Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sense and nonsense, Malaysian style

Years ago, we visited a village in rural Malacca, to interview a lass who wanted to be our maid. All I can remember about the place now was that it was poverty-stricken (this was in 1971) and that the girl had a relative, a two-year old boy, who had been born with a severe case of cleft palate/hare-lip. I had never seen anyone like that before: surgery fixed kids up pretty smartly in the West.
We asked why it hadn't been done with this child, seeing as an operation would have been free of charge at a government hospital. The parents replied, "Oh, pity him, having an operation, going to a hospital. He's just a little boy. How can we do that to him? He would cry! It would hurt him!"

I tried to explain that the surgery needed to be done early, otherwise it would not be as effective. It was like talking to a brick wall. The maid only stayed 3 months, and then asked to be taken back because she was lonely for her family. I never found out what happened to the boy.

It had a profound effect on me, though. Up until that point I was all certain that one should respect other people's cultures and not drag them kicking and screaming into a world they didn't want to inhabit. That was the moment when I realised that ignorance and innocence often go hand in hand, and can have dire consequences. Do you think that boy, now a man of 35 or so, unable to speak clearly because he had an operation far too late (at whatever age they were finally took him to the hospital) thinks his parents were right? I doubt it.

That was the moment I decided ignorance is to be despised, no matter what it's cultural base. That was the moment I decided that there are some people who need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world, and damn their culture. If it stinks, why tolerate it? And when kids get hurt, it stinks.

When the wife of a Pakistani child-rapist is ordered by a tribal council to be given to the father of the girl he raped in retribution (today's paper), it stinks.

When 38% of Indian-Malaysian women suffer abuse (today's paper) it stinks.

The cultures that encourage those horrors should be tossed.

I am constantly amazed that Malaysians, who pay - let's say 50,000RM plus, and possibly a helluva lot more for a car - will then not bother to pay a couple of hundred ringgit to buy a car seat to secure their small children properly.

Every time I open up the paper and read of kids dead in road accidents, I wonder if it was one of those children I saw standing up in between the front seats of the car, chatting to Mummy and Daddy. Or sitting on Daddy or Mummy's lap in the front seat.

Brake suddenly, and child goes headfirst into the windscreen, a little flying three-year-old missile hurtling into oblivion ... all for the want of a little common sense and a little less ignorance.

But sometimes I wonder if people have any sense. It's certainly not common. They'll call in a feng shui specialist to tell them the most ridiculous load of garbage on how to save their marriage by rearranging the house furniture, or how to get rich by flushing the loo a different way so your luck won't run away. And they believe the con artists who tell them that feng shui is a science and offer to advise them using age-long wisdom...

People get rich on feng shui, certainly. But it's not the gullible idiot who pays for advice that ends up in the money.

What happened to rational thought? Down with ignorance and the culture that spawns it. Every society (including Western ones) needs to look at itself and decide what is culturally worth keeping, and what should be thrown out.

Tropical Temper Rant over...

[Pix from Danum: a pill millipede and an agamid lizard, plus the rainforest.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Recovering from one month travelling

I find myself horribly lazy since I returned from our one month marathon and the many miles we walked over varied terrain, most of it rough. I have stopped taking painkillers, so my arthritic joints (which are just about all of the joints I have) immediately began to screech their protest. I am resisting resorting to the anti-inflammatories again now that I am once more relatively sedentary, but they won't lie down and be quiet, alas.

And I am endeavouring to write up the project report, but somehow it seems dull after the real thing. Who wants to write about marketing rainforest avitourism when the reality of the forest - the hot, sweaty, damp moulder of the fecundity, the glorious profligacy of the exuberant growth, the fragile perfection of the minutiae of the little things, the sheer wondrous beauty of it all, is there in memory. How can you reduce it down to dry words for a government report?

So what am I doing instead? Putting photos of Danum up on my blog, that's what... Sharing it with you.

