I used to hate Mondays. I would dread waking up at the crack of dawn on Monday mornings, dragging myself to the gym, and stare down the barrel of another grueling week at work. But since moving to Penang, Malaysia, I look forward to my new Monday morning ritual. I wake up as the sun is rising, jump on my bike, and set off for a ride.
But today was not a typical day of biking the hills behind my apartment building. As I set off I encountered three elderly men sitting along the roadside. They greeted me with big, warm smiles (minus some teeth) and said good morning. I noticed they had a strange looking cage attached to a long expandable pole. I asked them what it was; one of the men said, "We are taking our birds to visit with other birds so that they can sing and be happy."
It occurred to me that on my Monday mornings back home I wouldn't even have noticed these three gentlemen or taken the time to ask about their contraptions. But, in Penang I have the time…
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Wei, 64, has lived in Penang his whole life. It turns out he lives just a few streets away from my building. He explained that himself and his two friends met a few days a week to let their birds visit other birds. They've been doing this for over 30 years. While the birds are visiting friends the men get to catch up on the day's gossip, usually sports and politics, he revealed with a wink.
My wife and I live quite well here in Penang for under $2,500 a month. Because there isn't the incredible pressure on us to work just to stay afloat, I now have the opportunity and the time and get to know my neighbors and enjoy the treasures that can be found here on the island.
Back in my old life, when I was frustrated at work, I would walk across the street from my office to the nearby zoo where the playful monkeys could always help me raise a smile. Now I get to see monkeys almost daily on my hikes or bike rides…and they still make me laugh. In the evenings, I usually sit in my office and look out the windows to enjoy what we refer to as 'Monkey TV'. There is a troop of long-tailed macaques that live in the hills behind our building and we can watch them swinging through the trees or running along the phone lines displaying their acrobatic prowess.
Further up the hill, there is a tribe of friendly dusky leaf monkeys. While the macaques take the prize for being the cheekiest monkeys, the timid dusky leaf monkeys take the crown for cutest with their hallmark big saucer eyes rimmed in white that always seemed surprised to see you.
But on a recent hike I was left just as surprised as one of these timid creatures. I was making my way along the trail when something caught my eye. When I had a second to focus, I realized I was inches away from a dusky leaf monkey. In our mutual surprise we jumped back and screamed. I won't repeat what I said and I couldn't make out what the monkey screamed but it was probably something to the order of, 'Why did you sneak up on me? You nearly scared the stuffing out of me'.
The old me in my old life could never have imagined the encounters I've had since moving to Penang. Moving here was one of the best things we've ever done. Our lives are filled with travel, new friends, excellent and affordable healthcare, fantastic food, and warm tropical weather…and lots of monkeys!
Commentary by Mark Raccuia, who lives in Malaysia and has traveled to 38 countries.
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