in Penang, i look constantly for water.
the development my uncle moved my grandmother into is built on a slow rise of road: at the very crest of it, you can just glimpse the sea from between the facades of two enormous houses. when i was here before, i walked the length of the neighbourhood to try and find the best spot to see it, but it was all blocked away by an endless curl of three-storey properties. you’d think it a mirage.
i locate the car we move in by looking for the waterline, waiting till we pass buildings to catch the light off the sea. in a formless way, i looked forward to when we’ll drive down Gurney Road, a promenade of sorts. that’s where the view is the nicest: the uninterrupted sight of the sea merging with the horizon, boats thudding along in the distance, the current idling in to meet long gray stretches of sand and piles of rock. I remember it best at night, when the avenue comes alive: vendors with their wares spread out over the ground on a blanket, peddling bubble guns and luminous toys that can be launched into the sky like spiraling beacons; people taking a stroll to enjoy the night breeze after dinner at the hawker centre nearby; friends and couples alike sitting close on the low wall to look out at the water. I have walked the length of it myself with my family, both just to do it and to get to somewhere else- I remember breathing in the strong salt tang; watching the eddying of the waves; peering at the rocks to find the inevitable rats and squealing as we did so.
but in the year that has passed since i’ve been back, fences have been built along the whole seafront. they’re welded wire mesh rectangles, not solid, but they still divide up your vision, obscuring the sea unless looked at from a certain angle. especially since plants have shot up quickly enough. when i ask, my mother says its for safety, but numerous pairs of fence gates are left unlocked and wide open. now even in the late afternoon the promenade is deserted.
maybe the search is reciprocal, given the way the air summons moisture from every surface here. after washing my hair dries even before it can mat to my back with sweat. i’m up almost all of my first night sneezing and trying to dry my nose. it drips so constantly i imagine that, when i lie flat, the fluid surging in my lungs must level out and flow wherever it is bidden. much like the pipes on our first night there. the water was turned off for construction purposes- but enough water idled in the pipes for us to wet our faces when we turned the taps.