April 2 2006 Colombo Ratmalana, Sri Lanka
so i've just left Hikky and arrived in colombo on route to Anuradhapura in the north (where I spent 6 months teaching English in 2001). I'm a bit peeved to be stuck in Colombo over night as I don't really love the city... but my camera seems to have broken (no photos folks) and a shop said they might be able to repair it and I'm to pick it up tomorrow afternoon/evening.
Last days in Hikkadua were fun.
Election passed uneventfully. Got to visit the temporary camps and see some new houses aswell. Temporary camps are actually pretty good in Hik. Not tents, but wooden contraptions with corrugated iron roofs. Also met some of the current batch of Link volunteers who are placed in Baddegamme not far away.
March 30 2006 Hikkadua, Sri Lanka
Dave is on his travels again.
As you will see from the title I'm in Hikkadua right now. This is a town which was shown on TV around christmas 2004 during the Tsunami... the one with the train that was washed off its tracks. Pretty interesting and sobering... but more on that later. What sequence of events brought me here?
Well, I started out flying to Amman in Jordan. Yup, it was great to finally get there after my last attempt was thwarted... but alas. Jordan was only to host me for 22 hours on route to Sri Lanka. Luckily they let me out the airport and I had a chance to run around. Having read nothing about Jordan (I was going to leave that bit to the ever gorgeous and book wormy Emily) I really didn't know what to do with my day. So I started by catching a bus into town from the airport hotel. Getting off the bus I was confronted by a man who wanted to take me to Jaresh or Neebu in a taxi. Not knowing what or where any of them were I thought that he probably knew that they were good and impressive, so I jumped in.
I had to make him stop as he began to head out of town to ask him where the hell we were going. Turned out Jaresh is about 45 mins out of town and was very good. "What the heck!" I thought, lets do it.
It was wierd driving through the Jordanian country side. It looks just like pictures from little childrens bible stories that my oldies used to read me. Dry landscape with sparsely scattered plants across beautiful hillsides with those square block dirty white houses (like the one a lame man was lowered down from the roof on) dotted about. Add to that a few people trotting about with T-towles on their heads and you've got the general gist.
So we arrived at Jaresh and it turned out to be quite spectacular. An old Roman city was built here, complete with straight road, pillars, circular open paved space thing (I forget its name), temples to Diana and other gods that had been rededicated to the christian one centuries later and an ampi-theatre. All cool, but the coolest thing was that the ampitheatre had some traditionally dressed guys stomping around playing traditional music. Not local music, but the pipes. Oh, how it was music to my ears. Scotland the Brave. Hey ho and a noddy no.
That evening, got back on the flight to Colombo.
Met some interesting Sri Lankans who work in the army zone of Bagdad as cooks. They were trying to persuade me that it was a great and safe place to work for $15,000 per month. They seemed to think that I would want to join them as their work mate. They were also trying to persuade me that Batticola on the east coast of Sri lanka is safe to visit and very beautiful... apparently only 1 guy gets killed per day. Safe only compared to Iraq in my reconing.
Arriving in Colombo I was tired and hot and sticky and made straight for the guest house that we volunteers used to crash at back in 2001. Yup, the YMCA. Dirty, dingy but good food and cheap. Still just as bad as it ever was. After a little sleep I gave big old Nigel (the Sri Lankan man who used to look after us volunteers when we were there last time. His family is amazing and treated us like there own... christmas, weddings or just weekend breaks away) a tinkle on the telephone. Surprisingly he was in Colombo for a couple of hours (near Mt Lavinia) so I jetted down the Galle Rd to meet him for a brief reunion, and present him with some Laphroig. After the loss of his wife Margi (and our surrogate mother) to cancer 18 months ago he looked like he'd lost some of his inner Joy... but still a top man.
While in Colombo I also met Nigels son Mark and his wife and kids for lunch. We had some helpful deep and meaningful and slightly painful chats about Margi and her last weeks. And also a blow by blow account of every funny moment in the childrens favourite dvd, Ice Age. They spoke so quickly I didn't understand at all, but it kept them out their parents feet for 45 minutes and entertained me.
