Something's Fishy, eh what?

on Saturday, March 31, 2007

This handsome creature is actually the world's largest rat. It is the capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) is native to Central and South America. An adult stands at about two feet (60 cm) tall at the shoulders and weigh as much as 65 kg. It is considered semi-aquatic as it spends most of its time in the waters of the vast marshes of its habitat. It even has webbed toes. It's name may be derived from the Tupi "kaapĩ ûara" which quite appropriately means grass-eater. Oh, and it is a fish!

This is currently the season of Lent which today refers to a period of forty days before Good Friday and the Easter weekend. For the Roman Catholic church, Lent is a period in which followers are encouraged to give up some luxury as a sacrifice to God in a symbolic acknowledgement that God was willing to sacrifice His Son, Jesus Christ for all of us. Today, adherents may commonly abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Others may give up smoking or alcohol or even chocolates.

Before 1970s Vatican II Council, the rules were stricter. In fact, followers were expected to give up the eating of meat for the full forty day Lent period. In Europe, this often meant that fish became a staple during this time as it was not considered a meat.

However, in South America and in particular certain parts of Venezuela, there was no meat of the traditional European fare like beef or pork. Instead, in the 1600s, capybara was the major source of food. As there was very little else to eat in this hostile environment, abstaining from meat during Lent became a serious issue. It is said that the local priest sent a petition to Rome describing vaguely an animal that is scaly yet hairy but spends almost all its time in the water and asking for a ruling that the capybara could be eaten during this period. Whether it was because of the vague discription or because they did not want their parishoners to starve, the pope agreed to consider the capybara as a fish.

Today, capybara remains a favorite dish in Venezuela and even more are eaten during Lent where some say it is to Lent what turkey is to Thanksgiving in USA.
So beware, if you are dining in Venezuela, and you order the surf 'n turf, you might be getting turf all the way!

What Kind of Hero are You?

on Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Are you a hero? I think we would all like to think that we could be heroes if given the right opportunity and the right circumstances. The lack of opportunity may be the only thing hindering us from rising to our full heroic potential.

We may be the office wimp or the short-sighted library bookworm or we might be an Indiana Jones look-a-like but if that fleeting opportunity does not come our way then the world will never know our hidden heroic capabilities. We will always be Clark Kent and never Superman.

What heroic deed might you have in you to perform? Might you be the knight in shining armour for the lady in distress? Might you be the mother who is able to hold three jobs and still take care of the children's problem with bullies in school while smiling all the time and never raising her voice ......"Super Mom"? Or might you be the one who scores the winning point for your team in the national championships ...."Mr. Golden Goal"?

If you follow the comic book characters of the Fantastic Four; there's Mr. Fantastic (cause its "fantastic" the way he stretches), the Invisible Girl (for obvious reasons) , Johnny Torch (cause he is all sizzle and fire) and the Thing (cause the name says it all). What might our Super hero name be?

For example, if I see a bunch of young hoodlums picking on an elderly citizen, I might do one of the following; a) Shout at them and show them my muscles and they run away (that would be the Terminator), b) I could do that and they roll around laughing so much that they are helpless (The Entertainer), c) They are not impressed, leave the elderly victim and come beat me up (The Substitute Man) or d) I sneak away and call the cops (The "Call for help" Man, also known as the Energiser Man cause of a longer lifespan than the Substitute Man).

Looking back over my many years, there have in fact been a number of occassions that I have had an opportunity to demonstrate my heroic traits. As I relate the following incident, please help me to decide what my Super Hero name should be.

In my first year at University, I had to do a laboratory class on organic chemistry. This is probably one of the most dangerous lab sessions for first year students because almost every chemical we get to play with is either extremely toxic, foul smelling or combustible. The laboratory had long work benches that could accommodate two working pairs on each side. The central median of the work bench was where we kept some commonly used chemicals and also where the switches for the lights, the gas and the suction pumps were located so that it could be accessed from either side.

During one of these laboratory sessions, we were supposed to use an oil bath to evaporate an inflammable solvent to recover something dissolved in the solvent. The oil bath allows us to reach higher temperatures than 100 degrees Celsius safely as long as no naked flame ignites the oil or the flammable fumes of the solvent. This can be achieved by using a special element heater but on no occassion is the bunsen burner used because it has a powerful naked flame.

When we took our places, my lab partner, Mr. "Run for your life" was not at all pleased to find that opposite us was "Super Clumsy Girl" and her sidekick "Miss. Frantic". He warned me that the omens are bad and something bad was going to happen. Based on what we were doing, I figured that fire was going to be a likely feature of the afternoon and made a mental note of what to do in case of one.

Sure enough in less than an hour later, there was a "whoossh" as Super Clumsy Girl ignited her oil bath and solvent mix by using a bunsen burner to help "speed up the slow process". She starts to scream (another super power of hers). Miss. Frantic panicked and dropped her crucible of toxic paste all over the floor (its going to be one big mess to clean up). I turn to yell at my partner to alert the lab supervisor and to fetch the fire extinguisher at the end of the room but Mr. Run for your life was nowhere to be seen. Now that's fast on your feet.

My calm, objective mind told me that this fire was only flaring because the bunsen flame was too strong. Reduce and shut off the gas and the bunsen flame will stop fueling the oil and solvent combustion and then using a metal plate to cover the oil bath would snuff off the remaining flames. First step was to calmly reach into the middle and turn the tap to reduce the gas.

