Posts tagged ‘Indonesia’

Escaping Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

Like most visitors I have a love/hate relationship with Kuta. At the root of my confusion is a glaring contradiction; I want to stay forever yet I want to leave this instant. Even in exactly the same situations my feelings are hot one day and icy the next. One night I am never happier than when I am sitting in an open-air bar explaining the importance of Bon Jovi to Annemarie and bobbing my head  to a live rendition of Enter Sandman. The next day that same bar leaves me in a cold sweat when I have to elbow my way through incapacitated schoolies (drunken Aussie teenagers) and slap away the roaming hands of sweaty, hairy, shirtless middle-aged men.

Even walking from A to B isn’t easy in Kuta as it involves negotiating the narrow ‘pedestrian’ streets where there are invariably two cars parked face-to-face, filling every available inch of the alleyway. Having ignored insubstantial matters such as the dimensions of their vehicles, they have ploughed down the street in opposite directions eventually meeting each other and deciding to resolve the problem by sitting in their cars honking their horns and shaking their fists at each other until the build-up of traffic behind them has made it impossible for either one to give way. When you are sitting in a restaurant chowing down on Nasi Goreng, this is quality entertainment but when you are racing to catch the last few hours of morning sunlight, trying to get out of a sudden monsoon or driving a motorbike, it can lead to rapid hairloss.

The solution to the Kuta problem, for us anway, was to take regular breaks – pretty much all day every day breaks actually. Whenever we were sick of Aussies in wifebeaters, topless surfers parading around shouting about how drunk they were last night, tauts screaming “Transport, transport, transport, marajuana?” or women on the beach trying to cut us a deal for 50 bracelets when we have spent the last half hour explaining that we didn’t even want one, we hopped in a car or on a motorbike and got out of there as quickly as we could.

On our first road trip we literally headed for the hills, passing Ubud and making our way towards Bali’s inner spine of volcanoes. After about 2 hours on the road (most of which was spent driving in circles around Denpasar) Gary slammed on the brakes jolting Annemarie out of her slumber. She had afterall only had 13 hours sleep already that day. The reason for his dramatic change of plans became clear when we stumbled out of the car only to return for our sunglasses. After hours of rain the sun had suddenly cleared, leaving the valley of rice terraces and palm trees the most dazzling shade of green I have ever seen.

Unfortunately the rain returned just as we arrived at the volcanoes so we had to wait patiently in the car for the odd break in the clouds and a glimpse of the still active volcanoe and the thick smoke that was rolling out of its throat. The drive was fantastic though despite the weather and as we snaked through rice terraces, skirted ancient calderas and watched Bali unfold before us in a lively show of colours, Kuta seemed a million miles away.

You don’t have to traverse the whole country to put the strip behind you though, as we learned the next day when we rented motorbikes and braved Bali’s crazy choked arteries. It was AM’s first time on a motorbike so it took all of my concentration to keep her from tossing us off with her constant hopping from side to side, jumping up and down on her seat, squealing and turning around to check if Gary was still with us. Still we battled on in our search for the perfect beach, eventually locating the perfect road (all hairpin turns, smooth concrete and not a car in sight) which brought us to the beautiful cliffside Ulu Watu and then the infamous Uluwatu Beach, the only surf spot in the world where surfers launch from a cave into tubes of up to 10ft.

After watching open-mouthed for a while, we decided to find a more subdued spot and made our way to Jimbaran Beach – a vision with its clean sand, quiet shore, seafront restaurants and perfect tranquility. Happily we were just in time for dinner so we settled into a table on the sand  to wait for our delicious meal of fresh lobster, red snapper, clams, prawns, squid, veggies, rice and fresh fruit. Not half bad for $15 a head.

In future, I think we’ll stick to Jimbaran. Until we can afford to stay in the spectacular Semaya in Seminyak that is.

Note: Another of Kuta’s more, eh, ‘personable’ traits is the questionable integrity of its moneychangers.  Magicians of their trade, Kuta’s moneydealers are experts at swiping notes from your pile, rigging calculators to bum rates and convincing you that you are getting the deal of your life while they swindle $50 from you. A general rule of thumb that worked for us was ‘If it looks too good to be true, it is.’ This means that if a moneychanger offers you the higher rate of change where you should be getting the lower rate (the buying rate rather than the selling rate) it’s a con. Remember to count your money at least twice (once on your way out the door), try not to leave your money on the counter but if you have to then keep a finger on your pile, do your own calculations and choose a place that has a reasonable exchange rate – preferably a standalone business rather than a stall in the corner of a shop. If it all goes wrong don’t be afraid to make a scene and demand your money back.

More pictures from Kuta and around are available in the gallery


April 20, 2010 at 12:00 pm 14 comments

Here’s looking at U(bud), Bali, Indonesia

Even in the dead of night we could tell that we had made the right decision in coming to Ubud. Driving through dense forests filled with palms, there wasn’t a KFC or Dunkin’ Donuts in sight and in its silence, the town exuded the calm kind of welcome that we so badly needed after the madness of Javanese cities.

