Our family stayed close to home this weekend. Thanks to a certain tiny human who likes to stay awake all night, Joel and I have been very tired lately. But even when we stay home, Simon has grown to expect at least a little adventure everyday.
I came up with a big hit. It was good for an afternoon adventure and it cost us a sum total of RM2.40, less than a US dollar. Long before the Butterworth Bridge connected Penang Island to the mainland, people had to get back and forth on a regular basis. Their only option back then was the ferry, and it still runs today.
The ferries are double-deckers. Vehicles can drive onto both the top and bottom levels. There is seating for pedestrians on the top level as well, and you are actually permitted to roam around the whole boat. Most of the pedestrians appeared to be daily commuters, although I spotted a few Asian tourists as well.
The ride across the channel takes maybe 20 minutes. We saw a few other vessels while we were on the water–tiny fishing boats painted in bright primary colors as well as big, drab barges.
We disembarked in Butterworth and didn’t even leave the ferry terminal–just looped back around for the return ride. The trip is quite affordable. You only have to pay one direction (Butterworth to Penang). Adults pay RM1.20, kids are half-price, and children under age 4 are free. But beware: you must pay in exact change, coins only, and the money changer operated at the pace of a tree sloth. Seriously, you only have one thing all day: people handing you one-ringgit bills and asking for coins. You could probably anticipate their needs, wouldn’t you think? But the guy seemed to need to have an elaborate conversation to ascertain the needs of each passenger, and the boats don’t wait for exact change.
As usual when we get out of touristy areas, Simon was the center of attention. On the return trip, we sat next to a group of young Indonesian men. One guy had an electric blue guitar and all the guys were singing. They thought Simon was adorable and they kept trying to coax him to hang out with them. He refused.
We’d purchased a bag of knock-off M&Ms as a treat. After eating a few, he shared one with me. And one with Joel. And one with the man sitting next to us. Then he just started going down the line, handing out M&Ms to everyone in our section of the ferry. I kept directing him to the Indonesian guys, but he was shy around them. At least they were good sports and laughed about it. Eventually, Simon made his way to the next batch of seats. Suddenly, little old ladies with grocery sacks and businessmen trying to read the newspaper each had a little hand stuff a candy in their faces. They were less amused than the people near us who’d been watching Simon’s charity unfold.
By the time Simon ran out of candies, we were just getting back to Penang. The ferry terminal is also, reasonably, one of the main bus terminals in Penang. But we wanted to get home a little faster. We called an Uber and headed back with a happy three-year-old, content that he’d had his daily adventure.
Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia. But nobody calls it that. In local parlance, it is exclusively known has “KL.”. The Gustavus students made a long weekend trip to KL in March. It was the week before my due date, so our family declined to go.
We recently had the opportunity to go. The US Consulate is situated there and we needed to do some paperwork to prove she exists and document that she’s an American citizen. The International Office at Universiti Sains Malaysia graciously supplied us with a minivan for the weekend. Of course, we don’t drive here, so Firdaus, a USM driver, escorted us the whole way.
I hadn’t really thought about it, but this was my first venture out of the state of Penang. I was quite surprised by the scenery. I guess I had this image in my mind that most of Peninsular Malaysia would be flat. I’m from Florida. Florida is a subtropical peninsula, and it’s really flat. But Malaysia is not! Up and down, over hilly terrain, we drove for about four hours. I was also startled by the local land use. It’s one thing to read about the damage of oil palm plantations in SE Asia. (You haven’t heard about oil palms? Read here about the tremendous damage they do, and start reading the label on your peanut butter jar.) But the scale of the palm plantations was incredible. It reminded me of the cornfields in Minnesota–a single monoculture for as far as the eye could see. It was perhaps a bit more surreal because the rows of palms snaked up and down, over the hillocks and valleys.
We checked into our hotel in mid-afternoon and had no appointments for the rest if the day. I had heard that there was a tremendous playground in the park at KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center.). Indeed there is.
It is literally the largest playground I’ve ever seen in my life. There were at least two dozen play structures, spread out in all directions. It was just the thing for little leg legs that had been cooped up for a long car ride. Adults, however, were NOT permitted on the playground equipment. This was enforced by a lady with a whistle, who would whistle vigorously at any adult who dared climb a ladder or, heaven forbid, sit on a swing. She never spoke a word, but would just whistle repeatedly and walk towards the offending adult, eventually coming face-to-face if they hadn’t yet caught the hint. She was remarkably well suited for her job.
There was also a public pool at the park, and Simon was thrilled to swim for a bit. It was actually just a shallow splash zone–which is good-because no adults allowed in the pool, either. Simon paddled away until thunderstorms broke out. Then we found a quick bite to eat in a food court (including milkshakes!) and headed back to our hotel. The next day was spent in administrative monotony. More on that later, where I’ll write about the process of getting a Malaysian-born baby an American passport. We never saw another tourist site in KL–no museums, no architecture, no historic buildings. Sometimes with kids in tow, you just spend your free time doing what they want, and everyone is happier for it.
