Saturday, 28 February 2015

Our Lunar New Year High Jinks at District 21


For several years now, I have been giving friends and family experience gifts instead of physical gifts during special occasions. CovertDad was treated to a high tea at Carcosa Seri Negara on his birthday. Nicole was given a karaoke birthday party. Amanda got to go paragliding off Jugra Hill. Serina went paddleboarding with me on her birthday. Shamini had a slap-up dinner at Raku-Raku Vegetarian with Karen and me as a birthday gift. Experience gifts are all the more meaningful, even if expensive, because with each trip, outing or meal, we are giving our loved ones the gift of our time and attention.

My brothers and I don't share much in common now that we are adults, so our interactions with each other have often been restricted to the purely necessary. This Lunar New Year, however, I decided to reach out to them and bring back an element of fun and camaraderie into our familial relationship by organising an experience birthday gift for Big Bro, whose birthday always falls around the Lunar New Year. We see each other but once or twice a year, and it's a shame that we don't really celebrate each other's birthdays as a family anymore.

My initial plan was to take my brothers shooting Glocks at a shooting gallery in town, but the customer service representative who took my call when I tried to make a booking a month in advance was so inefficient that I had to call several more times to ensure they sent me the email informing me of the requirements for this event. In the end, I received the email a few days before the day I scheduled for our outing and realised that I did not have the time to fulfill their criteria of surrendering personal information to enable background and security checks. This left me feeling angry and disappointed, because if they had emailed me after my first inquiry, it would leave me with plenty of time to get the necessary paperwork sorted out. I thought it would be an ideal outing for my brothers and me, since they love guns and shooting, and Big Bro can't do it in Singapore unless he has the required licenses and permits. 

When I told my brothers of the change in plans, they seemed unaffected and cheerful, and still made plans to go ahead with BB Gun wars and beer parties at home for the Lunar New Year, so that offered me some consolation. I made alternative plans and proposed a day out at District 21, a new extreme theme park located in IOI City Mall, Putrajaya. They had not realised that a new theme park had opened in town, and were quite curious and keen. And so our excitement grew as our plans began to take shape, and even CovertMum and CovertDad were urged to set aside the Lunar New Year errands for a day to accompany us to the theme park. (Note: I had been assiduously spring-cleaning since November and there really wasn't much left for the parents to do except a few touch-ups.)

I want to sum up our experience in 7 words: "I am so, SO glad we went".

It wasn't as crowded as we had feared because it was still new and not as well-known as the Sunway Lagoon waterpark or the Berjaya Cosmo's World amusement park yet, and due to its distance from the city centre and the lack of public transport to the area. However, I am sure momentum will pick up soon enough. During my first visit to Sunway Lagoon in 1993, it was still so new that we practically had the waterpark to ourselves, and look at it now -- I went on a Thursday morning and it looked as though the entire city population had been rounded up and dumped in the waterpark. The crowds and publicity will come soon enough for District 21, I am sure of it.

As a side note, I think it's interesting how all 3 property developers have designed theme parks that are different enough from one another so as not to create competition or give rise to copycat allegations. Sunway Corporations's 'Lagoon' is a waterpark with a mishmash of themes -- pirate adventure, the Wild West and African safari. Berjaya Corporation's 'Cosmo's World' is a space-themed indoor amusement park with standard automated amusement park rides and one heck of an indoor rollercoaster that makes my knees turn to jelly just watching it corkscrew. And IOI Corporation's District 21 is a post-nuclear apocalyse-themed indoor adventure park with a focus on extreme sports (wall/rock climbing, ziplining, maze navigation, BMX riding, skateboarding, trampoline park). My first choice would of course still be the great outdoors, but amusement parks are still a great option for gatherings, outings and experience gifts.

The entrance ticket prices for District 21 advertised on social media are RM75 for each participating guest and RM15 for each non-participating guest (e.g. our parents) and so I was ready to fork out that sum for all of us. Imagine our surprise and delight when we were informed that as part of its introductory offer, non-participants get to enter for free (but are given white wristbands to indicate that they can't participate), while for every 3 participant tickets purchased (only RM55 and not RM75), we get the 4th for free! 

So I only had to purchase tickets for my brothers and sis-in-law, and got to go in for free. 

