Photograph by WeiSuen
From a timeless age and a timeless place, about a timeless beauty and a timeless feeling shared between us.
We all have moments from our lives when we realize that these are the most precious, priceless things in life –
- One’s parents’ love for oneself.
- One’s children’s love for oneself.
- One’s husband’s love from for oneself.
- One’s wife’s love for oneself.
- One’s boyfriend’s love for one self.
- One’s girlfriend’s love for oneself.
- One’s friends’ love for oneself.
- One’s neighbors’ love for oneself.
- One’s office mates’ love for oneself.
- One’s cats’ and dogs’ love for oneself.
- One’s goldfish’s and pet spiders’ love for oneself
- One’s God’s and Goddess’ love for oneself.
- One’s inner demons’ love for oneself.
- And one’s love for oneself too.
An immeasurable thank you to all the original photographers whose works appear here for your contribution in bringing these memories come back to life. Without your photographs, most readers will not know the beauty of the place in this piece of writing – no word can actually relate the true beauty of the mountainous countryside. Please click on the photos to visit the original photographers’ sites)
Photograph by caB.jm
How have you been all this while? God, I have missed you terribly so. For the past what? Not a day goes by when I do not think of you... <snip>
Photograph by Dr Izad
Where do I begin? Many things have changed. Yet some remain the same.
It’s been a long time since we’ve last made contact. Ages. We have literally aged too 🙂 I hope you’ve been keeping well, and this finds you happy and in vibrant health.
I’m writing this in Kundasang, a shanty town nestled at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, two, three hours’ drive away, along a quiet, winding road, from KK. Right now, it’s about 4:00 in the morning.
I suppose if I do try hard enough, I would be able to write to you at a more unearthly hour, from a more unworldly place.
Photograph by Azlyroquai
I arrived here yesterday morning, in a rattling cab, shared with three lovely kadazan-dusun ladies, a premonition of the paradise ahead, no doubt. i sat behind the driver, by the door. The lady who sat beside me, perhaps sensing a tinge of apprehension in a poor, companionless traveler, took it upon herself, which was so kind of her (like all the people I’ve met here so far), to set me at ease. Almost as soon as the cab rattled and chugged off the taxi stand, she started chatting warmly.
She was an animated story-teller whose lively narrations managed to both prevent me from falling asleep and at the same time almost put me to sleep. All the way during the long trip from KK. Many thanks to her, I understood the geographical and historical significance of the magnificent scenery along the way. Beautiful people in a beautiful place, this is as close as I’ve ever been to paradise on Earth (not been off her – yet).
I’ve never been here, nor have I known about this beautiful place, before this very day. So I was entirely unprepared for the treat to come.
Map by Microsoft Corporation
As we turned around the ‘head’ of Sabah, and began our climb into the hills, we passed by a bay of shimmering, azure sea, where frolicking waves glittered in the golden morning sun some 500 feet below us. Then, as we headed inland and left the sea further and further behind us, the folds in the foothills, which before that was rolling gently one over another, started to gather higher and higher, literally reaching out for the sky.
It’s a strange landscape – simultaneously eerie and breathtaking. The hills here are smooth and bald, except for the grass cover that thrives over their otherwise barren surfaces. The montane forest that used to cover these hills had long been gone, ravaged indiscriminately, mercilessly, by man’s insatiable greed.
The mountains here are unlike the lush, jungle draped slopes in our place. Instead of mountains covered by rainforest, here are soaring grass covered mounds, followed by more soaring mounds of grass, and they go on and on forever.
I’ve dreamt of being in places with grass covered mountains like these before. Never for an instance have I realized they actually exist and I will visit one someday.
When the wind blows down upon them, the grass ripple in waves that chase after each other. A sea painted in moving shades of green. Your favorite color and, because of that, mine too.
Photograph by theebh
I learnt from my companion that she comes from a farming family. They grow vegetables on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, and being enterprising enough to move up the value chain, she is now picking up the trade of a vegetable seller. Not yet able to afford her own pickup, she travels by cab. She had gone down to the city earlier this morning to attend to some business matters at the market, and now she is on her way back home. To save on fares, she shares her cab with three others – of whom I was fortunate enough to be one.
Apart from being a farmer and a businesswoman, she is also into local politics and an activist. And, of all things, a soccer player! All rolled into one charming super-human. Think about that, superman can only fly – he wasn’t even a good reporter!
When at long last we reached her stop, which was about one km downhill from here where I write, she invited me to attend their soccer practice session for a tournament, later in the afternoon. I had to decline as I have preparations to be made for our first discussion session tonight. She gave a big, friendly smile as she bid me goodbye.
