Thursday, April 22, 2010

Final Leg==Borneo!

I made it to Borneo on Wednesday late afternoon! This is the one place I've never been before, and from what I see so far, it's amazing.

I arrived 2 days before the rest of my four tour buddies, so I was booked into a resort on an island just off the coast--called Eco-Guyana Resort. I took a 10-minute boat ride to get there, around the back of the island to a crescent lagoon where bungalows rise out of the turquoise water on stilts. I'd always seen these kinds of places in my Islands magazines and wondered who gets to go to them. And now I know: ME.

When the woman took me to my bungalow (one side facing the lagoon and one facing into the jungle), she told me that I should only open my windows if I'm inside because the monkeys are naughty and try to get in. Well, I know she was trying to warn me, but of course then I was torn between keeping the windows open in hopes of having monkey visitors or keeping out the mosquitoes. In the end my hatred of mosquitoes won out, I'm afraid.

But it doesn't matter because on Thursday afternoon while I was cooling down inside, a little gray face peered in my window from my porch. Of course I went out and made friends. He seemed interested in my room but didn't want to enter--just peered in the door and took stock. We got to know each other for awhile, I took some pictures, and then he went over the banister and disappeared. (I believe he's called a macac, but I'm not absolutely sure.)

Before that, in the morning, I took a kayak and floated through the mangroves nearby. Very peaceful except for the hornbill bird who makes this amazing whistling noise. In the afternoon I was going to snorkel, but a whole bunch of big pink jelly fish with heads the size of basketballs showed up, and so I hit the pool instead.

Apparently these jellyfish have shown up in record number, and no one really knows why. Also, in the spring they're usually overrun with whale sharks here--but this year, not one. It's scary what the change in temperature in the world is doing. Nature is very confused.

Then this morning I took the boat back here to Kota Kinabalu. My friend from Winston-Salem, Amy, is arriving tonight--along with three other people on our tour--and tomorrow we set out together for another great adventure. So amazing.

How can I go back to grading English papers after this!!!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Flight of the Gibbons

Yesterday in Chiang Mai, the three of us went to a place up in the mountains called Flight of the Gibbons. It's a series of zip lines through the rain forest and was Big Big Fun.

To work your way through the course, you do a series of 12-15 zip lines and 3 vertical drops (like the one in the picture above). The cables are as high as 150 yards from the ground and the longest one is 120 meters--that a football field and a half.

Nearly everyone screams, of course, especially on the first few, the longest ones, and the fastest ones (except my brother, of course). Vinita and I screamed a lot, actually. Kind of embarrassing afterward to look at the video and hear how cowardly I sound, but seriously, this is scary--and the guides often have fun with you, swinging the line or bobbing it up and down. Serious sadists.

The scariest one for me was like a Superman flight. Instead of hooking the cable to your chest hook, they hook it on your back. Then you free fall off the platform and "fly" across the chasm face first, arms outstretched, and hit a rope net at the end. Then you climb up the net to the next platform. Everything in my body said "Don't jump out of this tree, Silly Girl." But I finally did--and when I hit that net, I latched onto it so hard that I had to pry my fingers off to climb up. My throat is actually a bit raw today from screaming.

The great thing about this adventure is that the company gives back 10% to the local village to develop a sustainable economy for them--agricultural. Another 10% goes to the Gibbons Project, which is working to save the local population of gibbons monkeys.

By the way, you couldn't see the gibbons, but you could hear them. They were probably invisible to us because we were all screaming, but the funny thing is, they screamed back. We could hear them "whoo hooing" away in the trees.

They were probably mocking us. And we deserved it.

My brother's girlfriend Vinita had never done anything like this, and she turned out to be very brave. She was understandably nervous at the beginning, and you'll hear her screaming in this video, but by the end she was a pro.

We're heading back to Bangkok today where I'll do laundry and pack. On Wednesday I'm heading to my final leg of this Adventure Trip 2010: Borneo, an island in Malaysia.

On we go!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Elephant Therapy

Pay attention, Readers. This one is good. I had excellent Animal Therapy today and am feeling sooooo good tonight.

My brother Randall, his girlfriend Vinita, and I went to the Elephant Nature Park today. It's a sanctuary for elephants that have been injured, abused, orphaned--much like the animals at Harnas.

In Thailand, elephants are used for the tourist industry, begging on the street, and used to be used for logging. In all those cases, the animals are often mistreated, and for a long time they didn't have a place to go.