I'd say it was pretty value-for-money for a full day of play, considering that entrance tickets to Jumpstreet trampoline park cost RM25 per person for an hour, and SkyTrex charges us upwards of RM35 each for doing the treetops rope adventure course, rock climbing at Camp 5 would set us back at least RM30 each and ziplining usually costs us at least RM30 a go at KL Tower and other such places of interest. To have all these activities in one package for only RM55 a head is actually quite a bargain, provided, of course, you participate in enough activities to make it worth your entrance ticket fee.

Plus, the ticket price includes the grip socks for trampolining and grip gloves for climbing, unlike many establishments that require you to fork out extra, often without informing you clearly that you had to bring a particular type of gloves or socks or risk having to purchase a pair upon entry.

We had a somewhat overpriced lunch at a restaurant right outside of the theme park entrance, and the brothers hardly ate because they were convinced they were going to get sick all over everyone while doing the high ropes obstacle course. 

Our parents were just happy to be out with us, although we felt sorry that they would have to spend most of the day just watching us and waiting for us to finish.

A queue had already formed outside the climbing walls and towers (i.e. the 'Power Station') when we entered, and we had to wait well over an hour in line to get geared up with harnesses and helmets.

Big Bro struck a pose after reaching the top of the tower blocks.

Sis-In-Law climbed a radioactive glowing rock wall. 

I scaled the Tetris Wall.

We worked together to build a tower of blocks to help Sis-in-Law climb up the pillar.

And then we had a short break for ice cream and cold drinks.

Once our time in the Power Station was up, we moved on to the biggest attraction, the Roller Glider, which is a unique combination of a zipline and roller coaster. It was exhilarating! When the gates first opened and I could see people 5 storeys below me, I wondered if I would fall out of my harness and plunge to my death. But the people who created this piece of engineering marvel thankfully knew what they were doing and it is not so easy to fall or get hurt on this ride. For all of 20 seconds, I was hurled around the parameters of the theme park ceiling at breakneck speed, the wind in my face and eyes and my legs swinging wildly with the g-force at every turn. When I landed on the platform, I was pretty sure I wanted to go again, and so we did. I am glad we went twice. I think the Roller Glider alone made our visit worth the ticket price. I've never experienced anything quite like it.

Here are Big Bro and Sis-In-Law getting their harnesses and protective gear on for the Roller Glider.

My turn to get suited up with protective gear for the Roller Glider.

Big Bro went first.

I was third in line. Here I am, arriving at the landing platform after the 20-second adrenaline rush.

There was a Tubby Ride right next to the Roller Glider queue and so we went on them next. It was a short, fun, ride; going down a bristly ramp on a doughnut. So incongrous and silly and so utterly fun that I had to do it over and over again.

Me, going down the Tubby Ride ramp.

CovertTwin going down the ramp facing the other way around.

My brothers queued up to go on the Sky Trail high ropes adventure course but Sis-In-Law and I didn't meet the height requirements and had to be excluded for safety reasons. Sis-In-Law was more bummed out about it than me. At least I had done SkyTrex in the great outdoors before. 

While waiting for the brothers to move up in line, Sis-In-Law and I rode BMX bikes on the Pump Track. It was harder riding up the ramps than I expected, and I didn't quite trust centrifugal force to keep me from falling off the steeply sloping parts. Sis-In-Law did better than me on this one, which surprised everyone since I am the skater and bike trick performer in the family. There's just something about riding an unfamiliar bike on an unfamiliar ramp that made me a little more cautious than I usually am. Also, by then my jeans were so stiff with sweat that I couldn't bend my knees much.

Me, all ready to ride the ramps at the Pump Park.

Sis-In-Law's turn on the BMX.

Big Bro and CovertTwin were still waiting in line when we were done riding bikes, and I decided to check out The Maze, which was tougher than it looks. It was very narrow, dark and hot in the metal structure and claustrophobes would probably spazz out within seconds. It really was a maze and not just a tunnel for you to crawl through. There were many dead ends and false passageways and it took me several minutes to get out of the maze and into the skeletal-looking interconnecting tunnel. 

The tunnel led to a big metal cage with giant gym balance balls in them, and it was deeper than I realised because I fell in among the balls and was not tall enough to reach the other tunnel out of the ball cage. Still, it was a novel experience because I have never been inside a ball pit as a child (I'm not really sure of the reason for this but I suspect it was because we couldn't afford luxuries like amusement park tickets back then except as a very special and rare treat).

