Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Art and Science of Scuba, Part 2

    This post was meant to be included in the July post I made about my dives in Sipadan. It will cover more of the struggles, personal victories, and contemplations I experienced whilst diving from Seaventures, that oddly painted dive rig in the middle of the Celebes Sea. To begin, I’ll say that I did not expect to end up going to Sipadan, or to even go diving a second time before returning home. Somehow I got pulled, enticed, by this very rare opportunity to dive in some world class sites, considered some of the best on the planet. I thought that I’d be in the thick of medical school so soon, I really should not just let this opportunity pass me by, especially considering how my last diving experience had been so awe-inspiring. And that place was second or third rate compared to this. Also, I had to celebrate the end of an incredible year- on my trip home I needed to give myself a good chance to reflect on the utterly stunning and mind-blowing experiences of this year. I rewarded my intrepidness this year with an activity that would further test and hone my bold openness to new, unusual, and often risky, experience. But this was something of a totally different flavor.

     This time around, I was no longer inhibited in my ability to fully enjoy the calm and beauty of the sea. I took an advanced open water course with Ricardo, a super star dive instructor. This course is also known as the “Adventure Diving” Course, and for good reason. Right below the dive rig, I experienced my first night dive, which certainly took a little getting used to and gave me a scare when a barracuda showed up in front of me completely out of nowhere. The added anxiety of maneuvering in the dark (albeit with a flashlight) made me burn through my air tank in all but 25 minutes, an absolutely dismal performance.
     The next day, we went to the pristine island of Sipadan, where we explored a world-class dive site called “Barracuda Point”, diving 30m, nearly 100ft below the surface. At this depth, the water exerted a pressure of 4 atm, or 4x the pressure we normally experience walking around outside. Down at these depths, I saw creatures that possessed an other-worldly character- white tip reef sharks, torpedoing by fearlessly but without excessive aggression; green turtles, the prototypical stoners of the sea; lion fish, petite yet gaudily boasting a venomous sting; stonefish, carefree with their deathly poisonous flare; and eagle rays, angelic creatures gliding effortlessly in this infinite sanctuary.  I was in my element, especially now that the course helped me optimize by buoyancy control in the water. And let me tell you, buoyancy is everything down here.   
      My diving was completely transformed when I learned to effortlessly change my sea depth with an easy exhalation here and there, whilst also conserving energy and hence air by using soft kicks of my flippers rather than chaotically flailing hand motions. I glided by psychedelically beaming corals, a  nudibranch with zebra design gliding like a living ribbon. Reflecting on the experience later that day, I was awe-inspired by the incredible orderliness amidst the chaos of life happening all around. That order was in part created by the specific part of coral one is looking at. Each little segment of coral is home to a multitude of diverse organisms, nibbling away, coexisting peacefully in this microcosm, this microcommunity, of the sea. Corals are the strings linking all these organisms together, sustaining life in all its myriad forms.
     Over the years, ships and more significantly, climate change, have caused significant damage to the world’s coral reefs, representing a real threat to the survival of all these beautiful life forms. Still it is pretty reassuring that corals can migrate to new sites with currents and reproduce into new reefs. Corals have some pretty wicked biology, no surprise there. They can reproduce asexually or sexually, and can be male, female, or both. The actual living part of the reef is called a “polyp” and the hard part is its coralite, a limestone exoskeleton made of calcium carbonate. The psychedelic colors of these corals are pigments made by algae called zooxanthellae, millions of which live in every  square inch of coral.  
      Sadly, increasing carbon dioxide levels in the air cause a heightened carbonic acid levels in the world's oceans and seas as a result of carbon dioxide dissolving into the water. And this increasing acidity solubilizes calcium carbonate essentially dissolving the skeleton that sustain these living centerpieces of the water.This effect in addition to the damage done by increased water temperatures are definitely causes for concern. I was very much saddened to think about these processes happening right under our noses, for fear of losing the many known and likely many more unrecognized contributions these organisms make to the planet. 
          My last night on the dive rig, I sat around chatting with Ricardo and the manager of the rig, who looks pretty identical to Dwayne Johnson, The Rock. I was surprised to learn that the manager of a dive rig and company didn't believe in evolution. I guess no set of experiences and knowledge exclude the possibility of ignoring what seems all too obvious to me. Still, I was deeply moved by my what transpired here in these few days. I became more aware of the profound beauty and inextricable connections linking all organisms in this ecosystem to one another.  I wondered about the countless commensal and symbiotic microbes likely calling all the shots within each of these larger lifeforms. Diving was an escape from the trivial concerns and pursuits of average life. It was a way to become meditative, to internalize the infinite transquility of this underwater world, to connect to, and even engage with life in all its slimy, gill-ie, venomy, and fin-ie glory. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Art and Science of Scuba

Post intended for June 2011. Yes I know- I Fail.

Note*- I think this post I wanted to finish and put up more than any other post I’ve ever written, because I’m finding that Scuba diving is probably the activity I would do for life if I had a choice of one thing to do till the end of my time on Earth. Sadly never got around to putting the final touches on this piece till very recently.

If you Asked me just a bit over a year ago, when I was still an itty bitty senior in college, “Mike, would you ever imagine yourself scuba diving amongst white tip reef sharks and poisonous stone fish?”, well I would have chuckled and promptly replied “not a chance”. But I guess the same would have been true of me if you told me that I was going to spend a year trekking and researching in Borneo and S.E. Asia. Go figure. Life changes. We, humans, are pretty terrible at predicting in the present day what our feelings or opinions about pretty much anything in the future will be (Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness). Experiences change us in ways we could never have expected, both because we can’t predict many experiences happening to us, and because we just don’t truly know how any given stimulus is going to change our body and mind. I will say that I’ve definitely noticed many unexpected changes in my psyche over previous years, but that’s a conversation for a different post. The important thing is that I made the right choice of going on this trip to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the eastern side of Borneo. It helped that I had a travel buddy, my friend Ashley, to motivate me to plan the trip and all.

