Tea and strawberries in the Cameron Highlands (Matt)
Jul 13, 2007
|The warm bitterness of black tea lingers on my tongue as I listen to children playing across the little valley from where I sit. I bring the cup to my lips again and its steam carries the smell of dried grass, of hay and sunshine, and I remember summer days at home in Chilliwack. This valley hangs with the massive ferns and heavy thick-leafed vegetation of the rainforest though the temperature is cool. Perfect weather for a walk.
We arrived here in the Cameron Highlands three days ago, our bus threading its way through the hills and gaining elevation as it went. Laura napped; I read my book for a while and listened to music. Four hours later, we were here.
Vans from the various guesthouses were waiting when we arrived. We chose one, loaded our bags into a creaking, upholstery-torn Volkswagen van, and were dropped at a pleasant enough guesthouse that by all indications was largely empty. Best of all, our room is clean, cheap, and we don't mind sharing a bathroom when we're the only ones using it! The place feels like we are staying in someone's house: it is quiet, we're left to come and go as we like, while the household activities of cooking and laundry continue around us.
A walk around town shows it to be a small but pleasant enough place. South Indian restaurants line the sidewalk alongside small grocery stores and and a few shops selling souvenirs -- some beautiful but expensive carved masks catch my attention but not our money.
And at most places, there is tea. Tea is one of the reasons this place exists, the plantations lining the hills outside of town and their products on menus and shelves along the main street. We will visit a plantation tomorrow, we decide.
But for our first day, a walk around town is enough. There is a park and soccer field where we watch a game until it becomes obvious who will win. Then a slow, leisurely walk back toward town past tourists reading on park benches, uniformed children walking home from school, and the little bustle of the main street.
Laura is cold in the night and wakes with a headache. I'm enjoying the cool air. It is good to be free of the sweaty lethargic tug of the heat for a change.
We enjoy wonderful, tasty, generous dosas for breakfast. A dosa and some masala tea: I feel like I am in India again. The restaurant owner already knows us, yelling "Canada!" whenever he sees us walking the sidewalk. He's from Madras, he proclaims proudly.
A trip to the tourist information centre proves pointless (it is closed) so we head to the bus station hoping we can figure out which local bus to take on our own. We do, and before long are waiting on a comfortably rickety local bus waiting to be shuttled to the turnoff where we can get to the tea plantation. I chat with Kate and James, an English couple on the bus who are going to the same place.
We walk along a narrow road that winds through rolling green fields of tea. It is hard to deny its beauty despite knowing it came at the expense of the rainforest. I gather a few leaves and crush them in my palm, their smell like fresh-cut grass.
At the modern visitors centre, we join a tour of the factory. Its not unlike the one we visited in south India, though the picking of the tea leaves is automated here, not done by hand as it was in India. The smell, however, is pungent, sweet, and green. It smells nothing like tea, but makes my mouth water nonetheless. Machines rattle around us, drowning out the voice of our tour guide. The air is heavy with crushed wet leaves, then dusty as they are heated and dried. The process is simple: crush the leaves (with a thunderous rolling machine), let them oxidize (turn brown), then dry them and sort them into big leaves (best quality) and powder (stronger, less subtle tea).
We migrate to the tea shop where we purchase pots of tea and sweets: Laura has cake while I savour a strawberry tart. We sit with our English friends enjoying our tea (well I think ours is a little tasteless, but no matter) and desserts. I buy a box of tea in hopes that I'll enjoy it though I've never really been a tea drinker. Mostly, I think I've fallen victim of the sensual tea pornography around us -- the descriptions of tea flavours, the sounds of bubbling water and the close-ups of the rich brown liquid washing into a cup. I succumb and buy a box.
