3 July, 2016
I ran into serious debit card trouble while in Tanah Rata, leaving me stuck in town with almost no ringgit. Mack didn’t give me trouble about the rent, but he was not very uplifting either; “Call Donald Trump, he’ll help you.”
Luckily after heaps of phone calls and maneuvering I managed to guess my pin number at the ATM. In hindsight going into a foreign country with both of my debit cards locked and lacking a pin number was not the smartest traveler move. Good fortune saved the day, and because of the confusion I was able to explore the Highlands a bit longer.
Lesson one is to not wait until you’re in the middle of Malaysia before sorting out locked debit cards.
It was a late start that morning. I sipped foul instant coffee upstairs by the window, where the scent of fish floated up from the weekend market. I looked to the hills and thought of the Orang Asli in their brown farmers’ clothes and rubber boots, with their frizzled handlebar moustaches. I imagined them in their dwellings made up of bamboo and recycled parts, homes with roofs made of leaves and long tufts of grass, with bamboo wedges and twine to bind it all together. The sun was shining over those hills, and I thought it would be a good day for a trek.
I decided to take “trail 10”, which is one of the more popular of the routes around Tanah Rata. Many of the trails are now lost due to road construction. Trail 10 stretches along the shoulder of the hills within the jungle, emerging at moments into treeless areas of overgrowth. I spotted lots of unusual jungle foliage on the way, such as the pitcher plant. There was a fungi that grew in clusters around the branches of tall trees, and resembled a wooden brain with scales like a turtle. The ground was spongy like in the Mossy Forest, and a ceiling of moss was developing on the canopy.
One moment after a steep climb the trail opened up near the top of a hill and into a small shoulder of tall grass, ferns and flowering plants visited by butterflies and bumblebees. Black little birds dived overhead, eating the flies. Cicadas were buzzing, there were large pitcher plants at the base of the jungle. It was hot with no shade, but the risen earth muffled the sounds of the city, making this the quietest spot on the trail. The silence was a reward in itself.
The best view can be found beneath the huge pylon that cuts through the landscape en route to the Italian-German dam that’s somewhere out there. The land around the pylon felt burned and bled, but remained beautiful despite that. Many trees were cut down and the land was so exposed that there was nothing to stop the flood of city ambiance from wafting up the mountain. I could hear all the construction and traffic of civilisation, and found that along with the imperceptible hum of the pylon unsettling.
Another 40 minutes through the jungle and I reached the power station, where men plowed the dry terraces and tended to corn and cabbages. Many of the vegetables didn’t look healthy. There was a botanical greenhouse on the hillside and beyond it the forest canopy spilled over undulating hills. I could see Boh tea plantation, Tana Ratah, Ringlet, the strawberry and vegetable farms, and various hotels and British-styled estates far off in the distance. Along the path were harmless-looking dogs leashed to dugouts and kennels. They served as alarms more than offensive animals.
The walk back to town wasn’t as pleasant, since I lost part of the trail and was on the road in direct sunlight. There was nowhere to rest at that odd time of the day and I was out of water, so I covered my head with my scarf and marched to Tanah Rata. The evening was slow. I exercised at the park, read a bit, said some goodbyes.
Lesson two is to always bring more water than you need, and maybe a map as well.
That night I joined Mack in his office. It reeked of cigarettes, the lights were out and he was watching an American detective series on the television. “This is how I spend my days,” he said sadly. He shared another beer with me, we sat and I tried to get a good conversation going. But Mack was in a troubling mood, behaving like a tipsy, hopeless old man. He complained about the business, about how he wanted to sell but no one would buy. “I can’t buy land, I can’t afford it,” he said. “The price of my business is 40 thousand dollars. That doesn’t count the vehicle, but it’s not a bad price. No takers.”
“Maybe you can sell it off to a Singaporean, or the owner.”
“The owner’s Indian,” Mack said contemptuously. I wondered where “the Don” was, wishing I wasn’t the only other person in the room. Then randomly Mack mentioned, “I used to host Thai boys here. They gave a very good massage.”
“Yeah, the Thais are great at massage. It’s a–”
“What are you expecting?” Mack interrupted, surprising me. For whatever reason, I opened up and told him some of my life goals. His response was unsettling, and the more he talked the more I wanted to leave the room. “If you don’t have it before you’re 25, you’ll never have it.” He gripped his shoulder and made a pitiful face. He said he was in pain but it didn’t come off as genuine.
“Hmm” was all I said.
There was so much talk of hopelessness and regret, low expectations, drinking, smoking and American television. I found it all dismal and draining. And then I found myself getting a very awkward back massage by Mack. At first it seemed like a neutral gesture; Mack insisted that he could give a good massage, so I handed him my Tiger Balm and he went to work. But the way he was breathing and touching me was not that of a masseuse. I realised a bit too late that Mack was interested in young men, and while I’m cool with anyone’s sexuality, Mack’s method of “making a move” was manipulative, too suggestive, reliant on pity more than anything, and in the end violent. He was a creepy, sad man. He wanted me to turn around so he could rub down my chest, I quickly stood up and refused. Then he became angry, he insisted that I lift my shirt. I said no once more and walked out.
A minute later, I heard a door slam two stories above, so hard that it shook the building. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “How many times is this going to happen?”
I laid in bed and realised that the bar downstairs was playing all of the previous night’s songs on infinite repeat. The town no longer had anything new, and I was absolute in my decision to leave the next day.
Lesson three…do I really have to warn people to not accept oily massages from sad old men after midnight?