Friday, April 06, 2007

Sweatin' to the Oldies in Borneo

Written by Lynn

Kuala Lumpur, affectionately known as KL, is the capital city of Malaysia, and is located on the peninsular mainland. For us it was a convenient spot to hook back up again, me coming from Jakarta and Gilles from the Palau Perhentian. As for what there is to see and do in KL, the guidebook recommends, of course, the Petronas Twin Towers (tallest twin towers in the world, the top floor being 1273 feet off the ground). KL also has one of the top 10 largest shopping malls in the world (watch out West Edmonton!) containing the biggest Border's bookstore ever built. There's the usual assortment of museums and architecture, but nothing to really grab our attention. So after a few days of wandering around the markets in Chinatown where we were staying, we headed out to Borneo.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, in terms of land mass. It is divided up between the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Borneo is actually an antiquitated term from the time of Dutch colonial rule and is known as Khalimantan for Indonesians and Western Malaysia for those sitting in KL. Borneo is land that is unbelievably rich in biodiversity, which is why it held such an interest for me. The island was originally made up of a mixture of dipterocarp forests, peat bogs and mangrove swamps. It contains the only remaining natural habitat for the endangered Bornean Orangutan, as well as a list of endangered plants and animals that includes, but is not limited to, the following: Sumatran Rhinocerous, Bornean Clouded Leopard, the Borneo shark, the pygmy elephant and 3 species of pitcher plants (over 30 of the world's 76 known species of pitcher plants are found on this island).

Interestingly, the dipterocarp trees, which form the majority of the canopy forests in Borneo, have evolved to synchronize their reproduction with the 4 year cycle of El Nino. In a process called "masting" the dipterocarp trees will burst into fruit on El Nino years, many trees producing over 4,000,000 blooms. The cyclical increase in food sees a corresponding increase in indigenous animal populations, as 96% of the fruit produced falls to the ground to provide ready nutrients.

Presently Borneo's landscape is being denuded by aggressive logging, which has sees one half of the world's annual tropical timber production being produced here. Presently, Khalimantan produces more tropical lumber than Latin America and Africa combined. 56% of the lowland forests no longer exist. In 1991 the average acre of dipterocarp forests produced 175 pounds of seeds. In 1998 this had dropped dramatically to a mere 16.5 pounds per acre, even though 1998 was a major El Nino year. The lack of forest canopy, which allows the undergrowth to dry out, has dramatically increased the risk of forest fires, and in 1998 an area bigger than Costa Rica burned to the ground, taking with it an estimated 9 billion dollars of forest products. If the rate of logging continues, the World Bank estimates that the lowland forests of Khalimantan will be completely gone by 2015.

This has placed great time pressure on scientists studying the area. Since 1996 over 360 new species were discovered in Borneo, and in an 18 month period from June 2005 until December 2006, 52 new plants and animals were identified by the World Wildlife Fund on the island, an unheard of feat. While we were there it was decided through DNA testing that the Clouded Leopard found on the island was genetically distinct from the one on mainland Asia.

I was hoping to spend some time with a Dr. Birute Galdikas, who has been studying orangutans in Tanjung Puting Reserve since 1971, meaning she is responsible for some of the lengthiest continuous research on a mammalian species. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Dr. Galdikas through some people I had met at the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta, Cindy and Dom. Unfortunately for me, Dr. Galdikas was in Los Angeles for a few months during the time I was going to be in the area.

So my dream of hanging with the orangutans shattered, I was unwilling to give up the opportunity to go to Borneo when we were SO close. Unfortunately, time was limited, but Gilles agreed to be dragged along on a brief foray to the island. We flew into Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province of Malaysia. Kuching, in bahasa Malaysia, means "cat", and they are everywhere in this city. Cat statues adorn various parks and cat fountains litter the sidewalks. There is even a cat museum, which Gilles refused to visit on the grounds that until he had a subscription to "Cat Fancy" he wouldn't be caught dead at something like that.

Sarawak was actually ruled for 100 years as a personal fiefdom of the Brooke family after being rewarded to James Brooke in 1841. It was given as a reward for the help Mr. Brooke had given to the Sultan of Brunei to prevent an uprising in the region. In 1941 Sarawak was invaded by Japanese forces and was held for 3 years and 8 months until their defeat. The third "white rajah", Sir Charles Vinyar Brooke, ceded Sarawak to the British crown at this point and it remained a colony until 1963 when Malaysia was formed.

