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Eyeless in the jungle – a visit to Malaysia’s Tioman Island 

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead." / Albert Einstein


I’m crawling blindly on my hands and knees through the pitch black tropical jungle of Tioman Island, hopelessly trying to see using a piece-of-crap counterfeit Zippo lighter from Viet Nam.  Flashlight gave up the ghost; it’s too dark to look for a stick-as-cane, and my daybag’s been left back at the hut. I feel dumber than Larry, uglier than Moe, and less funny than Shemp. Welcome to our island, dipshit. 

We’re on our way back from one of the beer-allowed locations on the beach – daytime a pleasant stroll - but nighttime, cause of tides, it’s the jungle route required.

Typical beach

Off Malaysia’s East Coast, Tioman’s a sybarite’s delight of exotic rainforest and endless pristine beaches. The traditional form of Islam practiced – mostly through limited alcohol availability – keeps many people away, making it blessedly untouristed. Limited and expensive electricity means little TV, DVD’s, CD’s, Karaoke, and Internet access.  Conversation - with adventurous and interesting travelers from all around the world – takes the place of sitting and being entertained by a box. This interaction is a rare delight.


Typical  huts


Very cheap huts - perched atop concrete pilings right at waters edge - have no electricity, are lit by lanterns, share public toilets with stingingly cold water, but the beds of uneven bamboo slats topped by thin foam slabs do come with cute mosquito nets.


Essential equipment


To be fair, ours also came equipped, at no extra charge, with this huge lizardy thing living beneath it. Jofar, the owner, says the thing’s harmless, almost a pet…yeah, sure thing.

Our companion returning home


There are several tourist class hotels, a runway for limited small-plane service, but few roads. You get around by walking – you can make it from one side of the long narrow island to the other in about 3 hours - or creaky water-buses that run the perimeter from village to village. These are kinda fun, even if they do run on no known schedule. They don’t actually stop, just ram headlong into spindly docks built out over the sea. Timing the rising and falling boat, you make a desperate leap for slimy, slippery steps attached rather whimsically to eerily slanted poles. Then heave yourself up onto the dock…

Dock for the boat-bus

Albatross Woman is her usual helpful self – standing there in the total blackness giving me a huge ration of crap about checking the batteries and why didn’t I bring matches and why did I buy such a shitty lighter and we’ll never get back to our hut and she knew we shouldn’t have gone for a beer and where’s your daybag anyway and why are you down there crawling around and can’t we just walk real slow

 “… yeah, there’s a plan” I say, exasperated. “We’ll walk real slow. And fall off the goddamn bridge real slow as well, ok?” 

“…oh,” she says, “I forgot.” 

“… the bridge that got no railings? I continue. “With the deep drop to the river?”   

 “…didn’t we pass that?” she says. “I thought we passed that. We passed that, didn’t we? I’m sure we passed that.” 

Good thing I can’t find a stick. 

She’s right about the daybag though; a best bet on the road. Use a small student backpack - combination lock only, keys too easily lost.  

For daily use it should contain: water bottle; Swiss army knife (scissor, Philips & regular screwdriver, can/bottle opener, saw, nail file, knife blade); calculator; matches/lighter; tiger balm; tissues; camera; mints; pens; maps; Passport copy; emergency contact/insurance information; flashlight: mini-medical/sewing kits; sunglasses; hat; compass; small roll of scotch/duct tape; packaged snacks. 

As a carry-on, it should always be in your sight. In a cab, if other stuff’s in the trunk, daybag isn’t. Get used to keeping it with you at all times. Into it: everything valuable, not-easily-replaceable, or essential. Electronics; the full medical/toilet kits; spare glasses/medical devices; one day’s change of clothes including swim suit; all regular daily items. 

For security use, it can replace missing or unavailable hotel safes. At night, place it under a bed leg or take it to bed with you. On transport, lock it around something. In crowds, wear it on your chest instead of your back. Always keep it securely locked in public.

Lighter-from-hell blows out again. Fuck it; I heave the thing into the jungle. Christ, I’m blind. Jungle’s surprisingly noisy – sounds, magnified in the dark, become more sinister, more menacing. Vicious-sounding insects whip past frighteningly close. Guttural coughs and violent snarls come from the underbrush. Shrieks, bird calls, snorts of wild pigs erupt suddenly all around us…and snakes? I vaguely recall a Discovery Channel show where large, poisonous, tree-dwelling snakes drop silently upon their prey from low-hanging branches. Was that Malaysia?  I hunch my neck tighter into my shirt.

