Friday, May 14, 2010

My Final Blog

"Oh, I'm on my way, I know I am, somewhere not so far from here," begins Cat Stevens' "Sitting," one of my all-time favorite songs.

In some ways, the past months have gone fast, but there are times when I find it hard to remember the feeling of home. I guess that means it's time to head back and resume what a lot of people would call "real life."

But not before I say a few final words--and offer a few thanks, because Cat's song goes on to say "Sitting on my own--not by myself. Everybody's here with me." In truth, I've never felt alone on this trip. Writing this blog has been an enlightening experience. It's helped me focus on details, cement memories, and analyze my feelings--and feel close to the people I care about.

Sometimes, though, I admit it felt like I was writing to the air. Thank goodness for Courtney, Joanne, and Cornelia--my most consistent comment-ers. You three women tethered me to an audience, reminding me people were out there.

And Doug--who located me on Google Earth wherever I went--you were my best email pen pal. It made me feel secure to know someone knew exactly where I was on the planet--whether it was Otjewarango, Chiang Mai, or the Kinabatongan River.

Fred, my anchor--there aren't many men who would hold down the fort (and the dogs) while his crazy partner goes cavorting around the world. I can't thank you enough.

During the past 20 years or so, I've tried to live by a certain creed: that is, when I get to the end of my life, I want to be able to say "Remember when . . . " not "I wish I had . . . " This trip has gone a long way in furthering that belief, and although I probably won't leave this life with a truckload of money, I will go with a head full of amazing memories--including the new and old friends I've spent time with on trips like this.

What can you say about a friend like Amy, who travels to the far side of the world just to be "along for the ride"? You rock, Girl.

And Randall, my brother, who takes time out from Saving The World For Democracy to zip through the rainforest canopy--never once mocking my inability to stop screaming like a little girl.

Traveling alone mostly, though, pushes me into interacting with people I wouldn't otherwise meet, and my life has been so enriched by both these fleeting and lasting encounters in airports, on beaches, on trails, or just sitting around petting a lion.

At the core of this whole adventure, though, are the animals. I've had experiences and encounters whose significances I can't adequately express. For me, the creatures of the world are my best friends, my therapy, and my hope. I wanted to have that faith reassured and renewed on this trip, and I've been rewarded more than I dared dream.

Finally, Cat's song reminds me that "Life is like a maze of doors, and they all open from the side you're on." It's up to each of us--no one else--to make life wonderful and interesting. So put your hand on the doorknob and turn . . . .

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back from Baco

Just got back from my last wildlife adventure (on this trip). Jodi and I went to Bako National Park for a night. It's a bit run down--the cabins were definitely rustic, but they did have a fan. It was still a sweat-fest, though, as most things are in Borneo.

It's worth it to rough it, though, because the wildlife is up close and personal, especially the macaque monkeys. They get aggressive around the cafeteria and if you stop paying attention, they'll snatch your food. And believe me, they're fast. There were six people sitting at a table in the middle of the porch, and one monkey sneaked up, jumped on a table, and grabbed a cookie out of a package before the people even knew he was there.

Another one kept jumping up on the railing behind my head and trying for one of my chips. I had to hunker down over the bag to keep him from grabbing everything I had.

It also must have been their equivalent of spring because there were babies babies everywhere. It seemed all the females were carrying newborns--and I mean young. If I got too close (which, of course, I did many times--it's ME, after all), the mothers would bare their sharp little canines at me so I'd back away. But I still managed to get one good shot of this brave little guy that got away from his mother for awhile.

Besides the macaques, the park has proboscis monkeys--those shy and bizarre monkeys that have the big noses. They hang out in the upper branches most of the time, but they move as a group, so if you see one jumping from tree to tree, you're bound to see lots more.

I made this film on Wednesday night. You can't see their beautiful gold color (except sort of in the 2nd tree), but their flight from tree to tree was too stunning not to show you. These are rare monkeys, folks, and you don't find them at your average zoo. The male leader makes this sort of honking sound through his enormous nose to communicate with his troop. Weird and wonderful.

And this morning, I finally saw the deadly but beautiful pit viper, which was hanging around a park sign. After all of us took pictures, the park ranger moved the snake to a more remote location. I'm really glad I saw it--and I know my friend Amy is really glad she had already gone home when I did.

Look for one more blog--probably on Saturday.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sarawak Cultural Village

Yesterday (Sunday) I took a shuttle to the Sarawak Cultural Village. It's sort of a living museum, showing how the various tribes here in Borneo live, eat, hunt, and celebrate. It's a bit touristy (especially after living the real thing in the longhouse earlier this week), but I was ready for touristy. I wanted to see the flashy outfits, wild dances, and hear the pounding drums.

