Saturday, 24 January 2015

Up In The Cool Hills of Janda Baik

Our Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor Branch annual Volunteer Appreciation Day (which usually starts on a Saturday morning and ends on Sunday after lunch) typically takes place in December or January each year to coincide with International Volunteer Day to thank the most dedicated and helpful of our volunteers. Previous Volunteer Appreciation Days (VAD) have been held at the MNS Sepang Environmental Interpretative Centre, Air Itam Forest Reserve and Awana Genting Longhouse.

This year, the Committee decided to hold it in a nature spot outside of Selangor, and we chose Janda Baik, Pahang, a hilly rural area with an altitude of 600-800 metres above sea level, making it a cool, chilly retreat with waterfalls and primary rainforests to explore.


I was in charge of the ice-breaking activity and offered to drive the four of us from Green Living to our destination. We arrived at the resort nice and early and marvelled at how lush and green the gardens are and how quaint and charming our rooms looked.

The reception and administrative area is a charming kampung house on stilts.

Aravind, Liza and Illani (Green Living's most reliable and consistent volunteers) standing at the top of the steps leading to our rooms.

This is where Liza, Illani, Sok Yin and I stayed for the night.

Steven and Rafiq coming up the steps.

Lunch at the cafeteria. Food was almost inedible but we decided not to complain and to eat everything anyway, rather than let it go to waste.

The cafeteria cat who gravitated immediately to Aravind and me. I caught her in mid-meow.

We had our ice-breaking session in an indoor meeting room and I got the participants to mingle and answer a list of questions to help them identify and understand their committee members better. It was pretty hilarious. Who is the one with a BSc in Fisheries? Who has a glass bottle collection? Who is an avid tennis and squash player?

So often, we forget that our hardworking committee members are more than just conservationists. They have lives, quirks and interests outside of volunteering, too.

After giving out prizes consisting of treats (trail mix bars, roasted peanuts, pretzels -- all of which came in handy because the unsatisfactory cafeteria food left many hungry), we went on a guided Flora Walk, led by our affable Flora Group coordinator, Koon Hup.

Ginger plants looking quite honeycomb-like and exotic.

Bird-of-Paradise flowers looking very avian and almost animate.

Heliconia galore!

The inflorescence of an ornamental pineapple plant.

A nice, sturdy tree that I wanted to climb until someone pointed out a massive beehive suspended beneath one of its boughs to me.

Watching the local children drift down the fast-flowing but shallow river on rubber tubes.

Picnickers playing in the cold, clear water. Some of the foolhardy guys on the big rock on the left were doing backflips and fancy dives into the water. It was a miracle no one smashed their heads against the rocks.

Birdwatching from the resort grounds. Some of the birders managed to take pretty amazing shots of barbets and bulbuls.

Aravind and I were sitting by the river, soaking in the atmosphere and the crisp evening air when we heard melodious birdsong. We traced the sound to a pair of hill mynahs (a protected species) perched on the branches of this tree.

Although I did not manage to get a good photograph of the mynahs with my el cheapo compact camera, I know that each time I look back on this photo, I will remember the moment, with me sitting on the ground, looking up at this tree, blissfully enjoying the mynahs' delightful missive of love and joy to each other.

After dinner, we attended a workshop on packing wilderness First Aid Kits, with each Special Interest Group coordinator showing the contents of their First Aid kits, and Dr. Suba commenting on the adequacy of each First Aid Kit. Some of the participants, including Aravind, Liza and Illani, went back to their rooms to rest after this session. A number of us joined Steven on a herp (herpetology) walk around the resort grounds. The rain turned out to be a blessing, because we found frogs and toads galore as soon as we exited the meeting hall.

Common grass frog.

A juvenile Phrynoidis asper in my hands.

Ryan (age 8+), is a natural at herping. He moved swiftly enough to catch frogs yet held them gently enough not to hurt them or their sensitive skin. (He's not our volunteer yet, he was here with his Dad, Tony, because some participants pulled out at the last minute and we did not want the food and lodging to go to waste as it had all been paid for in advance).

Kaloula pulchra, also known as Asian Painted Toad or Banded Bullfrog. They are my favourite frogs because of their aesthetics, their role as indicators of environmental health, and the low, two-note mooing sound they make which lulls everyone to sleep.

An adult Phrynoidis asper, which has not reached full size yet but is still quite a big beauty. My hand is there for scale.

A Painted Chorus Frog in Steven's hands...

... and hiding in the wet grass.

Those of us who wanted to participate in the Waterfall Hike, led by Jimmy, assembled at the resort entrance after breakfast on Sunday. I was surprised that Aravind wanted to come along as it was not going to be an easy hike and there would be bugs and leeches, but he assured me that he would like to experience proper hiking at least once. Wonders never cease.

