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Thursday, September 24, 2009

My days in the Perhentians... finding Nemo, Ramadan, and a tempting job offer!

When I last had decent email access I was in Kuala Besut overnight, about to go to the Perhentians for an island escape.  Kuala Besut was an extremely dead little town.  My one exciting purchase there was a towel (which I turned out not to need but was nice to have).  And we stayed in a hotel with hot showers!

The next morning we took a speedboat to Perhentian Besar (literally translated, it means Large Stopping-Off Point).  The Flora Bay Resort was to be our home for the next few days.  Resort is kind of an exaggeration, but what the place had to recommend it was the amazing beach and the incredibly beautiful sea life below the surface of the water.  It was kind of amazing to realize what we'd been travelling over by speedboat!  That afternoon, we did some snorkelling off the beach which was pretty truly wonderful, all kinds of tropical fish and reef and incredible clarity of the water.  Not even a tiny bit of dust or sand was stirred up.  Of course I managed without trying to get quite quite sunburned, and so the next several days were spent snorkelling in a t-shirt and long shorts over the bathing suit, an interesting (but less painful) look.   

The next day we went on an official chartered-boat trip, just the group of 10 of us or so.  We stopped at two places that were known for terrific coral reef and fishies, another place that was known for its sea turtles, and a last place called "Shark Bay."  Any day that starts with a consideration of a trip to Shark Bay and does not end in bloodshed is a good day! :)  I missed out on seeing the sharks there, but saw one the next day.  At least, I'm pretty sure that that's what it was.  I don't want to forget here to mention the unbelievably beautiful giant clams!  All kinds of undulating scalloped shades of blue and purple and brown, and if you wave your hand near them they clamp down a bit.  The sea anemones were also pretty fabulous, encased in the most bright purple stuff!  And I found Nemo!  Actually he seems to travel in groups of three :)

And guess what else I found?   Another American!  I was just turning in my laundry to get it done, and he was checking out of the "resort".   The single most passive-aggressive Malaysian man ever created was behind the desk and giving him a hard time.  The American guy asked me where I was from, in an American accent, and we started having a conversation.  It turns out he is from Pennsylvania and is a maxillofacial surgeon who accepted a 2-year contract in Kuching (those of you other than Jim M. may not recall, Kuching is in Malaysian Borneo and where I finished that trip from hell in '08.  Kuching was actually the nicest part).  He is trying to ramp up the medical tourism program at that hospital, which is a private hospital there.  It was fascinating to talk to him about what his life has been like since moving there as an expat, and what the practice of medicine is like.  He asked for my email address to keep in touch about it and about possible job opportunities.  Pretty wild, the kind of chance meetings I have, and so unusual to bump into another American (due to the widespread paranoia regarding Muslim countries, I think) and someone in the same field no less!

Well, our island paradise was supposed to come with a full service spa next door, but once again we were outwitted by Ramadan.  Turns out all the spas in the islands were closed for the entire month of Ramadan.  Big bummer.   I tried swinging in one of the many hammocks on the beach, but my sunburn said "No.  That hurts."


That night we came across an absolutely lovely black-and-white cat who started following me around everywhere and lay in my arms and did my bidding.  I decided to name him Ramadan, but to be a proper Malaysian cat he had to have multiple names.  So, the final set of names I came up with were Ramadan Abdul Mohammed Romeo.  We went to one of the few beach bars on the island, and the one prima donna in our group had taken over the bar and was playing music from her IPod and posturing quite amusingly. 

We got her to pour Ramadan a shot glass of milk, which he had never tried before (!)  I had to sit him at the bar and dip my finger in it and put it in his mouth. 


Once he realized what he'd been missing, he sucked the whole thing down and asked for more.  Much like our collective discovery of iced Milo (to you non SE Asians or Australians, that is like an iced Ovaltine or cold chocolate milk type drink.  Especially fabulous with lychee juice mixed in.  Under NO circumstances should one consider adding Kickapoo Joy Juice to this -- the results could be explosive!!!  Yes, this is actually a drink in Malaysia.  Google it.

The next day we did another private boat trip to other snorkelling locations which were simply amazing too!  Again, perfect clarity and amazing color and I was literally swimming through schools of hundreds of fish, some of which were apparently attracted to my Harvard ring and kept nibbling at the fingers around it!  Some of the coral in areas was green and I found myself imagining that it was the lawn of the underwater garden.  Stunning.   Sorry I don't have photos of that.  Later that night, we had a nice barbecue including lots of yummy beef satay, and some squid and juicy chicken, and then played a marathon tournament of Jenga.

The following morning we left by speedboat to the jetty

and then travelled to Kota Bharu in what was supposed to be two private vans.  But it was Hari Raya Aidilfitri-- the end of Ramadan holiday that is HUGE in Malaysia and especially in an eastern town like Kota Bharu!   So in no doubt pious religious observance, one van driver not only charged double but also had contracted some other business on the side, taking some people to the airport and picking others up there, thus adding an hour on to our trip.  The silver lining to that cloud was that one of the people going to the airport was the max-face surgeon, who told me he had already emailed me and would love to see my CV (of course the internet on the island was apparently also celebrating Hari Raya and therefore was "Tutup" = closed/not working, so I hadn't seen the email).  He said even if I wanted to consider a monthlong working holiday in Borneo they could probably help set it up.  Something to think about :) 

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