We are sitting in an internet cafe in Air Batang, a tiny coastal village on the island of Tioman. It is a two hour ferry trip off the southeast coast of Malaysia. They have a tendency to show films involving the type of transportation you are in while you ride. The film we watched in the ferry was of a cruel mother stalking her young daughter onto a ferry and then spying on her and her boyfriend until they kissed, at which point she snuck up behind them and ruthlessly slapped them for their public displays of affection. This, although making me a bit overly conscious of who was in the row of seats behind us (Marla... Sue...), was nothing compared to the videos we were forced to watch in the Singapore subway. The movie shows real film clips of all the bombings and accidents that have taken place in subways and rail cars in the past 10 years. It reminded me of the scene in Highlander in the airplane, for those of you old enough to remember that film. It showed bloody bodies being dragged from the wreckages, burning trains etc. Then the president of Singapore would come on and say in a kind but parental manner, "These images are real, and it is up to us to be vigilant, and prevent this from happening in our fine city. Don't let the train you are on be next." Then it switched to a simulated movie of the train WE WERE ON whirring away from our subway stop and then exploding into a ball of fire and crashing as it started entering the next tunnel! After that, everyone was a suspect.
Singapore, by the way, was a beautiful city. We stayed in little India, which has the friendliest people, the greatest smells, the bumpinest music and movies EVER! We found a restaurant where the food is done by a tiny, very friendly Indian man with a big pot belly and the drinks are supplied by a smiley, skinny Chinese man with 10 very long beard hairs. The Indian man happily took our order and then continued to bring us more and more plates of different food for free for a good hour, even going so far as to get food from nearby vendors for us to try. We had to stop him when we were so full we were in pain. The Chinese man recommended us his favorite beer and then repeatedly came by to toast us with his own beer mug as we nursed the bottle we were splitting. We also stopped in during a service at a beautifully decorated Hindu temple. Even as we tried to stay out of the way of the service the leaders of the ceremonies kept pulling us in, offering us fruit to eat, milk to drink from our hands. They played live music, burned incense and candles, ate and offered food, and everything was done is such a laid back, fun manner. We stayed until they closed the doors.
We had to buy a new camera because our old one, already limping along from too many weeks around sand and sea, ended up in a backpack with a mystery melted chocolate bar. We headed over to the local electronics super mall for some wheeling and dealing. The whole mall, 4 stories worth, is all just camera and video stores, all selling the exact same products. Nothing is marked with a price. It is basically a haggler's dream or nightmare. I took it as a chance to hone my skills, and Mia came along to watch. The first store started off pretty well, with our sales person Chan being extremely friendly. He even went so far as to say I was very handsome and that he would like to date me. The camera he helped us decide on came out to $360.00 (Singapore dollars). He told us he couldn't haggle, as this was a reputable store. He insisted that his polo shirt sporting the store logo was proof of this. His boss was only interested in having a good store name, not making money. Other stores have people in regular shirts, and those are the ones that try to rip you off, according to him. I told him I was going to shop around and he pulled out a folder of laminated newspaper articles that he claims were articles about all the other stores in the mall being black balled by the government. When I tried to read them he pulled the folder away and closed it. I said we would be back if we didn't find a better deal and then he said I was clearly a dense individual. He told me he was NOT gay and now had NO interest in dating me if I was so slow on the uptake. He pointed to his wedding ring and said he was married. I thanked him for his time. The next store ended on much the same note. After getting the salesman down to $300.00 I said I would keep looking and in a very loud whine the man yelled, "Oh COME OOOONNN! Just PAY it! It's just MONEY! What does it even MATTER!" Clearly it mattered to him. I told him if it was just money and it didn't matter he should give us a better deal and then he yelled, "Why you act like a SMALL CHILD!" We moved on. After more of this we finally got a new camera, a memory card, and card reader, a camera case and a tripod for 300.00. (From not gay Chan, who couldn't go any lower).
