Sunday, June 15, 2014

Traveling Light, part 2

 It's now been about a month since I returned from Malaysia on May 18.   Since then, it's been a grind of really hot weather, deadlines leading to deferred exercise, preparations for selling the house in Anchorage, two phone melt-downs and  reactions of all forms including a waistline increase and self-imposed isolation. I have felt little creative room I have to write or reflect on the trip.

With now just a week or so before I head to the US, I had to overcome.  In a nutshell~ this trip was a complete whimsy generated by a banner ad for Air Asia that appeared while I was considering what to do for the 3-day King's birthday holiday.  The ticket was just over $100 and I decided to take extra days around the T-W-Th paid time off. Hence a ten day trip.

Stop #1:  Kuala Lumpur to visit an acquaintance from last year's writing workshop in Bali. Her beautiful house had a lovely, large and loveable cocker spaniel named Tumbles (or as I giggled to myself repeatedly by using other names like Gaggles, Tussles, Huggles, Grumbles, Fluffles or Tassels.)        
Taken from the outdoor porch. Lots of glass,
marble and terrific company! 
KL is a very interesting city, filled with energy, diversity and lots of cars. Indians, Chinese and Muslims live together in relative peace (but some serous conflicts).  Leone and I went to the museum, I met with a breast cancer expert who visited the hospital last year and she was kind enough to meet me on her Sunday and take me for a look around downtown.  I went up a lot of steps to a temple in a cave and saw a huge snake, then did some writing in the middle of a cafe surrounded by dense jungle during an incredible thundery torrent of water.
What's up with the little green god? 

Pouring rain turned this trickle into a torrent in no time at all! 
The bird park provided an excellent opportunity to
see a majestic pelican up close. One of my favorite birds ever.
Stop #2: Tama Negara National Park. Malaysia's largest national park
I was gleeful  to be visiting  one of the world's oldest ecosytems.  It was apparent, nearly from boarding the mini-bus, that it was a stop on Southeast Asia's infamous banana pancake trail.  I was neatly shuttled from one touristy stop to another on the mini-bus and relegated to a shared seat on the narrow longboat through the jungle.  I caught a glimpse of a fantastic blue winged leaf bird before we zoomed into the gateway community of Kuala Tahan.

I found a guesthouse run by a Muslim family, settling into a little place for $7 a night and going to explore.  Before long, it was clear that there were about 4 different activities to engage in around the park:  rapid shooting and village visiting, a night 4WD tour (our bright lamps stun wildlife and they can't move!), guided hiking and boat trips with iterations of waterfalls.  All were advertised in large billboards around town, each departure time punctuated with groups of young people eager for diversions.

I elected to spend my first day going for a walk by myself with a mission to do the canopy walk (longest in the world) before the crowds of guided hikers made their way.  It was easy to start- with boardwalks and signage-- and after knocking out the first goal I decided to attempt the closest
Originally built as an observation station for
the forest canopy, the walk is a fantastic
 opportunity to both experience acrophobia
and the upper story of the jungle. 
 hill summit- Bukkit Teresek.  In an experience reminiscent of hiking up and out from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, I passed many tourists coming down, following their guides. Some dressed in colorful saris and headscarves and now one looking particularly tussled.  I, however, was attired in my favorite jungle hiking outfit, complete with my made in America bandanna.  On the upwards, I went up stair after stair, perspiring heavily in each step.

Jungle all the way!  Taman Negara is
Malaysian for national park. A
showpiece of land management with
tigers and other large species still inhabiting
the huge area of the park.
At the top, hordes of sweat-eating bees were patiently awaiting the arrival of yet another water-radiating human. It would have been great to take in the view, but the sound and sense of the bees (indeed, they were not there to bite, just to drink) was tortuous.  I managed to take a quick snap shot, and then hightailed it down.

 I love a loop trail; I'll always pick that instead of going out and back.  So when I saw the tattered rope leading down the hillside, it made sense to try and go. It was a stream bed trail, punctuated by rocks and slippery muddy descents. Small groups of the bees would make an occasional appearance,  bird songs surrounded me but no sightings of the singers.  Even small sections of old and abandoned walkway were unstable, the plastic lumber rotted from rain and age.  I became a bit overwhelmed with the irrational fears of terrorist macaque monkeys and the vast unknown of this dense ecosystem.

In the relative safety of a very large tree root blissfully free of  enormous red ants, I stopped to catch my breath.  I was relieved to hear the voices of others, and surely enough two young German men made their way down, complaining about the bees and exclaiming over the rustic nature of the "trail".  We hiked together until we hit the main intersection that followed the river, and from here I was left to trudge farther behind another uber-fit Euro family with two children under ten. At this point, I felt that my entire body had been turned inside out, my clothing drenched and sticky. My sneakers soles separated from the foot bed. ( I had foreshadow of this in Vietnam but I thought I could get away with it.)   Before long another boardwalk trail signaled a return to the park entrance.  A Chinese man with a pristine white towel under his ball cap, accompanied by his female partner in short shorts  and Keds, asked "What's ahead?  Mountains? Jungle? River?"  "All of it." I replied, "but the trail down from the mountain is a bit rough."   He looked me up and down, "Yes, I can see that."

In nearly every other stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, one would expect to see lots of bars. But in this Muslim community the restaurants closed by 9pm. Cats are everywhere with nary a dog to be found (Muslims think dogs are unpure).  I had a late afternoon shower, nap and requisite Naxproxen dose, and an early dinner. It was good to rest my very stiff thighs the next day and went for a boat trip up the Latah Berkoh river and finalized my plans to spend an overnight in the Cameron Highlands.
The highlight of this boat trip was when
the guides turned off the motor and just paddled
down the rapids in practiced perfection. 
Stop #3: Tanah Rata
If I have learned one thing from traveling in Southeast Asia, it is that anytime you take any form of transit, you must not eat anything beforehand and pack a barf bag in your carry-on.  As we pulled into the Eight Guesthouse,  the proprietor exclaimed, "the queen! the queen!"  Apparently, there are not many women over 50 checking into this place.  Within minutes, I was set up with a bed in the dorm, a tea plantation tour the next morning and a bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon.

This is the new normal for 20-something
backpacker chicks to leave in common space
in a 6 bed dorm. I feel old. 
I had a great overnight visit there: a lovely host, a delightfully cool climate  surrounded by mountains and farms and gift shops with giant stuffed strawberries,plenty of hiking opportunities, Indian food, scones and tea.   However, the bus trip down was worse than the mini-bus going up, despite my relatively empty stomach I was in agony for most of the curvy, fast trip with only 6 of us on the entire bus; the driver gleefully whistling tunes and tailgating cargo trucks.   I was so happy to get on the highway.

Our great guide explaining tea,
and the Phylliidae leaf insect. Wow! 
 the mossy forest

My last night, I was in a small box of a hotel room near the airport in KL.  I had to leave for the airport at 4am despite protests from the front desk staff that because I was leaving from the brand new KLIA-2, that it was recommended to be at the airport 3 hours in advance of my 6am flight.

This trip made me wonder-- perhaps being away for a week a month in the scope of a consuming work load was too much.   Perhaps because I was "in" my work email for nearly the entire duration, that I never really got away.  Maybe being so close to the tourist trail made me feel more lonely than going out on a limb in places less traveled. Regardless, soon I will be returning to both homelands-- the first time back to Alaska since I left in October 2011-- and the promise of a new beginning of unfettered liberation from debt and obligation.  

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