While here we took the opportunity to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village. At the village were 7 different types of long houses, which represented the traditional way of living for the major tribes that reside on the island. Borneo, as well has having immense ecological diversity, also has 30 distinct ethnic groups, some containing no more than 100 living individuals at the present time. Amongst the ethnic groups is the Iban, one of the most well known tribes of head hunters. Amongst this tribe a young man would have to obtain the head of a revered enemy prior to being allowed to marry. Once the head was taken and ritually displayed, the young man would get a tattoo on his hand and wrist, showing to all his warrior status.

In addition to the traditional long houses, there was an area set aside to demonstrate a Chinese farm that would have been common in the late 1800's on the island. Here a young lady demonstrated to us the extraction of the jelly like saliva of the swiftlet bird from their nests. This saliva, which is formed into a small elliptical patty, is some of the most expensive animal product consumed by humans, and sells for about 52€ for 32 ounces. It is used to make the traditional chinese dish of bird's nest soup. The soup is supposedly good for improving digestion, raising libido, relieving asthmatics and a whole host of other problems. The nests are gathered from off of small niches set high up on cave walls in the area. Gatherers put themselves at considerable risk by climbing rickety bamboo ladders hundreds of feet off the ground to get them. Supposedly the gatherers are supposed to take only old nests, that the fledglings have already left, but given the high prices many are collected randomly, causing a recent decline in the swiftlet population.

After wandering through the various long houses and getting demonstrations of traditional crafting, such as the making of blowdarts and basket weaving, we sat down in the theatre to enjoy a 45 minute long show that combined the various traditional dances from the major tribal groups. Afterwards we made the short walk out the beach of the nearby Holiday Inn to enjoy a little R'n'R before heading back to Kuching.

The next thing we did was catch a boat out to the isolated Bako National Park. This is Sarawak oldest national park, and is made up of a mere 27 square kilometres, and can be reached only by sea. There are a few cabins to stay in and 16 well maintained walking trails varying from 2 kilometres to 15 kilometres long. This park (for the fans out there) was the final pit stop of "The Amazing Race 1". Here you can see the endangered probiscus monkey (Gilles thinks they look like drunk, old men passed out on Parliment Hill, so wasn't inclined to really enjoy photographing them), bearded pigs, tree vipers, monitor lizards and DOZENS of macaque monkeys.

These guys, while incredibly cute on first glance, would be holy terrors to live with. They are fast, intelligent and numerous. Put anything edible down for an instant and it is gone. Some of the older monkeys are bold enough to try and grab things right out of your hand. We saw a group of them manage to rip open an upper window vent in someone's cabin, get into their kitchen, and make off with pretty much all the edible food they could find. Another monkey got locked in a neighbour's cabin when a staff member kindly closed a window they had left open. The poor trapped monkey, a young one by the look of it, was throwing himself at the window trying to get to the rest of his group, which was sitting on the porch. The resulting mess of monkey pee and less nice solid substances required a second cabin cleaning for the poor staff members, who first had to fend off angry monkeys with broomsticks from the porch.

While here for 3 days we spent several hours a day hiking the trails on the look out for probiscus monkeys and other more common animals. But it was HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT!!! I think this may have been the most humid place I have ever visited in my life (my expectations for what I can survive in terms of heat and humidity are constantly being tested on this trip). You would literally be soaked with sweat within 20 minutes of being outside. A true rain forest, there was also monster rain storms most nights, making your trip through the jungle muddy and slippery along with the heat. Still, it was an interesting side trip. My only regret, those orangutans.................

Soon it was back to KL. Our reason for returning so quickly................Sepang, Formula 1.

Mucking Diving Heaven

Written by Lynn

Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands and stretches almost 5000 kilometres from one tip of the archiepeligo to the other. In total Indonesia has over 80,000 kilometres of coast line, which is equal to about 1/3 of the world's circumference. Off the coasts of the Indonesian islands the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Ocean converge, creating a vast melting pot of marine life feeding on the nutrients carried in by these warm waters. In the seas surrounding the islands, over 1220 species of fish and a staggering 600 species of coral (there are only 400 types found in the enormous Great Barrier Reef) thrive, making this section of the Western Pacific the richest marine habitat on earth.

