Breakfast is my favorite meal. Especially when on vacation.
And missing an ‘All-you-can-Eat’ Breakfast Buffet makes me sadder than you would imagine.
I made the poor choice of choosing sleep over breakfast on my second day in Penang.
When I was reading about Penang, I learnt that it was a culturally rich place. I am geeky like that, I love museums, temples, heritage places and the likes.
There was this one place I was particularly excited about. The Peranakan mansion. A bunch of super wealthy Chinese people lived there once and now their home was a museum.
I decided to get ready, grab some lunch and head.
The restaurant downstairs was as empty as the night before. I ordered myself the local fried chicken and rice and a tall glass of watermelon juice to wash it all down.
Another great meal.
I cleared my bill and asked the sweet lady at the reception to arrange for a cab to Georgetown.
That’s when I met Helen.
Helen drove the hotel shuttle to and from the airport and to other tourist destinations. She wasn’t really the cab driver for the hotel but all the cab drivers had taken their lunch break so she agreed to drive me instead.
Helen was a talkative one. I could tell. But she also smiled often. So, it was hard to judge whether I was going to need my earphones on my drive there.
I spoke too soon though. She was the sweetest.
It began with the usual ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Travelling alone?’
But the 20-minute drive to Georgetown was so much fun. She told me about the places we were driving by and places I should visit while on vacation in Penang.
She also drove the Hotel Shuttle to this night market in the opposite side of town called ‘Batu Feringghi’. She suggested I should go sometime. I agreed!
We drove through the narrow but gorgeous streets of Georgetown till we reached the mansion. I thanked Helen for the drive, promised to see her back in the hotel lobby and walked to the museum.
The mansion was huge! And not in a palace-y way. In a home-y way. Back home everyone lives in these tiny apartments. Not any more space than we need. So, high ceilings and verandas always fascinated me.
Took me about an hour to see the entire place.
Most tourists came out gushing over how much gold there was in this house. I was casual.
I am from a Koli family. There is more gold on display at weddings in our community than this Chinese family owned altogether.
The last stop of this mansion-tour was the family kitchen. There were pots, pans, huge water containers and other utensils on display there. But what caught my attention was this tiny counter at the end of the room that sold refreshments.
That’s where I met Lisa.
Lisa worked the summer at the mansion selling slushies. By the time I reached the counter to get one for myself, they were all out. So, she asked me to wait at the table for a couple minutes. She came out with two glasses and sat across the table.
That’s all we needed to get to talk and I spent another 30 minutes chatting. Her shift was done, I had no plan of action, we each had a delicious drink made of God knows what and both of us had common love for Murakami.
As much as I would have loved to stay back and chat some more, I was getting hungry and Lisa had classes to attend. So, we said our goodbyes and I walked out of the mansion.
I was never good at directions. Back home, Google Maps was my Bible. But here, I didn’t have to worry much since I was already lost.
Although I kept going in circles the first couple of times, I was okay later. Georgetown was gorgeous. There was so much art everywhere. People performing on the streets, paintings on walls, door hangings on all the shops. Loved it. I saw a lil café called ‘Pit Stop’ and sat at the table closest to the window. I ordered for noodle soup and a strawberry slushy. The day was getting hotter. So, looking at the city from the inside of an air-conditioned café seemed like a good idea.
I spent a whole of about 90 minutes in the café. Part of the reason being, the drink was too tall and I was just getting used to the whole ‘Ice-Melts-And-Your-Drink-Reappears’ Cycle! So, I stayed put. Wrote some, read some, stared aimlessly.
It’s almost like I am making this up, but just before I was about to clear the bill and leave, this tall guy entered the café with a huge backpack and sat across my table.
The entire café was empty and he chose the chair across my table.
He ordered a drink, pulled out his notebook and started scribbling rapidly.
I thought leaving immediately would look rude. But then again neither of us exchanged greetings.
I stayed anyway. Started reading again.
My drink was finally done. I started wrapping my things. Expecting him to acknowledge my existence.
I paid the bill, picked up my bag and stood.
I started walking away.
“Have a nice day!”
I turned, smiled.
Bam! That’s it.
This was the shortest and the most memorable conversation I had had in the longest time.
He didn’t walk in with anybody so I knew he was travelling alone too.
Maybe that’s why I thought it was rude to walk out on him immediately and he thought it was rude to disturb me when I was reading.
Maybe it was some kind of mutual agreement we had on giving each other company but not getting into each other’s space.
Whatever that was, it was new and I liked it.
