Several girls shrieked as the plane dipped to the right. I sucked in my breath with amazement as my classmates and I flew over the tropical island of Tioman, where we would be spending an entire week as a part of a team-building exercise. Who would have thought a forgotten island off the east coast of Malaysia where kampong chickens roam and children play handball near their one-room dwellings could be an enlightening educational experience.
I spent countless hours surrounded by jellyfish and sea turtles, forcing myself to leave my comfort zone. During that week, I learned to sleep with mosquitoes and bedbugs, paddle against the current in the middle of a storm, and maneuver a sinking kayak. Despite the daytime adventures, my most memorable moments were spent alone.
On our way to a nearby waterfall, the eighteen adolescents were dropped off one by one in the midst of a jungle with instructions to spend thirty minutes in isolation. As I sat perfectly still on a moss-covered rock, several curious creatures poked their heads out of their homes to scrutinize the newcomer. A snake slithered near my foot and a lizard sat across from me on a rock. A cool breeze passed by, leaves above me rustled, and I looked up to see a harmless bird casually gazing at me. As I filled the pages of my logbook, the trees swayed with the wind and rain began to fall. My new friends in their natural habitat, however, kept me calm through it all.
A short dinghy ride away, a batch of sea turtles had hatched two weeks before we arrived. Each classmate would release a colorful baby turtle, so I chose a six-centimeter long black and green one. Affectionately, I named the turtle Chase and kissed his forehead before posing for a picture. Fifteen minutes later on the count of three, we released three-dozen sea turtles several meters from the shoreline. My eyes followed Chase as he laboriously crawled towards the ocean, was swept back by the waves several times, and lost hard-gained ground. As he arrived at the threshold of his new aquatic home, Chase bid farewell to the familiar sand just before the sea swallowed him.
On my last night on Tioman, I lay on the warm grainy sand listening to the rhythmic waves crashing onto the shore and watching the stars come out. Having lived all my life in small towns, where light pollution is common, I never appreciated the beauty of nature until then. The sky was dark, not reddish orange; the stars were bright, each one distinctly twinkling, each singing its own song, winking at my naivete. I remembered my first day on Tioman: the twelve-kilometer trek across the island, the language barrier, the huts with linens flapping outside, and the scantily dressed children tanned by the sun. I had wondered why we were visiting an island with nothing but trees, chicken, and villagers with their skin beaten by the wind and sun. I learned to see with new eyes what has existed for centuries.
Before departing on the dinghy, I glanced back at my footprints in the sand. Unlike my memories, they will soon wash away.
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