Saturday, March 1, 2014

'You Killed our Fish'

Life as a single bloke at Butterworth was tough. There we were, thousands of miles from home, no email, Skype or Facebook. The cost of an international telephone call was cost prohibitive - not that I ever remember seeing anywhere I could make a call from. The only news from home came by snail mail and, more often than not, it was one-way. Still, there we were, on a minimum two year posting so we just had to make the best of it.
 There were a few things that eased the burden - overseas allowances, reduced tax rates and an exchange rate of something like $3.70 Malaysian Ringgit for one Australian dollar. The cost of living was cheap and we had plenty to spend.

Accommodation was provided in the barracks where we shared four to a room. These had tiled floors, an overhead fan and wide doors that were never closed. I had not slept nude until my first night in Butterworth and I slept that way for the next 30 months with the top sheet back and the fan on.

In the barracks
Whereas in Australia we had to clean our barracks in Butterworth we had a house boy whom we paid M$5 a fortnight. We paid another fellow the same amount to do our laundry. Then there was 'Sew Sew', so called because she announced her arrival, regardless of our state of undress with 'sew sew'. For a small fee she would make the necessary repairs to our clothes.

Food hawker, Green Lane
It wasn't long after I arrived in September 1971 that I started sharing a house on Penang Island with Terry Mullins, a sparky. While I moved once I continued to share a house off Green Lane for the duration of my posting. I also kept the room on the base - we didn't have the option of giving that up. Early on I would spend some nights through the week on the base but they became less frequent - especially after I began sharing my room on the Island with the girl who became my first wife. The barracks was always handy however, especially after night shift or the regular meeting of the Buffalo Lodge.

The routine on the nights I stayed on the Island went something like this. Kick off the boots and socks, dump the work clothes on the floor, shower and change into the freshly washed and ironed clothes folded neatly on the bed. Dinner in the airmen's mess and head to the Rock. Return in the morning and breakfast in the mess. Return to the room, kick off the shoes and socks and leave the civvies in a heap on the floor. Change into the freshly washed and neatly folded work clothes left on the bed and put on the freshly polished work boots. Like I said, life was tough. And on the nights I slept on the base the bed would be made when I returned from work.

My first place off Green Lane
Penang introduced me to a range of cuisine I didn't know existed before I arrived - Malay, Chinese, Indian and dishes that had been influenced by all cultures. There was also the Western food I was used to in Australia. Restaurants, cafes, food stalls and makanan (food) carts, all vying for our custom.

Single airmen were industrious 
While I enjoyed all of these there are two places that stand out - the Aquarium and the Craven A restaurants. On weekends I would have usually have breakfast at home. The two restaurants allowed me to enjoy lunch and dinner for less than a dollar Australian.

If my memory is correct, the Aquarium was in Transfer Road, which ran roughly parallel to Penang Road, Georgetown's main street. It served Western cuisine and for M$2.40 we got a three course meal - soup, main and desert - plus a cup of coffee. This was popular with singlies - baggers in the main preferred The Eden.

The Craven A was located at the junction of Dato Keremat and Macalister Roads, overlooking the roundabout at the end of Penang Road (the picture shown in the link is far different to the Craven A I remember from 1971). Here the chef sat at his hot plate at the front of the restaurant which was right on top of the uncovered monsoon drain that was home to who  knows what. I am sure that any council food inspector from Australia would have gone into instant apoplexia at the site of the place but the temperature of the hot plate was probably sufficient to kill any germ known to medical science.

My first meal at the Craven A was an egg and onion chapati - also known as roti - with a mild curry sauce. It wasn't long however before I was introduced to the murtabah, which was mutton, egg and onion folded into chapati. Over time I  graduated to the hottest curry they served. One night I ordered take-away. The murtabah was wrapped in banana leaves which in turn was wrapped in plastic film, something akin to Glad Wrap. When I unwrapped the meal the plastic had melted. All this for M$1, so I still had Malaysian $0.30 left from my A$1 and this allowed me to buy three pieces of the most delicious pine apple I have ever tasted from one of the street stalls.

One morning at my second place
 The Aquarium, as might be expected from its name, had a wall of fish tanks near the entrance. It also had a fish pond built into the floor. And from time to time it provided a venue for wedding receptions.

At one of these - it may have been Daryl Heffernan's - I was getting well into the spirit of the evening. It was such a joyous occasion and being the kind hearted individual I am I felt it appropriate to let the inhabitants of the fish pond share in the celebrations. So, throughout the evening I shared the contents of my glass with them - those contents being replenished frequently.

The next day when I returned for lunch I was greeted with 'You killed our fish'. Still, I was a good customer and they continued to serve me. I didn't inquire about what happened to the fish, but I assume some of them may well have ended up on the menu.

In early 2009 I returned to Penang for a conference. At the first opportunity I headed for Penang Road. I walked around the side streets to where I thought the Aquarium was but I couldn't find it, so I assume it has since closed. The site of the Craven A was a vacant block. I did eventually find a halal Indian restaurant in Jalan Campbell where I was able to enjoy a murtbah and curry in air conditioned luxury, something that was not there in the 1970s. And the price - little more than M$1. And the pineapple - still something like M$ 0.30. Whatever happened to inflation?

Singly helping out with the chores
 Penang is world renowned for its food - the amalgamation of tastes from the different cultural influences that are evident in its streets and history. One day, I hope to return again with more time than I had in 2009.

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