Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mango Rain

Lovin' Laos - non-stop fun with our mates from Melbourne

Plans for a big breakfast and final day with our Aussie friends came to a screeching halt this morning.  A steady rain greeted me as I stepped onto our porch, overlooking a Mekong River that's shrunk into it's deep banks over the last few months of dry season in Laos.  We haven't seen a good rain like this since we left Indonesia two weeks ago.
When in Bangkok - pose like all the other tourists

As a result, we've been going strong.  We learned quickly to explore Bangkok's wats in the morning before the sun started it's daily scorch, and to use the afternoon to duck into museums and malls and navigate the city's cavernous food stalls and markets.
Just getting started - a dining car between Bangkok and Nong Khai

An air-conditioned overnighter carried us in comfort to Laos, and surprised us with a festive dining car where everyone got footloose.  Even the uniformed train officials partook, except at stations, of course, where they would quickly finish their beers, put on their hats and dark glasses and step off onto the platform with a stern, serious face to usher on new passengers.  They'd quickly make their ticket-punching rounds and ultimately end in the dining car for another cold Beerlao.
Dry and dusty - the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos

We had time to rest the next day in Vientiane, but not enough to savor the capital's Francophone charm.  Instead, we hurried off to Vang Vieng, to rendezvous with our good friends from Melbourne, who we met three years ago in Guatemala.  Within an hour of arriving in town, the six of us were floating downstream in inner-tubes, beneath towering limestone cliffs, splashing along in cool water with no concern for the blazing sun.  Nor did we have much trouble finding refreshments - our 2 kilometer stretch was dotted with riverine watering holes, varying only by the height of their rope swings, zip lines and water-slides into the river.
Vang Vieng - adventure tubing mecca of the world

A good night's sleep and a 10 hour bus ride delivered us to the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, surrounded by mountains, in the former royal city of Luang Prabang.  Although the French placed their colonial capital farther downstream, they left their mark with their dainty architecture, patisseries and street-corner crepe stands.  Wats, stupas and tangerine-robed monks maintain a sense of Laotian reality and the dry, dusty mountain roads that weave through impoverished villages differentiate this town from the one on the Seine.
Sign in - Reviewing a Hmong village's visitor's log with a village elder.

We hiked for two days with a commendable eco-tourism company, Green Discovery, who since the early 1990s has pioneered socially-responsible tourism throughout the country.  Our guide grew up as a child of communism, dedicated to his family, people and town, but with education and hopes to better serve them all, moved to the city and began sharing his country with foreigners.  He offered compassionate explanations to the human poverty and environmental degradation that we explored on our trek, and offered a wealth of ideas of how individuals, organizations, and nations can improve the way of life of the rural people in Laos.  We finished up on the Ou river, in kayaks, with a few standing waves and a unmissable chance to surf this landlocked country.
Laid back - Just another float trip on the Nam Ou

He gave us the name for this rain, which now falls in the middle of the dry season - Mango Rain.  Without the occasional deluge amidst the dust and dryness, flowers would not flower and the trees would not fruit when their time eventually comes.  For us it's a welcomed chance to stop, rest and reflect on the incredible flood of experiences we're having, and how we will respond when our time comes.
On top of ole Phou Si - overlooking Luang Prabang

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Run Through the Jungle

The Pinnacles, Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo

It’s too often that songs stick in my head and annoy me all day long.  But every now and then, I’ll luck into a song that provides endless amusement to an otherwise monotonous or even arduous day.  On the day that we climbed to the Pinnacles in Gunung Mulu National Park, John Fogerty’s voice kept a smile of irony on my face as his advised pace grew more and more ridiculous.
Melinau Gorge, sunrise, as we begin the climb to the Pinnacles

As we walked out of Camp V at 6:30am, we wondered what this 2.5km trek that climbed 1100m would serve us.  The guide of another tour group offered an answer as he began calisthenics, clad in spandex leggings, goalie-style sport gloves, Oakley M-frames, a skull-and-crossbones do-rag, with a Camel-back hydration system and attached mini-speakers that screamed out CCR’s familiar refrain.
Laughing, but nowhere close to running, along the Pinnacles trail

