Thursday, August 26, 2010

Photos And Stuff

Blogger's okay, by and large. But the way it handles photos is flat-out f__ked. You insert a picture, and it automatically goes up there above all the text, no matter where you happen to be writing at the time. Oh, and if you put more than one photo in, they go at the top of all the text, and IN REVERSE F_CKIN' ORDER. So, you know... if you WERE planning to put up a linear sequence of photos and write a little bit about each of 'em -- well, just f__k you.

Because of that, you're getting this bloc of text at the end of a bunch of photos. They're pretty interesting photos. I took 'em in Singapore and Borneo. I'd be happy to explain them, but I can't actually do that in any sane goddam fashion. So I'm just going to tell you a bit more about the trip, and you can sort out the photos for yourself.

Kota Kinabalu was, as I said, very tourist-oriented. So was Sandakan, sure, but it was much more my kind of tourism. We flew in and met up with our tour guide (yeah, it kinda had to be that way; we wanted to get out into orangutan country, and it's difficult to manage on your own) who was a young Malay woman named Rose. She was a follower of Islam, but very liberated -- no headscarf, and plenty of wit and attitude. She was also a total hottie: gorgeous to behold, very smart, deeply interested in the wildlife and the environment of the region, funny as hell... but for the difference in age, race, religion, nationality, marital status and numbers of children I'd have happily -- actually, that's a lot of differences right there, isn't it? Okay, so maybe not. But she was indeed gorgeous, and talking with her was fun and enlightening.

The orangutan rehab centre at Sepilok is at once heartening, and deeply depressing. It's wonderful that it exists, there in a big patch of rainforest (hopefully) permanently set aside for the big orange bastards. But it's incredibly sad that it has to exist, and it's terrible to hear of what's been done to the orangutans, and to their environment.

Anyway. We turned up in Sepilok in our bus - about a dozen of us, all told - and they put us through an orientation video. (Of course, before that we had a bunch of rehydration drinks and some ice cream. Rainforest or not, Sepilok was intensely hot.) Then we followed a raised wooden path through the forest to a large, raised wooden platform in the jungle.

Whereupon it was fiercely motherfucking hot. We could have gone down towards the front, but the kids and I opted for the shady bit at the very back. Yeah, sure: it meant a bit of distance between us and the orangutans, but on the other hand -- it was so damned hot that the tiny bit of relief offered by the shade felt like the only thing between us and a really nasty death.

The orangutans showed up for feeding time as promised. And they were... yeah, they were pretty wonderful. I like orangutans a great deal. I know: it's pointless anthropomorphism. But their faces are so incredibly expressive... just amazing creatures. I'm not really prepared to try to explain my feelings about them. I'll just say this: go. See for yourself.

They feed the orangutans a mix of fruits, apparently. But they don't give 'em the dreaded Durian, vilest of fruits, because it seems the orangutans will never actually leave if they know they've got a reliable source of the stuff. So - there's no accounting for taste, even among apes. (I did mention this fruit smells like over-ripe mango, cat-pee and carrion, didn't I? And that it tastes very much like warm, greasy, onion-and-garlic ice-cream, with a texture akin to over-ripe avocado? Fucking ghastly.)

We got back on the bus. Drove through Sandakan. Made it to the waterfront. Walked down through a water-village that could have been a set for a Bruce Lee movie, followed the jetty through houses and restaurants until it became a sort of actual jetty, and got into a boat. And it was still buggerizingly hot.

There followed a trip across a bay, and up a wide, brown, tropical river through appropriately poisonous green forests. It's interesting: I'm used to mangroves around the sea edge, and around estuaries. I am not used to Nipa Palm forests. At first I thought they were some kind of plantation - but it turns out that's just how they grow. Nipa palms are important in local tradition; the fronds make thatching and basketry and all sorts of stuff. Obviously, no damned shortage of raw materials.

The trip upriver took an hour and a half or so, at a fair old clip. Every now and again we had to slow down so our wake wouldn't mess with various little villages straggling here and there along the river front. The breeze was... helpful, yeah, and we were under a canopy, but the sun was just so damned brutal. The kids flaked out.

When we finally pulled into the jetty in front of our lodge, we were pretty near exhausted. Right away, it got interesting. We'd gone to a lot of effort to catch up with orangutans at Sepilok -- and here, up the river in Kinabatang, right there in a mangrove tree leaning over the jetty, there was a wild orangutan. He was just kicking back, doing his big orange ape thing, eating some kind of oddball fruit... didn't give a damn what we were doing. It was pretty cool.

If you ever go to Sandakan, you should probably consider doing the Kinabatang river run. The lodges are spartan, but adequate. (One could wish for aircon, but since you're out in the middle of a forest preserve with nothing but rainforest, mangrove and river in all directions, one could also wish for the entire array of Miss Universe hopefuls to parachute in with Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" playing in the background... it would be almost as helpful. There were ceiling fans. We were lucky to get that much.) The food was good -- it's Malaysia, after all. But it's the wildlife and the forest you're there to see.

