Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - Food & Foot Massage Edition

Another cute and dumpy aircraft deposited us back in Kota Kinabalu where I looked forward to sampling all of the delights of that bustling urban masterpiece on the north coast of Borneo.  Amanda and Dan had waxed lyrical about the food, the foot massages, the markets and so on.  First we repaired to our respective hotels for essential showers and the peeling off and beating to death of the clothes we were currently wearing.  After that I intended to join my pair of Virgils for a quick tour of Kota Kinabalu.

It rained.  It didn't rain in the sense that I'm familiar with.  This was the sort of rain that Noah would be familiar with.  I set out to meet Amanda and Dan at their hotel.  Within five minutes I was drenched to the skin and was wading through streets under several inches of water.  It was only a ten to fifteen minute walk to their hotel but by the time I arrived I could have been mistaken for a Titanic survivor.  I dribbled across to the concierge to inform Amanda and Dan of my arrival and then settled down to catch pneumonia while I waited.

Piling into a convenient amphibious vehicle we headed off to the night market.  It was raining there too and after a certain amount of huddling under tarpaulins and staring at fish who looked as though they might revive and swim away any moment we decided to eschew the entire browsing for food in the picturesque market and find a restaurant instead.

Depending on your point of view the restaurant visit was either a great success or an unmitigated disaster.  We couldn't speak Malay and they were disinclined to speak English, fair enough it's their country.  With a certain amount of effort we (and by we I mean Amanda) ordered what turned out to be two plates of pyramid shaped roti drizzled with condensed milk and some chicken in pastry with dipping sauces sort of thing.  We also managed to order something else by pointing at a neighbour's plate as a waiter walked past.  This was so good we decided we wanted more.  Since Amanda had done the initial ordering and Dan had done the waiter grabbing I decided to try my luck, I also wanted a cup of tea.  At first I was directed to the bathroom but I eventually managed to make clear(ish) my desire for more food.  It wasn't quite a success, what we got was another pyramid of roti and condensed milk and another of the chicken pastry things we had ordered originally.  Also since there was only one fork and spoon between the three of us to cut up and distribute the above.

On the other hand the food was delicious and when the time came to reckon up the bill with the assistance of sign language all of the above plus soft drinks came to a grand total of 26 ringgit which is less than ten dollars.  At some point while we were doing our part for misunderstandings between nations the rain had stopped and it had turned into a very pleasant night.  So we went for foot massages which made up for a lot.

On the way back to my hotel I saw a rat and a cat within a few feet of each other.  I tried to catch the attention of the cat and pointed to the rat in anticipation.  Isn't this why we have cats in coastal cities?  Apparently not, the cat did deign to glance in the direction of the rat when I pointed at it but obviously decided that moving wasn't worth the effort.  It has to be said that the rat didn't seem at all bothered by the presence of its feline enemy and I strongly suspect the pair of them new each other.

The next day I flew out to Brunei to catch my plane home.  Actually I caught a plane from Brunei to Malaysia from where I would catch a plane home.  Brunei airport continued it's personal vendetta against me.  Not only did I slip on the floor and hurt my knee but my flight was delayed (again) fortunately I had a few hours before my connection in Kuala Lumpur.  Simply getting to the plane was a chore, we passed through the gate, circumnavigated about 60% of the airport and were then loaded onto a bus.

The bus took us around the rest of the airport, past all of the other terminals, past the maintenance area, past the leper colony until finally, standing in an isolation I would hardly describe as splendid, was our aircraft.  Having boarded in bus loads we staggered into the air where our pilot cheerfully informed us that the cause of the delay was because there had been a "technical difficulty" (remember them) and that while it was absolutely no cause for alarm on balance they had decided that the plane flew better with both wings attached to the fuselage.

My flight from Kuala Lumpur turned up in Sydney half an hour early which seemed to please the first officer when he announced it.  It would have pleased me too if he hadn't added that as a consequence we were going to have to sit on the tarmac for half an hour before we could get to a terminal.  Home sweet home.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - Malodorous Cavern Edition

After taking so many monkey and orangutan pictures that we were heartily sick of them and having witnessed the laying of turtle eggs and the utterly adorable sight of scores of baby turtles charging towards the sea and almost certain doom there really was nothing left to do in this part of Sabah except wade ankle deep through bird and cockroach shit while bats pissed on us from above.  The venue for this act of bestial coprophilia was the Gomantong Cave which is surrounded by its own patch of virgin jungle.  Surrounding the virgin jungle are palm oil plantations that are distinctly slutty at best.

The first thing that hits you as you approach the cave is the smell.  It's also the second, third and fourth thing to hit you as well.  And by "hits you" I mean "beats you half to death and leaves you bleeding in the gutter".  Inside the cave are innumerable bats, cockroaches and small birds.  Outside the cave are a large number of eagles for reasons not entirely unconnected with the previous sentence.

The bats, it is fair to say, serve no other purpose except to feed the eagles and the cockroaches are there because there just isn't enough Mortein in the world to deal with the issue.  The birds however happen to be the type of birds that paste their nests together with their own saliva.  As such they provide a vital ingredient in birds nest soup or, more accurately, bird spit soup.  Yum yum.

Bizarrely birdsnest soup isn't considered to be an aphrodisiac which is odd as it certainly ticks the  "inaccessible and birdspit crazy" criteria normally applied to such things.  However the soup is supposed to be very good for your health and particularly helpful for smooth skin and generally warding off the ageing process.  Which goes to show that Chinese traditional medicine is rather like traditional medicine everywhere; a couple of lucky guesses cemented together with an unholy collection of demented rubbish.

The nests are gathered twice a year and the pricier nests (because of course there is a grading system for swallowing birdspit) can fetch up to several thousand dollars per kilogram.  During the gathering the workers actually live in little huts in the cave which I wouldn't do for the salvation of mankind.

Having appreciated (for want of a better word) the atmosphere (for want of a better word) of the cave (nope we're good with the word "cave") we left for somewhere our nasal passages could recuperate.  On the way back through the jungle there were about half a dozen orangutans frolicking in the trees because of course there were.  The damn things are everywhere. 