I’ll admit that there was certainly a bit of anxiety going into beginning my open water course but Roy, my instructor, helped assuage any worries I had with his carefree, Rastafarian attitude. “Everything’s gonna be alright.” So there I was, all suited up in my wet suit, BCD (Buoyancy Control Device), flippers on foot, mask on face, and certainly air tank connected to my regulator (the device that delivers air from the tank to my mouth and to the BCD if I press the button to inflate it). Roy does a buddy check on me to ensure I’ve not missed anything in setting up my equipment and that everything is functioning smoothly. Roy tells me to just take a big stride off the boat into the water, and so I did, making sure that my mask was on, BCD was inflated, and regulator firmly in my mouth. After some briefings, I was instructed to deflate my BCD, and with regulator in mouth, descend slowly. In doing so it was absolutely vital that I made sure to equalize the pressure, as it built up in my ears, by just pinching my nose shut and blowing air through my ears (i.e. like when you’ve landed from a flight). You see, pressure in water rises much more rapidly with depth than it does in air. And that makes plenty of sense, since water is way denser than air, and thus has a greater mass for the same volume.

A little graphic to learn more about scuba suits

I won’t pretend as though those first moments underwater were immediately wonderful and natural feeling, because they certainly were not. In my first minute under water, I fell into the dangerous cycle of what I call “panic suffocation,” which is a vicious synergy between abnormal breathing (i.e. rapidly, irregularly, holding breath as opposed to breathing in slow, deep, and regular fashion) and panic. The abnormal respiration gives way to uncontrolled, wild, panic, which itself worsens your ability to breathe normally. My problem was that I understood how to breathe in, but the exhalation part was really strange for me since there was this regulator in my mouth kind of blocking me from exhaling. So I would inhale and hold my breath, one of the worst things I could have done, especially when you combine this with me later panicking and just rising to the surface with lungs full of air. This little maneuver can get one’s lungs overexpanded and even completely burst open, since pressure drops as you go closer to the surface, and so in the closed system of a breathe-holder like myself, the air in the lungs will be able to expand against this diminishing pressure. Luckily I quickly learned the right way to do it- I found the learning curve in this situation to be very steep, considering the alternative of suffocating or lungs bursting. And then once I got it, it seemed like the most obvious thing ever, though still not absolutely natural. Very soon though, I started thinking less about how strange it is to have this device in my mouth. A little after that, though pretty much simultaneously, that initial anxiety started to give way to sheer awe at the inexplicable beauty contained in this underwater world, this treasured secret of the Earth that humans have yet to fully conquer (and hopefully never do).

      Don’t get me wrong, I still had this slight butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling right before I would go for a dive. But with each sighting of a turtle, nemo, lionfish, scorpionfish, or coral, beckoning to me with its psychedelic aura, the anxiety of being “stuck” underwater in such a vulnerable position dissolved away, until eventually it was just pure bliss. Even by my 3rd and final day of diving, I can't say that I was 100% carefree going down into the humble abyss of the sea. But I was very much sold on this  scuba thing. I knew I needed to do more diving before getting back to the U.S. Sipadan, an island in the Celebes sea on the eastern coast of Borneo, was considered a world class dive site in the top 10 on the planet. And I was not going to miss out on sharks, turtles, and poisonous critters down under.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More on [Re]Adjusting and what of this blog now?

It's coming up to the end of my second week back in the USA. I've been making some interesting discoveries about myself, both in absolute terms and also in relation to this metropolis I've moved back to. You see, often it's hard to perceive changes within yourself. That's at least the popular view and my view until recently. Self-awareness is key here. Obviously. Either way, I feel it somewhat easier to tell how I've changed over the course of this year, now that I'm in a familiar context; in the context I lived in most of my life. That makes sense doesn't it? I mean when you are abroad and traveling, the environment and culture are such huge variables for you to consider that sometimes it is hard to peel apart real, lasting changes within you, from your shock, adjustments, and immediate reaction to this exotic new place. That's what you feel like at first though, but then you begin to realize this new culture appreciates calm and introspection more than your own, and that this novel environment is ideally suited for understanding yourself better, for making lasting changes leading to improvements in your well-being. Oh wait...I've completely contradicted my initial point. Indeed I feel that on Borneo, I was in an ideal context to isolate out all of my inner most feelings and thoughts, finally making inroads toward greater self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Very soon I'll touch upon some of the key adventures, aside from alone time in my room, that stirred the cauldron within me, and enlightened me about myself.
But before I got sidetracked, I meant to explain that being back home, I can now compare my reaction to life situations and stimuli to how I [might] have reacted to them in the past. This makes those changes meaningful since I'm putting them into action, and words. For example I just did my first trial session of Bikram Yoga over in Park Slope. I had been forewarned of a hellish torture the likes of which few could tolerate. And don't get me wrong, this is not for the mentally weak, since it certainly takes a toll on the body. But I felt mostly happy (says something I think) throughout the 1 hour sessions, and I think I was well-conditioned for this type of workout. The temperature was about 110 degrees F, and though Borneo was never nearly as hot, it was more humid and so I found the temperature manageable, though not for a second "comfortable." Another physical component I felt good about was breathing. Probably the scuba diving I've being doing recently helped me out a ton, since focusing on breathing technique is a big part of scuba diving in general, and my training in particular. Slow breathing out of water is much easier for me than underwater. But this can change with more dynamic exercise. And then there is the mental component of it, which I paid close attention to. I found it easier than before to empty my mind, to focus on the task at hand, and to focus on my body- on specific fine adjustments in muscle tone...that buttocks needs to stay tightened...tuck those abs in...chin into your chest...eyes ahead of you looking at your forehead. I found myself far better at tackling those fleeting negative thoughts, deploring the pain of a certain stretch, or just sheer sadness that might flare up ever so often. And thinking about my experiences working out in the past, I would notice less and therefore have less control over my moods...leading to less consistent exercise, and more importantly, less enjoyment throughout the whole process, not just after. Now I was so much more equipped to manage these many considerations, and from what the instructor said, it was a good beginning session compared to many others. But it goes without say (though I'll say it) that much more work and discipline will go into improving technique. I loved it though, can you tell? Coming out of the room, I was on cloud 9 (after all you can tell from the tone of this post that I'm so cheery and happy-go-luck- that's the epic dose of endorphins my brain is oozing with.)

