Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pictures from KL and Georgetown

Tallest building in the world 2004! Joe Pagac style!

A tasty shaved ice treat featuring shaved ice, chocolate, sugar, milk, berries, gummy worms, assorted nuts, beans, peas, corn...

The entrance to a cave which houses a massive hindu temple. The statue is 170 feet tall and is made of pure, solid gold! (Fact not verified.)

A young boy shares a rare connection with a monkey. It later attacked him for staring at it while it ate.

Mia and I take in the awesome magnitude of this cave. Awesome.

This picture was taken inside one of the cave rooms. Click to enlarge it and then try to find Mia. (Fun!)

This is a soup made with all these neon things. It is called four seasons. I ate it. I don't know WHY I haven't gotten sick yet.

Joe and some of his new friends hooliganing in Kuala Lumpur. The people here all are obsessed with whitening their skin. Lotions, soaps, scrubs. They all include "Skin whitening action!"

Kuala Lumpur at night. Or, as I like to call it, KL.

The KL night market in china town. A little haggling can get the price on any item down from about $60 US to $3 US in a matter of minutes.

Catching up on some reading on the jungle train.

Does anybody want a glass/can of Pure Ghee Gheemas? I don't. (Click to enlarge)

Disney's "The Magic Gourd" now in theaters.

Chinese Opera.

Do you smell something in here? Yes. I just lit so many incense sticks that you could roast marshmallows over them.

So did we.

A chinese dragon. This man stopped dancing just to pose with me, bringing the whole festival to a crashing halt.

Chinese parade float.

Chinese parade.

The artists who created these walls were imported from china. I am going to try to study under such a clan of artists. Their work is beautiful.

This is a picture of Mia watching the sparrow lady sell handfuls of birds. I felt the look on her face did a much better job of capturing the feeling than the pictures of the woman herself do. (see story in previous blog)

Mia focuses on the blue flame.
(By Joe)
Hey Everyone,
Its been a little while since we wrote. We are now in Thailand, on the South Eastern coast. The little town we are in is called Ao Nang. You know all those movies and photos you see where monoliths of vine topped stone rise up from neon green rice patties and jade colored seas? That's where we are. It is raining off and on here right now, with brief periods of sun peeking through, so we have just enough time to get our suits on and get half way to the beach before it gets cloudy again. This does, however, make for a beautiful sunset.

Earlier today we went for a run together and came across a creaky, raised wooden path that wound through a mangrove forest and out to the mouth of the sea. It was such a great feeling to be running past these giant termite nests and over brightly colored mud crabs through what is more or less a deadly swamp with no real ground. We also saw a KFC on our run. KFC is THE restaurant to eat at here in Asia. Unlike in the US of A, where it is considered the bottom rung of the fast food ladder, here is is more on par with TGI Fridays or Cheesecake Factory. It is a culinary experience to be savored and taken advantage of whenever the opportunity arises.

Malaysia was a pleasure to travel through. Again we spent much of our time in Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown haunting the Little Indias. We also stopped by the Golden Triangle Mall in the base of what what were the 2 tallest towers in the world until 2004. We saw a Bollywood movie there called Journey of a Woman about a young Indian woman forced into prostitution by her family. It had some stunning cinematography, great acting, and dazzling dance numbers. If it makes its way to the states, pick it up. Picture, if you will, a scene...
A mother holds her oldest daughter in her arms as her younger sister stands by. They all cry, for they know the older sister, who has become a prostitute to help her family financially, is now being ostracised from the very family she sacrificed so much to help. The music is slow, the tragedy of all this tears at your heart. Then the double doors behind the three of the burst open and a dashing, young Indian man rushes over to them and, thrusting his head back and forth much as a chicken would peck for grain begins rapping in 80's style English, "Uh here we
GO now, uh here we GO now, Uh Uh uhuh Uh here we go now!" A full dance number featuring about 100 traditionally dressed Indians follows, jumping between English and Hindi, but always maintaining that 80 rap style beat. Awesome!
The theaters here are years beyond our own. You pick your seats in advance from a computer screen so you have assigned seating. This enables the theater employees to deliver your freshly prepared food to you while you watch the film! Be it popcorn or a black pepper chicken sandwich with a side of potato wedges. Also, if you put your food on the floor, a RAT will EAT IT! RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU! The hardest part then becomes choosing whether to watch the movie or the rat.
Kuala Lumpur was in many ways like a very friendly New York City. Everything was completely modern and in almost every way similar to what you might expect to see in a large city in the US, the exception being the people. Bipeds from all over Asia proudly show off their cultural dress and customs, speak in their own languages, practice their own religions. It wasn't uncommon to see a group of girls, half wearing head scarfs and conservative yet colorful dresses, and half wearing straight up tight fitting western clothes all hanging out together.

