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Kinabalu: SERIOUSLY?! July 24, 2012

Posted by blith3 in Adventures, Ramblings.
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SERIOUSLY?!

It’s an assuming word that conveys so much – a strange mix of humour, incredulousness, annoyance and perseverance all at once. It’s a state of mind that’s so overwhelming, it triggers this part of you to react in a way that you never knew you would.

It also happens to be how I’d sum up my climb up Mt. Kinabalu in one word. Let me count the reasons why…

1) On the morning of our ascent, fog had completely devoured the highest mountain in South East Asia…

…which can only mean one thing – cold, wet weather. It certainly was a unique experience to be climbing in a humid climate tempered by cool temperatures and intermittent rain. You sweat buckets when climbing, get chilled when you stop and in between both, your raincoat (in my case, a disposable poncho)  – which, for the record, does a poor job of insulating one from the rain anyway when it REALLY starts to pour – steams up, thus making you sweat even more.

2) Bathing water at Laban Rata Base Camp was hard to come by…and when it did, there was ONLY COLD water

It was ironic that despite us arriving at base camp looking like drenched rats and that heavy fog and prolonged rainfall at the base camp, the water supply still had to be rationed. Nevertheless, this inconvenience did not dampen our spirits. After being constantly sticky and sweaty for the last six hours, nothing was going to keep us from a good bath! Well…except for this:

The funny thing about cold water is while refreshing at slightly higher temperatures, a few degrees lower, it is the liquid from hell. Splash it on yourself and instantly, it seems like it’s freezing your bones whilst simultaneously burning your flesh. Come bath time, desperate to be clean yet scared of the pain, I devised what thought was a brilliant plan – drench my small towel with the loathsome liquid and gradually mop off. What my addled brain hadn’t factored in though, was the cold air and how it just compounds the impact of the cold water. At the end, I was so numbed anyway that I threw myself briefly under the shower and ended up looking (and feeling) like a cooked lobster.

3) The Ropes

Ask anyone who has climbed up to Mt. Kinabalu and chances are, they will speak at great lengths about every other thing but give very scant details about a really wicked part of the trail, known simply to me as The Ropes. At least, that was what happened to me. All I knew up to the point we actually reached The Ropes was that this would be the highlight of the night climb and I wasn’t disappointed! Stepping up to and grabbing the thick rope that was anchored to the rockface, I took my first tentative step forward and the first word that popped into my head and out of my mouth was a very matter-of-factly, “F*ck”. Instantly, it made perfect sense why – a couple of minutes earlier and from a much lower elevation – we had spotted the lights from the headlamps of our fellow climbers floating before us in a beeline. We were actually crab-walking along a narrow ledge of (what I estimate to be) a 50 degree rockface! 

The further we crab-walked though, the more I drew comfort in two things – the realisation that the upper-body strength workouts I did in the weeks prior to the climb were paying off and that, secondly and most importantly, was that the Adidas Kampung shoes I was wearing was giving me insanely sure footing. I swear, especially during parts of the trail where the rockface was almost 80 degrees, those 100% latex shoes made me feel like one of those mountain goats I saw a few years back scampering across the Scottish mountainside. So much win for only RM7.90!

4) With less than 700m left up to Low’s Peak and another 4.7km down from it, I was LITERALLY blindsided

After nearly 4 hours of climbing in the dark with daylight spreading and gradually turning the sky into a nice baby blue, and Low’s Peak (the highest point of Mt. Kinabalu) within our line of vision, something happened that could only be an experience unique to me and me alone. With less than 700m to go, after stopping to admire the beautiful scenery of the twin South Peak and St. John’s Peak, I pushed my glasses further up my nose and…the little screw at the right side of my spectacle frame POPPED OFF CAUSING THE RIGHT SIDE SPECTACLE FRAME SPLIT. THE LENS THEN FREE FELL…HIT THE GRANITE SLABS BENEATH MY FEET…AND BREAK INTO TWO. Seriously.

I swear that (1) I am not making this up; and (2) the incident seemed to have unfolded in slow motion. The thoughts “Omfg, I haven’t even reach the peak yet!”, “Wtf am I going to do now?” and “$hit!!! I have to BLOODY CLIMB BACK DOWN!” – each a cyclone of sheer panic – collided together spectacularly in my mind, cancelled each other out and amazingly, dissipated into nothingness. There I stood silently, taking a moment to stare with my half-blurred vision at where I  thought my broken lens had landed. I then calmly turned to my shell-shocked, horrified friend who was very much frozen to the spot, and asked her to retrieve the broken pieces (she only found one). I then stuffed my glasses and broken lens into my waist pouch and very simply…continued on. Well…it wasn’t like I had a choice to stop, now did I?

How I (being the blind bat that I was) made it up the remaining length of the journey (which OF COURSE included the unimaginative obstacle of scaling actual boulders!) and down to base camp – even at one point instructing a friend on how to properly use the ropes to gently descend –  I will never know.

