We spent a couple weeks in Malaysia this spring. Most of that time we stayed in the classic tourist destinations: Georgetown and Melaka for their rich layers of Dutch, Portuguese, British history.
We tried to see some of the incredible nature, too. My personal highlight was Sarawak on Borneo. We went to the UNESCO global geopark on Langkawi Island and took a bus inland to the tea country of the Cameron Highlands.
Everywhere we went, I was struck by two things. The first is that in a predominantly Muslim country it can take a while to find alcohol. Evening mealtimes for Uwe and me are when we want to linger over a glass and talk about what we saw during the day. In Malaysia we’d peruse the menu at the front of a restaurant and turn the pages to the very back where the drinks were listed. If it didn’t serve beer or wine, often we’d smile and say thank you, and head further down the street feeling slightly like jerks.
The second thing I noticed is that in every place we visited, streets in Malaysia contain the houses of worship of different religions. Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Hindu, Buddhist, Tin Hau and Chinese temples, one next to the other line a street. Everywhere.
We explored many of them and I was delighted and calmed by the sweet atmosphere in these roads. The world feels more and more divided. But the Malaysians we talked with are proud of the religious tolerance and multicultural blend that makes up their country.
And that’s a concept I’ll gladly raise a glass of wine to….
Last spring we saw our first free roaming orangutan.
We were at Semenggoh Nature Reserve, just south of Kuching in the Sarawak state on Borneo. Semenggoh is also a Wildlife Centre, established in 1975 as a rehabilitation sanctuary. They take in injured, orphaned, or rescued orangutans. The sole goal of the centre is the rehabilitation and gradual return of animals to fend for themselves in the wild.
Orangutans are endangered, rare, marvelous. They’re native to only two places on the entire planet: Borneo or Sumatra. Our chances of running across them in the wild were pretty much zero, but at Semenggoh maybe we could watch them feeding.
Our individually booked, guided visit conjoined with the larger international tourist groups. The centre gives educational lectures. We learned the rarity and habits of these giant primates. Orangutans spend at least 60% of their waking time looking for food. “Their diet consists of 300 different kinds of fruit such as barks, honey, young shoots, insects and occasional bird egg and small vertebrae. Fruits make up 60% of the orangutan’s diet.” Also (this fact surprised me), “a 1-mile square radius of rainforest can only support a low population density of about 2.5 orangutans.” 
The centre maintains a feeding platform. Orangutans are called back for lunch if they want it. But the jungle vegetation fruited a second time last winter, and we were informed that if the orangutans didn’t show, this was a sign that they were fending successfully for themselves in the thick woods. And indeed, none of the creatures responded to the rangers’ calls. 
We waited patiently for the tardy luncheon guests. Then suddenly walkie talkies crackled. The seemingly relaxed park guides sprang into action, urging everyone back towards the entrance. A ranger had spotted an orangutan!
The matriarch was in a tree near the parking lot and ironically closer and easier to observe than if she’d come to the feeding platform. It was Seduku. She’s nicknamed the ‘Grand Old Lady’ and she’s 48 years old, born in 1971.
Seduku could be aggressive towards tourists, our guide said. But the morning we ‘met’ her she was mellow (and almost seemed to be showing off). All I can say is that she had a conscious dignity. Kudos to the great work being done on behalf of orangutans at the Semenggoh Rehab Centre!
NOTES:  Semenggoh Wildlife Centre  Not getting to see the endangered animals at a feeding station means that they’re rehabilitated into their natural habitat. Not seeing them is a good thing. This is an ironic moment for any tourist. To learn more about the rehab center, go to their website at https://semenggoh.my/
If I had to pick a single season for produce (like, if you tied me down and told me I couldn’t eat another meal until I chose) I’d pick autumn. I’ve always liked the abundance of autumn, and the generosity. The neighbors suddenly show up at the door with armfuls of squash. “Want some of these? We’ve got more than we can use.” My mother-in-law grew zucchini. She gave me some that were the size of Little League bats.
Life in a small village in Germany makes harvesting more present somehow. I get my veggies from a family run green house a couple blocks away. They don’t have the space or money to do anything other than seasonal vegetables, and I’ve learned to appreciate what’s suddenly ready to be harvested.
I jones big time for fresh Swiss chard a lot of the year here. My parents grew it in their garden and I totally took it for granted. Seeing it here was like winning the culinary lottery. At the end of every summer I go in the store hoping I’ll spot a big white bucket filled with freshly picked rainbow chard. Not just normal wonderful green chard, but rainbow!!
“I’d like your Mangold,” I request when it’s my turn to be served.
“A bunch of it?” she asks.
