One morning Monsieur and I went for breakfast at The Spice Market, a large restaurant with both indoor and terraced seating and an impressive breakfast buffet. We ate various different things from the generous spread (spicy Malay food, boring old toast), but the one that sticks in my mind is the watermelon. Next to the platter of the sliced red fruit was a bowl of limes. Back at the table I squeezed a couple of the green segments all over the watermelon, ready to try something a bit new. The combination of zingy citrus and subtle melon crush was refreshing in the most tropical of ways. Now, whenever I eat watermelon, it has to be with a drizzle of lime juice over the top.
After breakfast, we went to the Business Centre to check our e-mails; something we’d not done for a while. There in my in-box was a message from Wise Woman telling me that Steve Irwin, that bastion of masculinity in khaki-shorts-wearing, crocodile and serpent-wrestling form, had been killed by a stingray whilst scuba diving. No. It could not be! Steve Irwin? The invincible? Dead? On reflection, when your life involves daily risk such as sticking your head into the open mouth of a croc for TV, I guess it wasn’t that surprising.
I insisted we return to the chalet to watch satellite news and sure enough, there it was: an international tribute to the now late Steve Irwin. His wife, Terri and children, Bindi (then eight) and Bob (then three) were understandably devastated.
In this case, the famed Croc Hunter had been shooting some film off the coast of Australia at the Great Barrier Reef. He reportedly swam over a ray hidden in the sand and the barb of the ray’s tail flung up suddenly, piercing him in the chest. Irwin was rushed to meet a medical evacuation helicopter on nearby Lowe Island, but died in spite of all efforts to save him. To hear such news in Malaysia, of all places, made it even more unexpected. The world would certainly be less colourful without Steve Irwin, whom I will always fondly remember unknowingly flashing his goolies as he sat wide-legged in his signature khaki shorts on Parkinson one Saturday night.
Having now seen the news and convinced myself that Steve Irwin was now in Croc-Hunter Heaven, we went for a swim in the Horizon Pool. The water was warm as we floated lazily under the Langkawi sun. Families of Arabic origin milled about at poolside, the women draped in their dark robes and veils, making me all the more conscious of wearing a bikini. I stayed in the water, refusing to get out until they had passed. In spite of the veils, I’d noticed their eyes staring at the Western women wearing beach clothes and swimwear around the resort. Whatever their beliefs, they must have wished, at least for one second, that they could strip off and feel the sun’s rays warm their skin. Although I respect the veil, I will never understand it.
The Arab children, meanwhile, screeched around unchecked on the resort’s bicycles, little princes and princesses enjoying the freedom of childhood, whilst occasionally riding straight into another guest. At least the little girls, for now, could play in shorts and tee shirts. I wondered how they would feel the first time they had to shroud themselves, to do so forever after.
At lunchtime, we grabbed a quick bite at the poolside snack bar – lebanese wraps filled with chicken fingers, salad and a mango salsa, before lounging in the sun with our books. I was reading The End of Elsewhere by Taras Grescoe, a fascinating history of tourism from pilgrimages through to the present day. It’s one of those books so cram-packed full of interest that you don’t want to turn the pages too quickly.
The afternoon heat stoked up so back in the pool we went for another dip. Just another boring paragraph in this travelogue? I suppose it could be, but when you consider that a lizard swam past us, squiggling atop the water’s surface from one side of the pool to the other, it was definitely one of the more unusual swims I’ve ever taken. The lizard seemed to walk on the water, ignoring our gaping mouths (it was no small lizard, roughly 16 inches long) as it reached the rocky wall by the pool bar, climbing it slowly to a plateau in the sun. There it froze still, becoming immediately invisible, its colour blending into the stone.
That evening, Monsieur and I wandered down to the beach to watch another Langkawi sunset. This time, the sea turned papaya and the clouds resembled candy floss suspended in the still, warm air. The sky was iced teal at the horizon, gradually deepening into a dark azure heaven. When the moon came, it was a jolt of titanium white against the palette of colours competing around it. The islands below became a furry black silhouette and we sat as nature performed its evening floorshow.
Interrupting the peace, a wizened and weathered old Malay man approached me, speaking a toothless gibberish as he prodded the air by my face. I think I was getting a lecture, but I couldn’t be sure. He was poor, that was obvious, so I exercised patience, hoping his message would become clear. He wasn’t holding his hand out, so he wasn’t begging, I don’t think, but a waiter wasn’t taking any chances. Out of nowhere he jumped, in crisp white uniform, shooing the old man away.
Down on the water, jetskiers made the most of the last minutes of daylight as fishermen hauled their catch up onto the beach. I wandered down to the nets, watching the men deftly pick out the fish of the day, whilst returning anything too small or unwanted to the sea. Their fishing method was ancient – there wasn’t even a boat involved; just men and their nets, cast out into the water and tethered there until it was time to retrieve Neptune’s spoils.
I stooped to pick some shells off the sand. Many were translucent, others were opaque limpets of varying shades of white and black. There were razor clam shells and tiny, empty scallops. Crabs scuttled sideways, in and out of their holes as my plodding human feet approached. The only people on the beach were Monsieur, myself and the fishermen.
Back at the resort, the umbrella-shaped rhu trees took on a fairy-tale quality in the darkening evening and stars popped out one by one. During these hours at the shore, my breathing slowed to the point that I barely felt alive; everything was so steeped in the stuff of dreams. At the same time I felt more alive than ever. The colours, the salt air, a swimming lizard, the strange toothless man, the umbrella tree, the fishermen, the crabs, the magic shells. Such memories remain clear in my mind, both technicolour and indelible to this day.