We crossed into Malaysia a few days later on a bus to Johor Baru. We needed a bus ticked to Mersing and all the tickets in Singapore were sold out due to the end of Ramadan festivities which include everyone going to their hometowns to spend a few days with family. The bus station in Johor Baru was total chaos. Everyone we talked to either insisted there were no tickets for Mersing or they told us we needed to talk to someone at counter 9, which didn't exist. I left Mia with the bags (in a safe, well lit area) and set out to find us some tickets. I finally found a guy who led me to a man in a purple shirt who took me down some narrow little halls to another guy who sold me some tickets for the 8:30 bus leaving from dock A5. When he wrote the tickets out on two little slips of paper he wrote 9:00. I told him I was told it was leaving at 8:30 and without a word he scribbled out 9:00 with his pen and wrote in 8:30. Problem solved. The dock was a massive crush of people. The station sported about 50 bus docks and each one was shoulder to shoulder with enough people to fill 3 buses. The disconcerting thing is that everyone looked wild eyed and panicked, craning their necks and jostling in a mad frenzy. As 8:30 passed and 9:00 passed I began to feel I had been had. Then the barrel chested, mustached man in the purple shirt, who had helped me buy tickets, parted the crowd like moses and came in like a Malaysian Sheepdog. He herded people this way and that, passed out white tickets in fistfuls in exchange for green slips of paper. People hollered at him holding their papers toward him like people betting in an underground kick boxing arena. He handled all of this with a collected calm and a cellphone to his ear. When I asked about our bus tickets he simply said, "Don't worry, 5 minutes." He said this every time I forced my way over to him for the next two hours, until, finally, he grabbed Mia and I led us to dock A7, and personally helped us load our bags and get good seats on the bus.
We showed up in Mersing at 1 am. Its a tiny fishing village thats claim to fame is the ferries that shuttle people to Tioman. We found a hostel from our book called Omar's. It was completely dark, but the front door was open. we went in with a flashlight and found a sign on the wall that read, "If nobody is here, just find a bed and pay later." Exhausted, we crept into a dark dorm room and slept in two beds. In the morning we were awakened by Omar himself. A 50 year old middle eastern man who had spent some time living in Phoenix with a friend of Barry Goldwater's in a home that had 12 bedrooms and 20 Arabian horses. After a brief chat, hopped on the ferry (see above) and headed to Salang, the northernmost town on the island. Just in case any of you caught the news that a ferry in Malaysia caught on fire and burned it's way down into the sea recently, killing 4 people and injuring dozens, yes that was one of the ferries we could have taken across.
Salang is a beautiful town, with white sands, friendly locals, 3 little restaurants, a few tiny stores, a handful of chalets, one bar that gets hoppin at night, and a couple scuba diving centers. We fell in love with it instantly. Also, there are monitor lizards everywhere that get almost as big as Komodo dragons. Nobody seems to mind them, although we were told that when the monsoons come and the locals abandon their villages for a few months the giant lizards come into town through the rain and strobes of lightning and hunt the cats in their usual safe havens of brightly painted restaurant patios. I think this would make a fantastic CGI animated film, with the cats as the heros.
Our time here has been spent mostly under water, getting scuba certified. Mia and I are both now PADI dive certified, fully capable of planning and executing our own dives without any supervision. After all the skills we learned I am shocked at how little we were prepped for our fun dive back in Bali. Most of our classes took place under about 20 feet of water. It was a lot of fun, and the skills included recovering from having our masks pulled off underwater, having our air shut off under water and getting to a buddy to share air in time, and achieving perfect weightlessness in relation to the water. There were 5 students and one teacher named Luisa. Mia and I were quick learners and spent most of the time just having fun while the teacher helped the other students. Our fellow students consisted of a guy named Justin and a guy named Stephan , as well as a tiny Chinese girl who couldn't really swim. Not being able to swim is a huge problem for the Chinese, and you can see them in droves of 100 on the beach, in 2 feet of water, wearing bright orange life vests. Why this girl chose to scuba dive is beyond me. Luisa, fed up with years of teaching just such students to dive and snorkel, seemed to make it her business to really manhandle the crap out of this tiny girl every chance she got. Yanking her around like a pit bull would shake a child in its jaws. Mia and I, meanwhile, occupied ourselves nearby, taking advantage of the weightlessness to execute dance moves and spins the like of which we could never accomplish on the surface. Spins, flips, a swing between the legs and then a toss and a catch. Stephan and Justing heartily complimented us on our grace when we surfaced later.
For anyone who has not been diving, I highly recommend it. There is nothing quite like the feeling of weightlessness you get. The ability to move in all directions. It is so relaxing and invigorating at the same time. I used up my air faster than I should have chasing fish and going fast, but it was worth every breath of it. We are now adjusting our budget to spend even less money above sea level so we can spend more time below.
Low on cash, we packed up our day packs and set out through the jungle yesterday on the 5 hour trek to the next town (the only one on the island with an ATM). It was a gorgeous hike. The trees are massive and mossy. Monkeys stole all my Oreo cookies when we took a swim break at the deserted beach of Monkey Bay along the way. We should have known better than to leave them unattended at a bay named after monkeys. A few monitor lizard scares kept the adrenalin pumping as we went. We also found a huge cluster of trees filled with thousands of flying foxes. We will write more soon. Love, Joe and Mia.