Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Backpacking with the 'Rents

I knew we were in trouble after going through Singapore immigration. As we descended on the escalator to catch the bus that would take us across the Strait of Johor and into Malaysia the crowd before my eyes was huge. Alli and I have done the jaunt between Tioman and Singapore numerous times, mostly for visa reasons and work, but it never looked this bonkers before. We had a bus to catch in less than two hours and boy did this look hairy. The whole scene would have made me sweat and utter a few curse words under my breath if I was just with Alli or some friends, but this jaunt was quite different.

The Lady wasn't there, as the cast of characters on this journey was a novel one for me in SE Asia. I was rolling with the 'rents. My Dad (Tom) and his wife (June) were there, plus Alli's parents too (Ken and Barb). I had scooped them all up at the Singapore airport about 12 hours before. After not seeing anyone from home for almost a year and a half, since late July my Mom has visited along with everyone else above getting here in late August. It was all pretty surreal. But first I had to make it through that damn bus ordeal with the four of 'em.

Raft up! Bout to get down on the Ayung River north of Ubud, Bali, Indoneisa. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.***
The standard route from Singapore (SG) to Tioman goes like this: bus from SG to their border, get off and get stamped out of the Lion City; back on the bus to cross the Strait of Johor, ending up at Malaysian immigration where they stamp you in; hop on the bus again to go to the long-distance bus terminal in Johor Bahru. From there you catch another bus (2-3 hrs. depending on the driver's enthusiasm) to Mersing, the laid-back port town with ferries to Tioman, which also randomly has the best tiramasu cake I've had in Asia.

If you're lucky you can catch the ferry the same day of your bus journey, if not then a night in pleasant Mersing will do (remember: they do have bomb tiramasu), and the boat will shove off in the morning. The ferry terminal is a shining example of incompetence, complete with late ferries and the most asinine boarding process I've ever seen. Whew, I'm beat from just writing all that. There's a few more cogs to the whole machine, but I think you get the point. It can take more than an entire day to rock this slog. Yup, it sucks. And for some reason we thought it was a good idea to have our parents experience all this.

Above two photos: Having fun in the downpour at Asah Waterfall, on the south end of Tioman. Notice my Dad's snazzy hairdo.
With my Mom it was no trouble as the crowds were non-existent, but not with the other four. One problem planning for traveling with the parents is that Alli and I have been in backpacker mode the last 1.5 yrs. Now, I kinda have beef with that term since it usually implies that I like full-moon beach parties and culturally making an ass of myself, but truth be told we do roll with backpacks. In my case an external-frame (you heard right!) Kelty from the early 90s. I think my bag is older than Offspring's breakout album 'Smash.'

Anyway, that means we're usually roaming around on the cheap. Buses here and there; hotels/guesthouses/homestays with shared bathrooms, maybe even a wee bit of mold and water damage; sweat-stained sheets; you know the usual trappings. And when you gotta carry it all on your back, in a region that loves sunshine and endless humidity, you like your bag light too.

Buchanan Christmas card maybe? Kayaking Juara Bay.
Unfortunately, everything was stacked against our parents. The sweaty heat combined with bulky rolly bags did not mix. Their belongings were pushing over 20kg (44+lbs). And they don't let you stow these bags in the cargo bays on the bus, you gotta haul 'em in and do it fast. Another annoying fact about the border crossing: people are in quite the rush, and why, I'm not so sure. A lot of the time it reminds me of those who love to speed up when they can see the red light ahead.

And the cherry on top? People in SE Asia really don't like to wait in orderly lines. To put it lightly, people will cut the hell out a line. Usually lines become amorphous blobs reminiscent of cramped rock 'n' roll shows once the band hits the stage. I've had everyone from young punks to elderly ladies butt in front of me, even whole families. So if you're living here then you gotta buy into the practice. Cut, butt, do whatever. If you don't, you're gonna get left behind.

