Monday, July 15, 2013

Out With the Old. In With the New.

For those of you looking for how to get your passport both through documents and directions skip down to the last paragraph. 
Its been 10 years now and that guy on my passport doesn't look too much like me anymore. I took that photo in a Walgreens on the way to Chicago with my mother. I was apply for my first adult passport because I was traveling to China to meet my friend David. Soon after I got my first visa, a big one page Chinese tourist visa was inside. By the end I think I had four of those one page Chinese visas, plus a few more 1 page visas. 
I love  my old beat up passport, but it was time to get a new one and so I had to get one here in Malaysia. Malaysia, the 22nd country I visited/lived in with this passport. In all there are 23 countries logged in this one. 97 flights under that passport, about a dozen motor car border crossings. I love to look at the stamps and remember each journey. Even though I had to get more pages a few years ago I was reaching the end of those as well and would have had to get a new passport sometime soon, time to say goodbye to my old friend.
So in order to get a new passport I had to fill out some documents online (then print them) from the US embassy. Passport renewal is pretty straightforward as you need only those forms, a form of ID (old passport will do), some cash, and a passport photo. Unfortunately citizen services is only open from 9am to 11am weekdays, so it was hard to coordinate a day to get there. In Malaysia you can't send in your passport by mail as you can in other places/ if you are of other nationality. You have to physically go there.  If you have the proper documents and such the process is pretty quick. It took me about 20 minutes to wait, be called on, and get the documents in. Then they give you a slip of paper, green, as a receipt for your new passport. You do not need to go in person to collect it, anyone who has the slip can get the passport. I ended up going myself to retrieve it as well and that was even faster. Getting to and from the embassy can be tricky, but it need not be. I've posted a map google gave me for walking from my hotel in Bukit Bintang. It took me about 40 minutes to walk that distance and it was easy to keep to the correct streets. If you drive, as I did the first time, just keep on Jalan Tun Razak. Initially you will likely be driving under an elevated highway. Just keep going until the road starts to rise and there is no highway above you. At this point you will see an elevated walkway going over the road. Just after this is the embassy. Pass the embassy and take the next left. This will lead you into a residential area where you can park for free and from which its less than 5 minutes to walk to the embassy. The embassy has no official parking, so this is likely your best option to get your shiny new, American passport. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Betel Nut

The island where I live is named for the tree which grows here, Pinang. This tree has a unique feature as many people chew the nuts from the tree. Before coming to Penang I researched the island and discovered this fact, which peeked my interest. A couple years prior I first heard of betel nut from a co-worker who had lived in Yap for many years. He said that everyone there chewed betel nut, even kids in his classroom. Earlier this year I tried to locate some, thinking Little India in Georgetown was the best place to find it, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about. Thankfully I have recently made friends with a local and when I told her that I wanted to try it she brought me all the ingredients the next day! Not only that but a few days later we did a little "walking tour" and she showed me a few hole in the wall stores where I could buy more.
Taking the meat from the center of the nut, you wrap it in a leaf, add some lime/chalk, chew until gooey and then put into the pocket of your cheek/teeth chewing gently until there is nothing left. It turns your mouth red as the nut is ground down, a sure sign of someone who is using it.
I had read that it would give you a slight buzz and I found this to be true. I felt a light headed feeling, but nothing too severe. Perhaps a bit of a general good feeling too. Now that I have tried it, I don't think I will do it again soon. The nut is bitter and for what it does, I don't feel that it is worth using, but a nice experiment none the less

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Sepilok Orang-utan Center

On the last day we left camp early and headed back to Kopel’s main center in Mengaris. We had a nice breakfast there then boarded a bus heading for the Orang-utan rehab center  near Sandakan. This for me was the highlight of the trip. At the center we were going to watch a morning feeding time for orang-utans, but on the walk to the feeding platform we encountered two orang-utans on the walkway and so at once frightening and exciting were able to get within just a few feet of them. The feeding was also interesting as we got to see a small group interact. Apparently orang-utan numbers in Borneo are on the rise. A good sign for nature conservationists.

After a quick lunch in Sandakan we boarded flights for KL where all but myself and one other teacher flew back to Penang. There was another mix up with the tickets and the long story short meant that we would be taking checked baggage via bus back to Penang, a 5 hour ride, while the others flew on.  Wearily we arrived back at the school around 130am and deposited the bags for students to collect the next day. Later on as I was taking a hot shower I thought about how marvelous it is that I get to have aircon, hot running water, a ready supply of clean clothes, a soft bed, and an apartment with space and a nice view. I don’t often think of myself as being rich and I think by relative standards I am not rich for the society I come from, but by absolute standards I have it pretty good.  The best part of this trip was seeing and hearing the students complain about the pit toilets, the bucket showers, the work and the grime. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Kopel Eco Camp

