A Walk on the Wild Side: Borneo Rainforests

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The Semengoh Wildlife Reserve is a twelve mile drive from Kuching and well worth the trip, Borneo has beautiful beaches in the more touristy destinations of the North, but the attraction for me wasnt sun, sea and sand.  I joined a couple of tours arranged by the Bermibeh Travellers lodge (Ewe Hai Street) . They started early, and not being much of a morning person I skipped breakfast, but this was offered to me gratis by the great people at the Bermimbeh hostel while I waited for the vehicle.

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On the first trip I didnt see any of these fantastic creatures, just lots of gruesome photos of the damage they could do to you if you do see them and let them get too close.  ‘If an orangutan touches you, you always go to hospital’, our guide as the reserve told us.  These orangutans are being rehabilitated into the wild and if they dont need to come to take the food laid out for them, it’s a good sign, they are doing well.  They are orphaned or injured or have previously been kept as illegal pets and the aim is not to tame them but to help them as they fend for themselves. On my first visit we waited and waited quietly (and as usual in a group of people, some not so quietly) in the woods but they didnt come.

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My next excursion was to Jong’s Crocodile Farm, also a short drive away.  The significance of the word ‘farm’ didnt really sink in at the time, but the crocodiles that are fed for the (fairly scarce) tourists are in huge emerald green pools.  I had the place almost to myself once a small group of Malaysian sightseers had left.  Its a tranquil leafy spot with crocodiles everywhere.  Inside an enclosure a huge tailless beast languishes in a solitary pen, apparently he was born this way and would be savaged by the others outside.

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Jong’s is a pretty and surprisingly peaceful place, considering the thing to do is to wander amongst the largest and most aggressive living reptiles.

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The Ibans are tribe of Dayak people native to Borneo, the villages and long house in the rain forest are a beautful place to visit.  I couldnt help feeling at times that I was in a human zoo.  Apparently headhunting has been phased out but the dried skulls in the rafters looked a little too authentic.

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On my second visit to Semenggoh (these trips arent expensive, especially if you book them at somewhere like the Bermibih lodge, rather than a swanky hotel like the Pullman, and the entrance fee supports the centre) the guide started saying ‘look, look, over there!’ in an animated Attenborouesque stage whisper.  And there they were, these magnificent creatures.

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Semenggoh Nature Reserve

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Kuching ‘Cat City’

River Houses

Kuching is a bustling city on the banks of the Sarawak River on the island of Borneo.  There are tourists inevitably, but it’s off the beaten track enough to be exotic and not like anywhere else, making it an interesting city to explore.  You will find plenty of unique shops, cafes and restaurants (unique apart from a branch of that nasty virulent golden arch chain) and there is big bargain department store (go here especially if you are in need of a new rucksack for the rain forest).

Palace

The bench-lined river promenade is a great place to start sightseeing or to sit and watch the colourful boats.  I was lucky enough to chance upon the annual regatta. There are long sunset river cruises culminating in a show performed by exquisite traditional dancers.  People squealed as a small crocodile swam along the surface close to the boat.   If you feel up to braving a smaller (infinitely more capsizable) boat and forget about the aforementioned crocodile there are short expedient rides to take you across to the grassy residential shores of the opposite bank, the site of the Astana, the residence of the Sarawak governor built by a certain Charles Brooke in 1869 and where via loud speakers there is sermonising on the word of the prophet Mohammed.

Here Be Dragons

A Singaporean friend had recommended that I try the local delicacy ‘midin’, an edible jungle fern native to Sarawak and I found it in the cafe ‘Zhun San Yen’ near the river. After having the delicious samphire-like vegetable along with lots of other delicious dishes at this cafe run by Bhuddists I became a semi-regular (bolstered by my calamity of forgetting to take any money on my second lunch and the owners being totally cool with me bringing it when I came down later).  All the dishes are vegetarian, some using the traditional Chinese style of cooking with faux meats and they are all delicious.  The self service buffet is charged by weight (economical and handy for the budget conscious) and the staff are charming.

