30 July 2014

Miri Crocodile Farm

The Crocodile farm is about 25km out of town near the Brunei Border and is touted as one of the City tourist attractions.  Our son is fascinated by crocodiles and reptilians and was desperate to visit. While there are many other more enticing opportunities in the area (lush rainforest, stunning caves etc) I have been advised to leave hiking through these until after the baby is born in September.   Having been to a fairly horrendous croc farm in Siem Reap, Cambodia in pursuit of his interests we were a little apprehensive. We checked the website and the farm is now, no longer a farm as such but a mini zoo as well.  We became even more sceptical as many small zoos are dreadful places. 

The farm, when we turned up, was rather idyllically situated with large (croc free) ponds and a rather tired looking pony offering rides to children.  We decided not to take up the offer!  Foreigners pay more than Malaysian citizens but the costs are not exorbitant.  Once you enter the zoo there is a reasonably good quality display on the evolution of crocodiles and a history of their interaction with humans in Borneo. 

The farm is set around beautiful, large, ponds.
The local crocs are saltwater (salties), they have a reputation as being the biggest and meanest of the crocodilians.  Some of the news reports of the captured man eaters were truly terrifying.  Having lived in land reclaimed from the swamp in Warri, Nigeria I have a healthy fear of crocodiles.  One child I knew used to keep baby crocs as pets before releasing them into the wild –pure madness as they would come back to the house when older (and larger), even a fairly small crocodile can kill a cat or baby, requiring the poor things to be killed or moved a long way away.  The ones in Borneo are much larger and much, much meaner. 

Some of the smaller crocodiles resting before feeding.  
From the display we walked along to the croc ponds – huge behemoths lazed in the sun looking for all the world to be fast asleep.  A short while later, however, a feeding time came round and we were under no illusions as to the speed the animals can move at.  A keeper stood some distance from the crocs, well protected by a barricade and threw (dead) chickens into the enclosure.  As the chickens came past a croc would raise his head, lightning fast, and devour it before a competitor could grab it from him, before retreating to the illusion of torpor. 

Having watched in silent awe we moved on to see the pythons in their enclosures, the zoo has a good range of exhibits here and the children were fascinated to watch one curled up, incubating her eggs.  While we were here the zoo’s tame sun bear walked up to us, he snuggled up to my husband and tried to nibble his fingers before a keeper came up with a bottle of milk.  The juvenile bear, who had been hand-reared, drank his milk before moving on to a whole coconut which he broke into in short order with his amazing claws.  Following this he retreated into a tiny little cage – we are not sure whether this is his chosen resting place (much as a domestic dog will choose to sleep in a crate) or if it is his, sadly tiny, pen.  I would have preferred to see him with access to a large enclosure with vegetation, trees etc.  He was generally healthy but did have a few, worrying, bald patches.  The other sun bears, who also live in the zoo, have rather miserable concrete enclosures and look very sad and frustrated.  These rare animals are classed as ‘vulnerable’ so all conservation efforts are good but I do wish they had a more satisfying place to live in.

We met this friendly hand-reared sun bear
wandering around the zoo.
He broke into the coconut in less than 2 minutes.
Other animals available to see include Peacocks, Parrots and Monkeys (chained to their homes and looking a bit depressed). Hornbills, Cassowaries and Sambar Deer. The Deer have a large enclosure which is grassed but they can also be 'treated' to extra feed bought from the attendants.  We did not buy any!

The deer do have grass to graze on but come to visitors who
are allowed to buy artificial feed for them.  
All in all although not the best zoo we have ever been to we did get the impression that it was trying.  Small zoos have a challenging path to walk in terms of welfare and break even.  As Miri grows as a tourist destination and more people come to visit hopefully the increased revenue can go to improving the living conditions for the animals, certainly boycotting (as some visitors advise on Tripadvisor) will not lead to any improvements. The keepers are friendly and knowledgeable, I can see that this is a place that we will probably be taking visiting friends and family members as  it is a good introduction to the local wildlife.

Click on the picture for more information on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

15 July 2014

How to find a new home in your new location.

We have just moved in to our new home in Miri, Sarawak.  It is amazing how being in our own place, even minus our shipment, can make me feel so much more relaxed about our new location.

As a child our new home was not really something I gave much thought to.  My father’s company set us up in interim accommodation until his predecessor finished the handover and left, we then moved into the predecessor’s house.  Often we were on company camps and there was no option but to live in the given property and even when we lived out in the community options were often limited.

Tied accommodation is the norm for resident teachers in UK boarding schools and from the start of our marriage we have lived in some choice properties (we could choose red carpet with blue flecks or blue with red, rickety furniture as standard) and we have become pretty adept at using throws, cushions, pictures etc to personalise a place. 
Some personalisation needed!