Once out of the ball cage, I had to climb up a metal globe, which was tougher than it looked on the outside, because the layers of the globe structure were woven trampoline straps, and if you missed your footing, your foot will fall through the gaps and you might get stuck for a while. Once at the top of the globe, you can ride a tube slide all the way down to the ground. 

I played on this for a good while, and also climbed up the wrecked schoolbus adventure gym.

Soon it was time for my brothers to go on the Sky Trail adventure course and we waited below to cheer them on and take fuzzy photographs. There was a point when Big Bro's carabiner got stuck and Covert Twin had to get onto the same platform to free him. I am sure my parents' hair turned one shade greyer watching their sons balance precariously on paint cans and suspended platforms 5 storeys above the ground.

When they completed the course and got back to the ground safely, we cheered and celebrated with more ice cream. The brothers were by then completely soaked in sweat and exhausted, and it was almost closing time. We had played for six solid hours and probably smelled like death warmed over. Oh joy.

We had a lovely family dinner at a teppanyaki place which had one vegan option for me, and agreed that the outing was a great start to the Lunar New Year of the Goat. I am glad that the family outing went off without a hitch or the usual squabbling and nagging, and most of all, that Big Bro enjoyed his birthday experience gift and is already asking what we plan to do next year.

When we simplify our lives and make the Lunar New Year less about errands and shopping and going crazy over elaborate preparations, we will find that we have more time for each other. You can outsource the cooking and cleaning but you can't outsource being a sibling or child or parent. I choose connection over consumption any day. Many Happy Returns to Big Bro, and may he have a successful and fulfilling year filled with wonderful adventures and exciting experiences!

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Wonderful and Exasperating Waders at the MNS Wader Identification Workshop

The Bird Conservation Council (BCC) of the Malaysian Nature Society's Conservation Division has been conducting a series of workshops to help interested amateur birdwatchers who are fully paid-up MNS members learn how to identify waders. 

I have never considered myself anything other than a casual  birder, and Aravind is still very much a novice when it comes to birding, but when I heard from Mark during our last committee meeting that they had spotted the very rare and critically endangered Spoonbill Sandpiper at the Kapar Power Station Ash Pond during their last workshop, I requested to join the final workshop for the year. And so that was how I managed to cajole Aravind into joining me for the intensive 2-day wader identification workshop conducted by the MNS Bird Group volunteers, designed to recruit more volunteers to help out with the Asian Waterbird Census. 

On the first day, 31st Jan,we went birding along the mangrove beach in Jeram and I took this blurry photograph of a Painted Stork with his egret friends through Seng's digiscope. 

Egret with his plover friends. Another blurry shot.

Bling for my Chucks. 
I put the shells back later because we must take nothing but photographs. I hadn't realised that we were going to be on a shell beach. In any event, it was easier to walk on than mud. 

Egret with his curlew friends. Again, bad photo quality, can't do a better ID. 

Birding under the trees, which provided scant relief from the heat. 

Grey Heron (I think) perched on a marker out in the sea. 

I lost the others the following morning and so ended up going on a birding jaunt on my own with Aravind. He was so upset and angry that you would have thought he was dying to get a Waders' Workshop certificate or something, rather than a disinterested companion. He cheered up significantly only after we stopped by an old-timey Chinese coffeeshop in Jeram for a leisurely Sunday breakfast. I told him that we shouldn't have difficulty spotting at least some birds in this biologically diverse area. I was right. We stopped by a beach and immediately spotted lots of Little Ringed Plovers. 

I think these are Common Sandpipers. 

Egrets fraternising with the other waders.

Tubeworm (known locally as pumpun) hiding among the barnacles. 

Beach creepers in bloom. 

Quiz and assessment session, as well as the launch of World Wetlands Day. 

Our trainer Mr. Ang is an excellent trainer, and made an otherwise difficult, challenging and dry subject very fascinating indeed. I didn't think it was possible for me to cram all the information I had acquired over the last two days into my thick skull, but my team did manage to get a perfect score in the quiz. Still, I appreciate that it is easier to identify a bird from a high-resolution, stationary, heavily magnified image on a screen. Birds in real life are exasperating little things if you are trying to photograph, sketch or identify them. They're always moving and flying off and poking around in mud and hiding their feet and wings and other distinctive features that could otherwise help us identify them. 

