When You Can’t Beat ‘Em

Now that our grad school applications have been sent of, we can focus once again on traveling. The past few weeks have been spent mostly in internet cafes, trying to concentrate on explaining in 600 words or less what we want to do with the rest of our lives while the screams and booming noises from the kids in the next room playing Doom were a constant annoyance. I’ve been bringing headphones and streaming classical music to try and drown the noise out and remain calm. In one café, there were no headphones plug, so I cranked up the speakers and shared my classical music with the kids. Passive aggressive? Yes. But highly enjoyable.

The stress of the applications was getting to us, so we looked for relief. What do most people do when they need a break? They go to the beach. So we hopped on a bus and soon after arriving at Pangkor Island on Malaysia’s western coast, we realized that we’re not beach people. Our skin is fair for one. Multiple applications of high SPF sunscreen is always necessary. Yet I feel guilty when I get into the water and Valdez-sized oil slick surrounds me.

We made the most of our beach time and tried snorkeling. We were taken to “Coral Island” and shown where the fishes congregate. As soon as I got in the water, I was immediately swarmed. That was when I had my first inkling that perhaps these fish are fed. When they started nibbling on my toes, legs and elbows, I was pretty sure. I then heard a squeal and turned to see a giddy yet nervous tourist behind me splashing about in the water. Sporting not one but two lifejackets, she held one hand high above the water. The reason? Keeping the fish food dry. So while she paddled around in circles, Mark and I swam off to a quieter area and got to see some water monitors swimming around and some very interesting creatures in the inner-tidal area. Once again, we were rewarded for getting off the beaten path.

Our next destination was the Cameron Highlands, the high ridge of land that is like a spine down the center of the Malaysian peninsula. At about a mile above sea level, it’s much cooler than the rest of the country and it enjoys misty and moderate weather. This combination makes it a perfect location for agriculture, the two most important crops being tea and strawberries. Sounds perfect, right? Well, as soon as we got off the bus, we saw that the Cameron Highlands are a stop on the well-worn tourist path. But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?

So the next day, we signed up for a tour, unfortunately the only way to really see the spread out sights. The first stop was the Rose Farm, which was really more of a Wally World greenhouse than a rose garden. Apparently, concrete sculptures compliment gardens in the eyes of one segment of the tourist population. I’m guessing they’re for the throngs of Chinese visitors to the area. But I had a hard time relating the life-sized Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the 10’ Native American head or the concrete Shoe House to the surrounding landscape. The flowers, on the other hand were quite lovely.

Our next stop was the Strawberry Farm, which was really just an opportunity to eat strawberries; we chose the strawberry ice cream sundae. We also visited the Butterfly Farm, which along with a walk-in butterfly garden, showcased creepy crawlies from the area: scorpions, rhinoceros beetles, tarantulas, stick bugs and leaf bugs. The most memorable sight at the Bee Farm was the massive concrete bee sculptures dispersed through out the garden.

My favorite stop was the Tea Plantation. The steep hills and high rain fall of the Cameron Highlands make it a perfect landscape for growing tea. The BOH Tea plantation that we visited was verdant and beautiful. Row after row of tea shrubs, some of which were almost 100 years old, zig-zagged up and down the hills. The shrubs are harvested mechanically – two workers guide what looks like a massive hedge clipper across the top of the shrubs every three weeks. The leaves are then sorted by size – the younger the better. These workers, mostly from Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, are paid by the kilo harvested – 0.20 ringget per kilo. That’s a little over US $0.05 a kilo. A day’s work will result in about 200 kilos per person, paying them more than they’d make back home.

We then got to tour the factory. As soon as we walked in the door, we were greeted with the fabulous aroma of tea leaves. The leaves are crushed, then allowed to ferment overnight. They’re then dried the old fashioned way: in an oven heated by rubber tree wood, which produces a hotter fire. The leaves are then sorted by size and shipped off to be bagged. The plantation we visited harvests about 800,000 cups of tea a day.

We’ve now moved on again, and are currently enjoying the colonial Portuguese port of Malacca. Today we’re going to visit the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, built in 1521 and visited by St. Francis Xavier, whose body was interred here before being moved to it‘s final resting place in Goa, India. It’s quite an interesting structure – a tower in the front of the church is also a light house, added by the British in the 1600’s. Also on the docket for today: a Sultanate Palace, a governor’s residence and a night zoo.

It’s great to be traveling again!

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