Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wild Cameron Highlands

I couldn’t have located Malaysia on a map one year ago. For that reason, I found it extremely ironic that I would probably die in the Cameron Highlands.

“Are you ever scared?” Sean asked hesitantly from the front seat of the Land Rover, eyeing Daniel warily.


“Well fuuuuuuuuck,” our friend Mikey exclaimed clearly hoping for another answer as his blue eyes searched wildly for an escape route.

Good luck Mikey, I thought. I too had already considered jumping out of the Land Rover multiple times. However, with a sense of dread, I soon realized there was no way out of this hell except through it.

On we drove.

First, I should tell you that Southeast Asia is not safety conscience. Second, I should tell you that yesterday it poured for six hours; streets turned into rivers and entire roads washed away. Third, and most importantly, I should mention that the four of us- Sean, Mikey, Meredith, and I- are unequivocal idiots. This was natural selection at its finest.

I stared at the seven golden Buddha statues glued to the dashboard of Daniel’s Land Rover, and found myself reciting the Four Noble Truths. Prince Siddhartha, more commonly known as Buddha, believed that the cause of human suffering was desire. At the moment, I agreed wholeheartedly. I desired an experience of a lifetime when I boarded the plane to Bangkok, and now I paid for it dearly.

The engine screamed and I tried my hardest not to look to my left. It was difficult to avoid the temptation for a few reasons. First, I was practically sitting on Mikey’s lap. Second, a 200 foot cliff plunged downward not one foot beside me. There was no guard rail. Of course there was no guard rail; we weren’t driving on a road. No, two hundred feet up the side of the Cameron Highlands, Daniel, our driver, decided to proceed straight up a path covered in thigh-deep mud created from yesterday’s torrential downpour.

We were on our way to see a big flower.

Yes, I was about to die in pursuit of a flower. If I had been a world renowned botanist seeking a new discovery, it may have been worth it. But I was just Jackie, stupid Jackie, going to see some flower of which I didn’t even know the name.

The engine quieted and I tried to lie to myself and say there was nothing to fear. We all knew that wasn’t true though. Just two days before, 30 Thai tourists died when their bus lost control and careened off the treacherous road that led to the Cameron Highlands. Every time the Land Rover lost all traction and slid sideways, I wondered how our families would know we died. No one really knew we were in the highlands let alone snaking up the side of a mud covered mountain.

The grisly truth was we could not turn back even though we all desperately wanted to, Daniel included; the path was just wide enough to accommodate the Land Rover. Daniel couldn’t stop or the SUV would slide backward and the doors could not open on either side. We had no choice. We had to press forward.

So I bit my tongue, closed my eyes, and pretended I was somewhere else.

I had been doing that a lot since we arrived in Asia. The first time I noticed myself doing it was when I was hanging on to Sean for dear life as we sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck. It was filled to the brim with Thais and we sped through the early dawn mist from Chumphon to the ferry dock. Sean and I had been the last passengers to load into the pick up and naturally there was no space for us. The driver lowered the tailgate and patted it, indicating we should sit on it. Eyeing Sean skeptically, I followed suit as he climbed aboard placing our heavy backpacks on our laps. I comforted myself with the knowledge that if the driver made too quick a movement and we flew off perhaps the backpacks would cushion our falls. My fears seemed to be misplaced though as the local Thais behind us simply grabbed onto our clothes to keep us on the back of the truck. They were our human seatbelts. For the entire forty minute ride, I said small thanks to the universe each time we whizzed around cars and scooters and remained firmly seated on the truck.

The second time was on a catamaran ride from Koh Tao to the mainland. Waves crashed ashore as we waited to board but I was foolishly hopeful. Within two minutes of debarking, I was green. The catamaran jumped the waves rolling from side to side; sea spray coated us in salt. I spent the duration of the three-hour ride with my head in between my knees desperately trying not to puke.

The third time was on an overnight train from Chumphon to Butterworth. An Iranian man befriended us. I liked him just fine until he started singing Celine Dion. Every Celine Dion song he knew. It was a lot.

And here I found myself again, two weeks into this three month trip, coping with “new and exciting” experiences by drifting off into Lala Land. This time, scaling up the side of a mountain, I found myself at Sweet Laurette’s coffee shop in Port Townsend sipping on a Café Mocha and reading War and Peace. These fantasies worked so long as I could stay focused. The constant whining of the engine, the unsettling sliding sensations, and the gasps of Mikey, Meredith, Sean, and ever so painfully Daniel, interrupted my attempt at self-medication.

