Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Columbia Expedition 100 - Annapurna Base Camp (Part 3)

"In the mountains, worldly attachments are left behind, and in the absence of material distractions, we are opened up to spiritual thought. We should be attempting to carry the spiritual experience of the mountains with us everywhere."
— Jamling Tenzing Norgay
I agree whole-heartedly with the above sentiment. But, just what are some of these spiritual thoughts that we should apply in our everyday lives? Here's my take on it: 

1) Be open to getting to know new people and discovering new experiences

The best part of the trip for me was making new friends; People from various age groups, professions and life experiences. I love talking to Rahul about his previous stint as a UNHCR worker who was tasked with processing asylum seekers, or to Alif, about his experience doing relief work in Sudan, or to Kak Sarah, who seems to have travelled to all four corners of the world, or to Kak Maznah, the solo-adventurer extraordinaire, who has reached K2 Base Camp and has travelled the famed Silk Road via rail.

In the absence of internet connection, our phones were tucked away (except when taking pictures) and deep conversations happened. In a short span of time, strangers became friends; People who wouldn't have otherwise met, if not for this expedition.

I love this words penned by @pakatanbejalan:
Digunung kehidupan mudah
Kita sandarkan kepercayaan kita
Kepada teman sependakian
Kita satukan frekuensi kita
Agar segalanya sempurna
Aku kau dan kalian, menjadi kita
Apa yang aku tidak tahu, kau ajari
Apa yang kau tidak tahu, aku kongsi
Kau dan aku sama, ianya kita
Tiada yang hadapan, tiada yang belakang
Kita bersama bermula dan pulang
Dan hari ini,
Hari terakhir kita menjadi kita
Pulangnya nanti, kau kau dan aku aku
Kita itu akan hilang perlahan-lahan
Kerna kita itu kini hanya tinggal kenangan
Ya, kita pulang dan kita itu akan hilang
Semoga rasa kita itu, kekal selamanya.
It's so true, isn't it? In the mountains, you rely on your teammates (i.e. teman sependakian) and become firm friends with them. But once the trip is over, you go your separate ways: "kau kau dan aku aku, kita itu akan hilang perlahan-lahan". We may promise to keep in touch but our respective lives and responsibilities will eventually take over. Despite this inevitability,  I do fervently hope that: "Semoga rasa kita itu, kekal selamanya".

2) Be clear and steadfast to your goals

Hiking is a simple affair. You need to reach your summit or your destination and then you have to get down. Every day, you're supposed to make it to your pit stop. Your feet or knees may hurt, you may have a slight or severe headache, you may be rendered exhausted by diarrhea or vomiting - whatever it is, you have to follow the plan and make it to the predetermined stops, whether you feel like it or not. This state of mind teaches you that, in life, the important thing is to just keep moving and to put one foot in front of the other.

3) Eschew materialism & be grateful for small things

Because you packed and unpacked your stuff every day, and because you didn't want to be burdened by a heavy load, you carried only the essential items with you. You then realised that you need very little to survive and that having more stuff is actually impractical and cumbersome.

Further, when you witnessed poor standards of living among the locals (frequent blackouts, unpaved roads, disruptions to water supply, general poverty, etc.), you learn to complain less and appreciate the blessings in your life more. 

4) Appreciate nature

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better."
—Albert Einstein

I've found that soaking in nature heals the soul. Make time to do this, as often as possible. 


5) Resign control and be prepared to get knocked out of your comfort zone

I thought I had it all figured out. Since I had been to Nepal last year, I knew what to expect this time round. I thought I was well-prepared: I had my sambal ikan bilis to make some of the dishes spicier, I had my spray to facilitate ablution in the sub-zero temperatures, and I knew what to pack more of and what to pack less of.
"A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it."
—John Steinbeck
Steinbeck was right: Though I had packed enough of everything, there were some things that I couldn't have anticipated nor be prepared for.

The ABC wasn't as hard as the Gosaikunda Trek; in fact on some days, we only trekked for 3 to 4 hours. But though the hiking part was manageable, the weather was not. It was so cold that I had trouble sleeping on most nights. And waking up in the middle of the night to use the toilet was a teeth-chattering affair.

