A plague, a war, and a King on Turtle Island

hatchling_malaysiaMy sister was a Sea Turtle biologist, a champion of conservation and protection for the coastal regions of Earth. When she told me she had a symposium to attend in Malaysia, of course I was going to meet her. She had worked on islands throughout the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and now was on her first journey to Asia… where I lived. My flight arrived in Kuala Lumpur a couple hours before hers, so I had some time to kill. First stop, the bookstore. China is great in many ways, but it can leave you starved for western things at times. Even the ‘international’ stores there are a bit slim in their selection. So, when I get a chance, I always pop in to shops with better selections in neighboring countries.

First thing I saw was the newspapers, with 2 big headlines. The first one regarding our Iraqi invasion I had seen, and tried my best to ignore. The other said SARS! At this point, I had not heard of SARS. I was living in the PRC, and the Chinese government had not released the information to the public yet. So this was my first encounter. I asked the woman working the desk about it, and she asked which rock I’d been living under that I hadn’t heard. When I told her I was arriving from China, she covered her face and took a step back. Wow, what an intro to this outbreak! I couldn’t help wondering whether it was coincidence that these two headlines occurred at the same time. Wouldn’t be the first time a major story came out to distract the public from what was going on in the Middle East… but I digress. Though SARS seemed legit from the articles, I felt partially safe since I was in Shanghai, far from the epicenter in the south, and also not eating meat at the time.

Sister arrived, hotel arranged, and it was all about turtles for the next few days. We met experts in the field from around the world, took a day trip to the East coast to find a hatching center, and it was a real joy to walk through Kirsten’s professional world for a minute. How cool that she gets paid to do this kind of work, educating the public, protecting mother nature. Unfortunately, it’s work that never pays much, and the jobs are few and far between. It’s a sad reality for her. She’s taken jobs on dredging ships as the environmental watchdog, basically at odds with the rest of the crew, ready to shut them down if they kill too many turtles. She’s worked on satellite tracking projects that follow these majestic creatures, showing patterns of migration that humans never knew. And she’s now working her way around southeast Asia’s islands and beaches, visiting other projects, and finding it’s a global phenomenon that this work struggles to find funding. Still, it’s a joy to walk this path with her.

On our third day, we take a short flight to Pulau Tioman, Turtle Island, off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. It is a tiny little speck on the map with a horseshoe-shaped ring of mountain surrounding the airport. Our plane seats about 20 people, and man is it more responsive than the jumbo jets I’m used to. The plane comes in for descent perpendicular to the runway, banks hard right, and drops hundreds of feet to come in smooth on the tarmac. I’ve never heard 20 people scream in unison, and the mayhem of that moment is a perfect entry into the wonder in days to come.

Our guest house sits on a hill directly above a coral reef on Tioman’s western edge. It’s simple, cheap, lovely…perfect. 10 minutes after arriving, I’m underwater, snorkel in place, cruising around the vibrant life below. At one point, what looks like a tea cozy flaps its skirt revealing a squid-like body of a cuttlefish. I’ve seen the bones on beaches before, but never one in action. A living reef is something magical.  They are getting harder to find, but once found, they teem with life. A moving mosaic of yellow and purple, dark and light, anemones, eels, tiny clown fish – all within sight of our bungalow. This is what I love about the tropics. Nature, raw, and we’re part of it. Dinner and an early sleep is perfect end to the day.

The receptionists tell us something is happening at the park, something we should attend. She’s cryptic, but encourages us to postpone our hike and head to the new park after breakfast. She tells us the whole island will be there. It’s a short walk into town, and up toward the airport park. It’s clear where the action is. The 2000 residents of the island are all there, lined along a red carpet that leads to a landing pad. everyone is well-dressed, there are flowers all around, and a helicopter flies overhead, landing at the end of the carpet. Nobody recognizes the people who step out, but we’re told it is a group coming to christen the new park on the island. Another chopper, more unknown guests. Then another. Then another. We’re not that far from the mainland, but after 5 helicopters, it’s starting to feel ridiculous that so many guests wouldn’t just get a plane. Then he arrives. This time, everyone knows who is in the coming chopper. Malaysia has 9 rulers that represent the different states, and every 5 years, one of these becomes the new King. The current King’s chopper has now landed, and he is walking down the red carpet straight toward us…his name is Sirajuddin.

KingoMalaysiaI was standing near the SUV parked at one end of the carpet. Everyone was arranged guys on the left and ladies on the right. There were only 2 white people there, Kirsten and myself. KD was a bit hidden in the crowd, but I guess I was obvious. He walked right up to me and put out his hand. Nice. I welcomed him to Tioman. He laughed and asked me where I was from. Recalling the headlines of the US invasion, and very aware I was speaking to a Muslim dignitary, I almost said ‘Canada’, but the truth came forth. He shook my hand, and with a knowing glance, we exchanged a moment of silent communication and respect before he stepped into his ride on the way to the christening. WOW, what a great way to start the day!

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, we headed back to prepare for our hike across the island. It’s hot, so really all you need is some water, bug spray, and sun protection for the hike through the jungle. The path was fairly simple, only a few miles to arrive at the other side of the island. Along the way, we found Bodhi and Banyan trees, their long roots dangling down to meet the earth, the constant music of birds and bugs in the canopy above, and winding a steep bend, we came across the biggest monitor lizard I’ve seen. He must have been 8 feet, tongue to tail, and he took off quick in a clunky gait through the woods. Again, WOW! Nature, raw, all around.

Breaking through the trees, the beach below called us in with promise of lunch and a boat taxi back around the island. Bellies full, we sat down for the 20 minute ride around the northern point with 5 or 6 others in this tiny wooden boat. The ride was meant to be pretty chilled out. It was not. As we left from the pier, the sky to the north turned black with promise of an afternoon storm, not uncommon in the tropics. The skipper looked fine with it, until we turned past the point of the island, where the currents met. The wind picked up, the waves crashed against our tiny boat, but the mood stayed fair as my mind drifted off to Gilligan’s Island. Bouncing in the waves now, the storm was picking up. One guy leaned over the side to barf, and my instincts grabbed his belt so we wouldn’t lose him. That was a turning point, and the whole boat shifted mood. We were now bouncing  up and down with loud crash at each wave. The bench where we sat gave way. In splinters, 3 of us were on the floor, holding on to the sides. The captain’s face betrayed a moment of panic, and I turned to Kirsten. Eyeing the rocks, and considering how much better I’d swim without boots, I still kept my mouth shut. Everyone was on edge, and I didn’t want to add to panic. As the violence fo the waves grew, we passed another rock into the calm current of the eastern shore. Within moments, the clouds cleared, the sun returned, and smiles came back to all our faces. Again, WOW! Nature, raw, and right in it!

I can’t recall many days that intense in this lifetime. They happen from time to time, and I share them to encourage myself, and you, the reader to go out and find them. It’s days like this that make us appreciate life, and really feel alive.


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