Punta Banco: saving turtles and feeding souls

2009, me and a gazillion other worker-bees were laid off. I hadn’t found a job in 6 months and honestly, It was making me bonkers. I needed out of NYC in a big way, but could barely afford my grocery bills at Zabar’s. So I got the brilliant idea to volunteer in a place that wouldn’t cost us much to live or get to.

Honestly, it was the best idea in my life. For 9 days, Jonah and I shed our materialistic desires, and as volunteers of Pretoma living in the local field station, we transformed into “the turtle people.”

During the days, the guys who worked with Pretoma took us around…Alej borrowed a couple of horses from his neighbor and took us on a long ride up to his uncle’s farm. Freddie, arranged to go out fishing in a pongo with a bunch of his fisherman friends. And mini-pini, our little dog friend, showed us the best tide pools. I swear.

As I look back on those times, I think, “Damn girl, you did good!” We got so much more than we bargained for. What was meant to be a “cheap” little escape, turned out to be a life changing event.  A life changing event definitely worth repeating.

Kuala Lumpur: Get a taxi and achieve nirvana

After  2 weeks of Mosquito nets, cold showers, and lousy hotels , I was ready to come back to civilization and embrace my inner princess. And since I was feelin’ flush with a strong dollar, I booked our last 2 nights in Malaysia at the Traders Hotel.  Our fully loaded room overlooked the Petronas Tower.

And along with the Sky Bar, a sexy glass enclosed penthouse with pool, bar, jacuzzi and the works, Trader’s was worth every penny.

But, we only had 2 days left in Malaysia and there was loads to do. I did what any NYer would do. I made the taxi fleet of KL my best friend. So now, let me digress for a moment. Don’t get caught up going to the endless shopping malls. We did and you can get most of this junk in New York. In terms of designer stuff, no bargain. If you must, Petronas Towers and KLCC is worth a stop. That being said, head over to Central Market for the last chance to open up your wallet and spend, spend spend. We brought home gorgeous weavings, sarongs and antique posters. They also have some tribal stuff too. More pricey,not as good as Kuching. But, it’s a backup.

Besides taking care of our shopping addiction, we had to do our last Malaysia hurrah of foodie stops. For breakfast, we had taxi man take us to the Imbie market for some noodle and skewer things. Totally authentic and quite a bit off the tourist trail.

For lunch, a stop in Little India at Sagar. I ate way too much of best indian food I ever tasted.

And for dinner…we went upscale  at Mythai Jim Thompson. (Drop dead thai food). By the way, that’s where I told Jonah “he was every child’s worst nightmare” because he wouldn’t stop bugging me about eating with my left hand in a classy place. Sure, let’s see him try changing it up for someone else’s custom. Not easy my friend.

Day 2, we jumped into our transportation of choice, yes, a taxi, and  headed out to the Batu Caves.

Having watched 1000 times, the “No Reservation” episode where Anthony Bourdain channels George Harrison at the caves, there was no way I’d leave Malaysia without doing the same. The big question is, how would little ol’ us without a producer and crew reach George Harrison nirvana?

Step 1: Use Jonah as a “such a nice boy” prop, and make friends with random Hindu lady.  It worked. Random hindu lady graciously volunteered to guide us through the steps of  buying our offerings to getting our blessing in the Temple cave. Step 2: give yourself  2-3 hours at the caves then head back to the Sky Bar to complete full nirvana. OMMM!

Sandakan: Orangutans, elephants and cockroaches, Oh my!

Going to Borneo without seeing an Orangutan or a Pygmy Elephant would be like going to NY and not seeing a show. Fuggedaboudit! So, I booked a trip with S.I.tours and Jonah and I were off to Sandakan. Our first stop… Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Look, it’s amazing to see these “jungle men” up close, but being part of a pack of 100 tourist following 2 apes in love is not my idea of being one with nature. If you’ve been to Semenggoh, cross this stop off the list.

After our brief stop at Sepilok, we (us plus 30 odd tourists) piled into boats to be shuttled to our various river lodges. Jonah and I were dropped off first, and get this, we were the ONLY ones staying at the Abai Jungle lodge.

Mostly because it was new and promoted as “eco”. We planted trees, visited a village and did the wildlife thing. Most tourist JUST do the wildlife thing. So, it was us and the staff. And since no one else was there, why cook? They took us across the river to Abai village and we had a traditional dinner with the locals; homemade Malaysian food, served on a banana leaf and we ate with our hands. Caveman Jonah really dug this style of eating. I dug the whole authentic thing. After 2 nights in Abai, we moved on to the Kinabatangan River Lodge where there were actual tourist and forks.

The Kinabatangan River Lodge is like a summer camp in the Catskills.  The day trips are like a down-sized African safari experience on a river. You go out on an expedition early morning and late afternoon to catch prime time viewing of the animals.

There were no more than 6 of us in a little boat. Seeing magnificent wildlife puts you in a terrific mood and fueled great chatter on the boat and at mealtimes.During our last lunch at the lodge, old couple from London convinced young German newlyweds, that they’d never see a rare sighting of Pygmy elephants on their last boat outing and having seen enough primates, they should go to the stinky Gomantong caves.  Now, I heard from my boatman who has a little network with all the other lodge boatmen on the river, that there was a “rumor” that an elephant herd was heading towards the river waaay up north. There was no way in hell that if this was true, me, Ms. “Obsessed with elephants” was going to miss this event. My NY instincts were right.

Those poor newlyweds honestly thought I was yankin’ their chain when we regrouped at dinner and I said we saw a herd of 70 pygmy elephants coming down to the river! Until I showed them the pics. (I did feel a little bad).

The next day we left the lodge and stopped at the Gomantong Caves on the way back to Sandakan. Now, if you’re a voyeur like me for odd and disgusting things, the caves are once in a lifetime opportunity. And once is ALL you’ll need. Here’s what awaits you: A million pooping swiftlet birds that make a highly valued Asian gourmet delicacy of nests from bird spit. There are also a zillion bats, mountains of bird and bat crap and more cockroaches than can fill an entire NY subway system. The stench is as bad as 5-day-old garbage rotting on the sidewalk waiting for a pickup during a hot August heat wave.

The lesson here?  Be zen with wildlife and have patience for a possible pygmy elephant viewing. It’s well worth the wait. And if I managed pique your morbid curiosity, DO NOT swap it out for a jaunt on the river.