Almost a year later, I have returned to South East Asia on another serious work mission: to attend a palm oil industry conference, investigate scandals in the field, and document stories from communities impacted by the expansion of oil palm plantations. Thus far I’ve found it to be a bit similar to last year’s Indonesia expedition, but Malaysia feels quite different, perhaps partially due to the country’s abundance of natural gas and offshore oil drilling (not to mention the fact that I haven’t really had the time to venture beyond the opulent walls of the RSPO conference in a resort setting).

I have done a pitiful job keeping up with this blog site since the last investigative trek, mostly because I am blogging on the Understory about once a week as the Rainforest Agribusiness campaigner at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and haven’t found the time to keep up. But one of my greatest passions is writing inspired by travel and experiential learning – so here I am again.

I am currently in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia – the Northeast tip of the island of Borneo. It’s seriously beautiful in this small coastal city, with tons of patches of floating, emerald green islands of forest off the coast and the magical feeling of waking up every morning to shimmering water. Definitely beats Jakarta, where I was for last year’s RSPO conference.

Feeling so inspired by my surroundings has been a huge blessing during these past 3 days of grueling conference activities –  it has helped keep my soul alive amidst the corporate agendas and depressing stories (click on the hyperlink above to read my three live dispatches from the conference). If you can’t imagine how much it wore me down hearing corporate cronies from the largest agribusiness giants in the world talk about how “sustainable” their rainforest destroying palm oil operations are, you should hear the testimonials I recorded of community members who have had their homes bulldozed and communities torn apart. Stay tuned.

But I don’t want to fill these pages with those sad stories – all that and more you can read on my work blog – the Understory.

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For now what I do want to share is how amazing my day was yesterday – a day of much needed relaxation and adventure after all the draining travel and work, our first and last free day before heading to Indonesia for field work. In keeping with the theme of this trip so far, I woke up too early after not enough sleep and busted out a blog post sharing insights from the last day of the conference. Then I called my beautiful family via Skype to wish them a happy Thanksgiving (meanwhile here in Malaysia we ate ramen noodles and peashoots with garlic for dinner).

We headed to the pier and ate thick, heavily spiced plates of food as we dripped sweat under the tent next to the water. Rich nangka (jackfruit) cooked in a delicious coconut red sauce with rice and a hard boiled egg they serve fried in some strange batter. Unfortunately I couldn’t eat the eggplant dish I had ordered because 100 tiny fish eyes all of a sudden peered up at me beneath the red peppers.

Lindsey and I bought tickets for Mamutik Island and jumped on a speedboat, racing past the most amazingly vibrant and thick patches of forest islands, with tiny stilt houses lining the water’s edge. Sadly our boat was propelling itself forward much too fast as well as thrashing up and down on the waves to get quality photo or video, but you may get an ounce of the beauty in some of the slide show images above.

Lindsey and I had a couple of hours to walk around the tiny tropical island of Mamutik, known for its diving. Actually, over 75% of the coral biodiversity known to science exists right here off the Northeast tip of Borneo – imagine! I drank two beers, swam with a sting ray, denied several Asian tourists on their offer to take a photo with me, and reveled in the site of finally seeing my first real patch of forest in Borneo after years of fighting for its protection. It was a moment to behold.

Back on Borneo I ate the most delicious, chunky, real coconut ice cream (first time eating dairy ice cream with refined sugar in almost a year!) and wandered through the wildest outdoor marketplace along the waters edge. So many fruits and vegetables I’d never seen, and a crazy huge fish market with images that would give anyone a nightmare (especially a life-long vegetarian). All the vendors were yelling at the tops of their lungs something like “dua ringgit dua ringgit dua ringgit” over and over, which means “two ringgit” but it all blended together and kind of put me in a trance. Little shiny silver fish sparkling like gems, big yellow fins, green and pink lobster, bright blue and yellow crab, fish heads, fish eyes, fish guts, and blood. Lots of it. The thousands of beautiful souls were arranged artfully and intentionally in piles, lines, assortments, some amassed into delicate shapes in pools of blood or heads getting carved.

Although I am opposed to taking any precious life from our oceans, I know that what I saw in that marketplace was part of a rich culture and not representative of the wholesale slaughter of our oceans for which the fish industry including bottom trawlers are responsible. More than 70% of the world’s fisheries are “fully exploited, over exploited or significantly depleted” and I believe we need to give these fish all the help they can get to replenish their stocks.

I digress.

Tonight we fly to Jakarta and then on to KalTeng (Central Kalimantan) to visit our allies at Save Our Borneo. From there we will spend several days in Tanjung Puting National Park with Friends of the National Parks Foundation. I may even get to see an orangutan for the first time!! And rather than only witnessing and documenting the dark side of oil palm plantation expansion, I may get to document communities who are resisting palm oil and instead thriving off local, community agro forestry and reforestation projects, community food gardens, and eco tourism. Did I say I’m excited?

Stay tuned for the next update! Loads of love.