Despite the flames shooting a spectacular three feet off the desk top and amidst all the screaming from Super Clumsy Girl and the panic dance by Miss. Frantic, I reached and turned the tap and as I did so, I was rewarded by the sight that the flames came down and some one threw the metal plate on the apparatus when it was safe to do so. Crisis over.

There was a lot of back-slapping in celebration after that. Mr. Run for your life reappeared and congratulated me for my brave handling of the situation. I said it was nothing, just cool steely nerves and a realisation that you had to turn off the gas at the tap. As we were talking, we both heard a rattling sound. It was very loud. It was ..... the suction pump. Why was the suction pump on?

Sadly, the realisation set in that I had braved the flames and stood there cooly turning on the suction pump while the lab supervisor had switched off the gas supply at the mains.

So dear friends, what kind of super hero name do you think I deserve? What is your super hero name?

My Favorite Depression Song

on Monday, March 26, 2007

It was an exciting but tiring weekend; not aided by the fact that I had a fever and a bad cough. You could say that I have a fever aggravated Monday Blues funk. What I really need is to get some sleep.... for about a week. As that's not gonna happen, I just have to let the blues out somehow and so I decided to blog and share my misery around. This is going to be a seriously depressing post. If you wish to remain cheerful with birdsongs in your heart and cherry blossoms in your eyes, leave now. You have been warned.

Several posts ago, I did a little poem about my feelings during my bout with depression many years ago. When you are in that state, you develop a new set of habits which I think has to do with trying to express with actions the turmoil within. I had a friend, my depression buddy in fact, who painted all her room black. She even wrote me a nice long letter which was on black paper and written in black ink (you can read it by slanting the paper near a light and there will be a reflection off the ink). As she couldn't speak without breaking down and crying, this was her way of expressing herself. Black, of course, is also soothing. It's like being in a safe cocoon and I don't think it was so much to do about being morbid.

I, though, found myself a nice theme song so that even on the brightest, sunniest day, I had a magic tune to lead me back into the comforting darkness. That song was the theme song from the movie M*A*S*H and it was called "Suicide is Painless". The "young" readers are probably lost at this stage. M*A*S*H was a black comedy set in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. It was also adapted into what became arguably the most popular T.V. series of all time. Look it up yourself cause I want to talk about the song.

This song was written by Johnny Mandel for the movie. Director Robert Altman asked for a dark, funny and yet stupid song. Mandel came out with the tune but complained that there was no way he could come up with anything so ridiculous. So in the end, the lyrics were written by Mike Altman who was at that time the 14 year old son of the director. Can you imagine that this was written by a 14 year old? Marilyn Manson did a cover version of the song in 2000 as the theme song for the sequel to the movie "The Blair Witch Project". Marilyn said that it was "More depressing and offensive than anything I've ever written". Praise indeed from the master.

Of course, many people have argued about what the lyrics actually meant. Some suggest that it was really a metaphor for the political and military decisions facing U.S.A. during the Vietnam War. I think that's stretching it and giving a lot of credit to a 14 year old.

Why did it become my depression theme song? The lyrics are misguidingly comforting. When you think that nothing is going right and you have no control over your life, it seductively suggests that you still have the power to choose to live or die, or to choose to die on your own terms "before the losing card you play". It suggests that all the pain will go away and the act itself will be surprisingly painless compared to the pain of continued existance.

Of course, I think that it is all nonsense now. It isn't about power but about running away, about giving up and about security in defeat. The truth is that in every life some rain must fall but life is a precious gift and worth all the pain and inconvenience. However, even though the lyrics no longer has its hold on me, the song is a very major part of my past and therefore forever a part of me.

Anyway, here are the lyrics. What do you think?

Suicide is Painless

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see...

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

I try to find a way to make
all our little joys relate
without that ever-present hate
but now I know that it's too late, and... [Refrain]

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
so this is all I have to say. [Refrain]

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
and to another give my seat
for that's the only painless feat. [Refrain]

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows stronger,
watch it grin, but... [Refrain]

A brave man once requested me
to answer questions that are key
"is it to be or not to be?"
and I replied "oh why ask me?"

'Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please
.....and you can do the same thing if you choose.

I Think It's a Thinking Blogger Award

on Saturday, March 24, 2007

What a pleasant surprise! I woke up this morning and while still bleary eyed, I switched on my computer and checked my blog ( normal obsessive behavior of a blog addict) and what did I find? I had been awarded a “Thinking Blogger Award” by csl.

My first thought was that I no longer had to think of a thought for my next thoughtful blog. My next thought was a silent thanks to csl for giving me the award and freeing me from extensive thinking. My third thought was to doubt if I really deserve it (I refer to the intellectual quality of my first and second thoughts!).

Anyway, I’ve got it and I am not giving it back. However, it now falls on me to award it to 5 other bloggers who made me think when I read their blogs. Ah Hah! It’s a trap. Now the real thinking starts. How to choose from so many?

Before we get to the awards itself, here is a word about the origin of this. It began in February 2007 when Ilker Yoldas decided to combine the meme concept with providing links to specific and quality content. Thus was born the “Thinking Blogger Award”. This meme will have the specific purpose of raising awareness of thoughtful and thought-provoking blogs.

