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