Georgetown was another great place we visited. We quickly befriended a man named Ang who ran a Buddhist temple. The place was an artistic masterpiece, with works done by artisans he had imported from all over Asia. Ang imparted a large amount of wisdom upon us using a mix of western and non western ideas. "If you need to relax, stare at a candle. If you are all like F**k, Sh**, Fu** my life, you know? Just stare at a candle. Try to see more blue in the flame, relax." He also explained to us that all the ceremonial practices and strict ways of doing things is BS and they only do it to keep the old people happy so that they don't have heart attacks. He said none of that really matters, and when the elderly aren't around he doesn't even bother with it. It led me to wonder whether the old people were doing it to please THEIR grandparents, and how many generations have been needlessly going through religious ceremonies they think are bogus just to do what they think their elders want.
Ang took me to a Chinese parade and festival at a temple built over 200 years ago. It was pure pandemonium, with people lighting regular sized incense sticks by the 100s and, when they decided hundreds of tiny ones wouldn't do, buying incense sticks the size of a mans thigh and setting those ablaze. Through all the smoke could be seen thousands of people carrying yellow flowers, carrying earthly representations of saints, people banging drums, bonfires, dragons, and a whole lot of other goings on that I didn't really understand the significance of because I couldn't hear Ang's explinations over the drums. Of note was a woman who had huge cages of tiny song birds packed so tightly that the birds couldn't move. She sold these birds by the handful to people who would then set them free right there in the courtyard. We couldn't decide if it was a good idea to pay to return these little birds to the sky (where no doubt this woman had somehow forcefully snatched them from earlier in the day) but then risk supporting a woman who cages and crushes tiny song birds? In the end we just watched and took pictures, coming soon.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown

Here is a map of where we have been so far. Click it to view it.

(By Mia)
We left Kuala Lumpur yesterday on a night train and woke up in Butterworth (sounds exotic, huh?) at 5:30am, stumbled bleary-eyed off the train and onto the jetty for the ferry, which whooshed us across the ocean to the island of Pulau Penang, the sun rising over the sleeping city behind us as we watched from the open air deck- fabulous!

Other than that, yesterday had two equally high points. After lunch at a delicious Chinese vegetarian buffet (they've got vegetarian galore here- really, more likely than not, that mutton's tofu, even if you can't tell, which I usually can't) with friends, Joe and I forwent "Sharks" at the IMAX Theatre, although it was enthusiastically endorsed by the Swedish divers with whom we'd been clubbin the night before, and hopped on the local city bus number 11 for Batu Caves, about a 30 min trip out of town. While the caves were quite amazing, I think I enjoyed the bus ride just as much- great music, great people watching, a perfect in-depth yet air conditioned tour of the city from downtown to the suburbs. We climbed 272 stairs to the cave's mouth, over which presides a 170ft golden statue of the god Muruga, along with countless chattering monkeys racing up and down the banisters and over the heads of the various deities. The inside of the cave is huge, with dangling black stalactites streaked with white mineral deposits, intricate exposed root structures that drip a steady stream of water, seemingly in slow motion droplets, and holes of various sizes through which you can see patches of blue sky. Joe wants to go back for a festival in January, during which 1 million Hindus arrive annually to pay penance for sins, piercing their bodies and making the climb with metal hooks dangling from their faces and backs! Then, highlight number two, we took the bus back to KL Central, and ate a delicious Chinese shaved ice, piled high in an elegant goblet, drizzled with condensed milk and fruity syrup, and set atop a bed of peanuts, red beans, yellow corn, and long brownish-purple tapioca noodles. Yum! I'll post a picture next time.

I had tea mamak this morning, as I do every morning, while we sat in the only cafe open at our ungodly hour of arrival and waited for the hotels to open up. Actually, one hotel was open- very dingy but very cheap- and we were about to accept it, putting down the backpacks on the bed and then heading downstairs to pay, when I happened to look down and notice a used condom on the floor, on the far side of the room, hidden from immediate sight by the stained mattress. We decided to hold out for somewhere that didn't charge by the hour and was more likely to clean the rooms between customers, even if that meant restricted front desk hours. So, for the first time in a long while, we're staying in a hotel, not a hostel or a homestay, with our own private room and even a private bathroom! (Generally, they're down the hall and co-ed. Very progressive over here.) Oh, how I love tea mamak! It's Malaysian tea with sweetened condensed milk, dark rich honey brown with about an inch of creamy beige on the bottom, always served in a clear glass mug so that you can see the colors mix as you stir in the milk.

