Sorry it’s been so long between posts. It’s due to a combination of spending quite a lot of our time underwater, not having particularly reliable internet access (aka livin’ the island dream), not having been to many different places recently, and just generally being a bit lazy. Anyhow, here’s a taste of what we’ve been up to for almost three months on Pulao Tioman.
When we quit our jobs, left our home and set off on the Pino, we were full of trepidation, excitement and half-formed plans, but had no real idea about where we’d end up or what our journey would be like. We hoped we’d stick at it for at least six months, but I don’t think either of us seriously expected to still be on the road after more than three years. And perhaps we’re not any more. The constant moving; the daily chores of finding water, food, somewhere to sleep; the heat; the traffic; the hills: it’s been an enormously rewarding and mostly enjoyable experience, but right now we’re relishing the change of pace. Of course, we’ve had breaks from pedalling before – renovating Keith’s parent’s house back in 2011, returning home for various family celebrations at the end of 2012, and then training as divemasters on Koh Tao in 2013 – but during each of these previous breaks our onward journey has always been at the forefront of our minds and the breaks, whilst welcome, have most definitely been time-limited. This time, though, it’s different (for me at any rate – Keith’s thoughts on the future can be a bit harder to pin down).
For both of us, learning to dive changed everything. We first tried it simply because the opportunity presented itself, but we immediately realised it was something we wanted to do more of. We became divemasters because we couldn’t afford to dive any other way: it has to pay for itself. But the more we dive, the more we love it and the more we want it to be part of our lives. Working as divemasters can be stressful (always dealing with new people, trying to make the right judgement call if things don’t quite go as expected, spending hours on noisy boats) but being suspended in the water, bathed in sunlight, free to move in any direction, giggling as a furiously territorial damselfish charges impotently towards us (about as scary as being attacked by a handkerchief), watching a turtle’s sedate progress across a reef, and stopping, transfixed, as he regards us in turn; it’s just mind-blowing…and sharing this with other divers is the icing on the cake. It’s changing the way we feel about travelling. For the first time I am realising that this trip might not be a discrete element in our lives at the end of which we return to the UK to resume if not our old lives then at least some semblance of a ‘normal life’; instead, we might have stumbled upon a whole new way of life right here. We’re by no means ready to give up on our tandem travels, but I no longer want to be on the bike every day; I want to be in the water…and I have to admit it is rather nice knowing we have a roof over our heads (albeit a rickety one) and a stocked fridge (recent purchase) to come home to. So, we need to decide…do we continue with our plan to pedal through Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand (and perhaps then on to the Americas) or do we settle down, become dive instructors and put the pedalling on hold for a while. Will our cycle journey feel as rewarding if we break it into smaller chunks interspersed with longer periods (months/years?) living and working as divers? Will it cease to count as a single trip and just become a series of separate cycling holidays? Does that matter? It’s not a decision we need to make immediately, but it’s one that we definitely need to address at some point fairly soon….let’s just hope we both arrive at the same conclusion!
So what’s our life like these days now we’re not constantly on the move? Well, we’re staying in a little village called Air Batang but more commonly known as ABC. It’s basically a strip of guesthouses, restaurants, private residences, dive schools and small shops running for approximately a kilometre and a half alongside a pebbly shore. Densely forested hills rise steeply just behind the houses. There’s a small jetty around the midpoint of the village, accessed from the single concrete road running the length of the village that’s just wide enough for a motorbike and sidecar. Two such vehicles trying to pass each other have to drop their sidecar wheel off the concrete onto the sandy verge.
Our bungalow is a ramshackle affair, with a roof that’s seen better days, floorboards that bend and creak alarmingly, gaps between the walls and a resident population of mosquitoes, ants, moths, spiders, geckos and a green and orange stripy toad. In the absence of a wardrobe we’ve strung a rope across one wall, and a mozzie net keeps most of the bugs out of the bed. We have a little verandah and our neighbourhood cats (Ginger, Noisy, Cataract and Adolf) are friendly and generally well-behaved. Some days the cold shower makes us gasp, but for the most part it’s a welcome respite from the relentless heat. All in all, it’s a lovely little home.
Our alarm wakes us at 7am and after a leisurely breakfast we hop on the Pino for the 800m commute to work, arriving for 8am. There are various tasks to amuse us for the first half hour (cleaning and filling the rinse tanks, preparing spare bags, regulators and drinking-water for the boats, sweeping and cleaning, setting out the coffee & tea area) and at 08:30 we help oversee the movement of customers as they put their bags in the correct location for the boat they will be on, and also sort out paperwork and gear for new divers. If we’re diving in the morning then around 08:45 we escort our divers down to the jetty, get them settled on the boat, oversee them putting their gear together, chat with them on the way to the dive site, brief them on the dive and then jump in the water for 50 minutes of bliss. In between dives we serve lunch, make sure everyone’s swapped tanks and brief for dive two. After dive two we oversee the dismantling of gear and return to shore at some time between 1:00 and 2:30pm depending on which boat and dive sites.