I decided to go up to Manado in Northern Sulawesi to go diving on the advice of some avid divers I met at the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta. This area is home to the world reknowned Bunaken Marine Park as well as the fairly recently discovered, and much lauded, Lembeh Straits. There are over 120 dive sites in this area, including 40 wreck dives, the majority of them less than 30 minutes from shore.

Bunaken is best known for its unbelievable wall diving. These steep, pristine coral walls start less than 3 feet below the surface and plummet down for up to 150 feet, covered with a huge variety of coral and inhabited by countless species of marine life. The bulk to Colin's right (my dive partner for the week) is the coral wall, and the spots to his left are just a fraction of the fish you can see. You slide out of the boat and descend and can spend an hour just going up and down over a small area peering into crevasses and under bits of coral. There are literally millions of animals to be seen here, and you would have to be blind to not appreciate the unparalelled beauty of these reefs.

Lembeh, on the other hand, has been dubbed the muck diving capital of the world. Lembeh Straits are found right by the very active port of the city, Bitung, in Kungkunan Bay. The port itself is full of boats with oily deisel films floating on the water around them and people randomly throwing garbage into the bay. Doesn't sound very attractive I know. It is true that muck diving involves slowly swimming over black, apparently lifeless sand, with your head pointed downwards and you legs way up above you (an ass over tea kettle type position). This is an attempt to keep your fins from touching the bottom and stirring up silt which obstructs your view. Your nose in about 6 inches from the bottom, and your eyes are tired from the strain of staring and not blinking enough. Occasionally you'll see a plastic bag, or peice of shoe leather bob by, and the floor of the ocean has half buried coke bottles and juice containers all over the place. Really makes you wonder why there is such a hue and cry about this place. Believe me, I wondered when I first got in. But if you move really slowly, and really pay attention, what you find is an underwater Lilliput.

Lembeh Strait is the Holy Grail for underwater macro photographers and marine biologists. It seems to be the drop off spot for all the strange and ugly under water denizens that the gods just didn't want to put in the beautiful coral reefs for fear of spoiling the ambience. New species are being discovered here all the time. Now I'm a fairly inexperienced diver, so just getting underwater and seeing something as common as a sea anemone with its protective herd clown fishes (these little buggers will actually take a run at you and nip you on the finger if you are so foolish as to put one out there) is pretty cool to me. Lembeh Straits tends to draw in the really experienced divers who have become blase about the oh-so-easy to see parrot fishes and groupers that occupy most tropical reefs. Here, on the other hand, you get to see species most divers will only get a glimpse of in glossy diving magazines, as one new and exotic creature after another casually swims by you. We saw, in the 3 dives I was there, multiple frog fish (hairy little creatures that walk along the bottom rather than swim), mothfish (that look like birds flying through the water), pygmy seahorses (about the size of my baby fingernail), ghost pipefishes, nudibranches by the dozens (like technicolour sea slugs), decorator crabs, mimic octopuses and many, many fish I can't begin to describe as I have no idea what they were. It is a veritable critter safari that was probably a little wasted me as I had no idea how lucky I was to see these animals. That is, until we got out of the water and the other people on the boat started to RAVE about all the things we saw. The other three divers had a lot more experience than me, being rated as dive masters, two levels above my lowly open water PADI licence. The vast variety of marine life, combined with the shallow waters leads to very long dives (we had one that was almost 78 minutes, which is an incredibly long time to be under) and is well worth the trip.

BUT, not to be a spoil sport (because Lembeh was incredible), I'm more of a fan of the ostentatious, in your face, beauty of the Bunaken Islands. I'm still enough of a new comer to the underwater world to be wowwed by the sea turtles, moray eels, black tipped reef sharks and enormous groupers that I saw. On my last day there I rented an underwater camera to try and capture just a bit of the experience, though I have to apologize for the poor quality of the shots as there was no flash on it. On the bright side, the many, many blurry shots of coral and fish I took were edited out.