“No…. I’d like your Mangold. All of it.” I make sure my tone of voice lets her know that I’m not joking. Screw the other customers, let them find their own source for rainbow chard!
In the fall she has big, juicy, imperfect tomatoes. I had an awkward morning once as I attempted to translate the term heirloom tomatoes into German.
Orange pumpkins are available in the fall, but I lived here for years and never saw a Hubbard squash. Or an acorn squash. Or spaghetti squash. You get the idea. I don’t when or why the region finally got hip to winter Kürbisse, but I used to go into the exquisite (and super-duper expensive) Stuttgarter Markthalle if I wanted to cook with them.
At the moment, Pfifferlinge – trumpet mushrooms – are being picked. They’ve got a short season, so I buy them by the bagful. We eat them in risotto, or sautéed with diced bacon for pasta, or in a cream sauce for chicken.
In the spring, white asparagus is a national delicacy. For about two months, restaurants have entire menus based on dishes with Spargel. Germans and French people go insane for this vegetable. The spears are thicker than regular asparagus (the green variety barely elicits a yawn here) and a pain in the ass to peel without breaking. A few years ago Uwe and I were shopping in a big grocery store, and in the frozen foods aisle I spotted big bags of already peeled, frozen Spargel.
“Hey! Wanna get this? We can eat Spargel all year round!”
Incredulous disbelief and revulsion chased each other across his face. Once he was sure what he’d heard, revulsion won. My husband looked at me as if I’d just suggested that we have sex with a puppy.
“No, I don’t want to buy frozen Spargel! Why would you possibly want to eat that??”
I set down the bag of frozen asparagus and carefully backed away. We go out to eat fresh Spargel each year, in the spring….
But, autumn. It’s time to go grocery shopping again. The first crop of apples have arrived!
I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother recently here in Stuttgart. I arrived early and sat awhile in the silent cemetery chapel. First, I lit a slim yellow taper in the entrance to the church.
The family is Greek Orthodox. I’ve lit candles in lots of Orthodox churches throughout Greece, and once went to a church service in a tiny church in Thessaloniki that stands on a spot where the Apostle Paul preached.
I’d never been to an Orthodox funeral. Huge wreathes of white flowers bought by the families of her children were arrayed to the left of the altar. Candles in red glasses flickered around a framed photograph of Olga on a small stand; a cake in a white box and a bottle each of wine and olive oil were placed beside the photo.
The priest prayed and sang in Greek; he lifted the icon set on the casket and kissed it. Believers in the chapel crossed themselves at the right places in the text. Later, it was time to bury Olga.
A man played horn music, the priest chanted as the coffin was lowered into the ground. He opened the bottle of wine and poured it, in the shape of a cross, in the grave. Next (after wrapping his long black robes between his knees to keep them from getting soiled) he poured olive oil in the shape of the cross. He took the white box of cake that my friend had carried out of the church with her and, cutting it, spooned some of the cake into the grave as well.
We approached the grave one by one. When it was my turn, I tossed in a blooming flower and then a spade of dirt onto the casket.
The musician started playing Amazing Grace, which almost put me in tears. Some pieces of music transcend time, and continents, and cultures. In any language, for any generation, they bring solace and peace.
Then we went to a restaurant for the Makaria, the “Meal of Mercy” that follows an Orthodox funeral. This one was a German/Greek hybrid of coffee, Butterbrezel (large buttered pretzels), cakes and Greek pastries. My friend went around the long table and spooned out some of that traditional funeral cake onto each of our plates. “My mother used to make this dish herself,” she said. “Koliva. It’s traditional; every Greek family has a recipe. I didn’t have time to make it myself, so I bought one at a Greek bakery.”
I ate the Koliva, a mix of sesame seeds, almonds, oats, ground walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, and anise amongst other ingredients…
Sansevieria. It’s almost impossible to kill, produces oxygen like a champ, and has over 70 varieties. Sansevieria is also named the snake plant, or mother-in-law’s-tongue due to it’s sharp, pointy leaves.
I started off with a single snake plant about a decade ago. Over the years, I’ve divided and sub-divided the clumps of stalks every so often. In all this time they flowered exactly once. Heck, I didn’t even know a snake plant got flowers…
One of my oldest and best friends just came to visit. Before Shaun arrived I scurried around with all the cleaning and prettying up tasks I’d put off – one of them being to repot those stressed snake plants. And lo and behold, during Shaun’s visit they suddenly began to send up flower stalks!
These babies grow at an astonishing rate, practically as you watch. The flower stems grow as much as four inches a day! (No joke. Ask Shaun: I made her look each morning.) Even she oohed and aahed in wonder at how fast they rose.
Here are a few photos of the flowering stalks. And they are not slightly out of focus just because I’m a lousy photographer. They are blurry because they grow right before your eyes.
