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A little bit of everything

Wise old men, jungle trekking and the joys of Anthrax. How do I keep doing this to myself?
When I last wrote to you all over ten days ago I had just arrived in the historical, southern Malaysian city of Melacca. Quiet, idyllic and peaceful, Melacca was once the bustling capital of Peninsular Malaysia but now resembles a sleepy sea side town. The city's big tourist drawcard is the impressive historical architecture that you can find dotted around the city; the lovechild of years of submission to various European powers (England, Holland and Portugal) that reduced the city to nothing more than a colonial whore to be passed from coloniser to coloniser.

The most impressive example of this architecture are the ruins of an old Dutch church that sit atop a Hill in the town's centre. It was within the crumbling peach walls of this church that I met Francis Goh, a geriatric artist / philosopher (or "artosopher" as he called himself) who has become something of a Melaccan institution. For the past fifty years Chinese-born Francis has climbed this hill and stationed himself and his cats in a corner of the old church. He spends his days pondering the deeper meaning of life and painting scenes to illustrate his revelations, all in the hope that a passing tourist will buy one to pay for his dinner. And, to top it all off, the man has an amazing memory. I was bemused when he asked me whereabouts in Melbourne I lived.

'Kew,' I replied curiously. 'Aaah,' he mumbled while scratching his head, 'postcode is 3101. Next to North Balwyn, yes?'

It wasn't until he reeled off the postcode of my Swedish and Canadian travelling companions as well that I realised that this man was either some kind of idiot savant, or he simply had too much time on his hands. The latter turned out to be the case.

After chatting to Francis for half an hour, I figured that a session with a wise old philosopher was too good an opportunity to waste. It was time to get some answers to the riddles that had sent me on this trip in the first place.

'Francis,' I asked in my best pidgin English, 'if you are good philosopher then maybe you can answer a question: What am I supposed to do with my life? Because, I've got no idea!'

Francis gave me a toothless grin, looked at me for a few seconds and simply said, 'Ally, don't you see? It doesn't make any matter what you do with yourself, it only matter how you do it.'

Those sounded like words to live by. So Mum and Dad, I've decided I'm going to do it. I'm going to become a Rentokill man. Not just any Rentokill man, mind you, but the best God damn Rentokill man in the world. I'll make you proud, just wait.

Having partied all night with backpackers from across the world - and one very obnoxious Aussie from Wollongong - I packed my bags and headed off on yet another detour. My plans to head up to the beautiful beaches on the East coast of Malaysia had to be put on hold because the monsoon season had just hit, so instead I recruited a Swedish PhD student called Martin and two British girls named Charlie and Liz to head with me to the Tama Negara National Park in the country's centre.

Taman Negara lays claim to having the oldest rainforests on Earth. For over 130 million years its ecosystem has escaped the wrath of multiple ice ages, vicious geological activity and deforestation and is regarded as something of an ecological time capsule. Indeed during the two hour river-boat ride into the heart of the park - extended to three hours because we had to stop every fifteen minutes and help bail water out of the glorified canoe the locals call a sampan - we did feel like we were travelling back in time. The jungle surrounding us so overwhelmed me with its sheer magnitude that suddenly (and apologies to those who didn't read pretentious literary works in their nihilistic teen years just to impress their friends) I felt like Marlow, searching for the elusive Mr Kurtz in the tangle of trees and shrubs on either side of the river bank.

The view from our guesthouse in Kuala Tahan across the river from Taman Negara national park. The floating cafes on the river kept us fed watered at nights after sweating it out in the jungles by day. Enlarge »
Having somehow acquired the company of two Brtipackers named Alex and Jerry, we stashed our bags in the local village and started off on a three-hour hike to a nearby cave. It was only when we'd cleared the main path and turned on to a tiny track that the overwhelming nature of the park dawned on me. This was the definition of pure jungle: millions of towering trees that spread their roots like a tangled web across the rainforest floor, thick vines that hung from the canopy seemingly designed to trap any intruders, the deafening calls of countless birds and insects, and the heat, rain and 95% humidity that coated you in sweat and mud as you scrambled up, and slid down, hill after hill. Everything was so densely packed that to step two metres from the trail was to become totally disoriented and lost.

When we finally came upon the Gua Telinga cave I felt obligated to take the lead as my intimate knowledge of leeches had somewhat elevated me to the status of Crocodile Dundee among my nature phobic, European travelling companions. With all the bravado I could muster I began a scramble into the darkness over dozens of slippery rocks. It was only after a 30 metres or so - and while struggling to maintain my grip on a slimy piece of stone that sloped steeply away into a black pool five metres below - that I realised it was so dark I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face. I reached for my torch, flicked it on and looked around confused; all I could see was a grey fur of some kind. And then I froze. There was a bat, hanging from the ceiling, a few inches from my face, and it was surrounded by hundreds of other bats all hanging around my head.

Now I'm not sure what the F-word shouted at the top of one's voice means to hundreds of sleeping bats when picked up by their ultra-sensitive hearing, but from what followed I'm guessing it translates roughly to 'Let's all fly around the crazy human and screech madly, especially since his grip on that piece of rock is looking a bit shaky'. I slipped, I fell, I got very wet. Needless to say, I'm no longer a fan of bats.