A day or two later I headed up to Kegalle. This is a town half way to Kandy in the hill country where I spent a week with the other male volunteers in a boys home during an election curfew back in 2001. I was to drop some triple A batteries off on one of my friends little brothers who is teaching the boys there. Having missed a couple of busses I arrived rather late and so was invited to stay the night back in my old room. Got lots of lively banter from the little kiddies, and they enjoyed looking at my old photos of them from when they were small. It felt good to be there. Almost like I was a happy go lucky volunteer again. It never ceases to amaze me how boys with so little can be so happy. The place has had a lick of paint since last time and a new warden who doesn't abuse or beat them so it all seemed good.
At the moment there are some local council elections happening. Elections in Sri lanka are a highly energetic and charged time. Everybody is out campaigning despite not trusting any of the politicians, of which most are corrupt. Lots of transport and shops close down and during the government or presidential elections the odd bit of violence isn't uncommon. As such, I was advised to find a safe place to sit tight for a few days... so I came South to Hikkadua.
In 2002 Kai, Ayesha and myself came here for two separate weeks whilst learning to dive. A great little party town with not beautfiul beaches, but lots to do. It felt kind of eerie arriving in the town, knowing the amount of destruction that these poor people had faced during the Tsunami two christmasses ago. However, a superficial glance over the town as any visiting tourist might see it and it would be easy to think that Hikkadua didn't even get wet. Almost all the buildings (that can be seen from the road or the beach) are still there and looking shiny and new. Just a couple of building sites or desolate areas can be seen. And many tourists have commented that they are lucky not to have been destroyed.... but as I said, the buildings look shiny and new. Almost too shiny. Some conversation with the locals reveals however that they did not escape... both through what they say, and the slightly sad look in their eyes.
Infact, all the buildings have been rebuilt. And have new paint. Very little was left after three (I didn't know there were that many) huge waves pummelled them. Indeed, Hikkadua is a lucky place, the fact that it is a major tourist resort and near-ish colombo means that lots of aid and privte donations, combined with bank loans have reached here. I am not convinced that the same will be true further round to the south and east.
Also, as I said earlier, Ayesha, Kai and I spent a couple of wonderful weeks here. Wondeful, not just from the diving, but also the beautiful, kind, generous and fun people that lived here. I was a bit nervous that coming here they would not remember me... would have forgotten... would not be as nice or good or fun as my overly -perfect memory. So as I sheepishly made my way into Poseidon dive centre yesterday morning I was very delighted to be greeted by an alive and grinning Gayan shouting "Dave! You're back. I was reading your old letter yesterday. How are Mr Kai and Miss Ayesha? are they married (to eachother) yet?"
After work, Gayan with Shane and a couple of other familiar faces took me down to the beach for a little party with Extra Special Arrack (the local coconut brewed spirit, which we affectionately call 'paint stripper'). They told about good times and bad times. They said that their lives have changed now. Everything is different after the Tsunami. Friends seem so important to them after all their physical belongings were lost. Gayan was loading diving equipment onto a boat as the Tsunami hit and only a miracle can have saved him and the rest of the staff there. But they are so happy to be alive and so grateful for all the help and aid and support that they've received. They told me of terrible things they've seen. Hundreds / thousands of dead bodies decomposing. Everybody has lost a friend or relative. And, while its not clear from the tourist road or the beach, many of them are still living in temporary tent camps, while new houses are being built for them. They will show me a couple of camps tonight. Should be interesting. I think that as a materialistic westerner, I would be outraged that it has taken so long to build them new houses... but not a word of complaint from Gayan or Shane. Any house they are grateful for.
It is also interesting that, while mass suffering usually causes me and us in the west to question the possibility of a compassionate god, they do not seem to have done this. They never used to say "God bles you" or "Thank God for..." I've heard it several times over the last two days. I should add that they are buddhist, so presumably give 'God' the name of Buddha, but would be happy for someone else to give God a different name. Anyway, Interesting.
