Monday, May 12, 2008

Diving: Can't Get Enough

I'm sitting next to a window in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The sky is completely grey and it's about to rain. The breeze is a welcomed change from the typical 35C weather. I just finished four cups of chai masala. I originally ordered double so that Eric could share with me, but he went to use the internet instead. So I accidentally got to drink four cups. An awesome accident.

Before I write more about India, I need to finish Malaysia as well as Thailand and Cambodia. Here we go...

Mabul Island (Mar. 15 - Mar. 17)
Can't say much more about diving at Sipadan than: amazing. I flew to Tawau, in the eastern part of Sabah, on a Saturday morning. Then bused to Semporna and took a boat to Mabul Island. Mabul Island has about 3 really nice resorts and one local village. The island is tiny and would only take about 30 minutes to walk its entire perimeter. I stayed in the village with a local family that had built additional rooms for tourists. I orignally booked only 3 dives, but that quickly changed.

Immediately after I had settled into my room I met a Dutch couple that currently live in Costa Rica and run a dive shop there. They told me they were about to leave for a late afternoon dive around Mabul Island so I too went along. The visibility was a bit murky, but everything else was beautiful. There was a ridge of beautiful hard and soft coral hosting tiny pygmy seahorses, and I mean tiny (about 1 inch long), colorful nudibranchs, and we ended the dive in the presence of a massive sea turtle - she was at least as long as I am tall.

There was a group of about 18 Malaysians diving with the same company as me. They were wonderfully friendly and I even met up with one of the guy's (Sam) when I was back in Kuala Lumpur. After grabbing a coffee in the mall below the Petronas Towers and giving me a DVD full of underwater pictures from the Sipadan dive trip, Sam gave me a tour of KL in his company van. Unfortunately it was pouring, so the tour was largely conducted from inside the van. The roads were flooded and at one point a car drove past us and blinded us with water. A scary moment considering how people drive in KL (however, after being in India, driving in KL is like driving through State College, PA). That was a bit off topic, back to Mabul Island:

The next day: 4 more dives. We left at 5:30AM for Pulau (island) Sipadan. Sipadan is one of top diving destinations in the world and until recently, the island used to be populated with resorts and tourists. A couple years ago, in the interest of conserving the rapidly declining reefs around the island, the Malaysian government closed all of the resorts. Now only 120 people can dive around Sipadan per day. Our first dive was along a steep wall. We went down to about 30 meters, and even from that depth we couldn't see the bottom. The coral really wasn't that impressive, but the visibility was amazing and we saw at least 6 reef sharks.

The second dive was at a site called Coral Garden and was absolutely spectacular. We entered the water over a densely covered reef flat. We swam over all different types and colors of coral until the reef opened into a seemingly bottomless abyss. We descended, surrounded on three sides by walls of coral and then began swimming along one of the walls. I could see forever in front of me, forever below me, and the sky above. I could have stayed underwater forever. The wall was so densely covered with coral and as we swam closer we could see that it was teeming with much smaller life: sea stars, nudibranchs, sea squirts, sea cucumbers, huge sea turtles nestled into coves within the wall... It was amazing. We ended the dive back on the reef flat in the company of at least 3 sea turtles. Minutes before we ascended we heard what sounded like one of our air tanks crashing into the coral below. It was a bomb, probably about 40 miles away. Dynamite fishing is illegal, but apparently still practiced by fisherman. It's sad that such a destructive method of fishing is still in use, especially in an area hosting some of highest marine diversity in the world.

I had an amazing weekend. Although the diving was the best I've ever done, the experience wouldn't have been quite the same without the people I met, the dive masters with whom I dove, the company of the local villagers, and the traditional Malay meals. It's so nice to be part of a community as opposed to observing it from the luxury of a resort.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Little Hiking

Kinabatangan River (Mar. 7 - Mar. 9)

There were so many things that I wanted to do while in Borneo: scuba dive, climb Mt. Kinabalu, see orangutans... But I quickly learned that I couldn't do everything and that it's ok not to do everything. Anyway, I've already accepted the fact that I'm going back to Borneo.

After 2 days of staying in Vincent the Drunk's guest-house I moved to the North Borneo Cabin. So much nicer. And my home for the next 16 days. The rooms were spotless, bathrooms were nice, and the staff was awesome. So awesome that they booked and arranged all of my travel around Sabah for me. I didn't have to think at all; I just sat at the reception, told them what I wanted to do, and a few quick phone calls later my itinerary was set.

