Week 1 @ Redang Island

I am finally here, after all the time of postponing the trip to Redang Island. Everything happens for a reason, I supposed. I could have been here on my own if I had come earlier. Now there are three of us – Meena, who is a TROPIMUNDU masters students, and Lala, my friend who is here to help Meena with translation.

1 Malaysia Team

Although I have been to Redang village a couple times, it is still a foreign place. We are renting a room at Asmadi Guest House for a month. The village is not by the beach, therefore it doesn’t feel like I’m living on an island. Interestingly, there are sheep, goats and cows everywhere. It is almost impossible to avoid their droppings that are literally everywhere!

Sheep and their dropping everywhere!

We went to the nearest beach (Teluk Dalam) on our first day, which is about 10-15 minutes walk from our guest house. Teluk Dalam is also known as Turtle Bay as there is where people snorkel with turtles. Here, they feed the turtles so that they come closer so that humans can touch them. I am not very certain if feeding is good or bad to the turtles. We did see a turtle swimming away as a snorkel guide approached it with food. There were also some that swam towards the guide for food. It was during times that they were feeding that the tourists got to touch the turtles. There were quite a few individuals there. We saw at least four individuals, one with a tag on its left flipper (5756). However, we didn’t know which one was the famous JoJo!

A glimpse of Teluk Dalam @ Turtle Bay from the pathway.

On our second day, we started mapping the village by counting the number of houses. We counted 242, however some told us there are about 260+ houses here. They are also building about 160 new apartments for the second generation. Every house has more than one household, some up to four households. The village is relatively big. People usually ride a motorbike or bicycle. However, neither of us could ride a motorbike. I tried a scooter for the first time and it felt scary. I wasn’t sure if I could balance the motorbike.

Just like any other village…

Asmadi also invited us on a snorkel tour. It was definitely one of the best ones I have ever been at Redang. We went to four places, Turtle Bay, Long Beach, marine park and another site next to marine park. At all places (except Turtle Bay), we were the only boat there. We were the only ones in the water. Everything felt so calm and peaceful. We saw quite a lot – green turtles (a male with two tags), black tip reef sharks, boxfish, squids, moral eel, filefish, etc.

Snorkel with turtles @ Turtle Bay!

Pulau Pinang where the marine park is.

Watching sunset while snorkelling and I could see Lang Tengah and Perhentian from far…

For the following days, our routine has been the same. Apparently none of us are a morning person. We stay up quite late, sometimes past 2am so we did not wake up until past 9 or 10am. Our visit to local houses usually began at around noon. We would walk around the village and interview anyone who happens to be sitting outside their house. The villagers have been very friendly and welcoming. Some even offered us drinks and food. In the beginning, we managed to go to three houses and now we could interview six houses a day. Most of them are not at home during the day.

Always nice hanging out at Kak Pah’s stall!

We also met Giulia, an English Teacher working for SOLS. She teaches local kids and adults English every day, except the weekend. We met up once for dinner near the jetty. The jetty area is more happening than any other places in the village. A lot of local people hang out there. It is far from the village and not within walking distance, otherwise we would like to hang out there more often. We also met a few Chinese uncles who are working on a construction project in the village. They stay near our guest house and have been here for five years!!

Apart from swimming with turtles at Turtle Bay (as it reminds me so much of my time working at Perhentian), one of the most memorable moments was learning silat. A family invited us to watch silat in the evening. Meena was really interested to learn and I thought, well might as well learn together as I know I would never learn it if I were on my own. It was hilarious as they taught us using mainly in Malay and some English. It was a good experience, however I doubt if I could actually learn everything in less than a month.

Today is our 10th day here and time really does flies by quickly. As the days passed, we met more villagers and made more friends. I believe by the time we have to leave, we would feel sad to go.

Advice on Finishing Your PhD

A PhD study often feels overwhelmed with the workload. So much to do, lots more to read, and even more challenging to write. Throughout this journey, I occasionally receive motivation, sharing from people who had walked the journey. Everyone’s journey is different, full with different challenges and excitements. Here are a few pieces of advice, which I find really helpful in getting me through the down or stagnant moments in this journey.

 

1. Life is a struggle

There are always challenges in whatever you do in life. Nothing in life comes easily. You face different difficulties when you study, when you work, when you get married, etc. Doing a PhD has its hardship too. When you feel that what you do is hard, remember that even if you are working, there are things that you will find hard as well. Once you decide to take up a PhD, face the challenges and learn to deal with them. But if a PhD is not what you are looking for, then do something else. Either way there will be struggles.

 

2. Find your best time to write

Everyone has a different best time to write. Some find it best to write in the morning whereas some prefer to do it at night or even after midnight. It is important to find your best time to write. No matter what, write something during that time. Even just a little but do it every day. This helps so that you don’t feel the need to sit in front of the laptop the whole day, which is not so productive since you can’t write the whole time anyway. It is okay to do other stuff at times other than your writing time. I need to start adopting this. I don’t know what is my best time to write but I am a noctural person who feels more awake at night then in the morning. My writing motivation is driven by the task on hand, rather than writing at a specific time. Say if I have an assignment to finish, all I do is write that piece of assignment when I am awake until I finish the assignment. The only time when I’m not writing is when I am eating, taking a shower or sleeping. Knowing my best time to write would help so that I don’t feel like a zombie and totally burned out by the end of it.

 

3. Find your best place to write

Not only that, it is also equally important to look for the best place to write. Surprisingly, writing in a cafe or fast food restaurant like Mc’Donald works perfectly for some people. Some people need to write in places where it is quiet such as in a library. Believe it or not, home may not always be the best place to write since you can always find something to do at home. It is easy to stop writing and start doing house chores. I have yet to find my best place to write but I can write just fine at home once the momentum is there. Just that I can’t do transcribing at home. I tend to stop after transcribing a few lines and start doing something else – surf the net, watch movie, get some snacks or play the piano – which is why it takes days for me to transcribe one interview. So far I found it productive to transcribe in the postgraduate room or library where there are people around (but not noisy). I guess it is the sense of “yay, I am also doing my work” that prevents me from doing any other thing except transcribing.

 

4. Always bring a notebook (and don’t forget a pen too!)

I have this habit when I work. A notebook is like my life. Out of the blue, even during lunch, there is always something important to remember. I would never leave the house without my notebook. As a PhD student, I carry a notebook too but not as often as I should. Since I use a voice recorder for my data collection, I start to record conversation, as well as any thoughts that come to my mind. I find it easier than writing on a notebook but listening to the recording after that takes time. I use both – a notebook (mostly) and a voice recorder, depending on what I am trying to record. Funny thing with ideas is they often appear when you least expect them to. When I am sitting on a desk with a laptop and a notebook, all I sometimes do is stare at the notebook. Nothing comes. But say, I am driving or playing the piano, suddenly something would come to the mind. Mostly it happens when I am half-asleep, or maybe half-awake and “ting!” the idea comes. If I don’t write or record it down, I sometimes don’t remember it again after. So yes, always bring a notebook (or recorder) as you never know when you need it!

 

5. You have not failed until you quit

I always feel the struggle while trying to understand my conceptual framework, to figure out my research methodologies, to improve my interview skills, to make sense of my data. Not easy. But then I realised it has also never been easy while I was working. My supervisor once said, the easy way out is to quit. Rather true. No matter how tough it is, quitting is the easiest solution. It is okay to make mistakes since PhD is all about learning and discovering new things. Nothing about these two is easy. It will always feel difficult and frustrating until you get it right. As long as you keep progressing, eventually you will reach the destination.

Together we can protect the (turtle) eggs

5th June 2017, World Environment Day

I was chatting with a friend over dinner while waiting for the heavy downpour to subside so that we both could get to our car and leave. We quickly ran towards our car when the rain began to ease off. Just as I started the car engine, a phone call came in and I saw “B” on the caller ID. B is from Lang Tengah Turtle Watch and his call caught me by surprise as I didn’t think he would call me, at least not at this hour. Then he broke the news of a turtle landing at Long Beach but he could not reach the Perhentian Turtle Project’s manager. Instead he rang me up. I always think it is a small circle of people working in conservation. It is just a matter of time that one will eventually know everyone in this field. Anyway, the next thing to do was to call someone from the project so that they could inform the rangers to collect the eggs.

Since the manager was out of reach, luckily I had R’s number saved on my phone so I rang her. “Hi R, how are you?”, and she replied “Hi Seh Ling, are you okay?” I burst into laughter. Thing is R and I don’t talk on the phone. We don’t call each other. We rarely even send Whatsapp messages. Still, her response cracked me up. But yes, the turtle! No time for catching up. I relayed the message to R after realising that the manager was not available as she was praying in the mosque. R said they would do something about it.

All this while, it has been rather difficult to save any nests at Long Beach. Most of the time, we received reports of turtle landing and often not in time to get there before the eggs were taken by someone else. Turtle eggs are sought after delicacy, as well as a source of income to some. Other than protected beaches, turtle eggs on other beaches really depends on who gets there first. The eggs are protected if the rangers get there first. However, that is not always the case.

Meanwhile, B continued texting, providing updates of the situation at Long Beach.

“From how L described it she is body pitting. She is under Oh La La Bar.”

“L is still with the turtle, so is there someone I should put her in contact with?”

“She is laying now.”

I just kept forwarding his messages to R. I was relieved when R managed to get in touch with one of the rangers, and they both were going to go over to Long Beach. Then I informed B that R was going and gave him her number. It was funny that B and I were not at Long Beach but the texting continued as we couldn’t reach R after she texted me that they were going to Long Beach.

“I have told L to expect R and apparently there is a group protecting the nest.”

“How far away is R?”

“Looks like R is there now though.”

Meanwhile, I managed to get hold of the manager, who had also received the news from Turtle Bay Diver. It wasn’t until more than an hour or more later that R replied saying that they managed to get the eggs. There was even a second turtle that came ashore when R was there but it did not nest.

We really appreciate and are always thankful to the staff and tourists from resorts and dive centers calling us to inform on turtle landing, as well as “sheltering” the turtle from the crowd. It is through such collective efforts that we can protect the species. Despite not working at Perhentian anymore, it was really good to be able still help to save the turtle eggs yesterday.