I've learnt that the best way to approach future trips, or life for that matter, is to make the best preparations possible but to expect that some things will go awry. What's a good story without interesting conflicts and unexpected plot twists, right? 😉


A shout-out to my amazing Group 2 members: Hadi, Umar, Faizal, Shirley, Afifza, Adrian, Boon, Alex, James, Thaya, Rahul, Aw, Caesar, Hema, Dr. Prathaban, Prasyaanth , and the 9 ASTRO crew members. You guys have made the trip so much fun! I'm privileged to have met all of you and be the recipient of your kindness and generosity 😘

Congrats to the organisers, especially NEX, for pulling off a difficult, if not impossible task of managing 100+ hikers to reach ABC. Thank you Adrian, Adeline, Koya, Sarah, Shariman & Kamal for putting up with our many enquiries and requests.

Lastly, to my travelling companions: Hadi, Umar & Faizal, thank you for helping me in so many ways:
  • For trying to bargain on my behalf when I wanted to buy a dry sack (though I probably sabotaged your efforts when I immediately took out my purse to pay for it when the seller quoted his starting price 🤣).
  • For ascertaining the qiblat whenever it was time to pray and looking up the prayer times
  • For allowing me to share your hotspot
  • Hadi, for taking good pictures of us. Though taking your pictures can sometimes be stressful because of your demanding standards 😝, we are indebted to you and your phone for the instagram-worthy pictures 👍
  • For walking with me even though I told you guys, you didn't have to.
  • For the marble cookies and coffee
  • For the Into Thin Air book
  • And for helping me to adjust my backpack straps when my shoulders hurt

You guys have been awesome (though you annoyed me sometimes with your constant bickering hahaha). So kosong-kosong eh. Sorry if I had been a less-than-ideal travelling buddy.

They say that the best adventure is always the next one. So let's start planning our 2018 exploits!


To read more about Columbia Expedition 100, check out the following links:
1) Annapurna Base Camp - here we come!
2) Selangor fan takes love of Red Giants to Annapurna
3) Never say it can't be done!
4) Bawa semangat harmoni

Additionally, you can view the two following videos:

Monday, December 11, 2017

Columbia Expedition 100 - Annapurna Base Camp (Part 2)

Day 5 (Dec 2, 2017): ABC (4130m) to Bamboo (2340m)

One of the reasons I love hiking is the chance to recentre and recalibrate my life. Though I hike in groups, I often like to slow/quicken my pace so that I will be alone with my thoughts. After some time, I can feel my troubles unraveling while I gain some clarity.

Throughout this 7-day hike, the moment I felt most at peace was the morning of Day 5. I woke up at 5.30 a.m. for the dawn prayer but didn't get out of bed immediately as I didn't have a spot to pray. I sat on my bed, contemplating for quite some time:

  1. The cramped room didn't have enough space. 
  2. Last night, I prayed at the boys' room but Faizal, Hadi & Umar had since moved to another room and I didn't know where they were that morning. 
  3. At the previous guesthouses, I had prayed in their dining halls but this lodge's dining hall was still dark, indicating that the porters were probably still asleep inside. 

As the sun was about to rise, I had to make a decision quickly. Left with no other options, I unfurled my prayer mat in the open space beside my room and proceeded to pray even though it was very cold and windy. But as I was praying the wind quietened down to a pleasant breeze and I felt a sense of calm wash over me. When I finished praying, I looked up into the sky - the snow on the mountains seemed to glow in the moonlight - and expressed my gratitude. It was a special moment and I was humbled to have experienced it.

After taking the group photo (We did it! We created a new World Record!), we started our descent. Instead of returning to Deurali or Dovan (our previous stops), the plan was to shoot straight for Bamboo. I didn't realise just how far Bamboo was and didn't anticipate that I would end up hiking for 9 hours that day. Thus, the stage was set for: The Most Mental Day on the Trek.

The Most Mental Day on the Trek is a familiar notion to most hikers. It's pretty self-explanatory; The day you reached your physical and mental limits and the day you have a breakdown of sorts.

