Sunday, October 25, 2015

The City of Cats

Little heron, spied on my walk into the city
I have just a few days holiday to enjoy some leisure time, and I chose to fly over to Borneo. I landed in Kuching and found my accommodation (a privately owned apartment). Once settled in, the owner left for work (he’s a chef) and I went to the kitchen to get some water. Plop! As soon as I opened the door a very surprised little green lizard landed at my feet. He took one look at shot off, and has been staying out of sight ever since.

I explored a little nearby – it’s a fairly rough and ready, fishing dock area. There was a man with his daughter fishing for crabs, and the most amazing aerobatics by the barn swallows. I slept reasonably well and today I began to explore Kuching – the city of cats.

Crossing the river
Apart from the feral cats (which are in abundance), there are cafés, statues and even a museum dedicated to cats. First off I needed some breakfast. It was raining, but maybe it would ease off quickly like it had in KL. Wrong! I was drenched, through to the skin (despite my raincoat) in minutes. I had breakfast and headed back to the apartment to dry off, passing the market where I bought a watermelon and saw pig nosed turtles for sale (illegally). I went back into the city and spent the rest of the day walking round. I wandered along the river front and an elderly man in a small motorised boat waved. I joined the queue for the boat and we crossed the river. The tradition is you cross the river to buy cakes. I did – but instead of turning right, I went left to the ‘fort’.

wandered along a road that seemed to go nowhere, to nothing.  I think I missed the main attraction. As I retraced my steps, I saw glossy starlings, sunbirds and more swallows. Having finally purchased a very colourful cake, I went back across the river again and continued exploring the city.

I navigated my way to Reservoir Park. As I approached, passing the ‘Kuching Pensioners Club’, a charming, elderly man stopped and spoke to me. He had worked in the medical core when Malaysia was under British rule. He introduced me to his daughter who was about seven years old. If it was his daughter and not his granddaughter, then I am mightily impressed! Oh, and he had a cat. We shook hands, instant friends. I wish I had photographed him.
Welcome to the city of cats

The Reservoir Park birdlife was vocal, but elusive, though I was lucky enough to spy a collared kingfisher. In the water I saw several turtles surface and disappear quickly; very smart move given what I’d seen that morning.

I eventually walked back to the apartment with aching feet and sore ankles, having covered several hot, sticky miles during the day. Supper concluded with cake for dessert, of course. Tomorrow is another day!

PS - at least the torrential rain cleared the haze for a  while!

All photos (C) Carolyn Sheppard.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The haze

The haze from above
One thing I was warned about before my visit to Malaysia was the haze. The haze looks like fog or mist. It is in fact the dispersed smoke of fires burning in Indonesia that are blown across the ocean to settle on the Malaysian Peninsular (and other places) like a soft, choking blanket.

About one in twenty people are wearing face masks and some days are worse than others (today was a mask day for me). When it rains the haze clears a little, and on higher ground it's not so bad, but it is not good for anyone.

I was told that the haze is not just affecting people by causing increased respiratory problems but must be affecting the wildlife too. The lack of sunshine has also affected vegetable crops and the vegetables are smaller, and increasing in price.

Afternoon sunshine, filtered
The haze is something I had heard about, but didn't know much about. The forest fires that are burning in Indonesia are not just the clearance of forest that is burned and then goes out - the fires are burning on peat and go into the ground, with thick, intense smoke pouring out for months.

This is a multiple tragedy - not only are people and animals suffering from the smoke, but we are losing irreplaceable rain forest to 'slash and burn' land clearance for palm oil farming.

A typical day here the air quality rating is perhaps around 150. Anything above 100 is 'concerning', and in some areas it's nearly up to 200. Schools are being closed - children not allowed to go out.

I can't help wondering what the long-term effect of this will be. The fires have been burning for months and there is talk of it not ending before March next year - and then it starts all over again just a few months later.  My friend who lives in Kalimantan, where the fires are, says that they have been burning since August. All those months of reduced sunlight, of breathing air full of particles that damage people and animals in ways we just don't know. Will we see a long term impact beyond the obvious? I wonder what effect it has on women (and animals) that are pregnant, and on the plants. We rely on a balanced ecosystem that is being perverted by humanity in ways beyond our imagination.