With the collected excrement of three different species washed from our shoes (but never from our brains) there was nothing left to do except catch the last minibus out of Dodge.  While waiting for our flight at Sandakan airport we noticed a man wandering around.  He was wearing what might be termed a uniform (if you wanted to stretch the definition to its very limit) and was carrying a pump action shotgun.  He wasn't screaming demands and people weren't fleeing in panic so I'm going to go right ahead and assume he was airport security.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - Mud, Blood & Leech Socks

Of course there was more to the nature lodge than just orangutans.  What jungle adventure would be complete without leeches?  On the evening we arrived we were given the option of going on a nighttime jungle walk.  Heady with the success of our first river cruise where we had seen monkeys of various stripes, a water monitor and a mother orangutan nursing its young we agreed without hesitation.  I'm not saying we expected to see a clouded leopard but after the river cruise we wouldn't have been surprised.

To avoid unnecessary suspense let me state right now that we did not see a clouded leopard.  Our guide has done this work for sixteen years and is a local lad into the bargain.  He has seen clouded leopards on precisely four occasions in that time.  We had signed up drunk with optimism but were quickly sobered when we were asked if we'd like to hire gumboots.  Dan mentioned that he had purchased a pair of spanking new hiking boots for just such an occasion.  Wordlessly Amanda and I pointed to the mud level on the gumboots for hire.  We hired the gumboots.

Now that we were reeling the nature lodge went in for the kill, "Would we like to purchase leech socks?"  At this point we would probably have purchased chainmail if they had it.  Suddenly the jungle seemed a scary place comprising 40% mud and 60% leeches (a description that is only inaccurate in the percentages).  We were advised to wear long sleeves, Amanda didn't have any long sleeves.  Dan and I privately wrote her off as dead at that point.  A random American joined briefly.  In fact he joined us for just long enough for him to regale us with stories of how his brother had done the walk yesterday and had staggered out of the jungle more leech than man.  After that the American wandered away possibly in response to the intense "fuck off" vibe he was getting from all three of us.

So what was the night jungle walk like?  Imagine a sauna, fill it to a depth of twelve to eighteen inches of mud, throw in far too many plants, scatter leeches to taste and turn off the lights.  Also for the full experience you would have to source civet cats, a slow loris and a tiny but incredibly cute (and apparently quite rare) ghost monkey.  Also on the way back we encountered wild pigs.  His hunting instincts aroused Dan plunged after them and Amanda had to yank very hard on his chain to keep him on the path.  Also nobody got any leeches.

Despite this introduction to the jungle we agreed to go on a longer walk the next day.  The jungle during the day is rather like the jungle at night only better lit.  Again we pulled on our doughty leech socks and I traded my gumboots for a pair that didn't have a huge crack in them then we set off through the jungle.  Pretty soon sweat was pouring off me in such quantities that any leech trying its luck was in danger of drowning.

We were told we were unlikely to see any animals during the day and this turned out to be correct.  I did see a leech though, it was in the process of wrapping itself around my finger.  I shook it off however a closer look determined that the "off" component of that statement had failed to occur.  I shook my hand more violently and the leech went flying into the mud.  At least I presume it was the mud, Dan was standing quite close to me and had no idea why I was jerking my hand about so violently.  Not wanting to concern him I just let him think I had a nervous twitch.

Our guide attempted to take our minds off our imminent death from heat exhaustion but pointing out the medicinal qualities of various plants, most of them seemed to be gynaecological in nature.  Eastern Sabah must have the lowest infant mortality rate in the world.

We collapsed gasping at our destination, a beautiful oxbow lake currently connected to the river thanks to recent rains.  Our guide gazed at our recumbent forms; "would we like him to call a boat to pick us up?"
Our reaction was pitiful, we threw ourselves at his feet pleading nay, weeping for the boat.  The boat could only reach us because the water was so high and we eased and bumped our way along a narrow waterway with overhanging branches and semi submerged logs until we made it bank to the river.

Once back at the lodge I removed my gumboots and discovered a leech industriously but unsuccessfully trying to burrow its way through my leech sock.  I took a photo then Dan hit it with insect repellent and I applied a cigarette lighter and we wound up with the world's deadest leech.  Incidentally has anyone else noticed that the human love of animals is highly conditional?  Substitute the phrase "baby panda" for leech in the preceding and I'm sure everyone would be appalled.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - And Now the One You've All Been Waiting For

Sea turtles and tropical islands are all very well but one doesn't travel to Borneo for that.  Nor is it for the Malay culture and friendly locals that one risks malaria, dengue fever and exsanguination by leech.  After eleven blog entries at least notionally about Borneo my readership (both of them) rises in it's wrath and screams,
"Where are the sodding orangutans?"
Well fear not gentle reader for this blog entry has more orangutans than a Terry Pratchett convention. There are so many orangutans that by the end you won't believe they're endangered in fact you'll probably support a cull.

We travel deep into the jungle (it's on the right in between the oil palm plantations) a little later but first we visited Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where a bunch of orangutans have been collected together for our viewing pleasure.  That's not the intention of course, the centre, which has its own bit of jungle attached (about ten thousand hectares) was set up in the 1960s to rehabilitate baby orangutans which have been orphaned by hunting, logging or road accidents (orangutans are terrible drivers) so they can be released into the wild.  I can't help thinking they would do better to train the orangutans to survive in palm oil plantations but their hearts are in the right place.

Amanda, Dan (remember them?) and I turned up, not coincidentally, in time to see the orangutans being fed on platforms in the forest.  Feeding the orangutans consists of dumping a bunch of fruit on a platform and waiting for the orangutans to turn up.  An orangutans method of eating by the way is to pick up a piece of fruit, rub it on it's chin and then drop it before repeating the process.  I'm not surprised they're endangered, I'm amazed they haven't all starved to death.

There was also an area set up as a children's playground/learning centre where incredibly photogenic orangutans learned important life skills such as a dislike of other orangutans.  Orangutans are completely solitary (they even reproduce by text message) and the five or six years the mother spends teaching it's child (and there will only be one) about all things orangutan is the most interaction either of them will have with their own species.

