I'm in paradise. A cliché! Yes, but this is the stuff clichés are made from. As we approach the Perhentian Islands on a noisy chug boat, the water visibly changes from a dark murky dirty olive to blues, then turquoise, and finally bright green. It's so clear, I feel like we're getting on a toy boat floating in a bathtub filled with green inked water.
I'm glad we've been upgraded to the little water taxi because for an hour we've been on the big boat, dropping groups of people off at various beaches on the island. We have to wait our turn simply because there's no way of traveling between beaches except by water taxis.
The Perhentian Islands are basically comprised of two islands: Kecil (small) and Besar (big), for obvious reasons. When I say undeveloped, I mean undeveloped. The interior of the islands are untouched, the various beaches are unconnected, except by thick, wild jungle. At night, you negotiate a price with the motor boat to take you to Kecil, where the parties happen. You tell the motorboat driver to come back at a specific time to pick you up. If he doesn't, you sleep on the beach.
We spend the night at Tuna Bay Resort, a lovely maintained resort on the upper end of the price scale. The first thing we do is go for a swim, then snorkel. The coral is exquisite. We enjoy a good meal later, in the open-air restaurant facing the beach. Next to us, a chef barbecues fresh seafood and steak (which for some reason we can't order because no one told us about requesting the "buffet"). We decide to stay in tonight instead of venturing over to the party island next door, settling for chocolate sundaes at the resort bar, watching the Discovery Channel.
Disappointment sets in as we think about the fun we're missing. Next morning, we're up early to find accommodation for the rest of our stay. Tuna Bay is kicking us out; we use the entire morning trudging under the intensely excruciatingly hot August sun going from resort to resort looking for a room. We try Kecil first, thinking it would be fun living on Long Beach, where all the parties go on. But it turns out to be even more packed than Besar. At times we bump into fellow travelers looking for rooms. We try to beat the others for a room, but we give up on Long Beach.
Feeling dejected, we try our luck on a less popular beach called Flora Bay, where we're informed there are rooms available. Unfortunately, this beach is twice the distance from Long Beach, ruining our hopes for beach parties even more. The first resort turns out to be a grotty little hole with no air-conditioning and no mosquito repellant. We tell the man we'll take it, but I go off on a "walk" to scop the rest of the beach. Lo and behold! I find an air conditioned room.
Flora Bay turns out to be brilliant. It has a good restaurant with a one thousand and one choice, at cheap prices. I'm not sure why, but it has every single western dish you can think off, perfect for the homesick, prepared to home-cooked goodness. There is a diving school attached to it; we sign up for a snorkeling trip the next morning. I'd like to point out that I have never been in water any deeper than two metres. I silently hyperventilate on the boat the next morning. The boat takes 12 of us to the other side of the island where the coral is meant to be amazing.
We arrive at the spot. There are two other boats packed with people, 40 people in the water at the same time. If any shark intends to grab a couple of legs, the chances of them being mine are slim. I put on my snorkels and jump. So far, so good. Then I dip my head into the water. I scream. Except it comes out like a muffled warble, aaaawwfff!. I am in shock. The seabed is well, majestic, a totally different world, thousands of little fish darting about everywhere. The coral is humongous. Everywhere, everything seems to be in slow motion. It's beautiful. I'm transfixed.
I watch as fish start to gather around my legs. I quickly jerk my body and they scatter quickly. I'm amazed at how serene and flat the sea looks from land yet underneath, there's so much colour, movement, variety. It's art. Thirty minutes later, we get back on the boat and head to our next spot. This time the aim is to see turtles. Something nasty happens. As I sink my body into the water, "a thing" starts stinging me all over! I look into the water to find the culprit; nothing there! A group conference reveals that the place is swarming with sea lice.
Not too pleased, I get back on the boat and wait. Bad decision. I realize that the size of the boat, combined with the rocky conditions of the sea, have made me seasick. In fact, I notice half the boat going a bit green. One girl throws up over the side. We are not a happy crew. We head to our last destination – shark point. The boys quiver with excitement. I feel slightly apprehensive. I said I'd go into deep water, no one said anything about visiting sharks! But I go down anyway, and the seabed is even more amazing this time. I yelp with excitement when I see a school of squid ramble on by. I watch in wide eyed awe as a massive lion fish glides on, oblivious of us humans. Imagine a guppy, times a thousand. It is truly magnificent.
Everyone else is darting about looking for sharks; I stay close to the boat. Our guide suddenly points to something and I realize with a mixture of shock and delight, that it's a baby shark. It disappears as quickly as it came; I realize I wasn't as fascinated as I was by the lion fish. Nevertheless, I get on the boat and gloat to all about being the only one who spotted the shark.
We rest what's left of the afternoon. Before sunset I come up with a brilliant idea of going out to sea in a kayak, watching the sun set over the island. I thought it would be romantic. As we're paying for the kayak, the guy tells us it may not be such a good idea at this time since the tide is going out. I tell him my sunset plan, he concedes, telling us to make sure we return through the boat channel, where the coral has been cleared away. He warns us that otherwise we'll get stuck over the coral and be unable to pedal back.
We set out slowly, enjoying the sound of the pedal swishing through the water. We go further and further until the sea bed disappears and we're surrounded by nothing but water. We steer our boat to face the island and wait. It's deadly quiet; we strike up a conversation. I notice a huge grey cloud forming above the island and comment on what a beautiful emerald green the water has turned because of it. My mate doesn't say anything, but suggests we head back. I don't want to, but I don't argue.
As we're pedaling back, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind blows; the kayak starts moving in the wrong direction. Pedaling becomes useless. The ground swells up at me like acne on a seabed. The coral here isn't colourful; it's grey and sinister looking. Paradise darkens. My heart jumps; I start to freak out. If we don't head to the boat channel, we could get stuck over the coral. I start shouting at my mate in a blind panic. He forces me to calm down, instructs me to pedal left, than right, at the same time as him. I repeat after him in a daze, "left..right..left..right" pedaling with all my strength.
We manage to make it to the boat channel eventually. When we reach shore, as much as I'd like to claim I fell down onto the sand and kissed the ground in relief, I don't. I am, nevertheless, very shaken. We return the kayak and head to the diving school's shelter, where the instructor tells us that ten more minutes and the wind could hqve turned our kayak over or pushed us towards the rocks. We believe him.
A storm unleashes on the island. We sit there and watch the lightning light up the entire sea every time it strikes. I watch quietly and listen to the instructor, Raj, telling us why he came to the Perhentians three years ago, never able to leave. The sheer simplicity of the sea's power and the magical world it hides under the surface makes me understand why.
We spend the evening sitting at a barbecue held on the beach by the dive school for its new graduates. We watch as they celebrate by drinking non-stop shots through a snorkel. They call this a rite of passage. I call it torture! We watch underwater videos of the 20-odd students completing their diving course, fooling about on the sea bed. I regret not being able to take diving instruction this time. I make a promise to return here someday. I leave the party and head to the restaurant. I chat with a young American girl who hass been here for three months.
It feels so close-knit. I realise the family who ows this resort has embraced their guests as their family. A part of me wishes I could stay on, but I realise that once one makes that decision, it becomes impossible to leave or let go, like a drug. Life is simple; earning money as a diving instructor brings on no dead-ends, as there's no end to the beauty of the sea. Oddly enough, it strikes me that the whole time we've been here, we haven't considered even once joining the parties on Long Beach, let alone moping over it!