I sit down, wrap my arms around my knees and pull them tight to my chest – gonna be a smaller target. Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again loops through my head…

“Whattaya doin’…?”



“… why? I don’t know. Why don’t pigs whistle?”

“…they don’t whistle cause pigs ain’t got no lips?”

What can I say? “Listen, siddown, ok? Someone’ll come along - eventually. Better’n fallin’off a bridge.”

“No one’s coming,” she says with authority. “We were the last to leave tonight, everyone else’s stayin’ back there…”

Uh oh. Man, it sucks when she’s right. But now what?

Malaysian buses bring you conveniently to the seaport town of Mersing, for the ferry to Tioman. Best avoid the night ferry – especially in the rain with a rising wind.

Limited dock space means boats tie up next to each other. Makes getting to the actual ferry an interesting event – might be an exhibition sport in the next Olympics. Climb down a rain-slick broken ladder to the deck of the 1st boat. Then, timing it so the boats are sort of close to each other, leap into space with a fervent prayer that you’ll land on the deck of the 2nd boat. Be brave, only 4 more to go. Crew members treat this like an amusing spectator sport, laughing and yelling encouragement. No doubt, someone’s taking action on who’ll make it.


Night ferry

Aboard, safety equipment, paint, repairs, sanitation, and lighting are long-dead memories. A mere 2 hours late, we chug leadenly through the deepening gloom toward open water. The drizzle quickly turns into a tropical storm, with hard winds and tall white-capped waves.

The cabin roof leaks like a sieve. There’s no fans or ventilation, and with the windows shut against the storm, the reek of diesel oil is nauseating. We make our decrepit way endlessly head-on into the storm. What was supposed to be a leisurely 2 hour trip turns into a brutal 6 hour slog. Despite a solemn oath to never again fly anything smaller than a 747 - after an insane flight in a single-engine Piper Cub from Lamu to Mombassa - I decide right then and there, when it’s time to go, I’m gonna  fly back to the Mainland.

But now, 2 idyllic weeks later, huddled in the jungle, none of that matters.

“Listen,” I say, “we gotta do something, right?”

“Yeah, but what? Sit here till we get eaten?”

We lapse into silence. I start wishing I still smoked cigarettes. Of course, how would I light one? Well, I could always go back and get a light…wait a minute! That’s it! Go back!

Which we did.

After a few more weeks of idle sloth, my lust for red meat became overwhelming – cuisine on Tioman’s pretty much of the fish, rice, and veggie variety. We booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur. Several folks had told us that a place there called “The Ship” served the best meat in Asia. Made no sense to me. Beef, with that name?

The plane - nice, shiny, and new - looked very small, like a Tinker Toy on steroids. The staff was smartly dressed though, efficient, and pleasant. Hey, maybe this won’t be that bad. I said a prayer to the Gods of Transport, and boarded.

Hey, what the hell – cockpit ain’t got no fucking door! Only a goddamn curtain? Gonna be open the whole flight? I started to become agitated – I hate being able to see all those dials and switches.

I plopped down into the cramped little seat and tried to latch the seatbelt. Couldn’t. Tried again. Nope - another bad sign, even more agitation. Ok, calm down, just put the little thingie in the little slot… there, see, easy – no sweat. Except what’s pouring out of my armpits...

he pilot starts the engines. Or tries. One starts ok, but the other only belches out a great cloud of black smoke. He waits a few seconds and tries again – a bit less smoke, but still nothing. Sweat’s pouring out of my armpits.

Third time, thing coughs once, twice, and catches. I yank my seatbelt even tighter, as the engines rev in synch and we shudderingly taxi to the end of the runway. With my eyes squeezed tightly shut, I feel us turn in preparation for takeoff. My hands have a death grip on the arm rests. I stop breathing.

We suddenly hurtle down the runway toward the tree line. I wish I was Catholic so I could say a Hail Mary. I keep my eyes grimly shut. With a loud bump, I feel us lift off, tilt violently to the left, and become airborne.

I risk opening my eyes just a slit and see that smoke is covering the entire floor of the plane!

“Holy shit,” I yell at the top of my lungs, “we’re on fire!”

But that’s another story…

Holy shit, we’re on fire

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