We had a certificate presentation ceremony and tea session at the Kuala Selangor Nature Park seminar hall, and were given t-shirts for the launch of World Wetlands Day. We (i.e. the Malaysian Nature Society) are hoping to have the Kuala Selangor wetlands gazetted as a RAMSAR site, but acknowledge that more must be done to improve the facilities, cleanliness and services at our Society-run Nature Park. Perhaps with our newly acquired knowledge (which I doubt I have retained), we the volunteers can help provide valuable input on promoting birdwatching-related ecotourism and conducting nature tours in mangrove and coastal forests. We will keep trying to improve, and wade on!

Friday, 20 February 2015

Monthly Bucket List: January 2015

Monthly Bucket List, January 2015: 

January has been such a whirlwind of activity that I haven't the time to record all of it yet -- weekly volunteering sessions with the SPCA and ReachOut Malaysia, Green Living activities, Volunteer Appreciation Day, Dr. Jane Goodall's visit to Malaysia, the MNS Waders Identification Course and a million other little things.

1. Make a new friend. 

During the Volunteer Appreciation Day in Janda Baik, I shared a room with a new Cave Group volunteer, Sok Yin, who I became friends with. 

Another MNS member, Wendy, is someone with whom I have mutual friends and whose comments I have read on social media, but I didn't get to know her better until our Waders Identification Course on 31 Jan - 1 February. 

Dr. Jane Goodall was in Malaysia to launch Roots & Shoots Malaysia. and I attended the dinner organised by the ICLIF Foundation at Lanai Kijang. I sat at a table of mostly strangers and made friends with Holly, whose table I sat at, and Jyunichi and TP, who are coordinating Roots & Shoots Malaysia, and I have remained in touch with them since the dinner. 

2. Help a stranger. 

This is a long story, but my Battletank, who has been serving me faithfully for over 8 years, has been facing so many problems that I cannot afford having her repaired monthly, and so had to sell her. I wanted to make sure she went to people who would love her and know how to keep her running and in good repair, and so I put up an advertisement online and screened the prospective buyers. I didn't know there were so many Daihatsu Feroza afficionados out there! 

Eventually, I sold my beloved Battletank to a mechanic, Azmi, who wants to keep her as his 'weekend car' and had the parts, resources and skills to look after her. He offered me twice what I asked for Battletank (there were around 50 offers to buy her and many buyers tried to outbid one another) and promised to send me pictures of her all fixed up. I was sad to let go of Battletank, she is more than a car to me. She had been a Volunteer Van, Animal Ambulance and at one point even a Mango Mobile. We had good times together and she had served me well and kept me safe. I had even camped out in her on many occasions. I thanked Battletank for the memories and promised her I would never forget her. 

With the unexpected extra money given to me by Azmi, I set some aside for the indigenous communities that would need to rebuild their lives after the recent floods. On the night I bade goodbye to Battletank, it rained terribly. I went out to the nearest drive-thru and purchased large coffees and apple pies. I gave out coffees and pies to the night watchmen at the local school, our neighbourhood security guards, the migrant workers who clean up the neighbourhood food court and the old man who is always kind to the food court cats. I was sad to say goodbye to my beloved old car, but it was also important to me that I share my blessings and bring a little comfort and happiness to others. 

January also saw us neutering and rescuing 2 other cats under Project Second Chance, Velvet and Harley. Velvet is a sweet and affectionate black cat living in Aravind's neighbourhood and we released her after spaying in the same area as there are no offers to adopt her yet. If you know of anyone looking for a lovely young black cat, please let us know! Velvet would make a great companion! 

Harley is a skinny orange kitten we picked up in Taman Megah outside the bakery when we went to buy a birthday cake for our friend Lin Idrus. He didn't have anyone else caring for him or feeding him regularly but he was incredibly trusting and affectionate. I took him home and cared for him, ridding him of fleas and worms and getting him vaccinated. He is still a little too young to be neutered, but I sought the SPCA's help in putting him up for adoption over the long weekend when I had to go away for the Waders Identification Course, and Harley was adopted by a kind lady along with another kitten. Another little life saved, thanks to kind people who believe in adoption and second chances! 