The afternoon dive at 3pm is a repeat of the morning but without the meal (it’s just a single dive). There is sometimes a night dive too. If we’re not on the boat then we might be leading a shore dive, or, a particular favourite, conducting a scuba refresher, where we take certified divers who haven’t dived in a while and remind them of how to use the equipment and run them through a few skills before taking them for a dive. If we’ve got nothing on then we just hang around the bar area (me reading, Keith practicing his ukulele) or we might grab a couple of bin bags and do a beach clean-up. We also use quiet days to ride over to Tekek (the ‘Big Smoke’ which has an ATM, a bakery and a couple of shops selling fresh fruit and veg) and pick up some provisions. Another good source of fresh fruit is the mango tree outside the school, where a thump followed by the cry of ‘Mango!’ is the cue for Keith to sprint to claim the bounty before anyone else can. There’s also a durian tree, rambutan tree and an avocado tree.
Throughout the day we can kill some time with general tidying jobs and try to waylay any passing potential divers, enthusing about the dive sites and hopefully signing them up for some dives. At 7pm we check the board for the next day’s dives and either head to the bar for a beer or meander home to cook dinner and chat with our neighbours (dive instructors Wendy and Steve) or pop to the next-door restaurant for an FCCBC (Fried Chicken Chilli Burger & Chips) if we are feeling extravagant, or a vege soup or fried rice paprit on a more mundane evening. Sometimes there’s live music at one of the bars, which Keith will quite often go to whilst I prefer the quiet solace of a good book.
For our first month or so we were more than happy to eat out every night, enjoying cheap, tasty food. Cooking dinner for ourselves was rather forced upon us a few days into Ramadan, when the declining number of open restaurants dwindled still further until, to our chagrin, Mawar (of FCCBC fame, and also our landlord) closed its doors. Rather than trawl the length of Air Batang looking for somewhere that might randomly be open we opted to cook for ourselves. We were luckier than most in that we have a camp stove. It’s been the same story in the mornings; we’ve always prepared our own breakfast in our room, but we know that other divers have had a frustrating time over the last month trying to find anywhere serving breakfast. For lunch Keith has retained his old Koh Tao habit of having a pot noodle, but I can’t stand them anymore and was delighted to discover a shop selling nasi lemak (rice with half a hardboiled egg, some anchovies, peanuts and a spicy sauce) wrapped in a banana leaf for the equivalent of about 30p – I’d buy one in the morning on the way to work to have for lunch, but for Ramadan that all stopped and I’d have to nip home and make a quick salad.
At the end of Ramadan we were rewarded with Hari Raya, which is basically open house feasting for a couple of days (sadly followed by a further period of most restaurants being closed – hopefully that is changing as Mawar was open last night). On the first day of Hari Raya everyone from ABC went to Tekek. The dive school was still open, albeit with later dive schedule, so as we couldn’t get to Tekek the dive shop owner put on a feast for the staff: beef rendang and a lovely chicken curry.
The next day it was the turn of restaurants and homes in ABC to play host. Some of the other diver staff enjoyed five or six lunches….Keith and I restricted ourselves to just one now that we’re not burning calories on the bike. I’ve never seen the village so busy. It was a good couple of days, mostly full of happiness and excessive hospitality, but sadly for some families this period of celebration was by shaken by three unrelated, sudden deaths, including the grandmother of one of the local guys working at the dive school. The dead are buried within 24 hours here and it was impossible to know whether the sidecars full of smartly-dressed locals were attending Hari Raya celebrations or going to a funeral.
During this period of near-daily diving and adjustment to island life we came to the end of our allocated 90 days in Malaysia and had to do a quick trip to Singapore. We stayed with a Dutch tec diver we’d met at the dive school and had a couple of enjoyable but busy days buying a few more diving-related bits and bobs. It was a relatively expensive few days as our trip off the island gave us the chance to go to a proper supermarket so we returned laden with three months’ worth of cornflakes, muesli and powdered milk, and we also, somewhat on the spur of the moment, bought a refrigerator and a cheap bicycle (so that we can make the journey from our home in ABC to Tekek without having to lug a large tandem single-handedly up and down several flights of steps or alternatively wait for a time when we’re both free to go shopping together). Keith denies it when questioned, but to me, these are not the purchases of people who only intend to spend the next 90 days here.
And so, to finish, here are a few more pics: