Monday, December 27, 2010

A Bidayuh Wedding Bonanza.

It's the day after Christmas. Things are very quiet around Kuching, as many are hungover and recovering. I'm no exception. the day started off slow but definitely picked up by the end. But I had a little help from my friends.

 In the evening, Gilbert and I joined Syaliza, a colleague from SBC, on a trip to the Serian area around 1 hr Southeast of Kuching. A relative from Syaliza's Bidayuh side (though the terms 'uncle' and 'auntie' are used loosely to refer to elders, so might not be an actual relative but a friend of the family) got married today, so Syaliza invited us and two other friends, Michelle (also a colleague) and her fiancĂ© Andrew, to join the Bidayuh Wedding Bash/Bonanza in Kampung Krusen in the Serian district. I was actually giddy with excitement going to this thing, for a few reasons. First off, it would be for sure be fun and culturally enlightening, considering how fun, amiable, and open all other Bidayuhs I've met have been. Next, this would be fun because of the liquid spirits I expected these fun people to offer me. You see, it is no secret that Bidayuh people and, well, many other Dayak peoples in Borneo love their liquid spirits, particularly the Tuak (rice wine) and Langkau (rice liquor;  think rice vodka) each Kampung typically ferments and distills themselves. Moreover, it is known that whenever any visitors come to visit Kampungs in Sarawak, they get the first class treatment. Bidayuh peoples are known to be particularly friendly, and so I expected non-stop drink offerings. Oh, and many of the people in this Kampung have never encountered a white man before, and for sure not a single one had ever met a Jewish person. So I had to really make a good impression, or else my people would get a bad reputation in this part of the world. I was hoping they wouldn't ask me to sing any Bar Mitzvah songs.

So we arrived just in time for dinner. The bride and groom looked beautiful and greeted all the guests, including us. Gifts are totally optional, and there is not an ounce of ill-will if you decide to cheap out. We brought Box wine, and this was welcomed with open arms. Seriously, these are the coolest people ever. Ok so we were introduced to Syaliza's relatives, and then were welcomed to grab some food. On the menu for tonight were three-layer pork (yep I know what you're thinking about the pork. I told them I'm as gentile as a Jew can get) fried crispily, some tasty herbal chicken, glutenous rice and desiccated coconut steamed in banana leaves, rendang beef (curry without the turmeric and with desiccated coconut+coconut milk). All so tasty. One of Syaliza's uncles brought a bunch of bottles filled with a milky yellowish liquid. I knew this was it, Tuak!. He poured us some and holy shit it was delicious. Hints of honey and ginger enveloped my palette and really rubbed me the right way. Of course Syaliza didn't drink, since she is half Muslim, and here in Malaysia, being any part Muslim means you are all Muslim, meaning to say she must follow laws prescribed for Muslims here. But we were actively encouraged to enjoy a bottle for ourselves with the meal. Also we ate and drank sitting cross-legged on the floor. This is the accepted style of eating meals here, in addition to eating using your hands (there is actually a very specific hand shape you need to adopt to do this correctly and effectively, rather than embarass yourself with rice falling all over you).

     I briefly got to thinking about how much one can learn about the personality of a ethnic group just from such eating practices. Maybe I'm just drawing conclusions I want to draw, but hear me out. It at least makes sense in my mind. Doesn't it say something when people can eat comfortably, humbly, all sitting down on the floor, together, in a large large group (basically a dinner with hundreds of people huddled up together), and when they need not worry about all the strange conventions we have in "civilized" countries? Why use a knife if I can just user my teeth? Why risk the danger of wielding a knife? Isn't it great not to have to remember whether crossing your utensils at the end of the meal means you enjoyed or abhorred the food? Or to constantly ask whether it's the larger or smaller fork that is to be used to pierce your tasteless lettuce and tomato salad?

I found it so refreshing how laid back the people were. Eat the way you want- hands, fork, spoon (not knife though), sitting, standing, crouching, laying down, walking. Anyways, after eating, I noticed some kids looking in at me through the wooden window shutters of the room we were sitting in. The look they had was sort of priceless, since it so perfectly captured how foreign I was to them. It was a look not of fear though, much more of intrigue and curiosity, with a small measure of caution. I took out my camera to snap some shots of them, and it we got into a modified game of peek-a-boo, with them crouching down to hide whenever I would look into the camera eyepiece. It was a very cute little game we played, and kind of reassured them that I was friendly. Eventually I got up and went out to meet them from behind...somehow they had caught on and ran off. But nevermind, there was a big group of guys drinking and they begged me to join in. We chatted a bit (some knew a little English, others just used universal signals for 'drink up'), then the dancing started.
There was a live band, and I was encouraged to ask any lady to dance. It's not seen as sketchy to do so, at least for a foreigner. Eventually Syaliza brought her shy cousin over and we danced a song, then I was requested to sing a song of my choosing (as long as the band knows how to play it) with Andrew. We did Hotel California. It's customary for visitors to offer some sort of performance to the rest of the Kampung. That's all they expect, and they really couldn't care less if you suck at it. As long as you put in the heart and effort to show you care about their Kampung and people.

