Meeting locals is always one of the most rewarding parts of exploring new places. Sure we came to see the sites, to learn, and to explore new things… but the best way to do that is through meeting people, getting to know locals, and making friends. We find that we get so much more out of our experience this way. We get to answer questions they have about our home and culture and they shed new light on things we’re curious about. It’s a win-win and in some cases, you make lifelong friends!
On Tioman, a small island off the SE coast of Malaysia, we did just that. Our Californian and Kiwi friends (Andreas and Whitney) spontaneously decided to take their advanced diving certification at Bayu Dive Center and we were all invited over that night to hang out.
We arrived at the dive shop as the diving crew (our two friends and another couple from Singapore) were close to finishing up their book lesson for the day. While we waited, we strapped up our beloved ENO Hammock, sat down on the open deck facing the ocean, and attempted to connect to the wifi (Bayu Dive Center in Genting is one of the only wifi spots on that side of the island!). We couldn’t quite get it to work on our phones though and instead sat around curious as to what would happen next – much like anyone wonders in a completely new situation.
Unsure of how strict the crew’s book lesson was, and how busy people were, we sat and chatted about where we wanted to explore the next day. A few minutes later one of the divemasters, Najat, came to chat with us. What began as friendly small talk of “where are you from, how’d you get into diving, how long are you traveling for, etc.” quickly turned into 3.5 hours of awesome conversations between everyone at the dive shop. We laughed so hard our abs hurt, were invited over for dinner the next day (where Ralph cooked for everyone and his family who was coming to visit), and were invited to Najat’s family home in KL to celebrate the end of Ramadan with a giant feast! 🙂
During our conversations, amidst the laughter, we learned that Najat and the rest of the guides live in the space above the dive shop and have been diving here for years. Some of them are from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and two were born on Tioman. We would end up learning a whole lot more about, and from, this great group of guys in the days to come.
For the remainder of our stay on Tioman, we made Bayu Dive Center our home base. We’d go over to lift weights and get some exercise in the morning, tap into the WIFI and hang out with the dive masters in between their dives each day, and return in the evening to have a jam session together (with a guitar, ukelele, and drum) and chat about anything that crossed our minds. We chatted about our decision to travel, how families are raised in the US, what it’s like to go away to college, how we are funding our year in SE Asia (Whitney & Andreas are doing a year around the world), and what working culture is like in the States. It was fun to answer questions we weren’t used to being asked and hear their answers to some of the same kinds of questions about Malaysian culture. We also learned a few phrases from them and some interesting things about life in Malaysia.
A Few Things We Learned From Najat, Ralph, Harris, and Adam:
We learned how to say a few Malaysian phrases:
Nak minta (can I have- i.e. when ordering food)
Kampung (village style with chilis)
Tak nak (I don’t want)
And we learned some fascinating facts as we asked and answered questions:
1). If you ever get lost on Tioman just follow the power lines home (they connect each little town). Most locals use dirt bikes to get around but you have to walk an hour out of Genting before there is a trail that is capable of taking you further around the island (there are huge boulders that make it impossible to pass through on a bike).
2). Tioman has never been a backpacker’s hub, it’s a weekend getaway island for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Typically, the island is pretty empty until Friday rolls around.
3). While we were on the island we probably heard over 500 firecrackers explode sporadically throughout the day. We learned that fireworks are believed to scare away ghosts. The local kids also just like them because they’re loud 😉
4). The crew has big plans for Bayu Dive Center including building a pool. To take on such a big project, they will need to hire a head contractor from the island, then the staff will help build the entire pool from start to finish. Everything here is built from scratch and Bayu Dive Center was built in 2011.
5). During Ramadan, children start fasting at the age of 10 but are still allowed to drink water. They eventually will not drink water either as they wean off of it. For safety, all of the dive masters do not fast on days where they are diving.
6). They recommended that we check out the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang, which we did, but were unable to take the cooking class which you should definitely do if you ever visit. The food smelled amazing!
7). We learned how to play Sepak Takraw, or kick volleyball, which is a popular sport throughout SE Asia where teams use their legs, knees, and chest to shoot a ball made of palms over the net.
On our last day on the island, the dive masters and their families packed up the Dive Center and headed to Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It was sad to say goodbye after a week of getting to know everyone, but we waved them off with huge smiles on our faces as they walked down the pier to board the ferry. What had started as a spontaneous decision by Whitney & Andreas to take the advanced diving course turned into a host of new friendships. If you ever visit Tioman Island, you should definitely stop by to say hi to the team at Bayu Dive Center. You’ll have a great time, and you’ll learn a ton from them!
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