No Meat

Away from the river the town is a busy hive of streets.  Apparently it’s uncertain whether the word ‘Kuching’ derives from the Malay word for cat ‘kucin’ or from the Chinese word for port ‘cochin’ but there are numerous cat statues and even a cat museum (I know where I’d put my money).   Around town there are lots of interesting buildings, temples both Chinese and Indian and a magnificent mosque as well as a colourful dragon-filled Chinatown.

Cat City

The breathtakingly beautiful Reservoir Park was a spectacular find.  Take the opposite direction from river, setting out from the Pullman hotel and a twenty minute or so stroll from the city centre (anyway you’ll need a map but they are easy to come across)…

Beautiful Park

At night the river esplanade seems to be the real heart of the city, it’s full of people taking the air, strolling or sitting at the food stalls. However; if you find exploring the city on foot thirsty work and want something a little stronger there are places around that serve cocktails, beers and wines.  Larger hotels and some cafes and restaurants sell alcohol, but not all of them, this being a muslim country.  My Rough Guide recommended a ‘lifestyle bar’ called ‘Tao’ on Jalan Padungan. After an walk around streets filled with little shops selling hardware and tiny restaurants selling Indian or Malay food, amongst the hustle and bustle of city life, people sitting at the front of their shops enjoying the cooler balmy nights.  I found the address, now called 175 it was a really cool place; friendly staff, healthy food with vegetarian choices and smoothies but cocktails and wine and beers too; music, sofas, a couple of floors and discrete areas and best of all a free fish pedicure for every customer while they sip their drinks.

Cat Statues

Next: Iban longhouses and crocodiles


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Borneo: Dream Destination

Pullman

Borneo had long been one of my dream destinations, so whilst on a secondment in Singapore, I was lucky enough to make a few trips there.  Taking advantage of Air Asia’s handy flights I flew to Kuching, a sprawling, bustling city on the banks of the Sarawak River.  And here from here, the Malaysian part of the island I was able to explore this exotic land.

Pool

There are backpackers lodges and dormitories but on a hill in a fairly quiet part of town, a twenty minute drive from the airport, is the gleaming Pullman Hotel.  My first visit coincided with the soft opening of this sparkling new modern tower. The deluxe rooms on the top floors have floor to ceiling windows with views of the river and the city.  The bright, spacious public areas are sun streaked and comfortable and the relaxation area around the pool doubles as a nightclub complete with light shows in the evening.   The tapas by the pool are delicious and remarkably good value. There is also a gym, a jacuzzi and a steam room and a few yards from the entrance to the hotel I found a massage centre where the wonderful treatments  seemed to be a hybrid of a hard Thai pummelling and Swedish deep tissue massage with oil.

Night Club

So if you have flown from further than Singapore or are just in need of some down time the food and relaxation areas in the hotel are pretty good.  There is a cafe with international dishes and breakfast, but for dinner the more formal Nu Er Hong restaurant on the ground floor has an extremely delicious traditional Chinese vegetarian selection and a good wine list.

The River

This would almost be a destination hotel if it wasnt Borneo out there!  After dinner, or after a swim and a massage, the charming Kuching waterfront promenade is a short stroll away and is a gentle introduction to the city.  And Kuching is a good base to explore the surrounding areas, and Borneo.

