Atchafalaya Swamp

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Year End Vacation Edition

Yes, the 'payback' was complete and devastating, but permit me to add - also very satisfying. The 'devastation' was to my pockets lah. Having missed Idul Fitri with my family this year, I went overboard to compensate by taking my wife, my two boys and the new apple-of-my-eye infant daughter to the Gold Coast. The last time I took them anywhere (meaning far and away) was that pre-9/11 trip to the US sometime in ‘00. Five years ago it was just me and my wife then, with the eldest around seven. Technically, the second eldest was also on that US trip - although how could we have known? He was but a zygote - apparently conceived somewhere in the arrestingly beautiful Grand Sierras of California. (Zygote pictured below as viewed from tree)

But that zygote-turned-into-a-little tyke was quick to remind me that how come he hasn’t been to faraway places like his bigger brother has? That was inter-sibling rivalry at work you see, since he has perused the family photo album with sometimes a tinge of disgust, especially seeing images of the elder in places like Florida’s Disneyland. So I had to put this right.

So off to the famed Gold Coast we went and without boring you with details, it was actually a blast. Even as my debt kept piling as the boys traipsed around the theme parks, I actually enjoyed it. The thing is, I was never impressed with Australia to begin with, especially its government, which is sometimes a reflection of its citizenry (we're talking about democratically elected western governments here). The ‘Whites Only’ immigration policy it had in the past and its persecution of the Aborigines (genocide is more like it) certainly did nothing to endear me to the place.

Why the change of heart then, notwithstanding John Howard's role as Bush's Deputy Sheriff in Asia? For one thing the Aussies might’ve got it right - I mean in its immigration policy. This is a country where there are no lowly paid immigrants to do menial jobs like cleaning toilets, unlike in the US or Great Britain or Malaysia for that matter. They do all these so-called ‘dirty’ jobs themselves and are well paid to do it. Imagine a road sweeper with a waterfront home, a car, and perhaps a small boat tied to his or her own personal pier?

This point was brought home to me when I had to quickly relieve myself after arriving at Brisbane International. In Malaysia, if you go to public toilets at airports or shopping malls, you are likely to be ‘accosted’ by an immigrant 'maintenance worker' with a mop and a pail full of brown gooey liquid. So imagine my surprise as I was enjoying the pleasure of spraying the pristine Brisbane International’s porcelain, eyes shut in rapture when I heard a noise at the door. Upon exiting there was a lady of about forty with a mop, ready for any spillover caused by yours truly. Needless to say she was Caucasian and was dressed spiffily in blue pants and white shirt. She dressed like what you expect security officers to wear, and not in dowdy gowns or coveralls. The only thing missing was a tie.

Ah, talking about coveralls, I have a strong affinity for this garment since coveralls are what I wear in my day job on drilling rigs. While waiting for the for the 90 minute ride that would take us past the City of Brisbane and onwards to Surfers Paradise, I surveyed the construction site across the airport's train platform - looking for the familiar sights of men in coveralls.

It was the airport’s extension works you see, and I was flabbergasted at all that construction going on with so few workers - with no immigrant laborers in sight! To be fair, they had plenty of high-tech gear - all manner of power tools, hydraulic this-and-that, cranes big and small. Interestingly there were no swarms of underpaid workers; usually of dubious provenance in my experience. They were in their safety gear: mandatory hard hats, boots with steel toe lining, and wearing - wait a minute - shorts! Whoa! Shorts with short sleeve shirts, shorts with t-shirts and quite a few with shorts and just singlets.

Draped around their immodest tummies would be a leather pouch that held hand tools and radio sets. Their tummies, I noted were mostly distended from drinking all that Fosters and Victoria’s Bitter. Fact: in terms of beer consumption in liters (and not as a ratio of population so this singular fact is even more impressive) the Aussies came out 4th. Remember, in terms of population Australia has only 25 million people, which is smaller than Malaysia's. To put this in perspective the US which has ten times the population of Oz came out a lowly 11th. Definitely the US is not a nation of beer drinkers then. Now you might be wondering who came in 1st don’t you? Europe’s Czech Republic – and I can’t help but suspect that they have beer there for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well. 2nd place went to Ireland, which is not at all surprising since they brew Guinness there don’t they? I can’t quite remember where England stood, but it might’ve been 5th or 6th after Scotland.

