Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Amitav Ghosh : The Quintessential Asian Novelist

I have always contended that one of the best ways to learn about a region -its geography, cultures, and history- is by reading well-written historical novels.  It was just three years ago that I first discovered one such author -Amitav Ghosh- and his book The Glass Palace.

Now I have come into possession of several more Ghosh novels and can highly recommend a triology that he is currently working on.

Sea of Poppies begins a triology now called The Ibis Triology, about an Indian-built and owned ship that is used to ship slaves from India to Mauritius.  Published in 2008, Ghosh followed it with the second in the trilogy, River of Smoke, choosing another ship the Anahita, and a few select characters from Sea of Poppies to follow to Canton, China, where the stage is being set for the Opium War.  River of Smoke was published in 2011 and will be followed by the as-yet-unnamed final book of the series.

Ghosh's strength is in his research into all aspects of life surrounding the time period that he is portraying.  In Sea of Poppies, he even goes to the length of introducing archaic language in use by common people of India at the time and explains it as chrestomathy on his website.  This makes for difficult reading at times -one has to keep referring back to the words' first usages, or else just give up and obtain the general meaning from the gist.

Sea of Poppies is a story about a group of people thrown together on the former slave ship, the Ibis, as it prepares to haul a load of bonded servants from India to Mauritius.  The story is set against a backdrop of the cultivation of poppies for the opium trade.  Indeed, a few of the main characters come from poppy farms and look forward towards a new life in Mauritius.  The end of the novel leaves you hanging, when you sigh and realise that it will be a couple of years before the second book gets published.  But that is no longer an issue because book #2 is now here.

River of Smoke portends to take up where Sea of Poppies left off, and it does, but with some new characters and a new ship, the Anahita.  The Anahita reaches Canton, China, where a foreign enclave clings to a small patch of land allowed them by the Emperor of China.  Here they distribute opium against the wishes of the Emperial Command, and the story unfolds with the foreign traders heading for a showdown against the Chinese.  Unfortunately, the story is not as compelling as in the Sea of Poppies, and it ends with a flash forward to a time around 30 years after the story and didn't really set the reader up for the third book.

As with his book The Glass Palace, these two give great insight into the history, culture, language, and ethos of the time periods here, the early to mid-1800s in this case. Since most books about European and American adventures in Asia have been written by westerners, it is instructive to read and understand the viewpoint of an Asian.  For example, Ghosh spares no words when describing the economics of opium and how foreign traders became extremely wealthy; nor does he mince words when describing the effects that opium has on the Chinese people and those of the Indians who grow the poppies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chilling Out Along the Pelindung Trail, Part 2

At a trailhead of the Pelindung Trail one day, we talked with a gentleman who told us about a waterfall on one of the small streams that drain the ridge along which the trail runs.  (My topographic map shows two stream systems draining the northern side of the ridge: Mengabang Tumpat and an unnamed stream draining into Teluk Tongkang.)  Getting vague directions from him, we decided to tackle the trail down to the waterfall another day. In fact, we went the very next day.

I am reluctant to give explicit directions on the internet, however, as my experience with large groups using an area is one of trash and disregard for the natural environment.  If you ever meet me on the trail, perhaps I will be as kind as the gentleman whom we met on the trail.

How the public-at-large treats natural areas
The upper part of the Pelindung Trail reaches an elevation of around 220 meters above Mean Sea Level, which is about 720 feet.  The ridge along which the trail runs has quite a steep dropoff either side with small defiles (zero-order streams) cutting into it.  These eventually begin to show surface-water flow which labels them as first-order streams.  Two of these come together downslope and form a nice pool with a 3-4 foot waterfall.

Before we reached the waterfall, we came to very large granite boulders, which contained some interesting erosional features, and were populated with epiphytes.

Erosion channels under granite boulder
The boulder above shows an erosion feature that I had not seen before.  I suggest that monsoonal rains, blown in or else running in from above, wicks and runs down the underside of the boulder cutting the tracks and speeding up the chemical degradation of the rock face.

Granite chimney; great for climbers

Epiphytes atop granite boulder
There was also evidence of the jungle boars using the space under boulder overhangs as sleeping sites.

Wild boar hotel
And "constructing" a mudhole nearby as a wallow.

Wild boar wallow
Leaving the spur ridge, we made our way down to the waterfall, which occurs just upstream from a pool where either two first-order streams meet, or a first-order joins a second-order.

Two small streams join below waterfall

Looking downstream at pool from lip of waterfall
The pool has coarse sand from the erosion of granite on its bottom, and is populated by small fish and prawns.  If you sit for a while dangling your feet in the water, the fish will come up and give you a "massage", which is basically them picking at the dry skin on your feet.  The prawns come along eventually, probably more to get the fish that are clustering at your feet.

Fish foot massage
The white noise from the waterfall is very soothing to listen to.  I would love to have that sound for my bedroom so that street noises and the neighbors' nighttime karaoke sessions would have no effect on my sleep.

