After a monotonous hour-long ride on a droning ferry, I finally step foot on Tioman - to find it much more bustling and developed than I had expected. I am greeted by a concrete jetty, rows of brick-and-concrete budget hotels, and swarms of local folk goin about their daily business as in any other small town. With the vast sea at my back I almost wonder for a moment if I'm really on an island.
We set off through the village as I silently ask myself why we travelled 5 hours from the concrete jungle of KL to see more concrete, and if Malaysian budget hotels can be any more aesthetically unappealing. A few Caucasian tourists stroll past, attired in casual beach wear, and the place starts to feel a little more island-y. Upon reaching our place of lodging I discover that we are staying in, alas, another concrete building.
I only finally discover the magic of Tioman when we head to the beachfront for a briefing at the dive center.
We arrive at the beach, a stone's throw away from where we were staying, as the familiar, comforting smell of salt water drifts along on a warm breeze. Facing the beach is a rickety wooden bar, and mellow acoustic rhythms of Jack Johnson drift from somewhere inside it. Under the makeshift structure, backpackers and tanned bar staff laze around on hammocks, while some others connect a guitar and a bass to an amp before live, funky island grooves drown out Jack Johnson's croons.
Next to the bar is Ray's dive center - another small shack where a group of divers have just returned from a dive and are unloading their gear. You can tell who the seasoned old salts are by their tans - rich, dark, golden brown hues - and how long they take to remove their gear. Those two factors aside, one could easily mistake one of the dive students, an Asian Channing Tatum look-alike who filled out his wetsuit marvellously, for an instructor.
Yes, KL is finally starting to feel very far away.
I see the world and live my life differently from most people - something that I pride myself on, most days, when I'm not going through the occasional bout of self-doubt.
Ask me about accomplishments like getting my PADI Open Water dive certification, and I won't rave about the deadly sea urchins or huge sea turtle I saw, although it was certainly a beautiful creature. I won't talk about how cold (or in my case, not very cold) the water was or how heavy the air tanks were.
In fact I probably won't have much to say about the dives in themselves - even though all the things I took away from the trip wouldn't have happened if not for the dives.
No, ask me about my diving trip and I'll tell you about my life-long battle with eczema and skin allergies, and how the very things I love - sun, sand, and sea - are all things that trigger my skin issues. I'll tell you how on this trip, my skin flared up worst than it ever has before - to the point of huge, red, scaly blotches covering my arms, legs, and back and my skin feeling sore and bruised when rubbed against. I'll tell you how the battle against the itchiness and discomfort is nothing compared to the battle against the thoughts that everyone is staring at you, and that they think you're a freak, even if they're probably not doing either.
I'll tell you that the beauty that made me stop and catch a breath was not in any of the natural wonders of the sea in all their pristine perfection - it was in a crooked, genuine smile of one of the local bartenders who said, "As long as you have a beautiful smile, nobody will care how your skin looks."
It was in the time one of the dive center staff, a tattooed, ex-navy took to bring me to the local clinic to get some anti allergy pills after his working hours. It was in the way we hitched a free ride to a clinic, and how the doctors didn't charge us for the meds or consultation, not to mention dragging them out of their homes at night after clinic hours - because "that's small island life - everybody knows everybody", and people help each other out.
It was in the tears of a mother of one of the children in our group learning to dive, as she shared her story of her own fight against the eczema her son used to struggle with and the frustration of trying prescription after prescription from doctor after doctor to no avail.
Maybe I take the fact that I've gotten to see so many beautiful places and sights for granted. I've traveled Europe, explored tropical seas (well, as much as an amateur dive student can, at least)... but as I always tell people, "it looks better in pictures". Maybe.
But the privilege of meeting strangers who inspire and restore my faith in the human spirit - the privilege of having their lives touch mine for a brief, but profound, moment - will always be, to me, far more beautiful than any sights I can lay my eyes on. Such beauty goes beyond the visible - beyond toothy grins, tattooed arms, or generation gaps - to a beauty not just seen but felt by the heart.
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