5) Descending Mt. Kinabalu was more arduous and time-consuming than ascending it

Another thing that I didn’t get much information about was what to expect of the descent. And unfortunately for me, it would turn out to be the hardest part of the whole climb. 😦 After restoring my vision thanks to a spare pair of contact lens (thanks for the advice, mad4manu!) and filling my stomach with some nourishment, I probably never felt as contented, safer or more excited since starting the trip than I was when we finally said our goodbyes to base camp at 12 noon. However, that feeling didn’t last long. Not even 1km into our journey, I slipped and fell in a spectacularly embarrassing fashion when my left knee suddenly locked and gave way under my weight.

Although it took awhile before I realised there was something more sinister going on with both my knees, that incident was the beginning of what would be a slow, excruciatingly painful and horribly emotionally-draining experience. Three hours later, I had only made it down 2km! At the my lowest points, I actually had to pause to work which of my legs was strong enough to go forward and take my weight down the steep steps of the Timpohon Trail. In the event I couldn’t decide, I would just squat down and stretch one leg out to the next step. This misery ultimately lasted for nearly 9 hours, well after nightfall. And that’s considering that I was actually carried down the last 1.2km, mind you!

It turns out that half of my climbing group suffered the same problems as I did, with girl preceding me exiting Kinabalu Park a mere 40 minutes before. In retrospect, we realised now how it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to have had a prolonged rest at the base camp as it likely gave our bodies the time to register how sore it actually was and launch a physical protest. Clearly, we failed to live up to the last part of the sign because in the following three days, we would never hurt and ache as much as we would.

As I mentioned earlier, climbing Mt. Kinabalu wasn’t something I’d ever imagine myself doing, but I am deeply grateful and joyful that I did. I shall treasure the beautiful scenery at Mt. Kinabalu, the stronger friendships we have forged on that mountain and all the memories that came with it – the good and the bad. But most of all, I shall treasure the above SERIOUSLY?! moments. For never in my life, have I ever had to face so many obstacles within the space of 36 hours and yet have the good fortune to not only survive relatively unscathed, but to also happen to be mindful enough to learn about myself…about who I am when things become so overwhelming that it truly is just a line in the sand that separates one’s mental state between being in control to splintering into a million little pieces.

And guess what?

I absolutely adore who she is. 🙂

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Kinabalu: Prepping July 15, 2012

Posted by blith3 in Adventures, Ramblings.
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There are a lot of things I have done in my life that I had never expected I would end up doing…and having said that, a lot that I want to do but have remained unachieved. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia, would certainly fall into the first category!

Truth be told, at the point of committing to the climb (one needs to make arrangements at least 6 months in advance), I had been wary and somewhat reluctant about it. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it seemed like something I just HAD to do given the opportunity. Sort of like a “Things To Do Before You Can’t” kinda thing.

And so, it should not be any surprise that my preparation began gradually and with a lot of trepidation. In the months leading up to the climb, my gym routine had been irregular at best, non-existent at worst. It was only in the month and a half before that I took my lack of fitness seriously. And if it wasn’t for the invaluable moral support from my good friend, mad4manu, who had conquered this beast before me, I’m pretty sure that I would have caved in at the realization and the consequential anxiety. Anyway, at the end, my exercise regime would consist of:

– treadmill
– stepper
– abdominal crunch machine
– pro lat machine
– chest press machine
– hikes to Bkt. Gasing

As I started to feel fitter, my trepidation slowly but surely turned into nervous excitement. I was actually looking forward to getting my supplies. This comprised of:

Entire Climb (Timpohon Gate ~ Laban Rata Base Camp ~ Peak ~ Laban Rata Base Camp ~ Timpohon Gate)
– knee wraps
– Snickers bars
– waist pouch
– ziplock bags
– disposable poncho / raincoat
– altitude sickness pills

Night Climb (Laban Rata Base Camp ~ Peak ~ Laban Rata Base Camp)
– Adidas Kampung (SERIOUSLY – this is ‘for the win’! The grip of these 100% latex shoes on the granite rock found at higher elevation was so good, it even beat my friend’s RM200++ hiking boots!)
– comfy socks (you’ll need to wear two layers with your Adidas Kampung)
– 1 set of waterproof track pants
– thermal bottoms
– headlamp
– waterproof gloves
– windbreaker

Post-Climb
– deep heat cream (you will need this, post-climb – and wherever you are, make sure it’s within easy reach – trust me on this)

After my physical and physiological needs were answered, my mind recalled back to mad4manu’s earliest recounts of her experience. Mental strength was far more important that physical strength, she had said. And so, like a hungry scholar meeting her master, I sought her out for other gems of advice:

– always carry your own water
– the walking stick is your BFF
– pack light and if you have to carry stuff on your own, make it as light as possible!
– keep your camera and other electronics close to your body – the warmth will keep the battery from dying out
– power gels over power bars
– there will be points in the climb to the peak when all is dark and when the air is thin, where you’ll want to quit because you are breathless, but don’t!
– TRUST your guide, their job is to be by your side…no matter what!

With the exercising training, careful planning of supplies and awesome advice from a person who knew super-analytical me well enough not to overshare and spoil things for me, I was ready as I could be to conquer Mt. Kinabalu!

