Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sarawak Stories 2 : in which I discover the Orchid Seekers of Borneo

We reach Mulu to find a dazzling blue sky - no sign of the monsoons.  We step out of the one-roomed airport and see a line up of vans, rapidly ferrying passengers to their destination and returning.  How far is the rain forest from here?  We see the forest before we notice the signboard at the airport.

The van screeches to a halt in front of a long bridge, drops us off and promises to return to collect us on our departure.  We get down, drag our bags noisily over the bridge and enter the visitors' information area.  There is a wooden counter in front and before long, someone materializes and beckons.  It is a young and efficient lady.  She gives us a set of brochures and maps, snaps little paper visitor bracelets onto our wrists which indicate our day of departure and explains about possible expeditions.  We make our payments, leave our luggage in our rooms and head for lunch.

The Gunung Mulu National Park lies sprawled all round us.  We are still to get used to the foliage, the insects, the incessant jungle noises.  There is life, sound and colour at every step.

Before our eyes, the sky starts clouding up.  Large grey balls of water vapour glide in effortlessly, seemingly from nowhere.

We walk swiftly to the cafeteria - there is only one which caters to all the staff and visitors, and it is remarkably efficient.  They serve local and Western food; by and large we stick to the local fare.  Everything is served steaming hot and it all looks very appetizing.  Jungle ferns, local fungi, fresh fish from the river and slightly sticky Borneo rice.  Who could ask for more?
It has been a long morning and we tuck in, gratefully.

After a little nap, we contemplate stretching our legs and getting a feel for the place.  Immediately there is a roll of thunder,followed by sheets and sheets of rain.  We sit on the wooden verandah, watching the rain, sipping tea and waiting for the weather to clear.  We sit for three hours, waiting.  It doesn't really matter, for we are on holiday.  We see people rushing to and fro, completely drenched, but we are not quite ready for this as yet.  The air feels cool after the heat of Singapore.  The rain gradually lessens, we grab our umbrellas and run towards the cafeteria.  It is now dinner time and though we haven't done anything so far, we are hungry once more.

After dinner, we walk into the store next to the cafeteria.  This sells basic food (snacks, chocolate, rice and a few cans) for camping, some local clothes, rain ponchos and T-shirts, postcards, handicrafts and books.  They also sell wi-fi cards, in twelve hour slots.  Each of us heads to a different section.  My husband checks the wi-fi, our friend Madhu looks at the sharp local knives that can slash small branches (and undoubtedly other objects as well) to shreds in seconds and I gaze at the books.  There I find 'The Orchid Seekers of Borneo' - an adventure story first published in 1893, written by Ashmore Russan and Frederick Boyle. It has been recently reprinted by the Natural History Publications (Borneo).  I read the introductory note (see footnote) and I am entranced.  I can't wait to read more - and to venture deep into the forest, looking for orchids (amongst other things).  When we return to our rooms, I sit in bed and read a few pages before dropping off to sleep.  Tomorrow we go into the forest, up into the limestone caves, beyond the river.  Tomorrow...

Footnote:  I quote, from the introductory note:

"Some of our boy readers may cry, on seeing the names of the two authors on the title page, "What!  A couple of 'em?"  And at any point they will be likely to ask themselves, "Now, I wonder which of the two wrote this?"
   The public in such cases is commonly left to wonder, but circumstances here are unusual.  When Mr. Ashmore Russan formed a project of writing a story upon the subject of orchid-collecting for the Boys' Own Paper, he applied to Messrs. Sander, of St. Albans, the great importers of orchids, for special information.  They referred him to Mr. Frederick Boyle, as one who had travelled in many lands where those plants flourish, who grows them, as an amateur, with unusual success and publishes much about them.  Mr. Boyle had no time to take an equal part in writing the story, but he consented to advise, direct, and in general to lend his assistance.  The outline of the tale is his, and for all statements therein, historical, local or scientific, Mr. Boyle is responsible.  It naturally happened, since he was treating of scenes he had himself beheld, of peoples and individuals he had himself known, that he found it necessary to take the pen from Mr. Russan's hand and write a few lines here and there.  But in general he confined himself to his functions of director and critic.  It will be understood, after this explanation, that the tale rests on a solid basis of fact all through."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sarawak Stories 1 : in which I am introduced to leech socks

