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Swimming with the Fishes

Paya Resort, Paya, Tioman Island, somewhere in the Malaysian waters of the South China Sea.
3:15 p.m., Sunday, July 15, 2012

I’m sitting on the front porch of our beach-front chalet in a cushioned rattan armchair, my feet up on a second chair like it but covered by a cushion to protect them from the sun, semi-enclosed by a decorative railing, surrounded by a bed of large, red flowers, watching the other tourists—mostly Asian—pass by on the sidewalk a couple metres in front of the porch and having a clear line of sight to the beach that’s only a few steps beyond it.  A group of snorkelling students are out by a heap of giant, tide-smoothened rock.  The main dock for the village is out of view to my left and so many interesting boats of various sorts and sizes move past my sight. 

The hedge of flowers close to me is inviting all sorts of interesting insects including a black and white swallowtail butterfly, a couple of others I didn’t see clearly enough to describe, dragonflies that don’t look much different from what we have in Winnipeg, an enormous red ant walking across the top of my computer, two beetles flying and mating, a wasp hovering and more. 

It’s the people that are the most interesting, however—a mixture of cultures and styles, from women in bikinis to Muslims in long, black coverings.  Not all the Muslim women are covered so thoroughly, however.  Some are dressed in fashionable jeans and long-sleeved tops and a small bevy of them had perched wide-rimmed, straw hats on their heads.  I’m enjoying the people-watching, and nodding and smiling greetings.  Many seem to appreciate and respond back in kind.  The Chinese are the ones most scantily-dressed, though short-shorts and tank tops wouldn’t be considered scanty on any Western beach.  Scantily-clad except for the Muslim Chinese.  I knew they exist but every time I see a Chinese woman in the Muslim head-covering, I grieve. I don’t do the same for the Malay women, though I think it’s patently unfair that they have to be covered to their ankles, even if it is with jeans, while the men can be in t-shirts and shorts. 

I’m not in a good space.  Because I’m tired?  I suspect so.  Tom, Konrad and Bena have gone snorkelling but all I want to do is sit here by myself.  We have a four-hour boat trip for snorkelling tomorrow morning included in what we paid for our time here and I’m not even sure I want to go.  It feels like too much work, too much pushing myself.  I guess the jungle “trekking” did me in more than I want to acknowledge.  It would be a shame to miss it, I know—I may never get another chance to do this and I’d love to see living coral in the wild; maybe I’ll feel more adventurous in the morning.

It’s hot here, even in the shade with a breeze blowing off the sea.  Maybe I should go inside where it’s air-conditioned and have a nap.  Perhaps I’d feel more sociable and less moody after I slept a bit.  But that seems a waste on such a beautiful day. 

3:00 p.m. Next Day:
I did have that nap and felt much better afterwards, but it mucked up my sleep so, once again, I’m fighting sleep but this time I won’t give in.  We had to get up this early for the snorkelling trip—four hours out on the South China Sea; two hours in the water and two in the boat.  I set my alarm for 6:00 because breakfast starts at 7:00 and the boat was leaving the jetty at 9:00.  I didn’t want to rush.  Neither did I want to get up, so I reset the alarm for another half hour.  I still didn’t want to get up and wasn’t even sure I wanted to go snorkelling.  Could I muster the mental energy?  I knew I’d be sorry if I didn’t.

We have a holiday package at Paya Beach Resort with meals included but it’s hard finding something I can eat and the buffet and I’m tired of the eggs and wieners (they call them sausages but they’re plain old hot dog wieners) that is universally available for Malaysian breakfasts.  Once again, however, that was all that came close to acceptable for my diet.  I filled up on strong tea (8-10 bags of Cameron Boh in one coffee-carafe-sized pot).  Then off to the boat. 

The jetty was soon crowded with people, including Muslim women, with head-coverings and long pants, waiting with life jackets and scuba gear in tow.  Did these women really intend to put on face masks and snorkels and go into the water?  Apparently!  And, yes, they did—along with young children and husbands (who were much more weather-appropriately attired, though it wasn’t really that hot). 

