What is most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections.
— Michael Pollan
The gate to the Hindu temple grounds was locked, and had a sign on it warning off non-believers. From my vantage, I could see a small corner of the main temple building, which sat on Bukit Gasing’s peak, on a point overlooking the jungle – and its elaborate, colourful design hinted at wonders within. There was no getting closer to get a better look, though. Even a walk along the outer wall was impossible, the only path being closed off by fences.
Clearly, the temple wasn’t the main attraction for hikers here – and it wasn’t immediately obvious what was. The way forward was blocked. To my right there was a cliff; to my left, some fairly uninviting jungle. The only way forward, in fact, was backward, down the road the cab had used to bring me here, and I already knew there was nothing particularly interesting about that. Still, I had no choice.
It occurred to me that I could have taken a minute to do some research before heading out, but I had made the decision to go on this hike on a whim. After lunch, and some prompting by Bonnie Lee over Skype, I had realized that I needed to take a few hours off. Between work and things 222, I had stared at my computer solidly, day and night, seven days a week for more weeks than made sense – and I knew there was some hiking to be done on Bukit Gasing. So I headed down to the main road without much thought, and grabbed a cab.
The cab driver had no idea where Bukit Gasing was, let alone any hiking trails, but after asking a few other drivers, he had whisked me here, up the road I was now walking back down. At least I wasn’t staring at the computer – and it was a beautiful, sunny day, on a road that offered a view of a huge mosque with a sprawling mess of city spreading out from it in every direction.
Still, I had come here for a hike, and so when I saw a gap in the trees, I decided to step through it and into the jungle. If all I was destined to do was walk down a hill today, then I figured I may as well do it surrounded by nature. I was immediately rewarded with the sight of a couple of macaques busily foraging. The one closer to me stared me down, and made a noise that I’m sure he thought was threatening, but which only managed to be cute. I steered away from him to let him get on with his day, and started my descent into what I had thought of as a jungle, but which the macaques (it now occurred to me) probably thought of as a big salad.
A cousin of the troupe I saw on Bukit Gasing, who I met in Batu Caves
The way quickly got steep, and it was at times a bit hard to get my footing, which made for a clumsy but controlled descent – and one that was noisy enough to scare off any and all creatures of the woods. Whenever I stopped to take in my surroundings, I could hear frantic activity about hundred yards ahead, as macaques crashed through the leaves to escape from the new guy in the neighbourhood.
One big salad
I came to a level clearing, and as I walked across it, casually wondering where I was, a sudden rush of sound and motion gave me a start. The dirt just ahead of me seemed to come alive, and sprinted away with a rapid series loud thumps. Whatever it was came to a stop just as suddenly, and as I got closer to take a look, I saw that it was a lizard (a monitor lizard, I now know) – at least two feet long – and it struck me that I had no idea what lived in this little piece of jungle. Did these particular lizards bite? Were there snakes? I didn’t have a clue, and hadn’t done an ounce of research, though it was clear to me now that the salad I inhabited wasn’t purely vegetarian, and I wasn’t 100% certain where I sat on the local food chain. Yet here I was, on a little used path, staring at a medium-sized carnivore staring at me, with a way to go (I guessed) and no easy way back. I reminded myself that I should plan a bit better next time, and moved along giving my new friend a wide berth.
For the next fifteen minutes or so, I moved down the hill a bit more cautiously, and paying a bit more attention to the shadows. I don’t know if there are snakes on Bukit Gasing, but I do know that something brown with yellow stripes that might be a snake lurks there … as do some very cute little mammals that look like squirrels with funky haircuts. And there are dragonflies, beautiful red and burgundy ones – a small cluster of which swarmed around me when my jungle path finally met up with a real hiking trail.
The real trail was beautiful and wide. I could see the way back to the road from where I was, but decided to explore the more manicured part of Bukit Gasing while I was there, even though I was a bit thirsty by then. I made a mental note to bring water on my next impromptu hike in the tropics.
I stuck to the flat paths just to get a feel for the place, and was about to turn around and head home, when I met a sweat-drenched couple coming in the other direction. They mentioned that they had gotten lost in the paths ahead, and for a second I considered turning back. Then they mentioned that there was a river ahead, and that they had followed a steep path on the right after that. This had led them to some abandoned homes, and a very spooky ancient deity.
Well, the universe doesn’t have to ask me twice, and the wisdom of turning around suddenly evaporated.
So off I went to find the river and the path and the spooky deity. The river I found soon enough (the water was brown and undrinkable), along with some very funky looking mushrooms (which at this point were looking quite tasty), and I chose one of the steep paths on the right. And up I went. And up. And up.
The jungle eventually gave way to a steep escarpment, which I clambered up, until I came to a wall – a very familiar looking wall, with a Hindu temple behind it, only now I was on the wrong side of the point. Rather than climb down the escarpment (which seemed a bit treacherous) I followed a narrow path along the wall out to the point, and back to the side I had come from, hoping I would see a way through to the road (though suspecting there was none that didn’t involve pole vaulting).
And this is where I lucked out … there was a gap in the wall that I could step through, and suddenly I was where only the faithful could go, locked into rather than out of the temple grounds. I was tempted to get a closer look at the temple, but there was a gatekeeper nearby, who, when I explained how I had accidentally found my way in, was only too happy to let me out.
And so there I stood again, outside the gate, back where I had started. Drenched in sweat. In 100 degree weather, I would later learn – something that would have made sense to check before I headed out.
I found another path into the salad, and headed down the mountain again. By now, I was a bit peckish, and parched – and it seemed ironic to me that I felt this way in what was essentially a giant buffet. Edible greens, fruits, nuts, mushrooms and roots were all around me, not to mention bugs and meat in various forms – yet I had no way to know what was edible and what was not. I didn’t have the basic sense not to starve in the middle of a buffet. I was dumber than even the bugs here, who had figured out that I was food hours ago.
Note to self: the next time you go to the jungle, bring bug spray.