It has to be admitted that orangutans are awesome and the babies are the very definition of cute and cuddly.  I wish them well on their journey back to the wild and I hope there's still some wild left when they turn up.  There was also a sun bear sanctuary next door to the rehab centre but this is an entry about orangutans so who cares.  Dan and Amanda claim to have seen a pygmy elephant, well you can believe that if you're so inclined.

After whetting our orangutan appetites with some easy kills (figuratively speaking) we headed up the Kinabatang River where a fair chunk of jungle can be found wedged between the palm oil plantations.  From our base at Kinabatang Nature Lodge we cruised the river in the hopes of catching a glimpse of this rare and shy great ape in the wild.

The damn things were everywhere!  We couldn't get near the river without tripping over orangutans.  It got to the point where we expected them to be at the airport to wish us goodbye.  In the course of three days we saw thirteen separate orangutans.

We were, in fact, unbelievably lucky.  Some people come and see none.  I can't help thinking we must have used up our nature lodge's orangutan allotment for the next eighteen months.

Travelling Hopefully - The Neglectful Parent Edition

We were met at Sandakan airport by our guide who was charged with getting us within camera range of sea turtles without too much psychological damage on either side.  This would entail a journey to a small island off the coast as apparently the turtles don't make house calls.

First though we stopped at the Sandakan Four Seasons to pick up a pair of New Zealanders (who like most New Zealanders live in Sydney) and then we stopped around the corner to pick up the New Zealander's washing.  With both the New Zealanders and their washing secured we transferred to what seemed like a rather small boat for a sea cruise and headed across the azure water to Turtle Island.

Malaysia seems to be taking its anti-piracy duties seriously, the harbour at Sandakan was full of enough coast guard vessels to have their own war and a seriously  heavy duty military helicopter roamed the skies.  There were also police armed with automatic rifles on the island itself although whether they were there to protect us from pirates or the turtles from us was left open.  One thing I do know, the rule about being off the beach by 6pm so the turtles could come ashore unmolested was scrupulously obeyed.

The turtles are under threat not just because they insist on eating plastic and getting caught in fishing nets (stupid bastards) but also because turtle eggs are apparently delicious and are incredibly nutritious.  Also, like most exotic, difficult to source foodstuffs they're supposed to be an aphrodisiac.  If chickens were discovered to be an aphrodisiac then within a month there would only be nine left and they'd live on a mountain top in Bolivia.  The island is an attempt to bolster sea turtle numbers.  It has been a laying spot since time immemorial, now it is an official turtle hatchery.  The female turtles come ashore, lay their eggs and, literally immediately, a ranger scoops them up and transplants them to a hatchery where they can hatch without interference from predators.  This guarantees the maximum number of incredibly cute baby turtles which are then released into the sea where most of them die almost immediately.

I suspect that much of the reason for the turtles endangerment comes down to bad parenting.  The father loses interest immediately after conception (I know, big surprise) and the mother considers her parenting role complete if she dumps her eggs into the nearest convenient hole in the ground and then leaves.  If that was the human method of child rearing we'd be endangered too.

In their defence the sea turtles have chosen a spectacular venue to be neglectful parents in.  A forty minute boat ride out of Sandakan into the Sulu Sea brought us to an island of almost stereotypical tropical island beauty.  Coral, white sand, translucent water, abundant fish and palm trees; it's all there.  And somewhere in the midst of all this beauty a bunch of armoured dinosaur contemporaries are tossing eggs into holes in the sand under the impression that this is all they need to do to propagate their species.  After which a group of unreasonably concerned humans run around trying to prove them right.  Talk about rewarding bad behaviour.

Travelling Wearily

The Horizon Hotel in Kota Kinabalu has lovely rooms.  I must try sleeping in one at some point.  After a five hour delay reaching Kota Kinabalu and an hour and a half getting through customs I didn't reach my room until 2.30am which left me just enough time to shower and change before I had to meet my friends in the lobby at 4 for the taxi ride back to the airport to catch a plane to Sandakan.

My friends had, in my view unwisely, invited me to join them on an animal pestering expedition to Borneo.  If, over the course of the next four days, an animal somewhere in Borneo didn't get its privacy invaded it was no fault of ours.

I mentioned friends, there were two of these; Amanda who I have worked with on and off for years and her Italian body servant Daniel.  Greetings were low key as they had just got up and I hadn't slept in nearly twenty four hours but each of us managed to convey an absence of disappointment that the other had actually turned up and we bundled ourselves into a short, rather fat aeroplane that took us to Sandakan.

According to the Australian government's travel website Sandakan isn't somewhere you should be going right now.  There's a bit of a pirate situation right now.  The pirates come from (and presumably return to) the Philippines.  The sea border with the Philippines is quite close to Sandakan and a damn sight closer to the island we would be staying on to watch the sea turtles.

Of course the possibility of pirate generated unpleasantness would have caused my parents to have some concern about my well being, so I didn't tell them.  I've also delayed posting this blog entry until four days later when I'm safely back in Kota Kinabalu.  So if this entry actually reaches my blog you know I survived.  Unless the Malaysian navy retrieved my notepad from my bullet riddled body and decided to publish it as a cautionary tale.

Travelling Eventually

I should have taken the bus.  AirAsia managed to get me from Sydney to Brunei as close to on time as makes no difference.  Royal Brunei on the other hand can't even shift me the forty odd minutes to Kota Kinabalu without a five hour delay.  The cause of the delay was apparently "technical issues" a delightfully broad term that can mean anything from "we don't actually own any aircraft but we're negotiating to hire a local crop duster's Cessna" all the way to "the pilot has locked himself in the cabin with a shotgun and is demanding we bring him a bottle of vodka and a shaved orangutan in a bikini."

To make matters worse I had swapped my last cigarette for a lift to the airport in what seemed like a good deal at the time.  It really wasn't, cigarettes are another thing you can't buy in Brunei at least, not legally.  Smoking isn't illegal, just selling cigarettes.  If you somehow manage to source cigarettes then feel free to smoke them.  As long as it's not in daytime hours during Ramadan of course.