After 4 days of volunteering, I headed east toward the Kinabatangan River on a 6 hour bus ride. I got off the bus at a small roadside cafe in a tiny town. I'm not even sure it could be considered a town. I was then supposed to be picked up by a guide who would take me to a jungle lodge on the Kinabatangan. I did find a guide (Jay), but he was looking for Amanda. Apparently I was Amanda, or that's at least what he decided. We were soon picked up by Sam, who was also looking for Amanda and who also readily accepted that I was she. The three of us first stopped at a small grocery store to pick up a some food supplies. I still wasn't sure whether I was with the correct guides, but for some reason I felt quite comfortable with Jay and Sam. Everything turned out fine. After driving for about an hour through endless palm oil plantations, we arrived at the river.

The lodge was absolutely basic and absolutely lovely. It was run by locals (river people - orang sunai) and when I arrived was immediately greeted with a warm cup of rose tea. The women then showed me to my room: a dorm shared with David, a British guy that I actually knew! I had previously shared a dorm with David while at Vincent's guest house. It was so nice to see a familiar face, especially considering that everyone else at the lodge (13 other guys) was part of a Dutch fraternity reunion.

Less than an hour after I arrived, the 15 of us piled into a boat just in time for the rain. It poured. And the leeches were out in force - the guys still had leeches on their rain gear from jungle trekking earlier that day. It was pretty funny watching those grown men squirm away from the little leeches. One of the Dutch guys had a leech on his cheek and David had one on his chair. After watching him try to flick it off for a few minutes I grabbed it and tossed it overboard.

The rain slowly cleared and we saw heaps of macaques and a few proboscis monkeys as we boated down the river. The highlight of the trip was a green tree viper. One of the Dutch guys (Strong Man) pointed it out and our guide, Kai, positioned the boat directly beneath the overhanging branch on which the viper was perched. Kai got a kick out of placing the boat and us so close to the poisonous snake. More than once, the boys scrambled to the far side of the boat as the snake approached their heads. I was already on the far side of the boat and didn't have to move - I just hoped we wouldn't capsize. Crocodiles or a viper? Don't know which I'd prefer.

That evening we all ate together. I quickly got to know the Dutch guys quite well. This was their second reunion. Since graduating from university they have organized a trip every 5 years. They fund these vacations by creating a pool of money to which everyone contributes a portion of their monthly salary. Then when year 5 rolls around they have all the money they need to travel together in a foreign country for a couple weeks! Amazing, huh? Such an awesomely simple idea. After eating we decided to play a game. I can't remember the name or even all of the rules, but it had to do with putting celebrity names in a bucket and each person would pull a name and try to describe the celebrity to their teammates without using proper nouns. The next round we used the same names, but you could only use one word to describe the celebrity, and for the final round you could only pantomime. The added twist was that everything had to be in English - for the sake of David and me. It was hilarious. The 13 Dutch were constantly arguing. In Dutch "I" is not a proper noun, so lots of the guys used it to describe their celebrity only to be quickly admonished by people from the opposite team. The game got pretty heated and was made even more exciting when "Strong Man's" plastic chair broke under his weight - an entire leg snapped in half. I think I almost peed my pants. The next morning one of the women asked what happened and the only answer she got was, "Oh, it was Strong Man."

David and the Dutch guys left the following day and I spent the afternoon trekking with Nelly, my guide, in the jungle. The banks of the Kinabatangan are teeming with wildlife: monitor lizards, macaques, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, hundreds of birds, and snakes. The high diversity of rare animals in such a small space is quite spectacular, but also very sad. Palm oil plantations are all over Malaysia. Native forests are cleared and replaced with the economically important palm oil trees. The palms take about 2 years to mature and can then be harvested for their fruit, from which oil is extracted, every month for about 20 years. The success of the palm oil industry has resulted in the mass destruction of much of Malaysia's natural forests. The high diversity of rare animals along the Kinabatangan is a direct result of palm oil plantations: palm plantations are slowly encroaching upon the Kinabatangan, destroying these animals' habitat and forcing them closer and closer to the river's banks.

