Eyeless in the jungle – a visit to Malaysia’s Tioman Island
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
for the boat-bus
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
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.
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…
“… why? I don’t
know. Why don’t pigs whistle?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
say, “we gotta do something, right?”
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!
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
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.
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!”
shit, we’re on fire