We just looked at each other and shrugged. We didn’t have an answer.
After a bus ride that took almost three hours longer than it should have, with rain pouring in through a broken window, a wasted bus driver and a bus station that was miles out of the centre of town, we arrived on the small Malaysian island of Penang. We were lost, with no wifi and potentially no bed for the night and I felt the bass notes of anxiety begin to reverberate softly in my chest.
With the help of a group of Chinese students, a grumpy bus driver and a friendly taxi driver, we eventually found our way to the small Muslim village of Teluk Bahang on the northern tip of Penang island.
People travel to Teluk Bahang to trek the forests of Penang’s National Park, sail the coastline or visit the butterfly farm and spice garden. We travelled there to sleep.
We had booked a room in a shared house but as there were no other guests we had the place to ourselves. The size and newness of the small cluster of houses made the street seem lifeless, spooky even, especially as the street was surrounded by crumbing apartments blocks that seemed to buzz with the sound of hundreds of people living on top of each other. All of the balconies were strung with laundry, like the tinsel on a christmas tree, and once the sun went down you could see the light of each apartment’s TV blinking like fairy lights. One apartment in the top right corner always glowed red.
A Chinese family lived next door to us but I only ever saw the dad. He paced up and down the private cul-de-sac no cars ever drove down and smoked cigarettes all day. I saw him standing in his drive with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge one night at almost 11pm washing the wide metal gate that separated his property from the street. Then he started washing his fence. Then he started washing the concrete driveway. Then he started to scrub down the road. At this time of year in Malaysia it rains almost every day. I think he was lonely.
On our first night in Teluk Bahang we ate at the number one rated restaurant on Trip Adviser. It was number one of only two restaurants but that took little away from the achievement for the owner whose live lobster tanks were emblazoned with the Trip Adviser logo. They served beer, a thing either very expensive or very unavailable in small-town Muslim Malaysia, and we were grateful.
We did nothing for a few days. We slept in late, we read, I wrote, we went for afternoon walks and at night we went out to eat at one of the two restaurants in the village. Nothing.
Walking around the neighbourhood we got a few curious stares. The children almost always said hello to us but the adults almost always didn’t. All of the girls wore typical muslim headscarves and loose clothes that covered their bodies, practical clothes for riding their powerful motorbikes around the streets with younger siblings and friends perched on the front and back. Many of the women wore the full burqa with niqab face veil and I felt my difference, my foreignness, keenly. I was the one who looked strange in my denim shorts and vest tops, my bare skin red and sweating in the sun. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable they felt under all that fabric.
You can hire a boat from Teluk Bahang harbour to take you out to nearby ‘Monkey Island’ to swim, sunbathe and see the local Macaque monkeys scampering around, going through peoples bags looking for food and terrorising the few refreshment huts on the beach. One man left his belongings on the beach to swim and was surprised and scared when a group of monkeys started going crazy, fighting each other for their share of his things. He had brought a banana milkshake and a bag of nuts.
I was surprised to see that even here in temperatures reaching the high thirties, with chinese and western tourists stripped down to their bikinis, the women still wore the burqa. As though a day at the beach could somehow be a day off.
We bought waffles from a woman with a small shop across the street. She invites us into her tiny space to get out of the sun and chatted to us in friendly, simple English. This shouldn’t have surprised me but it did.
After the woman cooked our waffles I asked to take her photo. She poses at her shop window, laughing, saying ‘you can’t see me, anyway!’ and I wonder, if no one was looking, would she show me her face?