On the third day I started my journey back to Kota Kinabalu. Sam drove me from the lodge back to the small roadside cafe, where together we waited for the bus. To pass the time Sam and I practiced his English and he taught me some Malay. It was an awesome exchange of information - I even learned how to construct some simple Malay sentences. I was also very grateful for his company. I wasn't quite sure how I was going to wave down the bus, much less know which one to stop. Sam took care of everything for me; he even escorted me to the bus door.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I Love Borneo

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo (Mar. 3 - Mar. 21)

Borneo was amazing. It was absolutely my favorite place I've visited yet. And I am going back. Volunteering at the Borneo Marine Research Institute (BMRI) was absolutely the best decision I have made on this trip, despite the fact that I initially dreaded the decision. It takes me a few days to adjust to a new place, which I tend to forget in the moment. After 1 day at BMRI had elucidated my volunteer project: a proposal describing marine ecotourism and public outreach initiatives that BMRI could implement in an effort to help conserve Sabah's marine resources and to communicate BMRI's research to the public. Woah, that was a mouthful. It was surprisingly fun to have a project and a deadline. I even enjoyed reading some of the current literature on ecotourism. I spent almost every weekday at the Institute. My typical day, although long (usually 8AM - 6PM), was filled with reading, emailing friends, calling family, drinking caramel Tea-Chinos, hanging out with the aquarium staff, Moose and Musa, chatting with BMRI staff, meeting with organizers of other marine public outreach programs (one really cool local NGO focusing on high school students and marine conservation and I also met with the WWF-Malaysia marine project manager), and of course I worked on my proposal.

The staff and professors were so welcoming and friendly - quite a few took the time, a lot of time, to sit down and explain their research to me as well as discuss current environmental issues in Borneo. One afternoon two professors took me to lunch, then, once back at the Institute, a third joined us and we talked for a couple hours about mangroves, shrimp farms, coral reefs, sea turtles, fishing techniques that are illegal but still common, and loads more.

During my stay, BMRI held a seminar, jointly organized with Kinki University in Japan, focusing on sustainability of seafood resources. The director of the Institute invited me. I got to participate in every aspect of the conference - I even got my own nametag and bag! The first day was dedicated to aquaculture and the second focused more on marine diversity and policy. It's sad how quickly this area's marine resources are being depleted and destroyed. One big problem here is shrimp farming. Mangrove forests (important nurseries for many economically important fish species) are often destroyed to build these farms; furthermore farming exchanges a high volume of water with the surrounding natural environment, in turn causing nutrient enrichment (leading to eutrophication), introducing disease, and not to mention it is costly to constantly fill and refill tanks. One of the PhD students here was testing the effectiveness of Aquamats, a US product, that is placed in a shrimp tank and provides substrate for phytoplankton to grow. A simple yet highly effective technique, the phytoplankton successfully filtered the water and increased water quality as well as greatly reduced the frequency of water exchange with the surrounding ocean. There is no governmental support (money), however, for implementing such sustainable measures. Quite a frustrating problem. There is a solution but how do you get everyone to participate?

Everyday that I went to the Institute, Mabel picked me up from my guesthouse and then dropped me off again in the evening. She quickly became my closest friend at BMRI. We spent a lot of time together: in the car, at work, and just hanging out. One day after work we stopped at a local restaurant to get tea and a snack and talk about her research. The snack ended up being intestines and stomachs. I originally thought I was eating chicken and beef. I understood when Mabel ordered these two things in Malay (ayam dan daging), I just failed to understand the waiter when he said they didn't have anymore of either meat and that they only had perut - intestines and stomachs. It was actually pretty good, I just thought the "beef" was a little undercooked. Halfway through, Mabel told me what I was eating and she thought it was quite hilarious. I finished eating, and it was ok, but not nearly as good as when I thought it was just chicken and beef.

My last full day in Borneo was a public holiday - Muhammad's birthday. Mabel invited me to go with she, her husband, and her little sister to a huge local market. Of course I went. I love markets. They are so overwhelming: the smells, the sounds, the crowds, thousands of different things to look at and try. It was really interesting walking through the seafood section, especially after having spent a few weeks at the Institute learning about all the problems with illegal fishing techniques, over-harvesting of marine populations, and fishing of endangered species. Mabel was my translator and we walked from vendor to vendor asking from where they got their fish or shellfish and how much it cost. Some guys were selling giant clams. Have you ever seen one? They're beautiful. Tons of different colors because of the photoautotrophic algae living in their mantles. They're endangered, but that doesn't deter people from eating them; there were loads being sold at the market. Most were still alive. Also, the freshwater fish that they were selling were almost all in bags, with a minimal amount of water, and again, still alive. They had live eels and turtles in plastic bags, too. As a whole, the seafood section was quite a sad sight. Borneo has such a diversity and abundance of marine resources. And they have laws to protect them (well sort of), just no money or manpower to enforce all the laws they make.

