Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Ice Cream Bean Tree, Of Native Culture & Cats, Open Day Closes the Blog

A mural of the Orang Ulu Tree of Life -- note the hornbill at the top & the vegetation in overlapping curlicues representing the natural life force.

In Sarawak one day, as if just-like-that, it struck us that our departure date for the US on the calendar was merely a stone's throw away. This sort of jolt to perception melts days rapidly & awakens the realization that pretty soon, the friendly faces of people you've grown to be so fond of seeing amost every week, will be halfway around the world. Secret plans to enter every lottery seem like a good idea. If only you could win the lottery, you'll bring everyone at Sarawak Biodiversity Centre to the States, hoping you could return the warmth & hospitality that they have so graciously shown you! 

Some of the wonderful SBG folks (left to right); Masmah -- treated us to delicious home-made  meals; Christina Wong -- Powerhouse and Natural force of positive energy & lots of laughter: D. Damrel (not wonderful but in the photo!): & Annie -- always, always had a delightful, mysterious Mona Lisa smile
There still were a few things waiting at SBC -- a little more of the herbarium to arrange, the Open Day (a yearly Open House celebration of Science and Culture) was approaching & still other mysterious discoveries on the grounds awaited us!  


One day we went to the SBC cabins for visiting scholars on our lunch break &"just noticed" that a tree we'd seen almost daily for several months now had huge four foot pods hanging down! 

4 Ft long pod -- when did this happen??? !!!

Ice Cream Bean pod, a walking stick? 

 After some conferring with Linda Liman, Angelina Nguan & finally Tu Chu Lee, we figured out the tree was Ice Cream Bean (Inga edulis).   It is actually native to the Amazon & used by indigenous people there! Introduced into Borneo, more than 20 years ago, it is now used by indigenous communities in Sarawak. When the pod is split open the "beans" are surrounded by a juicy, white sweet pulp that tastes like vanilla -- as the common name suggests.

Fluffy, white, vanilla-flavored pulp surrounds beans, inside pods of Inga edulis.

A GREAT DAY TRIP of Native Culture & Cats

Pillars of Orang Ulu House
Our friends (Linda Liman & Nizle Jnp) took us on an incredible day trip to the Sarawak Cultural Village, tucked away in the foothills of Mount Santubong. Sarawak Cultural Village is a living museum that showcases the diverse heritage of the major ethnic groups of Sarawak & portrays their respective lifestyles amid 14 acres of tropical vegetation. Linda & Nizle, who both are from different indigenous Borneo communities -- Iban & Bidayuh, respectively -- made this visit especially fun & interesting. 

Winding trails meander to the different houses & structures of each unique community -- & seeing the architecture & exploring approaches to living spaces of each represented group was fascinating! 

A Melanau tall house
Melanau Healing Room
Bidayuh Head House
Iban Longhouse

Nizle Jnp & Linda Liman chill on the coolest bamboo bridge I've ever seen!

The Cultural Village also had a show with indigenous music & dancing.  Below is a merely a blink of what we saw with our friends.

Dancing ladies of the Orang Ulu with "hornbill feather" fans

 Gentlemen of the BIdayuh with 'hooped"flowing kilts


Kuching Cat Museum
 (the Kuching City Symbol - 
2 cats flanking a hornbill)

As a grand finale, Linda & Nizle took us to a  must-see famous Kuching landmark -- the Cat Museum!  As you may recall, when we started the first blog in Borneo, Kuching is the City of Cats, and within this museum is every representation of a cat imaginable. 

Also, it held a photo opportunity for those who would like to experience "cathood" for about 30 seconds!

3 Friends in a Altered Reality


Students visit the booths on Open Day
At last, Open Day at SBC was underway!  On this weekend, SBC invites the general public to examine the on-going scientific projects, participate in all sorts of fun  biological, ecological & environmental interactive booths & to celebrate the region's rich cultural heritage. It is a two day celebration, but the work & planning begin months before the actual date.  Different departments at SBC brainstorm ideas for their booths & submit them for approval, design the booths, make the displays, collect & assemble all the materials to be used in the public hands-on participation.  At my Traditional Knowledge department, the booth was under the direction of the awesome team of Angelina Nguan & Fazariah Kapali (two extremely creative & artistic wonder-workers). These two waved their wands to create beautiful jewelry from beads, seeds, fern stipes & native freshwater pearls. Team members (including Arlene Richard) collected native vegetation to be used as stencil/stamps to create customized carrying bags & mixed rich-colored dyes & honed tie-dying skills-- these to be imparted to participants eager to create their own dyed cosmic-looking handkerchief. 

