Tag Archives: air pollution

Southeast Asian “Climate Change”

A funny thing happened on the way to the Paris Climate of Conformity hearings. Politicians from over 190 counties applauded the historical accord, touting the cooperation among world leaders as the very thing that will save this planet. Unfortunately,  the Southeast Asian contingency forgot to tell its citizens. Living on the 9th floor of a scenic condo overlooking the water in touristy Batu Ferrenghi affords us the perfect height for inhaling the never ending poisonous mixtures of toxic smoke they emit every day of the year. Those readers raised in the western world (like us), probably have no idea what I’m talking about since they outlawed indiscriminate burning of leaves, garbage and almost everything about 40 years ago. Having lived through the worst “haze season” in 20 years this fall, I was looking forward to clear beautiful skies for a while. Sadly, there’s no such thing as clean air in “developing nations“. And until somebody educates the general population, passes real legislation and forces companies (and local farmers) to practice sustainable methods of agricultural land clearing, no climate agreement will ever be effective on this side of the world.

The never ending plume of smoke coming from across the street. It stinks the entire town out 365 days a year

The never ending plume of smoke coming from across the street. It stinks the entire town out 365 days a year

Elaborating the point a bit, let me explain further. Every single day they burn things in Southeast Asia, polluting the already questionable air that’s finally haze free (for now) and subjecting everyone in the region to an unhealthy forest-fire like stench. As we speak, we’re sitting here trying to enjoy the cool morning air and watch some live hockey with all our windows open and the whiff of something burning is overwhelming both of us. They burn stuff every day for reasons I can’t even fathom. The construction site a few hundred feet from our window starts a huge bonfire every evening when they complete their daily work. Obviously nobody understands what garbage trucks are and it seems like the mega conglomerate company called Waste Management would have a field day here. Across the street is a small military installation that starts several bonfires and periodically burns them all day from 8 AM thru 5 PM, often sending plumes of thick sooty smoke into the air, obscuring the otherwise clear blue sky. WHY ???

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Short Memory Span

As November looms, the air quality has improved throughout Malaysia thanks mostly to some much-needed rain and help from a large Russian firefighting plane that Indonesia finally agreed to use. After international outrage, they appear to be making a serious effort to extinguish the raging infernos that destroyed the environment (again). Finally receiving some international attention, all that really happened was the Indonesian press publicized some more arrests of élite CEO’s, apologized a bit more to neighboring countries, and no doubt sent back evacuated residents of Borneo and Sumatra so they can continue farming millions of acres for paper, pulp and most importantly, palm oil production. Anyone that thinks the arrests of a few billionaires serves any purpose other than PR is fooling themselves. In my mind, the long-term solutions that might actually force Indonesia to practice sustainable agricultural practices and stop destroying the earth and the shortening the life span of over 80 million citizens in SE Asia are as follows:

  • Kick the companies responsible off all the exchanges and fine them so many billions of dollars that they’re forced to reorganize until no intelligent institutional shareholder on earth will buy their stock. This is the only thing business tycoons understand.
  • Lower the worldwide demand for Palm oil products produced by Indonesian companies through large-scale boycotts that include the public and mega companies that use their products. Social media is a good start and was unavailable as a weapon the last time they destroyed the earth this heavily in 1997.

Sadly, the odds of either one of these solutions occurring on a scale large enough to make 2016 any better are slim. Even worse, every time the skies improve, everyone here in Southeast Asia takes off their stupid medical masks, returns to patronizing outdoor businesses and once again ignores the entire two month episode like it never happened. Remaining its own worse enemy, complacency and an unwillingness to use the parts of democracy that make a real difference in daily life like large-scale peaceful protests, intelligent but critical media coverage and demanding better from democratically elected leaders that are always supported by the voters will no doubt keep this “annual event” going long into the future.


