The start of something

Any fear we had felt regarding the competency of our previously booked taxi driver quickly abated when he arrived, more than promptly, at 7:35am. We hopped in, and we watched rapturously from the windows to take in the scenery of Kuala Teregganu town as he drove us through, across the river and to UMT. He asked us where to exactly and – as we had completely forgotten the way through the maze of quasi-identical buildings – we asked him to drop us anywhere at all. Relying on my sense of direction which had flawlessly guided us through the confusing food stalls at Pasar Payang (if I do say so myself), we wandered over to the INOS building. It backs onto the sea – through the line of palm trees you see as you step out of the doors at the end of the day, you can glimpse little windows of calm blue ocean. Arriving too early – pushing the border as I often do between ‘punctual’ and ‘oh good god why are you even here’ – we decided to wander across the little bridge over the reservoir, to stand with the sand between our toes.

We looked out onto the beach and watched the sunrise. I have never been more happy to be part of a cliche.


What a place to work. Jess was absolutely correct when she unironically called it a ‘paradise’. The water was so still – it lapped almost lazily onto the shore.

After waiting until the 8:30am at which we had be told to arrive, we escorted ourselves into our room with the desks, to find Awin or Kirat. Neither were there nor, really, was anyone at all. There might have been one person with a desk lamp. Maybe. So instead, at this point we shuffled shyly into the main office, where we met Dr Saifullah. He had intended to meet with us later, but had a enough time to come out and shake our hands. Enough time, also, to absolutely terrify us by asking in a almost confused way if we were here to do work on our dissertation.

We aren’t, for the record. The thought of suddenly coming up with an idea kind of terrified us? We sat at our desk with no work to do, nothing in front of us since we didn’t know what to bring, just sitting there urgently whispering to each other things we could study if we had to, dissertation topics worth 25% of our degree that we were making up on the fly, exceedingly polite replies we could give to each and every possible scenario that could unfold. We were a little tense, I am the first to admit. This was only until Kirat and Achab walked over to our table and said, “Can we take you for breakfast?”

How could anyone ever say no to that question!

We hopped in Achab’s friends car, and talked a little about the music on the radio – though there are of course so many Malaysian artists, apparently there are only a couple that get as much airplay as Western ones. Kirat, a girl after our own hearts, likes One Direction. The main topic of conversation, however, was breakfast – they would be taking us for roti canai. Having had Justin – my lovely, half-Malay-half-Liverpudlian flatmate – fill any silence we’ve shared in the last eight months with an urgently whispered, “Roti canai, Millie – roti canai!”, I was incredibly excited. And I wasn’t disappointed! A soft savoury bread, with a slight crispiness on the outside – with a choice of lightly spicy curries, or a dal, to pour over. When asked for my order I asked Achab to pick his favourite for me – the fish curry, with another filled roti of egg and onion, and teh tarik. The roti canai was as amazing as promised – a big, fat pancake you eat with your hands, mopping up all the spicy curry oil – but everything paled upon tasting teh tarik. It was like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time.

Teh tarik – pronounced like it’s spelt – means ‘pulled tea’. It’s a hot black tea, which is given a light frothy top from the way it’s poured from cup to cup when its made. There’s apparently quite the element of showmanship in its preparation – which chef can make it arch most gracefully in the air – but what left me walking on air was the fact that the tea is sweetened with condensed milk. Imagine. Just, think about it.

I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so teeth-rottingly, diabetic-coma-inducingly perfect. It’s the national drink of Malaysia, and for I know now for good reason.

I was buzzed on my love of tea, on the drive home describing it as a ‘hug in a cup’ to a laughing Achab. We have all gotten on so well – both he and Kirat seemed to love our self-deprecating but upsettingly accurate descriptions of British weather, and the way that though our country could not in the slightest be described as ‘hot’, it shuts down at more than three inches of snow.

We’d barely had time to breath back at the INOS office, brainstorming more emergency dissertation project ideas, before we were shepherded out of the office. We were invited to the Hari Raya Aidilfitri feast – the feast to celebrate the end of fasting month of Islam, Ramadan. Many communities, businesses or institutes celebrate with an ‘open house’ feast where different people or, in the university’s case, departments will bring different traditional dishes. We knew how privileged we were to be invited, and what a huge honour it was – it was an indescribably special event which meant so much; so many people where there in traditional Malay dress. We kept asking everyone we were with – Awin, Kirat, Achab, and our new friends Yana and Sinaran – if they were absolutely certain it was okay to attend. We really didn’t want to offend anyone! But everyone seemed to thrilled to have us, and as we sat and took in the opening speech by the Vice Chancellor a few of the official photographers snapped photos of us!

I think I was busy looking at the beautiful decorations, and the flags of each of the Malaysian states. When the speech ended and just before the food was served, the chancellor gave out a gift of money to orphans from the Terengganu area who were invited to the feast – a tradition. Awin appeared, just in time, and with some shooing we went off to sample a little of each and every dish that we could! Almost all of the food served is exclusive to celebrating the Aidilfitri celebrations in Malaysia, and all of the students made sure we knew how lucky we were to be here and try these foods they only get to have once a year – think a visitor coming to the UK, if mince pies, pigs in blankets, brandy butter and stuffing were completely and utterly unavailable, except on Christmas Day. We had proper chicken satay; ketupat, rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaf that I had an embarrassingly difficult time opening and that Jess found effortless; fermented rice tapai wrapped in banana leaves, which have a really unpleasantly sour taste to most Malaysians who seem to dare each other to eat them in the way that we all do with spicy things, but for Jess and I just kind of tasted vodka-y; and chicken rendang, a really delicious meat dish cooked in light spices and coconut milk, served with glutinous rice. There was teh tarik on tap, too.

