Indonesia

Selamat Jalan!

They say if you want to see what Bali was like 30 years ago, go to Lombok; undeveloped, but rich in natural beauty and Indonesian culture. Our first stop was to the Gili’s, three small ellipses of islands off of the northwest coast of Lombok. We decided to take the speed boat across the Bali Straight, despite cautionary tales of rough seas and the fact that one company’s boat sank two years ago. Travel agencies in Ubud start selling a ticket at Rp 660,000 (~$68), which is absurd for a 1-hour trip in Indonesia. We opted to go to the harbor in Padang Bai ourselves and book once we saw the seaworthiness of the boats. I made notes about which companies had good reviews and which ones to avoid (namely the one that sank: Eka Jayah!). Ben and I shopped around and negotiated with a man at the Gili Cat booth for Rp 200,000 each. That’s more like it! He quickly wrote up our tickets and told us to hurry over to the boat because it was leaving soon. We were excited to get such a good deal (because I’m sure there are some people who actually pay Rp 660,000) so we grabbed Gabriella and hurried over to the boat only to find that we had just booked with…Eka Jayah! Whoops! It was too late now so we just had to hope for the best. I put on a smile and didn’t tell Gabriella until we made it safely across. 😉 Luckily, the sea was calm that day and the driver was responsible, but it certainly was not a relaxing ride.

We decided to go to Gili Air, a happy medium between the party scene on Gili Trawangan and the doldrums of Gili Meno. The island is small enough to walk the circumference in 90 minutes. There are no motor vehicles, no pushy salesmen, and no worries. Most of our time was spent relaxing in a hammock in the shade, listening to the waves, and playing Sudoku. It’s true…we’re hooked. We also made time to stay fit with a classic Boe Trosset workout routine and attended a sunset yoga class at H2O yoga.

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Every night, the restaurants display their fresh catch and make deals with passing customers. The typical selection included red or black snapper, barracuda, tuna, jackfish, squid, and prawn. We would usually negotiate enough fish for the three of us, plus three plates of rice and veggies, for about $10-12. Not to mention a large beer (660ml/22oz) was only $2.50! This is the life…

One of the main attractions for the Gili’s is diving. I had never been, but Ben went once in the Red Sea. It has always been an option for us on this trip (Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia), but Gabriella and I were never interested in trying. Snorkeling was always enough. Since Ben had been before, I thought I’d give it a shot. We spent the morning learning how to use the equipment and practicing in the pool to get a feel for being underwater, and at 11:30am it was time for the real thing!

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The boat took us out to a dive site called Meno Wreck. A large storage container had sunk there years ago and there was tons of coral growing on it. At first, I was nervous about going that far under water with so much water pressure above me, but I quickly got used to it. We descended slowly and popped our ears every 3-4 feet (1m) as the pressure changed. Before I knew it, we were 40 feet (12m) under! It was difficult to maintain an even amount of space between myself and the ocean floor, at first. I didn’t want to touch anything because the coral is so fragile and takes years to grow, but I wanted to get a good look at the colors and designs. I also had to be careful with my fins and tank to not bump into anything. After a bit, I got the hang of it and it was amazing! Sometimes I would turn to look where Ben was at and ended up upside down doing a somersault. It was so crazy to look up and see the surface of the water so far overhead. Checking out the wreck was pretty cool, too. There were so many fish around of all different sizes and colors. I really wish I could have brought the underwater camera with me, but it’s only rated to go down 16 feet (5m). At my deepest, I was about 50 feet (15m) down. The dive lasted just over 30 minutes because my air was getting low. I guess it was all those flips… 😉 I also think I wasn’t controlling my breathing too much in the beginning and taking a lot of quick, shallow breaths. That sort of stuff comes with experience, and I definitely hope to try it again!

From Gili Air, we went to the main island of Lombok and south to Kuta. This small beach town is the biggest attraction outside of the Gili’s, but still relatively quiet and undeveloped. The beach is nestled in a cove protected by land formations on either side with bright blue water and clean white sand. Upon first look, we were stunned, but the sunset that night was even more amazing. Believe or not, this isn’t even the most beautiful beach in the area!

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We spent a couple of days exploring with motorbikes again and thought we found heaven on earth. Less than 10km east is Tanjung An, a true rival to the beauty of Hawaii. The only downfall is the rapid commercialization of the area and the locals that constantly try to sell tourists their goods. In one area, development has already begun for a five-star resort that will be completed within the next few years. It’s easy to see why they chose this location.

