Sunday, November 17, 2013

So then I went to Malaysia

It has been a while, but I have some pretty cool pictures from my trip to Malaysia to get a new visa. Malaysia is a crazy mix of so many cultures that it is hard to categorize. Unlike the U.S. melting pot, these cultures stay distinct, and well-represented. This made for a refreshing, if confusing, little trip.

First a little geography.... Indonesia is made up of over 17,500 islands and I am on the biggest one. I am on the island of Borneo, which is the third largest island on the planet (after Greenland and New Guinea, which is also an island partly in Indonesia). Borneo is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia (the provinces of Sarawak and Saba) and the sultanate of Brunei. The Indonesian portion is referred to as Kalimantan and has 4 provinces (North, South, East and West Kalimantan).

Sarawak State House in Kuching
So, I went to the Borneo portion of Malaysia to a city called Kuching in the state of Sarawak. I had never heard of this place and was a little skeptical. The city's name means "Cat" in Indonesian and Malay... The imagination runs wild about the possibilities in a city named "Cat".

After our trip to Tajung Puting, I flew back toward Sukadana with my friends, and I stayed on the plane to go on to Pontianak, on the equator. There I caught a night bus to the Malaysian border. The bus was a large, long-distance bus with huge comfortable seats. I paid $29 for the 11 hour trip and there were 6 other people on the bus... apparently it is the super luxury version. No matter how nice the bus, it couldn't make a pleasant ride out of Indonesia's non-existent road system. As the bus swayed from side to side like a drunk with lead shoes, then dropped precipitously into the massive craters left in the decaying asphalt... well, let's be honest, the road was more dirt that asphalt, so maybe the bus was just climbing onto asphalt relevant buttes... I marveled at the driver's nonchalance.
Indonesia truck stop
I managed to sleep for several hours and was rousted to get off the bus and go through customs. After much confusion as well as much attention paid to the only white person at the border crossing, I was in Malaysia.

It was Tuesday morning, and my plan was to meet Erica from ASRI (also on a visa run) late Tuesday night. So, I got our room at the appointed guesthouse and got the remaining hours of sleep that I needed before venturing out to check out Kuching.

View from the riverfront walkway
I arrived on the Eid al Adhar holiday and thought that the uncrowded sidewalks and complete lack of motorbike traffic might be related to that. I later discovered that Kuching is just a chill place. I enjoyed the quiet streets and the clear evidence of Chinese, Malaysian and indigenous cultures. A beautiful walkway along the river offers beautiful views of modern architecture and old Chinese temples. There are the occasional vendors offering fruit or snacks as well as a more-or-less continuous line of busking musicians.

After a few hours of exploring, I landed at a Lebanese restaurant on the river walkway. I can't tell you the joy of having raw vegetables after months of cooked, fried and steamed one. The ice cold Tiger beer was also a treat.

Erica arrive that night and we awoke early in the morning to trek out to the very inconveniently located Consulate of the Republic of Indonesia. I had read online that Wednesday, the day after Eid al Adhar, was also a holiday in Malaysia, but both Erica and I had been assured repeatedly that this was not the case. So we arrived at the Consulate bright and early to discover that it was indeed a holiday, though perhaps only for Indonesians in Malaysia.... So the rest of the day was spent trying to run errands and indulge in things that were not available anywhere within driving distance of Sukadana.

Kaiten sushi... so yummy
Wine and Cheese
This included my first experience with sushi on a conveyor belt, a trip to the movies and some serious research and tactical planning for returning to Indonesia with groceries. We also splurged on a bottle of wine, dark chocolate and cheese that for a little in-room wine and cheese party later that night.

The next day was more successful in that the Consulate was open... oh boy was it open! We pushed our way through crowds and waited to leave our passports. After much confusion that included my number never being called, we were told to come back in 6 hours to pick up our visas. Erica, being brilliant and goal-oriented, had read online about a water park with an Olympic size lap pool within walking distance of the Consulate. After a brief stop at a food court to get lunch from astonished Malaysians, we found our own private pool. It was BEAUTIFUL. For about $2 each, we spent 5 hours lounging and swimming laps at a sparkling clean, yet nearly deserted pool. It is hard to put that kind of luxury into words.
Our oasis
We collected our visas and headed back to enjoy a little bit of nightlife... which, compared to Sukadana is anything after 7pm.

The last day in Malaysia, we headed out to Bako National Park. Malaysia national parks are lightyears ahead of their Indonesian counterparts in terms of infrastructure, services, safety and management. Bako is reached by taking a city bus to a boat launch and then chartering a boat out to the park entrance. The trails are clear and well-marked so we wandered  through rainforest, open grassland, and beach ecosystems for several hours... In Sukadana, we are not allowed on the trails of the national park without hiring a guide. The trails are confusing and there are no maps. It was so exciting to be on trails again!