So let me lay out my plan for this blog.It started as something to help me track some of my experiences whilst abroad in a very peculiar and beautiful place. I thought it would be photos mostly, and now most of my posts lack photos. Though many will be inserted later on, it's become a different beast. I'm happy with it, whatever direction it is trending in. Which is to say that I don't really want to stop, and why should I? Life was strange and amazing over this past year, and it was worth documenting. Well it might only get stranger and dare-I-say more amazing, as time progresses. That is the dream, at least.
Speaking of life, in 18 days I'm starting medical school, a challenge the likes of which I have never seen. It will test me physically and mentally. And in the end, there's a good chance I'll make it out alive...oh wait, that might be a sensitive word to use in this context. But you see, making it through on its own would not be entirely satisfying to me. I don't just want to "succeed." This shouldn't be like bad sex that you can't wait to end. It should be exciting, challenging, memorable. It should have a positive impact on my life, and hopefully minimal negative. I should not be too miserable at any point in the process. At the end, I hope I will have a substantial knowledge and experience base to draw on to make daily living that much more unique and fulfilling, to understand the inner workings of myself far more, and in turn, to understand the inner and outer workings of other Homo sapiens, all of which I hope will help me keep the dream of life going for other people, and to do what in many ways keeps me going in life: create opportunities for people to be creative, whether that be by restoring them to good health, and by educating people, whether they have never needed to think about money or they have never had money to think about. At the same time I hope this life will lend itself to some of my own creativity, if I have any to work with at that point. Also, won't it be cool to learn how to sober up via IV drip? JUST KIDDING!

The basic conclusion is that my blog will progress, and that since medical-graduate school will become a dominant part of life pretty soon, the blog will attempt to chronicle my experiences in that anything else I might find photography and other hobbies.Who knows what adventures await- I know now to suspend all doubt and enjoy the ride, wherever this trip is leading me.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Back Home and First Adventures in New York.

After a long three leg trip back home (Bali->Singapore, 3 hrs via KLM; 6 hour layover staying at an intra-airport hotel, which has what I think is the world's only swimming pool+ jacuzzi contained in an airport, though sadly closed by the time I got there; Singapore->Tokyo, 7.5hrs via Delta; 1 hr layover; Tokyo-> New York, 12 hrs, via Delta) I finally reached JFK. Got off the plane and met a real warm welcome of pushing and intense crowd anxiety.I noted many more smiles on the faces of foreign visitors vs. those holding U.S. Passports. It was remarkably depressing to be in the U.S. Passport line, even though we got to skip all the Non-residents and had much less waiting time to get through passport control.

Met up with the family, and that was just excellent. Becky is quite the talker these days. She went on and on about having a special surprise for me and missing me more than I could even imagine. Just nuts how much more a year means when someone is 4-5 vs. when someone is so much older (in terms of developmental and intellectual changes). Catching up was just perfect,obviously my parents wanted to hear some stories, have me explain my photos, as well as the different bite marks I have all over my body (i.e. remnants of leeches and other blood-suckers). My sister was dying to show me the new swimming skills she's acquired, and I was really impressed. She went from needing those inflatable arm floaters, to being able to tread water, dive and swim under water for like half of our pool's length, and also swim insanely fast using the doggy paddle method. Look out, this one is gonna do some serious damage once she refines her technique a bit. She already has what's most important, being naturally comfortable in the water.

After unraveling the many little trinkets and art works I purchased on my trips (and making clear which ones were set aside for my dorm room) I thought much about whether I could still hold on to the experiences and lessons I had garnered in my year abroad. There's certainly the fear that once I get back "on track" I may well forget all the intricacies of my time in Asia, and all the invaluable lessons that came with these rare experiences. But I'm pretty certain these are irrational concerns that won't come true. After all, I have all these photos and journal entries to help remind me of what it was like for me throughout the year. Also these experiences were just too special and mind-blowing to just vanish from my memory.

Today, I had some errands to run in Manhattan. It was a nice way to begin the process of reacquainting myself with this intimidating bohemoth of a city. The train ride alone was entertaining to me. Some obnoxiously loud teenagers, and I wondered if I was just more sensitive to the noise, if they were legitimately being out of line. I wondered how much of my subjective experience of everyday life situations had changed from spending a year in this strange, foreign land a world removed. Would hummus taste the way it tasted before? Would the city still smell of honey-roasted peanuts and car-fumes? Would the heat be more bearable than it had been before (yes, did not even need A/C last night)?

I had so many questions going into today, and I've been pleasantly surprised by my reaction to the city. I mean my approach this time around coming back is so different from when I got back in November for interviews. Back then I had a less positive attitude in a sense, and was less receptive to the overwhelming number of stimuli this city has to offer. This is why my first time in the city back then nearly caused me a panic attack, with serious chest tightening and other symptoms. Today, I had a more humorous and emotionally healthy outlook, helping me to stay calm in spite of some anxiety-evoking situations (i.e. huge crowds, honking, etc.). Somehow it felt far more manageable and ok than last time. As for my errands, I began by delivering my pee to Quest diagnostic for a drug screen, which is a requirement for starting school next month. I visited school (Mount Sinai on E. 98th and Madison), paid rent for my dorm room, and touched base with the coordinator of the MD-Phd program to figure out what I needed to do to be on track for starting next month. Then made myself acquainted with the Middle Eastern takeout place near school. I noted that back in Borneo, i would not be given napkins (you have an option to take one or two, but not a huge stack like i got in this situation). These kinds of observations have been happening very often, and it's definitely interesting to draw the comparisons. Lastly, I visited the Apple store (yep I'm planning to make the switch to Macbook) on 5th, which I did not know was open 24/7 365. Funny thing to learn my first day back. I was probably way more entertained by this than most others who find out the same factoid. Also, it was unbelievably packed in there. They may as well have been giving away free iPhones, it was THAT crowded.