Seafood is delicious. And to keep it in the markets and on our tables we need to make responsible decisions when choosing and eating seafood. We should always ask before we eat: From where did the fish, shrimp, crab, etc. come and how was it caught (ie: farmed, trawling, long-line, etc)? The Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains an awesomely informative website about how to sustainably eat seafood in the USA, including a useful pocket-size guide listing the best and worst seafood choices (based on fishing methods, current status of populations, metal content, etc.) that you can consult whenever and wherever:
Print one and put it in your wallet!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Volunteering Continued: Borneo

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo (Mar. 3 - Mar. 21)

Searching for volunteer positions in Australia also led to searching for volunteer positions in Borneo. A quick google search took me to the Borneo Marine Research Institute's (BMRI) website and a few minutes later I had emailed the director. My idea of volunteering was to help with some research projects and scuba dive for free. After emailing back and forth for a couple weeks with the director, my idea of a simple volunteer project rapidly developed into a project requiring a proposal and a letter of reference. Ok, so maybe my stay in Borneo was going to be a little more work than play...I could handle that, right?

First days are always overwhelming. I arrived in Kota Kinabalu on Monday morning. A few days before arriving I had booked accommodation and arranged airport transportation. When I walked out of the airport, Vincent, the owner of the guesthouse, was waiting for me. A very nice guy, but I quickly learned that he was also quite the alcoholic. 10:30AM and Vincent drove me to the guesthouse with an ice cold beer secured between his legs. I had promised the marine institute that I would come by after lunch. Next problem: I had no idea where the Institute was nor how to get there. Vincent quickly solved that problem and offered to personally take me to the Univerisity of Malaysia Sabah campus after he had picked up a few more guests from the airport. I'm sure he continued to drink beers as he made his afternoon pick-ups. And then just as he promised he took me to the University, with a fresh stash of 2 beers. I know it was dumb to have ridden with him. But it was free and I didn't know where I was going.

When I arrived at BMRI, Siti, the receptionist, was waiting for me. I thanked Vincent and jumped out of the car. Siti took me to meet with the director. Despite the fact that I had to write a proposal for my volunteer project, I quickly learned that my project had nothing to do with what I wrote. Actually, after meeting with the director I had no clue what I was going to be doing for the next 18 days. Something about developing marine ecotourism to help conserve Sabah's natural heritage....? After such a fruitful meeting, Siti escorted me to my new office. Can you believe that?? The Institute had given me an office, a desk, a computer, and had even printed my full name, "Elizabeth Lindsay Podowski," on the door! Sweet, I had an office to sit in and surf the web all day because I still had no idea what my project was.

Later that afternoon, I met Dr. Mabel. Her office was directly across from mine, and she quickly became my main resource and closest friend. After talking with her for a little bit, I developed a basic understanding of my volunteer project: to propose marine ecotourism and public outreach initiatives that would highlight the current research at the institute. Enough progress for the day. Siti drove me home that evening enabling me to avoid drunken Vincent's services

Those first couple of days I really questioned whether or not I had made the right choice in committing myself to volunteering for the entire length of my stay in Borneo. Did I really want to sit behind a desk all day when I could be scuba diving, climbing Mt. Kinabalu, visiting the orangutan rehabilitation center, or jungle trekking?

Picture Update

My public gallery on Picasa now has New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, and Thailand posted.

Click here to check it out.

Also, Des posted her pictures from when we were together in Thailand; she documented our trip more thoroughly so check those out, too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hello Malaysia!

Pulau Sembilan (Feb. 29 - Mar. 2)

8 hours after landing in Kuala Lumpur my dad and I headed north for a 3 day dive trip. At the end of February my mom and dad did their open water and advanced certifications, respectively, in Indonesia. Lucky, I know. Now it was my turn to dive with my dad and get my advanced certification.

We did 1 1/2 days of diving near Pulau Sembilan - famous for seahorses. The first morning we woke up to rain. After breakfast and having a Spanish woman think that I was my dad's wife, we got in the water. Visibility was poor at best. I think I could see maybe a meter in front of me. And the sea was quite rough. We did 5 dives that day, including one night dive. I thought I would love the night dive, but it wasn't really that great. However, I don't think it was the night dive that I didn't like, but the crappy visibility and the fact that my mask was squeezing my face so hard I thought it might break. A few weeks later, while diving off the coast of Borneo, a Dutch woman gave me a brilliant and logical tip: loosen the straps on my mask. Wish I could have thought of that on my own...

The next morning the water was calm and clear, and we did two more dives. I love diving with my dad. I mean really, how many people get to go scuba diving with their dad in southeast asia? The whole trip was quite amazing. Even if conditions aren't perfect, I love being in the water. Plus we had an awesome Malay cook, who also thought I was my dad's wife (hmmm seeing a trend here...), and awesome Malaysian food for every meal: noodles, rice, sweet potatoes (one of my new favorites), mangoes, fried eggs, soups full of veggies, chicken, and seafood, and so much more.

