Tanah Rata Treks

Of all the places I’ve ever visited, Tanah Rata provided the simplest living. I picked up a tip in Kuala Lumpur to stay at the Twin Pines guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands. For 15 Ringit ($3.75) a night I stayed in a quaint little private room; nothing more than a spartan attic space. The inclined ceiling made standing possible along only one edge. There was a mattress on the floor with pillow, sheet, and blanket; a bulb with a switch; and a row of nails on which to hang things.

That was it.

Along with the bathroom downstairs, it was perfect. None of the useless frills added to a room to charge more. The attic room was clean and comfortable and simple.

Tanah Rata itself was a little highland town nestled in a dense jungle valley. The air exuded freshness that wafted off the abundant green flora. Purple flowerbeds skirted the river which flowed through the center of town. The river ran past pink, yellow, and turquoise buildings; down past the football pitch; and out to the next town and the next after that.

On the fringe of town lay the trail-heads to dozens of jungle treks. Paths thickly webbed by the knotted tangle of a million tree roots.  Paths so steep sometimes you’d have to climb the roots like rungs of a ladder. There were treks that wound under and through moss laden arches.  Treks encroached by ancient ferns with ethereal mist pooled at ankle height. Treks so muddy and dense and slippery, they’d invoke a childlike regression or else a mental breakdown. And treks that followed the gentle down-slope of the river, eventually opening up to rolling green fields of tea crops.

I loved that jungle because it felt so profoundly vital. The vast diversity of flora captivated me. Micro ferns growing on orchids growing on trees growing in bigger trees. Exotic flower petals splashing color into a million different brush strokes of green.

I hiked and climbed along every trail. But running them was more fun. Running them in the rain, even more.

I think one of the quickest routes to capturing the feeling of childhood is to become utterly soaking wet in a downpour, and then keep at it. In times like these the layers of responsible adulthood vanish with the dryness.

The shirt and pants go first. The inescapable soak wiggles in through collar and cuff, reminding me I’ll have to hang them up. I carry the chore like a stone in my pocket. At this stage I still hold the concerns of the future.  But I go forward.

The wet invasion continues with a cold tingle, turning my underwear into a sponge. Stress and uncertainty bubble inside me. I’ve not yet given myself to the flood.  I cling to the image of a dry, composed self; one without soggy ass; one not caked in mud.

Still I continue.

Then a misjudged step sunk my foot, muddied my shoe, and flooded my sock. The futility of keeping dry in a rainstorm suddenly dawned on me.  And there, in that moment, the worries of later melted away in the face of that splendid deluge. Later itself melted away, leaving only the imperturbable joy of now.

I immediately evened up both feet, making every step a squishy bliss. And I was six years old again.

Shedding the manufactured concerns of the future was liberating.  The future could wait awhile.  As for the present, there was nothing to fear.  The rain did not make me shiver. It did not poison or injure. The mud did not infect or abrade. Wet clothes be damned. Dirty limbs be damned. Wrinkled toes and matted hair be damned. I breathed deep the damp air. I was free!

Tactics that began as prudent measures to remain dry reversed into intentional effort to spread the soak. I clomped along with aquatic abandon. I’d run straight down the most raging streams. Every puddle became a glorious splash. Every mud-bank a daring risk to balance.

The rain cascaded from above. A river formed underfoot. All around me a musical thrush echoed from an infinite choir of leaves, extending forever in every direction. And I, un-drenchably drenched, leaped from one soggy foothold to the next, ducking low hanging branches, and driving a boot heel into every rippling pit. How happy and alive and free I felt is at the heart of my love for Tanah Rata.

I felt more joy than in any childhood paroxysm. The joy brought on a sense-awareness so much sharper, and more charged, than anything experienced in childhood. It coursed through an imagination broad enough to behold the majesty of my surroundings. It electrified a body capable of powerfully bounding through nature. It grew within a consciousness familiar with the weight of responsibility, and thus more elated by its reprieve. I felt the entirety of my life’s course directed into that perfect spear-point moment.

When it was all done I returned to my guesthouse.  I stripped, showered, and changed.  I hung up my wet clothes.  And there was no burden.

I lived in Tanah Rata for almost a month because I felt at home there. Besides the sublime jungle treks and simple accommodation, there was the food; Cheap and delicious and local and Indian.

The smell of pan fried Roti wafted up from street stalls lining the river. Every day for breakfast I’d shoulder up to the mamas and papas working the stalls. I’d converse with them genuinely, laugh about nonsense, join them for a brief period every morning. And I’d eat Roti Telur with dahl, and drink milk tea, for four Ringitt ($1).

There are two Indian restaurants on the main street. They have identical menus and are directly adjacent. Every day for lunch I’d have to break the poor heart of one of the Tandoori chefs when I sat down at his rival’s table. Every day I’d switch restaurants.

Lunch in that time and place was Veg Thali served on a banana leaf: ten Ringitt ($2.50). Four types of veggies, and a bowl of rice, and tofu and dahl, all refillable. No fork, no spoon, no knife, no utensils of any kind. Once I got over the messy feeling, and mastered the technique, eating with my fingers became a privilege. A preference. A pleasure. A rare treat allowed at Indian restaurants. And in some indefinable way it enhances the dining experience.

The food is so damned delicious when scooped up in fleshy digits. Maybe the preview of heat and texture on my fingers adds something. Maybe it’s the ability to fine tune the perfect mix of curry and vegetable and rice. Maybe there’s something that activates in a deep, dark, primal corner of my brain that calls out, ‘This is how you eat!’

Whatever it is, I’m an Indian food addict. I automatically and seamlessly convert to full vegetarian when it’s readily available. And in Tanah Rata, it was.

I recognized the familiar, iterative rush and lull of backpackers coming through. Their main attractions were the large tea plantations nearby. They’d walk a trek, tour the plantation, then take a bus to George Town in the North or Kuala Lumpur in the South. That was the route. Predictably intrepid be we, the backpackers.

But I let the Tanah Rata chapter of my life stretch on and on.

There was little further untold expense, so I could survive on an extreme of 29 Ringgit ($7.25) a day. I spent more on drinks when charming company rolled through. And I indulged in the other small-town venues Tanah Rata had to offer. Even still, I rarely spent more than 50 Ringgit a day.

And for that I slept comfortably, ate heartily, and socialized boisterously. I kept physically fit in beautiful nature, and mentally stimulated with my nose in a book. All in all I conducted myself at the pinnacle of freedom.

Tanah Rata holds a special place in my heart.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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