And luckily, I was up for the challenge…because life REALLY threw me some curve balls while I was on that mountain!

Kuching – Cultural Dance July 16, 2011

Posted by blith3 in Adventures.
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A couple of months back, I made a trip to Kuching, Sarawak for a colleague’s wedding. It’s only my second ever trip to the City of Cats and four years (omg!) since I had the time of my life at the AWESOME 10th Rainforest World Music Festival back in 2007. To date, it remains one of my top 5 musical experiences – not only were we dancing the night away to a variety of musical instruments in a multitude of languages, this was followed by up-close-and-personal, sweat-drenched celebrity-watching (how glamourous!).

Buoyed by these sweet memories, I joined my colleague in returning to the Santubong Cultural Village, a 40-minute drive away from Kuching and where the RWMF is held every year in July. We took a shuttle service to SCV, which in total costed around RM60 per person including an all-day entrance and a SCV ‘passport’, a handy information booklet on the attractions. Upon entry, we immediately made a beeline for the main event of the SCV, which is the cultural dance show. The half an hour show is intended to give visitors a glimpse into the daily activities of the different tribes of Sarawak through song and dance…and I suppose, for avid photographers, some very awesome photos!

The opening act of the cultural dance show featured all the different tribes coming together in a carefully choreographed dance sequence that underscores the colourful ethnic kaleidoscope that makes up Sarawak.

Above is a shot of, I believe, a Bidayuh maiden. I love how the bright red and yellow hues contrast so nicely against her black ‘sarong’ and her peach blouse. Notice the excellent posture as well!

The first dance was by the Iban tribe which performed the ‘Ngajat Lesong’. The aim of the dance is to demonstrate the extraordinary strength of the Iban warrior – as evidenced by him lifting the 20-kg mortar using his bare teeth. And in case anyone questions it, let the thudding sound from the mortar board as it crashed from the mouths of the warriors be testament to its weight.

This was followed by the ‘Alu Alu’ dance by the Melanau tribe. According to the SCV ‘passport’, this dance is usually performed during a death ceremony to comfort visiting relatives and friends. The acrobatics coupled with the melancholic melody make it a beautiful yet haunting performance.

Probably the most entertaining and crowd-engaging performance was that by the Ulu tribe. The ‘Kanjet Ngeleput’ portrays the Ulu warrior during his hunt, as he searches for his prey, locks on his target, takes aim and….gets an unsuspecting member of the audience to blow the deadly dart, often with the most hilarious of outcomes!

One of my favourites was the ‘Langgi Julang’ dance by the Bidayuh tribe. The beautiful feathers from, I believe – the state bird of Sarawak – the hornbill make for such a cinematic sight!

The pretty Malay ladies dancing the ‘Tarian Royong’ were also a sight to behold. Employing a blend of modern and traditional moves, the dancing was smooth and elegant and extremely captivating under the amber lighting!

Like any good host, the SCV closed the cultural dance show by upping the level of crowd participation…and clearly, the audience loved it! The entire stage was filled to the brim with both Malaysian and foreign visitors alike, all keen to try their hand(s and feet) at the gentle, elegant dances showcased earlier.

Overall, it was a great show! Not too long, not too short – the cultural dance show at SCV had just the right amount of pizzaz, beautiful decorations, clear sound systems and awesome lighting that was internationally worthy. I suppose it’s nothing we expect less from the 14-time hosts of the internationally acclaimed RWMF!

Travelogue : Hakone 2008 February 26, 2009

Posted by blith3 in Adventures.
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A couple of months ago, I made an entry on the wonderful experience I had during my two-week course in Tokyo, Japan. It was mainly centered on the beautiful people I met, particularly those who I spent an entire day with gallavanting in the outskirts of Tokyo. A day that, while remarkably fun, was also frought with misadventures and crowds so big that some of us might identify as the day they developed claustrophobia! Today’s entry is about that.
 
We were fortunate enough that the only weekend we had, it so happened to be a three days long (Monday was a public holiday) in which we decided to spend Sunday visiting the most famous natural landmark in Japan…Mt. Fuji!

Mt. Fuji is located outside of Tokyo in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park which spans across four perfectures (or states) – Yamanashi, Shizuoka, Kanagawa and Tokyo Metropolis. Aside from its famous views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone also houses a crater lake at the abse of the volcanic Hakone Moutain called Lake Ashi. Hakone is accessible via long-distance train from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. It is at this station in which one can purchase the Hakone Free Pass, which allows unlimited use of most forms of transport to and within Hakone, and obtain free maps of the routes.

Sunday, 2 November 2008, came and all bleary-eyed but excited, we left our hotel at 6 a.m. and took a brisk walk in the early autumn chill to the nearest train station. The intention was to reach Shinjuku Station early and catch the first train outbound via the Odawara Odakyu Line at 7 a.m. We would have probably made it, were it not for one of the Hongkie guys who had left his Hakone Free Pass in his room! In hindsight, it was hilarious to think the other 11 of us became pin-drop silent in the train – a mere stop or two before reaching Shinjuku – disbelief plastered across all of our faces. But not so at the time…so much for waking up early!