Ok, I best be off. Got some camps to see.
Feb 26 2006 Tioman, Malaysia
Where was I,
Oh yes, staying in the longhouse with the Kayan Orang Ulu tribespeople in the Borneon Jungle. Yeah, we had some good chats, talking about a damn that is to be built about 2 hours boat journey upriver. This damn will apparently be twice the size of the Aswan damn and is being built to generate hydroelectric power. As well as lots of prime Orang Utang forest, about 50 longhouses will be flooded. Those communities upriver will be compensated and moved on, but there is no provision and very little reassurance for the communities downstream, such as the one I was staying in. In addition to worries about the river flow and the effect on fish etc, they are very worried about what happens if Osama Bin Laden puts a bomb under the damn, or it breaks in an earthquake. The only concession made to them by the damn builders was that if they have any relatives left alive, they will be compensated. Great!
Other moments of joy in the longhouse include one of the beautiful young children, who had nestled herself into Emily’s lap, pointing at Emily’s bounteous breast and signaling that she would quite like a drink. Also, the kiddies were very interested in my book, and so I decided to read them a chapter. Emily was tickled pink by the sight of 6 kiddies all totally transfixed by me reading an English translation of the great Russian story, The Idiot, by Dostoyevsky. And when we were to leave the fisherman Joseph felt moved to sing an oldy styley Spiritual Song to give us god speed on our journey. They are apparently not supposed to sing these old songs, straight from god, now that they are Christian… but I didn’t mind.
We were very sad to leave the Longhouse, but excited about the next phase of our journey.
8 hours boat journey down river, followed by a seven hour bus ride we reached the town of Kuching, in the south of Sarawak. From this town we set out to the Semangogg Orang Utan Sanctuary. 22 Orang Utans living in a 600 hectare patch of jungle. They have generally been rescued or bred and the sanctuary is trying to rehabilitate them for the jungle. They offer food every afternoon to the Apes, serves to supplement their diet as well as attracting them down for paying tourists, like ourselves. I was rather relieved to see that they didn’t all rush to the feeding site when called, and for 20 minutes or so, it looked like none would come at all. This suggests that they are able to fend for themselves… but when two finally did come swinging through the trees it was absolutely magical. These creatures are just so beautiful…. And large… and high up in trees swinging on bendy tree trunks and vines just like you’d imagaine. So gentle and human looking and just amazing. I couldn’t help singing the jungle books “I’m the King of the Swingers” song by Louey to myself.
Next day, Emily felt like a rest, and I headed off to Bako National Park. Another patch of jungle on the coast, but with a diverse array of vegetation, and therefore animals. The tidal Mangrove swamps were beautiful, and also the main draw of the park because the are the home and food for the endangered Proboscus Monkey. These males of these cool monkeys have large noses that look as if they have been transplanted from muppets. And they make a sort of trumpeting sound like when somebody blows their nose loudly. Apparently this is very attractive to the ladies. Also got to see lots of Silver leaf monkeys and Insect eating Pitcher Plants.
After the sun had well and truly set, I went on a nightwalk, through the jungle proper, with two Japanese girls and our local guide, Wilfred. The passion and gentleness of Wilfred combined with his skill helped make this a major highlight of the trip. Walking silently through the jungle listening to the loud Cacoffony of noises, Wilfred would suddenly stop and turn out the torch and just stand still and listen for a minute or two before suddenly flicking his torch onto a bush, tree trunk or patch of ground revealing some cool animals. The Flying Lemur was definitely the most exciting… and I can now confirm that the tail I saw before was not that of a Flying Lemur. The animal does not look like a squirrel at all… but is bigger, a bit like a loth… and quite clumsey. But very cool. Especially when it glides between trees. But our guid was also able to pinpoint a stick insect from a peep, a tree frog from a churp, and a highly poisonour Viper from its smell as well as all sorts of other things.