Click on this image for a close up of the stunning creations of Angelina Nguan & Fazariah Kapali for the Traditional Knowledge Booth at Open Day.

Not only are Angelina and Fazariah wonderful artists and great team-mates, they were also patient friends who taught me boodles about arts, crafts, food, customs and life in Sarawak. They helped make the experience complete!

with Angelina Nguan

At one point or another I saw Fazariah and Angelina repairing specimens, stitching plants to specimen sheets, shaving soap, weaving ferns into bracelets, databasing, filing, preparing hundreds of gifts for visiting school-children, maintaining the herbarium, and countless other tasks, doing it all with contagious cheer! They brought me a laugh every day!

with Fazariah Kapali

Arlene Richard demonstrates technique
for making some way-out handkerchiefs
There were all sorts of other innovative and fun booths from the other departments as well as indigenous foods & articles you could try, buy or merely ask about.  Booths included making potpourri (from spicy tropical ingredients), "Fear factor" (which featured a first encounter with a friendly tarantula), chromotography using skittles, art projects out of recycled materials,

Representatives of different indigenous communities display handmade plant-based tools & baskets and offer them for sale. The woven baskets of mesmerizing indigenous patterns are exquisite!

These 2 lovebirds pose with a secret, indigenous cooking ingredient - fermented frogs.

Guest lecturers included Begonia specialist Ruth Kiew.  

One of our favorite parts of Open Day was the segment for Traditional Dance.  The music itself is very beautiful, but also the traditional clothes for the dance are bold with the curlicues, stripes and feathers. Men often wear a vest made out of the beaten bark of Atrocarpus tree.   The ladies who danced used the herbarium to get ready and obliged us by posing near the cabinets.  With the reflection of the light they look like two beautiful spirits!

Two beautiful apparitions
appear in the herbarium!

SBC Director Dr. Charlie Yeo introduces the Traditional dancers to the crowd. 

So, with the celebration of Open Day, we finally close our Malaysian Blog. Thanks to all the great people we met on our trip and thank you all for reading the Glory Hog Blog! 
Hope you enjoyed the ride, and, if you get the chance, go out there and see it for yourselves! 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Singapore and Siem Reap's Temple-eating Trees

SINGAPORE The Singapore Herbarium  (SING)
Aerial Roots 

Our Singapore trip was a one-day whirlwind tour -- but even though it was brief it was a very rewarding & interesting visit. Our first stop was the Singapore Herbarium (SING), located within the Singapore Botanical Garden. The garden is diverse, beautiful & innovative & a welcome patch of green for the over three million or so people living in the dense city-nation called Singapore. While strolling through the garden (to the herbarium) we were delighted to discover this unusual pergola  --  a covered walkway of  of Princess Vine (Cissus verticillatus),-- a cascading, living fringe of chartreuse & light pink-tinted aerial roots. Also called Curtain Vine, it actually (surprise!) is a native of the tropical Western Hemisphere, including Florida!

With Serena Lee in front of
a large section of types

The Singapore Herbarium ( SING) is a beautiful and fantastic institution with ca. 750,000 herbarium specimens, including 8,000 (!) type specimens.  Serena Lee, the energetic Senior Manager at SING, was kind enough to give us a tour.

Inside wonderful SING

The collection focuses on southeast Asia, with the most extensive collections from Singapore & Peninsular Malaysia dating from the 1880s. 

Mounter Sagunthera Davi displays her excellent work for us. From the specimen preparation room you can see (through the glass partition) the Library & Resource Center, a tremendous asset open to the public visiting the Singapore Botanical Garden.

There's a lot to do and see in Singapore, even if you aren't all about plants! Like almost all of southeast Asia, Singapore is a mix of different cultures and religions, & we had a great time exploring some of the different dimensions of the nation. 

The Chulia Masjid: note the prayertimes marked on the electronic sign

We met a long-time friend there & got a great guided look at some of the oldest mosques & sacred shrines in the town. The Chulia Masjid, from 1826 or so, was built right in old Chinatown & is especially attractive!

In between prayers at the Chulia Masjid
The Hajji Muhammad Salleh Masjid, a peaceful spot in a sea of traffic!
We also visited the Hajji Muhammad Salleh Masjid in Singapore, in a neighborhood that is now dominated by the East Coast Parkway in town. The Masjid (& grave of the holy man nearby) are almost completely surrounded by the freeway and the modern city. 

The shrine of Habib Noh.

Behind the masjid is the grave of a Muslim holy man named Habib Noh (d. 1866) where people from all walks of life come to pray, ask for help, or just to to meditate. 

