Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The High Seas and an Active Volcano

The computer we are on right now is very very slow and, though we've worked for hours trying to upload our beautiful photos, they were just erased. We will add them soon. Sorry...

(By Mia)
About a week ago we finally left Bali and headed east for Gili Trawangan, the largest in a string of three teeny tiny islands off the coast of Lombok. The boat ride was terrifying. The seas were very rough, and our boat, a 100 foot long ferry, nearly capsized. Well, I don't know how nearly, but it felt far too near for me. We were on the upper deck (is that what you call the top part in ship terminology?) and would have to cling desperately to the railing to keep from sliding off as the floor beneath us slanted to a 45 degree angle or more. Even the crew was getting nervous, casually positioning themselves near the lifeboats and rereading the instructions.

But we arrived safely, welcomed by pats on the back and the wiping of brows by local business owners who, watching from shore, didn't think we were going to make it. Oddly enough, we're leaving on an even smaller boat for a 4 day tour of Komodo (where the Komodo Dragons live) and Flores tomorrow morning. You'd think I would have learned my lesson.

There are no motorized vehicles and no dogs permitted on Gili Trawangan. It is a miniature diver's paradise. Lots of dive schools, open air beachside restaurants, small but luxurious hotels, beautiful white sand beaches, and little pony-drawn carriages to taxi tourists back and forth down the main strip. There are also signs all over the place for magic mushrooms. Just there on the posted bar menu, "Pina Colada, Strawberry Daiquiri, Psychedelic Mushrooms Take You to the Moon and Back!" Oh, and there's also no police on the island.

The first morning we decided to rent bicycles and bike around the island. It should have taken us about two hours to cover the entire circumference but, right about the time when we were far enough out of town not to know whether it would be quicker to turn back or keep going, my bike stopped working. First it was just that the back break was squeezing the tire. Joe fixed it with some string he found on the beach. Then the tire started rubbing the frame so hard I couldn't pedal. Joe used a rock to bend the frame away from the tire. We switched bikes. We'd pedal for ten minutes or so, and then another thing and another thing would go wrong with this damn rental bike. Finally the gear shift arm thing... this big mess of wires and chains that hangs down by the back tire... just fell off altogether! Somehow Joe got it back on with a seashell and a cigarette butt he found on the beach- not working, but looking together enough that we wouldn't have to pay for returning a broken bicycle. His mechanic skills were remarkable, but it ended up taking us all day to get back into town. After numerous repairs, however, the bicycle stayed together long enough for us to give it back and then quickly duck down a side street to avoid being charged for the defective rental bike.

We stayed at a small family run homestay, just a few rooms and the house in which the family lived. A cat and her kittens played in the yard alongside a brown chicken, all coming over to beg for bits of egg each morning as we ate our breakfast on the patio. The family had two little girls who would get home from school each morning and immediately strip down to their underwear, leaving their starchy school uniforms in the yard. I sang them the one and only Indonesian song I know, and they gleefully joined in each time we met. Salt water came out of the cold water shower, but Sutra (the woman of the house) added onion and tomatoes to our egg sandwiches for free.

There was a hookah bar on the beach, where we sat on elegant cushions and smoked and played cards with Charlotte and Nicola while watching the ocean. There were also one-couple movie theaters set up on the beach, where we could eat ice cream in a small wooden bungalow and choose from a large selection of movies to watch on our own personal screen, again with the ocean as a backdrop.

(By Joe)
We set out on a 3 day trek up Mt Rinjani with our French friends, Charolotte and Nicola. They have become a part of our travels. At first, purely by chance, we ran into each other in every town we would travel to. We eventually became great friends and have spent the last month hanging out, and sadly we said goodbye to them today.

We found a smokin deal on our trek package. The guy said he would charge us 700,000 rupia each, to which we replied "Great!", but then said if we asked him he would go lower. I haven't quite figured out the business model here. We got it for 600,000 rupia each. After missing our "tourist" ferry from Gili Trawangan we hopped aboard the local ferry, an over loaded motor boat packed shoulder to shoulder with people and filled to eye level with assorted textiles. Then, after handing an envelope off to a shady, James Bond villain type named Mr. Kli, he rushed us across the island of Lombok at breakneck speeds and through an obstacle course of lawless drivers and horse buggie riders to our base camp.

