Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Life in Tanah Rata, Malaysia: Part 1

Before we set out on this trip, Angela and I always knew we wanted to do some volunteering somewhere along the road. For the longest time we put it off, simply enjoying the pleasures of travelling from one place to the next, but when we fell in love with the small town of Tanah Rata in Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, we decided this might be a good place to stop and do some work. We were also running out of savings, having to cut whole countries out of our itinerary in order to ensure we had enough money to get back home. So it made sense to volunteer at a local establishment, offering physical labor in exchange for accommodation and food. We wouldn't gain any extra money this way, but we did lose a lot less, and it was a good way to get through some of July and thus delay our arrival in India (lord knows we didn't want to be there during monsoon season).

So we asked around town and found a guesthouse called Orchid Lodge, owned by a Bangladeshi man named Kassim. He must have been one of the kindest, friendliest, smiliest men we ever met, offering us tea, telling jokes, generally making Orchid Lodge feel like home... He was also an incredibly hard worker. In the process of building a new hostel at the same time as he ran Orchid Lodge, he was getting an average of three hours' sleep per night, constantly zipping back and forth from one job to the next. Even more impressive was the fact that since it was Ramadan while we were there, he hardly ate for most of the day.

For three weeks, he provided us free beds at Orchid Lodge, along with delicious food, and in exchange we helped him build his new hostel. We did a range of different tasks, from painting ceilings to knocking down old walls to cleaning out rubble. Ultimately, we helped turn an old skeleton of a building into a brand new, fully decorated hostel, which was pretty satisfying to say the least. We also helped run Orchid Lodge, responding to emails from guests, welcoming people to the hostel and showing them around, and cleaning and redressing rooms.

Having lunch with Kassim. Often he would take us to a local restaurant in the middle of the day and buy us food. We felt pretty guilty, since it was now the month of Ramadan and he couldn't eat until sundown, so we'd just sit there eating in front of him while he was probably very hungry. But it was no use trying to turn his offers down. He was one of the most giving people we ever met, and he would often sneakily stuff money into our pockets if we refused to take it from his hands.
We stayed in a dorm room at Orchid Lodge for most of the time. However, Kassim would occasionally give us our own double-room if there were no other guests using it.
We worked mostly at CH Travellers Inn, the newly-opened sister guesthouse of Orchid Lodge. When we started out, it was a ramshackle construction site with old chandeliers, doors and pieces of wall lying around.

Chipping away a former wall so it's ready to cover with caulk and plaster.
Sometimes it would get very dusty, so we'd wear these masks while we worked.
In the evenings we'd help Kassim prepare dinner.
At sundown, Kassim would present his guests and volunteers with a sumptuous feast of Bangladeshi and Malaysian cuisine. He fed us well, almost too well, since we were constantly stuffed and fat by the end of each meal.

Back at work. When we weren't helping the builders at CH, we'd do day-to-day tasks at Orchid Lodge, like helping Kassim water and prepare his orchid garden, which greets guests in the reception.
We sometimes wore these official Orchid Lodge uniforms, making us look like professional hostel workers. Here we are with fellow volunteer, Steve, from Belgium.
Many of the guests at Orchid Lodge were interested in hiking in the local area, so Kassim would have us escort them along local hiking routes, acting as (very amateur!) tour guides! Here I am with Paul and Carol, who come from Newcastle, England, but currently live in France.
We guided Paul and Carol along Path 4, which leads into some jungles near Tanah Rata.
Paul investigates some of the local flora.

This small, brown waterfall reminded us of the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Hiking over tangled roots.
Back in Tanah Rata, we visited the afternoon market, which sold lots of tasty food.

One of our favourite street foods here is murtabak. With a name derived from the Arabic for "folded," it is a multilayered pancake filled with minced chicken or mutton along with onion, egg and garlic. Dip it in curry sauce and it's finger-licking delicious.
Of course, no food compares to Kassim's home-cooked Radaman meals. Here we are at another big dinner gathering.
In the evenings we'd often watch World Cup matches at our local curry house. 
Out on another hike, this one by the road just south of town.
The aptly named Balloon Vine, or cardiospermum (Greek for "heart-seed).

We found this nice place by the road and stopped to read Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to the famous sci-fi novel, Ender's Game.
Though we enjoyed some nice weather in Tanah Rata, it rained almost every afternoon, probably the tail-end of the Indian monsoon if my climatology is correct. Sometimes the sky would turn this eerie purple-grey colour.
Just below Orchid Lodge is a cafe called Gossip Corner, which sells this gargantuan dish. As a huge lover of burgers, I had to give it a go. Alas, it was not only a huge disappointment, but also one of the foulest things I've ever eaten. The "burger" was more a lump of chicken fat and gristle, smothered in cupfuls of mayonnaise. Easily the worst thing I've eaten in Asia (yep, worse than chicken feet and beondegi!), which is pretty ironic, considering Tanah Rata generally has the best food in Asia.
Also near Orchid Lodge is a store with a cage of cats outside. Two kittens escaped from there at one point, and we found them at the building site of CH Travellers Inn. We had to catch them and return them to the store, which was a fun little diversion from the dusty construction work.
Painting the ceiling of one of the new dorm rooms at CH.
Taking a break with some masala tea (which is, like almost everything in Tanah Rata, very tasty).
We made some picture displays for the rooms at CH by stapling posters of the Cameron Highlands to these wooden boards.
Sometimes, Kassim would give us massages to compensate us for our work.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2.

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