One of the beautiful views in Bako
Our chosen route ended on a beach where we enjoyed swimming in the ocean until we had to head back to catch our return charter.

Not interesting trails

Interesting trails

Ghosty trees in Bako
The next day we had an early flight back to Pontianak and then my first trip on the Pontianak-Sukadana speedboat. The boat is a rather large speeboat with rows of tightly packed benches. Protection from the sun and rain is provided by a tarp... the tarp protects from sun and rain, and also does a great job of trapping the omnipresent cigarette smoke. Fortunately, they put foreigners in the second row so we had some fresh air except for when the driver was smoking. A short 5 hours later, a smiling Hotlin greeted us at the port in Sukadana and our vacation was over.

Sukadana from the ocean on the speedboat

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tajung Puting... the orangutan experience

Several weeks ago, I traveled with other ASRI volunteers and the founder of ASRI to Tajung Puting National Park to see orangutans.

Our little slice of the rainforest
Early on Saturday morning, we piled into cars and made the 2 hour drive to our nearest airport. We then took a 30 minute flight to Pangkalanbun in Central Kalimantan, where we were met by drivers and whisked away to our awaiting yacht... Well, not exactly... We were headed to a "klotok" or house boat. The houseboats here resemble houseboats in the U.S. about as much as the houses here resemble those in the U.S.

There are other cool things in the rainforest
including this pitcher plant
Still, it sounds pretty luxurious, huh? Our plan was to spend 3 days and 2 nights on the boat. Anyone who has spent any time in the rainforest will tell you that one of the best ways to get around in the rainforest is to stay out of it. Rainforests are incredibly biodiverse and amazing. Unfortunately, a lot of the biodiversity is trying to kill or injure you. There are sharp plants to rip at your skin, insects that not only annoy but carry disease, leaches who penetrate clothing with a nightmarish persistence. And then there is the heat and humidity which basically makes you start to rot... But it is really pretty and rainforests serve globally important ecological functions and are home to some really cool stuff (even the stuff that hurts you sometimes).

This is a huge, dominant male.

A non-dominant male kind bummed
that he doesn't have a lady, but didn't want
to tangle with that other guy.
At another site, this non-dominant male hung out until the
dominant guy wasn't looking and then swooped in for as many
sweet potatoes as he could carry.
The wise folks around Tajung Puting have realized that the best way to get pasty, overweight foreigners to cough up good money to protect one of the last bastions of orangutan habitat is to provide river transport. The boats vary in their facilities, but are generally 2 levels with a kitchen and crew quarters below and an open lounging and sleep area for the guests.
Mom and baby... I bet a lot of human moms wish that they
could use their feet as hands

A gibbon joined us at Camp Leakey. He was
my favorite.

Well, actually, this guy was my favorite. Look
at that belly!
Guests are virtually guaranteed that they will see orangutans on these trips. The park has become home to families of rehabilitated apes... no, this is not monkey AA, these guys are usually rescued from the exotic pet trade and need to have a place where they can get acclimated to being in the wild.

One of the sites that we visited is dubbed Camp Leakey and is named after Louis Leakey, the famed naturalist. Leakey's legacy has been carried forward by three female researchers known as Leakey's angels. Most Americans know about two of them, Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse, but the third, Birute Galdikas is not as well known. Camp Leakey in Tajung Puting is the research site established by Birute Galdikas, and it was exciting to experience proximity to such greatness.
So a gibbon and some orangutans walk into a bar.... or...
One of these things is not like the others. Occasionally, the big
male would bop the greedy gibbon on the head and the gibbon would
storm off to the end of the platform and sulk for a minute before returning.
This is the face of a sulking gibbon
Each day there are orangutan feedings at several places in the park. This is a tough issue... these animals are supposed to be wild, but they are habituated and food conditioned. They are not really wild, and this is sad. However, interpretive materials at Camp Leakey indicated that feedings continue because there is not enough habitat left to support a viable population of these endangered apes. Feeding is the least horrible option.
The Gang... George, Shannon, Jaelin, Hotlin, me, Sophie, Jesse, Karen
We arose early each morning and ate a hearty breakfast on the dock where our boat settled for the night. We would then be packed up and shuttled off to a site to take a walk on well-established trails to a feeding area. We went to three of these, and the animals at each place had their own cultures. I could have spend a month there watching interactions and observing the different personalities.

Tree full of proboscis monkeys... You watch us. We watch you.
After a morning trip, we were fed lunch on the boat on the way to the next site... more orangutans, some proboscis monkeys and/or macaques on the way and then back to the boat for dinner.

The klotok jam outside of Camp Leakey
Our crew put us to bed immediately after dinner. They set up a long line of sleeping pads on the covered part of the upper deck and hung mosquito nets. As the chatter of the monkeys in the trees all around us began to die down, the boat's gentle rocking lulled us to sleep.