The trek included a guide named Alam and two porters who carried all of our things, save for a day pack each. These things included tents, sleeping bags, mats, all of our food and water for 3 days, 5 pineapples, cans of chocolate sauce, a giant cast iron tea kettle, some big pots and pans, their own food and water, eggs, and a giant sack of Lombok tobacco. Each of our two porters, Nurr and Pesang, carried the equipment for 3.5 people, tied into laundry baskets and fastened to each end of a long bamboo pole. I picked one up and it must have weighed at least 100 pounds. They wore only old, mismatched flip-flops, shorts and a sarong on their shoulders for warmth. And they chain smoked. Fat, unfiltered, hand rolled cigarettes. And they made it up and down that mountain much faster than us. It was like watching a cirque de solei with these guys, going up and down parts of the trail we were having trouble on using both hands and both feet, and they breezed through in their flip flops, no hands, balancing these huge barbells. Good guys.

For every meal they cooked us fantastic, well rounded Indonesian dishes from scratch. They had fried noodles with vegetables, eggs, chicken, prawn crackers, coffee and tea with chocolate sauce and more. Everything was prepared gourmet style, with pineapple spirals and tomato flowers. Beautiful.

The trail starts in the jungle in a banana forest full of monkeys. It ascends from about sea level up to about 10000 feet, at which point you come over the rim of the volcano and can see down into it. The inside houses a lake, and in the center of that lake is the new cone of the volcano. It last erupted in 1994, and it still steams and feeds hot springs which are perfect hot tub temperature and set up beneath a series of waterfalls. The lake was also stocked with fish 10 years ago, by the president of Indonesia, who flew over in a giant military helicopter and flung massive carp and trout out of it by hand, machine guns blasting the Indonesian National anthem! A small group of fishermen now make their livings by treking up this mountain and catching a bunch of fish, then treking back down to sell them. Alam told me that the night we spent camping with them by the lake, they stayed up all night crying in the cold, in their bed of hay and old tarp. They were expert players of the card game "Chase the Ace" once we taught them, and were also expert fishermen, using only hooks and line wrapped around old beer cans as fishing poles. I tried fishing, adding a stick to my beer can. I caught nothing, but I looked good doing it. Really good.

We played a game with one of the monkeys near the camp who kept trying to sneak in and steal things. We placed a bottle of spicy vegetable sauce in plain view of its tree and then when it tried to come down and get it we would spring up from where we were reading to each other and chase it back into it's tree. It always grabbed whatever was close to it when we chased it, as if that was the thing it had come down for, but we all know that a monkey has no need for an old clump of grass. It hated that game, and it let us know by baring it's teeth at us and hissing. Eventually we lost interest.

Our guide Alam told the worst campfire stories EVER! They were sooooooo long and in broken English and he added all these details that were totally unnecessary. "Then she go to the first suitor and he say he want a coffee, then she go to the second suitor, and he want a coffee, then she go to the third suitor, and he want a coffee, then she go to the fourth suitor, and he want a tea, then she go to the fifth suitor, and he want a coffee..." for 21 suitors (who were irrelevant to the story). He also blended ancient and modern, like when the first man ever yells to the first woman ever, "I loves you! You married ME! Any other man no matter! I do anything for you! I give you nice house, I give you best cow, best rice, best automobile, all fanciest automobile!"

The trek itself was beautiful, the most beautiful hike I have ever been on, and by far the toughest. It was so windy that we were unable to make it all the way to the top of the tallest peak, as the trail winds along a crumbly, volcanic knife edge that was getting pummelled by some of the most intense winds ever. A German girl was recently swept off into the void. We could watch from where we camped as dark purple clouds were smashed against the side of this jagged peak in what looked like fast forward. Incredible.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Culture Installment

Every household and every business puts out small offerings to the gods each morning. Green saucer-sized plates made from woven grasses hold flowers, rice, cookies, and burning incense. The air smells like incense here day and night. Incense and these white aromatic flowers that grow like weeds. The women carry trays of these offerings and place them at strategic points around the building, in corners and doorways and entryways onto the street. They sprinkle holy water over them as they place the offerings on the ground. We have to be careful not to step on them everywhere we go.

