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

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I'm talkin' about the FunGi here!

In the past weeks/months, you may have noticed severe warps in the cyberspace and time encapsulating my blog. It's lucky that cyberspace and time can so easily form wormholes to allow for time travel back and forth between posts of long ago and very recent. Sad that physical reality is not so accommodating. In any case, I'm not the kind of person who posts regularly, at least when I'm busy like I have been. I also like some time to digest and absorb my experiences, so that's why you might find new posts popping up, seemingly published on a date that previously had no post. I'm just trying to keep things chronological-ish, for my own personal convenience, really. It's probably confusing for everyone, but in the end of the day works for me. This will be way better to return to later on. Apologize but that's just the way it is.

Something that I've been neglecting to write about, despite it's being my major time commitment here, is Research. That's right, I'm about to talk about the R-word. I guess I've been so busy marveling at the places I've visited, people I've met, food I've eaten, landscapes and wildlife I've observed, and even mental journey I've had here, that I've not spent enough time marveling at the meaningful research I've had the pleasure to work on.

But recently I have really come to appreciate the incredible research opportunity I've had staring me in the face the whole time, and also just how many lucky breaks I've had on my journey to this point. So to recap, back at Yale in my sophomore year Spring, I took this course called 'Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory.' This was far from any mundane lab or science course most people are offered in pretty much any part of their education. Pretty much from the get-go, we were sold. This would be the coolest class any of us would ever take. Our Professor, Scott Strobel, wielded a combination of brilliance and charm, to go along with his wicked stories of seemingly magical microbes, living symbiotically in plant tissue. Woah woah woah. Sorry to whip out the big science term, symbiotically, but it just means that the microbes live in cahoots with the plant, and they help each other out, where possible. And these little cuties were known as "endophytes." So we were very much captivated after hearing about how new many of these microbes (mostly we were after fungal endophytes, because the bacterial ones were less likely to be new) were to science, and about how their range of chemical and biochemical diversity was in many ways unprecedented. Think fungi that spit out jet fuel (Myco-diesel), or others that emit antimicrobial gases (smelly fungus kills pathogens) or yet others that make the same anticancer compound as their host plant (Taxol, from the Pacific Yew, Taxus Brevifolia: cancer sucks). So we spent the first half of the term learning about these organisms, alongside lessons about pharmacology, patenting drugs, botany, ethnobotany, rainforest deforestation and the conservation efforts aimed to preserve these forests. Then, it was our turn to isolate these little rascals. Our group of 15 undergrads including myself, Professor Scott Strobel, Lori, a Post-doc, Carol, an Associate Professor, and Lauren, a graduate student Teaching Assistant, all got to visit Ecuador over spring break. How rad, right?
      In the Amazonion rainforest in Eastern Ecuador, we swam with piranhas, went birdwatching on the canopy, checked out an Ecuadorian family's farm and medicinal garden. Our trip also took us to the cloud forest to the North of Ecuador's capital, Quito, and the dry forests in the Southern city of Guayaquil. We even partied it up in Quito. But our primary goal was to collect plant stem samples to bring back to Yale in order to isolate [hopefully] new endophytes. We also enlisted the services of a most eccentric, brilliant, and loveable character, one by the name of Percy Nunez, a botanist from the university of Cuzco, Peru. This man has knowledge the likes of which I had never before seen or hear of. He can identify plants to the species level oftentimes, without flowering structures. This is unheard of for most of the world's experts. Not only that, but he does it with serious style, as he memorized our preconceived list of target plants and would sometimes put his hand out of our speeding bus' window, only the reveal he had in an instant, identified and grabbed one of our group's plants. Other times he would employ a slingshot method to collect a sample hanging far overhead. Not that we didn't have enough characters, Scott's father, Gary, also joined along. Actually Gary kind of got this endophyte field started, having discovered many of it's big superstar strains. And his research was a major motivating force for Scott, who applied to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for a special grant to fund this course. Anyways, Gary was the one who first mentioned Borneo as a potential destination for research, as he had just returned from his visit at SBC...and he raved about how good their lab equipment was.

So, we came back, all jungle-ridden and jungle-juiced up, and isolated many microbes. Over the summer and subsequent semesters, we tested them for the ability kill human and plant pathogens, and tried to purify the single active compound, though no one quite got to the holy grail, a totally purified novel active compound, with a crystal structure to hit the nail on the coffin. We also did some genetic work to give these microbes some taxonomic context. That is to figure out where each one fits in on the 'tree of life', so that we could assess just how new our microbes were (which would indicate whether they were worth pursuing and devoting any more time to). Then some of us began working on testing our class' isolates in entirely different screens for new types of chemical/biochemical capabilities ('bioactivities'). I got super interested in the gas producing fungi, and as it so happened, my faculty adviser was John Carlson, who's trying to  understand the molecular biology and biochemistry of fruit fly (and mosquito) odor perception in order to develop better insect repellents. Somehow different ideas collided in my head and I decided that I wanted to test these microbes for the ability to repel fruit flies. And then wanted to characterize the gases that my fly repelling microbes made, by using a nifty and expensive new machine Scott acquired for his lab- Gas Chromatographer-Mass Spectrometer. In the end the assay I was doing with the flies worked and it didn't work...behavioral tests I learned were incredibly frustrating, in their variability and lack of real reliability. But the gas identity studies were still most fascinating, and left a mark on me.


         So when I got to SBC, my main goal was to isolate new endophytic fungi able to churn out interesting and useful gases. One theory has held that such fungi tend to grow in plants that similarly produce potent gases; plants like Cinnamomum (Cinnamon) and Mystica fragans (Nutmeg). During my time at SBC, I've tried to put this theory to the test, by collecting plants that do not necessarily have special essential oils of strong aromatic quality. And indeed, I've found some success in isolating some potentially new members of this genus, Muscodor, known for the antimicrobial power of their gases. So it's not always that the plant's properties determine its endophytes', though I also have not proven chemically that the host plants are without gases.
     Next, it turns out that SBC has a GC-MS (same machine from Scott's lab, though different model) and so since my return from Bhutan and Thailand in the end of March, I've been working with Ruth, a research officer in the Analytical Chemistry lab, to figure out how to use this machine. I've now done a 22 day time course (4 time points) of the gas production by several of the strains isolated by myself and Noreha, who's doing her PhD on these types of organisms. The data is many and takes some serious time commitment to analyze fully, but it's also very exciting. For one, we'll have identities of  molecules somewhich must be involved in our observed antimicrobial effects. Also then might make a case for some of these organisms as potential producers of biofuels, something of great promise in our current age of perpetual energy crises.
         Aside from this work, I'm involved in several side projects with other research officers, like one involving phylogenetics (using certain genetic markers roughly representative of evolutionary history of the organism or its biochemical make up) of actinomycetes, which are an order of bacteria known for profound chemical and biochemical diversity (one genus, Streptomyces, has by itself contributed HALF of the world's antibiotic drugs). Better phylogenetic data for these microbes would help up the ante when we try to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies, because it might hint at biochemical and chemical diversity (i.e. NEW ANTIBIOTICS?). Then in the last month, I also initiated a journal club (very long on the backburner, but we just recently got a subscription to Science, which I thought would be excellent for this club) modeled after those back in the U.S.- basically informal short discussion sessions in which groups of researchers try to take apart journal papers (sometimes but not always in their field), convey experimental logic, highlight new methodologies, and/or just eat some cookies and take a much needed break. Journal clubbing it has had its challenges, since English is obviously not the first language of people at SBC, and scientific literature, especially from impactful journals like Science, is packed full of complex jargon and plainly confusing writing (kind of like this post and the rest of my writing).

Suffice to say, I have my work cut out for me, but at least it's something. And the good thing is that people are interested to give this new activity a try, I just hope it can be continued after I'm gone.

And somehow things are all spiraling to an endpoint, which I am not entirely ready to approach. I'm going to miss this place so very dearly. Recent contemplations involve returning here sometime in the future (unclear when).

Update (June 16, 2011): I meant to include photos of my organisms, so I've now added them following this note. I've also included other data, like bioassay results and the Gas-chromatography/Mass spectrometry results (identities of gases made by these fungi). I had to put this all together for a lab presentation some days ago, and I pasted some of this stuff straight from that. Apologies for my laziness.

Bioassay results: Some of the suspected gas-producing fungal strains were grown for 7 days on Potato Dextrose Agar (PDA). Fungal and bacterial pathogens (The bacterial ones mostly affect humans, and fungal ones more relevant to plants) were inoculated onto media, and then exposed to each of the strains (most of which I isolated, with several positive controls) to see if gaseous compounds made by the strains could prevent growth of these pathogens. Basically, you should look at the plates labeled "control" and you'll notice very clear growth of the pathogens. Then compare the other plates and notice there is not always growth for the pathogen strains. This means that our isolate's gases are killing or inhibiting the growth of these pathogens, which is great news. This suggests some potential for these buggers to be used in the clinic, or in agricultural applications.

Gas Analyses (Phew, these are some Funky Fungi)

Just a small selection of the compounds the endophytic strains make (just pay attention to the structural diversity, I'll paste in a clearer version of this later on):

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Buffet

Oh gosh, breathing is difficult right now. Ummm, anything difficult now.  Just finished a delicious Mother's Day special buffet lunch at Lok Thian Restaurant with Gilbert and his friend's family. I wonder, would lamaze classes help me with these binge pains I'm experiencing now? I'll cut to the chase, I just wanted to list some of incredible dishes from today's monstrous meal:

Preserved jelly fish
Drunken chicken
Smoked grass carp, country style (maybe my favorite dish because of the tangy palm sugar syrup sauce)
Generous selection of dim sum
Cha seow puff
Pickled Cabbage
Joyous Shanghai fried Prawn
Dong Po Pork (3 layer style pork)
Hot and sour midin (jungle fern)
Spicy Mango Salad
Hot and Sour Seafood
Amazing Pork Dumplings(for me a very new style, with crispy pork, vegetables, and a plum soy sauce wrapped in a egg pancake/crepe)
Roasted Suckling Pig
BBQ Octopus

Sushi (mostly maki rolls)

Sharkfin and crab soup (though I don't like that this soup exists because I 'm pretty opposed to shark hunting, but it was being served at this place and I was offered some, so I decided to give it a single try in my lifetime).
     The soup was much like eggdrop soup, with the texture of shredded chicken and sort of stringy, jello-like masses inside. It was decent, and I do see the appeal in a sense, but  I feel like equally good versions of it could be made minus shark fin. Still, the Chinese consider it a culturally important dish, to be served at many big events, such as banquets for weddings. How do we reconcile this supposed conflict between culture and ecological balance? I really don't know, and it would be too easy to say "stop" and "never again kill another shark [for its fin]." I would err on this side, but I do recognize the cultural insensitivity of such recommendations. Yet I do feel like over the centuries, many cultures have had to adapt to increasing knowledge of the effects human activities reap on our biosphere. And the effects of shark hunting on the environment seem to be pretty severe, due to sharks' unique role in the oceanic food chain. So maybe adapting to our increased knowledge of sharks' importance in the biosphere is not so different, since we are inevitably talking about the welfare of the planet, and, well, Us. Check out this link for more on this, and the slowly changing attitudes held by affluent Chinese who could afford this luxurious soup. Yep, it seems like maybe people are starting to catch on, but will it happen quick enough?

Ok back to written food porn.

For dessert, there was Mango Sticky Rice and some delicious soup containing small sago/tapioca pearls, yam, and something that was kind of like squash or pumpkin. Yum!

Sorry everyone, photos are unavailable. I was too busy stuffing my face.

All in all, amazing meal, great company, and yet another food post. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Climbathon at Mount Santubong-Damai Beach resort

Last night, we were all excited to see the showers outside, because it could have allowed us a later wake-up. Today, we begrudgingly woke up at 5:30am in order to make it in time for the Climbathon at Mount Santubong/Damai Resort. This event was organized by DBKU, which is the Commission of The City of Kuching North, and was intended for civil servants, as I understood it.  Those who place 1-9 get some sort of prize, which I was not shooting for, considering the condition some of these people are in. So we figured that everyone would be on 'Malaysian Time' and that the event would not actually start till about 7am, rather than the 6am start we were told to be punctual for. We took our time, eating some Kolo Mee and sipping on some Kopi, and ended up showing up around 6:45. The climbathon had apparently started already and the last group of latecomers were just starting to run. I jumped out of the car and joined the group, and caught up to the SBC crew. For some reason I was especially energized this morning. The first part of the race was along a flat road, with short slopes. Once I got to the base of the actual mountain, I was handed a red bull, since a red bull truck was giving out red bulls to all participants. This made me chuckle for a good 10 seconds, until that and the run made me short of breath. Most of the runners ended up just drinking the red bull throughout the whole race.  How good of an idea is it to drink a caffeinated, strongly dehydrating drink, whilst exercising in the sweltering heat of the jungle? It's not good AT ALL. Luckily no one passed out, though I noticed a number of people got particularly dizzy and stop for a while (unclear whether this was the physical exertion or the dehydration). I guess Red Bull was probably happy to promote their drink in this way, as these trucks seem to do this kind of thing all over. Well of course no one forced us to take the red bull, and it rather powered me up (also made me felt like I was going to faint on a number of occasions), but I did because I was in too much of hurry to bring my mineral water. Not sure why exactly it bothered me so much, it just seemed silly and borderline dangerous.

 The climb up wasn't so bad. I did slow down considerably and my pace was more between speed walking and jogging. Like a quarter of the way up, I started to notice individual people stopped at the side of the trail, playing with their phones (I think I noticed a facebook logo) or chatting on their mobile phones. Another chuckle on my part, since I never saw some of those people make it up to the checkpoint up top. Moreover, further up, the speedy participants began their sprint down the mountain. So the worry now became "how do I avoid getting clipped by these guys?," since they were not planning to stop for anything. In some spots, things would get particularly tricky when the facebook updaters took up valuable "dodge the sprinter" space. Eventually reached the 800m altitude mark, at which point I got a coupon proving I made it, and also was photographed (for what bordered on an uncomfortably long time, which might signify it was a video recording) holding and drinking my red bull.

   Then I sprinted down, which was as much a surprise to me as to other people who've seen me trek along any kind of downward slope. The wetness of the ground made this especially precarious, and yet I felt something new this time- confidence. It's like Gilbert told me last time we climbed Santubong, that you have to "know" and "be confident" that you're next step will be the right one. I didn't get this at the time, but today it kind of clicked. I wasn't as scared with each step, and just kind of saw ahead several steps. Maybe because at this point I've fallen enough so as to not be afraid of it anymore. Or just more experience. Either way, it was such a thrill, and made me realize just how much I enjoyed this whole trekking thing, and how happy I was that we actually made it for this Climbathon. Of course I wasn't within a shouting distance of the guys who placed 1-9, as they were all incredibly fit people previously involved in iron man and mountain biking competitions, while I'm nowhere near their level of fitness/athleticism. But at least I finally saw an obvious manifestation of my improved trekking skills, probably a combined work of the high altitude trekking in Bhutan and plenty of jungle trekking. Also, I decided that this little workout would begin my training in order to ready myself for Mount Kinabalu sometime in June. It's something I don't feel I absolutely must do, but why not? It's in Sabah, which I've wanted to visit anyway (I'll explain why later on), and is another challenge to improve my trekking. Also I hear the sunrise is a sight for sore eyes, and that's what everyone committing to this climb does it for.
Either way, despite the mostly funny little hiccups, I had an awesome time and was thankful that last night's showers didn't stop this from taking place.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Enter the Tiger's Lair

Paro Taktsang: The Stuff of Legend

This is an image of the famous Bhutanese temple known as "Taktsang", which means 'Tiger's Lair/Nest' in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. According to the treasured Bhutanese story, in 747 AD Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha) mounted his tigress and flew into the cave on which the temple was later built. He then meditated in this cave, and the temple was built thereafter due to the very sacred nature of the cave, as Guru Rinpoche's coming to Bhutan is said to have brought Buddhism here in the first place. The Buddhist Prayer flags extend uninterrupted for about 100m across the valley between where I stood and the temple. Used some post processing to bring out some of the salient colors in the temple and prayer flags.

Chencho and I took around a 2 hour, normally 3-4 hour (most tourists who come here are wealthy and far older than me), walk uphill from Paro to this famous temple. This is easily Bhutan's most well-known landmark, and for good reason.
I could never do justice to this wondrous place, no matter how I describe it or what photo I take. You had to have been there, but since that's probably not going to happen too soon for most people, I'm happy I'm able to give you some image of what it was like. After a hike up through a forest, we reached a point from which we could see Taktsang, separated by a sort of gorge that we then crossed by taking a staircase (down, then up). Since I've been experimenting with different framing techniques in my photography, and these beautiful prayer flags extended from this side of the gorge to the other side (which is amazing considering that there is nothing holding them up in the middle parts, except I guess the tension on both ends), a wonderful opportunity was presented. The curvature helped create a sort of half-frame, which I immediately fell in love with. Chencho told me that no one quite understands how this was all built, considering that there are no trees close enough to the temple to make it easy to cut and transport (the temple is, after all, built into a cliff that comes out the mountain). This mystery combined with the story of Guru Rinpoche melded well (in my mind at least) with my inclusion of the prayer flags, since they make me feel like the flags, which represent good luck among other Buddhist spiritual values, are holding the temple in the rock, protecting it from a precipitous fall. To me, these flags to me represent a connection between the spiritual, other worldly and the physical, Earth, realms.

So we didn't just sit and stare at this breathtaking sight, though I could have. We had to give up our backpacks and camera (photography not allowed inside), then we walked in on the left side, and entered this small opening, that led into the rock of the mountain itself. though the path was blocked off, it would have led us to the opposite side of the cliff, behind the temple. Also there was a passage that actually led to the cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. We entered this room, presented an offering (butter), and got blessed by a monk using the sacred water. Before leaving the temple, we also got a drink from this water source, said to bring the drinker longevity. I felt an intensely spiritual energy growing inside of me at this point. It was the grandness of it all- this enormous sanctified structure, inexplicably built into a cliff of a mountain; below, the breathtaking view of the valley, with lush green forest surrounding it; and above, small little houses, seemingly carved out of the mountain itself, restricted to the monks visiting Taktsang and seeking a meditation retreat.

If you can't tell, this spiritual and majestic country is moving me profoundly. I'm feeling extremely lucid here, and opportunities like this hike to Taktsang have been jumping out at me quite frequently. It's also a testament to the wonders of this country; how everything and everyone are so genuine, so full of life, spirituality, and culture. There's an authenticity here I have never before experienced, anywhere. No one's trying to pull a fast one by you; most people are more excited for you than you might be, since they know what you are about to experience.  I've become supremely entranced by the mysteries, events, and stories these people believe in and live by. Even if it is not [yet] my own spiritual and cultural belief system, I'm willing, even honored, to give it all a chance and try to perceive see from those perspectives. Not that doing so is a prerequisite for appreciating these moments and this way of life, but it does further enhance my respect for the people of this land. It helps put me into their shoes and underscores the power of these sights/experiences.

