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From Kuala Lumpur to Singapore and back

I land in busy Kuala Lumpur on Sunday Februrary 8. The scent of Melbourne is quickly replaced by the smog covering the painful goodbyes. It’s refreshing to be able to cross roads anywhere without fearing a fine, and to see masses of people in the streets at any time of the day or the night. China town, Petalling Street, food stalls, a visit to the Petronas Towers… big asian cities always remind me of Bogota. The apparent chaos -which may only be a different form of organization-, the traffic jams, the noise, quickly make me want to move on.

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Foodcourt in Kuala Lumpur (Chinatown)

Our plan is to go to Borneo via Singapore. We take a bus from Pudu Sentral station, but in the confusion end up in a non-direct service that will take more than 7h to arrive in Singapore. I had visited the Lion City a year earlier so not much had changed, it is still this very organized city at the crossing of cultures. We opt to stay in China town and make the most of it by strolling in the busy night market. As a tourist, Singapore does not have much to offer, the heat and large streets make you seek air-conditioned spaces, from the over-priced coffee shops to the cheesy gondolas of Marina Bay Sands mall. Still, it is a city that has a palpable energy and undeniable attraction power, especially if you can afford to live there for a while and watch the sunset from the Kudeta deck.

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Nightmarket in Sinapore Chinatown

“Sorry, we cannot let you board the plane if your passport expires in less than 6 months” – says the man at AirAsia check-in counter. A call to AirAsia offices and to the Malaysia immigration department confirm the situation: no flying to Borneo today for my compagnon de voyage. We have no other option but to go to the embassy to obtain a temporary passport. Seeing the cost of staying in Singapore and the limited attractions, we decide to head back to Malaysia, catching a (direct) night bus to Kuala Lumpur, going straight to the embassy and then to Malacca to wait for the bureaucracy to do its work.

At less than 2h from Kuala Lumpur, Malacca appears as another crawling mass of concrete. At its center though, is a charming old city with narrow streets leading to landmarks from the colonial era. We stay at Jalan-Jalan, one block away from the Jonker street night markets, and the picturesque riverside with it’s cafes and cruise boats. As the sun rises, the call to the prayer covers the roofs of the small colonial houses. In a half sleep, the song of the Muezin awakes a feeling of melancholia, drawing images of the vibrant commerce hub that Malacca once was. Here merchants from Europe, China, the Middle  East, and Asia used to meet and trade their most precious goods. Here muslim preachers started the conversion of this part of the world to Islam. But Islam is not the only religion in Malaysia. Different ethnic groups practice  their cult in an apparent harmony. Walking in one street takes you from two Chinese temples to a Mosque, from a Mosque to a Hindu temple, from a Hindu Temple to a Church accross the river, and from a Church to a Hard Rock Coffee. All gods of heaven and rock’n roll have a shrine in this small strip of land.

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Malacca riverside

At night (on weekends) the Jonker street fills with stalls selling everything from energyzing shower head to delicious street food. On a large stage at the end, the local third-age club organizes a Karaoke. Gran’pas and Gran’mas take turn on the microphone to sing classic chinese songs to a captivated audience. The next day a local pop dance club takes the stage as teenagers break some moves on pumping pop music. Contrasts.

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Mr. Soon's cat bar

Locals and tourists share beers at Soon’s bar, where photo-collage of cats cover the walls, chairs are pulled on the street, and cheap cans of beer flow from the fridge, all under the calm supervision of Mister Soon, who surprisingly speaks swiss-german. In this bar, Victor met Matt, the writer of Mostly Non Fiction, a blog “about [Matt’s] travels, all in third person”. Victor cannot help to make parallels between Matt’s story and his. Consultant in big data, Matt has taken some time off to travel the world, write, and pursue is passion for origami. We also meet Ross and Jonathan, two brothers from the UK on a mission to connect Northampton UK, to Northampton Australia, without taking a plane, which resonates with my own dream of returning from Melbourne to Europe by land, and the Great Railway Bazar book I am reading. And what to say of Julien and Marion, who come from a little toown a few kilometres away from where I grew up?

The path you follow seems to define the people you meet. Follow what is naturally attractive to you and you will met like-minded people.

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Solomon Islands

38 seconds, the time it took for the first drop of sweat to form on my forehead as I stepped out of the old-looking Airbus 320 operated by Solomon Airlines, bought second-hand from Air Canada as the logos and french/english labels over the whole aircraft suggest. In the terminal, a band plays in loop the same song as we clear immigration and customs. A man from the tour agency helps us with the transfer to the domestic terminal – first time anyone is waiting for me at the airport. New check in, but this time both luggage and passengers have to step on the scale for the staff to write down the weight on a piece of paper. Everything makes sense boarding the plane, a Twin Otter, which can only take 19 passengers (but surprisingly has 6 emergency exits). We land at the Suavano airfield, located at the very north of the Saint Isabel Island, only to jump on a small motor boat that will take us to our final destination, Papatura Island Retreat.

