Leeches, skyscrapers, and ex-colonial ports

Trip Start Sep 06, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Today is my last day in Melaka and I am not updating this blog as consistently as I would like. However, I refuse to feel guilty about this lest it become a vicious pattern of laziness and regret. The time here just manages to slip so quickly through ones fingers till you notice that days have gone by and the stories have piled up. The constant stimulation of new sights, foods, people, and habitations makes the days passage almost inconsequential. A routine is developing that is the antithesis of routine, but the ever present reliability of constant change.

After the Cameron Highlands Monika and I headed further inland to Taman Negara, a 135 million year old primal jungle. Kuala Tahan is the small village on the banks of the Tembling River and the gateway to this ancient rainforest. The bus ride there was rough due to washed out sections of road that the poor shocks could barely manage. Monika and I looked around for some jungle related activities finding few. As it was low season there were few people visiting the park and therefore few tours were available. I decided to join a tour leaving the next day for a two day and one night expedition trekking through the rainforest. Monika looked for other potential activities to indulge in while I was gone.

The next day after a quick breakfast Monika was picked up for her canopy walk trip as I introduced myself to my new Dutch hiking companions. After speaking to the guide about doing a quick jaunt to the canopy walk he called me a boat. We jetted upstream and I was dropped off river side to hike up to the canopy bridges. Having bought my ticket I climbed up and began across the first bridge. There was only a decaying plank of wood with some mildewed ropes and holey netting separating me from the forest floor far below me. The bridge swayed and the boards creaked as I made it across holding firmly to the ropes as I went. Looking down produced a mild panic reaction despite the exhilarating feeling that was washing over me. After getting down from the canopy I felt my blood pumping and I decided to do a brisk 1.5K hike back to Kuala Tahan to meet up with my trekking group.

We were taken up the Tembling River sighting a giant river turtle basking lazily on a fallen tree along with friendly local fishermen. After a quick lunch of fried rice at an abandoned resort being slowly swallowed up by the rainforest, we put our packs on and set off. The trail was littered with a thick coating off decaying leaves and giant trees loomed over us. As I walked I noticed a strange sight. Twigs were apparently coming alive and twisting and turning towards me as I stepped over them. Some of them even started crawling like caterpillars whenever I would stop near them. They were everywhere along the trail and I pointed them out to the guide. He looked at one and informed me these were leeches. They were everywhere and ravenous. I quickly tucked my pants into my socks to avoid having to cut one off of myself later.

The trail meandered around giant buttressed trees and down along streams filled with tetra fish. The high humidity caused me to become drenched with sweat within nanoseconds and I would occasionally have to stop to wring out my wicking T-shirt. The jungle always keeping its mystery would only reveal itself shyly only after persistent and careful attention. Colorful poisonous snakes began to appear and the bird sounds after patient observation revealed leaf camouflaged birds. After several hours of trekking we came across elephant tracks as well as large solid balls of elephant dung from which sprouted hallucinogenic mushrooms. Eventually we even spotted fresh tiger tracks although thankfully we did not run into their owner. Towards the end of the first day we made a stopover at a bat cave. After a steep climb with the aid of rope we made it into the cave which was echoing with sound. The almost deafening alarm of thousands of bats choked the air. The stench of ammonia assaulted my nostrils from the thick mat of bat guano which was host to a thick layer of insects feasting on the excrement. Pale cockroaches raced around my boots as spindly legged crickets avoided my crushing tread. Glowing eyes peered at me with annoyance as I shone a light at various corners of the cave. This elicited small swarms of flying bats to release themselves from their rocky grips attempting to avoid the bright light which I was wielding. The carpet of insects began thickening with each step further into the cave and I decided to make a hasty and well timed retreat as I was not covered in this creeping and crawling mass yet.

A short hike further we made it our campsite which was actually a immense cave complex. As we walked in my first happy observation was that there were few to almost no bats. Walking further in the echoing trickle of water became the gentle lulling sound that we would hear through the rest of the evening and night. Our guide led us to a giant hollow within the cave that was lit by an opening into the jungle canopy above. Twisted roots wove around giant stalactites and stalagmites around the entrance and the smooth cave walls stretched up towards the domed ceiling above. Having unfurled and dirt caked tarp the guide invited us to have some snacks while we waited for dinner. I kept waiting to see the tent but none was forthcoming as we would sleep fully exposed to the creeping masses, marauding beasts, and curious critters.

