Thursday, November 11, 2010

They say it's about the journey ... not the destination??

I seriously thought we weren't going to make it to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia's premier tea-growing region.  Arriving fresh from Melaka at the busy Kuala Lumpur bus station we were hurried onto what we were told was the only bus going to the Highlands town of Tanah Rata.  Our attempts to "shop-around" to find a nice, comfy bus to make the trip seemed futile because the first woman we approached followed us from stall to stall rattling away at the attendants in Malaysian.  I can only guess she was insisting that we were her customers and that nobody else was to sell us a bus ticket.

It was only after I sat down on the bus I noticed the hole in the floor, exposing the back wheels of the vehicle.  And then my eyes were drawn to several other large cracks that looked like they might gape open to reveal the road below.  As the bus lurched forward our seat literally came shifted backward because it wasn't properly fixed to the floor.  With every bump in the road I was certain the entire seat was going to fall through the floor with us on it and we'd be squished by the traffic behind us (although there wasn't much of that because it appeared our top speed on the highway was about 60 km/hr).

I spent at least the first two hours of the trip gripping the armrest (which was fortunately still attached to the seat) fretting about our certain imminent death.  However, the fumes from the engine, which were emanating through the holes in the floor seemed to help calm my nerves, if not make me feel a little high and nauseous.  To make matters worse, every so often a luxurious bus would cruise past us bearing a sign reading "Cameron Highlands" and its passengers would stare down at us with looks of pity on their faces.

Once we reached the windy narrow roads that lead up the mountains to the towns dotted across the Highlands the bus seemed to find another gear and the driver would throw it around the sharp corners as hard as he could.  Every time we drove down a slight incline I just prayed that if nothing else on the bus had been maintained, maybe someone had at least examined the brakes recently to make sure they were in working order.

So when we finally made it to the town of Tanah Rata (a promised four hour trip had turned into five-and-a-half long hours) I immediately liked the place, simply because we'd made it there unscathed, if nothing else.

We spent the next day snapping pictures of the region's large tea plantations and marvelled at the strength of the workers who march in pairs up the steep hillside carrying large, heavy pieces of machinery to harvest the leaves.  If anything the trip was worth it to meet Michael Jackson.  It seems the "King of Pop" fooled us all, escaping the boring life stardom brings to live in a bamboo long hut with the "orang asli", or aboriginal people of the Cameron Highlands.  He's become quiet skilled at using a long blow pipe to shoot poison darts at stuffed monkeys for the curious tourists and has learnt to dance like the natives (and no, I didn't see him pull out the signature crotch grabbing move during our visit).  Michael Jackson (which is how he introduced himself) added a bit of humour to our visit but I was sad to realise his tribe, like many other aboriginal people in countries across the world, had been affected by the introduction of alcohol and drugs.  They'd been reduced to performing for tourists and living off welfare to survive and I couldn't help but feel guilty of exploiting what was left of their culture was being exploited.

It was an interesting few days and I'm happy to say our trip from Tanah Rata to our next destination, on the island of Penang, was far less terrifying!

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