"...Livin' Up in the Hotel California", or Hotel Sarawak? 

Well the rest of the night involved similar activities. People kept taking turns offering me drinks (even 8 year old kids bringing me whiskey on a silver platter, for real), leading me to be a background dancer while they sang songs in their Bidayuh language, and I got to dance with a bunch of the women there. Even got to strut my stuff in the local version of the line dance (called "poco poco", pronounced  pocho pocho). The night was an absolute thrill.

     The people in the kampung were all so sweet, friendly, and endearing really. Despite their 'Christianization' some 50 years ago, they do still retain a lot of their cultural practices and lifeways. And yet I'm sure a lot of their old animist  and pagan traditions have been lost, something I find deeply saddening and regretful. I got very upset thinking about how much rich history and culture has been effaced from the Earth. Especially at the hands of colonizers and missionaries installing their "civilized" culture and lifeways  in perfectly well-off societies. How can anyone have the overblown self-righteousness, ignorance, disrespect, and sheer nerve needed to just reboot a culture with brand new ideals (I know, in some ways it's interesting and somewhat hypocritical I'm saying this, while being a Westerner bringing my Western-educated expertise to the scientific world here in Borneo; but this is something I'll have to tackle in another post)? What made/makes anyone think that such people ever needed any "help", and that conversion was the benevolent answer?  If only everyone had the open-minded attitude of the Bidayuh people, maybe things would be different and so much of many beautiful cultures would not have been erased. But still, you can tell there is an great sense of cultural pride among the people holding onto what is still leftover of their cultural past. And of course they are very proud of new cultural and religious practices as well. But they do not have any interest in converting you since from the get-go they respect you and your unique lifeway. Moreover, they are genuinely interested in culture of visitors, such as myself. I demonstrated my version of the Soulja Boy dance, and then I described to them what a Jewish wedding is like, with tales of Smorgasbords, Huppahs, and breaking of the glass.

These wonderful people accepted me with wide open arms, despite my different beliefs about the world, preconceptions about theirs, and overall ignorance of their lifeways. How can one not fall in love with a culture as good-natured as this one?  I think the Bidayuh's in Kpg. Krusen seem to get that there is enough to love about people that transcends culture, language, and appearances. Or rather, individual differences are embraced, as they deeply enjoy sharing their culture and way of life with foreigners, while also expecting/experiencing a similar openness from their visitors, especially foreigners. It's always great meeting people who clearly enjoy seeing the range of culture humans have been able to explore, create, and live in. For me, it's refreshing beyond belief to know such people. Suffice to say, I had an excellent time taking in life with them last night until 3:30am.

Some new buddies

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Light Painting, take 1[ish]

Photos made using a combination of glow sticks and laser pointer, shooting at very low shutter speeds and high ISO sensitivity in darkness. Thanks to Gilbert for his help in taking these photos. Hoping to find some better tools, like, say fluorescent or glow-in-the-dark make up.

I had been very interested in light painting since seeing an excellent youtube video about it like 2 years ago. This is a different video I found that is even cooler than that last one ( for the actual video, and for the behind the scenes to show that they actually did this with photography).  So I thought I would give it a try, though obviously it doesn't even approach some of the photos and videos I've seen. It definitely can take a lot of time, but the fun of it makes it all worth the while. Especially if you can get a bunch of friends to join in, I would say this would make for an epic hangout activity.

Related to this is my interest in fluorescence. I've been pretty into it for years, since learning about the science of it and expressing fluorescent proteins (i.e. Green Fluorescent Protein) in cells. Then also doing chromatography and seeing the natural fluorescence of small molecules when they are exposed to UV. And more recently, my mind was blown by seeing fluorescence as an art form. Since visiting the fluorescent Art museum in Amsterdam back in May, I've also been thinking about new forms of fluorescent art that could potentially be made. For one, human-safe fluorescent make-up might allow for an interesting theatrical experience. Or even fluorescent light painting, for those who might want to be free of ghosting and other difficulties inherent in normal light painting (though of course inserting light drawings in different contexts is pretty awesome, this is just something different). Also, imagine a living piece of fluorescent art: if somehow, a bacteria engineered with fluorescent protein genes that could be specifically activated by sensing some property of nearby observers. Basically it would be alive in a literal sense of the bacteria producing those fluorescent proteins, but also in that the art will change from minute to minute as different people observe it. In this new form of audience participation, literally the art will be a product of every observer's presence. just have to figure out what a bacteria could be engineered with to react differently to each person. Pheromones? Odors molecules? hmmm. This requires a bit more thought.