This brings me on to another quick mini-rant. I’ve found that the national parks and the Orang Utan rehab centre have a lot of people really interested in nature and the environment, but fail completely in public education. There is either none, with not even the staff knowing basic facts… or else posters with long lists of very dryly presented information. If my twin Matt, was able to make a fascinating nature trail about a 1 mile long by 20m wide island with nothing but rocks, grass and a few nesting Terns, then something should be possible with the rainforest. I think maybe matt and his co-workers should come out of retirement and consult / volunteer for some of the national parks in the developing world.
It became time to move on from Borneo and head across the water to Singapore. I was very excited about this trip because I was to reunite with an old friend Ana Bao. She had spend 6 hilarious weeks learning Spanish with me in deepest Peru. And just meeting and sharing memories and funny stories was fab. But also, it was very nice to be able to see some of Singapore with a local host… However, the most exciting thing about Ana, was that she had hot showers and a washing machine.
Just one week to go… I can’t believe that the trip is going by so quickly.
I’m now writing to you from Tioman Island off the east coast of the southern part of the Malaysion Peninsula. Staying on a beautiful beach with the purpose of relaxing, snorkeling and diving. Yesterday I saw a turtle swimming, which was brill!
Feb 18 2006 Belaga, Malaysia
Borneo Baby YEAH!
Just finished a few days in the jungle and feeling very tired but very happy. No buses go to Belaga, and barely any road to speak of, so we had to find some other transport to get here.
We took a half hour flight over the Borneo Jungle from Bintulu to Belaga... it was great. Just a little tiny baby plane with propellers, about 20 seats and two other passengers. The plane only flies twice a week, and then only when the weather is good, so we were really crossing our fingers. Swooping low over the jungle certainly gave a sense of the hugeness of it. Its hard to imagine the effect that the loggers would have on that beautiful landscape.
We landed on a tiny little airfield and walked our way up to the terminal building (a shed about the size of a large-ish kitchen) and waited for the staff to close it up and take the boat up to the town. My Footprint guide book says that Belaga is a sleepy town where the residents spend the day in coffee houses watching all the interesting types who come into town, whether they are tourists, loggers or local tribespeople who have come down river to sell there jungle wares. The guidebook is correct, and we spent almost all of the first day chilling in the aforementioned sleepy coffee houses.
Eventually we made the aquaintance of John, a local guide from the Kayan tribe of head-hunters and he agreed to take us to visit the longhouse in which he grew up. The deal being done, we bought gifts for the longhouse headman, then stepped gingerly into Joahn's longboat with two of his tribesmen, James and Joseph and made our way upriver. The ginger steps were made because these boats are not particularly stable, we all had to side dead straight in a row through the middle of the boat as a slight move to the left or right would result in water gushing over the side. Within minutes of the journey being underway a bottle of the local brandy (50 %) was passed around for guzzling.
Arriving at the longhouse, my first impression was that it was really pretty damn long. About two or three hundred people lived there. The longhouse is divided into lots of separate abodes, rather like a terrace, but with a communal balcony stretching the length of it where kids would play, old ladies would smoke the most enourmously fat rollies (or home-made cigarette mum) or men would sit about chatting. We said hi to a few kids then went into Johns abode where, after showing us how the toilet worked, he brought out another bottle of brandy to welcome us. While we were drinking and chatting, he marched up a token "poor woman" complete with hat and bag for a photo, before shuffing some brandy down her throat. Emily and I felt a little bit embarrassed by this and made an effort to ask her name and introduce ourselves.
The aforementioned James and his family cooked us an amazing dinner, accompanied by more brandy, before being introduced to the headman, who we dutifully presented with a bottle of brandy, which he shared around. I was beginning to see a slight pattern to the our activities. In addition to alcohol, Emily got to swop cigarette with the old ladies and I got back into chewing beetle nut. I'm not quite sure what this is, but we used to use it in Sri Lanka. (The sri lankans described it as their version of chewing gum) Its a nut or some sort, wrapped in a fresh tobacco leaf that is coated with a paste from some sorts of water snails. I think there is also another ingredient... can't remember what. Anyway, when taken together, the four ingredients have a mildly narcotic effect that gives you a light head and a bit of happiness. Also lots of saliva which you have to spit out at regular intervals. Oh, and it tastes revolting. But fun. ALl this happens whilst sitting cross-legged on the floor with parafin lamps lighting our way.
