When: March, 2016
Where: Cameron Highlands: a tourist destination on the Malaysian peninsula known for its majestic tea plantations and trekking in the nearby village of Tanah Rata.
I show up in Tanah Rata on my 4th day in Asia. It’s raining. But I’ve been on a bus all day and I’m excited for my first hike in the Asian jungle. So I look around for some information on trekking.
I quickly find a hostel with a friendly owner. The Owner points to the trail map and recommends a few half-day routes. The trails are numbered 1 through 14. Next to the map is posted a warning to all guests of the hostel. It says, in no uncertain terms, to avoid Trail 9, or at least avoid going alone, due to recent muggings. Intrigued, I ask for details, and he tells me that just yesterday, another mugging occurred on the trail. It’s been happening sporadically for years now. At a certain bend in the trail, a hiker will come upon a dark-skinned Malaysian man with bloodshot eyes. The Malaysian man always says the same thing: “Give me ringit [Malaysian currency].” And he always has a machete. The Owner seems a little worked up over the whole thing. “It’s been happening for years. It’s bad for business! I’m starting to think the police know who he is.” I accept a free trail map from the Owner and assure him that I will be avoiding Trail 9 and checking out Trail 4.
Trail 4 is flat and well-trodden, and I have no trouble following it until I reach a clearing with a small schoolhouse and a playground. Past the clearing, the trail diverges at a stream. Clearly, the main trail crosses the stream, but a single-track side trail turns left uphill and hugs the side of the stream. I look upstream and see a picturesque footbridge and a 3-foot waterfall (pictured below), so I decide to check it out.
So I follow the side trail upstream. Thirty seconds later I reach a red and blue footbridge and see that crossing is prohibited — I assume so from the wooden planks blocking the entrance. I turn around and begin downhill, and that’s when I notice a man approaching from the trail below.
Body language is strong stuff, and one glance at this guy gave me a weird vibe. Middle-aged with a belly, he wasn’t really hiking, wasn’t even walking, but more sauntering up the trail as one might walk from a restaurant back to their car. He looked up at me and, with a Malaysian accent, called out, “Hello! Where are you from?”
I stop walking at this point. Again, I had just been warned about a serial mugger, it was my 4th day in Asia, and though I didn’t panic, I do recall analyzing a few things at in the following few seconds:
- The man is wearing a safari-style travel vest with 6 large front pockets.
- He seems to be a local, which means he knows this trail is closed a mere 15 feet behind me.
- He is trying to converse with me (“America? Great! What is your name?”) while slowly — very slowly — approaching me on the trail.
- He is being overly friendly.
- With the closed bridge behind me, the river below, and a steep hillside above, there is nowhere to run.
It’s definitely 50/50 that I’m about to get mugged.
“Come here, come here!” The man shouts down to me. I’ve been inching down the trail but now I approach to within about 10 feet and stop entirely. “Come closer,” he says. “I want to show you something.” He reaches into one of his vest pockets.
…Up to this point, his demeanor has been relaxed and friendly, but as he reaches into his vest, I imagine him transforming as he displays the blade, his smile fading to a menacing scowl, and the words: “Give me ringit.”
I am now 75% I’m about to get mugged.
And so, as the man reaches into his vest, still blocking the trail before me, I expect the knife, and time slows down. And before this moment of truth, I yet again analyze this totally bizarre situation, and instinctively I know what I must do next. And so, in that split second, I know that I if I see a knife, I will take one step forward with my left foot, and with my right foot I will drop-kick this motherfucker in the chest, and he will plummet backwards into the river below.
And then, from his vest pocket, the man removes… a flower.
“This is citronella.” He holds it up. “Smell it!”
Ah, the irony. He might as well have pulled out one of those prank pistols where you pull the trigger and out comes a peace flag.
And so, with a bit of relief but a lot more confusion, I finally get close enough to smell the citronella, right from the man’s hand. I nod my approval. He smiles and scans the side of the trail for more herbs. As he bends down to pick one, I take the opportunity to step around him and situate myself downhill. I smell this second herb at his insistence, and again nod my approval, but I am edging my way downtrail with what I hope is a totally not awkward i’m-getting-the-hell-out-here vibe. The man senses my escape and makes his pitch: “I am a guide! Give me money. Give me money.”
Aha! So he is asking for money! But… in the middle of the fucking jungle! Who does that? And, is he really a guide? I tell him that I could perhaps be interested in a tour tomorrow, and I ask where to find his tourism office. “I will be outside the Starbucks,” he says.
When I make it back to the safety of town, I return to the hostel Owner and tell him my tale. At first he’s alarmed and asks me to describe the man, but he soon realizes that this man fits the description of Martin, a former wilderness guide who lost his job and had some personal problems that took him on a downward spiral. He was now known in Tanah Rata as the town eccentric.l
He was no Mugger. Just a freelance guide giving new definition to the term “high pressure sales.”
Days later, after I’d completed most of the trails in Tanah Rata, I set off for Trail 9, grabbed a big stick, said my Yolos, and walked the trail. It was the most difficult trail in town. I was not mugged.