After a long evening of staring into the small campfire meant to ward off bats, I eventually had to attempt sleep. The night air in the jungle, even in a cave, is humid and 80 degrees F. However, I refused to sleep without some sort of jungle creature barrier around me so I got into my sleeping bag. The ground was merciless and unyielding but that was the least of my problems. One of the Dutch hikers awoke startled in the middle of the night after a curious giant jungle rat decided to investigate this person. Bats circled overhead filling the air with their high pitched vocalizations while hunting for insect prey. I stared at the black void of night before me tucked deep into my sleeping bag practically steaming myself in the heat. The night passed slowly and after fitful bursts of sleep the dawn began to illuminate the world in a less threatening pallor.

The next day of hiking breezed by despite felled trees, the work of architecturally disgruntled elephants. The day was punctuated by a long leisurely lunch followed by an extended dip in a cool and refreshing jungle river. Some vine climbing ensued along with a thorough checking for leeches before putting my clothes back on. After returning to Kuala Tahan I met up with Monika to indulge in some fried noodles and creamy sweet tea. The town proved slow and unbearably uneventful so the next day Monika packed up and headed to Kuala Lumpur for some much needed city life. The boat ride down to the KL bound bus proved particularly interesting due to a fascinating bearded mountain man of a specimen from the US to whom we spoke about his deep love of ornithology.

Upon arriving in KL we disembarked and immediately found our way to the above ground metro line. Having quickly figured out the system due to extensive training in NYC we breathed in the air conditioned sweetness of the metro car. The ride was short and before long we found ourselves talking to the highly friendly and verbose proprietor of Pudu Guesthouse in which we were staying. He had a similarly designed cyber inspired tattoo on his arm which got us to talking. Having found out that Big Pete was a Malay world traveller himself used to a variety of unexpected whims and nomadic indulgences we exchanged ideas and built a connection appropriate to the ever changing faces associated with travel.

We spent our time in KL indulging our vegetarian predelictions both of the Chinese and Indian variety. We even spent half a day in KLCC mall at the base of the Petronas Towers taking afternoon tea and browsing the shops and English language bookstores. After a long evening of meandering streets, lanes, and car choked avenues we made it back to the dark confines of our hostel to watch movies and have a couple of well earned frosty beers.

The next day we woke up groggy and spent as our room had no windows or any form of natural light. The light was therefore the same whether the middle of the afternoon or the darkest corners of night. This proved rather disorienting and we decided to head down to Melaka before heading to Singapore to visit my friend Chris for the weekend.

We arrived by bus and after a short taxi ride into town we established ourselves temporarily at the Travellors Lodge. This homey hostel with its nightly movies and breezy roof deck proved a welcome place for a short spell. The first night we met a fellow New Yorker ex pat, Jennifer. After taking in a movie which happened to be Harry Potter we went out for a late night bit at one of the local outdoor restaurants. The meal proved highly satisfying as we had rich fried noodles, brazed tofu with ginger and onions, and a spicy vegetable dish all to the friendly din of our jovial and synchronistic exchange. Monika and I retired late after a long evening with our new found travel friend as we played a long game of Scrabble finally falling asleep at 4AM.

The next day we woke up right before our scheduled rendezvous with Jenn for lunch. Following a quick shower and a cup of tea slurped down speedily we headed down to get some Indian food for lunch. We lazed through lunch and meandered about town together. After what felt like several hours discussing Buddhist philosophy with a local tea master who invited us for a cup of tea which turned into several pots we browsed the shops of Chinatown. We punctuated our aimless wandering through lanes, streets, and old alleys with refreshing cafe fare. We indulged in small snacks as we chatted through the jazz filtering out of the speakers and out onto the humid street outside. Eventually the day started turning into dusk and we had to put an end to the wandering. Jen had a bus to catch to KL and we had tickets to buy for Singapore leaving the next day. We took the local bus to the station together and said our good byes to Jenn as she went to board her bus. As she has a similar route to ours as she will be heading to India shortly we exchanged emails and bid our farewells but only for the time being.

The night has cooled off significantly as I have been writing this due to a brief tempest. Sleep tonight should prove less restless from the night before due to this fortuitous event.

Thanks for reading.
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