Plan Your Trip to Perhentian Islands

Friends always contact me when they are planning a trip to Perhentian Islands. Most of them would have done their homework, knowing that the Perhentians consist of two islands – Perhentian Besar (big island) and Perhentian Kecil (small island). So, their questions are…

Which island is better? Perhentian Besar or Perhentian Kecil?
Both islands are beautiful. Each offers different attractions. Perhentian Kecil is known as a backpackers’ paradise where Long Beach is the only place for beach party. The two main beaches at Kecil are Long Beach (on the East) and Coral Bay (on the West). Mira Beach, Petani Beach, D’ Lagoon, etc, are a few other smaller beaches that are less crowded, thus giving you more privacy. The only village is located in the Southwest of Kecil. You cannot sunbath or walk around in your bikinis in the village but it is worth visiting the village. Most of the tourists staying in the village are Malaysians (packaged groups). Almost all the beaches on Kecil are accessible by foot. Perhentian Besar is more peaceful, especially at night. The two main beaches at Besar are Teluk Dalam (on the South) and the whole stretch on the Eastern side, plus two smaller beaches at Teluk Pauh and Tanjung Tukas.

Where to stay?
Most of the accommodations are situated next to the beach, except those in the village and along the pathway between Long Beach and Coral Bay. I’ll list the accommodation available on the islands.

Packaged tour or non-packaged tour?
Malaysians usually opt for packaged tour as they are easier to organise and cheaper in price. A packaged tour usually include boat transfer, accommodation, meals and 1-2 snorkel tours. If you do book for a packaged tour, please book through the resorts/chalets or a registered travel company. There have been many cases where customers showed up but there was no booking at the chalets. Don’t be fooled by package that is too cheap to be true. Nothing cheap is good and nothing good is cheap. Always ask for the name of the accommodation (so that you can compare the prices) and double check with the resort/chalet that your booking is confirmed. Non-packaged tour, on the other hand, offers more flexibility to your trip. You can plan your daily activities. You can go diving instead of snorkelling. You can eat at different places.

How to get there?
You need to get to Kuala Besut Jetty before 4pm in order to catch the last boat to the island. There is a direct bus to Kuala Besut bus station from most cities (e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kuala Terengganu, Johor Bahru). If you are flying, fly to Kota Bharu Airport and take a taxi to Kuala Besut Jetty. Alternatively, you can drive to Kuala Besut Jetty and park your car there.

How much is the boat transfer from mainland to the Perhentians?
A return boat transfer from Kuala Besut jetty to Perhentian Islands costs RM70. Some offer as low as RM50. The earliest boat departing from Kuala Besut jetty is at 8am (sometimes earlier) and the latest boat is at 4pm (sometimes later). It is important to know the name of the resort/chalet that you are staying. The boat will drop you at the beach where you are staying. Times where the waves are strong at Long Beach, they will drop you at Coral Bay and you need to walk to Long Beach. To leave Perhentian Islands, you call the boat operator on your boat ticket a day before. Some resorts/chalets offer to make that arrangement for you. You can either leave at 8am, 12pm or 4pm (not always on time). This is because the boat picks up tourists from different beaches so better be there early. When it is near the monsoon, the only time available is at 8am. Always check with your boat operator.

How much is the boat taxi in the Perhentians?
It is quite common to take a boat taxi from one beach to another beach. There are taxi stands/huts on most beaches. The price varies between RM5-30 one way, depending on the distance. The price doubles after 7pm and triples after 12am. If you are travelling on your own, you need to pay the price for 2 person. Check if your resort/chalet offers taxi service for free.

How much money do I need?
There are no ATMs/banks on the islands so bring enough cash. Only a few resorts/chalets have credit card service. If you are on a packaged tour, you probably don’t need much. However, if you have only booked your accommodation and boat transfer, do put aside RM10-20 per meal. Food is not cheap on the islands as everything is transported in from mainland. Buy snacks and mineral waters from mainland and bring them with you to save money. Boat taxi and alcohol cost the most (if you are not diving). One can of beer costs RM10.

What can I do there?
– Snorkelling: The Perhentians have many nice snorkel sites. The most common snorkel tour brings you to 3-4 sites, for example Turtle Point (a green turtle foraging site), Shark Point (black tip reef sharks), Fish Garden, Coral Garden, Lighthouse, etc. Another snorkel attraction is Rawa Island, which is located to the North of small islands. There are also day snorkel trips to Redang Island.

– Diving: The Perhentians is one of the islands that offers cheap diving package. A few of the more popular dive sites are Tokong Laut, Sugar Wreck, Batu Layar, Shark Point, Vietnamese Wreck, D’ Lagoon and T3. Of course the list continues.

– Kayaking: Since the Perhentians consist of two islands, kayaking is a good way to go from one beach to another and from one snorkel site to another.

– Sunrise and sunset: There are a few places to watch sunrise (before 7am) from the windmill, Long Beach and D’ Lagoon. All the beaches facing the West are suitable for watching sunset (before 7pm). My favourite place is at Teluk Keke and the rocks by Shari-la Resort at Coral Bay.