The next morning we packed it all up and took boats down river to the Eco Camp, another part of the Kopel Community Eco-tourism. Here all students would be staying for the next couple of days, mostly in A frame huts, but some going all out sleeping in the jungle with only hammocks. I must say though that by this point I was very tired because of lack of sleep and hard working days. I decided to take the morning to visit a local museum and then head out with the lunch delivery later in the day. In the village there is a museum, whose name I can’t seem to remember or find, where 50 or so wooden coffins have been found in the caves of a limestone escarpment. It is a bit of a mystery what these coffins, date 600-900 years old, are doing in the caves as by that time locals in the area had converted to Islam which dictates no coffin or adornments at burial. It was an interesting place and from the top there is a lookout area with great views. After spending some time there I and another teacher rode out with the lunches to where the students were planting trees. Portions of the forest near the village had been illegally logged and so the Kopel group was replanting those areas. More work in the sun and the dirt planting and then we headed back to the Eco camp for the night. After a delicious dinner and a couple of hours of charades most everyone headed for bed. I was looking forward to a good night of sleep as there were no highways, chicken coups, or mosques in sight and my mat had a mosquito net over it. Unfortunately I had stupidly left an empty package of peanuts on the floor next to my bag and so was awoken at 4am by what I think was a lizard trying to lick the inside of the foil.
Day two at Eco camp I again decided to take the morning to rest, this time learning some local fishing techniques from the guides and chatting with them about their lives. Thankfully the other teacher with me was Malaysian and so could communicate with them very well. Not that they didn’t speak English, but the English was limited. I learned that most of the guys had 6-10 kids and earned between 200-400 ringgit (about 70-125usd) per month. To supplement their income they fished, hunted, tended vegetable patches, and grew small plots of palm for palm oil production. It was an interesting morning.
I again rode the boat out with the lunch and joined everyone else planting trees. By 4pm we broke from work and took a couple of boats down river to see some wildlife. That trip was rewarding as we saw some crocs, various hornbills, and proboscis monkeys. That night back at camp we had another great meal and prepared our bags for an early departure the next morning.

Miso Walai Homestay

This past week I was a chaperon on a week long school trip for the students CAS week, which is community service. Many groups of students worked at places like homeless shelters and orphanages here in Penang, but others went further afield to Kuala Lumpur and Thailand. There is even a group that will be departing this week that is going to Kenya to build sink/toilet facilities at a local school there.
The group I was with went to the eastern (Borneo) part of Malaysia, a 4 hour plane journey that landed us in the city of Sandakan in the province of Sabah. Another larger group was heading to climb Mt. Kinabalu first and would join us later in the week. Due to some mix up of the plane ticket bookings my small band of 6 arrived late at night. From Sandakan we had to travel 2 hours by bus to the village of Mengaris where we were paired off and sent to stay with local families through the Miso Walai home stay program. Since it was so late, I can’t say that our family was brimming with excitement to see us, but they quickly made us comfortable and we tried to sleep. I found this extremely difficult as my bedroom was 5 meters from a highway, right above a chicken coup, and with no mosquito net.
The next day we headed to a local school to begin work on a covered walkway which kids from our school had started in previous years. Here our real adventure began as we began to see the village in the daylight. About 100 houses spread over roughly 5 square kilometers. The village had no gas station, no grocery, no mini-mart, and no hospital, but they did have a mosque conveniently located about 10 meters from my bedroom which is perfect for the 4am call to prayer to wake you up, whether or not you would like to pray at 4am.
Unfortunately on the first day there was a problem locating the proper tools for work on the walkway, but the pta had another project going on building some walls for a storage room so we helped with that, mostly getting in the way. At the end of the day, very tired and dirty, we decided to take a short ride across the river to where there were some shops, a couple of restaurants, and a gas station.
We perused the shops and had dinner at a Chinese place, then reluctantly headed back to our home stays. The home stays themselves were not terrible. People were nice enough, the food was fine, and there was an effort to make us comfortable, but I couldn’t help but feel like the family I stayed with wasn’t thrilled to have us there. At one point I asked how home stays were decided and I was told it is on a rotating basis so that all families have equal chance to earn some money from the home stays. I imagine that is the overriding objective, to make some money, in household decisions to become part of the home stay program. I can’t say that I blame them, but it didn’t make for very lively evening interactions.
By day two we had the proper tools and so on that day and the next worked on the covered walkway. The students and I would work in bursts of about 40 minutes, then take a break in the shade with water as the heat of the day was too much to bear continuously. Often my students would interact with the local students, which was nice to see. I think overall the home stay was good for them and me as we are used to living in comfort with aircon, flushing toilets, hot water, etc. and it makes us appreciate them even more to be reminded that most people don't have those things. 

By the end of our 4th day the covered walkway was nearly complete and the larger group who had climbed the mountain joined us. All 30 or so of us stayed in home stays for the night and then were gathered to come to the Kopel Eco Tourism center for a community traditional dance performance. I have been to shows like this before and I must admit that I was expecting some corny dance routine, but it was quite good. The best part is that it seemed like the whole community took part. Not only were many of our guides/helpers/drivers adorned in traditional attire dancing and drumming away, but their kids were ambling around all over the center as the performance went on. It was a real community affair.