Our first impressions were confirmed the next morning when we emerged from our room to find a hotel pool just across the rice paddy from us and a huge flock of chattering ducks in between. Since it was already technically lunch time, we decided to give Annemarie her first taste of ‘real’ Asia by heading for Warung Ibu Oka where meal choices are limited to big or small portions of that day’s spit-roasted pig, complete with intestines and fried skin. Forcing down her initial urge to vomit and chastising herself for the millionth time for choosing Bali over a trip to Barcelona with her friends (there was no mini-fridge in the room, we had actually expected her to use that squat toilet and sleeping in a room with no airconditioning in Bali was like trying to get some rest while lying in an oven!), she took her first tentative bite quickly followed by her fiftieth and had soon cleaned her plate of belly, skin and intestine. Maybe she would make an okay backpacker after all.

After a quick wander around the tiny town through the modest Royal Palace and past the Water Palace we were more in love than ever. Across every threshold, on every motorbike and scattered across every path were offerings – small baskets filled with flowers, crumbs and inscense – just one sign of Bali’s enchanting cultural identity. As we cooed over the tiny trampled gifts, we were politely shooed onto the path to make way for a procession. Women dressed in white shirts, prayer belts and colourful sarongs made their graceful way towards one of the local temples, balancing huge woven baskets on their heads. Trailing on their skirt tails were beautiful children who were alternately pulling on their mother’s hands and ‘helping’ their fathers to carry the drums they were beating and the pyramids of fruit they had hoisted onto their shoulders. Just as Gary recovered his wits and pulled out the camera, the last of the procession filed in through the gates and, improperly attired, we were forced to leave the celebrating to the locals.

Our next stop was Monkey Forest, a small unenclosed forest just outside of town with a scattering of temples and a liberal serving of wild monkeys. Having already had a few run-ins of our own with aggressive primates (remember we were chased off that island in Vietnam?) Gary and I were a lot less excited about the outing than Annemarie. Her enthusiasm was contageous though and, realising that these monkeys were a lot more tame and a lot less threatening than the Vietnamese ones, it wasn’t long before we too were gasping over the baby monkey clinging to its mother’s fur two feet away or the elderly female monkey who was sitting, chin raised and eyes closed in complete bliss as her mate tenderly picked the ticks out of her coat. Time and time again we were reminded that only one gene seperates us from the primates, although there was one demonstration that stuck out more than others.

We were wandering around one of the trails looking at a temple and discussing the atrocious weather when Gary let out a small yelp. “There’s a monkey on my back!” he croaked, hunching his shoulders and covering his face to protect his best asset. “Get it off!” he pleaded in vain as Annemarie and I giggled hysterically and wrangled the camera out of his hands to take a photo. This was no cute little monkey here for a photo opp though, this was a monkey on a mission. As we laughed and snapped away, he used his time to search all the pockets of Gary’s backpack – obviously searching for large unmarked bills or jewellery that could be melted down. Finding only an old Kit Kat wrapper and a snotty tissue he moved in for the kill, snaking his hand down Gary’s waist and into an open pocket where his victim’s snappy responses narrowly prevented him from getting away with a credit card and enough cash to support a banana addiction for a month.

The best part of Ubud though, and a definite highlight of our entire time in Indonesia, was the traditional Legong dance we attended. The first surprise of the night was the venue. After trudging through puddles for 45 minutes to get there only to be led by an attendant down a dirt road, through a narrow alley and past some ramshackle houses, we didn’t have particularly high hopes for the evening. Imagine our surprise then when we turned a sharp corner to be confronted by a huge redbrick gate opening out into a paved path lined with flickering tealights and smiling young balinese men in white sarongs and headscarves. The little path led to a small room filled with 200 seats, all of which were draped in white cloth and wrapped in serene bows. At the front of the room was a small, softly lit stage designed to resemble one of the Palace gates. Settling down with ice cold bottles of beer we prepared to be wowed – and we weren’t disappointed.

Performed by a live band of 20 or so musicians and a group of women ranging from in age from around 13 to 50, the Legong was one of the most graceful and entertaining dances I have ever seen. Dressed in beautiful costumes laden with fresh flowers, gold jewellery, elaborate head dresses and shimmering sarongs, the dancers floated across the stage using their hips, feet, heads, legs, arms, fingers and even eyes to depict a collection of stories from Balinese folklore. The younger girls told stories about star-crossed lovers, syncing their movements perfectly and blowing flower petals at the audience. The older dancers moved with a little more substance and a lot more humour, batting each other with palm leaves in their portrayal of two amicable brothers turned into monkeys and enemies. There was even a guest appearance from a dragon, an ape (as part of the Barong dance) and a man named Mario who, to Annemarie’s infinite confusion, was dressed much the same as the girls (only with more makeup).

Wowed by their endless energy and lulled into a stupor by their rythmic movements, Annemarie and I watched in a trance for half an hour as Gary ran around the venue snapping away to his heart’s content. Tourist cliché or not, our Balinese dance experience was a perfect introduction to the people who were to warm our hearts with their genuine smiles and unerring devotion over the next 10 days.

