After that there was no flashy tropical sunset. The pale pink and blue of the sky just got softer and softer until it was night and the lights in the dining hall came on. Over barbecued tiger prawns and vegetable stir-fry, accompanied by a glass of Australian Sauvignon Blanc, Hedderman described the reef's vulnerability to great and small dangers, including bumboat anchors and a new international airport planned on reclaimed coast in front of the resort but postponed when conservationists protested.
I wanted to explore the nearby villages of Genting and Paya, connected to the resort by an overgrown path through the jungle, presumably creeping with giant millipedes, lizards and snakes. After inspecting the trail head at the back of the resort, I decided to stay put until I started talking with one of the eco-field trip teachers from Singapore. Her students were so pampered and citified that some of them didn't know how to make their own sandwiches when they got there. But after a week at the resort, they were identifying briny sea creatures and thrashing, dauntlessly, through the rainforest.
So I tagged along with them the next morning on a walk to Genting, about half a mile south of Melina Beach. The rocky path was steep but well-worn, with dilapidated bridges over ravines. The group stopped to observe a long-tailed macaque in a jackfruit tree and listen to the call of a tailor bird.
When we arrived at the village, the kids took out their cellphones to call home and bought postcards in little variety stores. But I went on, passing the waterfront volleyball court and mosque, a monitor lizard on a tree in someone's backyard, a group of village men playing poker.
At the last resort before the path petered out, I met a Malaysian couple breakfasting on fried fish they caught that morning, sat down with them for a taste and talked about their recent trip across Asia on the Silk Road.
Every morning after that I found resort guests to join me on field trips — a bumboat cruise to Asah waterfall south of Melina Beach and a hike across the island to the village of Juara, just as dilapidated as Genting but smaller. Cheng lightened up marginally. When I told him I was scared of snakes he caught a baby python and displayed it at breakfast.
Hedderman told me about his plans to build new bungalows, grow herbs and hire a biologist to take guests on nature walks and snorkeling expeditions.
Every afternoon I went back into the fish bowl for another episode in the continuing saga of "As the Reef Turns."
On my last morning I was lying on a wooden chaise waiting for my bumboat transfer back to the airport when I heard a thud and realized a coconut had dropped about 2 inches from my shoulder.
I was shocked at first, but then I laughed.
Truly, it's as Caliban says in "The Tempest":
The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.