– Visit the turtle hatchery at Turtle Beach before 3pm. Look for the staff members from the Perhentian Turtle Project who are happy to talk to you about sea turtles and conservation.

– Round-island hike: All the beaches with resorts are connected through a pathway or jungle trekking.

– Hike to windmill: It is a 15-20 minutes walk uphill from Long Beach and the view is magnificent from the top.

– Clean-up: You will come across trash when you walk around the islands. Bring your trash with you and pick up the trash you see along the way. Throw them into the bins. Together we can keep the islands clean.

– Stand-up paddling: Only seen it at Long Beach and Bubbles Dive Resort at Tanjung Tukas.
– Wind-surfing: So far only available at Alunan Resort at Petani Beach.
– Surfing: Usually near the monsoon season at Long Beach.
– Malay dinner: Experience a Malay meal in a local house in the village.

Other things worth sharing:
– A waterproof bag is useful at all occasions.
– Never underestimate the sun. Apply sunblock before getting into the sun and some aloe vera gel if you get sunburned. Sunblock is not good for corals so best is cover up (e.g. putting on rash vest, wear a hat, sunglasses, etc).
– Most of the snorkel areas are shallow and calm. Even without fins/flippers, you can snorkel just fine.
– There is a clinic in the village. Bring along your I/C card or passport, and money.
– Try the doughnuts at PILA Cafe in the village.
– Always snorkel within the buoy line and look out for boats.
– Never leave your belongings unattended (sandals too!), especially when you party at Long Beach at night.
– Try Monkey Juice, which is a mix of Orang Utan (cheap rum) and 7Up. Never mix it with Coke, Pepsi or other carbonated drinks!
– Help build a turtle database by submitting turtle photos to turtle@ecoteer.com. The facial scales of each individual turtle are unique. You can name the turtle if it is a new turtle!
– Check out for volunteering opportunities with Perhentian Turtle Project, Perhentian Community and Conservation Project, and Perhentian Marine Research Station that are based in the village, as well as Bubbles Dive Resort’s conservation project.

Perhentian Islands have a lot to offer so take the time to explore and immerse yourself in the nature!

New resolution in life

PhD is my Disneyland. It is a goal to finish it, but yes, how much longer? Am I there yet?

Along the journey, I discover that I am a novice in social science research, who often feel that I lack the skills and experience to do interview-based research. As I transcribe the interviews, I can see what went wrong with the way I phrase my questions as well as when I asked the questions. It bothers me because then I think, shit, will I be able to eventually get it right and gather the information I need?

After watching this video, I realised that I feel like that because I focus so much on the goal that I missed out on the values I gain throughout the journey. What went wrong in the initial data collection provides an opportunity to learn and improve. The more interviews I did, the more I get to practise and improve. I learn not to interrupt or ‘fill in the blanks’ to their answers. I learn to phrase open-ended questions to understand the meaning of their words. I learn to keep my conservation views to myself and not to have any preconceptions about their conservation perspectives. It did not occur to me how much I have learned from just doing the research as I am too occupied worrying when I will complete the study.

I am the kind of person who needs a fixed structure, following guidelines of how to do (which is why I like reading step-by-step instructions). But then there is no direct step-by-step guideline in conducting in-dept interviews. It is not like using a washing machine; first, I press the on/off button, then I choose the programme (speedy, water level, etc), pour in washing powder/liquid and click start. Voila, it starts washing my clothes. All I do the next time is repeat the same steps.

However, qualitative research using interviews is not like running a washing machine or any other machines. When the machine does not work, then something is wrong, and there will be no data. When that happens, I need to set it right, e.g. setting the parameters to ensure that the machine runs accordingly. Well, it is just not like that in research involving humans where nothing is really under control.

Since I am not doing questionnaire surveys, my questions are not fixed, meaning my questions are rephrased when I interview different people. It is something I learn, not just to listen, but to know how to ask the right questions while still being sensitive to their and my body language. There are no step-by-step guidelines to that. A lot of times I think, damn, it is easier studying animals. I trap squirrel A and I collect biometric data. Then I trap squirrel B and do that same. Different squirrels may respond differently to physical capture but what I do is repetitive.

Hence, I do not find social science research particularly simple or straight forward. Well, studying humans or anything human-related is neither simple nor straight forward since humans are complex and complicated, filled with emotions and whatsoever. Nonetheless, it has been an enlightening path and the values I get would probably help in one way or another to deal or work with different people in conservation.

Well, I am not trying to set new year resolutions merely because a new year has just begun. It is just something that struck me while I watched this video about goal-focused life and value-focused life. So I’d say have goals in life and also value the process of achieving the goals. I guess that is what mindfulness is, or in other words, live in the moment!

Goodbye 2016!

2016 came before I was ready for it and it is ending before I am ready for 2017. A year seems long and there is so much one can do but I have not really felt like I have accomplished a lot. It is the year where my life changed from working to studying. If I am honest to myself, work has been more fulfilling than doing a PhD. Nonetheless, it has been a unique experience, and most of the time, a learning process.

First is attending conferences, which is something fun, especially meeting people. It’s a great way to get more exposure, learn about what other people do and gain new perspectives. It also provides a valid reason to travel!