The silver lining to this was that, while our friend, a man with style, poise and an air of seriousness, had to make the madman’s dash back to the hotel, I was able to tuck into a yummy breakfast (pictured below) while my sleepy coursemates studied the swelling crowds. Even at 7am, the station was filled with brisk walking Japanese – schoolchildren dressed in uniforms (which stumped us considering it was a Sunday morning), fashionably dressed teens and young adults and casually dressed senior citizens (presumably headed to the wet market) – all constantly in motion. Considering the sheer volume of moving bodies, it was amazing that everyone always walked in a straight line, hardly bumping into one another. In comparison, the 11 of us cowered to one side, out of the way and watching in awe as these active Japanese passed us by.

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In the end, we managed to leave by 7++am, although we didn’t realise we were taking the wrong train until we mistakenly got off at the wrong station an hour into our trip (lesson: Look out for signboards with your own two eyes instead of having a chicken & duck conversation with the conductor)! Apparently in this case, two wrongs did make a right! There is the express train (which pitstops at selected stations) and then, there’s the local train (which stops at every station). No guesses as to which we were on.

Two hours and two trains after we started our trip, we reached the last stop of the line, Odawara…only to be greeted by an insane line that snaked all the way from the other side of the station! Talk about never raining, but pouring! It sunk in then that we had grossly underestimated the situation. While we were mentally prepared to battle tourists, but somehow it never occured to us that the locals would also be taking the advantage of the extra day off to come here! After watching two sardine can-like trainloads of the mountain railway – called the Hakone Tozan Line – pass us by, we crammed into the third.

Three switchbacks and 15km later, at an elevation of 551m, we reached our first stop of the day – the Chokoku-no-Mori station. We were there to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum, which is a garden littered with sculptures of famous art pieces. Alas, we didn’t realise our Free Pass did not cover attractions! Tired and completely not in the mood to shell out additional money considering our less-than-stellar experience thus far, we proceeded on.

Scarred by our fate so far with trains, we opted to walk instead to the next (which was also the last) stop of the line. Ten minutes walking along the sidewalk of the only main road snaking around the mountain in the crisp, fresh air helped our spirits and appetite to return. When we finally reached Gora, we were so famished. And although we were worried sick over the two missing members of our team (we geniuses didn’t even think to switch cell numbers), we decided to have our lunch anyway lest we went unconscious. Our pick was a small cozy shop right in front of the railway station that sold a variety of noodles in a variety of broths. Half of us sat at this corner of the shop in real Japanese style – shoes off, low table and cross-legged on a mat. The noodles in simple broth with mushrooms and pork were just what the rumbling tummy ordered! And putting us into a further good mood, just as hoped, as we were finishing our meal, we spotted our two ‘Lost’ comrades passing by the restaurant. Apparently they had taken one of the slip roads to one of the gardens which eventually led back to Gora anyway.

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The next form of transport we had to take was the funicular railway called the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. As we inched our way along, we of course stocked up on free maps for everyone just in case someone else were to stray. Rising at a height of 214m with a maximum steepness of 20 degrees and at a length of 1.2 km, the total duration of the journey of the funicular is 9 minutes. We were lucky enough to get seats for this one, though the number of people standing meant that we weren’t able take in any scenic shots.

Alighting at Sounzan, we took a funitel (a reinforced version of cable cars, meant to withstand strong winds and is often used at ski resorts) called the Hakone Ropeway. Again, we were met with a super long line. Although it moved quickly, we still waited for at least half an hour. Though the men wouldn’t have known it…they were far too distracted by the pretty Japanese women (really, they are as pretty as they seem on TV…and just as made up!). Oh, and there was even a TV cameraman taking footage of the long line, no doubt to be broadcasted for the evenings news perhaps under the title, “Long weekend attracts large crowds to Hakone.”  (You can tell that at this point of the day, I was already being a little sardonic).

As this was also my first time taking a funitel or any other cable car-ish system for that matter, the first few times we passed the connecting towers and our cabin bumped a little, my heart made a series of little hops. But as we ascended higher and higher though, the beautiful scenery snapped me out of my discomfort and out came our cameras. As we reached Owakudani, which is the highest point of the funitel, the howling winds were so eerie that I had to take a video capturing it. It is also at this point that beautiful Mt. Fuji can be seen from a distance.

660px-hakone-ropeway_en

Known as the Boiling Valley, Owakudani is a volcanic valley characterised by sulphur vents and hot springs, with clouds of steam rising from them. Aside from the beautiful photo opportunity, we also stopped to get a taste of the local specialty called the Kuro-tamago, or eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs. These eggs, which turn black from the outside, smell slightly sulphuric and consuming one is believed to increase one’s lifespan by 7 years and 2 for 14 years, though it is unadvisable to consume more than that. But be warned, the winds are very strong here and the air is bone-chilling. Despite the cold, two of the Hongkie men were brave enough to climb up to higher ground to take a closer look at the sulphur vents and snap beautiful photos. The rest of us, however, we contented to browse at the three souvenir centers.

