Coming "home" from Pulau Tioman, a tropical island in the South China Sea, was an adventure. The ferry was scheduled to arrive at 9:30 a.m. but we were instructed to be on the wharf half an hour early. There were dozens of us waiting...and waiting and waiting and waiting. Malaysian time, we were told. Finally the ferry came at around 10:15 but after taking only five people, it closed its doors and took off. What did this mean? Apparently it was full, but the next ferry wasn't scheduled to arrive till 4:30. Would we have to wait that long? We had tickets for this boat! Some time later someone from the resort came to us to say it was aware of what had happened, and had arranged with the ferry service on the mainland to send another ferry just for us. It would arrive at noon.
Tom and I opted to stay on the wharf and I refused to leave my post at the top stairs down to the water's edge where the next boat would arrive even though it was in the sun. I wore a hat and slathered sun screen and figured I was okay. The only issue was, could my bladder hold out? I drank only the tiniest sips of water to keep me from having to race to a toilet and risk missing the boat and it worked!
The wait was actually quite enjoyable. Even though the sun was out, there was a nice breeze that kept us (or at least me) comfortable and I loved the sound of the water as it sloshed over the bottom of the wharf stairs. It was also a time to socialise with the others who were there.
I was the only Caucasian there but we did find another Canadian family--a man of Indian origin who had grown up in Malaysia and his two teen daughters who were born in and grew up in Vancouver. Their Filipina mom would be joining them later. We chatted with them for quite a bit. The girls have always wanted to go to Winnipeg and they shared what some of their favourite places in Singapore are. They've also been staying in JB (Johor Bahru).
The other family we connected with was from Yemen--two adult couples and four children, including a teenage girl whose name was impossible to remember because it's so different. We had first interacted on the snorkelling trip when I saw the women join the activity despite their hijabs, long pants and long tops. That evening I was walking along the shore at the resort when I came across the oldest girl playing in the sand with her littlest sister and brother. She was covered but that didn't stop her from getting wet or sandy. So I stopped to talk with her then, asking her questions.
In Yemen, the girls must begin to cover when they're 15. They wear both the hijab (head covering) and abayah (robe over their bodies). She was impressed that I knew those terms so I told her I've done a fair bit of reading. I asked her how a girl feels about having to start to cover at 15--does she look forward to it as a sign of growing up or does she dread the loss of freedom--but I don't think she understood the question because her answer was that it's part of the religion and they have no choice. I didn't push the matter. I do find it interesting that even though the women must wear the abayah back home, tight pants seemed to be acceptable here, so long as the pants went to at least mid-calf. There were quite a few Muslim women at the resort whose dress was very Western, except for the hijab.
The girl's father works for the United Nations and they are currently living in Kuala Lumpur for a year. Before that they were in Egypt for a year. She and her siblings understand and speak excellent English, which really surprised me and probably what encouraged me to have this conversation with her. They go to English-speaking schools.
They were at the wharf with us while we were waiting for the ferry and at one point she brought her younger sister and a camera and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. Sure! I asked the sister to take one with my camera too. Then the girls changed places because the little one wanted her photo with me too. I enjoyed that.
Then the two men came to talk with me. They understood from the girl that I had studied Islam and were curious. No, I said; I've read a lot of stories, though. So we talked, sharing the similarities and differences between Islam and Christianity. They thought that really, the places that we differ aren't so important but thanks to the Simply Jesus conference where Carl Medearis spoke on just this topic, I was able to point out that some of the differences are significant. For instance, Muslims don't believe that Jesus really died. They know he was sinless and that he went to heaven, but they don't accept that he really died. I explained how Jesus' death is crucial to Christianity and how his sacrifice ended all sacrifices. After the conversation was over, I thought of all sorts of things I would have liked to say but hadn't thought to but I think it was a good one anyway. It's the first time I've had such an in-depth conversation with any Muslim and hopefully God used it to open their hearts and minds in some way.