Ever so tensely, we inched up the mountain side. It felt like a lifetime. When Daniel whooped gleefully, I opened my eyes and my heart stopped. We had made it. Just 50 feet in front of us was a turn about. Daniel slid the Land Rover into the space gracefully and turned off the engine. The five of us sat in silence for a few moments relishing in the stillness of the moment. Finally, Daniel turned to us, a big smile on his stupid Australian face.

“What a ride Mates.”

He opened the door and reached beneath the seat to grab maps, water, and granola bars. My legs felt stiff as I walked around the small clearing. My whole body was tense and my muscles ached already. The drive wiped me out. Looking around, I could tell everyone felt the same way. As Sean loaded our ponchos, leech socks, and water bottles into our backpack, I tried not to focus on the thought hanging over my head like a storm cloud: we had to drive back down that damned mountain.

“Alright guys,” Daniel said, rounding us up like cattle around the topographical map unfolded across the steaming hood of the Land Rover. “We’re here. The trail starts here, the flower’s there. It’ll be about a four hour walk but the trail will be muddy. Sugar, you’ll have a hard time.”

Of course he was looking at me. I just laughed.

“And why’s that?”

“You’re so short.”

Gee, thanks. But it was true. For the first time, I realized I was the Frodo Baggins of the group. Everyone else towered at least one foot above me, Mikey and Daniel even more.

“The mud will be past your knees so walk on the sides of the trail when you can.”

I nodded.

I could deal with mud.

So we set off into the Malaysian jungle. Daniel led the way and I lingered in the back navigating the trail carefully so the mud wouldn’t swallow me hole. Thick vegetation reached out in all directions. Bamboo shoots dripped streams of water, birds flew overhead, and everything smelled incredible.

I felt rejuvenated as I traversed streams, climbed over fallen trees, and clung to vines to scale small cliffs. The past two weeks had been one jarring experience after another. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be jarred. It was why I wanted to go to Asia. Europe, both times I went, had been like dessert: indulgent, sweet, and short lived. Meandering through Asia was a test of patience, open mindedness, throwing caution to the wind, and embracing differences. I needed all of those things desperately. Just as badly as I needed to see the poverty in Bangkok, the friendliness of the Thais, and the deep contentment that could be cultivated by living more simply, I too needed a break from it all. Breaks put things into perspective. And in the Malaysian jungle, I found fresh air to breathe, space to move, and a moment of silence: essentially, the perfect place to reflect.

Traveling isn’t always easy or fun. In fact, for me and Sean, more often than not it is stressful and painful. We don’t take package tours, we don’t fly from destination to destination, and we don’t pay more for comfort. We travel overland on busses, scooters, tuk tuks, and pick ups the locals use. We stay in guest houses and live like the locals live. We don’t (often) eat at Westernized restaurants and we don’t speak a lot of English.

It is uncomfortable, it is hard to adjust to, and it is sometimes frankly downright terrifying. But the day I stop traveling will be the day it is no longer scary, uncomfortable, and challenging. I don’t travel for a hobby, I travel to grow and learn and hopefully become a more tolerant, compassionate, well-rounded human being.

So I didn’t feel so bad that my heart stopped five times on the ride up the mountain or that I was already sick of curry or that I hadn’t slept well in four days or that I had eaten at the same (bad) restaurant three times in a row simply because I liked talking to the owner. And I didn’t feel so bad that in the serenity of the Cameron Highlands, I was being myself completely: happy to be in the jungle, worried about the car ride down, and anxious for everything to come.

Growing is painful so I allowed myself to be my neurotic self instead of trying to be some fearless traveler I thought I should be. I could not stop myself from worrying about the future just like I couldn't stop myself from being giddy with excitement that I was in a jungle in Malaysia. The only thing that mattered was that I wouldn’t let myself and my fears stand in the way of the experience just like I wouldn’t let the fear of the unknown, the discomfort of being in a third world country or the frustrations that came with the territory of backpacking ruin the lessons of this trip.

So by the time we reached the flower, four feet in diameter, I was covered in mud but thankful we took the time to come. I may be no botanist but I could find value in wandering through a jungle still filled with aboriginal villages in pursuit of a little adventure, a little more knowledge, and being jarred to the very core.

Growing is painful.

It has to be.


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