Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Price of Happiness

"Pisang emas dibawa berlayar
Masak sebiji di atas peti
Hutang emas boleh dibayar
Hutang budi dibawa mati"

Malay pantun

Golden Sunrise
Sunrise yesterday (28.01.2014), seen from the entrance of my apartment building.

On Monday, I cycled to work with the shadow of a forty-eight-hour, two-day call riding pillion with me. Monday calls are always tough as my colleagues from the other departments would choose to hold on to their patients over the weekend as a form of professional courtesy and then unloading all of them on the poor sod who draws the Monday straw. I had seven referrals before noon and that is a fuck-lot of referrals for a department that can expect zero referrals on a good day. Seven referrals before lunch is a number that even those benighted, overworked peons over at Internal Medicine would consider a heavy load. We Psychiatry Medical Officers are not used to breaking a sweat in the line of duty. That morning, I also admitted two of the patients referred to me putting me firmly ahead in the M.O. leaderboard of most-patients-admitted to our new virginal Psychiatric Ward, which is still pristine and free from the ammonium miasma of insanity that permeates older psychiatric facilities.

That morning, I had breakfast at a coffee shop opposite of my apartment building and as par for course for most open-air eateries in the city of Kuching, dirty, smelly, cancerous cigarette smokers fart through their disgusting mouths without a care, poisoning most of the premises. In order to put myself at least 20-feet away from the nearest of these accursed butt-suckers, I was forced to share a table with a stranger. I am not overly fond of conversations and especially less so on a Monday morning so after I sat down, I distanced myself from my immediate reality by sticking my headphones into my ears and tuned in to an episode of Harmontown (a weekly podcast hosted by Dan Harmon, the misanthropic comedic genius who created my favourite TV show of all time, Community). People usually don't try to talk to people who have headphones on but in my experience, it's not idiot-proof.

Golden Sunset
Sunset yesterday, as seen from the balcony of my apartment.

I had a bowl of greasy kolo mee, a Kuching staple which the locals are overly and unjustifiably proud of (it's just some salty dry-tossed noodle with little else in it, really). The best part about it is that it is usually cheap. I mean, I am a doctor and I can't even afford to drive to work in this country anymore with the prices of every commodity (except kangkung) rising like sewage out of a toilet blocked by political shitheads. Cheap is what I am looking for these days.

My fellow breakfaster, who had so kindly allowed me to take refuge a safe distance away from the toxic fumes of tobacco addicts (and was so considerate as to avoid the urge to chat or even make eye contact with me) left before I finished, leaving the table to my sole sovereignty. Soon, I too have supped my fill and got up to pay the kolo mee seller. Little did I suspect, I was in for a surprise.

Orange Sun Set Over Mountain
A close-up of the above sunset descending behind the mountain.

"That guy you were sitting with already paid for you," he said.

Say what? I quickly looked around for my benefactor, only to realise that I didn't actually look at him long enough to recognise him the entire time we dined together. I haven't the foggiest why he did it but it sure as heck wasn't because of my good looks. Meanwhile, two senior citizens have claimed my recently vacated table and started chatting spiritedly about whatever it is that senior citizens chat about over breakfast.

"I'll pay for them," I told the shopowner.

"They are not the man who paid for you," said Captain Obvious.

"I know," I answered, paid and left. I couldn't pay the magnanimous John Doe back for his spontaneous act of goodwill, but I could pay it forward. It heartens me to find out that although the prices of everything else continue to rise, the price of my faith in humanity remained cheap - and he bought it back for me with just four bucks.

And the least I could do was give the same gift to others. It blows my mind that if everyone pays every kindness done to them forward, we can make the day of every single person in the world at the price of four measly dollars.

P.S. Much more meaningful than forwarding chain e-mails and re-tweeting, methinks.

P.P.S. All  pictures taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40 camera.

A conduit of kindness,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Now We Have a Psychiatric Ward

"Several hours later I'm the only one awake
All these streets are empty it's just me and my mistake
One by one the stars go out this black sky turns to gray
One more blue sunny day"

Blue Sunny Day (2009) by Jonathan Coulton

Best song about an emo suicidal vampire ever.

Our Psychiatric Ward was officially open on Monday - 20th January 2014 - after languishing in development hell for most of last year. It was mostly due to poor planning and shoddy workmanship that delayed its readiness. It is still pretty rough around the edges but it is serviceable. My Head of Department is really progressive in his ideas regarding the treatment of the mentally ill and is very respectful of their rights. He believes that the insane asylums of old (which are basically leper colonies slash gaols intended to separate the crazy from the"normal" folks) belong to antiquity and in the pages of Batman comics, and have no place in the modern practice of Psychiatry. He insisted that the ward should be designed and run "like any other ward in the hospital". We do have two of those classical padded rooms though, but no word on straitjackets yet.