Heading west from Kuta we ventured out to Mawaun Beach. The road was terrible and consisted mostly of washed-out gravel. We went up and down with some amazing viewpoints in between, but the real reward was when we arrived. The bay was enclosed by rocks and virtually empty except for maybe five other people. The water was pure blue with shimmering sunlight on the surface and the sand soft and white. I only regretted that we got there late in the day because I could’ve spent hours swimming and body surfing.

Mawaun beach

Everything about Lombok seems to suggest that it’s paradise, but that isn’t exactly the full picture. Although the landscape is amazing, the social issues are disappointing. Children are constantly begging tourists to buy bracelets. Women walk the streets with stacks of sarongs on their head. Teenage boys offer tee-shirts and coconuts, each for only a few dollars. From the minute you step outside of the hotel the locals try to sell you something…anything. “Motorbike today?” “You buy bracelet?” “One sarong for you?” Even on the beach, relaxing in a lounge chair, no one will leave you alone. We finally gave in one day and Ben and I each bought a sarong from two women who weren’t aggressive and held a genuine conversation with us about life in Kuta, Lombok. They even tried to teach us how to balance the sarong stack on our head. It’s much harder than I thought!

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Every day, we saw the same adorable kids and eventually got to know their real names (some give fake “Western” names so that tourists will remember them easier) and a bit about their life. Mon-Sat they would go to school from 7am-12pm, and then by 1pm they would be walking around selling their goods until someone came to pick them up around 8-9pm. We felt uncomfortable buying anything because we weren’t sure where the money actually goes, but often times we would try to engage them in conversation and make them laugh for a little bit—keeping the kids, kids. Sometimes we would offer to buy them food instead of their bracelets, but they seemed reluctant and shy about accepting anything other than money. One night when we were at dinner, Ben decided to buy a meal for a girl who had given him an Indonesian lesson the day before. Some of her friends were around so I suggested getting even more for them, too. Before we knew it, there were six kids scarfing down a few bowls of noodles we ordered. Some of their parents came to take them home while they were eating and I didn’t know if the kids would get in trouble, but one of the parents actually thanked us for feeding her son. It was the least we could do… We sometimes forget what a fortunate life we have and how lucky we were to grow up in a stable home with three meals a day, only working when we were old enough and ready for a job.

Kuta kids

After five nights in Kuta, Lombok, it was time to head back to Bali. Ben’s flight left out of Denpasar and he wanted to spend his last two nights in Kuta, Bali. We also wanted a day to check out Tanah Lot, a temple in the water that is only accessible at low tide. The cliffside landscape was beautiful and we stayed for sunset.

Tanah Lot

The only similarity between the two Kuta’s is the name. Kuta, Bali is the most developed and commercialized area of Bali filled with hotels, restaurants, and night clubs aimed at Western tourists. Again, I got the feeling that there are way too many people trying to make a living off of the tourism industry. You can’t step foot outside of the hotel without someone asking where you’re going, if you need transportation, or if you want to buy a ______ (shirt/hat/shoes/book/bag/souvenir/first born). Even a quick glance into a roadside stall would elicit cat calls from all neighboring shops.

On Ben’s last night, we went to one of these Westerner-aimed clubs to celebrate a great two-and-a-half weeks together. Unfortunately, this bar seemed to import prices as well as beer and it felt more like a night out in NY. Regardless, we had a good time and I tried to be Ben’s wingman to make his last night even more memorable. Haaaave ya met Ben? Maybe my face scared them away…sorry Ben!

this is how we do it

The last few days of our SE Asia experience were spent hanging out at the beach and shopping for some last-minute items at Indonesian prices (including a guitar!). One day we rented a motorbike and drove around the southern peninsula to Uluwatu (a temple on the cliff). The views were unbelievable and the air was thick with spiritual energy.

Uluwatu cliffs

I also spent a few days with a long-board and learned how to surf! On Thanksgiving! I tried in Hawaii and Sri Lanka, but finally got the hang of it in Bali. Catching some waves as the sun sinks into the sea is something I’ll never forget. And my red nipples for a few days after made sure I wouldn’t forget!

