In 1999,a Hong Kong blockbuster movie was filmed at a secluded lagoon on the east coast of Pulau Redang. The plot, briefly summarized:A high-powered Hong Kong stockbroker is jilted and double-crossed by her boyfriend, causing her to lose her job. She escapes to a remote Malaysian island, where she and her cousin have inherited a pristine beach. A real estate mogul offers her millions of dollars to sell it, but she’s startled to find that her gambling-addicted cousin sold his share to a hunky beach bum who has no interest in selling his half of paradise. Wacky rom-com hijacks ensue until the business woman and the beach bum finally fall in love and decide to preserve the beach for themselves and the locals.
The message was lost on somebody on the set though, because shortly after the movie was filmed on site, they actually really did build a 212-room, all-inclusive, faux-Thai themed luxury resort on the very same beach. And that’s where my family stayed for the next couple nights. True story.
Oh, and how do I know the plot? Because one of the six channels on the hotel TV is dedicated to showing Summer Holiday on repeat, 24-hours a day, a la It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. We never sat down to watch the whole thing, but would catch 15 minutes here or there, and Joel and I would share tidbits to piece it together, as if we were reading Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sound and the Fury. We’re talking high-caliber literature here, people. “Who is that?” “Oh, that’s George. The ex-boyfriend who double-crossed Summer.” “No, no, that’s the out-of-work actor who was hired to pretend he is George.” The irony of a massive resort complex showing a film set on its very location in which the resort tycoon is cast as the villain may have been lost on the hotel management, but it was not lost on us.
The Gustavus students, for their part, were camping on the west side of the island, at a beach called Mak Kepit. It’s not readily accessible by the public, has no running water or electricity, and was deemed by everyone to not be suitable accommodations for a baby and a toddler. Too bad, because that’s much more my style and I think we would have had way more fun there. They swam til they were exhausted, ate five meals a day, and slept under the stars at night.
There’s not much to do at a place like Laguna Redang Resort but sit beachside (or poolside) and enjoy the scenery, so we embraced it. Simon loved playing in the sand and jumping waves in the South China Sea.
The resort offers two chartered snorkeling trips each day. Joel and I each went on one while the other stayed back with the kiddos. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve snorkeled, so first I have to say: it was awesome to be back in crystal blue water. Words can’t thoroughly express how deeply I miss it, and how natural it felt to don my mask and fins and dive down again. Having said that, I was also completely stunned by the degraded state of the coral reef. This is the first time I’ve really witnessed coral bleaching and it was devastating. The staghorn coral at my site was dead and broken, the arms littering the sea floor like a boneyard. Green algae was slowly encroaching and covering everything that was still alive. I was delighted by each new fish species I saw, but the diversity was far less than what you should see at a tropical reef in the South China Sea. The rest of the tourists seemed less interested in the reef and more interested in taking pictures. They bobbed at the surface and splashed around, feeding bread to the fish. I was the only one who took off my vest and dove underwater. Deeper down, I was rewarded with so much more diversity: tiny little electric blue gobies hanging out in the crevices of brain corals; big snappers hiding under coral ledges. You can’t see that stuff at the surface, but I’m not sure most of the tourists knew or cared. A wasted opportunity.
On our second evening at the resort, a local conservation team released a nest of sea turtle eggs. Unlike our experience on the mainland, this was done in bright daylight, 6:30pm. They cordoned off a section of beach and tourists gathered to watch. The most alarming part was when I discovered that they were selling off the rights to release a turtle. For Rm 20 (about US $5), you could personally hold a sea turtle and let it go. People lined up in batches of 20 behind the “starting line” and the emcee counted down, 3-2-1! Turtles were released and made their way towards the water, with people yelling, cheering, snapping photos, and breaking through the barricade to get a better luck.
The organizers–I think they were affiliated with the local university–were earnest in their attempt to educate the mass of tourists, but most of the people were in vacation mode and not really paying attention. In every possible way, it was the opposite of the experience two nights earlier. I was dismayed and rather indignant, snapping photos to share with our students while we shook our heads and laughed about the circus. Then one of the coordinators approached us. “We have a few turtles left over. Would your son like to release one for free?”
My indignation fell to my feet as my little boy’s eyes lit up at the prospect of holding a live baby sea turtle. And so we found ourselves lined up for the third round of the turtle release race, waiting to meet Turtle #46. Simon is so young that I worried about him dropping the turtle or, worse, squeezing it. But he did his absolute best, and managed to delicately hold the tiny little creature as it flapped its flippers in the air, searching for sand or water. Mercifullly, the countdown was quickly made and the baby turtle raced towards the sea, while Simon watched and cheered, grinning from ear to ear. m.
Our class has had discussions on the balance of education vs. entertainment when it comes to wildlife, zoos, parks. I’m not sure that we were on the right side of the line this time, but I hope not too much damage was done. I’ve decided the turtle was female. And I’ve also decided that she will be the one out of hundreds who will beat the odds. Twenty years from now, when Simon is graduating from college, that turtle will swim back to her beach on Pulau Redang and her flippers will touch land for just the second time in her whole life, and the cycle will begin again as she lays her eggs on that same beach as her ancestors. We can hope, anyhow–if the resorts don’t grow too big and the ocean currents don’t become too warm. That’s the story I’m telling Simon, who in the past few days has often asked me to tell him what his turtle is doing now.