There are shrines everywhere. The architecture here is amazing. Bridges aren't just bridges, they're massive, two-headed serpents. No flat walls, no stucco: every surface here is hand-carved. Most houses, no matter how humble, have an intricate cement statue of a diety in front. Many of the men wear the traditional sarong with a matching head scarf, tied like a cholo's bandana around the forehead (the look produces a very different effect when paired with a skirt). They also dress the statues in sarongs, and the shrines, and the palm trees, and the lampposts. If it can wear a checkered sarong, it probably does.

The policemen here dress in remarkably tight uniforms. They look more like strippers disguised as cops than actual officers of the law. Where posture and phisique are concerned, they put our American policemen to shame, but I don't know if they could apprehend anyone without ripping the seat of their snug brown pants and popping a few shirt buttons. It's a rather stark contrast to the men in long skirts and the surfers in baggy board shorts.

Everyone says hello here. "Halooo!" They have great smiles. All the children yell Halo! as we walk past the schoolyard, and run over to give us high-fives. People are incredibly friendly, incredibly generous. Some Indonesians invited us to have a drink with them last night and took us to a tiny little bar on the beach that one of them owned. They treated us to arak all night, a homemade rice liquor that they poured into shot glasses from what looked like a lemonade pitcher. The alcohol tasted like a very fine tequila, and we chased it with limes and salt as we lounged on a big wooden, pillow-covered bed on the sand.

We went scuba diving for the first time yesterday, and we absolutely loved it. No practicing in a swiming pool or bothering with certification here. They just strap a tank on you and throw you overboard. The reef was incredible, like being inside The Little Mermaid. I kept expecting Sebastian to jump out of a clam and break into song. We booked our trip with a guy that was standing outside our hotel when we got off the bus. No office, no phone number- we just handed over the money and hoped someone would show up the next morning to take us to the island nature reserve. And someone did. We got a package deal, a dolphin watching trip the following day included in the price. The man with whom we'd booked hadn't been there when we went scuba diving, and I was very skeptical as to whether someone would actually come to take us to see the dolphins today, since we'd already paid and the guy to whom we'd given the money wasn't anywhere to be found. But, sure enough, 5:30 this morning our boat captain is knocking on our hotel door, waking us up for a sunrise with the dolphins. And dolphins there were! We frolicked with them in a tiny boat (20ft by 2ft) until our captian informed us we were out of gas.

We stopped at a roadside market on our way to Lovina, in the north of Bali. One of the women had a big cage of teeny tiny bunnies and, hearing me squeal with glee upon spotting them, pulled one out by the ears for me to hold. As I was cuddling it in my arms, she said "Only 50,000 ( about five dollars ). Very good for eat." I was aghast. Seeing I wasn't quite sold, she offered to take me to the restaurant nextdoor where I could sample some myself. Please scroll down for photos of the bunny killer, among others.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Kuta, Ubud and a Thrilling Monkey Forest

Hey everyone,
We just arrived in Lovina, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Bali. Bali, where the soundtrack is, "Helllllooooo, taxi? Transport? Hellloooo, you want see dolfin? You want fresh papaya? Helloooo, you want see cremation?" I wanted to see the cremation. Mia wasn't as enthused. If we go 15 seconds without a "Helllloooo" while we are out walking on the beach it is a miracle. Very difficult to take a relaxing stroll when you have an entourage of pedlars followingyou and refusingto take no for an answer.
Off the beaten path is a whole different world of relaxation however. Never have we felt so at peace. Our bungalow in Ubud overlooked a coconut grove and a rice paddy. The second story patio always had a thermos of hot water and two clean tea cups with tea bags, sugar and coffee grounds. Breakfast was served by a little girl who, as far as I can tell, ran the whole place herself. She couldn't have been more than 12, but the breakfast was exquisite! Sliced banana crepes with fresh coconut shavings and fresh fruit that appeared to have been hand carved into ornate little abstract sculptures after being peeled. (See picture of Mia about to enjoy one such feast.)
We also saw a show in Kuta in a club right near the 2002 bombing memorial in which break dancers, body builders, a japanation style asian Justin Timberlake, and some male and female models all shared a stage in a huge dance and fashion show which culminated in a number starring all of them to the tune of "You're So Sexy". The driving techno was punctuated by blasts from free whistles which they handed out to the crowd. Mia proved that she can really blast a whistle to a tecno beat when she gets riled up.

I took two days of surf lessons on the beach. Mia is much more comfortable saying she is the girlfriend of an amature surfer than she was saying she was the girlfriend of a 100% champion boogie boarder (which I remain).