We did a lot of boat trips, up and down the river, dawn and dusk. We spotted birds of a dozen sorts. Pythons. Crocodiles. I saw a chunk of the riverbank that had been thoroughly trampled, and took the opportunity to ask Rose about wild pigs. She looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that all the trampling was the result of elephants, not pigs. (Given her sense of humour, I admit it took a while before I believed that one... but it was true.) There were orangutans. There were monitor lizards. And there were monkeys.

By Great Cthulhu, there were monkeys.

You see that photo, somewhere up there, of the ugly-ass monkey with the big frakkin' nose? That's a Proboscis monkey, an endangered species endemic to Borneo. And you see that one hanging his old feller out for all the world to admire? That's kinda typical of male Proboscis monkeys. They gather themselves a harem of girls, and herd them around the treetops. In between times, they sit back just like that: legs apart, tail hanging, belly bulging, genitals waving in the breeze.

First time we spotted one of those, Rose altered permanently my opinions of Islamic Malay women. She pointed to the monkey, and said "And if you look carefully, you'll be able to see what we call the Borneo Lipstick... only lipstick you can always find between two legs..."

I nearly choked with laughter, and tried desperately to avoid the inevitable mental image that emerged. 'Borneo Lipstick' - heh. Later we heard another tour guide talking about the same subject - only he was a bloke, and he rather coyly called it 'the big red chili pepper'.


Rose really was cool. I got her to explain Ramadan to the boys, so they could film the explanation for their school-project video. She was very nice about it; fielded all their questions, dealt with the whole thing like a trooper.

Actually, the whole trip up the river was great. We went to two separate lodges, but both were lovely, and the staff - like pretty much all the Malay folk we met - were uniformly friendly, outgoing, and delighted by the kids. (Particularly the Mau-Mau.) We did the night-boat thing, and took in the single most amazing firefly display I've ever seen in my life, as well as frogs and night-birds and insects and all kinds of stuff.

I'm not much for 'guided tours' in general. But in this case, they get my Big Tick Of Approval. If you tried to do for yourself what these people helped us to do, you'd be battling fierce heat, dodgy weather, almost impassable forests... you sure as shit wouldn't go camping or trekking in there unless you were either a scientist or totally fucking mad, or probably both. So - for once it made sense to pony up some cash and let someone else shape and organise the experience. Seriously: there is no way I could have considered trying to hire a boat and direct my own expedition in that kind of heat, and I would never have seen half the stuff that the sharp-eyed Rose pointed out in the dense, poisonous green of the forests.

We dropped in on a local village which has an agreement with the Kinabatang Lodge. The villagers supply the lodge with fish and various other food supplies, for which the Lodge pays cash. The Lodge also brings tourists like us to visit the locals. We wandered around, gawping appropriately. Happily, my Malaysian was good enough for me to make cheerful conversation with the kids at the local school. They thought that was pretty cool, judging by their expression. I guess they don't get a lot of white folks coming in and greeting them in their own language, because they got pretty excited about it... of course, once they started talking quickly, all at once, I lost the thread and just started laughing, but that was okay. And then Younger Son found a paper 'plane that one of the kids had made, and so they were instantly in a shared world. Younger Son loves his paper 'planes, and he was tickled as hell to see that these Malay kids in a village halfway up a jungle river evidently liked 'em near as much as he did, and even made 'em much the same way.

Part of the village visit was a brief gig planting trees in a reforestation area. Largely symbolic, but you pay for the privilege. I didn't mind. It wasn't expensive, and it was good for the kids to see the results of the forestry industry, and for them to get a feel for what it means to try and repair the damage. The local folks offered to do the digging, but it wasn't exactly a lot of work: five little holes for five little saplings, in the soft soil of the river plain. Even in that heat, I knew I could manage that much. The kids planted their trees, and tagged them, and that was that.

The tree-planting thing... actually, the whole of that journey through Sandakan, and Sepilok, and up the Kinabatang river, I was impressed by just how involved the tour folk and the villagers were with trying to preserve and repair the environment. I'm not really very hopeful about the world's environmental problems; there's just too goddam many of us for the planet to support. But it's good to see that some people are mobilising, and getting involved at a real, grassroots level.

We finished off the Sandakan trip with a visit to the War Memorial. (One of our travelling companions for the whole holiday was our neighbour, Mike the Historian. He's currently teaching a unit on WWII, and the Sandakan visit, just one day before Quentin Bryce showed up, was useful.)

I don't care to discuss the war memorial, to be honest. If you're not familiar with the Sandakan Death Marches -- it's not up to me to educate you. Go and find out for yourselves. Or be ignorant. I don't care. It's one of those chapters of human history which is so black, so utterly, unredeemably evil that even now it has the capacity to fire a deep, bitter anger in me. Makes me question the worth of the human race itself, as a species, that we can treat one another in such fashion.

Fine note upon which to end, no? Yet that's where the Sandakan section ended, yes. Then we got into a 'plane, and flew back to KK, where we spent another few days recuperating, and doing touristy stuff. Snorkelling. Visiting the big mountain. Going to the cinema. And... oh, yeah, celebrating the Mau-Mau's fifth birthday. That was pretty cool. I even found a bakery that was willing to make her a big, showy birthday cake with all the trimmings...