I've become accustomed to inhaling cautiously, as the scent often changes drastically from one breath to the next. One second it's incense, and the next its an open sewage pipe emptying into the gutter; one breath of fresh salty ocean breeze, and the next a whiff of the unofficial, but every-growing, dump located upwind. But, at the moment, the smell is spicy curry from roadside vendors.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Headed for Kuala Lumpur

While we wait here in Mersing for our VIP 28-Seater Superbus to take us to Kuala Lumpur, I'm going to recount some more of our adventures from the past few weeks. I've been sticking Joe with the brunt of the blogging, and it's high time I pull my weight around here. Lets travel back a bit, to the bustling metropolis of Singapore (From where I thought my Ipod had been stolen, but found it yesterday deep within my luggage- hooray! Still so far on this trip, nothing stolen, nothing lost! But I have ruined two different red "Gucci" watches by jumping into the ocean with them on. Both the original and the replacement met their demise in the exact same way. I digress... back to Singapore!). I'd like to revisit the Hindu temple Joe mentioned in a previous blog, in greater detail. This place was freaking fantastic. By far the most vibrant and alive place of worship I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. Short, chubby, multi-colored statues of people in skimpy clothes decorate the roof and entryway, lined up in a kind of conga line, shoulder to shoulder. Everyone takes their shoes off before entering: flip flops, sneakers, shiny business loafers, and high heels all decorate the path leading up to the big green, pink, orange, and red wooden doors. There's no front or back of the temple, just shrines of varying size and significance in every direction. Also, there's not one central service going on, with rows of audience members gathered around one speaker, but instead many different holy activities all going on at the same time. Women in business attire kneeling down before a serene, robed, silver-plated figure, sweating as they carve out the insides of halved limes, then fill them with what looks like lard from a big metal tin. With greasy fingers they push wicks into the centers and light the lime peel candles, then carry a tray of 20 or 30 candles (this work takes hours- I watched) around the temple, placing a few at the feet of each technicolor god or goddess. All through the streets of Little India we passed vendors selling what looked to me like Hawaiian leis, long looped ropes of beautiful fresh flowers. I wondered what on earth anyone would want with a heavy flower necklace in the sweltering city heat. I found out. The faithful buy them to bring to the temple, where they are given to one of the many temple holy men who pile them higher and higher around the necks of certain statues, set back from the rest of the shrines and accessible only to the priests. Along with the flowers, worshipers also give the holy men a small yellow piece of paper, handed out upon entrance, on which (from what I could gather) they write their prayers. The holy men (almost universally tall for Indians, handsome, with kind, calm faces, long hair piled into high buns, decorated with big metal earrings and beaded necklaces, white and red pigment covering their brown faces and bare chests, wearing only white sarongs folded and gathered around their round bellies and between their legs) take the prayer paper, read it, and carry the message up a few stairs to the gods, to whom they relay the prayer and give the offerings. From this same elevated shrine they also give out white rice to those who gather around with open hands, banana leaves, plastic grocery bags, or newspaper to receive it. Some of the rice is placed in pockets and handbags, while the rest is redistributed among the surrounding shrines, alongside the dripping lard from the lime peel candles. One of the corner altars, made of brown stones, with a door in the side through which the holy men come in and out waving smoke from bronze teapots, serves as a kind of kitchen. One of the priests stands over a large wok, stirring veggies and spices into yellow rice, for which, again, the Hindus line up with open hands and leaves. Upon receiving the rice, they turn to the next bejewelled holy man who anoints their foreheads with a cryptic combination of red and white dots and lines, both horizontal and vertical, the pattern for which I was completely unable to discern. Other holy men roamed around the temple, engaging neighbors in conversation, laughing, listening to the live band, chanting quietly cross-legged at the foot of a statue (My favorite statue was a huge bright blue woman, with her cleavage bulging out of her rhinestone-encrusted bra and her fat tummy squishing and bulging over the waist of her poofy genie-style pants. She had 10 arms, stretched out with grasping long, red, pointy fingernails in all directions and sharp white fangs protruding over her plump purple lips. In one of her many hands she held a dagger dripping blood, and her eyes and nostrils were stretched wide in horror and rage. Beneath her heavy feet lay crushed a dead or dying man, a mere mortal, only a fifth of her gargantuan size.) The holy men also walk around dispensing goodies to the gathered crowds. Although we tried to stay out of the way, we were offered and accepted warm milk from a teapot, which we drank from our open hands, and green grapes which we plucked from a large platter of assorted fruit (I forgot and used my left hand. They probably had to throw out the whole bunch of grapes.). The patrons don't say thank you, but just like we've read about, waggle their heads to show contentment or gratitude. The people inside this temple were waggling like crazy. Even Joe and I were waggling by the time we left.

