Friday, December 31, 2010

Removal of the Travel Beard

1. Grizzled Traveler

2. Suburban Carhartt

3. Badass Sea Bass

4. Euro Trash

5. Baby Face

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Final Indonesia Pics

These uploaded about 100 times faster at home than from any internet cafe...

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Last Supper

I had about 28 hours back on Bali before a 1am flight to Seoul then Chicago then MSP and a few options on how to spend them: (1) hidden beaches, great surf and iconic cliff perched temples on southern peninsula; (2) excellent hiking and biking in mountainous interior near Munduk; (3) spa back in Ubud where I was 3+ weeks ago. I'd hoped for a spa near a hidden beach and I'm sure they exist, but Ubud is easy to get to and Lonely Planet didn't have much on hidden beach spas. So I happily came back to Ubud, but this time in significantly upgraded accommodations.

My last night and day was spent at one of those idyllic, picturesque Bali spa retreats with the Raiders of the Lost Ark stonework amidst a lush jungle complete with waterfall. I gladly dropped $120 for a room and day of massage that would have cost $500 back home. Ahhh...this is livin'.

Soon it'll be back to the daily grind, but not if I can help it. The thing I've contemplated the most over the past month is how I don't want to settle for the daily grind. Nobody should have to. Its so easy to get stuck in that familiar rut where the days keep going by with no marked improvement or new experiences in ones life.

I'd like to strive for one of these every day:

1. Learn something that I truly value
2. Experience something really fun or cool or mind-expanding
3. Become more healthy by doing something active outdoors

I don't like stringing together days when none of those occur. It makes the time feel lost to me and I hope I can be more intentional about seeking them out, but I'm also hesitant to make some grand life statement here. It's only been a month after all. Of course
that's already one more month of pure traveling, learning and cool experience finding than virtually everyone I know has ever taken, so I feel like I'm on a good path.

If nothing else, having this quality time to think and write has certainly been beneficial. I see now why journaling is considered healthy. Putting thoughts and feelings into words and sentences really helps you think them through and better define what they really mean. Try it sometime.

And I'm sure I'll need a little help along the way so feel free to remind me about this stuff down the road.

Happy trails.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Backpackers Talk About

Backpackers like to brag about the great deals they found on lodging and the cost of things is common conversation. Other common topics include:
  1. Where you're from
  2. How long you're traveling
  3. Where you've been
  4. Where you plan to go


I'm spending $20/night for 3 nights at Lake Toba and almost feel slighted when I relate my accommodations to some German guy who's traveling for 6 months. He'll naturally share with me the awesome (read: clean) room he got for $4 and how there's no way one can properly experience Sumatra in only the 2 months that he's spending here before moving on to Thailand.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Selecting a $5 Room
1. Does it appear to be clean? If so, you have found a suitable $5 room.
2. How many nights will you be here? The mattress is concave, but that doesn't really matter if you'll only be here for one night.
3. Did you bring along your own sheet or sleeping bag liner? You won't need it to keep warm because the fan doesn't actually stir the air very well, but there's most likely only a bottom sheet provided on the bed.
4. Cold shower is okay, right? Good. There's a good chance it's hot where you're traveling so you can use the cold water to try to lower your body temperature a couple degrees before you start sweating again.
5. Are you one of those paranoid people who wipes down a toilet seat before sitting on it? If you are, then at least you probably brought your own toilet paper (or something similar), which is good, because this room does not come with toilet paper. Feel fortunate, though, because at least it's a western-style sitting toilet and not just the squat hole that you'll encounter in public places.
6. Are you an early riser? Perfect! Then you'll love the built in 4:45am alarm clock of either (a) crowing roosters or (b) call to prayer from the mosque down the street.

If you're willing to spend a few more bucks, consider:
  • $7-$10 -- as above plus breakfast and a nice garden
  • $11-$15 -- as above plus toilet paper. May also have hot water and air-conditioning
  • >$15 -- as above plus wi-fi and a good location
There you have it. Now go forth and travel thrifty!

Journal Jottings

Some more jottings from the past week or so...