The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,

2. Link to the original post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,

3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog). Then tag 5 others if you wish.

And now for the results,
With so many to chose from, I had to be quite ruthless to make sure that I was not choosing any blog for any other reason other that required, no matter how much I enjoy reading them. I also avoided giving anyone the award that I am aware has been awarded it before. The Awardees are……….

Dave invites us to look inside his head and there is lots going on. His posts range over a wide area of topics but are grounded in life around him. Nevertheless, he is able to cover a large variety of issues and has some posts that really speak to the heart. Watch out for his pranks though but even those are very well thought out.

Kat is able to make her garden come alive with the weird and wonderful creaures and plants that inhabit it. She blog is also great for keeping up to date on some of the latest news in zoology, botany, astronomy art, music and also horses. She is a Butterfly expert. I am impressed by the width and depth of her knowledge and interests. Although I do not agree with her strong support for the Theory of Evolution, her posts are always interesting and mind-expanding.

Guilty with an Explanation
Hearts is an enigma to me. She just won't allow herself to be categorized and that makes her blog always interesting. You're never sure where her sharp and dry sense of humor will be applied next in analysing anything from day to day living, society woes and political news. Her own life stories are also fascinating and makes one reflect over issues.

The final two Awardees do not have any photos associated with their blogs. I mention this in case you thought I got lazy.

Ellie writes a very raw, emotional and honest blog. When I was first drifting in blogosphere, the name "The Cedar Chest" perked my interest and I was not disappointed when I looked in. She allows us a window to learn a lot about coming from a strongly conservative religious minority and the joys and tribulations of living in the rapidly changing modern world. By comparing the cultures and belief systems, we cannot be other than challenged to rethink our world view.

Gledwood is a heroin addict trying to give up the habit and to make a better life. His blog is also very raw and honest sharing both highpoints and low points in his journey. The blog allows us to understand better the daily challenges faced. Yet despite his struggles, Gledwood's mind is alive and open to so much information and interests from books, art, TV and many more. He has reached all over the globe with his writing and his reading. Very impressive.

Thanks guys and girls for keeping the gears in my head turning.

World Food Spot 6: Steamboat!

on Thursday, March 22, 2007

Steamboat! Steamboat! Steamboat! What comes to mind? Some of you may be thinking of the era of steamboats, steampackets or even the romantic Paddle Steamers that use to rule the waters like the Grand Ol' Mississipi. Hah! For most Asians it means "yummy, yummy for my tummy!"

Steamboat quite simply is the form of meal where people gather round a pot of simmering broth and cook various ingredients. These ingredients include meats, seafood, tofu, vegetables, eggs and noodles. The broth used can be a very plain chicken broth or it could be spicy as in a tom yam based broth. More recently, a thin clear broth with Chinese medicinal herbs has become quite popular. The medicinal herbs lend a sweet and bitter flavor to the broth as well as an excuse that eating more is good for one's health.

Apart from the appeasement of the tastebuds, the steamboat is a great social event. People have plenty of time and opportunity to interact, share and laugh as they play at being chef, put the ingredients into the communal pot, wait for the food to cook and then "fish" for their food. You often do not get back what you put in but get somebody else's contribution. It all adds to the fun.

The Raw Ingredients

This is one of my favorite types of meals and so I am particular that it is done properly. For maximum enjoyment, the ingredients should be cooked and eaten in several stages.Throughout the meal, a dipping sauce of chilli or soya sauce is used. Stage 1: Crabs are added to sweeten the broth. At the same time, various fast cooking seafood and tofu are also added. The broth allowed to boil and ingredients cooked. The heat is then lowered and the first round of eating can begin. Stage 2: When the cooked ingredients have been removed or eaten, it is now time to add thin chicken and beef slices together with more of stage 1 ingredients. Cook and eat. Stage 3: By this time, the broth will be incredibly rich from all the ingredients before, now add vegetables, noodles and eggs. This will create a nice noodle soup to finish the meal.

Believe me, the last few drops of broth will be just heavenly being infused with the flavors of all the ingredients used. Even a big eater like myself will be totally sated.

If you are in Southeast Asia, consider trying this. Variations of this can also be found in China and Korea. It is also very appropriate for cold, wet rainy days.

Yummy, the broth thickens.

Yummy, yummy. I cooked this.

Remembering Depression

on Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This is my fourth poetry posting. In my 100th post, I shared that I had suffered depression for more than a year. This was when I was a University student and when I first came out to work. I will share more about this at some later time.

Some of the bloggers that I read have been going through a very difficult times and some are in the grips of depression. I just want to say that I made it through with supportive friends and God's grace and I know that they can make it through too. I also wanted very much that they know that they are not alone in what they feel and experience; that others can understand and emphatise too. Therefore with the aid of a beautiful picture, I am remembering my depression (when you are depressed, you can see the darkness even in the midst of beauty). I hope this to be an encouragement.

The sky turns red and wondrous
As the sun goes to bed.
But my heart only turns anxious
Anticipating the darkness that’s ahead.

Already the day’s warmth is fading
As light gives way to gloom
In to the soul a chill is creeping
Fires of hope burn black with doom.

