Kuching -Day 3

A glorious Borneo sunrise greeted me this morning, as the Muezzin call drifted out over the city of Kuching and its inhabitants began to stir.

An interesting day which became a cultural immersion rather than wildlife viewing. The Irrawaddy dolphins and native crocodiles were not being cooperative this morning – so we cruised slowly along the mangrove choked shorelines, a breeze off the ocean and a shade canopy keeping the heat at bay as the Borneo coastline drifted by.

Following the shoreline our boat eventually landed at a small native village along the Santubong Delta accessible only by water. This turned out to be a wonderful turn of events as we walked around the village built on stilts over the river exploring boardwalks, coming upon bee hives, small raised gardens, cats, colour and smiles everywhere we looked – I will let the photos tell the story. Also if anyone is interested in what an Irrawaddy dolphin and the local crocodiles look like I have included a photo of each.

 

 

 

 

The heat of the afternoon was wiled away back at the hotels lovely infinity pool with an incredible view over the city towards Kubah National park our destination for the evening.

Kubah National parks claim to fame is the recent discovery of a new frog species (the Kubah Narrow Mouthed frog) , adults of which are the size of a pencil lead tip. They live their entire lives inside insect eating pitcher plants – smart amphibians to set up house with a built in protection system and buffet. Our guides were Solomon and Abraham – two very knowledgeable young men of Asian ethnicity with North American accents. I would have loved to find out their story but there wasn’t the time. We did find the pitcher plants but no frogs – the pitcher plants themselves were amazing, growing in colonies all over a hillside.

A steep scramble up into the forest brought us to what is known as the frog pond. Cicadas provided the musical accompaniment to our climb as fire flies and our head lamps lit the way. We were blessed with a myriad of frog sightings, plus some spiders and cicadas the size of sanitation trucks……. I will leave you with a brief photo gallery of what we saw. A wonderful end to the day.

 

Tomorrow we fly to Mulu to visit the famous bat caves of Borneo. Until then selamat Malam!

Kuching Day 2 – Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse and Serian Market

An early morning start took us quickly out of Kuching to our first stop,  the Serian market. Although smaller than some of its counterparts around the world, the rich fabric of colours and scents coupled with the obvious love of food in Sarawak made me wish for a shopping bag and an available kitchen.  Photos will have to do 🙂

Eggs Sarawak Style

 

 

Following a sampling of Sarawak sweet pancakes at the market, our journey continued to the Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse and Village. Excellent coffee and tapioca wrapped in banana leaves, alongside Sarawak three layer cake greeted us before our exploration of the village began. The long house is essentially an apartment complex inhabited by a number of families with a common covered porch area running the length of the structure. Chores are ongoing in the shade and breezes on the porch as well as resting, dancing and sleeping.  Floors are bamboo.

The original roof was shot up by the Japanese in WW II and replaced by tin. Bullet holes remain in the upper walls – families survived by hiding under the longhouse. Following a Longhouse tour and narrative by our excellent local guide, our group was privileged to watch a native dance with some of us getting up and trying out a few steps. Music was provided by several large blue drum like instruments that had us all toe tapping along 🙂

The Sarawak government is very far sighted in that it offers school aged children in these rural communities free tuition and board at public schools in the state. The children stay at school during the week and go home on weekends – one result being that only the very young were present during our visit today.

          

School is mandatory in the state, and members of the Bidayuh community have become Doctors, Lawyers and members of government.

The jungle gardens around the village are planted with rubber trees, pepper bushes, bananas, beans, rice  paddies and just about every type of vegetable you can imagine. The near equatorial location plus abundant rainfall ensures year round harvests. One ominous development over the past few years has been the required implementation of  irrigation systems for the pepper plantings- due to the steady increase in mean temperatures. Pepper is a main cash crop for the tribe. The large healthy plants produce black pepper and the more costly white pepper – depending on when it is picked and the curing methods – who knew?????

A planned 45 minute walk turned into double that when our group arrived at the river and found that the bridge had been washed out in an earlier heavy rain. Following game trails, negotiating some interesting bridges

and hacking some trails out of the undergrowth took us deep into the jungle and face to face with some interesting plants and fungi. Fungi are prevalent here particularly on trees and plants which have been grown on depleted ground several years after it is initially cleared in slash and burn techniques.