And now I'm about to have Mexican food for the first time in the U.S. This is kind of an important experience that I've been looking forward to since leaving in December. It's probably going to be the highlight of my week. That's all for now. Updates from past months coming up.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I Love Bali

At this very moment, I'm sitting at the Laughing Buddha Bar, located on Monkey Forest Street in Ubud, Bali. I shit you not. I just finished my fourth Arak Obama (Arak is the local Rice liquor), since this drink is 2 for 1 during their happy hour, and I just had to. Also it's a great drink, think Mohito with a shot of cranberry. The music here is super chill, with hints of Bob Marley, Jazzy and latin elements all mixed in. Plus I'm sitting on the most comfortable couch I've encountered in my life...and trust me, I'm a good judge of these things. The light is dimmed down a bit to add a calming, intimate quality to the ambiance. Very good vibes indeed.

Probably the perfect place for me to hang out for my last night in Bali, and last night in Asia (well tomorrow I'll be in transit and sleeping in Singapore's airport) to round off an incredible 11 month stint (actually 10 month, if we consider my month back in the States). I also couldn't help myself, since I got those 3 little laughing buddha statues from this random Indian man in KL last August, and I did have some incredible luck this past year, so why not honor this great symbol.

So I've been in Ubud for 4 full days now, and it has been amazing. The ideal place for me to finish off this year (naturally). Let me paint a picture of this place, what I've been up to here, and why I'm so in love with Bali.

I did minimal planning for this trip, and I thought this would be the right way to go about things. Day before flying here, I called the number for this homestay (Putu Putera) I had found out about online, as being a cheap and authentically Balinese place to stay. I arrived late in Ubud from the airport in Denpasar, and got to Tebesaya street where my homestay was. There was some sort of show going on in the middle of the street, and it was impossible to find the address of this place. This show involved elaborately and colorfully costumed people with equally elaborate and colorful painted faces. People donned in very traditional Hindu wear crowded the all around the 3 meter radius of this show, with hysterical laughter echoing the streets. What a welcome for me, right?  But where would I stay that night...after some more searching, I decided to just settle for a different homestay, since there was one at every turn. I ended up at Nyoman Mama's Homestay. Mama was very nice and immediately showed me to my room. I was so struck by the whole ambiance of the place- the altar, statues, strong very traditional looking and I thought at first about whether this was real/authentic to the culture or potentially a tourist gimmick. Pretty soon just walking along this block and seeing people sitting around this show, I realized this was the real way of life here, and that made me exuberant to be in the midst of such a beautiful society and culture. For a short while I chatted with Mama's daughter, Maddie, about her experiences working in Washington D.C. and her decision to go back home, to her much more relaxed, more culturally rich, less workaholic, home, here in Ubud. Then I was encouraged to enjoy the last night of this show, which is a typical way of celebrating and blessing newly erected buildings here in Bali. Just wish I understood all the jokes that incited this furry of laughter erupting every few seconds. I mean gestures and the face paint were enough to do it for me.

Bali -2

Bali -7
Bali -9
Mama later explained just how tight-knit these communities are, and how she has held her homestay since the 1970s, when things started to get touristy here.

Next day I oriented myself around Ubud by just strolling around, taking it all in. I was amazed by all the shops displaying art of many varieties, whether they be paintings, wood carvings, countless other trinkets. I instantly felt myself become connected to this place, but there's no surprise there. Felt very inspired by the energy of this place, and whipped out my camera to see what I could capture. I stumbled upon this pond, full of ducks, and right near some rice fields. Here's what I ended up with:
How did the duck cross the pond?
Bali -18

Anyways, I just took it easy my entire time in Ubud. Walked around, found cool places to hang out in, did some writing and reading, started putting this year in perspective a bit. Did pretty minimal thinking about starting school, since there's not much I can really do now to get myself ready aside from making the most of this relaxing, heart-warming experience. Also I found the homestay I was originally supposed to stay in (it was next door to Mama's homestay but slightly hidden), and ended up living there the rest of my time in Ubud. It was about half the price of Mama's, though kind of nicer and more homely. Basically Maddie, the woman who runs the place now, just had some spare rooms on the second floor and made a bed&breakfast out of it. Banana pancakes and ginger tea to my heart's delight.

But my second full day here, I did this bike tour around rice paddy fields outside of Ubud. It's through a company called P.T. Bali Budaya, which started the first ever Eco-cycling tour here. This tour has gone on to become pretty famous, even recently written up in the NY Times. I was told it was a must-do, and I was not disappointed. 35km, mostly downhill, alongside 8 dutch tourists, while Balinese kids run up to give me high-fives. This is the stuff of Life.

I found Ubud really similar to Bhutan in some sense, though with a more alternative and far more developed flavor. For one, the internet here made my heart skip a beat. It was unsettlingly quick, which definitely made me think about how overwhelming NYC might be, and that adjusting back might present some challenges. Some weeks or months back, I thought that it would be so great to have high speed internet again- that I would not have to waste time waiting for sites to load, etc...but then recently, I realized in that time I would usually spend waiting, I usually would think and reflect a lot...but when things load instantaneously, there's no time for contemplation, it's just constant external stimuli being fed to my brain...sounds exhausting to me. Gosh I guess I've changed a bit.