We flew from Singapore's busy airport into Kuching (capital of the state of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo) by Air Asia, a remarkably well run budget airline.  Kuching airport was smaller but busy as well.  All our baggage was x-rayed on arrival and then we found ourselves outside - in the bright tropical sunlight, looking for the hotel taxi.  We didn't have very far to look.  There was only one man with a large sign - a jovial, chatty driver (Mr. Soh) who effortlessly loaded the bags and us into a large, gleaming white van.

Our destination was the Lime Tree Hotel - a zesty little hotel, done in white and lime green, perched at the edge of Chinatown, about two blocks away from the river.  By the time we reached, it was already afternoon.  The sun was blazing down from a partly cloudy sky.  We strolled around a few streets of Chinatown, trying to get our bearings.  Cats of various shapes and sizes - real and models- stared at us.  Kuching (which means 'cat' in the local language) is full of fairly well-kept cats.

We ate some steamed buns for lunch and drank an iced coconut milk drink, which was quite refreshing.  After a little rest, we decided to walk towards the river front and buy some things for our forthcoming rainforest trip.

Malls are a big deal in Kuching.  The first thing everyone tells you about is the latest mall that has come up and where it is located.  Kuching is a city of about one million people and it looks, on the whole, quite clean and prosperous.  The only hazard here is trying to cross roads, but coming from India, it was a relief to feel that one could actually attempt to cross roads without getting run over or horned out.  The traffic moved swiftly and silently.  We also discovered, over time, that though this is one of the larger cities of Malaysia, it is also an incredibly friendly, relaxed and honest place.  "Everyone knows everyone else," a shopkeeper told us one day, "We cannot afford to cheat our customers."

We had only one evening in this city before we left for the rainforest, so a little checking on the internet provided the name of a mall which might have - leech socks.  Leech socks, which we had been looking for in Singapore and India, had eluded us so far.  This mall was not far from our hotel (in fact most places of interest were walking distance), so we headed there.

The mall, like many parts of the city, was Christmasy and busy (Sarawak has a large tribal belt and most of the local tribes have been converted to Christianity.  The Muslim population here is much less that in other parts of Malaysia).  Within the mall, there was only one shop which stocked leech socks - Greek's Outgear's Discovery.  A visit to this shop (which was fairly well stocked with outdoor gear) revealed that there were indeed leech socks available - in two styles.  We went up to look at what these might be - and they turned out to be large, shapeless green stockings with bits of elastic.  We could easily have got them off some of the Christmas trees, had we but known.  The style we preferred had only one piece left and my friends generously allowed me to buy this.  They purchased the second, inferior model, wondering all the time whether this would work at all.  Only time would tell..

We then proceeded to the basement, to a supermarket, and bought an array of small snacks to keep us going - fried local beans of different kinds, fried anchovies (very popular here), shrimp wafers, rice and sesame seed crackers - and from a fruit seller, a big bag of Mandarin oranges, all the way from China.

We walked down the river front, which was cheery and festive - full of smells of food, sounds of hawkers and sights of bright lights, prettily strung.  We ate in Hong Kong Noodles - a restaurant close to our hotel, which served delicious Chinese (or Malaysian-Chinese) food - stir fried greens, large prawns with a buttery curry flavour and a fish curry that was chunky and spicy.  Then we walked back to the hotel and I fell asleep almost immediately, dreaming of the rainforest that we would see the next day.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Short Visit To Singapore