Might be my favorite photo. Ken enjoying this strange sight: the king of candy characters in the West, meeting the king of fruits in the East. Singapore airport, always full of surprises.
As we waited to board the bus to Malaysia the amorphous blob was in full swing. So I did what I always do now, pushed forward. But I'm not gonna lie, I kind of forgot the parents were there. When I looked behind me, they were way back and I realized I hadn't gave them the low-down on SE Asia lines. They looked quite perplexed. People were cutting left and right. It was hilarious, in a we-might-miss-our-bus due to this craziness kind of way. A sort of grand welcoming committee to SE Asia for my Dad, June, Ken and Barb! But alas, we boarded all the buses and were stamped in. The journey to Tioman and Juara was finally completed by lunchtime the next day, complete with late ferries, scamming taxi drivers and some delectable roti canai in the morning.

Yeah, the day we went to Asah Waterfall it rained a little bit. Maybe an understatement.
The four parents spent about 4-5 nights in Juara, before my Dad and June moved on to New Zealand with a quick stopover in Singapore. Having the four, plus my Mom earlier in the summer, in Juara was wonderful. They got to see where we've spent a year of our lives since leaving the USA last April. They all got the grand tour of the village, and surrounding ocean and jungle, whether on foot, in a sidecar or via kayaks. Rolling through a rainstorm with my Dad and June in the JTP sidecar definitely put a smile on my face. I even got my Mom and Dad to separately try scuba diving.

Ken and Barb stuck around SE Asia much longer, visiting KL and two locales in Indonesia: Gili Meno for scuba diving (Ken was so relaxed on holiday that for the first time in his diving career he forgot to put on his dive computer before heading underwater) and the rare opportunity to visit somewhere in SE Asia where motorized land transportation doesn't occur, and Ubud for Balinese culture, kick-ass rafting, and at least for me, the crispy duck. Barb even got to have a Singapore Sling at the bar that invented the drink on her birthday.

Ken and Barb in an ox cart on Gili Meno, Lombock, Indonesia. No motorized transportation exists on the Gili's, so the only way to get around is on your feet, by bicycle or ox cart.
My Mom's visit was a winner too. Celebrating Hari Raya with her was an incredible experience and she even got to see Alli and I in action since an international school trip was taking place when she was in town. Nothing like dinner time with 60 insane 6th graders! And I'm almost certain the talent show she witnessed that we always have at the end of our trips was the most bizarre of the whole season.

Sadly the only photo of my Mom and I the whole trip. In an office in Mersing. At least we got one of us! It's cause she's always taking incredible photos. Click the Hari Raya link above to see for yourself.
After not seeing family for so long, it was darn strange to suddenly be offering them their first bite of sambal chicken or explaining how to say 'thank you' in Bahasa Malaysia. But overall, through all the hiccups (transpo issues; pooping geckos and inquisitive monitor lizards; torrential downpours; new foods; lack of numerous American amenities), I'd say they nailed it.

To be honest, I was quite nervous having to host family, but I'd do it again, no questions asked. Just a few things would be different. Did I mention Pulau Tioman has an airport? All four were surely thinking of it at some point on our overland journey to Juara. But all along part of me new that bus/ferry route was gonna be a doozy, so that's why my Dad, June and I flew off the island when we left (a first for me). As my Dad said after landing in Singapore: "If I ever come back, we're flying. We're old and we like doing things the easy way. And that was easy." Fair enough.


More photos below:
Bali Rafting on the Ayung River
Somewhere there's a Barb in that helmet and PFD combo.

Our raft guide photo bombing like a G.

The Buchanan ladies aren't having any fun at all.

The always lovely waiting hall for the ferry.
Ken, looking ever so regal, in front of the Bushman, their home for a few nights in Juara.
We got dumped on. And what can I say? SE Asia has made me a wuss with the cold.

Kuala Lumpur
Trying all kinds of new weird foods. I'm sure there's some weeds in there as Ken would say.
Celebrating Merdeka Day (Malaysian Independence Day) right, in front of a giant Malaysia One made up of pineapples and small flags.
KL Tower.
Gili Meno
The three Gilis on our flight in. We went to the one in the middle.
Scuba logbook/happy hour time.
The Buchanan's home for the week.
Lots of both Hawksbill and Green turtles in the Gilis.
Bout to head on down.
Barb and I conducting a very serious buddy check before getting into the water.
Bali (Ubud)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Home is Where I Want to Be, Pick Me Up and Turn Me Round

Maybe it’s the fact that I turn 30 next year, my Sister is in the process of buying a house, my Mom just visited Juara and my Dad will be here in a few days, but lately I’ve been thinking about my sense of place. And since I’ve been with Alli for well over five years now, you could say I’ve been pondering our sense of place, too. Or maybe I’ve just been delving too deep into the Talking Heads catalogue. 

Since leaving my childhood state of Maryland in 2003, I’ve lived in a few locales: two cities in Colorado, including one where I did my undergrad; spent about four glorious years in Tucson, Arizona; and by the time we leave Juara at the end of this month, I’ll have spent a year total here. That’s 12 months in a Malaysian village with a population of about 350-400 people. The fact that Juara is on Tioman, a popular tourist island, means the village can sometimes seem a lot of larger than it is, but this is bar none the tiniest town I’ve ever set up shop in. To quote Dr. Funkenstein: “I can dig it.”

Juara Bay.
I’ve always wanted to live in a small town, err village, but never came close in the U.S. Fort Collins (CO) was the closest I ever came, but numbers there easily exceed 100,000. I just never thought my first living experience in a smaller setting would be in Malaysia.

A lot of the aspects of small town life I envisioned occurring in America also occur here, it’s just the nuances that are different. It’s not your car everyone recognizes, but your motorbike (you can literally recognize the sounds of ours, it didn’t get the nickname “Big Noisy” for nothing). Gossip is rampant, I just don’t understand it all, since my understanding of Bahasa Melayu is still miniscule. There’s no town dump, we just handle it like my Grandpa in Pennsylvania did, by burning it on windy days. Restaurants don’t have hours posted and when a wedding, engagement party or funeral occurs, the entire populace shows up.

Sometimes though finding your own space to unwind is a battle. You have to seek it out. You just can’t hole yourself up in your digs and marinate in a little R&R, well you could, but you’d probably sweat to death. Disappearing into the crowd in this setting is not an option. Plus, I’m a foreigner so I stick out double-time.

The foreigner tag is a biggie. It’s always tough moving somewhere where you’re not from. As our planet becomes more crowded, boasts and proclamations of local residence become louder. I always got a hearty chuckle out of seeing the cheeky “No Vacancy” or “Native” bumper stickers in Colorado. But I made a solid life for myself there. In Arizona I like to think I had some desert rat cred, due to the number of Gila monsters I picked up with my bare hands, street tacos I could scarf in one sitting and the 20+ year-old pickup truck I bumbled around in (no rust ya heard!). But out here it’s a whole different ballgame.

Trying to gel into a small Muslim village with strong community ties is not a cakewalk. But there’s no pressure on us to be anything we’re not, and as long as you respect the culture they have created for themselves then for the most part everyone has been welcoming, friendly, and at least, not too annoyed. Conducting conservation work can be the exception to this. Similar tensions have arisen all over the globe when (mostly) white folks pop into the developing world and start telling people what they should be doing in order to conserve this species, or preserve that space.

It is inherently arrogant, there’s no denying that. Imagine the reaction a New Englander would have if a Malaysian showed up in Gloucester telling them what to do with their cod, herring and salmon stocks. I can only imagine the colorful Massachusetts language that would ensue.

For the most part living here is also dealing with what you leave behind. I made some amazing friends in the desert and to walk away from that was tough. It’s not like visiting Malaysia is an easy task. Also, everyone in my family lives in the States, except for me. They’re scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard. I haven’t lived close to my sister in over a decade and as my Grandma nears the age of 95, there’s a solid chance I won’t be there to celebrate it. I wouldn’t be surprised too, if Alli or I become an aunt and uncle in the foreseeable future (as far away in the future as you want Tara). Are we going to be there for those moments?