Second is writing. It probably comes naturally to some but not so much for me. It requires intense thinking to do good writing. It takes me so long to figure out how to structure what I want to write so that the story flows. Sometimes I can’t find the right vocabulary and sometimes the grammar just doesn’t sound right. I find reading other people’s work particularly helpful, such as the way the authors present their arguments in a way that flows nicely.

Third is reading. I enjoy reading to know the content. Now, that’s not enough. I start to pay notice of how the authors write. The vocabularies they use and the way they phrase their sentences. I also start taking notes as I will never know if what I read could be useful when I write. I might need to cite their work, and if I don’t take note, I usually end up reading it again. Of course, nothing wrong with that but it just takes time to read and process.

Fourth is learning to be a social scientists. Many, including me, probably thought what’s so hard about interviewing people. In natural science research, designing the methods is important. And doing social science research is the same. How interviews are conducted requires careful design too! Plus interviewing people itself is a skill, especially for research. It is a lot about talking to people, just that non-research related talking can be random and full of crap.

Since I am living a postgraduate’s life, it is not surprising that my learning process revolves around the academic world. From times to times, I do other stuff, but not much. That is because every time I do stuff that is not related to my study, I feel guilty. Every time I think of the vacation I want to make, it remains a dream, and I tell myself, after I finish my study. PhD is really like a marathon. From where I am now, I can’t see the end. I just keep moving or stay put. I dare not do other stuff as I am afraid I will go off track, which may lead me further from the end destination. Therefore, my life in 2017 would most likely be similar to 2016, but let’s see as one never knows what lies ahead in life!

Do we really want to volunteer?

thank-you-volunteers

I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.

Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?

I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.

First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?

This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.

How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?

Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.

How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?

Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.

Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.

Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.

All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!

The Struggle to Scientific Writing

Make it a habit to write every day – that is one piece of advice from my supervisor that stays in my head. Assuming that I should get the hang of it by now but I still often wonder how and what to write every day. When I first started, I was asked to submit a write-up of 2000 words on human related turtle conservation issues globally and locally. Thinking back, I struggled to write up to 2000 words because having some background knowledge on conservation issues was not enough. I had to start reading (a lot). Reading took time, plus it was a thing to read and another thing to digest what I had read and start writing. Eventually, I managed to finish the write up.  Being a perfectionist, details matter to me and no matter how many times I re-read what I had written, I would still find things to correct. The correction seems to be never ending. As everyone said the first draft of anything is shit but it took me a long time to get that the first draft need not be perfect, they just need to be written.

Next came a comprehensive report of 7000 words I needed to work on, which details out what my research would be about, its theoretical framework and how I would proceed to do it. Once again, I felt the struggle. Obviously, writing didn’t come easily to me, especially in scientific writing where every point needs to be supported by one or more references. By then I was already introduced to the concept sustainable livelihoods approach. The framework appears to be straightforward to understand but the knowledge to apply it to my study was vague. My experiences showed that livelihoods and conservation are connected and I saw the importance of local people in conservation where their needs and interest should be considered but knowing that was not enough to write a report of 7000 words. Once again, I started to read papers that focus on the human dimensions in sea turtle conservation and sustainable livelihoods approach. Human dimensions itself are multi-faceted and diverse. There are many aspects to it, including socio-economic, cultural, tradition, sustainable use, political, local perceptions, local ecological knowledge, local support, behaviour, values, beliefs, legal, etc, which all provides crucial information that contribute to conservation. That 7000 words was a write up of that, plus a brief introduction on sustainable livelihoods approach. Why only briefly on the latter? I had not read or understood enough to incorporate this approach to elucidate the human-sea turtle interactions.

Having to accomplish a 7000 words seemed like a big deal to me at that time as I posted on Facebook that after spending so much time on it, I was glad that it was completed. Of course, I should have known then that PhD is all about writing and there is no end to it, probably not even after graduation. The next assignment was 14,000 words of literature review and a conceptual framework, explaining my research design and the approach I would use to answer the research questions. 14,000 words is double the word count of 7000 words. I no longer knew whether I was terrified by the amount of words I had to write or the fact that I would have to read a lot more in order to write more. Compared to the previous write ups, this one was the most challenging but also the most rewarding.

It was easier for me to read turtle related papers as I am from a science background. My research, however, is a social science research. Like many who are from a natural science background, I am familiar with hypothesis and quantitative methods and not conceptual framework and qualitative methods. I felt that the knowledge I had acquired to do research could not all be applied here. Reading journals alone were not adequate to understand the methods or concepts. I realised that I would need to read up on social science research and sustainable livelihoods approach. I started by borrowing 10 books related to social science research and it took me almost a month to read and understand about worldviews, qualitative methods, case studies, etc, and to finally decide on the methods for data collection and analysis. Despite knowing the link between livelihoods and conservation, I had to write out why a livelihood approach would be suitable and how its framework would be useful to the research. One thing about taking too long to write is it causes the mind to feel saturated. It is okay to take a break once in a while but not leaving it aside for too long.