The first part of the day I walked around visitinig the various kinds of houses built to show the varieties of communities depending on locale and lifestyle--mountain, river, farming, nomadic, etc. I might mention that they were all bigger, cleaner, more airy, and more inviting than the actual place I visited, but they were still very interesting.

The stairs and bridges were really fascinating. Here's a bridge from the Bidayuh tribe made from bamboo. I crossed it--but it felt precarious every second.

At each house people from the various tribes awaited to demonstrate skills, crafts, and so on--blowpipe hunting, weaving, cooking, woodworking, music. The things these people can do with so little to work with is quite amazing. I was especially impressed with the guy who did the blowpipe. His misses were few and far between. I wouldn't want him aiming that thing at me.

After walking around and sweating for a good part of the day--with several trips into the gift shop to cool down in its air-conditioned bliss--the main attraction of the day occurred: the dancing theater. Yes, it was touristy, but the costumes, music, and dances were quite astounding.

The man in this video is lifting a 20 kg weight with his teeth--that's about 44 pounds. It exemplifies his strength as a warrior (and having a good dentist, to boot).

No animals today--this is for my anthropological friends who often ask me more about the native culture of the country I'm in. (All right--to be fair, there was this kitten in the Chinese house that I played with for a good 15 minutes, but you can't expect me to go totally against my nature for a whole day).

I have two free days here in Kuching before we leave for Bako National Park, so I'll do some cultural stuff here--mainly shopping (think of it as hunting and gathering). If there's anything anyone craves from Borneo, now is the time to tell me.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Baby pics

Today was a free day in Kuching, so Jodi and I chose to go back to the Semeggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Orangutans are the main reason I chose to come to Borneo, so I couldn't pass up another opportunity to see these endangered apes one more time.

Jodi's friend Andy took us again, and he got a great picture of a mother and baby.

Anybody else in love with these beauties?

I leave for home in one week. Hard to believe. It may also be hard to believe that I'm actually ready to go home. I'm ready to put away the suitcase and live out of drawers instead of luggage. I also miss my sweetie, Fred. And every time I see a dog I miss my two pups at home.

I have a few adventures left--tomorrow I go to the Sarawak Cultural Village to see how the local tribes live and watch some dancing and listen to some music. And Wednesday through Thursday we go to Bako National Park to see my last glimpse of Bornean wildlife. I'll miss the monkeys, but I have animals of all kinds (both human and canine) at home waiting. Then you can all stop reading this silly blog!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Into the Jungle--and Out

Well, sometimes adventures just don't work out, and that's what happened with this last one.

It started out well. Jodi and I left for a 4 1/2 hour van ride southwest of Kuching--within 40 km of the Indonesian border. (No, I didn't stick my toe over the border, Fred and Doug, because it would mean climbing a huge mountain and maybe getting arrested.) Then we took a 30 minute ride in a longboat--very long and very narrow--along the Batang Ai river. The ride there in the boat was through beautiful country.

We arrived at the bottom of a huge hill that led to the longhouse where fourteen families of the Iban tribe live and began our climb up the steep hill, carrying our packs. We planned on staying two nights with them. When we got to the house, I was hotter and sweatier than I had ever been--yes, that means worse than New Orleans or Bangkok. I could barely breathe and water was running down my body in streams.

The place was a little more rustic than either of us expected. Okay, A LOT more rustic. Take a look:
You're looking at the front "porch" that runs the extent of the house. Inside there is another long sort of "hallway" that serves as the common or living room where the people gather, eat, talk, and spend time. Then there are 14 doors that lead to individual bedrooms and kitchens. Behind that is the "back yard" with stairs leading down to the storage areas and so on. This is what is looks like from the back:
Once I caught my breath out on the porch (I never cooled down, but just kept sweating), I went inside to the common area where the Iban people served us--inexplicably--hot tea. More sweating.

That night we ate dinner (always sitting on the floor) and we gave them gifts--coffee, tea, paper and pencils. Dinner consisted of lots of rice (they grow rice) which they ate with their hands but were kind enough to give us forks, vegetables, and some meat that we'd brought. More tea. But also palm wine--which the chief offered and I promptly downed in one gulp--which he cheered about. I gained status. Then we went to bed. We were guests of the chief in his house and slept in his personal rooms. That's him on the left:We slept on the floor on thin mattresses with a mosquito net overhead. But the doors and windows were closed and there wasn't so much as a fan, so it was hot hot hot. It was a long night and I didn't sleep much. I had to get up once to use the bathroom--and I use that word loosely. I had to go out of the chief's house, through the common room, out on the porch (putting on my flip flops there), walk down the rickety stairs and into an outhouse type of building--all with just my puny flashlight leading the way. When I got back to the porch, one of my flip flops dropped through the slats and disappeared under the house. (My guide found it and gave it back the next morning.)