Other highlights of my time here:
-best chocolate mousse since London last year (top two ever)
-best coconut pie at a modest Indonesian restaurant called "Bendi"
-excellent Blueberry muffins
-met Wyman (common name here, since every first born child is named that), a friend/driver who showed me how the Balinese do their spectacular wood carving. It can take well over a month to complete many of these beautiful works.
-everyone here wants to drive you around town, sell you some nice art, rent you their bike, and prepare you some food...for a cost obviously, but I marvel and how much these guys diversify their work.
-tried kopi lewak, which is coffee prepared after having been digested and fermented by the intestinal tract of the civet cat (then cleaned diligently). The taste was not noticably traceable from its origin, if you catch my drift...less sour, more bitter than other unfermented coffee blends.
Bali -19

- made a dent in this great book I'm reading. It's called work, sex, money: real life on the path to mindfulness. It's everything I've been working for and the journey of self-discovery I've been making this year starting from past years. All summed up pretty well in this book. Well more than summed's fleshed out brilliantly, eloquently, more specifically, concretely, with more wisdom than I've been able to really do on my own...I've sensed these changes in me...but reading these words is just music to my ears because i know it rings so true for me...for what im shooting for with my life. What is all this mumbo-jumbo I'm rambling about. Simply put, Lucid Living distilled in layman's terms:

It's about seeing the energy and creativity inherent in everyday life situations. Being aware of what's going on around you and in your life, right now, this very second, and engaging with it, providing the path of least resistance, and funneling all of your creative wisdom and sense of humor into this very moment. Pretty straightforward, right? It should be, but it takes some work to get. Also takes a certain emotional intelligence to begin to take the right approach to this philosophy. So that's been the secret to my year in some least how I set out to make this year work for me.

oh shoot...the five key on my laptop just snapped off...Now I'm gonna be hard pressed to express laughter in thai (5 in thai is pronounced "ha" and this is why Thai people sometimes write or type 55555 to express laughter online).

By the end of this post, I've moved to xl lounge shisha bar. There's a live band here playing very feel good music...One Love....let's get together and feel alright...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I'm on a Rig, Mother%$#@ers

Maybe the title of this post is a bit much, but hear me out...After doing my PADI open water scuba diving course in Kota Kinabalu (Downbelow, Gaya Island) last month, I decided that there is no way I can leave this wondrous island without checking out the most fantastic dive site it has to offer- Sipadan, an island on the east coast of Borneo. It's  protected status is the main reason it's such a  hotspot for diving, since it means its corals and all it's cool wildlife are left undisturbed (well not totally, considering the number of divers going there). But in order to dive at Sipadan, one needs to get a permit, the number of which are limited by the government, I think rightfully so to keep this place relatively unperturbed and preserve the natural beauty. A friend of mine had gone to do diving at and around Sipadan, and stayed with Seaventures, on their dive rig resort near Mabul island. He said great things about it, so I decided to treat myself to a little stint there. This stint would include an advanced/adventure diving and enriched air Nitrox certification class.

   Wait what the hell is a dive rig resort, anyway? This used to be an oil rig, built in the Celebes sea in close to Mabul island and a 20 minute boat ride to Sipadan island. Conveniently, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, this oil rig shut down and later was converted into a dive resort. “rig” and “resort” seems pretty incongruous words to be used together, but this place is pretty fantastic, if you can get past the absolutely abominable appearance of the rig (it looks like a 4 year old went wild on this place).

The food here has been really good, far better than the taste I got on Semporna. Kind of pan-asian, with Chinese style with Western dishes mixed in. There’s free wifi, really nice rooms with air con and hot showers, all the dive equipment easily accessible, unlimited diving below the rig (house reef), a game room, karaoke, and even a live band. This sounds like a testimonial they might have asked me to write for them, but I’m just very impressed.

I’ve been here 3 days now, and tomorrow is my last. I just got my certification for the Advanced Open Water and the Enriched Air Nitrox course (you can use a different blend of air with less nitrogen and more oxygen, which increases your allowable dive time due to less nitrogen dissolving in your tissues and so you have more time before you get decompression sickness). Sitting at the bar, sipping my second San Miguel Pilsen, looking over some of the photos I took yesterday (for the advanced course you can choose one of three specialties, including underwater photography, so I did that one, the night dive, and peak performance buoyancy, an important skill for optimizing your buoyancy, maybe the single most important skill in scuba diving). Looking at these shots on the screen, I marvel at how lucky I am to add these experiences to a whole list of other rare, awe-inspiring experiences I’ve enjoyed this year.

I mean I was within tickling distance of a 2-3 m long green turtle, maybe a meter away from an innocuous white-tipped reef shark, and a few meters from an enormous school of barracudas. After several dives, you begin to forget how unnatural what you are doing really is (in terms of humans breathing underwater, etc) and you just focus on this life down under. Diving with my dive instructor, Ricardo, was such a thrill too, because he’s very much into underwater photography and macro life. The underwater creatures I got to see appear totally alien to planet earth as I’ve experienced it until now. Stone fish, Lion fish, frog fish, all sorts of eels (some sticking their head out of a whole, waiting for unsuspecting prey), Harlequin Nudibranches, sea urchins, scorpionfish, robust ghost pipefish, porcupinefish, and blue-spotted (Kuhl’s) stingray. I’ve noticed that many organisms seem to boast especially vibrant, psychedelic colors, and many are extremely poisonous (though luckily are not aggressive when left untouched). Even more to spice up the experience. Speaking of things that spice up diving, yesterday I went down to 30m as part of my Advanced course. The pressure down there is 4x atmospheric, and little light reaches down there. Maybe I'll go more into everything that is entailed in scubadiving, but for now know that I have a new hobby, to add to some others I've piled up this year. And now for some photos.

Ricardo got a few shots of me...of course one of my standard zen meditation poses, and then a shot near my turtle friend.

White-tip reef shark...not to worry, these are non-aggressive ones, though we saw some massive ones.

Green Turtle..these guys are everywhere around here.

sea urchin observed under the rig on a night dive.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Jumpa Lagi Kuching

Ok so I know I'd fail miserably if I tried blogging professionally. Maybe my calling is in something else entirely. I feel like I spend more time promising blog posts than actually blogging about my experience here. It's alright, i have plenty of journal entries and notes in my private stores, and they just need a little retouching so that I can make them more blog-compatible.

But I wanted to give everyone a short update on what's been going on in my life in the last months of my stint on the island of Borneo.

I'm in Life Cafe now, by the way. It may or may not be my thirty-somethingth time at this place. It is my first time coming here just for a drink though. Iced Passion fruit slushie-smoothie kind of deal. It's also my last full day in Kuching. I'm getting some souvenirs (I'm terrible at souvenir shopping by the way, it is always just too overwhelming for me to be in these shops), but I feel like if I don't get just a few things to remember this place by, I might regret it later on. The photos I'm coming home with are the real gold though (not that I think they are particularly impressive, but many of them do evoke memories of really special moments and experiences from this year on this dreamy island).