There's the road into Danum, and the wonderfully lazy bearded pig who wandered out of the rainforest one day and decided that kitchen scraps are much tastier than earthworms rooted for along the forest floor.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

When a book smells bad...

Запах Зла

The Russian translation of Gilfeather (Book Two of the Isles of Glory) is, well, I suppose Russia.

I know this because I found an online site advertising it. They have the blurb up too. So, of course, I babelfished. And found out that in Russian, it is apparently called...


Book Two of the Isles of Fame

No, I am not kidding. For those of you who read Russian, here's the cover. The resolution is woeful, but that's all I could find. It kinda looks like a couple of hunks on the front, though. And all dressed in Star Fleet uniforms?

The Babelfish doesn't do too well with the translation, I fear, because the blurb supposedly says the story "takes place in the archipelago, populated by eleven people" and is all about whether "naemnitsa Bleyz force, which has donated confrontation magic, and her satellites - printsessa-koldunya and fats izgnannik-ubiytsa - time combat forces and Light, and with the strength Tmy? Read the second book of fascinating fentezi-sagi author of "Star of Hope".

Yes, quite.

Now I know I tend not to write trilogies that have a cast of thousands, preferring rather to dig deep into the psyche of fewer characters, but a whole world with only eleven people? That's a bit extreme, even for me. And I'm blessed if I remember calling any character "fats izfnannik-ubiytsa".

I quite like being referred to as a "fascinating fentezi-sagi author" though. It has a certain ring to it, don't you think?

Update: Thanks to Tsana I have a better translation (see the comments section) and a better pix (see above). I am still trying to work out just who those two guys on the cover are and where they are off to...they look like they just stepped out of a Miles Vorkosigan novel...

And thanks to you, Tsana - I have just discovered that for the first time anywhere, my NAME is larger than the book title!! Wow, I must be doing ok in Russia! As the Russians don't pay me any royalties, but make an outright purchase of Russian rights, I never have the slightest idea of what the print run is, or how many they sell.

Why I don't write books set in Malaysia

Often, I was asked questions structured like this: "In the book you call poor people sad fuckers. Isn't that anti-poor?" And I'd explain that in the book a character calls some poor people he encounters sad fuckers, and that is different from me saying that of all poor people. Then the next question would be, "In the book, you say that Muslims are terrorists..."

The above quote is from an Lj post by Nick Mamatas about what happened when he talked about his latest book Under My Roof at a US community college. Quite frankly, what he said was frightening - but I know what he faced. I have heard the same sort of thing in Malaysia about my own work from people who really ought to have known better.

I showed my first writing about Malaysia to locals, university graduates - I thought would know what writing a novel was all about. I was staggered to find that they thought everything that the female protagonist thought and did and heard was straight out of my own life, opinions and all. The protagonist was an Australian woman married to a local, ergo, she was me, and her thoughts and prejudices were mine, even though the story was patently fictional.

Malaysia back then was not mature enough to be able to take criticism in its stride, and educated readers, even people involved in university education, were apparently not sophisticated enough to see the difference between writer and what was written, not when there were so many parallels between writer and protagonist. I was nonplussed.

That was when I realised that if I wrote an honest novel (not some fluffy "isn't it lovely" thing) I would be in deep trouble, both with the my in-laws and in the wider world. So I opted for a quieter life. I set my books in an imaginary place and now rarely discover if the reader sees his own world reflected back at him. (And I have had to learn not to fume when someone, unintentionally insulting, says, "You write so well, Glenda! Why don't you write a proper book?")

Have things gotten any better? I don't think so. Too many people here still don't think logically. A minister gets upset by what a blogger writes, so he calls all bloggers liars. Criticize anything Malaysian and you get called disloyal and unpatriotic. Tell the truth: "I am not a Muslim" when one of your parents was a Muslim, and you get your 15 month child taken from you while you are incarcerated for a year of brainwashing to make you see the truth. (Does anyone know what happened to that poor lady Siti? I have been out of touch with the news for a month...)