I admit I was a little disappointed at the findings because while in college in the US (at a time they called ‘jahiliya’) I did my fair share of imbibing. Even the researchers were surprised and concluded that drinking beer must be a frowned-upon activity in health conscious US of A these days, along with smoking. Religiously speaking the US is not that great a satanic nation after all, since the greatest Satan of all can’t quite convince its own people to consume more of the ‘devil’s piss’.

And I thought we were talking about shorts.

Shorts shopping

Anyway, I can’t wear shorts in my job on the rig even with my hard hat and safety boots on. The rules that govern offshore drilling environments are explicit - must be full ‘cover-alls’, meaning long pants and long sleeves or one-piece types. I hate wearing coveralls because I just don't look good in them. Come to think of it, I don't look good in anything, so I bend the rules a bit to suit me since I prefer to wear short sleeves and pants.

After consulting one of these construction brutes I headed down to K-Mart the next day looking for some ‘Hard Yakka’, ‘Can’t Tear ‘Em’ and ‘DNC’ branded clothing. By the way it’s called Work Wear if you happen to browse the aisles Down Under. I even have my ‘Can’t Tear ‘Em’s’ on as I sit here writing because I just love the feel of the tough but smooth 100 % Egyptian cotton snug against my skin. It also has vents in the underarms for ventilation, so no need for deodorants! Best of all they’re Very Well Made in Australia – reinforced double-stitched buttons and all that. When I took it to the cashier -seeing I was a Work Wear connoissuer of sorts - she quickly informed me that the new incoming stock would come from China, no more arrogantly made in Oz. Bless her for telling me this, so I quickly turned around and bought most of the sets in my size. Of course my spouse think I’m nuts going all the way to Australia only to enamored by shirts found in the remotest aisle of el cheapo K-Mart, somewhere between the garden tools and the garbage area out back.

My long suffering and eternally patient wife can’t help but wonder what exactly turns us males on sometimes, huh?

My passion re-ignited

The passion I’m talking about here is not about 'old flames'. You wish now, didn’t you? Okay, okay, since I’m so fond of digressing, let's sidetrack a little bit.

On the third day of our wondrous Gold Coast holiday, we paid homage to Sea World - our first theme park visit. Why I chose Sea World I don’t quite know because it could’ve have been either Movie World or Dream World. Being the first theme park visit, the boys were understandably excited. Theme parks are day long affairs you see, and it’s just not to pet sea lions or watch dolphins go through hoops. There’s also tons of amusement park rides like roller coasters, dodgem cars and the like. I’d say you need to spend two days at each park to enjoy all that it has to offer.

So I helped my boys go around the rides that interested them, even forgoing the highly rated ‘dolphin’ show altogether, because we had already ‘wasted’ an hour watching the incredibly intelligent Sea Lions perform on stage earlier. Walking from ride to ride I noticed that quite a number were ethnic Chinese or Malay looking. It’s quite easy to spot a fellow ‘Melayu’, especially of the female variety that wear headscarves. Indonesian Moslem females wear their headscarves differently, trust me. Sometimes it felt like I was strolling along Orchard Road in Singapore instead of being in a true ‘western’ country dominated by whites – especially with the sea of ethnic Asian faces you see at every turn. So you ignore them.

With her was a boy of about five and her unsmiling husband looking fit and cool with dark ‘Ray Bans’ on and a ridiculous floral shirt. We were both walking in the opposite direction and as we passed - simultaneously we both stopped to glance over our shoulders. In these encounters the window of opportunity only lasts a fraction of a second - so what should we do as our eyes meet? Should we go over, extend our hands and introduce our families? Then of course one would have to explain many things to his or her spouse later. Of having to tell lies and make stories up. She was probably weighing the same thing. Only my eldest was with me at the time because my darling wife was elsewhere nursing the baby in a different section of the park. Thank God for small miracles!