The first 200m on ‘flat’ ground did little to warm us up for the ascent that followed.  Our thighs began burning long before the midway point, and our arms followed, working just as hard as we climbed through the forest.  We made it to the top while the weather remained clear, but we looked as if we had come up through a downpour.  The Pinnacles were worth every ounce of exertion, although we were spent and had little energy to clamber about the overlook.  The climb down took twice as long and even back in the flats, there was no running for either of us, and all we could do was laugh about it.
One big tree

Ignoring our legs, we did find the Borneo of our dreams in Gunung Mulu National Park.  While my dreams were probably informed by Joseph Conrad, Indiana Jones, and Planet Earth, this place certainly gave them their cues.  We spent our six days taking longboats as far upstream as rapids would allow, swimming in clear, crisp, spring-fed streams, staring up at towering limestone cliffs and staring down into bottomless caves.  Although primates were scarce, bugs and snakes, fish and turtles made up for their absence.  And the vegetation, from tiny mosses to towering dipterocarps, surrounded and enshrouded us in a tangle of green, revealing a delicate balance upon which life flourishes.  
Looking out of the mouth of Clearwater Cave
Little turtle in the lowlands near park headquarters
Green tree viper, a few feet off the Pinnacles trail
Pitcher plant along the Pinnacles trail

We’ll say goodbye to Borneo for now, but doubt that it’s grasp will allow us to leave forever.  We’ve come to cherish the forest and care deeply for the people on this island.  Just as a song can hold a smile through the most difficult journeys, Borneo has given us a focus in life that will carry us onward.  When the time comes to return to the jungle, I’m sure we’ll be ready to run.
Millions of bats swarming out of Deer Cave

Friday, February 18, 2011

Our Last Week in Sukadana

Our mixed emotions in leaving Sukadana were eclipsed by the excitement of taking one last hike through the forest and sharing smiles and laughter with our friends.
Disappearing into the forest and leaving the hot farming valley behind
 We weren’t sure that we’d ever get deep enough into Gulung Palung National Park to see its true beauty.  The brief hike several weeks ago only demonstrated the ease with which loggers operate within the park and our attempts at organizing a trip with the park office had thus far met only resistance.  It took Cam Webb, the ASRI director’s husband and rainforest ecologist intervening on our behalf to pull the last bit of logistics together.
Jacquelyn and Roberto, contemplating a swim.
 I’ve never been in a forest so lush and so diverse.  As we hiked into the woods, away from a cleared agricultural valley, the temperature felt like it dropped 10 degrees.  The underbrush thinned as we traveled deeper and the canopy blocked more and more light.  We followed a cascading stream up through a gorge covered in vines and ferns and mosses, stopped for lunch at the top of a narrow sluice, and climbed hard just hard enough to deserve an hour’s rest at a park shelter near the top of the trail.  From a lookout at the top, we could see across the agricultural valley between us and the Gunung Palung mountain, and marvel at the expanse of forest that needs so badly to be protected.
A little tree frog, enjoying a flash of sunshine
Another tree frog, this one sitting on the wrong color of leaf.
Orangutan, I promise.
Cam must have pointed out a half dozen edible or medicinal plants in the first 500 meters, without even walking off of the trail.  He commented that a number of flowers small plants we admired must be uncataloged new species, as their seed dispersal mechanisms have such limited range.  We constantly felt that we were being watched, but only a handful of frogs, a flying lizard, and one rare wild orangutan revealed themselves to us.  As pristine of a forest as it was, we could tell that other humans had come before, but with minimal impact.  One of the tallest trees we encountered held bunches of honey bee nests in its uppermost boughs, and along its trunk paralleled a series of bamboo poles reaching all the way to the top.
Jimmy & dr. Robin, having fun with rain forest seeds.
 The greatest joy of this adventure was experiencing it with friends from ASRI, knowing that it’s this forest and all of its biological abundance that we work so hard to protect.  Most of the ASRI staff gets into the forest at least once during their tenure with the organization.  With his year of service nearly completed, this was dr. Robin’s last chance to venture into the park.  We hiked together for most of the trip, and were both equally overwhelmed and amazed at the magnificence of this place.  We agreed that as we move on – Robin back to start his own practice near Jakarta, and me on a long journey back to the United States – the forest of Gunung Palung will stay in our heads and hearts for a very long time.
Looking out across the valley to Gunung Palung Mountain
A last meal with some very good friends.
 As for Jacquelyn and I, we’ll cherish not only the forest, but also the friendships that we’ve developed in the four months we’ve lived in Sukadana.  We came to study the rain forest and tropical medicine and to help promote human and environmental health, but we leave most impressed by the special people that make such work their life’s devotion.  On our last night our friends threw a party for us and we stayed late, eating and laughing and singing, postponing as long as we could the inevitable goodbyes.  As sad as it was to board the speedboat and watch Sukadana disappear behind us, the joy and gratitude we feel towards our friends there will keep us close for a long time to come.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me!