When we moved to Kazakhstan there was no provision for hotel accommodation so we were told that we would have to choose our apartment before we arrived and move straight in to it. In many ways this was fantastic as we were straight in to our new home.  HR could not, however, understand why I insisted on seeing photographs of every room in the proposed apartments, wanted a floor plan and a list of furniture that came with the property.  The estate agents seemed to be obsessed with photographs of bathrooms to the exclusion of any other room in the property.  I was told that it was normal, in Astana, for people to arrive and then move again a few weeks or months later if the property did not suit.  They could not understand that we wanted to keep the disruption for the children to an absolute minimum – to let them move into a home that they could feel was permanent.  It is one thing to stay in a hotel for a few weeks and then move quite another to hop between homes.

A tasteful interior - as an expat you too could live in a place like this!
Some of the decoration in the proposed flats was… interesting.  Having lived in tied accommodation in the UK and elsewhere (our house in Warri, Nigeria had banana yellow walls, cream and brown swirled carpet and grey (later orange and blue) sofas) I could see beyond this but there were certain non negotiables we were unwilling to compromise on.  We needed large space for the children and dog so they would not feel cooped up in the winter.  We needed a spare bedroom/office space so that I could work from home and we could have family to visit without making someone sleep on the sofa, underground parking, proximity to supermarkets and a lift.  We finally found the apartment we could be happy in only for one man in HR to tell us he wanted us to sign on a different, smaller apartment that met none of our criteria because he ‘liked the landlord’…hmmm.  He was a little miffed when I put my foot down but it was worth it, we lived in the apartment from the day we arrived to the day we left Kazakhstan.  Some other colleagues found, on arriving in Astana that they were moved into apartments that had nothing in common with the ones they thought they had rented and had to move.  I have never apologised for being fussy on my non negotiables!

Don't be shy about being honest if something does not work for you.
This delightful kitchen was one step too far for me!
Our recent move to Miri was a little easier in that we had two weeks in a hotel to house hunt.  Employers put us in touch with a local estate agent who showed us round.  Initially she had not been given a list of our criteria so the first few properties were unsuitable but she came up trumps pretty quickly.  Our main concern was to find a furnished place as we do not have any furniture coming in our shipment and do not have a furniture allowance.  Most properties in Miri are let un or only part furnished.  We looked at some amazing 7/8 bedroom houses with all the space in the world but they came with beds and a sofa nothing else.  Furniture may be relatively cheap in Miri but with a new baby on the way we do not want to be spending money we don’t need to.  Minimalist living may appeal to some but there is such a thing as too minimalist!  

We found a lovely property complete with furniture and some kitchen ware to tide us over and promptly decided to start negotiations to move in.  It has not quite been a week and we are still waiting for toys, books, personal items etc to arrive but this house already feels like a home so we know that we have made the right decision.

Top tips for finding a home in your new location:
  • Will you have a choice of property or have to take what you are given?  If the latter you just have to be flexible and fit in or negotiate for a more suitable property once you are in place.
  • If you are able to choose your own property find out your budget, do you have an allowance?  Are you willing to top it up yourself?  Let your agent know the budget range you are prepared to deal in.
  • Decide what you need from your new house and be honest about it this should help prevent your agent showing you unsuitable properties.
  • Do you have limited time in the hotel before moving, if so you may need to compromise a little more to get a property in time.
  • Ask other expats about local idiosyncrasies/points to check ie in Miri I asked for the landlord to run pest control before we moved in.  In Astana I checked that the heating etc was working.  In the UK check how much council tax you pay on your property.
  • Get to know your landlord - be nice to them and they will (hopefully) help you out beyond the minimum.
  • Learn to love (or at least ignore) someone else’s taste.  The lighting/furniture/crockery etc may be hideous but you will have to live with it.  Get creative with sofa throws, pictures, etc etc.   
  • Some times you will be living somewhere full of tasteless tat, sometimes in a home you could only imagine in your wildest dreams.  Our reward for the years in the Warri house (of banana wall fame) came on our move to Lagos.  We moved into a stunning old colonial mansion with the most amazing parquet floors and a huge garden with beautiful established tropical plants and (a luxurious necessity) our own generator rather than a communal one for power cuts.  Even the furnishings were (mostly) tasteful.  Learn to accept the rough and revel in the smooth. 
Sometimes you catch a break with a beautiful home.  
Click on the picture for more information on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

3 July 2014

Relocating With Your Expat Pet.

We moved from Astana to Miri, Sarawak last week.  We are currently settled in a hotel waiting for our new home to be ready and our shipment (our tiny, tiny shipment) is waiting at Astana Airport for a suitable cargo flight.  Our dogs are also settled here in Miri.  Borneo is a rabies free island so we have had to put them in quarantine.  The whole import/export process was, in fact, my largest worry but it seemed to go smoothly.

As a family we have moved pets internationally for 20 years or more – in fact one of our dog crates dates back to a 1993 move from Nigeria to Turkey – a family heirloom that all our pets have used at one time or another. 
Bessie and Perdita in Astana
The process is broadly similar for any international relocation – country A will issue an Export Permit and Country B an Import Permit.  You book the pet excess baggage on your airline and collect them in the airport arrivals hall when you get to your destination.  Each country has its own ins and outs, however, and these complicate the process.

