Saturday, August 23, 2014

Malaysia diary 8: Cameron Highlands

The most important fact by a long shot about the Cameron Highlands is that it’s a good bit cooler than the rest of Malaysia, by about 10 degrees celsius or so. That small number is a big deal coming, as we were, from the punitive heat of Georgetown by way of Ipoh. All the other facts you read about this area, such as that it was mapped out by surveyor William Cameron in 1885, often on an elephant, or that they make a lot of tea here, more than enough to keep an Irishman satisfied, are not nearly as important as that single statistic.

(In Part 7, we arrived in Ipoh to a warm céad míle fáilte, that’s Irish for a hundred thousand welcomes, courtesy of Isobel and her Dad, who have Irish connections, and not something you expect to find in a Chinese tin town, but sure no matter. 在怡保,来自爱尔兰的友好欢迎。 )

Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands
Boh tea plantation, Cameron Highlands.

From the Shamrock Inn in Ipoh we struck upwards and eastwards into the heartland of the Malaysian tea industry; Cameron - a name you become familiar with if you’re a tea drinker because of the ubiquitous ‘Boh Cameronian’ gold tea packets you get with the complementary tea- and coffee- making stuff in the places you stay. We were on a winding ascent to a town called Tanah Rata, the main settlement in the Highlands. A long-awaited threshold was crossed with great relief an hour or so into our taxi ride when the driver said right, I’m turning the aircon off, you can open your windows if you want.

Tanah Rata's not too big, and once ensconced in our guesthouse we easily found a kedai makanan, a place to eat that could have been custom-built for us: pizza for the kids, regular Indian curries and naan for us, Guinness tallies - everywhere in Asia like backpackers - and world cup highlights. This was before Suarez had been sent home, and England were still in the running. The only kedai buku/'bookshop' I found was a mini-stall a German woman had, at which she also sold cheap sunglasses and trinkets: no Malayan Trilogy here. She agreed second-hand English-language books were very expensive here, but then got distracted by a backpacker enquiring about a plastic bracelet, so I left it at that and walked away, getting harrassed en route by a giant moth being shooed away by a shopowner with a broom, a memorable image.

Giant moth
Giant moth.

It won't do to just drink the stuff, you must get a tour of the tea plantations while you're here. Considering the oceans of teh I've poured down my neck in the course of 47 unremarkable years here on Earth, I thought a tour of a plantation was not at all out of the question. In fact, to show an interest in the very stuff that had long nurtured me, very frequently saved me from a few blessed minutes of homicidal office drudgery, on rare occasions surprised and thrilled me, but mostly just quietly satisfied me, was the very least I could do. To which end the next morning, a fine one to boot albeit misty, we were driven around in an ex-army Land Rover Defender by our 'Eco Cameron' guide, a tall, affable, bullet-headed, Highlands-born, durian-hating, Tamil guy called Appu.

Ol' Appu had some choice observations about Singaporean tourists. He claimed to have met some that had never seen a chicken that wasn’t on their plate as one of the main ingredients of a Kung Po dish, which made them hard to convince, the people, not the fowl, that they, the fowl, not the people, were in fact chickens that were running around that day in front of them, the people. But he confessed (well, he said it without the slightest discernible contrition, but I sensed deep, deep down, as a Malaysian, it was a confession) that he couldn't get into durian. Inside, I high-fived myself. I felt I'd achieved a minor sensational victory. I'm Irish, barely in the country a week, but I beat him at durian, and he grew up here. In fact, I'd be having some later that night in a tea-shop on the main strip, battered - the durian, not me or the tea shop, although now I think about it it could have done with a lick of paint.

Nepenthes plant
Nepenthes plant.

Meandering between the towns on our way to the hills around the Sungai Palas Boh Plantation, I reminisced about the last time I was in a Defender. One sunny afternoon 18 years ago I had been taking turns driving with Naomi, going from New York to Niagara Falls, when, having succumbed to mid-afternoon post-prandial fatigue, we rolled our borrowed Defender, writing it off and earning ourselves an overnight stay in a hospital somewhere in Massachusetts. You'd think I'd be more nervous about sitting there in the front of one of those things again, but I was fine. That time, a seat belt surely saved my life. There were none in this car. Tida' apa, who cares, I’m invincible in these things, that’s just how it is. The New Zealand couple with an infant we picked up at another guesthouse didn’t feel that way and asked to change cars though.

