To heed the call?

I saw something on Pinterest that I didn’t understand. That in itself is not ground-breaking, I really don’t get half the shit that’s on there, particularly in the burlap-bound, flower-crowned, hellish depths that are the Weddings section. That is another post entirely though. No, this one pops up in the Travel section and a variety of “inspirational” quote boards.

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The quote is attributed to John Muir, a Scottish-American adventurer/environmental philosopher/conservation, who, by all accounts, seems like a pretty cool guy. He spent his days tramping through the wilderness of California, exploring, studying, writing. The quote is from a letter to his sister: “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” The last, oft-redacted, part of the quote sells it way more for me. Sounds like someone who has nailed their research topic, which is the dream, really.

Back to the mountains. Admittedly my mountain experience is limited. That comes with spending the majority of your life within spitting distance of sea level. But I climbed Kinabalu and bloody hated it. Rinjani did much to redeem mountains but I’d never been 100% sold. I love hiking and the outdoors, and I physically miss the ocean when I’m away from it for too long, but the mountains have never called to me the way they apparently call to so many keyboard climbers.

A book changed that. I’m sure that makes me no different from the Pinners that post these whimsical quotes and daydream about rose-tinted peaks, but it’s true. The book was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, about the same events that the recent movie, Everest, was based on. I had no idea about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and no real interest in mountains but the author also wrote Into the Wild, one of my favourite books and my favourite movie, so I downloaded it for a seven-hour flight. The book consumed me. I hate reading on screens but I couldn’t stop. I ran my phone’s battery dead reading non-stop. When I landed in Singapore and got home, the first thing I did was charge my phone so I could finish. I’ve read it twice in two months and sung its praises to just about everyone who has made eye contact.

Safe to say the book had an impact. I had nightmares about storms and cold. The Himalaya became regulars in my browser search history. They were never too far from the top of my mind. It was not that the experience was romanticised. Far from it. Krakauer captured the dangers and pain of mountaineering with journalistic precision and openly catalogued the effects such a hobby has on the loved ones of those who do it. Nonetheless, I was equally terrified and enthralled. I was not exactly inspired to pick up some rope and crampons, and throw myself into a new sport but the fascination remained.

Base camp is a fixture on many a bucket list, Partner 2 has even expressed interest in the past. Not me though, the physical and mental strength that drives people uphill through thinning air is something I can only analyse from a distance, an interesting scientific phenomenon from which I am removed. But, I do want to see it. Everest. From a distance is fine. But I want to try and understand the pull. The power it has over people, who endure pain and suffering, who test the limits of the human body, and who risk their lives to stand on the summit. If the mountains are calling, then this one surely has the loudest voice.

So I guess the, long-winded, point of this post is that I get it now. I get it, John Muir. I understand how mountains can call, they might even be calling me a little bit. What I’m wary of is the rhapsodised, sepia-toned representations. We’re not always called to things that are good for us. Who says the mountain’s call isn’t a sinister one? A siren song. It’s not really a call that can be made by someone at sea level. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

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Easter in the jungle

 

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One of the worst things about weekends is how short they are and how quickly they disappear. As if through some sort of dark magic, Friday night manages to very quickly dissolve into Sunday afternoon. There’s a specific feeling that rolls around on Sunday night when you realise you’ve spent the last two days wearing pyjamas and playing on your phone while the TV mumbles in the background. Mourning a weekend wasted is not the best way to start a new week.

Weekend escape is a vague phrase trotted out by tour companies and airlines to sell everything from mystery hotel staycations to all-inclusive resort packages. To me though, neither of these are escape. Escape is the opposite of everyday. It’s a phone on flight mode and ignored, it’s getting dirty when the real world demands clean, it’s doing things the hard way when everything is easy and convenient. I know it’s not for everyone, but getting out into nature is my favourite way to escape. Desert, rainforest, tundra, mountains, it’s all good, but my particular favourite is the jungle. It’s immersive, unforgiving and another world completely from the sanitary, city-scapes of Singapore. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far to get my fix. An hour flight and a few hours’ drive is all it took last weekend.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra was the setting for our Easter long weekend. While our Instagram and Facebook feeds filled up with picture of foil-covered chocolate, we chose orangutans over bunnies and bird-watching over egg hunts. After a night in the hazy chaos of Medan and a winding, potholed drive, the oil palm plantations gave way to pristine rainforest and rivers so clear it was impossible to judge their depth. Bukit Lawang was our gateway to the jungle. The sleepy town leaned over the banks of the Bahorok River, whose gentle rapids were the ultimate playground for the local kids. I could have spent a week there, but all we had was one afternoon, well-spent exploring bat caves and sinking frosty Bintangs with spicy food.

Our trek began the next morning, before we had even cleared the rubber trees of the village, our guide pointed out a tiny snake halfway through swallowing a frog that was three or four times its size. Welcome to the jungle.

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Much like the hapless frog and the, likely very full, snake, the jungle has a way of consuming you. It dictates your every movement and permeates your every thought. Humidity settles around you like a thick coat and your eyes become sensitive to flurries of movement in your peripheral vision. Time is blurred: you could have been walking for ten minutes or an hour, the trees dilute the sun’s light and make it impossible to judge what a clock might say. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter.

The boots that seemed so bulky and unwieldy when you stuffed them in your check-in luggage are the only thing stopping you from slipping on damp leaf litter and hidden slick clay. Fingers that spend most of their time tapping on keyboards are suddenly grasping rocky ledges and curling around vines. You’re not sure if you’re soaked with rain or sweat, your arms bear the marks of mosquitoes and sharp sticks, mud cakes around your boots and also your bum from scooting down those places that were just too steep. But you don’t notice, all that matters is that next footfall. In this modern age, we might call it mindfulness. Nothing else exists except for that moment.

I challenge anyone to think about emails while tentatively bouncing on a tree root to see if it’ll take your weight. Is it even possible to think about work when you’re staring up at a Sumatran orangutan who is peering right back at you with her impossibly expressive eyes? A final example, and one that is probably more aligned with the general tone of this blog, is if social media is on your mind when you’re coaxing your tired, shaking legs to squat over a jungle toilet. I’m going to guess, probably not.

But then, just as quickly as you arrived, you leave. A hot shower and soap are exquisite luxuries at first, but as you scrub the jungle from your skin, the real world comes flooding back. Then it’s flight times and bag-packing, taxis from the airport and morning alarm clocks. Your bed accepts you back as though you never left. But it takes a bit of time to get back to normal, longer than if you spent the weekend at home. There’s a part of you still in the jungle; in your mind’s eye, you look like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway, and are still quietly amazed by the potable tap water and clean, quiet comfort of home. The jungle’s effect on time lingers. It feels like you were gone for a long time, but you weren’t. Just an Easter long weekend.