Monday, March 2, 2015

Lion Dances, Strange Fruit and Orangutans

Hi !  I tried to post again  last night but the connection was down. So it's the next day and here it goes again!  It's a long one!

Happy  New Year !  You might think I am a little late wishing you this greeting, since the start of New Year was 19th of February, but right now I can still hear cannon-like fireworks going off in the street near our place.  People just BEGIN the celebration on the 19th and continue the festivities, banging gongs and drums, eating special foods, visiting with friends and family AND fireworks until, well, not sure until how long, because it's still going on and it's the 1 of March!  The night of the 19th was very full of energy --- screeching salvos of colored stars throughout the streets of Kuching.  Families buy really really good fireworks -- you know  -- the kind you would see at the ball park or a 4th of July extravaganza!  The family members themselves shoot these off -- not a hired pyrotechnic person.  And you don't know where the dazzling exploding rainbows and glittering giant spiders pop up and appear in the sky!

 New Years Day we decided to go to see the Lion Dance that was scheduled to arrive at a local shopping mall.  These dancing lions go from shop to shop, dancing and bringing good luck and prosperity for this new year -- the clashing percussion draws people running to see these acrobatic lions, and the crow is full of smiles and excitement.  It is as fun to watch the faces of the people in the crowd as it is to watch the shimmering dance itself!

After New Years, we tried to get back down to normal life --- that means looking at plants!  Sometimes you go to the plants ---- other times plants come to you.  This was the case when  Jovita Elderson, the charming and energetic curator of the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre Herbarium said, "I have something for you".  It was round, the size of a a tangerine, but it looked like a wild gourd. The skin was yellowish, smooth and brittle-leathery, but easy to break with fingers, and it had the same kind of whitish membrane lining the inner rind that an orange has.   Inside it held these segments -- juicy, pearly halfmoon arils around a a good sized dark seed. The aril pulp was slippery on the teeth -- and had a wild tropical taste... just different.   "It's called Langir or Langgir, but the botanical name is Xanthophyllum amoenum."  Jovi said.
  I always play a guessing game with myself (well, actually others nearby have to hear me struggling out loud!) to see if I can guess the  plant family of an unknown.  I guessed and guessed but totally struck out!  This is an uncommon indigenous tree, in the Polygalaceae family  that gets quite large (if you are nerdy like I am, you'll think -- "whoa! I didn't see THAT coming!")   She explained that the MAIN USE  was not the pulp, but the RIND--  it is dried and used to wash hair!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Herbarium Curator and Fruit-finder Jovita Elderson

Baccarea angulata  -- the Tampoi

Still another plant appeared to us --- this time at the Stutong market -- like a large city-sponsored farmers market.
There is a section of the market called Jungle Produce and it literally means it.  The tree that bears these red, angular waxy fruits is locally called Belimbing Hutan  or the Tampoi.  And of course the guess game.  It turned out to be in the same family as poinsettias and spurge -- Euphorbiaceae. -- It's Baccarea angulata -- another wild native tree.  There is not much meat in the arils but they taste to me exactly like Sweet Tarts (remember those?).  I got a little hesitant about eating plants in the spurge family and did some research before the taste test.

Ah! the last thing in the blog title!  Asha Devi Kaushal,  the kinetic, do-everything  and knows everybody person at the Centre asked if we would like to go to see the orangutans at Semengoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre,  Of course we said yes!
me & the dynamic Asha D. Kaushal

The Semengoh  Nature Preserve is a wonderful rainforest  setting with 27 free-range orangutans.  When we arrived, the guide walked us through the rules -- don't carry food or water, no flash photos, speak quietly and don't get within 5 meters of the residents.  "There are no cages or fences here," he said, "They are not criminals, so why should they be prisoners!"   The center takes in and cares for and trains orangutans old and young alike, those who have been orphaned and those who have been surrendered by people who have tried to keep them.  He led as through a beautiful and dense stretch of rainforest to the place where orangutans sometimes come to feed.  "During tree fruiting season, the orangutans forage and take care of themselves -- we hardly ever see them.  But we put out food anyway.  Between the fruiting seasons they come here to eat in the late afternoon  --- there are several of them here now."
  I have never NOT heard so many excited people!  Everyone was as quiet as a whisper and positively spellbound as these beautiful russet-colored beings effortlessly glided over  the ropes and up and through the trees. Words can't really convey the wonder. There was a mother with her infant, patiently guiding the baby on the ropes and lovingly tolerating baby-acrobatics on her head -- such a pure and tender interaction touched everyone to the heart.

Thanks to Asha and to the whole SBC crew for getting us out to Semengoh!

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