Yesterday, now that we actually have a room in the ward for the on-call officer, I had my first stay-in call since I joined this department. We only have one patient currently and she was amply tranquillised and posed no problem to me the entire night. And very fortunately for me, I received zero referrals in my entire 24-hour watch. I only received one call from my staff nurse at 8:00 PM asking me if our sole patient can keep her cellphone. Since we are running this ship "like any other ward in the hospital", I said "why not?"

The on-call room is situated on the first floor above the ward proper. It was so spartan that I seriously contemplated printing some of the landscapes I've photographed, frame them and hang them on the walls. One might start seeing things staring into so much white.

MO On-Call Room Psych Ward SGH
The captain's quarter.

There was a Sony Bravia flat-screen TV still in its box sitting in one of the corners of the room which got excited me for about 4 seconds. Then, realising that it wouldn't do me any good that night, I promptly lost all interest. After a cursory survey, I also noticed that some essential amenities were no where to be found. There was no chair so I went out and wrestled one in. There was no hot water so I had to jog vigorously in place while I showered to stave off hypothermia. There were no curtains, so I had to kill the lights before I change my clothes. I seriously didn't want to give the patients in the cancer ward opposite a striptease (unless they can pay me really well for it).

Looking out of the window, I saw that I had a splendid view of the mortuary...

View of Mortuary
So I'll be the first to find out when the first wave of the zombie apocalypse hits.

... and the posterior facade of the main hospital block.

View of Hospital
Shot using a 15-second exposure time.

Now, one feature of the architecture I really liked was that I could look right down at the ward from upstairs and quickly take stock of the situation on the floor.

View of Ward
I am watching you.

I am not sure how having strange people surveying them from above behind a pane of glass would affect our patients afflicted with paranoid delusions, but hey - you win some, you lose some.

The other architectural quirk I liked was that the 1st floor where my room is located is accessed via a staircase on the outside of the building, so I could enter and leave the building without anyone knowing. I do so enjoy my privacy - which is why some curtains would be peachy. Also, I already look like I dress in the dark most of the time so I'd appreciate it if I don't have to actually dress in the dark. Of course, the outside staircase also meant that I could be murdered in my room and no one would find my corpse until it had already stiffened.

I'm going to enjoy working here.

Slept like a baby,
k0k s3n w4i

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This is the Face of Someone Who Smokes in My Hospital

 "Isn’t making a smoking section in a restaurant like making a peeing section in a swimming pool?"


The quote is attributed to the late George Carlin, but I cannot find any references for that.

The Psychiatry Clinic I serve at is situated right in front of the Emergency and Trauma Department (ETD) and everyday after work, I would have to walk past the ambulance bay on my way to my car. Of all the corners of the Sarawak General Hospital, the entrance to the ETD is the spot that suffers from the worst infestation of cigarette smokers and after sundown, these goons would congregate there to enjoy their little tobacco penises. You'll see many signs hanging thereabouts cautioning would-be transgressors that anyone caught smoking there would incur a RM 5,000 fine but they were about as impotent as the graphic pictures of cancer and stillbirth on the cigarette packs at deterring these feckless butt-tonguing ash-bandits.

Today, while walking between two parked ambulances, I caught the scent of burnt tobacco wafting in the air. And it wasn't even dark yet! Unlike most other members of the hospital staff, I would always take the time to deal with these shitheads who dare smoke on hospital grounds - mostly because I really, really, really hate smokers. I honestly hate them more than I hate heroin junkies, and I daresay I hate them as much as I hate child rapists. Someday, I will write a full-length thesis on why they should be shot on sight but for now, I'll just commit to the current plot.

As I was saying, I instinctively drew my camera from my satchel and started hunting down the source of the hellish fumes. I soon found him - a smelly middle-aged man with the unhealthily browned complexion of a chronic smoke inhaler leaning against a wall while fiddling with his tablet PC. A glowing fag was held lazily between two fingers on his left hand.

And the poo cherry on top of this dung pie? He was standing right below a "No Smoking" sign, bold as brass testicles!

Asshole Smoker in Hospital
Behold, the face of a lawbreaker. And note the number of cigarette butts around his feet.

Cigarette in Hand
Here is a closeup.

"What's this?!" he bellowed in irritation in Malay as I snapped his picture.

"Smoking is against the law on hospital grounds," I told him coldly, flashing my ID card.