Earlier this morning, I got a head shave, but only with an electric razor. Few here would dare to give one a good clean shave with a razorblade. It's a combination of liability issues and superstition, the latter being an issue with the Chinese populations here, and the former with pretty much everyone. Back in the U.S. I'd shave with my own headblade (think racecar with the front wheels replaced by a razor blade), but something about being here has made my scalp much thicker, and my hair follicles way more resistant to the blade (even when I used a fresh blade). It's seriously bizarre.

After getting my shave near the open air market near the Electra House, I walked around India street for a while. I couldn't help but marvel at the contrast between the Malay textile and food shops and the music playing on their radios. Something about the juxtaposed culture of sexually conserved Malay life and the lascivious Rihanna tunes made me giggle a bit. This is the world I've lived in this year. And many ways it's more representative of the rest of the world than the one I've lived in most of my life. I mean in that the contradictions and ironies of life seem more accessible, more obvious (even though there are certainly many in every part of the world, but in many places, they are more covered up). Life here has felt very spontaneous because of this. Although things are somewhat more conservative on the social front here, the humanity of this place is quite easy to see and feel (which adds excitement and spice to life), whereas back in a big city, I often felt myself lost in the mechanical cog of the daily grind. More time is devoted to living and getting by here, to enjoying life, and the eccentricities it may bring. Let me give you some concrete examples from my experience here:

Sarawak RV- on my expedition in October, some people were too tired to walk down from the camp. So the porters hooked up a wooden shack (built on log sleds) to a tractor and pulled it down with all the luggage and a few very brave souls (I wasn't too lazy to go down, this concept just rocked my world at the time so I joined in on this insane idea)

You see all sorts of creativity on motorbikes here- I've seen a woman sitting behind her husband, the driver, breastfeeding their baby while the bike was speeding along at 50+ km per hour. Along the same vein on these motorbikes, I've seen space management skills that would stun even the most experienced backpackers. 6 People, one bike, two kids sandwiched in the middle, one in back, and one in front.

Plenty of spontaneous yummy concoctions thought up on the spot, and there is ALWAYS time for a meal. Somehow on this island, Time doesn't equal money; Time equals Food.

...more to be filled in once I've looked back at my notes.

Ok update time. here's the quick list.

July 7-10, 2011. Some of the other Malaysian fulbrighters and friends come to Kuching, we join a friend for some camping and drinking games at her village, then we head to Sarawak Cultural Village for the three day long Rainforest World Music Festival. This whole event was bomb. For me, this was an unprecedented diversity off musical talents. Every group came out there to blow our minds, to inspire and stir something in the deepest recesses of our souls. I'm not gonna name all the bands, but I'll name a few that really rocked my foundations- Kamerunga (Australian folk music at it's best), Kamafei (Italian Reggae), Pacific Curls (New Zealand/Polynesian meets Celtic styles with jazzy flavors mixed in), and then there was Kissmet (Bhangra Rock exploring new dimensions of the musical universe). Kissmet was the last band to play, and they brought the whole crowd to their feet. I rocked out shirtless at the was glorious!

June 27-July 3rd- travel to Sabah, met fellow fulbrighter Elena, dealt with visa issues, trekked for three days in Maliau Basin, fought off 200+ leeches, fainted for the second time in my life (second time this year too), border hopping in Brunei (for 2 hours) to fix my visa issues.

June 25th- farewell bbq at Gilbert's house, organized by my colleagues from SBC (Gilbert mostly). They got me a surprise Durian-durian cake from Secret Recipe. This something like a sponge cake with layers of durian puree. My style of dessert. Everyone also put their heads together to make me a photo album compiling photos from my different adventures here. It's exactly what I wanted to make for myself but probably would never have otherwise. I almost broke down while leafing through this album. Everyone really worked hard to make my goodbye a beautiful, nostalgic, one.

June 24th- last day at SBC: compiling all my research data for SBC, photos with my colleagues in the labs, with the gardeners, and others in the admin building. Final goodbyes. Then Karaoke with a few of my closest friends, including some colleagues. And wrapping up my night at King's Arms (local bar-lounge with good live music) and a late night kolo mee session at Homecooked. This is where I learned that contrary to popular belief, some Malaysians do drink till they drop.

June 23rd- visited Rajah Brooke Memorial Hospital, right nearby SBC on Jalan Borneo Heights. Dr. Yeo, my research supervisor at SBC, insisted that I visit this place, because it was once also a Leper colony and still has a few patients living there. I did visit this hospital and got the full tour. There's a lot to be said about this place, since much of it's original layout is still preserved. It's a sort of museum in a way. There are still cemeteries there intended for the patients, whether they were Malay, Chinese, or Dayak- Catholic/Christian. Learned a bit about the rejection many of the Lepers used to face, prior to the advent of treatment options.

June 8-14- first visit to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Took an open water Scuba Diving course to get PADI certified. Almost lost my camera to some overly excited Monitor lizards on Sapi Island.

May 24-27th
Visit to Cameron Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia. Think Colonial style meets mossy cloud forest. Scones, fresh cream, strawberry jam, English Breakfast, tea plantations, bee gardens, and refreshing, cool air. I remembered my dreams here very vividly, unlike what my experience has been in kuching the last few months.

some visits to KL to hang out with Fulbright Malaysia friends. New Girlfriend Ashley (gotta go local, I say), going out on the town way more these days.
Work is picking up a lot, good results on the GC-MS. These microbes are making some wicked funky gases.