The trail was wet and slippery from the rain the night before, and it was mostly an uphill climb. It was so easy to see from this hike the link between deforestation and soil erosion and landslides. The complex network of tree roots served as grips, anchors and ladders. In areas devoid of primary forest trees and leaf litter, the soil was exposed, infertile and slippery.

We arrived at the Tier 5 Waterfall after half an hour.

Liza looked happy, while Aravind was positively miserable. I gave him one of my cotton gardening gloves to help him grip trees and vines during the climb. I had initially put them on for picking up litter with, but there was not much litter up there in the hills, thank goodness. I found two leeches on him -- one near his pocket and another crawling up his shoulder -- and quickly removed them before he noticed and had occasion to panic.

It was at our waterfall rest stop that Jimmy produced his Sea-To-Summit trash sack, issued to him by Leave No Trace International's Malaysian chapter. I was practically drooling at the sight. It would be perfect for my wilderness cleanup projects. The plastic trash bag slides and clips right into the trash sack, and the tough waterproof outer sack would prevent the plastic bag from ripping and spilling its contents all over the forest trail. The clips and handles on the trash sack also means that it would leave both hands free for climbing when needed. When I expressed my interest in purchasing one, Jimmy arranged for me to meet with the programme coordinator of Leave No Trace Malaysia, for which I am grateful.

A bamboo shoot growing right by the waterfall. This would be so tasty cooked in a stew of coconut milk, tumeric and chillies. (Yes, I was hungry by then.)

We found these remarkable leafless flowers blooming at the base of the bamboo plants. Given the absence of leaves, our resident botanist Ming believes them to be bamboo parasites. We found this nugget of information very fascinating.

We arrived at the Tier 7 Waterfall and I decided I couldn't climb up the slippery rocks and steep slopes in fake Crocs and leech socks, so I stayed in the pools and played with the tiny fishes that nibbled at my fingers. Aravind had a bad fall and hit his elbow, so we waited to see if it got worse or showed signs of breakage or fracture. The climb down was pretty difficult for him with only one good arm. On the bright side, the pain kept him from worrying about trivialities such as leeches.

We took a different route on our way down, and this bamboo grove looked like a work of modern minimalist architecture to me. We passed through the archways and pavillions of bamboo. Mother Nature is a talented artist and architect.

We reached the Resort around 1.00 p.m., filthy, itchy and ravenous. Getting clean was more important than grabbing lunch to me, and I had the best shower ever. (Until I discovered a big leech bite on my left bicep, which was still sore and bleeding almost two weeks later, but that is a story for another day).

We bade goodbye to the other VAD participants and discussed when we would meet next before driving back to the city before the inevitable late afternoon thunderstorm. We stopped by Liza and Illani's house to drop them off and have tea with their father before going to the SPCA to pick up Portia, the stray cat that we left with Kak Mazni for spaying and post-op care. Portia does look well, but she is still as feisty and fierce as ever (hence the name, I decided she deserves to be named after the smartest and feistiest of Shakespeare's heroines).

It was marvellous to be given the opportunity to recharge our batteries in the midst of nature, surrounded by fresh air, clean rivers and trees and birds galore. For two blessed days, we did not discuss the crashed AirAsia plane, the East Coast floods, empty governmental promises, the falling value of the ringgit, or the terror attacks in Paris. We merely let Mother Nature heal our bodies, minds and souls. And this made us ready again to face the challenges the voluntarily take on as volunteers and environmental activists.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Monthly Bucket List December 2014

Monthly Bucket List, December 2014: 

There's been so much going on in December and January that I have put off doing my December 2014 Monthly Bucket List until now. It's hard to believe that it has been 10 months since I first started doing the Monthly Bucket List in March. 

1. Make a new friend. 

I had previously thought that it would be difficult for me to make new and genuine friends here at the new office. Everything about the corporate culture was so different from the openness and generosity I had been so used to in humanitarian service. I shouldn't have made assumptions because all it took was some time to find colleagues with similar ideals and values. 

In my second month of work at my new office, I became friends with Irene and Elena, both mothers of teens, who are also passionate about rescuing and helping animals. 

During our Christmas Reach Out session on 20th Dec, I became friends with Serina's friends, Shekin, Azham and Farid, who share our passion for the environment, helping animals and sharing our blessings with the underprivileged.

Shekin is a crazy cat lady as well, so we got on like a house on fire. We're in regular contact now. It's a good end to 2014, and good start to 2015. 

2. Help a stranger. 

Aravind and I donated blood on my birthday, which always counts as a gift of hope and health to unknown strangers. 

When I heard that the government had stopped all funding for 3 drop-in centres for marginalised individuals and children-at-risk in Chow Kit, an area sadly known more for its high crime and vice rates than for any other reason, I was angry, but I also realised that there was a need to act fast to raise funds to keep the centres running so that children, youth and transgender individuals would not be turned out into the streets. I was relieved to see an Indiegogo fund set up for them, and made a donation immediately. Funds are needed as a stopgap measure even while we are busy lobbying, drafting petitions and writing letters to the press and government ministries. 

