Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Langkawi: Four New Friends

“All for one and one for all.” 

After almost two months of exploring city life in Kuala Lumpur, I was ready for an outdoor adventure. An invitation came to me from a far-flung Facebook frind with whom I had lost touch. When Nana heard I was here in Malaysia, she quickly and efficiently planned a visit to take me, along with her roommate and her boyfriend, to her home state of Kedah, and more specifically, to Langkawi.

I'll be honest; I was a little hesitant to accept the offer. I would not only be taking a chance by committing myself to a three-day holiday with three perfect strangers, but I would be six hours away from my host's safety net and the comfort of my known friends.

However, three facts prompted me to take a leap of faith:

Fact #1: Langkawi is a group of islands off the northwest corner of Malaysia. Unlike all the other beaches on the west coast of this country, these jewels are located in the Indian Ocean rather than the Melaka Straits. That means their waters are pure turquoise blue and their beaches are soft golden sand, like the most stereotypically beautiful island paradise you could ever imagine.

Fact: #2:  My favorite outdoor activities in the world are swimming, boating, playing in the ocean, and snow skiing. Although severely lacking in alpine sports, Langkawi promised to offer me plenty of fun.

Fact #3:: Due to time constraints,  Nana suggested that I take a quick flight up to Langkawi rather than make the bus trip with her. Now I love a good road trip, by bus or by car, but if there is anything more exciting that hopping on a plane all by myself to start a weekend jaunt on the other side of the world, please let me know what that might be.

So that is how I found myself on a Saturday morning Malaysia Airlines flight to Langkawi, with my swimsuit and towel packed at the top of my bag, ready to join three new friends on a mysterious adventure.

^ Colorful seat covers added to my party mood.

^ Flying north up the western coast of Malaysia, I saw this thin silver sliver and knew immediately what it was. Bridge to Penang!

^ Gorgeous islands of Langkawi, I love you already!

^ Forget about securing tray tables and stowing my personal items. I just want to leap out the window of my descending aircraft and play on that golden beach.

The fifty-minute flight north was perfect. I ate two bags of salted peanuts, saw the bridge to Penang from the air, and shared gasps of delight with my eleven-year-old red-headed seatmate as the islands of Langkawi came into sight.

He was a Hollander, currently living in India, traveling to Langkawi with his parents and younger sister for a weekend holiday. The jet skis zooming around the islands brought him to the edge of his seat; when our plane passed over a huge go-kart track, I thought he might faint. I asked him if he was as excited as I was, and he said, "YES!" with a delightfully crooked smile.

* * * * *

After a few logistical hiccups, I met my new companions. They all seemed very nice; maybe a little shy, but that's to be expected with an American in the group. We quietly made our way toward our first event which was island hopping. We headed down to the waterfront, shepherded ourselves into a low, flat, wooden boat with a big outboard motor and a blue plastic canopy, and zoomed out across the choppy water.

Honestly, I had no idea what we were doing. No one tells me these things in Malaysia. I just go along and see what happens next. Usually, it works out to be fun.

At our first stop, we hiked along a paved trail, past a group of menacing monkey thugs, up and over the spine of an island until we came to a glorious fresh water lake.

Oh, wait. No one told me to bring a swimsuit. I was so sad to think I would be missing out.

I explained my predicament to my new Muslim friends.

"Swim in your clothes," they told me. Then they giggled.

Well. They were wearing lightweight long-sleeved shirts and thin warm-up pants, a typical swimming outfit for their culture. But I was wearing jean shorts and a white tank top. Surely they couldn't expect me to swim in that?

"Your clothes will dry in the boat." They giggled some more, clearly amused at my naivete.

As I stood on the dock, my mind reeling at the idea of swimming in such an unsuitable outfit, I noticed that 99% of the people in the water were wearing regular clothes. The only people I saw wearing official swimsuits were white tourists.

Without another thought, I jumped in.

^ A glorious inland island lake. I felt exactly like I was in a dream.

^ Wet jean shorts. Ugh. But the heavenly swim was worth every minute of chafing discomfort.

^ Hiking back up and over to our waiting chariots. Hi, Izzah!

^ Oh hay, Arman and Nana, watch out for the killer monkeys.

^ The last few precious steps in the shade.

^ Our boats and the fearless captains awaited us in the harbour. 

^ Back out to the sea for more adventures!

After a glorious hour of gliding around the cool waters of the jungle, we trudged our drippy selves back over to the ocean side, and took in the scenery while waiting for our boat driver to reappear. Without warning, I was attacked by a mob of four tiny, brown, highly excited women. Cameras popped out of everyone's bag, and suddenly a major photo session was in progress.

Oh, it's so funny to be a white person in southeast Asia.

^ This photo is not okay. 

^ Hiding in the shadows of a very large rock.

^ The horizon line looks so much like my homeland's breathtaking San Juan Islands.

^ Entering the eagle-feeding zone.

Back in our boat, we zoomed in and out among the one hundred islands of Langkawi - they say that when the tides are high, there are only ninety-nine - until we headed to the back of a particular inlet. The driver cut the engine and we glided to a stop, and I realized we were surrounded by eagles feeding nearby.

Oh. I'd heard of this. These were not American bald eagles, but lovely nonetheless. I loved being out on the water in silence, noiselessly floating and drifting in the current.

Our third and final stop was my favorite. More swimming, but this time in the ocean on a proper beach. And while we were still surrounded by the green hill-covered trees, to one side was a beautiful view of the wide open ocean.

^ Soft golden sands of a beach on the Indian Ocean. Awesome.

^ Crystal clear waters that were as warm as a bath.

^ The boats waited patiently for us to take a nice long swim, but I wanted to stay forever.

Eventually we loaded back into our boats, and made our way back to the starting point of our island-hopping journey. My little band of companions, Nana, Izzah, Arman, and I had bonded together, and we climbed up to the pier with a new camaraderie and easy comfort between us.

I love when that happens.

^ Yo, Nana's got a full bottle of water. I'm sticking with her.

^ More happy island-hoppers returning to land.

^ Stairs from the water to the pier.

^ Proof that I was here. Just in case I later think that I dreamed the whole afternoon. 

^ The man-made scenery from the pier was interesting, but hard to compare with what I had just seen.

^ My post-island hopping self, ready for more Langkawi fun with my four new friends.

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To find all the stories of my amazing adventures in southeast Asia, go here:

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