Reflections on an impossible road.

By Edmond Lee, Communications, World Vision Malaysia

For 2 days, I was stuck in the back seat of a truck belonging to the Elite 4×4 Search & Rescue Squad as we attempted to reach the most isolated Orang Asli villages in Kelantan on a medical mission. Here are some of my thoughts from the trip.

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Roller coasters.

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I have never liked roller coasters. But right now, I would rather go 5 hours on the world’s most terrifying roller coaster than spend another second slowly traversing these mountain roads. At least roller coasters have basic safety standards.

Pow! Bang! Crash! Every jerk, every twist causes you to be thrown into your fellow passengers or the truck door next to you. Waves of nausea overtake you every time you shudder up and down an uneven hill. When you lean out over a vast hole where the side of the road should be, it’s like staring death in the face. It takes every ounce of energy to stay upright. More than I have sometimes.

I am so glad for these trucks. They are tenacious, taking the teeth-rattling roughness of these roads in their stride. Our driver Chok is no slouch either. The truck fights his every move, but he fights back, muscling it up roads that nearly any other wheeled vehicle would find impossible to navigate.

It always strikes me as absurd that anyone has to travel these roads. But the Orang Asli do. What choice do they have? The maddening geography makes the chances of consistent aid deliveries close to nil. They travel to the Kuala Betis relief centre every day, and every one of them will have to navigate a treacherous path to get there. They will lift their motorcycles over debris. They will climb massive hills. They will cross bridges that don’t even look safe enough to step on.

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The writer is pictured here in orange

They will do it as many times it takes, because their community needs them.

Mud.

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Rain causes it. Children play in it. No one would build a road out of it.

Here though, roads are nothing BUT mud. Mud that can stop a huge 4×4 truck dead in its tracks or cause it to slide and lurch just out of the range of human control. Mud that sloughs off at the slightest provocation, leaving gaping holes and ruts where solid ground should be. Mud that catches your feet in its clutches and refuses to let go without a fight.

If the roads here were JUST hard and bumpy (and they are), maybe the long distances that must be travelled to reach these remote villages would almost be tolerable. The steep hills and sheer slopes are bad enough, but when a truck simply can’t move for the mud, the time needed to get anywhere grows exponentially.

Time. That’s what the Orang Asli don’t have. In the hours it may take a relief convoy to move five feet, how many Orang Asli children will die because of dirty water? Or hunger? Or a preventable illness? We haven’t heard news about any children dying. But again, it would take time for news to reach us. Time we’re spending stuck in place.

I hate mud.

A bridge too far.

When you’re riding a motorcycle, a river or sudden gap can become an insurmountable obstacle. For the Orang Asli who live in the most remote villages, a river is literally the difference between reaching the aid station or turning back empty handed. When people are starving, thirsty, or ill, the latter option is unacceptable.

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Building bridges must come naturally to the Orang Asli. With no real infrastructure to speak of, they have been forced to rely on their own creativity to get over the obstacles nature has set in their path. It’s almost an art form: Strong young men heaving heavy logs down the slopes, grunting in military-like unison. Others float more logs down the gentle currents of the river, swinging them against said currents to put them into position.

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They are glad for any assistance you can give them. They accept sturdy ropes and metal ties gratefully; another flood could wash their hard work down the river, so any security is welcome. A hard, heavy axe and a truck winch makes short work of felling trees.

As the work continues, we are told that there are over a dozen villages across the river, with more than 2,000 people. I’m sure there are actually far more than that. But even if each village sent a representative to Kuala Betis, how many bags of aid could each of them possibly bring back? Two? Three, maybe? That’s hardly enough, but it’s better than nothing at all. Some will walk for three days to get a few bags of food or water. They will walk three days to get back. Rinse and repeat.

And what about the children who need to go to school? There are few good schools near the villages so they have to attend school in Gua Musang or go out of state. And what if they get seriously ill? There aren’t enough good doctors and the better hospitals are in town. More long distances. More treacherous paths. More bridges to be built.

Speaking of which, it has taken more than two hours to finish a rickety bridge that just barely supports the weight of three trucks. It’s going to be a long day.

Kg.Tohoi

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Kg. Tohoi is almost idyllic. Nestled in among the mountains and shrouded by fog, it feels like a postcard. The other trucks have moved on to the next village to delivery some relief goods, and I am here with Dr. Rashidi as we examine the village chief. I feel inadequate as a writer to say that I never got his name.

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He has a variety of complaints. His wrist is in pain, and his legs are weak. During the flooding, he had to be carried to safety because he can barely walk. I do not hear the diagnosis. I’m glad journalism isn’t my current career.

