"You are the risk I'll always take"
I'll Hold My Breath (2010) by Ellie Goulding
How do you know if your girlfriend loves you?
Easy. Make her accompany you on a 18-kilometre hike up and down a hill in the wilderness and if she's still sticking around after that, she does. Oh boy, does she ever. I could have been imagining it but at times when I was walking ahead of her in our climb, I could feel her murderous intent (of love!) burning a spot on the nape of my neck.
It was September, when the rainy Southwest monsoon was still blowing. For some reason, I thought that it was the perfect time to go on a nature walk to visit a hill station in Taiping - and Taiping, if you don't know, is widely considered to be the wettest town in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia. Pay attention to the information I just divulged to you. This, my friend, is called foreshadowing.
Maxwell Hill or Bukit Larut is probably the least known hill station in the entire country and it was locked out of development for decades. I have difficulty in deciding whether that was through design or neglect but the result is that the place retains a locus-lost-in-time charm and an atmosphere of rustic alienation, slightly overgrown. At the foothills, there's a government run office making hourly jeep runs to the peak which would have cost us a measly RM 6.00 a pop, return. Privately owned vehicles are not authorised from making the ascent - which is probably for the best considering the steep incline, the narrow road and the several hundreds of hair-raising, hairpin turns. Aside from the jeeps, the only other way to get up there is to hoof it.
Phoebe looked me in the eyes beseechingly, turned to look at the jeeps longingly and then turned back at me again. I grinned and gave her a thumbs up enthusiastically in reply, saying "We can do it! The exercise is good for us!"
She stared at the immensity of the hillside wearing a sort of strangled expression for a minute. Taking a deep breath, she asked: "Can we take the jeep down then afterwards?"
"Of course!" I lied.
The park ranger told us that our feet should expect anywhere between 3 to 5 hours of punishment, depending on how fit we were. I'm a big fan of walking and I hit the stairs whenever I can. Phoebe is also a big fan of walking so long as it's performed entirely within the air-conditioned confines of a mall, and considers stairs to be relics of the past which should have been driven to obsolescence long ago by the advent of escalators and elevators. Maxwell Hill towered at more than 1000-metres into the clouds (which by the way is as high as the Cameron Highlands) and Phoebe clearly wasn't enjoying herself in our attempt to conquer it on our soles. After putting just the first two kilometres behind us, she started slowing down to a molluscan pace, wishing out loud for us to turn back and take a jeep. Every twenty minutes or so, she would stop completely, pronouncing dramatically "I'm DYING!" and "I'm... really dying... not kidding..."
That Phoebe. What a joker, eh?
Then there's the bugs, of course, and I don't think I need to explain just how much she adores the little motherfuckers,
I don't know. It's either a spider of the Gasteracantha genus or some unholy horror from the deepest bowels of hell.
There was even a point when she was attacked by three butterflies. This is not a joke. Three scaly-winged critters flew out of nowhere and decided that the airspace around Phoebe's head is the best possible place for them to flutter about in some sort of threesome mating dance ritual. I wish I caught her on video now. Her terrified shrieks and panicked flailing of umbrella at three harmless butterflies was one of the most absurd things I have ever seen her do.
As we slowly gained altitude, the air began to cool perceptibly. I checked if the crisp mountain air had improved the girlfriend's mood and she told me, "If I want cold air, I'd turn the air-conditioner in my bedroom on."
Still, we beat the odds somehow and managed to make it topside under 4 hours,
Some triple-storeyed gazebo that's falling apart - which meant that I have to climb it at all cost, of course.
At the jeep-stop, we met a jeep driver and made arrangements to hitch his ride back down at 4:00 pm, which is the final run of the day. The bloke and us parted ways after that - he was off to pick up some tourists littered all around the hilltop while Phoebs and I pottered around a bit.
At about 3:40 pm, the same jeep driver drove by us with a car-ful of sightseers. He slowed down a notch, rolled down his window and asked in Malay, "Nak turun?" That meant, "Wanna go down?" in English.
"YEAH!" I told him.
"Okay!" he cheerily replied and blew exhaust in our faces as he drove further and further away, leaving us holding a nice mix-bag of feelings. Bewilderment was one of them. Sudden paralytic apprehension was another.
"Um, maybe he wanted us to board at the jeep-stop?" I ventured uncertainly. Operating on that assumption, we started to walk briskly back to where we met the man in the first place. While we were on our way, it started raining in torrents down on our little unprotected mountainside, I shit you not, and Phoebs' tiny blue umbrella and makeshift butterfly cudgel offered scant shelter from meteorological vengeance of the unforgiving Southwest monsoon.
Eventually, we got to the stop in one, not-too-soggy piece but found no jeep there.
"Maybe, he's coming back after he dropped those other people off. It's not 4:00 pm yet after all," I said none too optimistically. So we waited there quietly as the rain grew in strength and ferocity all around us, drowning us in a sea of mist and silhouettes. The cold began lulling Phoebs into a fatigued sleep and she laid her head on my shoulder, her eyes closed and fast. Oh, the poor dear. "Long-suffering" does not even begin to describe her.
When it got to about a quarter past four, it became quite evident to us that absolutely no one was coming to rescue us from that isolated, people-less hilltop miles away from civilisation. The deluge showed no sign of letting up and dusk was on a rapid approach. Colour me a pessimist but I don't think being stranded overnight on Maxwell Hill without food or warm clothes is going to improve the girlfriend's disposition.
"We got to walk downhill," said I, bearer of bad news extraordinaire.
"I knew it! I knew it! We have to walk all the way down again?" The look of disappointment on her face would break your heart.
"In this rain?"
"And it's getting dark, am I right?"
I sighed deeply and answered in the affirmative.
"Then no one will see or hear me do THIS!" she snarled.
As quick as lightning, the girlfriend seized me by the throat and started choking the life out of me with her bare white-knuckled hands. I struggled to draw breath but her thumbs have collapsed my windpipe. The last thing I saw was her bloodshot eyes and her nostrils flaring like the Minotaur's, her breaths misting angrily in the chilly air. I kicked once, twice and then kicked no more. Wailing in anguish like a banshee after biting down on a chili pepper charting a million heat units on the Scoville scale, she lifted my limp, lifeless body over her head and threw it down the mountain, watching remorselessly as I tumbled like a ragdoll against rocks and trees, painting them black with my blood and white with my brains.
And that's the end of me and the end of the story.
P.S. Anyway, one third of the way down, we met this lone barefooted and shirtless fat guy in his twenties heading to the summit. He had his waterlogged sneakers around his neck, his wet T-shirt in one hand and was carrying a huge backpack - probably filled with the essentials of a couple of days' stay. My guess is that he must have rented one of those cheap bungalows littering the top of Maxwell Hill. "Am I reaching there yet?" he asked, almost pleading. I told him that he's looking at another hour or more of climbing. He groaned.
P.P.S. Phoebe ended up walking funny for like a week.
Dead and rotting,
k0k s3n w4i