So I cringe when I read Nick's experience. If they can't get it right in the USA, what hope has Malaysia got?

More from Nick's Lj post:

Finally, someone said, "Well, what were we supposed to learn from this book!" and I said "Nothing." Later I was able to explain that good novels ask questions; they don't provide answers.

Someone complained,"If a kid reads this, he may start thinking." (I should say that that last was from an ESL student; he may not have meant to express his comment as an eventuality to be dreaded.)

But the best was when someone asked me about research and telepathy and I explained that I didn't research telepathy as it doesn't exist, so I just made the powers up and one woman finally blurted out, "So...this book is a FANTASY!!"


And here's some pix to cheer you up: flowers taken in the rainforest of Kinabalu Park, Poring. No idea what they are, but they were lovely.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Great Argus displaying: a blog entry for birders...

The photos are a bit out of order I'm afraid, so I have explained what they are as we go along...

Remember what I said about the camera acting up at crucial life moments? Ok, so most of you will not regard an Argus Pheasant practising his courtship dance steps A Big Thing in your progress through life, but then, most of you are not birders.

These are lousy photographs of a wonderful experience. Most of the time I was watching, not snapping photos. And believe me, it was a superb moment in my life, and not one I ever expect to have again.

The Great Argus is a forest bird, not easily seen unless it has been habituated to the presence of humans. This particular bird (photo 5 for my best shot) chooses to clear his dancing ground (photo 2) on a path through the Danum Conservation Area not far from the Danum Rainforest Lodge, which means that he has to put up with people passing by from time to time.

In between times, he industriously cleans his stage, and flicks away the leaves that fall on it. (photo 4) He's a rather inefficient housekeeper, flicking leaves upwards until they more or less accidentally fall outside his performance area (bit like like a guy who has never handled a broom tackling a dusty floor...)

Then he hops up on to a log and calls, throwing his head back and giving vent to a repeated loud ringing wow-wow that would be enough to have you jump out of your leech socks if you weren't expecting it. (Photo 3)
And that, really, is about the very most a birder could ever expect to see.

So it was an enormous privilege to be able to watch - repeatedly - a male practice his dance for an absent female, possibly prompted into this display by a rival male approaching, calling as it came.

He started with a sort of ballet-dancer run, shivering his feathers out fluffily as he went. (For some absurd reason I was reminded of the dance of the cygnets from Swan Lake when the dancers skitter along on their toes n tiny steps...)

And then he began his dance.

(Photo 1. In this photo he is facing me, with his head visible as a whitish spot. His wing feathers - right side outwards with ocelli displayed - surround him, while his tail feathers are visible to the left. Photo 7 is next in sequence, where he has turned side-on, to the left, lowering his head.)

He bowed his head and raised his magnificent wing feathers to display the ocelli, whipping his long tail feather backwards and then straight upwards like a banner over his back....then he flexed his feathers so that I think we are looking at the underside of the feathers (photos 6, 8 & 10 ) He was suddenly no longer bird, but a galleon under full sail, a magnificent vessel with all flags flying, turning this way and that, offering his splendour to an enraptured audience of four, for whom he cared not a whit - alas, the true object of his dance, a female, was nowhere in evidence.

For an hour we watched as he danced, not once, but four or five times. I'd love to think he did it for me, even as I know that's not true - because perfect moments are things you will carry with you the rest of your life, and for me, this was one of them.

And there are people who would destroy the rainforest?
They know not what they do.

Two final photos : enlargement s of the previous one, showing the tail feathers raised on the left and the wing feathers to the right, also seen in enlargement. The birds's head is hidden. Alas, the true technicolour of the display was lost in my camera's attempt to cope with dark understorey conditions.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I am back In Kota Kinabalu. For a while.