From the website of the fluorescent art museum:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Biking around

So tonight I decided to take my 3rd night bike ride around the neighborhood. And it was perfect, maybe one of the most serene, mentally refreshing, experiences of my life. Here's how it went:

There was a light drizzle, not even heavy enough to knock the spiders away. The temp. had cooled to a perfect 70ish degrees F, and I literally could not imagine a more perfect climate for a bike ride. Very few cars were out, so I had the road mostly to myself for about 1.5 hrs. Ever so often, I would find myself in pitch darkness (aside from my lame little front and rear lights, which barely produce enough light to attract the moths). And I would find in this absence of technological stimuli a soothing reprieve from that clutter of artificial sights and sounds swarming us pretty much everywhere we go. I focused on the sounds of my breathing, and of the critters seemingly right next to me, while staying alert to whatever limited vision I had in the darkness. At some point during this ride, when I was particularly atuned to all of these things, even the feel of the cool air filling my lungs was exhilarating. This really is one of the true definitions of Lucid Living, the ultra-awareness of life as it is unfolding both outside and inside yourself.

And then like a sack of rice hitting me in the face, I breathed in the noxious smell of rancid, stale ditch water, while in baffling simultaneity, headlights of several approaching cars appeared out of nowhere from both sides, blinding me for a second or two. In fact that surprise followed by the feel of a car passing right beside me totally caught me off guard as I was in this awesome state of bliss. Unfortunately that meant my biking got a little sloppy, but luckily I gained control before I swerved into the smelly ditch. Of course this added lighting now helped me see that there were a bunch of stray dogs in front of me, now barking their tops off. So I had to switch gears from lucid living to lucid 'getting the f**k out of there'. Anywho, it was an amazing ride. Got me thinking that I don't need much more than my bike and the road (maybe also a bone to throw those dogs) to be in good spirits. Also thought about how this year I'll be celebrating Christmas authentically with gentiles, though the climate totally gives it a bizarro feeling. I wonder if there will still be any Chinese food? Also, Santa in a leotard? Hopefully NOT.

There and back again

Hey Everyone!

It's always hard to dive back into blogging, especially after totally failing at doing so for over a month. There are a number of half completed blog posts on the back-burner, and hopefully soon I can crank those out, because there's much I have yet to discuss. This post is sort of to get me going at it again, but I won't delve to deep into many of the big issues I have encountered or thought about over the past few months. So where was I all this time? Well, I spent the first 10 days of November working my butt off at my lab here in Sarawak. In the previous 10 days I had processed plants collected on my super cool expedition to Paya Maga, and now I needed to purify all the exotic fungi growing out of those plant tissue I had put onto specialized jello-like fungus food. Not only that but I had to make sure my fungi would be preserved over my month long interview circuit in the U.S.

So then I came to the U.S. (Nov.11), prepped for my interviews (basically had to tackle big questions like "why practice medicine?" or "why the hell are you in the jungle and how does that relate to you why you want to practice medicine?") while having some epic reunions with some great people and spending quality time with the family. Even got to see my mom teaching her lil munchkin (my sister, Becky) how to play the piano (if I could capture cuteness and bottle it, surely I would tap into that experience). The best I can do is put up some photos and you decide for yourself Speaking of photos, I got a macro lens which means I can take much better portrait and close-up shots of Borneo's bio-beauty.

Back to med school: I could not have been more anxious than I was during my first few interviews, but then I got my "story" down and it was kind of smooth sailing from there on. So what is this "story" I speak of? It's why I'm going to be a doctor, or rather a doctor doctor(MD+PhD). It's how i came to this decision that I want to subject my mind and body to a world of stress, loss, and suffering (my own, but more-so the patients'). I can post my med school essays, but no one wants to read that. I don't even want to read those again, until I'm a retiree on a beach in Hawaii reminiscing about my journey into and through the medical world (ironically, but not accidentally, the following spiel will end up sounding much like a medical school essay). But I'll say this: There is not one day (probably not even an hour) that goes by without my thinking about some aspect of the human mind, specifically how our brain/mind interface with chemical networks of the world. Most tantalizing to me is understanding how and why some of the secretory chemistry of other living things (plants, fungi and bacteria are most prominent in my mind) happen to affect our mind so deeply. Such chemicals are often called "natural products", and they have shaped the world as we see it today. Think spice trade during the Age of Discovery, coffee houses during the Enlightenment, and natural product drug discovery during the 20th/21st centuries (half of all the pharmaceutical drugs out there are derived from natural origins). Our lives fully depend on the chemistry that goes on in these other organisms, so it would be a shame to not appreciate or learn more from the complexity and connectivity we share. I want to probe these questions deeper, by taking advantage of these interactions to figure out how our brain works when it's at it's best, and how things get sour with disease. But there's more to this.

