(Food) Courting Kafka in Penang

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A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the food court. We’d just arrived in George Town, Penang, Malaysia, and were venturing out of our hotel to seek some dinner. As we passed by two cars parked on the side of the road, we saw a small, elderly lady sat on the ground between them. Are you alright? we asked. No, she said, she’d fallen down and couldn’t get back up again. We helped her up. She was using an umbrella as a walking stick. Holding it in front of her, she gripped it with quiet ferocity – less to support her weight, it seemed, and more as a futile handhold to stop her from falling backwards, which she was in perpetual danger of doing. It was clear that she wouldn’t be going far. Can you walk? No. My leg. It doesn’t work. Where are you going? The coffee shop. She pointed to a small food court about a hundred meters away. My husband usually takes me, but he’s at work. I see.

It was still light, and there were other people about. Eventually, a woman from the car rental place opposite came to see what was going on – why an increasingly desperate looking white male was standing with both hands on the back of this little old Malay lady, whilst his wife waved at passing vehicles. The car rental lady got her car and drove our charge to the coffee shop. We went to have dinner. So: situation resolved?

No.

At the food court we ate Char Kway Teow, which is like a Malaysian version of Phad Thai. It was delicious. This is irrelevant to the story, but I just mention it in passing.

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On the way back to our hotel, we passed the same elderly lady standing in the road. Hello! We called. Hello! Found your feet again! Glad to see you moving about! I cannot move. Oh. My leg. It does not work. Oh. Ok.

So, once again, we resumed our positions. Each of us linked arms with her. Can you walk like this, if we support you? Maybe. She managed two steps. I cannot. Ok. How far away is your home? Down there. She pointed along the street.

By this point it was dark, and there wasn’t really anyone around. Cars and scooters passed us every now and then, but their drivers studiously ignored us.

You carry me. Carry you? Yes.

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I knelt down – she was quite small, the top of her head just coming up to my chest – and went as if to give her a piggy back. BK-C pointed out that quite apart from sheer indignity of this for the lady, she wasn’t in any position to climb onto my back. So I lifted her up in my arms instead. She was as heavy as a sack of lead, or perhaps I was as weak as someone who hadn’t been to the gym for five months. I am scared, she said to me. Me too.

I managed perhaps ten or fifteen metres like this before I had to put her down. We were outside the car rental place again, but it appeared to be closed. I deposited the lady next to a car, where she stood holding onto the rear windscreen wiper, me supporting her back with my arms. At this point, BK-C went to a local business that had its shutters down but from which a light could be seen. She managed to coax the reluctant owner out onto the street, where he joined us so that he could contribute nothing whatsoever to the incident, except wringing his hands and talking to the lady in Malay. (“She says she cannot move. It’s her leg.”). There was talk of flagging a car down, though the Malay business owner seemed very reluctant to do so. We were also apprehensive about the task as we spoke no Malay; we’d only just arrived in George Town from the tourist haven of Langkawi and at this point we hadn’t appreciated how widely English was spoken in Malaysia. Besides which, it was dark, we were in a strange town, and the cars were driving fast.

Trav17-5 We were joined by a young Malay man who had been working in the car rental office. He volunteered that he wasn’t able to help because he was working. Nevertheless, he stood there with us and discussed the situation. What was to be done? It was a pickle certainly. If only there were someone with a car.

The elderly lady was leaning further and further back, and holding her up was becoming an increasingly strenuous task. Moreover, my bladder was becoming increasingly full.

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The owner of the car that she was gripping onto arrived. There was a conversation in Malay. He was unable to help. I think that he had to wash his hair or something. He drove off, the old lady and me breathing in his car fumes as its back window slipped from her grasp.

Minutes ticked by. The lady didn’t get any lighter. I know this, because it was just me holding her up. Then I spotted that there were dozens of plastic chairs stacked outside our non-helper’s business. I suggested that perhaps we might retrieve one for the lady to sit down on. He went to get one. Upon returning, he placed the chair down on the ground about a metre away from my charge, and gestured that I should manoeuvre the lady into the chair. I gestured that he should bring the chair to the lady. A short period of competing gesticulation ensued. Mohammed and the mountain were mentioned. BK-C took the chair and placed it behind the lady. She sat down.

Eventually, a tall, wiry, old Indian man walked by carrying big bags of shopping. There was another conversation in Malay. He walked off. I was led to believe that he would be returning.

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Some time passed. Then I saw a cyclist approaching from down the street. It was the wiry Indian man. He dismounted and indicated that we could put the lady onto the back, where there was a flat ledge above the wheel for carrying bags. She expressed some reservations about this arrangement. Is there a car? No. I am scared. Yes, but this is the only way you’re going to get back. We’ve been here for over half an hour. We’ll hold you. We won’t let you fall. I might piss myself if I have to stand here any longer.

The wiry man and I lifted her onto the back, and walked the bike down the street, one on each side, one hand on the lady, one hand on the handlebars. Our two other helpers wished us luck and waved us a cheery goodbye.

After a few streets, we reached the lady’s house. Our cycling saviour shouted inside and a younger woman came out, whereupon she immediately began berating the elderly lady in Malay. We helped her off the bike, and walked her to the doorstep. Do you want to come in for a drink? she asked, as we bodily handed her over to the younger woman.  No. No thank you. I just want to go back to the hotel and urinate like there’s no tomorrow.

After that, we took a different route to and from the food court.

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I HAVE BEEN READING…

Now For Then: How To Face The Digital Future Without Fear, Ben Hammersley
My Ear At His Heart: Reading My Father, Hanif Kureishi

I HAVE ALSO CONSUMED…

The Economist, (recent issues)
The Paris Review, No. 209, Summer 2014
Neil Gaiman: Keynote Address 2012, Neil Gaiman, The University of the Arts
The Psychology of Your Future SelfDan Gilbert, Ted.com
Buddhist Economics: How To Stop Prioritizing Goods Over People and Consumption Over Creative Activity, Maria Popova, quoting the work of E.F. Schumocher, brainpickings.org
The Shape of Days, Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com
Impressions of Poverty, Richard Davies, AS I PLEASE, criticaldispatches.com
…and way too much of the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia (& LP Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei).

This post was written and uploaded in Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia.

NEXT TIME:

I get more in depth about the food we ate when we arrived at the food court.

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