Changing of the Guard

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Hillers boys in Penang

On a hot night in Malaysia, Baltimore native Ann Hillers finds her sons are ready to be on their own. 

One July night in sweaty, humid Penang, an island off the coast of Malaysia, a seismic event occurs. Two actually. We’re dining on Kimberly Street at an open-air market surrounded by bowls of laksa noodles, a plate of grilled sparrows, and an omelet of oysters and egg. My eldest son Bo decides he wants “meat on a stick,” a throwback to our Thailand travel where every corner had a brazier of bamboo skewers threaded with grilled meat.

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He doesn’t ask if someone will come with him, nor where he should look for it. He gets up from the table, a messy, chaotic thing with the five of us on squatty blue plastic stools under fluorescent lights surrounded by locals eating with their hands, gnawing on chicken bones, slurping soup with chopsticks and a white melamine spoon.

Malaysian table


Bo heads out to the street vendors lining the road, manning their grills and stainless steel carts, to find what he wants. He returns with something on a skewer and a plastic tray of speared sausages and fried shapes with four different sauces, the ends of the sticks color-coded by price. “Guess what this is?” he asks, holding up his triumphant stick of meat cut into a triangle and about the size of a Triscuit. “Bologna?” I ask. “Close. It’s chicken ham.” He finishes off the stick, and we move on to his mystery tray. The sauces are crazy spicy.

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Mason, my little one, has his head on the table, nearly asleep. He wants nothing more to eat; he just wants to go home.

A woman uses an old rag to wipe the rice off our table and gives us a piece of adding machine paper with a handwritten total which we pay and leave. We walk toward our hotel through little India with its blaring Bollywood tracks, shopfronts filled with gold necklaces, embroidered wedding gowns, and sweet mango candies. When we get close to our inn — a converted Chinese shopfront down a narrow lane — we see an open spa. Sam and I have been talking about getting a cheap foot massage; the pile of sandals outside the front door means a lot of people are inside even at nine at night. We tell the boys we’re going to go in. Do they want to get one too? Mason says he’s going to bed so needs to say goodnight now. He makes his rounds to both of us on the sidewalk outside the Legacy Spa, hugging us, saying good night, another hug, I’ll see you in the morning.

Legacy Spa Penangy

“You know how to get home?” I ask all of them. And then the ground shifts again. My middle son, Redding, hands us the map, lays it across my palm, and says, “Keep this. You might need it. I don’t want you to get lost.”

And then my three boys, all nearly teens, but not yet, set off down Muntri Lane in the center of Penang, where they’ll pass the rustic chic Behind 50 coffee bar, the cool cocktail club called Mish Mash, and the well-heeled diners eating under palm trees and the hot Asian sky at Muntri Mews. Because sidewalks here have two-foot holes that drop to canals below — tricky by day, a lot harder to navigate in the dark — the boys walk in the street with the trishaw drivers and the scooters driven by kids turning onto Love Lane.

Sam and I take off our shoes outside and go inside the well-lit spa. A flock of black-and- white spa girls flies at us. Pedicure? Massage? Hot stones? Ear candling? The map is still in my hand; I can feel the axis of the earth move the way you might feel an errant hair on your face. My boys are gone. We stand staring in this bright salon unsure of what we need, or for how long.

For the month of August, we will publish on Fridays travel essays from our readers.  If you have an essay you would like published, please submit it to [email protected]

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  1. Ann – This is beautifully written – and such a fresh point of view during a season when so many of us are sending our kids off to college for the first time! Most of the kids I know mark their gradual independence with driver’s licenses and being entrusted to stay home alone over the weekend without throwing a party! Ann – these boys, or should I say Young Men, are truly citizens of the world! Great piece and great job raising your boys!

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