Gong xi fa cai, Kuala Lumpur

We were lucky to get two New Year’s trips this year! After coming home from our trip to the Rocky mountains, we had a long weekend vacation in Malaysia for the Chinese New Year celebrations. It was lovely – turns out we really like Malaysia. What a beautiful place! The people are friendly, the food is great, it’s easy to get around. Jakarta, please take note.

We only had a few days there, so we had to pack it all in.

Day 1: arrive on in the afternoon, tour the aquarium, buy groceries, check into apartment, go swimming, listen to fireworks, watch weird Chinese movies all night. Check!

Day 2: Tour to the Batu caves, colonial ruins & monkey park, century-old fishing village, evening boat trip to see mangroves and fireflies. Check!

Day 3: Water park, science center, ice cream lunch, wandering around. Check!

Day 4: Pack up and visit the Chinese flea market before hopping the train and plane home. Check!

Here’s a whirlwind photo tour:

New Zealand Part 6 – Underground

Our final stop in New Zealand was to visit the Waitomo glow worm caves. The site is a series of limestone caves discovered in the 1880s that are home to millions of glowing bugs, filling the roof of the caverns with tiny, starry lights. This was special enough that we decided to make a special 3-hour drive each way just to visit it (well, that was also partly due to poor planning on our part, but still worth it!).

The main cave is the most famous, and thus the most packed. About 20 of us were shepherded through at a time, stopping to check out a few underground sights – a couple of huge stalactites, some watery pools, and more notably, the cathedral chamber: a section of the caves that have particularly clear and perfect acoustics. I almost broke out in song, but I managed to hold myself back.

Soon it was time to see the glow worms. We were bundled down a set of steps toward a boat dock, where we would take turns being floated through the glowing abyss. Of course, this all took place in the dark, in the quiet, so we wouldn’t disturb the worms and turn off their lights.

Unfortunately, J, being a particularly uncoordinated four-year-old, tripped and scraped her knee about 5 minutes before we headed for the boats. For whatever reason, even the tiniest bit of blood makes her panic beyond control. So of course, there we are, in the dark, in the quiet, packed tightly with a group of strangers, and J is freaking out. We calmed her down enough to get onto the boat, and while we floated along in the dark, experiencing one of life’s beautiful, magical, almost spiritual wonders, a tiny voice spent the whole time whimpering about “something something band-aid.” Sorry, everyone else in the glow worm cave that day.

Luckily we had a second cave to visit, and second time’s a charm. This one came with a personalized 2-hour walking tour. We traveled down into the mouth of the cave, stopping to wash our hands at a rock in a special Maori ritual. The cave started with a walkway of stalactites and special curtain-shaped limestone buildups. Then we dug deeper underground to see some more glow worms. We had a close-up look at them this time. And it turns out they are ugly little suckers. Apparently they’re these rather disgusting maggots that hang on the wall, dangling a bunch of gooey mucus strings from their body in the hopes of catching flies or something. I can’t imagine how many flies these dudes are catching, because, seriously, it’s the middle of a cave in the middle of nowhere, but hey, there must be something for them to eat otherwise they wouldn’t all be there. Anyway, there’s something beautiful about them even though you’re looking at glowing worm colons and snot strings.

Moving along, we came to an area of the cave known as ‘The Pretties’ – so named because it is so darn pretty. It looks exactly the way you think limestone caves should look: beautiful white and yellow spirals hanging from every surface, small springs of clear water dripping musical water droplets onto pyramids of velvety crystals at your feet, dark secret spaces in the back of the walls hiding mysteries. Apparently the Queen (Elizabeth II) was meant to visit some years back but didn’t make it for some reason or another. Her loss!

In the oldest part of the cave, we learned about the history of the site. How a local land owner stood his ground against the government – literally, stood by the entrance with his shotgun until they finally settled the ownership.

That afternoon, we drove back to Auckland for a last night together with my parents before they set off the next day for home (via Hawaii – don’t feel too bad for them!). Unfortunately, we stayed in and ordered room service for dinner and I later stayed up all night with the worst case of food poisoning ever. So that was fun. At least we went out of NZ with a bang. Thanks for all the memories!

