Sunday, April 27, 2014

Two fruits in Bangkok

I first wrote this note on June 7, 2011, just before leaving Thailand.  It is my final post from Asia before heading to Africa.

Today is my last day in Asia.  Early tomorrow morning we exchange this great continent for Africa.  It's interesting to think that in some ways Egypt and Thailand are more similar biologically than Eastern and Western Indonesia.  That's a thought to fall asleep to.

On the subject of Thai wildlife...I know there are some limestone fans out there.  For the most part we've been in and around limestone mountains.  One group of animals that thrives in basic soils over limestone bedrock is the snails, and they are everywhere here, with plenty of species.  Looking through my Thailand photos, I realize I photographed a lot of snails, even though I wasn't particularly looking for them.  They're just a prominent feature of life in the area.

Snails were both abundant and diverse in the areas of Thailand we visited

 They were prominent organisms in the leaf litter…

 …on boulders…

…and on live plants

Unfortunately, the invasive giant African land snail (Achatina fulica) has also reached Thailand

Coincident with our transition from Asia to Africa will be our transition from a tropical to a temperate area.  Today is my last day in the tropics on this trip.  But I've grown accustomed to my tropical fruits.

There are the familiar ones, grown in the tropics everywhere, like mangoes, pineapples and coconuts.  Then there are about a billion different breeds of banana, from sugar bananas to king bananas, and about as many ways to cook them—fried bananas, roti bananas and banana rotis (not to be confused), banana spring rolls, sesame fried bananas, grilled sliced bananas with honey, etc.   But there are also some new fruits, native to Indonesia but available in Thai markets—snake fruit, mangosteens and the almighty durian.

I don't care for the texture of snake fruit, although it's a good flavor in drinks.  Durian and mangosteens, on the other hand...  Everyone knows the durian is the king of fruits.  I would claim that the mangosteen is the queen.  To eat a mangosteen you crack open the stiff rind and then devour the sweet insides in one giant bite.  Fun and delicious—a great combination.  Plus, mangosteens are cute.

Before leaving southeast Asia I gorged one last time on mangosteens, the queen of fruits

Durians are a bit different.  Every description I've ever read makes them sound terrible, even those by people who like the fruit.  And the smell is awful.  In Indonesia some hotels have signs forbidding patrons to eat durian indoors.  David Quammen says eating a durian is like eating a raw oyster that's been force-fed vanilla ice cream, with a scent of jock strap.  A.R. Wallace says "the smell is so offensive that some persons can never bear to taste it," and that the taste is "a rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds...intermingled with...cream cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry."

But these same people go on to say it's delicious, in spite of the awful-sounding descriptions.  And durian eaters are fanatics.  In Thailand a single ripe durian can cost about 100 US dollars.  To eat one you cut open the spiky rind and pull out large seeds covered in slimy white goop.  The goop is the edible part.  So you pop a seed in your mouth, suck off the slime, and spit out the seed.  My first durian was in Sulawesi.  Although expensive in Thailand, in Sulawesi it was in season and grown locally, and an entire durian cost only around 1 US dollar.  While sucking on my first seed, I distinctly noted how bad-tasting it was...but I had to have another, and another.  It was addictive.  I'm a fan, for sure.  It must be the after taste.

What better thing to do before leaving Thailand than to gorge on the king and queen of fruits before they're out of my grasp forever?  So the other day I ate about a dozen mangosteens in one sitting and a lot more since.  Today I finally convinced Durant to try durian.  He insisted that we only eat them in a well-ventilated area with a shower nearby.  He also prepped the area by setting up a fan to create a breeze.

Afraid of its notorious smell, Durant ensured we were well ventilated before trying his first durian

We bought four seeds in Bangkok for about 5 dollars.  Unfortunately, Durant didn't throw up.  Also, it was a different breed than I was used to, and I think more for cooking than eating raw.  So it was a bit of a disappointment—but a durian nonetheless.

Goodbye, Indonesian fruits.  Goodbye tropical fruits in general.  No more wandering around back alley markets in the morning, lazily munching on tiny finger-length bananas and pineapple slices.  No more fried bananas on every other street corner.  And no more mangosteens and durians.

Didn't I learn in Australia not to leave the tropics if I can help it?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Melbourne strikes again

I wrote this post on June 3, 2011 from Thailand, where Durant and I stopped after leaving Indonesia.