Our guide was a goldmine of information about the plants around us. One fern was part of my dinner tonight cooked in garlic and oyster mushroom sauce. In its raw state is it crushed and used on boils to draw out infection and speed healing. Another plant factoid was the use of very young green banana leaves as cooking vessels. Apparently if you put a leaf like this over a fire, liquid will ooze out of it and you can cook eggs in the liquid. No need for cooking pots in the jungle 👍🏻😀  The various plants made for some interesting photo ops.

 

 

The Top Spot food court was our destination for dinner. The phrase food court brings to mind small crowded spaces ringed with artery cloggers such as MacDonalds, Wendy’s, subway etc. – all producing items that bear no real relationship to food.  I approached dinner with some trepidation. What a pleasant surprise! The “Food Court” in Kuching is the size of a foot ball field with outdoor and indoor eating areas.

Rather than being surrounded by trans fat central, stalls with REAL food surrounded us. The way it works is that you choose a stall, pick your seafood and vegetable, then choose the cooking style. The results were stunning both visually and to the palate.

 

 

 

Tomorrow is our final day in this area. We venture out on the river in the early morning, in search of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, as well as the local crocodiles which reach 18 feet in length. I hope to spend the afternoon exploring more of the town and then a night walk is scheduled in the jungle. Stay tuned!

Kuching – Day 1

Kuching caught me by surprise. A place that wasn’t even on my radar other than as a jumping off spot for nearby national parks and jungle excursions has got my attention. About 400,000 people of many different ethnicities (Chinese, Filipino, Malay, Dayak etc)  live peacefully in the city located along the Sarawak River. Begun in the 19th C, the core is a jumble of old buildings – many with heritage designations, myriad alleys, signs in different languages and did I mention the food :-).  Laksa is an incredible soup found in many forms here. The word originates from an Indian word meaning a million – probably used to describe the many ingredients. My Laksa this evening was rice noodles in  a rich cilantro gravy, the bowl filled with green onions, bean sprouts, prawns, chickens and egg.

The BEST lime juice I have ever had accompanied a memorable meal in an open air restaurant with fans pushing a welcome breeze over our table, 28 degree temperatures, air like warm silk and the river lights shining 50 feet from us 🙂 A wide promenade snaking along the river, populated by buskers, food stalls, music and light shows – added to an enjoyable walk home after dinner. 

 

The hotel is lovely – right in the middle of the old quarter, facing the river overlooking the Houses of Parliament. While I unpacked the sun glinted off the river and parts of the old town as a muezzin called the faithful to prayer.

 

The tour group is diverse and well travelled – a mixture of couples and solo women. Our CEO is an accomplished birder and is passionate about wildlife. The trip is looking like it will be a good one. Tomorrow we head out to Mongkos Bidayuh Longhouse, visit the village and surrounding farmland before enjoying a traditional Dayak lunch. Stay tuned!

In Transit – Day 1

Early morning international departures usually necessitate an overnight in Vancouver. After several years of spending the pre departure night off airport and having to catch a shuttle at 0 dark thirty – the last few trips have found me at the fairmont airport hotel. It can be pricey but here is the deal. Book the cheapest room you can at the property – i do that on points – and then ask for an upgrade when you check in. I got an upgrade to a fairmont gold room for $70 – top floor, run way/mountain view, with a complimentary members lounge that serves appetizers at dinner time and a breakfast from 6:30 am onwards. The evening appies included a lovely dim sum spread  – I ate well – and saved a ton on what the room and food would have cost booking it the usual way.

It is 18 hours now post departure with another 6 hours to go before I reach the transit hotel in Kuala Lumpur where I spend the night before the final push to Borneo. Tomorrow morning starts with another early wake  up call,  a train ride and  passport stamps before an early morning departure to Kuching.  The 14 + hours Cathay Pacific flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong went smoothly – good service, plane not too full and surprisingly good Chinese food. My premium economy seat was comfortable and it was nice to catch up on some movies – The Favourite and Green Book are both outstanding and well worth your time. The flight path into Hong Kong is stunning – directly over the city and on to the island where the airport is built.

Hong Kong airport is huge and never ceases to impress me re: how quickly and efficiently people are moved around. My own journey to my next gate at the other end of the airport involved multiple escalators, plus an underground train ride. All accomplished in under 15 minutes. 

