Wednesday 27 November 2013

Best Little Coffee Shop in Sandakan

It's been a little over a year since I have moved here and a lot of water has gone under the bridge as they say.  One thing that has been a constant though, is my bi-weekly walk to the coffee shop. Not just any coffee shop mind you, but the one and only Equator Coffee. 

The first time I stepped into this little oasis was on my first trip to Sandakan some 6 years ago.  On that occasion, the only thing that has stuck in my mind was that it was very busy ( 9.00 pm) and Lili seemed to know every second person in there.  I have no recollection of seeing the owners then, but I do remember the quality of the coffee and cakes.

Fast forward 5 years to the time I started to become a regular. 

Going to Equator for me is a 2 kilometre late morning walk and by the time I get there I’m hot and thirsty. 
Almost always, I am greeted by the proprietor, Vincent who is usually finishing off the preparation for the opening of the day's trade.  This place is spotless.  You won't find any dishes left on the table or a dirty coffee machine here.  Vincent and his wife are meticulous in the way they do their business.  In my experience, it’s the best in town for maintaining hygiene standards and the decor is both pleasant to the eye and functional.  In other words, clean and well kept.

Unlike most food outlets, you get a lot of attention from the owners.  No 18 year old running this show. Vincent is always on hand to make sure the customer is getting what he or she is paying for.  Never far away he observes his staff, making sure all is right.  He manages to do so in a manner that is attentive  and not intrusive.   An art that defines a quality establishment. 

Whilst Vincent mans the front, his wife Oi Len works untiringly in their small kitchen producing the multitude of scrumptious cakes that are on offer.  My waste line can testify to the quality.  

It would be amiss of me not to mention the other staff that under Vincent’s direction deliver an effective and efficient service in a polite and courteous manner. 

Service and quality are only a part of the reason I frequent Equator Coffee.   Being a foreigner to this land, it's difficult to come across someone who you can have a good constructive conversation in English with. Vincent is such a person whose life's experience through reading and travelling has given him a sound knowledge base on many subjects. The enduring conversations between us complement my daily coffee fix to perfection and for that I am eternally thankful. 

So, if you happen to be passing this way in your travels, go to Bandar Indah, Sandakan and ask anyone where Equator Coffee is, they’ll know.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Pollute or Not to Pollute ? That is the Question

I was sitting around a table with people I mostly didn’t know the other weekend when one of them asked me a question I have heard many times before. 

“What do you think of living here?” I gave my usual answer, along the lines, there has been many fine, interesting and intelligent people I have met, but I have found the general infrastructure of the area and degraded environment difficult to deal with.

Most agree with the former, but give me odd bewildered looks about the latter or as some have verbalised “It's the illegals' fault.”  In other words," It's not my fault it’s like this." 

The impression I get is that the state of the domestic social environment hardly enters most locals' consciousness and is generally not thought of as a concern that they should be bothered with.  Is this so? Or are there other factors in play here.

In this short spiel, I would like to explore the possible reasons that may be behind this.  I want to particularly concentrate on litter (plastic / paper) and used cooking oil.  These two items apart from being the most common forms of pollution in built-up areas are the most obvious visually and in the case of oil, in a olfactory sense.  It must be stated this is a problem encountered in many parts of the world and not exclusive to here. 

If one is to walk around town, it quickly becomes apparent large amounts of inadequately disposed rubbish are lying around in the streets and side alleys.  Some may have “escaped” the designated refuse collection areas but the vast majority of it is thrown there.  I have directly observed many instances of people dropping unwanted items on the ground without a second thought. The most notable was driving behind a car where a woman in the passenger’s seat proceeded to empty a waste paper basket full of old fruit scraps and plastic bags onto the side of the road as the car sped on.  Fortunately the fruit missed us but the plastic briefly obscured the driver's vision. What was she thinking?  Or more to the point, was she.

I have heard on a number of occasions that awareness to this issue is wealth dependant.  If you are struggling to make ends meet, you are hardly likely to be concerned about the finer details of rubbish management. On a higher level, the municipal department responsible for collection doesn’t have the money to do the job properly. I can understand this argument up to a point.  Nevertheless I think personal pride in living in a healthy and clean environment is a human virtue the majority of rich and poor would want to adhere to. 

