“Aaahh...what you call watermelon in Malay?”
When you’re lucky, you get taxi drivers that try their best to keep you entertained throughout a long journey. I did my best to return the favour – and to keep myself awake after an early morning flight. It was another hour to the Kuala Besut jetty.
“Hah, yes yes! But here in ‘Ganu, people call it timun Cina (Chinese cucumber)!” We would soon learn that the locals referred to plastic bags as sumpit, something my Sarawakian friend who was in the taxi with me laughed to. We would also come to know that Mr. Taxi-man used to be a part of the big city and owned a business, but moved to this quiet little town to be with his wife and to savour the slower pace of life.
“Sooo..you’re.. Weee..ii…Veerrr…nn…?” Daphna, the Dutch receptionist at Turtle Bay Divers greeted us with some contagious enthusiasm. I lifted my hand slowly and before I could answer, another voice came from behind.
“You’re Wei Vern?! AWESOME! So you’re diving with us today!” A tall, lanky, Australian Owen Wilson-lookalike took my hand and shook it with a big smile plastered on his face. “Hi, I’m Ben, and I’ll be your dive guide today.”
“Oh, I’m actually here to get my license…” I could see Ben’s face drop as he replied, “Oh, I thought you’ll be doing leisure dives with us.”
After explaining that only Michelle and myself would be taking our license while the rest of the group would be doing leisure dives, his smile came back up. Not long after we filled in the necessary forms, our dive instructor came along. I thought he looked like Dr. Wilson from House – just shorter. Is this dive center filled with celebrity lookalikes?
“Hi, I’m Ben,” this time I heard an American twang.
I looked at Daphna and asked, “How many Bens are there?”
She smiled, “Many. That one… (pointing to the Owen Wilson – Ben) we call him Ben 10.”
“Aaahhh…” everybody went.
‘When people take their first breath underwater, it’s an experience they never forget.’
I recalled the video tutorial that we were watching before our first shallow water dive and despite the fact that the video is probably twenty years old, it held some truth. Breathing underwater is amazing. Well, it felt claustrophobic to me at first because being in shallow waters means you’re on sandy bottoms where visibility isn’t great and you can feel the current swaying you about. And the parts where Ben asked us to let the water into our masks just so we learn how to clear it didn’t make the first dive too comfortable for us, or for me at least.
But as we practiced our skills again and again, the whole experience got better, and better. Until we hit the open waters.
And then it was magical.
Just when I thought the world was big enough, there was a whole new dimension underwater. The first thing we encountered were the cleaner shrimps. Ben guided us to a coral on the seabed and asked us to put our fingers near. The micro semi-transparent shrimps climbed onto our fingers and gave us a mini manicure session. Time stood still as I watched the tiny organism hop on and off my finger. It was definitely love at first sight.
After four diving sessions and countless boring video tutorials, we took our final written exam. As we finished our last open water dive to complete the course, we were proudly pronounced “Team Certified!” by Theresa, a spunky New Yorker who was guiding another leisure dive in the same boat as us. Everyone in the boat cheered even though half of us didn’t know each other. It felt good. Mission accomplished.
Perhentian Island itself is amazing. We stayed in Perhentian Besar, where most of the dive centers are, and Perhentian Kecil hosts the stretch of fine sandy beach and restaurants which is just a five-minute boat ride away. I had the best steak in my life (and paid a ransom for it), with the best company of friends I could ever ask for.
If you’re ever there, do look out for a jagung bakar (grilled corn) stall manned by a young Malay chap with stylish Rayban wayfarers. He used to be an engineer in an oil and gas company – but fell in love with Perhentian the moment he stepped foot on it. He finds joy in making the perfect grilled corn, so much so that he only grills about 10 to 20 a day for fun and sometimes gives away the last few just to make some people smile. That bloody corn is that good.
On the last night of our holiday, we took a water taxi from Kecil to Besar in complete darkness, only to be in sheer awe when we looked up. It was as if the entire Milky Way was sitting right on top of us. And as our taxi guide shone his torch to the waters, we saw a stingray swimming right by us just below the surface of the water.
That five-minute boat ride felt like an expensive cruise.
Will I be back again? I’m sure I will, after a few trips elsewhere first. There are many dive sites in this little island that I have yet to explore, and friends that I have yet to make.
And I might just come back just to catch round two of this:
Getting my diving license ticks off another item off the bucket list, alongside bungee jumping which was done two years ago. I would also like to thank Esther forthe photos (second frame) that were put up in today's post. I will never underestimate another iPhone again.