Jalan Borneo

Next Kuching; ‘Cat City’, Borneo 

I stayed at the 5 star Pullman Kuching, Malaysia and flew Air Asia


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Friday Night Dinner

Sunset Arriving alone for a second visit to Dahab on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula I had a solitary dinner of hummus and baba ganoush washed down with Egyptian red wine in the big tented open-sided cafe by the sea and listened to the waves.
Chevrons
After the journey there, the intention had been to do a bit of unpacking before an early night.  However I had met a friend, Hemaid on my first visit and found myself sending him a text message from the soporific cushions of the cafe.  ‘I will be there in one hour’ was his swift reply.
Downtown
He waited for me, parked in a dusty side street a few minutes walk from the hotel.  ‘Marhaba habibi, I have dinner with my brother at eleven.’  And serenaded by a local music station we proceeded to drive past the men smoking in the roadside cafes and the people walking home until there were no more low white buildings.
Convenience Store
We drove and we drove and ahead of us the rocks gleamed white in the jeeps headlights.  The road became bumpier and we closed our windows against the dust and I wondered how he was going to return me safely to the hotel before his late dinner with his brother.  When the road could not be described as a road anymore and all round was pitch black I dared to venture ‘we’ve come a long way..’.  ‘You think I kidnap you?’ he laughed.
Dahab
Eventually after manoeuvering up a steep incline with an startling drop down to the sea
on one side and alarmingly after our kidnap talk we saw the lights of a stationary car.  We parked close by.
Goats
‘This my brother Abduallah and this his friend Zayed, I have fifteen brothers’.  Two smiling and friendly men squatted in their grey djellabas on the shingle beach by a large shallow pan over a fire.  Although I had eaten (and eschew flesh) the aroma was delicious.
On the Road
As is the Bedouin way there were cushions and blankets and tea and the utmost comfort to be had in this deserted remote area.  All was quiet apart from the sound of the sea and the soft Arabic chatter of the men as they ate their meal of crabs caught in the cove with tomatoes and onions.  I looked behind me at the stark moonlit white mountains all around and then lay down on the blankets and cushions and watched the black sea shimmer and ripple with the luminescence of the moon and the stars.  Any given part of the black black sky gave up its stars after a few moments of focused attention.
Secluded Beach

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Is the Pope a Catholic? Fun and Dissent in the Sinai Desert

 

Through the Desert

Our Bedouin driver sped through the bare sun bleached desert mountains for two hours, the scenery varied little but mesmerised in its stark inhospitable magnificence.
En Route
I sat squashed in the front seat with an droll Polish woman who joked at each heavily armed checkpoint about not showing Dirk’s American passport to the guards.  She said this unfailingly at each lazy, crazily armed and menacing stop and seemed oblivious or unconcerned about Dirk’s silent unamused grimace.
St Katherine's Monastery
Circa AD330 the Roman empress Helena built a refuge for hermits next to the burning bush where God was believed to have spoken to Moses.  St Katherine’s monastery is named after a Christian martyr who exemplifying the shocking job of the martyr was tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her faith.  Onlookers were also killed when the horrific device spun out of control.  Visitors flock to what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and to climb or ride a camel up Mount Sinai.
Camel
I wandered away from the group to look at ancient works of art and outside was asked by one of the camel herders if I was American.  I later found out that two American tourists had been kidnapped here a couple of weeks previously, apparently to have been released unharmed after a couple of hours of drinking Bedouin tea.
The White Canyon
Later we clambered down some rocks and walked between the mighty stratified eroded sandstone walls of the white canyon.  I trudged far ahead of the garrulous group, hatted against the piercing sun.  At the end of the path I found a smallholding and met a beautiful Bedouin boy Mohammed who showed me to a big cushioned tent and gave me sweet black tea.
Mohammed
Natural wonders abounded but so did tempers. When a beautiful lunch was brought out Awful Audrey proclaimed that she didnt eat carbs and I was chastised by Dirk for wandering off.  Tour leader Hemaid suddenly announced while Dirk was holding forth ‘welcome to the USA, our American civilisation is the oldest in the world, our American civilisation more than 187 years old’. Shaken, it transpired that Dirk was quite afraid to be an American in this desert.
Bedouin Tent
Over dinner Dirk expounded upon all he had read on the coptic church and when he mentioned a pope I ventured ‘so it’s Catholicism?’  ‘No Coptic Orthodox’ he corrected. Is the pope a Catholic? Not if he’s Egyptian he isnt.

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I stayed at the Coral Coast Hotel (which refreshingly doesnt have a website yet, but you can google it!) in Dahab, and flew with Easy Jet.

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Would you rather have dinner with an American man or would you rather have dinner with a Bedouin man?