More on these many things later.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Visa Hiccups, En Route to Maliau, and unexpected Internet Access in the Lost World of Sabah

I really did not expect to be able to blog from this place, which is called the Lost World of Sabah for a reason. Maliau Basin (brief description) is located in the south central part of Sabah, and might be one of the best places in Borneo (on the planet, also can) to explore primary tropical rainforest, whilst having a bed, showers, and a kitchen (And surprisingly, wifi and mobile phone network).This place was not originally a place I planned to go because booking it through a tour company would be crazy expensive. It's a very well conserved area and very few are able to make it here, usually only researchers and the very wealthy tourist. I got very lucky that Elena, my fellow-fulbrighter friend doing research on Pitcher plants (Nepenthes sp.) at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, decided that she wants to go to this wondrous place. Since she was able to justify going to Maliau for her research (this place is supposed to be an excellent place for Nepenthes) and justify bringing me along (my experience doing GC-MS at SBC would help her research since she was planning to study Nepenthes gases).
    I only realized once I got here just how meaningful it is for me to be here now, just after finishing work at SBC, and close to my final departure back to the U.S. I mean here I am in one of the oldest, most pristine, tropical rainforests on the planet. I'm here with a great partner in crime, who understands fully well the magnitude of this place, and who is here with a similar-ish background (American, recent University grad, on a Fulbright to Borneo doing Biology research, etc.) to me, so gets it. I've just completed my time doing research at SBC, and had countless meaningful and rare Bornean experiences under my belt. It's been an excellent year, and to finish it off in Maliau is icing on the cake. But the best kind, made out of something scrumptious like maple cream cheese.
      It was pretty unintentional to depart for KK and Maliau on my bday. Funny how hectic the day ended up. But it's a fun story of what travels in Malaysia can be like. The story starts on the night of my farewell bbq (June 25th) when I get a slightly panicked text from Elena saying that she just found out we might need helicoptor medical evacuation insurance for the trip (but that they usually don't check). Maybe an effect of my joy from the bbq, I was more amused by this than freaked out, then checked out my options, both surprised and pleased with how easy it is to purchase this (but then again, as Elena noted, it would make sense for insurance to be so easy to buy). On June 27th, took the 6am flight to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. Started out the day with an excellent sunrise observed en route to KK. Got to KK and at the immigration check desk where they give your passport a stamp, something I had completely forgotten was brought to my attention. My Sarawak/Malaysia Professional Pass Visa expires on June 30th! I was set to be in Maliau until July 3rd and head out from KK on the 4th, meaning that I would be in Sabah/Malaysia illegally and that going back to Sarawak, according to the immigration officer, "might be very difficult." He advised me to go back to Sarawak before June 30th and to sort it all out at Sarawak Immigration Office, but when I told him "that one cannot," he said try Sabah Immigration immediately. It was not possible from his vague description to find out what the consequences of overstaying past my visa date would be. Then I got into the arrival hall, welcomed by Elena. I was clearly anxious and panicked, telling her the problem. Elena was way chill and said we'd head over to immigration after stopping at UMS, where we could print out a letter from Meena (Meena is the coordinator of Fulbright related things at MACEE, the Malaysian American Center for Educational Exchange, in KL) maybe explaining the issue to the immigration officer. As a further note on this, letters seem to go a really long way in Malaysia, and expedite bureaucratic process a lot (in many cases). We got Meena to draft this letter very quickly and printed it out. We headed over to the immigration office, went straight for the expatriate help office, which Elena has visited before, and thought would be a good starting point. The officer explained that I should get a social visit visa for Sabah, making my stay in Sabah legal for another two weeks. Though this would not solve my problem entering Sarawak past my Visa expiration, this would then allow me to go to Brunei and then travel back to Sarawak from there. Leaving the country and coming back in (within your visa time period) then would allow me to get a 30 day tourist visa, and make everything ok. First we needed to go into town (30 minute drive) to the income tax office or something, where I needed to pay RM10 for the stamp duty for my visa application. The application where the RM10 stamp is made also includes the name and address of a guarantor, basically someone who is responsible for me in case I do something illegal here. But because the application was written in the most confusing Bahasa Malayu/English ever imaginable (perhaps I'll upload it in the future) we needed to stop at UMS first to get Elena's coworkers to translate and help us fill it out. I pity our driver for all these back and forth drives, and I felt terrible about it,but this needed to be sorted out. Anyways the stamp duty was quick, and we rushed back to the immigration office, where the same officer processed the application very quickly, finally giving me reassurance that I'd not break any Malaysian visa laws (trust me, it's not something to test out for fun). Then we could start our journey, first visiting 1Borneo(big shopping mall in KK) to buy gas for the stove, and food for our trip. on the menu was tom yum flavored instant noodles (mee), rice, different varieties of tuna (green curry, chili, oil), fake oreos called "cream-o's", and sucking candies. Some spring onions and cabbage were all purchased to add some fresh vegis to our meals. We bought our driver some extra Red-bulls, because I noticed earlier he already had about 5 and was a fan. This was an attempt at a sort of peace-offering, to make up for the annoyances of the past few hours. I think he was a bit amused by us, and later warmed up to us a bit after realizing our shenanigans were likely just unexpected and not what we are usually like.

       Eventually we made it back on the road for an approximately 5 hour drive to Maliau. Two hours of driving got us to Kininggau, a small town where Elena and I ordered some pork buns (Pau Sasau). The drive was pretty scenic, with excellent mountainous scenes, and a typically nice (but not the nicest possible) Sabah sunset. En route, Elena gets an entertaining and slightly disgruntling message from one of the people from Maliau who helps decide whether research proposals get approved. Apparently one person on the committee did not understand some part of her application and so disapproved. Hence her application was rejected. It would be difficult if not impossible to sway the committee member, especially because the actual source of confusion and objection were left to be guessed. Well this would just mean that she could not collect her Nepenthes for later analyses, but we'd still be able to do everything else we wanted at Maliau. Slight inconvenience but not such a big deal in the scheme of things. Just funny, considering that with all the letters and proposals Elena had prepared and sent, it seemed things would run smoothly. Also the short notice of this message might have been troubling to most, but things like this just happen, and we'd at least still be able to enjoy our stay at Maliau, barring other 'hiccups'.After some time working here one develops a certain tolerance for things not going exactly as planned.  Definitely very good experience in the total life scheme of things.
    We finally got to the first gate on the way to Maliau (which was another hour drive along a narrow dirt road), but this gate was closed. Elena had earlier spoken to the woman at the reception desk to notify her of our slightly late arrival, and made sure to ask about the gate closing, which she was reassured would stay open. Now neither of us had any phone reception, the walk up to the reception desk would be way too long, and there was no one around to help us. There were a few shacks and lights on, so we investigated to scene to find someone to help us, but to no avail. Only creepy open doorways, with dimly lit hallways- scared the heebie jeebies out of us. We opted to drive back about 15 minutes to this little restaurant we had passed, with hopes of some assistance and/or a phone. We had a drink and were told that another 5 minutes drive would get us to a place with Maxis (my) network. We drove for 20 minutes and no network, lah.
Then a red pickup drove up next to us- it was the couple who seem to own that restaurant, and they told us to follow them to the location we wanted. Another 10 minutes or so and we were there. Unfortunately when we tried calling, we'd get a "Network busy" message. Eventually we discovered the hand phone number of the receptionist was missing a number and that the wrong one was given to Elena. The landline number eventually worked though and we got them so send someone to the gate to meet us.

