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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Malaysia 3: Laughing with the Fishes (plus diving/snorkeling tips)

Split view of ocean (photo from
When once I gazed upon a lake or ocean, I simply admired the rhythmic waves and dazzling sun glinting off the inscrutable surface; what might be below that thin shiny film was alien, not compatible with human flourishing.  Dipping ones eyes below was accompanied with fear akin to near-miss experiences with death. Now, however, I know better. Now I long to slip through that transparent skin between worlds, to snorkel among the strange creatures in their universe.  And now I regularly dream of flying underwater, wondering at this other half of creation.  

Which sounds all wonderful, but here is the thing.  Snorkeling means you're within an arm's reach of air, of that joyous invisible lifesource.  

However, from the nanosecond we booked our flights to Malaysia (see our other adventures here and here), Nick beseeched us to pretty please try scuba diving again. (Backstory: Our family did a Discover Scuba class in the Philippines last year. I strongly failed to appreciate unlearning things like Up = Air = Life. Beloved Husband and oldest son, however, were ecstatic. The other two kids were, well, whatever.  You know.)  Back to beseeching: We the family gathered a formidable array of counter-arguments: David’s ear hurts terribly more than 2 meters underwater (he was later banned from diving by a Malaysian ENT doc/diver), so the pressure was off him (ha! A diving joke!). For her part, Elisabeth was concerned about torture by things who bite/sting/rip or generally look weird; I, on the other hand, prophesied death by frenzied drowning. We fought with vigor, but in the end Mr. Cajoling Puppy Eyes wore down the resistance from our Death Panic Eyes.  *Sigh.*   

So, we found a (truly wonderful) dive shop owner who booked a Discover class for us two days hence. Summary (and spoiler alert):  We had a fantastic time.  Nick, overjoyed at his victory, slavered all over the dive shop (and then on the boat ride to the islands, and then even more while diving like a manic eel, which got him into a wee spot of oxygen-less troubles later, but even THAT didn’t diminish his wiggly joy).  David snorkeled (jealously) above us; Sunny took excellent care of my irrational self; and Elisabeth was quite distracted from her fears by the personal attentions of a rather attractive young dive instructor.  

From left: me (failing to non-verbally cover regretful panic), joyous Nick, distractingly attractive dive instructor Nathan, suddenly-shy Elisabeth, David the causal, and Sunny (owner of Sunny Reef Divers, Kota Kinabalu and photo credit guy). 

For those of you who have not yet experienced the joy of this “lazy man’s sport” (quote from Sunny), I shall now offer some tips. Because I have 3 whole dives under my weight belt (ha! another diving joke!).  So I'm an expert beginner.  Fear me.

(Tip 1) Get a dive instructor who talks incessantly about safety.  Seriously.  While fitting us for equipment, Sunny shared stories about stupid divers, and his responses were reassuring (e.g., a guy who lied about his experience and couldn't do the basic skills wanted Sunny to certify him anyway.  Nope.).  When we got on the boat, the first things he (Sunny, not the lying diver) pointed out were the fire extinguisher and the first aid kit.  Thus, many of my fears about potential problems (like, say, leg cramps or giant jellyfish or a certain husband swimming himself out of oxygen) were considerably eased.  I did ask Sunny why in the WORLD he had a giant knife strapped to his leg, fearing the worst (large populations of underwater person-eating monsters).  Nope: he carries it to slash open illegal fishing nets and thus release the captured creatures.  Sunny gained so many points.

(Tip 2) Actually getting oneself into the water from the boat is the very scariest part.  That backwards rolling “SPLOOSH!” into death-infested waters with 60+ pounds of gear is nearly as scary as walking down the wedding aisle.  Or birthing babies, or going to dinner parties, or whatever terrifying stuff you’ve lived through.  The terror only lasts a few disconcerting seconds before your buoyancy vest pops you to the surface again and you laugh with joy that you're not dead.

(Tip 3) Once you’re in the water, you only have 1 job!  JUST ONE!  Forget all those gadgets and gauges and gear and just do your one job: breathe.  Iiiiinnnnnn….. ooouuuttttt….. iiiiinnnnn…… ooouuutttt….  Listen to those soothing bubbles.  You don’t even have to keep your eyes open. When you’re ready to open your eyes AND keep breathing, dive guy will steer you around and point out all the pretty fishes and hopefully check your gauges and stuff.