Dahab Sunshades

On the third windswept and startling bright Dahab morning I tore myself from the cushioned and shielded sanctuary of the Bedouin pavilion overlooking Gulf of Aqaba to rejoin the dawdling chatty yoga group at the big wooden breakfast table.  I had had my fill of the delicious foul and salty white cheese, the peppers and freshly cooked unleavened bread and prefered to drink my tea away from the rajastic chit chat of my new yogic companions.  I dragged myself back to these starlings swathed in soft natural fibres against the underlying desert chill to hear what the much heralded (and money spinning I cynically appended) visit from the local guide had to say about a possible desert trip.
The Blue Hole
Passive aggressive emaciated yoga teacher Celia knew exactly what she wanted us to choose to do.  I was shot down in flames for trying to concoct an apparently totally impossible combination of desert trip and nature reserve.
The Canyon
The guide invited me to sit down, testily I refused.  He sat high and lean in his wooden chair in his grey djellaba and spoke about possible adventures and utterly charmed.  With his clipped moustache and thickly waved hair he looked like a like a grease-painted silent movie star version of himself.
Sulkily I skulked back to my cushioned solitude to stare at the sea.  A couple of chapters of a novel later (who was John Galt anyway) and  I walked along the pedestrian and equestrian curvy sea path that stretched between the sparsely populated tents and cushions and their four walled counterparts.  The sun, high over head felt damaging and the sea sparkled and shimmered all the way to the menacing mountain walls of Saudi Arabia.
Someone waived to me as I reached the busy diving hub and I ate more hummus  with two of my new acquaintances before setting off again alone along the sea path and between the hard selling restaurateurs and hawkers of bric-a-brac stood the charming guide, the purveyor of Bedouin dreams.  About six feet six he stood shrouded in robes sipping daintily on the straw in a small carton of juice.  He smiled and said hello and asked me if I wanted a tour of the surrounding area, to see the canyon and the views.  Cynically, I thought afterwards, I asked him the price of the tour and affronted he told me it was free.

I stayed at the Coral Coast Hotel (which refreshingly doesnt have a website yet, but you can google it!) in Dahab, and flew with Easy Jet

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The Lull After the Storm

It was dark when I arrived at the Coral Coast Hotel in sleepy Dahab on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.  A quiet, too chilly night in February.  I sat down at the free space on the communal wooden table and the crazy eyed woman to my right said ‘who the f… are you?’, I thought I was in the wrong place.  I wasnt.  This was the get to know each other first night dinner before a week of yoga.  The woman preceded to insult most people at the table including myself and several amongst the group of divers at a neighboring table.  She made lewd suggestions to one of the few males in the group (who happened to be with his girlfriend) before deciding I was her new best friend and repeatedly asking to share my room instead of with the allocated Scottish woman to whom she had taken an instant dislike.  I had paid a single supplement (and if ever the value of this was apparent it was then).
Dahab Beach
Much local wine was drunk and I slept like a log.  I drew my curtains in the morning to reveal the brilliant desert sun and the sparkling Gulf of Aqaba stretching to the shores of Saudi Arabia. A young man rode a majestic prancing grey along the path between the pool and the open sided tented cafe on the beach.   Here I would later sample many delicious freshly cooked dishes washed down with local red and accompanied by the sound of the sea.  All was tranquil and calm.  The room was simple and beautiful, a big dark wooden head board, lanterns and a balcony to enjoy the magnificent view and refreshingly no TV. Over the delicious breakfast of hummus and salad, foul, falafel and mashed potatoes there were whisperings of Jennifer, the crazy eyed phantom of the night before.  Her room mate had resorted to staying in the yoga teacher’s room and there had been thwarted physical attacks on the hotel staff.  A doctor had been called and Jennifer had been excluded from the group.
Man on an Arab
An hour’s drive from Sharm El Sheikh airport, Dahab is for the most part a laid back hippyish town, with the Coral Coast at a quiet end of the meandering coastal path that’s flanked by inexpensive cafes offering free wifi.   A perfect place for recuperation, meditation, snorkeling on the beautful reef or just gazing out to sea.
Gulf of Aqaba


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Havana Aside: The Absent Mr Berkoff and Gorgeous George

Havan Skyline

I had often thought of visiting Havana and it had come a close second in an erstwhile destination deliberation process with a good friend a few years ago (having been pipped at the post by India).  When an email dropped into my inbox informing me of a ten day writing course with Steven Berkoff that happened to slot nicely into a period of leave I stopped being indecisive about where to go for my next adventure and booked flights.

