A Little Climbing and a Little Wet

Pencils skirts and heels: those are my comfort zones. Give me a light cardigan, a chunky necklace and some brightly painted nails and I am right at home. My toes can be smashed into heels for hours at a time; I’ll jingle around the office in a pile of bangles with a cute pen or two clipped to my lanyard and I am ready to go.

Sports bras and tennis shoes: not my comfort zone. As I’ve discussed many, many a-time on this blog, Sporty Spice I am not. Occasionally I try and at times I overestimate my abilities/desires, and usually I end up with a tinge of regret for my choices during the actual event, but also thrilled to have seen the top of that mountain, to have swum with tropical fishes (and poisonous sea snakes) or to have that tiny “M” marking my driver’s license as both automobile and motorcycle classed.

It was in just such a situation that I found myself last weekend.

To be fair, the overestimating was not totally my own fault. I lay a good deal of blame on the park literature that *way* understated the day’s activity levels.

But, to be fair to the awesome park, even if the literature had been honest, I probably would have gone anyway. Peer pressure. I wasn’t backing out when everyone else was signing up.

Signing up for what, you may ask? Just a trek to Eden and back.

Who could say no to that?

The tiniest of summaries accompanied beautiful photos at Mulu Park’s headquarters, mentioning that hikers might have to climb over a few rocks and might get wet, but would be rewarded with tea or coffee at the end of the day. Seems like a deal to me!

I should have taken those “mights” a bit more seriously.

Our hike to Eden was a full-day adventure; one we felt comfortable embarking on after the previous day’s four-hour trek into Morlock-land with just some snazzy yellow hardhats and blinking headlamps.

The first part of the day was simple enough- just a couple kilometer hike on maintained boardwalks to the main bat exodus viewing area. Everyone was upbeat and excited for the day’s adventure, getting to know each other and chatting, stopping to look at a snoozing pit viper and to admire a giant walking stick insect, who didn’t enjoy our company as much as we did his. (Our guide picked the walking stick up to give us a closer view since we all had a hard time spotting him through his awesome camouflage, but the little critter instantly went in self-defense mode, regurgitating some kind of viscous, yellow liquid all over the guide’s hand. I was impressed that his seemingly tiny body could hold so much fluid! Gross and fascinating, all at the same time.)

Once we got to Deer Cave, we followed the normal boardwalk pathway used by visitors on the “show cave” tours, but soon I literally found where the sidewalk ends! We scrambled over the railing and went off-road, for the rest of the day. Once we’d left the trail behind, the next few hours were spent bouldering, up and over and through, anyway one could find to get to the other side. I must admit, the whole thing was a lot of fun, until my arms started to run out of strength. (See the last blog post about how my army crawl became an unsightly barrel roll in the previous day’s cave.) At one point, I got myself into a rather sticky situation, not able to go up or down, perched on a log and needing to somehow heft myself another four feet up. After trying numerous options and finding none that didn’t feel like imminent death, the massive Dutch man behind me just said, “Want a boost?” in his lovely European accent, to which I nodded and before I knew what was happening, he basically pushed my rear up and over my head, rolling me onto the top of the boulder, a move I was grateful for, but that left me covered in bat guano from head to toe. (Interesting side note: bat guano is not as disgusting as one would think. It has a distinct and heavy odor, but not a gag inducing one. It is dry and grainy, like a black sand, only covered in cave cockroaches and other spindly-legged creatures. These guys are grosser than the poo. On a poop scale, I would say bat guano comes in as as some of the least rank crap around, and thank goodness, since I spent most of the day enjoying a free exfoliate from Mother Nature.)

Exhausted, but proud to have survived the bouldering, I was buoyed to see a beautiful river. I thought we must have arrived at Eden, where we could rest, have lunch and enjoy the sunshine far from humanity.

Boy, was I wrong.

We were only halfway there.