I feel as though "technologization" is leaving us (at least in very developed places) with much anxiety, suppressed unhappiness, and detachment from the natural world. Our increasing physical and mental distance from our "worldly wonders" may have a chemical, as much as psychological, role in some of the neuro- and psychological illnesses we see on the rise in the present day. Sure we are still using all the jewels of nature at our leisure, but without the context of, well, nature, something is lost (think about how processed food is these days, and how much of the original organisms' chemistry is destroyed by the time we ingest/apply a natural product). So this gets at my reasons for pursuing the research side of things, but patient care is not so disconnected, or should not be at least. With thinking about these brainy problems naturally comes thinking about people, with their brainy creations, and brainy illnesses. And, well, a lot of people are suffering from psychological or neurological disease. i know a lot of the most brilliant creations came from the recesses of psychological disturbed minds, but i just can't stand to see so many unhappy faces out there. I think we need to reevaluate how we approach treating these people, and to do that we have to be more aware of how our environment and chemiculture has changed drastically in previous decades (centuries?).


I was happy that things went the way they did, and that I still had some time with the people i care about most. By the end of it all, I was pretty exhausted, but relieved to have this huge burden off my shoulders (especially because I know for sure I have some school to go to next year). Also I was super psyched for getting back to my adventures, and now nothing was holding me back. (Got back to Borneo on Dec. 13th)

Last thing: Do you think flight attendants use their power over beverages and snacks to give you an idea of how much they like you? It's a lot of power for a few human beings on a plane to wield, don't you think?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Paragliding Headhunters and relaxation via Hotspring

Let's start with the hotsprings, since that happened a few days earlier than the paragliding. A big group of us researchers from the expedition went for one night to the Merrarap hotsprings resort. This not-so-tiny resort is built in an ideal scenic space, surrounded on all sides by mountainous rainforest (some of it virgin), partially blanketed by cloud cover, and a rapid flowing river right beside the hot spring tubs. The Hotspring source is quite close to the actual tubs, and the resort mixes in some cool water to make the temperature bearable (40-50 degree C). As is the case with most hot springs, the stank of dissolved hydrogen sulfide (main smelly component in farts) is rife. But if you can overcome the stench and can take the heat, the rewards are big. The tubs are built out of real rock from the surrounding area, and really give an authentic feel to the place. Once you get into the water, there is little reason to want to exit- great company and soothing hot water glued me to the tub for over an hour. In the background, the sound of rapids crashing against rocks gives an added excitement and natural feel to the experience. Later that night, we unwound on some comfy couches, and had some great chats about different adventures the researchers had been part of. Before heading to bed, we all heard a crashing sound nearby, and found that some massive black colored insect had caused all the ruckus when it hit into the light. This thing was the Rhinoceros Beetle, about the size of a large egg, with an exoskeleton as hard as human bone. This beetle boasts some of the most incredible strength to be seen in the animal kingdom- some male Rhino beetles are able to produce force 850x their own body mass, making them the second strongest animals in the world, in terms of force produced/body mass. BUT I NEVER KNEW THEY COULD ALSO FLY. If these buggers latch on you, pulling them off might take your skin off as well, so best let them get off on their own terms.
The next morning, we woke up for more hot spring action, while taking in the beauty of various hornbills (the iconic bird of Sarawak) so easily maneuvering the densely packed trees across the river.
Some new friends I made on the expedition to Paya Maga
Beautiful virgin rainforest protected by mountain ranges and the precarious river rapids
Rhinoceros beetles can exert a force 850x their own weight, making them the second strongest organism in the world in terms of force/body mass. This beetle recently got surpassed by the Horned Dung Beetle, which is capable of lifting 1,140x it's mass. According to Extremescience (, this would be same as a human lifting six double decker buses. No big deal.

On our flight back to Kuching, we had a layover in the city of Miri. My friend Simon, the Iban paraglider (of headhunting ancestry), has a paragliding club here, and invited me to check him out in the act. It was really cool, but definitely requires some serious training and focus. I would absolutely love to learn, if time allows. The feel of flying through the air must be so invigorating, but probably also terrifying at moments. Photos below show him or his friends in various points of paragliding.