People say the Sultan of  Brunei is a very pious man and I'm sure that's true but I wonder if religion is the only reason for these laws.  Back when it was discovered that Brunei was sitting on an ocean of oil bigger than it was the Sultan instituted a number of social welfare initiatives including free (or at least heavily subsidised) healthcare.  At some point an advisor may well have whispered in the Sultan's ear that three of the largest drains on the public health purse come from drinking, smoking and illegal drugs.

"No problem," replied the Sultan.  "We'll kill the junkies, ban alcohol and stop people buying cigarettes."
"How are you going to justify all that?"
"Religion," a quick sideways glance at the Minister for Religious Affairs who hastily thumbs through a Quran before nodding.
"Actually I think we can make that fly your majesty."
"Excellent,  now get your arse down to the airport and see if you can do the same for Royal Brunei.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - Joseph Conrad and David Attenborough Memorial Edition

I didn't get to go to Temburong.  That's Brunei's official, national park protected jungle as opposed to the regular sort of jungle that's still hanging around because no one has cut it down yet.  Unfortunately nobody seemed to be going there and as a consequence neither were the tours.  This meant that any wildlife I saw would be within spitting distance of the capital.

First up were cats.  The water village is practically sinking into the river under the combined weight of assorted moggies.  Oh yes and the combined weight of assorted cat shit.
"Wait a minute," I hear you cry. "Don't cats bury their waste?"
Yes, in theory however in the water village cats have the choice of digging in concrete, wood or water.  It's fair to say that none of these are optimal.  You need to watch where you walk in the water village, partly so you don't fall in the water but partly also so you don't slip in cat shit, lose your footing, bang your head on a plank, swallow your tongue, go into convulsions and then fall into the water.

So far so cats.  To see anything more I needed to take a trip up river into the heart of darkness where an overweight and over rated American actor is worshipped as a god by an elephant killing African tribe and Harrison Ford earns meal money prior to appearing in Star Wars.  Incidentally how clever was Ford to get himself killed off in the remake of Star Wars?  At least he won't have to appear in the remake of The Empire Strikes Back.

But back to my trip upriver which actually bore no resemblance to Heart of Darkness and only resembled Apocalypse Now in the amount of rain that fell.  It rained so much the boatman asked if I wanted to turn back but every time I tried to say yes my mouth filled with water so on we went.

We puttered soggily past the city, turned into a creek (Presto! I'm a creek!) and then stopped.  I spat the rainwater out of my mouth for long enough to ask why.
"Crocodile," was the response.  I stared hard at the patch of mud indicated and eventually it took pity on me, detatched itself from the rest of the mud and slid into the water.  It wasn't a huge crocodile, if Steve Irwin had thrown himself on it he would have inflicted serious internal damage, but it wasn't inconsequential either.  It was also a five minute walk and a brief paddle from where I had dinner the previous night.

Travelling upstream really did conjure up visions of Heart of Darkness, if you could overlook the plastic bottles floating down the creek and the fact that the mangroves and jungle only extended a few feet before running into the backyards of some of Bandar's swisher suburbs.  One yard extended right down to the creek bank with only a few trees dotting the place.  The owner was fishing in the creek.  In the trees were a group of proboscis monkeys including a dominant male, bulbous nose prominently on display.  If proboscis monkeys could go to the movies Gerard Depardieu would be a sex symbol all over again.

While we were watching the monkeys the home owner caught a fish.  It was a decent sized one too.  So in addition to monkeys I saw a fish.  Did David Attenborough really get paid for this?  Easiest job ever.  We continued our journey and saw a white crane.  Well I can't back up that identification but given the rarity of albino bats I think I'm safe in saying it was a bird.  With a crocodile, proboscis monkeys, a fish and what was, on balance of probabilities, a bird under our belts we turned around and went home.  Along the way we saw a very fine house with monkeys literally climbing the walls.  I hope the owner had locked his windows.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Travelling Hopefully

The water village stretches for several kilometres along the south bank of the river.  There are also parts on the north (city) bank although a lot has been cleared for various developments.  In fact it isn't one village but several which now have bridges connecting them.  The village I stayed at is called Bakut Berumput.   On my last full day my hostess Kem took me for a walk around some of the villages using the wooden boardwalks in various stages of decay which are the only means of getting from A to B if you don't have a boat.

The water villages are in fact the traditional form of accommodation for the Bruneians who only moved onto land at the turn of the twentieth century at the "suggestion" of the then British resident to avoid water borne diseases.  Up until that time the Bruneians had apparently divided their time between fishing, trading and raiding.  Three Swedish girls staying with us at the time pricked up their ears at this.
"Vikings," they said, which didn't seem like an unfair analogy.

The villages have their own schools, mosques, shops, police and fire brigade.  The fire brigade might seem counterintuitive but if your house catches fire on land you can run into the street.  Try that in the water village and you'd better be able to swim.  The houses need constant maintenance to keep them from toppling into the river.  Traditionally the stilts are made of ironwood which is about as tough and water resistant as wood gets but even so they're only good for about forty years.  Concrete hasn't proved any more durable and they're currently experimenting with PVC.

Houses collapsing into the river isn't uncommon.  For all its appeal the water village is tough on the elderly, access isn't exactly easy for those of limited mobility.  If they have the resources older people way well retire to dry land.  Unless there is family both immediately available and willing to look after the house it won't be long before the house is on a downward slide.  Said downward slide ends in the river.

Some of the houses are amazing, well presented, double story dwellings others are more ramshackle. Whatever the condition fresh paint is the sign of a house proud occupant.  Not just for aesthetic reasons either but also for the extra life expectancy that the right quality paint can provide.

We passed children flying a kite.  I didn't realise that at first, I thought they were just holding string.  Then Kem pointed at a speck several hundred feet up in the air.  Apparently that speck was attached to the small child in front of us.  We also passed a young man and woman sitting in front of a house.  The girl had nice hair and Kem asked if she could take a photo but the girl was very shy.  Kem told me the reason later, the two of them were on a date and we were cuttting into their alone time.