The river was a turning point, in that we went from the “might have to climb a few rocks” to the “might get wet” part. The river, mostly ankle deep, did drop off as it exited the cave, hitting me at the top of my chest and making the shorter folks in our group full-on swim. We followed the river upstream (followed= waded) for about another kilometer, before veering off into the rain forest, where our guide promptly announced “This is where the leeches start.” Hmmm…I definitely do not remember anything about leeches in the literature.

Leeches were the least of my concerns. This third leg of the trek was the toughest for me, basically an uphill climb through dense rain forest, where the temperature and humidity were at levels that an Idaho-girl should never experience. My body was raised on dry heat, the kind that a bit of sweat cools. It does not know what to do with instant flush and dripping pores. At one point, bringing up the end of our line of trekkers (7 of us in total), I realized I was stumble/walking across a ridge between two parts of the mountain, with verdant and foliage-hidden drops just a few feet on either side. That’ll help you regain your focus quickly!

Just when I thought I could go no farther, the beginnings of heat exhaustion starting to manifest, I heard the waterfall that indicated Eden was just over the next ridge. I may have almost died (okay, a bit of hyperbole, but let’s be honest, I was in the middle of nowhere with walking out the only way back and running on energy reserves; it didn’t feel like hyperbole at the time) but the view from Eden was spectacular.

Its name was not hyperbole.

The gorgeous waterfall, huge boulders to rest on and sun shining through the trees were only part of the draw. My favorite thing about this spot was its remoteness. Although I know they take small groups of hikers there a couple of times a week, this place felt like we were the first ones to ever see it. Nothing man-made, nothing electronic, nothing that didn’t come in with us and go back out with us.

Pristine. Untouched. Unspoiled.

Amazing.

Worth the effort.

At times, I questioned my choice to sign up for this trek, but in the end, I would do it all again. I’d roll through the bat guano, hoist myself up rock ledges, ford a river, hike/stumble through a forest filled with biting critters, all for a view that so few get to witness.  (Thad paid for the view with a more personal form of currency- his blood. He picked up not one, but two leeches along the way. One he was able to pull off before it got a good latch, but the second make a full meal out of his upper thigh. For the record, leech bites leave huge, target-shaped wounds, with an open sore in the middle, ringed by concentric layers of bruising. Not a pretty sight and probably not so fun to sit on! Also, itchy. Very itchy.)

As promised, our day ended with a mug of hot tea as we curled our filthy bodies onto benches to watch the bat exodus right before sunset. I can’t think of a better ending to a day where Mother Nature tested my mettle than with her gift of wonder, as three million bats went hunting, as if on cue.

 

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A Different Kind of Girls’ Getaway

When I hear someone say they are headed off for a girls’ weekend, my mind instantly jumps to images of women wearing fluffy white robes with mud facial masks spread across their faces and cucumbers over their eyes. Or maybe the still photo in my mind is of a line of women sitting in large massage chairs with their feet in tubs of hot water, prepping for the Barbie pink mani/pedis headed their way. If not those images, then one of well-dressed ladies enjoying a nice white tablecloth dinner on the patio of a ritzy restaurant, glasses of red wine in their hands and pates of tapas on the table. The problem with each of these pictures is that my mind can’t really place me in them anywhere!

So, what’s a girls’ weekend to look like when I’m not willing to spend my entire paycheck on fluff and frill? Picture the exact opposite of all of the things above. Instead of billowy bathrobes, imagine sweat-soaked tank tops. Instead of massage chairs and pedicures, imagine long boats and millipedes. Instead of expensive alcohol and pristine table settings, image bags of melted trail mix and bottle after bottle of potable water.

Now those are the building blocks of a fantastic weekend getaway.

I first saw photos of the Malaysian national park at Taman Negara almost a year ago and have wanted to make the three hour trip north, but it seems like weekends are quickly overtaken with school requirements and work obligations. A few weeks ago, sitting at an outdoor steak restaurant (corrugated metal roof, folding tables, plastic chairs and the best Australian beef in town!), the idea was floated and we quickly had five ladies signed on for Labor Day weekend. No froof and fluff for us. We were off to the jungle for a weekend of hiking, river swimming and insect inspecting.

