Novinger's Travels


Ring tailed macaques.

Someone just asked me if we had ever been to remote, untouched villages on our travels, and that got me to thinking . . . . and writing!

I never thought we would get to Borneo! It is the third largest island in the world and home to three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. While there, visiting our son Tom, we went to a remote village where the native residents lived in longhouses as they have for centuries. Nearby was a huge cave that we explored with a resident guide. We learned about the village men who climbed very tall spindly ladders to pluck birds nests from on high, risking their lives while doing so. These precarious nests are created by swifts and are worth a fortune to those who make birds-nest soup. Only a small percentage of the nests are harvested, leaving the rest for the swift breeding population. The ground in that cave was covered with bat guano and cockroaches that were almost swimming in that gooey stuff. The wooden boardwalk was covered with it too. George slipped and grabbed a handrail, learning that the handrail was plastered with goo too. Yuk. As we finally walked out of the cave we passed a small wooden shack where a squatting "caretaker" was smoking some "odd" kind of a cigarette. His portable radio was playing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, in English. This was definitely NOT an untouched village!

We also visited a seaside village where sea turtles came ashore to lay their eggs. We stayed up until about 2 in the morning and watched a female excavate a big sandy hole and lay her eggs inside. Right after the mother turtle buried and left the nest, village men gathered the eggs and "planted" them in a "garden" labeling them with little signs marked with the date. (It looked like a tiny graveyard.) The men planned to dig the eggs up when the little turtles were ready to emerge, and put them on the top part of the beach so that they could come out of their shells and run into the ocean. (Only about 1% of those baby turtles make it to reproductive age due to predators!) A little later that night, we were lucky enough to watch the men dig up some of the mature eggs from many days past and then watch those baby turtles crawl into the sea in the dark. (Lights are forbidden because that disorients the babies on their path to the sea.) The next day I surprised a huge monitor lizard running under our cabin. I was the only one that saw it in our little group. We enjoyed being very close to the orangutans and ring-tailed macaques in Sepilok Sanctuary. We canoed up a river fringed by tall trees, but behind the trees were vast open spaces where the forest had been destroyed by palm oil developers. We did see a family of rare proboscis monkeys lunching on leaves up in those trees, looking very much like big loud fat guys telling jokes and laughing hard.

On another adventure with our son, we went to Peru where we visited Lima, the Amazon, Lake Titicaca and MachuPicchu. While staying at a camp along the Amazon, we canoed to a primitive village where beautiful little kids were playing soccer with a ball of rags. I gave the children baseball cards and colorful marbles that I had brought along - they were delighted. Often while landing our canoe at our camp, a friendly capybara would greet us from the tea-colored water. These animals are the largest rodents in the world and look like huge gophers, with similar teeth!

One year, we joined Tom and his family in Thailand where good friends took us all over Bangkok – to a snake show, a modern Thai department store, and many street stalls where goods were available at very low prices. We arranged a Rice Barge Tour, motoring along narrow klongs (canals) among hundreds of residents living and floating on the water in their unusual homes. We spent a week on the Southern island of Phuket in a primitive hut at the very southern edge of that island, right where that devastating tsunami struck years later. Tom loved that place and has since stayed there several more times. I would not choose to go back, due to the extremely basic sanitation system. The food was amazing in the small restaurant on site. One lunch I ordered what I thought would be a lobster salad. When it arrived I was shocked to see a huge platter overed with twelve huge red crayfish! Luckily I was able to share that platter with our table of ten. George and I also really enjoyed climbing rickety steps up into a monster tree next door and having a jungle breakfast each morning. We had the sunset delight of watching a beautiful woman do stretches at the ocean's edge, with the tidal surges washing over her. I tried it after she finished, but stopped pretty quickly due to the sand that flew into my bathing suit!

I must admit that we really didn't go on anthropological field trips to visit remote, untouched cultures. We have had our share of grueling trips, however. We did go all over Fiji, New Zealand and Australia for six weeks, each carrying a backpack. That was an adventure we shared with 22 students! When the two leaders became bored with that trip and had run low on funds, we somehow inherited the lead and showed the students all over Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Luckily, our talented friend Mary offered to fix meals for all 22 of us on 50 cents each per day. We backpacked all over Alaska for five weeks by ourselves, and camped all over Europe in our VW camper with our three teenagers for nine amazing weeks. We were so cramped on that trip that we grew rather disenchanted with each other. Nevertheless, those were all wondrous adventures.

Many of our trips involved visiting every foreign city where our diplomat son Tom worked in US State Department embassies or consulates. We got to know our granddaughter Saya quite well in spite of the distances. While Tom served as a Foreign Service Officer, we observed and sometimes dined with "high society" of sorts. I am thinking of Hong Kong, Osaka (Japan), Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei, Borneo), Asuncion (Paraguay), Naha (Okinawa, Japan), Seoul (South Korea), and lastly Damascus (Syria), all fascinating. While visiting all of these cities, Tom took us on wondrous side trips such as the stunning Iguazu Falls, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and its Galapagos Islands, Peru, Beijing, Guangzhou, Macau, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc. We visited the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea and its conference room where the war negotiations took place many years ago. Tom also had several posts in Washington, DC and spent his final two years in Los Angeles as Regional Director of the Office of Foreign Missions assisting 190 consulates in the Southwest Region - from all over the world. What an interesting career

Orangutan mother and her baby.

he had! Being a choral director by education, he started an international choir in each big foreign city where he was posted. In Seoul, he called his choir The Seoul Singers. He even created a fine big choir in Los Angeles with singers from many countries. We were able to rehearse with them in most of those places. The most beautiful choral sound I have ever heard was in Damascus, and his choir was only rehearsing!

Now Tom and his wife Gladys have both retired from the diplomatic life, he from the US State Department Foreign Service and she from serving her native Peru. They have now created a beautiful venue in east San Diego County called Vineyard Hacienda where they host conferences, weddings, and overnight guests from all over the world. If this interests you, check out


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