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At this point, time has certainly escaped us. Just like that, it’s been eight months of travel in nine new countries with one amazing woman. I couldn’t have done it without my Zuzu! Learning the culture, cuisine, and climate of each new place has taught me lessons that must be experienced to be understood. I hope I never take for granted a flushing toilet, clean drinking water from the tap, and municipal waste management. Meeting the locals in the community, and even other travelers, has broadened my perspective on the world and what’s important in life. No amount of reading will ever provide the same feeling. I encourage everyone to step outside the box, do something uncomfortable, and visit a place that you would never think to call home. Live in an ashram in India, travel by boat down the Mekong River, walk the Killing Fields in Cambodia, spend the night in the Sumatran rain forest, teach English to Indonesian children! I did. And it was the most rewarding experience of my life.

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From Bali we flew west to Jakarta, spent the night, flew to Singapore in the morning, had a 6-hour layover, and then flew 10 hours overnight to Auckland. New Zealand…here we come!

 

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Balinese Dreams

The ferry from Java to Bali was only one hour, but I could’ve sworn we arrived in India. Sketchy men tried to scam us at the bus station, Hindu sculptures protected villages on the side of the road, and the bus driver stopped near a shrine on the side of the road for a woman to bless the vehicle (complete with a splashing of holy water).

Our incredibly long day that started with Ijen ended in Sanur, where we celebrated Gabriella’s birthday in style by staying in a hotel room with hot water AND a/c!! We spent her birthday walking down the beach, enjoying the sites of our new destination, and indulging in her birthday wishes (i.e. gelato and coconuts). Sanur is more of a posh tourist destination for those with families (and money), but in the style of Balinese culture. There are designer shops down the streets and every restaurant had prices similar to those back home; quite a shock after Sumatra and Java.

After the two-night birthday-splurge, we headed north to Lovina, another beach town. Its charm mostly comes from its unique black sand made from volcanic ash.

We rented a motorbike for two days and explored along the northern coast. We visited traditional Balinese temples (one overrun by monkeys), bathed with dragons at Air Banjar hot springs, hiked through fields of vanilla and clove to Git Git waterfall, and took a refreshing dip at the Air Senih fresh water spring. The traffic was annoying, but the sites were amazing. Balinese architecture is unlike anything else we had seen in Sumatra or Java and the offerings of flowers, rice, and incense in a banana leaf basket brought a whole new cultural experience.

On our last day in Lovina, we gave in to the touts and booked a sunrise trip to go see the dolphins. Everyone tries to sell the trip to all the tourists, and at $6.25 it’s kind of hard to pass up. We were picked up at 5:45am by our “captain” and hopped into a canoe with a motor. The sun began rising behind the mountains as our boat puttered away from the coast. Sure enough, there were about 20 other boats on the water with the same intentions of spotting dolphins in the early morning light. It didn’t take long though to see whole families (err…schools? packs? herds?) of dolphins jumping out of the water in unison. The boats veered left and right to try to anticipate the best view for their customers. At first, I wasn’t too psyched about waking up at 5am to go chase dolphins, but it was truly magical experience to see so many swimming together. After 30 minutes though, it just felt like chasing dolphins again and I felt bad for polluting their territory so we could snap a photo.

From Lovina, we went 2 hours south to Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. It was here that we met up with our Kahumana friend Ben (aka Holo)! We worked together on the farm in Hawaii and he lives in Germany now. He decided to spend his two-week vacation from work with us in Indonesia!

Our first day, we walked through the hillside and terraced rice fields, allowing him to decompress from the stress of a full-time job (what’s that like?!). Then, we rented motorbikes again and drove north to south across the eastern part of Bali. It was great to just cruise, but we also stopped to admire the beauty of Mount Batur, with the adjacent Lake Batur, and the oldest temple in Bali, Besakih, where we learned how to make a Hindu prayer with the offerings. At night, we attended a traditional Balinese music and dance performance, complete with gamelan orchestra. The costumes were amazing and the music was so intricately composed.

Ubud was a decent place, but it is becoming overrun with tourism and losing the Balinese charm that attracted people here in the first place. There are way too many people trying to make a living off of tourism and the salespeople can quickly become irritating. It’s impossible to walk down the street without someone shouting at you to have a look in their shop, get a massage, rent a motorbike, or take a taxi. But it’s their livelihood and the desperation is apparent. Fortunately, we moved further east to the Gili Islands next, where there are no cars, no clocks, and no worries.

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From India to Indonesia…

The aphorism “saving the best for last” couldn’t be truer. Indonesia is the last SE Asian country of our journey and my favorite so far. Each place we’ve been to over the last 4 weeks has brought a special experience that makes me glad we have 8 weeks here. The people are genuinely friendly, the food is delicious, the scenery is stunning, and everything is so cheap!

