Saturday, November 12, 2005

Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Welcome to the Jungle, we got fun and games, as the song goes. Tanah Rata is a small town based around one high street. The playground of weekend idlers since colonial times, it is building chalets and apartment blocks in some attempt to become the Malaysian version of Chamonix. Many of the ramblers here are Malaysian and therefore the guesthouses do not have the usual colonial/western ghetto atmosphere that pervades such places elsewhere on the trail.

As the town itself is nothing to write about, I won't go further but I'll take you, as I took myself, to the jungle. I should be honest and state that the word "jungle" is a bit of a misnomer though it is the one everyone uses around here. It has got the sounds, smells and sights of a tropical jungle but, at 1500 metres plus above sea level, it hasn't got the brutal steamroom heat. This means that all I have to deal with is my shameful lack of fitness. That and the frequent downpours.

The relatively clement temperature would not have been easily guessed from my appearance after a ridge scramble. I was sweating like a cardinal in a schoolboy’s changing room within a few minutes of hauling myself up wonderfully steep and slippery "paths". There are no proper walking maps of the place so you have to guesstimate your position with a silly tourist attraction map (used mostly to indicate tea plantations and butterfly farms) and badly scribbled notes of a quick interrogation of locals in the know. These included "After the shed with the dog, walk through the person's garden and hop over the padlocked gate". Once you find the path you are often confronted with several options that neither map nor chap mentioned. At this point you have to use landmarks if possible but more often than not a sort of blind faith in your navigational instincts.

The way to see if you haven't seriously messed up is to look for tracks of people like you. The constant rain means that the distinctive footprints of walking boots do not linger long. If you find some you are probably on the correct path. That or you are following someone as stupid as you. Once you get over the stupid fear that you are going to lose yourself on a mountain less than 2 kilometers away from town you can start to enjoy the place.

The jungle is a place of sensory overload. You are constantly hearing hoots, howls, clicks, crashes and buzzes. Like most humans I look for patterns in what I hear and at one point I was convinced some animal was giving me the first few bars of “ When the saints go marching in”. Whatever it was shut up when I whistled the next bits. You also hear what you can’t see scurrying away from you.

I haven’t seen any animals except for insects and birds but I did hear stuff legging it away from me. By jungle standards humans are pretty big and I guess that translates as “it can eat you” for the fauna. Then again, the fact that half the flora seems to be rotting means you hear a lot of stuff crashing to the ground. Things also move for no apparent reason up there. All the leaves on a tree will be still except for a couple that quiver frantically. A cluster of lianas will be scenically fixed except for one that looks like Tarzan has just used his famous commuting tool. All this was glimpsed as snapshots by little me as I focused a lot on the ground to avoid slippery roots, puddles and mudholes. Most movement is detected through peripheral vision and as a result my head was darting around like a canary.

For a rotting mess the jungle smells quite nice and strangely familiar, like a girl’s bathroom. The recent trend among women of buying cosmetics replete with aloe, guava and anything else that is vaguely linked to a rainforest has removed any exotic aspects of these scents for me. All in all the whole thing was pleasant on the hooter. Except for me. What I smelled of was sweat and DEET. For some reason I decided that the cute 50%, smells-lemony-fresh stuff I usually baste myself with was probably to wimpy for hardcore jungle insects so I went for the 98% stuff that smells awful and can melt most types of plastic. All of which probably followed the vast amounts of liquid my skin was generating downwards so probably it gave the most protection to my boots. No mozzie will approach my footwear now. Then again neither will anything else.

The combination of sensory input and climbing enduced endorphins gave me a strange high. I like the organic feel of the place and went all hippyish. I also went foolish as I indulged in a downhill run just for the sake of it until my brain kicked in and reminded me that I was alone and this was a place where a broken leg could prove a slight problem. To dispel the hippy thoughts my brain was helped by Mother Nature itself.

On some of the paths I chanced upon big plastic sheets strung up on branches or propped up with sticks. As I was still in Flower Kid mode I tut-tutted and pondered the tendency of man to despoil nature and why are we so harmful and yadda yadda yadda. Right up to the moment I heard thunder. The evils defilers of Mother Nature morphed into kindly souls as I realize someone had thought of rigging up places to shelter on the path. Most of these are quite steep and can become small streams when the rain hits. Not the time to be a scramblin’.