Speaking of putting myself in the shoes of the Bhutanese, I was able to  do this in a very relaxing way after our excursion to Taktsang. We visited Chencho's granny's longtime friend, who lives only about one hour outside of town, near Drugyel Dzong, an old fortress (that in the 17th century was used to fight off the Tibetans) that had been burned down at the turn of the century, but left untouched ever since. This family friend, like most Bhutanese families living in the rural parts of the country (most of the country), takes hot stone baths regularly. Stones are collected, and burned over a flame in a very specific, skilled, manner. These scorching hot stones are then dipped in some water to remove any crud or ash, and then slowly submerged on one side of a 2-3 foot x 5-6 foot wooden bath tub, built into the ground (sometimes within a wooden shed). The stones remain hot for a very long time, and actually will release more heat with increased circulation of the water (so that you can adjust the heat by just moving your hands within the bath water. This is the only way to take a bath here, though in the summer months the water need not be hot.

Because I was the guest, I was given first preference (this was true everywhere I went and in every single situation). Now keep in mind that I have a pretty high threshold for heat, which I realized this summer, when I hung out in a 95 Degree Centigrade Sauna (Budapest Bath) for like 15 minutes at a time, like 4x. So at first the water was kind of lukewarm, but then I started wadding my arms around, plus another stone was added in, and within 2 minutes, I thought I saw the skin on my knees bubbling. It seemed pretty unbearable, but the old man's son came by and whispered to me, "Don't move, just close your eyes and breathe, in and out." I followed this for a good minute, before I told him that he must not realize just how hot it is, and that I actually think my skin is melting into this water. He tried dipping his hand in, and then kind of gave me a nervous look of agreement, after which he took a hose to pour some cool water in. Finally the bath reach a temp. that was still hot, but actually manageable for me. I practiced closing my eyes, breathing in the cool, crisp, himalayan air. I emptied my mind. In that thirty minutes, it was just me, my body, that water, those stones, and the thin crisp air. Nothing else existed, as far as I was concerned. No worries about the hectic, nerve-wrecking, times to come. No anxiety about all the places I need to go see before it's too late, before I'm consumed in responsibility and back on "track". There weren't even any nagging qualms about the need to make a lasting impact in, well, pretty much anything that matters to me. Later I was happy that I got to be constructively selfish in this way, since it surely helped raise my self-awareness. But more than that, these moments of pure unadulterated mental freedom have helped inspire my photography. It's that only these types of experiences help me develop a connection to the land and the people that is so important for poignant and unique photography. Don't know if I actually succeeded, but I did have an improved sense of which moments would be more meaningful than others to snap that shutter button. 

Zen while enjoying a hot stone bath
Later back to my meditative bath, I was reminded of the Beatles song, Within You Without You, written by George Harrison. I miss you, George.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Miss Bhutan

Little Miss Bhutan by Lucid Photography
Little Miss Bhutan, a photo by Lucid Photography on Flickr.
Chencho's little niece, Tandril, whom I photographed at the playground on my last day (March 14) in Thimphu, as per her mother's request. Tandril is inexplicably cute, and, though doesn't quite speak English, knew to point at the monkey image on my shirt and say "what is dis monkey?"
Though Tandril didn't feel in the mood for photos, I got her in a beautiful candid pose, and then applied some Lightroom magic to bring out the designs on her costume, to really draw the viewer's attention to her adorable face. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Recess in Bhutan

So at the end of Day 2 in Bhutan, Chencho drove me up to this monastery, like most monasteries here, hidden away up high, and only accessible via windy road hugging a mountain. Right around sunset, the monk students were let out from their late afternoon courses. This young boy spent his break pensively staring out at the world, basking in all its natural beauty in front of him. He looked so peaceful staring at the mountain range ahead, and made me wonder about how this recess was unlike what we were all used to as schoolchildren. And that thought just blew me away, really helping me to better understand what this special society is about. Imagine growing up with hours of quality time with yourself and the natural world. Not only would this explain the profound appreciation for the beautiful offerings of Mother Earth, but also would shed some light on the Drukpa's excellent understanding of themselves. They are immensely comfortable with themselves, their way of life, and their fellow people. Theirs is a culture of very self aware people, and I'll give more concrete examples in some other post(s).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Encounters with Project DANTAK

It's Day 2 of my trip, and today we went on a little hike. Paro is a valley, meaning that it's surrounded by mountain ranges, some accessible, and many insurmountable. Chencho drove up this windy, scenic, path, from Paro (altitude ~2250m) to Chele la pass (altitude ~4000m), separating Paro Valley and Haa valley. Once we had reached the higher altitudes, we noticed a lot of snow left on the ground from a recent snowfall. So we devoted a good 30 minutes to some old fashioned snow play.
Also, we began to encounter Yaks on the side of the road, something that would become an all-too-common sight in Bhutan. Yaks are very interesting creatures with tremendous importance to the Bhutanese, as many take up Yak herding in order to retrieve milk products and make smoked meats for sale at local markets. Yaks prefer cold climates, and therefore seldom venture down to the valleys. The range of Yak personalities is huge, in that you never know whether a Yak is a peaceful, unfazed, creature, or a belligerent, easily annoyed brute.

As we (the car) climbed, there was a very noticeable change in forest type, as blue pine trees gave way to aromatic juniper, hemlock, spruce, and silver fir, which finally gave way to fragrant shrubs, open meadows, and moss. With their sacred importance, these forests are strictly protected, meaning that no one is allowed to cut the trees here. Juniper might be the most sacred tree for the Bhutanese, as it's twigs represent life, it's potent incense considered to be the perfume of the Gods, and the tree itself the home and representation of the fertility goddess. It is burned in most homes (usually in the altar room, which most if not all homes here have) and in monasteries.

Up at Chele La, we were blessed with our fair share of stunning views, all around. Prayer flags beating to the force of high winds, I began to realize that these simple experiences are the stuff of the Good Life.

bhutan -25
Up at Chele la pass, there was this cool view boasting some of the Himalayas' highest mountains. Jomolhari, with its peak at around 20,000 Ft., is the white capped one on the left. I noticed this fantastic opportunity created by the prayer flags, since I've been exploring the use of objects in a scene as frames to point the viewer's attention to a central subject.

     As we drove down the road on our descent back to Paro, we noticed these Indians heating and pushing around tar. Chencho told me that they are migrant workers under hire by Project DANTAK, which has been building Bhutan's motorable roads for 50 years now (with Bhutan's first road built in 1960). They usually stay in tents and move around as their project location changes. I got out of the car, and started to investigate their work and living spaces; no one seemed to mind that I was snooping around. Their tents are very minimalist, probably not very pleasant to stay in. Luckily water in the this region is clean, due to the altitude, and it's dry enough this time of the year to make a fire relatively easy.
      It was really striking and unnerving to learn about the poor health standards these workers are dealing with, especially when you consider the proximity of these working areas to the tents. In order to pave these road, tar is freely burned, releasing all sorts of toxic fumes into the air. The people are not given any type of protective masks to protect them from the gases and soot released from this burning. Probably a cost-cutting measure by their bosses, but I don't know the whole story of this so can't say for sure. These workers bring their kids with them (since their time in Bhutan usually extends to years), and the kids are often nearby the sites of tar heating, inhaling all of this crap in the air. Clearly some serious health standards being ignored, putting these kids in serious danger. There are schools that have been established for the children of the Project DANTAK workers. I do wish I could have investigated the state of those schools, since I really do not know anything about their quality, or what percent of the children who should be going to school actually end up going (whether because of limited space or some other reason).

Occupational Hazards of Project DANTAK
This guy is working with Project Dentak, an initiative which brings Indian migrant workers to Bhutan to pave Bhutan's roads. I think he poured some oil or maybe tar into the flame and it just burst unexpectedly. To me this image adequately represents the dangers of this type of work, along with the poor health standards under which the people are working.
A little down the road, we met some of the cutest, most photogenic, children I've ever encountered. They made love to the camera, so to speak.

bhutan -40

Some Nepali kids I saw at the roadside. I think their parents work for the Dentak road building project, and so they probably migrate quite often, living in tents or pretty rundown shacks like the one behind them. Like many kids, these were just pure naturals with a lot of character.