(Tip 4) This one is true for both snorkeling and diving: Try not to laugh while under water.  Doing so rapidly fills your mask with water and then you can’t see the pretty fishes even with your eyes open because you’re freaking out a tiny bit distracted by all the water now sloshing inside your nose holes.  To be sure, fish are surely funny and wonderful, and I am a big laugher on land, but refrain from such underwater behavior until you are skilled at mask-clearing.  I, after several laugh-related near-drownings, am now a mask-clearing expert, which allows me to chortle rather often.  This initially startled Sunny, but then he got over my switch from Panic Eyes to Joyous Bubble Face and let me do more of my own steering.  Once he had me reach out toward a mid-sized clownfish (think Nemo), which happily approached and bit my finger. And I laughed and laughed and blew the water out of my mask, ready to breathe again and see what else I could see under the watery ceiling.

So. Elisabeth and I are willing to do more scuba diving, but please don’t tell Nick, because you KNOW he’ll next beg us to dive in caves and at night and with electric eels and who knows what else. 

Elisabeth & me.  Photo by Nick.

Kota Kinabalu at the bottom of map;
Jesselton Pier to the right of the labeled Resort.
We went to all but Sulug Island.
P.S.  Wondering what we saw and where we went? We snorkeled and/or dived off four of the five TARP marine park islands (20 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu).  We saw so many, many, many kinds of fish and corals plus some medium-sized sting-rays, giant urchins, starfish and even a big cuttlefish (oh, be still my heart!!)!  Here are a few of our pictures plus a list of the fish that Google and I could identify - perhaps only 1/3rd of the species.  :)

Parrotfish (common and Bleeker’s; Scaridae)
Lined surgeonfish (Acanthurus lineatus)
Sergeant major (Abudefduf saxatilis)
Pufferfish & boxfish
Several species of clownfish (saddleback, false, etc.)
Wrasse (bluestreak cleaner; red breasted)
Yellowback fusilier
Beaked butterflyfish
Harlequin sweetlips
Anna’s magnificent slug
Blue Sea Star & burgundy sea star
Giant clam
Black long spine urchin (Diadema setosum)
Pharaoh cuttlefish

Cornetfish (or, flutemouth; Fistularia petimba)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Malaysia 2: Of Cross-Cultural Panic and Shofars

Dear readers: Thank you for your concern about our well-being amid the monkeys, fishes, and snakes in our last post (see here if you missed it:  I here present a very different sort of human interest story, wherein my beloved husband dragged us to a Malaysian church (he is a good man, just misguided as to family vacation expectations).

I wish to clarify at the outset for any lawyers or anthropologists out there that I suspect this particular church does NOT represent the mood/practices of regional churches as a whole.  That said, this little 2.5 hour adventure was FAR more nerve-wracking than toothy monkeys and 2-meter swimming snakes. 

A Canadian friend knew a guy in Kota Kinabalu (KK) who was happy to take us to his church.  We shall call this man Peter.  Peter was well-educated, very kind, and made excellent conversation as he pointed out KK landmarks during the 20-minute drive.  I had warm fuzzy feelings about this man and our Canadian friend’s judgment.  As we arrived at the church, Peter did caution us that this church was a little unusual.  “It’s a rather, um, … vibrant church,” he said.  Hmm.  I wondered briefly about his verbal pause and the implied italics.  We climbed the narrow, creaking stairs next to a coffee shop to get to this second-floor church and opened the wooden door.  It immediately struck me that we were (a) the only white people, (b) the biggest people there by numerous inches and pounds (sorry: centimeters and kilograms), and (c) the only ones beginning a panic attack.  Oh, wait, that was just me.   Ok, so, we were greeted by many of the 15 or so people already there.  Then a teeny tiny woman with a personality like, well, a cross between my mother-in-law (that’s a good thing) and a chipmunk (not so good), warmly greeted us and introduced herself as the pastor (we shall call her Samuela).  She lightly noted that this church was a little different: “We’re a rather, um, … vibrant church.”  Hmm. Panic meter increased a notch.

As we crept toward some empty seats, we noted the room’s atypical set-up: folding chairs lined three sides, a praise team stood at the fourth, and a huge central space was left open.  I pondered this.  Maybe Samuela was an active preacher?  Maybe there would be a children’s program?  Curiosity helped calm me.  A tiny bit.

