Castaway on Tioman
What started as simply jotting down notes of the places I have been has changed in Tioman. I felt more inspired writing about this place than any before, so it actually reads more like the chapter out of a novel. Let’s call it realistic travel fiction😉. If anyone is in contact with publishers who might be interested in material like this, you have my email!🙂
Want the full story? Click here to start with Question Authority, Question 3v3ryth1nG! – the post that started this little travel adventure.
“Take the bus at Boogey station to Jahor Baru. It’s my home town, just across the border. From there you get a ticket to Mersing. If you are lucky, you can get the last ferry to Tioman. When you are on the island, head straight to Juara Beach and stay there, you will enjoy it. If getting away is what you are looking for, Juara Beach is your best bet.” I soak up the words of the Malayan guy at my hostel reception like a sponge. “Man, I just realize, I haven’t done an island vacation in a long time. I should go to Tioman some time soon myself.” That’s it, he’s sold it.
I cannot wait until I get to the Cameron Highlands to chill out in a hammock there. I’m off to Malaysia. Tioman Island! I change around 450 $ in cash, because there are no ATMs on the island. That should suffice for a little bit over a week, unless I decide to learn diving, which might just happen. Let’s see how long I last away from everything. I really need time to sort my brain out, calm down. I’ll take as much time there as I need.
I start to apply mosquito repellant for the first time in Southeast Asia after I get bitten severely on the bus. This is not Singapore anymore! The roads are more shaky, the landscape more rough. The border crossing is surprisingly easy, however. If you are ok with the fact that your bus drives away as soon as you hop off. It wouldn’t be so unsettling if you knew another one was coming in fifteen minutes and that this was standard practice.
I miss the last ferry in Mersing. There’s sure to be some guy with a fishing boat to still go over, right? Yes, apparently. He wants around 80 Dollars. There are seven of us, so that would work out. One of us tries to talk to him, negotiate. Suddenly the boat man decides he does not want to go anymore. He’d rather stay here. So we are stuck in Mersing.
The only reason this town exists is really because the ferry port is here and it brings people to the islands. It’s ugly and uneventful. For lack of other excitement, Alison – the Canadian girl I met at the border – and I go to Chinese food after an Odyssey of finding a bed-bug free bed in Mersing. THE Lonely-Planet-recommended backpackers place caused us to revulse (people that stayed there later tell me they moved to sleep on the floor because the beds were so disgusting). We find different hotels, then meet up under the eyes of what must be Mersing’s entire Chinese community to have some veggies and sea cucumber. I use the wifi-opportunity to say my goodbyes to the civilized world before going to bed. It’s about three hours before I have to get up again and catch the ferry. It’s hot, it’s steamy and I am not looking forward to wake up in the middle of the night.
The ferry is surprisingly punctual – leaving at 4 o’ clock. Inside it’s cold due to the air condition and a couple of Japanese divers are sleeping on the leather benches. I pull my Science Fiction book, The Lifecycle of Software Objects and ponder over philosophical questions of mind development, my relationship to Caro and a vague decision whether I should try and learn how to surf on the island. I decide that a sexual relationship with a robot / digient is no more problematic than an emotional one, although highly more stigmatized by society, that freedom and freedom to make mistakes is an essential part of any relationship and that I want to stand on a surfboard on Tioman. Then I fall into silent slumber until heavy waves wake me up.
We’ve arrived. At the dock, “Bushman” is waiting to pick us up. He runs the place Allison is staying at, “Bushman’s.” That’s great, because it means I get over to the other side, Juara, as fast as possible and at a third of what a regular Taxi would charge me from Tekek. Bushman drops me off at Beach Shack… or Beach Hut… or Beach Shack Hut “They change name again, this Beach Shack,” Bushman assures me.
I walk into an open, low roof porch area through the dark and feel the breeze of the sea around my nose as I approach the deck.
