There were no cliffs there. The island was almost flat.
But a precipice might not be visible to the eye and this surely was the most dangerous kind.
Pernentian Besar: it was a small island off the eastern coast of Malaysia and well known for its sandy beaches, glass clear waters and wealth of green jungles. Like the nearby and much larger island of Redang, it was a popular destination for divers.
In season that is.
During the monsoon – November to March – with grey skies and heavy rains and the seas whipped by strong winds, it was deserted.
Maybe that’s why we went out there.
Otherwise it seems like a mystery to me.
It was in February 2017 and in my travel diary, my focus was on recording his plight, that mercurial man standing on the precipice……
We were travelling in the north east of Malaysia, an area of the country where a particularly strict version of Islam predominated. Burka clad women – and even young girls covered up with only their faces visible – were a familiar sight. There was a strict separation of the sexes in public places: separate lines before the check outs in the supermarkets and separate areas in the McDonalds. Every day the heavy tropical air reverberated to the Call to Prayer.
At one point we ended up staying near the coast where fishermen’s huts edged tidal backwaters. It was here where we were told that it possible to go out to the island on the boat which did the run out there to take supplies to the locals living on the leeward side of the island.
I guess it was just one of those spur of the moment decisions: ‘Go and take a look!’.
The trip out to the island was uneventful besides the light warm rain.
After being dropped off, we walked to the other side of the island where the accommodation was situated. There was a track gently ascending a long low hill clothed in tropical forest, with high trees – not palms – strangely spaced apart.
Arriving there we were met by a strong wind and a long stretch of beach pounded by waves. The tourist lodges and restaurants were set back from the beach and rather predictably, all of them were closed. It looked like it was going to be short stay!
We walked along the beach and then saw it: a small two story hotel set right back in amongst the trees. The owner was undertaking renovations and as we approached, we were met by sounds of him smashing out the interior of an outside toilet/bathroom with a sledge hammer.
He stopped what he was doing and we began chatting.
He didn’t look Malay. His antecedents might have been from somewhere in the Middle East. He was relatively tall, with a long nose and a clipped beard and a mop of black hair. He spoke fluent English and he was friendly; sure we could stay in his hotel but as he explained, somewhat redundantly, we might not like the noise of the sledgehammer.
(Sledgehammers? Can’t get enough of them!)
He pointed out however that he had plenty of other jobs to attend to and he could start work later in the morning and finish mid-afternoon. He could prepare meals for us. We could have breakfast in the mornings and during the day walk along the beach and around the island.
‘Not much to see here. You should be here in season.’
We stayed there for two nights, each of them memorable and for entirely different reasons.
It was an intimate setting: the three of us sitting outside at one of the wooden tables in the dining area, enshrouded in darkness with a full moon glancing through the trees and the air reverberating to the sound of the waves breaking on the deserted beach.
On that first evening, he seemed to be a friendly, intelligent man, a convivial host. The conversation flowed easily.
He mentioned that during the season he didn’t actually talk to the tourists a lot because he was so busy arranging boats and diving equipment and meals and so on. This was his off season and he looked always looked forward to it. He’d been there on his own for quite a while and it was good to talk to someone.
Having originally come from the western side of the country – near Kuala Lumpur or ‘K.L.’ as it was known – it had been quite a change for him coming out to the east to live. He had settled on the mainland with his wife and two children, coming out to the island during the tourist season. But his wife had found it difficult to adjust to living in the east and she and the children had gone back to K.L. In other words he was marooned on the island; he had bought the property with a plan for the future and it had not worked out.
He seemed resigned to it.
We talked about a lot of things that night – Malaysian politics included – but at some point, he began asking us about The Netherlands. And that’s where everything went wrong.
But he got the ball rolling so to speak and not us.
Was it true that there were beaches in our country where the women wore no clothes?
Quite possibly. We didn’t know much about it, we never went to the beaches when were in The Netherlands. We rode our bikes. The beaches we told him were what we did in Australia.
He wasn’t interested in Australia.
Was it true that drugs were legal in The Netherlands?
Hadn’t we heard this one before?
Well not all drugs. Hash, Marihuana, and Magic Mushrooms.
These you can buy?
Was in true that people in our country could kill themselves?
Yes. This took some explanation. It wasn’t quite that simple as people simply desiring to kill themselves.
He had also read that in The Netherlands, homosexuality was allowed.
Was this true?
And not only that. Lesbians could be artificially inseminated and gay men could adopt children.
Gays had all the same rights as heterosexual people.
Homosexuals could have children?
In Malaysia, he said, it was very different.
It certainly was.
We discussed the case of Ibrahim Anwar.
It had been in the International news. Anwar, one of Malaysia’s major politicians – and a highly educated and intelligent man – had been gaoled on a concocted charge of ‘sodomy’. The evidence was scant to say the least of it. Evidently the mere suggestion of ‘sodomy’ was evidently enough to put him away: where he stayed for years before being recently released.
No, in Malaysia, he observed, no one would ever dare admit to being a homosexual.
That would be a very dangerous thing to do.
The police would beat you up or they would rape you or both.
The police would rape a gay person – they who hated gays?
He laughed. Yeah, it was a joke. But that’s what they did.
Everyone knew that.
The cops raped any male accused of being gay – and at the same time, a major politician was met by universal condemnation because of unproved allegations of being a ‘sodomist’.
And here in the east, he mentioned, a homosexual might also endure a public whipping. Like in Sumatra, in Indonesia.
Yes, The Netherlands was a very different country.
By this time it had dawned on each of us – and something we suspected he had clearly intended – that he was gay. He knew that with a couple of Europeans he was safe.
So many different countries in the world he said.
‘Maybe one day I would like to travel and see things for myself’.
On the following night, he was a different man. He had little to say to us. He was taciturn, rude. The transformation was radical. Jekyll and Hyde.
Something had happened during the day, but what?
We hadn’t seen him or spoken to him, only at breakfast that morning and he had seemed quite upbeat then. We had spent the day walking around the island and we had also gone for a swim.
We had our meal in silence and afterwards he wanted us to pay up, as if we were planning on slipping away during the night.
And attempt to talk to him proved to be a waste of time.
It was just plain bizarre how different he was from the affable man the night before.
In Robert Louis Stevens famous story, ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, the placid and respectable Dr Jekyll concocts a potion which on drinking it, turns him into the young but violent Mr Hyde. There is a monster lurking inside him but he is powerless to resist the transformation.
And so it seemed with the hotel owner.
With one essential difference: the society he was living in was the brutal Mr Hyde and he was the Doctor Jekyll unable to escape it.
A scenario at least as frightening as anything imagined by Stevenson.
Only it was real.
We went to bed early and the next morning were awoken at first light by the sound of him bashing with his sledgehammer.
We departed without saying a word to him.
This was one of the only times he had had the chance to talk to foreigners intimately, he had said that himself.
But talking to us, he had found himself on the precipice.
He had come too close to who he was.
You had to sympathise with all the men and women in that country whose love dare not mention its name.
Who could not afford the risk of losing one’s grip and hurtling endlessly downwards – into Hell.