Incidentally the water village has full power and water.  I noticed an ugly, square, windowless building jutting out of the river in unsplendid isolation.  I asked Kem what it was, apparently it was a substation.  I took more photos of it than it probably deserved.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Travelling Hopefully - Malled to Death in Brunei

So, what does the population of a country with no drinking, no gambling and no nightlife to speak of do for fun?  Answer; they shop.  They shop until they drop and then they get up and shop some more.  They shop until they die then get a necromancer to drag them back from the grave after which they go shopping.

It took me a little while to realise this but pretty much every building in the capital that isn't a mosque or government offices is a shopping mall.  A short drive out of town is a district called Gadong.  It's basically a bunch of shopping malls and markets stitched together and given its own name.

Feeling the need to sample the local culture l puttered across the river and threw myself bodily at the first shopping mall I could find.  I came, I saw, I shopped.  I even bought something.  Admittedly what I bought was three mini doughnuts and a can of strawberry Fanta but I bought them at a shopping mall.  It counts goddam it!  I also bought a couple of postcards in case the ones I mailed earlier don't make it back.

Well, I say I mailed them.  The post office was closed so what I did was dump the cards in what might have been a mailbox or possibly an ornate garbage bin and hoped for the best.  With shopping satisfactorily achieved (and I don't care what anyone says, doughnuts count) I headed off to the bus terminal (as you do) and then took some photos of a rather cute and oddly worded shrine.

The shrine commemorates the son and daughter of a previous Sultan who were (if I interpreted the plaque accurately) buried alive back in the fifteenth century.  According to the plaque they had been guilty of crimes against religious law and had to pay the penalty.  However the Sultan had arranged a sort of underground house with food and an air vent.  The sinners were conducted there in full pomp to what seems to have been a form of subterranean exile.  The plaque also notes the free confession made by both parties and expresses the hope that the contrition of the accused and the punishment inflicted in this world will be acceptable to Allah (the all merciful and compassionate) and  that they can stand before him with a clean sheet in the afterlife.

So what did they actually do?  The shrine is discreetly vague in this regard but according to my host they had a bit of a Jaime & Cersei thing happening.  The punishment may seem a little extreme but the only place such behaviour would have been considered acceptable is in ancient Egypt where it would have been pretty much mandatory.

Travelling Hopefully

I just had a bona fide cultural experience.  It's a pity it happened to me really, I'm sure almost anyone else would have got more out of it than I did.  My hosts were visiting the cemetery to clean the family graves and suchlike.  I was invited along to check out the cemetery.  My intention was to take a few quick photos and leave them to it but on arrival I was invited to join them for the whole proceeding.

My hostess put on a head scarf she normally doesn't bother with and as her extended family arrived I noticed she was greeted with marks of respect by some of the younger women while she gave the same greeting to an older lady who joined us.

For someone used to European (or possibly Christian) graveyards it was rather confusing as we tend to have a reasonably clear separation between the living and the dead which wasn't the case here.  We  walked around and sometimes over grave markers to reach the graves of my hostesses family including that of the man who built the house I'm currently staying in.  None of us actually trod on any grave markers although I'm the only one who had to watch their feet to make sure.

There was actually a path we could have followed but a burial was taking place nearby and we would have had to jostle the mourners to get past.  So we climbed a small hill, threading our way through the graves and approached the required spot from the rear.  Once there we sat on convenient graves which didn't seem to bother anyone too much while, I can't think of a better word than "libations" were poured on the relevant graves and sat in silence while the names of the dead were recited.  The children were given small gifts of money for helping to brush the tombs.  I was told this was partly a form of Islamic charity and partly to create a positive impression in the children's minds so they will tend their parents graves in due course which seems a nice blend of piety and pragmatism.

Dotted about the graveyard were mausoleums containing various previous Sultans of Brunei.  I expressed surprise that they were buried cheek by jowl with the common folk but was swiftly corrected.  The sultans had been here first in splendid isolation and sometime later it was decided it would be nice if they had some of their subjects around them.  Speaking of which my hostess tells me she is descended from the 16th Sultan of Brunei, I looked but I didn't see his mausoleum.

I'm sure many people would have taken away a lot more from this experience than I did.  For my part I decided not to pester them with questions while they were honouring their dead.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Travelling Hirsuitely

Success!  I managed to get a shave!  I also visited museums and stuff but most importantly I managed to get a shave.  Actually it was easy, I just went along to the same area I visited yesterday but since it wasn't Friday they were open.  Frankly it was a bit of a let down really but at least nobody tried to fob me off with the bus depot.  The barber who had no doubt been hoping for a lucrative hair cutting gig was equally disappointed.  Just the sort of man you want holding a razor to your throat.

Honesty compels me to admit that he did a reasonable job.  Not as good as the shave I got in Zanzibar but better than the one I got in Chicago.  After he was done he hit me about the head and yanked on my arms at no extra cost.  At least since the whole experience only cost $2 I'm assuming it was at no extra cost.  I may have missed the itemised invoice that said "Shave $1.75, arm yanking 25c extra"

After the entire shaving experience talking about museums is going to be a bit of an anticlimax.  Still in an effort to pad out what is currently a rather short blog entry here is something on museums.  I visited two of them; the Brunei Maritime Museum and the Malay Museum of Technology.  They were conveniently located next to each other (and at least one more I didn't visit).  Less conveniently the whole museum complex was located some way out of town.  I was told I could take a bus, I asked  if I could take a water taxi.  I could and did.

The museum complex was hacked out of the jungle some kilometres from town.  This isn't unusual, the only parts of Brunei that haven't been hacked out of the jungle are still jungle.  Why the hacking had to take place here and not somewhere closer to town I don't know.

If I learnt one thing from the maritime museum it is that, back in the day, camphor was to the Bruneian economy what crude oil is to it right now.  Brunei's camphor was world famous for its quality and people came from all parts to trade for it (and spices and metal goods but mainly it was the camphor).  Hopefully when Brunei's oil runs out they can keep their economy going by supplying Vicks Vapo Rub and mothballs to the world (do we still use those things?)