It was interesting because I was currently reading the book In the Presence of my Enemies: A Gripping Account of the Kidnapping of American Missionaries and their Year of Terror in the Philippine Jungle by Gracia Burnham and Dean Merrill. They had been kidnapped, along with others, from a resort just like the one we were leaving. Their kidnappers were Muslim terrorists who took them for ransom to raise money for their jihad aimed at getting back the land in the Philippines they say is theirs. What a contrast between the Muslims of the story and the Muslims I had befriended! But then, most Muslims are not terrorists and do not condone terrorism. We agreed that it's the extremists that get the media attention regardless of their background, culture or religion. It's like me here in Malaysia. What do I focus on in my story-telling and photographs? The things that are different. And how do I show that? By looking at the most extreme examples such as the dirty toilets, the garbage heaps along the road and the unsanitary restaurants, even though there are many, many examples of cleanliness, modernity and beauty.
We finallly saw a ferry heading in our direction, and just on time too! Everyone flocked to the stairway in anticipation but to our dismay, the boat didn't turn towards the wharf at all, but kept on going. What's this? Someone speculated that since they had to come out to the island anyway (an hour and a half or two-hour trip, depending on the boat), they may as well take what passengers they could and were dropping them off at another port.
Sure enough, the boat returned an hour later and we piled on. Once we were on our way I decided that a trip to the toilet would be in order--if the boat had one. It did, but it was a tiny, tiny cubicle with only a hole on the floor and a bucket of water and accompanying dipper beside it. The space was so cramped, I don't know how those who squat to use the facilities had room to do so. My special peeing funnel has come in very handy for such situations. My knees simply won't allow me to squat and even if I could, I wouldn't trust my aim enough to keep my clothes dry. But even with the funnel, this kind of toiletting is stressful.
While I was in there, the boat came to a stop. What's going on, I wondered. When I came out, I saw we were at another port taking on more passengers--I guess they too got left behind by the original boat. Now we were so loaded, some people were sitting on the floor. We were in the front row and on the steps leading out of the cabin to the bow, a large, older Muslim woman, so dark she looked Afro-American (though on closer inspection I could see she wasn't) and covered with jewelry, sat, facing us, and promptly went to sleep. Even she was chilled by the air-conditioning, and covered herself more with a thin towel. The four of us were also cold and using what we could to stay somewhat warm. When I was packing for this trip, the one concession I made to potential cold was to bring a thin, finely-woven wool scarf/shawl and am so glad I did. I've used it on more than one occassion for protection from both too-cold air-conditioning and too much sun on bare legs or arms.
By the time we landed at Mersing on the mainland, we were very hungry. We'd been hungry even before the boat arrived at the island and Bena and Konrad had been about to go get some hamburgers when they saw the ferry coming. I'd been worried that they'd be gone when the boat arrived and we'd all miss out again so I was so glad they stuck around but now food was even more important. But more pressing still was getting bus tickets back to JB. We found the correct place to buy them and learned the bus was coming right away. Do I have time to go to the washroom, I asked. Yes. So I rushed.
The bus still wasn't there, so Konrad went to get food. He was still gone when the bus arrived. Bena ran to get Konrad and the ticket agent kept urging Tom and me to "hurry! hurry!" to the bus.
"But there's two more of us!" I protested, holding up two fingers.
"Hurry! Hurry!" she insisted, so we moved toward the bus but no way was I going to get on without Konrad and Bena. Thankfully, they appeared behind us just then, and I pulled myself up on board with relief.
We arrived in JB around 5:00. Bena's mom picked us up from the bus station and had a wonderful meal waiting for us back home--food I could eat. Yay! It was so yummy! I think I was in bed with the lights out before 7:00 p.m. but now, just past noon, I feel like I could sleep some more. Today will be low-key but tomorrow we go to Singapore. I've been looking forward to having tea at the Raffles Hotel.
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