Last month I took a road trip with a teacher from another ETA’s school. She’s the self-proclaimed Kelantan ETA mom. She has us over for dinner, spoils us rotten with love and gifts and attention, and is always happy to lend a hand when we need help. She goes by the name, “Ma.”

I stay the night at her house, and in the morning I take my first bucket shower. Surprisingly pleasant. Ma, her husband, Ba, and I pick up another ETA and set out, equipped with spicy tuna sandwiches for breakfast on the long drive.

We’re off to the Cameron Highlands in the neighboring state of Pahang. The Cameron Highlands are a mountainous region in the middle of peninsular Malaysia. The area’s named after the British surveyor, Sir William Cameron, who came upon them in the late 1800s. He and some other British colonists decided to develop the region as a health resort and agricultural hub.

Cameron Highlands map
The Cameron Highlands are in the center of peninsular Malaysia. They’re in the state of Pahang, a long drive southwest from where I live in Kota Bharu.

We drive and drive through the southern half of Kelantan and into Pahang. We stop for Nasi Kerabu, ice cream, and car snacks along the way. We wind our way through a changing landscape. There’s more green, more hills, even some great gorges spanned by stone bridges. There are few houses, fewer towns, and no gas stations for hours at a time.

The highlands are about 3,600ft to 5,200ft above sea level. Where I live in Kelantan is right at sea level, so the higher altitude makes for famously cooler weather.

We roll down the windows and the air is not scalding. It’s about twenty-degrees Fahrenheit cooler than I’m used to. We turn off the air conditioning and breathe in the fresh wind. We gradually climb higher and higher into the hills and pass acres of greenhouses.

Greenhouses along the way.

It become more developed as we approach the first of the three major towns in the highlands. Cars, buildings, stores, hotels, and apartment complexes sprout from the green hills. Once we arrive, we go cactus shopping and eat the best lamb satay in Malaysia. It rains–the first rain I have seen in months. Parched Kelantan has been rationing water for weeks. Over our evening Tom Yam soup Ba asks provocative questions, and we end up discussing World War II, Russian Literature, and the nature of love.

The next day is bright and blue, with cotton clouds. Thanks to overdevelopment and westernization, I drink my first Starbucks coffee in five months. We drive from where we’re staying in the town of Brinchang to close-by Tanah Rata then wind up a narrow road to the BOH brand tea plantation.

The steep hills of the BOH tea plantation.

Every piece of publicity for the Cameron Highlands has a picture of this tea plantation. It has rolling green hills carpeted with tea bushes. An ocean of green, velvety waves. There’s a deep, human love of greenness. It must remind us of abundance. As I stand there taking it in, a primeval comfort emanates from my bellybutton, telling me “Bring your people here. You will be happy and safe forever.”

The BOH tea plantation vista.

Next we go to a botanical garden, where herbs and flowers and strawberries grow. Families and tourists wander around, looking at teapot sculptures and rabbits and enjoying the rose gardens. We shop at the daily vegetable market. I leave with bags full of strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, and dried fruits.

Plants at the botanical garden.

A few hours later we begin our drive home. We bounce around on the sunny, hilly roads and enjoy classic road trip conversation. At a roadside stand I try “Bird Nest Drink” for the first time. In early evening it starts to rain, and rains so much we can barely see for a long time. We stop once for satay, and twice to pray. The landscape changes, and soon we are home.