Also the Bruneian people seem to like regattas.  An entire section of the ground floor is given over to regattas and the prizes won at same.  Quite a lot of the photos depict the Sultan, apparently he's rather keen on regattas too.  Up on the second floor is a collection of small ornate cannon which were apparently a combined status symbol and prestige currency.  The cannon would be used to pay fines and provide dowries.  Which makes me wonder how they made change.
"For double parking your prahu the fine is two cannons fifty."
"Can you round it up to three?  I left my change purse in my other artillery park."

After giving the maritime museum a less than scientifically rigorous scrutiny I popped next door to check out Malayan technology.  For the first time photos were not just permitted but actively encouraged.  Possibly in reaction to this I only took one.  Despite its name the Malayan Technology Museum doesn't showcase current Malay technological achievements but rather has a series of displays of traditional skills and technologies including metalwork, fabrics and cooking techniques.

It was certainly the best organised and laid out of the museums I went to, including the Regalia Building and I came away with a greater understanding of Malayan culture and industry.  Well no, that's a lie but I'm sure a more worthy person than I am would have.  As for me, I enjoyed it while I was there.  With both museums down I repaired to an abandoned dry dock in the middle of the river for a sneaky cigarette away from prying eyes (Ramadan) before my water taxi collected me.

Just off topic somewhat I'm writing this blog entry at 10pm sitting on my host's verandah.  A group of locals are standing on the walkways fishing with nets.  I was a little surprised there were fish actually in the river but my host assures me there are.  Judging by the state of the water the fish are probably glad to leave.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Travelling Haplessly

The downtown of Bandar Seri Begawan can be walked easily in a few hours.  I know this because I walked it easily in a few hours.  Mind you the prevailing humidity will make you feel like you're swimming before you've gone a dozen paces and it's a little difficult to take surreptitious sips from a water bottle (Ramadan) in the middle of town.

Fortunately I am forged from the mould of heroes (at least I'm pretty sure there's mould in there somewhere) and I can handle any kind of mild discomfort.  You know, if I don't have a choice.  Shamelessly hijacking someone else's water taxi I had myself (and the other passenger) dropped at Kianggeh Market.  You know the good thing about this market?   Nobody tries to sell you anything.  They actually wait for you to show an interest in their merchandise.  Since I didn't have any this was ideal.  I'm loving zipping about in water taxis by the way, it's a very cool way to travel.  Seriously, being out on the water is the coolest place in the city unless you like air conditioned malls which I don't.

It being a Friday many things were closed and most of those that were open weren't going to be open for long.  I had been advised to grab some takeaway food before midday if I wanted to eat at all (l did).  Given this my objectives for the day were modest.  Food, a shave and the Regalia Building was all I hoped to achieve today.  I managed two of those which is a pass mark by anyone's standards.

A lot of people have a knickknack shelf; somewhere you can put souvenirs and those little gifts you've received over the years that you have no use for but can't throw away for fear of causing offence.  Well the Sultan of Brunei has such a thing.  It's called the Regalia Building.

As befits it's name the building also houses such of the royal regalia as isn't currently being used by the Sultan.  The centrepiece of the display is two massive chariots which the Sultan was apparently hauled around in on the occasion of his coronation and his silver jubilee respectively. In the galleries around and overlooking this display is a staggering collection of gifts the Sultan has received from heads of state, visiting dignitaries, business figures and loyal subjects.  If the Sultan wasn't already the richest man in the world he could probably become so by holding a garage sale.

Sadly absolutely no photography was permitted inside, neither were shoes but I don't tend to take photos with them.  I did manage to take a photo of my Royal Regalia Building slippers before I went inside.  They're white and rather plain and don't really convey the grandeur of the place terribly well. After that I popped along to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque where I was able to take a photo of the sign telling me I couldn't go inside.

I have never had such difficulty finding a barber.  Normally if you wander through an Asian or Middle Eastern town for long enough you will find someone with a sharp blade who's prepared to have a go.  However this was Friday and Ramadan into the bargain and the barbers had apparently made themselves scarce.  My host had told me the most likely places to go (back alleys) and intimated that my greatest difficulty would be escaping without an unwanted ear cleaning and massage as well.

Well I tramped through pretty much every back alley the city possesses without success.  I encountered one likely looking prospect (I could actually see people getting their hair cut) but the old man I approached guided out of his shop, down the street and pointed me in the direction of the bus station.  Possibly there was a communication breakdown or possibly he didn't like the look of me, I did look rather scraggy and unshaven.

With the midday hour rapidly approaching I gave up on the shave and focused on food.  With minutes to spare I got some rather tasty fried chicken and rice from a corner takeaway which I took back to my lodgings to eat appropriately indoors.  Along the way I lost my footing getting into a water taxi and wound up flat on my back on the river stairs.  My taxi driver very kindly offered me a reasonably clean cloth when it looked like I was going to bathe my bloody hand in the river (I must have been slightly shocked or, possibly, an idiot).  So I went home for lunch and also to change into clothes that were somewhat cleaner and less bloodstained.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Travelling Hungrily

I spent seven hours in Kuala Lumpur airport.  It wasn't the worst I've been in (that prize is taken by Tashkent in the late 1980s).  I spent most of my time hanging out near the kids play area.  I know that sounds disturbing but it was only because the kids play area was right next to the smoking lounge.  And now we've gone right through disturbing and out the other side.

Fortified by gallons of coffee I would normally deem undrinkable (temporarily drinkable coffee kindly supplied by Starbucks) I patiently waited for another AirAsia jet to take me to Brunei.  This jet was actually more comfortable than the one I caught in Sydney and I broke down and bought a meal on the plane in deference to the fact that Brunei observes Ramadan and I might find acquiring food a little difficult.

First impressions of  Brunei were quite positive, I presented myself at customs to declare my cigarettes and was waved through the  nothing to declare line.  After that a marginally expensive taxi ride took me to the waterfront and then a very cheap water taxi took me across the river to my accommodation.

