22 June 2009

A dream has come true! Heidi sees turtles!

Let's roll it up from the beginning! A spontaneous trip to the seaside FAR far away from KL, beach and sun guaranteed, how can anyone resist?

Malaysia is unsurprisingly quite beautiful once you get out of the capital. Deciding to join the trip last minute gave me the privilege to take a coach during daytime (as the nightbus with the others was already full) and appreciate the lush vegetation of typical humid Southeast Asian climate: Quite differently from Europe, hardly any two trees next to each other look the same or are of same height or species. In other places, you cannot see the ground for acres of wild palm tree tops up to the horizon (probably a great place to hide in an air strike if you happen to live close by). Sometimes though, you can see palm tree plantations, as the harvested palm oil is one of the country's biggest exports and probably the most used cooking oil for your nasi goreng. Probably not very good for the soil though (monoculture)... Just a few hours later, the bus hikes up the Genting Highlands. The evergreen hills disappear into the misty clouds and if you were to hop off, you would find it to be quite cool outside. I'd love to come here sometime. It seems a good way to go hiking in Asia without having to endure the heat. Shortly before the provincial capital of [state], Kuantan wherefrom I have to take local transport to Cherating, we pass a big military airbase, armed helicopters and cargo planes included (about Malaysia's cordial relations with Singapore another time).

Eventually, I make it to Kuantan which seems like a laid-back provincial ex-industrial town. While I walk up to Maybank to use the ATM foyer, the security guard is talking to somebody. When I come out again, he takes a seat at the eatery opposite with some friends. In KL, you would never see that plus the security guard would likely be armed (but only during opening hours). Such is the difference between the city and the country-side!

Similar thing at the taxi-stand behind the coach station, I ask how much it is to Cherating, a one-hour ride away, expecting to spend quite a while arguing. The manager from the taxi stall says it's RM 55. I ask if they use a meter. He laughs bemused and shakes his head. I say, “Shouldn't it be 40?” (remembering the figure from my Rough Guide). It's a relief when he shows me the pricelist taped to the counter. It's indeed RM 55 (which is what it really should cost). I take into consideration that my Guide is three years and say, “OK-lah, whatever, let's go.”, accompanied by an affirmative side-ways flick of the head and an outwards flick of the hand that means “Ok, whatever”, my bag of ice tea dangling from my other wrist. When I walk over to the car, I notice the group of local taxi drivers sitting in the shade; they are smiling at me with respect, bemused at my subconscious use of Malay (body) language and my guard with taxi drivers. There was no doubt I had just arrived from KL! Maybe, they were even grinning at the thought of (taxi) crime in their “idyllic” city.

There's things you can only try out in Malaysia. One of them is driving at 100 km/h on a highway and no seatbelt (broken!) with two meters safety distance between cars, cars frequently changing lanes like on a F1 track home, some undecisive drivers who prefer to stay ON THE WHITE STRIP (who cares about them in Malaysia anyway) and Orang Asli (indigenous people) on motorcycles driving on the (surprisingly deserted) emergency lane against the direction! I decide to take a video. The driver's seatbelt seems to be working, he doesn't care though and gesticulates with both hands while offering me "What? You no have license? If you want, I sit there and you drive lah!". The Muslim credo stickered on the back of his steering wheel is sufficient protection.
Cherating is quite a nice little kampung. You can cross the whole village in 10min easily. The others have already made themselves at home in our adorable traditional-style bungalow on the beachside. There don't seem to be many tourists around and the chatty lady from reception later confirms that it's a very bad year this year for the town.

We have fantastic dinner at a roadside restaurant, great spices, fresh apple juice (my favourite juice!) for me, limette juice and watermelon juice for some others.