They missed the mossy forest walk, with its nepenthes plants, cinnamon trees and God knows what else; I work in IT, don't expect a biodiversity report here. It certainly was unlike anything else we'd done in Malaysia, and considering KL is our next and final destination, anything else we were bound to do. Silly as it might sound, barring the nepenthes, it all reminded me of the cool, mossy, ferny hills I grew up surrounded by on the south side of Dublin. Near Bono's house, actually. It seemed that every second plant Appu stopped us to look at was an unsung panacea, the juice of whose leaves if crushed to pulp would repel mosquitoes, soothe burns, or just raise the dead. I felt like saying "We have stuff for that nowadays. It's enough that they look nice, really." But it was obviously a meaningful part of the guides' shtick that these plants be seen to dispense salves to the bitestruck wanderer as well as be delightful to behold.

In the mossy forest, Cameron Highlands
In the mossy forest.

Appu could speak English, Tamil, and Malaysian, as we soon found out from the phone calls he fielded. Effortlessly multilingual. But he admitted to not being able to write his second languages too well, or at all, which made me think about my own struggles with languages like Spanish, Greek, and of course, Mount Everest, Chinese. As well as having different career trajectories - he used to be a programmer, but his office now is a Land Rover and a forest, mine's still an office - he and I have different needs, desires, and approaches when it comes to the whole multilingual thing. I do want to be able to read and write my secondary languages. Reading in a foreign language, like stargazing or Indian and Chinese takeaways in the suburbs, is one of life's great pleasures, is it not? But at the same time, meeting guys like this, finding out what they use their knowledge of languages for, is a salutary part of the travel experience. He said he just got tired of the push and shove of KL; well, that's where we were heading next, the last part of our wonderful two-week trip.

But while I'm not suggesting that I think people like Appu only learn languages because they have to, that there's no love of words there, at the same time surely at some stage you'd want to pick up a book and read, or pick up a pad and write a few words, no? He reminded me of a guy called Johnno I met in (where else?) Brisbane who could speak Chinese. I was, as I always am in these cases, full of envy and admiration. Johnno was full of excitement about something he'd recently learned, that this very basic character or that means this or that, and that by combining them you get these new meanings. Yep, I knew that, have known that since day 1 of my Chinese language studies, because I came by that road, not by working in the lumber industry in China like Johnno had. I tend to do a lot of learning on my own, and at leisure, since I don't have to learn any of these other languages I learn, and so I go the scenic route, via books and symbols rather than direct communication with others.

Touring the Cameron Highlands
Appu drives us around.

Dutifully, Appu was keen to have us understand at least a modicum of Behasa. "See those road signs saying AWAS! ahead? Know what Awas means?" Of course I did. For a start, you didn't have to be a genius to associate the word Awas with road works, or a junction, or something you should exercise caution about. Moreover, it always appeared on an International Red of Imminent Danger-coloured background. Besides, I'd read it in the Rough Guide quick language section. Awas: danger, caution. I'd done my research. "Nope. Asian Women Always Shopping! See, the Stroberry Market and Souvenir shop. Asians like to shop here!"

At the end of the trek through the forest, he was contractually obliged to convey us to the summit of Gunung Brinchang even though it was all misty on top that day and useless to look from. It was satisfying though, from the vantage point a few hours later, of our Arundina Inn second-storey balcony, book in hand, the day's work done, to gaze out at the summit a few klicks due north and know, By God, we had tamed it.

Steamboat!
Steamboat!

We kept hearing that we should try steamboat, that’s the plat de l’endroit here in Tanah Rata. Spicy, abundant, and good exercise, you just keep loading this food into the hot pot, there to simmer in the soup for 5 minutes or so. This place we were in, Ferm Nyonya, seemed little more than a canteen but darned if this wasn't the tastiest thing we'd eaten in days. Now for a coffee and dessert.

The trick with coffee is to get a Malaysian coffee (as opposed to a Western one), but without milk and definitely without sugar. Unless you like sugar, of course, but in that case you don't really like coffee. The milk they normally give you is sweetened, probably condensed, from a tin, and thus ruins the coffee. Fuck it, I just want a coffee! I popped into the Starbucks thinking I'll get something there I'm more familiar with and immediately regretted it. RM9.90 for an American. They must think I’m made of uang. In a café a few doors down we got two Malaysian coffees (that's what the guy called them) instead, for lima ringgit, RM5, a quarter of the price. Get them black, ask for fresh milk, and pour it in yourself. I don't get my coffee at Starbucks in Brisbane and I'm not about to start halfway up a mountain in Malaysia. Counting out 5 big ones:
"Lima ringgit... terimah kasih." (5 ringgit, thanks)
"Sama-sama." (Don’t mention it).

It looked like England were on their way home from the World Cup. Their nemesis Chavez was definitely out anyway. I wrapped up the evening at the cafe with some fried durian on a crispy lettuce bed. Is there nothing you can't do with this wunderfruit? Tomorrow we'd begin our descent from the Pahang mountains south to the muddy estuary, Kuala Lumpur.