Once again a combination of Airbnb and blind good luck have come up trumps for me.  The lodge I'm staying in is awesome.  I'm in Kampong Ayer the worlds largest water village.  The houses rest on stilts in the river and are connected by a maze of footbridges.  Apparently thirty thousand people live here.  From the verandah of my lodge I can see straight across the river to the city itself, a view which is better at night when the mosque is lit up in all its glory.

Sadly I wasn't going to be able to visit the mosque (Ramadan again) as an apologetic sign "to our non-Muslim guests" made plain.  I joined a small group of disconsolate non-Muslim guests out the front and took a couple of photos instead.  I took one of the sign to add to my collection of apologetic signs telling why I can't visit places.  At least this one is somewhat more plausible that the Great Lakes Science Centre in Cleveland which was closed for a football game.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Travelling Hopefully

So once again I found myself sitting in Sydney airport waiting for a miracle of semi modern engineering to whisk me to one of those places it's difficult to reach on foot.  On this occasion said destination was Brunei.  This was a last minute, scrappily patched together and shoehorned in between university exams (not mine) and random pregnancies (also not mine).

I shall have ten days on Borneo divided between Brunei and Sabah.  A friend of mine invited me to join her in pestering large apes.  Once a little delicate questioning had assured me that she meant orangutans and not her boyfriend I agreed.  Sorry Dan, you're just not my type.

Since my friend (her name's Amanda by the way) and Dan had a few other items on their agenda we agreed to meet in Sabah.  This would allow us to poke sticks at orangutans together while hopefully not spending enough time in each other's company for them to get sick of the sight of me.  Alternatively they may have invited me solely as a sacrificial goat to hurl at the orangutans should they mass for an attack.

With a few days up my sleeve I decided to visit Brunei because a) it was convenient and, b) I'd ever been there.  Of course travelling to Brunei meant that first I had to travel to Sydney airport.  Normally I catch a taxi which deposits me just outside the gloomy converted barn that serves as a combined check in area/passenger holding pen.  This time however I took the train.  For a couple of dollars less than the price of a taxi the train will take you all the way from your nearest railway station and dump you in a tunnel a several escalator rides below the aforementioned converted  barn.  It does, however, tend to be quicker.

Malaysian Airlines has had a rough few years what with planes getting shot down or vanishing without trace so I decided it would be safer to fly AirAsia which is their idiot cousin.  Being a low budget carrier absolutely everything costs extra.  I was a little surprised to find that the cabin was pressurised as I was expecting to have to buy oxygen as we went along.  There was a sign in the lavatory saying it to drink the tap water, presumably because we haven't paid for it.

I doubt if I will fly a budget carrier again.  Not that there was anything wrong with AirAsia.  So far they've managed to get me to Kuala Lumpur without issue in reasonable discomfort.  I wasn't terribly fussed about it getting a meal on an eight hour flight either.  What brought home the true horror of a budget flight was the dreadful realisation that we weren't going to be given warm, moist towels to wipe our faces with.  Apparently I've become a princess in my old age.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I've Done It Again

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it does it make a sound?  On a related note if someone makes an egregious error in his blog and nobody mentions it did he make an error?  The answer, sadly, to at least the second of those questions is "yes".

A week or so ago I gave a birthday shout out to a worthless prat named Valentinian III who presided over the decline and fall of the Roman empire.  Just one problem, it wasn't his birthday.  Actually, just two problems; it wasn't his birthday and I'd already given him a birthday greeting in the past, on his actual birthday.

In my defence I was sloppy and lazy.  That might not seem like much of a defence but as an explanation it's more than adequate.  Since I've done over sixty of these birthday greetings before each one I do a quick skim of previous blog entries to make sure I'm not doubling up.  Of course this requires that I've got the birth date correct in the first place.  Having carefully searched the wrong date I cheerfully went ahead and wrote my blog entry without actually finding the previous entry.

And nobody seems to have noticed!  Maybe nobody reads these entries after all.  Which leads to another question; if someone posts a blog entry and nobody reads it was the entry posted at all.  For the sake of my reputation for accuracy (no, I don't have one but I'm planning to buy one someday) let's say that it wasn't.

It is my earnest hope that one day somebody researching their university degree by the now standard method of simply using Google plus cut and paste will one day base their entire work on what they have harvested from my blog.  I would dearly like to be a fly on the wall as the markers twist themselves inside out attempting to justify how they can still award a distinction grade to the results.

I've also noticed that when I make these mistakes it always results in a thoroughly undeserved second birthday shout out to someone who was barely worth a first.  The last time it was to Francis of Lorraine who was, to the extent anybody noticed, Holy Roman Emperor but is better known for his full time career as husband to Maria Theresa of Austria.  This time it was a good for nothing deadbeat whose sole achievement was to prove that vicious incompetence could well be hereditary.  Emperors with talent still patiently waiting their turn must be outraged.  Or they would be if they weren't dead.  And cared.

Anyway, I've abased myself as much as I am prepared to.  So, sorry about the screw up.  Now sod this, I'm off to Borneo.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Oscar Pistorius Mutilates Possum

Time is a funny thing.  One moment something is at the front of your mind and the next thing you know its ten years later and you still haven't returned that call.  With this on my mind I suddenly realised that I hadn't heard anything from this blog's wildlife mutilation reporter for almost a decade.  If I actually paid her I might feel somewhat annoyed.

Hastily scratching some pertinent questions onto a message stick I flung it into the ocean in the hopes that the ocean currents would carry it to Tasmania.  Six months later I was contacted by the administrators of a Belarusian porn website.  They had received my message stick and had forwarded it on to Tasmania by express carrier dromedary as part of the service they provide to all their best customers.  Oh and by the way my subscription was coming up for renewal.

With communications with Tasmania reestablished courtesy of what I strongly suspect are a group of eastern European cyberterrorists I was able to get the latest news.  Fortunately my correspondent didn't have to go far for her next scoop.  The other day she opened her front door and found a possum on her porch.  Behind that was another, and another, and another.  At first glance it looked like Tasmania's wildlife was massing for an attack but a swift burst of anatomical arithmetic reassured her that what she was looking at was actually only one possum albeit one covering considerably more geographic area than was conducive to good health.
Her journalistic instincts aroused my reporter cast about for the cause and she swiftly placed the blame where it belonged, on Oscar Pistorius.  I found this a little difficult to swallow and hastily contacted my Belarusian tech support.