Bugs bugs bugs

Bugs are something we’ve had to get used to since we moved here. Luckily none of us are particularly squeamish – and in fact, most of us swing the other way towards obsessive fascination with gross things, bugs included.

As I’m figuring out, being ok with bugs is kind of essential to live in the tropics. I’ve alluded to some of our experiences before, and I’ve talked it through with several of you (lucky!!). But I think it deserves a dedicated post.

So in celebration of all things creepy crawly, here is a run-down of the weird and fascinating things we’ve been living with since we got here.

Ants

Back home, I never really thought much about ants. A few times in the past they had moved into one of our houses and we used a variety of traps and home remedies to deal with them. But here, it’s like we died and went to ant heaven.

I finally understand the picnic/ant thing, because we can cut up a piece of food on the counter and literally 5 seconds later – there they are, stealing the crumbs! They mostly live in our kitchen, and they range from teeny tiny to, well, pretty damn big. There are tiny brown ones, slightly bigger black ones with giant heads, medium sized red ones, huge black ones, and a bunch more in between.

Some of my favourite ant stories:

  • One of the entrances to the tiny brown ants’ house is in a corner of our kitchen backsplash, about 2 feet up from the counter. Now, this is logistically silly, because it is nearly impossible for them to get their spoils up the wall. They try to carry giant pieces of bread up there, ten ants hooked onto each crumb. Of course they never make it. And if they do, they can’t fit these giant pieces into their tiny holes. B and I take bets on how many bread crumbs will be abandoned below the hole. It’s like a bread crumb graveyard down there. This is what we do for entertainment around here. Seriously.
  • Did I ever tell you about our ant bread? It would seem that some of the medium-sized black ants found the bread maker on standby mode in the middle of the night. It was probably like they died and went to ant heaven. Until it started mixing them… then cooking them… So in the morning, when I pulled out the loaf, I saw an ant on the top and figured, no big deal, I’ll just brush that one off. Then I sliced it open and saw another one near the edge and figured, ok, no big deal, I’ll just pick that one out. I cut in a bit deeper and, well, what would you say is an acceptable ant-to-bread ratio? 1:1? 10:1? 50:1? Yeah, I threw that bread out.

Termites

Another creature I didn’t think much about before we moved here was termites. They seem like exclusively desert or old-rotten-building vermin. And don’t they live in those giant piles of dirt, where anteaters can get in there and suck them out? Well, apparently they live here too. And they are annoying.

To be fair, our house itself isn’t too badly infested. (Well, the range of infestation in this country is not 0 to 10 – more like 4 to 10. So we’re probably at a 4.)

But what I hate about them is that every few weeks, the juveniles with wings swarm out of their nests and try and establish new colonies. It’s like a freaking termite prom: reckless teenagers flapping themselves into and all over our house, shedding their wings like rental tuxes and silky dresses at 2 am and doing all sorts of disgusting termite coupling in our front hallway. Then we have to sweep up about 500 abandoned wings the next morning. We’ve started shoving towel barriers into the cracks under the outside doors on these ‘party nights’ like the curmudgeons we are. Then we call the exterminators to come break up the festivities.

Spiders

So spiders are a less obvious deinzen around here, but of course they are one of the ones we’re more careful about. We’ve seen a few scary ones – including a few huntsman spiders in our bathroom. But we do like them because they eat cockroaches.

I’ve also seen a lot of beautiful garden spiders around the forests. They’re harmless, though I’m sure they could still give a good pinch if you piss them off. Here’s a nice photo:

Garden spider. That's B's hand for.. ahem.. reference.
Garden spider. That’s B’s hand for.. ahem.. reference.

Ok, it’s about to get gross now. Fair warning.

Spiders do sometimes bite. And there are some spiders whose bites are very bad. One of our friends recently had this unfortunate experience. We’re not sure what kind of spider it was that bit her, but this happened:

Our friend's spider bite. Gross!
Our friend’s spider bite. Gross!

