Markets, Palaces, Ballet and a Change of Guides

May 30. This morning, after an elaborate buffet brunch at the hotel, we meet our guide, Imam, and walk the short distance to the market. The city is pretty much overrun with motor bikes, which dominate the traffic, buzzing in and out.
Miraculously there seem to be few, if any, accidents. Everyone does adhere to the helmet requirement, except small children who are often helmetless at the front of their parents’ bikes.
We walk to and through the busy marketplace, which resembles closely markets we’ve seen the world around. I’m quite happy, though, to be photographing human subjects who do not need to be spotted through binoculars.
From the market, we drive to the Kraton, the walled compound that is the heart of the old part of the city and once the palace of Yogyakarta’s sultans. We are shown around the palace grounds, and told probably more than we need to know about the ten sultans that Jogy has had, by a woman who has been doing the tour for forty years.

The current, tenth, sultan is also the governor of Jogy, which differentiates him and makes him a good deal more powerful than other sultans/kings around the country who are pretty-much figureheads. A problem is about to occur, though, because the sultan has produced only daughters, five of them, who are not eligible to take over. The sultan is trying to change this, but is meeting resistance. 

 From there we move on to the Sono Bodoyo Museum, which has an excellent collection of Javanese masks, textiles and puppets. We also hear some men playing musical instruments. My efforts to photograph them are only somewhat successful, though, because somebody was blocking my view.

Here is one of the guards at the museum.

After the museum, we walk for awhile,  encountering a street barber

We are all done in by the heat and humidity and only want to be driven in our air conditioned car to an air conditioned restaurant.  We actually have an excellent Chinese meal.  After lunch, we visit a place where batik textiles for which “Jogja” is famous are being made.  
The Lewises do some damage in the adjoining store, but Carol and I escape unscathed.  Michael does manage to photograph us, though, beneath a sign that has misspelled our last name
We return to the hotel, where Carol goes down for a massage, and I shower and blog.

We meet the Lewises for drinks, and then are taken out to dinner and the ballet by Imam. Though he was scheduled to be with us for the remainder of our time in Indonesia, tonight is Imam’s last night as our guide. On the ride from the airport to our hotel last night, I was very concerned about our ability to understand Imam. The Lewises were considerably more forgiving, but I convinced them to let me email our travel agent to give her a heads up about a possible problem and to ask her to begin to make contingency plans, should we find that he was not comprehensible today. By late afternoon, I told the others that I thought we had to work much too hard to try to understand Imam and that this made our time stressful and not enjoyable. They agreed.
Our travel agent had already emailed us back, thanking us for alerting her promptly to the potential problem and saying that she would contact the local agency and have them call us to see how our day had gone. I got a call around 3:45 from the head of the local agency and I told him that we were not satisfied with our experience. He was very understanding and, within 45 minutes, called back to say he’d found an excellent replacement, describing her as the only Javanese woman he knew who spoke English with an American accent.  He’d found another guiding job for Imam, so he would not be out anything financially.  I think that this is a good and appropriate result.  We are entitled to expect excellent guides on the high-end  trips that we plan.

Here are a couple images from the ballet concert this evening, which I thought was the longest hour and a half of my life, but Valerie loved and Carol liked elements of.  Michael shared my view but later said that, in retrospect, he was glad that we had gone.  The best that I could say was that I was glad that he was glad that we had gone.

To Indonesia

May 29. View from our hotel room is not too shabby.
After breakfast at the club room at the hotel, we are transferred back to the airport for our full day’s journey (with stops in Singapore and Jakarta) to Jogyakarta on the island of Java in Indonesia. Check-in goes fine in the Kota Kinabula airport and our bags are checked through to Jakarta, where we’ll need to clear customs and recheck for the last leg. Only worry is a close connection in Singapore, which turns out not to be a problem.  In Jakarta, besides claiming our luggage, we need to take a bus to another terminal and find the right place to check in.  Both the Singapore and Jakarta airports make major US airports look like they’re in Third World countries.

One does encounter cuteness at airports

and constant evidence of globalization (though they would not accept payment from the Starbucks app on my iPhone)
Right outside the Kota Kinabalu airport is a very large sign with a picture of The Colonel and the words, “finger lickin’ good.”  Masks are rather common for our fellow passengers, such as this couple across the aisle.

And Michael travels light, with his camera equipment.
These travel days are a necessary element of the types of trips we do and are likely to remain so, until the advent of time travel. They’re a drag, and can be very tiring, but there is no way around them. In this case, the travel day serves to delineate the two parts of our trip–nature and culture. Though the others may disagree, I think we’ve done enough nature for this trip, and I’m ready for culture.

At breakfast this morning, we marveled with the Lewises about the range of skills our birding guide, Azmil, displayed. For starters, it takes incredible eyesight even to spot the tiny birds we were searching for. Once spotted, the identification of the particular bird in a split second is remarkable. Identification requires knowledge of the likely places and heights which various birds inhabit. The types of flight patterns of birds and their calls provide clues as to their identity. To recognize bird calls, one needs a keen ear and knowledge of which birds make which sounds. To locate the bird, it often helps to have the ability to reproduce its calls, either through whistling or through recordings. Then one also needs to be able to discern where the call is coming from. You need to be able to see the bird with your naked eye, then get it into your glasses and/or scope. Fine distinctions in size and shape and color, and details in various parts of the bird’s body are keys to identifying the particular bird and these details must be memorized for hundreds of birds. Finally, the guide must be able to describe to his guests just how and where to find the bird and tolerate the curses of (one of) the guests when he can’t find–to use the technical term–the fuckin’ bird.
On arrival in Jogjakarta, we are transferred to the Phoenix, a charming hotel in the heart of downtown. Our itinerary says about it: This graceful colonial landmark dates back to 1918. Its 144 elegant, spacious rooms have been beautifully restored, and each boasts a balcony and a delightful fusion of Asian and European d├ęcor. It is a tranquil oasis amidst the bustle and charm of Malioboro Street.

And, having checked in, I can confirm that the itinerary description is accurate.

 After a very nice dinner at the hotel, we settle into our comfortable, large and interestingly decorated rooms for a well deserved rest.


More Canopies and More Orangutans

May 28. We rise early for bird watching. Another lovely breakfast served to us by the river.  Here we are, with Jariah.
Azmil had in mind a walk along the road to spot birds, but we had another idea. We’d all enjoyed the canopy walk so much the other day that we wanted to do it again. Azmil readily agreed and the feeling of being among the trees was again magical, and we saw different birds than we’d seen the first time.  Here’s a bird, us in the canopy and Azmil carrying his scope.



The surprise highlight of the morning, though, was spotting orangutans in the wild three more times. We spent a good, long time watching a male, a female and a juvenile. Great fun. 

We were not alone in looking at the orangutans.

So, Carol and I have now been privileged to see gorillas in Uganda, chimpanzees in Tanzania and orangutans in Borneo. Each was a quite distinct and memorable experience, for which we are extremely grateful.
Back to the room to pack, download photos, etc. Up to the lodge for a buffet lunch, at which I discovered mini burgers and fries, having evidently missed them the other days. Damn.
After lunch, we say goodbye to Jariah and Azmil, both of whom enhanced our stay tremendously. We are driven the 2 1/2 hours back to Lahad Datu in air conditioned comfort (thank God; it’s in the mid-90s today) for our early evening flight back to Kota Kinabalu. 

We are staying at the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort, near the airport, a modern seaside resort on a beautiful beach surrounded by 25 acres of lush tropical gardens. Unfortunately, though, we won’t be able to enjoy the resort, because we leave for Indonesia around noon tomorrow.  
We have dinner in a Chinese restaurant in the hotel. Okay, but rather sketchy service.  The hotel is nice enough, very large and non-descript.  A first class hotel, but not the type we’d ever pick.  The rooms ARE air conditioned, though, and that makes up for other short comings.


Leeches and Orangutans in the Wild

May 27. We rise early for another private breakfast in our pavilion by the river, served by Jariah. We learn that Jariah is 25 years old and has been at the lodge for 2 1/2 years, her first job after college.
We set out through the very muddy forest. Azmil finds some interesting birds, including an owl, and some monkeys. The walk is rather frustrating, as besides the heat and mud, it’s sometimes difficult to understand Azmil, I find it extremely hard to get the sightings into my binocs and my glasses fog up frequently from the steamy weather. So, from time to time, instead of not seeing birds, I photograph what catches my eye, and does not move.

 And the leeches don’t help, either. Here’s a photo of one of the critters, and another of the back of Michael’s shirt with blood stains.  (Several leeches succeeded in drawing blood from me, too, but not as dramatic as Michael’s shirt.)

At one point, I slip in the mud and fall about 75 feet. Actually, it was more like two or three feet, and I was okay, though it could have been nasty.
After three hours in the forest, we head back to the lodge to see if we can find orangutans in the wild. It’s looking like we’re going to need to settle for seeing them at the rehab center, but, eureka, Azmil finds them and we trek into the forest to see them. As they’re high in the trees, it’s very hard to get a decent photo, but seeing them in the wild was a great treat.

As usual Jariah has cold drinks waiting for us, which we have by the river. Then it’s up to the room for wonderful and necessary outside showers. Back to the lodge for lunch, then down time until 6:30.

Azmil had planned a walk in the forest to find a bird called a frog mouth. Carol and Valerie go and find the bird, but I have had enough forest, so I opt to walk along the road to hunt frogs again. (Michael stays back to nurse his leech wounds.) Tonight’s frog pictures are better than last night’s (including one with a hungry snake eying it’s prey). If only I had another night, I probably could get some truly amazing frog shots.

Back to our rooms for another very good dinner, served outside by the river.  But the best part of the day occurs while we are asleep–Jariah cleans our muddy boots, and they await us the next morning.

An Interlude: Impressions from a Nightime Game Drive

This is not a normal post, as it attempts to capture my impressions of a single event that lasted only an hour and a half.
These photos were all taken on May 25, in a truck on a night drive from my seat behind the “spotter,” who shines an extremely bright light back and forth in front of the truck, hoping to find animals by catching the reflection of their eyes as the light hits them. For the passengers on a night drive, there is little to do, but sit, and little to see, except the sweeping light and the stars. So, I decided to occupy myself by taking photographs, which, because of the darkness had exposures of several seconds. I’ve selected some of the sixty or so photographs I took and offer them for your consideration, recognizing that many of you may not find them at all appealing.
I like them quite a bit, and I want to explain why. I love their random and abstract quality. I find them direct and surprising, even jolting. For me, they evoke a sense of the forest at night. I see the spotter as painter of these landscapes and, in the way that I choose to move (or sometimes try not to move) my camera during the exposure I feel as if l am painting the painter as he paints his landscapes.
I would love to get your honest reaction to these photos, if you would take a minute or two to give that reaction to me.