(16th September 2019) The day that we made landfall on the Perhentians… but we had to get there.
The morning surprise: it turned out we got a mosque next door to our hotel… and the speaker for calling to pray literally right in our window. So I got my most grumpy wakeup around 5:30. Good start, thanks… I think none of us was very tolerant in the morning. I think even the muezzin does it from recording and sleeps like a baby at home at this time. One more reason to choose the bus from Kuala Lumpur instead of the flight: it gets here in the morning so no need for accommodation, no call to pray early. Fortunately there was some chocolate left from the evening so the mood got fixed quickly.
We lined up for the offices at the jetty and it was pretty quick to get onto the boat (our tickets were organized by PMRS, the Perhentian Marine Research Station). In a quick turn we were already riding the waves towards the islands. Looking at fellow passengers one could immediately spot the divers wearing dive computers which made me feel good. Also an interesting observation (consistent with what I saw later): while expensive brands and style is not present or relevant, hairstyle seems to be important around this part of the world: all local guys coming back from the mainland seemed to be properly tuned. Even if an hour of waveriding may ruin it…
The ride wasn’t as choppy as expected so we were able to enjoy it. I’m always too worried as used to have some motion sickness during these. This became really irrational fear later during the stay as we traveled everywhere by boat during all the two weeks and really started to enjoy the choppy rides, too. After 40 minutes, the destination appeared on the horizon. The islands slowly emerged from from the all covering haze… the Indonesian fires still taking their toll (we are actually much closer to Borneo on this side of Malaysia). We finally rode to the bigger island to swap some passengers so getting close to the beach suddenly revealed the amazing tropical colors and the white sand: the sign of coral reefs under. It was an exciting moment, after being in transit for so long time: we started on a Friday afternoon from the office and it’s Monday morning when we arrived (dawn in European time). Finally.
We landed on the smaller island, at the jetty of the village. It immediately revealed that this was a village, not resort: locals went on their way at the jetty, boarding ships and taking motorbikes which look overpowered solution for a small village but carrying stuff around is much easier with them. We later noticed that some of them are already electric… the future slowly creeping in. Even if electricity is a precious asset on the islands, power cuts are supposed to be regular and expected. The electric network only covers the village and expected to serve at most fridges and lighting. No warm water and air conditioning (at least not at regular places, we could see air conditioning at the clinic and the police building). Even street lighting is served by solar charged LED lights. Resorts do cover their needs by running their own diesel generators 24/7… and this energy mostly goes for the comfort of tourists: air conditioning. One can feel that tourism (at least the more luxurious one) is really not good for the environment.
But back onto our arrival: we were greeted by our project leader/host/divemaster lady, Hidaya. She greeted us with smile and immediately took us to the Blue Temple Conservation house which is the base of the dive project. It’s a simple local house, with all the basic community needs of having a kitchen and an area for briefings. We spent significant amount of time there in the coming days studying for our dive courses. The house really reminded me of the camps I’ve been to as a student in high school, especially that we were to take turns in cooking and doing the dishes and cleanup ourselves. Big contrast to the resorts in the other parts of the island. The place had a traditional malay squatting toilet which is something to get used to.
As part of the arrival we also unloaded our baggage at the volunteer house which is our home for the two weeks there: it’s an even simpler building with bunk beds covered in mosquito nets. And making life possible: fans. They had to be constantly on when people were around as humidity is really high, coupled up with 28-30 degrees means constant sweating even during the night. And we had one more luxury: european toilet which is shared with the geckos taking over the house during the night.
The village itself was a bit of cultural shock at first, with thrash lying all around the streets, pipes and sewage driven freely onto the streets and domestic animals walking around it. It took a couple of days to get used to the fact that they do have different priorities than us when thinking of keeping things in order. The water is not drinkable so we have water filters installed everywhere where we could refill our water bottles. Our project had policy of using reusable water bottles and even using reusable metallic straws. This was proven right later when during beach cleanup we found disappointing amounts of plastic bottles and straws in the thrash…
There were some “paved” areas around the jetty and leading up to the village mosque, of course. The further away you got from these, the less infrastructure was in place. But worth mentioning that apart from the mosque, the best and biggest building is the school which puts light on how they think about the education. Kids enjoy going there and they get educated in English for nature sciences. Very forward looking approach, we found kids speaking really good English!
I found the people to be very nice and open, everyone greeted us or was smiling upon greeting. And had eye contact when walking through, so was easy to make friends and greetings were always returned.
About the animals: as usual with islands, it was a cat paradise, lots of cats around which makes me smile most of the time. Even our project had its own cat mother, Bones, who always brought fun into the meetings proudly presenting her newborn kitties. Also had the chicken around the house carrying names even if they did not belong to the project but they wanted to get involved with the (free) cat food. They needed to be regularly relocated outside the house.
We also immediately bumped into the huge, wannabe dinosaurs, the 1-2m long monitor lizards. They are territorial and like scavenging through the thrash but they’re opportunists, eat whatever they find. According to the stories they have eaten small kittens just a week before. We better watch our steps during the evenings in the dark outside!