Along came a wonderful woman, Lek is her nickname, and started this place for these beautiful and intelligent creatures to mend and live out their lives peacefully and safely. Right now she has 31 elephants of all sizes (and a baby due any day). Some were abused by their mahout, one stepped on a land mine near Burma, several are blind or deaf, a couple had been hit by cars--you name it, these poor babies had suffered it.

Along with hearing their stories and learning a lot about their plight, we had such a fabulous time today and we got to help out as well.

We fed them, played with them, let them kiss us, talked to them, heard stories about them, and -- my favorite part--we got to help bathe them in the river. You just can't imagine how fun it is to hang out with a bunch of elephants in a river. I'll include the video.

The babies were amazing--several really small ones (9 month old male who was hell on wheels, and a 1 year old whose birthday we got to share--they gave her a special treat of fruit, leaves, and other favorites, all tied up to look like a gift). They were so much fun to watch, cavorting around the adults and terrorizing their handlers.

All in all, I feel so renewed. Animals can sure do that for me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Getting Wet at Songkran

This week started the Songkran--or Thai New Year--Celebration. And it all centers around water. On Sunday, people go to a temple and pour water over a Buddhist monk's hands, asking for his blessing for a good year ahead.
Then the fun starts.
Everyone hits the streets and starts pouring, throwing, and shooting water at each other. People line the streets and wait for cars, open-air tuk tuks, pickup trucks, and pedestrians. Then, simply put, they drench each other.
They also throw flour on each other, which mixes for a nice, pasty mess, but no one seems to care. Even up here on the 8th floor, I can hear the car horns and the people shouting non-stop. Everyone seems to be having a good time. It's party time when everyone gets to act like a kid in a giant water fight.
I thought I might be exempt from the mayhem on my walk back from getting a massage this morning--you know, a white American woman of a certain age might not be the target for this craziness--and I did walk a while without being attacked. But before I knew it, someone had grabbed me and smeared flour on my face while two children dumped a bucket of water down my back. It seemed to be the signal that I was in on the fun, and soon I was getting even wetter.
Not a bad way to spend part of the hottest month of the year in Thailand--wet. Today is supposed to be 101 degrees with 90% humidity, and tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter. So if being drenched part of the time helps, I'm all for the fun.
And this goes on for four days! It's a week of national holidays--and even the Red Shirts are caught up in the fun, having stopped their protests to play in the water.
Time to put on dry clothes. Again.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tiger at my Side

I won't be able to do one of my favorite experiences in Thailand this trip (other exciting things planned!), but I thought I'd share it with you since I went just last July.

In Kanchanaburi, a place about 2 hours outside Bangkok, there is a Buddhist temple that has taken in ophaned tiger cubs--sometimes the mother has been shot by poachers, sometimes they're found wandering. The monks started by taking in one cub, but as things usually happen, once word got out that they would take orphans, villagers started to bring them in.

Now they have upwards of 20 full grown and babies and have even started careful breeding of this endangered animal. To help pay for the enormous costs of feeding these 3-400 pounders, they allow tourists to come and visit--and even touch. This takes place in a small canyon that is mostly shaded for the tigers' benefit.

Well, as you can imagine, it was number one priority for me when Fred and I came to visit my brother last summer. For a little extra, you can have your picture taken with a tiger head in your lap. (Seriously? Can you imagine saying "that's too much money. I'll just pass"? It's once in a lifetime!)

I got my picture taken with several tigers, feeling their thick coats and holding their enormous heads. Then we moved over to the cub area, where things are less controlled. Lots of pictures there, too. There's also a swimming area for the tigers--who love the water.

A note for some of you who are getting jealous (as you should): they take volunteers! You can come and work with, feed, and groom the tigers. What an experience that would be. From what I've read of volunteer experiences there, it's fabulous.

Why can people do this without ending up as a tiger dinner? Well, first of all, tigers are nocturnal, so when people are visiting them, they're sleepy and hot. Second, they are well fed--mostly chicken with added nutrients for health. Finally, they've been raised from cubs by the monks and so are very used to people. Just like at Harnas, they don't see humans as food--instead they see them as providers of food.

And so my list of Big Wild Cats that I've been able to touch has grown to one more: lions, leopards, cheetahs, caracals, and now tigers. But there are so many more--and so little time.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beaches and Dog Days

Two topics today. First, we went diving yesterday at a place called Koh Nangyuan ("koh" means island). I got lots of pictures from ground level, but to appreciate this island, you need to see it from the air, so I'm including a picture I got from the web. It's three small islands joined by white sandbars. I came here ten years ago when I first visited Thailand, and it was nearly deserted. I was the only one walking on that sandy beach.

