Travel is all about being open to new experiences and finding adventures in unexpected places. But this is easier said than done, especially when you arrive in a new place all hot and dusty and tired, with your plans slightly off-kilter and your attitude completely askew.
And this was exactly the state we were in as we found ourselves wandering the streets of Georgetown, Penang. We’d just arrived in Malaysia that morning, after spending a pampered week in Bangkok, only to discover that our CouchSurfing host had ditched us. No matter, we quickly found other accommodations, despite the relentless tropical humidity that threatened to melt our brains. After seeing some of the more obvious nearby attractions in Georgetown – Chinese clan houses, mosques, Hindu temples – we took a purposeful “wrong” turn off the main road and strolled into the heart of Penang’s Chinatown district. We passed rows of cramped, no-frills shops, piled high with boxes and stacks of merch on tables, bastions of capitalism that practically screamed out “We got stuff! You want stuff?” No glossy marketing tactics in this neighborhood. This was definitely a no-nonsense part of town.
Halfway through a nondescript block, on a street of no particular distinction, a shirtless man wandered out of his narrow row house, alternately rubbing his eyes and his bare chest as though he’d just awoken from a nap. And in this ponderous heat, who could blame him for copping a mid-afternoon snooze? He looked about as surprised to see us as we were to see him, especially in such a revealing outfit. His eyes flew open, and he rushed into the street to greet us. Not knowing what might happen next, we cautiously stood our ground for his approach.
“Hello!” shouted the little man excitedly. “Where you from?”
“USA.” I replied, allowing the standard beat to pass to see what his response might be. I was prepared to follow up with a thumbs-up, big smile, and “Obama, yay!” (As a side note, it will be so nice to no longer have to do the raspberry/thumbs-down/Bush-yuck routine upon meeting new people in other countries.)
“Oh! USA! Very good! Why you here?” our new friend inquired, scratching his head. Apparently he didn’t encounter too many Americans in these blocks off the tourist circuit.
We proceeded to tell him about our travel plans in Southeast Asia, and he in turn shared a dirty joke about Thailand. It was sufficiently eye-roll-inducing that I’ll not repeat it here, although we did chuckle politely. Now on an enthusiastic roll with how he’d entertained us, he pointed towards what we later learned was Menara Komtar, Penang’s tallest building. He chirped a vaguely suspicious sales pitch about the 360° view of the island, and encouraged us to get there first thing in the morning for a breakfast snack. As a peculiar counterpoint to the entire conversation, the man, who said his name was William, continued rubbing his pancakey pectorals. He seemed to have an endless wellspring of information to impart to us, so it was a bit of a relief when it began to rain and we were afforded a graceful way to bow out of the conversation.
With his permission, we snapped a picture of him posing proudly like a Greek statue gone wrong, said our goodbyes, and promised to consider a trip to the top of Komtar.
We figured that was the end of our encounters with William.
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