Photograph by neusted
Kundasang is basically a small, one street town with a bustling vegetable market (you’d love the fresh tomatoes) and some shops. It was pretty busy this morning when we came and there was a large crowd buying vegetable (God knows where all those vegetarians came from in these sparsely populated hills) but by early afternoon the crowd, like the lifting mist, is gone, and all the locals had flocked back to their homes in neighboring hilltop villages.
The last signs of life in town were the peals of laughters, of schoolchildren leaving their classes at 1:00. You can hear them coming from the road. I came down from the hotel just a little bit later than that intending to catch the native lunch-time crowd, but by the time I reached there, the crowd had left. No schoolchildren, nor lunch-time crowd greeted me. Only swirling dust-devils, amusing themselves with pieces of lettuce and spinach, accompanied me as I roamed the empty street. I had a glimpse then of how it must feel to be a ghost in a ghost town.
The hilltop villages, where most of the natives live, are made of clusters of wooden shacks separated by vast tracts of wind-blown fields of tall grass. I would not be exaggerating at all to say that these picturesque villages look like they’ve been plucked right out of the pages of a book of fairy tales.
One visits these villages by buying rides on rickety old vans and rusty buses that, despite their fragile looks, robustly ply little lanes that weave their precocious ways up these mountains. The way uphill is laborious and slow but the way down is exciting (make that ‘exhilarating’). One becomes very much aware of how much one’s life depends on the rattling nuts and bolts that keep the vehicles loosely together.
The van that I rode was empty, and the villages I visited looked deserted from outside the houses. Time stands still in the afternoon in Kundasang.
Photograph by AndyZ5,
Mount Kinabalu herself looms high before me, but for all her majesty, she is more of an imagined presence than a tangible reality. She had not been visible ever since I had been here – elusively covered herself with thick billowing clouds. Nevertheless, the undeniable presence of a goddess is always in the air in these hilltop villages. Which makes me think of you.
I came back to the hotel and to pass the afternoon by, I sat on a knoll under a cluster of pine trees and mused about the size of population here. It has a direct bearing on the medical program that we are working on. If everyone is hiding behind comfortable albeit timeless doors, are we not under-estimating the size of the population here? If there are enough ladies to hold their own soccer tournaments, there must be quite a number of lady soccer teams around. But there doesn’t seem to be enough people around here in the first place, not to mention women, not to mention soccer playing women who probably represent only, oh.. not even 0.5 out of every 100 ladies I know? Either our numbers are wrong, or they must be making full use of the few ladies that they have.
I can just imagine the aunties and grandmas making long passes and flipping backwards to bicycle kick their way to victory!
Photograph from http://sabah-sogood.blogspot.com
Afternoon passed quietly into evening, and there was dinner. During dinner, we were introduced to the local medical team that we are supposed to be working with. They impressed me immediately with their deep sense of commitment and profound knowledge of local conditions and practices. Dinner was followed by a lengthy discussion and presentations. Time flew and when the meeting ended, it was already past midnight.
I went back to my own room, but couldn’t sleep.
Like it had been for all the shanty towns I’ve visited, I feel that there is something about this place I need to connect to and I haven’t yet been able to grasp what it is. I guess there is no word to describe the calling that I feel to get in touch with, and to get beneath the skin of, isolated places like this. Other examples that come to mind are The Island of The Pregnant Maiden, The Mountain Trail My Grandad Used To Ply On Bullock Carts As A Trader, The One Train Station Town Where I (And Your Dad) Studied, My Distant Home In The Foothills With Nice Haunting Presence. Is it the need to uncover some buried history, or is it the desire to document the personalities who make up the small and dwindling urban-migrating communities, or perhaps, if you would entertain a ridiculous thought, is it the longing caused by some kindred spirits dwelling here trying to reach out and touch the one inside me, or even more probably, the other way around?
Staring at the ceiling, then the walls, then the door, I felt the need to escape from the confines of my room.
The chorus of crickets and cicadas greeted me as I stepped out under the porch. The wind blew in chilly gusts and the wee-hours mountain air was sweet and crispy. To a massively polluted city slicker it was a refreshing change, and that is an understatement.
Photograph by Samuel Chan
The moon hid behind the same cloud cover that concealed Mount Kinabalu and the place was in stark darkness. However, a few street lamps line the way down to the town from where the schoolchildren’s laughters came during the day. and guided by their faint light, I would be able to find my way if I’m bent enough to do it.