When I got to Manado I booked in with Thalassen Divers to take me out on my dives. These guys are great. They are very professional and safe, and do EVERYTHING for you, including loading up all your gear on the boat every day and rinsing it all off at night. Because it had been a while since I last dived, they assigned a dive instructor to me to do a free refresher course and to go on my first dive with me. For the following 3 dives I always had a guide assigned just to me, which not only made me feel much safer, but was great because he was able to point out all sorts of bizarre things I would have missed otherwise. The boats were generally empty as it was low season, usually just one or two other divers, the guides and a few helpers. Once we got to release a sea turtle that had been bought off a local fisherman to save it from being eaten (a highly illegal, yet common practice in the area).

Rather than stay at the expensive hotel associated with Thalassen, I got a room in a guest house in the village of Buhawo only a few kilometres away. Buhawo Guest House is run by a couple of expats from the UK, Phil and Paula. Its situated in a small village of only about 400 people. Phil and Paula have done a tremendous amount of philanthropic work here, helping to raise funds to expand and improve the local school and have recently completed building a medical clinic. Out of their own pockets they will be paying to have one of the local women go to school to become a nurse, who will then staff the clinic daily, a doctor only being available 1 to 2 days a week. It seems all the expats in the area are doing their part, not only by providing jobs for the locals, but also in other more obvious ways. Thalassen, which is run by a Danish woman, is presently building a highschool for the children of the four local villages, so that they won't have to take the 45 minute bus ride into Manado every day. As Phil put it, "You don't come here with the thought in mind that you want to do all this, but when you get here and realize just how much of a difference you can make to these people's lives with so little effort, how could you not............."

Anyways, it was quite a trip, both relaxing and exciting at the same time. While here I got to do 10 dives, 4 of them muck dives, ate some great food, got to visit the local school and meet some of the kids and even went out the the building site of the new high school. I also went out to a local Indonesian bar, that appears to have been made out of cardboard and two-by-fours (apparently it burned down last year and was rebuilt, looking exactly the same, with in a week). At these bars individual girls are assigned to each table to encourage you to drink, fetch your beer and dance with you (whether you're a girl or a boy) as Indonesians always dance in pairs, the dance floor being covered with two long lines of people facing each other, and god forbid you ever stray from the lines. Your girl will immediately shepard you back in. This was off set the same night by visiting an upscale night club that had a huge dance floor with strobe lights and dry ice being pumped onto it, a live band complete with 4 back up girls singing and dancing behind them and expensive blended drinks rather than cheap shared bottles of beer. BUT.............still those 2 lines of dancers!

From here I went back to Jakarta to spend a few days with "just the girls". Harkiran, Tika and I hung out by the pool, did a bit of shopping and generally relaxed prior to meeting back up with the boys. Harkiran was flying to Ha Noi, Vietnam, where Tod and five of their friends were. I was heading to Kuala Lumpur to find Gilles, hidden somewhere in the streets of Chinatown

Bali and Palau Perhentians

Written by Gilles

Coming Soon

Selamat Jalan, Jakarta

Written by Lynn

Indonesia is one of the countries that when you think of visiting it you instinctively get that little tight knot of concern in you belly, even if you don't know why. When you look at the Canadian government travel advisory, they just say, "You are advised against non-essential travel to Indonesia, including Bali". And I suppose on the surface of it, there is good reason. Recently there have been terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the bombing of a tourist resort in Bali in October 2005, and the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003. More significantly, it seems the only time we in the west hear about Indonesia is when they are in the grips of some awesome natural disaster - tsunamis, earthquakes, unending rivers of boiling mud. So the overall picture from the outside seems pretty grim. But I would have to say that after having been here that you are doing a wonderful country a great disservice by dismissing it as a travel destination.

Having said that the truth is we probably wouldn't have stopped in at Jakarta (and realized what we were missing), except that we were visiting friends of Gilles', Tod and Harkiran. Harkiran works for the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta in the economic development branch and was sent overseas almost 2 years ago. Tod tagged along and ended up working for Unicef as a communications officer with regards to Avian Influenza in the area (a huge problem, Indonesia having just recorded its 74th official death due to Bird Flu). They left Canada just after they got married in the fall of 2005 and haven't been back since. But don't feel too bad for them, they have a great place in Jakarta and are situated at a central location that allows them to fly around South East Asia at dirt cheap prices. This means they can spend one weekend on the beaches of Bali, then next shopping in Singapore, and the one after that visiting ancient temples in Thailand (of coures they are way too busy to take much advantage of this, but at least the opportunity is there). Happily, they were willing to throw open their doors to welcome us into their home.