Soon the night will be its darkest
No stars or heavenly bodies to be seen
And in that pit of deepest blackness
One might wish that they had never been

Each long hour or day that passes
Like dark molasses pulls us down
A prison sentence that is upon us
Four dank walls, all hope is drowned

Even prayers seem to receive no answer
Cried from the heart, yet makes no sound,
No place to hide, I escape to slumber
To flee the accusing voices all around.

I have no hope for morning
My limbs are weary, my bones’ dry
For now it’s enough, each moment surviving
I am alive if I can still cry.

P.S. Dawn will come. Just hold on through the night.

Sound and Motion Celebration

on Monday, March 19, 2007

Thank you for all your wonderful comments, kind words and encouragement for my previous post. It was tiring putting it together, as I am sure you were tired from slogging through it. Therefore, this time, I'll keep the words few and just invite you to have a good time with this wonderful animated music video. How I wish I could be so creative!

Animusic: "Pipe Dream"

100 Things for 100th Post

on Friday, March 16, 2007

In the tradition that was first set by dave, I too decided that having survived in the blogosphere long enough for 100 posts, the occasion should be marked with a special posting.

I am glad to have survived this long. I didn't know at the beginning if I would find enough to write about. However, I have found both inspiration and friendship amongst the blogging community and as I have found so much of value in what you have to post, I hope too that you have found some value amidst my ramblings.

So on this special occassion, I propose to bore you with a list of 100 things about the topic I know best......myself. Do not try to read it all at once as you may be in danger of falling into a coma. You have been warned. Proceed with caution.......

I am
1. I am working as an environmental/conservation scientist.

I am just under 6 feet tall.

3. I am scared of heights.

I am Peranakan; also known as Baba-Nyonya (which is primarily a mix of Chinese and Malay). The culture is unique - taking elements of both but is closer to Chinese.

5. I am very good with young children. They seem to like me and I seem to be able to entertain them quite effortlessly but I really do not know why that is so.

I am the youngest in a family of four. Two brothers and one sister but the age differences are large (between my eldest brother and I is 18 years) so I felt like I grew up alone.

7. I am a Christian. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was 13 years old even though I was brought up in a nominally Buddhist family. There was a lot of opposition to my decision and I was threatened with being disowned if I went ahead with being baptised. I did and I wasn’t disowned and today most of my family are Christians.

I am not a neat person nor am I a well-organised person. I try once in awhile but chaos soon takes control of whatever order I have tried to setup.

9. I am not good at being a strict disciplinarian. Young kids and even co-workers sense this and do try to take advantage. Never leave me alone with a classroom of kids if you don’t want a riot situation.

10. I am not a materialistic person. I believe in being content and not taking part in the rat race for more.

11. I am not a handyman or a gardener.

12. I am poor at corresponding with friends and family.

I like
13. I like vanilla ice cream so a trip to Baskin & Robbins is a waste of time for me. Boysenberry Ripple is a close second.

14. I like to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-files and Veronica Mars.

15. I like to play board games and card games that provide opportunity of interacting with people.

16. I like beachcombing and fossil hunting.

17. I like canal boating and canal history. Unfortunately, I have only traveled on the Oxford Canal, UK and the C&O canal in Washington, D.C.

I would like to
18. I would like to try gliding.

19. I would like to take up scuba diving.

I would like to visit the Tepuis of Venezuela

21. I would like to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

I would like to retire to Canada and run a B&B.

23. I would like more time to take up painting and writing.

24. I would like to swim with dolphins in the open ocean.

I love
25. I love my wife of 14 years. Who would have thought that after much traveling, I would end up marrying the girl next door? (well actually, the girl down the road.)

I love teaching. I am good at it and I really enjoy it. I like to be able to pass knowledge on and inspire young people.

27. I love nature but have a particular fondness for squirrels, otters and wolves.

I love traveling and learning about cultures and history.

29. I love my friends and family. They are the most important things in life.

I enjoy
30. I enjoy walking in the rain especially if I am in a funk.

31. I enjoy talks with friends that go deep into the night.

I enjoy long walks in the mountains and swimming in jungle streams.

33. I enjoy musicals. My favorite amongst more recent musicals is Phantom of the Opera but my all time favorite remains West Side Story.

I enjoy photography and also blogging.

35. I enjoy most music but especially jazz, folk and ethnic music.

I hate
I hate doctors with poor bedside manners or who do not care for the emotional wellbeing of their patients.

37. I hate dishonesty.

I really, really hate two-faced, corrupt politicians.

39. I hate being drunk. I do not like not being in control of my faculties. I am also one of those who actually become quiet and withdrawn when drunk. I think I have only been drunk less than five times in my life.

I hate multinational corporations. Well, actually, I just do not trust them. I think their motives and actions are contrary to the good of the general population and the world; especially pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies dealing with genetically modified organisms.

41. I hate arrogance and especially in politicians and scientists. I believe both should be serving mankind and arrogance gets in the way.

I hate blind, unthinking red tape and bureaucracy especially when it works against the weak and the defenseless.

43. I hate the words “if only…”. It caused me a lot of grief in my younger days that I was always not satisfied and I was always full of regret that I did not do things differently or better; when I was ruled by the words, “if only….”.

I hate the way Malaysian society has lost some of its unique strengths of family and community in its headlong rush for modernisation and progress and how it has picked up some of the vices of modern society.

