Thursday, 29 December 2011

Christmas 2011, In which I go for a rather steep walk (Part 1)

Way back in...September? October? I was talking with a friend about travel options in the area, and she mentioned a hike in Malaysia that was supposed to be quite good. I filed it away in the catacombs of my mind, and at some point while talking with another friend about Christmas plans, the idea was exhumed and later brought back to life via a series of emails and bookings with tour groups, airlines and hotels.

I've been looking forward to the trip since all the details were planned, but I didn't want to find out too much about the climb. I'm fairly active, but a) I can talk myself out of nearly anything, b) I tend to panic about things if I'm too well informed, and c) I ran out of time. The last few weeks have been busy ones, so I knew in the back of my mind that the hike was looming,, I'll get there when the time comes.

Thus it was that on Christmas Eve I found myself scrambling to find my waterproofs (which, alas, seem to be in a Chicago basement), buy some gloves and a headlamp, print off my travel documents, and cram five days worth of things into my little Gregory overnight bag. Thus aptly equipped (or...we'll get to that), I headed to the airport, passport and boarding documents in hand, to catch my flight.

It's a short flight from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. About 2 hours and 20 smooth minutes got me there, followed by a roughly (and rough) two-hour van ride to my hotel. The hotel itself was quite nice - very basic, but quite clean and with a courteous staff. I slept somewhat poorly that night, and got up the next morning ready to start the adventure.
The view from my balcony

Mt. Kinabalu in the clouds
My chipper guide picked me up at the not-unreasonable hour of 9:45 and we headed to the park. Kinabalu Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Center, and boasts a wide variety of flora, including a huge number of orchids and pitcher plants, ficus and ferns. It's (spoiler alert!) 35% tropical lowland and hill rainforest, and the verdant greens of the plants and richness of the moss give ample evidence of this makeup. I walked around the Expo Centre for a bit, and then went for a short guided walk of the Botanic Garden and a section of the Silau-Silau Trail.
The park's trail system

Our guide talks rattan

Nurse log
There's a pitcher plant in there somewhere

Another pitcher

Pretty and tasty!

Me, in a somewhat dry moment

Growing the orchids
Post guided walks, I snagged a quick lunch, watched a short video on the area, and then headed to check in to my hostel. It had been foggy and misty all day, and on my way to the hostel the first drops began to fall. And then to fall harder. And then it was a full-on, steady downpour that was to last the remainder of my stay.

Ah well, though, what does one do when in a rainforest in monsoon season? One walks.

Getting soggy

Trilobite Beetle

I spent the afternoon and early evening wandering the trails in the park, sitting occasionally at a shelter to shake off the droplets and ponder the year behind me. By the time night was beginning to fall I was drenched through and ready for some tea and a book, so I headed back to the hostel where I chatted with my lovely Australian and Canadian hostel-mates and dove into Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union. We all headed to bed fairly early in order to be ready for the next morning, which would have worked wonderfully well had it not been for our late arrivals. Never mind - sleep is for the weak!

Next: The Climb

Saturday, 17 December 2011


(We now interrupt this travelogue to bring you this very important announcement)

(Okay, totally not an important announcement, just a self-indulgent post where I give thanks for friends here in this far-away place.)

So, I'm not a big celebrator of my birthday. I'm not afraid/sad/angry about getting old, it's just that with a birthday so close to the holidays and (let's face it, I was a student for forever) finals, it was never terribly convenient to have a party or make any sort of big fuss over it. My parents did a great job with it when I was growing up (no small feat, given their own respective holiday-time commitments), but since I hit just-over-21? It's rarely been a big deal.

I knew that a couple of people at work knew when the day was, but didn't really think about it. It was a busy week, so my plan was to take the birthday afternoon off, run some errands, and have dinner with some friends.

Others had other ideas.

Sitting at my desk, revising a paper, listening to "Batter My Heart" from Dr. Atomic. The door opens. A cacophony of voices start. It's my colleagues, holding cupcakes with lit candles, singing me "Happy Birthday" in languages that range from Greek to Portuguese to Korean to parts in between. I laugh, and can't stop. It's absurd and wonderful - so many languages, so many people I care about, so funny to think of myself in a place where this can happen. I blow out the candles - all of them! - but can't (so cheesy) think of anything to wish for. Right then? Right there? I didn't need or want anything else.