We started west in Sumatra with a 2-day trek in the jungle near Bukit Luwang. We observed the endangered Sumatran orangutan in the wild, spotted gibbons, peacocks and owls, and our guide captured a giant red centipede because it has medicinal qualities for treating asthma. The orangutans were so friendly and full of curiosity that it was hard to leave, especially when we spotted a mother with her baby.

 

Then it was south to Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Afternoon showers encouraged interesting conversations amongst fellow travelers under the common area canopy; Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, Australian, Kiwi, Iranian, Canadian, American. If only our leaders could converse so civilized… When it wasn’t raining we visited hot springs, sat by the lake, and learned about Batik architecture and culture. At $6/night for a room and $1.25 for a meal, we easily stayed for 6 nights.

Then we flew southeast to West Java and did a homestay in the small town of Cianjur. We didn’t see another Westerner for 3 days! Our host set us up with two English teachers who took us to work with them one day. The couple travels to 3 schools every day, driving up to an hour between each one, just to make ends meet and keep their two children in school. (Public school ends at 9th grade here) We helped teach children ages 9-11, whose excitement was seldom contained, and felt like celebrities at each stop. Everyone wanted a picture and an autograph! The next day, we got dirty learning how to be a rice farmer in the knee-deep muck of a rice paddy. The owner of the farm is also a teacher at the local university and asked if we could come speak to his students to help them practice English. Again, the excitement of a Westerner ensued. Overall, the locals embraced our visit with warmth, enthusiasm, and generosity.

  

From there it was 10 hours east to Yogyakarta where we stayed for a week taking care of some business. We got our visa extended, bought some new clothes, and experienced one of the rarest (and best) coffees in the world: Kopi Luwak (yes, the civet-poop coffee). Even at $8 per cup, it was a steal compared to prices back home! We also took time to visit Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, which was absolutely stunning in the early morning light. I thought about hiking Mount Merapi, the most active volcano on the most active volcanic island, but Gabriella convinced me otherwise. Besides, there were other volcanoes in our future.

Heading further east across Java, we stopped twice more to witness Mount Bromo at sunrise and the blue fire of Kawah Ijen before dawn. The viewpoint at Bromo was crowded and touristy at 4:30am, but for good reason. The sun rose perfectly at 5am, illuminating 3 volcanic peaks and a massive crater, while clouds blanketed the valley below. At 6am, our jeep took us closer to the crater where we hiked up to the edge and peered down inside the smoking bowl. By 8am we were having breakfast overlooking the Mars-like volcanic landscape and at 9am we hit the road.

Eight hours later we arrived at a guesthouse near a coffee plantation in preparation for visiting Ijen. The original plan was to leave at 4am, drive 60 minutes to the park entrance, and hike 90 minutes to the crater lake. We heard rave reviews from other travelers that the “blue fire” was a must-see, but could only be experienced at night. This meant leaving at 1am instead of 4am so we would arrive before the sun was up. After coaxing the driver with some extra cash for waking up early, we left at 1:15am and made it to the crater lake just before 4am. Luckily, we met another group on the trail with a guide and he showed us the way down to the blue fire.

Kawah Ijen is basically a sulfur mine at the bottom of a crater with a glowing lake adjacent to it. The blue fire is burning sulfur. We got as close as we safely could to get some pics, but then the wind shifted and we were engulfed in sulfuric smoke that burned our eyes and throats and made us even more disoriented in the dark hours before dawn. Still…it was totally worth it. When we made it back up to the top, the sun was brightening the sky and we could finally see the amazing landscape that surrounded us. The blue fire disappeared and all that remained was billowing sulfuric smoke from a pit of bright yellow sulfur where we had been standing moments earlier. Behind it was the stunning crater lake glowing turquoise.

As the morning progressed, we saw men coming to mine the sulfur and carry baskets back to town. Each would load 2 wicker baskets connected by a stick of bamboo and haul it on their shoulder for nearly 2 hours; up from the bottom of the crater and down to the village 3km away. The load weighs about 100kg and they do one trip per day, which pays about $10 USD. I could barely even lift one basket an inch off the ground and couldn’t imagine carrying it uphill! Truly one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever been.

From Ijen, it was back to the hotel by 7am, 2 hours in a van to the bus station, 2 hours on a bus, 1-hour ferry to Bali, 4-hour local bus to Denpasar, and 30-minute bemo (van) ride to Senur. We finally collapsed in the hotel with hot shower and comfy bed at 6pm. Just in time to celebrate Gabriella’s birthday in Bali the next day!

more pics…

Categories: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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