As visitors, expats have no say and it’s not our job to criticize the host nations since all sovereign countries have a right to police their own borders the way they see fit. Knowing this, I’ve tried to do my part to spread the word as much as possible to the western world that’s largely unaware of how much closer we are to killing the planet for our grandkids. Indirectly, another way to grab attention is graphically show how threatened wildlife that’s endemic to specific ares are suffering. In case you missed the story, I’m reposting a story that went around Facebook a few days ago. Please help keep this issue in the minds of the world by sharing or donating. Do it for the orangutans even if you care little about how developing nations get half the products on your supermarket shelf into your shopping basket. Here’s the post:

A CRISIS WE CANNOT IGNORE! This is the worst threat in a century to people, orangutans, and other wildlife in … and the Western media is not even mentioning it! The following message came in from the director of a sanctuary for orangutans in Borneo. Please take the time to read it and help:

We have fires in forests which are full of orangutans. We have rescued 4 orangutans in Pelansi in the last couple of weeks and have just rescued another male near the centre. Our Human-orangutan conflict teams are currently following 3 more orangutans at risk in other locations. The situation is just getting worse and worse … We are going to need lots more people, equipment and funds to combat fires, the worst is to come…
I hope we can send the message out about the situation here.

In central Kalimantan, forests which are home to the two main populations of orangutans are on fire.
We will keep you updated as we receive more news…
If you can make a donation to our team who are in the field saving orangutans from the devastating effects of the fires, please help! http://www.internationalanimalrescue.org/donate


Our Stuff Arrives (Almost)

After what feels like an eternity, our 29 boxes of personal goods finally arrived in Penang a few days ago on a mid-sized container ship from Thailand known as the Bani Bhun. Transferred twice from its original vessel in both Shanghai and Penang, tracking the journey of one small-sized less than container (LCL) shipment was almost more difficult than obtaining the MM2H visa. Picked up by truck from a storage locker in Walnut Creek, California on September 5th, we paid $1,200 plus a wire transfer fee to a shipping company based in Los Angeles and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Arriving long after the original estimate, the process of collecting your goods on Malaysia was totally foreign and very different from receiving goods in North America. Assigning the shipment to local logistics company, the first vendor in the chain does nothing but charge you to remove the goods from the arriving vessel and “unstuff” them into a warehouse. Passed to someone known as a “forwarding agent”, the goods are supposedly checked by customs and then put on a lorry and delivered. For this part, our agent came to meet us last night and insisted in being paid in cash (1,400 ringgit).

imageEnsuring we followed the Malaysian customs’ rules regarding detailed descriptions of every box and serial numbers for electronic items, this gave our agent confidence that he’d be able to stick to his promise of four days from the time the vessel arrive to our doorstep. Realistically, it’s probably because the logistics agent only allows four days of free storage in the warehouse so our guy no doubt goes to work convincing his buddies at customs to work faster. Knowing Malaysians, we’re confident our boxes will make it here despite the thirty minutes he spent talking about all the potential barriers like not being able to arrive at the security gate by the 5 PM deadline they impose for forwarding agents. Assuring him I’d carry all the boxes in myself if need be, it wouldn’t be Malaysia without the discussion which usually leads to a guy “knowing someone”‘ who can help. Bringing his wife along, our agent was friendly and speaks English well enough to negotiate through the processes so hopefully this is my last post from an IPad. Naturally, that assumes our 110 volt PC really works when we switch the button to 240 volts. Assuming we don’t short-circuit the electrical grid in this “developing nation”, I’m hoping our next communication comes compliments of my old Windows Vista operating system and under breathable skies. Unfortunately, the haze may return once the wind shifts again and since nobody’s ever seen it stick around into the holiday season, it’ll be interesting to see Phuket’s busiest tourism season ruined by an event happening almost 3,000 kilometers and two countries away. Here’s to hoping that never materializes.

Post Script:

We’re off to a three-week escape to Thailand next month thanks to our first Airbnb bookings. Averaging $30 for 15 nights in two different places, it seems like a great chance to explore Chiang Mai as a possible next address as well as getting some beach time in Hua Hin.

Additionally, the owner of a small condiments business in Tasmania generously offered to host us for our first Workaway assignment in January so we’re booked for four weeks in Australia. Making a stop in Melbourne first where we’ll visit one of Diane’s Facebook friends, the assignment seems like more fun than work and gives us the chance to explore an island many people never get to visit. 

Cheers. Thanks for reading.


