When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros
I finally made it to the Batu Caves. More importantly, I met two delightful women last weekend who accompanied me. Tammy, who works for the US embassy, and I met on a pedestrian bridge in Ampang magnetically, as I searched for true north on my way to an expatriate breakfast. Linda, a project manager from Great Britain, and I met at the breakfast function once I got my bearings, wandered around a sketchy neighborhood and arrived sopped in sweat, but on time.
This is my third encounter with Internations and two out of three have been pretty cool. So I called Linda, and Tammy (and two others) to join me on an excursion to the Batu Caves, which is north of KL. Despite its tourist overtones, it was terrific because I LOVE the Ramayana and one cave held a retelling — through a series of giant dioramas. If you have not read the story, find an abridged version to read, or read the whole thing.
It was typical Malaysia. Limestone caves, hidden in what used to be jungle, now littered with trash, grimy sidewalks and ticky tack souvenir booths.
Of course, I was the only one inappropriately dressed — selectively, I should add, at the cost of 5 ringets for a deposit on a piece of cloth to cover my legs.
We climbed the 300 steps to the top with the monkeys, barefoot women in brilliant saris, and a
a pilgrimage of monkeys and tourists.
I accept, embrace and understand the need to be barefoot in sacred places. However, there is a limit to my understanding. In Masjid Jamik and the Hindu temple I visited in KL, I would have eaten off of the floors.The Batu Caves were accumulating guano as we toured it, and there were puddles that I hesitated to go through with my shoes on.
I have mentioned my princess status in jest. And even though I am now a proud owner of a “Princess” brand leather bag, I am by no means a neatnick. In KL I can move from impeccable to filth within minutes. By the time I get from where I work and live, to the LRT, I have walked through shiny places that would put OZ to shame, waded through plastic waste and putrid smells mixed with a medley of Malaysian food stalls, back to the LRT platform and train, which is smooth, and shiny, and cool.
There is not much more to say about the caves. They are spectacular and colorful. I gained two friendships and I got to revisit the Ramayana. Not a bad way to spend a day!
I would be lying if I told you that my adventure to the Cameron Highlands was not disappointing. I loved the adventure of winding my way through Chinatown as it was just beginning to wake; getting to the bus station too early; my heart beating when the person checking my tickets didn’t open her booth until 10 minutes before the bus left; trying to cajole a smile from the grouchy woman at the at the other booth who shooed me away. The bus station was dingy, the bathrooms (stoop and piss) were so dirty that I did not even consider washing my hands. (I have been spoiled living in my first-world oasis, where, when people drop their trash, a mopper or a sweeper are right behind them to pick it up. I get excited on my five minute walk to work when I see trash so that the sweepers will have something to pick up.) The bus was tacky-cool, with curtains and plush seats. I got to speak Spanish with some Spaniards. All was well as we drove to the highlands.
The Malaysian countryside is jungle. This peninsula used to be all jungle, and now it is a tangle of roads, cities, and tourist traps. Not to mention the haze, which has descended upon the whole country because the plantations in Indonesia slash and burn their crops during this time of year. The haze is so bad, that in the morning, I can see the building in front of me, but that’s it. I haven’t seen blue sky in a month. This must be what people out west in the states are experiencing from the forest fires. However, this haze is man-made. We humans put money and profit first, so if slash and burn is the most profitable way to farm then forget the rest of the world. It’s the same with with oil companies I suppose, but most people drive cars every day (except me: mine is sitting in a jungle in northern Mexico), so we are all guilty.
I arrived in Tanah Rata at around 3:00 pm. Tanah Rata Is a small town, that may have been beautiful at one time when the British built this oasis in the jungle to grow tea and drink it from their verandas. Now it is a strip of honky tonk tourism and Starbucks, with some excellent Indian, Malaysian, and Chinese restaurants intertwined. In a word, it was the last place I would want to be. My plan had been to hike the jungle on my own, but according to everyone I met, that was not going to happen. Most people in town said it wasn’t a good idea. Later my airbnb host advised against it as well. I wasn’t convinced until I found the jungle path (tunnel) myself.
So my hike would have to be with a group, which turned out to be a great thing. People who visit the Cameron Highlands usually do not explore the jungle. They don’t even shop, which is a miracle based on my Mexican and Malaysian experiences. They visit the tea plantations and the strawberry farms.
The first jungle trek started in Tanah Rata. It did not take us long to get to the jungle from town with our guide and brilliant ecologist, Jason.
I am grateful that he was with us; he pointed out things that I would have never seen, especially tiny, tiny orchids, and the monkeys.
Jason told us about the disappearing rain forest and everything ecological. The hike was rigorous, with roots and steep climbs. Since I love the woods, I was not disappointed when there was no view — one, because the jungle was too thick to see much, and two because of the haze.
I hiked with a great group of people (mostly 20-somethings). One woman was from Brewster, New York, the town next Katonah (where I grew up). Others were from the Netherlands, Hungary, and Germany.
The second day of jungle trekking was with Jason again, with another group of people, two of whom had been with me the previous day. This hike was less rigorous, and our destination was the tea plantation. It was gorgeous, until we reached the tourist mecca.
I returned to my airbnb, where I had met some cool people. I was not sad to say goodbye to the Cameron Highlands. The one hour of switchbacks back down to the super highway seemed to last forever. The driver smoked and he was of the ilk who thinks air fresheners smell good when they really smell like outhouses. Plus, the little boy next to me did not fare well with the switchbacks. I was relieved to be dropped off at KL Central, a bit closer to home. It was a long trip. One I don’t regret, because I gave regret up when I stepped on the plane in Hartford, Connecticut, two months ago.
I will continue to travel around Malaysia, but I think I am done with the jungle. Monsoon season has hit, so I cannot travel to the east coast, but there are some northeastern places I want to see., and Thailand and Vietnam are waiting for me. I will stay away from the south until someone decides to stop burning the rain forest. Maybe they should just burn it all now and get it over with. Living in New Hampshire, is deceiving. There are few reminders there that people really are burning down the world, dumping plastic into rivers, wearing masks to protect themselves from the air. Drinking water out of the tap is a a dying art.
This part of my walkabout is about finding work that I can do on my own so that I can live where I choose to live, which will not be a city. I still think that New Hampshire is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever lived. I want to continue being an SME (subject matter expert, who writes lessons for e-learners among other things). I want to do this remotely. I came to Malaysia for this job. I plan to learn how to do this well at Learning Port, to complete my one- year contract, return to the states, see how much money I have or can have, and then explore the possibility of the PCT. For now, there are still many places to explore. Kate, Claire and David are visiting in December, and I continue to meet people, even though I still love my loner status. Soon the haze will clear.