Had my first gin & tonic in a month the other day. It cost $6, more than I've paid for most nights lodging... Not sure if there is some psychological reason behind this, but I really really enjoyed the 3 books I read on this trip: (1) A House in Bali by Colin McPhee, (2) Coming into the Country by John McPhee, (3) A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway... Jakarta airport has a beautiful setting with open air concourses strung with massive chandeliers and air-conditioned gate areas overlooking flowering tree filled courtyards... Magic mushrooms are openly sold both on Gili Trawangan and at Lake Toba. I have not tried...

Little Germany, Little Netherlands

Nationalities of travelers met in Indonesia, in order of number met:

1. German
2. Dutch
 (these are by far the 2 most popular)
3. Australian
4. Swiss
5. Austrian
t6. American
t6. Irish
t6. French
t6. Canadian
t6. Finn
t6. Swede

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photo Catch-up

Social Kirk

Funny to think that I was worried I wouldn't meet anyone and would travel like a monk and only speaking to others out of necessity. Due, in part, to the Lonely Planet guidebook which is ubiquitous among backpackers, solo budget travelers like myself tend to converge on the same collection of hostels, sites, and connecting transit routes.

I've actually been quite social, spending hours or days talking and traveling with folks from Germany, Ireland, Finland & Switzerland. Unfortunately, it's a bit disconcerting to be making some terrific new friends and knowing that there's a good chance I will never see them again.

The past few days have actually been a little too filled with conversation for me and I'm looking forward to more time alone to just relax in peace & quiet. That's why I opted to spring for the expensive lodging at Lake Toba, dropping almost $20/night while Thomas and Simona are staying at a more budget savvy place for only $5 per night. They are traveling for 3 months and 12 months, respectively, and need to watch their wallets more closely than I. Also, Thomas' company quickly grew tiresome so I'm happy to part ways with him.

Lake Toba is 60 miles long by 20 miles wide and is actually the crater of the volcano that produced the greatest eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years.

On Christmas day I will leave Lake Toba for Medan, the largest city on Sumatra and home to the airport that will carry me on the 26th back to Bali. Then I'll have one last night and day on Bali before getting on the plane at 1am Tuesday morning.

Volcano Hike

Tuesday I hiked a volcano outside the town of Berastagi with Simona, Marc & Thomas. This was the reason for coming to Berastagi and we had been concerned that bad weather would cause poor trail conditions and poor visibility as it rained for most of the prior 18 hours. But the clouds lifted and we made our way to the top, about two hours travel time via local bus and hiking.

At the top was a beautiful crater with fumaroles spewing steam, some extremely loudly. About 10 locals were down in the crater bathing or having a picnic lunch so we hiked down into it to join them. A couple of them wanted their photo taken with us, too, but by now we were old hands at dealing with our adoring fans.

We hung around for a bit, took some photos of our own, and then hiked an hour down to the hot springs. In the hot springs we were again welcomed warmly by the locals and more photos were snapped. Some nice ladies in the hot sulfur pool shared their snacks with us - sliced cucumber dipped in a very spicy brown sauce. Yummy.

Star Treatment

Tuesday, 12/21
6:34 pm

I felt like a celebrity today. It started this morning when Thomas (Deutsch), Simona (Suisse) and I went for a walk up a nearby hill that affords a great view of the two neighboring volcanoes. We were accosted by a group of 20 Indonesian tourists from northern Sumatra who wanted their picture taken with the funny looking white people. We smiled and played along as they exchanged places and cameras so almost everyong got their turn with us. That was kind of weird.

Minutes later we stopped for coffee & water at the top of the hill and sat down at a table and chairs made entirely from old tires. Very cool and far more comfortable than the 90-degree angled bamboo chairs we'd been used to. When the owner of the cafe heard I was from America he first pointed out the U.S. Air Force hat on his head, and then minutes later pulled up in his tricked out 40-year old U.S. Army issue Jeep (in which he was kind enough to give us a ride back down into town).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Orangutans

We rounded a bend in the jungle trail and there she was, just hangin' around practically right over the trail with a baby on board. It was a pretty sweet way to see my first orangutan in the wild. The next 2 days would only get better with the sighting of 9 more including one big ol' fella who was practically as large as a gorilla.

