Leper’s Day Out
“Alms for an ex-leper? Jesus cured me, and now I have no way to make a living.”
–From “Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.”
Although I liked most of the cities I visited in Southeast Asia, few of them left me with such odd, random impressions as Penang. It’s not all that surprising given the confusion I had over its name. For starters, Penang isn’t really the name of the city, it’s the name of the island just off the Northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia. Georgetown is its real name, but most tourists call it Penang. Even that name isn’t quite accurate, however, because Malaysians call it Pulau Pinang. To further muddy the waters, most of the tour book entries on the place say it’s also a state, but not an independent one like Singapore.
The first thing that impressed me about the city/state or whatever it is was how much better the maps were. As Roger Karraker and I wandered along looking for places to stay, I noticed that all of the guesthouses listed on my LP map were where the book said they would be, and no streets were missing. We opted for a Chinese hotel called the White House because it was clean, cheap and also had phones in the rooms. We didn’t discover we could only call room-to-room until later.
As lodgings go, Chinese hotels are a strange hybrid. They aren’t high-end luxury hotels but they aren’t low-end hostels, either. The chief distinguishing characteristic I’ve noticed among them is the odd institution of floor matron. I don’t really know if that’s what these people are called, but I do know there is one stationed on every floor to clean, observe the comings and goings of each guest and guard room keys when visitors are out. If you are suspicious by nature, it can be unnerving to leave realizing someone not only has access to all your possessions while you are gone, but also knows when you are out. If you have trust in mankind, however, it works to your advantage because it leaves you with a good feeling knowing there’s always someone watching over your room to make sure no one steals your stuff. Perhaps I’m a fool, but I always trusted the floor matron and never lived to regret it in Singapore or Malaysia.
The only problem with this particular hotel was that it had a midnight curfew and no one had bothered to tell me. I found out the hard way around 12:05 when I hit the street so I could make a birthday call to my niece but discovered that the lobby doors were locked. The guy asleep in the lobby seemed willing to open the door so I could run out and get a Coke, but didn’t appear to be willing to wait for me to make an international phone call. So, I resolved to get up around 6 and call home.
The curfew was completely unexpected. I could have seen it at hostels where many guests are young and owners often run them as a side business. It might have even made sense at a guesthouse because everyone who stays is a guest of the family that owns it, even if the owners charge for visiting. To me the point of staying at a hotel, though, has always been coming and going as I pleased. Obviously, someone had neglected to inform the owners.
In fact, I got hit by two curfews. Not only did I try to go out too late in the evening; I also tried to leave for a walk too early in the morning because I stumbled across the cot the matron was sleeping on in the middle of the darkened hallway near my room. In addition, the lobby was still locked. The floor matron got up long enough to open the door, then locked it behind me.
I knew Malaysia was Moslem, but didn’t know Sunday was the sabbath until I went walking and noticed the restaurants were still closed. Since it was Sunday, I had no qualms about spending a few more hours in bed. Sadly, the hotel was still locked up tighter than recently burped Tupperware.
This seemed odd. I’d been locked out of hostels for arriving after curfew, but I’d never been barred because I got back too early. At least not at EIGHT IN THE DAMN MORNING! I spent most of my unexpected free time walking to a hostel without a curfew and making a reservation for a dorm bed for the rest of my stay.
If cities were friends, Penang would be the pal you like to hang out with most. Like a long-time buddy, the country’s oldest British settlement doesn’t ask a lot of visitors, it just accepts them. If you want to visit beaches, there are plenty of places to grab some rays. If you want to sightsee, there’s a great old British fort, Chinatown, Little India, and an abundance of temples. (In fact, the best one is Kek Lok Si, a multi-leveled temple on the edge of town with each level reflecting a markedly different architectural style.) And if you want to do some shopping before you cross into Thailand, Georgetown/Penang has plenty of places to go, including local markets and the city’s answer to a Western mall, the Kompleks Tun Abdul Razak (KOMTAR).
Apparently KOMTAR has a weekly event called “Leper’s Day Out.” I know this sounds terribly insensitive and highly politically incorrect, but that’s what happened at the shopping center on my third day in town when what seemed like the town’s most hideously deformed residents gathered at KOMTAR in hopes of scoring a few ringit on the pity factor by displaying themselves to their best (or worst) advantage. For example, one particularly ugly-looking bald guy with an even uglier grimace had draped himself across the walkway in front of one of the doors into the shopping center in hopes of collecting some cash. One eye was open, the other closed, giving him a pained look as he held a cup in one hand and beckoned people to give him money.
Mr. One-Eye was not alone. The entryway and most of the first floor was filled with people who cultivated their hideous deformities for profit. I felt like I was in the mall featured in “Night of the Living Dead.” One of the ambulatory injured, a man with a hideously bent and contorted back, had even managed to make it up to the second floor. When he thought no one was looking, the man would lean the lower half of his back against the wall. Whenever he heard or saw people nearing, however, he would move into the middle of the pattern of foot traffic so his thin, walking-stick-like body, supported by a cane, would block at least three lanes of pedestrian traffic in an attempt to revolt as many people into charitable pity as possible.
I’m not unsympathetic to their plight. I may be cynical, but I’m not mean. It’s just that there were so many of them I found myself feeling sadness, revulsion, pity, frustration, overwhelming paralysis, and a sense of gallows humor all at once. I knew the third world wouldn’t always be pretty or pleasant, but that didn’t make facing it any easier. It was the same mix of emotion I still feel when I see homeless people in the States. I know the small donations don’t make much difference and that frustrates me. Feeling such discomfort at being confronted by so many sad cases, I eventually fled the shopping center for a pedestrian overpass and headed back to the safety of my hostel.
It was one of the first times on the trip I felt how truly random fate can be. It was only by accident of birth I had been so lucky. My family isn’t rich, but I was fortunate enough to be able to travel. Had I been born in Malaysia I could have just as easily suffered some of the same misfortunes as the people I was fleeing and one of them could have ended up in my place. I was so absorbed in my thoughts as I mounted the stairs to the pedestrian overpass I almost tripped over a couple of two year olds and a bedraggled looking woman who may have been their mother begging for money. I can’t remember if I gave them money or not. I like to think I did, but I was so overwhelmed my sense of compassion shut down due to over-stimulation.
Depressed, I walked to the middle of the pedestrian walkway over a major thoroughfare, watched traffic pass beneath my feet and let my mind wander as I thought about what I’d seen. As my thoughts drifted, I suddenly realized I hadn’t run into the Scottish couple, Jamie and Mari, when I was in KL. It wasn’t so surprising, really. Backpackers tend to stay in the same neighborhoods, but KL is a big city and there were plenty of places for backpackers to stay.
The unexpected memory of the couple jarred me back to reality, made me realize there was still plenty of trip left, and sent me back to the hostel, where I hoped to meet more travelers and do research about my next stop: Bangkok.
I know it sounds strange, but I thought I heard someone call my name as I reached the end of the overpass. It wasn’t possible, of course, because I didn’t know anybody in Penang other than the Karrakers and I knew they were spending the day touring. Chalking it up to my imagination, I walked until I heard it again and looked behind me even though I was sure I’d look stupid.
That’s when I saw Mari and Jamie standing behind me.
They had also wondered why they hadn’t seen me in KL just an hour before they saw me on the street. What makes the unexpected meeting even stranger is that Penang and Koh Samui were the last stops on their trip before they returned to Edinburgh, Scotland and they were going to leave Malaysia the next day. The odds of my running into them may have been better than average, however, because they were staying in a hotel across the street from the White House where I had stayed and the Karrackers had remained.