Drew and Grace stepping out of the plane

Drew and Grace stepping out of the plane

The small island of Papatura is one of three islands covered in virgin forest and surounded by crystal clear water, coral reefs, and abundant marine life. The bungalows of the “retreat” are the only buildings, and the nearest fisherman village is a 20min boat ride away. For our first night, we are welcomed with a spectacular sunset over Suavano, accompanied with cold gin and tonics.

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As Drew puts it when we arrive:

Have we died in a plane crash?

The first impression for the three of us is indeed to have arrived in paradise. The nature is stunning, the facilities are simple yet perfect to enjoy a break from the city life. Sadly, after a few days we realize that despite being branded as “sustainable tourism”, the Papatura retreat business is not exactly sustainable. On the enviromnental side, a lot is done: dry toilets, minimization of plastic waste, recycling of aluminium cans. The island is pristine and the waters around it are just as clean. On the social and economical side however, the owners (an Australian couple), who have a lease of the island for 50 years, show a very patronistic attitude towards the locals. The Islanders are responsible of driving tourists around, cooking, and cleaning the bungalows, but they do not seem to have the oportunity to take more responsibilities in the business or to interact more with tourists. English, despite being the country’s official language, is still a barrier to communication. Why not provide english lessons to locals? Why not train staff to become bar-tender instead of hiring someone from Australia? Why cooking pizza, pasta, and burritos with imported products instead of buying from the nearby villages? Maybe the target clientele is not adventurous when is comes to food, but who will refuse a fish caught in the morning? Not everything is bad though, part of the profits are reinvested in local communities to help build schools, clinics, and incentivate recycling. But to be truly sustainable, such business should make sure that money is direclty reinvested in the communities, for instance by buying local products, or creating homestays. It also needs to ensure that it can operate in the medium term with only local staff and management, which require to train staff and to give them a chance to be more involved.

Aside from that, for the next 12 days our life is divided between surfing, snorkeling, fishing, and being amazed by the nature aroud us. The surfing is confronting at first. It’s the first time I surf on a reef break, and the clear waters do not help. At each take off, the colourful reef appears uder my feet. The waves break on enough water, but more often than I would like, the coral reminds itself to me. After a few sessions both confidence and stamina are up and I finally manage to get a few good rides. The great thing is, there is nobody else on the spots we visit! At most a dozen of surfers share the many waves generated by Pacific Ocean swells.

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Days go by with this simple routine, and before we realize it is time to fly back to Melbourne. I feel like I would have liked to explore more the country, but at the same time it seems that tourism is not developped enough for independent travelling. Hopefully it will develop in the coming years in a way that both profit to the local communities and preserves the amazing fauna and flaura.

First day back at work I discover that coral poisoning is not a myth, and I enjoy for the first time the benefits of having Medicare: having the choice between paying $1,500 to be treated in a clinic or waiting hours in a public hospital.
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Surf photos credit: Drew Stansbury

Designing evacuation plans is a critical aspect of disaster preparedness. (source: thepipe26)

Evacuation modelling: finding the best time (and way) to get going

Reports from the Philippines reveal a lack of typhoon preparation and evacuation efforts.

When to evacuate – and how – spells the difference between life and death. As we know, typhoons can cause widespread flooding of surrounding areas, and don’t just affect what lies in the path of the storm. Planning an evacuation is a game against nature.

Typhoon Haiyan (and similar events around the world) indicate that people do not play this game well … but computers do.

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VRP 2013 – Computational aspects of vehicle routing

I  taught a workshop on computational aspects of vehicle routing during the VRP 2013 spring school in Angers, France. The course attempts to answer the following questions:

  • What is time and space complexity? Why is it important?
  • How to represent a solution efficiently?
  • What are the main bottlenecks and how to avoid them?
  • How do parallel computing work? Why, when, and how to parallelize?
  • How to design flexible and reusable code?
  • How to avoid reinventing the wheel?

More information here.
VRP2013

New year, new job, new life

Looking back, 2012 was a productive and rewarding year, filled with interesting encounters, travels, and personal achievements, ending with the defense of my thesis in September.

I joined the NICTA Optimisation Research Group in October, and I now work in the disaster management team in Melbourne, Australia.

Working at NICTA has been an exiting experience, with a fast growing group and challenging projects. In addition, Melbourne deserves well its rank as most livable city, and it has been surprising me constantly for the last three months.

All the best for 2013!