Six of us were on this trek with our guide Indrah and we got an amazing introduction to our local cousins. We hiked 3 or 4 very hilly miles through a rubber plantation and into Gunung Leuser National Park, ending at a beautiful campsite tucked inside a near horseshoe bend in the river that we would raft back into town the next day. Our guides were terrific and made us some of the more tasty meals I've had here. It was another awesome wildlife experience similar to the manta ray.

When I arrived in Sumatra last Thursday night I met a couple other solo travelers at the hostel -- Mark from Ireland and Simona from Switzerland. They were going on the same orangutan trek and we've continued traveling together to the city of Berstagi where tomorrow we will hike a volcano. Also on the orangutan trek was Antti from Finland and I think we'll see him again later this week at Lake Toba for Christmas.

I've been writing this post amongst a dozen 8-year old boys who are playing video games immediately next to me in the internet cafe. One of them is sitting beside me practicing his English by reading along, so I tried not to use too many curse words this time.

That's all I got right now.  See you next week when I'm back stateside.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Black Manta

It was only the other day that I fully understood the difference between a stingray and a manta ray. A stingray is about 20" in diameter and a manta ray 20'. Today all my scuba lessons culminated in an epic dive amongst manta rays. It was amazing! We sat on the ocean floor and they flew around us for 20 minutes. I had no idea they were so huge and they're gloriously graceful, too. One of the highlights of the trip so far and I'm guessing it's spoiled diving for me on my first official licensed dive ever. The half-dozen turtles and colorful coral we saw on the next dive were like squirrels grazing on a park lawn. Ho-hum. Boring. I'm so over turtles now. Mantas!! I think the only things that can top mantas are whales and whale sharks.

Manta Ray


Black Manta (second from left)
Tomorrow morning I leave for Sumatra and jungle trekking with the orangutans & elephants. Sumatra is the size of California and is the northernmost island in Indonesia. I'll be on the northern half of it and am unsure of the internet connectivity so there may be a break in the posts.

Gotta go urban jungle trek to the ATM, grab some dinner and pack.  Goodnite.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Halfway Point

Perhaps some more jottings as I finish the first half of the trip...

The beard isn't looking so bad after all. It's not the fullest and I'd prefer a little more pepper and less salt, but it's not too shabby... I'm getting sick and tired of reggae music (as if I didn't already not like it). There's more Bob Marley being played around here than on Cheney's spring break mix tape... I feel priveleged to be traveling for a month but virtually every westerner I meet is traveling longer... That sunset over Lumbuanbajo harbor last night with the sunlight sparkling on the ocean and the myriad islands fading into the distant clouds was one you could watch a million times, good Lord willin'... Boring banana pancakes the last few mornings tell me the ones I had on Gili T. last week were truly exceptional... Uploading photos from camera is painfully slow so I'll try tojust get a few up... What seemd like a great idea to share additional camera fee at Komodo National Park with Oliver and Roman isn't looking so good now that Roman and his camera have disappeared before we shared contact info... Doing all my laundry today via my hotel... It's been comfortably cool the past week with island breezes blowing, but I think I'm leaving that for hot & humid as I enter the Sumatra jungle in the next few days. Destinations are Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park for orangutans, elephants & jungle trekking and Pulau Weh for diving.

Dragon Sighting

Monday, 12/13
2:31 pm
Day 3 of 3 on the boat

Day three on the boat has been an absolute pleasure. We awoke this morning to smooth seas and scores of islands punching through the horizon. Beautiful!

For two hours we hiked on Komodo island in search of dragons and we found 'em. Komodo dragons live a solitary life and once a week (or is it once a month...different guides said different things) they eat a deer or pig, but the rest of the time they are faily lazy so the ones we saw were just lounging around. They're impressive - ' long weighing 200 pounds and with claws and teeth you wouldn't want to mess with. It was a nice guided hike with a little bushwhacking that made it feel more adventurous. The dragons are all wild so it was kind of like going whale watching in that there were no guarantees that we'd see some. But with over 1,000 dragons on the island the odds were pretty good.