I woke up at 5:00 when 50,000 roosters started screaming at once. Okay--there were probably only 50, but that's A LOT when they're right under the floor you're sleeping on. I was feeling a tightness in my chest that I haven't felt in awhile, but I tried to pretend it wasn't there as we ate breakfast--eggs and fried bananas and bread.

Then we started on the day's activities with our guide, who had planned (without my knowing) a 6-8 hour hike through the jungle, up and down and through rivers.

It was not to be.

After about an hour, my chest seized up and began to burn. I couldn't catch my breath in the heat and humidity, and I admitted defeat. I hate to quit anything, but my asthma was having none of this activity. I told the guide I was about to have an asthma attack--in the middle of the jungle with no help available. The only time I've ever felt this way was in Ireland--and that time I ended up in a clinic on a breathing machine. I admit it--I was scared.

We stopped. We walked slowly down to the river and the boat and rode back to the longhouse. I waited while Jodi and the guide walked back up the hill and gathered our stuff. And then we came home to Kuching.

It took me several hours to breathe normally again--mainly not until I got inside the van with filtered air-conditioning blowing on me--but I'm okay now. I really hate to admit defeat, but the heat and humidity and hiking finally took its toll and I had to acknowledge my limitation. One night in the longhouse was all I could manage.

But it was still a good experience and I'm glad I was able to do some of it. The people were so genuinely friendly, and the life they lead in the traditional way is fascinating--although very difficult.

Not to end on a bad note, I made friends with the longhouse dogs--all 15 of them, the same size but different colors. They made everything more bearable for me. As animals always do.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

King of the Swingers

All day today I've been singing the song from The Jungle Book that the orangutan sings: "Now I'm the king of the swingers, yeah, the jungle VIP. . ."

Yup, more orangutans (did you know that it's officially spelled orang-utan and means "man of the forest"?). We went to Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre this morning, and I saw a LOAD of these red-headed apes. They were much closer and more abundant than at the other sanctuary I went to up north. They were everywhere, in fact, and the rangers spent much of their time trying to chase them back up their trees to protect the visitors and reminding us people to "watch out" when the apes got too close.

They hung out at the feeding platforms some, but mostly they just hung out--just as curious about us as we were about them. At one point the alpha male (named Ritchie) lumbered onto the platform, sat his 250 pounds down, and began eating all the fruit. He is MUCH bigger than the other orangutans and has big cheek flanges that identify him as the leader. His hair is also about three times the length of the other apes. What a guy. When he finally left, he bent trees down left and right and even broke a few from his massive weight. Here he is climbing up a vine.

There were orangutans of all sizes--mothers, babies, juveniles, as well as the big daddy of them all. They seemed so comfortable and I got the feeling that if I had reached out my hand, they would have grabbed it. A big poster out front, though, showed injuries sustained by guests who got too friendly with the apes, so clearly I wasn't the only one who considered making friends with them. I learned from the photos and my memories of being attacked by a grown baboon in Namibia, and so I held my ground. (I wanted to touch them, though, so much!)

Here's a mother and baby. Be aware that these pictures were NOT taken with a zoom. They were really this close. As a matter of fact, after I took this picture of the baby, the ranger had to stop people on the trail because we were practically brushing shoulders with the mommy.

Finally, I'm going to include a film of an encounter I had with a juvenile orangutan who was swinging toward me and away from me over and over. He (or she?) was so close I kept thinking I should back away, but then he'd swing back and I'd stay where I was. He seemed like the kind of guy I could be friends with. You know, just hang around.

There's a point in the film where I get bumped by someone and the camera shakes and moves, but keep watching. I want you to see the end where he swings over and takes some fruit from one of the forest rangers. (By the way, the ringing sound you hear in the background is some form of cicada, not a fire alarm.)

I know you've heard from me three times in three days, but you're about to get another break. Jodi and I leave tomorrow morning for three days and two nights at a longhouse. This is the traditional structure of the local tribes (some of them were headhunters up until the end of World War Two!!). We're going to be guests of a community, eat with them, sleep with them, and participate in and observe their way of life. A different kind of "wild life." I'm both nervous and excited. Look for another blog in four days or so--and wish me luck that I keep my head on my shoulders.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On to the Rainforest

One more picture to share from the river trekking. We came upon some silver macaques one day, and they had this adorable baby that couldn't have been more than a few days old. He looked right at me and seemed so human. I love this picture and I fell in love with this little one and wanted to pop him in my pocket and take him home.

After three days on the river, we left by van and drove over five hours into the heart of the virgin rainforest. Borneo has lost so much of its rainforests through logging and through clear-cutting for palm oil plantations, but there are several places that are protected. One of them is Danum Valley, and this is where we headed.