Don’t worry, she is ok. Please don’t tell her I put this photo up on the internet.

Worms

Ok I don’t have a lot to say about the worms here except this: they are crazy. They’re just like normal worms, but they appear in strange places. Once, I got up in the middle of the night and saw something long, creepy and black on the floor in the dining room. I’ll admit I freaked out a bit and made B get up. With his exceptional sleuthing skills, he determined that it was a worm. But where did it come from?? We figure it somehow crawled between the panels of the patio door. Since it was still alive, I threw it back out the door and said something like “you’re crazy, worm, get outside”. But the kicker? It was back again in the morning. Unfortunately for it, our ant friends found it before I did, so it was mostly eaten. Gross!

But here’s my favourite worm story: just a few days ago, I looked through our window into the backyard and saw something funny. I should mention that our yard is framed by two-storey high concrete walls. It looked like a giant crack had opened up in the concrete, about 6 feet off the ground. But it was moving! Can you guess it? You’re right, it was a worm! A worm inching up the side of the wall. Is that even possible?? Apparently it is here.

Snails

Perhaps that worm had been watching our local snails with envy, because those little shits climb all over everything. And I say little shits because they quite literally shit on everything they climb over, which, as I said, is everything. They leave disgusting slimy poops on the outsides of our windows, all over the walls and on the paths.

There are about 4 or 5 living in our yard. They have this little routine where they ooze up the worm-famous concrete wall every morning, release a giant trail of excrement, then head back down to overnight in the garden. It seems like a long way to go just to poop. I don’t really get it. But then again, they are snails.

I used to love snails. I thought they were cute and so interesting with their retractable eye stalks. Now, when B tells me he accidentally stepped on one while taking the garbage out, I add a victory chalk mark to the “human” side of the board in my mind. Oh, and by the way, if you step on one of those suckers, a bunch of poop squirts out, as you would expect. It’s not pretty.

Miscellaneous others

I think I’ve mentioned before about whip scorpions. They look awfully creepy, and the first time we saw one, we spent the rest of the night looking them up on the internet because we were freaking out. But it turns out they are harmless and people even keep them as pets. Interesting fact: they’re also called vinegroons because they can excrete acetic acid when scared, to drive off enemies. I figured that was a bit of an exaggeration, but then I startled one of them once and it let rip. It was so vinegary that I ran away. Win for the scorpion! They’re cool, you should look them up.

Mosquitoes are a given here. They bite us, we get dengue. You know the drill.

We also have huge bees. I mean, these things are gigantic. Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to capture one on film… but, trust me, I would say some are as big as 2 or 3 inches long. They’re like hummingbirds. I have no idea what happens if you are stung by one of those suckers, and I hope I never find out.

Last but not least, we do have cockroaches. Actually, they’re some of the least common visitors in our house, but once in a while they come up through the drain or pop out of a kitchen drawer. If that happens, we try to kill them with whatever is handy, while at the same time J tries to catch and collect them as her “cockroach friends”. Once, I was sitting in the bathroom enjoying some alone time when I heard some tiny scritch-scratchy sounds. They got louder, and I was starting to feel genuinely worried. Then all of a sudden a pair of antennae popped out of the overflow drain in the bathtub, followed by a wee cockroach head. But then the rest of it failed to appear because it couldn’t get out, and it was pretty much stuck. So we killed it with a piece of cardboard box, because it was handy.

You might be asking, how do we deal with all these creatures when there are no cardboard boxes around?

Well, we’ve started having the exterminator guys come once a month to fog for mosquitoes, ants and termites. It was a tough call, choosing between having bugs or cancer… but at least our bread is now ant-free every morning.

On a more fun note, there are these crazy fly swatters you can buy here that are electrified. They look like tennis racquets but the strings are metal and charged with electricity. Unfortunately, they’re highly immaneuverable and it’s basically impossible to hit any bugs with them. We mostly just use them to freak out the kids. This is what we do for entertainment around here. Seriously.

So when are you coming to visit?