We came back to mainland a day before the Gusties, who were still camping at Mak Kepit on the west side of Pulau Redang. We needed accommodations and since this happened to be the national Labor Day holiday weekend, lots of places were booked. I finally found a homestay near Merang, which seemed to be reasonably near the jetty where we were to meet up with the students the next day.
The place is called Millbrook Farm Homestay, and it was fantastic. I wish we could have stayed for longer. We were met by Ella, whose family (parents, brother, uncle) all own and manage the facility. It has just six rooms now but they are building six more. The farm in the name is not what you think, but actually an aquaculture facility, a fish farm. Needless to say, Joel and I were delighted to take the tour with Ella’s brother. Did I mention the whole place is also right on the ocean? With views like this?
In addition to tilapia, which are a major food fish, this family is trying to raise fish for the aquarium trade. They have one large tank of brightly-colored koi. And the bulk of their tanks were devoted to raising different types of arowana. These large freshwater fish are considered a lucky species to a lot of Chinese because they resemble Chinese dragons. They can grow quite big and an individual fish can sell for hundreds of dollars (US).
Ella’s daughter, Bella, is five years old. She loves horses and unicorns and My Little Pony. So Ella drove us all to the nearby stables, where horses are kept for polo. For 5 ringgit, Simon got to ride a horse around the ring. An ever-so-slightly older boy accompanied him.
Bella was shy when we first met her but soon she and Simon were running around the hotel, playing and laughing. It’s not often that I see Simon actively trying to impress other kids and if I didn’t know better, I’d say he was flirting. “Bella! Listen to me sing this song!” “Bella! Look at this drawing I made for you!” It was adorable.
SBella was also quite fond of Penelope. The kids spent the rest of the day running around the property. There was so much laughing, giggling, and scheming. Simon was in absolute heaven.
Ella and her Uncle Denny were incredibly accommodating. They took us out to dinner at a delicious Chinese restaurant and to the only ATM in the region. And the next day, they offered to drive us to the jetty to meet up with the students and catch the bus home.
That’s when we discovered that I’d made a little mistake, you see.
It turns out that Merang and Marang are two different cities, both on the coast in Terengganu State, about an hour’s drive apart. The jetty is at Merang. I inadvertently booked our room at Millhouse Farm Homestay outside of Marang. In my defense, Malaysians seem to be fast and free in their spelling. Take for instance, the popular noodle dish, char koay teow. Otherwise known as char kuey teow. Or char koay tiao. Or char kway teow. Or chow kuey tiao. I mean, come ON. If Merang and Marang are both going to be cities in the same state, along the same coastline, and reasonably close to one another, you’d think someone would make a big deal out of that on the travel sites, no?
Now, I don’t regret it at all, because Ella, Bella, and Denny were delightful company and I only wish we’d had more time to spend together. But our hosts truly went out of their way to take us all the way from Marang to Merang, an hour-plus of driving. We ate breakfast together before my family boarded the Gustie bus to Penang. Simon and Bella hugged goodbye and we invited them for a stay in Penang. I don’t know if it’s likely, but it would be fun.
In 1999,a Hong Kong blockbuster movie was filmed at a secluded lagoon on the east coast of Pulau Redang. The plot, briefly summarized:A high-powered Hong Kong stockbroker is jilted and double-crossed by her boyfriend, causing her to lose her job. She escapes to a remote Malaysian island, where she and her cousin have inherited a pristine beach. A real estate mogul offers her millions of dollars to sell it, but she’s startled to find that her gambling-addicted cousin sold his share to a hunky beach bum who has no interest in selling his half of paradise. Wacky rom-com hijacks ensue until the business woman and the beach bum finally fall in love and decide to preserve the beach for themselves and the locals.
The message was lost on somebody on the set though, because shortly after the movie was filmed on site, they actually really did build a 212-room, all-inclusive, faux-Thai themed luxury resort on the very same beach. And that’s where my family stayed for the next couple nights. True story.
Oh, and how do I know the plot? Because one of the six channels on the hotel TV is dedicated to showing Summer Holiday on repeat, 24-hours a day, a la It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. We never sat down to watch the whole thing, but would catch 15 minutes here or there, and Joel and I would share tidbits to piece it together, as if we were reading Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sound and the Fury. We’re talking high-caliber literature here, people. “Who is that?” “Oh, that’s George. The ex-boyfriend who double-crossed Summer.” “No, no, that’s the out-of-work actor who was hired to pretend he is George.” The irony of a massive resort complex showing a film set on its very location in which the resort tycoon is cast as the villain may have been lost on the hotel management, but it was not lost on us.
The Gustavus students, for their part, were camping on the west side of the island, at a beach called Mak Kepit. It’s not readily accessible by the public, has no running water or electricity, and was deemed by everyone to not be suitable accommodations for a baby and a toddler. Too bad, because that’s much more my style and I think we would have had way more fun there. They swam til they were exhausted, ate five meals a day, and slept under the stars at night.
There’s not much to do at a place like Laguna Redang Resort but sit beachside (or poolside) and enjoy the scenery, so we embraced it. Simon loved playing in the sand and jumping waves in the South China Sea.
The resort offers two chartered snorkeling trips each day. Joel and I each went on one while the other stayed back with the kiddos. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve snorkeled, so first I have to say: it was awesome to be back in crystal blue water. Words can’t thoroughly express how deeply I miss it, and how natural it felt to don my mask and fins and dive down again. Having said that, I was also completely stunned by the degraded state of the coral reef. This is the first time I’ve really witnessed coral bleaching and it was devastating. The staghorn coral at my site was dead and broken, the arms littering the sea floor like a boneyard. Green algae was slowly encroaching and covering everything that was still alive. I was delighted by each new fish species I saw, but the diversity was far less than what you should see at a tropical reef in the South China Sea. The rest of the tourists seemed less interested in the reef and more interested in taking pictures. They bobbed at the surface and splashed around, feeding bread to the fish. I was the only one who took off my vest and dove underwater. Deeper down, I was rewarded with so much more diversity: tiny little electric blue gobies hanging out in the crevices of brain corals; big snappers hiding under coral ledges. You can’t see that stuff at the surface, but I’m not sure most of the tourists knew or cared. A wasted opportunity.
On our second evening at the resort, a local conservation team released a nest of sea turtle eggs. Unlike our experience on the mainland, this was done in bright daylight, 6:30pm. They cordoned off a section of beach and tourists gathered to watch. The most alarming part was when I discovered that they were selling off the rights to release a turtle. For Rm 20 (about US $5), you could personally hold a sea turtle and let it go. People lined up in batches of 20 behind the “starting line” and the emcee counted down, 3-2-1! Turtles were released and made their way towards the water, with people yelling, cheering, snapping photos, and breaking through the barricade to get a better luck.
The organizers–I think they were affiliated with the local university–were earnest in their attempt to educate the mass of tourists, but most of the people were in vacation mode and not really paying attention. In every possible way, it was the opposite of the experience two nights earlier. I was dismayed and rather indignant, snapping photos to share with our students while we shook our heads and laughed about the circus. Then one of the coordinators approached us. “We have a few turtles left over. Would your son like to release one for free?”
My indignation fell to my feet as my little boy’s eyes lit up at the prospect of holding a live baby sea turtle. And so we found ourselves lined up for the third round of the turtle release race, waiting to meet Turtle #46. Simon is so young that I worried about him dropping the turtle or, worse, squeezing it. But he did his absolute best, and managed to delicately hold the tiny little creature as it flapped its flippers in the air, searching for sand or water. Mercifullly, the countdown was quickly made and the baby turtle raced towards the sea, while Simon watched and cheered, grinning from ear to ear. m.
Our class has had discussions on the balance of education vs. entertainment when it comes to wildlife, zoos, parks. I’m not sure that we were on the right side of the line this time, but I hope not too much damage was done. I’ve decided the turtle was female. And I’ve also decided that she will be the one out of hundreds who will beat the odds. Twenty years from now, when Simon is graduating from college, that turtle will swim back to her beach on Pulau Redang and her flippers will touch land for just the second time in her whole life, and the cycle will begin again as she lays her eggs on that same beach as her ancestors. We can hope, anyhow–if the resorts don’t grow too big and the ocean currents don’t become too warm. That’s the story I’m telling Simon, who in the past few days has often asked me to tell him what his turtle is doing now.
There is a significant Australian expat community here in Penang, as the Australian Air Force has a number of families stationed here. The Royal Malaysian Air Force operates a base in Butterworth, just across the bridge from Penang Island. The Australian Defence Force still maintains a presence at this base, and many of those military families live in Pulau Tikus, Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah–the neighborhoods west of Georgetown.
The Hostie is in Pulau Tikus. I’m still a little unclear who owns and operates it, but it functions as a social gathering site for Australian Defence Force families and their guests. There is a landed house with a big grassy yard, a playground, a pool, and a bar and grill. There are bicycles and tricycles for the kids, plus an air-conditioned toy room inside.
