Saturday, October 01, 2011

10: Ocean

For an inland family, we spent a lot of time by the ocean when I was younger. My parents had membership at a club in Port Dickson and there was a time, hard as it is to believe now, when everyone was not too busy/distracted/angry for the two-hour southward drive to be made frequently.

Another big source of childhood memories is spending school holidays in Pangkor with my mother's family. Other than Thailand, this small island served well as an annual holiday destination. It was conveniently located almost exactly halfway between Penang and PJ, making it not too far a drive for any of us.

This is my memory of Pangkor, a place I've never visited since our last family holiday there in either 1992 or 1994:

The long drive up to Lumut (remember, there was once a time when Malaysia didn't have an expressway along its whole length? When all journeys were long and fraught with unhappiness for those drivers who cannot stand to be stuck behind a smoky, clattering lorry on a single-lane trunk road, and for passengers of said drivers?). A happy reunion with my aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes grandmother. Parking the cars in the open-air lot near the petrol station. Gathering luggage and children, beach toys and inflatable dinghy, and walking to the jetty to wait for the ferry. I have no idea what the ferry service looks like now, not having taken that trip since I was 14 or younger, but I remember it to be an oligopoly of mostly family-owned firms. Each had a small number of vessels painted in a signature colour. That palette seems to speak for an entire era of limited paint colours, especially waterproof paint colours. There was green, the pale green of enamel drinking cups, and yellow-beige, and a lurid blue that kind of made you want to sing the Smurf song all the way over to the island, all together, as loud as your little lungs could manage. I won't say this actually happened. (I am surprised at how youthful our parents remained, in spite of us.)

Once on Pangkor, we'd check in to our accommodation: the old government-owned guest house when that still existed; a no-star beach motel once the guest house was decommissioned. That I say the motel had no stars is no indication of its quality. I'm just trying to introduce you to the island as I remember it before the developers for international hospitality chains swooped in and started building brand-name hotels. The Pangkor we knew as children was a place where accommodation was fancy if you could lock the door -- or, actually, if it had a door to begin with. The room might come with mosquito netting, sometimes for a price, but insisting on air-conditioning was what officially set you apart as a gringo. The rooms were clean and had attached bathrooms, and the showers even had hot water. There were showers; you didn't even have to take splash baths with a dipper from a built-in open-topped tank. What else could you ask for?

There would be fresh seafood at every meal, as befits an island holiday. Whole days were spent on the beach building and renovating sand castles. Often we'd be building the same sand castle for a week, because even though the beach was public and popular nobody went out of their way to wreck someone else's work. Rain didn't deter us so long as there was no lightning; we were going to be wet anyway. My father would use the rough weather to teach me how to dodge and dive into waves, a skill he learnt well in his athletic youth in the choppy waters surrounding Penang. Of course, he couldn't have known his daughter would grow up into someone who rarely spends any amount of time in water that isn't chlorinated and tidily contained in a lane-divided indoor pool.

At night, in those days when open burning was not illegal and the air was pristine enough for us not to mind polluting it a little, my uncle the Scout master would supervise the building of a campfire. We'd sit around it and have a singalong, listening to stories from these great big grown-ups who can't possibly have been children like us once, and what outrageous children too. It seemed just a little unfair that these sometime hellions, now respectably settled in the middle class, expected their offspring to be buttoned-up good kids. Just metres away, the waves would roll and recede, their voice remaining for all my life as a sound of safety and identity, good times and warm relationship.

Sorrento Beach, Western Australia

This was the answer that came to me as I drove along the coast the other day, windows down so that I could hear the surf even when the road dipped too low for me to see it. I wondered, why does the ocean mean so much to someone who was born and bred inland? What is it that draws me there time and again when I need comfort or perspective, and why does the sound of waves make me want to sing? Then the memories tumbled in with the waves, and for a moment I was home.

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