The service began with impassioned singing (with powerpoint slides in English and Chinese).  People were not shy about singing out or accompanying themselves with energetic motions.  And by “motions,” I do not refer to young children synchronously waving their hands in well-learned patterns from the privacy of a pew.  No, that is not what happened here.  Nope. For the song “Deep Cries Out,“ most adults were moved by Samuela’s loud encouragement to “Be free!”  And they scampered to that central space, exuberantly moving to “jump jump jump in the river” and “dance dance in the river” and “shout shout shout in the river.” The river was created by draping long strips of blue satin cloth on the floor, taken from a mystery box in the back.  Amid her “Be free!” admonishments, Samuela requested shoe removal to reduce blue cloth laundering needs (are bare feet cleaner than sandals?).  This song repeated many many many times.  Which allowed time for creative embellishments.  Some found large flags (thank you, mystery box) printed with “Yahweh” or “Jesus” (one was the flag of Israel superimposed with Aslan the Lion’s head shot) and they commenced to vigorous waving while dancing/jumping/shouting.  

But that’s not all. Nope – we haven’t reached the full meaning of “vibrant” yet. This little church blows shofars.  Wait, what?  Um, yes.  They have apparently been persuaded by the Old Testament to worship God by blowing horns taken from the heads of kosher rams and antelopes.  The sound that emerges from this instrument is indescribable, though I kept picturing a water buffalo during a difficult labor while a crocodile gnawed her face.  Now put 40 people AND THEIR 20 RANDOMLY GROANING SHOFARS atop a backdrop of drums, keyboards, and singing plus all the river dancing/jumping/shouting and flag-waving.  For a half hour or so. 

I stole this picture from the web just to help you imagine the scene.

We shall pause here for you to regain your composure.

You may wonder how our family responded.  Ahem.  We are a white, middle-class, mid-western American family descended from Dutch, Germans, and Brits.  We do not dance in church.  Or wave flags, or jump barefooted in fabric rivers, or blow dead ungulates’ head ornaments.  Wanting to be polite yet not abandon our own heritage, we joined in by swaying a little to the beat. 

Once the singing/dancing/chaos was finally over, the river was put away, chairs were lined up in the central space, and Samuela gave a sermon about trees.  Then we heard a testimony (“just 5 minutes, please,” asked Samuela) which wandered for 25 minutes through a confusing array of topics with people hopping up to repeat or challenge details.  Yup. Ok, it was finally time for prayer, which often is a wonderful time to rest my spirit, but I could not help but be distracted by the lengthy prayer for…elephants.  And President Trump.   Ok, no rest to be found just yet.  Next came “organized” shofar-blowing: the lead guy (“He of The Biggest Horn”) gave 7 “shevarees” (sets of 3 short blats) and then he and the second-longest-horn alternated giving 7 “shahrooahs” (sets of 1 long and 8 short blasts).  Then 15+ other people just joined in with random blasts until the orgy of sound grew to a fevered pitch.  And I don’t remember anything else because my soul had retreated away, longing for the peace of rude monkeys and colorfish fish.

P.S. That Canadian "friend" I mentioned?  When we got home, he came over, wanting to chat about our trip.  And he brought into our house...his very own shofar.  Which he blew often.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Malaysia 1: The Wisdom of Primates

Ready to begin Malaysian Snorkeling Adventure (Gaya Island, KK)
We went to Malaysia sort of accidentally last week.  We were going to do an amazing winter vacation (the past two Januarys we’ve visited Taiwan and the Philippines), but then our oldest kid informed us of his US wedding celebration this summer, which means we needed to save money to fly home.  So, like responsible adults, we sadly decided to do a “stay-cation” and check out more of Korea.  But…. Korea is the size of Iowa, so trying to “see more” than what we’ve already seen these last 3.5 years doesn’t exactly ring the bells of family excitement.  And it's winter and cold and grey.

So, like irresponsible adults, we re-decided: savings be damned!  We google-searched for “southeast asia cheap tickets” and found a great deal to warm/tropical Cambodia -- hooray!  But in the infuriating amount of time it took for the airline to decide we were neither drug smugglers nor NSA spies, the ticket prices expired. Grrr. But then Malaysia went on sale -- hooray!  (Before that moment, I could not have (a) found this country on a map or (b) correctly spelled this country’s name.  Whenever people mention Malaysia, I always envision “Mal-Asia,” which I translate as "the rough side of the Orient.”)

Anyway, Nick quickly snapped up cheap tickets, I booked a very cheap hostel room for the week, and off we went a few days later.  (Seriously.  We really don’t plan our vacations until we get there.  Because we’re irresponsible adults.  Who happen to have excellent contacts named Google and Trip Advisor.)