We spent the past couple weeks in Pulau Tioman, off the southeast coast of Malaysia, as I think Joe may have already mentioned. It's a tiny little island, a ring of white sand encircling dense, green jungle rising up in the middle. Looks a lot like the island in Lost, minus the polar bears. We would have liked to stay even longer, but the monsoons are on their way, soon to chase both locals and tourists off the island for the next couple months. We spent the days diving, lounging in hammocks on the beach, playing volleyball, dodging ferries to swim out to small surrounding islands, and trekking through the jungle between the scattered villages. The two towns where we spent most of our time both have a few restaurants and guesthouses, a couple dive shops where an international group of dive instructors has come to sun and swim away their late twenties with the sharks and turtles, and one beachfront, thatched-roof bamboo bar, serving Tiger Beer and Bob Marley all night long. The trek between the two villages is 7 miles following the power lines through the dense jungle, popping out at intervals to swim in gorgeous, isolated, picture-perfect, white sand, blue sea coves. Monkeys chatter overhead, 6 foot lizards slither through the fallen leaves, and long-nosed squirrels hop from branch to boulder over the path. I learned a good deal about Malaysian culture and laws sitting around the bars at night, discussing religion and politics with Westerners, Filipinos, and locals alike. In Malaysia, while there is an official separation of church and state, Muslims have to answer to both religious and state law, each of which has its own police force. For crimes that fall under both categories, such as theft (which is both illegal and morally wrong), Muslim citizens are tried and sentenced both in state court and then in religious court. Normally, the Muslim penalty is five times the state sentence (so if the Malaysian government gives a thief a year in jail, and the Muslim courts give an additional 5 years, a Muslim Malaysian is serving a 6 year sentence, while a Catholic Malaysian is only serving one). For things which are against Islam but not against the state law, such as drinking (there's a big sign in Air Batang that says any Muslim caught buying, selling, or consuming alcohol will receive no less than 6 lashings or 1 year in jail!) Malaysians have to present their ID cards, which have their religions printed on them. If you're born Muslim, you can NEVER renounce your religion. Whatever your parents are, you are, period. I met a Catholic Malaysian who lived with a British woman, and he always had to show his ID card in order for them to get a hotel room together on the mainland, showing neither of them to be Muslim. If two Muslim Malaysians are married, they get new ID cards, allowing them to share rooms. More interesting laws include that a non-Muslim cannot file a lawsuit against a Muslim, but must find another Muslim to take on the grievance on his or her behalf.

Joe counted that I have 121 mosquito bites on my body. I itch all the time. Even now I have to stop typing intermittently to scratch my arms and back. I wear loose linen pants so that I can scratch right though the material, and reach up my pant leg all the way to my lower thigh for a good knee scratching. It's a very inefficient way to walk down the street, pausing every few feet to scratch my toes and ankles. My calves look like I was attacked by a large cat (my normally short nails are thriving in this humid climate, and I have no self control). Up until now I've remained relatively sane by keeping myself always mildly sedated with Benadryl oral tablets. But now we're down to only 7 left, and Joe needs at least 4 if he gets stung by a bee (as well as the big scary epinephrine shot he carries around) so I'm left with just the cream, which doesn't work nearly as well and is too time consuming to bother with during the day. Before bed, I have Joe cover my back in the stuff, but still I wake up in the middle of the night, already clawing at my skin. By the time I'm conscious its too late to turn back.

Otherwise we're wonderful, happy, fabulous. We ate at KFC last night, where the women wear head scarves tucked into their collared uniform shirts instead of hairnets. xoxoxoxoxo

Pictures From Singapore and Malaysia

Mia takes a moment to pause in a park overlooking a Singapore marina.

The Singapore skyline at night.

Chinatown Singapore. We ate a giant bay bug here and two bratwursts surved up mustardy by a fun loving Austrian gent.

Joe and the Indian man who served us a ridiculous amount of food for nearly free. Joe is slouching here, and bending his knees.

The island of Tioman as seen from the ferry.

Little girls in their end of Ramadan outfits in Salang on Tioman Island.

Team Sea Force on patrol.

An afternoon game of multinational beach volleyball.

I don't know if you guys are sick of pictures of monkeys but tough cuz I'm not sick of taking them. I have many more. Today I was taking a portrait of one and it suddenly got angry and chased me and screeched at me and it wouldn't stop. I ran all the way back to my hotel with it chasing me and I was so scared I got goosebumps and almost cried. Above, a woman stole a baby monkey frome its mother, then she gave it a good shampooing and let us play with it.

This is a cat asleep on a shelf in a grocery store. When we get to the right country, we will eat these animals.

Joe examines the skyline while crouchiong on the root system of a ginormous tree deep in the rainforest.

This is a bridge that looks onto a backdrop. Beneath those lilly pads lie 7 foot monitor lizards with a taste for... bird eggs and frogs!

Mia stands on our front porch in Air Batang on Tioman Island.

Giant fruit bats, Stoto.

Joe savors the sweet milk of a coconut he climbed up a tree and picked all by himself. Mia will tell you she saw a young child do the same, but it is a lie.

Joe explores a massive abandoned resort in the jungle. The multi-million dollar structure was condemned weeks before its grand opening because of poor construction. It still sits vacant and fully furnished 12 years later, slowly being reclaimed by the flora and fauna.

This monsterous building is a birdhouse that one of the hotel owners is building to attract birds on the island of Tioman. His hotel for PEOPLE consists of about 20 wood shacks in poor repair.

Mia learns the fastest way to catch a disease is to let a young boy play 'pop the bubble' with his grubby little hands.

Nothing satisfies on a hot day like a chocloate covered pancake filled with ice cream.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