"I just needed one cigarette," he explained. "I couldn't stand it anymore."

Now, anyone who couldn't do without a cigarette for any amount of time and would intentionally break the law to have one in a hospital is clearly an addict. I informed him that he would face a fine of 5,000 ringgit for his crime.

"Do you think I have that kind of money?" the smelly man argued insolently, cigarette still undiscarded.

"Clearly, you are rich enough to burn dozens of these everyday," I said, gesturing at the burning evidence in his hand. "And don't pretend that you don't know it's wrong. You are standing right beneath a 'No Smoking' sign."

He looked up briefly at the plastic plaque and then claimed that he didn't see it. That's how incorrigible the smokers in Kuching are. They light up in public without a care in the world, and would not even bother to try and find out if they are suppose to smoke wherever they are. I have lost count of the times I see smokers indulging in their dirty masturbatory habits in frustratingly close proximity to "No Smoking" signs as if they have collectively developed blind spots to such warnings through decades of practiced ignorance nurtured by permissive indifference. I am convinced that the city of Kuching has one of the worst public smoking problems in the world.

Then without warning, he ditched his cigarette and bolted. I am not kidding. The cowardly asshole simply ran away to avoid paying the fine. I didn't give chase because the Ministry of Health isn't paying me nearly enough for me to do my real job, let alone enough for me to run down stinky yellow-teethed cancer-giving scums of society like him through the hospital parking lot.

Anyway, there is a dire shortage of shame amongst Kuching's tobacco addicts so as a service to the public, I decided to post his uncensored mugshot here on the internet so everyone can look at how that craven criminal looks like. And let this be warning to all you inconsiderate dumbasses out there who think you can continue lighting up in my hospital with impunity: Your face might be the next one I exhibit here.

Addendum 23.01.2014: Apparently, those "graphic pictures of cancer and stillbirth" on cigarette packs DO work. My mistake.

Scourge of public smokers,
k0k s3n w4i

Monday, January 20, 2014

It is I, Maker of Dinner!

"If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate."

Diogenes the Cynic

I will be the first to admit that I am not build for kitchen-work. To date, the closest I've come to cooking is frying an omelette, boiling instant ramen, and assembling store-bought pasta and pasta sauce. I have a penchant for slightly burnt food and food I cook invariably (and perhaps intentionally) ends up a little charred as well - perfect for me, but not so suitable to the palate of ordinary mortals. I also tend to throw random ingredients into the stuff I make just to find out what the resulting mess tastes like, like that time I thought sticking reconstituted dried cranberries into pasta sauce is a good idea (it was, surprisingly).

Yesterday morning, I found a half-empty bag of macaroni and thought that we should try and finish it before they grow legs and scuttle away. We went shopping and I bought a can of mushroom carbonara sauce, a bunch of oyster mushrooms and a string of Taiwanese sausage. That evening, I put them together and voilà! Dinner is served!

Macaroni in Carbonara Sauce with Oyster Mushrooms and Taiwanese Sausage Slices
Macaroni in Carbonara sauce with Taiwanese sausage and oyster mushrooms.

However, I still have some macaroni left over after that plus two extra Taiwanese sausages - so that compelled me to also make dinner tonight. Anyway, I don't mind it terribly. The wife is always put in a better mood whenever I cook heat stuff up for her, so that incentivises me to do that. And no matter what I make, she always pretends to enjoy it. Our marriage is built on little lies like that.

So today afternoon, during the lunch hour, I drove to a nearby supermarket to get some more cooking ingredients. There, I spotted these huge phallic mushrooms with comical tiny caps on display in the chiller and immediately grabbed a couple even though I have no idea what they are or how they taste like, because life's too short to keep sticking to familiar fungi. I also adventurously picked out a bulb of garlic and a bulb of onion at random because I have zero idea on what constitutes good specimens of these condiments (not having ever used them or bought them before in my entire life). I handed them to the bagger who made me go get two more bulbs of garlic and another onion bulb because there is apparently such a thing as a minimum weight of purchase for these items. Great. Now I have more than I can use.

Through an online visual guide, I identified the manly mushrooms I bought as king trumpet mushrooms or Pleurotus eryngii, cousin to the oyster mushrooms we had the day before. I chopped two of these prodigously stemmed mushrooms up into coin-shaped bits and stir-fried them with some onions, chopped garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil. I didn't really choose the soy sauce or the sesame oil - they were just what I happened to grab when I was working the frying pan. I could just as easily have grabbed the vinegar or dishwashing soap.

