Puking Time In The Highlands

Africa Comes to Malaysia

“Nenge. Nenge Mumboko. from Cameroon. Do you remember me? It’s Lionel Jordan.”

—Dan Ackroyd in “Trading Places.”

The Cameron Highlands in the rain.

I don’t know why, but I thought the Cameron Highlands were in Africa. Maybe it’s because I thought they were the Cameroon Highlands. Consequently, I was stunned when I told a man I met in Singapore that I was going to Malaysia and he said I should see the Highlands because “They’re brilliant, just brilliant.”

I didn’t know it was possible to IQ test mountains. Regardless of their intelligence, I resolved to go with as much dispatch, if not foreign exchange, as possible. The bus fare was 11 Malaysian Ringitt ($4 US) and the trip took five hours, most of it uphill and all of it so rough many of the passengers needed Dramamine. I was one of the lucky exceptions because I was pre-disastered. I had already thrown up on a bus. 

As part of a mutual effort to keep from calling god on the great white phone, Roger Karraker and I struck up a conversation. Although I had met him when we were both getting e-mail at WIZASIA, I didn’t know he was doing essentially the same thing I was. He and his wife, Sandy, were roaming Southeast Asia and he was writing stories for computer magazines as he went. Not only had the community college journalism and internet teacher gotten assignments before he left, he’d also taken a Macintosh Newton, which was smaller than the six-pound hunk of plastic I had. It might not have been the standard conversation you would expect two tourists to have while riding to a high up hill station, but most people will do anything to keep from vomiting.

Roger’s wife wasn’t weathering the trip quite so well. She lost the color in her face once the ascent began, and eventually took on a nice green hue. Fortunately, she held her guts in check and made it without incident. 

Despite the rough ride, the terrain was beautiful, lush and green with low-hanging clouds starting to gather as we rolled on up through the hills. Another benefit of the trip was the accompanying drop in temperature that came with the increase in altitude. Where temperatures in Kuala Lumpur had been in the brain melting range of 30 degrees Celsius (over 90 humid degrees Fahrenheit), the temperatures in the Highlands were 10 degrees lower. It was a welcome change.

The main form of recreation in the Highlands are the walks that have starting points scattered throughout Tanah Rata, the largest of the three towns that make up the hill station. And you can tell when tourists are taking hill walks by the puzzled looks on their faces as they stare at maps, looking up and animatedly pointing as they search for the starting points of one of the 14 hikes. Unfortunately, the maps that each inn gives to its guests are so dismal they make LP maps look like Thomas Guides in comparison. The distances aren’t scale, landmarks are missing and it’s difficult to tell where trails begin or end. Worse, the level of detail on the maps varies from inn to inn. The true mark of how useless the maps are is that even LP says they are bad.

I chose walk 9, described as a steep and strenuous downhill walk, which runs from Robinson Waterfall on the edge of town to a power station at the bottom of a hill. The hardest part of the walk was finding the trailhead. I caught up with two women from my hostel who looked like they knew what they were doing and asked if they knew anything about the hike I wanted to take–including where the starting point was.

“All I know is that 9-A is less steep than walk 9. It says so right here on the map,” one said as she pointed to a copy of the map we both got from our hostel earlier in the day. 

I’m still not sure how I found walk 9-A, but I did it by accident. It started when I stumbled across a gate that happened to be a landmark listed on the map for 9. I would have stayed there if I hadn’t allowed myself to be persuaded I was on the wrong path when I asked a local man who didn’t speak English if I was on the right path. I did so by holding the map in my mouth, pointing to it, then holding up nine fingers and looking questioningly. I also foolishly asked, “Is this 9-A?” even though I believed he didn’t understand English, (since he responded in Malaysian). When he said no, I moved over to a neighboring path, which turned out to be Walk 9, changing what had been an easy hike into Cameron Highlands Death March #9a. By the time I realized I was on the wrong route it was too late to go back because it was too steep and almost too steep a grade for me to stay on my feet while walking down. In fact, I spent more time on my hands on knees than I did erect as I slid, tripped, fell, stumbled, staggered and plummeted every inch of the way.

This is the trouble with asking directions in Southeast Asia. Asians are the singularly most unhelpful people on the planet. The people who gave me bad directions weren’t being mean. Instead, these beautiful, frequently over-friendly, accommodating folks were so willing to bend over backwards to tell me what I wanted to hear that even if they didn’t speak English they would nod yes to whatever I asked once they realized I had posed a question. I could have asked if the moon was made of green cheese or if I would sail off the edge of the earth if I booked passage for February 31st and still would have gotten a yes. 

Fortunately, I quickly learned the best way to test the accuracy of a response was to ask the same question two different ways. When I was in KL, for example, I asked a bus driver if his bus went to Jalan Sultan Istana and he nodded yes. Then I followed up by saying, “I just want to double check before I get on, you are saying that this bus won’t take me anywhere near Julan Sultan Istana and if I get on I’ll be hopelessly lost for the rest of my life?” When the driver nodded yes, I knew he didn’t understand what I was asking.

Southeast Asians aren’t solely to blame for the problem, however. No, lunkhead Americans like myself who don’t bother to learn the language don’t help. In my case, however, I can’t say for sure my knowing the language and speaking it flawlessly would have helped. So many Americans have difficulty understanding what I’m saying because I talk so fast I’m not altogether sure Malaysians would have been able to understand me, either. 

Based on my map, I estimated the Boh Tea Plantation was an hour from the bottom of the trail, so I walked a little longer to see what tea plants looked like. Twenty minutes later I reached the main road and saw a sign pointing back the way I came indicating the tea plantation was 6 km in the opposite direction. Having gone far out of my way, I decided to head home. Sadly, the map was so piss-poor it took me another 20 minutes to find the entry point. By then the hike deteriorated into a race against the rain, which threatened to soak me before I got back to the guesthouse. 

Tea picking at the BOH Plantation
Preparing the leaves for processing
Cooking the leaves.
Hand-sorting the premium leaves.

I lost the footrace 20 minutes into my hike when the storm blew in, turning the trail into soup. I was reluctant to stop because I knew the longer I waited under the tropical trees, the less sure the footing would be as I worked my way back. Then, I looked in my backpack and discovered I had left my raincoat back at the guesthouse and would get drenched if I forged ahead. Since the trees didn’t provide much cover from the rain, I hit the trail and got drenched. The next thing I knew my glasses fogged up so severely I couldn’t see where I was going. Then I started sliding back down the trail, being eaten by bugs as I fell back into the morass. The saga wasn’t over when I finally made it to the top of the trail, though. No, I still had to walk a mile back to the guesthouse in my soggy state as the downpour continued.

I felt miserable, until I realized that the worst thing that I could have imagined under the circumstances had happened and I had survived. The more I thought about it, the happier I got because I realized it was nicer and more exciting to be caught in the rain and get soaked in the Cameron Highlands than it was being comfortable and dry back in the States wondering what this trip would have been like. And then it didn’t bother me at all. 

The bus ride back down wasn’t as rough as the ride up but, unfortunately, many of the Malay riders had weak stomachs or hadn’t heard of Dramamine. Which is why most of them were using plastic sacks as motion sickness bags. Unfortunately, I found myself in vomit central because the guy next to me and most of the people in the back of the bus spent much of the ride “calling God on the great white phone.” 

The dominoes began falling when a woman across the aisle from me finally let go and heaved into a pink plastic bag after spending the first 20 minutes of the ride looking greener than lime Jell-O. Her friends fell in quick progression, one right after the other, including the 22 year-old man next to me who, when he got on the bus, matter-of-factly told me licking ginger would induce vomiting. This bit of advice puzzled me. I hadn’t solicited it, I wasn’t feeling ill and I was baffled why I would want to intentionally start doing something I hadn’t enjoyed that much several weeks before. 

In the moments before the man fell victim to the urge to purge I tried to distract us both by talking to him, but it didn’t work. He whipped out a motion sickness bag just moments before we reached the foot of the hill. I’m embarrassed to admit I found myself smiling amidst all the retching. I didn’t find it funny, I was just trying to keep from watching him vomit out of fear I might do so myself. 

As a Japanese friend of mine once said, “This is sucks.”

The bus stop at the first major town near the foot of the hill gave the walking wounded a chance to get off, regain their sea legs and clean themselves up. Amazingly, none of them took their bags. I felt bad for them, but I still couldn’t figure out how they wouldn’t know that the bags were going to start stinking up the place. And once those smells started wafting, more people would start tossing. So, I politely told one of the survivors that they might want to take the bags off the bus if they didn’t want the bus to smell of vomit and cause other people to hurl. 

I said I meant that only in the nicest possible way.

I was a bit surprised at how forward I had just been with someone I didn’t know, but it had to be done. 

A view from the Rose House at BOH Plantation.