A short ferry ride across from Butterworth train station is Georgetown on the island of Penang. I won’t recount the history of the place here, but it’s enough to know that it has long been home to a diverse group of settlers. It now has a crumbling colonial feel (courtesy of the British and Dutch), with no sidewalks, and the first place where I have really started to feel the heat sap my energy.
The guidebook talked about its diversity, but I wasn’t prepared for how real it was. While every nation has been rich in its own culture, this was the first one where many of these separate nations were authentically represented. For example, in India there were lots of Indians, China Chinese, but in Georgetown real slices of India, China and Malaysia.
Literally authentic Indian, Chinese communities nestled amongst the Malay. I stood in the middle of my first major intersection, staring left down a street full of vegetarian Indian restaurants advertising with Hindi script. Staring ahead I was looking up a lane of Chinese restaurants, tailors and the like, all advertising in Mandarin. Many of the signs in the rest of town were written in three or more scripts. My lunch in an Indian restaurant revealed further subtelties. Everyone in the restaurant appeared to be Hindu, there was a buddha statue seated at the cashier, a muslim sat eating behind me, and a chinese couple to my right. Happily, later on I also found a good organic bakery, my first in months.
Anyway, it was in the midst of wonder at this diversity when I remembered: this is what London is like. I have become so used to traipsing through coarsely monocultural (though with obviously great local diversity) nations where everyone is of one race, that the diversity I was used to in the UK, Europe or even Australia had become an oddity. The diversity I am used to from London, for example, has actually proven completely inconceivable to many people in the countries I have visited. Other travellers, such as the Chinese-Canadian, or the African-American, or the Bengali-American have shared how perplexing their combination of appearance, ancestry, linguistic skill (or lack of) and nationality has been met with disbelief by the locals.
Pondering this as I walked, I became aware of what a ‘freek’ I must appear. My clothing for these past few days had been selected based on being needing to keep cool, yet also cover myself in a predominately Muslim country. This meant I was wearing I had a Chinese-style long-sleeved shirt with loops and baubles instead of buttons, baggy white cotton trousers from Pakistan, Aussie flip flops, an Indian shoulder bag, and a Thai-made watch (which I bought for my birthday). Together, I don’t think I actually looked good: being ‘fashionable’ was not mentioned on my clothes selection criteria.
The final highlight of Penang was stumbling across one of the most wondrous stores I have seen this whole trip. It was a Chinese / Buddhist emporium. Spread through three mirror-adorned floors were every imaginable typed of monument, clothing, drum, bell, good-luck charm for the discerning Chinese or Buddhist. There were massive concrete carvings, expensive but well-made monk’s outfits, massive (2 metre) incense sticks, porcelain warriors and all manner of things red and gold, kitschy and classy. I actually got lost in there, and consider myself fortunate to have emerged only having spent a few dollars on a strange holographic representation of an Indian diety.