I landed in Singapore to stifling heat and humidity and coincidentally, a hostel bunkmate from my hometown. There’s nothing like making a friend on the other side of the world who shares your accent and area code. As Roxanne and I journeyed North to Malaysia, she told me about her plans to head to the Perenthian Islands for inexpensive PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certifications. My prior experience diving was in Hurgada, Egypt, towards the start of my seven month voyage. I shouldn’t have gone as I was fighting an oncoming cold, but my couch surfing host had organized the excursion and I didn’t want him to think me uncool. Inevitably, the high-pressured chilly water kicked my sickness into high gear, and I was only able to complete one dive before spending the rest of the boat ride throwing up and sleeping. I spent the following two weeks wickedly ill, needing three doses of antibiotic butt injections to shake the infection. Now three months later I was ready to redeem myself and venture under the sea anew.
Wondering if I’d be able to find vegetarian food, I filled my bag with snacks; ten pounds of carrots and cucumbers, a big bag of peanuts, and a jar of peanut butter. I was going a week before Roxanne, but I copied her choice of diving school since I made the decision to go less than 24hours prior and was too busy hiking in the Cameron Highlands to do my own research. Booking occurred via email, and the lady I spoke to couldn’t tell me whether or not my Malaysian SIM would work on the island, though she made it clear that the diving school did not have wifi. My parents and grandparents have always been supportive of my solo travels, as long as I check in daily. The possibility of not being able to talk to them for four days was unsettling. Turns out there was full LTE coverage on the beach (perfect for instagraming the sunset) but zero signal 80 meters away in my dorm.
Regardless, I was incredibly excited to obtain my Open Water Certification. I’d seen photos of azure water and gorgeous sandy beaches with colourful huts, and could only image what the abundant sea life would be like. What I didn’t know was that the waters were teaming with sea lice. They move with the currents so their location varied from day to day, but they’re invisible creatures that filled the warm clear water and made me very reluctant to dive in. Three of the female instructors were covered in bites, itchy red welts that made them feverish and exhausted. There was no medical care on the island, so in order to get treated, they would have had to take the small jetty to the mainland for antibiotic shots. These women were miserable, yet whether they were unable to take time off work, or simply loved diving so much that they were unwilling to leave the island was unclear. During my four days there, I watched them grow increasingly ill, yet they never indicated a desire to leave as they carefully rationed allergy medication and pain killers.
The island was beautiful. I watched the sunrise every morning on the beach; pink, blue, and orange colours in the sky. My diving package included breakfast, tea or instant coffee, stale wonder bread, and aggressively sweet melon jelly that ants tried to crawl into. Needless to say I sought out my own meal, finding a stall on the beach where a shy lady with a gentle smile sold the most wonderful banana fritters. Sweet gooey fruit in a crispy doughy batter, still warm. Absolute perfection with the peanut butter I had brought. She never had change and would always tell me to pay tomorrow. The call to prayer rang out from a small green mosque as we Westerners carried our scuba gear onto little boats in order to plunge into the water. Our whole diving school ate at the same restaurant every night, a gem of a mom and daughter spot that was a short sandy walk away. They made thick spicy curries, rich with creamy coconut milk, addictively sweet, and heady with lemongrass and curry. Served with crunchy vegetables and rice noodles or warm roti, a fresh fruit smoothie or juice was necessary to counter its firey heat. Thick banana mango shakes and pulpy watermelon juice were my favorites, no sugar needed when the fruit is that fresh. It was like drinking dessert with your meal. After dinner came the downpour. Heavy tropical rains that flooded the makeshift wooden bridge to my school, covering it with dirty water and garbage that had to be cleaned up each morning. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who’d opted to sleep on the Island’s campground, two dozen tents set up on a sandy plot. They must have gotten very wet every single night.
Our diving instructor was a hilarious, patient, and wonderful man. In addition to teaching us the necessary diving signals, he’d created a slew of his own. When we made a silly mistake (usually confusing the signals for “up” and “all good,” he would respond with his sign for “bullshit.” It was the ultimate way to alleviate the stress of being underwater and needing to breath calmly while having your respirator removed or mask filled with water. We saw a baby black top reef shark, which was exhilarating, dozens of brightly coloured blue ringed angel fishies, and of course, lots of clownfish (Nemos), making us feels like kids thrown into a Disney movie. There’s nothing that can prepare you for the sensation of being underwater, swimming above abundant rainbow coral as huge schools of multicoloured fish dance in circles in front of you. It took my breath away.
I ended up booking the least expensive shared rooms that the diving school offered (and thankfully not the campground, or I would have gone to sleep drenched on the wet sandy ground). I have very lax standards, but the bathrooms didn’t have soap, ants crawled all over the floors of the rooms, and my mosquito net kept breaking. The only cleaning I ever witnessed was a morning sweep between picnic tables. Our rooms were left untouched. When I asked if there was soap I could use to wash my hands, one of the instructors got real sassy with me, asking why I didn’t travel with my own. I just wanted to take off my contacts without getting an infection. I replied that I had always stayed in accommodations that provided it. Needless to say, he wasn’t my favorite.
I meet two lovely men who had rented a room on the other side of the island. They were best friends from home with easy smiles and a positive outlook on life. We watched the sunset from their balcony, listened to music, ate Malaysian cookies, and talked about how lucky we’ve been in life to have landed in Malaysia learning to scuba dive. One of the men joked that the water must be filled with sea sperm and not sea lice since it was only women who were bitten. I emerged from every dive with little bites on the bits that my warm water wetsuit didn’t cover; neck, face, and lower arms and legs. I doused myself in white vinegar, which the diving school was happy to provide, in order to stop the bites from festering. I was lucky. Between my consistent showers and diligent pickling of my body, the bites subsided between dives.
I obtained my certification and turned down the free dive that was offered as part of the package, leaving on the first jetty the following morning in order to escape the plague of the sea lice bites I had thus far managed to avoid. When Roxanne arrived a week after my departure, she was devoured by the critters I feared. After a few days, she left the island to see a doctor, get medication, and then came straight back to continue diving. The call of the water seemed almost cult-ish, and though I loved being under the sea, when it came to exploring the deep blue around the Perhentians Islands, I guess I just couldn’t feel its pull.
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