45. I hate the increasing lack of willingness to accept responsibility for one’s action and the tendency to make excuses and to blame others.

I have
46. I have eaten rat liver once by accident. I don’t really want to talk about it.

I have had my appendix removed when I was eleven. I went in to hospital for observation but the symptoms disappeared the next morning. The doctor was about to discharge me but the Professor came by prodded me and said that “we might as well take it out.” I remember thinking that it was easy for him to say that but as it turned out, it was a good decision cause my appendix was close to rupturing.

48. I have a very good sense of direction and am very good at map reading but I can get lost in a shopping mall.

I have done volunteer work with Red Cross to help Vietnamese refugees to find their families.

50. I have also volunteered at different times to help take care of terminally ill cancer patients, recovering stroke patients and elderly shut-ins.

I have had the privilege of visiting and assisting a brave woman who was almost totally paralysed. She only could control and move her eyes and yet she finished her studies and wrote a book. What an inspiration!

52. I have had a man die in my car while I was trying to transport him to hospital.

53. I have a scar on my left middle finger which I got when as a toddler, I smashed a glass door with my hand. Apparently, I narrowly missed being decapitated by the falling glass.

I have never taken any illegal drugs and have only smoked a cigarette once.

55. I have appeared on CNN, BBC, ABC (Australia) and Al-Jazeera. I was being interviewed with regards to my work. My 15 seconds in the spotlight!

I have done whitewater rafting in New Zealand and in Canada. I would do this again and again whenever I have the opportunity.

57. I have taken part in the Terry Fox Run twice and really should start doing it again.

I have worked as kitchen staff in a hotel in the Lake District in the UK. Being a small family run hotel, duties include singing around the ol’ piano in the evening. It was here that I picked up a Scottish accent from a co-worker.

59. I have visited every continent except South America and Antartica. That’s not the same as having traveled extensively in all those continents. I have lived in three countries and visited 19 others.

I have an ear for music (so I am told) and can play a tune on piano after hearing it once but have been too lazy to really learn how to play properly.

61. I have a collection of soft toys which were all given to me by friends over the years. My first one was Ollie “Nuna-Nanook” of the North which is a penguin.

I can
I can swim and enjoy almost any form of water activity.

63. I can cook reasonably well.

I can speak and write in English and Malay.

65. I can draw cartoons reasonably well and have won a University-wide competition for funniest cartoon

I used to
I used to play basketball and chess at school level competitions.

67. I used to be in the school debating team. When I was young I really enjoyed debating and taking the contrary view.

I used to sing in both the school and church choirs but I really have a problem keeping to my part.

69. I used to have the entire collection of Peanuts by Charles Schultz, the complete collection of James Herriot books and the complete set of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Unfortunately, while I was studying abroad, my mother allowed my cousins to take the books away and I never saw them again.

I used to have a phobia of eating chicken which was so strong that I would throw up if I ate it. Today I can eat chicken but surprise, surprise, it is still not a favorite.

71. I used to have a progressive back problem (scoliosis) but received healing from God during a prayer session and I haven’t had the problem since and it’s been more than 7 years.

I used to suffer from asthma and eczema but swimming helped to reduce the frequency of the attacks and today it is not a problem.

I once
73. I once caught Scarlet Fever and I found out only a day after donating blood. I had to call the hospital to get rid of my blood as it was tainted.

I once met and shook hands with Brian Mulrooney when he was Prime Minister of Canada but this is not something that I am particularly proud of.

75. I once had breakfast with the entire Valencia Football team but not really being a soccer fan, I was oblivious to this until after the fact. Some of my friends are furious that I did not ask them for autographs.

I once backpacked through Europe for a month and visited 8 countries in that time. One of the best things I ever did.

77. I once was extremely skinny. Hard to believe today but I still have photographic evidence!

I once suffered from a serious depression that lasted a year but I felt its tendrils for a long time after. Once again, it was God that brought healing. Even today though, there is a comforting familiarity to being in a funk.

79. I once learnt how to canoe and kayak properly including the eskimo roll but its been awhile. I wonder if I can still do it.

80. I
once took up jazz dancing too but I’ve put on weight since then.

81. I once went on a lightning 1,500 km tour of Ontario in 6 days as a pillon rider on a motorbike. This was despite the fact that I was suffering from lower back pain at the time. I chose to bear the pain than miss out on the trip.

I once was mistaken to be a native American and invited to attend an Algonquin pow-wow.

I did
83. I did my first degree in Biochemistry at the University of London.

84. I did my Masters in Microbiology at the National University of Malaysia. My project had to do with developing a rapid method to test whether a water source was polluted by sewage and feces. The method I help develop was used in rural communities in South Africa, Chile and in some Native Indian Reservations in Canada.

85. I did my doctorate in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Ottawa on an International Development and Research Centre scholarship.

I won a consolation award from the international Nehru Awards for a story I wrote about the end of childhood while I was in school.

87. I was severely reprimanded by my headmaster for submitting a poem about the end of childhood to the school magazine. He disapproved of the way I portrayed the school in the poem. That was the last time I wrote poems until this year.

I carry out public speaking and public presentations very often but despite being good at it, I am really an introvert and do not enjoy doing it.

