Seeing the Man of the Forest

Today I learned that orangutans are ticklish.

One of the major attractions of Borneo is the fact the fact thatyou can see Orangutans.  I am sure that you can see them in the wild here in Malaysia but they are endangered and I at least wouldn’t know where to look.  That seemed like too much effort though so my group and I went to the a wildlife “interpretation center”. 

The Nature Interpretation Centre was based at Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort, which was about an hour away fromthe hotel that we were staying at. The nature reserve, encompassed 64 acres, was established in 1996 in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department, aimed chiefly at nature conservation and orang-utan rehabilitation, with emphasis on investigation, study and education.   

            The total number of Bornean orangutans is estimated to be less than 14% of what it was in the recent past (from around 10,000 years ago until the middle of the twentieth century) and this sharp decline has occurred mostly over the past few decades due to human activities and development.

When the rescued Orang-Utans first arrive at the centre, they are often in a hurt or sick. First they are put into cages while they're treated for their ailments and nursed back to health. The rangers then teach them how to forage for fruit, climb trees and generally fend for themselves. When they are mid-way through the rehabilitation process they are released into the surrounding forest reserve. The animals then spend most of their time in the forest but often return to one of the centers five feeding platforms for a “free” meal. Eventually the hope is that the Orang-Utan will become fully rehabilitated, after this it is caught and returned to the wild - usually deep in the forest or to one of the National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries.

The feeding platform is where after being forced to watch about an hour of documentaries about orangutans and the rehabilitation process of the center.  That would be why you were just inundated with all of the facts that I remembered.  Hey, I remember, you suffer!  

Anyhow,, getting to the feeding platform wasn't as easy as you might think. It was about a fifteen minute walk on a steep dirt path through a small section of jungle. I was wearing flip flops and, I have to say, I wasn't all that pleased with my choice. Mostly because there were bugs and a whole lot

of mud to slog through. We finally got to the feeding platforms which were basically like big wooden decks with no house attached. There were about thirty of us in the group and we crowded in to wait for the orangutans to come. We only had to wait a few moments. There were four babies that showed up. All of them were two and three years old. Orangutans take a very long time to grow up so these were still babies. We weren't allowed to talk at all or to touch them. They were (as I said) being rehabilitated to the wild. We were also told to watch out for them coming into the crowd as they like to steal cameras and sunglasses and once that happens you never see those items again. Oragnutans live in the trees. I knew this before I saw them but it is different to know this in theory and quite another to see a baby orangutans climb from the floor of the forest into a tree a hundred feet above your head then reach out casually and swing himself into the next tree. One orangutan climbed a thin young tree and used it as a swing for about ten minutes forcing it to sway back and forth. They, like little children, are very active and seemed to want to play. 

I was very surprised at how attached they seemed to be to the ranger who was feeding them and who, I assume, helps to take care of them. They wanted him to hold them and play with them. They stole his hat and let him tickle them. Why do I find the fact that orangutans are ticklish so astonishing? Perhaps it has to do with a residual part of my thought process which always expects animals to have completely different thoughts, emotions and behavior than humans. 

There was something oddly powerful in the whole experience. We stayed for an about an hour until the orangutans got bored and moved back into the jungle and my camera’s batteries died. I would have been more annoyed with that but I think perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened because it really made me focus on the experience and not just the documentation of the experience. As much as I like to pretend otherwise they are not the same thing. As I watched 

it occurred to me that I was truly part of something special. These are very endangered animals and seeing them in at least a semi wild setting made me sad that in the future the only place to find these animals might be in zoos and hopeful that perhaps we can change paths and make enough of a difference to ensure that for at least the foreseeable future there will always be a “man of the forest” in Borneo…

Kota Kinabalu

So there have been commercials’ on Star world (my English channel) for Malaysia all year.  It is a good thing that I was going here because those commercials’ would have driven me crazy otherwise.  The tourism company promoting Malaysia really did its job well!

None of this of course tells you anything about Kota Kinabalu.   Borneo.  Just saying the name makes me happy.  I have all of these images in my head of what Borneo should be like: thick jungle teeming with wildlife; orang-utans swinging through forest canopy; mountains, warm weather and enough flowers to overwhelm.  A bit idealistic yes  and yet somehow it is living up to my internal hype.  Kota Kinabalu is the state capital of the Malaysian state Sabah, one of the two states of East Malaysia. The location of the city is absolutely amazing.  We got in at midnight and because we are here for a conference the hotel sent people to come and pick us up at the airport.  They had those little signs with our names on them.  I have never been met like that before and I have to admit that it made me feel very important which immediately went to my head.  Thankfully for all of you my ego was deflated when I was banished to the back of the van with the luggage. 

 The next morning I watched the sun rise over a waterfall flowing out of a rock and into a pool.  In front of the swimming pool were tall green palm trees and red umbrellas where and old man in blue swim trunks was sleeping.  And the flowers!  It was my first glimpse of a plant since sometime in August and I couldn’t believe how fascinating I found them.  Fifty feel from the pool was the calm sea that became more and more blue as the sun rose.   Eventually the color was so intense that it felt almost unreal.  As if a child with a box of crayons had decided the colors around me.  There were cruise ships and speed boats as well a couple on a jet ski trying to (and eventually succeeding) getting a huge inflatable kite to fly behind them.  The airs feels wet when you breathe it in and smells of flowers and all manner of green things.  I can almost feel the plants growingas I am watching them.  While eating breakfast (18 kinds of fresh fruit!) tiny brown birds hopped from table to table picking at the crumbs.  They were pretty brazen too and I think that if I had stayed still enough and they would have tried to steal the food right off of my plate!

Needless to say this place needs no embellishment.  It is beautiful and because Malaysia was a British colony for so long it seemed as if almost everyone we met spoke English.  That is a big plus for someone who still has to have the girls at the food shop punch out my total on a calculator before I can pay them!  If you really want to hate me check out the commercial for the resort that I am staying at here.  

There are cultural performances in the lobby every night.  Sort of hokey and touristy but entertaining none the less.  There is something about watching people with rhythm and talent dance that just reinforces all my personal goals having to do with never dancing in public.  Then there is the fact that is 90% and these guys are putting effort into dancing while I am having a drink.  Why is watching other people exercise so satisfying.

By the way I thought I would stop and explain quickly to everyone exactly how I find myself to be in Malaysia.  My school is part of the East Asian Council of Overseas Schools (EARCOS for short).  Basically a huge organization that fosters collaboration and professional development for tons of the schools in Asia.  They give several huge conferences around Asia throughoutthe year.  What does this have to do with me?  Not knowing what a big deal this was I made a proposal and auditioned a presentation to the administrators in my school.  I thought that it would be good practice for me.  They decided to let me recommend to EARCOS that I be a presenter at this conference.    EARCOS agreed and so here I am in Malaysia surrounded by beauty but with a rather sinking feeling in my stomach that I have bitten off way more that I can chew.  People here know things, have lived abroad for twenty years and taught for thirty.  Yes, I am feeling intimidated!

I probably should try not to worry about that too much…  Perhaps I should change the subject to distract myself… 

The best thing about attending these conferences is the fact that you get to meet so many interesting people from all over teaching at schools all over Asia.  It is amazing how close such a community is an how everyone knows everyone else even though we work in many many different countries.  And yet with all that there are still reminders of where you have been.  One of the sponsors of this conference was Buff State.  Yes, that Buff State.  I find it fascinating that today I was in Malaysia talking to a man from Amherst and discussing the fact that he and I went to rival high schools.  The schoolteacher in my wants to find some sort of lesson in that but the realist in me just chalks it up to the fact that I have a very odd life.