That moment came and passed before we both realized it. Our eyes quickly averted as we turned our heads away. But with great stealth I turned my head around again and watched in fascination at her streaked blond highlighted hair, bouncing on sleeked well-toned shoulders. The ‘Paris Hilton’ wraparound sunglasses framed her face well, which was undeniably pretty. Did I still feel the ‘stir’ as when we first met some twenty years ago? The answer is an unqualified no, and that’s not because one day my wife would get to read this.

The irony is back in Malaysia she lives but a few kilometers from me but we have never ever bumped into each other, not even at the nearby One Utama mall or at the Taman Tun Sunday weekend market. I know this because I know where she lives (because a little bird always updates me on activities of old flames) and work, because lets face it, Malaysia is truly a small place. And yet in a small place one does not easily bump into an old flame. It takes a continent thousands of miles away for this to happen of course.

Enough digressing, as I'm bursting to tell you of my new found passion.

My newfound passion re-ignited (ini baru betul-or this one's for real)

Actually it’s not quite a newfound passion since I was fascinated by photography ever since I was a schoolboy. I joined the photography club in high school and was even its president in my final year. School-club photos then were shot in black and white on 120 mm film taken with a cheap made in China no-name twin-reflex camera, since that was all the club could afford. We brewed the chemicals ourselves (since ready-mixed developer fluid are beyond the club's budget) for developing and printing. For printing to paper we had an enlarger in thet small makeshift darkroom under the staircase. It was all very tedious I tell you, painstaking and time consuming to say the least. And it was certainly no fun sweltering in the darkroom since we had no air-conditioning, so only two or three boys could get in there at any one time. With the advent of digital photography those days are certainly long gone. And some will argue, so has the romance of photography.

The thing about digital photography is how much it speeds up the ‘learning curve’ process. A newbie can very quickly master his or her skills simply because the results are near-instantaneous and if you don’t like the shot, just hit the ‘trash’ button. One learns very quickly and at negligible additional costs after the initial purchase of the digital camera. Best of all you don’t have to keep buying film.

As a ‘former’ true blue film enthusiast, as of a few years ago I still thumbed my nose down at digital cameras. I admit I am a traditionalist because in no way can digital be as good as film. Or so I thought. In equivalent terms, film (shot on a high quality camera and lens) has at least 20 or more Mega Pixels (MP) worth of resolution. That certainly beats most professional cameras on the market these days, which has ‘only’ between 7 MP to 10 MP’s at most.

But now I’ve changed my mind, because cameras, like computers, follows Moore’s Laws – so processing power costs keep coming down even as the computing power goes up. So a reasonable 5 MP Point and Shoot (PS) can be had for as little as a few hundred ringgits, usually with a 1 GB memory card thrown in which can take a gazillion shots in ‘small’ mode. On ‘large’ full resolution settings you can even get 2000 or more shots on that tiny card. As I write this 2G SD cards are already on the market.

But resolution like 3.1 MP, 5.0 MP, 7.1 MP or 10.2 MP and so on you see stamped on camera is only half the story. There are other factors like lens quality, image sensors size and type and image processing algorithms to as well. It’s entirely possible that the same shot taken with Brand A’s cheap 5 MP P & S camera can look better than Brand B’s ultraexpensive 14 MP D-SLR ( Digital Single Lens Reflex).

Being a traditionalist, I decided on the conservative route. So I procured the ‘best’ point and shoot to mess with before I feel comfortable enough (skills wise I mean) to go on the upgrade path. Remember, digital cameras are like computers, so no worries that there’s always a better and cheaper camera in the near future. And I did plenty of research on the ‘Net reading all sorts of reviews and joining all kinds of forums. After fretting and hee-hawing this way and that, I finally decided on the Canon Powershot Digital Ixus 850 (which is also marketed as the Powershot SD 800 IS Digital Elph in the US).

And what a little blast it is! I urge anyone who’s in the market for a compact to consider this camera very seriously. Trust me, I’ve done all the research, and I was impressed that what these professionals used as a ‘back-up camera’ was this small point and shoot! Even from top Nikon endorsees' particularly, whose images appear in the likes of National Geographic! The conclusion I gathered from Nikon professionals was: for compact point and shoots go Canon. For D-SLRs, Nikons (what do you expect from endorsees’ eh?) .