In the end, 14000 word count was not a concern anymore, rather the content of the write up that matters. I was asked to improve it a few times and had since re-submitted a couple of times that all I felt was that I had spent enough (or way too much time) on this write up and that I was ready to move on. When a text stating “very happy with your new doc” from my supervisor arrived today, I felt relief. Of course, meantime while waiting for her reply, I had started working on analysing data for some preliminary findings. Writing and reading became a routine in my life now. The are many times when I did not want to spend time in front of the computer screen. I miss working in the field even though the work was demanding, it was fulfilling. Still, I can’t escape from writing. I might still feel the struggle in writing but I am taking every opportunity to write to improve my writing and I hope (as what most people say) it will get easier eventually with a lot of practice.

Natuna Island – Beyond Expectation

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Natuna Island from the East – a view of Sepempang Village

Natuna Islands are not widely known, despite being situated between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the South China Sea. The archipelago consists of 272 islands with the largest being Natuna Besar, an island that looks like a human head from the side. I had to find the location on Google Map when I first heard of it. My supervisor received news that someone from Natuna expressed interest in selling turtle eggs to Terengganu and it was to her interest to find out more about this. The concern was without the ban of commercial sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu, the state will eventually become a hub for illegal trade of sea turtle eggs. The aim of the visit to the island was to look for that person whom we knew by Halim, plus to explore and understand more about sea turtles and the communities.

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The location of Natuna Island

Getting there was quite a long journey. My travel began from Kuala Terengganu where I flew to Kuala Lumpur early in the morning. There I met my supervisor and her husband and we continued the journey taking a bus to Johor Bahru and a ferry to Batam. We stayed a night in Batam and the next morning flew to Ranai, the administrative centre of Natuna Islands. It was a small military-based airport. We waited for our luggage that was transported by a truck and it was funny seeing everyone walking after the truck. Our luggage was left at an empty space like a basketball court. It felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how things work, like where to wait and when will the luggage arrive. My supervisor termed it as ‘chaotic organised’.

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The only airport at Natuna Island

We took a cab to look for accommodation. After showing us a few, we decided to stay at Wisma Star Inn, a three-storey building located right in the middle of Ranai town. The room is very basic but spacious. I found it strange that the toilet did not have a sink and a toilet cistern to flush the squatting toilet. However, I noticed that every toilet I used in locals’ houses do not have a sink and a toilet cistern. Therefore, bringing a toiletry bag with hook would be very useful.

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Wisma Star Inn at Ranai town

We started by visiting the market and saw hawksbill turtle eggs on sale. Compared to Terengganu, the eggs are much cheaper in Natuna. It was approximately RM0.80 and RM1.20 for one hawksbill and green turtle egg, respectively. In the search of Halim, we visited the village head who referred us to the Oceanography and Fisheries Department, who later referred us to a few locals. It looks like a fruitless search but we learned a lot about the communities in relation to sea turtles. There has been an effort initiated by the communities to set patrol a small island off the coast of Sepempang, namely Senoa Island. It was a pleasure to be able to join one of the locals patrolling the beach and listening to his stories. Lucky us, we found Halim on our third day. It turned out (thank God) that he did not want to sell turtle eggs to Terengganu but during his visit to Terengganu, he requested the authority here to provide him with satellite tracking to track the turtles at Natuna.

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A visit to the market and fishing port

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Some attractions at Ranai town (we missed Alif Stone Park)

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On a pompom to Senoa Island

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Senoa Island – such a beautiful island but not inhabited

We managed to visit Sedanau Island, off the West coast of Natuna Island, which is a fishing village that looks very organised and modern. We met a few people who shared a lot about their island and natural resources, etc and it was very interesting. A few actually owned fish farms where they raise mainly coral fishes or crustaceans. Indonesia has always been one of the main exporter of seafood, including Napoleon wrasse. I do not dive often and always only at Perhentian. Until today, I have not seen a Napoleon wrasse in the wild and the closest-to-the-wild encounter was in a fish farm. Some of the Napoleons were captured when they are offspring as small as our fingers and being raised in fish farms until they are at least 1 kg before they are sold to Hong Kong. It was heartbreaking to hear that juvenile and adult Napoleons were captured using potassium cyanide. There is a quota set to control the trade of Napoleon wrasse but there are more available in the market than the allowed amount.

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

In short, the trip was way beyond expectation. The lives of most people living off the coast are heavily depended on their natural resources. Fishing and agriculture are still their main sources of income. Tourism has started but not well developed yet. Many are also involved fish farming and trading industry, supplying any marine resources that are in demand abroad. Seaweed farming is also very common there and to my surprise, the drink made of seaweed actually tasted good! Unlike some animals like chicken that can be breed, most of the fishes cannot be bred and to supply for the increasing demand, they need to be caught in the wild. It is bizarre to learn that most of them feel that their natural resources won’t go extinct. I wonder how true it is for Napoleon wrasse when they fish the babies, the juveniles and also the adults, leaving them with a very slim chance to grow into adulthood and reproduce. I guess that is life and no matter where it is, there are always conflicts between human and wildlife.

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We ventured into an unknown island but left with new friendships and good memories!