After that we snorkeled and swam including off the mast of the boat 15' into the ocean below. I think it was Roman the Austrian extreme sports guy who started the diving, but nearly everyone jumped from at least 10', a testament to the sort of people (young & old) who seek out these sort of travels.

Today really made this 3-day boat journey worth it and the sunset from the veranda of my hotel room in Labuanbajo is the honey on the banana pancake.

Sunset over harbor & archipelago

Feeding the Fishes

Sunday, 12/12
4:43pm
Day 2 of 3 on the boat

The boat is moving again! Last night the seas were a little rough and this morning the boat was experiencing electrical problems with the battery.

It's been six hours since we could tell something was wrong and we got a creepingly slow tow from a rather sickly looking local boat. Fourteen of our twenty-two passengers had gone ashore to swim and snorkel in an island lake and eight of us were left on the boat as we pulled anchor and drifted into rougher waters. Another woman and myself joined the sea legs club by feeding the fishes, as they say, before our tow got us back into calmer waters two hours later.

Our boat as seen from our dinghy

The battery appears to be fully charged now and we will be on Komodo island in sixteen hours, hopefully about the time we all wake up Monday morning.

Last night, our first on the boat, I didn't sleep well due to the constant rolling of the boat and my steamy hot cabin, but at least the dramamine worked. Others who paid $60 less than me and slept on the deck weren't as lucky -- they got a little wet from the rain and waves washing through the mostly sealed outer doors and windows. All survived, though, and at no time was there any actual danger.

I've met some more great people on this boat - Oliver's German friends Christian, Leonard & Business; an Austrian outdoor adventure guide named Roman; and Troels, a Dane whose been in D.C. and Haiti the past 3 years working for an NGO and is now off to the Congo to work for the U.N.

Island bonfire night 1 of boat trip

The cabin I paid an extra $60 for is just a hair over 4'x6' and I share it with a sixysomething Londoner named Ian. Ian is the sort who awoke this morning and proclaimed it the best sleep of his life! after everyone else complained of how bad it was. He seems to fancy himself quite the intrepid British explorer like those of yore.

How am I feeling? A tad green from the motion, but otherwise well. Mostly I'm just ready to be on Komodo and then Flores islands to put this boat adventure behind me. 22 people plus 8 crew on a 60' boat is a little more cozy than I would prefer. When dinner is served tonight I will likely supplement it with some comfort food like Diet Coke & Ritz crackers which are both available on board.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I Saw a Turtle!

Today is my last day on Gili Trawangan and tomorrow I set sail for 3 days to the islands of Komodo and Flores where I'm guessing the internet access will be limited. Joining me on this 3-day trip are Oliver and a friend of his from Germany who was surfing with him in Bali the past couple weeks. There are over 20 people on the trip and I'm really really hoping I don't get seasick.

I wanted to throw up a picture of me and Enny, my hostess, though. She normally smiles all the time but chose the serious look for the photo. When I asked her for the photo she immediately moved the breakfast table to proudly display it in the picture. Very cute.
Kirk & Enny

Gesa, Oliver & I went snorkeling today and I finally saw a turtle! Very exciting. It was probably 4 feet long and was hanging out near the bottom in about 12 feet of water. Then it started slowly swimming up to the surface where it grabbed a breath and then wandered off. Hopefully next up are whales, sharks, dolphins & manta rays. These next two photos were taken at lunch on the island Gili Air, the smallest of the 3 Gili islands.
Gesa & Oliver

Lunch. Spicy bbq chicken. So good.

Bought shampoo today and that'll feel good on the hair tonight. I traveled here with only 1 carry-on bag and my quart-sized baggie for liquids filled up with other stuff, hence no shampoo.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Today

12:21 pm

Got out of bed around 9:30 after a late night at the Irish bar (alas, no Irish music, only Euro dance tracks). No shower this a.m. because there's really no need, but I do wish to use some proper shampoo because my hair has gotten a little ratty after only being cleansed with bar soap for 10 days. But everyone around here has beach hair anyways so its no big deal.

I feel a little more self-conscious about my paltry beard, though. Its getting a little itchy and I'm certain it looks like crap, but how often can a fella go a month without shaving? I'm curious to see if it'll actually fill in beyond the sideburns or not. Curiosity is why I haven't shaved.

