The Magic of Monkeys

Spring Break 2004, my last one in SE Asia. Although I wasn’t sure where I would be the next teaching year, I knew it would no longer be in Bangkok, where I’d been living for the last three years. My partner in crime, Rebecca, and I decided to head down to Malaysia for the April holiday with our friend Austin. It was to be a cultural trip, no romantic encounters allowed. Well, what can you do when destiny steps in and fate takes over?

Malaysia in April is HOT. The three of us arrived in Kuala Lumpur by plane and bussed it over to Melaka, where it was even hotter than KL. I remember a lot of sweat and a lot of sunburn. We spent time in markets, air-conditioned restaurants, and museums. We waited in long lines to walk across the bridge between the two Petronas Towers. I don’t think I had ever learned so much about the history of a place I was visiting than I did in Malaysia. We went to every historical museum and site and I read EVERYTHING. We also did some shopping, visiting some ancient tea shops and antique-silver jewelry shops while in Melaka and several outdoor markets in KL. I still have the silver rings in my second ear holes from that trip.

After doing the tourist thing, we decided we needed some time to put our feet up and enjoy some sun, sand and sea. While in Melaka, we visited a travel agency, inquiring a bit more about the island destinations off the mainland. The travel agent told us the ferry made several stops on Tioman Island but the best place to get off was the last stop. From Melaka we took another bus to Mersing on the other side of Malaysia. From there we got a ferry to Tioman Island, stopping at the northern most village, Salang. A popular destination with backpackers, this small village was inhabited by a couple drinking holes and diving companies with scattered bungalows and chalets for staying at. Malaysia is a Muslim country and many areas are dry, where liquor is not served.

Austin was determined to work on his tan while Rebecca and I wanted to spend some time perfecting our swimming techniques and snorkeling with the local underwater wildlife. There were three small mini-islands as well as beaches around the island where we could all be satisfied. On the second day of our stay we decided to take a boat to an uninhabited beach, called Monkey Bay, just a short boat ride around the corner from Salang. You could also get to the bay on an hour or so trek through the jungle. Guess which one we chose? The boat dropped us off and we organized for it to return in a couple of hours. Rebecca and I set up our towels and bags in the shade, while Austin found a location a bit further down the beach in the sun. Setting his timer for 30 minutes each side, he set his sights on the perfect tan. Rebecca and I decided to soak up the sun while swimming and headed for the tropical turquoise waters.

While practicing our head stands underwater and laughing our asses off we didn’t notice someone walking out of the jungle about 20 feet away. Two someones. After a few underwater twirls, I came up to see a young man with fisherman pants on and a tank top. I had seen him when we first arrived the day before, passing near the shell of a building, we had smiled at each other and kept walking. His smiling eyes had caught my attention but I pushed him out of my mind. This was my last trip with Rebecca and we were not on the prowl for the backpackers we usually enjoyed meeting on our other, more wild, beach adventures.

“Is that your stuff over there near the trees?” he asked, pointing. Our eyes followed the direction of his hand and yes, we saw that our things were being rummaged through by three or four macaque monkeys. We shouted in Austin’s direction but he was not to be interrupted by our screams. He still had ten minutes left on his front and wasn’t quite aware of our urgency. Later he claimed that although he could hear our screams, he could not decipher them. But not to worry, we had a different knight in shining armor come to our rescue, this one with his long brown hair held back in a head wrap, instead of a silver helmet. The two guys who had walked out of the jungle, sweaty and hot, ran toward our things, while Rebecca and I waded out of the water. By the time we joined them, the monkeys were chewing our gum and running around with our backpacks on their backs. Ok, not quite, but our things were everywhere and they did seem to have run off with a few of them, leaving a trail of gum and sunblock into the jungle. We laughed at our misfortune and introduced ourselves. I don’t remember the name of the other boy (Paul from England), but the one I had my eye on was called Ali. Ali from Australia.

They shared the story of their trek and we all cooled off in the water, still laughing and joking about the monkey ‘attack’. Austin had switched to his back and was snoozing in the early afternoon sun. We convinced the two boys to take our boat back with us rather than trekking back through the jungle. The boat ride was just about 10 minutes from the beach where we were staying, just long enough to make plans to meet up for a drink later that evening. We parted ways at the dock and headed back to our chalet for a shower and some lunch.

After dinner, Rebecca, Austin and I headed down to the one bar on Tioman. Although the restaurant at our chalet also sold alcohol, there was only one place considered a bar. We met up with Paul and started to play cards. Ali was not around and as the time went by, I was a bit nervous he wouldn’t show. These two weren’t traveling with each other, they had just met up on the ferry to the island. Finally Ali walked up, wet and exhausted from a swim out to a rock and back about a kilometer from the shore. I couldn’t have been happier. I think my heart may even have skipped a beat and my stomach dropped in that way it does when you are swinging so high and you come down really fast. We paired up, played Euchre and 500, card games we taught each other, and drank until everyone was tired. But I didn’t want the night to end.

Ali and I headed down to the beach to watched the stars. I clumsily stubbed my toe on the concrete walkway en route and my toe began gushing blood. We took a detour to his modest bungalow and he bandaged up my toe, then we walked hand in hand to the beach. Lying side by side, we shared stories and dreams, while looking for shooting stars. Ali had the brilliant idea to sleep on the beach and asked me back to his bungalow to fetch a blanket that we could spread out on the sandy shore. Once back at the bungalow, there was no blanket. So much for a trip without romantic encounters. Just after the sun rose I walked back to my own place which I shared with Austin and Rebecca, feeling a bit guilty at my absence the night before. For the first time on all of our beach adventures, I didn’t want to share the details from the night before. Somehow, I felt that this boy was someone special.

After catching up on some sleep, I took my journal to the chalet restaurant and recounted the night before. I remember writing about how I was worried I wouldn’t see him again and suddenly there he was standing over me. My heart skipped again. Ali sat down across from me and I covered my writing, hoping he didn’t see his name. He was headed back to KL on a bus that afternoon to attend a protest against the government. An aspiring journalist, he was planning to interview the wife of a very important man that had been jailed for speaking out against the government. He invited me along. The excitement of such an adventure was luring, but I declined, knowing that this was my last trip with my friends. I wasn’t even worried that it might not be safe. Because I would be with him.

While Ali was making history, I stayed on the beach, sunbathing and snorkeling in the most beautiful underwater world I have ever seen. Fully recharged, Austin with the perfect tan, we left two days later, taking the bus back to KL. I wrote in my journal most of the way, describing the scenery out the bus window, contemplating whether Ali and I would ever see each other again, and remembering the short time we had spend together. While waiting in line for the ATM at the bus station in KL, I looked up and suddenly there was Ali, headed back to Mersing after realizing he had possibly left his journal behind. What are the chances of seeing each other days later at a crowded bus station in a city we weren’t meant to be in at the same time? We were so happy and surprised to see each other. I realized that we really might see each other again. That we really might email. That he really might come through Bangkok after a few months of traveling through the tropics and take up residence on my couch. After the chance encounter at the bus station, anything was possible.

Kara Melissa

May 26, 2011

For a few photos and an extended version of the story, visit an older post, My Fairy Tale


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