Simon is so worry-free when it comes to paragliding, it's a wonder he ever was terrified of heights.

I'm sure if he reached out his hand, he could grab some clouds.

Sarawakian RVs, Lamaze for Bats

So even though this could be confusing for some, I will continue adding posts about various aspects of my expedition as time provides and memories pop into my head. This post describes events that happened between Oct 10 and Oct 13.

Spent last night processing samples and then when I finished, the two life adventurers offered me a seat and strong coffee for a heart to heart chat.
They really treated me like one of them- people surfing the life wave, unable to sit still for too long, unable to be dispassionate about my work, seeking that thrill, and pushing the boundaries of physical limits. Though I feel like I have not yet taken up the gauntlet and I'm not nearly as adventurous as these dude are, but I'm starting to feel kind of different about myself. Whereas I used to avoid physical adventures, I'm beginning to yearn for them these days. Every hike is treat, since there is always the prospect of seeing something new, and/or living/breathing, yet even without that, the gorgeous sights, the sweet and musky smells of the forest, and the feel of rapidly changing terrain under your feet all make the sweat easy to bear.
Cultural adventures I can say I've enjoyed for long, luckily easy to find in NYC, and somehow even easier to find in a foreign country. And I guess college was a mental adventure so there you go. Ok, back to our conversation:
Rambli (the spelunking dude who led a National Geographic expedition into one of the biggest cave systems in the world, in Mulu, Sarawak; photo below with him extending his arm out) went to college in U of Wisconsin Madison, perhaps the biggest party school in the country (at least back then) and spoke of his exploits there. And Simon (dude with bandana), well he spoke of growing up as a Kampong (village) boy, being afraid of water and heights, and how he got over those fears to become an expert paraglider (and instructor) and scuba diving instructor. I felt pretty darn inspired when i went to bed that night.

In the morning our group was to go down to the lower camp, leaving behind this majestic place. I was planning to walk down, for about a 4 hr hike. Truthfully, I really was in the mood for a nice hike. But then I saw what makeshift contraption the camp crew were planning to bring the luggage and a few select participants down in. This is what we later dubbed to be Sarawak's version of the RV, basically a tractor linked up to a really decrepit wooden shack built on sleds made of logs. When I heard of this crazy idea, I could not let myself miss this opportunity (to potentially get crushed when this shack surely brokedown?). And so we went down the rockiest, muddiest trail (I dare call this a 'road'), I think my butt did not make contact with the wooden floor for longer than 2 seconds at any given time- a few times we all flew up half a foot from the floor. Also it was a real tight fit for the shack...branches constantly protruded in, scraped people's face (keep your hands and head inside the vehicle takes on a whole new meaning here), and literally broke off pieces of this shack. At about 5 points in the 3 hr trip, we had to stop so that one of the porters could hammer at some nails to 'fix' loosened pieces of wood. That's Padawan in the picture below doing just this, probably saving our lives in the end.

We arrived at Kampong Long Tuyo, a village of the Limboau people, who are honestly the kindest, most hospitable people I have ever met. They literally gave up their beds for us (and took the floor, no joke). Anytime we were in the house, they were quick to offer us refreshments, freshly baked savory snacks and freshly picked fruit (I ate an infinite number of jackfruit because they were just delectable). Before lunch, we had an epic game of football (the real version that the rest of the world knows and loves), and I was dubbed 'the ultimate import' as I provided a header assist and some defensive stops. Since it had rained earlier, I had mud up to my thighs.
That first night was the closing ceremony of the expedition, and every woman in the village cooked up a feast for us. I was pretty sad to see the look of disappointment on their faces when probably not even a third of their food was finished off, but this is just how they welcome any visitor. I was happy that I got to join some of the people in preparing lunch earlier in the day(slicing and dicing up various veggies, but still). At the end of the ceremony, the kampong (village) women offered us a traditional musical symphony using these percussion instruments (no idea of the name). Then some good old karaoke and dancing.
After an excursion to the hot springs (the topic of the next post) we went to the lower camp of the expedition (Gunong Dua), for a few extra days of collection. Here I met the small mammal group, and helped them take photos of bats they had trapped (but of course would later release). One of the bats was actually in labor as we photographed her. The baby looked a lot like a tapioca pearl in bubble tea. One of the girls in the group was coaching the bat, but then we let it deliver in peace.

The last day at this camp, I saw this strange insect, bright yellow in color, about 8mm x8mm, 8 legs, with 4 stingers. I wished it could also shoot a web, since then it would confirm my wild speculations that this was a hybrid of a spider and scorpion. No one in the camp knew what it was, and I got a few photos though i really wished i had a good Macro lens at that point.