More pictures from Ubud are available in the gallery

April 11, 2010 at 1:56 pm 8 comments

A lesson learned in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

As I write this Gary is running up and down a side-alley in Yogyakarta chasing after some screaming kids. Just as he catches up with them the kids stop abruptly, turn to face him and start growling like tigers defending their territory. Dressed up in bits and bobs of traditional costumes (a lion mask here, a Chinese dragon’s head there) along with their colourful hand-me-downs, they look like the cutest religious procession ever. I can see the delight in Gary’s face as he adjusts his light settings, snaps away and then offers the playback screen to the small cast who at once crowd around, laugh hysterically and strike a revised pose, consumate professionals that they are.

Yogyakarta may have been a let-down yesterday, but today it is everything we could have asked for – winding alleys filled with musty book stores; laughing locals trading gossip from their stoops; affordable restaurants where the service comes with a smile and some friendly travel advice; and that rare feeling of already being part of the furniture after only two days of residence. A lot of our initial loathing could have come from the fact that it was raining, Indonesia looked decidedly grimy after Singapore and the new addition to our entourage was putting us under pressure to be fun, friendly, eventful and well-organised – basically everything that we haven’t been for the last month or so.

Speaking of which, meet Annemarie, our new travel companion and first official third wheel. Occupying the position of Little Sister Extrordinaire, Annemarie’s superpowers include the power of persuasion, the energy to argue for hours on any topic however fictitious or unimportant and of course her indispensible secret backpacker weapon – an inhumane ability to sleep in any place, at any time, in any position. It has indeed been reported that Annemarie once fell asleep while standing upright on a chicken truck crossing the Chinese border, crammed between a pregnant Mongolian woman who was giving birth and two Russians in the middle of a knife fight. She awoke to find that, not only had she safely negotiated the border crossing for herself and 15 illegal immigrants, she had also delivered a healthy baby boy and negotiated a ceasefire between the waring Russians. Annemarie vehemently denies the above allegations but says that she did once get up in the middle of the night and get into the shower while fully dressed.*

But back to the story. While yesterday had us running for the hills (or in Yogya’s case the volcanoes) today reminded us that every city deserves a fair hearing and a touch of patience. Dying to get out of the city we negotiated a taxi to bring us out to Borobudor, the largest monument in the southern hemisphere and an incredibly important Buddhist stupa. Doubtful that anything could top The Temles of Angkor and more than a little concerned that any 16 year old girl could find anything of interest in a big pile of ancient stones, we didn’t build the day up too much, perfering instead to go with the ‘lets just get this day over with and head for the beach’ mindset. How wrong we were.

Before we even got to Borobudor it was obvious that we had been too quick to condemn Yogyakarta. As we zipped past smoking volcanoes, lime green fields and dripping palms, we wished that we had stuck to our original plan and made the time to climb Gunung Bromo for sunrise. Watching the morning break over a caldera filled with volcanoes and volcanic lakes would, after all, have been worth the extra few hours on a bus.

The monument itself was also spectacular. Impecibly complete for a structure first erected in the mid-700s, Borobudor towered over its vast green setting offering an imposing contrast with its soot black carvings, Buddhas and peaks. The view from the top was breath-taking with luscious fields and trees in the foreground eventually giving way to a deep blue volacanoe shrouded in smoke.

The best part of the trip though, was being reminded that we were in ‘real’ Asia. After so much time in Thailand where the locals are so used to tourists and the infastructure is so carefully organised around international visitors, it was a shock to remember that being white, blonde and relatively tall was pretty weird in this part of the world. Soon after we reached the top, two hundred or so students crowded the monument. They sniffed around us for a while, oogling at the two pale girls (one moreso than the other, ahem) and camera wielding boy that had somehow wandered into their side of the world. After sussing us out and arriving at the conclusion that we probably did not bite, they pushed one shy girl out of their ranks towards us. Proferring her phone as proof of intent, she asked us could she take a photo with us. Our agreement was met with widespread giggles and a rush of bodies vying to be included in the shot. After about 10 minutes of them taking turns to capture the moment on their mobile phones one by one in a variety of poses, it became obvious that we weren’t going to get out of there any time soon. Over the next hour Annemarie and I (Gary had wisely fled after the first few pictures) had at least one hundred arms put around our sweaty waists and we smiled until our faces started to freeze up and spasm like the onset of Torrets Syndrome.

Eventually the school tour was herded back onto the bus and we fell down the steps and into the nearest shady corner where we gulped down air that was mercifully free of the odor of teenage hormones and sweat. “Why did they all want my photo?” demanded Annemarie once we had regained the use of our lips. “Because my dear, they think you are just the most exotic and fabulous-looking thing that they have ever seen.” I replied.  “What wierdos!” she snorted. “Indeed.”

*Note: Annemarie does of course object to any mention of her name but from the second that she joined us on this trip, she waived all rights to privacy and any future legal cases concerning slander or physical injury.

More pictures from Yogyakarta are available in the gallery

April 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm 60 comments


Thanks for coming to visit us – stay tuned to watch us argue, punch, kick, pinch and scream our way around some of the most beautiful parts of the world.

Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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