We were nearly finished when one of the photographers from earlier came over – he spoke to Awin, who seemed to laugh, and they both beckoned Jess and I across the room, through the tables and chairs, and right up to the front near the stage. We were posed in front of a poster advertising the feast and stood, smiling. The photographer then beckoned over some officials from the university, and one of the invited children, and proffered us a plate laden with some of the traditional foods before a few more photographers came over and started snapping away. It was amazingly surreal, and I do wish I’d dressed a little better that morning! When we walked away, we turned to Awin and asked if that might end up on the university’s facebook page, or at most in the newsletter?

“Oh no, he’s from the national newspaper!”

So, yeah, that was a thing that happened.


It ended up only being in the regional news, but I’m still rather thrilled.

We then had our promised meeting with Dr. Saifullah, in a big fancy conference room. I felt like a UN delegate. He warmly shook our hands, and then asked us again if we were here to do our dissertations – Jess and I shared a glance at each other, before I said that we’d simply understood we were here for work experience, of a sort, and to help in the work in any way possible. We were a little nervous, but our relief looked nothing compared to Dr’s! He laughed and said he was very glad – he was worried he would have to organise something for us through official channels, but if we’re simply here as interns he can give us whatever he can, no trouble at all! He explained that this Thursday, we would travel to the turtle sanctuary at Chagar Hutang, Redang Island, to sleep overnight on the beach so we can be ready to record the breeding turtles, that come on land to dig their nests and lay their eggs. Then next week we will go with Yanti, the student who we’ve spoken to throughout all our planning, to piggyback on a week’s physical oceanography and chemistry survey around Johor on the university’s research vessel, the RV Discovery (Southampton people – I’m not confused, they share the same name! We did check!), to do a casual marine mammal survey. And then, a week after we return, we will go on an official survey ‘cruise’ with officials from the university, to record marine mammal and turtle numbers, including snorkelling off the boat in search of baby turtles attached to floating seaweed mats.

All of this on one single, short Sunday really revealed to us how amazing the opportunity we’ve been given is, and we were humbled by how kind and welcoming everyone has been here – when all the staff at INOS heard that we would getting taxis every morning, the absolutely wonderful Dr Wan has insisted that since she lives nearby she will pick us up and drop us off every morning, and has been taking little detours around the city to give us drive-bys of all the sights. We cannot begin to thank everyone enough for how kind they have been. The next day was Jess’s birthday, now a wise old woman of 20 – after being picked up by Dr Wan, given a gift of some Malay snacks and treated to breakfast, despite our best efforts to pay for her – our main job was to sort out our registering at the university, so we can get an official student ID to use the facilities around the uni, including the wifi, library and swimming pool. To cut a very long story short – we now have a very real appreciation of the amount of work that must go on behind the scenes for something that for us sounds so simple – ‘getting a student ID card’. Can you imagine all the emails that must get sent? All their attachments? We were those emails. We carried the pieces of paper that were those attachments, walking them from building to building to building, and then back to building to building to building. And Awin shepherded us the whole way, like little lost sheep! She babysat us, pure and simple. Just before that, Kirat took us to SEATRU, the Sea Turtle Research Unit at UMT, to buy the volunteer t-shirt for our trip this week, and then sat and talked with us about her work with dugongs for over an hour.

But by the end of the day, Jess and I were feeling a little more like we were carrying our weight – despite not needing at all to worry about anything even remotely dissertation related, we’ve decided to try put together a little project, comparing and contrasting marine mammal sighting data from journals coming out of the UK, with that Yanti has collected herself, looking at the changing momentum of research coming from Malaysia, and the number of sightings compared to the amount of ‘effort’ (the time spent actively on watch). On our way home Dr Wan invited us out for dinner, as well as breakfast the next morning, with her friend lovely Pandai – he works with the Petronas oil company, and is travelling all of peninsular Malaysia by motorcycle so was only in Terengganu for one night. In need of a room, when he returned from spending the rest of the night out with his friends he took the spare master room in our lodge! We ate authentic nasi dagang at Dr Wan’s favourite place, and I bravely ate my whole scoth bonnet chilli.

Ready to set off again after nasi dagang! Photo by Pandai Othman.

Ready to set off again after nasi dagang!
Photo by Pandai Othman.

Today was spent blitzing through Sea Watch, a database full of volunteer cetacean sighting data from around the coasts of the UK, mapping the co-ordinates and date and time of the sighting, as well as the number of individual animals, and an icon to represent them (scaled to a perfectly representative size using a very simple equation that Jess came up with that I embarrassingly needed explaining to me).

…Okay, blitzing may be a bit of an exaggeration. It was slow going – the program kept throwing a paddy (to borrow my favourite of Jess’s expressions), and Jess was in control of the actual computer, so had the hardest job, not made any easier by my complete inability to read things out in any sensible order by the end. Really, we are very, very tired – hence the delay in updates – even with the constant supply of incredibly good coffee, and the belated birthday cake they bought for Jess, composed of all different flavours in individual slices! With a candle!

Jess picked chocolate chip walnut, and I allotted was joyously rocky road.

Jess picked chocolate chip walnut, and I was joyously allotted rocky road.

But it is so rewarding to be here, and even though we’ve been waking up at 6:15am every morning, we’ve known that it’s for not only the amazing work we’ve been given the opportunity to take part in, in one of the most beautiful and unusual places I’ve ever been, but most importantly for the chance to work alongside with and be guests of some of the most welcoming, kind and generous people we have ever had the privilege to meet.


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