I was doing fine when I reached Himalaya for lunch. Tired, but fine. I even told Hadi & Faizal to go ahead without me as they had finished eating and praying while I hadn't. Shirley, Afifza & I departed from Himalaya at 3.00PM. By then, I had done the math and realised (rather belatedly) that I would be reaching Bamboo past sunset. I started panicking as: 1) I had lost my headlamp a day earlier, and 2) I had bad experiences hiking in the dark.

I came across a few hikers from Group 1 who were concerned that I was hiking alone. I tried to assure them that I was fine, though internally I was anything but. I guessed they saw through me as they repeated their concerns and lent me a headlamp. Their stop was Dovan but I had to walk another 1.5 hours to Bamboo. At Dovan, I was relieved to find Adrian waiting for me. We waited for Shirley & Afifza while drinking hot chocolate. When they arrived, we swiftly resumed our journey.

When I looked back on the incident, nothing major happened. Crisis was averted because 1) I met the kind souls from Group 1, and 2) Adrian, our group leader was there to make sure all of us arrived safely. But while walking in the woods that was growing darker and was assuming a more sinister vibe, I grew resentful towards my 3 travelling companions. Yes, I had told them that they should walk ahead but shouldn't they have waited for me once they realised I wouldn't make it to Bamboo before sunset?
Why weren't they more concerned?
Why did people, whom I barely knew, care more about me than my friends?

Further, as a person who prides herself on being independent, I was mad at myself  for getting worked up over the perceived desertion. I could take care of myself just fine, couldn't I?

Tiredness (9 hours of hiking remember?) breeds irrationality. I needed to blame My Most Mental Day on the Trek on something and my friends were convenient targets. That night, at dinner, I didn't sit next to them as per usual and when they tried to converse with me, "Kau okay tak Syada?", I gave them a monosyllabic reply, without making eye contact.

The mature and rational thing to do was to communicate how I felt they had let me down. But deep in each woman's psyche is the (illogical) belief that men should just know. So my friends were left scratching their heads while I grew madder that they were so clueless.

The only good thing about that night was the instant noodles we had for dinner. After eating dhalbat, fried rice and pasta for days (they were quite bland for Malaysian taste buds), the instant noodles were heaven-sent. Everyone had a second helping, some even a third. When we ordered a third pot, our guide looked surprised. He must have thought that Malaysians have an unnatural obsession with instant noodles 😆

Day 6 (Dec 3, 2017): Bamboo to Jhinudanda (1760m)

That morning, my friends and I made up. I admitted to myself that I would probably have done the same if I were in their place. They still didn't know what they did wrong but that day, all four of us walked together. They didn't leave me out of their sight and I no longer said, "Korang jalan la dulu".

We walked for 4 hours to Chhomrong. The stairs were merciless on our knees but we pushed on because we were aiming for some decadent chocolate cakes and coffee. The cake is made famous by an article published in the TIME magazine so we had to give it a try. The jury is still out on this one; some of us thought that the cake lived up to its hype, while others did not.

Afterwards, we hike for one more hour to reach our stop for the day, Jhinudanda. The air at Jhinudanda was festive. Now that the hard hiking days were behind us, everyone was in celebratory mood. That night, the porters, guides and hikers danced to the Nepali folk song, Resham Firiri.

Day 7 (Dec 4, 2017): Jhinudanda - Siwai - Pokhara

It only took us 3 hours to reach Siwai where we would board a bus to take us back to Pokhara. Seven days went by in a blur. Trekking the ABC had been an awesome experience but I had had my fill of adventure and was looking forward to enjoying modern conveniences again (e.g. hot shower and WiFi).

Besides, I needed to recuperate from my achy feet, sore muscles, dry skin and sunburnt face. Further, like other major life experiences, I needed to do some introspection, to make sense of what had just transpired.

[Part 3: Reflections on the journey, coming up next]

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Columbia Expedition 100 - Annapurna Base Camp (Part 1)

The Genesis

After trekking the Gosaikunda last year, my friends and I planned to do the Annapurna Circuit next. But as we were making arrangements, we came across this advert looking for participants to break the World Record (the highest number of participants from a single nation to reach Annapurna Base Camp). So we signed up. At first, there were nine of us who wanted to go but due to other commitments, the number dwindled to four: Faizal, Umar, Hadi & me.