I must confess I really like it here and am reluctant to head to Kuala Lumpur. This is a great place for relaxation and contemplation. Actually, being stuck for an hour under a plastic sheet with a wet pack of cigarettes was the real catalyst for contemplation but I found myself pondering what was happening in France and have developed a strange obsession with it.

The next part is not travel related in any way and more an attempt to gather my thoughts but I can’t see a reason why this blog just has to be limited to musings on the places that I visit. Also it’s pissing down and I have got time to kill. You have been warned.

That being said, I reckon a lot of this was brought one by my surroundings as I am in a society that seems to have found a way to make multi-ethnicity work. The 3 main groups of Malaysia, the Malays, Indians and Chinese get along reasonably well and all have played a role in this country’s development. Like elsewhere, there must be cretins who have decided to hate one group or the other but it is not apparent. It’s also hard to see if any of the groups can be called dominant. Like most good things, this state of affairs is not an accident and took a lot of effort.

In 1969, racial tensions amongst the groups exploded in riots. People were killed, women were raped and stuff was burned. The government then decided to address some of the grievances and in a way pioneered affirmative action. The Chinese diaspora had had their usual commercial success and the Malays were resentful. Programs to give more of this wealth to the Malays were set up and the hatred decreased as the prosperity increased. In the early seventies, a nation not yet 2 decades old had understood what the French government in the 21 century still has not twigged; that when the reality and the theory don’t add up, you ditch the idea.

French Dogma on its ethnic minorities is that they don’t exist. The French Ideal absorbs all in its greatness. If a French national, you are part of the Republican Pact with its rights, privileges and responsibilities and this supersedes all ethnic and cultural factors. As this is the law it must be real. Therefore the kids setting the suburbs alight are just disenfranchised Frenchmen who happen to be of immigrant origin. In America people use their ethnicity proudly in conjunction with their American status. Many Brits describe themselves as Asian of Afro-Caribbean. Here in Malaysia the differences are obvious and reflected in language, writing, religion, food etc…. France maintains all are equal and the same.

The problem is that this happy notion has no connection with reality. A young man born in France of Algerian parents will be considered French on paper. He will have been told of his ancestors the Gauls, had to sit through “Instruction Civique” and, depending on his age, he might have done military service ( or skived out of it). All this is supposed to make him the same as someone called Jean-Claude and by law no one can treat him any differently. However, this kid knows that when looking for a job, an internship, a flat or when dealing with the fuzz he is not Jean-Claude. He is called Abdel, Mohammed or Youssouf and for the people on the other end of these encounters that makes all the difference, as he knows too well.

France has got a big problem with racism. The National Front is a frighteningly real contender in political terms particularly during presidential elections. However, when officially there is no such thing as race it makes it a tad tricky to address the problems that come with it. The fuckwits who are happily turnings schools into bonfires are probably a mixed lot but the majority of them have parents that were born on a different continent. I sincerely doubt they feel French and if they have visited the country of their ancestry they probably know they are different from that too. They are stuck in an identity crisis with no attachment to anything in particular.

People in France tend to focus on the monstrosities that are the “banlieues” as the main culprit and I understand why. The French state created the HLM (subsidized housing) after the winter of 1954 where homeless people, some of whom were in full time jobs, froze to death. This was a good idea but some bright spark then had the notion that stashing the poorest sections of society in high rises miles away from anything that can be called a town was the best way to go about this. Bad ideas reach their full potential faster than good ones and soon there were thousands of these places sprouting up around France. A lot of the designs of these places are of the silly drug-addled “visions of the future” that the sixties are infamous for. The happy visions of the bong smoking crowd quickly turned into dystopic nightmares once unemployment set in. Particularly as some other genius reckoned that the new immigrants from the former colonies would really love these places.

In sense that chap had a point. The people who moved to France for work were prepared to take whatever job and housing was going. They knew the ones who would really benefit were their kids and were ready to make sacrifices. It didn’t pay off and their kids are no better off than they were in terms of social mobility.