The UK is famously tough to bring animals to.  In years gone by my parents took their dogs to the Netherlands and lived there with them for 6 months before bringing the dogs into the UK under the EU pet import scheme.  These days the repressive (and unnecessary) quarantine has been relaxed as long as you can show a pet passport and rabies blood test.  Import still requires you to jump through more hoops than just about any other country, however.  A friend is bringing her dog from Astana to UK – she has to provide a ‘third party country certificate’ which Kazakhstan refuses to offer.  Her cargo handlers (UK insists owners fly pets as cargo not as excess baggage) have said that the authorities at Heathrow sometimes waive this requirement but if they decide not to her poor dog (who has no infections whatsoever), will have to go into quarantine. 

 Other potential complications involve airline regulations on temperature and dog breeds (snub snout dogs cannot travel in high temperatures) and certain ‘dangerous’ breeds may be subject to import/export restrictions.  It is always worth checking with your airline and vet ministries in host and host to be countries to see that your import can happen.  Rules can also change at the last minute – some people in Astana found out just prior to a move to Indonesia that the import from countries with endemic rabies have recently been banned from import.  Their pets have had to find new homes.

The import to Malaysia was, in actuality very simple.  I spoke with a local vet in Miri who arranged for all the import certificates to be put in place.  In Kazakhstan we had to go to the Veterinary Ministry to apply for an export certificate.  On our first visit we took a local colleague with us to help translate and ask questions just in case it was complicated.  The people were very friendly, however, and the most difficult part of the process was finding the address and we did the rest of the process by ourselves. 

A few days before we flew we had to get our vet to issue a health certificate.  We had sold our car and at 27 weeks pregnant I was not walking both dogs on my own any more so the whole family plus dogs piled into a street cab, not the easiest to flag down with dogs in tow.  Once we got to the vets I was rather surprised to find that they did not even want to see the dogs and were happy to fill out the certificate based on their passports only.
Our certificate of veterinary health - no actual inspection
of animals required!

Two days before the flight we had to take the certificates to the Vet Ministry who used them to issue the Export Certificate 24 hours before the flight.  This is a trilingual document but the extra information was filled out in Russian only so we had to translate it to English for the Miri authorities. 

Our Export Certificate from Kazakhstan.
The day of the flight all we had to do was place the dogs in their crates and hand them over to the airline with documents and payment.  The transfer in Almaty was handled by the airline but we had to make the transfer between international and domestic terminals in KL.  In Miri we handed the dogs over to the vet officer and quarantine officials to go off to start serving their term.  It was a great relief to see them safe and sound – our younger dog had never flown before so we were worried that she would be upset, our older girl is getting infirm and we were worried that the stress and the heat might be too much for her.

We saw them a few days ago when our vet came to take bloods for the rabies test.  In Sarawak the length of quarantine depends on the time since the last rabies injection.  Our younger dog has only about a month and a half (if her bloods meet the test) but our older dog’s injection date means that she may have to be in for three or four months.  She has, however, a full history of rabies injections and we know her bloods meet the test standards so she hopes that the time can be reduced.  In the meantime they are in the kennels together which makes the process a lot less lonely.  We are also allowed to visit whenever we want which will also help. 
Bessie relaxing in quarantine.
The whole process is sadly expensive and stressful but pets are part of the family and we (and many people we know) could not be without them.

Tips for relocating with your expat pet:
  1. Panic – this will be the most stressful part of the move.
  2. Make sure that all your locally required vaccinations are up to date.
  3. Check your host country’s export process.
  4. Check your new country’s import process – colleagues who already live there may be able to recommend a good local vet to help with the process.
  5. Get any further vaccinations required by your new country.
  6. Get a handling agent if necessary (as in imports to the UK).
  7. Check any airline restrictions on your pet.
  8. Panic again – most of the export/import process can only be done last minute and you will stress until the papers are in place.
  9. Make sure that you have the correct size crate for your pet.  IATA standards are instructive. 
  10. Habituate your pet to their crate, keep it in the living room/their sleeping area and feed them in there.  If your pet is nervous start with the bottom half for a few weeks and then add the top half.

On the day:
  1. Take your dog for a long walk – feed and water early in the day but not just before they go in the crate.
  2. If your animal is nervous consider using a calming spray/rescue remedy etc.  Put something that smells of you in their crate – I usually line the crate with our towels -  they smell of us but it does not matter that they wil be ruined. 
  3. Make sure that the crate has your pet’s name prominently displayed.  Sellotape a package of copy certificates/passports to the crate but keep all originals and at least one further set of copies with you.  Have your contact numbers on the crate together with a contact number for a responsible individual who is not flying and will be contactable throughout the travel period. 
  4. Write on the crate the time of the last food and water – most pets in transit will be given a small amount of water at convenient times during the process, this will not be much, however, as the animals will not be allowed to leave their crate.  If the animal is travelling for more than 12 hours most airlines will give a small light snack in addition to water but do check this.
  5. Have some light treats/water with you when you collect them as they will be hungry and thirsty. 
  6. Make a big fuss of your pet.
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