The monkey forest in Ubud is a huge monkey sanctuary where you can go into the jungle and feed bananas to thousands of monkeys. The setting is incredible, (slightly reminicent of Congo for those of you who saw it) and features old temples and statues overgrown with vines and moss. Ancient stone bridges shapedlike dragons criss cross over a stram and some waterfalls. The monkeys seemed relatively nice once we figuredout how to feed them, but one suddenly turned on Mia when she made the mistake of sitting in it's personal spot on a bench. It rushed her, hissing, teeth bared, and from then on we should have learned our lesson... but we didn't! I saw a tiny monkey playing with a stick that was much too large for it, and I sat down to play with a part of the stick myself, because I too can appreciate what fun a stick can be. I thought that monkleys knew how to share. Again I was greeted by teeth and a hiss, but this moneky got it's friends and they all jumped on me, pinching me and pulling my hair, and when they had me all hunkered over and terrified, a giant monkey grabbed my water bottle and procceded to open the twist top and drink all of my water right in front of me, using no hands,. All the while the tiny monkeys continued to hiss at me and crawl all over me. Even when I broke into a full run.

In the end nobody was hurt and we all had a great time. We being Mia, I and our two french friends Charllot and Nicola who we seem to run into in every town accidentally and hang out with a good deal of the time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The city of Kuta, on the island of Bali, in the nation of Indonesia

Wow, it has taken a long time to get onto this site. The internet connection is very slow here in Kuta because, according to Joe, it is powered by one old man with a crank. I hope that the very fact that I have perservered in obtaining a connection shows the true depth of my new dedication to keeping in touch.

We got in late last night, stood around in the visa and customs lines for a while, and finally got dropped off in the middle of the city around 2am (4am Sydney time). We wandered the steets with a fellow backpacker with whom we'd shared the cab (actually she didn't have small enough change so she ended up just bumming a ride off of us) looking for a hostel whose front desk was still open. We came upon the lovely Sorga Hotel, a slightly run down jungly resort with the very resonable room price of US $14 for a private room with ceiling fan, balcony (pool view), hot and cold water, and complimentary breakfast! We had an alarmingly overweight hostelmate in Sydney (with an equally alarmingly large stack of pornographic magazines displayed across his bunk) who told us he was headed to Asia 1) because feminism, the bane of his Western existence, hasn't arrived here yet and 2) because in Asia a common American man can live like P. Diddy (He later likened himself to Tom Sellek as well, in reference to the Asian lifestyle he planned to lead). Well, he was at least right about the second point: things here in Bali are indeed dirt cheap.

At night this city looks like an small-scale, Asian, electric Las Vegas. During the day, it more closely resembles a prettier, tropical, overgrown Rocky Point, Mexico. With quadruple the number of street vendors trying to sell you tatoos, hair braids, surf lessons, "transport," and even marijuana! Dehydrated and alert with the excitement of our first night on a new continent (or string of islands between two new continents?) we went out exploring. In bed around 4am, I was back up again (poor Joe) at 6:30, unable to sleep. We headed downstairs for our free egg sandwich breakfast with a side of fruit and unlitmited juice, tea and coffee on the beautiful poolside terrace. Our day consisted of pooling, sunning, beaching, beering (in moderation), and bartering.

Speaking of bartering, Joe decided he was going to buy himself a new pair of swim trunks, since here they are both quite stylish and very reasonably priced. The first kiosk we entered was one in a long line of similar roadside clothing vendors, the walls and ceiling actually constructed from hanging merchandise. You know the type- Big white t-shirts with Bart Simpson drinking a Corona and wearing a sombrero, except this is Asia, so he's wearing one of those triangle hats and drinking Bintang, but still saying something perverse in English. Anyway, the shop's walls were made of this kind of t-shirt, etc. Joe was looking at some shorts, and she said he could try them on, and turned to go out the door. We followed, thinking she was leading us to the changing room. Oh, no. She was blocking one of the two doors into the shop, so that Joe could try on the shorts right there in the middle of it. I promptly moved to block the other door, while Joe hurredly changed, stopping periodically to cover himself when the saleswoman would turn around to ask how they fit. They didn't. We carried on. The next shop we ventured into had actual cement walls, and while I looked at watches, Joe was lured (or, rather dragged) into the back of the store by the very, very eager salesmen. I found him holding multiple hangers of swimming trunks, while store attendants held up different sized and colors to his face and crotch, turning to ask me which I prefered. Naturally, when we said we thought they were too long, the men insisted Joe try them on. In the corner of the back of the store, there was wall that stuck out about three feet from the primary wall, forming a three-sided area about the size of a small bathroom stall. They pulled up a chair for me to sit with them, facing the wall-less side of the changing area. Of course, I turned the other way. As Joe was standing there, shorts around his ankles, struggling to get them over his Tevas without undoing the velcro, five more men entered the store (in addition to the three that were already helping us) and headed for the back of the room. Overhearing in my conversation with the store attendants that we were Americans, one of the new Indonesian arrivals shouted to Joe "What up my nigga??" and turned his hat around backwards, "American style." At this point Joe was standing in a snug shirt that came down to just above his hips, his Tevas, and nothings else. He smiled and sheepishly replied, "What's up?" Those shorts didn't fit either, but I did buy a watch.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Australia with the locals