Ah, development. Now there's a resort there (although it is tastefully done as huts on the hills), and tourist boats show up all day with curious onlookers. Fortunately, most of them aren't divers, so it wasn't crowded underwater.

It is beautiful, though, and the diving is spectacular. At one point the water temperature was 90--that's 32 for those of you using celsius. Warm and colorful. One weird little fish, black and blue and about 2 inches long, followed me and kept nibbling on my leg. It hurt a bit, more like an annoying tickle. I kept trying to chase it away, but it was persistent. Later, the dive master told me it was a "cleaner" fish, and that I must have an open wound. Sure enough, it was eating the skin around an abrasion I had just below my knee. Very weird. On the second dive I wore a lycra suit to keep that bugger away.

Glorious diving, but it was time to come back to the resort. Always sad to surface on the last dive and then surface in the real world. Thankfully, I don't have to do that for another month or so.

Back at the resort, we had dinner, surrounded by our favorite eating companions: the beach dogs. On every island in the world, there are beach dogs, all who look like relatives to each other. Here on Koh Samui, it's no different, except that in this Buddhist culture, people treat them relatively well--respect for all life.

The one in the picture is our current favorite, a puppy we've named Rufus. (Of course, after naming this dog, we found out it was a girl.) Anyway, she sits on my lap before the meal and lies under our table during. What a cutie pie. We often have many other dogs around us as well. When the servers ask if we want them gone, we let it be known vehemently that we love animals. We feed animals. We encourage their attention.

If I could I take Rufus (and all of them) home. What a surprise.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Gulf of Thailand

Okay, I didn't see this Great White Shark today, but I wanted to get your attention. Did it work?

We're staying at this amazing resort on Koh Samui. Randall got these cool villas (two! one for each of us!) because he knows the right people here in Thailand. The bedroom is inside and air conditioned, but the rest of the villa is a private garden. Yes, that means my shower is outside. I just walk out into the garden and turn it on. Don't worry: there are high walls. Our rooms are just a few steps from the pool and the white sandy beach. It's just so beautiful.

Randall and I went on our first two dives today. The boat ride was long--2 1/2 hours each way--but I love boats, so I enjoyed the whole day. We went to a place called Sail Rock, a big huge rock in the shape of a sailboat out in the middle of the ocean.
All around the rock there is coral. And FISH. So many fish!

Schools and schools of colorful fish of different sizes and shapes. Diving among them was like being in a fish tornado. I'd just hold out my arms and float and they would swim in and around my body. I kept hoping that they'd sit on my hands and shoulders, but then I remembered: fish don't "sit." They hover. So I had to be satisfied with them hovering over my hands and shoulders.

One funny thing: on the second dive, I could hear a "sssss" through the whole thing, so I knew I had a little leak and my air would go more quickly than my brother's (a point of pride for divers to have extra air at the end--since panicky divers and inexperienced divers tend to use up their air quickly). Anyway, when Randall signaled how much he had toward the end, and I signaled my air back, he looked at me quizzically and so I tried to explain. First, I used charades to try to act out "a leak." No understanding there. Then I tried to spell L E A K on my hand. He just looked at me, puzzled.

He understood the "L" though, because he made the sign for "loser" on his forehead. No, I wasn't calling me a loser. So I tried to spell out the four letters with my body. "L"--stand up strait and to the side, let my fins stick out for the bottom of the "L." Then "E"--fins out, two separate arms making the top two lines. By the time I got to "A"--arms over my head in a triangle--Randall was losing a lot of air because he was laughing so much. Then I tried the "K" and got a big ol' cramp in my right hamstring and had to grab my right fin and pull it toward me to stretch out the muscle.

I don't know what letter he thought this move was, but by then we were both laughing so hard that neither of us had much air left. Communication under water is difficult after the universal signs of "shark, eel, turtle, low air, go up" and so on.

It's hot and humid, as expected, but under the water it's perfect. Today Randall showed me his dive computer which lists the water temperature: an unbelievable 88 degrees. I can't remember ever diving when I didn't get cold at all. This is MY kind of water.

