After thousands of miles and thirty straight days of rain, I had finally reached the sun-glinted waters of the South China Sea. In electric, unapologetic blues I thought of nothing but forgetting myself in those tropical waters, as yet untouched by my eager toes. With plans to relax and write on the beach for a few days before heading north towards Thailand, I watched with simple delight as the ferry approached the dark, verdant mountains stretching out lazily from the sea.
As we disembarked, I decided arbitrarily to turn right from the jetty onto the small sidewalk that passed for Ayer Bitang’s only road. Wide enough only for a single motorbike with a sidecar to pass, the small children driving them yell “beep beep! beep beep!” as they come up behind you. Smiling at the kids, barely ten years old with their infant siblings perched happily on their laps as they giggled and drove past, I knew I was going to like it here. As I continued south down the narrow sidewalk the wretched stench of garbage overwhelmed my senses in the stagnant heat. Though I had read about the lack of any orderly waste disposal system, I was flooded with shock, curiosity, and nausea as I passed the burning pile of rubbish, which was conquered and conquered again by ten different monkeys in their own subsequent coup d’états. Oblivious to the rancid smoke wafting through the trees, they stared in territorial possession of their kingdom of rubbish, tightly clenching their half-rotted watermelons like priceless gems. I walked cautiously past and tentatively snapped a few photos, knowing just how aggressive they could be.
After exhausting every guest house on the southern side of the jetty, I turned around and headed back past where I began. The island was packed on this Saturday afternoon, as it was a Malaysian family holiday weekend, and I was relieved to find a chalet for twenty five ringgit just on the other side of the jetty.
Growing slowly accustomed to pressing my way through the tropical humidity with all of my gear, I threw my pack down on the bed unfazed and headed back towards the sandy beach I had found at the southern most point of ABC. The sun was just beginning to set as I walked in refreshed excitement, and the sky lent itself to my soul in dusky blues and golds.
Coming up to the aptly named Sunset Corner, I ordered the happy hour special of three beers for ten ringgit: duty free and pleasantly cheaper than booze on the mainland. I chugged the first beer near instantaneously, set free a massive belch, tore off my dress, and ran into the sea like a crazed religious nut into the promised land. I opened my eyes under the water, clear as glass, and let the salt soak into my skin with ineffable relief. Since I was too young to understand it, I have needed and adored the ocean in a way that is beyond words, even to a rambling writer like me.
As I collapsed salty and reborn onto the pleasantly busy beach, I noticed a group of six or seven travelers from scattered nations laughing over beers just a few feet away. I walked up with my second cold beer, the sea still pouring down my body from the long, wet mop on my head, and asked if I could join them. Immediately greeted by a young, blonde, Scot who looked more like a California surferboy than a Scotsman; we sank easily into travelers’ introductions and the questions you find yourself happily asking and answering in each new place you stumble upon. There are some kinds of loves in life that take only moments to recognize. Danny, my fair-haired Scot was one of these. Contented through every electrified molecule in me, I was instantly at home with the friendly crew and ready to drink straight through to dawn, everyone eagerly awaiting the 2:30 A.M. World Cup match between the US and England.
By the time the sunset had found the other side of the world, Tioman sat shrouded in pre-dawn darkness, and I found myself drunkenly stumbling into to the sea for a night swim. The solitude of the ocean at night calls to me again and again, like an undeniable sorrow aching to be soothed. The horizon of inky water indistinguishable from where it meets the sky envelopes me, and floating alone in the great darkness punctuated only by stars, I barely even exist. But on this night, the tide was as low and far as it goes, and I found my inebriated feet stumbling over sharp corals, begging to find water deep enough to swim. Finally floating in my secret solitude I reveled in the powerful majesty of the universe that never fails to overwhelm my tiny soul until I heard the cheers for the game in the distance calling me back to shore. Struggling as much to exit the water as I had to enter, I tread as lightly as possible on the dead shards of coral and made my way back to dry land.
But with the first ounce of pressure on my right foot, a nerve tensing pain shot straight up my leg. As I hobbled back to the bar to inspect the damage, six black spots smaller than the period at the end of this sentence arched their way across the ball of my already swollen foot. I had stepped on a sea urchin. Immediately, every nearby local began offering me the necessary home remedies, which are to beat the painful calcium barbs very hard with a piece of wood for an extended period of time, soak it in vinegar and lime juice, and of course, pee on it. Taking care of all but the last suggestion for the time being, I returned to my new found friends and watched the USA-England match in drunken, oblivious camaraderie.
I awakened the next morning with the familiar wrenching of hangover wringing my guts. Stepping out of bed to find the greasiest food possible, I had forgotten entirely about my foot, and stumbled still half-drunk into the wall with a hint of pressure on the useless appendage. As I slowly made my way to the restaurant of the guest house, just steps from my door, it quickly sank in exactly how much this sea urchin had changed my plans.
Tioman is a mountainous island; its beaches connected by long and often difficult treks through the jungle, snaking yourself up and down barely marked paths and fallen power lines to reach the next bay. My plans for my few days here involved doing almost all of these treks, up to Monkey Bay and Salang, across to Juara on the eastern coast and down to the less-inhabited southern side of the island to the supposedly stunning Asah Waterfalls. With my foot as it was, I was (literally) painfully aware that I could do none of those things. And with plans after Tioman consisting of hiking around the tea plantations and strawberry farms in the Cameron Highlands, and jungle trekking through the ancient rainforests of Taman Negara, I resigned myself to remaining beached until my club foot returned to its normal size. I smiled silently over my breakfast as I realized there are certainly worse places to be stuck in the world.