The Dead Sky Stench

If your child has an upcoming “career day” and thinks they want to be a fireman when they grow up, you may think it’s noble but you’ve got obvious concerns for their safety. While never wanting to discourage a child’s dream, maybe you’ve contemplated throwing out some subtle ways to show them the dangers and difficulties of daily life as a firefighter. Luckily, there’s an easy way to do that. Vacationing in Malaysia at the moment provides an instant demonstration of the burning ash, chemicals and other toxic sludge they’d be breathing almost daily simply by stepping off the airplane. And if they wear glasses or contacts, throw in the added bonus of constant burning eyes and weakened lung capacity, especially if they’re active in school sports.

imageTiming is everything in life and borrowing a line from Leslie Nielsen in Airplane,  “Looks like I picked the wrong time to quit sniffing glue, Joey”. Although I’m powerless to control a sovereign nation’s problems and I recognize that visitors have no say and are free to leave, pretending the haze problem doesn’t exist simply because it’s a negative thing seems irresponsible when trying to convey expat life in Malaysia. For those that haven’t heard, it’s now the eighth straight week since the annual clear cutting campaign started across the straits and each rainfall brings back the stench and apocalyptic surreal gray sky even worse than the last time. Telling you “it’s only one month a year” is the normal mindset of many other expats here and most people simply accept unhealthy air quality as another inconvenience like bad driving habits or the lack of sidewalks. Disagreeing intensely, I think concern over the very air you breathe is essentially important, not a minor inconvenience. Recently publishing a report, NASA predicted this year’s man-made disaster will be the most expensive and worst environmental episode to plague an entire region in mankind’s history, far surpassing 1997, the first year they began this practice.

imageUnwilling to assign blame or offer solutions, I’m simply repeating what’s been reported publicly in the last article from the local paper. Life is not a bowl of cherries and ignoring the cons of life here for fear of expressing something negative makes an expat blog about daily life fictitious. Having dealt with this problem for 18 years, the local media reminds everyone almost daily what the official line is from the leaders of the offending nation with quotes like this one:

“It costs 40 times more to use alternatives other than slash and burn techniques for agricultural production”

I’m not saying this is right or wrong but one point that goes unnoticed by those who haven’t experienced life in a drought plagued environment as we have is this; Climate change creates droughts that extend the “haze season” from a 4 week inconvenience to a 4 month environmental disaster and hijack the health of 80 million people annually. While we can simply leave, our stuff from the storage locker is still in transit, we signed a one year lease and most of all, committed ourselves to at least spend one full year because that’s how long it takes to properly assess life in a new place . For me personally, waking up every few days to toxic sludge and experiencing nausea, burning eyes and diminished lung capacity is ridiculous and I bear full responsibility for not understanding how much this is not for me. Others (including Diane) are less bothered by this so take this post with a grain of salt and please accept my apologies if reality based negativity sends you to packing to a happier blog about expat life in the smoke.

The Good News

imageOn a lighter note, Diane and I found a work exchange opportunity in Tasmania, Australia and the proprietor of a small business is willing to host us for two to four weeks in January. Makers of jams, jellies and other condiments, the work involves learning the ropes of their small business, some minor gardening and assisting with the weekly farmers market. Hoping to see some of the island, there’s plenty of time to explore as the work is only a few hours a day. Dinners are with the family in the main house and the accommodation is a separate little unit in the garden with good Wifi and a small kitchen for breakfasts (they provide the food). Deciding developed world work is probably better for us anyway, only one host out of dozens wrote back in the developing nations we contacted. Thinking they probably don’t consider anyone that’s not a young single backpacker type that’s not set in their ways, we think it’s unfortunate or even rude not to send a quick acknowledgement since the Workaway website specifically claims they encourage all hosts to respond. But ultimately it’s up to the hosts to decide which profile looks best for their needs so it’s possible people our age are the exception to the rule when it comes to work exchange programs. Either way, we’re delighted to get this chance and plan on visiting Melbourne while we’re there and will hopefully have lots of great things to post about so please stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I’ll count down the days until our mini vacation to Thailand next month because quite literally, this place stinks right now.