My Trip to Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley

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After I decided to go for the symposium in Peru, I started to plan for Machu Picchu. The internet is such an amazing place to answer all the questions I had in mind such as how to get there? How many days is enough? How much does it cost? What is the weather like? What and how much should I pack? That was also the time I realised how big Peru is and I probably would not have enough time to go to many places. I do not usually plan too far ahead as I like to have flexible travel plans. However, based on what others shared about their trips, I thought it would be better to plan ahead. Instead of booking for tours, I took the time to plan my trip to Machu Picchu. Blog articles from Escape Traveler, Rich Beattie, Robert Schrader and Jimmy were particularly helpful. I did not want to rush so I allocated 8 days for Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley, which was more than enough and suited my travel pace! And I was not up to hike the Inca Trail, maybe next time!

 

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A map of Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley. Source: http://www.mysteryperu.com/eng/images/map_machupicchu_bytrain.jpg

Day 1: Lima – Cuzco

Day 2: Cuzco

Day 3: Cuzco – Ollantaytambo – Aguas Calientes

Day 4: Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu

Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Ollantaytambo

Day 6: Ollantaytambo – Cuzco

Day 7: Cuzco

Day 8: Cuzco – Lima

It was relatively easy with all the travel tips. All it took to visit Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley was:

1. Return flight ticket from Lima to Cusco. The ticket can cost between US$150 and US$300 or more, depending on the airlines. I started checking the price 3 months ahead and only bought the tickets 2 months in advance and the price had definitely gone up. Based on the reviews of airlines in Peru, I chose StarPeru as it was cheaper and seemed to be reliable. LAN had the best reviews but was the most expensive. My flight there was delayed but the flight back was on time. Overall, it was good for me. Besides I always ended up sleeping.

2. Collectivo (van) from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Taking the train from Ollantaytambo is cheaper than from Cusco. From Cusco, the train departs from Poroy Station, which is about 20 minutes drive away. It only costs S.10 to take a collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo whereas it costs more to get a taxi to Poroy Station. The collectivo is quite comfortable and it leaves once it is full. Big backpack or suitcase has to go on the top of the vehicle. I had one backpack which luckily fit on my lap. Along the way, locals started getting off at different stops and there were more seats available. The journey was about one and a half hour and the scenery was really beautiful so try to get a window seat! It would be cheaper to take a collectivo from Cuzco to Urubamba and change another collectivo from Urubamba to Ollantaytamo but most would go for the former to save time.

3. Return train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. There are two railway companies that offer the train service from Ollantaytambo, which are PeruRail and Inca Rail. Click here to find out more about the different trains operated by each company. Mark Smith’s write up on train travel in Peru is also informative. I bought the tickets for Expedition Train by PeruRail online as it had the cheapest option. I could only print the tickets at any PerulRail offices at least 4 hours before the departure time. I did mine upon arrival at Cusco Airport. Don’t forget to show the purchase code number, passport and credit card used during online purchase. On the ticket it stated that only 4 kg hand carry was allowed. In my head I thought, that must be absurd! Nonetheless, I left one of my backpack at Cusco and took only one which was definitely still over 4 kg anyway. However, to my surprise, the train was more spacious and luxurious. There was definitely enough space for luggage. There was luggage compartment like any other trains, plus ample space on the floor between the seats. I was lucky enough to get a window seat on both the journey there and back. The windows were big, even at the top of the train, which gave everyone a good view along the ride. The service was tip top, drinks and cookies were served. But then for the price I paid, I should be expecting such a service because when it is converted to Ringgit Malaysia, the train cost almost RM500!

4. Return shuttle bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. The ticket can be purchased using US$ or Peruvian Sol at Aguas Calientes. The ticket counter is just next to the bust station. I bought the ticket a day before to avoid the queue early in the morning. Passport is needed during purchase as the name and passport number are printed on the ticket. The shuttle buses run regularly from Aguas Calientes, starting at 5.30am. The ticket did not have any allocated time. I went to the bus station at 5.30am and it was already a long queue but it didn’t take long. It was a winding road up to Machu Picchu and it took approximately 15-20 minutes to arrive the entrance. There were a lot people although it was not even 7am! There was even a long queue at the entrance to get in!

5. Entrance ticket to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Of all, this was probably the most important ticket to secure. There is a limitation on the number people entering per day. There are different categories of daily tickets:

Machu Picchu (S.128) – 2,500 visitors

Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu (S. 152) – 200 visitors for each time slot at 7-8 am or 10-11 am

Machu Picchu + Mountain (S. 142) – 800 visitors divided into two time slots at 7-8 am or 9-10 am

Machu Picchu Horario Vespertino 13:00 Horas (S. 90) – 1000 visitors to enter after 1 pm

There are two websites to buy the ticket online, the government official website and a travel agency and tour operator. I read about problems paying for the ticket with their credit cards through the official website. However, to book through the agent website was a total rip off! For example, it only cost S. 128 (approximately US$40) for the entrance ticket and the agent is selling at US$62! Thanks to Andy’s step-by-step instructions on how to book the tickets online, it was really simple and luckily my credit card transaction was successful!

