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June 7, 2011 / annakpf11


October 2006

Wood smoke and smog obscure the Malaysian sky. “The Haze,” as it’s called, comes from industrial pollution combined with the Indonesian slash and burn method of clearing land to build new factories. Local residents suffer respiratory ailments; we feel the sting in our eyes and throats.

Just before dawn, we wake to the amplified sound of a man’s voice floating over city rooftops, rising and falling in the haunting, sub-tonal chant that is the Muslim call to prayer. Five times each day, loudspeakers broadcast this musical prayer from every Mosque, admonishing the faithful to look to Mecca and give thanks to Allah. All work ceases for a few moments, as everyone expresses gratitude.

We have one day in Penang. Dave inspects factories, conducts business on the golf links and gets caught in a downpour.

I hire a cheerful Malay driver, “Joe,” to show me, and my camera, around.

Eggshell haze obscures the sun, but the day still radiates heat. Our first stop is a traditional Malaysian fishing village.

Fishing, it turns out, is Joe’s favorite pastime.

Our next stop is a Chinese mansion dating from the late 1800’s. No air-conditioning, but it’s still cooler inside the thick stucco walls than outside in the tropical glare.

I explain to Joe that what I really want to see are historic neighborhoods where people currently live, not museums where people used to live, so Joe drives me to the old town, a labyrinth of one-way streets lined with houses dating from colonial times. The narrow lanes leave no room for parked cars, and he suggests I roam on foot. “No worry,” he says with a reassuring smile, “I find you later.”

Left alone on a deserted corner in a warren of run-down lanes, I feel as if I’ve stepped out the car and back 100 years in time.

Simple row houses line both sides of the street, some restored and freshly painted, others in various stages of crumbling decay. All are inhabited, even the most decrepit.

A thin sheen of perspiration coats my skin. After wandering for a half hour I turn a corner and slide gratefully into Joe’s taxicab, idling at the curb.

On the drive back to the hotel, Joe and I attempt to converse in pidgin English. I ask if he believes in a specific religious faith, expecting him to say he’s among the 60% Muslim population. His answer surprises me. “No, I am alone,” he answers in his broken English, “I mean not follow Allah or Buddha; no God. My religion is my wallet full.”

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