Education Note: The country of Malaysia now includes a peninsula and a historically oft-traded island that is now shared by 3 countries. Kota Kinabalu (KK), where we flew in, is the capital of the Malaysian part of Borneo Island and roughly means “city of fire” or “fort of the dusty ancestors,” depending on who you ask.

Now, this post shall not be a dull vacation slide show. (Dear younger readers: “dull” and “vacation slide show” are synonyms which here refer to torturous hours in a dark, mildewed living room squinting at other people’s enlarged blurry pictures of places in which you have no interest.  Similar to history class, perhaps.)  Instead, I shall here highlight some animal encounters and downplay gorging of pizza and KFC and excessive selfies by certain persons.

Outstanding marine park off the coast of KK.
Nick is a friendly giant.
Our first afternoon, we went to Jesselton Point/Pier and booked a speedboat taxi/ferry to Gaya Island, the largest island in the TARP marine park off the coast of KK.  On our walk to the old bomb shelter changing rooms between the strip of beach and Serious Jungle Territory, we spied a troupe of adorable macaque monkeys, romping through a fiddler fig tree of nightmare proportions (imagine a houseplant the size of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man).  Under the tree of unusual size was a family of hairy wild pigs, rooting around in the sandy soil, as pigs do.  We were quite pleased to see this un-announced petting zoo (which, of course, it wasn’t), and looked forward to some post-snorkeling wildlife interactions (which, unfortunately, we had).

Into the water we all went, ditching our bags on the tiny, empty beach near the two trustworthy-looking sunbathers. Exploring the shallow waters under the long pier, we were thrilled to find many colorful, small fishes that didn't mind us. The white, sandy bottom (ancient coral dust) and the clear water gave us a perfect way to re-introduce the kids to snorkeling and erase fears of sharks and other aquatic bite-y things.
David enters the South China Sea.

Elisabeth makes peace with snorkeling (and seaweed)

A 10" moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare) - isn't it lovely?

A 12" tall batfish (platax teira) -- isn't it weird?
All too soon, the island closed to the public at 5pm (something our boat guy didn’t happen to mention when we arranged a 5:30 pick-up time). As the sunbathers and park ranger went to board their boat-taxi, they shouted at us from the pier; rising reluctantly from my beloved sea-heaven, I saw them gesturing wildly back to the beach. Oh dear.  The wildlife was apparently not as tame or trustworthy as the humans.  The troupe of monkeys had made short work of our stupidity: they happily and energetically divested our bags of wallets, toilet paper, undies, and snacks. We swam back to chase the monkeys away and reviewed the damage.  Arg.  

The kids decided to guard our belongings while Nick and I swam out to the not-exactly-allowed-but-no-one's-here-to-kick-us-out area to find even more fishes in the deeper reef (OH!  Parrotfish, sergeant majors, clownfish, etc.).  Soon, we heard some odd noises and, again rising from our sea-heaven, saw that we had company on the pier.  Not human, though: the monkeys had decided to open up the proverbial snack shop (trash can).  They smugly sat atop the railings, flinging bottles and bags and cans into the sea around us.

Long-tailed macaque monkey.
Stupid primate.
At this point, for some reason, the monkeys still seemed nice and cute, even if not environmentally sensitive or respectful of private property.  We returned to snorkeling, swimming slowly toward the beach. As we finally stood in the shallows to remove our gear, Nick was confronted with a dozen growling monkeys, approaching in a semi-circle of orange pointy teeth and clear expressions of malice aforethought.  I (being me), backed away fearfully into the water; Nick (being him) dashed forward and threw some rocks, which resulted in a temporary truce and access to the beach.

While waiting for our boat, Elisabeth and I took a short stroll and were quickly surrounded by the rude monkey monsters (WHY didn't I see this coming?).  I should have been the tough protective parent, but no. Elisabeth brilliantly discovered that a metal grass rake, pushed ahead of us on the cement, transformed into a screeching, screamy, dancing spider that provoked a hasty retreat by the pugnacious primates.  Maybe they had gotten our snacks and caused us some fright, but we won in the end!  HA!

Time to go.  “Oh, and mama?" Elisabeth asked casually as we walked down the pier.  Yes?  "I like snorkeling, but I don't want to go here again."  Ok, why? because of the monkeys?  “No," she continued in her off-hand voice.  "Because while you and Papa were out swimming, a 2-meter python swam past David and I at the beach. We got it on video.”

Oh dear.  We kind of lost the responsible adult award today....

Our post-Gaya-Island taxi awaits.