Freewheelin’

Bicycles for hire – Penang, Malaysia

We took up cycling during lock-down thanks to the gift of second-hand mountain bicycles by a friend. It was liberating to ride around mostly traffic-free country roads during those restricted weeks and it reminded me of the feeling of freedom a bicycle can bestow. It’s also true that you never forget how to ride a bike – I hadn’t ridden one for at least 40 years but had no problem at all, except for getting the hang of all those gears! We went for a ride this morning after a long break. And it seemed to me that the slogging up hills and the freewheeling down the other side was a metaphor for the ups and downs I’ve experienced recently. New Zealand has all but rid itself of the coronavirus and we’re at level 1, which is normal life but with closed borders. This has been cause for great satisfaction among the five million of us who live on these beautiful islands in the south Pacific. We’ve gone back to work and re-connected with family and friends – so good it feels like freewheeling down the hills on my bicycle, wind whistling past and sun on my face. But I’ve also experienced loss alongside family and friends – Jackie who lost Trevor, Simone and Ollie who lost Rachel, Rosanna who lost Chris and Jo who lost Jonathan. These sad losses have irrevocably changed lives and seem unbearable for those left behind. Lying awake in the long watches of the night thinking about them feels like slogging up an endless hill in the rain. It is almost always the first thing I think about when I wake in the early morning, wishing that sympathy could change anything for any of them.

Swimming in Penang

Penang pool

We’ve just had a long weekend in Penang and spent a lot of time in and beside this magnificent pool at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. It feels decadent staying in this relic of the colonial era, where the sea wall hides the detritus bobbing in the Strait of Malacca  from hotel guests lounging around the pool and the hard-working fishing boats are decorative additions to tourist photos. Still we thoroughly enjoyed our break here and made good use of the pool, swimming numerous lengths to justify our next meal. Lying in damp togs in the evening breeze is not possible in Auckland’s fickle spring weather! Balmy evenings are the compensation for the heat of tropical days.

Perfect Penang day

049

Last Wednesday was a public holiday in Malaysia (it was Merdeka (independence) day and we’ve now been here for three of these holidays!) so we decided to spend the day in Penang. We left Ipoh early and got to the China House cafe in George Town in time for morning tea. We wandered around the Armenian Street part of the old town before lunch at the quiet Cafe 55 in Lorong Stewart, where we enjoyed an interesting conversation with our Filipina waitress. By then the sun was high and we retreated to the cool of our lovely room at 23 Love Lane, a beautifully restored boutique hotel (http://www.23lovelane.com/). After a rest under the whirring ceiling fan, we walked along the waterfront and ended up at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel where we indulged in an early cocktail. A walk back to the hotel in the rain, detouring to explore some of the lanes in the area, gave us an appetite for some dinner, which we had at our favourite Italian restaurant Via Pre. After a good sleep and a quick breakfast, we were on the road south and back Ipoh in time for the day’s work.

Faded splendour

037

Unlike Penang or Malacca, Ipoh’s old town is somewhat rundown and unattractive. There are pockets of restored and re-purposed buildings, which is encouraging, but many of the architecturally interesting buildings are almost derelict. I came across a beautiful book (in the lovely Gerak Budaya bookshop in Penang!) about the Danish architect B.M. Iversen, who lived in Ipoh in the 1930s. He designed many buildings here, including several cinemas, one of which was the Ruby. We found it and took this photo. It is an attractive art deco building taking up a prominent corner and you can still appreciate its lovely lines. It now houses a downmarket furniture store and the unsympathetic signage and displays of low-cost furniture detract from the Ruby’s charm. B.M. Iversen’s daughter Ruth Iversen Rollitt, who wrote Iversen: Architect of Ipoh and Modern Malaya (Areca Books, 2015), was born and brought up in Ipoh. Recently she said:
“When I go back to Ipoh now, I weep. They don’t maintain it, it’s dirty, it was so beautiful previously … Ipoh is like the old George Town before it was revived. Because of the weather, it’s very difficult to maintain the buildings but the buildings in Ipoh are left to crumble. My father built many cinemas in Ipoh, they were burnt and most of them have been turned into furniture depositories. Ipoh is sad.”