I considered the prospects and risks of making it downtown. The town is less than 5 minutes walking, or (if I want to get there faster) some fifty feet straight drop, downhill (down-cliff) from here. But the way is dark and lonely, and the road curves a little too much for midnight. From where I stood, I will make a big turn, counter-clockwise, following a single-lane gravel-lined path, past the hotel staff quarters, then follow a steep, straight line until I reach the knoll of pine trees where I checked the population size this afternoon, around which the path turns in a tight bend, again anti-clockwise. Clearing the pine trees, I would be able to see the town underneath and ahead of me. But the path doesn’t make a straight beat for it. Instead, it zig-zags first to the right, then to the left, to skirt around an empty looking rest-house, and from there it’ll be another two hundred meters of steep decline (or fearful dash) before I would be standing on the main street beside the school.
Photograph by Ibrahim Subhan
But the call was very clear, and the presence of the goddess undeniable. As I made my way downhill, I tried to remind myself that I had been in lonelier situations than this.
I could almost hear my heart beating in the darkness, and the only thing that I could recall that had given me a greater sense of loneliness and solitude is watching the still and lifeless plains of the moon through a telescope. It had been told that as some astronauts walk the surface of the moon, they had profound experiences that altered their perception of life in permanent ways – a gentle pat on the shoulder of sorts. Hopefully that’ll only happen on the moon. Hopefully, that won’t happen here. I glanced back to the hotel. It’s going to be very hard to make a dash uphill should I get an unanticipated pat on the shoulder now.
My footsteps ground against the gravel, one solitary crunch after another. After some time, I passed by the staff quarters. A number of lights were still on and I could hear the radio and some voices chatting. I shed off a few pounds of fear. Pressing on, I reached the knoll of pine trees around which the meandering path turned, and the town came into view.
Soon I was strolling alone on the empty main street. I passed by the market stalls where this morning beaming, smiling fair lasses peddled their vegetables to eke their honest, hard-earned living.
Photograph by Dr Izad
Each market stall looks almost like the other, all of them made from what looked like spare planks into individual 10 by 20 feet sheds, all of which are arranged in a single file along the main street. Each stall is divided into two areas of equal sizes: the open front portion where vegetables are displayed, and the covered back portion where, I presume, unloading and packing work takes place. Oh, the vegetables here are all sold in shrink-wrapped packages to keep them clean and fresh. I was impressed with that. In the morning the stalls are brimful of vegetables, and flowers, but now they look like the abandoned wooden crates one often finds at wholesale markets, only larger.
So far no one had patted me on the shoulder yet. So I sauntered on and passed by the school-field where this morning children played their innocent games. They are living the best days of their lives and probably not knowing it.
The school is a single storey, single block primary school with a small field between the main street and itself. Noisy with chattering, laughing and hollering children this morning, a deafening silence has fallen over the schoolyard now.
Photograph by Tuwina
I walked further on and passed by the spot where the friendly lady got down. I regretted for not having accepted her warm and generous offer to forge a friendship. Though I did not mean it, I had returned the warmth and innocence of her small town friendship with the coldness of a harried city slicker’s survive-or-nothing approach to life.
I walked on to the fringes of the town, until I reached the first bend on the highway. Beyond this bend there will only be wild bushes lining the roadsides. Onwards lie only the long road back to the nearest city and the airport.
There, where the main street began, I turned around to face the town and retraced my meandering footsteps with my eyes. How I’ve slowly made my way, one step at a time, through all that emptiness. The empty stalls. The empty school. The empty street. The empty town. The goddess is present in the crispy mountainous air, and she is telling me something that I should have always known.
Standing on the fringes of the ghost town, i saw Kundasang stirring to life in the stillness of the wee morning hours.
Photograph by Jeremy Eades
In the sweet, crispy mountain air, under the streetlamps lining the empty street, over the vacant market stalls, before the silent schoolyard, I saw them…
…radiant visions of fond and warm memories from long, distant pasts rekindled back into life: memories of unending chats on the phone, of threatening mails – gently put (as only you can put them) yet seriously dangerous, of soft twinkling laughters, and of beauty the likes of which I had never seen before nor ever again…
Things had never been the same.
That is why I am writing to you at this unearthly hour from this unworldly place. I know you’ve felt the same way as I do – memories of calling, and talking, and writing the way we used to.
For giving me the best days of my life, I will remember you always, and I pray that you are happy and always will be. May the Goddess bless and be with you forever and ever.
Photograph by Diana