So I then start to ponder if all of this is selfish on our part. Or are we running away from the type of life we were living in the U.S. The answer, somewhat, to both of those questions is yes. I love the pace of life here and the overall simplicity. I love leaving my doors and windows open at night, not having to lock up my possessions on a daily basis; leaving the keys to our motorbike in the ignition and never having to hop onto an eight-to-ten lane highway. And being sandwiched between the languid South China Sea and a stately rainforest is a colossal bonus, too.

Purple house and its resident chicken.
Alli and I are in the process of contemplating a return to Juara next year, where we would really sink our teeth in and set up shop for at least a couple years. The opportunity is unprecedented, with the possibility of it occurring in America near impossible. And the faith that people have put in us here is incredibly humbling.

David Byrne once proclaimed, in a much more famous Heads song all you readers probably know, that “you may find yourself in another part of the world.” And that “you may ask yourself, how do I work this?” Labeling this a once-in-a-lifetime chance may be a tad bit dramatic, but trying to pinpoint where I want to spend the next couple years is no small feat. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but I’m leaning toward seizing the moment.
Kayaking to one of our favorite restaurants.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Case of the Dead 12.5ft King Cobra

Lately I’ve been moseying about the jungle at night by myself. I’ve finally gotten comfortable enough to just wander off and see what nocturnal goodies I can scope out. Luckily Juara is situated next to some draw-dropping secondary and primary rainforest, with three purdy rivers cutting into the jungle around the village too.

A popular waterfall trek that tourists and school groups alike fancy during the day is all mine at night. And two of those rivers are ripe for nighttime exploration, whether on foot in my scuba booties or in a kayak.

My solo endeavors have reaped a bountiful list of jungle residents. On the mammal scene there’s been Mouse Deer, the Common Palm Civet and numerous Red Spiny rats, all firsts for me.
I spotted this Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphrodites) looking down on me while trekking up to the local waterfall at night.
The herps have been more than rewarding. I’ve seen one Blue Bronzeback snake and a few Reticulated Pythons. The frogs have been noisy, calling about everywhere, including the White-lipped frog, Poisonous Rock frog, Blyth’s Giant frog; fat, warty, loud River toads; and an impeccably bloated Banded Bullfrog on a ride home one night. Plus another endemic lizard species, being a spaz on rocks: the Pulau Tioman Bent-toed gecko.
The Pulau Tioman Bent-toed Gecko (Crytodactylus tiomanensis) posing quite nicely.
But none of these creatures compare to what I stumbled across about one week ago. The time was nearing 11pm and I had decided to turn around and head back down the river, toward my motorbike. The night wasn’t phenomenal, just three frog species, but it wasn’t a total bust either.

As I combed the left side on my walk back I noticed a long stretch of tan color that looked too light to be a tree root. This possible tree root stretched from down in the water, to up along the top of the stream bank. My headlamp could have used some extra battery juice so I couldn’t make out exactly what I was looking at. I quietly popped up onto a rock in the river, lit up the tan object and realized I was standing within one meter of a King Cobra.

The long-as-can-be King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) where it was found in-situ. Notice the the lower half of the snake heading right out of the tree trunk, up the bank.
I got goose bumps, stared mouth agape, hollered a few excitable expletives and then moved back onto a much larger boulder in the river, to verify I was definitely looking at the mack daddy of all cobras (Ophiophagus hannah). I was. As far as snakes go on Tioman they’re pretty unmistakable. The size, head and its scales, upper body and color all screamed cobra.

That night I pegged the length of the serpent at 3-4M (~10-13ft). Yeah, this specimen was a biggie. Longest snake I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. The head and upper body were in the water, with the rest of it meandering up through the base of a robust tree trunk, turning ninety degrees and then unraveling along the dirt bank.

