My malay vacay, which is fun to say (hehe), kicked off with a little magic. Just as I was heading to bed there was an urgent knock on my door informing me that there was a nest of baby turtles hatching. I rushed next door to the Juara Turtle Project just in time to help transplant the hatchling hawksbills, and to watch them scramble towards the sea. There really is no cuter animal than a baby turtle, and as I walked back home shooting stars whizzed across the night sky. I couldn’t help but smile, little me on a little island floating in the South China Sea.
Early the next morning I began preparing kayaks for a four day journey around Tioman. We launched right as the sun rose, painting the ocean pink, eager to finally see the rest of the island. Despite teaching kids to kayak I really am not much of a kayaker myself, and I wasn’t sure how everything would go. Turns out, I loved seeing the world from the water. Kayaking gave us time to linger over every fascinating rock formation along the coast, and to enjoy every shade of blue and green the ocean had to offer. A lot of our time while paddling was spent singing, for some reason mostly Queen and Bare Naked Ladies, although for the 4th of July we busted out our best rah rah USA ballads. We got really lucky with conditions, the ocean was so calm it was almost like paddling through jello, and there were nearly 20 meters of visibility so even from within the kayak I felt as if I was snorkeling. Tiny silver fish darted out of the water in giant schools, occasionally a ray or a turtle would pop up to say hello, eagles soared overhead, and sometimes when the wind hit just right the smell of wild jasmine from the jungle would blow across the water, hitting you in delicious waves.
Our stops were frequent, mainly in little tourist towns for pineapple milkshakes, although we did manage a few other excursions. We snorkeled around both Soyak and Ringis Islands, where I befriended a giant hawksbill turtle (like making eye contact with a dinosaur) and stalked some rainbow cuttlefish. We also did two hikes, one to a little waterfall for a dip and another to the saddle between the Dragon’s Horns, two massive granite spires on the south side of the island. I arrived at the top truly the sweatiest I’ve ever been, and was treated to spectacular views as the call to prayer wafted up from the technicolor mosque below.
At night we camped on uninhabited beaches, empty aside from the occasional band of aggressive macaques (monkeys really are the worst!), or a skittish mouse deer. After dinner we would lay on the softest sand drinking beer baked warm by the sun and counting the stars as they emerged one by one. Eventually we would cuddle up in the tent, each of us spooning a dry bag of food to protect it from the monkeys, while fireflies twinkled from the jungle and waves sang us to sleep. The last night we were lucky enough to sleep at a turtle nesting site, and woke up in the morning to find two fresh tracks leading to new nests made in the night. We were able to help JTP excavate the nest, pulling out what appeared to be hundreds of delicate ping pong balls, giving us the feeling that our trip had come full circle.
We tore ourselves away from the nest excavation and arrived back to Juara Beach just in time for a quick shower before the Hari Raya, or Eid, festivities started. This was my first chance to celebrate the end of Ramadan, and to celebrate it in a Muslim country meant that all 300 residents of Juara did it big. Morning was relatively quiet as everyone broke fast within their own families, but the rest of the day was filled with the sounds of firecrackers and motorbikes as groups of friends and families zipped up and down the main road on their way to pay a visit to every house. For me standing on the main corner felt like watching a little fashion show, I loved how entire families matched and color-coordinated their outfits. My favorite hands down was a shiny bright magenta ensemble worn by a family of five that looked like a much classier version of the silky pajamas favored by Hugh Hefner.
Each house we visited had more or less a similar set up, a main living room empty of furniture with a spread of food laid out on mats in the center. Usually there were several different iced juices (the rose water being my favorite), bite-sized woven boxes containing coconut sticky rice, traditional chicken randan or beef curry, and a tray filled with a variety of sugar cookies. At first it felt a bit awkward walking into a stranger’s home, even if we’d been welcomed, but eventually I kind of got the hang of it: saying hello and taking a seat on the ground, serving yourself and only eating with your right hand, leaving only after clasping hands with the owners of the house and touching your heart. Equally important, I figured out a few houses in that the little tea pots near the food didn’t actually hold tea, but rather water for hand washing, since clasping hands with sticky fingers had started to feel awkward. What I did not manage to figure out was portion control, and after visiting nine houses I was unbelievably full and had to call it a day.
I waddled back home and took the most glorious nap, waking up hours later, overheated and itching my bug bites. Tioman’s version of Hari Raya might be my new favorite holiday. While I understand that I’m an outsider removed from the cultural and religious connotations of the occasion, I couldn’t help but notice that it featured all the highlights from my favorite holidays back home: similar to Halloween, kids ran from house to house, eager to greet the host so they could receive an envelope of money; like Christmas, the radios incessantly played Hari Raya carols, and every house had a platter of homemade, carefully decorated sugar cookies; like 4th of July, the sound of fireworks were heard constantly; and like Thanksgiving, everyone massively overindulges. What more could you want?
Now that I’ve seen the entire coast of Tioman, I’m looking forward to seeing a bit more of mainland Malaysia. Penang and Melaka, here I come!