King Trumpet Mushroom Medallions Stir-Fried
King trumpet mushroom medallions stir-fried in soy sauce and sesame oil.

Considering that this was the first time I cooked an actual dish from scratch, I was surprised by how delicious it was. The mushroom medallions were succulent, meaty, fragrant and have the texture of scallops. Where have this awesome species of mushroom been all my life?

I sliced my one remaining log of king trumpet mushroom lengthwise into thin, flat rectangles and dropped them into some store-bought cheese and herb pasta sauce along with some garlic and onion. The final goop was a teeny-tiny bit thin because I had added too much water to it but it was still serviceable. I also fried up the remainder of the Taiwanese sausages from yesterday's dinner.

Macaroni & Cheese with Taiwanese Sausage & Crispy Fried Garlic Flakes
Macaroni and cheese with king trumpet mushroom slices, Taiwanese sausage and crispy fried garlic flakes.

For garnish, I cut a few cloves of garlic into thin slices and fried them in olive oil till they are nice, brown and crispy flakes. Cheryl didn't like them because they were a tad too burnt and tasted a wee bit bitter and acrid - but not me, I loved 'em. Now, spare me that worn-out canard of how burnt food can cause cancer. They only found a link of that in charred meat and even that is less than conclusive.

Overall, dinner was a satisfying affair and no one died from it (hence, a success). Now, I just need to find something to do with my remaining two bulbs of garlic and bulb of onion...

Experimental epicurean,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Yet Another Anniversary of Cheryl's Birth

"There is still no cure for the common birthday."

John Glenn

On the eve of Cheryl's birthday a couple of weeks ago, I snuck out of my house on the pretext of going for my evening exercise, and bought a large slice of chocolate fudge cake and some tealights. I hid the goods just outside of our apartment and proceeded to repeat my nightly failure to put my 4-month-old to bed. Seriously, why is it so hard to put babies to sleep? What is the evolutionary advantage of forcing parents to spend almost an hour carrying their infants till they finally doze off? I used to keep a pair of hamster and at one point, the doe (which I named Pixie) had a litter of pups. They looked like blind, pink, wriggling jelly babies and I don't think Pixie needed to put each individual pup to sleep by rocking them in her paws and singing nursery rhymes to them. She did escape shortly after having the litter and they all died from hunger, but that's beside the point. My point is, why are human babies so helpless that they can't even fall asleep without someone chauffeuring them there?

Anyway, it was customary for Cheryl to roll her eyes at me and sigh after each time I fail before swooping in to save the day night. So, after she commandeered Darwin, I opened the front door to retrieve the cake and tealights, and set up the ceremonial altar where we would sacrifice another year of Cheryl's youth - that is, I arranged a bunch of tealights around the cake and lit them as a surprise.

Chocolate Fudge Birthday Cake
A similar setup is used by sorcerers to commune with demons.

She emerged shortly out of our bedroom after Darwin was finally persuaded to shed his consciousness and saw the cake and candles almost instantly. I mouthed "Surprise" at her because in our house, no one must make any sound above 30 decibels after Darwin hits his tiny sack. I also whisper-sang her her birthday song because, well, she deserves it. No one works harder than her in our little nuclear family of five (we have two cats). Everything you have ever heard about how difficult babies are is not only true but grossly understated. Heck, I've performed some surgeries that are easier than putting Darwin to sleep.

The next day, which is Cheryl's birthday proper, the family sans cats went to Bla Bla Bla - one of our favourite restaurants in Kuching. The Lunar New Year is nigh and they have put up seasonal decorations i.e. lots of red lanterns.

Darwin Mischievous Face
Birthday girl and her baby boy.

Cheryl letting Darwin have a whiff of pickled papaya.

Bla Bla Bla is a sister restaurant to The Junk. Cheryl had her last meal from the latter before she fasted for her Caesarean so in a way, the tiramisu and the prawn capellini she had was the last meal Darwin had through his umbilical cord.

Our absolutely favourite dish from Bla Bla Bla has to be their crispy manicai, a dish I believe is a unique creation of theirs which can be found nowhere else.

Crispy Manicai
Once you pop...

Manicai (also called star gooseberry, sweetleaf or cangkuk manis in Malay) is a pretty common table fare hereabouts - but once fried to crisps and topped with chicken floss (肉鬆), they are alchemically transformed into the most addictive appetiser known to man. We just can't get enough of it!

Another one of our house favourites is their baked cheese sugarcane chicken, which is a hard dish to eat politely.

Baked Cheese Sugarcane Chicken
It was better presented when it arrived. I broke open the cheesy shell before photographing it.