And along with all this, good Thai food. What more could I ask for? Okay, maybe a cheetah.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Big Brother

For those of you who aren't watching world events, you might not realize that massive protests are going on here in Bangkok--by the party called the Red Shirts, who want the Prime Minister ousted. They're Buddhist, though, so the protests are relatively peaceful. Disruptive--because they block traffic--but peaceful. At least so far.

On Friday while I was having lunch with my brother Randall at the embassy, the leaders of the Red Shirts (along with an estimated 3000 followers) came to the embassy and handed an official letter to the representatives of the U.S. government. I was there and got to see it all. (One of the leaders even shook my hand as she left. I think she thought I was much more important than I am.) As you can see in the photo, my brother took me by the hand, made me stand in front of the guards and protesters--all chanting in Thai their political slogans--and took my picture.

Because he is my Big Brother, I did it.

You shouldn't be surprised that I'd do something Randall tells me to do, even though my inclination is NOT to tick off the thousands of people who might think I'm mocking them and their beliefs. Randall has always gotten me to do things my better sense said not to. It's his gift.

Way back when I was four years old and had so many chicken pox on me that I looked hideous, he talked me into playing the monster in a neighborhood play he was putting on while my mother left me in his care. I hunched under a card table and growled. While it probably wasn't good for my fever, it was a worthy performance, I'm sure. The reviews were good.

I also remember holding up one end of a pole (who had the other?) in the blazing heat while he practiced high jumping over it. I once offered my Barbie doll for a firecracker experiments. She ended up scorched.

He refuses to let me be too "girly" and slack off. Once on the island of Dominica, we hiked what I consider the World's Hardest 9-hour Hike--through the Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake (no joke). After five or six hours, I refused to go any farther, threw myself spread eagle on a flat rock, and began crying--praying for a rogue helicopter to snatch me up into the sky. He didn't pamper me. As a matter of fact, he walked about 20 yards away and took my picture. Pitiful me--but after some water and food, he did convince me to finish the hike. Otherwise, my bones would still be there.

In short, it's hard to say no to my charismatic older brother. But to be fair, he also convinced me to get certified in scuba diving--a skill that has opened up whole new worlds for me and has given me so much peace in that space where the only sound I hear is bubbles. He's taken me to places on this Earth that I would never have gone without his protection and encouragement--Karachi, Pakistan, for one. It's a place I'm glad I saw but am even more glad I don't have to go back.

Once he even took me to the house where Edgar Allan Poe grew up, a neighborhood that is now probably one of the worst in Baltimore. (I swear people were smoking crack on the front steps of the house and selling babies near the gutter.) But I felt completely safe being there because my Big Brother was watching out for me.

Without him, I'd be less than I am. So if I have to pose in front of a few rioters once in a while, it's worth it. I know he's always got my back.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Giant Lizards in Downtown Bangkok

From Africa to Asia. Here I am!

I arrived after three flights totaling about 22 hours (counting layovers) - Windhoek to Johannesburg, to Doha (Qatar), and then to Bangkok. My brother Randall picked me up and we came here to his high-rise apartment in downtown.

Culture shock, anyone? Traffic, people, NOISE, and no critters in my bed! (I do admit that I was worried about this last thing, so in the Jo-Burg airport I bought a stuffed cheetah. It helps.) Add a little jetlag, and I was a mess for a day. I just slept and tried to think.

And oh yes, it's HUMID here. I mean WET. I mean walk down the street and have sweat drip down your body and onto the sidewalk. Quite a change from the dry heat of the Kalahari.

I'm all right now, though. I've had lots of sleep, good Thai food, and my first (of many) Thai massage (one hour head and shoulders - less than $ 10. Yes, be jealous. Be VERY jealous.) My brother and I are here in the city for a couple of days, and then we leave Sunday through Friday in Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, for some scuba diving and chilling and eating and more massages.

Today we had lunch at the US embassy where he's James Bond (or Jack Bauer--choose your reference). Afterwards, I walked over to the huge park that is near both the embassy and his apartment. It's called Lumpini Park and is truly beautiful. Winding paths, beautiful lagoons, people doing some kind of Thai dancing / martial arts, and LIZARDS. Monitor lizards, to be exact. Some as small as two feet long and some as long as eight. They live in the lagoons there - eat fruit and fish, not people - but look like something from a sci fi movie from the 60s.

I love them. They crawl right up on the grass next to people and bask in the sun. Children play around them. Americans (like me) take many many pictures of them. Most Thais ignore them. It's as if a group of harmless alligators decided to take up residence in Central Park. Very weird. And very cool.

I told you I'd find wildlife. Even in the Big City.