Thus, I dubbed the trip as: 3 guys, 1 girl & an adventure of a lifetime.

Day 1 (Nov 28, 2017): Siwai to Chhomrong (2170m) 

The first day of hiking is always the most exciting. But that elation didn't last long. While most of the expedition participants stopped at Jhinudanda, Group 2 (my group) & Group 5 had to trek for two more hours to reach Chhomrong. The ascent was punishingly steep and we just made it before the sun set. The cold weather made me extra miserable and when Umar asked, "Rindu rumah ke?" I replied with, "You have no idea."

This misery is familiar to all hikers; At some point of every hike, we will ask ourselves: "Why on earth did I sign up for this?!?"

To make matters worse, there was no electricity soon after we checked into our rooms. So we had to unpack, have dinner and go to the toilet in the dark, relying on just our headlamps.

Day 2 (Nov 29, 2017): Chhomrong - Sinuwa (2430m) - Dovan (2500m)

Today's hike was manageable (only 4 hours) and I could sense my spirits lifting. The gushing river and nearby waterfalls provided the perfect soundtrack to our hike. But towards the end of our hike, it began to drizzle. I tried to make light of the situation though we were wet and cold: "Semalam blackout, hari ni hujan. Memang adventure betul ni 😅"

Well, we got what we bargained for. What's an adventure without some inconveniences, detours, and curveballs?

Day 3 (Nov 30, 2017): Dovan to Deurali (3200m)

The days are becoming colder and colder as we get to higher altitudes. After trekking for 5.5 hours, we reached Deurali. Again, Group 2 had to hike the furthest to reach our guesthouse. That night, the temperature dropped to -7℃.

To combat the cold, all of us gathered in the dining hall hours before dinnertime (due to its proximity to the kitchen, it's the warmest place in the entire guesthouse). We huddled together and linked arms to stay warm. We talked, told stories, joked and chitchatted for hours. I think Deurali was when the ice finally broke (metaphorically speaking) and Group 2 members really bonded.

Day 4 (Dec 1, 2017): Deurali - MBC (3700m) - ABC (4130m)

We left Deurali for Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) in the cold, misty morning. The ground was hard and frosty. The mist enveloping the hills made for a spellbinding atmosphere. One hour before reaching MBC, Umar walked slower than usual and made more frequent stops. When asked what was wrong, he told us that he had a headache and that his right vision had become blurry - classic symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Our team leaders advised him to walk even more slowly and take deep breaths. Once we reached MBC, he was told to rest and was given some meds.

After some rest, Umar said that he felt slightly better and was ready to continue the journey. Again, we walked very slowly so as to not aggravate Umar's condition. Halfway into our final stretch, the clouds lifted and we got to witness stunning views of the Annapurna Range. So we stopped to take lots of pictures and marvel at the majestic sights.    

spot the tiny hiker!

After six hours of hiking (Deurali to ABC), we finally arrived at the famed signpost. Mission accomplished. Achievement unlocked. That night, we got to know that many more people from the expedition had succumbed to AMS and hypothermia. That night, Dr. Prathaban was kept busy attending to patients, despite not feeling well himself.

For days earlier, we heard reports that the temperatures at ABC hovered around -12℃ to -15℃. But thankfully, when we were up there, it wasn't that cold. I'm not sure what the exact temperature was but I had no trouble sleeping like I did on previous nights and actually felt snug and warm in my -10℃ sleeping bag.

[Part 2 coming soon; Here comes the descent!]

Friday, November 03, 2017

5 Biruni 2017

After arranging the tables & chairs for SPM, I gathered my 5BR kids in order to return their files and graduation pictures. I took the opportunity to say a few words to them.

Being their class teacher for the past 10 months hasn't been easy.
I reminded them of all the things they did that caused me so much heartache (I even had a list ready hahaha). The list reads:
  1. Masalah ketidakhadiran
  2. Ponteng
  3. Lewat ke sekolah / kelas
  4. Tak nak belajar
  5. Tidur dalam kelas
  6. Main phone dalam kelas
  7. Liat nak bayar yuran PIBG & majalah
  8. Hantar kertas kosong waktu peperiksaan
  9. Palsukan surat dari penjaga
  10. Ditangkap merokok
  11. Tak jaga kebersihan kelas
  12. Meniru waktu peperiksaan

As I rattled off  things from the list, Firdaus tried to apologise, "Teacher, bagi pihak kelas ini, saya nak..."

