The Ghost of Balu

Obligatory Disclaimer: WARNING! The following post will contain excessive diving trips into a mind that has no business being dove into. Excessive introspection therefore follows, and those of you who cannot handle such self-searching posts are politely requested to leave the premises now. Please leave. There. Politeness. Also, those allergic to barnacles and barnyard animals should also probably stay away, for reasons of jujufication.

End obligatory boring disclaimer aimed at shortening your life by approximately the time it took for you to read this, which, if you’re an alien who doesn’t speak our language (DEATH TO ALL OUTSIDERS!), would mean you’re already dead. You’re welcome, Earth

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to climb Mt. Kinabalu, a 4, 095 m mountain in Borneo. During the climb, I experienced many things, learnt many things, and came away with a lot of insights. One of the most important lessons was this: I am NOT a mountaineer.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved climbing the mountain. I loved the views it offered me. I loved the opportunity to pit myself against Mother Nature (apparently, walking up a man made path which contained man made steps = Mother Nature. Heh, I Ronnie.) But there was a little snag that I ran into, one that I did not foresee. You see, climbing up a mountain, I happened to forget, also means I have to climb back down. And that terrified me. Not because I’m afraid of heights, because I’m not. I love the views from high places. In fact, included in my (imaginary, existing solely within the confines of the same brain which had an idea for a book about zombies in the middle of the night as a dream) bucket list is bungee jumping and skydiving. Indeed, I want to do both of those activities more than once. So, as you can see (read?), I have no problem with heights.

No, what got to me was this. I hate climbing DOWN things. Ask me to jump off of things. Ask me to flop off things. Hell, ask me to make like a Flobberworm and… Flobber my way down things and I’m still perfectly fine with that. Climb down, however, I will not do. I analysed this strange aversion and I believe I know the reason why (I’m on the right track, baby) I’m born this way. It’s because I don’t trust my body. Not the way you ought to, anyway. I don’t trust my ankles to hold up to the strain they’d have to endure climbing down the mountain. I don’t trust my sense of balance to NOT fling me off the side of the mountain, and I don’t trust my knees to not give way midway through the descent, my kneecaps abandoning the rest of my body and jumping off the mountain, screaming obscenities loudly all the way down.

Also, I hated that there was no safety harness on the rope sections. See, they had these rope sections, where ropes had been put in place precisely because the area was too rocky to cut steps into. Which meant having to rely on non-existent rock climbing skills. Also, the rope was fine, but you had a ledge which you had to put your feet on which was just slightly less than half the width of your foot. Given that this oh-so-precise measurement held true regardless of if you were Tinkerbell or King Kong, I was driven to conclude that there was some mystical shaman magic that pervaded the place, some remnant of ancient magic which… remained. (The single lamest sentence ending ever. In the history of everything. Check if you don’t believe me.) An enchantment from a bygone age, like the 60’s weed-smoking hippie’s era.

The ledge was small alright? Ok. Moving on.

This ledge didn’t exactly inspire confidence on the way up as it is, but dear god, on the way down it was a complete nightmare. At one point I actually slipped and nearly lost my grip on the rope, which actually scared the daylights out of me. There’s no joke here, I’m serious. For 5 minutes afterward I sat down (having forced myself down the remainder of the rope section) and stared at nothing, only coming out of my shock when my friends Sundar Saranya and Shreya shook me out of my reverie. But the point is this. There was no flashing of my life before my eyes, no last moments of regrets, nothing. Call it melodrama (As I’m sure many of you will, with good reason. I do tend to have a flair for the dramatic sometimes. Along with the ludicrous. As well as the downright batshit insane.) But I do believe that if things had gone a little bit differently, I might not be here typing this for your leisurely perusal and subsequent dismissal.

But there is no learning point that I took away from this near death experience. No greater appreciation for life, no sudden epiphany to slow down and appreciate the finer things in life. Instead all I felt in the aftermath of the incident was a persistent dread. Not of death. But of not having lived a life worth ending. I know it sounds weird, but to me that seems to be the best way to describe it. It’s also something that’s unsettled me ever since it happened. It’s something that I want to explore about myself, an aspect of my psyche (not sure if that’s the right word to use) that I want to delve into. There may or may not be a post once I satisfy my Magellan-like tendencies for inner exploration, but I’m hoping there is. Meanwhile, back to the climb.

I must say that one of the greatest things about the climb was the rest stop. There is a lodge 3.272 km above sea level where we hunkered down for the night, before beginning the climb to the summit early the next morning so we could watch the sunrise from the summit. That rest stop was a feat of pure will.  It was an amazing place, with electricity, mouth-watering food, and comfortable beds. All of which was made from materials and through the efforts of the porters.

You see, the path that tourists and the like used to scale the mountain was one of two paths that existed to the rest stop. The other path, while also accessible to tourists, had the reputation of being far tougher. There was no road up for vehicles anywhere on the mountain, unlike other places like Genting. Which meant that any and all forms of lodging, piping, and any construction work that existed along the way had been made by people who had had to first get materials there. It also meant that any and all supplies that these constructions needed (including gas canisters for cooking, long sheets of corrugated metal for roofs and such) had to be carried up on foot. Which was why you occasionally saw, as you climbed the mountain, men and women climbing faster than you while simultaneously being bent double under the sheer weight of the cargo he or she was carrying. These were the true superheroes, the quiet desperate men and women who subjected themselves to this torture on a regular basis (sometimes 2 trips a DAY) simply to try and eke out a living for themselves. I saw no reason for me to complain about how tired I was (though I’m sure I did at regular intervals) when these guys barely stopped for rest on the way up, whereas we would rest every half an hour or so.

The other amazing thing about the rest house (Laban Rata, it was called) was the fact that at 3, 272 m above sea level, it did not have heat. Don’t get me wrong, we did not freeze while we slept, the thick woolen blankets and cosy beds made sure of that. It was all quite comfortable and… warm would be pushing it a bit, but definitely manageable. No, I’m talking about the water. Because they did have running water, which was clean (another marvel.) but they had no water heater. Which meant that after a whole day of climbing (we started our day aroun 6:30 a.m and reached Laban Rata about 3:30 p.m) when we wanted to step into a hot shower and relax our bodies, what we got instead was water sent straight from Antartica. It made me want to try impossible things because it actually felt like hell had frozen over. This was exacerbated by the fact that instead of slowly easing myself into the flow of liquid nitrogen, I instead chose to jump into the stream as it flowed out of my shower head. Just switched on the shower and jumped in, squealing like a little girl the whole way. I guess it was just as well that Sundar was next door to me doing the same thing, as we had decided that that was what we were going to do. No tiptoeing around the experience. I still think it’s one of the most amazing, invigorating experiences I’ve ever had. And will never try again.

Cue abrupt end to post, as music stops suddenly and the reader is left feeling confused.

I know I said it’s the end, but I want to say this, it seems appropriate for some reason, so here goes:

Adios, muchachos.

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