Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Island of Borneo

We couldn’t finish out the year without including a posting about the island of Borneo, which we visited in September. Borneo is one of those places you hear about but never expect to see; it sounded far away to us, too, until we got our car in Singapore and the dealer’s license plate said “Borneo Motors.” Turns out that Borneo is only a couple of hours’ flight away, even if you’re visiting (as we were) the far side, the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Sabah is a strange and fragile place, in which the truly exotic rain-forest flora and fauna are forcibly intermingled with the ever-encroaching roads and palm-oil plantations. The great rain forests of northeastern Borneo have been squeezed up against the muddy Kinabatangan River until only two narrow strips are left. This means you can see a lot of wildlife from the river, since their only habitat is right up against the banks, but there’s an overwhelming feeling (perfectly captured by this article in a recent National Geographic) that the days of this precarious paradise are numbered.

Just beyond the rain forest’s edge, the neat rows of lush green palms look beautiful (and environmentally sound, as the oil they supply often goes into American and European biofuels). But the impact on Borneo’s plants and animals is inescapable. Spend some time watching the monkeys and orangutans swing (or even jump) powerfully through the rainforest foliage, and you begin to understand: with the rows of palm trees, there’s nothing to grab; the monkeys are reduced to crawling slowly along the ground.

We couldn’t visit Borneo without seeing part of the Gomantong Caves we’d seen on Planet Earth, replete with swarms of bats, skittering cockroaches, swallowtails, and workers climbing a hundred feet high on flimsy ladders to harvest empty birds’ nests for soup. David Attenborough never mentioned the happy and enthusiastic stray dogs that serve as self-appointed tour guides, though. They love to meet visitors at the entrance and lead you along the slippery boardwalk inside, making sure you keep up with your group and don’t fall into the massive heaps of bat guano. Perhaps they belong to a breed without a sense of smell...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Call It What It Is

“Merry Christmas!” said the woman in the hijab.

Having spent much of the holiday season in December in a US work environment, I’m accustomed to the carefully coded holiday greetings there. With Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and secularism competing for the same airspace, I heard lots of “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” For the politically correct, “Merry Christmas” is virtually extinct.

Since our return to Singapore, though, I’ve been wished a “Merry Christmas” at least half a dozen times - most recently by my favorite nasi padang lady, who wears a Muslim hijab. I would surmise that we are so glib about the phrase because there are few other competing holidays at this time in Singapore. We’ve already passed the Muslim holidays of Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji. Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, ended two weeks ago. Chinese New Year isn’t for another six weeks. So now, we say “Merry Christmas” because it is Christmas.

With a festive season that runs from October to February each year, people in Singapore would get pretty tired of saying “Happy Holidays” all the time. So here, we call each celebration what it is. All in all, it’s quite refreshing to hear someone wish me “Merry Christmas!”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

How to Prevent Jet Lag

To prevent jet lag when traveling across 12 time zones:

1. Pull all-nighter the night before (or sleep one at a time, in 4-hour shifts), while trying to redistribute luggage so that all 4 bags are under the 50-pound limit.

2. Nap during 4-hour first leg of flight. (Bonus: Being oblivious to the indignities of domestic US air travel.)

3. Arrive at transit airport in evening with hours to spare and nothing to do. Allow sheer boredom to induce sleepiness. Prepare to sleep on 18 1/2-hour second leg of flight.

4. Board plane at 10:30 p.m. Attempt to sleep in sitting position in between weather updates (“still no change”) every 20 minutes. Give up at 2 a.m. and recline seat despite (remote) possibility of takeoff. Doze fitfully until actual takeoff at 5 a.m.

5. Alternate sleeping and eating for the next 12 1/2 hours. Wake up at 6 a.m. (local time at destination) thinking,
“We were supposed to be getting off the plane right now.” Stay awake by contemplating outrage of 25 straight hours on same airplane.

6. Disembark (gratefully) at noon and return home. Function long enough to find toothbrush and climb into bed. Succumb to jet-lag-induced sleep from 4 p.m. to midnight. Upon waking, medicate self for head cold which has mysteriously sprung up. Sleep until 7 a.m., and resume normal schedule in local time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Traveling Abroad

It appears we may have adjusted to life at the equator, after all. On our home leave trip, predictably enough, we nearly froze to death in New Jersey. But this time, we also froze in Florida. And here in Texas, the final stop on our multi-city tour, it ain’t warm either, y’all.

In other ways, too, the America we know (and mostly love) is strange to us now. We’ve read the news about the economic crisis, and the markets in Asia have fallen, too, but we weren’t prepared for the mood of gloom. We didn’t know the standard greeting had changed from “Hi there!” to “You still have your job?”

America looks different to us, too, after our year in a crowded city-state on a tiny, tropical island. It’s a land of squandered space, where the houses are built on tiny postage stamps of grass but the big-box stores get acres and acres of parking lots, most of their spaces empty even during the holiday shopping days. And the flat, sprawling suburban vistas of the South confuse our sense of proportion, accustomed as we are to our vertical cityscape.

In the malls and the theme parks and the grocery stores, there are so few people at any time of day that we keep wondering: where is everyone? In the restaurants and hotels, we squirm when the staff keep up a never-ending stream of conversation and then expect a tip. And it must be said that the food courts disappoint us. In any of Singapore’s neighborhood hawker centers, we could easily eat the mom-and-pop food of a different culture every night. In US malls, the choices range from fake Chinese to fake Italian - all processed by the same conglomerate.

On the upside, we’re now in a country where “salsa” is not the same as marinara sauce. And we did make the switch from driving on the left to driving on the right quite easily. We were happy to find that the roads and buildings in the places where we used to live were still very much the same, in contrast to the perpetual construction and reconstruction in Singapore, where everything seems to change every six months. And we were lucky to be able to see family, friends, and neighbors after being away for so long.

But it does make me wonder what it will be like to move back to the country where we lived all our lives until two years ago. I always thought it would be like coming back home. But now I wonder if it might feel more like our move to Singapore - learning to live in a country that’s foreign to us.