Friday, December 3

Playing tourist in my own hometown

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Photo shows an art installation in Penang.

Photo shows an art installation in Penang.

MY wife and I took a quick trip to Penang early this week. Durian season there was at its peak. This is the main reason we go back to my hometown every year since I started driving again. Nothing can move us more than the thought of savouring the delicious sweetness encased within the thorny fruits.

For this year, we decided to stay in a hotel located within the inner city enclave of George Town. The city and Melaka were both jointly inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site with the distinction of being recognised as the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca for their rich histories and cultures spanning more than 500 years.

After having our fill of durians on the second day, we spent the remaining time on the island exploring the inner city. That was the reason we chose to stay around that area. It was a convenient staging ground for us to visit the various sites by foot, or in my case, in a wheelchair.

This is the first time in many years that we have gone on a walkabout in the open. Most of our weekends were spent in shopping malls which has become dreary with the artificial lighting, stale air and sights that were meant to induce us to part with our money more than anything else.

Playing tourists in my own hometown, we visited century-old temples, Chinese clan houses and buildings from the time when Penang was part of the British Straits Settlements along with Melaka and Singapore. Hunting down colourful wall murals and wrought iron sculptures depicting humorous stories and meaning of road names along the way made it even more interesting.

I spent my upper secondary years at the St Xavier’s Institution, which is within the inner city. Although I had often walked past many of these old buildings on the way to the bus terminal after school, I never knew how to appreciate their significance then.

I have almost forgotten how liberating it can be to go traipsing in the streets. To my surprise, I could actually move around on my own although it was difficult. I had to manoeuvre around broken pavements, lampposts, motorcycles and other things indiscriminately placed on walkways. There were occasions when I had to gingerly go on the street for the lack of suitable pedestrian paths.

My one major gripe is that all the buildings are not accessible. I understand these are old structures but putting up simple makeshift ramps can make a world of a difference to wheelchair users. For now, I can only enjoy the inside view of these place from the photographs my wife took.

We had to make a quick retreat back to the hotel when the afternoon sun became too uncomfortable to bear. There was no doubt we had a good time despite some of the inconveniences we faced. At the very least, it was a refreshing change from our weekly grocery jaunts in the confines of shopping malls.

On a personal level, this trip has made me realise one thing. Nowadays I do not just pack up and go any more. I do a lot of extensive reading on the Internet to make sure there is sufficient accessibility for me before I even think of booking a hotel room or buying a plane ticket.

There was a time when I would not think twice to jump at the opportunity to travel. I love the stimulation of the sights and sounds of places I have never been before, no matter whether they are near or thousands of miles away. One can learn a lot by just soaking up the different cultures and practices.

But now, I keep going back to the same familiar places, namely my wife’s and my hometowns. Familiarity does not breed contempt for me here even if they are laden with barriers, I have grown accustomed to them and learnt to adapt. In this sense, I have allowed these problems to shape the way I do things. It is bad in many ways for my work as a disability rights advocate as it is a clear sign that I have become complacent. I grieve for loss of excitement of spontaneity and my diminishing sense of adventure.

This hesitancy is born out of the bad experiences I have with hotels. I have stayed in rooms where the bathroom doors were so narrow my wheelchair could not get through or the layout was such that my movements were severely restricted. There have been instances when I could not and did not bathe for the entire duration of my stay.

Even the hotel we put up in during this time was selected after reading the reviews by guests in travel websites. To our pleasant surprise, the room had a bathroom I could use effortlessly. My wife noted that it was the best room we have ever stayed in. That I had to concur. I did not have to struggle to bathe or use the toilet. We were so happy to the extent that I wrote a long note of thanks to the hotel for making our trip so gratifying.

Our cravings for durians for this year have been satiated. I hope we will be more audacious the next time we are bitten by the travel bug again. We certainly need more excitement in our lives rather than to keep beating the well-trodden path.