I agree with this wholeheartedly because I already owned a Nikon Coolpix 5100 5 MP point and shoot but was somewhat dissatisfied, so I gave it to my boy. The Nikon PS’ only grace (if one could call it that) was it uses AA batteries, but because of it, it was bulkier. The Nikon couldn’t hold a candle to my Canon. Let me give you a hint. Do not get P & S' that uses AA batteries. Sure they are convenient if you run out of juice because AA batteries are easily available. But that sleek in-camera Li-Ion or Ni-MH batteries are so good these days that the recently released entry level Nikon D40 D-SLR can take 2700 shots on a single charge! I think in the real world, my IXUS 850 with about 50% flash usage can go up to 800 plus shots – and that’s plenty, although the manufacturer claimed it can go more than a thousand. You see, the real drawback with AA battery powered cameras is that it’s so slow! The start-up time is slower and the flash takes forever to recycle between shots and it drains the batteries fast. I’m done with telling people to wait while the flash is charging, and it does get worse with each proceeding shot.

So what do I like (with tons of other enthusiasts swear by it too I assure you) about this camera? First off is its image quality. It's also sexy looking and robust, encased in sleek magnesium aluminium stamped alloy. But the main feature is its 28 mm wide angle lens- only one of three in the market. I just love wide! You know how when you take group photos you have to get them to squeeze together to get them in the frame or else walk backwards until you hit a wall or some other impediment. With wide it’s easy to stand near (and ensuring higher image quality) in small confined spaces and get everybody in. Wide is of course most suitable for landscape and architecture photography, so you’ll have a blast going outdoors. Real Estate agents swear by this camera too since they can get in more of the scenes in their customer’s homes.

Next to wide, the second most important feature is its Image Stabilization (IS). Image stabilization employs motion sensors with high brow mathematical formulas to keep the image steady (competitor Nikon calls theirs VR for Vibration Reduction). Why? Because with three kids in tow and baby things to carry I just hate lugging around tripods. So with IS, it’s possible to take pictures (without flash) in extreme low-light situations with shutter speeds down to 1/8, ¼ or even ½ a second without blur. Normally for anything below 1/30 sec one would need a tripod. All the night scene shots you see here were hand-held.

I hope you enjoy the stories and the photos, but to all Canon point and shoots users out there let me share with you some tips. Always shoot in MANUAL mode to take advantage of the camera’s full capability. The settings I describe for manual mode below needs only to be done once; set-and-forget. (Caveat: I’m only talking about Canon’s here).

1. Go to the in-camera menu, and set Color to ‘Vivid’ – this will saturate colors and skin tones nicely.
2. Canon PS tends to overexpose (other maufactures are also guilty of this) , so shots would appear lighter but losing a lot of color saturation and detail. So hit the compensation and experiment. I like mind set to -2/3 EV. Always remember: Under Exposure is way better. It’s easy to lighten photos up later with software – but not the other way around.
3. When in manual, for hand held shots in low lighting, do not set ISO higher than 200 because the image will be unacceptably grainy. This is where PS cameras lose out to D-SLRs. Most D-SLR cameras give acceptable images even up to 1600 ISO as compared to pint and shoots. Best to leave it on Auto ISO.
4. To minimize blur while shooting kids and pets, set it (Kids or Pets Icon) to increase shutter speeds for freezing action.

Now that I’m almost done playing with the Canon, I’m really eyeing the recently introduced Nikon D40 entry level D-SLR. I heard it costs something like 2200 ringgits with a nice 18-55 mm kit lens thrown in. Actually I don’t even have a camera anywhere near right now as I’m writing from my swamp barge. I would have taken it along but my wife loves the Canon PS so much that she's already declared it to be hers.

My rig is moving to another location as I type this, meandering gently in the vast Mahakam Delta, steered and towed by four powerful tugboats. Just yesterday I saw the most beautiful cloud formations right around sunset, with all types present: Cumulus, Nimbus, Cirrus. With dizzying colors as reflected by the sun, a deep red disc on the horizon. As I stood in awe on the rig's helideck, my heart broke for not being able to capture the arresting vistas before me.But I did manage to record the image with my cheap Nokia cellphone though. Sigh…looks like I have to get the D40 for sure now for missing out on moments like these…