The local council’s lack of public garbage bins is one of the major problems. The area I live in I can only think of 2 bins in general use -  hardly adequate.  Human nature dictates that people will not carry that used plastic wrapper longer than it takes to throw it on the ground. 

In the shopping areas, there are compounds that contain a large number of waste reciprocals but they are usually full, filthy and rat infested. In other words, the local rubbish collection system is at best under stress or at worst woefully deficient.  When the rains come and that is frequent in this part of the world, a lot of this refuge is washed into the open drain catchment system that eventually finds its way out to the open sea.  The drains not only carry hard waste but are polluted with used cooking oil. To my knowledge, there is little recycling of this oil, so most of it easily finds its way into the  storm water drainage system.  As you can imagine, this elicits a putrid odour that comes up from the drains permeating through most of the built up area. 

For me, the smell and sight are obvious but to most locals it doesn’t register in the same way.  I think it's an example of spending your life growing up with this situation, so it doesn’t seem at all unusual, it's just there in the background. Littering holds no perceivable personal guilt.  Programs about environmental awareness don’t appear to go beyond the school yard with no concerted social effort to mitigate the problem.  

Some of the possible solutions will not be palatable in a cultural sense.
Stilted dwellings over the sea are common here and emptying one’s waste products into the water is a given fact. What government is going to remove these people who in most cases have lived this way for hundreds of years?
The dilemma; a lifestyle that had minimal environmental impact in years gone by, but due to increased population pressure and consumerism  is now unsustainable.  In the past, throwing organic waste away on the ground or sea was not such an issue; plastic bags are.

Whats the answer then?  Education comes to mind but this process can be very slow if a generational attitude change is to occur.  An effective refuge collection and distribution of public bins around town is needed (ones with lids, so the rubbish doesn’t get blown about) or stronger policing of polluters based on the Singaporean model. Banning the plastic bag in supermarkets like many other countries forcing shoppers to use alternatives has shown to be helpful.   But I fear the political will doesn't exist here to implement such a policy effectively.

So, where does that leave us?  Nowhere really.  Human beings won’t change behaviour unless they are forced to or there are sound economic reasons to do so. Neither of these scenarios appear likely in the foreseeable future.    

Saturday 16 November 2013

State of Decay

The jungle path slowly winds its way onward and upward towards the summit.  Early rays of sunlight try desperately to penetrate the thick overhanging canopy.  What little light manages to filter through, illuminates the small pools of water that have settled after the morning's downpour.  Water continues to slowly find its way to the jungle floor, dripping and rolling from one leaf to another until it comes to rest on a thick carpet of dead vegetation.  The pitter-patter of large drips splashing on this decaying organic matter add to the early morning din of the forest sounds.  

The giant black Inch ants are busy in their organised military lines, moving this rotting material here and there to store for a future time of need.  

Small birds scream from one branch to another, chattering and darting in a seemly incoherent chaotic way.  High up, the hornbill glides from one treetop to another, the aerial king of the jungle announcing its presence by its harsh high-pitched squawk.

All this activity is conducted above the background sounds of the cicada, untuned violinists trying desperately to catch the rhythm and beat of the surrounding environment.   

Squirrels occasionally disturb this symphony as their daily struggle for survival means noisily scurrying around in search of food; their next parcel of energy.   

Air clings heavily around the mighty hard woods producing copious amounts of sweat for those intruding into their kingdom.

The narrow track continues its journey toward its final destination.

The deep greens of the jungle remain consistent throughout with only the subtlest hint of colour changes here and there in the fern beds that line the pathway.  Morning steam rising from the ground adds to the illusion of an awaking green giant, ready to face another day.

Nearing the summit produces an intensity of the tropical sun.   Strengthening light pierces the thinning canopy.  This place has a soul, a heart that beats continuously in harmony with its many parts.

A large sandstone boulder marks the top. One can easily climb this monolith to obtain an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area.

Dark black smoke appears in the distance blanketing the horizon. 

A forest fire maybe…? 
No, the smoke is not natural.  The factory that is producing it does so every day of the year. 
Looking around, all that can be seen from this supreme vantage point is manmade.  
We are sitting on top a green island surrounded by a sea of concrete. 