In January, I also resumed volunteering with The Revolving Library, as I found something that fit my schedule -- Monday night reading and literacy sessions at Beacon of Hope, a community-run tuition and learning centre for children from a lower-income area within a 15-minute drive from my office. Our reading sessions are scheduled once a month, but since it was no sacrifice for me to go more often, I have been volunteering on Monday nights, giving English lessons, providing homework help and doing one-on-one reading coaching sessions with some of the struggling readers. It hasn't been all that easy, and I do feel a degree of anxiety over how some of the children will cope with standardised testing, but giving my best as a volunteer always beats worrying and complaining over the state of public education any day, and so I will soldier on. 

3. Eat something/at someplace new to me. 

Rangamal's birthday falls on Christmas Day and it is always a challenge to try to fit in a birthday dinner date then, so we ended up having dinner together in the first week of January instead. She chose Pine3 New Age Vegetarian Restaurant, in a shopping mall called River City, which I have never previously been to (there are way too many shopping malls popping up each month). 

The food was delicious and I reviewed it for

I had dinner one evening at Hainan Kopitiam SS2 and reviewed it for Kindmeal as well, even if this particular experience was less than satisfactory. 

After I completed signing my Sale and Purchase Agreement for my new apartment, I celebrated alone by having a fancy durian dessert at U Desserts, SS2 PJ, which opens late. 

At the "An Evening With Jane Goodall" dinner hosted by the ICLIF Foundation at Lanai Kijang, I had really good vegan wraps and cake. Not that I could eat much due to excitement at meeting Dr. Jane again. 

On Jan 30, right before leaving for the Wader Identification Workshop, I redeemed another Kindmeal voucher for baked goods from Biogreen Valentime, an organic bakery and cafe located in The School, Jaya One. 

I did a review for Kindmeal, and would like to add that the baked goods that I purchased were really value-for-money because they had a generous amount of filling, unlike more store-bought buns which is all dough and very little filler. 

4. Go someplace I've never been. 

So in January, I went to at least 4 different places I have never previously been, namely: 

i. River City shopping mall for dinner with Rangamal and Aravind; 
ii. D'Ark Resort, Janda Baik, for the Malaysian Nature Society Volunteer Appreciation Day, 
iii. Lanai Kijang for the ICLIF Foundation dinner to hear Dr. Jane Goodall talk; 
iv. Birdwatching in Jeram and Sungai Janggut, Kuala Selangor, with the Malaysian Nature Society Bird Group during the Waders Identification Workshop

5. Learn something new. 

Despite the fact that I already have a Basic First Aid certificate, I learned many more helpful tips on packing a wilderness/outdoor First Aid kit from Dr. Suba, Pasu's daughter, at the Janda Baik Volunteer Appreciation Day

I have always loved birdwatching even if I am not remarkable at it. During the Wader Identification Course at Kuala Selangor from Jan 31 - Feb 1, I learned many useful tips on how to identify and differentiate birds. In the beginning, all the information seemed to be very overwhelming. I felt there was no way I could remember it all. On the final day, we had a quiz and my team and I managed to identify all the birds correctly using our field guides, and so it must have meant that some lessons did stick in my thick head. 

6. Declutter and cull 100 items. 

With Moving Out Day approaching, I've been decluttering and purging all the boxes and baskets in the storeroom to reduce the things I will be taking with me to the new apartment. In the final week of January, I cleaned out the display cabinets and porch storage area in our bachelor pad as well and removed a lot of things for repurposing, recycling or donation to others who can put it to better use. 

7. Give up something for a month. 

I've always tried to avoid accepting and using disposable tableware and packaging, and have, for years, been taking my handkerchief and cloth shopping bags with me whenever I go out. One thing I need to work on is stopping waiters from putting straws in my drink for me, so for all of January, I remembered to remind the waiters not to put straws in my drink (I normally have iced chinese tea or iced lime juice) to reduce plastic waste. Some of the waiters and service staff expressed the belief that it would be messy to drink a shake or juice without a straw, but you don't see people asking for straws to drink their beer or stout with just because of a little foam, do you? Perhaps next month, I can work on taking my own drinking water with me so I will not have to order a drink. 

For all of January and well into February, I have given up taking the lift at work in favour of taking the stairs. Our lives are already more sedentary than they need to be, and any opportunity for exercise is good. When I first started working here, I liked taking the glass elevator up to my room, but now the novelty has worn off, and it is better for my health and energy conservation to take the stairs instead. 

8. Letter to the Editor 

Much earlier in the month, I wrote a Letter to the Editor on stormwater management, and it was published in the Star om 14.1.2015