While I'm still suffering from Indonesia withdrawals, I am glad to once again be in a country where hitchhiking is a practical form of travel.  Hitching was a staple in New Zealand, and in Australia I relied on it a few times.  Some of my greatest and most unpredictable moments have happened while hitching, and it's also how I met some of the most interesting people on my trip.

Durant and I are now in Thailand and have hitched twice here, with mostly positive results.  In Indonesia hitching is basically impossible and I never even tried it.  For one, most people only drive motorcycles.  Second, there are plenty of motorcycle taxis and regular taxis that constantly swarm around foreigners, so to hitch I would have to explain to every one of them that passed by and stopped that I didn’t want to pay, but wanted a free ride, which they wouldn't understand.  Then of course there were the ethical implications.  Even though I'm broke, homeless and jobless at the moment, I still qualify as rich by Indonesian standards.  It would be insensitive to ask for free rides from legitimately poor people when I could afford to pay.

Durant and I made a short stop in Thailand after leaving Indonesia

We explored some mountains in the Chiang Dao region in the north

I'm convinced that Durant is bad luck for me.  First there were the motorcycle accidents in Flores.  My wrist still hurts a little.  But things in Thailand haven't been so fortunate either.  The other day I was bird watching around a monastery in the forest.  It was around 0600 and the only people out and about were some monks in their orange robes doing monk things.  I was suddenly pursued by two of the monks' dogs, barking at me and preventing me from going further down the road.  Of course, the only animals I'm really afraid of are domestic dogs.  How did the monks know my weakness?  A normal person would call their dogs back, seeing that they were distressing a passerby.  But the monk just watched and didn't say a word.  The not speaking part didn't surprise me.  But seriously, not even noticing the dogs barking at me?  Those dogs didn't actually threaten me, but just followed me and barked.

Later on, further down the road, I was startled by a Dalmatian barking at me from behind a gate.  This wasn't normal, 'hey, here's a person' barking.  No, this was, 'I would eat that guy if I could get past this fence' barking.  The gate was shut so I stayed put, not worried.  But then a monk came to the gate and opened it!  What was he thinking?!  Two dogs rushed out and ran at me, barking like crazy.  I was wide open and terrified—I reached for a big stick and yelled at the dogs.  They paused and I had enough time to seek shelter in the lodge where we stayed.  What was the monk doing this whole time?  Nothing!  He just watched.

In Thailand yelling is sort of frowned on, and monks are respected people.  I hope I didn't make a bad impression by screaming at the monk's dogs...  If I hadn't though, they would have bitten me for sure.

And I got run over.  We hitched a ride from Chiang Dao to Chiang Mai with an Irishman from Melbourne and his Thai girlfriend.  While stopped at a gas station I was standing next to the car with the door open, getting something out of the back seat, when the guy just pulled forward without looking and drove onto my foot!  When he felt the bump he stopped the car, parking on my toes, in flip flops, and pinning me to the ground, and looked out the door.  I said, "Could you back up, please?," which he kindly did, releasing my foot.

Four months later and I still can't escape from Melbourne!  I ended up in that city three times while in Australia, sometimes against my will.  It was often difficult to leave, and just when I thought it was safe, I get run over by a Melbournite thousands of miles away in Thailand.  That city just won't quit haunting me.  To be fair, he seemed worried about my toes, but they looked okay to me.  They just hurt a little.  You know, from being crushed by a car!  It’s just more evidence of how indestructible I am.

Really, Thailand is just a short vacation stop.  Up to now I've treated my trip as work, but the hard part's over.  Thailand is a bit of R&R before making a brief stop in Egypt and then heading back to the US.  But it's really a shame, and it doesn't do Thailand justice.  It's a big place, there's so much to see and do, and plenty of cultural diversity.  I wish we had more time.

But we did explore a little.  We traveled to the Chiang Dao region in the north, near the border with Burma.  It was Durant's first time in a rainforest on this trip.  We hiked in boulder-strewn secondary forest and swidden agriculture in some limestone mountains, ending the walk at a temple and small village.

We hiked through secondary forest in limestone mountains...

 ...and ended at a temple and village

For the most part our stay in Thailand is meant to be slow and enjoyable.  I couldn't, however, resist the urge to find animals.