On Sunday afternoon we drove back to Kuala Lumpur to meet my mom. The next morning I was off early - on a plane to Kota Kinabalu, a city in Sabah, Borneo.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

And the Rest of Australia

Townsville (Feb. 19 - Feb. 28)

And I'm going to start where I left off before that Thailand interlude: After a couple wrong turns, Lachin drove me right up to Jeremy's driveway and transferred me from one group of amazing people to another.

I felt instantly comfortable with Jeremy. He and his roommates welcomed me into their home in every way possible. The very first thing we did was go to the grocery store. And Jeremy walked around the whole place barefoot. Isn't that so spectacular? I hate wearing shoes, and Australia doesn't really care whether you wear them or not (in most places). After we dropped our food off at his apartment, Jeremy showed me around the downtown of Townsville, which is really only a few streets, and took me to a diving company so that I could schedule a dive on the Great Barrier Reef: the one thing I HAD to do before leaving Australia.

Jeremy lived with two other guys: Mick and Lui. Mick is from Australia and can drink like an Australian. He always referred to me as sweetie, a name I quickly learned to accept as part of Mick's personality. He also loved to talk, and because of that I learned heaps, particularly about Borneo and Australia. He had just been to Borneo for a month long university class and absolutely loved it. He gave me all of his left over diahrrea and malaria medicine and had some fantastic snake wrestling stories. Mick also introduced me to kangaroo steaks, which surprisingly were really good.

For 3 full days, Jeremy and I hung out non-stop. We went to the aquarium, the Townsville Museum, strolled along The Strand and got icecream, explored the James Cook University Campus (and yes we even went to the library and I got some books!), and played sand volleyball. Then he and Mick returned to Orpheus Island for 5 more days of volunteering, and I moved into Jeremy's room (I had pretty much been there already as Jeremy insisted I sleep in his bed and he take the couch) and became Lui's only roommate.

Lui is from Germany, but has been going to university and working in Australia for about 6 years. I loved living with Lui. We didn't do much beyond sit on the balcony, drink Ouzo, and talk. And it was awesome. That was mostly in the evenings - during the weekdays, I was on my own since Lui had a job. I spent one afternoon/evening with Yui (remember, I met him on Orpheus, too) on Magnetic Island; we got over to the island just in time for sunset, walked the beach, and then grabbed some dinner. I also spent a lot of my time climbing up and down Castle Hill- a steep granite monolith (according to Wikipedia) with a trail to the top cutting right through Jeremy's front yard. The view from the top is amazing - you can see all of Townsville sprawled below, right up to the edge of the ocean.

I spent a full day being ferried to the Great Barrier Reef (Wheeler Reef), diving, and then being ferried back. I did 2 dives - the second was better than the first. We dove on a more interesting section of the reef on the second dive. Not to mention, my dive buddy was a cute New Zealander, but that doesn't really matter underwater. The coral was beautiful - massive rocks (bommies) were completely covered in all different types and colors of coral, and my favorite part was swimming through two closely spaced bommies, like swimming through a valley surrounded by mountains of coral and fish.

Oh, and I learned to drive on the left side of the road - really not that hard and rather intuitive. I borrowed Jeremy's car for the day and drove about an hour outside of Townsville to Crystal Creek. Crystal Creek is nestled in the southernmost section of Queensland rainforest and is a series of waterfalls, creeks, and swimming holes. I went swimming in a pool at the base of a waterfall - so cool, fresh, and relaxing. And no crocs!

When Jeremy and Mick got back from Orpheus, I drove up to the University to pick them up. Later that afternoon, my last one in Townsville, Jeremy and I drove to a little park at the edge of Townsville to which neither of us had ever been. We trekked through the mucky trail in our flip flops, frequently flipping mud all over one another. The trail led us to a secluded cove that opened up to the ocean. We climbed some rocks and then sat and talked. Beautiful, serene, and no better way to spend my last day.

Before I end this, I have to describe sleeping on Jeremy's bed. The bed itself was nice, but nothing extraordinary. The view from his bed, however, was incredible. One side of his room was a wall of windows overlooking Townsville, the ocean, and Magnetic Island. Every morning as the first rays of sunlight illuminated the night sky, I could open my eyes, without moving my body, and be completely eye level with the water-sky horizon. It was simply amazing.

Thank you Jeremy, Lui, and Mick for everything.