My feet on the wooden planks, I realize the ocean is right there in front of me and I have arrived just in time to witness the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, as the bright disk slowly crosses the line of the horizon over the ocean and paints the sky in a wonderful array of oranges and purple. Two figures sit at the side of the porch, staring in amazement at this magical spectacle. One is an older, gray haired man with stubble covering his face. He is very thin, wrinkled and incredibly tanned. The only thing he wears is a pair of board shorts. On the sun chair next to him is a smaller woman with shoulder long, black, slightly curly hair and a facial expression that makers her look a little like a monkey. Her skin is brownish and her smile spreads across her entire face and beyond as she takes photographs of the picturesque scene. Bound by the view myself, I somehow manage to confirm this is the right place and they run it. I’ve met Tim and Izan and this is enough introduction for us. Together we continue to watch the day break and the sun move up the brightening sky, reflecting on the calm water of the South China Sea before a slight rain begins and washes away the stupor spell, slowly waking us from the dream that is this sunrise.
But the sun does not keep me up for long. I’ve hardly slept the night before. After I drop my heavy backpack (I travel with way too many things, did I mention?), I have just enough time to set up a tiny bookshelf and admire the view from my honeymoon chalet that looks down on the beach front. Then I fall into pleasant slumber on the giant bed that sits in the room like a fairytale with its thin blue layer of mosquito net cover. The sound of the ocean carries me over into the land of dreams, but careful: sharp rocks at the bottom!
I wake up from a pinch on my arm. What? Rocks? No. Mosquito? How did you get in here? Oh no. This is not a mosquito. I see a little black something scrawling over my pillow, trying to hide in the dark. It looks like a tick. May I introduce? The Cimex Lectularius. Oh, so this is what bed bugs look like, I think as I unsuccessfully try to squish the little bugger on the bed. It won’t budge, then it disappears. No way, that’s not cool, come back here, you took my blood! Don’t let the bed bugs bite, I was told. As I look around the edges of the mozzy net I become fully aware of the intensity of this encounter with my new six-legged friends. Hitchcock’s The Birds comes to my mind as I look up and see black creatures hovering over me, staring down only to wait for an unattentive moment to attack. Chose your battles! I get my clothes on, open the window to let in some light and indulge in a mass killing. My hands bear the bitterness of the murder as I leave the room to wash myself clean in the pacifying waters of the ocean.
I have the Shack nearly to myself. There is an Australian couple here that helps out. There’s also a Scandinavian couple, but they never come out of their chalet. It’s pretty much all mine, except for the boys, Tim’s nephew and a friend of his: Azeen and Jay. Paradise is mine!
But when has man ever been happy in paradise? Feelings of relaxation and a strange tenseness go back and forth in me, just as the hammock rocks me from side to side at the beach front. I worry about overspending my budget, which I have done indeed so far, then frolick at the beauty of the islands with its palm trees. I worry about what to do with my life, then stare at the waves and try to find the patterns in their movement. Most of all my mind is bothered by the fact that I am on this island by myself. Isn’t it paradoxical? I venture out to be by myself or dive into the adventures of live and then long for the vicinity of a girl. A girl back there, that is, back there where home was, only weeks ago. Already I am considering skipping Central America and taking her to South America in July. STOP. What nonsense. There will be no computer, no cellphone, no contact over the next few days, maybe weeks. Maybe that will knock some sense into my head.
I go to bed at nine. I have moved to a different chalet. It’s dark, I am tired and there is nothing else to do anyway. Wonderful. Nothing to do!
When I wake I hear the rooster cry to announce the crack of dawn. I stand by the window with the wind blowing from the sea until the sky starts to slowly illuminate. I move to the restaurant porch and watch yet another sunrise that sends it’s rays through an array of purple and orange clouds. “That must be the most beautiful sunrise I have seen this year. It’s spectacular,” he boasts as he passes me a cup of Earl Grey. It’s easy to believe him. The rooster cries again to finish off the scene. What a cliché!
I head down to the beach to practice some Aikido and get rid of the rising thoughts of “I wish I could have shared this sunrise with her”. I tear my skin on the sand, I sweat, I drip. It’s wonderful. The dip in the ocean stings on my skin, but I feel alive, SO alive. I’m exhausted and yet I have so much energy in my body. I get some clothes on in my room and throw a quick glance at my cell phone. Caro has written a supportive message. “It hurts me to know that we are living parallel lives right now. I miss you. But you are doing the right thing and I would do it just the same way. I hope you are enjoying YOUR life right now.”
And since I am indeed, I don’t feel compelled to answer right now, although I appreciate the support. Instead I take my fresh Guava juice and breakfast with Tim.