A from-scratch chocolate-coffee birthday cake!
Blogging's been slow recently, while we wrap up our work and prepare to move on from Kalimantan.  The good times continue, though, and my birthday week (now two weeks ago) still has me smiling.

My big day was a Wednesday, clinic was busy and the morning flew by.  Little did I know, however, that Jacquelyn, unmoved by the power failure and gas shortage the night before, had returned home to spend the morning in the kitchen.  After lunch she reappeared, with a huge chocolate cake, candles, and accompanied by the full ASRI staff in song.  Mixed with coffee as well as chocolate, it fed the whole group and powered us through a hectic afternoon.

I was horribly wrong in thinking that was the end to the celebration.  The staff couldn't resist honoring me with a traditional Indonesian birthday surprise.  At the end of the day, as I sat on the front porch of the clinic, peacefully watching the late afternoon light and welcoming the cool evening breeze, Etty and others quietly assembled behind me.  Before I could jump up I had a raw egg dripping off my head and a face full of flour.  I spread the love and only a few escaped without needing a change of clothes.  As I rode my bike to the beach to wash off, I was greeted with laughs and "selamat ulang tahun - happy birthday" by many of the townspeople I passed.
Nur, Wil, Etty, Arta, Carla, Hari, and Jimmy, after his second cake of the day.

En route to Tanjung Puting National Park
Still itching to explore more of the forests in Borneo, for a birthday weekend Jacquelyn booked us a boat trip into Tanjung Puting National Park, down the coast in Central Kalimantan.  The 400 hectare preserve is home to nearly 500 orangutan, most of whom are rehabilitated or offspring of rehabilitated orangutan who were rescued from captivity.  Most rely on scheduled feedings by park managers, so the best bet to see one of these legendary apes is to time the trip to hit a few feeding stations at the right time.

Enjoying a cup of coffee and morning shower.
Our kloktok carried five of us (our guide, a cook, and captain, along with ourselves) quite comfortably for the two-night journey.  Jacquelyn and I slept on the deck, beneath a mosquito net and with roll-down tarpaulin sides for when the rain grew to more than a drizzle.  Once on the Seikonyer river, time slowed, noise disappeared, and the passing palms and jungle foliage proved nearly hypnotizing.  After five hours we were deep in the park, puttering along on clean blackwater and nearly enclosed by branches and vines reaching across the river.

Back on our feet, wondering what awaits us in the forest.
We made it to three feeding stations, most of which were an easy 1-2km walk through beautiful lowland rain forest.  Jeini, our guide, grew up in a village that was relocated when the park expanded its boundaries.  As we walked he told us about his childhood, growing up in this amazing forest with a father who was a park ranger and inspired his love of the natural world.  He pointed out medicinal plants, whose roots and leaves may be steeped or compounded to heal wounds, ease arthritis, and cure fever (which, here, is malaria until proven otherwise).  He could also tell us about the ongoing tension among villagers, loggers, the palm-oil industry, government officials, researchers, and tourists, none of whom are satisfied with their stake of the land's resources.