malaysia beneath the waves

(By Joe)
We are sitting in an internet cafe in Air Batang, a tiny coastal village on the island of Tioman. It is a two hour ferry trip off the southeast coast of Malaysia. They have a tendency to show films involving the type of transportation you are in while you ride. The film we watched in the ferry was of a cruel mother stalking her young daughter onto a ferry and then spying on her and her boyfriend until they kissed, at which point she snuck up behind them and ruthlessly slapped them for their public displays of affection. This, although making me a bit overly conscious of who was in the row of seats behind us (Marla... Sue...), was nothing compared to the videos we were forced to watch in the Singapore subway. The movie shows real film clips of all the bombings and accidents that have taken place in subways and rail cars in the past 10 years. It reminded me of the scene in Highlander in the airplane, for those of you old enough to remember that film. It showed bloody bodies being dragged from the wreckages, burning trains etc. Then the president of Singapore would come on and say in a kind but parental manner, "These images are real, and it is up to us to be vigilant, and prevent this from happening in our fine city. Don't let the train you are on be next." Then it switched to a simulated movie of the train WE WERE ON whirring away from our subway stop and then exploding into a ball of fire and crashing as it started entering the next tunnel! After that, everyone was a suspect.
Singapore, by the way, was a beautiful city. We stayed in little India, which has the friendliest people, the greatest smells, the bumpinest music and movies EVER! We found a restaurant where the food is done by a tiny, very friendly Indian man with a big pot belly and the drinks are supplied by a smiley, skinny Chinese man with 10 very long beard hairs. The Indian man happily took our order and then continued to bring us more and more plates of different food for free for a good hour, even going so far as to get food from nearby vendors for us to try. We had to stop him when we were so full we were in pain. The Chinese man recommended us his favorite beer and then repeatedly came by to toast us with his own beer mug as we nursed the bottle we were splitting. We also stopped in during a service at a beautifully decorated Hindu temple. Even as we tried to stay out of the way of the service the leaders of the ceremonies kept pulling us in, offering us fruit to eat, milk to drink from our hands. They played live music, burned incense and candles, ate and offered food, and everything was done is such a laid back, fun manner. We stayed until they closed the doors.
We had to buy a new camera because our old one, already limping along from too many weeks around sand and sea, ended up in a backpack with a mystery melted chocolate bar. We headed over to the local electronics super mall for some wheeling and dealing. The whole mall, 4 stories worth, is all just camera and video stores, all selling the exact same products. Nothing is marked with a price. It is basically a haggler's dream or nightmare. I took it as a chance to hone my skills, and Mia came along to watch. The first store started off pretty well, with our sales person Chan being extremely friendly. He even went so far as to say I was very handsome and that he would like to date me. The camera he helped us decide on came out to $360.00 (Singapore dollars). He told us he couldn't haggle, as this was a reputable store. He insisted that his polo shirt sporting the store logo was proof of this. His boss was only interested in having a good store name, not making money. Other stores have people in regular shirts, and those are the ones that try to rip you off, according to him. I told him I was going to shop around and he pulled out a folder of laminated newspaper articles that he claims were articles about all the other stores in the mall being black balled by the government. When I tried to read them he pulled the folder away and closed it. I said we would be back if we didn't find a better deal and then he said I was clearly a dense individual. He told me he was NOT gay and now had NO interest in dating me if I was so slow on the uptake. He pointed to his wedding ring and said he was married. I thanked him for his time. The next store ended on much the same note. After getting the salesman down to $300.00 I said I would keep looking and in a very loud whine the man yelled, "Oh COME OOOONNN! Just PAY it! It's just MONEY! What does it even MATTER!" Clearly it mattered to him. I told him if it was just money and it didn't matter he should give us a better deal and then he yelled, "Why you act like a SMALL CHILD!" We moved on. After more of this we finally got a new camera, a memory card, and card reader, a camera case and a tripod for 300.00. (From not gay Chan, who couldn't go any lower).
We crossed into Malaysia a few days later on a bus to Johor Baru. We needed a bus ticked to Mersing and all the tickets in Singapore were sold out due to the end of Ramadan festivities which include everyone going to their hometowns to spend a few days with family. The bus station in Johor Baru was total chaos. Everyone we talked to either insisted there were no tickets for Mersing or they told us we needed to talk to someone at counter 9, which didn't exist. I left Mia with the bags (in a safe, well lit area) and set out to find us some tickets. I finally found a guy who led me to a man in a purple shirt who took me down some narrow little halls to another guy who sold me some tickets for the 8:30 bus leaving from dock A5. When he wrote the tickets out on two little slips of paper he wrote 9:00. I told him I was told it was leaving at 8:30 and without a word he scribbled out 9:00 with his pen and wrote in 8:30. Problem solved. The dock was a massive crush of people. The station sported about 50 bus docks and each one was shoulder to shoulder with enough people to fill 3 buses. The disconcerting thing is that everyone looked wild eyed and panicked, craning their necks and jostling in a mad frenzy. As 8:30 passed and 9:00 passed I began to feel I had been had. Then the barrel chested, mustached man in the purple shirt, who had helped me buy tickets, parted the crowd like moses and came in like a Malaysian Sheepdog. He herded people this way and that, passed out white tickets in fistfuls in exchange for green slips of paper. People hollered at him holding their papers toward him like people betting in an underground kick boxing arena. He handled all of this with a collected calm and a cellphone to his ear. When I asked about our bus tickets he simply said, "Don't worry, 5 minutes." He said this every time I forced my way over to him for the next two hours, until, finally, he grabbed Mia and I led us to dock A7, and personally helped us load our bags and get good seats on the bus.
We showed up in Mersing at 1 am. Its a tiny fishing village thats claim to fame is the ferries that shuttle people to Tioman. We found a hostel from our book called Omar's. It was completely dark, but the front door was open. we went in with a flashlight and found a sign on the wall that read, "If nobody is here, just find a bed and pay later." Exhausted, we crept into a dark dorm room and slept in two beds. In the morning we were awakened by Omar himself. A 50 year old middle eastern man who had spent some time living in Phoenix with a friend of Barry Goldwater's in a home that had 12 bedrooms and 20 Arabian horses. After a brief chat, hopped on the ferry (see above) and headed to Salang, the northernmost town on the island. Just in case any of you caught the news that a ferry in Malaysia caught on fire and burned it's way down into the sea recently, killing 4 people and injuring dozens, yes that was one of the ferries we could have taken across.
Salang is a beautiful town, with white sands, friendly locals, 3 little restaurants, a few tiny stores, a handful of chalets, one bar that gets hoppin at night, and a couple scuba diving centers. We fell in love with it instantly. Also, there are monitor lizards everywhere that get almost as big as Komodo dragons. Nobody seems to mind them, although we were told that when the monsoons come and the locals abandon their villages for a few months the giant lizards come into town through the rain and strobes of lightning and hunt the cats in their usual safe havens of brightly painted restaurant patios. I think this would make a fantastic CGI animated film, with the cats as the heros.
Our time here has been spent mostly under water, getting scuba certified. Mia and I are both now PADI dive certified, fully capable of planning and executing our own dives without any supervision. After all the skills we learned I am shocked at how little we were prepped for our fun dive back in Bali. Most of our classes took place under about 20 feet of water. It was a lot of fun, and the skills included recovering from having our masks pulled off underwater, having our air shut off under water and getting to a buddy to share air in time, and achieving perfect weightlessness in relation to the water. There were 5 students and one teacher named Luisa. Mia and I were quick learners and spent most of the time just having fun while the teacher helped the other students. Our fellow students consisted of a guy named Justin and a guy named Stephan , as well as a tiny Chinese girl who couldn't really swim. Not being able to swim is a huge problem for the Chinese, and you can see them in droves of 100 on the beach, in 2 feet of water, wearing bright orange life vests. Why this girl chose to scuba dive is beyond me. Luisa, fed up with years of teaching just such students to dive and snorkel, seemed to make it her business to really manhandle the crap out of this tiny girl every chance she got. Yanking her around like a pit bull would shake a child in its jaws. Mia and I, meanwhile, occupied ourselves nearby, taking advantage of the weightlessness to execute dance moves and spins the like of which we could never accomplish on the surface. Spins, flips, a swing between the legs and then a toss and a catch. Stephan and Justing heartily complimented us on our grace when we surfaced later.
For anyone who has not been diving, I highly recommend it. There is nothing quite like the feeling of weightlessness you get. The ability to move in all directions. It is so relaxing and invigorating at the same time. I used up my air faster than I should have chasing fish and going fast, but it was worth every breath of it. We are now adjusting our budget to spend even less money above sea level so we can spend more time below.
Low on cash, we packed up our day packs and set out through the jungle yesterday on the 5 hour trek to the next town (the only one on the island with an ATM). It was a gorgeous hike. The trees are massive and mossy. Monkeys stole all my Oreo cookies when we took a swim break at the deserted beach of Monkey Bay along the way. We should have known better than to leave them unattended at a bay named after monkeys. A few monitor lizard scares kept the adrenalin pumping as we went. We also found a huge cluster of trees filled with thousands of flying foxes. We will write more soon. Love, Joe and Mia.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A couple more pics for the post below