A 28 hour travel day is now complete. We chased the sun most of the way but a glorious evening sky accompanied us during the last few hours of the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

Have found the transit hotel and ready for a rest. Temperatures are around 30 degrees 😀

Borneo

The unparalleled natural history plus the sweep of 50,000 years of world history over the island of Borneo has long fascinated me.  From the earliest inhabitants to later indigenous peoples such as the Dayaks – headhunters of fame – to the seesaw of Dutch, Spanish, American, British and Japanese attempts over the centuries to control the third largest island in the world and its rich natural resources – Borneo is an island shaped by many influences.  Located north of Australia and south of Vietnam and Cambodia it is at the geographic centre of Maritime Southeast Asia

Three countries make up the island of Borneo: Malaysia (the states of Sabah and Sarawak) and Brunei where I will be travelling and the country of Indonesia. 

This trip will not be spent at luxury resorts or in heavily travelled tourist areas. The focus is twofold: 1) to locate and photograph some of the rapidly disappearing unique wildlife on the Island and 2) to meet with and learn about the lives of some of the indigenous peoples of Borneo.

For those of you interested in following along with me here is a map of my journey.

 

Camera Equipment

Over the years many people have asked me about the camera and lenses I use. My trusted companion during my early travels was a Canon Rebel T3i – a wonderful light camera that I still carry with me. My current workhorse is a Canon EOS 7D Mark II. Although a heavy camera it is truly a remarkable piece of engineering. Changing lenses on the fly as circumstances change can get old and hard on equipment when in a boat or other wet conditions. After some research I settled on a Canon  EF-S 18-200 mm as an all purpose travel lens.

I was quite pleased with it in India and Mexico and used it 90% of the time. Although there is some distortion at 18-22 mm range, all in all it does the job well if one is restricted to a single lens and wildlife shots are not the main objective. On this trip My Canon EF 70-200 mm zoom will accompany me for wildlife,  as will my trusted 10-22 mm lens, unbeatable for landscape shots, which was one of my go to lenses in the Arctic.

I leave on Friday on a journey that will take 2 days to reach Kuching on the island of Borneo. I will be blogging (Internet dependent) with post notifications appearing on my Facebook Page. The blog can also be accessed at http://www.travelswithanne.ca   Looking forward to sharing the adventure with you!

 

 

Oaxaca Day 6

A magical day drifting along the  main cobblestone streets of Oaxaca – exploring small alley ways leading into shopping areas, visiting the Museum next to the Santo Domingo Cathedral, taking in the art galleries in town and generally wandering. I will let the pictures tell the story.

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I fly home tomorrow morning into early winter  – this has been a perfect break, balm for the soul and spirit. Thank you all for following along. For those of you who have asked, I travel with G Adventures and prefer their National Geographic style tours.  I have found the CEO’s outstanding  and the people on the tours very sympatico in terms of age and interests. Until next time hasta la vista!

Oaxaca Day 5

Today was parade day. After a late start and a wander around town to pick up some supplies we headed back to the hotel courtyard to meet up with the professional make up artists hired to help us create our look for this evening. The results were outstanding.

Oaxacas day of the dead parade bands include tubas, drums and saxophones – all blaring at top volume, combined with figures dressed in every imaginable costume – terrifying and otherwise – all jumping around on the spot – mezcal flowing freely 🙂

The band generally plays the same song over and over again, faster and faster until the parade starts to move to a different place and the crowd follows along. The process then repeats. Although some of the costumes are pretty scary, young children are everywhere, rapt in their attention and often posing with their favourite scary hero’s. We had a laugh when some tourists were taking photos of us – both groups realized what was going on, had a shot of mezcal and moved along with the evening.

After an hour of mezcal shots and jumping around (my knees may need to be replaced 🙂 we moved along to the next stopping point.

At this point even the dogs had taken to the roofs. Smart puppies!

About 2 hours into the evening the rains threatened and as many of us who could crammed into an outdoor covered porch just as the downpour started. Then something truly extraordinary happened. Parents dancing with children, rural couples dancing together, young courting couples dancing, crazy tourists jumping up and down with tubas blasting in their ears. Outside in the rain, parade participants were dancing like whirling dervishes. Absolutely magic.