Tim is a weird character. He’s the generation of my parents, young during those wild hippie years. Except, while my parents never quite made it into the scene and shied off at the hash to begin with, Tim was an acid-dropping hippie all the way. Or so he says. The classic rock music, the look of his worn face and body and the slightly anachronistic habit of calling anybody “dude” make for a coherent picture, throwing in the surfer culture reflected in his board shorts as well. When he was young, Tim would work on a lobster trawler during off-season and spend the surfing season on the board. The low ceiling restaurant shelves carry pictures of surfers and trophies. What a life that must have been! Then again, there’s been times where he and his four-headed family survived on 100 Ringgit from muzzles they collected and sold in the market.
We talk about money and how people get too stuck on it and lose themselves over trying to get more and more. That was my problem, too. Not trying to get more money, but loosing myself in the task of finding myself. My lifestyle was too busy and too hectic to really get in tune with myself. “You’ve lost yourself. If you find yourself, your new journey begins.” He throws me a worn, yellowish brown book. “Kook,” it says on the cover. “This is written by a guy who’s had enough of it, you’ll like it.”
I skip through the pages and read a sentence at random:
“We need surf, or dance, or yoga, because it reconnects us with our animal bodies. For a little while we practice moving through the world with rhythm, with an intention of efficiency and power. Without it, we become just a bunch of walking heads.”
I think of my Aikido practice on the sunlit morning beach. Tim invites me to a trip into the jungle that afternoon. He and the guys will make some wood. Maybe in two days the waves will pick up for some surfing lessons. I’m on board!
Tim and I slowly move into a working relationship. Having proven myself useful on the woodmaking, he asks me for help on other small works. Michael and Megan have gone off to China to teach English there, so Tim can use a hand. Not that he doesn’t have enough personnel. There’s a guy who takes care of the property, rakes the beach and keeps the walkways clean. Tim isn’t exactly happy with his work morale, however. In fact, he doesn’t think too much of workers in Malaysia in general. Nobody seems to show any motivation to get things done or advance. That’s also the impression I got. Everybody is trying to work as little as they possibly can. Instead they sit around bored or watch TV. Anything, as long as you don’t have to work. This is also true for Azeen and Jay, Tim’s nephew and his friend. Granted, they’re only nineteen and with the prospect of army service coming up for them in two months, they try to get as much holiday out of their stay as possible, understandably. Still, Tim can use somebody with motivation. I get food and or accommodation in return, depending on the tasks.
Room is scarce, as more guests are arriving. With the recent weather changes that saw more rain and the prospect of having to move to a tent, I speak with Tim. He has a new, unfinished place with no electricity and only half the building has a roof. But it’s dry and it’s free if I help out. On top of that, it is also a little more remote, somewhat down the beach, so I get some quiet area for myself while the place is bursting with people.
then on, I spend half the day training my arms and other muscles doing work for him. A particularly good training session is the day that the cargo ship arrives. It only comes once a week and this time Tim has lots of stuff coming in that he ordered from the mainland. Everyone from the village gathers at the pier to unload the boat as fast as possible. Tim didn’t even ask if I can ride a motorbike a couple of days earlier (I’ve only rode one once before, when I was 16). I didn’t protest either, so today, after I’ve had a couple of days of practice bringing stuff back and forth, he hands me the keys to the old machine with the side car and sends me off to the pier to load the bike. We’re in a hurry, because the boat wants to leave.
As is usually the case with this old bike with wonky gears, the chain jumps off when I go too fast in the third gear. It happens at the most inopportune moment. Just when I am about to turn the corner, the bike chokes, I miss the corner, wheel the bike into the mud and jump over the handle to the front so I don’t hurt myself. Grant! A local woman with a head scarf on a scooters stops and helps me to pull the bike out of the calves deep mud. I’m not the first to miss this corner. Pushing the last bit back onto the street, I burn my leg on the exhaust. It makes me laugh at my own stupidity.
At the pier, unloading about 400 brick stones that somebody has brought in is one of the rare opportunities to get friendly with the local islanders. So far they haven’t been too social, hardly crack a smile when you greet them in the street. The woman on the road was the first friendly encounter outside of Beach Shack. In the chain from the boat to the pier where we all gather the dust of the bricks on our sweated bodies, we exchange encouraging smiles. Later on, they offer me a drink to cool down and regain energy while Tim rides off to unload the bike at home.
Nada is Tim’s favorite game in which you throw dice and count numbers until you either stop or you get Nada. Nothing counts. You suck. Tim’s an ass to play with, too. He hardly ever stops, always wins high numbers. He rubs the dice on every part of his body for good luck, then makes sarcastic remarks before, while and after you play. I love it. “Animal body,” I think. When he pinches me, it’s the first time I realize the strength in his arms. Surprising, as they look more like matches than arms.
Each night I go to bed, I wander off in my dreams to a place far away, where a girl lies waiting for me. Thoughts about her occupy most of my free time, whether I’m on land or in the water. I begin to lose track of time. I am starting to realize that living MY life might mean not living a life with Caro. After a few days I find out the WiFi password. I check my mail but decide there’s nothing important and I will keep pretending I haven’t been online. No new text messages, either. It feels good to just be unavailable for now, really good. It’s just much more fun to go out on a fishing boat and drag in dinner than sit at a machine writing emails.
Work is slowly getting more intense, I’m actually considering taking a day “off” on the weekend to think. One of the new guests is starting to occupy some of my thinking time as well. Aimée is a German girl. She has been here before. She fell in love with Tim’s pet monkeys, although “we think of them as friends, not pets,” as he insists. I don’t trust the monkeys, so I don’t really care what he calls them, but she’s in love, clearly, spending nearly her entire day with them. Aimée seems to be a nice girl and we get along. She gives me some tips for Malaysia, we flirt. She’s kind of cute, too. My thoughts wander off to Germany much less in this company and I catch myself feeling a bit guilty about that.
It’s not even been a week of true isolation. Isn’t that a bit early to start forgetting about her? But wait, isn’t this MY life? Why am I still caught in what I’m “supposed to” do instead of doing what I want to do? Everything seems to be dragging me away from that life that is mine. I just want to sit and read the book Tim gave me. I almost feel too social playing games two consecutive nights. Not to mention the work. It’s strange. Again, the questions hit me: what is MY life, really?
I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been here when I hit my motivational and emotinoal low. Painting logs in the mid day sun, I catch a scorching sunburn on my back and don’t realize until the end of the paint job. My quest to find soothing Aloe Vera remains unfulfilled as the entire island seems to be completely devoid of it short of a Danish family who gives me a thick layer straight onto my back. The night before hadn’t been much better.
With lots of people coming in and little space, Aimée moved to the unfinished shack as well, occupying the other, half-roofed room. As I somehow expected, I did not catch much sleep that night. Scared shitless from some noise, she cried for my help in the middle of the night. The gunfire was indeed somewhat disturbing. Images of Lord of the Flies come to the mind on this remote island.
So, rescue the girl. First I moved to her room, realized she didn’t have a mozzy net (or roof), then got her to move to my room. I spread the net over the make-shift-matresses, but that doesn’t leave too much space and so we lie snug together. I put my arm around her in an effort to get comfortable, but with her tossing and turning, listening for new noises, the night remains more or less sleepless. Hence it is surprising, but not too much of a shock when we get a visit from what we think is a monkey. It looks at me, draws back, then looks at me again. Strange noises on the wooden planks. Yes, I admit, this is somewhat scary, but the figure disappears.
Aimée is determined to spend the next night at the restaurant terrace, which I welcome as she is actually going on my nerves by now, a feeling that will increase over the next days. It might be unfair to her, but she has become a mirror for me. Only she is showing everything I want not in a woman and missing everything I have found in Caro. The following night I sleep sound until about 3 am, when again somebody jumps up to the open part of the roof and stares in. Yes, it’s somebody. We’ve been told by the neighbour, who himself looks a bit like a monkey, that there aren’t any monkeys on this part of the island. None as large as I described them on the entire island, actually. However, somebody tried to break into the neighbours house the night before. Time to move and move on. This is not the life I want!
But then the waves pick up a bit and so does my reading. Tim is busy and I venture out into the wild waters of the ocean with the boys on boogey boards. I’m not incredibly successful, but it is good to feel the power and force of the ocean. Animal body. The Kook has come to Mexico to learn surfing and he’s brought along his girl friend to give the relationship a real try. I haven’t, I’ve gone off by myself . . . I miss her smile. “What a wonderful woman I left there,” I think, indulging in memories of the imaginary photo book we created, for the safe keeping of moments together that we want to remember. Right now, I’m writing only in my own book.
