"T'was on one bright March morning I bid New Orleans adieu
And I took the rode to Jackson town, me fortune to renew
I cursed all foreign money, no credit could I gain
Which filled me heart with longin' for the Lakes of Pontchartain
I stepped on board of a railroad car beneath the morning sun
And I rode the roads 'til evening and I laid me down again..."
(The lakes of Pontchartrain by Aoife O'Donovan)
I opened my eyes, bringing myself back from Aoifes voice to close them once more and feel the sun on my face, and it’s warmth penetrating through the glass to heat my arm. It was fast approaching golden hour, the humidity had reduced slightly to mark the awkward pre dusk evening coolness, where it was still hot and stuffy, but a different kind of hot. All around me I was blinded by the sharp glares and reflections of the setting sun pinging from wing mirrors, windows and bouncing off of car bonnets.
It was rush hour. And I was in the middle of Sungai Nibong's busiest roundabout interchange, queuing way back, sat imobile for the past five minutes.
My driver tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, the other arm resting on the doorframe, hands to mouth, eyes looking ahead through dark sunglasses, head cocked to one side trying to see if anything ahead was moving yet. Laying back into his seat he sighs that unmistakeable rush hour submission.
To my left, out of the window I looked out at the car trying to enter into the lane, getting beeped at out of frustration from the short tempered Sedan behind. The bikes soon congregated in any small gaps; gripping the handlebars, fidgeting in their seats as they sweltered in their leathers.
Through the melee of vehicles I can just see across to the other side of the road, where the restaurant owner begins to arrange his tables out on the grass, ready for his regular guests who will sit there all evening, gorging on delicious fried noodles, dumplings and broths, catching up with their neighbours over the din of passing traffic.
Me, I had been in this grab taxi for about 15 minutes, on a return trip from nearby Queensbay Mall. Coming back home for the night, back to my flat mates, back to the living area full of friends who have dropped by for cigarettes and a beer, back to one housemate returning from the office, dropping his bag and heading straight out the door for his evening swim on the 7th floor. Drifting with him is the smell of delicious Indian food; garlic, onions and coriander filling the air. Coming closer the heady scents of turmeric and cumin complete the dishes bubbling away, the backing soundtrack to the latest of my friend’s Spotify playlist blasting through the apartment.
Our door is always open, and it’s such a welcome sight, especially after a day out. I feel like I’m coming home. Not on a holiday, not to my rental, but, home. I’ve quickly fallen into the rhythms of this apartment and those in it, making something for myself halfway around the world from the home I left a few months earlier.
The cars honked, and the motorbikes reved to life over my headphones, the roofs of cars and buses soon bumped along in front, the wave of metal edging ever closer on their ways home. Passing the bus stand for Bukit Jambul, I glanced at the patch of wasteland I always noticed opposite, it was my marker. Road after road, intersection after symmetrical intersection I had come to quickly learn the route to and from most of my favourite places on the island. Unlike Sri Lanka, where tuks had no clue where they were going, I didn’t need to direct my driver, I’d been replaced by the satnav.
When waiting for the bus I would know which one was the quick bus, and which was the slow one, just from their numbers. From my apartment it would take nearly two hours to reach Chulia Street in Georgetown, yet I never cared. Walking to the bus stop, being able to get on one and know where I was going was new to me. I revelled in this freedom and ease I’d found with the Penang buses. Finally, a system that was in English and organised. I would happily wait for up to thirty minutes while my feet burned in the sun patch at the bus stop, where there was no air, and I sweated off the makeup I'd put on 15 minutes ago. I felt I was living here,this small daily activity quickly cultivating that sense of belonging.
I’d watch as other tourists got on, repeatedly checking their tickets, and whispering to their companions with unsure looks on their faces. They didn’t know where they were going, or what their stop looked like. How could I tell? Bar the odd older traveller, everyone was carrying large bags or suitcases. Straight from the plane, they had gotten the bus into town, newbies on this island, more than likely unaware of the cultural melting pot it is.
“Just turn left here, please, by the sign 1A”. I directed the driver, stopping outside my block. Closing the door I thanked him, getting my key card out of my bag, smiling at the security guard as I passed; It doesn’t take long for them to recognise a new face.
I joined the assortment of people in the lift, and made my way up to my apartment.
“Floor 12” chimed as I exited, bending down to peer through the hallway railings, and into my kitchen across the airwell. Often if we are expecting anyone we will hear the lift from the kitchen, and look out the windows to see if they are here. Tonight, my flatmate was busy preparing his usual feast. I smiled to myself, and headed on round.
The door was open, the music was on, and I jangled my way inside through the gate, dumping my bags on the side chest. My nose led me through to the kitchen, where Lemon Rice, Chickpea Curry and Sambar were being prepared. I put away my shopping and poured myself a drink.
"Ravi, Challa and his new surfer will be coming round later for dinner” he said as he checked the chickpeas, breathing in the aroma, ending with a satisfied jump in his step.
“Ok, I will go take my swim now” Prassanna breezed in to the small kitchen, grabbing his smoothie from the side.
“What time is Challa coming da”? He looked to Sishir as he headed for the door.
“Ahh later da, coming for dinner da” he shouted.
And with that he was off. Sishir left the food to simmer and I made my way to my room to freshen up and get changed before heading out onto the balcony to see the sun work her magic on the sky. The heavy under bellies of the clouds were illuminated from above, pockets of light blue, murky purples and delicate pink peered through the gaps. The wind was finally blowing; this balcony serving as the single best location on the whole of the island where the feeble excuse for wind could be felt. It was early evening, and with that came November's on time nightly deluge, and the hour’s worth of cooling breeze from the day's repressive humidity.
Indian music filled my ears as Sishir moved from the kitchen to the sofa, taking five from his cooking duties. In an hour this echoing, tiled room would be filled with people, now friends.
I turned back to the view, looking from the sky, to the buildings, to the traffic jam below, al the while sipping my drink, not wishing to be anywhere else. I was completely content with just being in my little patch of home that I’d created for myself here.