I recently entered a writing competition. I didn’t win. I didn’t even get short-listed. Which I’m ok with. Either way I thought I’d share the story with you. It’s a bit wordier than my usual blog post so I hope you enjoy it!
Dana awoke with a jolt and her eyes instinctively snapped open. Her vest was drenched in sweat. The bed-sheet was tangled in her legs and she was tightly clutching the pillow. She let out a long steady breath, reassured that she was awake and slowly unfurled her grip around the pillow.
She’d had the dream again. In the dream, Dana is stuck in a maze.
There is no entrance, no exit and dark green hedges looming high into the night sky above, surrounding her at every turn.
Until recently even a glimmer of escape had alluded her. But lately the end had seemed nearer, it felt like it was in reach, but when escape appeared imminent, Dana would wake up.
Dana rolled over towards the bedside table and slowly blinked through blurred vision to reveal the time on the clock. 06:30. Only half an hour before the expedition set off. With butterflies in her stomach, she hurriedly made her way to the bathroom.
She struggled with the tap as the water inconsistently spurted out onto the cracked basin. The water was tepid, had a slight tinge of rust and a metallic odour to it. She held her breath, closed her mouth and splashed her face with the grimy looking liquid. She grabbed a bottle of water from the floor to clean her teeth with and drank the last remaining drops.
The air hung heavy in the room and there was no breeze coming from the open window. The humidity of South East Asia’s climate meant she felt constantly dirty, although since arriving in Borneo the air did seem slightly cleaner than in Bangkok.
She swapped the damp vest for a fresh one, knowing as soon as she stepped outside, it would be wet with sweat again. She quickly sprayed sun cream over any exposed skin and wrestled her thick dark mass of frizzy hair into a ponytail.
Glancing out of the window whilst gathering up the strewn contents of her backpack, she took a moment to take in the view. Cloudless azure sky with Mount Trusmadi standing tall in the distance, like a proud emerald green goddess. Miles of untouched virgin rainforest stretching up to its peak, concealing an expanse of sheer granite rock face underneath.
It was quite a sight to behold.
Dana always wanted to quit her boring job and attempt an adventurous life somewhere exotic, but had never quite found the courage to break free from the norm.
In fact, this decision had been made for her, when her boyfriend decided to trade her in for a younger model and she was made redundant from a dull and poorly paid job, all in the same week.
So, instead of wallowing in self-pity and crying about being job-less, homeless and unwanted, Dana had sold everything of value in her flat and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. She had at least six months worth of spending money and hoped she would find herself, a job or a purpose, in which she might find a little bit of happiness.
It had been two months since she had left her disappointing and dim life behind. Dana was still job-less and homeless, but she had seen some amazing sights and met some interesting people. She had not however expected to have ended up in Borneo. The place sounded like it was full of insects and other nasty things biologically designed to kill you.
But after a chance meeting with a stranger, coupled with a severe case of malaria, Dana had been gifted a plane ticket to Kota Kinabalu and was about to embark upon the biggest adventure life had thrown at her yet.
And it was all because of Katia.
Katia was everything that Dana wished she could be; she had long sandy coloured hair, slightly bleached from overexposure to the sun. Fluent in 4 languages, with a tanned freckled complexion, sage green eyes and an infectious laugh. She was effortlessly beautiful.
The day they met, Dana had been sitting in a bar in Bangkok reading a book, when Katia breezed in with a bronzed handsome young male at her heels. Katia did not seem interested in the drink he offered to buy or in the conversation he was desperately trying to engage her in. Katia had then turned and faced the room, scanning for someone she recognised.
Her eyes fixed upon Dana’s. Dana had embarrassingly been staring and immediately flicked her eyes back down to the book. Then she heard Katia exclaim,
“Oh there you are!”
Dana assumed she had seen someone familiar. Instead, when she came and sat down at her table, Dana felt instantly awkward and tongue-tied. When she looked up, Katia’s face was beaming down at her and she whispered,
“Just go with it!”
Katia then turned back to the dejected male at the bar and waved him off,
“Catch you later!” she said nonchalantly and turned back to Dana.
“Thanks for that, he’s been bugging me for over an hour, a tough one to shake off! I owe you a drink”.
Her accent was distinctively Scandinavian, but her English was word-perfect. Dana cleared her throat and furtively shook her head;
“No, no it’s fine, I’m fine, thank you.”
Katia scrunched up her nose in disagreement.
“I insist! What can I get you? A beer?”
Dana glanced at her watch. It was only 4pm, far too early for alcohol. She had only just finished a refreshing cup of local tea, so wasn’t thirsty, but before she could protest, Katia had got up and had already ordered two bottles of beer.
“It’s beer o’clock right?” said Katia playfully, setting the ice-cold drinks on the table and taking a seat.