Talking a stroll down the stream channel brought interesting discoveries, including a small frog

Secret waterfall frog, notice the coarse sand from granite degradation
and exposed clay faces, scraped from the stream bottom

Clay scraped from exposed surfaces on stream bottom
stream bottom bedrock (no sediment cover)

and streamside fracture planes

Bedrock fracture planes

and bugs trying their best to stay hidden

Bug camo
Later, I tried to find these streams using Google Earth, but with near-complete canopy coverage over these first- and second-order streams, this is nearly impossible.  One would need an infra-red scan or other method that "sees" past the vegetation.

Someplace Google Earth cannot reach
After a relaxing time at the pool and in the stream, we had to dry off the feet, re-shoe and head back uphill.  The climb back uphill (and downhill for that matter) are not for the faint-hearted, lazy, weekend trash-throwers, and unappreciative, thus, I will spare you all the details and directions.  But if we should ever meet, on the Pelindung Trail, and you are nice to me, and look fit, and don't appear to tossing garbage about ...

Chilling Out Along the Pelindung Trail, Part 1

The Pelindung Trail is a well-known jungle pathway connecting the boardwalk north of Teluk Cempedak and the small road leading up to Bukit Pelindung.  It runs through the Beserah Forest Reserve (Hutan Simpan Beserah).  I have posted about it before here in August 2011.  At that time the boardwalk was closed for repairs with the wooden posts and stringers falling apart from rot and tree falls.

From the ocean (paras laut) to elevation 220 meters.
I am happy to report that the boardwalk is open again and the rotten wood -in fact all of the wood- has been replaced with plastic posts and decking.  While not the most exotic of solutions, it will keep the boardwalk open and functional despite the strong weathering climate of the tanjung (cape) around which it winds.

Plastic posts and decking replace the rotten wood

Plastic stringers to support decking on the observation platform
We have often walked this trail and did again this past weekend as we had a friend visiting us from somewhere else.  If one is observant, you can see many butterflies, marching ant armies, lizards, birds, monkies and (occasionally) wild jungle boar.

Lizard along Pelindung Trail
Our friend noticed the above lizard along the trail and we were entertained by its ungainly running gait.  When the lizard pretended to be one with a tree trunk, we had ample time to snap off some camera shots.

Walking stick
In my 16 years in Malaysia, I had never seen a walking stick (Phasmatodea) other than in a sanctuary and so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to see and photograph the one above.  These insects are so slender that it is difficult to get a focus upon it unless one uses the vegetation upon which it rests for the focal point.

One insect variety that is quite common are spiders, in size from very small to quite large.  It is amazing how quickly spiders can reconnect their trail-crossing web once we go by for the outbound leg.  Coming back on the inbound leg finds us tripping the same snare setup, which probably irritates the spiders to no end.

Don't you dare touch my web!
The trail is also home to many varieties of mushrooms.

If you walk this trail, an easy 50-60 minutes one way, be sure to bring a bottle of water and a good camera.  It is a relatively gentle path to walk except for the initial hike up from either the boardwalk, or else the access road that leads to Bukit Pelindung, which both strain the calf muscles on the uphill leg, and put a jarring pressure on the knees on the downhill leg.

Monday, January 2, 2012

End of Year Meetings

As with many companies, the college and its parent body like to host end-of-the-year seminars and celebrations to instruct, motivate, encourage, and honour their workers.  I am not always a fan of these, but participation is usually mandatory (DIWAJIBKAN!) and sometimes even interesting.

On Friday, the final day of work for 2011, all workers were called to a seminar at the parent body's nice new facility (KEHADIRAN DIWAJIBKAN!).  Of course, not everyone went; if you are an Important Person, you can skip what you want; attend what you want.

Motivational Seminar
The seminar on Friday started off innocently enough.  The presenters were both well-dressed and fairly professional in their presentation.  Simple ideas were shown on the overhead screens; even some simple terms, such as the phrase "Accelerated Culture Transformation (ACT)", was Copyrighted, All Rights Reserved, which I find a bit over-the-top.  Corporate consultants are at any level akin to the Snake Oil Salesmen of the past, presenting self-evident ideas in flashy packages, and charging high fees.

Not everyone tracked with the talk, however.

Not so riveting for everyone!
If these two presenters had left it at a presentation of some regurgitated ideas, I would have found it only annoying, but in fact, at the end they resorted to that loathsome tactic of making an emotional -excruciatingly emotional- appeal.  It brought back painful memories of a similar situation two years back.

After the stated two-hour period was up, the presenter said something like, "Let me take just another five minutes of your time."  Now, when someone says that, WATCH OUT!

All lights in the room were darkened, and he began to show a video of an important religious figure from history, who apparently was not too well received in one village at the time.  The village leaders gave permission to the village children (we are told) to chase the important man out of the village under a hailstorm of rocks.  This is portrayed by actors in a short video.  Stopping the video at this point, one of the presenters began a long and tedious lament about how this hurt the feelings of the important religious figure.  Okay; thought I; I would have felt bad too.  But, this lament went on for ~30 minutes with the presenter seemingly feigning sobbing and crying into the microphone.  What did he want from us?  I nearly walked out, three or four times, but knew that it would not be looked at favourably.