And scroll down for Rinjani pictures!!

A marine voyage back in time!

(by Joe)

We are back in Bali. We just got back from a maritime adventure the likes of which rivaled those of Darwin. After a brief stay in Sengiggi, armpit on a beach, we headed across the island of Lombok in a tiny bus filled with two giant Dutch people and a Czech couple. Jaroen, a Dutch sasquatch of a man started things out awkwardly with a joke about his mothers pants being too big, and falling down. He pointed out that if she were a hot 25 year old girl, he would love to see her naked. He would, in fact, cheer to see her pants fall around her ankles. He laughed and jostled me. Then became serious. "Of course," he pointed out, "I don't want to see her naked, cuz she is my Mum." This exchange was made more uncomfortable because his mother was sitting right between us on the crowded bus. Blushing furiously.

After a long ride around the island we arrived at a tiny harbor, which held boats in various stages of rusting and slipping beneath the waves, where they were settling in the underwater mud. Our little boat was rigged up completely with blue plastic tarp for sails and shades. My initial apprehension quickly turned to love as we met the friendly crew and our English speaking guide, Dedi. The boat, although appearing small at first, was the perfect size and very sea worthy, in an adventurous sort of way. The next four days and four nights we lived on the ocean. Our crew cooked us meals in the tiny kitchen, our baths were snorkeling excursions off the coasts of uninhabited islands, and at night we entertained each other with magic tricks and card games. The meals were all fantastic, culminating with a final meal of chicken. It was the same chicken that had lived on the boat with us for the last four days, quietly going about it's business, except when a very young, very smiley ship hand named Maty would give it a good shake and elicit a series of squaks which sent him into a fit of laughter. What a big grin that kid had! I couldn't help but smile every time I looked at him.

At one point we reached an island with a lake in the middle. The only sign of life was a huge billboard that read, "COMING SOON, GIANT HEALTH RESORT, INVESTORS WELCOME!" It was accompanied by an architect's graphic rendering of the place to be built. The only work completed so far was about half the pier, and it was being built by one man while four others watched lazily from the shade. The man was using all the fancy materials pictured on the billboard, but had completely neglected the geometry and angles. Parts that hadn't fit right had been replaced using large branches ripped from nearby trees and nailed into place hap-hazardly. We didn't invest. There was a tiny trail on the island that led into the jungle, and up to the tallest point. A sign read, "Stop! Don't go farther! Last lookout!" I went, alone. Deep in the jungle I discovered what looked like giant ant hills covered in monkey hand prints. Some kind of a chicken-sized bird began stalking me through the dense foliage. At one point I found a bush, unreachable by anything the size of a human, and all the leaves had been cleared away from its base in a perfect circle. Deep, musky smells hung heavy in the air. The hairs on my neck raised up. Something out there, was watching me.