Our trip back to the ground transport involved wading small lakes which had appeared since our arrival. Tomorrow is my last day here – i look forward to exploring some city landmarks and art galleries in this magic place. Stay tuned.

Oaxaca Day 4

Hierve el Agua has been on my list of must sees for a while. In a nutshell it is several petrified waterfalls, the largest rising up to 90 meters about the valley floor. Small amounts of water saturated with Calcium carbonate (limestone) and other minerals seep out through the cliffs and over the cliff tops. Evaporating water leaves behind mineral deposits hence  “petrified waterfall” formation – similar to stalactites found in some caves.

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The mineral laden water seepage occuring at the top of the waterfall creates small warm pools said to have healing properties as well as some infinity pools. Psoriasis, excema and other skin issues are said to benefit from the water which has a silky feel to it. Anywhere wet is generally safe to step due to the lack of algae which cannot surviving in the alkaline moisture.

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The Zapotec built an extensive system of irrigation canals into the mountain to service their terraced fields in the area. The canals are of a unique design in the Mesoamerica world. The elevation of the area makes for outstanding views of the surrounding valley on a drop dead (sorry couldn’t resist) beautiful day. Our scramble down the steps to the base of one of the waterfalls landed us in a magical place showered by water drops pushed by the wind from the waterfall behind us.

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If you go wear good walking shoes. It is a scramble to the bottom of the waterfall but worth every step. Be wary if plants alongside the trail. Many are irritants to skin. Interesting that a potential problem has the solution steps away.

2A31603D-5C25-4F31-A1F2-BF92C2C375523D92593C-8344-4AE8-B874-A788B91A7779El Arbol del Tule (The Tree of Tule) is reported to be the largest tree in the world with a trunk circumference of 42 m and an age estimated to be around 1600 years. An amazing tree to stand under and feel the life force emanating above you. The town or Tule is charming (and has excellent ice cream) and the cathedral makes a photogenic foil to the magnificent tree which

 has has been nicknamed the tree of life due to reported sightings of animal and human shapes in the bark – whether quantities of mezcal were required to facilitate these sightings is unknown 🙂 Can you see the old man in the tree? 

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This evening we spend our time in the local cemeteries where the Day of the Dead celebrations will be in full swing. Hope to get some photos of the party.

The Day of the Dead

The beginnings of the day of the dead festival can be found in pre-Colombian cultures. Originally celebrated in the summer the dates have gradually changed to merge with the dates of the western worlds Halloween or All souls eve. There are really two parts to the ceremony – the first being to honour children, the second to honour adults.  Marigolds and offerings of food including bread of the dead (oblong or round loaves with a skeleton fashioned in dough on the top) are left at alters as offerings for the dead. The strong scent and bright colour of marigolds are thought to help the souls of the dead locate their loved ones. Altars also contain photos of departed loved ones, offerings of their other favourite foods and other memorabilia such as toys for children. Cemeteries are cleaned and decorated leading up the festival which culminates on Oct 31- Nov 2 with graveside vigils, parades and tributes. An absolutely wonderful movie to watch to capture the essence of this is the film CoCo.

We started the evening off with a visit to a very old smaller cemetery. The history of cemeteries and the inadvertent origin of the post colonization Day of the Dead celebration began with the decimation of indigenous Mexican people by the diseases carried by invaders. Because of the virulence of the diseases, cemeteries were located far away from population centres. The resulting need for food, water, lodging, flowers etc by pilgrims coming to visit their dead, led to the development of markets near cemeteries. This was unique to Mexico, together with the fusion of incense and candles from the Catholic faith. A few carved pumpkins symbolic of modern day Halloween also made an appearance here and there.

On our way to the cemetery we discussed how the increased movement of people during the last 50 years has resulted in a dying Day of the Dead festival, as well as a disconnect for many other cultures from the final resting places of their ancestors. Many graves here are now of the “forgotten ones” as family has moved from the area or the younger members of the family have lost track of generations older than their grandparents.

 

Each of us took a candle and flowers to place on the grave of a forgotten one. One grave was of a child who lived one day, another of a Señora who lived a long life. In both cases life had taken a twist in a way that resulted in the two souls being forgotten.