Presenter appealing to emotions...they threw rocks at our Hero!
Finally, the long and painful lament ended, and a group of men were called up on stage to lead the group in a sing-fest, waving the national flag whilst singing a religious song and the national anthem.  Clocking in at a 2 1/2 hour presentation, it could have been worse; like the 9-hour joke from January 2009 which has been alluded to already. 

The saving grace, however, for Malaysian organisations is that they love to host meals, and thus, to the spacious cafeteria we went to eat away our lamentations.

Eat, drink and forget the lament...
The following evening, the parent body of the college (and other subsidiaries) gathered at the near-new Zenith Hotel in downtown Kuantan for the end-of-the-year banquet and awards ceremony.  Held in one of the Zenith's massive ballrooms, it was a more festive affair with no appeals to the emotion.

A Zenith Hotel (Kuantan) Ballroom
Although also DIWAJIBKAN, I would have wanted to attend this one anyway.  In addition to an excellent meal, and a set of dances from the parent body's dance group (with very colorful costumes), the parent body gave service awards to a large group of us.  Yes, I said "US", because Teak has worked over 11 years at this college, and thus was awarded a 10-Year Service Award.

Not only did the Service Award consist of a paper certificate, in a nice velvet folder, but it also came with a 1/4 oz. gold coin, the Kijang Emas coin which is issued by Bank Negara Malaysia.

Kijang Emas, 1/4 oz. gold coin

Kijang is the Malay word for the barking deer (Muntiacus muntjac), which is found in Malaysian forests along with the more common Kancil (mouse deer, which often plays the hero in Malay folk tales).  The national bank of Malaysia (Bank Negara) began to issue the Kijang Emas gold coin in 2001, making Malaysia the 12th country in the world with its own gold bullion coin issue.

The front of the coin shows the mouse deer (kijang) and the statement of 999.9 fine gold (99.99% pure).  The back shows Malaysia's national flower, the bunga raya (hibiscus), and the legal tender value of RM50 for the 1/4 oz. coin.  Of course, it is bought and sold at the prevailing world market price for gold with both a sell/buy spread, and a dealers premium of around 10% for the 1/4 oz., 8% for the 1/2 oz. and 6% for the 1 oz.  All in all, a most excellent gesture on the part of the parent body to give us gold coin rather than fiat money!

Backside, Bunga Raya (Hibiscus) and RM50 as legal tender
Remember the Golden Rule : he who has the gold, rules!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Year End Travels

Even though this blog is about Teak's experiences in Malaysia, sometimes a detour is taken, such as travel overseas or even to other parts of Asia.  This post highlight just a few moments from a trip made to Arizona and California (USA) in November and December.

To many, travel is about R&R, aka 'Rest & Relaxation', and I am picking up a theme here, using the letter 'R'.  For Teak, travel can be about seeing interesting ROCKS, such as this group of semi-precious stones found in various gift shops in Arizona:

Semi-precious stones
Starting at the bottom right and moving counter-clockwise, we have turquoise, various colors of quartz, hematite, jasper, and then beads and stones for jewelry-making.  Finally, a ring with insets of onyx, coral, turquoise, and other stones sits awaiting my finger.

Of course, one needs to see the source of these rocks, and so we have ROCK OUTCROPS, for example the Superstition Mountains, outside Mesa, Arizona:

Superstition Mountains, Arizona
One of the advantages of the dry climate in Arizona (apart from LACK of humidity) is that it is easier to see the rock outcrops, unlike Malaysia where most are buried under a jungle of vegetation.

But, Arizona does have its own set of quirky vegetation that REACHES out to the sky, begging for a bit of moisture:

Saguaro Cactus Reaching Out for Any Amount of Moisture
Arizona, does, in fact, lead the world in RADICAL landscaping, meaning that Xeric landscapes are used to save on water and reflect the natural vegetation of the area.

Xeric Landscaping
Since many RETIREEs also settle in Arizona, it means less work to maintain the landscape.  Only RETIREMENT villages plant grass sod since they have maintenance staff to take care of the high water demand vegetation.

Life in RetirementVille
One thing Arizona does lack are sufficient RIVERS to keep this water scientist interested long enough:

When Does the Water Come Along?
In fact, in one town (Bisbee, Arizona), I espied a "Monsoon Drain" beside the road.  I asked a local, how many inches of rain makes for a monsoon rain?  Apparently, they get flash floods from only a few inches of rain.  So, these empty stream channels are called "washes" (wadi in the Middle East, arroyo in Spanish-speaking countries) which means that occasionally a pile of water will come washing along.  Beware!

What would a vacation be without visiting some RELATIVES?

Niece with Her Chickens
And to get around to all of these relatives, and sites, takes a good RIDE.  I was lent one such, a six-speed Mazda Miata that, although a bit lacking in the suspension, made for a fun trip.  What could be more of a cliche than to drive through California in a convertible?

Mazda Miata, Great Ride!