The haze compounds Kuala Lumpur's
existing emissions problems
The forests are being cleared so that more palm oil can be grown. Palm oil is in thousands of products - many of which we use almost every day. The increase in palm oil plantations is fragmenting forest habitat, further endangering species like Tiger and orangutans.

In a local paper I saw an article that said something along the lines of  'Why should we change our farming practices just because consumers thousands of miles away tell us to?' We are the problem. We are the ones consuming at ever increasing rates.  'We are operating on a planet overdraft' - consuming a year's ecological budget in just nine months. Current consumption levels are not sustainable, and we don't have another planet for when this one 'runs out'.

The haze is something I didn't really know about - but in experiencing it, and in learning more, I am once more reminded that together we must adopt sustainable habits and practices that means there will be a green planet for us and future generations. We have to change now, or expect to fulfill an apocalyptic vision of dark skies and poisoned air.

Further reading:
Biggest environmental crime
Fire outbreaks could be producing more daily emissions than the entire US economy
see also LA Times article
Wikipedia explanation
Schools closed indefinitely
The haze in China
Sustainable palm oil

Other stories on Malaysia in this blog:
A typical English Village
First report from the field
The city of cats

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A typical English village

It was a bit odd to be 'sold' the idea of Fraser's Hill as a typical English village. For one, it was built by a Scotsman. For two - it's in Malaysia.

This lovely little town, with its stone-built bungalows, clock tower and tall Scots Pines is quite charming. It is also surrounded by Malaysian rainforest, with native pines, lianas and beautiful orchids.

Though we were out of the haze in the city – rainforest is exactly that. Rain. Forest. And rainforests are full of lovely flowers and bugs. Lots of mosquitos, beetles and leeches.

Fraser’s Hill is renowned for its birds and is a major site for some rare and special species. However, being in a group of more than 20 people, bird watching wasn’t very easy.

On the first day we went for a two hour hike through the forest. The Bishop’s Trail was rough in places, but no one slipped or fell, and though we exited a bit muddy, everyone enjoyed the hike tremendously. Our guide stopped to check a camera trap which was set low on the path to track mammals. She had an extensive knowledge of the fauna and flora of the forest, showing us unusual plants, many of which are unique to the area.

When we returned from the trail we had ‘environmental games’ (which I won’t go into in detail, but it did involve me pretending to be an eagle for half an hour) and then a group supper in the Bungalow.

The group was made up of people aged 20-55, from the UK (me), New Zealand (Mike), Korea, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Japan. Our supper was cooked by Mr Tan, a Chinese Malaysian who was one of the ‘old school’, cooking scones and tea cakes, roast chicken and the most amazing curries. During supper we told stories, sang songs, and talked.

It was a wonderful time and I have made new friends, learned many things, and walked in a rainforest! 

All my photos except the one of me and the tree, taken by another member of the group. 

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Monday, October 12, 2015

First report from the field

The journey isn’t as much fun as the destination, despite what the old adage says. But then the travel was 11 hours flying from Paris and Kuala Lumpur the destination
The monorail
It's my first visit to Asia, and I am experiencing a new culture and enjoying it all so far. The weather is humid and the haze is quite thick (thanks to ‘burning season’ in Indonesia). We’ve had a massive thunderstorm both days with torrential rain - today’s thunder shook the building. I worked in our South East Asia office today in Petaling Jaya (PJ) and it was lovely to meet the team and learn more about their work. I know much more about the Madagascan tortoise population than before.

I travelled to the office from my hotel in the city – two trains and a cab. The monorail is speedy and easy to navigate, and though it was crammed full, it didn’t have the same claustrophobic atmosphere I find on the London Underground – maybe just because we were above ground and in the open.