89. I regret not learning Mandarin and one musical instrument when I was younger.

I drive 4WD’s at work but my own car is a Honda City 1.5 L and my dream car is the modest but cool Volkswagon Golf Convertible.

91. I procrastinate.

I generally enjoy sad stories more than happy ones. One of my favorite writers in this respect is Maxim Gorky.

93. I also enjoy science fiction and my favorite authors are Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

I found coming out with 100 things about myself to be incredibly difficult.

95. My favorite color is aquamarine.

My favorite semi-precious stone is tourmaline.

97. My favorite computer game is Sid Meier’s Civilization IV.

My favorite alcoholic drink is lager, cider, white wine, red wine and coffee liquers in that order. I rarely drink though, maybe twice a month.

99. My favorite spectator sports are rugby union and ice hockey. I really enjoy the rugby sevens version of the game too.

100. My friends call me a walking encyclopedia.

The Haircut: the estacy and the agony.

I went to get a haircut yesterday. It was the first time after almost three months, a fact that was not lost on my hair stylist. “How long have you been away from the barber’s chair?” he asked sarcastically. “Exploring the Amazon the last six months, were you?”

Anyway, I don’t care. Even if I wasn’t in the Amazon, I have been busy and there is no harm in saving some haircut money. Besides, I look good with long hair. Okay, okay, the truth is that I procrastinate. It’s as simple as that but those excuses could be true. The thing that really embarrasses me though is that I was in one of those “Unisex Salons”.

Some of you may think that I am making a mountain out of a molehill (or more appropriately, a wig out of a hairball) but for most of my life I stayed clear of Unisex Salons. One reason for that was an irrational desire to support another male bastion that was under threat…..the barbershop. When I was growing up as a child in Malaysia, it was normal to go to the local barbershop. For some reason, the vast majority are run by Indians. These Indian barbershops were characterised by fancy glass bottles filled with all kinds of cheap colognes, reclining barber chairs and piles of old magazines and comics. Many patrons would ask for a hair style similar to their favorite movie stars like Elvis Presley’s but invariably the most common hairstyle executed was the coconut cut, which basically resembles having half a coconut shell placed on top of the head and cutting whatever hair that was not protected by the shell.

The second and main reason for steering clear of the Unisex Salons was all the pampering that was going on. I was never comfortable with the thought of being pampered to the extent of having someone pedicure my feet or wash my hair. I could not reconcile that belief with the thought of some one having to wash my hair. I thought it must be demeaning…….imagine spending the day washing about twenty strangers hair; sticking your fingers into hair of every conceivable condition from the clean and well kempt to the dirty and smelly. I decided to hold the moral high ground that if I was uncomfortable doing it, I should not expect others to do it for me. Besides, it costs almost five times as much as the old barber shop cut and shave.

That was a long time ago. I have been going to these unisex salons now for over 10 years having been challenged by my wife to try them. The truth is, I still am a little embarrassed by the pampering but I do so enjoy it. Some of these shampoo girls (and occasionally men) have wonderfully strong hands and the feel of their powerful fingers massaging your scalp is really quite exquisitely decadent. It helps me relax and de-stress so effectively. In fact, I am so relaxed that later when the stylist is cutting my hair, I tend to nod off to sleep. Initially, I would get a discreet nudge to get me to wake up but lately the stylist has given up and accepted that I will always be the difficult customer that stays away for months and the present a challenging nodding, flopping and snoring head for the haircut.

Nowadays, I can fall asleep after the relaxing scalp therapy and wake up refreshed from an uninterrupted nap to find my haircut nicely done. I can only guess what mad pranks and odd photographs taken with those camera cell-phones were carried out while I was in the land of Nod.

And so, once every blue moon, I go through this ritual of embarrassment and shame cause I feel so good after. Am I a sick puppy? Do I need help? Sometimes I wonder but then I think of a wonderful scalp massage and all doubts are forgotten.

Secret Squirrel Spot 4: Ulu Geroh

on Monday, March 12, 2007

Lying about half way between Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the popular tourist destination of Penang, lies a relatively unknown Orang Asli (indigenous tribe) village of Ulu Geroh. Although, it is less than half an hour from the main North-South Highway, it remains little known for now, although that may be changing soon. With the help of a couple of non-profit organisations, the local villagers have learnt how to become guides for tourists and have become protectors of their natural heritage instead of being forced by poverty to unsustainably harvest the forest for short term limited gain.

What makes Ulu Geroh special enough to make it on to Squirrel’s Secret Spots? Well, here be the amazing Rafflesia flower, the exquisite Rajah Brooke Birdwing Butterfly, a traditional Orang Asli village with rich cultural offerings and also a beautiful forest waterfall and stream.

The Rafflesia is the world’s largest diameter flower. It is also special cause it exists as a parasite within a jungle vine and has no visible parts until it buds and flowers. Be warned though that smelling the flower is more likely to conjure images of Pepe le Pew rather than floral scents. This is because the Rafflesia is pollinated by flies and so smells of rotten meat to attract the flies.

Big Stinking Flower

The Rajah Brooke Birdwing is a beautiful butterfly and a favorite of collectors even though it is now a protected species. Ulu Geroh is blessed by the right combination of plants for the caterpillars and a number of mineral springs that attract the adult butterflies. The result is a high concentration of all sorts of butterflies and the Rajah Brooke Birdwing in particular.

