Desaru Coast: The Sea of my Childhood

Some people have asked me how I got my freckles. Freckles are not common with Oriental Asians so when people look at me, they are generally intrigued by it.

The truth of the matter is that I was just completely careless (and carefree?) and spent a lot of my childhood baking under the southeast Asian sun at the east coast beaches of Malaysia.

In the late sixties and early seventies, the east coast beaches of the Desaru coast were pristine. No plastic anywhere. There were only 3.6b people in the world (compare to 8b today), globalisation and tourism were at an infancy so beaches in Malaysia were local pleasures. The sand was golden, there were no toilets or showers, and not a single hotel. Of course, as an adult in need of some basic amenities, you would shudder at the thought but as a child, they were the happiest times. I was in and out of the waters constantly and I didn’t care if I slept with sand in my hair. As my sister said, “you’d go to sleep feeling as though you are still in the water jumping the waves”. The Desaru coast was where I fell in love with water and the sea.

50 somewhat years later, The Desaru coast has a Westin, a Hard rock hotel, countless swimming pools and a few water parks. The sea is as beautiful as ever. The sand is still as golden and warm but sadly, riddled with much sea litter. While we did spend a nice afternoon in a posh hotel, we opted for a more basic accommodation. The towels have holes in them, the hand soap is psychedelic (who makes these things?) and the furniture was clearly all a rage back in the 80s.

Still, I was surprised that it didn’t matter much. Speaking almost entirely in Malay to service staff over the weekend, with no foreigners in sight; being around Indian, Chinese and Malay families and their children and grandchildren, I swam, did the water slides, spent time with my mum, sister and her family and felt quite at home in a basic, functional way that evoked much nostalgia. I did not manage to reacquaint myself with the sea because I was half afraid that I would destroy my idyllic memory of it with reality. Another time perhaps.

Going back to the sea of my childhood was enriching to the soul. In many ways, so much has changed and yet nothing has changed. The muggy sea air, the cool breeze and white crested blue sea is much the same. Where the Mediterranean Sea is a shimmering azure blue, the South China Sea is more of a steely blue, white tipped and wild. It reminded me of the steely resilience of this culture that I come from, nurtured by family ties and hard knocks. The sea, as it speaks to me, almost mocks my return, as though the years away have softened me and I am undeserving of its kinship. But I am back. And I am still me. And we will be friends again.

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