Our hotel is across the street from the oldest Indian temple (Hindu) in Penang, and maybe in all of Malaysia. I haven’t gone there yet, the place is undergoing renovations and thus is closed most of the time. However, it is open several times a day for worshippers, and I may try to visit around that time.
The area is FULL of colour – all the gorgeous fabrics for saris, shawls, head coverings, as well as ready-to-wear kalindars and all the other Indian clothing. I was mesmerized by the vibrant colours and sparkling sequins of a display of scarves/shawls/head coverings. And of course I’d love to buy some, but I’ll be good and refrain. The flowers as well – garland after garland of silk or real flowers, strung with occasional beads or contrasting colours, to be used as offerings at the temple or various shrines – but for the artist, just another pop of urban colour, another part of what makes George Town, and Malaysia, in fact much of Asia, so alive and vibrant and exciting and exotic.
It’s interesting – I’ve been thinking about how each of us has a soundtrack to our lives. For those of us who grew up in the 50s and 60s, the soundtrack might feature the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones. For my parents’ generation, it was jazz and Dixieland and show tunes. Anyway, each generation has the music that defines their time period, the music that plays in the background of their lives. In much the same way each locale, each city and each country, has a soundtrack that defines that place. In Batu Feringgi, we stayed near the mosque (or masjid, in Malaysian) and could hear the muezzin calling the faithful to worship five times a day. We’ve heard muezzins in Kuala Lumpur, here in George Town, even when we were in Lombok, Indonesia – and the chanting is vaguely familiar, is somewhat similar to Hebrew liturgy. The muezzin is the soundtrack I will always remember as part of Malaysia. But now that we’re opposite the Hindu temple, we hear bells several times a day, again calling the faithful to prayer, and adding a new song to the soundtrack. The bells ring, the worshippers gather, chanting begins, and another song is added to the soundtrack. And of course there are the Bollywood throbbing pulsating songs blaring from speakers outside various shops, the kind of music that jumps into my veins and makes me want to leap into the street and start twirling and leaping, shoulders shrugging in time to the music, arms raised with maybe finger cymbals - and of course everyone else in the area would leap into the street and start dancing the same steps - because that's the way it works in Bollywood.
In addition to the sounds of the city, each city has a scent, a perfume, an odour. In this part of Asia, the scents are incense from the various temples; curry and pepper from the restaurants; markets smell of fruit, or spices like cinnamon and cardamom; and the apothecaries somehow always smell vaguely of licorice bark, I’m not sure why. Low tide brings a vaguely stagnant or sewer smell, as does extremely hot weather at the bottom of the hills in Krabi, Thailand.
I was reminded of the smells of the city as I tried to visit the wet market of George Town today. A wet market means they sell meat and fish – a regular market sells produce, baked items, and household goods. But a wet market sells fresh fish, freshly slaughtered fowl or goats or whatever. Here in this mostly Muslim country, there is rarely pork to be found. (In Melaka, when we went to the Portuguese settlement for dinner, the people of Portuguese descent explained that while they were Catholic, they weren’t allowed to serve beef or pork because the leased the land from the Malaysian government, and those meats were banned. Just to confuse us further, the big item was prawns. Apparently halal, Muslim dietary law, doesn’t include shellfish as prohibited, just pork. Anyway….)
Back to the wet market – yes, it is clean. It is washed daily. Perhaps multiple times a day. But no matter how many washings, my nose smells death and blood and decaying meat. The smell makes a barrier which I simply cannot cross, or I will be embarrassingly ill on the other side. I’ve tried, because I do like markets. And I do eat meat. But apparently I need my meat either sterile and wrapped in cellophane, or (preferably) placed in front of me cooked to perfection. I’ve tried being a mouth-breather at wet markets, but the scent just gets to me and I truly can’t handle it.
On to a more pleasant subject, the roads of Little India have assorted symbols inscribed in the cement. Really, one block has eight-pointed starts inside stars, another has flowers and borders. The temple has a lovely floral mandala design right in front, complete with an incense burner in the center. These designs aren’t just painted on the concrete, oh no, they are incised into the road and are comprised of different coloured cement or different textures of sand/gravel in the cement. Incredible! Some are in the center of the road, others serve as entries to the various shops along the street. Of course, most people seem to ignore these lovely designs on the road. As well as the decorative lightposts. (And you can see the blue-grey storm clouds blowing in over the hills in the center of the island.)
Our plan, such as it is, is to explore more of this general region, whether more of Penang or on to another island in the area. We’re scheduled to show up for our TV extra debut on May 18, here in George Town, so we have around ten days to go off and see other parts of Malaysia. We also have to keep in mind that our visas expire in early June, so we’ll need to leave the country and then come back. And of course that opens up all kinds of possibilities.
Isn’t life without a plan much more fun?