Dr. Rashidi examines the whole family. He is disturbed by their heartbeats. Something is irregular. He checks peculiar rashes inside a child’s ear. They are red and angry-looking. He borrows my flashlight to look down a girl’s throat. His concern mounts. There is clearly some sort of major health issue facing the community. He doesn’t have any medication on hand, but it’s obvious that he wants to come back here. They need medical help badly.

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Suddenly, a drop of rain falls from the sky. Oh no. This is not good. The worse the rain gets, the worse the roads will be. We come here to save people, but are we the ones who will need saving? The trucks arrive. We rush for them. We need to get on the road now before it’s too late. There are a few more trucks with us. More things that could go wrong. We’re off.

When the convoy makes it back to the makeshift bridge, we find to our dismay that it has been washed away by a strong current. The rain is still coming down, the sky is darkening, and it’s just not safe to go any further. We’re stuck.

Stranded.

When you’re cold, damp and hungry in the middle of the jungle, a cup of instant noodles is a tasty treat. A tent stretched across the tops of the trucks isn’t a house, but you’ll take any shelter you can get. The inside of a truck is too cramped for sleeping, but… well, you get the picture. When you’re stranded out here, making do is a requirement.

The career adventurers in our group are cavalier about the whole thing. They’ve been in worse fixes than this. Like earlier on, when we were trying to beat the rain back to the bridge. Water was splashing across the road, turning it into a waterfall. Robert, a bulky man who rides a souped-up motorcycle, was stuck in the middle of the deluge, the back wheel of his bike slipping out from under him. We had to use ropes to pull him to safety. A night in the woods is a walk in the park.

I’m not feeling the same way. I haven’t been at my best all trip long, but this situation is the nadir for me. I am physically and mentally exhausted. Crammed into the back seat of a stuffy truck with colleague Dawn, who takes up two thirds of the back seat, I get no sleep at all. I can hear the others chattering outside as they watch over the fire they built. I wish I could share their enthusiasm.

There are two female colleagues with me on this journey, and they’re both doing better than I am. Dawn in particular. She is a small woman, but she has thrown herself into every situation with brio and enthusiasm. She has a deep faith in God, and it’s not uncommon to hear her uttering words of prayer in dangerous situations. She is a comforting presence to have around.

Once again, my thoughts drift to the Orang Asli who travel these roads for days to reach help. When they can’t find shelter, where do they sleep? Do they lie out under the trees, exposed to the elements? Are they accosted by wild animals? Actually, are there wild animals out here?

Suddenly, I’m glad for this cramped, stale truck.

Plan B.

When you’re stuck at a bridge that you can’t cross, you need a Plan B. When you’re stuck on the other side of a bridge that isn’t there at all, you need a Plan B.

This whole trip was defined by Plan B. Some of the absolute worst routes we took came about because the shortest possible paths weren’t available to us. And sometimes, the best moments came about because our first plan didn’t work.

This brings us back to the bridge that was swept away. We had every intention of repairing it, and in fact, most sections of it were completely intact. The ropes had saved them from floating off entirely, and we were able to pull them into position.

But this process was too long and cumbersome compared to Plan B: The water was shallow enough. Why not just set up a winch on the other side of the river and use it to guide the trucks through the water? They are built for river crossings after all. The bridge was a necessity for the Orang Asli, but we had to get ourselves unstuck first.

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And wouldn’t you know it, the alternative plan turned out to be the best one. Seeing the trucks splash through the river, water gushing from the wheel wells, was a spectacular moment that lifted the spirits of everyone who experienced it. Except for the occupant of truck 279. It stalled midway through the crossing.

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But we made it. While we attempted to get truck 279 fixed, we turned around and saw the Orang Asli who had gathered nearby… busy fixing the broken bridge.

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We had helped to extricate the logs and secure them, but the speed with which they pulled the assembly back together was stunning. They are architects and builders of the highest order. Soon, motorcycles were driving over the bridge like it was never gone. Will it stand up to another flood? Probably not, but never doubt they have a Plan B.
We took another detour back to Kuala Betis. It was among the worst terrain we had ever seen. Oh well. It’s good to be back.

Epilogue.

This was always going to be tricky to write. It’s hard to compress so much into so few pages. (At 8, I think I’m pushing it). And it’s even harder to end it, because everything I’ve talked about is still going on. The health problems, the impossible roads, the bridges. The Elite 4×4 team is still out there, helping the Orang Asli communities. The relief efforts may be winding down a little in other parts of the country, but here, they’re just getting started.

Do me one favour: Don’t forget about the Orang Asli. These people are resilient and ingenious. And they need you. They need all of us. It will be hard, but nothing is impossible.

If you’d like to contribute back to the rebuilding of communities and lives, please consider and give here : https://www.worldvision.com.my/donations/emergency-relief-fund