Breakfast was served by my always cheerful hostess and I'm not yet sick of the repetitive selection - pineapple pancake with honey, fresh watermelon, banana, pineapple and mango that she neatly slices into cubes on the rind for easy eating. So nice. I think she loves it when I beam with a smile each morning upon eating her breakfast and tell her how much I like it.

I'm staying at a homestay which consists of 4 basic, clean, simple rooms attached to a family's compound. I say compound because a family here lives in a collection of small buildings around a central courtyard. Her abode is quite small compared to those I saw in Bali and it feels great to be helping her with a little income, $10/night. The one bare compact fluorescent bulb in the ceiling is a little dim and there is no hot water, but who needs hot water when its 85 degrees every day. At breakfast I first go for the watermelon because its the coldest and most refreshing.

Which brings me to something I've been wondering about since I got here:  Why do people in a hot climate drink so many hot beverages? Tradition? They have refrigeration. Even though I'm not a fan of hot beverages I completely understand why people enjoy them in the cold of a Minnesota winter. And I understand the addiction to coffee, too. But give me a cold anything on a hot day.

The last two days after breakfast I walked 3 minutes down the strip to the dive shop where I completed two dives each day to achieve my PADI Open Water Diving certification. I'm not officially a SCUBA diver, though divers have apparently dropped the SCUBA part from the lexicon and speak only of diving. Around here nobody confuses it with non-existent springboard diving.

After breakfast I checked in on email at the internet cafe and am now taking a leisurely 5-mile stroll around the island with journal and book in tow.

Tonight, at 7pm as has become our custom, I will meet Oliver & Gesa for dinner at the market. Oliver will show up late and Gesa and I will choose from the selection of fresh fish, rice & vegetables. BYOB.

3:54 pm

My island stroll is going swimmingly (sorry). I sit now in a thatch roofed hut on stilts over looking the ocean and listening to only the waves wafting on shore, the clatter and bells of the islands horse buggy transports (no motor vehicles allowed), and the faint strains of the Red Hot Chili Peppers "Californication" bleeding out from the kitchen of the restaurant that made me my coal fired pizza lunch. Paradise!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Jottings...

Lots of people here smoke cigarettes, both the locals and the western travelers...It took 3 islands and 1 week but I finally stumbled onto the ubiquitous Irish bar here on tiny Gili Trawangan. Everywhere in the world you will find 2 things - Australians and an Irish bar...Scuba diving is good and I will be certified after 1 more dive this afternoon, but still haven't seen any of the big stuff like turtles, sharks, manta rays, or dolphins...My minimalist REI wristwatch that looks like a Livestrong bracelet was a great $6 buy and the locals here love it...I notice the perspiration on my forearms the most, and my glasses aren't falling down my nose at all...The second book I'm enjoying immensely is "Coming into the Country" by John McPhee about the history and people of Alaska...Local residents seem to be constantly sweeping small leaves and natural debris off of the dirt roads. It seems more ritualistic or meditational than practical...Last bicycle ride I had a choice of 2 bikes, one with no brakes and one whose rear gear didn't shift. An entrepreneur could make a killing with a simple Allen wrench. I chose the one with brakes but had to work awfully hard to get up some steep hills...

Looks like 2 more days on this little island and then I will grab a boat with Oliver the German over to Komodo and Flores. There's snorkeling, sightseeing, and Komodo dragon tours along the way but I'm not sure if I'll be able to dive there or not without making a weeklong commitment on a liveaboard boat where you're out at sea the entire time.

Thanks for posting comments. It's fun to hear from you.

Monday, December 6, 2010

One Week In

One week down, three to go. I'm not exactly re-examining my life quite yet, but am reinforcing how important this sort of experience is for me. I'm feeling realy good, eating well (all natural), walking a lot and biking some. It also feels good to have a whole month to lessen the stress of travel because I don't have to be in a hurry and am completely free to go with the flow and select from any number of excellent options.

