There is only one place in the world that inspires me everytime I go – Penang, my island hometown in the northwestern state of Malaysia. It is a place that I’m so familiar with, having been born in the town of Butterworth in the late ‘80s, yet so foreign all the same, as I have not lived there for a good ten years.
“Let’s get the hell outta here,” I shouted to my friend in the passenger seat of my blue Alfa Romeo. Pinny Girl and I have been best friends since the age of seven, and today we were both out and about in Georgetown, the capital of Penang, looking to chill out at one of those “Best cafés in Georgetown” that we’d read about on other people’s Facebook posts.
Georgetown on the third day of Chinese New Year was not a good idea, but neither of us had any idea. Tourists in their air-conditioned cars both local and from out of town were jamming the narrow alleyways between Love Lane and Stewart Lane, where the oh-so-popular Coffee Atelier was located, and where I had just reversed into a man behind me in a green car.
Tourism has been booming since the city was crowned UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. With a lively arts scene comprising museums, art galleries, boutique hotels, an annual heritage festival and just last year, a thriving café culture, it seemed like the whole world had come to see Penang come alive, including us born and bred Penangnites.
Patrons at Coffee Atelier were looking our way, as though watching a drama unfold, as the man from the green car and I stepped out of our vehicles and settled the matter quickly, exchanging numbers and taking photos of the damage on our smartphones. “Call me when you get it fixed,” I told him as I got back into my car, relieved and a little shaken at the same time.
“Let’s find ourselves somewhere that’s not so touristy!” I shouted at Pinny Girl, trying to manouvre my car out of the narrow alley, clearly too clumsy a driver for these heritage backstreets. We both laughed. Pinny Girl and I, like many of the girls in our school, left our beloved island for greener pastures as soon as we finished high school, and are not exactly the savviest of locals in Penang.
Girls like us, after graduating from university abroad, were ready to conquer the world with no plans to return home, only to find ourselves running back to our parents, and to Penang, as the global recession hit in 2008, no graduate programmes were open and our pockets ran dry… all this, only to come back to square one and fall right back in love again with our hometown.
I drive long Campbell Road, and watch with fresh new eyes the old city that I grew up in, with its 19th-century heritage shophouses, some delapitated and in a shambles, some turned into überchic cafés like Coffee Atelier, while some retain its original inhabitants – immigrant families from China, India, the Middle East and their mixed race descendants known as the Peranakans.
I pass by the old man from Hameediyah Restaurant, and the smell of fresh roti waft through my senses, bringing back memories of when my father brought me to nearby Chowrasta Market to look through their collection of second hand books and magazines, and after that to Hameediyah for a fresh plate of chicken murtabak and a cold glass of sirap bandung.
Pinny Girl and I end up eating by the roadside, slurping on a bowl of homemade laksa, a fish broth noodle that is both spicy and sour, and that is only done right in Penang. So much for our afternoon out sitting in the latest Melbourne-inspired hipster café – and a car accident to add to that. We eat in silence, savouring every strip of noodle and every slice of pineapple in the thick tamarind soup.
What’s another latte that I can find in San Franciso, Melbourne or Starbucks, compared to a precious bowl of laksa with my best friend of 20 years. By the time the man in the green car rings me for due payment on the damage done to his car, I would’ve left for Singapore, the city where I currently live and work an hour’s flight away from Penang.
I thought about turning off my phone and breaking my promise to repay him. After all, Penang would be a distant hometown and holiday long gone by then… But when he rings, I will be sure to pick up his call, for it will be a responsibility fulfilled, the call of home, the place where I spend two weeks of my year every year, with no regrets.
About the author: Wan Phing is the Online Editor at AsiaRooms.com. Born and raised in Penang, Malaysia, she has lived in Beijing, London, Benevento, Kuala Lumpur, Manchester and currently resides in Singapore. She loves travel, photography and writing about them on her travel blog.
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