Back at the gate, the guy there said he was just staying at a different house further up, and that we should have honked louder to get his attention. Interesting. We then began our rocky drive again, and both Elena and I passed out in the back. There were moments when I'd hit my head or face against the window, and I'd sort of wake up to a half conscious state, perhaps hallucinating some movement in the forest just several feet away. I knew already we were being watched, sensed, by the jungle and its inhabitants. We arrived and got our hostel assignments, of course separated by gender. We had some mee for a snack and went to bed. The accommodations were surprisingly very good and well maintained. Showers, bathrooms, bunk beds, kitchen, all clean. I dreamt about simple things, without visa-related qualms, nor emergency helicoptor evacuations.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Last Week at SBC

It's almost the end of the week, and also the end of my time working at SBC. WAIT, WHAT? Yep, it snuck up on me like the flu I caught the other day. Lately (especially this week) I've been getting so sad and nostalgic about leaving SBC, and about leaving Kuching.So much has happened to me this year, and I feel as though I've been a part of a really special and meaningful (at least for me) experience. My colleagues at work have been excellent friends, always looking out for ways to improve my experience, show me something new, take me out for a trip somewhere, etc. From a different angle of looking at this, SBC is the reason I was able to visit this part of the world, and this wondrous island in particular. Without SBC, likely I would not have had quite the adventures that I've enjoyed this year. First, all the amazing trekking I've had the opportunity to do here, getting a sense for the jungles here, the biodiversity and the wildlife. Going hand in hand with that is what I've had the chance to learn about traditional knowledge, specifically as it applies to ethnobotanical practices. This was only possible through our TK group at SBC, which is really one of the most well-set-up places for traditional knowledge documentation and research. Together with these insights I've gotten into ethnobotany in Borneo is everything else Ethno- As in, the people, their culture, way of life, religious beliefs, relationship to the rainforest,and most important, FOOD, or Makanan/Makai, which of course ties into everything else. Certainly I am thankful for the amazing lab spaces and equipment I've been trusted to work with. Also the project I was given total independence to work on, which has turned out really interesting and exciting results.

And there is Bhutan- without being at SBC at the right time, there is no way I would have gotten a chance to visit this incredible place, since that was such a unique connection I had to Chencho and the National Biodiversity Centre. There are so many more things to thank SBC and its staff for. My experience, aside from these tangible things, was totally one that they helped mold and optimize for me. But I'll touch more upon the intangible things I've gotten out of my experience later on.

Note: I know there are significant gaps in the chronology of my blog posts. I'll fill it all in once life gets a bit more stable. This week has been pure insanity, because of the many things I need to wrap up prior to saying "goodbye" to SBC, specifically all I need to do to ensure a smooth handover of my data, newly isolated strains, etc.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Back to Basics at Bako

Today I visited Bako National Park for the third time, which is funny because until April, I had yet to visit, and now in the past three months I've been there three times. The occasion was that a photographer friend, Kim Briers, was in town and wanted to visit this place. Actually I only met him through my Sarawakian friend, Ashley, but that's besides the point. Anyways, our trip to Bako started off pretty miserably, due to some torrential downpours. Kim was especially worried for his camera gear, and I guess it was my fumble to not advise him to bring a raincoat and dry bag. Eventually we made it to Telur Pandan Kecil (roughly translates into: Small beach), hung out there for a while and took some shots, before heading back to the Bako HQ, where our boat would be waiting. We arranged for the boat to come around 6:30pm, to allow us to catch the sunset there and potentially get some snaps.

On our way back, we ran into a brigade of proboscis monkeys on their way back from the Mangrove swamp near HQ. This was perfect, since Kim had wanted to visit Bako for the purpose of seeing these beautiful, yet odd-looking animals. We'd almost lost hope, but lucked out. The boat came a bit early, and we left Bako before the most colorful part of the sunset (usually just after sunset). This ended up being for the best (for me at least), because we were on the boat during this colorful post-sunset, and still got some excellent shots. For me it was ideal, because I love taking such photos from very low near the water, and to imply motion using longer shutter speed exposures.

Bako Sunset

When our boat began to turn and move away from the mountain, I looked back behind us, noticing how cool the scene look combined with wakes in the water produced by the motor. I recomposed and boom. of course the downside of the longer shutter speed was more blur in the overall scene, but it was still ok enough for me to be relatively satisfied.

Bako Sunset 2

Next time I'll be ready to make a better version of this, but damn, let's just take a second to marvel at the beauty of this place. Seeing such breathtaking scenes consistently moves me, inspires me, and gives me new appreciation for such simple experiences we are often too busy to notice unfolding before our eyes.

Also, thinking about how our day progressed, at first we were pretty put off by the downpours early in the day, and had lost hope that anything spectacular was coming our way later on. We did stay positive, enjoying the view from the cliff atop the beach, and basking in the cool, fresh air brought to us by the rain. In the end we lucked out big time, perhaps rewarded for our patience and perseverance. A lesson to those travelers seeking instant gratification from the places they visit.

Published on June 16