Pretty Flitting Butterflies

A visit to the village will reward you with exhibitions of the traditional ways of life and crafts using jungle materials. If you are fortunate you may witness the Sewang dance or try a jungle feast – the traditional way.

The jungle trek may have left you hot and sweaty but that only makes dipping in the stream and standing under the waterfall even more rewarding at the end of the day.

To learn more about this place, you can visit Visit it soon as it will not remain a secret much longer.

Refreshing Jungle Stream

Hot Jungle Disco

Squirrel Chittering

Photocredit: Sugarbush Squirrel
This just isn't me.

Sorry but formal and dashing just isn't me. I am more of the casual, hippie type. I get a rash from wearing ties and suits just seem like dead-weight on me. I also am not fond about protocols especially when it gets in the way of common sense. Suits and ties, for example, seems like evolutionary suicide when one has to wear it at 35 degrees Celsius and 90% humidity and yet there are some who insist on it as proper protocol for outdoor events in Malaysia.

This squirrel is chittering which is equivalent to a human ranting and I am chittering against narrow-minded and blinkered bureaucrats. I am involved in the organising of a public event to celebrate the annual migration of birds of prey. This event is meant to increase public awareness of the phenomena and to garner their support for the continued protection of certain key forests associated with this annual migration. In substance, it is like a big fiesta with lots of fun activities for everyone and especially families. Just recently, I was invited to appear on the morning show on national TV to talk about the event.

When this was being mooted, all parties, the TV station, the Tourism Development Corporation and ourselves , agreed that we wanted more young people to attend. It was with this in mind that we had artists help create some cool and funky T-shirts for the event. In preparation, I tried to include examples and anecdotes that would appeal to the younger crowd. For example, linking birds of prey, also known as raptors, to the velociraptors of the movie Jurassic Park fame. We agreed to emphasise during the interview events and activities tailored for the youth.

So I show up at the studio, wearing the attractive and cool T-shirt (it had a large stylised head of a raptor on it). The manager looks at me and tells me to change into a suit and tie.

"Kids aren't going to listen to a stuffy, old guy in a suit and tie." I protested.

"We have a dress code for guests on the program. Suit and tie. Rules are rules." She retorted, glaring.

"But the kids...." I started but was cut off by her terrifyingly unblinking glare.

Okay, so I caved in. It was her turf and you weren't there, you didn't experience "the glare".

Anyway, I think it is another example of protocol getting in the way of the task at hand which was to relate to and excite the young people. Does the studio wonder why they rate so poorly with the youth?

And so, this squirrel will keep chittering against such senseless application of protocol.

Picture Me

on Thursday, March 08, 2007

I came across this very interesting personality profile test at odat's. It is based on one's choice of pictures. Being a very visual person, I found it very easy to do and fairly accurate in its interpretation. So this is me in pictures.

Ti(g)ger and Pooh in India

on Monday, March 05, 2007

"Hey, lookover there. It's Pooh!"

Have you experienced an embarrassing moment? Surely all of us have but many try to forget these moments and successfully hide them in the depths of their psyche. My embarrassing moments tend to re-surface from time to time and appear in my mind's eye like an electric neon sign at night, flashing the words "Shame, shame". My memories have a good laugh as they party in my brain and mock me.

One such occasion was when I went to Coimbatore, India for a meeting about bird conservation. I am not a birder. I enjoy occasionally looking at birds through the binoculars but I am a general nature lover. A birder is one who makes it a hobby to watch birds and is equipped with decent binoculars and a field guide. Twitchers are birders with a consuming passion. They are recognizable by the fact they are kit out with powerful binoculars, telescopes, cameras, field guides and a checklist of birds they are hoping to see. Needless to say, at this meeting, I was surrounded by twitchers who have come all prepared and loaded with optical toys.

We were there from all over the world, some 40 of us and we were to participate in about 10 days of working meetings. For many though, the highlight would be the final day when our Indian hosts were going to take us on a bird-watching excursion in an Indian Wildlife Reserve. All were looking forward to that day with anticipation.

I was a little apprehensive about spending so many days in India because of the high likeliness of coming down with diarrhoea or as it is colorfully called there, "the Delhi Belly". Visitors to Mexico may be familiar with the Mexican counterpart, "Montezuma's Revenge". However, when I arrived, my colleagues and I were all surprised by the wonderful Indian vegetarian cuisine that was available at the hotel. I love Indian food and this was some of the best. Some delegates who stayed at other hotels quickly fell ill but all of us at our hotel had no such problems and thoroughly enjoyed the food.

After, the third day, the euphoria began to dissipate when we began to realise that there were only so much variety of dishes and we began to recognise that we were being served the same dishes over and over again for each meal. No matter how good the food was, it wore on us for 9 days. Furthermore, there was no meat. Some of the Asian delegates began to talk incessantly of meat and felt that their jaw muscles were wasting away on vegetarian mush, a,so refered to as baby food.

Invariably, there was a revolt and on the ninth night, we wandered the town and found a Chinese Restaurant ( a Chinese restaurant in the heartland of India seems very surreal). At last, something different, so0mething with meat. We had to have meat. The menu even had seafood! We had to have seafood! The more prudent members of the group interrogated the chef but he reassured us that the seafood was fresh. He just received it that day. So placified, we had a real hearty meal.