The rock I popped up onto to get a closer than needed view when I first spotted the cobra.
Unfortunately it had another characteristic that made this discovery a little grim. The King Cobra was a goner. Dead as can be. This was verified the next morning when I returned to the sighting area with Adam, a friend/colleague of mine. 

Playing with the cobra the next morning, ya know, taking measurements and having a photo shoot.
The night before I noticed it hadn’t moved much. Since it was late, I was by myself and I had never found a King Cobra before I decided to not mess with it, e.g. throwing rocks and sticks at it to see if the snake still had a pulse. That’s exactly what we did in the morning. No reaction. The night before it’s head was partially submerged in the water, but right at the surface and alert. Now it was facing down, as if it had been placed in time out, and looking the part of dead. 

Plank vs. Cobra. Snake wins length battle easily! Adam is around 1.8M (6ft) tall.
We decided to get the cobra out of its current position and move it over to the rocky shore across the river. That’s how I know the first King Cobra I ever found ended up clocking in at 3.8M (12.47ft). Frickin’ awesome. This species has been known to grow as long as 6M (almost 20ft). Sadly, the snake had just recently shed too; hence the eye-catching tan color, the same shade of a fulfilling afternoon cup of tea with lots of sweet milk thrown in.

So we splayed the snake out and wondered how the hell it ended up dead. The tail had been gnawed on pretty well, with a few chunks missing, but the rest of the body was intact. The upper body and neck area, running up to its snout, were the only parts to not go through the shed. The old skin was still clinging to scales. We opened its mouth and peered inside, which was big enough to consume my fist or a plump grapefruit. Or both.

Open wide! A fist or two could easily get lost in there.
Obviously the fact that the King Cobra was deceased puts a damper on the finding. But there’s more than enough to be ecstatic about. A quick peruse through the herp guide for the Seribuat archipelago (and the scientific paper preceding this book) reveals the only confirmed sighting of this species on Tioman reigns from Kampung ABC, on the west side of the island and a good 8-9km (~5 miles) away from Juara.

Charlie from JTP has told me before he’s seen a cobra in the same river I did. I believe him. Sometimes in this part of the world it’s difficult to know when other people have seen a cobra species or not. Most folks think any snake out here is a cobra or python, just like people in Arizona who always think the snake they just came across had rattles and was ready to strike them in a moment’s notice.  

The head just underneath the water when first found. Notice the shed skin still lingering and the massive, plate-like scales on its head.
So yup it’s a bummer it had to be dead. But just knowing that an over 12 ft. long snake was out roaming in the jungle, scarfing down other snakes and eating monitor lizards makes me smile. Our world’s charismatic megafauna (tigers, orangutans, giant pythons and anacondas, crocodiles, wolves, etc.) is vanishing fast. As David Quammen has written, we are at war with wild places and along with that, the creatures that rule them.

Tioman is too small to support your classic big-game jungle animals: rhinos, sun bears, elephants and those aforementioned tigers. But we still got some hefty heavy hitters out there and I’ve seen ‘em: monitor lizards pushing 3M (almost 10ft); huge pythons that can squeeze a mouse deer to death and then have it for dinner; and now 12ft long King cobras on both sides of the island. Looks like Tioman, with its ever-developing coastline and the increasing 3D/2N package tourists that go along with that, is still a wild place after all. What more could you ask for? Well, maybe an alive 15ft cobra. I’d settle for that.

Maneuvering it around so we could measure it.
Tail area, which was the only part of the cobra that showed injury.
Large Water monitor (Varanus salvator). This sickly beast was almost stepped on by Adam while we were trekking to a summit view point in another area in Juara. These are top predators on Tioman. This one is easily over 2M (6.5ft).
Blyth's Giant frog (Limnonectes blythii)
Handsome Blue Bronzeback (Dendralaphis cyanochloris) found in streamside vegetation very close to the cobra sighting.

Sprawled out and chillax-ing.
White-lipped frog (Hylarana labialis)
Large stick insect (Phasmatodea sp.)
Obese-looking Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) on my ride home.
Big Boi on the rocks: River toad (Phrynoides aspera).