I have tended to travel under the notion of one country at a time, as opposed to, say, trying to cram in that once-in-a-lifetime trip to London, Paris & Rome in 2 weeks. No matter where I'v been, the guidebook research always reveals far more travel treasures than I ever expected and the planned duration is never long enough to do it all. But a month feels great and I'm lucky to work for an employer that allows its vital human resources more latitude than most in America. If a corporation with thousands of employees can't find a way to allow one to leave for a month, then I believe it has a flawed structure.

gotta fly.  scuba calls.

Island Hopping

I don't have much time this morning before my first ever scuba dive, but I'll give a quick update. Yesterday (Monday) was a travel day from Bali to a small island just to the east called Gili Trawangan (it's the largest of the 3 little islands in the pic in the prior posting). There's a little strip here about 1km long filled with dive shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, & lodging. It rained much of the day yesterday but I was on a 4-hour ferry ride and multiple buses so that didn't matter much. It's beautiful today, though.

I met a couple Germans on the bus yesterday morning, Oliver & Gesa. They are not traveling together, but we hit it off yesterday and had fun last night talking politics and learning more about each others homeland. I will likely do my 4 final certification scuba dives here today and tomorrow and then leave with Oliver for the islands to the east of here, Komodo & Flores.

On Sunday I went for a bicycle ride in the countryside and ended up going for a guided hike along the Ayung river. Saw the following growing in the wild: pineapple, banana, tapioca, vanilla, cacao, mimosa, ginger.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bike Ride, Jazz Cafe, Moving On...

Bike Ride
It's Sunday morning and it's been a great few days in Ubud, but I'll be moving on after a river rafting trip tomorrow morning. Yesterday I went for a fun & educational bike ride tour where they drove us up to a volcano with a crater lake, we had breakfast, and then biked downhill back to town stopping for cultural educational experiences along the way -- coffee plantation, rice fields, and a family compound where 3 generations live in different houses within a walled 1/4 acre or so. 3 of us (me and 2 Belgians) also got a little extra real bike riding in when we chose to ride the hilly gravel roads the final 10 miles after the downhill portion ended for most folks. This, of course, turned out to be the best part of the ride. Zero traffic down a narrow road, beautiful rice fields and more shades of green than I could comprehend. Plus it was a nice workout.

Most surprising of all, however, was that there were not people trying to sell us stuff at each of the designated stops. That's one thing that has impressed me with Indonesia compared to other developing nations I've visited -- it's much less harassing of tourists. It's been quite a pleasure.




Jazz Cafe
It's the low season for tourism so Ubud is rather quiet, which is great except when a fellow is looking to have a couple beers and feels a little weird being the only person in a drinking establishment. So Thursday night I ended up at the Lonely Planet recommended Jazz Cafe. Here's the transcript from my journal as I sat at the bar that night...

Hangin' at the Jazz Cafe and listening to a horrible recorded rendition of "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic". I never thought I'd be longing for the likes of Sting.

This is actually my first night out on the town, if you can believe that. Jet lag combined with excessive sun the first couple days had me napping in the early evening and then not really recovering enough to want to go out. It's definitely the off-season here in Ubud with empty tables outnumbering occupied by easily 3:1. Even the joint pumpin' Marley reggae tunes is slow.

I tried to go see a music and dance performance tonight to hear the gamelan music I've been reading about, but all are canceled due to a town-wide ceremony tonight. Bummer. At least yesterday I had the fortune of stumbling upon some children practicing and listened for a few minutes. It's like an orchestra of gongs & bamboo xylophones.

Earlier tonight at a little tapas joint I had my first taste of arak, the local palm wine booze. I wouldn't classify it as wine, exactly, and am glad I got it on ice as recommended. Tasted alcoholy like watered down cheap vodka.

Now the live "gospel jazz" trio is firing up at the Jazz Cafe - drums, 6-string electric bass & keyboards. Ooh, that's some smooooth jazz. But wait! I see a microphone perched next to an empty stool. Please, oh please, no vocals!

According to their in-house propagan..er..literature, the Jazz Cafe offers "Great party packages for birthdays, weddings & special occasions".

Oh shit! Here comes the vocalist! AIIIEEEE!! They're a quartet, not a trio! It's so smooooth..too smoooooth! She opens with "My Funny Valentine". Seriously. I need to find the local underground punk rock joint. But I will say this, she's got some good pipes and an excellent command of the English language.