My remaining days at Taman Negara were spent shooting the seven rapids of the Tembeling River in inner tubes and getting horribly muddy and sweaty as the six of us attempted trek after trek and somehow managed to get lost every single bloody time. At one nerve-fraying stage we ended up getting so utterly and totally disoriented on what was supposed to be a leisurely two hour trek that we ended up racing against sunset and an approaching thunderstorm to find our way back to the village before we were beaten by both darkness and impossibly muddy tracks. It was only that night, while eating dinner in the safety of a floating cafe, that we recounted our route to a local guide and were told we'd completed a three-day hike in an adrenaline-fuelled seven hours. None of us could walk the next day.

With the nature quota of my week satisfied it was time to get to a big city, and a laundry. So with two of the Britpackers (Alex and Jerry, two high school teachers from London) in tow I headed to the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. On the way an unscheduled, missed-the-last-bus overnight stop in the tiny town of Temerloh gave us a chance to catch a local festival that seemed, as far as we could decipher with our limited knowledge of Malaysian, to climax with a city-wide karaoke contest and local beauty pageant. While you may think that the concept of a beauty pageant would be hard to reconcile with Malaysia's Islamic sensibilities, the locals have adapted with flair: the judges simply award points to the girls with the prettiest cover-all-your-body clothes. And I must admit, the winner was a stunner.

When we finally got to Kuala Lumpur we found a hostel in the heart of the chaos, noise and sheer insanity that is usually called Chinatown. From there I jumped into a train and headed to the Australian Embassy to apply for a new passport. While at Taman Negara my passport had fallen victim to the pervasive mud and water and now looked more like a failed attempt at a paper-mache model than an international identity document.

While waiting alone at the reception area for someone to help me, I was rather disturbed when a grim-faced man dressed in a bright yellow Hazmat suit, complete with gas mask and oxygen tank, ran past me. Nervously, I continued reading my paper until a few minutes later when three more Hazmat team members raced out, the last carrying a yellow plastic bag marked 'HAZMAT SAMPLE. DO NOT OPEN.' I looked at one of them with a questioning, if-you're-wearing-Hazmat-suits-shouldn't-I-possibly-be-wearing-one-as-well look on my face, but he simply made the internationally recognised mime signal for 'you'd best get outside, now'. I thought it best not to argue.

The embassy had received suspicious mail, I was told minutes later by nervous consular staff waiting in the street, and the Hazmat team were there to take the letters off for anthrax testing. 'Don't panic,' they said, 'it's probably just a hoax.'

Not panicking, I quickly discovered, was not as easy as it sounded.

That night, convinced I'd keel over and die by morning, I blew a week's budget on beer at a reggae bar near my hostel. In the company of a 40-something, cat-obsessed Finnish lesbian I had first met in Melacca - but who I fatefully bumped into again at my KL hostel - I drunk myself into alcoholic oblivion. After all, I said to myself, I wouldn't be alive in the morning to face the hangover. For six hours I drank far too many beers, became far too melodramatic and moaned far too much about all the things I hadn't had a chance to experience in my life. I was too young to die, I kept saying to whoever would listen, while Bob Marley repeatedly protested his Deputy-shooting innocence in the background.
I was too young to die, I kept saying to whoever would listen, while Bob Marley repeatedly protested his Deputy-shooting innocence in the background.
Thankfully the Finn was a patient listener.

As you can probably tell I did make it through the night, although my resultant hangover did lead me to contemplate suicide a number of times throughout the following day. Over coffee I thumbed through the paper to discover that the suspicious mail at the embassy had contained nothing but, wait for it, talcum powder.

Feeling slightly foolish I spent the remainder of my time in KL seeing all the touristy sights and concluding that I'm not a fan of big cities. I booked a bus ticket to the island of Penang in the country's north, bid farewell to the two Brits, and hit the road again.

Penang in eight words: Pretty island. Pretty temples. OK beaches. Very touristy.

Nothing more to be said, really.

And now, as I write this, I'm sitting at an Internet cafe in the Cameron Highlands, a tiny, jungle-enclosed hill station in Malaysia's centre that's seven roller-coaster-like hours from Penang by bus. After four weeks on the road this is a kind of holiday from my holiday. The high altitude means that the weather here is refreshingly cool and I've vowed to spend the next few days simply sitting in my hostel's jungle bar and relaxing, reading, and making my way through my their four hundred odd movie collection. But given the hectic schedule of the coming month - seven days in the Philippines, a week or so in South Korea and then a race down the east coast of China from Beijing to Hong Kong - something tells me this is a break I'm going to need.

Four weeks already, they've flown by so quickly. Indonesia was a blast and with the notable exception of Jakarta, the locals were warm and friendly. Singapore's food was a life-altering experience and little could have prepared me for Malaysia's beauty.

The next month though, is going to be tough. The Philippines and its tourist-beheading Abu Sayeff terrorist group, South Korea and its wallet-shredding AUS $150 / day travelling costs, and China's sheer size and cultural isolation will no doubt push all my newfound travelling skills to the limit.

Here's hoping I survive.

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