I sit here in the dining area of my hotel in Penang. The hotel is a converted mansion, sprawling, elegant, finely detailed and just a little bit quirky. Peter Carey called it the finest hotel in the world. In the centre of the building is a courtyard open to the sky. Over breakfast this morning we watched as the rain fell. Now I look over it, the fans whirring furiously overhead and a pot of tea on the table in front of me. It is late in the day, quiet time after walking through the hot and humid streets of Penang in search of food.
Food's not hard to find, and most of it is pretty good. It's a challenge for me to remain sensible. Tempting as it may be to try everything it's not completely healthy. Still, the local cuisine is one of the great attractions of the city.
We went from one place to another this morning, walking mainly but sometimes employing the services of an undersized rickshaw driver to pedal our oversized bodies around town. With the early rain it was even stickier than normal. The heat feels clammy, and in the open sun you feel yourself steaming. I've experienced much worse than this, but it serves as a reminder of how it can be.
The highlight this morning for me was when I separated myself from the group and went off in search of the next cafe on our list. It was a place typical of the town, and in other ways typical of a thousand other places around the globe. At the round tables men drank coffee and smoked and shared their stories. A cook whipped up the odd noodle dish. People came and went, laughter rolled around the place and excited voices of men gathered together minus their other half.
It felt very familiar to me. There are not many cafes like this back home in Melbourne, but standing there it recalled to mind a multitude of other such places from all over the world. The cuisine may change, but much else remains the same.
I sat and managed to convince the uncomprehending waitress that I wanted one of the coffees the cafe was famous for. The men at the next table watched with interest. One leaned over to assist with the order. That done he asked the usual questions, where I was from (to which he responded "oi, oi, oi", and another "downunder"). They asked how I liked Penang, then how I liked the coffee. They were especially impressed when I ordered another, this time iced. They razzed me gently, glad to have someone different to rub up against.
I too enjoyed it. It's what I like best about travelling. I watched and listened, I nodded my head and joined in and I thought there is a difference in enjoying the pleasures of a place as if they are laid on for you and in going a little further and actually interacting with the place. To intereact is to engage with the people; my greatest memories are not of the Eiffel Tower or a great beach. They are of the occasions I have fallen in with the locals and experienced something otherwise invisible to me. This was on the smaller scale of things, but reminded me of the great possibilities of travelling, particularly when you're solo. People open to you when they think you are alone.
For the rest of the day we have had small bites here and there, a few beers on a thirsty day, and some refloxology – massage is a big industry over here, and who am I to sniff at that? I'm happy to support the local industry.
Now my tea is drunk. I should shower and freshen up, more food tonight, and a festival of the 9 gods my friends at the cafe told me about.