When the singer just said "Thank you, I hope you're enjoying your holiday in Bali and I hope you like the music" it made me feel like I'm on a cruise ship. Uggh. Not quite the vibe I'm looking for, but quite humorless nonetheless. She's a real pro.

Moving On
So what's next? This question actually took me down some twists and turns in the past 36 hours. I have an invitation to visit an acquantance in Jakarta next Saturday for an all-day event put on by Ashoka to honor social entrepreneur Fellows in Indonesia. Newey is a woman from Thailand I met a couple weeks ago through work in Mpls and she works for Ashoka Thailand. It seemed like a cool opportunity to interact with the locals in a more intimate manner and I could easily combine it with other activities on the island of Java. But yesterday I learned from the Belgians in my bike tour group that the top 2 sites I wanted to visit on Java are closed because of the volcano. Borobudur is the image shown at the top of this blog and is supposed to be an amazingly beautiful temple, similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But, alas, it is covered in ash and closed. Mount Bromo is a volcano close to the one currently erupting that is a great hike affording amazing views of the other volcanoes in the region, but it is also off limits. Those two sites would have allowed me to road trip across Java to Jakarta on the west side of the island, but with them out of the picture it's not really worth it for me to fly to Jakarta just for the one event.

Many other options exist, however. I've decided to head tomorrow to the Gili islands just east of Bali, specifically the largest with a circumference of 8km, Gili Trawangan. Going to do some SCUBA diving and maybe island hop east to the island of Komodo. Yes, Komodo is home of the famous Komodo dragons, largest living species of lizard, and also very highly recommended diving to see dolphins, manta rays and sharks (not great whites, don't freak out).

Gili Islands

Friday, December 3, 2010

Raiders of the Lost Monkey Forest

The sign at the entrance to the Monkey Forest reads: "If the monkey jumps on you, stand still and walk away slowly".

Beautiful morning in Ubud hanging at the Monkey Forest. Its temples and statues are right out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Very cool. Mmmm...those dates look mighty tasty...

Ubud is the center of all things centered in Bali - yoga, herbal remedies, organic cooking, reflexology, etc. It's also well centered geographically to be the launching point for a number of adventures - hiking, biking, river rafting, volcano climbing, temple trekking, etc. I think I'll stay for a few more days and check some of 'em out.

This morning I borrowed a bicycle from the place I'm staying and had a fun ride, maybe a 10K loop out around town. Tomorrow I'm off on a guided mountain bike ride that's more about the cultural experience than the biking. It'll be fun to get a little exercise while seeing the countryside, even though we'll be making scheduled stops along the way where I'm sure folks will be trying to sell us stuff. We'll start by being driven to the top of a volcano that has a lake inside its crater and then ride back down into town from there. The crater lake is supposed to be stunning.

A local museum had some paintings that highlighted the local rivers quite dramatically, too, so I'm scoping out a river rafting trip. It's a little on the spendy side, though, so we'll see.

Oh, and one of these days I'll remember my camera USB connector and see if I can get a couple photos up on here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bemo to Ubud

Bemo
The bemo is public transit in the form of a minivan, usually seating 10-15, and Ubud was my destination this morning. The driver didn't speak much English and I don't speak much Baha Indonesian, though he was taking glances at my journal as I wrote this. Fear not, even a learned English scholar couldn't decipher my chicken scratch as we bounce down the roadway. When I told him the only words in Balinese I know are "maktur suksaman" (thank you) he immediately turned to the other passengers in the bemo and told them what I'd said which got a good laugh from them and a returned smile from me.

As I'm told by my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook it is normal to sit and wait for a bemo to fill up before it departs, which can sometimes be quite awhile.  I was a bit surprised, then, when we left with 5 passengers after only a few minutes. The ride was smooth, especially given that those strange white lines painted on the road don't seem to be there for any apparent reason and there's nary a seatbelt to be found anywhere.