"Eh jap," I cut him off. "Banyak lagi ni. Biar saya habis luahkan perasan dulu ye" 😆

So the kids listened obediently. I also told them despite all that, I still loved them and want what's best for them.

I told them that there's no shortcut to success. There are no magic pills or magic kismis/raisins. They reap what they sow and they should work hard to realise their dreams. Intelligence is not a fixed trait. If they work hard, they will become smarter.

I know that some of them have complicated family problems but they shouldn't let those problems consume their lives and sabotage their future.

I had also wanted to say: "Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good." (Minor Myers)

To end this post on a lighter note, I scrolled through my facebook and instagram accounts for funny stories about my 5 Biruni kids. Here they are:

Thank you Azahar for making the video below 💗

Friday, October 06, 2017

ASEAN Para Games Kuala Lumpur 2017

I was thirteen when Malaysia hosted the 1998 Commonwealth Games. It was such a big deal then and I was swept away by the excitement. I so wanted to be one of the volunteers but was underage then.

When Malaysia hosted the 29th SEA Games, I thought that it was the perfect opportunity to finally realise my childhood dream. Unfortunately, I didn't receive a callback but for the 9th ASEAN Para Games ―held two weeks after the SEA Games― the stars finally aligned. I was accepted to be one of the liaison officers, in charged of assisting one of the chief classifiers.

What's a chief classifier?

Since Para Games encompass multiple categories that denote different disabilities, classifiers are technical officers tasked with assessing and assigning the athletes to the correct categories (i.e. visual / intellectual / physical impairment). 

My principal (the person I was assigned to) was the chief classifier (CC) for Para Archery. The classification process was conducted prior to the Games, so I was granted two weeks of unrecorded leave. (For more info on the classification process, read this.)

What does a Liaison Officer (LO) do?

Unlike the Wau volunteers with their orange shirts, the LO team wore white. We were supposed to shadow our principals and assist them in any way we can. This assistance can vary from arranging their transport, to clarifying matters with the secretariat, to suggesting good places to get local food, and to becoming impromptu tour guides.

It goes without saying that having good communication skills and a competent command of English is very important. And when certain requests cannot be fulfilled, LOs must know how to say so diplomatically. Most importantly, LOs must be unfailingly polite, even though they're tired or sleepy or  hungry or bored or a combination of these things. (Thus I highly recommend my students to try this in the future, as to develop their soft skills and broaden their experiences.)

Jalan-jalan cari makan

An essential element of showcasing Malaysian Hospitality is feeding your guests with delectable local cuisine. Thus, throughout the Games, we ate out everyday and feasted on Nasi Beryani, Ikan Bakar, Cempedak Goreng, Satay Kajang, Cendol, Nasi Ayam, Naan Cheese, Ayam Tandoori, Ais Krim Durian, etc.

We also went sightseeing to Genting Highlands, Putrajaya and The Royal Museum and did the usual touristy stuff like riding the cable car, shopping, and taking lots of photos. 

What did I make of the experience?

By the end of the first week, I had missed school already *gasp*. I was lucky to have had very nice people to work for and with but I missed my students. I missed driving my car while listening to podcasts. I missed driving, period. It was tiring to ride the LRT/MRT during peak hours when the coaches were packed to the brim.  

We were driven around in this sweet ride, but I missed driving my own car.

But most of all, I missed school because this job, interesting as it was due to its novelty, lacked meaning. In 'Outliers', Malcolm Gladwell had this to say about meaningful work:

"...three things―autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward―are the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately make us happy... It's whether our work fulfills us. If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which one would you take? I'm guessing the former because there is complexity, autonomy and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that's worth more to us than money."

