The last stage of the trip to the Perhentian Islands was spent gripping the wooden seat of a small high-speed ferry that carved a foamy white gouge through impossibly blue water. Not thinking I would be able to get so far on a Sunday, I arrived poorly prepared with no accommodation booked, and screaming over the wind to the other people aboard the boat I started getting worried. They had all booked well in advance, and all that I could find online with my stuttering internet signal was five star accommodation with price tags that would make the Kardashians blush. When the skipper asked me which island I wanted to be dropped at, I really didn’t have an answer, and just repeated what the previous person said – Kecil. So, I paid the ferryman – once he got me to the other side – but standing barefoot in the sand of Coral beach, I was a man very much without a plan.
Perhentian Kecil is small, and Coral beach itself is only a hundred odd metres long. A thin, sparkling white crescent of sand sliced out of the thickly jungled hills of the island’s interior. A grove of coconut palms marks the approximate centre of the beach, and without any better ideas I made my way towards them. Coming out of the sun the temperature dropped palpably, and I approached a central gazebo strung on all sides with hammocks and surrounded by a cluster of perhaps a dozen dilapidated huts. Five people were sharing a shady breakfast in the gazebo and they called out their hellos with no two accents alike. On asking if there were any available rooms, Zani, the proprietor, offered me the key to number 11. I sat down with the group and filled out the visitor log, welcoming the offered papaya, bananas and a mug of sweet, white tea. Such was my introduction to Perhentian Kecil.
To say that my accommodation was basic doesn’t do it justice. Once I had mastered the key and coerced the lock to turn, I would put my shoulder to the door to skid it open across the sagging floorboards. The floor tilted downhill following the fall of the ground beneath and anything unsecured that was nearly round would make its way towards the back of the room through the course of the day. There were two hinged windows at the back which I could almost force shut against the misshapen window frame. These offered little resistance to the squadrons of migratory mosquitoes that had their noses tuned to well-veined mammal from the moment I’d stepped off the ferry. A flimsy pink mosquito net suggested that insects had been a problem in the past, and the myriad cigarette burn holes in it suggested that they may prove a future problem still. The door into the shower area was equally belligerent. Cardboard thin and already buckled, I could scrape it against the floor far enough to squeeze past on peak inspiration, but no more without risking tearing it off a hinge. Later as I moved about the room I would stand on the loose floor board upon which the door was wedged, making it swing shut with a bang. Every single time it would make me jump. Pedro, the well mannered, resident rat who never ate more than his fair portion, would be equally offended by this intrusion on his peace and quiet. He would disappear down his hole on his way to wherever else he time-shared, evidently rating it a higher standard of living to what I was offering. On dark, the diesel generator would come on, giving the buckled fan incentive to spin like the propeller of a crashed aeroplane. Seeing how it wobbled on its axle, I was never game to send it to more to half speed in case it let go of its mooring and diced what remained of my mosquito net like a confetti machine.
On my first night the mosquitoes nearly carried me out of the room, and Pedro, obviously relieved to have the insects distracted by a hairless housemate, took the opportunity to investigate my bags for most of the night. However I positioned my net, the mosquitoes could find a way to dart through it. On arrival, I had bought a battered copy of the Four Minute Mile for a ridiculously extorted price from a nefarious little beachfront general store. Every few hours I would turn on my head torch and bludgeon as many insects as I could find – a good number of them fat-bellied and drowsy after gargling my precious claret. My neighbours must have thought there was an epileptic next door, periodically convulsing off the walls. Roger Bannister’s biography proved a godsend, being swung around like a tennis racquet, and in a manner that paid scant respect to his achievements. By morning, the bedsheet was littered with carcasses and quite a large volume of O negative, making it appear a little like the Shroud of Turin. And my reliably Oil of Ulan complexion looked like that of an adolescent with a bad diet.
Despite the ominous start, my new friends warned me that the Perhentians had a way of creeping up on people, and taking a hold on them. All of them had stayed longer than their original plan. When I declared that my time budget was for three nights only, they scoffed and looked away – you know nothing, Jon Snow. True to their word, I extended my stay – twice.
In all, I spent six happy shirtless, shoeless, internetless days on the Perhentians. The company was fantastic, the diving sublime, the food cheap and reliably good. With my new friends we trekked the interior jungle paths to hidden beaches, finding amongst other things, a massive, rusting staircase to nowhere. In the absence of any other man-made creations it really did appear like a post apocalyptic scene. We dived the wreck of a Vietnamese refugee boat. We paddled a sea kayak off shore, mooring at a buoy perhaps 200m out, snorkelling an incredible reef with sharks, barracuda, turtles and shimmering, colourful clouds of small fish until the sun set. We tried to catch good photos of the massive monitor lizards that would stalk across the clearing under the coconut palms. The mother of them all – a green and yellow leviathan with a waistline the size of mine and legs as fat as my upper arms – proving nimble and elusive despite her bulk. And, after I had bombed my room with enough citronella to make me wheeze, and Pedro glare accusingly through beady, watering eyes, I slept like in a coma.
Zani could reliably be found swinging the day away in a hammock, his shirt pulled up to expose a brown, bowling ball belly. His eyes were always half closed making it difficult to gauge his consciousness, but after a while I came to realise that the he looked like this even when he was walking around. He looked after us as though we were his children, cooking up spicy chicken dinners and patented cups of milo, and fresh papaya, mangoes and watermelon at breakfast. As he rocked away in his torpor, fumbling in his pocket for a lighter that was never where he thought it was, we would stand to attention and report our plans for the day. With heavy-lidded eyes he would wave us off with his catch cry phrase – be carefool, my frie-end, his voice thick with a faux French accent. I’m sure he was generally asleep again by the time we had about-turned and forward marched.
The heat of the day has a sedating effect and I quickly learnt from Zani’s example. I claimed a hammock early, and to the rhythmic tick of cicadas and the soft wash of waves on sand, spent a reasonable amount of time measuring my length in it. A coconut would fall from a tree with a thud – I would peel open a bleary eye for enough time to make sure no one was under it. The resident cat would rouse with a face-splitting yawn, stretch then march determined for a few paces before collapsing exhausted in a new sleeping hole. A fly would buzz languidly in the sun before giving up its plan as too much effort, and retreating back to the shade. All the while the lizards would pace back and forth across the clearing – the only animals with a metabolism suited to activity in the heat of the day. Initially, my pride still injured from the National Mosque incident, I would watch them left and right like a slow motion tennis match. But after a while I relaxed my caution, realising that despite my inactivity I was too far from decomposing to be of much interest to them – best just to stay horizontal so as not to look like a tree. I would turn to apologizing to Roger Bannister and picking stray wings and furry legs out of his memoirs.
The Perhentians offered such a simple, uncluttered lifestyle that any other type of accommodation would have seemed excessive, even vulgar. It is probably the closest I will ever come to the true essence of living on a tropical island. In the end, our happy union of nations disbanded at roughly the same time. An appropriate finish, as I think if any one of us had bent in their resolve and decided to stay longer, the rest of the group may have folded and followed suit. After six days, Brett’s exit (Brexit) from the union was the majority vote of the comprehensive referendum of one. No matter how unpopular, or how many valid arguments to the contrary, it was time for independence again. The ferry carried me away from Kecil.