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Sufficiently frozen at the fingertips, we boarded the ropeway again to get to the last stop of the funitel called Togendai. Unfortunately, we had to be separated into two groups and comically enough the only two people who was keeping track of where we should be stopping (2 stops later) – the Thai woman and myself – were in the second car. There was a moment when both of us were frantically signalling to our friends in the first car – who had alighted at the next stop –  to get into our cabin to continue on to the last stop. Unfortunately, due to the weight restriction, not all could get in. As we pushed off, we tried very hard not to laugh at the disbelieved funitel attendee who obviously saw everything and the embarassed looks of the unfortunate trio who had to be left behind to catch the next cabin. Tourists!

This part of the ropeway was probably the highlight of our trip. As we gently descended down the slopes, to my right, Mt. Fuji rose beautifully in the distance, while to my left, Lake Ashi’s waters sparkled under the rays of the autumn sun set. The sight was absolutely beautiful. If only I had a wide angle camera! If Mt. Fuji had on its snowcap and I had a wide angle camera, it would have been an ideal trip.

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From Togendai station, there are two ways to get back to Odawara – by bus directly or to cross Lake Ashi by boat first before boarding a bus. Being the good tourists that we were and surprisingly, still in good spirits, we opted for the latter. This time, the wait wasn’t too long and we managed to get onto the pirate-themed ship within, say, 20 minutes? As the ship sailed, we were all over the boat taking scenic shots of Lake Ashi and the beautiful foliage surrounding it, bathed under the autumn sunset. I for one, loved the chilly air billowing in my face!

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On the other side of Lake Ashi, immediately upon disembarking, weary travellers are greeted by the most welcoming sight. Before the outdoor bus terminal and shops, there are two stalls selling the sweetest smelling food freshly cooked over a small fire – grilled squid and grilled corn, as well as flour-based dumplings with bits of squid and vegetables in it. 500 yen was never more well-spent!

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By the time we were done, darkness had begun to descend. We initially wanted to take the longer route which hugged the mountain from the other quieter side (i.e. less resorts which meant less stops). However, as time wore on with no sight of our intended bus, we began to get restless. A bus had pulled in at the bay next to ours and when the Hongkies, who were reading bits of the kanji or written Japanese on the route maps, realised this was the ‘express bus’ we quickly climbed onboard. All of us got seats, thankfully. But luck would have it that these three little old Japanese ladies boarded the bus. And since NO ONE gave their seats, I did the only thing I knew how – and stood up to offer mine. Of course, barely 10 minutes after the bus got on its way, it was apparent this was sort of thing the Fates love to twist to slap it back into your face.

As expected, the route was shorter with more stops. But what we didn’t expect was that our bus would be inching along! And while the rest of my friends were nodding off comfortably in their seats, I was standing in a packed bus, swaying back and forth in ALL directions whenever the bus screeched to a halt a couple of feet along a winding road going up and down. Naturally, I was restless, make that ANNOYED and restless, and some 40 minutes later it had graduated to full-blown anxiety.

Whenever I looked out the front of the bus, all I could see was a neverending line of red brake lights of vehicles ahead of us on this dual-direction, two-lane road. By then, it was close to 7 p.m. and the last train back to Tokyo was at 8.40 p.m.! I began a three-way conversation across the bus, with one of the Hongkies having to pass the messages between me and the Thai woman who was the ringleader of this tour. At the end, we decided to get off the bus when we realised we were edging towards one of the railway stations of Hakone Tozan Line (which brought us up from Odawara in the first place) that could bring us back to Odawara too.

But this was the real hook and sinker. When I approached the bus driver to ask him to allow us to alight, he simply did not respond! Thinking he did not understand, we approached the couple seated next to us to help translate. But when he heard our request, the boyfriend had on the most bewildered look on his face! Apparently, it was out of the question for the Japanese to alight from the bus until the next designated bus stop – even if the bus was completely stagnant and we would have reached the stop faster by walking! It was Japanese rigidity and rule-following at its best!

Luckily, as if to compensate for the idiosyncransy of it all, the Japanese couple offered to lead us to the railway stop, much to our relief and that of a group of Austrian tourists, who had become our fast friends (I’ve never seen ‘mat sallehs’ look more happy/relieved to see English-speaking Asians). Some 15 minutes and 500m later, we finally alighted from the bus and began a 300m trek to the station in the dark. And there was not a time at any point that the bus we were on passed us by. In fact, it was jammed the entire way and we saw several other buses, each one more empty than the next. So relieved were we that we actually broke into an applause when we saw the stop and had profusely thanked our Japanese guides.

Needless to say, the railway car was packed going to Odawara and an even bigger crowd waiting at the Odawara station. But by then, we were all sufficiently worn out – me, probably the most after the long stand and mini-mental meltdown – to pass remarks. Instead, most of us were carrying on conversations like as if there wasn’t anything the matter. I guess a day of constant adversity had bonded us even more – so much that we were already exchanging personal information about each other.