They take me to lunch and to the campus museum where we chat and view and ponder. I am so, so lucky to have colleagues who understand my fascination with the preserved animals.

That evening, other friends take me to a simple dinner. We talk, laugh, ponder again the mysterious things that bring us together.

Today was hectic, but it led to tonight. Ah, tonight.

Friends/colleagues, etouffee, gumbo, zydeco, cake. So many of the good things in my life came together in one evening. Good food, good conversation, a chance to bring these people together to try to say thank you to them for their friendship, their support, their humor.

It is a good night. It is a good birthday.

I think? I think 34 will be a good, good year.

...I also think people liked the food

Friday, 9 December 2011

Phuket, Thailand

One of the great joys of Singapore is how easy it is to leave. A group of colleagues and I made good use of that trait this past weekend, and took ourselves (and in some cases our laptops) off to Phuket, Thailand for the weekend. The flight was short and easy, and before we knew it we were happily checked in to our lovely hotel, which was right on the beach and in easy access of neighboring towns and things to do.

Easy swimming access when it was too dark for the beach

Looking out over the ocean

A lovely spot for coffee or breakfast
We were a multicultural little group (five countries represented by six people), so much of the weekend was spent teasing one another's backgrounds, figuring out which types of humor do (theirs) and don't (mine) translate into other cultures, and generally enjoying the conversations that ensue when you pull together people of very different backgrounds. It was, in a word, delightful.

Aside from enjoying the company, we made very good use of the seaside for swimming, relaxing, and (my favorite!) kayaking.

We kayaked out to the little island that just shows in the middle-right of the photo - a good time

The beach was covered with these little guys - very industrious!

Such a stressful life

In the afternoons and evenings, we went into the neighboring towns to do a bit of exploring - temples, shopping streets, and good restaurants are lovely places to be when it rains.
...and it did actually rain quite a bit

I wish this picture were better, but the density of electrical wires is amazing

It was, all in all, a lovely time and a much-needed break for all of us. I couldn't have asked for a lovelier place, nicer people to travel with, or a better time. Thanks, Thailand!

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Oh, poor neglected blog! The last few weeks have been hectic with work and, as you'll see below, traveling, so I've been a bit out of commission. This post will cover one of those weeks, however, and I have a camera full of pictures to update on Singapore goings-on. Onward!

So, two weeks ago at about this time I was sitting at Changi airport (rated one of the best in the world - yay, Singapore!) mentally preparing myself for a long flight. About 30 hours later, after stops in Sydney, Auckland, and Santiago, our little plane touched down in Osorno, Chile, where I was to attend a conference for the better part of a week. The plane and subsequent shuttle to the hotel were full of conference attendees, so there were lots of greetings, banging about of poster tubes (including mine), and jet-lagged conversations to while away the ride to the conference venue near Puyehue Lake. The scenery, even in my I-just-can't-sleep-on-planes state, was stunning - green, verdant hills and the lake all misty. Sheep, cows and alpacas made frequent appearances, and by the time we made it to the hotel I had been lulled almost to sleep. After checking in, the first order of business was to shower off the plane gunk and head to the reception.

The conference itself was great. Interesting people, relevant topics, and well-organized. My poster session went well, I think, and I feel that I represented our project and my organization to the best of my ability. Thankfully, there were a lot of people who were interested, so that made things easier. Also nice was the number of random connections that one comes across at these things - people who know people who you know, people who have worked with former co-workers, people who have published articles you've read...the list goes on and on. It helped me greatly to find those connections and feel more secure in my place in my career.

Outside of the conference, well, I was in heaven. After Singapore's unchanging weather (warm and probably wet is the daily forecast), experiencing some lower temperatures was pure joy, and the sheer emptiness of the area around us was a welcome respite from Singapore's density. (Not that I don't love density, mind you - I do. I just...need some space now and again.) The conference organizers made sure that we had some free time to enjoy the walking trails, hear some music, and take advantage of the hotel's spa facilities. I availed myself of the opportunity for a massage, ate some great food, and wore another few centimeters of rubber off the soles of my walking shoes.


The atmosphere for the week was marked by mist, rain, and ash from the nearby volcano

The hotel

There was a fine coating of ash on everything

The ash made the river water a bit murky as well...

...and full of pumice!

Still beautiful, though.

The first autumn colors I've seen this year

At the concert hall for a night of regional music

How I managed not to slide down this I may never know.