We discussed with the people about how they were keep their young interested in their culture (quite successfully). What they thought of George Bush (not good). How their river has been polluted by the logging industry over the last 20 years. And their worries about a new hydroelectric damn which is to be built upriver. This damn is going to be twice the size of the Asswan damn and flood an enormous area of former jungle, that is home to lots of local tribes people as well as lots of endangered Orang Otangs. Several Longhouses and nomads are going to be displaced with only the bare minimum of care or assistance. The people in the Longhouse we were staying in wouldn't be moved, but are very apprehensive... not just abou
will write more later
Feb 14 2006 Bintulu, Malaysia
Happy Valentines Day everybody.
My only valentines day present was being given half a pineapple to eat that I'd already given to Emily. How romantic.
Yup today I went for a walk through some rainforest beside a long sandy beech where turtles are reputed to lay eggs and dolphins to frolick and crocodiles to lurk and insectivourous Pitcher Plants to lay in wait of their pray.
I saw some lizards, a frog and some termites. Not quite the same but very nice. I love the jungle and I love the beech, so having the two in the same place was amazing. Ooooh! I also saw a whole heap of hermit crabs. like everywhere I looked on the beech they were just walking around.
Thought you might be tickled by the Sunday newspaper we read in Borneo.
Frontpage news was about how the Navy was undergoing joint exercises offshore for the safety of Brunei citizens.
apprehended a fishing boat that had entered Brunei waters carrying a bottle of alcohol.
2nd page news was that there had been a car crash in the capital city, nobody was injured but there was a traffic jam.
Flying to Bintulu in the jungle tomorrow. Then taking boats down river to Kapit and Sibu over the next few days
Feb 13 2006 Bintulu, Malaysia
HEllO from Borneo.
Yup, I'm currently in the Malaysian bit of Borneo. For those people like my parents who like to follow my travels on the map, I'm in the state of Sarawak. quite near the sea right now.
So, we left Indonesia on Friday night. The airport at Bali has one feature that makes a trip to the island worthwhile, even without all the surfing and volcanos. The mens toliets have got fish tanks in them, at eye level above the urinals. So as you're taking a slash you get to watch these fish opening and closing their mouths about 10 cm away. Some of the toilets had white fish... others black and yellow. ITs a very strange feeling.
We flew into Kuala Lumpur airport and slept there for the night. I needed some entertainment so got all the girls in McDonalds to flirt with me. And tried to barter with the lady at left luggage to give me a special morning price for good luck... and a good discount... and I even tried singing at her, but she wasn't having any of my charm.
We then caught a very early flight to Miri, in Borneon Malaysia.... and a bus from Miri up into the Captial city of Brunei. Brunei is a bit strange. Its the richest country per head population in the world and people have oil pumping things in their back gardens. and lots of big shiny expensive cars. And a very cool Mosque. But otherwise, fairly sterile feeling.
A night in Brunei was enough, so we headed back down the coast through Miri and to the Niah Caves National park. These are some massive caves surrounded by proper jungle. We tried looking out for wildlife on our way, but only saw the tails of what could have been Monkeys and perhaps a flying lemur... but it might just have been a squirrel.
Yup, so the caves were pretty immense. Arriving at the gaping entrance there were hundreds of what looked like bats flying in and out and around. But they turned out to be swallows. Ooops.
Anyway, thousands of swallows nests covered the top of these caves and little men collect the guano shit as fertiliser.. one day while doing this they found some skulls from 37,000 years ago. The oldest example of Homo sapiens in southeast asia... also some cave paintings which are probably only 2000 years old. But, these caves were massive..you cold probably easily fit york minster inside them.
I don't know how big, but it was a bit like walking through The Mines of Moria with Gandalf and Gimli and the rest of the fellowship, except for the fact that instead of dwarves collecting Mithril, there were little native men collected birds nests. Apparently , these are a luxory deluxy to eat.