Tired of waiting for a really good surf, the boys and I get Izan to show us some basics of surfing on a day when Tim is on the mainland. The waves are probably no higher than two feet, but it’s fun nonetheless. For two hours we paddle back and fro, smashing ourselves into the waves, attempting to catch and ride the flow of energy that runs through the water. The long boards are much easier to float on than the bogeys, although I have some issues with balance. Once the wave picks up the board, gives it the speed and raises you above the water level, however, there is no more wobbling! It’s all fun from there and the waves give us a smooth ride to the sandy beach. Right on, dudes!
I’m starting to grow weary of the place. I feel ready to move on, in many different ways. The work is busying me a lot and I haven’t had time to do any thinking recently, except immediately related to what I am doing. The project Tim does is somewhat disturbing to me and so is the thought that I am supporting it. He is building new chalets down the beach in an area where right now, there is a swampy biotope with a river running into the ocean slowly. It’s filled with water plants, monitor lizards, dragonflies, butterflies, there is a weaver bird’s nest and the other day we found a python the locals had slashed. It pains me to see how this environment is going to disappear. Tim says the government has agreed to dig out the riverbed deeper, so the biotope might be able to come back and reclaim the landfill, but I remain doubtful.
It reminds me of the surf book I’m reading. The protagonist feels bad about the quickly built tourist resorts where land was only developed in order to attract tourists. Of course, he is part of it all, “asking for a campground, a restaurant or two and an airport to fly in.” Really, traveling like this does not seem sustainable and it is bugging me that I am not only part of it on the tourist side at this point, but also on the development side. Tim is destroying the natural land patterns while at the same time buying red light bulbs so as not to disturb the turtles from finding their nesting grounds. It’s paradox.
I take an afternoon off to do a little hike with Viveka, a Dutch girl staying at the Shack. We walk up through the jungle and an array of spiders, insects, lizards and all other kinds of creatures until we arrive at the waterfall we aimed for. It is a beautiful setting and we have some very good conversations on traveling and life. She helps me to realize that I have come to not live my life, but spend my entire time working for Tim. When we return home much later than expected and later than Tim had hoped I would come back so we could do some work, I decide it’s time for a break. I will work tomorrow, then stay as a guest for a bit, I tell him.
Tim is not too pleased about it. I’ve told him before that I am restless and I think he knows what is coming. But he doesn’t say a single word, does not complain, although I can tell he would like me to work. What a beautiful relation. It’s that easy. I dictate the terms again, but I’m not going to use that. I need time to think.
The next two days are actually amazing. With work off my mind, I manage to relax again and the first time after a long while, I escape the train of thought that whistles “I miss her”. Instead, I have some clear thoughts about my relationship with Caro. I’d been hoping, deeply hoping, that she would still like the person I would change into through the travels.
When I go out for a long morning swim into the ocean, it comes like a revelation to me: I don’t even want to develop into somebody else without her being by my side. I don’t! There is no point in us leading parallel lives. Not at all. Wouldn’t it be much better if instead, we traveled together, changed together, lived together, not in one but many places? I don’t want us to drift apart and if we are serious about this relationship, what is the use in deferring it? If we are not serious about it, then what is the point of keeping this alive at all – and if I’m not serious about it, why exactly am I planning my life with her in my head right now?
I’ve made up my mind. I will call her and ask her to join me. Not now, I need a bit more time for myself. I’m not quite ready for the company yet. I am playing with the idea of giving myself four more weeks of single adventure. Doing it right now? Something in my mind screams – NO, not yet. What about all the limitless fun? Find out who you are, go enjoy your freedom, do some wild experiments, get with some women! I don’t know what to make of that yet.
What I do know is that feel a growing sense of: “I want to share my life with that woman” while other things become less important. What if she is my key to finding who I am? What if I am hers? Or maybe we are not the others’ key to anything. Maybe we find each other this way, maybe we find we are not actually made to spend our lives together. But we can still help each other on our searches until our paths separate and maybe one day join again.
I step out of the water and walk along the shore, one little step after the other, searching shells for a necklace I want to make. The waves touching my feet wash back and forth the thoughts of her and me living our lives together. Tomorrow afternoon I will take the ferry back to the mainland, towards a place where I can place the adornment around her neck. It’s time to move on.