Stink bugs (Pentatomidae) and jewel bugs (Scutellaridae) were some of the many animals around Chiang Dao

Pill millipedes curl up in defense

A weevil (Curculionidae) visited us near our room

A golden orb-weaver (Nephila sp.) hunted in the garden of our lodge

Unfortunately, this click beetle (Elateridae) was killed by pesticides sprayed in the lodge garden

Durant may be out to destroy me, but I found his weakness—he's afraid of moths!  Moths!  Innocent, nectar-drinking, harmless moths!  Even if moths were malicious and evil and wanted to harm him, they lack the equipment.  What could they do, distract him while he's driving?  Moths...

A large sphinx moth (Sphingidae) scared Durant at a restaurant in Chiang Mai

At this point, I'm just hoping to make it out of Thailand without any more attacks or injuries.  Getting mauled by apathetic monks' dogs and being run down by an Irishman are enough for me.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Leaving home

I wrote this post on May 29, 2011, right before leaving Indonesia.  Although I was getting tired and would head home to the US a few weeks later, I felt (and still feel) sad to leave Indonesia.  It is one of the best countries on Earth for exploring nature, people and landscapes.  It challenged me, and in small ways allowed me to fulfill my fantasy of tracing the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace.

My large size strikes again.  Today I broke a flip-flop after nearly a year of service.  That in itself is good news; they were possibly the worst flip-flops I've owned, yet I refused to buy a new pair until they broke.  Luckily, I'm in Jakarta, the perfect place in Indonesia to buy a new pair without worrying about the quality or haggling with a street merchant.  But there was still one problem—I have huge feet!  The stores here only carry up to size 11, just below my size 12.  I felt like a freak asking for the right size.  Eventually I settled on some size 11s that will have to do.

In less than a week Durant and I have traveled around 1,000 miles by land and sea in a race westward from Flores to Jakarta.  Lots of rough bus rides, slow ferries, a train and little sleep.  We paused for a couple days on Lombok, where I went on my last real hike in Indonesia.  Durant and I, plus a British man named Gary who we befriended in Sumbawa, hiked through some mountains, small patches of forest, and swidden agriculture on the northwest part of the island.

Durant and Gary and I went for a walk in northwest Lombok.  It was my last real hike in Indonesia.

We ate breakfast at a small Hindu temple in the forest

Sadly, this was my last exploration in the region of Central/Eastern Indonesia known as Wallacea.  The next day we crossed the narrow strait to Bali, returning once again to Asian wildlife and fulfilling my long-time goal of crossing the strait by water to observe the turnover of wildlife firsthand.  That strait between Lombok and Bali, at its narrowest only 15 miles wide, marks the most drastic turnover of biogeographic realms on Earth.

After a night in Bali and yet another bus ride, at times passing through Bali Barat National Park, we arrived at the western tip of the island and crossed the strait to Java.  I know Java looks tiny on a map, especially since it's next to the incomprehensibly large islands of Borneo and Sumatra, but really it's about as large as Ireland.  On landing in Java we continued our westward press, boarding an overnight bus to the cultural center of Yogyakarta.  With no time to rest, we had the bus driver drop us off early in the morning in front of the Prambanan temple complex, the largest in Indonesia.

Prambanan is the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia

(Photo by Durant)
A short minibus ride, a pack hike through town, and a long taxi drive later, we left Yogya and headed northwest to Borobudur temple.  On the way we passed a section of town destroyed a few months ago by the eruption of nearby Mount Merapi.

Parts of the area near Borobudur were destroyed by a volcanic eruption

And then, of course, there was Borobudur itself.

Durant and I explored Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple

Walking among these ruins, erected over 1,000 years ago, their founding civilizations long since vanished, raises questions and inspires deep thought.  In a similar way so does the near instant destruction of hundreds of buildings and human lives due to the capricious whims of a volcano.  But, alas, sleep-deprived and due in Jakarta the next day, we didn't dawdle.  I would've liked to have spent more time in the area, armed with a bit more background knowledge, in order to truly appreciate the sites.  Plus, the places we visited were only the largest and most famous of the dozens of Hindu and Buddhist ruins scattered within the same small area.

I've mentioned the rock star treatment I often get, being a giant hairy white man from afar.  It turns out Durant gets no such treatment.  There has been a significant Chinese minority in Indonesia for centuries, so he pretty much gets ignored.  Or he gets the occasional Indonesian asking him if he's Japanese.  At Prambanan he got just a little jealous when a crowd of teenage girls begged to take photos with me and didn't say a word to him.  That treatment continued all day—Durant getting the cold shoulder and me getting stares and giggled greetings and handshakes and photos.  It's a tough life, being a superstar.  I just hope Durant doesn't resent it too much...