We stayed at a place called the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a wonderful and luxurious resort smack dab in the middle of things. (Still no air conditioning, but the forest was cooler at night than I thought it would be, and there were fans everywhere. Still, during the day, we did little besides sweat.)

Every day (and most nights) we took hikes into the forest, wearing our full gear. Here are Amy and me in our gear, crossing one of the bridges. Notice those always-fashionable leech socks on our lower legs.

We saw amazing animals--more monkeys, orangutans, civets, a leopard cat (a bit bigger than a house cat and looking just like a leopard), flying squirrels and flying lemurs, weird insects!

The highlight was always finding an orangutan, and one morning we got more than our money's worth. Amy and I were rinsing out sweaty gear in our bungalow when Amy saw something move in the fig tree off the balcony. It was a large male that the locals call King--because he is the alpha male in the area, not because he looks like Elvis. He was calmly eating figs just five feet off the ground.

We called our friends from the other bungalows and we started watching and taking pictures. Eventually he even dropped down to the ground and looked right at me.We continued to watch, and I guess he enjoyed being the center of attention. He decided to move a bit closer--too close. He walked under our bungalow and came right at me and two of the Baltimore women. The workers who were doing landscape work started yelling "Go! Go!" So, still filming (of course), I backed away while he came right up on the boardwalk and posed. It was amazing to be so close to such a massive and rare creature. If I wasn't afraid of being ripped apart by his extremely strong arms, I would have gotten closer.

Today Jodi and I flew to Kuching (which means "cat") where we've rented a nice apartment in the central part of town which we'll use as our base. Jodi has lots of friends here because she comes here twice a year for 6 weeks each. Tomorrow morning we go to another orangutan sanctuary, so if you like these apes, you're sure to hear more about them in my next blog.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Borneo Adventures 2

I was joined on April 23 by my friend Amy, three wonderful and crazy women from Baltimore, and our tour organizer Jodi (from Jodi's Jungle Jaunts). We took a short flight across Borneo to Sandakan and began a wildlife adventure that has seemed charmed in so many ways.

Our first visit was to Seligan Turtle Island, a sanctuary for sea turtles. We watched large Green Sea Turtles (their shells more than a yard long!) actually struggle ashore that night and we watched two of them lay eggs that looked a lot like ping-pong balls. The eggs are gathered up by the rangers and taken to the hatchery to protect them from predators (the mothers leave them alone anyway). Then after that, we got to take 50 or more of that day's hatchlings (about as big as an "OK" sign with your finger and thumb) and release them on the beach and watch as they scrambled and fought their way ten yards to the sea. Magical!

The next day we went back to the mainland and visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. We went to a feeding platform where orangutans can come if they want food (but most eat in the forest once they're rehabilitated, but they always know the food is there if they need it). There is no guarantee of seeing any of our "red-headed cousins"--as the guidebook calls them--but we were lucky.

Some juveniles showed up as well as a mother and a clinging baby, swinging themselves arm over arm along ropes leading to the platform, often hanging by three limbs and gazing at us as curiously as we were looking at them. Here's a video:

We left afterward on a boat heading up the Kanabatangan River and spent our night at the Abai Jungle Lodge and the next two nights at the Kanabatangan River Lodge. Rustic with no a/c but right in the heart of river country. At night it cooled off and we had ceiling fans.

Each day we'd take boat rides up and down the river and on smaller tributaries. We saw so many animals--troops of monkeys (especially the rare and endangered proboscus monkey (the ones with the big noses), a wild orangutan, two crocodiles, a python, colorful and exotic birds. We reveled in the variety of animals we saw along the river.

But then the big moment came:

We came around a bend in the river and saw 6 juvenile and 1 adult female pygmy elephants (about 2/3 the size of other Asian elephants, but pretty darn big) swimming in the river, wrestling with each other and rolling around in the water to get muddy and cool. We stopped the boat and floated nearby, just observing and taking pictures--feeling so lucky to see seven of these hard to find creatures.

Trumpeting came from the forest and a herd of elephants began to appear from out of the trees: 5 . . . 10 . . . 20. . . .30. . . 60 appeared and lined the banks! We oohed and ahhed. Our guide said he'd never seen a bigger herd in Borneo.

And then they moved toward the river. One by one they ambled down the muddy bank and into the river, swimming in front of us all the way across to the opposite bank--about 40 yards or so.

We were awestruck. Even our native guide admitted he had only seen an elephant herd cross a river twice in his life.

Mothers, their babies, big males, elephants of all size. After an hour they were still coming, it was getting dark, and we had to leave before the crossing finished. We motored back to the lodge, giddy with the experience.

And this is only the beginning of our week. I'll write more tomorrow.