Saturday, February 05, 2011

Monkeys and fish and things

Proboscis Monkey

Today we got up later than yesterday, partly because we had no more damnfool ambitions to walk up a hill in the rain to look at the back of a shopping centre, and partly because I'd stayed up too late reading The Informant.  Another of the books brought over from Canada checked off my list.  After half an hour of unsuccessful meddling with my laptop's recalcitrant wi-fi connection at The Coffee Bean, Malaysia's Starbucks-a-like, we took a taxi out to the zoo at Lok Kawi.

It's not a very large zoo; to walk around the whole of it took us a couple of hours, including lots of pausing for photographs. It doesn't cover much area, and there aren't that many animals; if I were to compare to, say, Taipei's zoo, then there was a much narrower variety of species on offer, and the cassowary in Taipei looked in better condition than the one in Sabah.  Still, there were some animals I had never seen before, like the sun bear and the squirrel monkeys, and because the whole place is so small, there's a better chance to get closer to the animals.  You can't lob food to the elephants in Taipei. You can at Lok Kawi, although it is pieces of yam supplied by the zoo; I'm not saying that the principal benefit of Lok Kawi is that you can throw unwanted ice-creams, half-eaten hamburgers and containers of nasi goreng at confused pachyderms.

Still, with the low barriers at most of the enclosures, I get the feeling that an angry and determined animal would swiftly exact revenge on any junk-food-chucking humans.

Not that any of the animals were particularly determined. It was above 30 degrees, it was humid, the sun was out and nobody seemed that energentic. Even the ankole cattle were only half heartedly butting heads as we walked past to the botanical garden.

The botanical garden was probably quite nice when it opened a few years ago, but it feels that since then the zoo has allowed it to return to its previous state without any intervention. It is in the tropics, after all, so plants do grow, but I thought part of the benefit of a botanical garden with exhibits was to point out the exhibits, whether they were pitcher plants or ginger or rubber or bromeliads, not just a great big pile of vegetation. Ah well. How naive I was.
Sign, Lok Kawi Botanical Garden

The other unique feature of the botanical garden is the incredibly slippery pathway that runs through it. Clearly at least one person was busy, but their job was polishing bricks. The first part of the path isn't at all grippy, but once you've climbed up a couple of sets of stairs and are walking around the edge of a steep hillside, you suddenly find your feet sliding about in every direction, almost as if the botanical garden was a low-rent trap in a cheap Bond film, designed to dispatch the hero with the minimum of effort.

We didn't die, but it wasn't the most enjoyable of walks. Forsaking the joys of botany, we walked to the aviary, which had a few good-looking hornbills and the odd peacock, and then had the taxi that had driven us down to Lok Kawi drive us back to our hotel again.

That was only the morning, and more excitement lay ahead.  First we went back to the mall, and had a vaguely unsatisfactory meal at Kenny Roger's Roasters. The food wasn't awful, but the staff seemed a bit numb and vague, and a jacket potato should be at least the size of your fist, not smaller. Plus once again my laptop refused to cooperate with their wi-fi connection, which meant the real purpose of our visit (to check the weather forecast) was frustrated. Not that you really need a forecast in Kota Kinabalu at this time of the year - it will be hot, humid, and if it isn't raining, then you know it will be later on.  Still, everything is much more real when it's on the internet, isn't it?

In the afternoon, we found the same driver that had taken us to the zoo, and got him to drive us to the Green Connection, a new environmental centre on the other side of the hills to Kota Kinabalu.  This was a slightly ramshackle affair; again, nothing as grand and polished as the National Museum of Marine Biology in Taiwan, but it did afford several chances to get close up and personal.  Both my fiancee and I had a snake draped over our shoulders; I was surprised firstly by how heavy a snake is, and then by how some parts of its skin are quite rough, rather than being uniformly smooth and snake like.  We also saw a snakehead fish, which I had hoped would just be an enormous head, but was just another nasty looking fish, and then wandered to the reef tank, where the feeding of the animals was narrated by a slightly nervous Australian marine biologist, as inside the tank a chap in a wet suit brought out fish for the rays, sharks, green turtle and fish.
The Green Connection entrance

This was educational, and although it's lovely to see a fat turtle swimming through the water, it's rather depressing to find out that shark populations have gone beyond decimation in the last two decades - losing one in ten would be bad enough, but to end up with only a tenth of the sharks we had twenty years ago is really rather upsetting.  Especially as that's blamed on shark's fin soup, a fairly disgusting dish that people only seem to order to prove how rich they are, rather than because it tastes good.  Humans always seem to have some ability to prove themselves worse than hoped.  But at the same time, better than hoped - at least the people at the centre were doing their best to educate people to these threats and try to modify their behaviour.

We drove back to the town centre past some enormous stadiums, constructed for when Kota Kinabalu had hosted the Asian Games. There's so many different Asian Games that it's hard to track which is which - there's the East Asian Games, the South Asian Games, the something Asian Games in Guangzhou the other week (or was that the Asian Games). It's almost as though some canny concrete contractor with some surplus capacity has dreamed up a never-ending schedule of sporting events that need huge buildings, but that can't be the case, can it? I mean, a place like Sabah, with unemployment and low incomes really does need an Olympic swimming pool built miles from where everyone lives.

Not that I'm feeling irascible, mind. Having got back to Kota Kinabalu, we walked down to one of the other shopping centres, where we located Starbucks, the first place to have wi-fi that I could actually use, which I swiftly utilised to: learn about the etymology of Silvio Berlusconi's 'bunga-bunga parties', check my status on Facebook, and be pedantic on the blog of a British science-fiction writer about whether or not Hong Kong has a social-welfare safety net, or is a perfect example of unfettered capitalism. It's hard to say: we've got socialised medicine and some subsidised housing, but we've also got people in their seventies having to live in cage apartments and collect cardboard from the streets to make a living.  Maybe it's more like an experiment in neo-feudalism, with a very rich ruling class apart from the masses, and representative democracy like 17th century England, where large corporations get votes for the legislative committee and nobody wants to upset Beijing.  Plus for some random flavour the elders in the remote villages get to construct roads/build landfill sites/divert rivers without anybody telling them what to do. Oh, and there's a constant stream of immigrant workers, whether that's uber-bankers flying in for a couple of years or domestic helpers who have to live in rooms smaller than my old wardrobe.  I suppose that's different to medieval times.

Following that excitement, we booked a river cruise for tomorrow (more monkeys! MORE MONKEYS!), I reminded myself how I live in Hong Kong by haggling with a bored man in a camera shop before buying nothing, and then we got in an argument with a taxi driver who charged us 10 MYR to go half a mile down the road, on the basis that it should have been only 5 MYR and he was trying to con us, at which point he showed that the meter starts from 10 MYR, which left us scratching our heads in disbelief.  That's getting on for double what the meter starts at in Hong Kong, which is full of taxis being used all the time, whereas all taxi drivers in Kota Kinabalu spend their days sitting on the pavement, touting for business.  Could these things be connected?

Dinner at Little Italy; how I enjoy eating inappropriate cuisine when I visit a foreign country. Although the place looked to have lots of Malaysians in it, so perhaps it's quite correct to eat Italian food in Malaysia. Sadly, I'm betting I couldn't spend a week in Rome chowing down on nasi goreng and drinking 100 Plus. But what a bunga-bunga party that would be.


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