Indonesians treated me like a rock star, mobbing me and taking photos.  Durant, on the other hand, was mostly ignored… (Photo by Durant)

After another night of travel, this time an 8 hourr train ride, we arrived in Jakarta early this morning.  The place is beginning to feel like home!  Again, no sleep and no time to spare, as Durant wanted to visit the National Museum.  That taken care of, and with our flight tomorrow, I now have time to reflect a little on Indonesia.  Upon leaving Australia I felt that I could someday live happily there.  In Indonesia, on the contrary, I feel like I do live here, and a part of me feels like I'm now leaving home.  Perhaps it's that the people were so helpful and welcoming, and that I got adopted by three separate families while here (but, to be fair, one family was American and doesn't count).  Or perhaps it's the amount of effort I put into it.  Over the past eight weeks I thrust myself wholeheartedly at the Indonesian language, out of necessity, a desire to truly experience the place, and as yet another test for myself.  Of course you can't learn a whole language in two months, but I'm more than happy with my progress.

At any rate spending two months fully engaged in the pursuit of some activity, and then abruptly dropping it, does create a sense of abandoning something.  I had some frustrations, but probably not more than I would experience elsewhere.  Indonesia was difficult at times physically, and more than once I told myself it would be my last expedition.  But the real test was mental—the culture, the language, and the abrupt change in both every time I went to a different place.  And then there were also the mental difficulties and moral quandaries to be expected in visiting any poor and overpopulated country.

All those difficulties conspired to create an intensely satisfying and educational experience.  Indonesia, I really hope to return soon and often.  Until then I will miss you.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How Durant tried to kill me

I wrote this post on May 24, 2011, about our final push into eastern Indonesia.  After this we started heading back west toward Java.

In Indonesia I ride a lot of motorcycles—they're often the most convenient transportation.  Well, I say motorcycle, but that's using the term loosely.  Really they are small 125 cc scooters.  The drivers weave in and out of traffic and go through nasty potholes, but I sit on the back relaxed, usually not holding on, enjoying the view, possessed of full confidence in the abilities of the driver.  In my seven weeks here I've not seen a single vehicle accident.  Then two days ago (shudder) I not only witnessed, but was actually in, three separate motorcycle accidents.  So what changed between my first seven weeks and the other day?  One word—Durant.

In Durant’s vague telling of the story, he refers to a few "hairy moments."  He's just being modest about how he tried to kill me three times in one day.  On that day he and I had several serious conversations about whether or not my wrist was broken, without ever reaching a conclusion.  That's not just a "hairy moment."  One of the reasons for Durant joining me was to keep me safe—protect me from feral hogs and whatnot.  But, contrary to his orders, upon arriving he set about trying to destroy me!

You'll recall from my last post that we planned a day trip to the hobbit hole in the mountains of west Flores.  Durant had expressed a wish to rent a scooter, so we combined the two ideas into a rental scooter trip to the cave.  The cave is over 100 km from Labuan Bajo over windy mountain roads.  I don't know much about motorcycles or scooters, but I made the assumption, wrongly, that since Durant owns two motorcycles driving a scooter would be a breeze for him.  I got a little anxious when the attendant at the rental place had to take time to show Durant how to use the kickstand, how to shift, and even how to turn it on...  Why did I then get on the back of it?  Perhaps my travels have made me a bit careless about danger.

Driving the scooter was harder than Durant anticipated

Two guys, one motorcycle may have been too much for him (photo by Durant)

Within 1.5 hours we got in our first accident.  But I was terrified well before then due to Durant's jerky shifting.  Going uphill through some potholes a little too fast, Durant lost control of the bike and we ran off the road and crashed into a ditch and then an embankment.  Durant was a little scratched up, I had a bruised leg or two, and my wrist was either sprained or broken.  I really hope sprained...  A bunch of villagers came out to check on us, including an old betel-chewing woman with red teeth and gums.  We convinced them we were ok and then kept driving.  But our front rim was bent and the wheel turned with a wobble, and the rear light cover was shattered (but it may have been like that when we rented it).  We decided to keep going, and some locals at another village checked our wheel for us and assured us it was safe to drive.  So onward.

