As I walked out of the airport, I was besieged by a bevy of taxi operators. I stopped in my tracks and hesitantly looked around. A petite, hijab-clad girl called out to me. As I reached her booth, before I could even say “The Hyatt!”, she scribbled something and pointed to the main road. I walked slowly and carefully studied the slip she had handed me. As I screwed my eyes to decipher her scrawl, I found myself being ushered into a black sedan, luggage in tow. I looked around, flustered, unsure of what was happening and I saw a driver pulling the slip out of my hand and chattering away in rapid Malay. “Maafkan saya”, I apologized in carefully rehearsed Malay, “English, please. Can you take me to The Hyatt?”
“Oh, you not-a Malay woman from-a KL (which is how Kuala Lumpur is referred to) ah?” he asked surprised. On replying that I was Indian, he smiled and said, “Hyatt-a, no problem, I take-a in fifteen minutes, ok?”
“Ok”, I said with a discomforting uncertainty. The guide book had mentioned that it would take thirty minutes. I felt a tiny panic begin to nag the back of my mind. All alone in a strange place with only a tourist guidebook and overpowering doubts was NOT how I had pictured this.
However, I swatted the nagging feeling away when he pulled up in front of The Hyatt Regency Kuantan, 13 minutes later. A smiling valet opened the door and said “Selamat datang” (Welcome).
The nagging feeling never returned.
The journey to Kuantan was an impulsive one.I had a conference to attend there. But the
decision to undertake the trip was more necessitated by a much sought after vacation than by academic obligations. A little ‘me’ time was required. The semester had been a hectic one and I was way past saturation point, on the brink of nervous breakdowns and what not. So when the opportunity to attend a conference on the idyllic beach of a sun drenched South East Asian corner presented itself in December, I planned a spontaneous holiday.
Kuantan, according to Wikipedia is the state capital of Pahang (the third largest state in Malaysia) along the coastline of the South China Sea. Known for its tropical rainforest locales and beaches, Kuantan is a tourist attraction famous for its handicrafts, batik and keropok (dried fish crackers). Well, sounded like the perfect tropical getaway. I was already dreaming of sarongs and deck chairs, white waves kissing the shimmering shoreline and the tangy sea wind blowing through my hair.
Mid-November saw me at my travel agent’s office booking a ticket by Malaysia Airlines from Chennai to Kuantan via Kuala Lumpur. The tickets cost me an arm and a leg and The Hyatt booking was no joke either.
“Terimah kasih” I thanked the driver and paid him. The smattering of Malay I was trying to apply in the tête-à-tête was the upshot of a crash course I did on the flight.
I was led up the open verandah style lobby to the reception by the concierge, Milan. Ornamental plants embellished the corners, ceiling fans hung low from wooden beams of sloping roofs, wildflower bouquets adorned vases beside cane furniture and beyond the verandah, I saw the azure South China Sea gently lapping the hotel’s beachfront. This must have been heaven.
I started with the favourite pursuit of every vacationer – Shopping!
The concierge hailed a taxi for me. Much to my delight, the driver was a Tamilian and happily chatted with me when he learnt I was from Chennai. He dropped me at the city centre square and gave me directions to the malls. Ten minutes later, I was in front of Pahang’s famous East Coast Mall. “Batik sarongs – here I come!”, I thought to myself. (Batik is a cloth that traditionally uses a manual wax- dyeing technique in vibrant coloured motifs of leaves and flowers, done with brush painting). I made a bee-line to the shops with traditional handicrafts made of naturally preserved palm fronds, hand fans, jewellery trinkets, more batik and the usual souvenirs. Next stop-the Berjaya Megamall. More shopping, Batik and souvenirs followed. Too exhausted and drained for any sightseeing I hailed a taxi and headed back to the comfort of my hotel room. The TV on playing a re-run of How I Met Your Mother, I sunk into the scented hot water tub and closed my eyes. The warmth spread languorously over my aching limbs, as a comforting lethargy slowly overpowered me. A modest Italian dinner and coffee at the hotel’s bistro with a live band playing western music was the perfect end to the day. I snuggled into bed looking forward to more vacationing.
The next day, waking up to a glorious morning, sunlight streaming through the patio doors, I resolved to shop less and see more in Kuantan.
Sight-seeing kept me well occupied because there was so much to see. The blue and green Sultan Ahmad Shah State Mosque with its regal dome flanked by intricately decorated minarets had me momentarily awestruck. The colonial-styled Courthouse added a beloved reminder that old world Kuantan still existed amidst the high rise buildings and the corporate jungle developments. Local delicacies along the roads of Jalan Besar acquainted me with the salted fish, keropok (fish crackers) and bahulu. The local fruit market was a hustle and bustle of vendors who sold fresh tropical fruits. I even discovered a Tamilian restaurant tucked into a quaint corner of the city where I decided to partake a familiar lunch of rice and sambar. The restaurant manager directed me to the Kuil Sri Mariamman temple in the middle of the city. The temple complex architecture was very similar to the ones we have back home in Chennai. I later learned that Kuantan had a 10% Indian population, mostly Tamil speaking Indians.
When I got back to the hotel, dusk was already announcing its arrival in the distant horizon. I walked down to the beach which is a part of the famous Teluk Cempedak (literally: Jackfruit Bay). The sky was painted in brilliant hues of orange red and golden yellow with pale pink streaks here and there. Children waded and played in the gentle waves while adults took a dip in the deeper waters beyond. Joggers and couples passed me by as I strolled along clicking photos. Casuarinas and pine trees lined the coast at the far distance with some rocky outcrops. I sat on a deck chair and watched the last rays of the sun immersing into the sea. The feeling of being away from everything, in a far off corner of the world looking at the same sun, was an overpowering feeling of humility that comes from being so tiny and insignificant in front of the vast celestial presence. The sky grew darker and the stars came out. Sighing at the infinite and the endless world beyond the seas and the skies, I walked over to the poolside restaurant. Dinner was an exquisite affair with a live band playing folk songs on traditional pipe and drum instruments. The bonfires lit up the beach as tourists descended into the early evening dressed in cottons and sarongs. The cuisine was a familiar influence of Indian spices with a native flavour. The mood was set for an evening of lively music and general banter amidst the sumptuous fare.
As the vacation came to an end, I packed my bags and bid farewell to Kuantan. I walked out to the balcony and stared at the imposing hills and the sea. In the distance, the waves resonated rhythmically as they ebbed and flowed and I realized I had grown so used to the sound.
As Milan put my luggage into the cab, I came down the stairs bidding my Malay farewells of ‘Selamat Jalans’ to the hotel staff. He opened the door for me and said with his right hand on his heart, (a Malayan gesture of goodwill) “It was a pleasure having you here. Please do visit again, Miss.”
In a foreign land, strangers had made me feel at home. As the taxi whizzed past the tree lined highway to the airport and I saw my last glimpses of the rolling countryside, I knew that someday I would return.