Then we venture out to see fireflies! The presenter and local expert on fireflies is very professional, is very confident in explaining the traiditional and scientific explanation for fireflies in English. It's amazing how he uses a big styrofoam board with really good illustrations pinned on it. The audience is expectant, most are Malaysian families, we are the only foreigners.
Finally, we get our orange life-vests and step on the boat. That's another thing I've never tried before: Floating on a low boat at night on a pitch-dark river! The river is surrounded by Mangrove trees which is the only place the fireflies like to be (because of the sap). Also, they can only survive near sweet water. A short while later, we can see them! Swarms of tiny lights on the side of the river. Some of us believe they look like fairies. Some people we don't know get so excited in the attempt to catch one of the fireflies to look at that they completely forget we're all on a boat and nearly make us all kiss the river... Luckily, our fire-fly guard keeps attracting them (by short flashes of orange light in circular motion). The fireflies, although I did not particularly want to see them, being more obsessed by turtles, are in fact magical and actually magical. In the darkness, they look like stars moving at you in 3D in the quiet breeze over the river.

The turtles are even more amazing and I'm still not over the awe after watching these fascinating animals in action! We get picked up at the hotel by Pak Su who drives out on the beach in the middle of the night to watch a female turtle laying eggs. When we arrive there are quite a large number of other people already and we have to wait until the turtle is nearly finished with laying eggs lest she is disturbed. Malaysia is famous for sea turtles and they are under the protection of the government. The beach is one of the places where turtles still come and on this beach, only Green Turtles. While we wait, Pak Su opens the trunk of the car we came in and takes out two baskets straight from the hatchery of excited baby turtles to hold and closely look at before they are released into the sea. Their shield being maybe 5cm long, it is hard to believe that they will grow to more than a meter really fast. He explains that the rangers usually dig out all the eggs (70-140!) and will bring them to the hatchery to ensure the maximum number of eggs are bred and also to prevent the eggs being stolen and sold (to eat) for RM 2 (!) each. That's why a police car was accompanying us. Apparently it's even unhealthy to eat those eggs: High cholesterol. The temperature of the sand decides the sex and since there have been a lot of females lately, the rangers are trying to hatch more males now to balance it out.

Finally, the time is right and we get the signal to go. The turtle is finishing laying the eggs. What the turtles usually do is, they dig a big hole for themselves and then a small hole within it to lay the eggs into and only when she is satisfied will she start laying the eggs. If sth disturbs her, she will go back to the sea and come another time (imagine humans could tuck it in!). You can only approach her from the back and must not use any light. The ranger digs a rim below the trunk of the turtle (so she won't notice it) and puts a small torch there. What you then see is amazing, egg after egg pressed out in between goo! The eggs look exactly like ping pong balls. A few hundred meters' walk on the beach is a second turtle which in the end lays 74 eggs + 1 bad one. Pak Su says the turtles lay the eggs every year no matter if they are fertilized or not – similar to hens. What happens when they mate is that the male turtle (with the longer tail) will hop on the female turtle in the sea and insert his tail (?). The male turtles also never come to the shore, they just “relax in the sea while the females give labour”. (If you're a female firefly though, you get to eat your mate after he's done!) It's actually quite bizarre to see at the number of people ooohing and aaahing with their cameras and phones behind the turtle staring at her behind. What a freak show! Imagine a woman was giving birth and 30 people would be watching! Anyway, once the turtle finishes digging the hole back up, the rangers put a marker on the site to find the eggs again. Also, you can then notice the distance to a second hole, digged by her to make potential hostile animals think the eggs are somewhere else. At last we get to release the baby turtles. Pak Su makes everybody lign up and everybody gets one. At “Go!” we get to release them near the water and most eagerly crawl to the sea with the help of (torch) light which attracts them (some like mine took a few U-turns). Most of them will sadly not survive and will be eaten by fish, some will suffocate for mistaking plastic bags for squids (their main food) and others will get stuck in a net, hence the government regulation on max. net size allowed to be used by fishermen). The turtles have to get up every 45min to take a breath and sometimes fishermen don't take the net out on the same day or every few hours but actually leave them in for a few days!

I make a wish for my turtle and set it free!

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