Here’s to flowering plants, Round Two. I hope I don’t have to wait another decade for Round Three!
Ah, Kubah National Park on Borneo…. froggie paradise. The park is also home to other species. We met these guys.
And these. They were the size of my out-stretched hand!
When we planned what to do and see on Borneo, I made only one request. Okay, I admit it was a demand. I wanted, no, I needed to go on the night tour to see endemic frogs.
Our tour guide picked us up in front of the hotel and drove us out to Kubah National Park, where the park ranger met us. The four of us headed up into the park in the deepening darkness. And I do mean up: we climbed to 1,ooo feet to reach the part of the park where the most frogs hang out. The road was lit only by the beams of our torches and the flashes of fire flies.
Fire flies! I haven’t seen them since my childhood in New England, back when their on-and-off glow was an atmospheric element of every summer evening….
It was glorious.
It was also very, very funny, at times like being in a Monty Python sketch. Overcast, humid as hell and still hot as hell, even in the middle of the night. I dripped sweat and my glasses kept fogging up. Pitch black darkness, except for our flashlights…. which the two guides and I were shining on the frogs so that Uwe could capture them in photos. He didn’t want to use the camera flash, not wanting to startle the wild life and because light from a camera flash is too artificial. So I took his flashlight and held a torch in each hand, aiming them as directed. It was as though he were a mad director with a camera crew. It didn’t bother the critters one bit – they went on singing, and croaking, and hanging out on bole branch and vine…
A highlight in a night of a parade of wonders was the long-nosed horned frog. O.M.G. If folks on safari speak of the ‘Big Five’, froggers go into raptures about this guy:
He lives in the leaf litter on the jungle floor, and remained motionless even as the park ranger cleared away the leaf detritus around him so that we could see him better. The horned frog, mahogany frog, and narrow-mouthed frog found in the pitcher plant are the rarest of the rare, the ‘Big Three’ of Kubah Park’s frog world. I clearly saw the first two, and saw the third jump from a distance.
Ah, Kubah National Park on Borneo…. froggie paradise.
March 2019 Journal entry:
Just returned from an exhilarating 2 and ½ hours night tour with nature guide and tour guide at Kubah National Park. We saw frogs on trees, leaves, vines, boles, the sides of the road…. Two rare horned frogs! Mahogany frogs! A teeny pitcher plant frog – just one – it jumped away before we could look more closely but I did see the tiny thing leap (the narrow-mouth frog first described in 2010). Three different lizards. White-lipped frogs. Cinnamon frogs. Firebelly toads. Harlequin tree frogs. We had to head up to 1,000 feet up a road in the dark, the ranger with a head light. Unreal how he could spot the frogs. Glorious sounds of running water and night sounds of the jungle all around, my glasses fogging over with the heat and humidity, a large frog pond formed by wild pigs’ rutting. The frogs surprisingly calm, not jumping at our presence, just hanging out in their domain. I was in the moment, totally blissed out, just there, present with each frog we spotted. The guide and ranger and I backlighting each critter with our flashlights so Uwe could photograph it. The deep jungle trees and vegetation and clicks and buzzes and calls of frogs all around us. Nature’s Symphony. Glorious. An Australian recorded just this place and won an international competition for the most beautiful sounds in the world. Borneo’s really promoting sustainable growth, they recognize what they have here. The Malaysian part of Borneo, that is. I feel hopeful about a corner of the planet for the first time in a very, very, very long and sad time. Man, I like Borneo.
But with this frog tour tonight: I’m blissed out. It satisfied a deep soul place inside me. I am beyond happy. My heart feels filled.
I missed only one summer afternoon when I was supposed to clean. Mr. Bond telephoned early that evening; it was still light out. Had something happened? Was I okay?
I was off with my boyfriend somewhere that day, and the time (ahem) had run away from us. “I’m so sorry!” I said. “I’ll be right over.”
Mr. Bond had to go to the store, so he said he’d swing by and get me. When I came out to the road, he stood in the driveway talking with my parents. The three of them were laughing. I bet it was something along the lines of, “Teenagers, what can you do…”
I hadn’t thought about Mr. Bond in years. But I’d open my old photo album and every once in a while I come across his photograph.
I’d remember that for a time I’d known this kind man.
In these last few weeks I sat down to write about him, and both memories and words rushed out. An avalanche of elements from long-ago strike me. Some details are so clear. The heavy gemstones in the baroness’s jewelry. The frank eyes of Mr. Bond’s daughter. My astonishment that my simple notes had such a huge effect.
We communicated via those notes. I had a key to his home, that I used to let myself in the door on the days I cleaned. We didn’t see one another to talk often.