The chicken itself is great - tender, juicy and sinfully cheesy - but what really elevates this dish is its accompanying sugarcane bits. Of course, we are expected to stick them in our mouths and chew to get at their sweet sugary juice, and no one can look well-mannered doing it. Then, when we are done with them, we have to remove the inedible fibrous husks from our gob and dispose them in our plates. This is definitely not something you should order on a first date, delicious as it might be. Unless you are dating a cow, of course.

In the middle of dinner, Darwin presented his madre with a birthday present he made himself - in his diaper. If I have to say one thing about the kid, it's that he has impeccable comedic timing. So, we were forced to rush him back home for immediate sewage management. Strangely, none of us felt like having any desserts before we left.

k0k s3n w4i

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How Do You Like Them Crocodiles?

"Crocodiles are easy. They try to kill and eat you. People are harder. Sometimes they pretend to be your friend first."

Steve Irwin

Croc Attack
I survived to tell the tale.

In 2005, I took a trip with me college mates to Kuching and tramped around town having illegal quantities of fun. We did the whole Kuching Experience: the Rainforest World Music Festival, the Sarawak Museum, the Sarawak Cultural Village, Damai Beach, trekking and overnight stay at the Bako National Park, obscene amounts of kolo mee, and loads more. My discovery of the local wonder vegetable, midin (which I understand is not cultivated and has to be foraged for in local forests), changed my life. It was actually the decisive factor that made me choose Kuching for my medical internship - and here I am still after making Medical Officer. I will gladly eat this fern to its extinction. It probably tasted as good as the dodos did.

One of the things we did was visit Jong's Crocodile Farm. And I do mean farm. Aside from being a mini menagerie and a place where tourists can gawk at Sarawak's native crocodilian crurotarsans without undue risks to limbs, the proprietors Jong's actually butchers their star attractions for leather and meat. The ancient Chinese believed that partaking in croc-flesh can cure one of bronchial asthma. The ancient Chinese also thought that drinking alcohol is a good idea for breastfeeding mothers, so they were clearly retarded.

Peacock Closeup
With a name like "peacock", they must have gotten teased mercilessly in high school.

While perusing my old camera's SD card, I unearthed some pictures that I've taken during my last visit there in 2011 and I thought I'd share them. Because pictures of gigantic reptilian predators are exactly what the world needs more of apart from peace, sustainable energy and cargo pants. Why is it so hard to find a decent pair of cargo pants these days? And what's the point of pockets on skinny jeans? Sorry, I got carried away there.

As anyone who have observed crocodiles and alligators in (or any kind of poikilothermic metazoans for that matter) knows, they aren't very kinetic sights to behold. Unless they are feeding or fornicating, they are usually doing their best impression of a solar panel - and because of that, they are the animals that children most frequently throw rocks at at zoos. What people really want to see are these primitive, heavily-armoured amphibious weapons of mass evisceration destroy antelopes like they do on nature channels.

Basking Crocs
Hi, we are crocodiles! We like to sit motionless all day with a stupid grin on our faces.

At Jong's, they have designated pools where the crocodile-wranglers in their employ would feed them in front of a spectating audience. They also cranked it up by dangling raw hunks of meat over the middle of the croc pools using some lines and pulleys. That would entice these large languid leviathans into making spectacular vertical leaps out of the water for the benefit of the farm's paying visitors.

Jaws of Death

Croc Feeding

To get the most bang out of their buck, the crocodile-keepers would often jerk the bait out of the crocs' snapping jaws several times before they'd let them have it. It felt a bit mean-spirited but it's really quite hard to feel sorry for these creatures because any animal that grins like that all the time has to some kind of asshole.

Croc Splash

The smarter crocs in the feeding pool would just gather under the little wooden platform from which the croc-feeders dole out the chow and wait for the eventual rainfall of the remaining meat, because what are they going to do? Not feed them?

Feeding Frenzy
Feeding frenzy!

Or, maybe they were just biding their time, watching the stilts supporting the rickety platform rot away bit by bit every day until one day, their captors would fall right into their trap-like jaws where they would be torn until all the king's horses and all the king's men could never put them together again.

Now that's giving them a show they will never forget.

Croc Death Stare
Always grinning, always watching.

My wife went there once in the first few months she moved here to Kuching and hated it because she thought that the animals there were living in appalling conditions and it depressed her. She also disliked the fact that the crocodiles at Jong's would eventually get butchered and have their parts sold in the souvenir shop - which I find strange because she eats chicken, pork, beef and mutton like a dinosaur and have never lamented how those animals were raised for slaughter.