After one one month of continuous travelling - no more than 3 nights in any one place - from the Thai border to Borneo and nine states of Malaysia (missed out Terengganu, Perlis, Kedah and Penang), I have made the following discoveries:
  • Staring out a plane window and seeing what Mankind has wrought can be a sobering experience.
  • Don't buy teh tarik at Lahad Datu airport - they use tea bags. Sacrilege!
  • FAX airlines alters the time of departure of flights with monotonous regularity.
  • Bornean leeches are worse than Peninsular ones.
  • Sand flies don't need sand to survive.
  • Horse flies don't need horses, either.
  • Sarawak should never have been called the Land of the Hornbills.
  • Mulu has the loveliest dragonflies. And their butterflies aren't bad either.
  • Don't ever accidently lean your forearm on top of a hairy caterpillar.
  • My knees like climbing mountains a lot less than I do.
  • Cold water showers at 1,500m (5,000') are no joke.
  • If a camera is going to give you problems, it will be when you are trying to photograph an experience you will never have again, especially one that very few people ever get to see.
  • The harder you work to see something, the better it seems when you see it.
  • Dawn is the best time of day.
  • If you want to lose weight, don't travel with two guys who like biscuits.
  • Frustration is going to an internet cafe and trying to open up a file from your publisher of your new book cover - and discovering the computer won't let you.
  • Mount Kinabalu is a very large mountain.
  • Sunset on a canopy walkway is a magical moment.
  • One month of travelling is VERY tiring.
  • Malaysia is truly one of the best places on earth when it comes to natural scenery and fascinating things to see.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Rainbow Round the Sun...

Just passing through Kota Kinabalu. Got in from Poring by car a while back, and almost on our way to Danum, on a dying airline (the domestic-run of FAX). Same airline we took to Mulu - I just love planes where they ask the four passengers to sit on opposite sides of the aircraft to balance it!

We just had time to do the washing and buy another member of the team a new pair of walking shoes (so I'm not the only one who needs to make a mileage claim on footwear), before giving a talk at the Malaysian Nature Society Sabah branch, and then repacking. I have to be up at 4.30 a.m and it's now midnight...groan.

Anyway here are some more photos from Kinabalu Park. The sun had a rainbow around it for about three or four hours the other day. Surreal. Photos don't do it justice.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Once, I climbed a mountain...all 4,095m / 13,435'

Just checking in briefly from a tiny internet café in a place called Poring, where people come to soak their weary muscles in the hot springs after ascending Mt Kinabalu. We aren’t soaking, even though we did walk part of the way up the mountain in search of the Friendly Warbler (unsuccessfully, I might add). I took great pleasure in occasionally passing trekkers half my age on their way to the first leg of the summit…

not too often, I will admit, but there were some I could leave behind.

I first climbed Kinabalu back in the days before there were toilets on the way up, or those beautifully graded steps, or that restaurant at the hostel at the edge of the treeline, or those warmed rooms. Now that was the way to climb a mountain. (I love being smugly superior about the "good old days", and "When I was young...")

In some ways I enjoyed our “half-climb” more than the real climb I made 25 years ago (twice, although I didn’t quite get to the summit of Low’s Peak the second time around). This time we had time to admire the view, to poke around off-trail, to hunt for birds and pitcher plants…

I love this mountain. I love the way it never looks the same two minutes in a row. I love the way the clouds smoke away the trees like wildfire, only to snag on the anvil-claws of the rock. I love the way it dominates, a stark heap of granite snatching at the sky, all uncaring arrogance, without care for puny humankind scrambling up its slope like ants.

I am glad I had the opportunity to be one of those ants all over again, twenty-five years later. It was a privilege.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Endau-Rompin Park, Johor.

I am having telephone line problems at home in Kota Kinabalu, so that is restricting my blogging.

And I have another 10 days of field work - to Kinabalu Park HQ, Poring, then Danum, before life becomes relatively normal again. Of course normal for me means writing reports and writing novels seven days a week, 14 hours a day... is there a different kind of life out there somewhere?

Nah, I'm not complaining. I love my life and I reckon the change between between fieldwork and typing is as good as a holiday.