Mark and Dave at the tomb of
Habib Noh, Singapore

Dave & Mark Woodward (a long-time friend & colleague from our Arizona State days) got to catch up & talk Religious Studies Islamic mysticism shop-talk!



After a fabulous but all too brief time in Singapore we headed to our next religio-botanical hot-spot-- the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia!

The famous heads guarding the entrance to the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom
Siem Reap, Cambodia is less than 2 hours by plane from Kuala Lumpur.  You may not recognize the name of the city, but most people have heard of (or have seen in movies) what makes it famous: the Angkor Wat temple complexes. 

Angkor Wat with the tourists removed!

When people say Angkor Wat they usually really mean the dozens & dozens of temples & temple complexes just a few miles from modern Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is a huge area, & home to famous temples like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. They were built over centuries, side by side, over hundreds of years. These mysterious-looking shrines (parts of which are still used in religious rituals) often take center stage in travel journals like National Geographic or in films like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. Filled with tourists and the occasional pilgrims, these shrines are exhilarating to see in person!

Tuk-tuk  and driver, Mr. Proseur
 The best way (& for us, the ONLY way) to journey from temple to temple is by tuk-tuk -- a small coach attached to a motorcycle.  Many hotels include a tuk-tuk & driver with the room cost. Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Proseur, must be one of the best. He grew up in Siem Rep & knew every temple around -- even those that aren't frequented by many tourists but are still beautiful! He took care of us and every suggestion that he made showed insight & worked beautifully! We saw so much more than we would have on our own. A tuk-tuk is a MUCH better deal than a taxi, and, besides, you get to ride in a tuk-tuk!

Elephants mean happiness and good luck. These royal three are also pulling up lotuses!

The jungle re-cycling a shrine at Angkor Wat.

Set in the jungle, some of the temples are becoming the jungle. The image of a lost temple in the jungle crowned by imposing stone heads, wrapped in the embrace of overgrown strangler fig trees comes from this complex. The history of these temples spans from the 9th to the 14th centuries, & each temple is varied in their size and ornamentation. A field trip like this is especially fun for us, because it combines cultural religious history (Dave's specialty) with botany (my calling).

The tree called Spung (Tetrameles nudiflora),famous for its appetite for temples!
The ravenous Spung!
It is awesome & humbling to see the ruins of these extraordinary temples slowly consumed by their surroundings!

It is an eerie & irresistible photo-op for every visitor. Spung is a fast-growing, deciduous tree with tiny fruits that can germinate & thrive in the crevices of stone temple walls.  It has soft wood (& sometimes hollow branches) & is not used for much; one of the uses was to make dugout canoes. Glamorizing temples (& enticing visitors), the mighty Spung seems to have its own agenda for survival!

Spung draped in honeycombs of wild bees, high in the air

Another breath-taking temple-eater is a Strangler Fig (Ficus gibbosa), that seems to weave a net of roots around temple walls. This tree is actually a hemi-epiphyte. Its small seeds germinate on upper branches of canopy trees (closer to the sun) & exist in the detritus caught in the branch crotches (or in the case of a temple, in the cracks of the stone walls).  The fig's tiny roots grow downward, sometimes dangling as aerial roots -- it's only when they reach the ground does a voracious growth spurt occur. The roots dig into the ground for nutrients, sending out a network of roots that encircle the host & fuse together, cutting off nutrients (& life!) to the host -- giving the fig a "leg up" on accessing even more nutrients. Though it may seem like a villain to other trees, a strangler fig produces abundant fruit that feeds a plethora of animals.  

(Above & Below)  Strangler Fig (Ficus gibbosa) & its network of roots  
While we were out exploring the beautiful temples, we heard the wafting of music equally as enchanting & timeless as the temple  surroundings.  Khmer traditional music -- what an uplifting vibration! It has a natural flow like a river & delights the senses with strings & percussion in ways that seem to simultaneously carry both energy & serenity.

We first listened to & were caught up in the music before we realized that each of the talented band members was a victim and survivor of an unthinkable, recent legacy -- a landmine explosion.

Cambodia has seen a lot of tragedy in our lifetime.  In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot, perpetrated one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. Under the Khmer Rouge nearly 2,000,000 Cambodians died in the Killing Fields or from disease, starvation or slavery.

Millions of landmines were scattered throughout Cambodia, killing and maiming thousands of Cambodians right up to today. Landmines are a big problem -- all around the temples you'll see warning you not to step off the path into the jungle, where landmines still may exist!

These musicians in these bands are a testimony to the spirit of people who have suffered from these senseless acts, & have joined together to make both something beautiful as well as a livelihood.

The National Tree (....okay, not really a tree but an Arborescent Monocot...)

Borassus flabellifer