Then again, she's a cat lover so maybe she can only empathise with stone-cold creatures that hunt and kill other living things remorselessly.

If you have zero problems with enjoying the blatant exploitation of these undomesticated predators of Borneo's riverways, you might enjoy a day trip to Jong's Crocodile Farm, situated a 30-minute drive out of Kuching. Aside from their titular attractions, you can also see bearded pigs, iguanas, peacocks, monkeys, Caucasian tourists, freshwater otters and other unusual animals. They even have chronologically arranged enclosures housing live crocodilian specimens ranging from hatch-lings to full-grown man-killers. I particularly enjoyed the gruesome exhibition of pictures and news stories of crocodile attacks that happened in Sarawak (which will help to immunise you from feeling too sorry for these captive beasts at Jong's).

They even claim to house Bujang Senang's skull, a famous white-streaked 20-foot maneater that was shot in 1992. I came from West Malaysia across the South China Sea, and even I had heard of Bujang Senang when I was a wee schoolkid.

But wait a minute, the Sarawak Museum also boasts Bujang Senang's skull in their display so one of them must be lying to children! How dare they?!

P.S. All pictures taken with Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ15.

Husband to a crocodile rights activist,
k0k s3n w4i

Saturday, January 11, 2014

At the Shore of Peace

"At the beach, life is different. A day moves not from hour to hour but leaps from mood to moment. We go with the currents, plan around the tides, follow the sun."

Sandy Gingras

Do people still keep photo albums or are all our photographs squirreled away in the clouds of the internet? Have they gone the way of the VCR, pen-pals and immoveable house-phones - in the museum of yesteryear and obsolescence? Would my four-month-old son understand the crescent phone receiver symbol on our smartphones and the sealed envelope in our e-mails, when neither of these objects have features that look anything remotely analogous to those symbols? I remember weekends when I would make my great-grandmother show me her yellowing photo albums filled with sepia memories and have her explain the story behind every picture - because photography used to be expensive sorcery that people employ to capture the light that important moments reflects, so there are almost always stories.

Just before I bought my new digital camera, I dug up my old one to see what I could scavenge from its carcass. I was delighted to find my old 8-gigabyte SD card entombed within it and after plugging it to the resurrecting electricity of computer, I found that it was still holding on to the last pictures I took before my old camera turned into a paperweight. It felt as if I just re-discovered a long lost photo album. It felt as if I restored memories I never had like some kind of amnesiac time-traveller.

Amongst the pictures were some I've taken one morning at the Damai Beach at Santubong, just half-an-hour's drive outside of Kuching. The Exif data embedded in these pictures dates them to 28 December of 2011; another testament of the superiority of data over human memory.

Santubong River and Mountain
Santubong River on the way to Damai Beach.

I thought some of the pictures were none too shabby and wondered why I had let them languish in data hell for so long until I came across some pictures of Ex-Girlfriend the Third™ interspersed among them, but she dumped me about one month after these pictures were taken. What you won't see in the Exif data of these photos is information telling you that she was standing just outside of frame in all of them.

Maybe that's why I hadn't bothered to take them out of the SD card in the first place. Maybe that person who was me two years ago was grieving. Maybe I was just lazy. Just two years have past and I can't remember which.

Desolate Damai Beach
Damai Beach. "Damai" means "peace" in the Malay language.

A lot have happened in the two years since that morning at Damai. I met someone else. I got married to her. We had a baby boy together. Now, our kid is four months old (but has the build of a six-month-old and the drool-producing capacity of a full-grown adult St Bernard). At the time, it felt like I would never move on - the same as how I felt when I broke up with the girlfriend before the last (the one I dubbed the Ex-Grrrfriend™). We are really myopic, aren't we? Why do we get so hung up over things which we probably wouldn't care about just a few lunar cycles down the calendar? Why do they throw our lives into disarray? Why do we throw our lives away on account of short-term miseries?

Grumpy Blue Purple Crab
Small blue-and-purple crab spotted at Damai during low tide.

Blue Purple Crab Shocked

At that time, I had just moved to the city of Kuching for my first real job as a House Officer at the state hospital and after I had settled down, I invited my then-girlfriend to come and visit for Christmas and to celebrate our fourth anniversary (which is on Boxing Day as the Exif data on one of the other pictures in the SD card testified). I have taken these pictures for keepsake and remembrance, for when I need help to reminisce about our brief time together at the end of 2011's December that punctuated the marathon of our long distance relationship. These pictures meant something to me back when they were taken. They were important. They had stories to tell a future me.

Hermit Crab on its Back
A tiny hermit crab.

Now, they are just some pretty pictures.

