Penang was the reset we needed. Hot and sticky (my favorite!), teeming with other families who opted for worldschooling paths, a reprieve from what felt like a spate of unglamorous meh. In ‘normal’ life, the state of unglamorous meh – while perhaps not desired – can offer something of a soothing appeal; but in this life, where we seek to embody a different flavor of intention, it feels like a waste.
Cue the Penang reset. We hiked the incredibly steep Penang Hill, rode bikes to a gorgeous spit of land in the south of the island, visited the Batu Caves where we beheld the largest statue of the Hindu god Murugan as well as a sadhu lurching his way up hundreds of stairs in the midst of self-mortification rituals, and visited an island that rehabilitates orangutans. It was the palate cleanse we needed to start fresh in Vietnam for our last month here.
So this is a rather odd post because it is comprised of preface (the story of our arrival in Penang) and post-script (our journey back to Vietnam), and a few of my favorite pics from the journey itself. Another post is coming soon by Emmet who will fill in the middle.
The trip started rather ridiculously. While most people enjoy traveling in some form, I think for me the enjoyment is often rooted in surprise with a good dose of surreal hilarity. Surprise that comes with some challenge, but then bursts through the door, a mixture of awe, serendipity, and someone laughing in the distance.
We started from our house in Hoi An at 8:30 am, drove the hour to Da Nang airport, winding our way through roads adorned with the red lanterns and banners, yellow flower bushes, kumquat trees, and crowds of morning Tet (new year) festivities. Airport security, phenomenal lounge (go Da Nang!), easy flight, and we arrived in Kuala Lumpur four hours later. Now Chris and I had decided that we would get a car from KL to Penang, a quick so-we-thought four-hour drive. Much cheaper than the additional flight, and easier than the train.
We were wrong. Yet another episode of – “I thought my parents had all the answers, and wow, how wrong I was!”
How did we miss that the new year party was also in full swing in Malaysia? As it turned out, we were traveling on Lunar New Year’s Eve. We embarked on this journey along with thousands of other revellers making their way out of the city. “Ok, no problem,” I thought. We have iPads. We have snacks. Our kids are now habituated to travel hiccups. We can handle this.
We started on the trip. A friendly older Tamil man was our driver and I quickly settled into a brief conversation with him. We were on our way.
Then things went downhill quickly. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say our lovely driver clearly had some mysterious ailment which necessitated that I made sure through the duration of the ride that he did not either fall asleep or lose control of his body. Upbeat chatter engaging him in conversation punctuated by several texts between Chris and I negotiating who was going to jump into the front seat and grab the wheel when he lost consciousness.
I will not bore you with other parts of this ride, but needless to say it was not easy to find rest stops (and when you did, they were backlogged with hundreds of cars), we were stuck in too-many-to-count traffic jams, and our driver was shall we say, ‘heavy-footed’ with the brakes. For what turned out to be an EIGHT HOUR journey, I hyper-focused, attentive mama bear, magicking our driver to stay awake, engaging him in frequent conversation about Malaysia, systemic discrimination of Indians, the history and politics of this place, his retirement from government service, and modeling for his children of the importance of hard work.
We arrived safely. Our kids were rockstars. We made our way up to our very small, but gorgeously situated 27th floor apartment, with panoramic views of Penang. It was now 11:40 pm. I lumbered downstairs to the local 7-11 to get supplies. Chris cleverly MacGyvered up beds and separate areas for the kids in this tiny apartment. We began to settle in. All of a sudden, cracking sounds, then ground-shaking bangs, encircled our abode. What was happening????
And slowly it dawned on me. It’s midnight and it’s New Years Eve. We threw open the curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched fireworks shooting up from every neighborhood, explosions of color lighting up the city in every direction. It was utter magic.
Penang was pretty awesome. We met up with worldschoolers from around the world, participated in lunar new year festivities, Chris and I had an awesome date where we found a speakeasy bar hidden in a back alley, ate a fancy Nnonya meal, and wandered through the town late at night. We even tracked down the elusive paper coffee filters we spent a month searching for in Vietnam. Emmet is about to write an update with all of the activities we did in Penang, so I’ll leave it to him to offer you the photos and summaries of our adventures. For now, here a few of my favorite pics.
A Final Note
As many of you know, much of this trip is about growth – both purposefully cultivated and unpredictable. One of the many reasons we wanted to do this trip is to offer our kids an environment from which grow into themselves without the confines of a bricks-and-mortar school. While we have very much learned throughout this journey that we are not homeschoolers and that donning the hats of formal educators is not our favorite pastime, I very much appreciate what for me has become a purposeful loosening – allowing my kids to grow in ways that feel more natural for them outside of a regimented school environment. So I’ll leave you with this moment.
On the plane yesterday from Penang to Da Nang, Obie was in a row without us for the first time. I watched him engage a middle-aged Indian woman in conversation for nearly an hour. He has this incredible ability to spark conversation with anyone, to ask questions and to show up openly and without judgement. I have seen this again and again on this trip – across cultures, languages, and religions. I believe that is why he has decided on this trip how much he loves learning languages – because it enables him to connect with people. I had to take a picture of this one because this for me is what this trip is about – slowed-down moments out of my grasp where I see my kids not for what I want them to be, or what I think would be best for them, but where their own gravitational pull is powered fully by them.
Also, let's not forget this milestone...Asa lost his first tooth! What the tooth fairy must have had to go through to find him in Penang!