Preserving the past

136

Chinese seafarers were aware of Penang as early as the 15th century. Settlers from Sumatra arrived in Penang in the 18th century and in 1771 the sultan of Kedah signed an agreement with the British East India Company. Penang was also the capital of the Straits Settlements (which included Malacca and Singapore) for a while. One can almost feel the layers of history when one wanders through the narrow, winding streets of George Town and in 2008 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. We visited Penang again a couple of weeks ago and had a delicious dinner in the Kebaya restaurant, which is part of the Seven Terraces Hotel – a row of seven restored 19th century Anglo-Chinese terraced houses (go to http://www.seventerraces.com/web/aboutus.htm to find out more). Investment banker Chris Ong, who grew up in Penang, and his business partner have done a wonderful thing here – he is passionate about his Baba heritage and the hotel and restaurant showcase his personal collection of Straits Chinese porcelain (for an interview with Chris Ong go to http://www.themalaymailonline.com/travel/article/10-things-about-chris-ong-hotelier-who-champions-penangs-heritage-shophouse).

Fishing the Strait

074

When we were in Penang weekend before last, we watched this young man fishing off the beach. He chose this spot in front of a storm water outlet into the Strait. The detritus attracts small fish and every time he cast his net, he caught a few. They looked very small and it would take many to make a meal for a family. One can only hope they were small adult fish rather than juveniles. Far more efficient was the sea-eagle we watched circling high above the water. It suddenly dived with great speed and emerged with a fish it its talons. It flew into nearby trees to enjoy its catch and we lost sight of it. We later identified it as a white-bellied sea-eagle with the aid of our bird book.

Penang for Diwali

064

We spent the Diwali weekend in Penang staying at the beautiful Eastern and Oriental Hotel. It turned out to be a wonderful weekend weather-wise. Clear blue skies in the morning and huge clouds building for the afternoon downpour, which kept things cool and fresh. We’ve never seen the Strait of Malacca look so blue! We swam in both the pools at the hotel, ate delicious food and wandered the narrow streets of George Town. Exploring the Pinang Peranankan Mansion was a highlight. This is a restored 19th century house that belonged to wealthy Baba (a locally acculturated Straits Chinese businessman) and is filled with collections of photos, furniture, jewellery and china. Well worth a visit.

Good company

IMG_5226

I’ve had a lovely week in the company of my Kiwi cousin who paid us a visit. We spent a lot of time yakking about the vagaries of expat life (in my case) and doing business in Malaysia (in his). We took a day trip to Penang and had morning coffee at the cafe pictured in the photo above. We went out for delicious Chinese and Indian food and explored the old town of Ipoh, where he delighted in bargaining with local shopkeepers. It is great to spend time with someone you’ve known all your life and with whom you share a history. Back to my solitary days this week though!

A murder of crows

IMG_4357

I have always wanted to use this collective noun and this photo has given me the perfect opportunity! Jim took it on a recent weekend in Penang. There is a lovely walkway along the Penang waterfront, which is lined with these beautiful light poles. The afternoon we were there most of the poles were inhabited by noisy, busy crows. Though crows are not my favourite birds (are they anybody’s?), I enjoy watching birds here in Malaysia. Most days I see kingfishers and herons that frequent the river in front our house but occasionally, while out walking, I’ve caught a glimpse of the elusive greater coucal, a large lumbering bird with luxuriant black and brown plumage. When I do it feels like a special treat!

In sight of the sea

IMG_4320

We spent last weekend in Penang and this was the view from our hotel room window. While the Strait of Malacca is not the most beautiful body of water (those photos that show it looking a clear turquoise blue must be photoshopped!) it was so good to be within sight and sound of the sea for a couple of days. Waking up during the night and hearing the slap of small waves against the sand was comforting. I grew up on the south east coast of Africa and spent many hours swimming in the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. I loved lying in bed at night listening to the boom of the surf at high tide. Living on the North Island of New Zealand means that you are close to the sea even when you live inland. And it will be obvious from posts on this blog that Raglan, with its beautiful views of the Tasman Sea, is one of our favourite places in the world. I love sitting at Manu Bay with the waves breaking off the point and crashing onto the grey boulders at the shoreline while the setting sun turns the hills into a Colin McCahon painting.