We ended our trip with a night in Lawas (a two hour ride on the SUV), where I luckily ran into the porters and guides, enjoyed a beer or some unknown number, joined them on a karaoke bar sprawl, and stumbled back to the Hotel Perdana (actually I was lost, but took just the right number of wrong turns in this tiny little town)

Monday, November 1, 2010


I've been here in Kuching for a little over two months now (how the time flies, it's just nuts) and the unique form of English the people speak here definitely has been rubbing off on me. I feel like I need to provide everyone with an appendix to malaysian english, which in many ways is like normal english, but for a few slang phrases. Most of them are described in this article ( but I will briefly talk about the ones I use most now.

laa: which doesn't actually mean anything, but is commonly said at the end of many sentences, because of how commonly "laa" ends malay words. So you see it's kind of fun to use it, laa.

nevermind: which really just means don't worry about it, or it's no big deal, just chill out.

is it?: really? or is it true?

last time: though sometimes used in the normal sense, signifying the last time something happened, many times it is just used to say 'in the past' or 'before'

well, that's all for now, laa. If you don't care for Malenglish, nevermind.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Welcome to the Hotel Paya Maga

Dearest Friends,

To say this post is overdue would be a heinous understatement. But life since coming back from the expedition has been busier than ever (Countless photos to edit and send to different people who need the pictures for work; dozens of plant samples to process; combating some unpleasantly belligerent bowel movements from some unclean water/food i must have taken in) Anyways, enough excuses...let's get to what everyone wants to hear- what the hell was my expedition into the virgin jungle like?

For one, it was fucking wet. We literally were in the clouds, with the humidity in most cases around 95%, and rain coming down with a vengeance sometimes on the hour. Also it was way cooler here, dipping to as low as 13 degrees Celsius at night. For me this was very refreshing, for the rest of the cold-unadjusted crew, this was sheer misery- people were bundled up in 4-5 layers as if a blizzard were sweeping over our camp. But taking baths (which consisted of pouring cupfuls of ice cold water over your body) was an experience...other than the cold and much cursing, there was always the walk back to bed through muddy terrain. Usually it was not possible to avoid that step into deep mud, undoing the hard work of the recent bath.

At night, the moths were out to play. They were not shy at all, perching on your head, face, computer, even glasses, usually flying straight into you. Those stupid bastards would always drown in my tea, I really never understood what led them to commit was probably the reflection of the light (for them it must be like a black hole with a bright "Enter Here" sign)
The size of these moths was just astounding- many of them were as big or bigger than the palm of my hand. i hope at some point some moth specialist will conduct a big study of the moths in this area. When the generator would turn off at 11, i would use my head lamp to get around and read...well at points i felt an entire army of moths attack my net, looking for ways to come closer to the Light. And the force of these guys was terrifying...i felt like they would rip my net in many cases, so would just hurry to turn off the light.
Ok so even though it sounds like i'm complaining, i loved every aspect of the expedition, even the moths, cold baths, and muddy walk back. On the first night at our camp, I woke up at 2 am, and looked up to be surprised by the most stunning starlit sky I have ever experienced. It looked densely pack with stars, and somehow was clearer and closer than I had ever seen before. That first night, I already felt this sense of great calm wash over me. On some level, I felt like this amazing place was healing the anxieties and scars of a busy urban life...for a moment I imagined myself being healed by this island (Borneo) as was John Locke from Lost (the baldness helped this relation). Like Locke, on the island, I feel myself able to tap into a whole new store of energy within me. That proved so important for the hiking I would do.
So over the next few days we did many hours of great hiking through the various trails in the area, searching for interesting and new plant/fungal life. We trekked across some precarious clay-covered log bridges, nasty mud, and trails densely packed with those needle-thorned plants just aching to pierce your skin. Leeches were commonplace, and I always found a minimum of 5 hiding in my shoes at the end of the day. We got to see some wicked plant life, most notably orchids...this area seems to be some sort of orchid haven.
At night, some of the fauna groups would go on hikes, since so many animals come out to play in the dark. I joined in on the last night hike, and definitely had to overcome some serious fears...I mean in the first 5 minutes we stumbled across two poisonous snakes...this viper that was particularly ticked off, and another called a boega, which was calm enough for me to hold with my hand. So hiking in night is actually really fun, and you get to see so much more...seems like all the coolest animal life can only be seen at night...all these frogs, stick insects, centipedes, snakes, geckos...and one guy even saw a slow loris. But it's definitely scarier, since you can easily step on an unsuspecting snake, or some unsteady ground (though good use of a head lamp really helps). But I guess it's something that comes with experience. At the end of the hike, we saw this orchid that blooms only at night. When I shined my UV light at it, the tentacles (it looks exactly like a jelly fish or something out of Alien) fluoresced bluish white.
Oh and i got to meet some of the coolest people ever- 55yr old adventurers who spelunk (one of them led the national geographic expedition into the Mulu Caves), and hike for entire days at a time. Also one of these guys is both a scuba diving and paragliding rad. We had some epic conversations about the meaning of life, and well, this trip made me realize how much I really do love adventure. I think I have a problem. Adventurers Anonymous?
And well, there is much more to talk about but I will come back to it later. this post is long enough.Stay tuned for my trip down on this makeshift RV, which we dubbed the Sarawak RV.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Last words before The Trip