Both decay in time.

The forest breaks down slowly to give hope to the next generation.  The nutrients are used, reused in the never ending cycle of life. 

The concrete that makes up the factories and homes decays as well, into faded dreams and aspirations.  It ages with us until at some stage it no longer serves a purpose and disappears into the clouds of time.  Forgotten without a trace. This concrete jungle has no soul.
Living without life.   


Thursday 7 November 2013

Whether the weather is Important...

Before I came to live in South East Asia, I thought everyone was obsessed with the weather.  Little did I know that in this part of the world, no one bothers to look at the next day's forecast because it really doesn’t matter. 

In Sandakan, each day the temperature hovers around a high of 33 to 35 degrees and a low of 24, give or take a degree  with the chance of a thundery storm or two.  That’s it.  You could use the same forecast every single day of the year and 99% of the time be spot on. 

Apple and Android  have a hard time selling weather apps in this part of the world. 

Only diehards like me keep an eye on the weeks' weather predictions in the off chance a catastrophic event may manifest.  But this is the “Land Below the Wind”.  So as the name implies  nothing much happens out of the norm. 

In Southern Australia where in some places (Melbourne) you can have 4 seasons in one day, it can be a challenge to know what to wear - raincoat or sunscreen.  Not so here , t-shirts and shorts are the uniform of choice for me.

Some of us crave for endless summers that warm the bones and make us turn golden brown.  But not this little bunny. Give me cool dry air any day.  Hot and sticky is only appealing in a photograph  from a travel magazine.  Try going for a walk and becoming a ball of sweat within 50 metres - no siree.

I exercised a lot more at home because of the weather. If I go for a walk here it must start at sunrise and finish before 7 am if I want to feel at all comfortable. 

When rain arrives in Adelaide, it’s treated as a sense of occasion.  In a city with a rainfall of less than 600 mm a year, every drop is a godsend.  People’s whole attitude changes if it quenches their gardens and flows steadily into their water tanks.  Not quite dancing in the streets but close.  The farmers rejoice for another chance to pay off their bills to keep the wolves at bay.

Thundery squalls - lashing winds, torrential downpours, no one blinks an eye lid here for a place that gets over 3000 mm of rain a year. Water conservation, what's that? 

In places that are cooler than the tropics the topic of weather is very important.  It's used as a conversation starter. 

“Good morning, isn’t it bitter today? The wind rips right through you.” 

“What a beautiful day - spring is in the air.”

Boy meets girl.   “Ahh bloody hot today and by the way, I think you’re beautiful.”

Boy meets girl 2. “Your eyes are like this stunning Spring morn-  sparklingly clear and serene.”

Yes, beginning the day isn’t the same without commenting on the weather.

Beautiful sunset on a clear day

Monday 4 November 2013


Of course we don’t really know the answer to that question, but you must admit looking at the eyes makes you wonder what thought processes are going on. 

The scavenger / hunting-raptors have an evil element about them -  “I want you for dinner” look.  There is also an innate intelligence going on, finding food is all time consuming, so working on how best to achieve it makes up a greater part of their concentration. 

The pigeon's timid eyes on the other hand, state unequivocally, I’m a gentle creature that wants to mind my own business and potter around to find seed. 

The honeyeater's eyes look like the nectar they seek, soft and sweet.

The wide-eyed wise owl does indeed look like he is giving judgement on whatever he observes. 

The cockatoo's eyes project an image of a creature that is self assured and confident in the the way it acts and looks.

Guess work, speculation?  Undoubtably.
Oh, but what it must be like looking through those eyes soaring high above the earth seeing everything in minute detail; escaping the confines of terra firma. 

Maybe they are the ones with all the answers.

The Joys of Cattle Class or How I Wish I could Afford to Fly Business.

It’s that time of the year again and very soon my wife and I will be winging it over to Australia for a few weeks before Christmas. 

I don’t know about you, but for me, the excitement of travelling overseas does not include the flight itself.  For the past eight years or so, I have had the fortune of being able to travel frequently by plane in the Asia Pacific region and I have no hesitation at all in saying the novelty has completely worn off.  I just want to get there.  In the dim distant past, I used to dream of the sheer exhilarating lift in spirit I would experience as soon as I walked on board.  But alas dear reader, no more.  I just want to get there and start the real holiday.  Why the change?  It's been a long and slow process but this was what sent me over the edge.

