Retired expats hate long weekends. Right when we felt like Penang Island was almost always our own personal space, Hari Raya arrived and the end of Ramadan brought thousands of visitors to our little resort town. While totally unnoticeable if we stay in our condo, walking around a town with limited sidewalks and bumper to bumper traffic in both directions proves challenging at times. Leaving to go anywhere by four-wheel vehicle is even worse. Unused to the throngs of young people flocking to all the beaches and crowding all the food stalls, we decided to spend the day in Georgetown since we had a potential meet-up scheduled for that evening anyway. Unfamiliar with the scope of traffic in resort areas, Diane and I never travelled on long weekends in either Calgary or San Francisco because her two-hour daily commute proved enough and I certainly didn’t want to sit in long stretches of traffic. During her nursing years, she picked up overtime shifts and I simply hung around the house. Disclaimer; the featured picture is not actually Malaysia but I used it to add emphasis: it us from somewhere in Southeast Asia
Becoming early retirees changed our attitude a bit and we figured there might be fewer people in Georgetown than Batu Ferringhi since there’s no beach to speak of in the UNESCO Heritage area. Experiencing our first crowded bus adventure quickly changed our attitude about leaving the condo for three days the next time a long weekend rolls around. Hopping on The 101 route sometime around the noon hour, the bus was full and barely had room for us to move, let alone be comfortable. While not as insane as buses in India, the pleasant and fast trips we’ve enjoyed came to an abrupt end as more people piled on until he finally stopped picking people up. Although the stench was not as bad as I remember my New York City subway commutes, the bus still whipped across the turns and we became sandwiched in for almost 40 minutes. Wondering where they were going and why most of the town was leaving, we passed Tesco and not one soul moved nor did anyone ring the bell at the major mall shopping areas or anywhere else for the next fifteen minutes as the bus passed all the places we expected people to exit. Finally half the bus emptied out somewhere between Komtar and the end of the line so we hopped off at the next stop.
Having successfully completed our banking issues, Diane and I arrived in Penang a few days ago and set out in search of an apartment complex. Ironically, our first day of hunting literally followed the script of any HHI episode almost to the letter. Referred to a property agent rumored to be the best in the island in terms of integrity, honesty and understanding the needs of new arrivals, we met Catherine Outside the hotel where she picked us up right on time. Having read dozens of posts telling us how we should schedule as many meetings as possible with multiple agents because they’re all scammers and not even licensed in any way, our skepticism quickly disappeared. Within the first half hour we could tell our agent was just as professional as the realtor in Walnut Creek that helped us sell our house.
Before I get to that, however, I need to mention a word about our experience with Copthorne Orchid, an old dilapidated outdated and pathetic excuse for a hotel disguising itself with the Millennium Hotels’ name. Having selected it for a 12 day stay based on strangely inaccurate TripAdvisor comments and a website that’s a total lie, we arrived to a morgue-like eerily quiet lobby where five employees stood there and didn’t say one word. Finally deciding to check us in, the staff spoke very poor English which is highly unusual for Malaysia, especially in the hospitality industry. Taking the rickety elevator that barely fit our luggage to the 17th floor, we exited to a dirty smelling and dank hallway with no decor and old carpet. Even worse, the room looked like it hadn’t been touched since 1975, with a horrible bed, one small desk, worn our carpet, leaky bathtubs and a crappy shower. Attempting the wi-fi was an exercise in futility and we knew the temporary living quarters would not work for us at all.
Winding down the last week of our free “rent-back” period, I found myself reflecting on the 550+ days spent in limbo as an unemployed house husband. Recapping, an untimely layoff about an eternity ago (actually 11/1/2013), forced Diane and I into a decision on whether we should simply retire earlier than planned or keep trudging through jobs and commutes we both hated. Having already researched the MM2H Visarequirements for residency we bit the bullet and began a long 17 month period where Diane continued to work and I basically waited until April 15th, 2015. Using the time wisely, I got much healthier and invested her paychecks wisely, albeit a bit more conservatively.
Possibly the hardest part of the last 18 months, not having an upcoming vacation to look forward to grated on me like chalk on a blackboard. Having always used our time off on “Expat Destination Research Vacations” to places like Ecuador,Thailand and Borneo, I jumped at the chance to join Diane when an opportunity arose to attend a nursing conference in scenic Clearwater Beach, Florida. Knowing we’d probably not be using American based airlines very often once we become residents of Southeast Asia, we cashed in the last of the Delta Airlines frequent flier miles and headed to the lesser known side of Florida. Surprisingly clean, quiet and beautiful on weekday mornings, we visited in early spring before the torrid heat, humidity and thunder showers arrived making for a perfect little mini getaway. Naturally, I laid on the beach while Diane suffered inside all day but we did take an extra weekend day to enjoy some quality time together. Staying at the only large property in town, I’m sharing one last domestic travel post about our hotel experience at The Hyatt Clearwater Beach Resort.
After watching enough episodes of House Hunters International, Diane and I began to wonder if we should give equal consideration to a Caribbean Island in our quest for an early retirement destination. As two very poor swimmers, we love the beach but water sports are usually limited to shallow water snorkeling, pools and an occasional kayak trip if the water is calm enough. Thinking we’d be bored sipping drinks with friends and reading books every day, island claustrophobia seemed likely before too long. Not wanting to spend too much time in New York City on one of our rare visits to see my family, we looked for an excuse to sneak in an Expat Destination Research Vacation anyway.
Unfortunately, September is the peak of hurricane season and Caribbean Islands are usually best avoided unless you enjoy standing out in the gale force winds like a CNN weather reporter. Lo and behold, the solution lies in the islands known as The Netherlands Antilles and Arubais a favorite with folks from the Eastern United States. Lying closer to South America than all the other popular destinations, the islands are out of the hurricane belt and there have only been a few isolated cases of destructive storms ever recorded. Thinking we solved the problem of how to extend the vacation and simultaneously preview an island as a possible retirement home, we said goodbye to The Big Apple and headed down for a bit of Dutch Caribbean hospitality.
The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah province, Malaysian Borneo
Needing some R&R after trekking through the jungle, we needed a little pampering and a couple of good night’s sleep before continuing to Singapore. Normally we’re prudent travelers but early retirement still seemed distant since I had no vision of being laid off, so we investigated a more luxurious option and discovered even the world’s best hotel chains have an undiscovered hidden gem. Along with the beauty ofThe Rasa Ria Resort Resort,one last adventure with orangutans on the resort’s private reserve solidified the entire experience.