Island Walk

by Suyin Karlsen, guest writer

It wasn’t yet sunrise and already a flock of sparrows was engaged in raucous chatter outside. Their living room was a Flame of the Forest tree ablaze with orangey red crab-claw flowers. One single tree rivaling a noisy fish market. Yet, guests at the Golden Sands Hotel in Penang, an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia slept on, as if under a spell. Even when they were awake and walking about, tourists appeared as if under a spell. There was just so much to absorb; first, the tropical heat, then there was the humidity. If they came from afar, there was the jet lag. The island is foreign but friendly, noisy but a bargain – exchange rate, that is – which all adds up to being exotic when you throw in impressive beach hotels with first rate service.

From our second-floor hotel room, I can see the ocean between fronds of thick green palm trees.  I step gingerly onto the balcony, as it is still dark, unintentionally scaring the birds away. The metal railing is slightly damp, and I am grateful for the lush hotel bathrobe pulled snug across my chest. The air is crisp with morning dew from an earlier shower. Day is breaking, gently nudging the dark away. The baby blue ocean, calm and inviting, waits nonchalantly for the onslaught of guests who will soon transform the sea into a watery playground for para-sailors and bathers. But for now, peace reigns.

The quiet is occasionally broken by the cawing of a sea-faring bird. I can hear the waves lap up against the shore, foaming then disappearing, transforming sand into a smooth wet carpet. Its rhythmic splashing is a lullaby and tranquilizer for the jet-lagged, the weary, the worn-out bodies that need anesthetizing into oblivion.  We have flown twenty-three hours from the United States to be here.

I’m looking forward to our early morning walk, the way a child waits to be picked up from school by a favorite grandparent who’s visiting. I can’t wait to sink my feet into the wet brown sand and feel its grainy massage against my bare skin. I’ve lived here half my life, and still fall under a spell whenever I return home; caught in a time warp when I become the island girl who went looking for mermaids behind rocks with her father, and believed hungry ghosts needed to be fed.  Whenever we saw bananas, rice and other foodstuffs stacked on small altars against the bottom of trees, we left them alone. Islanders have great respect for hungry ghosts and deities.

The sound of a door gliding open silently signals that Dad in the room next door is up. Wordlessly, we signal to each other and in a few minutes are heading quietly through the dimly lit hallway toward the elevator, while my Mom and my daughter sleep on. 

Exiting the elevator on the ground floor, the colonial-style open lounge is still not quite illuminated by morning light. I like the hush of being the first ones down with no one else around. An oversized gold-edged Chinese vase filled with Bird of Paradise blossoms, anthuriums and day lilies, located strategically outside the elevator is a harbinger of a bright, color-filled and cheerful day. An attractive batik-clad receptionist behind the counter greets us with a familiar morning salutation.  Selamat pagi, she says, greeting us with a melodious voice and flashing a big gracious smile.  Selamat pagi, we happily reply, knowing it is indeed going to be a good morning.

As we walk through the impeccably landscaped tropical gardens, uniformed men in green shirts and shorts are already at work, fishing leaves out of pools and sweeping the pavements clear of yesterday’s debris. They nod to us as we pass, respectfully stopping, and moving their brooms aside. Waterfalls cascade between fern foliage into deep aquamarine pools for adults and shallow ones for children. Closer to the ocean, a row of grey lounge chairs stacked high under the palm trees looks like a miniature Stonehenge. The stage is already set for another full day of vacation frolic.

We remove our slippers and put them in a plastic bag which we place near the foot-washing shower. Our morning walk begins to the left, passing Rasa Sayang Hotel, another Shangri-la seaside resort, romantically named, Feeling of Love. On the return, we get to watch the sun’s rays arc skywards like a golden lion arching and stretching after a good night’s rest.

Dad, an inveterate storyteller, is the only person I know who can feel chipper in the morning without coffee. Fortunately for me, good local coffee is not far away. In fact, in Penang, Michelin-grade food is never far away. We approach a nondescript coffee shack on the beach, tucked between Casuarina trees. Again, we are lured to sit and drink coffee instead of walking, because there’s no coffee like this: strong and sweet with condensed milk. “There is always tomorrow for walks,” we lie to each other, knowing very well that the urge to sembang (sit and do nothing, an island pastime) is always better than doing anything else.

Dad knows I enjoy stories, so he spins them just for me, laughing at his own jokes and playfully scolding me for events that he says happened and I had forgotten. We tease each other for not getting old stories quite right, and we laugh some more.  The Casuarina tree we are sitting under, upon unstable plastic chairs placed on uneven ground, drops a few needles onto the rough grained table. Some land on our half-boiled eggs and toast which we absentmindedly pick out. 

The owner of the hawker stall comes around to wipe a table near us with a worn tablecloth that has never been washed. A rider on a horse is walking the animal in preparation for the day’s tourist rides. Already he looks bored or perhaps he is tired from partying all night. We stare at the horse for a moment.  It looks so incongruous on a beach, out of place because no one rides horses on the island, not even on this beach! The horse is walked by its keeper while the tourist simply sits on it.  Dad and I shake our heads at the craziness and laugh.  “Tourists!” he says. Macham macham! Meaning ‘it takes all kinds’.

That is also his cue to tell me one of his jokes.  He starts, “Did I ever tell you about the three money lenders and the three monkeys?

I am already laughing …

Dad passed eleven years ago but those morning getaways at the Golden Sands in Penang feel like they happened just eleven days ago. Often, when I walk the extraordinarily beautiful trail system here in Port Ludlow, I feel Dad walking with me.  This time, we are really walking!