Obstacle-removing turtles, cavorting monkeys, remarkable chana masala and free shoe repair. We didn’t find entries for these in our guidebooks, but we did find them on the streets and in the hills of Penang, Malaysia.
Guidebooks certainly give us places to go. But the most memorable moments of cultural experience, introspection and human kindness often pass somewhere between all the “must see” stars plotted on tourist maps.
You've probably heard this all before. It's hardly an epiphany. So why do we bring it up?
Aside from the fact that we occasionally enjoy belaboring the obvious, the following occurred to us over breakfast one morning here in Penang: not only do these exceptional experiences not always happen at tourist sites, they almost never do. The strongest impressions we carry with us seem to be made somewhere in the “white spaces” of our travel itinerary.
Similar to the way in which we related our perfect day in Kyrgyzstan, we share what constitutes a delightful day – tucked in between tourist sites, errands and blog posts – here in Penang.
With a day of tropical heat behind us, we crept our way up the steps to the foot of Penang's Kek Lok Si (Buddhist) temple and followed a young couple of Indian descent carrying bags stuffed full of greens.
After an abrupt turn, we and the couple faced a concrete pool teeming with turtles. The pool had been drained of its water and the turtles were making quite a racket – crawling about, on top of and over one another. By far, this was largest collection of turtles that we’d ever seen in one place.
[If you are wondering why the pool was drained, it's apparently part of the turtle caretaker's daily practice to manage turtle buildup and prevent the turtle stench from becoming ghastly. Turtles are stinky critters, particularly when they commune in the hundreds.]
Anyhow, the young couple explained that they come regularly to feed the turtles. They shared with us a few handfuls of the bounty of greens they brought with them so we could join them. As the turtles munched away in a feeding frenzy (yes, turtles can become agitated), the man explained that he had recently visited an astrologer and was told to feed the turtles at this temple at least once a month. This would help, as he put it, “to speed things up…to remove obstacles in my life.”
At the end of this lesson in the spiritual value of turtles, our newfound friends walked us around to the baby turtle section on the opposite side from where we entered. They gave us a few more greens worth of turtle fodder so we could further remove any obstacles in our lives. (We were grateful – we will take any help we can get.)
Several other visitors showed up with bags of cabbage and vegetables to feed the turtles. Before long, quite an array of turtle feeders had assembled: young and old, Malay, Chinese and American.
Attention was quickly drawn to two turtles that had fallen on their backs; they were desperately trying to right themselves. United in a common cause, all the visitors cheered them on, as if our voices might somehow help. Despite our best efforts, the turtles only managed to slowly turn themselves around in circles. An older Chinese woman sidled up to us and indicated that the pool would fill with enough water later that evening, enabling the overturned turtles to right themselves and move freely once again.
“Don't worry, they will be OK,” she assured us.
After this simple, enlightening tortoise encounter, we wondered whether we really needed to continue up the steps for a glance at some gilded statues and a renovated temple. To preserve the moment, we decided against it, waved good-bye to everyone like old friends and walked back to the street to catch a bus back into town.
As twilight descended, we looked back at the temple to find it swamped in strings of flashing lights. Temples occasionally opt for patches of bright lights, but this looked a little too much like a casino for our taste.
Who knows? Maybe we missed out on the best temple ever.
After hanging out at the top of Penang Hill with a group of cavorting monkeys searching garbage cans for food and occasionally hissing at tourists, we went searching for some food of our own near a cluster of food stands formed into an outdoor cafeteria. Each time we stepped in the direction of one of the stalls, we were inundated with shouts of “fried rice,” “fried noodles” and “fruit drink.” We understand that hawkers must hawk, but we really don't appreciate being shouted at or physically tugged at, particularly when we’re feeling peckish.
Turned off, we escaped in the direction of a lone food stall we had noticed earlier. An Indian man presided over colorful, attractive jars of dried snack bits and a steaming mound of chickpeas. He politely acknowledged us and entertained our questions about the different dishes he offered. He described his chana masala simply: chickpeas mixed with onions, lime juice, spices, dried peppers and fresh herbs. Aided in part by the colors and the steaming, fragrant ingredients before us, we decided this would be our lunch.
He carefully prepared the chana masala in front of us and smiled as we photographed it and gushed about its wonderful smell. We were not disappointed. It was excellent, unique and like none we’d had before. It bore the stamp of wonderfully simple ingredients combined in remarkable ways to deliver something smooth, yet rich in texture and complexity.
Not to mention, being treated like human beings also goes a long way with us.
Free Shoe Repair
When my Bangkok faux Diesel sandals started to tear at the front buckle, it was obvious that their repair would be more than her sewing kit could handle. The shoes were only two months old. Having paid only $6 for the pair, I could hardly begrudge them. Her previous pair of Diesel-like sandals had lasted a whopping nine months. She wanted to get her money's worth this time too.
It was time to call in the pros.
We poked our heads into a dark, narrow shop along Chulia Street in Penang’s Chinatown district. Bags and other custom-made leather bits hung from the walls and ceilings. We didn't see any shoes, but there were enough tools, sewing machines and coffee jars filled with bits and bobs, zippers and hooks, that it appeared hopeful.
The man at the front counter barked at us that it was not a shoe repair place and shooed us away. As I appealed to him for a shoe repair shop recommendation, an older Chinese man seated at back motioned us to his work bench.
Through his bifocals he inspected the shoe and its dislocated strap and went to work immediately: a little industrial strength glue here, a little there – all secured to the sole with heavy-duty thread. Within minutes, the shoe was as good as new – or, at least “$6 on the streets of Bangkok” new.
I asked him how much she owed. He paused, looked at us, and then said “no charge.” We thanked him profusely and left the shop on a humanity high.
It wasn’t the money we saved that mattered. That would have amounted to a couple of dollars, at most. The shoe repair guy could have easily tried to overcharge us. Instead, he gave us something: a simple story about the better side of human interaction on the travel trail.
Where to Look?
While we do enjoy beautiful buildings and temples, intangible experiences like the ones above leave lasting impressions. They also serve to outweigh the petty thefts and moments of discomfort and inconvenience.
These moments are impossible to plan. Use your guidebook to guide you, but keep yourself open for life's lessons and surprises…on the way to your next destination.