It’s that time again! And by that time I mean the second time ever that I have been overseas, and therefore felt the overwhelming urge to lay my thoughts out in some sort of bloggerly format.
We’re in Penang, land of more gauva varieties than I knew existed, beautiful temples, madcap drivers, reclaimed beaches and monkeys that (according to my Lonely Planet) may or may not have rabies.
By we, I mean myself, my partner, and our little six month old. Whose mad idea was it to travel with a six month old anyway? Let me tell you why it is an insane idea before you jump on a plane to any exotic locations yourself.
1. At six months he is crawling. So long plane trips =very restless tiny legs = 3 exhausted travellers arriving in Penang.
2. We’re just transitioning from bassinet (a big one, since I know that might raise a few questions) to a cot. As in, he’d never slept in one before we arrived in the hotel.
3. He gets heat rash. And eczema. And scratches his head (a LOT) when he gets hot. And we’re in Penang. Did I mention that it’s been at least 30 degrees and muggy since we got here?
4. I’m used to whipping out a boob to breastfeed in Melbourne. Where it’s cold, and expected. Here I’m battling with a scarf for modesty (Melbourne gets none of that) and said boob is sticking to my t-shirt because of the above-mentioned humidity as the tiny person thrashes about wildly wondering where his breakfast is and strangers stare at me (or at least I assume they do).
5. EVERYONE wants to touch his face. I’m not a toucher. This feels quite intrusive to me.
6. I’m totally neurotic. So whose idea was it anyway to read the sections of the Lonely Planet that refer to muggings, rabid dogs/cats/monkeys, mosquitos with malaria/dengue fever OR to look at the sign in the airport about child trafficking. I was having conniptions before I even got on the plane.
Madness aside though (although more on travelling with an infant later), Penang is beautiful. We’re staying at a luxury resort, so I do feel 100% tourist as I look out my window onto the three pools, beach, waterslide and countless banana lounges. Everyone is incredibly friendly, I think I’ve said more hello’s to friendly strangers in a week here than I have in the last six months in Melbourne (although there is the face touching to contend with). Despite not eating meat (by choice) or dairy (not by choice) I have eaten some AMAZING food, particularly a giant Indian breakfast spread (which was really just Indian hawker food at breakfast time, but it was delicious, so don’t judge me). Along the beach huge trees (which I’m told are also of Indian origin) burst up out of the sand perfectly illustrating the juxtaposition of jungle and beach that Penang embodies. When I stand on the sand I can see the coastline ghosting out into the water further down, huge boulders jutting out of the ocean and then just behind my shoulder a collection of shacks and huts where locals sell everything from giant fresh green coconuts to reflexology and massage. I have a roundabout argument with a man about how my fear of heights means that I will NOT be going parasailing and then a noise to my left shows off the giant parachutes as someone much braver than me takes off on the tandem adventure above the sea.
There’s a wealth of things to do and explore, and we’ve booked a driver, so have it pretty easy when it comes to getting around. This brings me neatly back to madcap drivers and travelling with infants. The former is self explanatory, I almost miss the hoons in my suburb at home although these drivers seem less aggressive at least, and the latter, well – a word to the wise, figure out how you’ll be getting about with your infant before you leave the country. Mine is strapped to me and then I’m strapped to the car (with a seatbelt). He doesn’t love the situation, particularly on longer drives home in the afternoon, and I’m sporting a raunchy purple hickey on my chest after a failed attempt to feed him while strapped in on the go. Not recommended.