A committee of parents organized an Easter celebration for the kids today, and we were invited to attend. It was quite lovely. Hot, of course, but there was plenty of shade for us to hide under. I was so happy for Simon to get to participate. It was the first time he ever got to experience a typical Easter party. When he was a baby, I had intended to take him to the Jaycees egg hunt in Saint Peter, but he was sick and fussy. When he was one, we spent Easter in China and There’s No Easter Bunny in China. Last year, we decided to spend Easter by camping in a yurt in central Minnesota. And while it turns out that the Easter Bunny does visit yurts, it was still a rather untraditional celebration.
I was sort of expecting to be in the hospital today. But since I wasn’t, we got to celebrate with lots of other families.
There were dozens of little kids and lots of special activities today. Lots of families brought treats–cupcakes, hot cross buns, there was even a chocolate fountain. Somebody set up a bounce house next to the playground, which is always a hit. The Easter Bunny was present and a little intimidating to many of the smaller kids, but it was a good lesson that conquering your fears may lead to chocolate.
And finally, there was the Easter egg hunt. Many small children scrambling around a house to find treats can be chaos, but everyone shared and I saw some bigger kids helping the littles, which is always heartwarming.
When you’re living in a foreign country and 40 weeks pregnant, you don’t make plans too far in advance. But since the baby shows no inclination to arrive just yet, our family decided to take advantage of our unscheduled free time.
On Saturday evening, we attended another event at the Esplanade. This was the 3rd Annual Penang Yosakoi Parade. Now that I’ve attended, I’m still not exactly sure what this was, but it seemed to be a celebration of Japanese heritage, a commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Japanese tsunami, and a cosplay event. Plus–and this is a direct quote–“Mardi Gras-style street dancing.”
On Sunday, we made an outing to the Youth Park, which I think has a new name (Penang Municipal Park), but most people still call it Youth Park. It’s beautiful–super shady and sprawling, with sports fields, playgrounds, pools, and trails. This is my favorite park so far, and we will definitely be coming back.
Near the playground was a reflexology path. You are supposed to take off your shoes and walk on the poky rocks. There were a couple adults treading very gingerly upon the rocks and looking rather uncomfortable. They were all pretty amazed when Simon stripped off his socks and went treading around without any trouble.
Good thing that I read up on the park beforehand. We planned ahead and brought Simon’s swimsuit. It turns out that there’s even more than one swimming area, but we just stayed in this one for today. It was actually pretty crowded–everybody needs relief from this intense Malaysian heat wave!
Then we had another welcome surprise! Our friend Afi drove over to the park to meet us. Simon was delighted to see her! She explained that she’s been super productive at school lately and was giving herself a little well-deserved time off. (In fact, she just submitted her first research paper for publication, hurrah!)
We all went out to lunch together at New World Park Hawker Center. This may be my favorite outdoor food court yet. There were a whole lot of options and since it’s not on the side of a street, it’s much safer and quieter for a family meal. We will definitely be returning.
The Gustavus students took a Saturday field trip to the mainland, coordinated by one of the Tropical Ecology lecturers, Nadine Ruppert, a primatologist. Joel, Simon, and I were very excited to come along, too. Dr. Ruppert also was accompanied by two of her graduate students and her three little boys.
We visited two zoos in one day: first was Bukit Merah’s Orang Utan Island. (I love the name; it sounds like something from a Scooby Doo mystery.) This is actually a breeding facility for orangutans, which are native to Borneo but not peninsular Malaysia. We were a very lucky group–we had the opportunity to see quite a few orangutans up close, which is probably not always the case.
While we waited for the bus, Dr. Ruppert led a discussion full of really great, thought-provoking questions. Some of the things the class pondered: What is the best way to protect an endangered species that has many simultaneous threats (habitat loss, illegal poaching, etc.)? What if we become very successful at breeding orangutans, but don’t have enough stable habitat to release them to? Can animals that have been bred/raised in captivity be successfully released into the wild? How do we balance the value of public education with the rights of animals in zoos? How do you accommodate the spatial and physical needs of a wide-ranging species in captivity? There are no easy answers. (Conservation can be tough.)
We left Bukit Merah resort and stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. From there, it was about a 30 minute drive to Zoo Taiping, our second destination of the day. In a rare occurrence, Simon fell asleep on the bus ride.
Dr. Ruppert told us that she thought Taiping is possibly the best zoo in Malaysia, and it certainly was nice. Several of the enclosures were under renovation, as they attempt to make “open concept” enclosures that more closely mimic natural habitat for the animals within.
The last stop was the hippopotamus enclosure, where the zookeeper fed them an assortment of veggies. Hippos are known to be very dangerous, and I’ve never actually seen them up close, out of the water before. Watching them eat was incredible. He tossed an entire pumpkin or hard squash into the hippo’s mouth, and it puréed it as fast as a banana in a blender. …With the lid off, I might add.