Bodhidharma felt his eyelids drooping and his body tilting forward as sleep encroached yet again onto his meditation. He stiffened his back and resolved his will. “You must go beyond all words into the deepest truth there is. You must continue beyond selfhood and otherness into the realm where black and white fade away.”
For seven years he had sat in this cave, a stone’s throw from the Shaolin Temple which had refused him entry. He had decided that this spot was as good as any other for the contemplation needed. But this damned sleep kept interrupting his quest, calling him to lie down and take a rest. He caught himself slumping forward again, this time his forehead nearly knocked into the unyielding stone before he caught himself and returned upright.
“Something must be done!” he roared inwardly to himself and made his decision. He reached up and with each thumb and forefinger gripped the eyelids that had been failing him for the past seven years. As felt his bushy beard on his forearms and the soft flesh of his fingertips, he gave a merciless tug. The lids came off in his vice-like grip and he threw them to the ground, able to now continue with his meditation unhindered. Two years later, the Shaolin monks came to the cave to see if Bodhidharma still practiced there. They discovered no sign of the founder of the Zen lineage of Buddhism, except for two peculiar plants growing side by side on the ground near the wall of the cave. The leaves were a luscious green and their smooth curves were reminiscent of eyelids. These were the first tea plants.
Or so the legends tell us! Bodhidharma’s eyelids (the tea leaves) were to be the fuel for generations of Chan (Chinese Zen) monks' meditation - helping them to stay awake during their practice. In actuality, tea has been around in China since at least the 10th century B.C., though it would take thousands of years before its commercial cultivation would find its way to Malaysia, the next stop on our world tour.
After flying from Kolkata to Kuala Lumpur (we’ll blog about this city later, but FYI everything we'll do in Malaysia is on the eastern peninsula above, we didn't have time for the western part), Neda and I took the winding road up to the biggest hill station in the country – the Cameron Highlands. Developed in the 1930’s as a way for the British to escape the scorching lowland heat, an entrepreneur named J.A. Russell realized that it was also an ideal environment for growing tea. He bought a tract of land in the area and named his plantation Boh (Malaysian for “high”). Having missed the tea plantations in Darjeeling due to the cold weather there, Neda and I were excited to visit Boh and see the cultivation of one of our favorite beverages.
Our first day in Cameron, we met up with a Polish blueberry farmer turned off-season backpacker named Mat. He gave us some tips on a hike he had just done in the area and invited us to join him on a longer trek up to the tallest peak in the highlands, Gunung Brinchang. (Logistical Note: Mr. Yen in the Cameronian Inn gave Mat and us great tips on the hiking in the region and has drawn accurate and up to date maps as well). Our first trek, up to the top of Gunung Jasar, was presided over with blue skies and clear views of the village below as well as the cottage where Jim Thompson, the former CIA agent who helped revitalize the Thai silk business, was last seen before disappearing in these highlands one sunny day in 1967. The afternoon found us sampling the teas of the region while digging into homemade scones with strawberry jam and apple pie with a dollop of fresh cream. We felt quite aristocratic!
The next day we set off early with Mat for our trek up Gunung Brinchang. The trek started from the next town over so we began the journey by hitchhiking on the back of a pick-up truck into town. This time around the sky was already darkening and droplets of rain foreshadowed the hike to come! But rather than detract from the experience, the weather added to it. The climb through the lush jungle as the rain splattered on the leaves was as atmospheric as it gets. Despite the mud and wetness, we were in high spirits as we emerged at the top, with a view only of the settled mist of the clouds we had entered as we climbed. Down a ways from the peak we walked on the more sterile boardwalk of the “mossy forest,” a tourist attraction that cleanly takes tourists through the views we had just seen but without the muddy shoes. Still, it made for some nice photos!
The road down the mountain led to the part of the trip Neda and I were anticipating the most. The tea! As we hitchhiked for the 2nd time down to the tea plantation, we admired the sprawling hills lined with the ordered plantings of the bright green tea. Finally, we arrived at the Boh visitor center, where after our long morning, the Palas Supreme whole leaf tea tasted just sublime. Neda swore it gave her a euphoric buzz, which the folks at Boh had long ago marketed when they said their tea had “uuummmph”! A walk through the tea processing plant also showed us how tea is picked, rolled to release its juices, oxidized (to turn it from green to black), and then dried for packaging. We left the plantation and after a short walk, took one last trip as hitchhikers back to Tanah Rata, the town where we started.
It was a successful trip up to the highlands and we enjoyed Mat’s company so much that we decided to go together to Ipoh, a nearby city that one of the guys who picked us up while hitchhiking lived in. He invited us there to show us some of the local cuisine. For this part of the adventure we added another traveler to our group, Kim from Seattle. Here's a picture of Kim and us with some fresh squeezed cucumber juice that looks sort of like a witches brew. Anyway, off we went to Ipoh to see what awaited!
Well, it wasn’t exactly what we expected, that’s for sure. Our local contact never called us back, but that didn’t stop us from finding fun. First, we took a local bus out to the Malaysian Royal town of Kuala Kangsar, where we enjoyed the beautiful combination of British and Moorish architecture at Masjid Ubudiah (see right). That’s also where I got some delicious Nasi Lamak, a Malaysian dish of coconut rice with peanuts and a chicken leg in a sumptuous sauce. But once we arrived back in Ipoh, I was still hankering for the local dish of Ipoh sar hor fun (flat rice noodles cooked in chicken and prawn broth with chicken shreds, prawns and spring onions). It took us a bit out of the way to find it, but in doing so we stumbled upon a group of Indian Christians who were caroling in preparation for Christmas. Their Santa Claus had some sweet moves and a mean rhythm to accompany the tambourines and enthusiastically costumed kids. They even succeeded in getting Jeff into the action. You probably never expected to see a Buddhist-Jew dancing with an Indian Santa Claus while singing Christmas Carols, huh? See the video here!
After a year full of adventures galore, we are approaching the end of 2012. Neda and I are going to head off to a Couchsurfing potluck in Panang in a few minutes to hang out with travelers from all over the world to celebrate Christmas Eve under the sweltering Malaysian heat! We wish you and yours all the best this holiday season and thank you for following along on our blog. Your comments and e-mails have been wonderful gifts to us all year long! Merry Christmas and a belated Happy Hanukkah!
See all the pics of the Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, and Kuala Kangsar here!