At the end, we reached Tokyo close to 9pm and after the most satisfying dinner (hell, we earned every bit of it for being on our best behaviour and not throwing a tantrum!) ever, we returned to the hotel at 10++ pm. And all of us had the most satisfying sleep so far, earthquakes be damned!

Although come Tuesday, when the course organisers asked us how Hakone was and our standard response was to inhale deeply, lower our eyes, shake our heads and murmur in a low voice, “Hakoneeeh”, but I gotta say there was some good that came out of it (besides pretty photos). While the Thai-Malaysia-Indonesia ties were tight from the beginning, the Hongkie men had begun to come out of their shells and the Macao lady too. The Vietnamese and Bruneian delegates, who were much older, proved to be very patient and a total trooper, and we loved them for it! Even now, I’m still keeping and on-off communication with them. *Yay!*

I definitely want to return to Hakone…but this time, it’ll be in early spring when Mt. Fuji has its snowcap, the sakura are in full bloom and certainly, during a weekday when the crowds are at its minimum! Lessons learnt!

*Domo arigato gozaimasu!*

MeMos of 2008 December 31, 2008

Posted by blith3 in Adventures, Movies, Ramblings, Sports.
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As is typical this time of the year, here I sit reflecting on my Top 5 Memorable Moments (MeMos) of 2008. The events I have listed are mainly themed around the human spirit, which I suppose, in all fairness, is something that has always intrigued me.

1) Barack Obama – A man who needs no introduction, even on an international arena, history will likely remember Barack Hussein Obama II as the first black president of the United States of America. To me though, he is the first (and I sincerely hope never the last) modern president. In an age where the working class has tremendous economic power and race becomes increasingly blurred with the world turning into one big melting pot, Obama is 100% representative of the people – not only in the United States but worldwide. How else can you explain the clockwork-like precision Japanese taking time out to specially announce during one of the lectures I was attending to inform that Mr. Obama was now President Elect Obama? And if all else fails, maybe a portion of his acceptance speech might just better clarify what I mean, if not, then hopefully to entertain. You gotta hand it to him, he does have charisma!

Besides, who doesn’t love a presidential candidate who fist bumps his wife as a sign of solidarity? 😉

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2) ISJ 2008 – Who could imagine being over the moon about attending a two-week course overseas? Sure the overseas part might be interesting, but sighseeing’s just only for the weekends and after office hours…and even that, there was bound to be a language barrier with the Japanese locals. The bulk of it would be spent in a stuffy classroom with strangers. Whoop-dee-doo. By some strange stroke of luck, though, it turns out that I enjoyed the classes equally as the sighseeing. Aside from learning more about the fascinating  industry I am in, undoubtedly the icing on the cake was the interesting mix of people who were my coursemates and the courteous Japanese hosts, who were efficient and courteous as they were friendly. In that short 14 days, I made some very good friends that opened my eyes far more quickly and much more discreetly than reading any amount of books or travelling can…and I feel much more inspired than I have been since leaving university!

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3) Germany – Another place I never thought I’d ever visit, Germany proved to have been a great treat. The weather was lovely, the food was excellent and of course, my appreciation for beer was improved. But most of all, Germany boasts not only beautiful sceneries, both architecturally and naturally, but also extremely lovely and courteous people. If anything, German hospitality is completely underrated. I would definitely return in a heartbeat, if only to visit Neuschwanstein Castle (below) that one more time…and to also catch that gorgeous American guy who was travelling alone.

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4) Heath Ledger & the Dark Knight – A virtual earthquake shook my world that day in January 2008, when I read about the passing of beloved Heath Ledger online. Updated mere minutes beforehand, it was absolutely heart breaking to read about the loss of one of the most calibre 20-something year old stars out there. Heath was one of those actors whose movie you know could not possibly suck if he held a significant role. Perhaps his death did buoy sales, but I’d like to think it was his mad artistic gift that ensured his most recent completed movie – the Dark Knight – ended up to be one of the highest grossing movies of 2008. Undoubtedly is cemented in pop culture as one of the best movies of all time, mostly due to how spectacularly believing he was to the point of being absolutely terrifying as the Joker. Hopefully, his beautiful toddler daughter, Matilda Rose, will one day appreciate the insane genius that was Heath.

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5)  Michael Phelps @ Beijing 2008 – After watching Michael Phelps win his first gold,  I can honestly say even the most seasoned swim fans did not think of Ian Thorpe or Peter van Hoogenband – two titanic swimmers who outclassed the then-debutant Phelps at the previous Olympics. Not only did the Golden Boy of Swimming set 7 new world records and one Olympic record in the space of three weeks, but he had a monster presence out of the pool – mainly as fillial son. The moment where he went up to his mother and two sisters to celebrate his eighth and final Olympic gold will forever be enshrined on the Internet to be made as a good example for children in the future.

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On that note, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year 2009! Let’s discard all the bad of the past year, and bring forth only the good in our hearts. 😉

Travelogue : Rainforest World Music Festival 2007 June 10, 2008

Posted by blith3 in Adventures, Music.
2 comments

So I’ve decided to add another feature to my blog…travelogues!