On the Islands of Komodo and Rinca, the destination of our ocean voyage, we discovered what had made the mounds. Komodo dragons! (Or black pheasants. I'm not really sure. Our guide said they built them together but that seems ridiculous.) These things are huge! Growing up to 10 feet in length, and capable of killing a water buffalo, they stalk the island. They hunt by laying like massive hunks of wood or camouflaging in shadows, and they become almost completely invisible. Although I almost always spotted them before the guides, I came within 10 feet of one without even seeing it. It lay by the trail in the shade of a tree, at least 8 feet long, murder on it's mind. I didn't even see it when he pointed it out. Everyone on the islands carries specialized Komodo dragon attacking sticks. Basically, a hiking stick with a 'Y' at one end. When a dragon rushes them, the first pin its neck, and if it continues to charge they give it a hard whack about the head and eyes and it retreats. It is such a strange existence these people live. We saw just as many dragons in the little town, sleeping under the houses, as we saw out in the wild.
Jaroen asked our guide what the natural predators of the Komodo dragon were. When he was told there were none, he pressed, "Yes, but if ALL the animals lived together, WHICH ones would eat a Komodo dragon?" (I have a theory that he is the second coming of Noah, and is building an ark. I have much more speculative proof. Ask me about it if you are interested.) Our guide said no animals would eat it. I told him bears would. I think I was right but this prompted our guide to pepper me with a barrage of nature questions, all of which I got "Wrong" because of my "Western scientific background". The answer to, "Why does a fruit get colorful and tasty when it is ripe?" was not, "So that animals will come and eat it, and then distribute the seeds in their droppings," but rather, "Because a young fruit is like a child, a man shouldn't touch it. But when it grows up, it is like a woman, it puts on makeup and perfume, to attract the man, it says 'I am ready, come and take me.'" The description on his part was much lewder, and they continued to spiral downward as he bestowed more and more of his knowledge upon our group. Knowledge, he claims, he learned from a biologist!

I touched a komodo dragon with my hand!

Mia and I have gained a great love of the sea and it's marine life. Our scientific exploration gear usually consists of a mask, a snorkel, and a stick for poking things. We use advanced signals underwater to communicate with each other. A pointing finger with a thrusting arm means, "Look over there!" and a closed fisted hand on a thrusting arm means, "Poke it with a stick." It's amazing how much more you can learn about a plant or animal by poking it with a stick. One of the plants I poked with a stick resulted in the revealing of a giant eel. The poking of the eel with the stick revealed that this type of eel will bite a stick! So much learning! We are like two little knowledge sponges, and every day we soak up more and more!

I caught a fish one day using just a piece of line and a hook while we snorkeled. I pulled it up and turned it into the freshest sushi I have ever had, right on the deck of the boat. Only Mia and I partook. Everyone else was repulsed.

I loved sleeping on that boat. The stars were magnificent. Mia and I would lay out on the bow at night as we chugged along, gazing out at the night sky and the silouhetts of islands sliding past. The shooting stars were so bright and clear, you could see them break into pieces and become clumps of tinier shooting stars before fading away. We slept down with the crew on the lower deck, closer to the water. Not up on the second story with the pretentious Czechs and Dutch. We were rocked gently by the waves and cooled by the spray of the sea as the captain stayed the course through the night. The blankets they provided had faint, damp aromas of salt, engine grease, and some type of sweet animal scent. Huddled up in them, warm and exhausted, we fell asleep next to the crew in our own little 1st deck heaven.

We landed on the island of Flores in the little port town of Labuan Bajo. It was nice to finally be in a place with hardly any tourists, and even fewer people who spoke english. Our indonesian improved greatly in the 3 days we were there. We found a restaurant that served massive helpings of 'Cuakamole' (the best Guacamole EVER!) After consuming a generous portion our first night in town we went on a quest for tortilla chips and cheese the next day. The best we could do was thin crackers and Kraft cheddar, but when we combined those ingredients on our bungalow porch with two more giant orders of carry-out guacamole, it was paradise on earth. We spent an hour slowly devouring a good four avocados, a block of cheese, a box of crackers and an ice cold Bintang beer while we watched the sun set over a bay of a thousand islands.

This is not my hat. Or my stick.