Dana felt her cheeks flush a slightly deeper shade of pink than normal. Katia sensed Dana’s awkwardness;
“Oh I’m sorry, how rude. I’m Katia.”
She stuck her hand out across the table for Dana to shake. Dana reluctantly took it. Katia’s hand was delicate and cool despite the soaring temperatures and she was immediately aware of how sweaty her own palms were.
“What are you reading?” She enquired inquisitively. When she caught sight of the cover she exclaimed,
“Oh I love Hitchhiker’s! The answer is forty two right?!” Katia chuckled to herself, lifted the book from the table and began leafing through the pages excitedly.
And that was the start of a short but intense friendship. Dana had no idea why Katia chose to sit at her table that day, or why she spent so much time with her in the days after. Their meeting was complete chance, but Dana felt that maybe fate had a little bit to do with it as well.
Dana had ended up in Bangkok because that was the only place she recognised in the battered travel guide she’d picked up in a backstreet bookshop. Before buying a one-way ticket to Thailand, at the age of twenty five she’d only ever been as far as France. Not really what you would call the adventurous type, in fact she was quite the opposite.
Her (now ex) boyfriend had so eloquently highlighted during their breakup, that she was in dire need of a personality. Dana was beige. She was plain and made an effort to remain that way. There was no desire to stand out or be particularly interesting. Life was easier that way. She wasn’t bothered by strangers and rarely was exposed to precarious situations.
This trip was set to change all that.
Deep down she wanted to push her boundaries and limits, but fear of the unknown had held her back. Since arriving in Bangkok she’d spent most of her time in old Thai cafes, under parasols on beaches, reading bargain books or attending late night cooking classes. Not really the thrilling adventure she’d originally had in mind.
The day she met Katia, she had read of a place called the ‘Bookshop Bar’. It had walls lined with bookshelves, some were suspended in the air above the customers, with the illusion that the books were falling out. It felt like she had tumbled down the rabbit hole and been transported to Wonderland. Despite the quirkiness and originality of the decor, it was actually a rather trendy and popular cocktail bar, the sort of place Dana liked to steer clear of.
Nevertheless, there were plenty of books to admire and even a quiet place in the corner to sit and go unnoticed, which of course hadn’t quite gone to plan.
After their introduction, Dana and Katia spent the rest of the evening effortlessly chatting and getting to know each other. Dana felt at ease in Katia’s presence, a feeling that Dana found was a rarity with others. Katia was interested in Dana’s love for books and passion for cooking.
Katia’s mother had been a librarian and her father an antiques dealer. They travelled a lot during her childhood with her father’s work, mainly Europe and America. She said she always had a book in her backpack and a list of unusual antiquities she wanted to find.
Katia was the eldest of her siblings and first in line to take over her father’s antique shop once he retired. But Katia wanted to spend a year seeing more of the world before she took on the family business. She was a fearless adventurer but also a loyal daughter.
Dana never knew her own father and wasn’t particularly close to her mother. Dana didn’t have any siblings and a handful of acquaintances. She had little to go home for. Katia said she wished she could be that free, to do what she wanted with her life with no responsibilities. But Dana felt that her misguided freedom was more of a burden, she had no direction, no talent, no goals.
In essence, each girl wished they were living the others life.
That night they talked for hours, drank beer, sang karaoke and danced on tables. Dana had never had so much fun. Needless to say they both got slightly tipsy that night.
When Dana awoke in her bed the next morning, Katia was asleep by her side but neither of them were under the mosquito net which immediately made her feel uneasy.
She could not remember getting back to her room, she was not comfortable with a stranger sharing her bed and she always slept under her net. She shook her head in disbelief, what the hell happened? This was not like her. Katia stirred and rubbed her eyes open.
“Urrghh, I should’ve listened to you, the mosquitoes have had a feast on me last night!”.
Indeed they had. Her legs were covered in bumps, but miraculously Dana had come away unscathed. Odd, considering she was normally sporting an array of angry looking bites herself.
“I have just the stuff for that.” Dana said, already rummaging through her bag to find the anti-itch balm she’d purchased from a street vendor a few days before. The stuff smelt awful and she was convinced the old woman who sold it said it had squished beetle brain in it, but it seemed to work so she didn’t care.
Within a week, Dana and Katia had become inseparable. Katia had convinced Dana to go wake-boarding in Lake Taco and river-boat riding down the canals. They visited temples and museums as well as drinking cocktails and laughing till their faces hurt. She had never had as much fun in her entire life than she’d had with Katia this past week.
Katia was so full of energy and life, but she was now a shadow of her former self. Katia lay shivering on the bed, beads of sweat dripping off her forehead and a pained look on her face.
“You’re going to have to take me to the hospital. I think I might have malaria.”
