The Final Countdown

Yep. My two months in SE Asia is coming to an end. Part of me is looking forward to my next adventure (thee months of work on the ships in Costa Rica/Panama and Baja, Mexico with two one weeks breaks in between contracts to recuperate) and part of me wants to continue to explore. I have a feeling I’ll be back, though, especially to the yoga retreat on Koh Samui.

As usual, I have a little catching up to do. After Yogyakarta we were supposed to head up Mount Bromo for a night so we could do a sunrise hike to the top of the crater on Christmas morning. But, alas, the gods must not have been in a good mood because Mount Bromo started erupting and we had to change our plans. Not for the better either, unfortunately. On Christmas eve we had an 11 hour bus ride to Malang, a city in east Java. We really didn’t have much time to explore the city because the next morning (Christmas morning) we got back on the bus for an 8 hour journey into coffee land. We were to spend Christmas night at a resort in Kaliburu, a tiny town in the mountains and jungles of East Java. The hotel was nice and after we dropped our bags we went on a tour through the coffee plantations and surrounding villages. Java is famous for its coffee and there are two main coffee plants that grow here – the robusta and the arabica. There’s another type of coffee that I haven’t tried yet, but I did buy enough to make two cups of brew. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world, one cup at a coffee shops will cost you $10+ and a kilogram is over $50. It’s called Luwak coffee and it’s only found in this part of the world. The Luwak, also know as the civet cat, eats the ripe, red coffee berries, but since it cannot digest the coffee bean, the bean passes through its digestive system whole. But as it passes, it is processed and fermented by special enzymes in the Luwak’s stomach. Once the beans are graciously deposited onto the jungle floor, they are eagerly collected by the local villagers and sold for much more than undigested coffee beans. I can’t wait to try mine!

Along the walk, our guide pointed out several spices growing in the area, such as the white pepper plant, vanilla tree, nutmeg and clove trees, and lemongrass. We also saw how they make palm sugar by boiling the sap of palm trees. It smelled very similar to maple syrup!

Christmas dinner that night was a mellow affair. I had the Indonesian special, called Gado-Gado, which is a pile of mixed steamed vegetables and tofu and tempeh with peanut sauce over the top. Yum!

The next morning we boarded the bus (again) and drive two hours to the ferry that would take us across to Bali. After the short ferry ride, we boarded the bus (again) and drove 4 hours to Sanur where we would be spending the night and meeting five more travelers who would be joining us for the Bali tour. They’re all really nice and we chatted over dinner at a nearby restaurant.

The next day we took a two hour bus ride north to Ubud, a town made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. We stopped on the way to visit a seaside temple, which was pretty, but crowded.

Bali is amazing (despite its jacked up tourist prices). The landscape is mostly terraced rice paddies, which are beautiful, but what I like most are all the temples and Bali architecture and stone statues covered in green moss that sit interspersed amid modern day developments. Elaborately carved doorways open into courtyards with statues of Ganesh, Hanuman (the monkey God), and other Hindu figures. Walking down the street there is store after store selling replicas of Buddha, batiks, hippie-Indonesian clothing, handmade soaps, and other interesting items. Karen, if you’re reading this and you ever come to Bali, leave your credit card at home or bring extra duffle bags to carry everything back. There’s so much cool stuff. I don’t shop much, but I did buy some shoes and another (bigger!) bottle of coconut oil that I’ll remember to pack in my checked bag. For lunch the next day, Dara, our guide took us to an amazing organic restaurant in the middle of a rice field. It was an adventure in itself to get there, but once we were seated, I was in vegetarian heaven. They even had kombucha! I ordered a sampler plate that had a tempeh and tofu curry, sauteed green beans and carrots, a mixed salad with pickled vegetables and seaweed, tofu pate wrapped in a grape leaf, sweet crispy tempeh, a fried potato pakora, and red and brown rice. It was so good!

