It’s started. The first of our Gusties has boarded a plane and left Malaysia. I’ve been so honored by the opportunity to travel and explore alongside them this semester, and so grateful for the kindness they’ve shown my family.
When Penelope was born, the Gustavus students presented us with the most incredible gift; one I will treasure it always, both as a memento of our time in Penang, and also as a symbol of their generosity. In secret, the students arranged with a local batik shop to make a special baby blanket for Penelope. All 10 students participated in painting the blanket, which was as well outside the scope of what Rozana’s Batik would normal create. They presented the gift to us on Easter Sunday, the first time we brought Penelope to USM.
Thank you, Annika, Carl, David, Emma, Helen, Jen, Jenna, Lily, Sam, and Zack. See you on the other side of the world!
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.
Right after Penelope was born, we had a very special visitor. Months ago, our dear friend Brandy decided to visit us during the Gustavus spring break. This would be her first transoceanic trip, and she was going to travel all the way from St. Peter, Minnesota, to Penang, Malaysia. She’d arrive 16 days after the baby’s due date, and we were all confident that baby would be out of the hospital and the Carlin family would be adapting to its new routine by then.
Ha! Little did we know how persistent this new little person would be. I was still in the hospital when Brandy boarded her first flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo. Fortunately (?), it takes a while to travel halfway around the world and our family was all settled into our apartment by the time she actually landed in Penang. In fact, Penelope’s very first outing in this world was a cab ride to the airport to meet Brandy.
Because the baby was so very new, we had to moderate the amount of touristy stuff that we got to do with Brandy. We compensated with lots of baby snuggles. I think it was a fair trade.
Her first weekend in Penang happened to coincide with Easter. I suppose it might seem strange to travel all the way to Malaysia to celebrate an American-style Easter, but that’s what we did! The USM buddies, coordinated through staff member Jumie, organized an Easter celebration at the Interational Office. All the Gusties and many USM buddies met up that afternoon to dye Easter eggs. And wow, we have a creative bunch. I was too busy holding a baby to get to decorate any eggs, but I loved seeing the students’ creations.
But Brandy wasn’t even our only guest! Another Gustavus colleague was also in Penang for the week. Mike has already been selected to lead the Gustavus Semester in Malaysia program in 2018. So he was in town to meet with program faculty, visit the USM campus, and get a feel for Penang. This was a bit of a special visit for us. Mike taught at United International College in Zhuhai, China, several years before we went there. I remember meeting with him and his wife at River Rock way back in 2012 as they described life in China to us. Now, the roles were reversed and we were able to tell him about life in Malaysia. I felt like I was repaying a favor, in a way.
And Mike got to hold a baby, of course.
The next day, Joel played tour guide in historic Georgetown.
On March 23 at 3:54am Malaysia Standard Time, we welcomed Penelope Susan Carlin into our family. She was born with the help of the wonderful and caring Dr. Narinder at Island Hospital, George Town, Penang.
She weighed 3.83kg (8lb 7oz) and was 54cm (21.3 inches) long.
Although it took her a long while to decide to join us, her actual delivery was quite swift and she was born just 39 minutes after we arrived at the hospital. Everyone is healthy and doing well.
When I was making the decision to travel to Malaysia while pregnant, it was immensely helpful to me to read about other families’ birth stories. I promise to share more of our experience one of these days–stay tuned!