"Did she say Oscar Pistorius?"

"She did," was the reply.  "We just relay the messages, we don't fact check them.  By the way do you need an election rigged?"

I told them I'd get back to them (but definitely didn't say "no") and got back in touch with my reporter.

"So, Oscar Pistorius huh?"

It turns out Oscar Pistorius is the name of the family dog.  Originally it was just called Oscar but it had a gammy leg so it became Oscar Pistorius.  It is, of course, not terribly politically correct to make fun of the disabled but Oscar Pistorius is a white South African and a convicted murderer so I think we can get away with it.  I have to admit that I don't have very much sympathy for a possum that can't outrun or outfight a disabled dog.  Nevertheless I suggested that Oscar be kept indoors at night from now on.  There was a certain amount of back and forth on this suggestion but ultimately my reporter noted that she had two young children both of which she would rather like to keep.  So it would appear that the possums of Tasmania are going to have to take their chances, or learn to climb a tree.

With contact with the outer territories reestablished and Tasmania's possum menace effectively dealt with the only thing remaining is to figure out what to do with the five hundred grams of weapons grade plutonium my communications team has sent me, apparently as a good will gesture.  Currently I'm using it as a night light.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Birthday Greetings # 68

By the early years of the 5th century it had to be admitted that the Roman empire in the west had seen better days.  In fact pretty much all its days were better days.  By 423 AD gibbons were declining and falling all over the place.  Still the year 423 did bring one piece of good news for the increasingly beleaguered empire; it's worthless ruler Honorius took that opportunity to slip unlamented into his grave.

Before he died he nominated the (six year old) son of his half sister as his successor and it is to this misbegotten twat that we send our birthday greetings.  So happy birthday to Valentinian III, Roman emperor and possibly the only man in the world who could have made his people regret the passing of Honorius.

To be fair Valentinian was only six years old when he started ruling so he can't really be blamed for what happened at the start of his reign.  When Honorius died both Valentinian and his mother were at Constantinople as guests of the eastern emperor largely because Honorius persisted in hitting on her.  The absence of the heir from the empire persuaded the Western Empire's military commander to set up a puppet emperor named John in his place.  Coming down hard in favour of legitimacy the eastern emperor sent Valentinian, his mother and a whole bunch of soldiers to dispute this decision, as it happened, successfully.  The would be emperor was killed and Valentinian and his mother settled down to rule.

Well not quite, there was one minor issue to be dealt with first.  Realising he would be meeting an invasion from the east John had sent his best commander to recruit troops from a bunch of people always ready to take a slap at the empire, the Huns.  This commander, one Aetius by name, turned up with several thousand Huns just in time to find John's executed corpse at his feet.  There followed a certain amount of tense circling around each other which ended with Aetius being given the supreme military command in Gaul and the Huns paid a vast amount of money to simply leave.

As Valentinian grew older it would have been apparent to him if he had bothered to pay attention that his empire was in desperate straits.  The tax revenues from the empire were no longer sufficient to pay the soldiers that protected it.  Unlike the eastern empire which still had rivers of gold pouring into its treasury the only river of gold the west saw was Valentinian pissing away what little his treasury still contained.  On a map the borders of the empire still looked impressive but this was largely a cartographic fiction.  Constant barbarian raids had depopulated a lot of the territory and the only way the empire had managed to deal with the flow of warriors across the borders was to settle them in some of the depopulated areas under their own chieftains.  This meant that large parts of the western empire were effectively autonomous kingdoms.

This was tolerated by the empire because it had no choice and because these "kingdoms" were the greatest source of soldiers left to the empire.  The situation required a tough, ruthless, highly capable man to deal with it.  And the empire had such a man.  Unfortunately it wasn't Valentinian it was Aetius.  This was a problem because after the events at the start of his reign Valentinian's mother distrusted Aetius.  A lot of discreet behind the scenes manoeuvring led to a minor civil war between Aetius and the court's choice, one Boniface which Aetius won because Boniface got killed.  After which with the threat of Huns descending on them (Aetius was very, some might say suspiciously, chummy with the Huns) Aetius was reinstated.

Valentinian got older, got married and basically lounged around while Aetius ran his empire for him.  This probably wasn't a bad decision (it was certainly better than any other decision he made) but it got Aetius used to power and constantly contrasted his efficiency with imperial fecklessness.  The next few years were a grim struggle as, with an underpaid and demoralised army Aetius somehow managed to beat up sufficient of the empire's enemies to persuade the rest of the empire's enemies to wait until he was dead before attacking it.  Notionally at least the empire's borders were almost as extensive as before.  Meanwhile Valentinian hit on other men's wives and hung out with soothsayers.

Then Attila the Hun happened.  Technically Attila and several thousand other Huns happened.  They charged into Roman Gaul stealing anything not nailed down and breaking furniture all over the shop.  Under the leadership of Aetius the empire made one final convulsive effort.  Scraping together the remnants of the Roman army and dialling in Burgundian and Visigothic support Aetius met and stopped Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.  Contrary to popular opinion this didn't discourage Attila from invading the empire (he was back next year) but it did put a serious brake on his ambitions and he conveniently died the next year.

Valentinian celebrated by having Aetius murdered.  OK so Aetius was pushing his luck a bit.  He had managed to marry his son to Valentinian's daughter and so was the imperial father in law.  He was probably already mentally reviewing how good his son looked in purple.  Still he had been a loyal (if not entirely disinterested) subordinate and getting a terminal retirement package was probably a little steep given the efforts he had put in to keeping the empire together.

With Aetius out of the way nobody even bothered to pretend that the empire had a future.  Bits were falling off faster than they could be glued back on.  Plus what was left of the army was really annoyed with Valentinian for killing their commander.  In an attempt to gain the soldier's loyalty Valentinian started training and exercising with them.  That might have worked if a couple of them hadn't killed him while he was doing it.