Next to my hotel is a huge shopping centre that covers many floors. There are little market stalls in the central area, small stores and department stores. Names you know, and names you wouldn’t believe. One nice aspect of the city is that there is still quite a lot of green, but it is diminishing as this vibrant city grows and takes Malaysia up a peg or two on the World Bank scale of economies.

I’m here for a conference that starts tomorrow, and next week I will work more with our office here. At the weekend we have a field trip planned and I am hoping to see lots of birds, and maybe some other wildlife too (aside from the huge brown rat who crossed my path in PJ). I’ve already seen white tailed mynahs (probably very common, but not to me) and saw a lovely honey coloured raptor from the train (sadly too far away to identify).

This is a different culture, and one with a chequered history that means it is, by definition, multi-cultural. Everyone I have met so far has been friendly and pleasant, and the food has been great. I’ve eaten in two typical Malaysian cafés - satay and noodles mmm.... Most people speak English but some with such a strong accent that my old ears struggle to understand. Maybe after three weeks I will fall into the rhythm and assimilate more easily.

Well, that’s episode one – nothing very exciting to report except the fact that I am Kuala Lumpur! Wayhey!

(C) Photography

Thursday, October 08, 2015

A decent proposal

Spanish brandy - Julio helped us demolish a nearly full
bottle of Le Panto in just two sittings
Taking Sally back to Mallorca for a week in September was a real pleasure.  We love the island and it has special significance to Sally, as she lived there on and off for more than 20 years with her partner, Orlando.

Sally used to live in a village called Genova, just outside Palma. If you go ‘downhill’ from Genova you come to Cala Major, and that’s where we stayed this year. It has a couple of beaches, and is on the Number 3 bus route which makes it easy to get into Palma.

We managed to fit in quite a bit, even though Sally is slower now (she’s 83) and has macular degeneration, which impairs her sight considerably. There’s no stopping her though!
Sally next to some framed pictures of
her designs at Theatre Zero

We managed to fit a lot in to our week – a catch up with Lizzie, a long-time friend of Sally’s and trips into Palma to the lovely Theatro Sans, where Sally is known and loved. She spent many years working with them, designing and making costumes, and teaching. We went to the theatre one evening to see a fantastic flamenco show.  We managed a beach trip and a swim in the sea, and a couple of evenings we ate in the hotel bar, down by the swimming pool.  

One evening, sitting by the pool between a lovely lemon tree and a bright red hibiscus, we got chatting with Julio, the bar manager. I don’t speak much Spanish, and Sally can understand but finds it hard to speak.  Julio didn’t speak much English, but we still had lovely conversations.

Though Julio works at the hotel, it’s not his vocation, his first love is music! He is a pianist and was a DJ at Cala Major beach, and the owner of the club asked him to help out one day at the hotel. That was 16 years ago. I told him I was a bass player, and that my daughter played music too. Julio said Sally reminded him of his mother. She is 94 and was a dancer. His father, long gone, was a circus clown.  Julio’s daughter, Maria, worked in the hotel too, when Julio had a day off. Julio came over even though he wasn’t working. We had a lovely evening, and agreed that he and I should get married. But there wasn’t enough time this trip, so if I go back next year (and Sally does want to return, of course), I have a decent proposal on the table!

How the casa used to look

We also ate at a local café where we were served by a delightful young waitress (about the same age as my daughter) who was practicing her English. We ate there three times, for light lunches, and on our last day she was there with a friend on her day off. Even so she came over to say hello and wish us a good journey home. Yes, we tipped her nicely, and were given a most delicious Herbas after our last meal at no charge.

How the casa looks now
It was a good week. We saw old friends, made new friends, and got some sorely needed sunshine. The saddest part of our trip was a visit to the Casa where she had lived. We knew it had been sold, but had hoped the frontage would be protected. I’m sure the house will be lovely when it’s finished, and will make someone a fabulous home, but it was sad to lose the history of Casa Martinez.

I probably won’t marry Julio, but isn’t it nice to have been asked, even in fun.  

NB – I changed Julio’s name, just in case he’s proposed to another tourist since; I wouldn’t want to embarrass him.

All photos (C) me. 

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