Hey friends. This’ll be a longer-than-usual post because I’ve not posted for a while, and because this is my last post before THE TRIP. That’s right, Tuesday I am departing for a trip that might just change Everything. Not to be too dramatic about it, but seriously. I have no idea what is in store for me in this Paya Maga place, except what we can derive from the name, which roughly translates to: Swamp in the Highlands. That means it'll be wet, dirty, high up in the clouds, and cold as a popsicle. Photos taken by a small group of Forestry dept. scouts showed prints from the Clouded Leopard, some suggestions that the Sumatran rhino may call this place home, and definite signs of annoying bloodsuckers. I am doing my best to also leech on (you see what I did there?) to the fauna group, so perhaps I can see some sick beasts in the jungle. I wonder what I shall eat tomorrow night, which I will avoid calling my Last Supper, for obvious reasons that include not distressing everyone who cares about me.

Ok, now let’s backtrack to the happenings of this last week. Well, quite uneventful for the most part. I’ve been trying to really plan out what I need to do while on this expedition. These things I have to do will include good photography, plant collection, collection of ‘exotic’ samples (i.e. rhino poop, swamp water, cave soil, cave scrapings, limestone, etc.), mingling and getting to know all the cool people on the trip, joining fauna group on night hikes, being ready for anything interesting that arises, and just plain having fun. Also finally finished my medical school secondary applications, and am now just waiting, wishing, hoping for good news. Good thing I have this expedition to keep me busy, or else my mind would wander and obsess.
On Thursday night, Gilbert took me to this restaurant, Bla Bla Bla, where we enjoyed their specialty, Coffee Chicken. And holy shit was this was an excellent dish. I know I probably say this too often, but this was a sort of religious experience. It got a little bit embarrassing at one moment because Gibert was trying to catch my attention, but all I could do was stare at the last drumstick on the platter.
Oh, and Friday, a bunch of us SBC’ers went to do Karaoke, which was just a load of fun. Of course I was very upset that the karaoke machine at this place did not have Don’t’ Stop Believing, Piano Man, and Roxanne, some of the most awesome songs to sing to.
Today, Gilbert made some excellent roasted chicken in his measly toaster oven, while I baked some rosemary-onion-parmesan focaccia, and hope to bake some banana bread later tonight, so that I may bring it by the lab. Lastly, I was surfing the web for some useful advice on how to take good photos when on an expedition, and stumbled upon a photo competition hosted by National Geographic. At first it seemed like you could just send in photos from any expedition, and have a chance to win a spot on Nat’l Geographic’s expedition to Antarctica. But actually the photos have to be from one of the expeditions they sponsor. So then I looked further and found that in March, they are leading a trip to Bhutan, a country in the Himalayas with Gross National Happiness as their primary economic indicator. The trip is officially called: Bhutan: Kingdom in the Clouds. As long as one is willing to dish out some bucks, anyone can go I think. And going to Bhutan would be difficult on my own, because they do not just take any visitors in. I have to go on this trip, it sounds absolutely sick, one of the people going is this medical anthropologist who is an expert in ethnomedicine. This is a sign right? Should I go? I’ll never have a chance like this again, probably.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Festival of Lights

tonight was the annual autumn full moon festival, a big event for the chinese community in Kuching, and I think all over the world. So basically, everyone brings lanterns of different designs, along with goodies, to this special garden, called Taman Sahabat (or the 'Chinese-Malay garden'). Groups of people find a tree, and begin hanging the lanterns (which have lit candles inside) on the tree branches (I half expected a Chinese man, dressed as Santa, to be giving out mooncakes). People also walk around this garden holding lanterns in hand, while others light these massive lanterns with flames that propel the lantern into the atmosphere, like a hot air balloon. I got pretty lucky and noticed one in perfect alignment with the moon. And lucky for me I brought the tripod, since I got a group photo with me in it, along with some other long exposure shots.

