As we bounced over the crashing, inky blue waves our pale faces scrunched up like old newspaper, trying to avoid the sight of the stormy sea ahead, with horizontal sea spray lashing at us, we quivered as the boat rose higher into the air while we instilled all of our trust in a rather anxious looking local boat driver! Perhaps it was his relative youth that was the real fear factor.
We edged alongside some rickety, depleted wooden steps, but we had not truly arrived until we had our two feet firmly on the ground. We were just 19km from Kuala Besut, but it felt a lifetime away. Children came rushing out, gleaming with smiles from ear to ear and wearing odd oversized clothing. The sound of laughter warmed the heart, as they hurried to see what had arrived. Supplies from the mainland, siblings returning from school and volunteers like myself to help in the village.
Immediately we were part of the family. The fishing village is the real spirit of Puala Perhentian, which is overpassed by many tourists. A place with astonishing beauty, but a magnitude of problems which are causing environmental damage to the marine-protected coral lined islands. The island only educates children up to primary school level. After that they will be sent to the mainland to go to a comprehensive school, and board if their parents can afford for them to do so. If not they will stay behind and add to the ever growing number of boat men with little prospects.
When leaving the jetty I was whisked into a whirlwind of aromas, as ladies in a kaleidoscope of colours prepared an array of delicious culinary delights. ‘Makan! Makan!’ they shouted with glee, beaming from their bronzed faces whilst trying to entice us to try anything from dried squid, to doughnuts and roti Cani! We curiously followed the narrow winding paths further into the rickety stilt houses to find our volunteering shack. Our legs, the only form of transport on the island. Meaning you can grab a sour green mango from the tree along the way, or chat to the ladies with tiny babies hiding from the blaring sun. The fishing village in particular has a strong Muslim following, so your shoulders and knees should never be exposed as a sign of respect… this doesn’t do any harm in helping to avoid sun burn!
As dusk fell upon us under the musky grey sky, heavy with stars, we were becoming immersed into local life. A water drought meant that the best way to wash was from the well, so buckets were gathered as we all huddled around, chickens flapped frantically, and large monitor lizards lurked nearby. Buckets at hand, all gathered around the well, this meant only one thing for the village children…a WATER FIGHT! As they say the happiest people don’t have the best of everything, they make the best of what they’ve got!
Dawn came as the sun danced over the shimmering turquoise waters, and we dove into the water with coral charts to evaluate the intensity of damage and asses the colours for a research programme, whilst keeping a look out for stunning green sea turtles that passed by! In the afternoon we taught English to the PILA ladies, who enlightened us by sharing their talent of making doughnuts. I was inspired by their true contentment.
We shared in the sheer happiness that connected us, defying the cultural and language boundaries that restrained us from purely igniting with other souls around the world. The Perhentian Island Ladies Association (PILA), are the women who keep the community together by their passion they have for their village. They are the parents, the teachers, the bakers, the fundraisers, organisers and everything else in-between. Committing so much of their time to their community, and allowing tourists and volunteers to have the most wonderful experiences. They opened up their lives to share with us, their homes and traditional meals.
Besides the traditional Malay evening dinner, we learnt how to tie a sarong properly, and eat bare foot and crossed legged on the floor, (a bit of a challenge for those not so flexible), and of course we were only allowed to use our hands! At lunchtimes all of the street stalls at the waterfront came alive with a variation of dishes cooked with love, served almost like a school dinner, as you queue up with your plate but …at lunch times you can sit on a chair and use cutlery! Don’t miss out on a homemade lemonade or a cold ‘Milo’… Or even a ‘teh tarik’ if you have a sweet tooth!
It’s a very loose term to be a ‘backpacker’, many leave home with a sense of freedom and curiosity. But, to travel and only ‘see’ things does not suffice the soul, as engaging all the senses does. To be able to live as others do and put yourself out of your comfort zone, allows a whole new dimension of ‘travel’. It provokes feelings and emotions, which allow you to expand your heart and mind.
I would highly recommend ‘volun-tourism’ to take your travels to a depth in which you become involved, rather than just looking in from the outside, to truly make an experience of it. I will never forget the people I met here, the memories we made, or the henna tattoo from the young girls which lasted for weeks after! This was a true cultural exchange, not only did we share our language and skills with them, but they took the time to teach us Malay, to show us their local food, celebrations and traditional dress. The Perhentian Islands are a well-known stop on the typical backpacker route of South East Asia. This is no surprise due to the diversity of activities on the islands ranging from the buzzing nightlife to the beautiful coral reefs. Either way if you are lucky enough to visit the islands enjoy the experience!
I’m Bridgette Dobinson, a 20 year old British girl. Eager to explore. Travelled 20+ countries in 5 different continents after going on my first adventure alone to the USA at 14. Spending a year backpacking in Asia last year and now travelling in New Zealand writing a very casual blog to keep up to date with friends and family.
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