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.