Jakarta is a city that is hard to define. Many hate it because it is crowded and dirty, full of traffic jams and deisel fumes, and in many places rampant poverty. On the other hand, the public transport system is great, there are many high end and bargain shopping centres and the people are unfailingly friendly and helpful. One thing we can certainly recommend Jakarta for is pirated DVD's, the cheapest and best quality we've seen so far (about $0.80 a disc). We went a little crazy and bought everything from "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland" to "Talledega Nights" and "The Number 23". We also indulged in DVD's of tv series, including "Entourage", "Lost" (Gilles' new obsession, he managed to watch 2 full seasons in about 10 days), "House", and "Scrubs". Gilles also managed, to his delight, to find a Krispy Kreme donut shop and became a regular customer.

When we got to Harkiran's and Tod's place it was my first chance to meet them. Incredibly friendly and welcoming, we instantly felt at home. We also got to meet their new puppy, Tika. Tika was a mere 8 week old street dog when Harkiran and Tod first found her abandoned in a parking lot. Full of ear mites and other itchy bugs, hairless patches and bony little ribs, she's a lucky puppy that they could look past it all and see the beauty beneath. By the time we met her a month later, she was an outgoing, happy little thing, full of piss and vinegar (the piss sometimes ending up on the carpet, much to Harkiran's dismay). Spend a little time with her, though, and you're in love. She's smart and independant enough to make you feel like she's being nice to you when she lets you play ball with her. Not exactly the best protection against the HUGE rats you see when walking her after dark, but since she might be smaller than them, I guess we won't hold it against her.

Our first day in Jakarta we made it to the bargain basement shopping centre, Mangga Dua. A bohemoth 7 stories of tiny shops covering most of a block greet you when you get there. There's everything from cheap t-shirts, to (of course) pirated DVD's, to electronics (surprisingly not all that inexpensive in comparison to North America). To offset this we then went to Senayan City where the predominant shops are Gucci, Prada and Boise.

Harkiran, Gilles and I also went to the Imperial theatre to see the movie "300". Now why would we spend all the money to go see a movie in a theatre, when the DVD can be had so cheaply? Well, it's because going to a movie here is an experience. You get reclining lazy boy seats with blankets provided (this is because the air conditioning is set just below freezing) and your food and drink, which you order before hand, is served to you by waiters during the show. The sound is loud enough that most people bring ear plugs, or stuff thier ears with kleenex (no, I don't know why they don't just turn the sound down a little) and the screen is HUGE.

While in Jakarta we crashed a party at the Canadian Embassy (Harkiran and Tod had been invited and we weren't, though I believe this was a gross oversight). There was a jazz duo from Montreal playing there, and we got a chance to meet lots of Canadians (a surprising number really) who were working in Indonesia in various levels of government. The ambassador and his wife, who are new to the area, were very gracious and seemed quite interested in our travel plans.

We also got to go to a St. Patty's day party, held at a real Irishman's house, where the buffet dinner consisted of foods only green, white and orange (including the jello shooters). The beer of the night - Guiness, of course, with Kilkenny's for those of us unable to down too many of the "liquid breads". The night would not be complete without an Irish trivia contest, which my team should have won handily (admittedly because we had the only other native Irish person on our team), except we refused to stand up and sing Irish ditties out loud.

The next day I was scheduled to leave for diving in Manado. Because it was my birthday, Harkiran and Tod took us out for an ENORMOUS brunch at the Four Season's hotel. Only brunch I've ever been to where you have to decide if you want the stir fried lobster, the cold tiger shrimp, the raclette, the sashimi or the foie gras (never had it before, turns out I don't like the stuff) amongst piles of other stuff. Well, tough choices all around.

Barely able to walk after eating so much, I said my goodbyes and hopped in a cab to the airport. I was off to Manado on Sulawesi island to go scuba diving. Gilles was heading to Bali with vague plans to meet up with Tod and another friend, Jay, who were starting a 3 week holiday later that week. So for the first time in almost 6 months we were actually travelling on our own - scary thought, isn't it....................