George Town, Penang, Malaysia
A mournful song weaves its way through your dreams; a beauteous haunting, like the cry of the wild peacocks in India last week that hung in the air each morning at sunrise, suspended on the haze and heat like lazy dragonflies.
Your eyes open to blackness; half awake now, yet the song continues. It’s the Muezzin, calling out the adhan over a loudspeaker. The day’s first call to prayer rising from the mosque nestled next to your hotel. Wait. Listen. You can’t sing along, yet you know what he’s saying.
Sense the sky beginning to grey with dawn.
Pad barefoot downstairs in search of coffee. Potter around the hotel kitchen making toast, arranging papaya and pineapple slices on your plate. Exchange stories with the father and son from Australia, the Irish- and Malay-blended family on vacation from County Cork. Morning stretches out in front of you, slips away while you’re not looking.
Step outside. A sudden struggle to swim to the surface and catch your breath under the oppressive weight of hot, unmoving air; humid, stubborn, all encompassing. Glorious.
Wander. Wonder. Drink in the energy of this exotic, sensory maze of daily life progressing around you and then sweat it back out again. You there, and you: Who are you? What is this place? Your skin is burnt chocolate brown, and yours coffee-with-milk; and there olive, and here yellow; and you, you’re almost white. You hawk your roasted pork from a stall that stands right next to his, selling halal snacks. The steam from your Chinese noodles drifts down around the corner onto King Street into Little India and carries away the sweet spice of his crispy fried samosas and onion bhajis and pots of turmeric for sale.
You are Malay, Chinese, Indian. You are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Taoist. You move and live together and amongst each other, intertwined, every hour of every day. We should all be more like you: tolerant, peaceful, coexisting, living and letting live. Sharing this space you all call home. You visit your mosques and temples and churches and wear your hijabs and your thobes, while over there you are in your short-shorts and high heels. And even though you are not in China you celebrate the Chinese mid-Autumn with a lantern festival and even though I am not Chinese I jostle my way buoyantly through the crowd carrying a paper lantern with a tiny candle burning inside that lights up its bright pink crepe paper walls. I am one of you.
Another languid afternoon, flip flops clopping along the broken sidewalks. Stop. Drink. Eat. Slurp back a steaming bowl of char kray taew from a street hawker. One dollar, please. Go. Scrabble down a tiny, decaying alleyway and discover the joyous expressions on the faces of children immortalized in famous, crumbling street art. Snap a photo. Turn the corner onto Victoria and here is a card table full of old men perched on crooked stools flinging around mahjong tiles at dizzying speed. Wait to see who wins, uncomprehending. See them laugh good-naturedly at you. Move on. Keep walking.
Keep walking even though it might be the exact same streets you walked yesterday because every day you discover some new gritty treasure to behold.
The narrow lane curves round to the left and suddenly you’re disoriented. Check your map again. Wait, what’s that? Can you smell it, taste it? Can you hear it? Follow the Muezzin’s afternoon call to prayer; let it guide you gently northwest until you find yourself back home at your cozy little hotel.
It’s not a dream. You are wide awake in George Town, and you are right where you belong.