Stopping to ask directions.
Initially concerned that all this travel would yield a distant sighting, at best, of a macaque or a proboscis monkey, and an orangutan only if we were truly lucky, our reality took a dramatic shift after our first walk into the woods.  It bears remembering that these are not wild orang-utan (no where else in the 'wild' are there tables where an endless supply of bananas are placed several times a day).  That said, when bananas are placed on the feeding station, a far-off commotion breaks the stillness of the forest, trees begin shaking, limbs crack, and the ground starts rustling, closer and closer until the nearby underbrush parts and every evolutionary instinct and lesson from Man vs. Wild tells you to turn and run the other way. 

Biggest male of the trip.
This scene repeated itself enough times for us to become nearly as habituated to the 'feeding platform scene' as are the orangutans. We were visitors, and while a few hung out on the dock to welcome us and bid farewell, most of them went about their routine without much notice of the 3-4 (or in one case 30-40) humans gawking at their daily meal.  At the largest feeding station, we even shared the trail with two orangutan families - both just as hurried as we were to not miss the action.  My mind grew so twisted with 'who's watching who?' scenarios that at one point I wondered if the whole setup is meant not only to amuse the orangutans, but that it's primary purpose is to feed the local mosquito population (which I think enjoyed even better meals than the orangutans).

Traffic on the path to the feeding station.
Kids don't mess around waiting to be fed.

Siswi, welcoming newcomers to Camp Leakey (and inspecting all craft for bananas)
Siswi wouldn't let us go without a good belly drag
We admit to having fallen in love with the 'queen' of Camp Leakey.  Siswi is an older (33 years) female who has been able to reproduce only once, and lost that child, unlike most park females who usually have a child in tow for their entire reproductive life (10 years to shortly before death at around 40 years).  This has kept her big and healthy, but also sad enough to try and 'borrow' other female's babies and pitiful enough to gain extra attention from rangers and tourists.  Certainly spoiled, she met us on the dock, sat with Jacquelyn and tried to untie and steal her shoes, and wouldn't let us leave until Jeini and I dragged her across the boardwalk on her belly.  When she finally let go, unable to use all her weight to keep us from leaving, all we could do was anthropomorphize a sad look in her eyes as we boarded the boat to go home.

Sad goodbyes.
Proboscis monkey in flight.
A handful of other sights add to make this an unforgettable excursion.  We discovered that hornbills really do exist, that parks like this can protect them from hunters, and that their call is almost as lovely as gibbons in the morning.  Cuckoos are real, and kingfishers can come in every color of the rainbow.  Proboscis monkeys do look funny with their enormous nose and pot bellies, but that doesn't keep them from launching themselves from 20 meter treetops across the river and down with a splash, grabbing the lowest branch on the other side to fling them out of the water and back into the forest.  Fortunately for us, they only do this when boats pass, because the engine scares away the crocodiles.

In addition to being a fun and memorable birthday weekend, this forest showed us why we are here.  Borneo used to be covered in forest like this, with apes and birds and trees and medicinal plants and indigenous culture that knew no risk of extinction.  Now it doesn't even exist in many national parks, whose borders are unmarked and resources pillaged to earn more than it costs to protect them.  It's been such a privilege to work with an organization that not only recognizes this, but has a vision to offer a much different alternative.  Spending a birthday with the dedicated staff of this organization couldn't have been more special, even if it was a little messy. 
Sunset in Tanjung Puting

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Wild Week in Sukadana

Jacquelyn and I returned to Sukadana with a new year's resolution to get out into the surrounding forest.   Weddings, birthdays, and holiday parties before the break kept us in town without complaint, but we've decided that now it's time to play outside.  Taking only a few steps off the beaten path, we quickly discovered that Borneo has retained a bit of a wild side.

A trail just down the road from Klinik ASRI leads up a forested hill within the Gunung Palung National Park boundaries.  The trail was well-worn, despite a lack of local tourists or hikers, and after hearing more chainsaw activity lately, we worried we might not see as many big trees as we should.  We were amazed, however, at how quickly the heat of the agricultural valley transitioned to a cool, lush, shady forest.  Before we were a quarter of the way up the hill, birds and butterflies began to emerge, we paralleled a clear, cascading stream, and a troop of leaf monkeys followed our progress with as much curiosity as we had of them.
Wondering what's up with all these trestles along the trail.