The second cemetery was huge with a police presence. The several acres of candles, music, incense and flowers was an assault on the senses. Some grave sites were open to photographers, some definitely not. I am glad I left my huge flash behind and just used the cell phone. Something about a flash is definitely an intrusion on privacy.

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All in all a thought provoking night that will take time to process. Until tomorrow – Buenas Noches

Oaxaca Day 3

Monte Alban is a Zapotec UNESCO heritage site located about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca. It first came into being around the time of Christ and flourished until about 900 AD when like many other Central American centres it was abandoned by its inhabitants, in this case the Zapotec people. 

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We spent a couple of hours wandering the ruins with an excellent local guide  who offered us glimpses into another time.

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The location of Monte Alban is stunning – high on a plateau overlooking the city of Oaxaca and the entire valley.

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Some stairways were present but nothing like the marathon climbs I encountered at Palenque and Tikal. Lovely flowering trees and a few swallow tail butterflies lined our path up the hillside to the ruins.

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Once back in the city I headed for a textile cooperative located a few blocks from the hotel where some gorgeous handmade clay dinnerware had caught my eye the day before. I think I may need another suitcase for the trip home………

Our day finished with a magicial evening visiting and shopping at a local food market with a well known Oaxacan chef, attending a cooking class at his home in a stunning reproduction of a late 18thC kitchen and enjoying what we made at the dinner table. Mole Coloraditio, Piccadillo and Sopa Azteca completed a memorable meal under the stars

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The continuing preparation of Oaxaca for tomorrow nights cementary and altar vigils added immeasurably to our time in the city this evening.

Oaxaca Day 2

A wonderful day which began with an early wake up call and short van ride to the local Teotitlan weaving collective located about 30 mins outside of town.

This collective still spins thread from wool, uses plant, mineral and animal dyes as well as huge hand powered floor looms to weave carpets, runners, shawls, pillow covers and many other items. The results are stunning, some carpets taking months to complete. We were shown the entire  process, from carding and spinning wool, to dye making and to weaving the finished product. An amazing morning which passed far too quickly. 

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Our next stop was a Mezcal factory. Mezcal – like Tequila – is made from the Agave plant which takes up to 20 years to mature. So in essence Agave farmers are planting now for their children to harvest. There are a number of different types of Agave (plus domestic types and wild types) – each producing a different taste. Once the plant is mature it is processed in a manner unchanged over the centuries. A pit about 6 feet across and three feet deep is dug and a fire with mesquite wood is built in the pit. Once it is dying down lava rocks are put on top of the embers, the hot lava rock is in turn covered by wet vegetation. The agave is then put on top of the wet vegetation, covered by more agave leaves and then dirt is piled on top. Reminded me of a Hawaiian pig roast. The agave steams in the pit for 8-12 days and then is removed.

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Once removed from the pit  the origin of the mescal smokey taste is obvious. The next part of the process is to shred and pound the agave to a pulp, done by a large round stone pulled by a small horse. The resulting pulp then goes to the fermentation and distillation vats resulting in a 38-45 proof liquor which is a speciality of the valley. 

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Our tour was completed by a mezcal tasting session which became quite lengthy :-). For those whom are interested a few things are needed to drink mezcal. Wedges of limes or oranges (the Oaxacan oranges are incredible like nothing I have ever tasted), Chili powder and grasshoppers fried and seasoned with salt, Chili and lime, the equivalent of peanuts at home. After a mescal shot a chunk of citrus is dipped in Chili powder and eaten, followed by a few grasshoppers which were surprising good 🙂 Something new for me…..

An excellent lunch followed the mezcal session – my empanadas stuffed with squash blossoms and local cheese with a spicy quacamole on the side was excellent. 

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A siesta back at the hotel was followed by another walk into town which went past the main Cathedral and through Zocalo square.

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An amazing 7 tiered alter had appeared in the square across from the cathedral.

Our route took us through the central food market and then to another square by a yet another cathedral with excellent sorbets and ice cream.

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My passion fruit, tamarind sorbet was outstanding and a memorable end to a perfect day. Our walk home was marked by the increased number of painted faces for the Day of the Dead, chrysanthemum garlands in the street and a continuously building energy in the air around us. It is going to be a fun few days 🙂

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