Here are some photos taken in Endau-Rompin State Park in Johor... wonderful place. Quiet. Peaceful, especially after Taman Negara during a long weekend holiday. Pleasant birding. The remains of the bridge show all that was left after the recent Johor floods - so there can be another side to nature. We should never forget that, and when we become careless of the way we treat the world, floods like this one will be more frequent.
If you are a Malaysian, and don't belong to the Malaysian Nature Society (or to some a similar organization) - which works tirelessly to give you a better environmental future - then you should be ashamed of yourself. Visit their website and join. Today.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Should I claim on mileage?

I am back - briefly - in Kota Kinabalu. Off again on Tuesday, though, to Kinabalu Park and Danum Valley.

We have spent 3 weeks on the trail, and here's a picture that explains what that means.

Unfortunately, the trekking shoes gave up a full two days hike, plus a boat ride and an aeroplane ride away from the nearest shoe shop...

It really is remarkable what one can do with a couple of elastic bands plus the ties out of my leech socks, when the alternative is to wear a pair of flip-flops on wet and muddy paths. Of course, thereafter the leech socks wouldn't stay up, with not-so-good consequences...

I think I should claim sole mileage from my employer. Fortunately, though my soles may leave much to be desired, my soul is in good nick, thanks to the beauty and serenity of the places I have been.

More to come. Stay tuned. I have a lot of catching up to do - and apologies to all who emailed and had their email bounced back over the past week. Blame it on Viagra and the fact that I won an online lottery multiple times, all while I was internet-less in the forest.
Pix: Endau-Rompin Park, Johor.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Just when I think "I couldn't get a better review than this one" - I do just that. Get another review that knocks my socks off and leaves me humbled.

Writers love all good reviews, naturally - however, ones that not only dole out the praise, but which show that the reviewer has understood the subtleties of all the sub-story, well, they are rare indeed.

A nameless Canadian Lj blogger from Toronto, Bibliogramma, has left me humbled. Thank you, whoever you are. You just made my weekend...

I'd love to quote the whole review, but I shall be good and just put up bits and pieces...

The review begins like this:

"I’m really not certain how to begin praising Australian writer Glenda Larke’s Isles of Glory trilogy. Do I begin with her detailed and intricate world-building? Her skill in characterisation? Her original take on the whole business of magic? Her seamless incorporation of highly intellectual explorations of the psychology of perception, the social and personal functions of religion and the dynamics and consequences of colonialism into a damned jolly action thriller with a truly kick-ass, take-no-prisoners swordswoman? The structure of the trilogy that permits not only multiple perspectives on the action, each from characters with their own culture and personal philosophy, but also a metanarrative from another culture altogether? Larke’s novels are deceptively easy to read and enjoy, but so difficult to talk about. And they’re brilliant."

And ends like this:

"And I haven’t even mentioned the considerations of changes in gender roles, the horrors of religious intolerance, the nature of corruption, the necessary values of living an sustainable life in a fragile ecology, the challenges faced by stateless persons, or any of the other issues that Larke weaves into her narrative. Oh, and did I mention a great action adventure story, and a damned fine love story to boot, with realistic characters who aren’t always right, and aren’t always heroic, and don’t always save the day, or if they do, it’s not what they hoped it would turn out to be? Oh, just read the books. You won’t be sorry."

I'm speechless.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

National Park pix

Some rather haphazard photos from Taman Negara (National Park) in Pahang, where we went when we left Royal Belum. We came down through the centre of the Peninsula from Jeli and Dabong to Lipis, then drove in to the Park.

We stopped for a moment in Dabong - not a good idea as it has roads no bigger than a footpath and only one of them goes anywhere - to the railway station.

The most striking thing about the area was the state of the nearby river. The logging and clearances up in the highlands (I assume) have turned the river into a brown flow of mud. So much for the government's campaign on "Love our rivers". Oh yeah? Now just who was the campaign aimed at, I wonder?

I guess the fishing in Dabong is now, well, up to mud.