Unfortunately, my entry on Germany isn’t ready yet…so I’m gonna kick off my travelogue with an uber old post I’ve kept rotting as a draft for months. I’ve finally gotten all the photos right and linked all the videos. I guarantee, it won’t disappoint! 😉

Anyway, before I continue, let me qualify this…I’m not a travel bug. I do not have endless stories to tell about endless trips I’ve had. I don’t have a deep, unexplainable need to plot a trip come every New Year. I do not have a list of places in which I must visit within a stipulated timeframe.

I just happen to be another rat racing in the wheel of life, who has uber bad stamina and gets mentally and emotionally drained every 3 months to …6 months tops, before I get completely brain dead. I need a reason to take leave for a stretch at a time and escape from the dreary paperwork to remind myself that there has to be more to life than meeting the next deadline. And being single, travelling just happens to be the piece that fits into my life at this point of time. But I digress…

The first time I heard of the Rainforest World Music Festival was in 2005. A colleague of mine, whom we all affectionately dub the ‘Walking Encyclopedia’ had sent me a link to this website. It looked interesting enough, showcasing exotic music from all over the world, but a trip to a relatively quiet town across the South China Sea to bath in sweat in tropical weather had not appealed to me then. Neither did it in 2006 (that and also, I had spent a bomb on a trip to Australia…but that’s for another entry). Anyhow, she sent the link again for the third time last year…and well, everyone knows the third time’s the charm. That, and I was pretty sure I was risking permanent damnation if I were to decline yet again. A plus point was that it was also the 10th Anniversary of the RWMF and only the best bands were coming back.

Destiny would have it that within days, I managed to wrangle three more of my friends from university days to join us. For those 20-somethings who work, you can appreciate the miracle behind this. Getting more than 3 people to meet up these days is a feat in itself, much less a four-day, three-night trip. Like sprinkles on a sinfully sweet ice-cream, it soon became clear that there couldn’t be a better group…one was local to our destination and became our tour guide, transport officer and schedule keeper, another was a fantastic organizer who undertook the messy job of booking the plane tickets and coordinating our rendezvous at the airport, another became my dancing partner at RWMF and another had financed the purchase of the festival tickets in advance.

Main Entrance

Now, the RMWF is a three-day event (happens over the weekend) that takes place at the Santubong Cultural Park, located in the outskirts of Kuching, Sarawak in Malaysia. To get there, you can either take a bus from Kuching city or drive all the way to Santubong Resort (located near the SCP) and grab a shuttle from there. Access to the SCP is controlled to avoid traffic congestion on the narrow roads. Each day, the RWMF begins at 2 p.m. with two sessions of workshops before the main performances at 7 p.m. Three workshops are conducted each session, so you’ve really got to pick and choose…although really, each workshop is mind-blowing.

The first two days, we didn’t get to watch much of the workshops. And being the easy-to-please people that we were, we didn’t have a problem with this…until the last day, when we sat through two workshops and realised how much we were cheated! The first was a drums workshop, showcasing the different native drums from around the world…and ended with a live, impromptu jam session! Seriously! You could feel the beat from each drum travel deep into your bones and be overcome by an incessant itch to shake that booty! You are, of course, welcome to judge for yourself!

Riding the waves of an adrenaline rush, we looked forward to the second workshop, which was conducted by the crowd favourite – the Black Umfolosi from Zimbabwe. Coming onto the makeshift stage, dressed in traditional warrior outfits made of animal skin, you could tell these guys (each from different countries within Africa) were THE MEN! They had charisma, they were energetic and they knew E-V-E-R-Y button to push to get the crowd going. They sang some folk songs, and even taught the crowd how to dance a traditional African dance. Between all the shouting, stomping and accidental bumps into each other (for the rhythm-challenged), I seriously thought the hall we were in, which was on one-storey high stilts was gonna come crashing down…and we, with it.

The Black Umfolosi

It was an amazing high! Obviously, the workshops are a must! Without it, the experience is na-da!

Every day, there is a gap of about two hours from the last workshop session till the performance and as we learned very quickly that besides filling our stomachs, it was more importantly, the best time to lay out our picnic mats. Located in the middle of an open-spaced plot about a football-field in size, were two stages. Now, this open-space is shaped like a bowl and the Main Stage stood within the dip, a sea of picnic mats laid out to surround the stage on both sides. Needless to say, as the days passed, we got better at finding a good spot and picking the best stuff to eat (there was an eclectic mix of local cuisine and ]exotic foods from other countries).

Main Stage

The first of the performances begin just as the sun sets and by the time it’s fully dark, the crowds would have swelled and the bands would have began belting infectious beats. I admit, there are some that was beyond appreciation by my relatively uncultured self, but generally, it is far and in between.

In keeping with the norm, the performances get better day after day and what began as five people sitting on the picnic mat, watching the crowds below us dance in a mix of smoke, sweat and booze…by the last day, it was us taking turns running down to the ‘mosh pit’ to dance to our heart’s content. No matter the genre…Latin, American country, Irish/Scottish folk or Asian rhythm…we found that need within ourselves to shake our booty without a shred of shame. On the last day, my dance partner and I only stopped to drink water and rest, but would otherwise hit the ‘mosh pit’.