Without a second thought or even much of a first thought, I had deleted all the pictures that my ex-girlfriend was in. I held shift and pressed delete and just like that, they are gone beyond recovery to the Great Big Data Sink in the Sky. Doing that might have pained me two years ago because they were precious and irreplaceable - they were the only evidence I have of the four years I have spent being with this girl - but now, I couldn't even pretend to care. They were relics of another life and I have trouble believing that that life was ever mine.

Perhaps, after the passage of another two years, I wouldn't even remember why I was at the beach on the 28th of December, 2011.

Fish Crying for Help
A goby of some persuasion.

Time and tide. We pair them in our proverbs and aphorisms because they are a bit like each other - they represent the relentless erasure of the past. Memories are but lines in the sand. With enough time and enough tide, they would disappear without a trace, only leaving behind salt-washed blankness. It would be as if they were never there to begin with.

P.S. All pictures taken with Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ15.

A frequent forgetter,
k0k s3n w4i

Sunday, January 05, 2014

This Is Not a Review of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40 Camera

"Photograph: a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art."

Ambrose Bierce

Ever since my camera died in 2011, I have not sought to replace it. Then last year, I married Cheryl and her Nikon D5000 and it was my first time handling a DSLR. I did not like it. It was bulky, it can't fit in my pocket, and I was forced to handle it as carefully as I would handle a porcelain kitten - and the thought of lugging it around when I go travelling sounds masochistic and sisyphean to me. It also takes too long to whip it out of its carrying case and remove its lens cap before I can shoot, making it terrible for brief candid moments that have tiny shooting windows. Needless to say, I wasn't terribly sorry when the wife sold it online.

When we decided to travel to Laos last month, I started looking into getting a new camera again and I find myself missing my old dead camera - a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ15. No respectable photography hobbyist would even look at a camera from this range. It has its problems - the chief of which, in my experience, was its poor performance in low light but for my purposes, it was perfect. I use the photographs I take to supplement my blogging pastime. Pictures I exhibit are at most presented at 640 x 480 pixels so that hides a lot of sins. I use my camera most when I travel so I mostly shoot in excellent light, but being on the road also meant it has to be able to take a lot of punishment (so it shouldn't be too expensive), portable, compact, and boasts a decent zoom. I enjoy a decent degree of control over my camera so most lower range point-and-shooters with their preset modes and mediocre picture quality do not impress. At the same time, I am also not skillful or knowledgeable enough to take advantage of the fine controls that DSLR's give to their users. So, I'm looking for a pretty niche in-between sort of camera.

I then looked up the descendant of my old TZ15 and found the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40 - and lo, I found that it was perfect for my needs and skill level! It had everything I appreciated in the TZ15 but way, way better.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ40 with its 20x Optical Zoom LEICA DC Lens extended.

Initially, I tried looking for it in Kuching but after visiting countless photography and gadget shops, I found a total of just two Panasonic cameras in the entire city and neither of them were the TZ40. Everywhere I look I see Canons, Nikons, Olympi, Sonies and even Samsungs - but no Panasonic. So, I decided to order one from an online store based in West Malaysia. It arrived yesterday and I immediately started getting acquainted with it as soon as it was charged up.

Now, this is not a review of the TZ40. If you want that and want to find out what its exact specs are, you can look here, here and there. This is also not an exhibition of my non-existent photography talent but I thought I'd share some of the pictures I took while I test-drove its functions. Since the TZ40 has a full manual mode, I thought I'd try applying what I've read about apertures, shutter speeds and ISO's as well.

Baby Darwin on Bean Bag
Darwin at 122 days of life, sitting on a bean bag.

Sophie Watches
Sophie in a predatorial mood on the balcony.

Darwin's Eyes
Darwin's eyes in macro mode.

Sophie's Snoot
Sophie's nose in macro.

Sophie Sleeping
Sophie again, sleeping on the floor.

Balcony Scenery
The view from my 8th floor apartment overlooking Kuching. See that white triangle in the middle of the picture?

DBKU (Zoomed)
That's Kuching Utara's City Hall, taken at 40x zoom (20 optical plus 20 iZoom, which Panasonic claims is not your regular shitty digital zoom). And I took it without a tripod (I was literally just holding the camera in my hand and my elbows were not resting on anything either). The Power Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) tech that the TZ40 packs is really something. The image is a bit lossy, pixelated and smudged, but it still shows quite a lot of details.

Street Below (Toy Filter)
The TZ40 has some cool in-camera creative filters (which is basically a crude photo-editing software). Here is the street below my apartment in Miniature mode. There is also a Panorama function that allows me to take panorama shots as I pan the camera across a scenery - it sure beats me doing it manually on Photoshop.

