In 1964 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaya (later Malaysia). My salary was $90 a month. I had my housing paid for. Ninety dollars was sufficient for the volunteers who lived in the ulu (jungle/rural area) but city folk had a hard time living on it – especially after an A&W Root Beer shop opened in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where I lived. Every month I tried to save enough money for one hamburger.
The reader should know that volunteers had trouble getting dates with the local female population, not only because we were poor, but also because westerners “had a reputation.”
I had recently met Mary, a beautiful, talented and wonderful Canadian girl who had just arrived in Malaya as an officer in the Canadian Embassy. With no money, I was trying to find a way that I could call her for a date. Giving up my monthly hamburger wasn’t going to cut it. Well, the problem was solved by Mary calling to see if I would like to go with Sheila (from the New Zealand Embassy) and her to Lord Medway’s house in the jungle to see his tree house. Of course, I was delighted.
One Sunday morning they picked me up, the poor orang puteh (white man), for the one-hour drive to the jungle. Upon arrival, we found a note from Lord Medway saying that he would be back soon and that we should go in and make ourselves at home. We went in and, low and behold, he lived with five siamang monkeys. In the house!! Smell! Smell! No one wanted to sit down – for a reason. Thankfully, the host soon arrived. The conversation was interesting, if difficult. He quickly corrected us by saying that siamangs were not monkeys, they are gibbons, members of the ape family. They looked like monkeys to me.
Lord Medway (Earl of Cranbrook) was an eccentric, probably brilliant, man who taught Zoology at the University. He had written a book entitled Mammals of Borneo. On his property was an enormous tree. I think that it was at least 300 feet high which would be the length of a football field or the height of a building 25-30 stories high. Lord Medway had managed to get a grant to build a ladder almost to the top where there was a platform on one side, probably 20 feet square. Half way up the ladder was a small platform where one could rest before tackling the last part of the climb. This tree house was built to enable Lord Medway to carry out his scientific observations.
Lord Medway led the way and I, being a gentleman, allowed the girls to go us – thank goodness. It was work! The half-way resting platform was necessary. Reaching the top, I had not expected the challenge of getting around the tree from the ladder to the platform. While the gap between the ladder and the platform was only about two feet, it was necessary to hold on to the last rung and swing ones body over the gap onto the platform. The fall would be 25 to 30 stories down to the jungle floor. I looked down and was barely heartened by the fact that there were many branches to impede a fall. Lord Medway made it. The two girls made it. I decided that it was better to risk my life than “chicken out.” I made it.
I remember almost nothing of the hour spent on top of the world. I was frightened out of my mind thinking about the return trip. Coming up, one could see the target platform but going down, one must swing from the platform to the ladder which could not be seen. While I could hear them talking about unimportant minor things such as the different color birds at this altitude – red, yellow and blue, I could care less. I was worrying about something more important – my life. I don’t recall, but I must have worried for the others also – just a little bit. Fear and trembling! When it was time to descend, even Lord Medway realized how dangerous it was, for he used a rope, secured to the tree, to tie around each person before they made the jump into space using feet to search for the ladder. Relieved somewhat, I knew then that the worst thing was that one could be hanging in open space on a rope. Even that was not a happy thought.
I made it on the first try!
To this day, I rejoice that I did not die, either from a fall or from fright.
Several weeks later Mary invited me to go on another adventure, a trek to a waterfall in the jungle. I was not able to go with her this time. She evidently slipped on a rock and fell to the bottom of the falls where her body was found.