The most relaxing part of the weekend was the longboat ride up the river. Forty-five minutes of peace (minus the outboard motor), complimented by kingfishers sailing by, monkeys catching fish on the shore and one lazily swimming monitor lizard. Once we reached our upriver destination, it was a short twenty-minute hike to a place where the rocks create a natural whirlpool tub, complete with a massaging waterfall. (Maybe our girls’ weekend had a bit of spa-day included after all!) Since all things nature-y freak me out a bit (ironic, no?), I did spaz out a bit each time a leaf wrapped itself around my ankle, sure that it was one of the lecherous leaches we had been duly warned about before leaving Kuala Lumpur. Soon, our secluded swimming hole was overrun by late-arriving tourists (kudos to our guide for always getting us to destinations ahead of the masses, so we were able to spend a chunk of time unmolested by the other jungle trekkers), so we threw back on our wet shirts and shorts (from the sweaty hike) over our wet swimsuits (from the river) and made our way back down the hillside for another idle ride on the river.

The most unexpected event of the weekend was the night trek. I saw this outing on the original itinerary and didn’t think a whole lot of it, but quickly learned that it would have been more appropriately labeled the “Let’s Marvin Gay and Get It On” insect tour. That’s right. I don’t know if the rainforest is that (re)productive every night, but last Saturday there was some serious breeding going on. We were witnesses to everything from stick bug sex (which then led to a long conversation and later, several Googled articles, about what exactly a pregnant stick bug would look like) to leaf bugs and jungle-sized grasshoppers doing it. (Not together. That would make a strange set of baby bugs.) This entire walk took place in the pouring rain, which was no deterrent for the tiny tropical nightlife, but did teach me that my China-made/China-purchased raincoat had absolutely no waterproof abilities. I was as wet as anything out there that evening.

Our ladies’ weekend wrapped up with the biggest undertaking of the trip- a two kilometer trek up the mountain, through the rainforest, to a beautiful viewpoint at the top of the ridge. As with many (most?) Southeast Asia treks, this one was comprised mainly of stairs. So many stairs. And, keeping in mind that I am pretty wimpy when it comes to physical activities, I did my best to not fall behind the pack. (Considering the five month pregnant woman was leading the line most of the time, I had some strong-stamina shoes to fill!)

Up the stairs.

Up the stairs.

Up the stairs. Every time I thought I saw an end, we’d round a bend and I’d look up to see another endless set.

Essentially, I hate hiking. I always have. I love the view from the top and I am enamored with the possibility of seeing animals on the way, so I lace up my shoes and head out time and time again, but in the moment, I hate it. As much as I dislike hiking, I fear heights. So, what better way to end the weekend than with a canopy walk on the way down the mountain? (I’m apparently a sucker for self-inflicted torture.) The thing with canopy walks is that I’m terrified of being 150 feet in the air on a tiny walkway with nothing between me and the ground but a layer or two of tropical leaves, but I can’t walk away from the potential awesomeness that exists up there. So, once again, I tightened my backpack and struck out across the dangling bridges, keeping my eyes straight ahead and trying to steady my knocking knees. As I climbed the first set of stairs to the initial bridge, I asked the worker how many bridges there were in the course. He promised three. At the end of that first one, I posed the same question to a worker stationed on the platform. His English was less polished, but he seemed to understand me and answered, “Five.” Hmmm… Those two answers didn’t match up, but the thing with canopy walks is that once you start, you are in it for good. There are no emergency egress routes. There are no escape hatches partway through. The only way out is forward. Now thinking I had four more lengths to go, I headed out, with a mind only to getting through.

Three more to go.

Two more to go.

One more to go.

But wait. That was the fifth one and I was still fifty meters in the air. Someone did not tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. As it turns out, there were eight sections in total, one a swinging staircase that had even the most height-loving of our group regretting their canopy walk decision.

While it wasn’t filled with cucumber eye masks or glittery nail polish or hard-to-pronounce French menus, this last weekend was a better kind of ladies’ getaway. As we sweated through our tank tops on the jungle trails, hummed along to Charlie Puth, commiserated over drenched clothes, and generally enjoyed clowning around in the rainforest together. If girls’ getaway weekends are about bonding, this one was definitely a success!

