Tag Archives: environment

dark magic

ImageCoffee is one of my favorite things in the world. When I was in college, and young and stupid, I used coffee for its caffeine, which gave me the fortitude to pull all-nighters and write ridiculous papers in Spanish. As I got older, I fell in love with the sweet and creamy beverages at Starbucks, adulterating my coffee with sugar, cream, syrup, “flavor”, and whatever else they had on offer. To be fair, if you’ve ever had an actual cup of Starbucks coffee, you’ll understand the need to hide in amongst all the fluff. But Starbucks, not unlike the tobacco industry, has managed to create a brew that nearly doubles the traditional dosage of caffeine in a cup of coffee and in the process created a new generation of supposed “coffee-lovers”. Continue reading

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SONY DSCWhile in Cali, Colombia, I had the opportunity to spend the day at the zoo. Normally, that’s not my idea of how to spend the day while vacationing in another country, but much has been said about the zoo in Cali. While it’s not on par with San Diego and the like, I found it very interesting. One of the main draws is the focus on Colombian wildlife – sort of a catalog of the local flora and fauna. Colombia has an incredible biodiversity, and its recent history of violence and conflict has, for better or worse, provided an opportunity to preserve some of that. And more recently a number of foundations have cropped up to address social and environmental issues (though, one must be wonder where some of those foundations have come from…). Continue reading

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down to the last drop

It’s no big secret that Irish weather is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been particularly hard to deal with the past few weeks, with constant clouds, rain, snow, sleet, hail, and the coldest, most biting wind ever. However, the past few days has brought a dry spell (and mostly sunny skies), which would normally be great news. Except, for reasons I am still trying sort out, the dry spell has coincided with water rationing. Continue reading

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the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others.   In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that.   Do you know what palm oil is?  Most people don’t.  But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form.  It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course.   It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins.  It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers. 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone?  Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods…. and not much in the way of nutritional value.   Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees. 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo.   As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful.   You see palm fruit lying on the ground.  Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze.  But no undergrowth.  No birds. No monkeys.  No elephants.  In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant. 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery.  Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks?  Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons.   But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

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malaysia, truly asia

So a week in Borneo, and I’m finally getting around to an update here.  It’s been pretty hectic – we really packed it in this time, mostly because my friend is only here for the week.  And I want to spend more time in Sarawak, so we planned back-t0-back adventures here in sabah.

And adventures they were.  First, we climbed Mt Kinabalu, all 4000+ meters of it.  As usual, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and the 2 am ascent to summit before sunrise was a bit of a surprise for me.  But totally doable, because we were just coming off a full moon so the landscape was lit up beautifully (once we cleared the jungle and were on the bare granite).  It was not the easiest climb, but coming back down was much much harder (still waiting for that bionic knee surgery….).The sunrise was stunning.  I got a few decent pictures, tried not to freeze, and generally just enjoyed being on top of the world (or, at least, Sabah).

Then back to KK, in time to pack, drop off laundry, and get some sleep before an early wake-up to head to the airport to fly to Sandakan.  In Sandakan, bleary-eyed and quite sore, we cabbed to Sepilok, and Uncle Tan’s B&B, where we dropped our bags and headed out to see the orangutans at the sanctuary.

My little secret:  I LOVE LOVE LOVE orangutans.  They are absolutely adorable, like little orange grumpy old men.  If they wore clothes, you know it would be golf pants pulled waaaaay up.  Too cute.  Got a couple good pix, and then headed back to Uncle Tan’s for some lunch, and our transfer out to the Sungai Kinabatangan.

The Kinabatangan is the largest river in Sabah, and used to be deep in the jungle.  Nowadays it’s more like deep in the palm plantations (let me take this minute to note: palm oil = bad!  stop buying it!).  Still you really feel like you are far away from civilization, sitting in a jungle camp in the middle of nowhere next to a muddy river.

But Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Camp likes to make you feel like home.  Though sometimes, I felt a bit like I was back in UB, what with the karaoke singalong.  Minus the absurd humidity.  And heat.  And bugs.  And water.  And, ok, not like UB at all.

It’s a lot like summer camp, in that the guys that work there act a lot like camp counselors – singing songs, taking you on nature walks, boating around running into sandbars, and cooking some pretty freakin’ awesome food.   Also, they told me I look like Preity Zinta, and who doesn’t love a guy who says things like that?

We saw lots of wildlife, and got really lucky on our expeditions.  Plus my group of “elephants” was pretty damn cool.

Tomorrow…. Kuching!  Goodbye Sabah!

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unintended consequences

For anyone who has read the LP guide to India, the Kerala section mentions that the state government has been off-and-on Communist.  Apparently, the relatively high rates of literacy and other social indicators can be attributed to this phenomenon.  But so, apparently, can the high rate of alcoholism and suicide, because communism stifles ingenuity and people turn to substances and death out of despair.

The solution, it seems, is to build up Kerala’s tourism sector, and because they are all communists, everyone gets a piece of the pie.  Seems so easy…..

And as always, the unintended consequences raise their ugly heads.

The push for tourism has been quite successful – it is high season now and we see a lot of tourists here.  The tourism board has created a great system, and are very helpful.  Kerala is a wonderful place to travel.

Too wonderful, maybe.  Because Kerala’s highlight is the backwaters, miles of rivers and lakes that stretch parallel to the ocean, and lend themselves to lazy canoe rides and houseboats.  The houseboats are simply bigger canoes with coverings, but at some point, some enterprising soul discovered he could put an outboard motor on one, and run trips overnight.  And of course, putting the motor on the boat meant they could get larger now.

So, for about 100 bucks, you and your sweetie can lounge on the deck of a boat while a chef cooks you meals and you motor down the river for a day or so.  You, your sweetie, and about 1000 other people, that is.  Because the houseboats all leave from Alleppey, and the channel is only so big, and at any given moment, you can stand on a jetty and watch about 10 massive boats pass you by, their motors churning the waters and leaving chaos in their wake.

And diesel residue.  So the channels are polluted now, and the government in their infinite wisdom has walled the channel to prevent flooding, thereby killing the last of the mangroves.  And so, while tourism provides jobs and livelihoods, tourists kill the ecosystem.

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