But I recall the ease I felt with him. Young people are unsure of themselves. Mr. Bond was a thoughtful conversationalist and I never felt foolish, or too green. And that is a remarkable thing. It’s a rare adult who can make a teenager feel like he sees and hears without being condescending.
Leaving notes was second nature; I can easily imagine that I told him I wanted to write. Let’s leave aside the fact that it took another 40 years before I actually made that wish a reality.
I can’t remember what the notes said. I probably scribbled things like, “Dear Mr. Bond, enjoy the salad greens. I’ve already washed them. I hope you’re having a good summer. PS: Have a nice day.” “It’s autumn! I brought carrots and zucchini. They’re in the crisper. PS: Have a nice day.” Or maybe, “I have Spanish Club after school, so I’ll be late coming to clean on Thursday. PS: Have a nice day.” I just don’t remember.
How I wish I’d asked Mr. Bond’s daughter if I could see his manuscript! At the time I assumed it was an autobiography, but how can I be sure? Maybe it was fiction – maybe he was writing a novel – maybe I was a character in it somewhere. I’ll never know. I was too startled by the information that my notes had inspired him to write a book, and I was definitely way too surprised and shy to ask anything further. I was sixteen. I had zero context for even one single part of this experience.
His passing was my first direct experience of the loss death brings. A few months later one of my best friends died in a car accident, and then a classmate’s father died. I’d never been to a funeral before. During that hard autumn I went to three. I was suddenly forever aware of how terribly fragile our hold on life is. For the longest time when I thought of him, I thought about dying.
I have two last comments to make as I close my album of ancient memories. I’ve discovered a gift in here. All these years later, when I look back what strikes me is a realization: sometimes my heart was in the right place. Those thoughtless teenaged years contained moments of generosity, and grace.
And, finally, this story about Mr. Bond and me has turned itself into a story about the living. When I write about Mr. Bond now I think about life, and living; what we give to others; and what lasts in what they give us.
I was beyond surprised when I got a phone call that Mr. Bond’s ex-wife wanted to me to come over. I put on a skirt (I have no idea why now, but it seemed appropriate to dress nicely if you were meeting royalty). His daughter from a previous marriage met me at the door and led me into the house where the baroness waited. The daughter left us alone to talk.
Baroness U. von O. was elegant, cool, and studied. She wore a dress and heavy jewelry. She’d removed one of her large earrings and clipped it to the matching gemstone necklace around her neck. How did I come to know her husband? She asked more questions. She lived in Paris, she said. Had I ever visited Paris?
The questions confused me. Paris? I was a sixteen-year-old girl who had cleaned her ex-husband’s house twice a week. I wondered why she even wanted to meet me.
Eventually the daughter returned. The baroness stood and shook my hand again. She left the room. Mr. Bond’s daughter took the chair the baroness had been sitting in, and as soon as Baroness U. von O. was out of earshot a very different conversation began.
“We found a drawer full of notes from you,” the daughter said.
I used to bring fresh flowers and harvest vegetables for Mr. Bond. (My parents always grew more than enough to give away – our garden covered half an acre.) I’d leave a note on the counter by the sink to say hello and tell him what was in the refrigerator. I always ended my note with PS: Have a nice day. This was back in the ’70s when the expression became wildly popular.
Mr. Bond had saved all of my notes.
“We found a stack of notebooks, too. Pages and pages in his handwriting,” she continued. “He was writing a book. He already had a title; he was going to call it PS: Have a Nice Day. I think my stepmother was more than startled to learn about you. You see, after she left him and went back to Europe, my father turned into an old man. Your notes brought a little bit of brightness back into his life. I for one wanted to meet you, to thank you for being nice to my father.” Then Mr. Bond’s daughter asked if I’d like something to remember him by. Maybe a nick knack? An object in the house I’d liked?
“Do you have a picture of him I could take?”
She fetched a photo album and removed a photograph. George Bond stands outdoors in short sleeves and a smile. The camera has caught a bright flash of sun, and the air above him is obscured by a ball of light. On the one hand it’s simply a bad photo. But I liked it. I imagined that snapshot captured a bit of his aura, the energy field that surrounds each of us like a protective shield, like a halo.
I’ve held onto that photo. I keep it tucked in an album of my own early memories. Today, for the first time in decades, I took the photo out to examine again. I found myself looking more closely: the tree behind him appears doubled. It’s as if he stands poised at the crack between this world and the next, left and right reflections of one another at the folds of time. If we’re lucky, sometimes we connect with people for brief periods that resonate beyond their life spans. For a short while I knew a Mr. Bond. George Bond. I see him still, an incredibly kind man who saved my notes, his image glowing in a photograph.