Soon after that, suspicious signs began to appear.  Makeshift trestles over obstacles, greased with motor oil, cigarette trash and packets of Ener-G powder suggested that others use this trail, for purposes different than ours.  As the trail became steeper, and after a rest or two, we heard yells and crashes and a rumbling that grew louder until, around a bend, our questions were answered.  Eight or nine men, heaving and pushing and running and pulling, emerged above us, guiding two enormous dugout canoes, carved from trees that must have been 5 feet in diameter.  Both parties startled to see each other, we exchanged smiles, pleasantries, gave the men a reason for a break, took a few pictures and headed on our way.

What's a canoe doing half-way up a forested mountainside?
We continued our climb aghast and comically perplexed by such an interaction in a national park.  Less than a half-mile later we reached a steep clearing where the trestles stopped in sawdust, wood chips, leftover tree trunks and gaping holes in the forest canopy.  Still a bit dumbstruck, without the words to contemplate what we were witnessing, we munched on some granola without the excitement that energized the start of our hike. We passed the canoes again on the way down, laid to rest at the bottom of the hill, and marveled for a moment at their size, the skill with which they were crafted, and the effort and energy it must take to produce them.
Smile? Kari atop one of the felled trees that became a canoe
 Whether or not a coincidence, the next day Immigration officials showed up at clinic and asked to take all of the foreigner's passports to Pontianak for review.  Our refusal bought us our own escorted trip to Pontianak, five hours by boat, on the following day.  Fearing fines, deportation, or time in an equatorial jail had us prepared for the worst, so a stern lecture from a uniformed official about visa approvals and volunteers getting health department authorization left us quite relieved.  A 5-hour boat trip the next day put us back in Sukadana to pick up where we left off.

Lunch on Pulau Juanta
With our interest piqued after the previous hike, we were even more eager to explore Sukadana's natural treasures.  The weekend came and we boarded a boat for one of the offshore islands, Pulau Juanta.  Sitting on the hazy horizon, Juanta is one of many uninhabited and reportedly undisturbed islands off the west coast of Borneo.  Our excursion turned into a fun-filled ASRI field trip, with conservation and clinic staff joining the fun.  Truly untouched, the jungle was impassable beyond 10 feet from the beach.  We filled the morning fishing, snorkeling, and climbing rocks at the water's edge.  Fresh fish, caught with hand-lines and grilled on the beach, were a pleasant addition to our picnic lunch.
Wild times offshore
With the rain forest spilling down to the water's edge, we couldn't resist lounging in the shade and reflecting on what a wild week it's been.  Borneo is changing fast.  The large tracts of forest and indigenous culture that give this island it's mystique are disappearing in plain view, being rapidly replaced by wild life of a much different sort.  As disheartening as it is, we're thankful to be here now, to have found a way to help through ASRI, and to have a few more weeks to make good on our new years resolution.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holiday Recap: once again, Indonesia wows us

Happy travelers on New Years Eve. Rinca Island, Komodo National Park
Jacquelyn and I are back in Sukadana after a whirlwind holiday across the Indonesian archipelago.  In a little over two weeks we managed to set foot on seven different islands and were constantly amazed at the cultural and biologic diversity that this country holds.

The island of Java shouldn’t count - we only saw the inside of Jakarta’s airport, but the visit was notable because there we met up with Tom and Ashley, our two great friends from back home in North Carolina.  Avid birders, fishers, divers and lovers of all things outdoors, these two helped us set a course for a few of Indonesia’s best natural playgrounds.  We quickly caught a flight to Lombock, the western most island in the central chain called Nusa Tenggara.