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Photo credits to Jaclyn, Audrey and Puma

My Lungs Are Whispering Sweet Words of Gratitude

Lungs like fresh air.  (It’s true. I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

To that end, a day out of Chengdu is a perfect “pulmo-cation” and so I did my CLO-duty and planned a trip to Luo Dai, an ancient city about an hour outside Sichuan’s capital that boasts a mini-Great Wall, horses that take riders around a lake and a tourist-filled street of shopping and photography. (That’s right, I’m making up words again. But, what better way to describe a day long holiday for one’s largest respiratory organ than “pulmo-cation?”)

While the idea was to give people a chance to get out of the city, see some of the surrounding countryside and enjoy the first fall-fall feeling day of the season, the bit of R&R for our lungs was also greatly appreciated. But, instead, some of us decided to punish our lungs with a hike up the small-Great Wall in Luo Dai.  (I always thinking hiking is a good idea. My brain thinks it sounds invigorating and refreshing, but about ten minutes in to whatever excursion I previously thought to be a positive experience, I am mentally cursing myself, with a few of those murmurs escaping my lips.)

As with many Chinese tourist-sites, stairs are the name of the game at Luo Dai. From the base of the hill, Thad and I could see the staircase straddling the ramparts of the wall, headed straight up the mountainside, with no respite until the first large guard tower, which lay at least a million stairs in front of us. At this point though, I was still gung-ho and ready to go! We were out of Chengdu, the weather was cool and misty and I was ready to tackle the challenge.

That all changed about twenty stairs in to the hike when my lungs were starting to ache from (possibly) too much fresh air, my thighs burned with each unevenly spaced stair and gravity started pulling heavier and heavier on my purse carrying our umbrellas, a water bottle, paper for the squatties and other necessities.

But, with more pride than brains sometimes, I continued up the mountain, taking it a stair at a time and pausing every ten or so to catch my breath, shed a layer or sip some quickly disappearing water.

The countryside surrounding the wall was beautiful. Because it had rained overnight, there trees were covered in dew drops and the air had the crisp feeling that tells you autumn is right around the corner. I would love to say it was somewhere we will haul all of our visitors, (you’re coming, right visitors?) but we were sadly disappointed in how commercialized the area is. As we stood to look back at the path we had already traversed (this being between the second and third guard towers on the wall, and really just an excuse for me to let my lungs simmer down a bit), rather than getting an expansive view of the wall, the forests and the sky, we saw rows of tents, set up on the pathway, hawking everything from ice cream and cold noodles to rubber snakes, plastic whistles and canvas shoes. (I think the canvas shoe business is booming on the wall, as I saw more than one Chinese woman ascending in high heels, but then all those coming back down the wall were shod in flats. Maybe one should consider their choice of footwear before undertaking such an outing?)

After the third guard tower, as we faced another steep climb up the final leg of the mountain, my lungs were crying “Uncle” and Thad’s disgust with the endless selling of random crap on the wall got the better of us. We decided it was best to call it a day on the wall and go ride horses instead. Not wanting to backtrack our entire journey (the wall in Luo Dai does not make a circuit, meaning once you reach the end, you must turn around and go back the way you came), so we drew on our Gansu roots and hopped of the beaten (mortared and stoned) path. After crawling down a slick, rickety ladder that went over the side of the wall, we passed through a hole in the wall and found a farmer’s pathway. We knew if we made it back to the lake we would easily find the rest of our group, so down the hill we went, with not quite the grace of mountain goats, but with neither of us ending up on our bums either. (Because of the rain the night before, the dirt path was a bog of red-hued mud that caked on to my tennis shoes, adding a good five pounds to my weight by the time we reached the foot of the hill. I spent quite a while this morning, squatting on the floor of my bathroom with the shower head in hand, trying to get the red-dye of the mud off my cute pink and gray kicks!)