We have been on the road for about two weeks, a journey that began and ended in Singapore.  Our main destination was Sarawak - a state in Malaysian Borneo.  Singapore is a convenient hub for low cost airlines that fly between the two countries.  Besides, we had friends in Singapore (our primary reason to visit this part of the world) and so we set out, looking forward to spending some time in this warm, wet clime.  The winter monsoon had set in but it rarely rains for more than an hour a day in Singapore.  The common joke here is that there are only two seasons in Singapore - indoors and outdoors.  This is really not funny when one experiences it, for most buildings are air-conditioned and are really cold and as soon as one steps out, a warm blast of air hits you; this constant change is very disconcerting.  I think the island could save a considerable amount of energy and money just by raising the temperature on their thermostat settings.

We spent our little time in Singapore mainly in the company of friends, catching up on work and news.  They took us to some very nice places to eat - food is certainly a highlight of this country.  The amount of tasty, fresh and affordable food here is incredible and unique.  We ate all kinds of things especially assorted seafood, which we don't often get in India.  Singapore is known for its 'chilly crab' and there is a string of restaurants along the coast that highlight this preparation.  We have never found this to be an exceptional concoction; this time however, we discovered 'pepper crab', which really was outstanding.

I also enjoyed eating the Chinese food, another cuisine that is hard to come by in India (except the Indianized version).  We had dinner one evening in a mainland China restaurant (part of a chain that actually exists in China) and it was so interesting to see and taste several of the things that I had only read about in books.  To me the food was very satisfying because, like Indian food, there was a range and diversity that covered seasons, tastes, styles and flavours.  There were delicate subtle dishes, strong, hearty ones and in-betweens.  Things were steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, slow-cooked, smoked and one could select a combination that suited one's appetite or mood.  I also appreciated the high level of art involved in cutting, slicing, shredding different foods before they were cooked.  This is also emphasized in traditional Indian cooking, but not to these high standards, and I feel we are slowly losing this skill and knowledge in India.

Orchard street - the main tourist shopping area was packed, and not just with tourists.  Several of Singapore's large, famous malls are here and they had all put on a good show for Christmas.  The air was festive, the lights were strung, the roads jammed at all times of the day with shoppers.  I like to visit Takashimaya, the Japanese giant, for they invariably have an interesting set of kitchen appliances and often very unusual and usable crockery, from Japan.  This time I bought a small set of porcelain plates in a soft blue and grey pattern with matching chopstick holders.  Perhaps this will motivate me to try some more recipes from my Chinese cookbooks!

Holland village is another popular destination amongst tourists, expats and locals, but different people head to different sections in this area.  There is a bustling local market and a row of oriental restaurants on one side.  In another quieter lane are located slightly fancier restaurants, an Italian bakery and three stores selling kitchen equipment and supplies.  My interest, of course, lay in these shops, which stock an incredible array of equipment, ingredients, books and knick-knacks for the kitchen.  Much of it is not affordable or practical for me to buy but I like to look around and generally find something small that I need to pick up for my kitchen.

That is about all I did in Singapore on this visit.  Given more time I would have liked to visit the Botanical Gardens (especially their beautiful orchid section), see some of the museums, contact a few more people, but that will have to wait. We came in and left via Changi Airport - possibly my favourite airport amongst those I have visited.  They have an excellent hotel for transit visitors, advance reservations are required to book the rooms here and one can book a room by the hour.   There are lots of interesting shops, plenty of good food and a nice wine selection.  I have never come across any other airport where the prices of everything (all that I could make out) are exactly the same as the prices in town.  The official are helpful, immigration desks have bowls of sweets placed on them (and the immigration officer actually offered me one)!  A very tourist-friendly spot to relax, spend a little time - and money!

The only thing that saddened me was watching lots of elderly people hard at work, generally doing menial jobs.  There seems to be no pension system in place for the locals and traditional family set-ups seem to have disintegrated, leaving a lot of old people to fend for themselves.  This is perhaps a problem of recent origin (I do not know enough) and I hope the country looks into it in the years to come.
#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }