I happened to arrive in Georgetown at the right time. My first full day there was spent wandering the National Park with my new Pennsylvania friends Jolene and Liedeke, where we ended up spending a couple of hours reading under the shade of a palm tree on Monkey Beach after an hour or two of easy trekking through the park. We ended our day back in town eating roti banana (banana pancake) and kopi ais (ice coffee), creating a nightly ritual that would continue as long as we were in Penang. The Georgetown Heritage Festival, a celebration of culture, started the very next day. We spent two days wandering the crowded streets of Penang checking out the activities. We saw puppet shows, theatrical productions, and story-telling. All of this was in a different language, of course, and despite not understanding a word of it I enjoyed watching each culture showcase its traditional activities. The night ended with a very impressive show of strength, agility and balance. Atop a row of upright posts of various heights, two men dressed in a dragon costume leapt from post to post, precariously balanced on each one as well as each other. I held my breath for most of it, praying neither of them would miss a landing. Of course we went back to the restaurant from the night before to get our usual roti banana and kopi ais before going to bed. But oh! the horror! There was only one banana left!! “One banana!?” we cried, “We’ll go buy some!” The man shook his head sadly, “the banana stand is closed for the night, we can’t get any more.” We were devastated, but let him talk us into some sort of sweet, sugary roti and roti chocolate as well as the last roti banana. “We will have more bananas tomorrow.” We left with this promise, happy bellys despite the lack of bananas.
The next day was full of street dances, ethnic food, and even more performances. Penang certainly lived up to its reputation as being the “food capital” of Malaysia, I have never eaten more in a day than I did in Penang. I feel like I was always snacking on various foods from street hawkers. There were street dances and performances going on throughout the day, but things got exciting once night fell in Little India. The three of us found our new dorm mate, Sarah, near a snake show and joined forces. The snake show was cool, he had a massive python wrapped around his shoulders and was letting other people hold it. I wanted to hold the snake, but we were in the back of the crowd and he didn’t see us. Dejected, we moved on to some sort of weird combination of fighting and dancing going on farther along down the road.
We caught the end of that show and began walking back towards the main road when officials started yelling to make room for the fire dancers as they ushered people into a circle. We were crammed in the middle of a huge throng of people, and by lucky chance we happened to be in the front of the circle! Without even trying to, we had managed to find ourselves front and center for the fire show. “Move back! Make more room! More room!” they officials yelled, urging people to take a couple steps back to widen the circle. Not wanting to lose their viewing spot, people were hesitant to budge, and the circle hardly expanded. Sarah and I were in the front, rows of motorbikes behind us. This was good because no one could push in front of us and no one was behind us, but it also meant that we couldn’t step back any more than we already were. “Back, back” a man urged us as we shrugged and pointed helplessly at the cluster of bikes behind us. “What is the problem?” Upon seeing the bikes he muttered under his breath about stupid people and why would they park their bikes there anyway? as he picked some up and tried to force more room by moving them around.
The performance started, young men running into the circle, their bare chests and arms painted up in tribal looking designs and wielding batons of fire. They would fill their mouths with kerosene from a water bottle (which I thought had to be so bad for them…) before spitting it out on the flames, not only creating huge fireballs but showering each other in kerosene. More men would come into the circle, each with a new lit up instrument. About 3 minutes into the show someone came in with two batons, chains running down the ends of them with a huge glowering ball of fire at each end, swinging them exuberantly around as part of the show. Suddenly, one of the coals broke loose and a fireball went flying into the crowd. Screams broke the cheers as people jumped back, leaving a burning hole in their wake. The fire was quickly dampened but fear had been instilled, and as the circle instantly grew wider without any urging Sarah and I realized with horror that we couldn’t back up. And there was nothing in front of us to stop a fireball from flying into us. We cringed just a little bit each time they came near us, hoping we weren’t going to be the next victims. Flying fireballs certainly add an element of danger to the show I guess.
We survived the show burn free and followed the crowds, finding ourselves back at the snake show. It was over and most people had left, so I jumped at the chance and finally got to hold the snake! Win. We stopped in front of an information board on the street, deciding where to go next, when someone asked for my name. I turned, not quite realizing how loud his voice had been, and was shocked to find a microphone in my face. “Um…Kayla.” My voice reverberated around me for all of Georgetown to hear.
“And where are you from, Kayla?”
“America” I looked to the girls for support but they had backed well up against the wall and stood watching me, cameras up and letting me unwillingly take the spot light.
“And how do you like the food here? Would you recommend anything to try?”
Unfortunately with his accent I didn’t understand a word of what he said, so I stared for a second before looking to the girls. “the food!” Jolene offered. “Oh!” I said, “…It’s delicious!”
My interviewer looked at me a second, waiting for the rest of my answer. Correctly assuming that I had nothing else to say on the matter he asked me if I could name anything that I had eaten that day. My mind blanked, wiped free of everything as I tried to remember the name of…anything. I stole a glance back over to my “friends”, who were currently laughing as Liedeke had the camera rolling and Jolene was helping me out. Nasi kendar she whispered.
“Nasi rendar. And, uh, roti.…” I offered, blanking again “rotiiiiiii….(canai! I hear from the sidelines) roti canai!” (I would make a horrible celebrity)
“Ok,” he laughed, “and would you come back again next year for the festivities?”
“If I’m here yeah, it’s been a lot of fun”
“Ok thank you Kayla, enjoy the rest of your night.” With that closing comment he was gone as suddenly as he had arrived.
I now know why people say the dumbest things on Jay Walking with Jay Leno, I know why they can’t remember simple things like the presidents name or the capital of their own state. When you are accosted with a line of questions and caught off guard, camera and/or microphone flung into your face, you just…forget…everything. Like a deer in the headlights, you stand there stunned into stupidity. I’m onto you Jay.
On our way to a traditional Indian dance performance we passed by our new favorite roti provider. “Hello girls!” He called out to us in the street, waving happily with a huge smile, “We have bananas tonight!” Elated, we promised to return in less than an hour. After a great show we did in fact return, and ended the night with our usual, thus establishing ourselves as regulars in this picturesque town.