The other nasty thing I saw in the town was the sight of three tattered Oriental Magpie Robins (Murai), missing tail feathers and looking thoroughly wretched, all sharing a tiny hanging cage hardly 30 cm across.

Are the owners being deliberately cruel? Or are they just so ignorant and stupid they can't see the condition of these pathetic birds? And I'll bet they feed them rice, too. There seems to be a universal belief here that all birds eat rice. After all humans do, right?

There was very nearly a nasty scene of one middle-aged lady rampaging down the footpath to rip the cage to pieces, but - alas - in the end I was too much of a coward.

Photo 1 is the Tembeling River.

Photo 7 I took from the boat while we shooting the rapids on the Tembeling on my way back from interviewing the delightful lady who runs Nusa Camp, which is upriver from the main Park entry point. A moment later the engine died when we hit a log. The boatman got us to the bank where he straightened out the propeller with a hammer...

Photos 2 and 3 show a Tualang tree on one of the trails. The base is huge - note the relative size of the two guys on my team - and the top emerges high above the canopy of the other trees. Can anyone tell me why Malaysia doesn't make this magnificent species its national tree? It is even found in East Malaysia, where it goes by the name of Mengaris (I think that's the right spelling). The scientific name, Koompassia excelsa, seems to be appropriately impressive-sounding.

The next photo is of a liana, just cos I thought it beautiful, and the next two show some of the boats that scurry across the confluence of the Tahan and Temebeling Rivers like water beetles, conveying people between the cheap accommodation and restaurants on one side of the river, and the Park on the other.

Alas, the project budget did not run to the many-starred hotel in the Park for us. We stayed instead in a place with a glorious view, shared bathrooms - and no hot water. Who cares? I love Taman Negara.

It's late. More tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A map for reading?

Yesterday we came in from Taman Negara, Malaysia's premier National Park. Today the team leaves for another park, Endau-Rompin down in Johor state. Work, remember? All work, I swear. Back Saturday.

In the meantime, here's something to play with.

When you type in an author's name, it gives you the other authors you might like. No idea what criteria they use to make these decisions! It alters a bit from time to time, but basically, if you like Glenda Larke, you will love Alma Alexander, also Louise Marley and Judith Tarr (neither of whom I've ever read), and then Jenny Fallon, Trudi Canavan, Anne Bishop and some guy called J.R.R.Toliken (sic), etc. Even Guy Gavriel Kay is there...

More mysteriously, so is Dahl, Judy Blume and Amy Tan, although further away in the liking stakes. Hmm.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Royal Belum - so why don't you go there?

Astonishing beauty...
A boat dwarfed by rainforest exuberance...
Our boatman, Along, who put up with us always wanting him to stop and turn off the engine so we could focus on the birds...and who found us our last hornbill species at the eleventh hour. Here we are at the beginning of our journey, near the Banding Island bridge on Lake Temengor, Perak.
No roads in Royal Belum - none. You travel by boat or not at all.

Flowering Bongor trees edged the lake like purple lace...
Sometimes we walked inside the forest...

The view from my tent.
Our camp on the upper reaches of the Perak River.
Oh, and did I mention that we saw 10 species of hornbill in a day and a half? All identified by sight, not just sound?
And you know what the most amazing thing about that is? That no one else goes there to see.
There are a number of guides who have permission to take in tourists - only one of them (Hj Silah) does ecotourism tours (the rest take in fishermen to the area). And we were only the third lot of bird watchers that Haji Silah had guided in the thirteen years of his operation. Now that is truly astonishing.
And did I mention that we saw nine species of raptor? Lesser Fish-Eagle, Osprey, Rufous-bellied Eagle, resident Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Crested Goshawk, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Blyth's Hawk-Eagle - plus a couple we didn't manage to identify.
So, does paradise have its snake? Yeah, always. there was the little question of permits. And those ants ... more about that next time.
Contact: Silah bin Mohd Yusof : hjsilah at yahoo dot com