Blog // Tales from the trail
After 10 days or so on the farm, we took ourselves off to Penang for a little island jaunt, taking advantage of it being less than an hour away, and a little bit to escape the early-morning rooster calls. Arriving off the bus at the fabulously-named town, Butterworth, it was just a hop, skip and very efficient ferry ride over to the island. The conveniently-located bus terminal on the other side of the ferry, to anywhere in Penang, didn't go unnoticed either - no having to rely on unscrupulous taxis to take us the last few kilometres into town. As it was, the guest-house was within walking distance, which was serendipitous because that is how we stumbled across two joints that we would frequent over the next few days - the 'Awesome Canteen' for our morning coffee (and afternoon, creatively-mixed, espresso, ice and tonic water) and 'China House' for our evening G&T whilst listening to some memorable (for the right reasons!) live music. We had chosen well!
A brief bit of history explains the eclectic mix of architecture in the ancient capital, Georgetown. Having always been a busy trading port, Penang has seen the comings and goings of Chinese merchants and European colonisers including Portuguese, the Dutch and lastly, the British, which led to a large influx of Indian settlers too. The town is still bustling, although many of the original Chinese merchant-houses now operate as trendy cafe-bars or guesthouses and banking seems to be today's mode d'affairs.
We ventured to the Cornwallis Fort, which was apparently taken over with some ease by the Japanese (on bicycles!) in the 2nd World War; possibly the most dull tourist attraction I have ever seen, not really even an attraction bar the cannon, but it was pleasant sitting on the grassy verge with the warm sea air blustering past.
There's a nice feeling of urban permaculture around town, several of the restorations maintaining the open-roof courtyards housing fragrant frangipanis or herb gardens, the natural light flooding in (and the rain too, but nothing a border channel can't take care of).
On one of our walks, we happened across the 'Founder of Modern China', Dr. Sun Yat-Sen's house in Penang; the house he had taken cover in whilst planning a revolution of seemingly epic proportion. While we had almost no idea what our effervescent tour guide was talking about as he sashayed around the long, narrow house - a combination of a mixed accent and translation quirks - we politely smiled and nodded and took part in the photo shoot that he set-up to recreate scenes that he imagined the former infamous tenant might have once been involved in.
Street-art is a big attraction in Georgetown and having already been advised to get our walk-on, it wasn't difficult to spot the more well-known pieces although it was harder to actually see them for the surrounding gaggle of people. There was a new artist in town (rumour had it a young Russian girl) who was busily creating an assortment of beautifully-painted Indian-influenced pieces and we were lucky enough to catch her in action, albeit as we whizzed past on a moped.
I had felt very much at home since arriving in Malaysia, putting it down to the blend of it being a Muslim country with strong influences from the sub-continent - much like being down-town in Satwa in Dubai listening to the call to prayer on a balmy evening. A visitor to Serukam farm earlier in the week was a bubbly lady called Tan, who volunteers as a tour guide in Penang. She invited us to join her walking tour, 'Journey of Harmony' on Saturday morning. Stuffing a Chinese pork bun in our mouths as we rounded the corner to the meeting place, a little late us usual, we were expecting to go on a tour of Penang's tourist hot-spots. In fact, it was to be a simple walk down 'Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling' road and a window into Penang's most well-trodden path. "Penang", she explained to the group "is an example of harmony, diverse religions and cultures peacefully living together. But harmony is more than tolerance of each other, it is about acceptance." And this was definitely the word that stuck as we walked around.
Our 20-strong group mostly compromised 'Penang-ians', I felt, an indication of the community's inclusive and energetic spirit. The aim of the tour was to highlight how four elements - water, light, lunar and flora - were common across Penang's main religions, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, each represented by a historical building of worship on this road. For someone who sits on the fence when it comes to religion - not a self-confessed atheist because how can you ever really know? - the word acceptance really stood out for this community and underlined some of the heartening stories. For instance, opposite the Hindu temple 'Sri Maha Mariamman' stood a long line of Muslim-run restaurants, yet not one of them serves beef on their menus out of respect for the frequent Hindu worshippers (and as the co-tour guide pointed out, the policy also attracts more customers!). Each of the communities built around these sites represented Penang's, and ultimately Malaysia's, colourful population stemming from centuries of trade and the tour highlighted the similarities between them, not the differences. Feeling very positive at the end of the tour, in contrast to how one feels after reading the news, I wondered why religious centres don't do more 'open-house' events to counter all the second-hand propaganda that is so prevalent.
We escaped the urban environment for a day out in the national park. After a sweaty couple of hours of jungle-trek, the trees opened out onto a turtle-nesting beach, unfortunately no turtles that day, but lots of information and buried nests protected by the turtle centre on-site to give the hatchlings a bit of a kick-start in life.
The return leg of our moto-adventure saw us climbing over the hills on the other side of the island whilst being chased by some grisly-looking clouds. However the rain kept mostly at bay and there were some views to be captured before we made our way back through the island's surprisingly busy traffic.
Having eaten our way through 'Little India', 'Chinatown' and the Malay food stalls, we headed back to the mainland (in this direction, a free ferry-ride) and Serukam farm, feeling rested and ready to get back to daily rice and the early-morning rooster alarm, eager to see what had grown since we'd been away.
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