As if confirming that very thought, my sweet Scot happened upon my greasy breakfast for one, and sat down to join me. I quickly realized it’s hard not to run into people when there is only one road. Danny and I found each other’s company in rare form: easy like old friends, but not without the subtle, tingling thrill of possibility. My first five days on Tioman we were nearly inseparable as each morning he would stumble upon my daily hangover necessity: western breakfast, and we would spend the rest of the day lying on the beach, doing the limited amount of exploring I was capable of, most certainly drinking and having a laugh, and through it all, learning each other. Danny was easy, and without pretense, and I find myself now struggling to articulate just exactly what (and the abundance of that what) Tioman gave me in the short time I was there.
I have labored through many drafts and variations in figuring how to relay this imparted gift, this intangible souvenir. Even the word souvenir seems to cheapen it, almost by definition a magnet or t-shirt or some other kitschy knick-knack to be forgotten as soon as it’s given. Except perhaps, that the word comes from the French memory, and I will certainly never forget what I took from Tioman. The drama of my consistent and failed efforts to describe this lack only in the romance of their arduous frustrations in that there is no graveyard of crumpled pages surrounding the wire-rimmed trash can in the corner, only remnants of paragraphs that will never be used, and a backspace button that may wear out on me soon. But from my weeks on this island, and the people I know I will not forget, here is the best I can do.
After a long night of local rum with friends, watching a lightning storm crash its way in purple flashes across the expansive sea, I stumbled my way back to my room. With the light on I lie on the bed letting pen float over paper until something came to me. Instead of words, that thing was Veronica. A sunset haired Norwegian, I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who could claim she had done them wrong. And if they did, I wouldn’t believe them.
This sweet girl of a woman knocked on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the tears in her eyes. I had seen a glimpse of a drunken argument between her and her Malaysian boyfriend, but as it is with those things you tend to turn away and mind your own. But as this somewhat stranger sat on my bed and choked words and tears from her throat as if there was no room for air, she stripped herself down to bone. Her boyfriend had struck her that night. Swung a drunken fist at her freckled porcelain face and threatened her with a knife. There was no use for a single word in English, or in any other language. I held her tightly. As if I could squeeze the pain from her chest out to her arms and through her fingertips, I held her. For more than an hour she poured her story, their story, into me. We passed two hours, and three joints, and though sometimes hard to understand through her accent and her tears, we occasionally enjoyed those priceless laughs that come through unstoppable tears and remind you it won’t always be that way. And I thought. It had been fewer than two weeks since I had arrived on Tioman. In any other world, Veronica would be a perfect stranger. But here, on my bed, smoking joints in our underwear, we knew each other for ages. And though there was a tragedy here that brought Veronica and I closer that night, I realized the more important piece: there are no boundaries to keep any of us apart.
A week had passed since Danny and Gilly left. I missed my best friend, my partner in crime, my half romance that didn’t get a proper chance. And Gilly. She was a spunky, well-humored, and admirably honest woman who understood me from the moment we met. Always good for a laugh, she could give and take shit with the best of them in the true Scottish tradition. One moment she’ll say she loves you, and in the next, tell you to go fook yourself, all with the same sly, devious smile edged in the corners of her hard-lined lips. Once they were gone, and Veronica found herself bed-ridden with a debilitating infection, Tioman was just Helen and me. My sweet, cheeky Brit was my soulmate on this island.
At only twenty-two she understood years ago some things I had only just figured out. She knew the things that really mattered in the world, the things that didn’t, and had the courage to leave the latter behind. The course of her journey not around the world, but within herself was so similar to mine, she so aware of everything that pulsed within her, and as ever smiling as I am, I couldn’t help but love her. We spent our days at the dive shop, completing my three day open water course in six lovely, lazy days. We enjoyed three hour lunches, and rainy days off watching movies in bed. And each day we spent together, another little corner of our histories was discovered.
The thing about traveling to remote places, far removed from the plethora of overwhelmingly unnecessary western conveniences, is that instead of being busy driving places and calling people on your way to meeting other people, making plans for next week, next month, next year, all you do is talk to each other. So perhaps back in D.C. it takes months to know a person: to pull them out of the structured comfort of their familiar, to infiltrate a circle of friends that is longer and stronger than you, to learn those little details that matter more than the big ones. But when you are a traveler, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure when I became one, these connections are easy, and strong, and slowly transcend any other experiences as the ones that define you.
We each come to these places indelibly tattooed with our families and educations, our loves, tragedies, and disappointments, which are simultaneously the chains that weighted us to the ground back home and the gusts that blew us away. We struggle to grow against it all, while knowing that without these things we couldn’t have been. And so you learn these little caverns in your loves. You try to navigate your way through their hearts, the same as your own, and in those explorations between open souls, as narrow and cobwebbed as they can be, is where we find love with another person. So thank you, Tioman, terima kasih for reminding me what it, what everything, is all about: love.