Malaysian time is seemingly not punctual so we had to wait quite a while as more and more people gathered.  In the water below us was a massive school of small fish moving about and away from the larger zebra fish moving among them.  That was fun to watch.  Later, swimming at the coral reef, the zebra fish were the small ones and at our last stop, where there was no coral but lots of fish, they were positively miniature in comparison to those who were about the length of my arm from fingertip to elbow or longer.  At that place, the fish were so plentiful and so dense that when I first got into the water, they were swimming right past my mask and one even bumped into my face.  I did take my iPhone (camera) into the water in a water-proof pouch but it took me a while to figure out how to use it under water (the touch aspect didn’t work) and so I missed taking the abundance of fish I experienced at first.

The varieties were incredible; the more colour varieties at the coral reef—bright, yellow body; the zebra fish with black and white vertical stripes and a touch of yellow across the back; iridescent purple and green; orange and one fish that moved its fins like wings.  I think that was my favourite.  (The butterflies here are huge!  One just touched down on the sidewalk near me that must have been four inches across.)

The coral was a disappointment.  I expected the bright colours I see in photos and videos but they were monochromatic browns.  The shapes changed, however.  There was coral that looked like giant heads of loose cabbage and others that were tubular.  The sea bottom was filled with hills and valleys and I even saw a small cave.  It was so cool to swim amongst the many fish, even if they did occasionally mistake me for food and nibbled on my legs.  I screamed each time—as much as one can scream with a mouthful of snorkel but the bites really didn’t hurt and there were only about three—very little considering the hundreds of fish around us.

5:30 p.m.
After lunch, showering, writing and shopping for souvenirs, Konrad, Bena and I went snorkelling around the rocks in front of our chalet.  It’s a bit of a distance out from the beach but not that far.  Wow!  Amazing!  Here the coral was brightly coloured and  had a surprising variety of fish in addition to sea urchins, a stingray (I missed it but Konrad saw it), some sort of snake-shaped creature with tentacles or feelers that Konrad thinks is a kind of sea cucumber and a purple bivalve shellfish buried except for its “mouth” which was opening and closing. 

The fish population changed depending on the environment.  Near the shore where the sea floor was sandy, the fish were nearly invisible except for their eyes and one stripe down each side—were they transparent?  I thought so but Konrad thought they were camouflaged.  A bit further out, amongst the dead coral, I started to see larger fish and the small zebra fish.  As I proceeded, I began to spot a small patch of coral here and there—pinks and purples—until suddenly I was surrounded by colourful coral of many shapes and colourful fish of all sizes.  I took my camera with me under water and was constantly hitting the shutter, hoping to get some good pictures. 

Today was my first time ever snorkelling anywhere and I think I’m hooked.  I could have stayed out there forever—but with some provisos.  For one, I found myself very nervous snorkelling by the rocks near our chalet and needed Konrad handy to keep me brave—not a problem I had when we were out with the boat this morning in deeper (but less interesting) water.  For another, water and/or mist kept seeping into the mask, making it difficult to see and breathe at times. The worst was the seasickness I got snorkelling at the first place after being out in the water for about 45 minutes. Tom had the same problem.  Ugh! It continued for the rest of the boat and snorkelling trip but thankfully, I’d thought to bring anti-nausea medication so we both took a pill and were able to snorkel at the next stop, where I started taking photos.  I had no trouble with nausea when I snorkelled with Konrad and Bena near our chalet so maybe the deeper water had something to do with it.  I’m so pleased that my camera (iPhone) worked underwater.  I was a bit nervous about that since replacing it would be expensive but it was great!

After the last snorkelling, I changed and walked along the beach to collect washed-up coral.  I hope there aren’t any restrictions about bringing it back into Canada because it’s a nice memento.  Soon we’ll go for dinner and I plan to get to sleep early.  We have to be on the ferry back to the mainland by 9:00 a.m. and we’ll have to pack, eat and check out first.  I’m so glad we came here and so very glad that I overcame my reluctance to go snorkelling.  Our visit to Pulau Tioman (Tioman Island) has been a wonderful side trip and worth the time, effort and money to come.  You can be sure I’ll be visiting more tropical, seaside resorts in the future—complete with snorkelling gear.  


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