Habana Libra Lobby

Not always gregarious and normally one to shun those dreaded group activities, being herded around and going about my day in close confines with people who are not of my choosing, this wasnt the kind of thing I would normally go for (at least not while on holiday). Furthermore I had never previously felt the need to be assisted by a writing course but was curious to meet the maestro in such a ravishing setting.  So I signed up for the curriculum at the iconic Habana Libre hotel (single occupancy fully paid up of course) and arranged my solitary countryside adventure to Valle de Vinales around it.

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On the night I was to ‘join’ el groupo I waited around in the gleaming and capacious marbled lobby, half heartedly jollied along by a pina colada.  The air conditioned space was fine, I love the seductive anonymity of hotel lobbies but I wasnt really looking forward to meeting ‘them’, the others, at all.  I was actually to make a few good new friends out of it all as is often the case but at that moment I was waiting reluctantly to be associated with the rest of the herd.

I hung around in the designated area of the lobby pointed out to me by the receptionist, until what appeared initially to be a wishy washy group of mainly women began assembling in the lobby and I was offered a wishy washy undrinkable mojito in a plastic cup.  I hovered around behind the unpunctual crew, eager just to obtain some basic details without having to linger too much and then to go off for dinner.  The ensemble were somewhat delayed as they had had to wait in the airport for someone who didnt turn up.  This whole group dynamic of waiting around for people is particularly tedious, especially if they dont turn up.  Maybe this particular anonymous would be writer didnt even want to enter the country when in full possession of the news I was about to receive.

Che t shirts

I already had a particular first night close by restaurant earmarked for dinner (Trattoria Maraka’s on Calle 0 between Calles 23 and 25, just around the block) having no interest or patience for bonding and dining and the ‘oh where shall we goes?’ just yet.  A reluctant loiterer in the background, ready to slope off any moment, I was asked if I was who I was and handed a schedule for salsa dancing which I didnt question as my patience had reached its limits, there are only so many irrelevant questions addressed to the whole group one can endure.  Its extremely tedious when some people think it’s necessary for a whole group of strangers to listen to the ponderous answers of a non native to “Is it safe?, ‘can you drink the water?’ and ‘how can my husband contact me?.

Piscina

Waiting for the lift, a small mousey man asked me ‘are you one of mine?’, this instantly rankled but not wanting to get off on a bad foot I stopped myself from demanding ‘one of your what?’ and replied in an sniffy manner that I was here for the writing course and that I had been given a schedule for salsa dancing.  The small Antipodean’s rather disconcerting reply was ‘Its probably about the same but we dont know what time George wants to start’ to which I replied ‘who’s George?’

‘The tutor’

‘I thought the tutor was Steven Berkoff’’

‘ Ah.. you didnt you get the email… he was unable to come’

‘No I was in Vinales for a few days and havent checked my email…’

Three days before the start date of the course wouldnt really have been a great time to reschedule in any case.  This really wasnt what I had wanted to hear.

Pink car

George, George, George.  George started the first session in his suite, he kept referring to his room with an adjoining room as his suite as if he hadnt been out much before.  Im pretty sure he hadnt been out much before.  He was wearing some sort of a kimono and kept telling us all about his recent milestone birthday and his engagement.  He started his first tutorial (numbers already depleted by several members who had defected join a concurrent salsa course) by asking us to add another descriptive word to out given names.  He kicked the whole thing off with Gorgeous George.  This kind of thing is what makes group ‘activities’ detestable.  So we had Sassy Sue and Mellifluous Mel and Kindly Kate and Amazing Ailon and all sorts of silly rubbish which would have been unbefitting of the august Mr Berkoff.  We were prompted to write and perform a bit and some of it was great fun.  The emphasis was on the acting out of what we had written, George being a stage actor and a thespian.  I’d never heard of George.  More people were to defect to salsa.