The mountain roads of Flores were often in poor condition and difficult to handle, and we wrecked three times (photo by Durant)

Around noon we were still far from the cave, and wanted to be back in Labuan Bajo by sunset at 1800, so we decided to turn around.  About half an hour after eating lunch we had accident number two.  Going uphill, Durant was in too high of a gear, the brakes weren't enough to hold us in place, and we started rolling backwards.  I tried to jump off, but the bike fell over and caught my leg mid-jump and I tumbled backwards, sliding down the hill headfirst on my back.  A few more scratches and bumps.  This time the left mirror broke off the bike, and the left foot rest bent so as to block the movement of the shifter, making downshifting difficult.  The first accident was terrifying.  The second was funny.  We were now in a sticky, yet hilarious, situation.  Crashing apparently was not a fluke, but a pattern.  Getting back on the bike, still three hours from town, was akin to signing a contract agreeing to crash at least once more.  Plus, we were obviously destroying this rental bike and would have to pay damages.  But what else could we do?  We had to keep driving.

Many of the gentler slopes in western Flores are covered in agriculture

We crossed a few steep gorges and rocky rivers

Less than an hour later we got in crash number three.  If crash one was terrifying, and crash two funny, crash three was just annoying.  Again going uphill over potholes we lost control and slid the bike over in the middle of the pavement.  Right as the bike crashed Durant yelled, "Bail, bail!," like a captain yelling, "Abandon ship!"  He tried to jump off but I was still behind him, and we ended up in a pile in the middle of the road, a giant knot of humans and metal.  More scratches, and my legs got scuffed a little from the back tire.  A van full of locals and one guy on a motorcycle rushed over to help.  I sat on a nearby rock wall and laughed so hard I was crying.  Seriously, yelling "Bail?"  As if I would really have time to respond?!  We were both terrified.  I've had scary moments—the feral hog in Queensland, the orangutan in Kalimantan, almost getting swept away by the river in Halmahera, and swimming in a sea so deep it was just darkness beneath me—but this day topped the list.  I did not want to get back on that bike with Durant.  Of course I didn't tell him that—that would have shaken his confidence and made things worse.  We got back on the bike and by going very slowly, taking frequent breaks, and me getting off to walk difficult parts, we made it back to town.

Before we turned in our bike Durant had to put on his pant legs, because his legs were bloody and we didn't want it to be obvious to the rental guy that we had gotten in an accident (or three).  We ended up only having to pay to replace the mirror.

Two days later my wrist still hurts.  Here's a short list of things I can't do without pain: eat with a utensil, pick things up, put on a pack, wash myself with soap, rotate my wrist in all the directions it's supposed to, turn doorknobs...  If it is broken, I won't hold it against Durant.  It was actually a really fun day and there were plenty of upsides.  I found a few new bird species, got great photos, and discovered a new Indonesian food I like.  Plus, Durant paid for my dinner that night to make it up to me.  So we're even.

Between wrecks I found new birds in the swidden agriculture and dry forests (photo by Durant)

Yesterday we left for a 26 hour trip to Lombok.  It started with a ferry from Flores to Sumbawa, with one last great view of Komodo.  Then there was a bus ride from Sape on the east coast of Sumbawa to the large town of Bima.  Remember how I said buses sell tickets without much consideration for the number of seats available?  Well, this was an extreme case of that phenomenon.  By the time Durant and I got to our bus it was packed, with people standing in all the free spaces, stuck in place like sardines.  So the bus guys told us to ride on the roof!  We rode on the top where they strap the luggage on, sitting on our packs with no rails to hold us in, just short ones to hold on to.  Durant claimed to be more afraid than the day before on the scooter.  I wasn't afraid—after all, Durant wasn't driving.  Plus the views were better, and it was much more comfortable than being in the hot cramped inside.  But I did get hit in the face by a small branch because I didn't duck in time.  Not to worry, no permanent damage.

Fortunately, there were too many passengers and we got to ride on the bus roof through eastern Sumbawa (photo by Durant)

We took another bus to the west coast of Sumbawa, took a ferry to Lombok, and then continued by bus to Mataram, the capital, where we shared a cab with a British guy we befriended.  We are now in the beach town of Senggigi, on the northwest coast of Lombok.

Back to the moral of the story—Durant tried to kill me...three times in one day.  Please don't let him live it down.  More importantly, please don't ever get on a scooter with him.