6. Cusco Tourist Ticket / Boleto Turistíco del Cusco. Most of the places to visit in Sacred Valley require entrance tickets. This ticket is a collective ticket allowing entrance to 16 places, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Qénqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pikillacta, Tipón, Pachacutec Monument, Museum of Contemporary Art, Popular Art Museum, Regional Historical Museum, Archaeological Museum of the Qoricancha, and Performance of Andean Dances and Live Music. The ticket can be purchased at most of the entrances and is valid for 10 days. The ticket is stamped upon each entry, allowing single entry to each place. For other ticket options, click here.

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7. Cusco Half Day Tour 2-6pm. Most places on the Cusco Tourist Ticket are not within walking distance from each other. It is easier and cheaper for solo traveller like me to join a tour, which I booked just a day ahead. They quoted me US$25 and I was shocked as I could book the same tour online at US$10! In the end I paid US$10. The half day tour included an English-speaking guide and visit to Plaza de Armes, Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman, Qénqo, Tambomachay and Pukapukara. There was additional entrance fee for the Cathedral and Qoricancha as the Cusco Tourist Ticket did not include those. It was a nice tour and very informative. I did not have a guide throughout the whole trip so it was really good to hear the history of the Sacred Valley and the Inca Empire.

8. Hot Spring at Aguas Calientes. It is an open air hot spring, a bit crowded and maybe not so clean but it was quite fun. It costs only S. 10. I read about it and actually brought my bikini to Peru, except that I left it in Cusco. Luckily there were a few shops that sell and rent swimsuits and towels. It was only S. 3 to rent a swimsuit.

9. Accommodation. This is one of the final things to book. The initial plan was to head straight to Ollantaytambo and spend 2 nights there to avoid altitude sickness as Ollantaytambo is situated at a lower elevation than Cusco. I only booked 2 nights at Ollantaytambo and 2 nights Aguas Calientes through AirBnb as I did not want to spend time looking for a place upon arrival. I planned to only look for hostels on my last few nights after I arrive at Cusco. It was a coincidence that my Dad found out about a Peruvian AFSer who was in Malaysia 10 years ago and he actually lives in Cuzco so I ended up staying at his place. Instead of going to Ollantaytambo straight away, my plan changed.

I was there during summer but the weather was unpredictable. It could change from foggy and cold to sunny and burning hot to rainy and wet in one day. During the day it could get really hot but as the sun disappeared the temperature dropped. Best to wear layers like a t-shirt and fleece jacket. Denim jeans was fine with me, it did not get too hot although I saw many who changed into shorts when the sun came out. Peru is probably one of the country with the highest UV so do apply lots of sunblock frequently and make sure it is high SPF sunblock, at least above 50! Sunglasses is a must! A hat would be good, especially one with neck and ears cover. Of course a good pair of hiking shoes and best if they are waterproof! A raincoat or umbrella, even though I had both! A large bottle of water and some snacks. Most importantly, never ever forget the passport, tickets and credit cards used to purchase the tickets.

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Usually colder early morning, then it started to get hot and hotter and the fleece jacket came off. The raincoat or umbrella came out every time it rained.

For many, 8 days is a lot but for me it was not enough because I spent a lot of time hanging out with local friends, instead of doing sightseeing. No regrets though! If I had more days, I would definitely visit Pisaq, Chinchero, Moray, Pikillacta and Tipón. So how much in total did I spend? Here is the breakdown:

Return flight from Lima to Cusco US$ 208.45 RM 899.41
Return collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo S. 20.00 RM 24.92
Return train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes US$ 111.00 RM 476.52
Return shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu US$ 24.00 RM 109.66
Entrance Ticket Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu S. 158.13 RM 191.86
Cusco Tourist Ticket S. 130.00 RM 162.00
Cusco Half Day Tour US$ 10.00 RM 42.95
Barraco Andino Church, Cusco S. 10.00 RM 12.46
Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco S. 25.00 RM 31.15
Qoricancha, Cusco S. 10.00 RM 12.46
Hot Spring, Aguas Calientes S. 13.00 RM 16.20
4 Nights Accommodation   RM 252.00
Food S. 116.00 RM 144.55
Taxi S. 32.00 RM 49.84
Toilet S. 4.00 RM 4.98
TOTAL ≈ US$600.00 RM2430.96

It was not cheap at all. Besides, Malaysian currency was so low when I travelled. The exchange rate for US$ was between 4.0-4.3. I could not buy Peruvian Soles in Malaysia so I brought US$ to change in Peru. Even if I had hiked on the 4-day Inca Trail, it would have cost me US$390 and plus the flight, it would be near US$600, not including any days in Sacred Valley. However, a friend of mine had managed a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco, which could be the cheapest option to see Machu Picchu without exploring Sacred Valley.

Nonetheless, Machu Picchu is such a spectacular place that it is definitely worth a visit, or even a second visit, but it is getting more expensive every year. I was also lucky enough to have an AFSer hosting me in Cusco, plus I also tried Couchsurfing for the first time in Lima. Staying with locals did not only save on accommodation, it was also a good way to to explore Peru and know more about the local places, culture and food. It has been a long time since I travel on my own but I truly enjoyed the freedom and flexibility, as well as meeting different travellers and locals.

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