Would I ever do it again? Maybe. When I signed up I wanted to: 1. broaden my experiences, 2. make new acquaintances, and 3. be of service to my country. I think I've achieved all three and repeating them doesn't sound so bad. However, I've scratched that 1998 itch so even if I don't get to do something similar in the future, I'm okay with that too.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

3D2N Trip to Sungai Lembing

“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
— Mark Twain

Kak Safrina & I have been colleagues since 2009. But she's more than my favourite co-worker; She's practically my surrogate sister. So, it's quite surprising that it took us nearly 9 years to go on a trip together.

Work has been challenging unrelentingly stressful this year. So much so that our (hitherto effective) coping mechanism of having lunch together every Friday no longer does the trick. So we started planning a short getaway to get our mojo back. 

Kak Saf came across The Time Capsule Retreat in one of those listecles that name top glamping spots in Malaysia. Besides the attractive pictures of the hobbit hole-like capsules, we were also sold on going when we looked at the activities suggested on the website. 

So off we went to Sungai Lembing!

Day 1 (Aug 29, 2017) 

We checked into our rooms after a 3-hour drive. We decided to go for the white cottage rooms, instead of the made-to-be-instagrammed but rather impractical capsules. For one, the white cottage rooms have en suite bathrooms while the capsules rely on a communal one. Secondly, the capsules are really tiny which makes moving about a challenge. So yeah, in the end, we chose function over form. 

Our first activity there was to visit Lombong Bijih Timah Bawah Tanah Sg. Lembing. The disused tin mine had underground tunnels that diverged into myriad directions. The combined length of the network of tunnels is a mind-boggling 322km (which is more than the distance between KL and Kuantan)!

It was fun riding the old train into the mining shaft and exploring the tunnels while reading interesting nuggets of information displayed intermittently on the side of the tunnels. One particularly interesting story is titled The Legend of the Million Dollar Chamber. I won't spoil the surprise for you. Do visit the so-called El Dorado of the East to find out more. 

We spent that night in front of the TV, cheering the Harimau Muda in their gold-medal match against Thailand.

Day 2 (Aug 30, 2017)

The Rainbow Waterfall tour operator picked us up from our hotel at 6.00 a.m. We had breakfast at Kedai Kopi Salmah before starting our journey proper. We rode the 4x4 for nearly 45 minutes before reaching the trailhead. There's a public toilet there (RM0.30 per entry) as well as Adidas Kampung hiking shoes and walking sticks for rent (RM3.00 and RM0.50 respectively).

Once geared up and ready, we finally began hiking. It took us around 40 minutes to reach the waterfall. The trail is really easy with hardly any steep incline. Once we arrived, we looked for a spot to settle down. There's a big group from Johor that day so it was quite a tight squeeze. But we managed to find a suitable spot to place our belongings before diving into the waters.

At around 9.00 a.m. the rainbow finally made an appearance. It was beautiful. The waterfall certainly lived up to its name. The tour we signed up for cost RM60/pax. It includes a guide, transport & permit. Plus a cup of instant noodles and hot milo served at the waterfall which were devoured ravenously by famished picknickers. Genius.

For all its nascent tourism industry, Sg. Lembing is still a sleepy little town. So by 5.00 p.m., we had nowhere to go and nothing to do. So we drove 40km to Kuantan to have dinner at the famous Ana Ikan Bakar Petai. The food was good and was definitely worth the 45-minute drive. 

Day 3 (Aug 31, 2017)

Our last day was reserved for hiking the nearby Panorama Hill. It's quite a punishing 40-minute trek. But the view (as befits the hill's name) didn't disappoint. After the trek, we rewarded ourselves with ice cream and proceeded to Kedai Kopi Salmah again for breakfast.

Before packing our stuff and checking out of Time Capsule, we made a stop to one of the hanging bridges found in the vicinity. The bridges are used by the locals for everyday purposes and they seem perplexed when tourists get excited and start striking poses and taking pictures.

We left Sg. Lembing at 12.00 p.m. and reached KL 2.5 hours later. Traffic was clear on our side but it was a very slow crawl for kilometres for those heading to the East Coast for the Raya Haji holidays. 

Now that Kak Saf and I are rejuvenated & refreshed by our short getaway, we are ready to face school again excitedly planning our next escapade! 

For a more detailed account, read this.