I’m sitting in the middle again!  Oh how much I hate that.  It’s my fault really for booking so late and not having a choice. The trip was hastily planned very late and I was travelling alone.  The plane’s chocker block full, so no good, looking for another seat after takeoff.  The rather large woman sitting next to the window gave me a sheepish smile as I sat down.  Oh well, there was still no one sitting on the aisle.

At least this time, I managed to find an overhead locker underneath my allotted seat.  Just a few months ago, I was down the back of a 737 only to find the overheads were reserved for much more important things other than passengers' carry on, like the planes entertainment system and other pieces of computer hardware that must have a function.  Luckily, my bags were only 7 rows in front, so I could still keep an eye on them if I wore my glasses. 

While we are talking about carry on luggage; am I the only person who sticks by the rules of one piece of 7 kgs and a computer bag / handbag etc?  Some of the cases they drag on board could easily stow my mother-in-law. Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but really. Nothing worse than arriving at your seat to find yours and the surrounding lockers jammed packed. 

The sweat of anticipation covered my brow. I watched with intent as the remaining passengers walked down the aisle looking frantically for their seat. As each passed my row, I let out an inaudible sigh of relief. 
“Please God please, let there be an empty seat beside me, I’ll even become a believer if you grant me this wish.” 
Then, there he was, all 100+ kilograms of swaying mass waddling towards me. Man mountain looked left and right along the line of seat numbers, he hesitated for a moment next to my row, move a step further, then came back. I almost chocked on my sigh.

Now, I’ll fully admit I myself was a lot thinner in my prime but I’m still small-boned and only take up the required seat width, in this case 16.5 inches.

My new acquaintance lowered himself down and with a lot of wriggling and twisting managed to wedge himself between the armrests. Unfortunately his body didn’t stop there; it flowed somewhat into my space. The armrest attempted to act like a dam holding back the waters of the Red Sea but regrettably, it wasn’t up to the task. I was now trapped between a rock and a hard place.

We, men, of course never fancy the idea of actually making physical contact with each other - another male. In this case, he couldn’t, so I had to attempt to take appropriate action.

I don’t know how many of you have flown for 7 hours sitting skew-whiff but I can assure you it isn’t pleasant.   The situation became even more complicated when the meal arrived.

There is only so far one can keep his elbows in without it affecting his ability to use his hands. With a surgeon’s precision-like skill, I attempted to manoeuvre around the plate searching for something that I could spear with my fork. I discovered through a little experimentation I had more success if I crossed my forearms over, but this elicited some strange looks from some of the other passengers.  Most looking on would have thought I was doing a  poor job of  crab impersonations. I admitted defeat and gave up when my arms started to feel arthritic and the pins and needles had reached my elbows.

Eventually the lights went out, but sleep, my dear friends never arrived.  The night dragged, the occasional toilet break relieved the pressure in more than one way. The 7-hour trip that felt like 14.

There comes a point where it's just no good resisting the inevitable. This is when I wish I had studied transcendental meditation.

Ohh that's It !!!  Stay home, just use your mind to fly away. 
Got it now and think of all that money I’ll save.  

Inside the Aluminium tube _ Google images

Saturday 2 November 2013

Always With You

Boajia proceeded to walk carefully up the stairs carrying a breakfast tray of porridge for his wife who was bedridden.  It was precisely 6.00 a.m. and like always, he was on time to the minute.

“Mustn’t keep my love one waiting,” he thought to himself.  “Ching Lan, I’m on my way.  Don’t worry I haven’t forgotten you.”

Boajia, a diminutive man of over 70 had short black greying hair and wore a neatly trimmed moustache that left an impression, to those observing, of a retired bank clerk.

He reached the landing, pausing for a moment to catch his breath.  Ching Lan was propped up in bed with pillows either side to support her frail body.  Her pallid boney face stared motionlessly at the opposite grey wall.  She had suffered a stroke 5 years ago and was now completely dependent on her husband for all of her daily needs. Since that time, not a word had come from her lips; a mind entrapped inside a  dead outer shell.

