A Backpacker Travel Story from Malaysia

The solitary palm tree's shadow rotated slowly like a sundial, me moving with it. It was the only way to stay in the shade, the sun starting to burn within minutes. Maybe hitch-hiking through Malaysia hadn't been one of my better ideas. In my efforts to avoid heatstroke, all oncoming drivers were now able to see was a tree with an arm, hitching a lift.

Air-conditioned shopping malls had been bliss after four months travelling through non-aircon India - I'd already spent a week in Singapore, avoiding the suspicious gazes of security guards as I lurked inside amongst the plastic palm-trees, escaping the fierce heat outside. But the novelty was wearing off. Lucky to be thousands of miles from rainy London, I had an uncomfortable and guilty feeling that I was becoming a little bored. Far from flinging the curtains aside every morning, breathing in deeply and exhaling: "Ahh..Asia!", I felt like I was waking up in Milton Keynes. Maybe it was time to leave Singapore.

I decided to hitch through Malaysia. Although the country was more expensive than other parts of south east Asia, it wasn't the cost that made me avoid public transport. It was because turning off to romantic sounding destinations like Malacca and Kuala Lumpar on a bus felt like a National Express taking the sliproad to Slough. The closest and most logical Malaysian destination to Singapore was Mersing, on the south east coast, the gateway to various islands in the South China Sea. Dived-out and off-season, it was the perfect place for a novice like me to make my snorkelling mistakes before going further afield, when I'd then be better disposed to take on been-there, done-that snobby frogmen at their own game. "The Seribuat Archipelago is SO last year...".

After a couple of cars sadistically slowing down then speeding off again as I jumped out from behind my tree, one finally came to a halt. Bending to open the door and catching sight of my reflection in the window, I noticed that high factor sunblock had failed to prevent my face from turning bright red, white panda eyes where my sunglasses had been. "You know what this is?"asked the driver as he pulled away, gesturing expansively around his car. "It's a Proton. Perusahan Otomobil Nasional - see? P-R-OTO-N. Proton! It's Malaysia's national car - boring but reliable - ha! No, it's a great car, though not such a bargain now the government had to cut import duties. Everyone can afford to buy Honda now..."

Universal hitch-hiking law: the hitcher must put up with driver's jokes, no matter how lame, as a form of payment-in-kind. My lift was getting his money's worth. He moved seamlessly from the history of his car to the history of his country, sounding like an undercover tourist officer scouring the land for sceptics like me, a real Mr Malaysia.

He was telling me about the nearby islands as I hopped from the car. "Interesting places", he said, "even if you're not Swiss." Eh? After booking into a hotel, I decided to sign up for a trip to some uninhabited outlying islands offering "excellent snorkelling and fish", and early the following morning I joined a group of people on the quay - united, I thought, in the quest for excellent fish. My fellow snorkellers were talking amongst themselves in French and German, and it slowly dawned on me that they were all Swiss. My paranoia buds began to tingle. Not being from Zurich had never been a problem before, but as we ploughed out of Mersing on to the open sea, everytime I tried to join in the animated conversations on deck, I was humoured politely, then ignored.

Finally, we arrived at a small but perfect desert island - white sands emerging from the turquoise sea, green palms climbing up a solitary hill. Our boat anchored near the shore, and everyone jumped out, charging through the surf to the beach like marines. Within minutes they were lost in the trees, heading up the hill, leaving me on the prow of the boat wondering if it was something I'd said. Only then I noticed that, besides the captain, one other person had remained on the boat, very possibly because his left leg was encased in a large, signed plastercast. "So you're not Swiss, then?" he asked, in a smiling French accent. I shook my head sheepishly. "So why are you here, then?" he said, clearly baffled. I mumbled something about snorkelling. "Oh yes," he said, "but this is Robinson Island - only a Swiss would want to see Robinson Island. From the TV, you know?" "I don't seem to know anything...", I muttered.

Hauling himself up painfully on his crutches, he introduced himself: "I am Pascal." "You want some help?" I asked, pointing to the cast. He looked at his leg as if surprised to find it there. "Oh, just a ski-ing accident, but I still had to see this island. Because I am Swiss." "But you still came all the way out here? To Malaysia? With that leg?", I asked. He laughed: "No, no! I received this water ski-ing - not at Klosters...". Then he explained: "You see, you have 'Big Brother' in the UK, yes? In Switzerland we have - I'm not sure of the translation - 'Robinson Island'. Yes, I think so. The TV company leave some assholes on this island, and every week we decide which assholes stay and which assholes go. Very like 'Big Brother' I think..?"

Swiss mystery solved, the captain and I helped Pascal ashore, and I finally got to go snorkelling. Having grown up paddling in Britain's coastal toilet, the idea of finding anything alive out there had seemed out of the question, but the sheer amount of activity on the reef was incredible. Clown fish flitting in and out of psychedelic anenomes, multi-coloured coral hiding all kinds of marine life I couldn't even begin to name. Once ashore again I was babbling to Pascal like a religeous convert. If being underwater was a new drug, snorkelling wasn't going to be enough. I was already craving an aqualung. "Yes, this is good," said Pascal, "but be careful with the sun." He pointed to my shoulders, which were already beginning to peel despite waterproof factor 30. Another dip and I'd dissolve, turning a small part of the South China Sea into human porridge.

"Nearly time to leave," he yawned, pointing to a fellow countryman emerging from the jungle wearing sated grins. "You know," he smiled, "once we Swiss have seen where the assholes shit in the woods," he declared, "we can then go home!"

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