A big breakfast on Gili Air, before a big day in the water
 On Christmas Day we took the first of our many boat trips, this one carrying us from Lombock over to Gili Air.  The easternmost of the three Gili Islands, Air isn’t as rowdy or thumpin’ as Gili Trawangan, but has a little more to do than beach walks and shade-snoozing on Gili Meno.  We hit a couple restaurants with fresh seafood and enjoyed wandering through the villages on the island’s interior, but most of our time was spent either off shore in the coral or in a beach hut with breakfast or a beer, depending on the location of the sun.
Tom, wishing the Gilis farewell and headed down to Kuta Lombok
 After a wild ride through a few too many tourist traps, we made it down to Kuta Lombok.  Rain limited visibility of the sprawling rice fields and Gunung Rinjani’s jagged crest behind them, and kept us indoors for the first two days.  We caught a bad case of cabin fever, so by the third day the rain didn’t matter, and we had a wonderfully wet surf session on Grupuk’s inside break.  Not too hefty, the waves were right for all of us and Ashley and Tom looked nothing like first-timers by the end of the day.  The evening was capped with a big score from Jacquelyn – a quick motorbike ride put us on top of the hill behind Kuta at a restaurant called Ashtanga, a vegetarian paradise with sweeping views of Lombock’s southern coastline.
All smiles at Ashtanga, after a big day of surfing at Grupuk
 With the days of 2010 waning, we set off again, headed east by plane, over Sumbawa and onto Flores Island, where we hoped to spend New Years with some really big lizards.  Labuan Bajo turned out to be a funky little port town, refreshingly devoid of tourist excess, but with a handful of excellent eateries and a garden hotel that boasted the best view I’ve had in quite a while. 
Enjoying an early morning mug of Flores coffee, en route to Rinca
 Rinca Island was our last of 2010.  We caught a slow boat out of the harbor at 7am on the 31st, and enjoyed slowly waking up and sipping coffee as we puttered between grassy-peaked islands and primitive fishing outposts.  Rinca is one of two islands that the Komodo dragon calls home, both very well managed by Indonesia’s national park system.  The dragons are not to be messed with.  Rows of teeth and Listeria-laden saliva have left water buffalo skulls littered across the island.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe when staring into the eyes of these horrendous beasts.  
One of several big dragons we saw, getting every last bit of my zoom.
After a quick snorkel (lion fish, turtles and eels, oh my) we made it back to Labuan Bajo for a big New Years Eve dinner and firework celebration.  Not a bad way to wrap up an incredible year.
Boom! Our staff waging a roman candle war on the hotels across the bay.
We savored our fun on New Years day, but boarded another boat on the 2nd, bound for the smallest of our holiday islands, Seraya Kecil.  Amenities here were sparse, but a dugout canoe, masks and snorkels and a couple of hammocks kept us quite occupied.  The reef facing our beachfront bungalows was the best yet, with more colorful coral, diverse fish, and crazy crustaceans than we’d ever encountered.  Quick hikes up to the hilltop yielded views of equally as deserted surrounding islands, and slivers of sunset through the rainclouds.  The end of our third day and our last boat trip, back to Flores, came too quickly.
Young man and the sea: Tom takes the dugout for a spin off of Seraya Kecil
 We had our last hurrah on Bali.  As densely packed as it is, we welcomed the fluid infrastructure and sweet culture as much as it welcomed us.  Predominantly Hindu, streets and beaches are lined with small temples and shrines, business is concluded in anjali mudra with a smile, and flowers seem requisite for anything that sprouts and bears roots.  Our favorite beach didn’t have the waves we hoped, so we swam and laid in the sun instead.  We had our final feast in Jimburan Bay, with fresh seafood in the sand, and were serenaded by a Balinese Mariachi band.  They closed the night with the Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
 Jacquelyn and I left Ashley and Tom to explore Bali for another week.  An email today suggests they’ve already fallen in love with Ubud.  Our two day journey back to Sukadana left plenty of time to reflect.  This country, it’s 17,000 islands and cultures with over 300 languages, is absolutely incredible.  We visited some of its best – safely protected and amazingly diverse coral, well managed national parks, and some local culture that blends almost perfectly with tourism.  It’s good for us to see successful models of conservation, park management, and tourism.  It’s also good to be back in Sukadana, and good to be back to work with ASRI, trying to bring similar success here to West Kalimantan.