There were twenty bands that performed during the three days including Foghorn Stringband (USA), Tammora (Italy), Mah Meri (Malaysia), Shannon (Poland) and Ensemble Kaboul (Afghanistan) and the “maestro of world music” himself, Randy Raine Reusch (Canada), who is also generally accepted as the founder of RMWF. There was a host of local Sarawakian performances as well, such as Anak A’dik Rurum, Jerry Kamit and Taboh Pak Ainal. Most of these bands comprise of the younger generation, which is inspiring to see as most of our youths care not for the traditions of their elders. I wonder whether they appreciated how proud their parents and elders must have been to see them perform in front of an international audience.

Rain Reusch

Now for the special mentions. Firstly, was the Black Umfolosi, who got the crowd singing ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in perfect harmony and made us want to jump up and break our backs trying out those crazy African dance moves (one looked remarkably like that 90’s dance style that imitates a fish flipping on a floor). They were probably the first group to get an Encore.

There was Huun Huur Tu and Malerija, a throat-singing group from Tuva and a Russian electric violin-playing duo respectively, who performed an explosive duet that combined the haunting sounds of tradition with the sharpness of modern instruments. Timbaland would have been envious. Seriously!! Take a look and tell me you don’t feel the beginnings of a nasty sore throat coming on!

Huun Hurr Tu

The duo of Khac Chi (Vietnam) played a variety of self-fashioned instruments with almost every conceivable body part that was nothing short of mind-boggling. It was a sight to behold. Then there was Tarika Be from Madagascar, who had a Reggae-ish kind of zen about them. Their enigmatic female lead singer, her hair cropped unbelievably short, had the audience eating out of her hands with her Mother Earth-ish persona! Of course, world music would not be complete without those haunting Scottish/Irish instruments of flutes, drums and violins from Shooglenifty (Scotland).

Inka Marka from Peru provided an interesting flavour of Latin-ish songs, with its bamboo-type flutes and what seems to be mini acoustic guitars. Mas Y Mas (U.K.) amped it up with a blend of catchy Spanish songs including the evergreen “La Bamba”. There was Doghouse Skiffle Band, a trio from the U.K. who combined guitar and drums with non-music instruments to play a variety of country songs (some folk, some contemporary). Think spoons on washboards and kazoos. I was dancing full-fledged by then…and probably only danced harder when APU came along.

Mas Y Mas

Aseana Percussion Unit (APU), I believe deserved the most special of special praises. Our own very own home-grown, KL-based band that’s truly Malaysian in every sense, donned a special outfit of batik and comprises of twelve members of different races and different ages, playing a diverse range of instruments (both native and foreign i.e. didgeridoo).

  

They made Malaysia proud by belting out fantastic original songs that not only incorporated all these instruments, but also reworked a traditional song that got the entire crowd jumping, dancing and singing. Who knew the childhood song, ‘Rasa Sayang’ could invoke such passion and unity? I think for a few minutes that night, never was there so many people who were proud to be Malaysians and on the inside of the joke by one of the best performances.

Oh…I should probably mention that APU has a really outstanding performer, a young man with dreadlocks and a mean talent for this native African drum. I spotted him at the first workshop and he was but one of many cute guys at the RWMF. Some shirtless, some buffed but mosty sweaty and grinning. Aah…the memory of it all. *^_^*

What a crowd!

Of course there were hot girls there too, in sleeveless tops, spaghetti straps and yes, there were some even flaunting their figures with bikini tops and short shorts…yea, boys, wipe that drool off of your faces.

To cap the whole experience off – great music, wonderful culture, beautiful boys and girls – there was also…CELEBRITY WATCHING. I had a feeling famous celebs might be here considering this was a world-class event (apparently, there were tourists as far off as Argentina, the U.K., Colombia, Africa, etc.), but I didn’t think I’d see that many of them. By the first night, I became a celebrity-watcher and even made an emergency report call to one of my gal pals at 2 a.m. You know, the kind that makes you talk 100 words per minute in alternating tones of deep whispers and high-pitched squeals. There was Alan Yun (who was towering a few persons behind me as we queued to get on the shuttle on the way back), husband-wife team of Alex Yoong and Ariana Teoh (who look even better in real life and have this celebrity aura about them), MTV Asia VJs Alvey and Marion Caunter, local TV station VJ Belinda and even, a bunch of famous bloggers i.e. Kenny Sia and Joyce. Pity Dom of Channel V wasn’t there…that would have R-E-A-L-L-Y made my trip!

Overall, the RWMF 2007 was an unforgettable event (in case you haven’t already deduced from this nearly 2000 word entry) that should be visited by everyone at least once in their lifetime, no matter the age. And in case you still don’t believe me, here’s an article by a professional writer who covered the event. Each year the RWMF is held in July and although the list of performers is usually not finalised till around three months before the event, you can bet it’s worth the money and effort. So book early!

In case you’re wondering, RWMF 2008 is from 11-13 July and accomodation is fast being snapped up.