What really ticks me off about this is that there is some sort of mental block about this amongst the French elite. It’s not like it’s a new problem. In 1983, “La Marche des Beurs” and a subsequent anti-racism movement raised these issues. At the time they were asking for equal treatment and got it, at least on paper. Somehow, substandard schools, police harassment and shitty housing were passed off as a class problem that just happened to affect immigrants disproportionately.

The answer is simple and has been tried successfully by a range of countries ranging from Malaysia, the USA and South Africa: positive discrimination. It is unpalatable and forces us to face the harsh truth that the societies we live in do not reflect our ideals but it is necessary in some cases. The ANC in South Africa knew that if all you changed was the theory of inequality but left all the good stuff in the hands of the white folk, there would be bloodshed. I doubt they liked the idea that Black people need quotas to succeed but they knew that something had to be done. If you have a stake in society you are less likely to try and destroy it. It’s all about facing the facts.

In France, the kids of post-war immigrants are discriminated against regardless of what the textbooks say. A lot of them are getting shafted because of their ethnicity. You need to counterbalance this by boosting some of them for the same reasons. This should not be too much of a stretch for French society. The ubiquitous presence of “piston” (the term used for obtaining favours, such as jobs, through connections) ensures that people moving up for reasons other than merit is hardly unfamiliar and should not be too hard a pill to swallow. Race politics have to be based on the reality of the ground. It’s too sensitive for politicians to dick around with creeds and lofty ideas about how fucking great the French political framework is.

It can be said that the sitch is not bad enough to warrant these kinds of measures. After all, what is happening is not interethnic violence or pogroms. The rioters tend to attack symbols of the French State and its servants. Cars just happen to be there and are easily set alight. They also bring the fire service which if attacked brings the plod and that is who the scrotes really want to have a pop at. My concern is that for every dickhead that torches some poor sod’s car (and that sod will be poor as most cars are torched in the banlieues themselves) there is another dickhead getting his National Front membership card. It’s more insidious but in a way just as dangerous.

I should say that I am not particularly sympathetic to the morons who are having their balaclava barbecue fun. It’s just that I’m not surprised. The ultimate inspiration and idea of success for a lot of these fuckwits is Snoop Dog or NTM (aka: Nique Ta Mere, ie: Fuck your Mother). Things are bad when you think that the place to be is Compton and you start trying to change your neighborhood into that particular sun-kissed paradise. Also, bored teenagers will get into mischief regardless of social status and boredom, along with drugs, is one thing that the banlieues have in abundance.

The other problem is the French reflex of looking to the state for reliance. The voicepieces of the rioters urge the state to intervene. As you can see above I tend to agree but I also think it’s unlikely to happen in a meaningful way. I’m a bit bemused that the Molotov crowd blame the state for their ills and then want the same apparatus that’s been fucking them over to give them a hand. Self-reliance movements are virtually inexistent in France. The closest there is to an identity based self-help movement is militant Islam and don’t we all want a bit more of that? This leaves the state in charge of changing things and challenging dogmas is no small task in the Hexagone. I guess they can either start affirmative action or training more cops and I wouldn't bet on the former.The sad thing is that the only political chappie that has toyed with the idea affirmative action is a slimy little creep that goes by the name of Sarkozy. And now I agree with him.Yerk, yerk, yerk.

That pretty much it on the subject and it’s a lot. It makes for a long post but if I’m going to go on a rant I might as well go for it. It’s also long as it was written in 2 parts. I stopped halfway through as a bunch of teenagers came into the internet café. I am guessing that their parents are happily walking or eating scones and jam (apparently a tradition here) and Malaysian teenagers don’t like hanging around with their folks while on holiday any more than Brit ones. So they annoyed me.

They started some online game and were already irritating me with their chatter when they decided to truly fuck me off by putting one the latest Gangsta Rap bollocks. As I looked at their little heads bobbing up and down in rhythm to whatever spiel about ho’s and homies was playing I had a little revelation about this place. I realized how close to the West Malaysian Society is becoming as their teenagers gave me the same urge to bitchslap them as the ones back home. True progress. I buggered off to another place after a coffee and fag break.

Signing off now to go and grab a curry and a beer (how exotic).

Next stop, Kuala Lumpur.

Take care,



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