That night Sarah, my roommate, and I had an interesting experience. Let me first say that our hotel in Ubud isn’t the most luxurious and it could use a through cleaning. Anyway, at 2 am Sarah jumps out of bed screaming and me, being fast asleep and having no idea what’s going on, start screaming as well. Then I ask her what the f*** happened (exact words I used, I think) and she replied that a mouse just ran over her head. We both started laughing hysterically and half-heartily looked for the culprit before going back to sleep. Two hours later, at 4 am, Sarah jumps out of bed again and announces that “the mouse came back.” She couldn’t go back to sleep in the same bed, so I offered to switch and lay down with my head at the foot of the bed. No mice bothered me for the rest of the night.

Today, after yoga practice overlooking the rice fields, Sarah, Cordelie (from Seattle and a third year med student at Michigan), and I visited the Monkey Forest. It was aptly named because even before we entered the park, we were surrounded by macaque monkeys eating bananas, swinging from tree limbs and watching us with curious expressions. Inside the park was quite an experience as well. Monkeys were everywhere and they let you get pretty close to take pictures. Not too close though, because then they either bared their teeth in a menacing way or tried to steal your camera out of your hands. Those who bought bananas at the entrance or had other treats had monkeys climbing up their legs or jumping onto their backs. I preferred to keep my distance. There were several temples in the forest as well, all seemingly dedicated to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The stone figures were covered in green moss and the vines of the banyan trees hung down in sheaths with roots sprawling across the ground in every direction. It was beautiful. After watching and photographing the monkeys for a good hour and a half, we ventured down Monkey Forest road to do some shopping. I bought two pairs of shoes, which I desperately needed and a bus ticket to the airport tomorrow. My flight to Singapore doesn’t leave until 9:30 pm, so I have most of the day here in Ubud. I’m already planning in having lunch at the organic restaurant. Then, once in Singapore, I spend the night at the airport (good times to be had…) and my 48 hour travel marathon to Panama City, Panama begins!

Tempeh? In Indonesia?

Before I arrived in Jakarta, I thought tempeh was only
found in health food stores and select markets, but apparently it
originated in Indonesia! Thankfully, because there’s a serious lack
of Indian restaurants and “vegetarian” isn’t a common word around
here. We’re on yet another train this morning. We had an early
start from our hotel in Bangdung where we spent the night and now
we’re headed to Yogyakarta, famous for its temples (the largest
Buddhist temple in the world!) and local arts. The landscape in
Indonesia is incredible. Terraced rice patties, waterfalls, jagged
mountains and every shade of green imaginable. I love traveling by
train because it’s a great way to see the scenery and it’s more
comfortable than a bus. We arrived in Yogyakarta in the afternoon
and had a late lunch/early dinner at a great little cafe called
ViaVia. It was started by a group of young Belgian travelers who
were concerned about the rapid growth of tourism and its affect on
the environment and traditional cultures. They created ViaVia,
which now has 12 locations across four continents and each
establishment works to protect the environment and promote
sustainability. The cafe we visited in Yogyakarta uses mostly
organic products, no straws (unless requested), and lots of
vegetarian options. They also offer tours and classes that are
environmentally friendly and help out the local communities. The
adjoining shop sells locally made crafts like soaps, shampoos,
bags, tea, and coffee. I bought a pack of 11 pure essential oils
that will be great for massage! The next day we arranged to visit
two of the local temples, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The
first was Prambanan, an ancient Hindu temple built in the ninth
century and dedicated to the Trimurti, the expression of God as the
Creator (Brahma), the Sustainer (Vishnu), and the Destroyer
(Shiva). It reminded me of Ayutthaya, the temples I visited outside
of Bangkok. Very impressive and slightly eerie, especially the dark
cavernous rooms within the massive temples that housed altars and
stone statues. The second site we visited was equally as beautiful.
It was Borobodur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world! Also
built in the ninth century, it is comprised of six square platforms
topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672
relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. At the top there is a main
dome surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside perforated stupa
(thanks wikipedia). You need to see it to understand how impressive
it is. We spent about two hours there (being photographed by the
local tourists as much as we were taking pictures ourselves),
hoping to see the sunset, but the guards made us leave before the
sun sank went below the hills. On the way back to Yogyakarta we saw
Merapi in the distance, the volcano that erupted about a month ago
and covered the surrounding landscape in ash. We saw the remnants
of the destruction along the roadside – piles of grey ash, rivers
that looked black, and trucks hauling tons of the stuff out of the
villages and back to the slopes of the mountain. Hopefully it will
remain quiet for the next few weeks… Today is our last day in
Yogyakarta and tomorrow we have a long bus ride (12 hours) into the
mountains where we’ll spent Christmas. Our guide, Dara, said it
will be cold, but I’m still not expecting snow.

