Five years, that was how long I had waited to do make that one journey again. When I was still staying in Penang, when I had moved to Kuala Lumpur and made trips back to Penang, it was always on my mind. But there were errands to run, obligations to fulfil and friends to meet. Most trips back were rushed. There was hardly time to do it at a leisurely pace.
We went up to Penang the week before Christmas after a one-night stopover in Ipoh. I was resolute that we were going make it by hook or by crook this time. We kept one whole afternoon free for that and only slotted a dinner appointment for the evening. That, I estimated, should be sufficient for us to do what we had planned and explore a little more while we were there.
What I missed most about this place was the chilly atmosphere. Dad used to drive Mum and me there in his small car that had an oscillating fan inside. It was a cream coloured Simca. The registration plate was PH 656. Most times, we would just wind the window down to enjoy the breeze on the way there. On warmer days, he would turn the fan on. Cars did not come with air conditioners then.
The moment we passed the playing field with the granite wall, just before Moon Gate, no matter how hot the weather was, the temperature would suddenly drop by a degree to two. That stretch of road up to the car park outside the garden was shaded by tall overhanging tree branches. The fresh and cool air was as refreshing to the skin as it was to the lungs when inhaled.
That was back in the 1970s. In the early-80s, that coolness, although somewhat diminished, was still there. The cicadas were still incessant with their monotonous piercing melodies. After my spinal injury, I did not go back until in the late-90s when I became less ashamed of being seen in public. The tarred roads surrounding the garden made it easy for my wheelchair, as long as I did not venture off to the lawn. I went there a few more times since. The very last time was with Mum and Wuan in 2001 for the Penang International Floral Fest.
So much had already changed by then. The soothing coolness on cloudless afternoons, the sounds of the cicadas, the all-enveloping greenery, they were not like what they used to be anymore. In their place, an unpleasant humidity permeated, making the skin sticky and breathing laborious. The screeching of the cicadas were barely audible. The road had become brighter due to the thinner cover overhead. I thought that was already bad enough.
Nonetheless, I was not prepared for what I saw this trip. The trees – what happened to the trees? That stretch of road that was so familiar to me as a teenager has lost many of the trees that stood on both sides the road. Further in, Coronation Camp with the familiar triangular roofed huts was no longer there. The camp ground used to be hidden from the road by thick undergrowths. Now, I could peer right through all the way to the trees that marked the camp’s perimeter on the other side. I have so many good memories of that place as a Boy Scout with the 13th GTS and then 7th GTN Scout troops.
That was not all. The familiar row of staff quarters and coffee shop just outside the Penang Botanic Gardens entrance were gone too. In their place, construction of some kind was going on. Whatever was being built there, I hope the structure blends into the landscape. As it was, that area already looked obscenely naked without the trees that were chopped down to make way for the garden expansion project.
Penang Botanic Gardens under expansion – December 20, 2009.
On the background is the fence of the formal gardens.
Photo by Wuan.
(to be continued)