Hey everyone,

We have been staying with some Australian kids (22 - 26 years of age) for the last week in their four bedroom house. Our housemates are two brothers and a sister who are all singers and actors, as well as their friend Dave who commands the affections of last season's winner of Australia's Next Top Model. They have been great to us, providing a mattress in their living room with heaps of blankets (great because it is freezing here in Sydney) and full access to their kitchen and bathroom as well as a house key so we can come and go as we please.

We have spent a lot of time walking all over the city and exploring it, hitting all the major points of interest, both historical and currently significant. Joe walked to the fish market alone. It was a nice walk. He saw a lot of fish. And he ate some of them.

Over the weekend we rode up with our new housemates to the Blue Mountains, which are a chain of mountains full of tiny Sydney suburban towns. The kids were all performing as part of an entertainment extravaganza for a Lions Club Charity Fundraiser. We watched them sing and do stand up comedy while we nibbled our $35.00 meals. It was a very nice way to spend our 1 year anniversary.

The next morning we got up early, downed a fine breakfast of Vegimite and scones, and headed off into the bush with Evin (our housemate) and his parents in search of native wildlife. As we passed a clearing Joe yelled that he had seen some wallabies and everyone groaned and said he hadn't, but he insisted that they back up the car. Sure enough, there was a herd of wild wallabies strolling about in a field with cockatoos and cukaburas. We got out and took a lot of pictures. The wallabies are so funny to watch because they are kind of like camel-rat-dog-kangaroo-people, kind of. They were also completely fearless of humans.

We spent Sunday afternoon in the mountains with Evin and his friends from Uni(versity) at a BBQ. Delicious.

Joe also went for a run one morning in the suburbs of Sydney and got lost, really lost, for about an hour and a half. He hadn't told anyone he was going because they were still asleep, so nobody knew where he was and he couldn't find anyone to give him proper directions home. He was so cold because there was freezing wind and rain, and he was alone without any money and no way of contacting anyone. He thought he was going to die. It was a very sad time for him.
We also went to see a local band called Belles Will Ring in a pub called the Hopedown on Friday night and played some intense games of backgammon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

September 4th,

We are staying at the Asylum Hostel in Sydney, Australia. Everything is shutting down here because of the APEC summit which is meeting all week. We walked down to the Sydney Opera House and looked at it from the outside but we couldn't go in. We also saw some famous bridge that we were told costs $200.00 to walk across so we just took some pictures of it. The weather is perfect for walking around all bundled up and ducking in and out of little stores and huge churches. Freezing wind and spots of rain are punctuated by warm rays of sunshine. We did a foot tour of the city today and stopped to read to eachother every time we found a bench in a scenic spot. There were plenty of them.

We also walked through the botanical gardens which were not only beautiful but free. The little ponds and fountains were full of colorful, exotic birds, that are probably just like pigeons to the Australians, but were very exciting to us. We spent a good chunk of the afternoon chasing them around with the camera, Joe practicing his animal photography.

Last night we went out to eat with everyone staying in the hostel (probably about 25 of us), came back to the house and played drinking games (shirts vs. skins pictured above) and then went out dancing (also pictured). It was a darn good time.

Monday, September 3, 2007

We Have Arrived in Sydney

September 3

This is our blog. Soon there will be writings all about adventures that we have, as well as observations we make about people other than ourselves. Right now we are going to take a nap. Peace out,
Joe and Mia