Dana’s heart sank, she’d thought as much. Having read up on malaria before her trip, if left untreated, it could lead to death. The risk in Bangkok was particularly low, but Katia had been travelling for months visiting several different countries.
Dana suddenly felt a pang of guilt and remembered back to the night they met, when neither of them slept underneath the mosquito net. As if reading her mind Katia croaked,
“You know I don’t bother with malaria tablets and I often don’t sleep under a net. I could’ve caught it at any point, it is not your fault, it’s mine. I guess I just never thought I’d get it.”
The next few hours were painstakingly long and arduous. Waiting in a Bangkok hospital to be seen by a doctor seemed to take forever.
Finally after five hours, Katia was given a bed and treatment via an intravenous drip. Dana watched her drift off into a drug induced sleep.
A nurse caught Dana as she went to get some air and asked if Katia had any family that they could call. Dana felt helpless. She didn’t know the names of Katia’s parents or her siblings. What if she were to die? The last person Katia would see would be her. Plain old Dana, she did not feel worthy of such a task.
Dana poured herself a cup of cold water from the hallway dispenser and went back to Katia’s bedside. She looked pale, with a yellowy tint to her skin. She stirred when Dana sat down.
“Dana?” Katia looked up and smiled weakly when Dana took her hand in hers. It was as delicate and cool as the first time they met.
“I’m here.” Dana said, her voice had a slight quiver to it. Katia softly squeezed Dana’s hand.
“We meet people everyday, most people come and go, but others stay for a reason. I’m glad you stayed.” Katia’s voice was frail and raspy.
“I am glad I met you Dana. You have taught me how to be a better person, more than you could ever know. I feel like I’ve known you my whole life.” She paused.
“I want you to do something for me, I’m too ill now to do it myself.” Dana nodded, tears beginning to fill her eyes. Katia continued;
“I booked myself onto a two day trip, to climb Mount Trusmadi in Borneo. It’s in three days time. I want you to go. I want you to climb the mountain for me.” She faintly smiled and a little sparkle returned to Katia’s eyes momentarily.
“It’s just a small gesture. But I think it will do you good. I promise, when you return I’ll be fighting fit and ready for our next adventure together.”
Dana didn’t know what to say, her voice was trapped behind her sadness for Katia and fear for herself. She couldn’t climb a mountain? She was out of breath climbing up a flight of stairs.
“Will you do it for me?” Katia’s voice sounded like a small child’s, it was vulnerable.
“Of course.” Dana whispered, just before Katia closed her eyes and slipped off into sleep again. She couldn’t let Katia down, she’d promised.
But a mountain? Really?
Two days later, Dana caught a plane to Kota Kinabalu and after a long, hot three hour bus ride down the dusty roads of Borneo, Dana arrived at the Trus Madi Forest Reserve. It was late when she signed for the room, but she was able to grab some hot water for some Raman noodles before she headed to bed.
The next morning, as she fumbled with the laces on her newly purchased hiking boots, she thought about how much her life had changed in the past few months.
She would have never contemplated taking on such a challenge, so unprepared. She was terrified, but at the same time, immensely energised. It was almost impossible to contemplate the tough task ahead.
Jogging down to the mountain entrance where the other climbers began to gather, she took a moment to absorb the surroundings.
A huge canopy of rainforest was draped over them like a lush green blanket. On the ground were ferns and tropical flowers that she’d never seen before. It smelt damp and earthy, but there was also a sweet fragrance coming from the local flora.
It was peaceful but not necessarily quiet. In the distance, there were calls from a group of macaques excitedly chattering away; above their heads a flurry of rustling leaves revealed two brightly coloured birds settling on a branch, inquisitively peering down at them. Nearby, a stream trickled over moss covered stones and a sole dragonfly rested for a moment on a white lotus petal.
Dana was overwhelmed by the raw beauty of nature surrounding her, it truly was amazing.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the tour leader announcing they were setting off in five minutes. This was followed by the nervous mutterings of fellow climbers, all no doubt apprehensive about what lay ahead.
The guides began handing out passes and bottles of water and one gave a brief safety talk. It all began to feel very real.
Dana was about to climb a mountain. As long as her legs did not give out, if she didn’t dehydrate or slip and fall to her death on the steep rocks, she might just make it. As long as she found her way out of the towering rainforest maze, Dana could live to tell this unusual tale.
She inhaled one last breath as the old Dana. She knew if she returned from this enduring challenge, she would not be the same person. But she didn’t want to be her old self anymore. She finally wanted to prove to herself, Katia and everyone who ever doubted her, that she was no longer afraid.
After all this time spent avoiding life, she was ready to embrace it.
Dana and her fellow climbers made a few final adjustments to their backpacks, took a last minute sip of water and then began the enduring climb up the mountain.
Finally, Dana’s adventure had begun.