Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Emerald Isle

An evening in the sea
I opened my eyes after a fitful nap to see patterns of dappled sunlight playing on the sheer curtains of the room. The late afternoon stillness, broken only by birdsong, was at once strange and familiar. I had woken up on afternoons like this many years ago when I spent my summer vacations at my grandparents’ sea-side house in Bombay. The first thought on waking up then would be the beach – although I would have to wait until my aunts or cousins finished their naps and conceded to take me. After all these years, afternoon siestas are no longer a part of my life, and it takes something out of the ordinary for me to have a good long nap. Today it was the early start of the day at 5 am and the 7 hour travel thereafter to Tioman Island. And here I was, after over two decades, thinking of the beach once again the first thing on waking up from a siesta.

Tioman’s allure lies partly in the fact that it is utterly unpopulated save for the 6-7 villages that dot its coastline. The interior is pretty much a vast hilly rainforest capped by the highest peak, Gunung Kajang. I had taken a 1.5 hour ferry ride through the South China Sea from Tanjong Gemuk on peninsular Malaysia’s eastern coast to get here. The only other way was to fly in on one of the tiny propeller planes from Malaysia or Singapore1. The ‘villages’ along the coast are mere settlements around major beach resorts, each with its own jetty, for there are no roads connecting them.

With its single street running along the coast, lined by mango and jackfruit trees and sea food restaurants and a few official buildings (Kastams House, Balai Polis), Tekek is the largest of these villages and the closest semblance of a sea-side town on the island. It seemed to have a school too, for on our way to our resort from the Tekek jetty, the driver of the rickety ‘resort-bus’ picked up this school kid and dropped him at a courtyard with a mango tree. Apparently the afternoon resort-bus doubled up as his school bus.

The mountain stream meets the sea
Berjaya Beach Resort near Tekek is Tioman’s largest beach resort. With its sprawling grounds, little wooden chalets beneath shady trees, a couple of miles of beachfront, a beach-side bar, a poolside restaurant and facilities for snorkelling and water-sports, it ticks all the right check boxes. Within a couple of days, I got to know most of my fellow holiday-makers by sight. Besides the beach I saw them every day at the dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was the tall leggy Slovakian woman with a square face, her  surly bearded boy-friend, the fat Briton who looked older than his years, his wife, his daughter and the Philippino nanny (the nanny seemed to spend most of her time in the sea, she was certainly having her holiday), the two caramel complexioned kids with their black father and freckled white mother, the double-chinned balding Russian with a wife who looked half his age, the Indian family with their grand-mom who was most grateful when I pointed out the vegetarian dishes at the dinner buffet, the three middle-aged Australian women who looked like sisters and always swam in the sea in the early mornings, and the thin Frenchman who looked to be in his 40s and had come over on a holiday by himself.

Morning at the bay
Early mornings were the best times to curl up on a beach-chair with a book, as sunlight sneaked up the bay and shadows of the mountain receded. The sand still cool from the night, the beach would be pretty much deserted except for a couple of the Australian sisters out for their morning swim. Every now and then small silver fish would jump out of the waves like a spray of droplets glinting in the sunlight. As the sun rose higher, the sea would start showing its blues and turquoises. When I felt the warm touch of the sun over the coconut palms, I would head in for breakfast. As the morning wore off, the mid-day heat turned the sands blazing white and the sea a blinding blue. It was in this heat that I once spotted a group of Chinese tourists jumping in the sand in synchrony for a camera that was set on self-timer. I don’t know if they managed to get that picture of exuberant mid-air glee that they were so hell-bent on taking, but they certainly provided some entertainment.

Every now and then the swishing of the palms and the lapping of the sea would be broken by the roar of a motorbike ferrying supplies. All motorbikes in Tioman seemed to have improvised side-cars attached to them. I saw long trains of these three wheelers arrive at the jetty in time for the arrival of the passenger ferry, go down a separate ramp built specially for them and return laden with vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, bread and supplies of every other kind for the resort. It served as a reminder that Tioman was an island, cut-off from the mainland, and dependent on the ferries for supplies for every requirement.

The local people were small and skinny with Asian features and a rich coffee brown complexion gifted by the unrelenting sun. A Rahman, the boatman who took us out to see the coral reefs had a rather dessicated look on his dark wrinkled face from a life spent under the tropical sun and bloodshot eyes (perhaps from the drinks customary to a man of his profession). Employees at the resort were ruddier, but had the same slight build and Asian features, with the women often wearing the ‘hijab2.  They were used to interacting with people of different nationalities, but it was clear that spoken English was not one of their strengths. Some of the junior waitresses had a positively deer-in-the-headlights look when we ordered food off the menu rather than choosing the buffet. But for the most part the tourists’ needs were well taken care of through a combination of broken English, sign language and anticipation of the guests’ needs by the staff with years of experience dealing with tourists.

Kayaking to Renggis Island
Old Rahman, the boatman, had advised us, “You should put a few pieces of bread in a clear plastic bottle filled with water when you go snorkelling. That way the fish crowd round you for the bread, but can’t finish it off”. Renggis Island, a small piece of rock no bigger than a city block, lay a ten minute boat ride away from the beach surrounded by coral reefs and covered with dense brush-wood. As I dropped down into the water from the boat, I forgot in an instant the burning afternoon sun, and instead marvelled at the way its refracted light played on the forest of corals underneath. Life seemed to move in slow motion underwater, as my own movements slowed down, and noises of the air were drowned out by the gurgle of bubbles. Fish of incredible iridescent colours calmly moved in and out of the reefs in this whole new world just beneath the surface. Rainbow coloured parrot fish plucked dead bits of coral from the branches, tiny red clownfish hid in sea anemones’ tentacles, sea-urchins grouped together on the sand where the sea-bed was uncovered, and whole schools of yellow and black banded butterfly fish swam about in unison. I cannot imagine a world where light and colour play a more central role to the very existence of life; a coral reef probably represents one of the finest creations of nature based on these elements.    

A sea of azure
Not surprisingly, Tioman was selected as one of the world’s most beautiful islands by the TIME magazine in the 1970s. It looks stunning at mid-day when the sun blazes over a sea of azure, at dusk when the sea holds the fading grey light from the sky long after it is dark on the land, and on moonlit nights when the cloudbanks glow pearly white against a pitch black sky.  Its beaches are still home to nesting turtles3 and its virgin rainforests provide shelter to a multitude of creatures. It has resorts to cater to the international tourist but so far, seems to have avoided getting drowned by a deluge of tourists by being just remote enough. While there are talks of augmenting the tiny air-strip to accommodate larger jets, and more beach resorts being built by appropriating what were turtle nesting grounds, for now Tioman still has that ‘paradise-in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ feel.

The best times I spent on Tioman were undoubtedly the evenings in the sea. The sea-floor was shallow for a good distance from the coast and the water warm, clear and calm. A cold mountain stream ran into the sea near the resort, creating a delightful mix of warm and cold currents. Go chest-deep and I could turn back to see the resort dwarfed by the mountains behind. The mist-wreathed forest and the gathering thunderclouds on the mountain would be bathed in the soft evening light. I stood in the water for a long time one evening with the sun on my back, watching a pale moon rise over the forest. As the sun dipped lower, a rainbow reached down from the clouds to the mountain top. And the cry of a fishing eagle circling overhead floated faintly above the waves....

1The air strip at Ayer Batang has got to be one of the most picturesque - and difficult - in the world, hemmed in by the mountains on two sides and the sea on the third.
2. The scarf or veil that must cover the head, as ordained by Islamic customs