Indonesia at last

Far from the Starbucks and Christmas music where I wrote my last blog, I’m now sitting on a concrete step in the Jakarta train station, listening to a man babble in yet another language I don’t understand, and trying to ignore the people staring at us from all directions. Welcome to Indonesia.

But first, let me backtrack (I’m way behind again!). We left Kuala Lumpur via public bus and headed 2 hours south to the ancient seaport of Melaka (or Malacca). We only had the afternoon to explore, so once we dropped our bags at the hotel, Kris took us out to explore town. Like I said before, Melaka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its history. The town was populated by the Dutch, Portuguese, and the British, which explains the European architecture and cobblestone streets. After a few hours of walking around, several of us took a boat tour up the narrow river that divided the town in two to see more of the Dutch influence and traditional architecture that has been preserved. Later that night, after an amazing Indian dinner, we took a walk down Jonkers Street, which is an open market that only happens on the weekend and has anything and everything you ever wanted. Apparently there’s a guy who breaks through coconuts with only two fingers, but I only heard his bravado – I didn’t actually see him do anything.

The next day we boarded another public bus and headed south again to the city state of Singapore. I was looking forward to some cleanliness and order after several weeks of chaotic Asian cities. At the border we had to get off the bus and take our bags through security. A sign greeted us saying, “All drug traffickers are sentenced to death.” I knew Singapore was strict, but geez.

Through customs (uneventfully except for a closer look at my bottle of coconut oil), and back on the bus we had another half hour to the hotel. As we got closer to the city center, the streets got cleaner and the buildings nicer. No wonder, because littering is a $1000 dollar fine (about US $750).

We checked into our hotel and then headed out with Kris to see the highlights if the city. Like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore has some amazing architecture. One building was designed to look like a durian, a SE Asian fruit with a spiny peel (the locals say “it smells like hell and tastes like heaven”). We eventually wound our way to the city center where three tall skyscrapers form the pedestals for a massive “ship” that holds a swimming pool, restaurant, the Sky Bar, and hotel. The spectacle overlooks a small lake and on the other side of the lake is the iconic Singapore lion spouting water from his mouth. We also saw the beautiful colonial Raffles Hotel, decked out in Christmas decorations and only costing $500 a night. I really liked Singapore, despite it’s ridiculous fines and outrageous prices. I wouldn’t want to live there, but it was nice to visit.

Singapore was also where Sarah and I said goodbye to Kris and the rest of the group. We were to continue on to Indonesia while everyone else went their separate ways. I can’t say it was terribly sad to say goodbye – I didn’t really connect with anyone since their priorities and interests were quite different from mine.

Kris accompanied us to the airport and after checking in, we had a coffee before boarding the plane. I was a little shocked not to have to go though security after getting our tickets, but when we went to our gate, we had to scan our bags (they took my saline solution and coconut oil 😦 I’m not sure why I thought I could fly with liquids here…)

So now I’m in Indonesia with a new group (who all seem really nice and not partiers!) and a new tour guide, who also seems very cool. We spent one night in Jakarta, which is on the island of Java (famous for it’s coffee!) and even crazier than Bangkok. Sarah and I went out to walk around and were bombarded by Indonesian students who’s holiday homework was to flock around white people and practice their English. Seriously. We did find a nice, old colonial bar and restaurant where we found reprieve in a cup of overly priced tea. Now we’re headed east to Bandung. I know very little about this country, so it should be interesting!