Ubud
Ubud is gorgeous! I definitely made the right call in bailing out of Kuta and coming here. So lush! It reminds me of Carmel, CA (just add Korean tour buses) how the foliage seeps onto the roads lined with little fine art and boutique clothing stores. But it one-ups Carmel with the ancient looking architecture highlighted by stone walls, carvings and statues bordering almost every home. And since we're in the tropics the stone is covered with bits of moss, giving it an even more impressive look.

Lunch today was at Warung Ibu Oka as recommended by Tony Bourdain in his Indonesia episode and it was nothing short of amazing. Fresh suckling big in four parts that I will have to ask more about when I return for lunch tomorrow and the next day. First there was the pork, so tender and moist and flavorful. Second, the skin -- about a millimeter thick, half of which was hard and crispy, the other half pure fat -- definitely interesting and pretty tasty. It's the other 2 portions that I'm not quite sure about, but were even more mind opening. One was, I think, blood sausage. It looked like what I've seen depicted on the TV but I'd never had it before to compare.  Soooo tasty! I'll certainly be seeking that out in the future. The fourth different bit was dark bround and kind of crusty/chunky with maybe a tad of the crispy skin in it. I have no idea what it was but it was the highlight. Alas, it was only about 3 small bites worth. All this was served over rice with some mixture of herbs & spices on the side. Add in a bomber-sized Bitang beer and I ran up a $6 bill.  That's right, one of the greatest meals of my life for a mere $6! They're only open for lunch and I can't wait to go back tomorrow.

After lunch I browsed the streets and popped into a little bar called The Laughing Buddha. As I selected a barstool I noticed a little Pink Floyd quietly wafting over the sound system.  "Wish You Were Here".  Indeed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Transport, Boss?

It is in the maze of narrow backstreets (gang) where all the life and commerce exist in Kuta -- hostels, bars, restaurants, surf shops, and many many sole-proprietorships selling the same touristy knockoff shirts & hats & sunglasses. These alleyways are maybe 10' wide and filled with scooters (and the occasional car) racing in both directions on the wrong side of the street. Sometimes a narrow elevated sidewalk accompanies the street, but it is often crowded with vendors minding their stores.

The most common words I hear while wandering around town are "Transport, boss?" as everyone with a scooter or car is looking to give a tourist a lift to wherever. Far too many nice looking taxis roam the streets looking for fares, too, and they give a brief tap on the horn whenever passing a potential customer (tourist). Though not nearly as pestering as the kids in Morocco who wanted to be our tour guides, the offer of a ride in Bali is far more prevalent, sometimes occurring 3-4 times in about 15 seconds. It's symptomatic of a developing society where people are looking for income and doesn't bother me in the least.

The beaches in Bali are nearly endless, encircling the island. Before lunch a bunch of newbies were out surfing so I approached a local surfing instructor and learned that early afternoon (1pmish) is high tide and better for catching waves. I'd been envisioning surfing as more of a quiet morning pursuit out of the heat of the day, but its not like that on this part of the island. So after a $5 pork & rice lunch in the neighborhood favored by low twentysomething Aussies, I put in my contact lenses and hit the beach. Surf's up, bro.

I rented a surf board ($5 for 1 hour) and hit the waves along with scores of others on Kuta beach, the Waikiki of Bali. I never fully stood up and rode one out, but I got close a few times before the beating sun and reflecting water started to get to me. Damn, it's hot. Just how hot is it? It's so hot that I'm actually considering purchasing a wide-brimmed hat. I turned in my board with 15 minutes to spare and spent some quality time in the shade watching a game of dominoes and drinking copious amounts of water.

As I write this it is Thursday morning and I've had enough of the super touristy beach scene. My expectation was always that I'd only be here for a couple days and that has proven to be accurate. I'm heading for the town of Ubud which is less than 2 hours away by bus. Ubud is the cultural and artistic center of Bali and I think it will suit me better than the beach scene in Kuta. It's also where Tony Bourdain ("No Reservations" TV show host) ate what he said was the best pork in his life -- and he's a pig guy. A book I've been reading is called "A House in Bali" and it was written in 1930 by a Canadian music composer who came here to study the local music, specifically an instrument called the gamelan. The book is fantastic and it's giving me a great sense of the culture and history of the area.