Everyday, I'm just being thrown into so many new, exciting, thought provoking or just plain fun,experiences. I feel myself growing to love photography, in large part due to all these great photo opportunities I am becoming more aware of, and also since my practice is beginning to reap rewards. So it goes...

Woah....just WOAH!

Ok, so this is gonna be a very incomplete post, but I'll come back to it later. Why so incomplete, you ask? for one, a lot has been on my mind the past few days, I feel like a cumulonimbus cloud about to release all that stored up moisture...excuse the potentially sexual reference, but I've been reading Cloudspotter's Guide, which constantly makes sexual allusions while characterizing different cloud types. And, well, blogging is difficult from home, since my internet is just pure crap currently. But here at work, where i am now, supervisors always pass by, and I'm sure glance at my screen. So whatever I do that is not work, I try to do it very sneakily and quick. But alas, I'm wasting precious time.

Last night, there were some epic photo opps in and near my house. First, I was drinking tea while enjoying some espresso-chestnut mooncake (words can't even describe what nibbling on this did for my brain's pleasure centers, though the pics I posted with this posted might do justice). Well, Gilbert noticed how the lamp hanging on the ceiling was reflecting off the top of the tea we were drinking with mooncake, so he wanted to take some photos. But because of how we needed all things (tea, cup, table, and reflection of lamp) in the depth of field to be focused (small aperture needed, and therefore slow shutter speed), I took out my tripod, and snapped away, producing some interesting images. Then, one of Gilbert's friends called him and just told him to get outside to look at the full moon. We both jolted out and stared for some minutes, in silence. Usually a thick coat of clouds just covers the entire sky here (which is why I haven't been able to see any stars), but for some reason (maybe related to the full moon and us being at/near the equator) the clouds tonight clear around the moon to form a perfect circle. It looked like the negative of a picture of the eye, with the moon being the pupil. And it was a majestic sight. So, set up the tripod and took some super long exposures (like 30 sec) to produce a few good shots.

After this, I spent like 2 hours walking along the road in the dark, stopping for long periods to take in this beautiful night with each of my senses. I am Really feeling myself relaxing, and connecting to this strange and unfamiliar place. Totally ready for what's to come.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Crikey! (Too Soon?)

So yesterday, a bunch of us SBC'ers (SBC= Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, just fyi) went to the local crocodile farm, which is sort of misleading, considering all the other animals they had there as well. But before the farm, I was at a coworkers' house and noticed a scale. So I wanted to assess the damage I've done in the past few weeks of nonstop eating. But to my surprise I actually found I had lost 15 Lbs!! My excitement was quickly shut down by Gilbert, my housemate, who noted that fat is far lighter than muscle. That is, I've really cut down my protein intake and, well, you get the point. So I'm on a search for more protein all the time now, and maybe can get back into exercise. I wondered if the croc farm could help with that.

Well, the crocodile farm was quite swamp like- muddy, wet, and hot. The mosquitos were out for midday feeding and my blood was apparently being served a la carte. When I first came to an area with crocodiles, they seemed quite fake- they were all just motionless, mouths gaping open, which is how they cool down. But the key was checking their eye lids, which did move once in a while. Then we came to this huge swamp area, where the feeding would take place. This consisted of defeathered chickens being hung from a clothesline above the water, and then the crocs would jump up to make the catch. Basically made for tons of great photo opps.

Other than the crocs, there were many other animals as was something of a mini-zoo, and, seeing animals caged up makes me quite depressed. The chickens and other poultry were allowed to roam...see, the crocs' life isn't so bad here, I mean they get fed free range chicken, I'm sure they really appreciate that. By the end, when I had also learned about how crocodiles are on the fringe of being endangered, I decided I would avoid crocodile curry soup served at the canteen. I think I better not pick any fights with crocodiles, or else when I'm up in the highland swamps in a few weeks, they might just settle the know, take some body part like they did Chubbs' hand in Happy Gilmore (it actually was an alligator). One last note on the farm- there was this one crocodile with a genetic defect that gave it two snouts, crossed through each other (crossnouted?)...seemed healthy though.

Post croc farm, Gilbert and I went over to the Orangutan Rehabilitation center near SBC. Finally got some cool photos with my telephoto lens, but unfortunately Ritchie, the mean and moody alpha male, didn't show.

Good day overall, though I really just wanna see some animals purely in the wild. Except for the numerous snakes here; I would rather completely avoid them. The Reticulated Python is known to grow up to lengths of 20-25ft long, and could swallow you whole...well it might have to take me in several courses since I'm big boned. But I have been told that i would make for some epic medium cooked steaks. Still, good thing Bornean cannibals are a thing of the past...that's at least what they tell us foreigners.