George had an obsession with Edgar Allan Poe and in particular with his narrative poem the Raven.  During one hilarious reading of which a cleaner burst into to room with a hoover just as him was shrieking, ravenesesque ‘Nevermore’!

 

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,’

George often had visitors at his chamber door and held court out of hours.  He was insecure and in need of reassurance often repeating tiresome personal details that were of no interest and made one long to be out of his suite and by the pool.  He built up a small fan base of which he slept with at least one, upsetting others in this pack of women (more men it seemed prefered to salsa).  He had exclusive dinners to which not all of the group were invited.  It was obviously an all expenses paid trip but it transpired he was losing out because he was an out of work actor on the dole and couldnt claim benefits for a week.

 

Havana was wonderful in spite of the absence of the big draw, our original intended mentor.  The disgruntled ones along with all the others were offered a free weekend of coaching with Steven Berkoff (who had had contractual obligations) on The Isle of White and the best fun ones went along and it served as a marvellous reunion.  Hours were spent in elegant high ceilinged rooms and ye olde pubs with the mesmerising and formidable thespian and captivating raconteur.

IOW


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Cuba Libre?: Beach Interlude

Playas del Este

A lot of people bypass the hustle and bustle and exhaust fumes of Havana and head straight for the beach resorts.  One afternoon, those of us not staying on for a beach holiday at the end headed out to one to see what all the fuss was about, this was the Caribbean after all.  A thirty minute taxi ride took us to the one of the Playas del Este and the beautiful golden sands and azure waters of Megano.  It was stunning, uncrowded and unspoiled but with bamboo sun shades and little beach huts selling delicious cocktails and snacks.

Megano

 We decided on one cabaret show too and the Cafe Parisien, located next to our afternoon haunt the Hotel Nacional was chosen.  It was a dazzling spectacle that almost lasted too long and is probably one of the most expensive nights out to be had in Havana.  It certainly ticked the ‘see a cabaret’ box.  The room was small and intimate and plush and we had an excellent table next to the stage.  The food, paid for with the tickets was shocking.  Ham in the vegetarian pasta and the carnivores didnt like what they got either.
Parisien
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Cuba:Still in the Cold

Laz Terrazas

Las-Terazzas

In stark contrast to Cuba’s beautiful neoclassical and Spanish colonial Havana facades the Eastern bloc blocks in Laz Terrazas stand like giant lego pieces on the green hillsides.  Las Terrazas, an eco village built in the 60s is fifty miles out of Havana.  This bucolic idyll is well worth a visit for the tranquility of the beautiful river and its setting in the heart of a 25,000 hectare UNESCO biosphere reserve in the Sierra del Rosario, (incongruous Soviet era prefabricated concrete buildings aside).

Soviet-bloc

If you go there on the wonderful and very economical government tour (bookable at hotels and Cubanacan offices) a lunch and music will be provided at a beautiful spot by the river.  Those in the know (our little bus picked up Cuban people at various places in Havana) had brought along their costumes and swam here for a while until the heavens opened.  I found a thatched roofed picnic table with wooden benches in a tranquil spot along the river and laid down and watched the rain.

 Las-Terazzas-Girls

If you are in a group and can hire a vehicle then you can plan your own schedule, dont miss the beautiful spots by the river but then later on (and we didnt have time) you can eat at Las Terrazas’ vegetarian restaurant El Romero (Terraza 170, Edificio 5).  The menu looked amazing.

Las-Terazzas-homes

When Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in 2000 he and Fidel Castro bemoaned the increasing United States world domination.  Castro told him  ‘Who knows better than the country situated only 90 miles from the biggest superpower of the world?’  Vladimir Putin, without mentioning the United States, agreed that such ‘unipolarity’ allows one country to ‘monopolize international relationships and to dominate them.” He said the last time this occurred, ‘we all know how it ended,’ apparently a reference to Nazi Germany and World War II.

Bathing-at-Las-Terazzas

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