The four of us leave the plantation and walk back the way we came. Near the bus stop is a butterfly farm and we visit in hopes of capturing some good photos. It is, indeed, a perfect place to play with a camera. Huge colourful butterflies rest perfectly still everywhere you look. It is easy to creep close and steal a picture of their bright colours and long curling antennae. There are snakes too, sadly bound into little glass terrariums with scurrying, worried grasshoppers. Huge beetles rest on twigs in their own terrariums, the rhinoceros beetle being my favourite. "Cool! Look at this one!" I exclaim like a little kid as I discover new, larger, more strange degrees of bugness. Sadly, there is also a cement enclosure pretending to be a wishing well: it is filled with large, black, dead-looking scorpions amidst tossed coins and notes. There are garden gnomes too. Utterly pointless and cruel, I think. It was time to leave.
Nearby, a hydroponic strawberry farm sells perfect organic strawberries at a price properly inflated for tourists. Instead, we try a strawberry ice -- a plastic tube filled with frozen crushed strawberries -- and end up with three each in our bellies. They are wonderful.
Soon, we are back on the bus rattling our way back into town. Not yet sufficiently caffinated, the four of us visit a tea shop for (predictably) tea and scones with cream and jam. And who better to enjoy them with than our new friends from England?
From the tea shop, our eating continues; we head off to the Chinese restaurant down the street for the local favourite in the Cameron Highlands: steamboat. It is basically a big pot of soup heated to boiling by a gas burner at your table into which you put raw ingredients. Plates heaping with vegetables, noodles, chicken, beef, and seafood are brought to us to cook in our bubbling Tom Yum soup. It was very tasty and very filling. About two hours later, we've finished our cooking and eating for the day (apart from a roti filled with honey and cashews we bought for dessert at another restaurant!). We bid farewell to our James and Kate and head back to our guesthouse and to sleep.
What was to be our last day in the Cameron highlands was a relaxing one. I read my book while Laura did yoga on the large deck. Later, I also followed Eion Finn, via our IPOD, through a yoga class I remember attending over a year ago. It felt good to get some stretching and exercise. We bought our bus tickets to Penang for the following day, had some lunch, and went to the internet café to update the blog. A quiet, relaxing sort of day.
Laura started to feel unwell in the internet café, heading back to rest while I burned photos onto DVD. When I returned, she looked rough as she curled shivering in bed with a slight fever. I left to change our bus tickets. She wasn't going anywhere for a while.
At the bus station, a man takes my tickets and says he'll sell them for me. Then I can buy new tickets with the money. I should return the next day. Nervously, I leave them in his hands. Just one of those situations where I have to trust, I guess. With "no refunds or changes" stamped on the tickets and the office window, I figured it was as good as I was going to get.
I shared my table at dinner with a German couple as I ate my tandoori chicken. I returned quickly to check on Laura who looked brighter, but still unwell. She'll need the extra day before our bus trip to the coast and hotter climes.
The next day, we walk into town for brunch -- not dosas for once, but rather more westernized fare -- and my later visit to the bus station proves I had nothing to worry about: I leave with tickets to Penang with the date and time we want. The rest of the day is uneventful: a visit to the postoffice to send some cards, and mail a DVD of photos home; the internet for a while; then relaxing at our guesthouse. Laura is well enough for a banana leaf thali meal for dinner before we retire for the evening. She's tired, but well enough for the bus tomorrow.
We wake at 6:30 and are rolling our bags into town by 7:00. Our favourite South Indian restaurant is open and we enjoy dosas one last time before crossing the street to the bus depot.
The four-hour trip to Penang is uneventful enough. I get my pants wet from the knees down in a bus stop washroom that could double as an indoor waterfall. 80's hits are play on the bus radio for a time: I thought Lionel Richie crooning "Say You Say Me" was bad enough until "Ebony and Ivory" starting oozing out of the speakers.
We're dropped at the terminal where we catch the ferry to the island of Penang. Its hot as we walk through the streets of Georgetown to our guesthouse and we're sweaty and tired by the time we arrive.
We've exchanged the cool mountain air of the Cameron Highlands for the hot humidity of the coast. Thailand feels close enough now to taste its coconut milk and spicy chillies. We're back in the city too. The Cameron Highlands was a pleasant break from the traffic and bustle as well.
Before us lies the island of Penang with its Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures, its spice plantations, and nearby tropical beaches. Looming in the distance is Thailand, only a visa application away.