The Green Living Little Free Library had become a dumping ground for unwanted books, so one Friday night after work, I went over with cat food for the Malaysian Nature Society TNR cats (Truffle and Tinker from last month, remember?), snacks for the night watchman, and large boxes and books to put everything in. I cleared out the library, sorting out torn books, magazines and catalogues for recycling, books in Mandarin for a Chinese community centre, children's books for The Revolving Library, and 5 boxes of other books to give away to a new community library in Lorong Kurau, Bangsar. 

When we finally understood the scale of destruction caused by the floods in the East Coast, I dug deep into my pockets to buy food, medicines and other basic necessities for the flood victims. 

When we finally understood the scale of destruction caused by the floods in the East Coast, I dug deep into my pockets to buy food, medicines and other basic necessities for the flood victims. I also joined other volunteers to help pack and load supplies for the flood victims at the SS3 mosque, which had very kindly let us use its premises as a flood relief collection and distribution centre. 

3. Eat something/at someplace new to me. 

I stopped by German Deli at Petronas Ampang Jaya, after volunteering at the SPCA one weekend, hoping to find German potato salad, sauerkraut and my all-time favourite bread, laugenbroetchen. They didn't have laugenbroetchen, and really nothing that was authentically German. It is a halal establishment that doesn't even serve beer. Most of the food was pretty much just meaty fast food. I had a bowl of Bavarian salad and sauerkraut. The sauerkraut was delicious, though, but I don't think I'd be coming back here in a hurry just for the sauerkraut. 

My friends took me to Johnny Rockets at the Curve on my birthday, and we had good old-fashioned American fast food. I went there again with Serina after ice skating one night after work. 3 words -- Sweet Potato Fries. So good. 

I am back in the groove of being an active user of this month and discovered 2 new restaurants thanks to this meatless dining portal. 

Raku-Raku is a vegetarian Japanese and steamboat restaurant located in Damansara Jaya, not far from my house, and all the bento sets have so far been fantastic. You can read all my reviews by clicking on the embedded links below: 

Fa Ying is a bistro-type Thai restaurant in Paradigm Mall and I liked the green curry so much that I returned for dinner on Christmas Day with Aravind and Nicole. 

You can read my reviews in the embedded links below: 

A Merry Thai Christmas in the Tropics! 

4. Go someplace I've never been. 

Going to check on my new apartment and meeting up with the lawyer and bankers took me to new places. 

This little neighbourhood mall is within walking distance of my wee flat. It's pretty empty at the moment because it has just opened to the public a few months ago, and not all the shops are occupied yet. December also introduced me to many new restaurants that I have never previously set foot in, as you can tell from the food reviews. 

As a birthday treat for me, Serina and I also went ice-skating at the Royale Bintang Ice Rink, which I have been wanting to do for months. 

We had great fun, even if I did fall a couple of times. The rink here seems to be colder than the one in Sunway Pyramid, as it is in an enclosed space, not an open-air ice rink in a mall like Sunway's is. 

5. Learn something new

I've been reading and learning so much at work, and outside of work, every day. My eyes are tired at the end of the day, so this means that I've been doing most of my 'reading' via audiobooks, which has worked remarkably well for me, as I am an auditory learner, and I absorb information better when I am active and when my hands are busy with housework or gardening, than when I am sitting down at a desk. 

Going ice-skating with Serina has also been pretty educational for me. She is a better skater than I am and I have improved my technique thanks to her helpful pointers and tips. I have a funny gait and this is exacerbated when I skate. I go all knock-kneed and my feet turn inwards, which puts undue pressure on the inward-facing muscles. With Serina's help, I improved my skating posture and balance, and thus stamina. 

6. Declutter and cull 100 items. 

With both the Lunar New Year and Moving Day approaching, I have been decluttering and purging every box, bag and cupboard, both in the bachelor pad and in the parental home. Things were a bit slow the 2nd and 3rd weeks of December, but by the 4th week, I managed to purge over 100 items in just one spring cleaning session. I believe that in future, hardcopy name cards, greeting cards, address books and diaries will be obsolete. In any event, nobody needs 5 wall calendars or 6 diaries for the new year. I'm putting most of them to use or giving them away to schoolchildren to use as scribble pads. 

7. Give up something for a month. 

In December, I started trying to stop putting myself and my own needs last. I have a tendency to overschedule myself with a million things I need to do for everyone else, and leave my own needs last. I am trying to let less important things slide, and stop being so hypervigilant over all external obligations. I am trying not to feel guilty about wanting to rest or sleep or treat myself. It's still a work in progress, just as I am. 

8. Letter to the Editor 

I submitted two letters to the Editor in December, the first on the Forest City Development Project (which was published in Malaysiakini) and the second on animal rescue initiatives, which hasn't been published yet. 

What a crazy month it has been.