Street Below (Long Exposure at Night)
A photograph of the view from my apartment at night with a 30 seconds exposure with the camera mounted on a tripod. However, I can only manually control the shutter speed up to 4 seconds. To access longer exposure time, I have to use the preset Starry Sky scene mode which only gave me the two options of 15 seconds and 30 seconds of exposure.

I just need to get myself decently familiarised with my new camera before my February trip to Laos. I can hardly wait.

My wife also has a Samsung Galaxy EK-GC100 smart camera which is a pretty decent compact but I find it a little bulky and less pocketable. What is worse is that it takes forever to start up (it needs to load up like your Desktop Windows or your smartphone) and the lack of physical buttons and dials further hampers the response time for quick on-the-go photography, even with its very intuitive interface.

Of course, any pointers on how I can improve my photography technique would be much appreciated.

Not a real photographer,
k0k s3n w4i

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Valentine Getaway in Northern Laos

"I think that travel comes from some deep urge to see the world, like the urge that brings up a worm in an Irish bog to see the moon when it is full."

Lord Dunsany

Cheryl and I got married more than a year ago, and we are finally going on a holiday together - just the two of us - for the first very time. It all started when Cheryl was checking out flights back to Penang for the Lunar New Year and we started talking about vacationing somewhere in South East Asia. I wanted someplace that is not on the usual tired list of regional destinations, someplace that both of us have never visited. Almost immediately, we decided that we will go to Laos in February.

I knew nothing about Laos. I only remember constantly misattributing its capital, Vientiane, to Vietnam back in high school because they are spelled similarly. After booking our flights, I popped out to a bookstore and got myself a copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Laos and began studying in earnest. We will only be there for a little less than a fortnight because we have decided to leave Baby Darwin behind with Cheryl's folks. After all, why take him when he's not even making memories yet? Anyway, we can't leave him behind for too long or he'll practically be a different baby when we see him again - all those clichés about how babies grow so so very fast are all horrifyingly true and then some.

Wat Pha That Luang in Vientiane
Wat Pha That Luang in Vientiane.

In my last backpacking trip through the Indian Western Himalayas where I had a month to bum around in just a few selected locations, I could afford to travel with just a skeleton sketch of an itinerary. But this time, we only have eleven days and that short span of time calls for serious planning and scheduling if we are to see and do enough to make the trip worthwhile.

After a few days of agonising over what to include or leave out, I came up with a simple 3-stop route starting from the former French colony's capital, Vientiane, and then heading northward to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang before snaking back down to Vientiane,

Route of Northern Loas Trip
Fun fact: Laos is completely landlocked. It is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.

I really wanted to include Phonsavan to visit the Plain of Jars but the detour proved to be too time-consuming due to Laos' lao-sy roads (heh). I am afraid that after spending so much time on the road, we will find ourselves in greater need of a vacation than before we had it. Cutting the Plain of Jars out also gave us more time to spend in the other places and to chill-lao. Some people could travel through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the time we are spending in just Northern Laos, but that sort of hit-and-run travelling style is really not my thing.

My old camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ5/TZ15, had been little more than a dust-gathering paperweight for the past couple of years after it died on me so for this trip, I need a new travel camera. I have already ordered my old camera's grandkid, the TZ40, through an online store. It should be arriving any day now.

Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng's dramatic karst hill landscape.

At this point in time, our Laos itinerary (which is essentially a timetable I have christened The Laos Valentine Trip Masterplan) is pretty much 99% complete and it includes our fight numbers, our accommodations in each stop, the attractions, the timing of buses and even a breakdown of our total and daily budgets in three currencies - Malaysian ringgit, US dollar and Laotian kip. I am currently still optimising it - pruning it, adding to it and shifting things around. When it comes to backpacking, I can get a little obsessive.

And I am absolutely addicted to planning my travels through guidebooks, blogs, travel sites and travellers' fora. I can never understand why anyone would leave their entire travel plan in the hands of tour agencies which will take them to the touristy-est of sights, shepherd them to subpar eateries from which they receive commission, and force them to spend hours in tacky souvenir shacks. Why would people pay good money to be treated like that?

Tat Kuang Si near Luang Prabang
Tat Kuang Si near Luang Prabang.

After being off the trail for more than two years (thanks to my grueling, soul-sapping medical internship), I really can't wait till D-day - D for departure - to get back on the road again. I am definitely going to be doing this at least yearly from now on. For my sanity's sake.

Make Lao not war,
k0k s3n w4i