I am heading back to Saigon tomorrow. I miss Saigon. Yes, the food of Malaysia has drawn me in, but I sure am glad I don't eat this way all the time. I would be soooo fat- because the food is rich and oily, in addition to being legendary. I am at an internet cafe back in Kuala Lumpur, hiding from the rain again, listening to Neil Diamond, wondering if they really love him here, or is it just coincidence that I have heard five of his songs within six days? Also, the theme to "Chariots of Fire" plays everywhere.
So while I wait for the rain to pass, I will tell you about two characters I met this week. They were my "favorite" in retrospect - in that while I interacted with them, I was thinking about writing about them, and that's the only way I kept my patience in each situation:
My favorite character of the week was Dr. Cheong Fung, the wine-medicine maker and masseuse that I escaped to during part of one (of four) days of rain this week while walking through Chinatown in Penang. He led me through a shopfront "owned by Pakistanis who do business without money" into his tiny little house where his wife was making dinner for their son.
He spoke a very broken-English stream of consciousness, but he added "I know that you don't believe me" very clearly at the end of each sentence. Such as:
"My son," he said (within hearing distance of his son), "He eighteen. He no interested in my medicine. He think he know everything. Very stupid boy. I know that you don't believe me."
"I healed a woman who couldn't walk. I know that you don't believe me."
"You should take up tai chi. A big, tall woman like you (I was twice his size), it would make you strong. From here (he pointed to his core). I know that you don't believe me."
"I healed a man that was struck by lightning. I know that you don't believe me."
"I have had diabetes for twenty years. I married and had my son when I was 55. I know that you don't believe me."
"The government no believe my medicine. They try stop me. They jealous. They send people after me. I know that you don't believe me."
"I am 75 years old. I know that you don't believe me." And then he had me squeeze his shoulder blade and punch him in the gut to show me just how strong a 75 year-old man could be. I said, "Wow," but actually, I have no idea how strong a 75 year-old man can be.
And my favorite:
"Most Americans don't like Obama because (then he broke into a whisper) he is black." He looked at me for my response to this shocking news. "I know that you don't believe me."
"Um," I finally interrupted, "Americans elected Obama by voting."
At this he stopped and looked at me as if surprised he had a speaking client, and then continued on. "I loved president Kennedy. Do you know him? They killed him. It was conspiracy. I know that you don't believe me..."
As I left, I said to the doctor, "I believe everything you told me" - just to see how he would react. He didn't. He just stared at me blankly.
"Tell people you meet about me," he called after me. And he didn't add anything to the end of that sentence.
In second (last) place: Azhar, my replacement rent-a-friend on Penang Island. I had chatted with a roly-poly, friendly guy named Lee at a travel agency the night before and liked him instantly. I liked him so much that I asked him if it would be possible to pay him to take me around the island on his motorbike (I had tried to rent on my own, but didn't bring my license with me and Malay policy, unlike Indonesian policy, is seemingly very strict on this matter). He lit up when I said I wanted to "see the island and taste some local food." I could just tell that Lee would be my food guy. He said he would really like to, but that he had to check with his boss. "No one has ever asked to see the island by motorbike," he told me.
When I showed up the next morning, Lee introduced me to Azhar, presumably the owner. "He's going to take you around," he said, and he looked and sounded disappointed. I was, too, because the first thing Azhar said to me was "I know exactly where I will take you" in a very dominant way. For every easy going Muslim man like Lee, there seemed to be three hard core, in-charge know-it-alls like Azhar. The contrast in Malaysia seems pretty severe.
"Um, well, I already know exactly where I want to go, so I will tell you," I said, and showed him on the map the area with the national park and the local village in the middle of the island. "I don't want to do anything touristy." But I could tell he wasn't listening.
The first place we stopped was a touristy "Spice Farm." Of course, it sounded a little bit interesting, being about spices, so I went ahead and bought a ticket, even though I knew I shouldn't have.
At the beginning of our "garden tour," Azhar stopped at an English description of a fern tree, read it silently, then translated it for me in his heavily accented English. I just looked at him incredulously and wanted to tell him that, actually, I could read and understand English. But I didn't say anything.
"This tree is from the fern family," he said. Which is what it said on the placard.
"Hmmmm..." I answered. Suddenly I felt very, very tired.
We crossed a bridge that went over a little stream and Azar pointed down to the stream. "That water comes from up there," he said, then pointed up to a little waterfall. I was having flashbacks of Nam at the castle doorstep grabbing corn on the cobb and showing me that it needed to be peeled before being eaten. Streams come from waterfalls? Imagine!
We passed a few plants that had no placards and when asked, Azhar had no idea what kind of flora any of it was. Then we came upon a platform with a swing that had ropes reaching high into the treetops. "Look," said Azhar, "it swings from way up there. It's a fun swing! It's a tree swing!"
I had had enough. "Azhar, I don't want to be here. I told you I didn't want to do anything touristy and this is very touristy. I could do this on my own if I wanted to."
"I see," he said. So we got back on the bike and who did we see enjoying a huge plate of food at a little hawker stand on our way out? Lee. He waved to me and I waved longingly back as Azhar whisked me away to our next tourist destination: a pier with boats that rowed out to a fishing village. "Do you want to go to the fishing village?" he asked.
"Azhar, listen to me. I don't want to do anything touristy. I just want to see the island and eat local food. I don't want to do anything touristy."
I guess it took Azhar three times to hear things because he finally nodded and said, "Oh! OK, why didn't you say that back at the agency?"
"I want to give the customer what they want, so you should have just told me what you wanted."
Well, he did drive me around, and as long as he wasn't talking, he was an OK motorbike driver. We did stop in town and eat at a local Malay restaurant, which was good, but that required me to have a fifteen-minute conversation with him. Which wasn't good, and which I really don't even care to record here.