Boajia slumped into the chair next to his wife’s bed and picked up a spoonful of the hot steaming fluid.
“Here my dear, take a mouthful for me, it will make you feel better,” he whispered as he gently blew over the hot liquid. 
The porridge was not swallowed but sat inside her mouth until it slowly descended down her heavy jowls leaving a small cooling lava trail much like a dying volcano.

Thirty years ago they had moved from the village to the city.  Ching Lan was very reluctant to go.   Family, friends and all her memories existed in that village, but she knew what was best for her daughter, Hua.  There was no long term future for the young in the place she herself was brought up in. The world was changing and she must change with it.

The family adapted in time to the much faster city pace and the lack of intimacy that came with it.  Boajia was lucky to secure a job in the local post office sorting incoming mail and Ching Lan knuckled down to becoming a competent house wife and mother.  They put a down payment on a small two-storey terrace house and for a time life was looking up for them. Hua flourished in this environment and did very well at school, topping her classes in most subjects.  Both her parents were very proud  of her achievements and this helped justify in their own minds the sacrifices they had made. 

Boajia cleaned his wife’s face, sighed and laid his head into the palms of his hands. 

Time past slowly, it did most days. They had not heard from Hua for quite awhile.  After receiving a scholarship to study overseas, she left for England and enrolled in the School of Medicine at Cambridge.  For the first few years she returned home during semester breaks to visit her parents. They were all pleased to spend time together and talked about the wonderful experiences she was having. By the third year the home visits stopped due to the pressure of study but she always promised that as soon as she finished she would return.  

The morning light streamed through the window, fell upon his body creating a black blanket of shadow on the opposite wall of a forlorn figure.  He raised his head from his hands and stroked his wife’s hair. 

“Remember the early days in the village, Ching Lin, when we first met?  Each morning I stood  across the street from your parent’s place hoping to catch a glance of you on the way to school.  You never even notice.”  He chuckled. “I tried too hard those days,  I was so nervous." 

"Remember the day I knocked on your front door and your mother came and shooed me away?   But I persevered until in the end, you gave in and decided to fall in love with me.” 

A broad smile helped to conceal the tears rolling off his face. 

“You came to be the one and only love of my life and I want you to know, through all the years together, with all the ups and downs;  not for one-second have I regretted being with you.” 
The mists of the past engulfed his reddened eyes.

Thoughts turned to his daughter.

”Hua wasn’t to blame for losing contact.”  He tried to convince himself.  “She was establishing a career and had become an important person, so her time was very limited.  Way to busy to worry about her parents.  Yes, a very important person.” 

The doorbell broke his day dream. Boajin peered out the window to see the postman waiting downstairs.  The bell rang again as he slowly approached the door.

“Hello “

“Mr Baojia Wong?”

“Yes that’s me.”

“Parcel for you, sign here.”

The postman screwed his face up whilst trying to look over Baojia’s shoulder.

“ What’s wrong?” asked Boajia”

"Nothing; I’ll be on my way."

With haste the postman left.

Boajia gently closed the door, turned and shuffled into the lounge examining the parcel.
He placed it on the dining room table and proceeded to slowly climb the stairs to be with his wife.

Later that evening, just before dusk a dark-coloured sedan pulled up in front of the house.  Out stepped two tall gentlemen in uniform.

The doorbell rang for the second time that day.

As the two policemen entered the house, they looked at each other and nodded, one immediately started to look around while the other escorted Boajia into the lounge.

“Sir, can I ask you who else is in the house?”

“I live here with my wife.”

“May I ask where she is?”

“Yes, she is upstairs in bed, but please don’t disturb her, you see she’s not been very well.”

The policeman looked at his colleague and beckoned him to go upstairs.  

“ Sir, can I ask you about this strong odour.”

But before Boajia could answer, the policeman shouted from the landing with his hand over his mouth.
“Tan, there's a deceased person up here in a state of advanced decay.  Been dead for weeks I’d say.”

Boajia appeared confused as they led him out of the house.  He turned for the last time and looked up towards the bedroom window.

“Oh my dear, I’ll never leave you, I promise.”


Georgetown's Terraces