I vowed before we left to stay away from the malaria ridden/dengue fever carrying mosquitos, although I found child safe insect repellent before we left Australia. Day one we set out on our first lot of adventures. We arrive at the Spice Garden. They hand over some spray bottles and tell us to cover up in insect repellent (this is not the child safe/natural tube that I have conveniently left back in the hotel room). I figure it’s fine, so put it on his legs and mine. We start up the mountain the three of us and three Americans who don’t know what lemongrass, turmeric or nutmeg are. I love the tour, our guide is gracious and informative and the steep rainforest is the absolute perfect setting for this demonstration garden and cooking school which showcases spices that I eat all the time but have never seen (mostly) unprocessed in the flesh. There’s free sweet tea halfway up and I’m able to buy a delicious refreshing juice at the top. We finish with a peaceful walk through the ornamental part of the garden and I’m almost able to stop wondering if each itch on my foot is a mosquito bite filled with potential death (although I add ‘these plants here are toxic to babies’ to my list of neuroses). We manage to fit in a tour of the batik factory (which gives me a much greater appreciation for the print) and the butterfly house (which is an absolute winner for babies who love things fluttering magically past their eyes as mine does) before climbing (and by climb I mean drive) the mountain to the tropical fruit farm.
Like the spice garden, the fruit farm is primarily for show, as neither makes enough produce to actually supply anything on a large scale. Think of them as living museums if you like. The tour includes a walk through the gardens with fruit tastings, and a juice and fruit buffet at the end. I’m equal parts sad and relieved to have missed the Durian season, although I smell one and it’s not as bad to me as my partner (who has eaten the fruit) has made out. I reckon I’d give it a go next time anyway. We walk through the gardens trying amazing tropical fruits, some that I recognise from home (guava, dragonfruit, bananas) and some I’ve never seen, including the ‘miracle fruit’ which makes everything taste sweet for the next thirty minutes. I can vouch for this fruit, as our guide (who I suspect takes quite a lot of pleasure in telling tourists to bite into tiny fruit that are like exploding balls of sour) fed us the miracle fruit and then encouraged us to bite into the sour balls again and even they were palatable. Fresh passionfruit, already sweet was explosive following these miracle fruit and frankly I’m surprised that more people haven’t tried to grow them in their backyards. Sadly, the baby cracks it just before the end of the tour and so I am too distracted trying not to make a spectacle of myself in front of the women all wearing full burkas and their husbands to remember to tip him as I was planning to.
Tipping here is confusing, as $1AUD = 3 ringgit. So I feel like a millionaire, but then by the same token everything seems ridiculously expensive (although once I remember to convert back to Australian dollars it actually seems ridiculously cheap, as my $10 ringgit/ $3 definitely legit new raybans can attest to). Anyway, 10 ringgit seems like a stingy tip but my partner assures me it isn’t (which he justifies by explaining just how badly people get paid – I’m not sure if this is a good thing). One thing is for sure – those ringgit will buy you a LOT of food.
We’ve been eating at hawker places, which is what people do unless they really want to stay western in which case the hotel offers spaghetti and meatballs. I like a food adventure and so take my dietary restrictions to the Indian stall, where I can get delicious bowls of dahl and roti for nothing at all, and I choose not to wonder weather the underfed cat with no tail that was nosing around the kebab place has eaten anywhere else. My partner’s goal for the week is to eat his body weight in satays and after the first day I’d say he’s eaten enough to fill up a foot or so, but I guess we’ve still got a few days to go.
The night is not bad (although the people in the next room who had to listen to the baby crying from around 3am might disagree) and we ‘wake’ (I’m kidding, we’ve been awake since three of course) to the huge Indian banquet I mentioned early. It’s a good start to a day spent wandering through temples, where I ponder at the face that temples, yoga studios and meditation rooms always seem quite cool despite stonking hot weather, and have photos taken of me looking brave/terrified with a python wrapped around my shoulders.
We return to the hotel room where my partner realises that things may be going horribly wrong with his corneal graft and my little boy starts cracking it because he hasn’t slept. I remember suddenly that despite everyone speaking very good english, how far away we are from home, and even though it’s warm and sunny outside I feel a pang for my dog, curled up eight hours away in the rain in Melbourne.
*I read this aloud to said partner as we sat in almost sensory deprivation in our hotel room and he worried that I wasn’t having a good time. In all honesty, I’m having a great time. I’m just a bit neurotic, tired and homesick.