I don't even know where to begin, I'm so wound up.
But let me just begin by saying that while I tiptoe around foreign countries, fully aware of and agreeing with our current global image, that in no way means I am not proud of my navy blue passport. I'm a Northern California liberal violently opposed to our current administration. However, when some foreigner shits on America, I go ballistic into one of those "If it wasn't for us, you frogs'd be speaking German!" tirades.
I know, I know.
It only furthers our belt buckly, cowboy hat, gun in the waistband image. Heck, folks. I'm proud to be 'Merican.
Moving on, this morning we hired a taxi to take us to the Penang Hill tram, where we'd ride some shitty little train to the top of a mountain, look around and come back again. We also planned to visit the 'snake temple' and upon the advice of our driver, hit the temple first.
It was actually great, Alex befriending a monkey on a chain named Jackie and me getting my photo taken with an iguana on my shoulder.
The phrase, "Sir! Sir, I'm done! You can take your iguana!" was heard through the valleys of Penang, apparently.
We then hopped in our cab and had a lovely drive over to the base of Penang Hill, and en route our awesome driver told us all about himself, what his life's like and what happened during the tsunami. Turns out, he's a Muslim who's grandfather came over from India. Both he and his folks were born in Penang. He's married with kids and lives in a huge, decrepit looking, anonymous apartment building which he actually pointed out to us.
Having spent this trip wondering who lives in these unkept, stone towers, I know knew.
It's our driver. And he looks like a well-dressed, Muslim Indian Stanley Tucci.
So he drops us off and we buy our tickets for the tram, waiting in a smelly holding cell before being ushered onto some steps where we were to board, once the goddamn tram arrived. At this point, I'm hot. I simply cannot stand humidity and it's main effect on me is that I find everything on earth annoying.
All of a sudden, as we're waiting on these steps, my mother turns to me with humorless eyes.
Um, okay drama queen.
I'm amazed I didn't audibly gasp.
Because there, standing beside a cute enough, 20-something, regular looking guy... was a woman in a full length, pitch black burqa. The first thing I saw was her huge eyes staring right at me, the ONLY part of her not covered.
Just standing there, standing out, probably hot as hell in a full length black burqa. Keep in mind, there were tons of Muslim women around in headscarves of varying modesty.
But a burqa. Black as night. A slit of eyes darting around. And me in an H&M top that was suddenly seeming highly slutty.
My first thought was I can't believe I'm in a place where someone's wearing a burqa. My second thought was that I wanted to kick her companion's ass and beat him with a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. And I am embarrassed to tell you, because it makes me feel like shitty American who needs to read a newspaper and gain some religious perspective, my third thought was that I was scared.
We were all shaken, although Dad and Alex got over it much faster than my mom and me. For the most part, the Spotswood women were pissed. Suddenly, the companion and his fanny pack tapped Dad on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, sir."
I death grip my father and pull him out of the way, as they passed. But it caught me off gueard, him calling my father "Sir." He was holding burqa's hand and guided her to a seat, probably so she wouldn't faint from the heat.
I really cannot impress upon you enough how fucking overwhelmed with emotion I was, for a million different reasons. And it was all compounded by the fact that this burqa, this symbol of something that to me, personifies the oppression of women, was the darkest black you can imagine. It made her eyes practically glow.
Not that I even dared to look when I wasn't positive they weren't looking at me. It's probably not a good idea for an ankle-exposed American to stare at some chick in a burqa.
I wondered, since he seemed about my age, if she was 14 or similar.
Their conversation appeared casual, and it looked like from beneath her layers, she was speaking. They actually held hands, which based upon my film and fiction knowledge is allowed, just unexpected, at least to yokle me.
Honestly, their interactions seemed normal couple-y stuff. I'd love for some relatively hot guy to take me on a tropical vacation and tenderly hold my hand and politely find me seats. Only, I'd appreciate it if we both got to wear fanny packs and sandals and sunglasses and vote.
Eventually, I got over it and reminded myself that the whole point of travel is not just to learn about other cultures, but to be faced with them. None the less, burqa was obviously discussed for the rest of the afternoon.
Then we headed down the "hill."
The trams were three times as crowded now, packed with headscarves and babies and body odor "masked" by cologne. The two men shoved up against to me played Muslim chants on a little radio as we slowly descended Penang Hill.
Which is when I got claustrophobic.
I'm talking flop sweat, shaking uncontrollably, can't breathe, pre-vomit tingle...the whole 9 yards. It was horrible and the juxtaposition of my praying aloud "Dear God in heaven, get me out of here" next to a Muslim chanting along to his radio was lost on me. It seemed like forever just to get to the bottom of this goddamn mountain and I was so overwhelmed with panic, I couldn't even appreciate the baby monkeys dad was pointing out.
As soon as that goddamn tram inched to a halt, I busted out of there and collapsed on a bench in the courtyard.
"I need 5 minutes." I heaved to Alex. "That thing freaked me out."
"Me too." He shrugged, and walked off to tell Ma and Pa to leave me alone.
5 minutes of fresh air brought me almost back to normal and I found mom waiting for the boys to take pictures as she sat on the side of a planter.
"I got SO claustrophobic."
"Oh god, I don't blame you. And that's never happened to you before. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I feel fine now. How weird."
We chatted away and moved on the hot subject of burqa again as dad and Alex approached. All of us were still marveling that we'd seen such an amazing, unexpected woman as dad tried to convince us he saw someone in a burqa at Rite Aid in Mill Valley.
"Dad, you're losing it." I said.
Just as it happened.
One of the million red and yellow Penang taxis pulled up in front of us, letting someone out and taking on a new fare. Which is when I noticed it.
And this time, I audibly gasped.
On the driver's side window was a bumper sticker.
"Osama Bin Laden."
I. Shit. You. Not.
Part of what's so interesting about today's experience is that for the most part on this trip, we're staying at fancy hotels, doing touristy things, sitting by the pool and mingling with other tourists over cocktails at the bar. We haven't exactly been staying with a Malaysian family, picking rice in the fields and attending cultural lectures on Malay history.
So suddenly, to be reminded of where you are and who you are by something with which most of us have such little experience... well shit. It kicks you in the stomach.
I'm trying to come up with some kind of Doogie Howser-esque way of wrapping this up, revealing a universal truth and life lesson in 2 sentences. But few of us are as talented as the writers of that brilliant and never to be forgotten show. So basically, I'll just say it's my last day in Penang and I saw a woman in a burqa ride a tram up a mountain and a taxi with an Osama Bin Laden bumper sticker proudly displayed.
Holy (literally) shit...