After passing through what was clearly an outdoor chicken slaughter house (the blood and feathers were fresh enough for me to assume the recently deceased chicken was probably the same one staring back at me, comb and all, from a stew placed in the center of our table just an hour later), we came upon the lake and it’s bored looking horses. (Much like a NASCAR driver, these horses spend their days in a continual state of turning left.)

The day continued with a quick loop around the lake on a horse with an unintelligible Sichuan Hua named mount (local dialect, confounding for native Mandarin speakers, which makes it way beyond my subsistence level Chinese abilities)  for me and Thad’s hilariously named steed- Shui Bi (Sprite) and then lunch that included the previously mentioned, recently expired chicken. Then it was back in to town to stroll the “ancient street” in search of Luo Dai trinkets without which I couldn’t survive. (Not surprisingly, there was nothing that fell in to this category.) This old part of town is a hotspot where young women rent costumes from ancient dynasties and then pose in the various courtyards as if they were members of the ruling family. Thad and I were sucked in to numerous photo sessions while we wandered the street. Nothing says anachronism like a Chinese woman attired in a beautiful Qing dynasty gown, sharing the frame with a mud-covered, jean-clad white woman!

While the day ran a bit longer than I had expected, I am chalking this one up to as a CLO-success, as the hour long bus ride back to Chengdu was filled with open-mouth naps, not only on the part of the kids (most of whom scaled the mini-Great Wall as if they were close cousins with a gazelle family), but also by a number of both adults and tour guides. When that many Z’s are needed, I think it counts as a great Saturday!

(And, I am sure our lungs are giving us a standing, pneumo-vation.)

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Think of Sporty Spice. Now, think of something that is her exact opposite, maybe Klutzy Spice. That is me. I have no athletic ability at all. I may actually suck athletic ability away people standing near me. I’m like a sportiness black hole. And yet, I found Cheryl Strayed’s new book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail captivating and entrancing.

Strayed, as a young lady in her early 20’s, fell into an emotional abyss when her mother (a non-smoker) was diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than a year to live. That year-long prognosis was soon destroyed, when the disease took its toll faster than anyone could have imagined, killing her mom in a mere forty-nine days. Without their mother to hold the family together, she and her sibling and their step-father fell out of touch, and Strayed fell off the edge of a psychological canyon. Giving in to her every whim, she cheated on her husband, began a not-so-casual relationship with heroin and spent four years wandering without a purpose.

When a book about the Pacific Crest Trail nearly fell into her lap, she decided that a solo hike of one hundred days, from California to the border of Oregon and Washington, was what she needed to get her life back in order. After just a few short months of planning and preparation, she embarked upon a journey that would shatter her physically, but one in which she would reclaim her emotional stability.

As a non-athlete, non-hiker, I was worried that I would find little to relate to when I first picked up this book. (By picked up, I, of course, mean downloaded.) My lack of outdoorsy-ness took little away from the story. I may not know how to pitch a tent or build a fire, but I definitely understand how losing a treasured family member could make one unravel.  I love that Strayed was hiking on the west coast, through parks and towns that I’ve driven through on various occasions. Picturing the west coast and its mountains brought a little bit of home here to me on the east coast.

Strayed is witty and amusing as she tells of her triumphs and failures along the trail. Whether it is a discussion of how her hiking boot went tumbling off the side of a mountain or waking up covered in tiny frogs, I couldn’t help but laugh a little and continue to root for her in this gargantuan undertaking. The instant connections she had with her fellow hikers, each walking the trail for their own varied reasons, was enduring. I can imagine it would be pretty natural for one to feel a quick companionship with others who embarked on a similar colossal journey. These made-from-the-trail relationships go a long way in helping Strayed pull herself back together, piecing back not who she was before her mother’s death, but who she will be and can be as she goes forward after her time on the trail ends.

I may never attempt to walk the physical journey that Strayed did and heaven forbid I ever have to endure the emotional one she traversed, but this memoir made both overwhelming situations seem within the realm of possibility and both seem overcome-able. Cheryl Strayed’s newest publication Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is both entertaining and heart-wrenching, and is definitely a must-read for this year. This book earns: