The Bengali Runaway: Penang

November 29, 2017

I paid 41 ringgets for a bus ticket to Penang. The journey was going to be 5 hours. I was very early and the lady said to come back by 10.20. What was I to do for half an hour? Have a cup of tea and a croissant of course. I ordered to take away as I was afraid I'd miss the bus but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to eat at the bus stop. Was there a rule against consuming outside the designated eating area? I saw a girl nibble on some sort of a sandwich very discreetly on the train platform once and then later, saw a notice on the train that stated eating and drinking was not allowed and there was a 100 ringget fine. I swallowed the chocolate biscuit I was snacking on quite quickly upon seeing that. Everyone in Malaysia seemed to be very polite and friendly so I doubted anyone would actually say anything even if it was breaking the rules. The croissant had been warmed up and they included a little butter and jam spread in the bag so really, the best thing to do was to eat it there and then. The perfect way to start my new adventure.

 

The bus was 30 minutes late. This was the first time I had worried about anything since arriving at Malaysia. I had gotten quite comfortable at the apartment but really, I should have left 4 or 5 days ago. Staying in the apartment for so long almost reverted me back to the sheltered Bengali girl who looked towards people for direction despite displaying a confident and independent demeanour. Not being able to just jump in the deep end and hit the road anytime. During my last night in KL, it finally dawned on me that I had to make all the decisions. There was no one here to tell me or guide me. No one to look and imitate from. I could ask people about where to go and what to do but in the end, I had to decide if I was going to follow their suggestions or not. No one cared, no one imposed restrictions. It was... what? Lonely? Frightening? I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Did I finally understand that I was a fully grown adult responsible for herself? I thought I was and I thought I knew that. But coming from an Asian family, there was always people around shaping me, my belief, my attitude, what I did and where I went whether I realised it or not. I had freedom but only to an extent. And here I was, sitting at the bus stop with the sweet taste of jam still in my mouth, a luggage erected to my right and a side bag perched on my left, ready to travel the 5 hour bus journey to Penang without a plan. I made my own schedule, my own rules, shaped my life and this is what I was going to do.

 

I arrived at Siok hostel around 9pm. The guy at the reception was a little odd, he was lacking in warmth which I had gotten used to receiving from people here. I dropped my stuff in the dorm and then decided to go explore the local area. George town was lively. I had made a good choice with this hostel as it was on a busy road full of cafes with live music, a few bars, lots of stalls selling fresh fruit drinks and Chinese/Indian snacks. It had a different vibe compared to KL, the air hummed with vibrancy of the night life. Maybe because it was a small island and wasn’t under strict sharia law like the mainland. I needed a cup of tea to end my night before going to bed so looked for a cafe with comfy seats. Most of them were aesthetically rustic which looked nice but the wooden seats would have gotten uncomfortable after a while. I passed a Caribbean cafe with reggae music playing out loud which make me chuckle. I made a mental note to check it out another night when I had the energy. I saw a few women standing around on the patio of a closed shop. They were dressed like as if they were on a normal night out, make up done nice, not too extravagant, nothing too OTT. But something about the way they stood, not actually waiting for anything but just loitering there and their facial expression, a tad vacant, told me they were prostitutes. One of them, quite large, was walking away from a car. She had her dress up, exposing her black knickers. She pulled it down casually, unaware that I was looking. Or maybe she knew and she didn't care. My, what a naughty little island I had ended up on.

 

I finally found a cafe with soft chairs. Sitting outside was a Chinese guy named Basil. He had a new born kitten on his lap and a little boy slumped face down on the table next to him. What an odd group. He was looking at me so I thought he worked there. He didn't. He and his brother were holidaying in Penang and ran out of money. They were waiting on their parents to bail them out but he had little hope that they would. It was a classic 'disappointing son of respected parents' story. He let me hold the kitten. It cried for a little while and then got comfy on my lap. So small and cute it was. He told me he had crazy creative thought processes which I was interested in learning more about but he didn't really elaborate. I considered producing my next mini documentary on him. He was creative, potentially a little mad and he smoked weed a lot. What an interesting subject he would have made. Plus he was quite good looking and would have looked great on camera (although that want the most important point). But to be completely honest with myself, I couldn't be bothered to film anything. Filming required a lot of thinking and planning whereas photography was so much easier, snapping spontaneously and getting results immediately. I was in 'laid back travel' mood, not 'produce brilliant documentary abroad' mood. We exchanged details and later that night, after I'd had a small dinner and my much needed tea, I silently crept into the top bunk in the girl’s dorm and sleepily browsed through Facebook to find a message from him. 'I've had a little to drink and now have the confidence to let you know that I want to spend the night with you' it said.

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(c) Tammana Begum