The next day was our long anticipated field trip. Everyone was in great spirits and fully armed with bird-watching gear except me. I only had a small amateur's binoculars but more of a concern, I felt a little quesy.

We travelled for about 2 hours by bus and had to go through a manned checkpoint. Our guide told us that once we crossed the checkpoint we were in a well-known forest reserve and it was tiger country. It was also of course, great bird-watching terrain. Basically we were in a valley with steep hills on either side. Although the base of the valley was flat, you could not see very far because there was a lot of low, dry shrubs. You could see why it was ideal tiger country as there was so much cover for the tigers. The guide told us that tiger attacks do occur every year but we would be okay if we observed several basic rules. Rule One: Stay close to the trail. Rule Two: Always be in groups of at least two. Rule Three: Tigers prefer to attack smaller prey and are actually intimidated by the height of a man but this advantage disappears if we squat or bend down. Do not bend down.

We proceeded down the trail that was to end in a small waterfall. Superb birdwatching was promised all along the 3 hour walk. The twitchers soon had all their optical equipment deployed and sightings came fast and furious. Over there, a rare something or rather and over there a lifer (i.e. first time seen by the individual). There was much activity. Being the non-birder, I tried to enjoy the scenery and learn a thing or two from the twitchers but before too long, I was feeling quite unsettled in my stomach.

About half way down the trail, essentially in the middle of nowhere... no, correction.... in the middle of tiger country I had to go. I could tell there was going to be a lot and it was going to be very fluid. But where? I was surrounded by men and women with binoculars and they had spread themselves over a long stretch of the trail.

I wandered back up the trail where there was a curve. I hoped I was out of sight from the forward group as well as the rear group that was slowly walking towards my position. I then scrambled up the slope for about 100 meters and went behind some low brush and dropped my pants and relieved myself.

Imagine my position. I felt nauseous; I was trying to hide from 40 twitchers armed with high powered optics and cameras and I was constantly looking behind me cause I knew I was voilating all three rules on tiger safety. It was among the most wretched 15 minutes of my life and at one point the rear group did come on to my position and scanned the slope with binoculars. I think they didn't see me but they may have decided to be polite and move on.

Moral: If you are heading to do birdwatching in tiger country, stay away from the seafood the night before. ( When I later related my agonising tale to our guide, he looked at me with pity and said " When someone tells you the seafood arrived today, he means it has been travelling 5 days by non-refrigerated transport and arrived today at Coimbatore".). So ends this sad story of Ti(g)ger and Pooh in India.

15th Day of the Lunar New Year

on Sunday, March 04, 2007

Thc Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year over 15 days. During this period, traditions hold that certain days are auspicious for opening a business while other days are not. Tradition also would have special celebrations on certain days out of the 15 days of celebration. The 15th Day or “Chap Goh Meh” is celebrated in many forms but amongst the immigrant Chinese in South East Asia and especially in Malaysia, two interesting traditions are followed.

The first one, not surprisingly is about food. During the Lunar New Year celebrations, a certain dish called “yee sang” may be served at the start of any gathering for a meal. Chap Goh Meh is the last day to eat it and many hold special dinners on this day for that purpose. “Yee Sang” literarily means “raw fish” and the dish is essentially a salad which comprises of strips of raw seafood (ranging from salmon to jellyfish), various freshly shredded vegetables as well as candied and pickled vegetables. Spices are added and then finally plum sauce and oil.

Yee Sang

Loh Sang

Family and friends who are gathered for the meal are expected to use their chopsticks and together toss the salad which is referred to as the act of “loh sang”. This act is supposed to bring good fortune to everyone collectively. The higher you toss or mix the ingredients, the greater the measure of good fortune. I personally suspect from my research that this tradition is not an ancient one but one that came about only in the last thirty years. It is possible that this was started as a promotional ploy by a local restaurant but has now been adopted as a tradition.

A much older tradition for Chap Goh Meh has to do with romance. The Perankan Chinese in Malaysia were generally very rich merchants during the 18-19th centuries. They developed a sophisticated and complicated set of rules for social etiquette. Young maidens were, for example, not seen by non-family members. They would normally be sequestered at home and seldom ventured out. Even when a visitor comes to the house, the visitor would be entertained in the front parlor while the young maidens are expected to remain hidden behind an ornamental screen in a second parlor room.
This level of modesty made it difficult for the young men to decide who they would pursue in a formal courtship. Their opportunity comes on Chap Goh Meh, when the maidens are allowed out under escort by an older aunt to take a trishaw and roam the town, essentially to display herself. Potential suitors will wait near the girl’s home or at strategic locations to get glimpses of her and if lucky steal a conversation or a moment if the chaperone was distracted. The girls end the night by going to a bridge and throwing tangerines into the river or to the beach and throw tangerines into the sea. As they do this, they make a wish for what they want in their future husband.

Chap Goh Meh (Photocredit: Miniistry of Tourism)

It is very romantic and some call it the Chinese Valentine’s Day. Naughty boys, demonstrating more entrepreneurship than romance were known to use long handled scoops or nets to retrieve the tangerines from the river or sea for sale or consumption. Although still observed, sadly more and more young people celebrate it today with a date at McDonalds.

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