The sun was calmer now. So, I started walking in search for a taxi back to the hotel because it looked like I could make it to the night market that Helen mentioned earlier.
But on my way, I met a bunch of school kids. They were doing a survey about Georgetown. They asked if I would take it, I agreed.
It was a quick survey.
I asked them about the closest taxi stand. They suggested I take the bus. The bus stand was right across the street and one of the kids lived very close to where my hotel was.
“Bus no. 51”
Okay! Bus no. 51 it was then!
Although it was just a bus ride, I felt so accomplished. All grown up and efficient.
It’s one thing to take the Mumbai local every day and another to board a bus in a new city and get off at the right stop.
Good job, Prajakta!
I was expecting the bus ride to be all scenic and emotional. But naah. Pretty basic.
I walked back into the hotel. Greeted Helen at the lobby and asked her to save a seat for me on the shuttle to the Night Market!
I was kind of tired, but I wanted to make the most of the day.
I freshened up quickly, made a few calls back home, let my mom know I was still alive and dashed back to the lobby.
Helen greeted me with a hug! Ahh! How I loved hugs! She asked me to wait on the sofa for a while.
I saw two guys sitting there already.
Hmm. One of them was cute.
I went ahead and sat down. Greeted the boys and stared at my phone.
You know the usual routine every time a cute guy is within a 20-meter radius.
They struck a conversation and I joined in.
Everything was going well, till things started getting a little flirty here and there.
That’s my red zone. I stood up and started walking towards the door. They insisted on walking me out. I refused, they walked anyway.
Helen was waiting up front. I quickly got into the van and waved goodbye.
He asked if I would like to get dinner afterwards. I said, “I’ll let you know!”
I don’t know how to turn dates down, man! It’s been 6 years since someone asked me out. I am not going to lie, I was flattered. But that’s that.
The drive to Batu Feringghi was super coil-y. Thank God I hadn’t eaten much before. Helen dropped me at a Gas station at 7pm and promised to pick me up from the same place at 9:30pm.
The vendors were just setting up their stalls.
I heard waves and walked in their direction.
India does not have a beach culture. My home back here is an hour’s drive away from the sea. But the sea never interest me. Not in the monsoons, not in the summer, never. But the sea here was breathtaking. Just like in the movies. All the colors were just right.
I took my sandals off and stood ankle-deep in the water for a while. It was getting dark and the market was beginning to buzz, so I walked away.
The market wasn’t extraordinary. A narrow never-ending street filled with stalls and tiny restaurants on either sides. The people was what I was more excited about. People are friendlier there. Not that I have travelled the world. At least not yet. But of all the places I’ve been to, Penang has the sweetest bunch.
Everyone smiles. Everyone greets.
One such person was Mary-Jane.
I was doing my old, aimless walking through the street when I felt someone tugging on my arm. I unplugged my earphones and saw this tiny Chinese lady smiling at me.
“Come eat at my restaurant?”, she asked.
If you know me, I never turn down food. Never.
It was about 8 and I was getting a bit hungry.
She owned a tiny place called, ‘Helena’s café’. It was named after her Grandmother.
She walked me to it and I chose a table right on the street.
She gave me a handwritten menu card. With pictures of dishes she made with prices written on the right bottom corner. I settled for rice and chicken. She took my order and left.
I went back to my music.
It wasn’t long before Mary Jane returned with two portions of rice and chicken each.
“May I eat dinner with you?”
So, Mary Jane and I ate dinner. She told me stories from when she used to cook at the Naval Canteen. And in return, I tried explaining what I do for a living. That’s always a long conversation!
Dinner was delicious.
I cleared my bill, hugged her and left.
Such a sweet lady.
I strolled a little, shopped a little.
My memory of Batu feringghi is – Colourful Fairy Lights!
Every shop, restaurant, stall had fairy lights.
It was almost 9:15. I decided to walk towards the gas station.
I was back in my hotel room by 10 pm.
What a day.
I did nothing extraordinary, and yet what a day it was.
I sit at cafes every week. I eat at Chinese restaurants all the time. I’ve been to so many museums before. But never met Helen, Lisa, The Guy at the Café, the Cute guy at the lobby or Mary Jane.
They’ve always been there, I was never open to conversations.
Smile more often. Talk to new people. Ask them how their day’s been so far.
Put your phone down more often.
People are amazing. People are gorgeous.
You’ll be surprised at how much your kind is like you.
Ordered a portion of fish and chips to the room. Ate on the balcony floor and hit the bed immediately after.
And that was day two.