After spending the morning on my cycling tour, I was ready to go to Zimbabwe. Although I had seen Victoria Falls from afar, this was my opportunity to get up close.
Getting across the border is an interesting process. I had made sure to get a multiple entry visa when I entered Zambia so I was not concerned about my return. But I would have to pay a fee to get into Zimbabwe.
My first taxi was able to take me to the border and helped me to negotiate the fare for the small portion of the ride that is in "no man's land" - essentially, this is the area over the Zambezi river and is not technically part of either country. I got my passport stamped for my departure and thought " this is pretty easy!" Not really true.
My $2 taxi (Zimbabwe uses US dollars as their primary currency because their own currency became worthless not very long ago) took me across the bridge where I could see the bungee jumpers waiting to launch. Not happening!
As I drove across the bridge, it was interesting to see the HUGE line of trucks waiting on both sides of the border! My taxi driver explained to me that it can take 3-7 days to get through border control in a truck. What a waste of time! I am not sure what causes the delay, but I was told that you can "buy" your way to a better place in the line. So much for the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that we embrace in many Western countries. If you want to operate in this area, you either pay individuals to move you up the line (we call these "bribes") or you waste your time sitting at the border.
My taxi dropped me off at the Zimbabwe border and I was impressed that the line was not very long. Sadly, this was deceptive. The local tour operators skip the lines completely and step to the front of the line to have their guests expedited. The patrons don't even get out of the cars.
I was stuck with all the regular folks waiting to be processed. It was interesting to see that one of the women who was working in the customs office had a shirt with the embroidered logo "I am not corrupt". It was a bold statement but it made me wonder about those not wearing the shirt.
I submitted my paperwork and waited as many, many tour guides ignored the lines to get their guests approved. My recommendation to anyone who is not traveling to this region on a budget is to get a guide, if only to expedite your process in the lines.
After about 90 minutes, my name was called! They returned my passport and I was finally able to get into another taxi for the last 3 kilometers between me and my hotel.
I arrived at Shearwater Adventures and went to check in. My hotel room had been booked far in advance as I knew that I would want some luxuries after my volunteer work in Zambia. I remembered seeing photos of the infinity pool when I looked online....
As I checked in, the clerk asked me if I was staying in the "dome tents". I said no, remembering the photos I had seen on Hotels.com. The clerk looked up my reservation and stated that I was in the domed tents. Perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention as I was booking.
The tents were not bad. I actually had a cot and a bit of space. No lights, and certainly no air conditioning. Good thing it was winter. The bathrooms are communal, which is not fun for someone who just cannot make it through the night without a break. I think I was now ready to go home.
The primary reason that you come to Victoria Falls is all of the outdoor activities. I went to the lobby and started reviewing the brochures to figure out my options. Bungee jumping was definitely out. I wasn't even that thrilled about whitewater rafting. I had done this before and it might have been fun if I was not traveling alone. But I did sign up for an early morning hike into the Zambezi gorge and for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi for the next night.
Since my activities were now set, I found a place for dinner and decided to read for a while. It was going to be an early morning and it actually got cold at night. By the time I went to bed, I was too tired to be bothered by sleeping in a tent.
I woke early the next morning and went to find my guide. We were going to start out hiking with the whitewater rafters and then split off when they entered the river. It was pretty cold as we started out, but I knew that it would warm up as we hiked.
The first part of our climb involved going down VERY steep steps. I took my time as I could easily see that it would be a terrible fall if I missed my step. Rafting guides were passing me with deflated rafts on their backs and carrying paddles. It made me nervous - so I guess I really am getting old.
We made it into the gorge and found a great spot to watch the rafters take off. Several of the rafts overturned on the first rapid so I was glad to be on the shore. We did get a chance to get into the Zambezi but it was not really a swim. The coolest part is that we ended up under the bridge where the bungee jumpers were leaping. I got to see two people take part, and my perspective was really amazing. But it did not give me any motivation to try it...
We hiked out of the gorge and our guides rewarded us with beers. A nice way to start the morning.
After returning to our lodge, I showered and decided to explore the town. It's not much - lots of places selling tourist trinkets, and aggressive salespeople explaining that my purchase would be the first sale in weeks! Yep- I have a few souvenirs.
I spent a good part of the afternoon at a restaurant on the edge of the Zambezi, watching people do zip lines and something called a "gorge swing". This actually looked intriguing, but also terrifying. As I listened in on groups who had friends and families participating, I started to think that maybe I could give it a try. But I was sure that it would be expensive and that would give me an easy way out. After almost 7 weeks of travel, I was confident that I was already over budget.
But before I left to meet my sunset cruise, I inquired about the cost. $90 didn't seem so bad, so perhaps I would consider this for the next day.
The sunset cruise was really nice. I sat at a table with a local and his two teenage children. The children study in England because the education in Zimbabwe is so poor. The father lives in Victoria Falls and runs a lodge. It was nice to get a local's perspective on the country.
We were in a fairly small boat - it probably held about 40-50 people. They served us snacks and unlimited cocktails while we sailed along the river. We came upon a herd of elephants - easily 20 in all - who were drinking along the shore. We passed a "bloat" of hippos, one of which made sure that we saw all of its teeth.
Seeing the hippos reminded me of a story that I had just heard. My sister had visited Zimbabwe some years ago and raved about taking a canoe trip down the Zambezi. So I looked into one of these for my trip, but I didn't really have the time to make this worthwhile. In discussing this option with one of the guides in Zambia, he shared a story with me.
Two weeks before my visit, two women had been doing a canoe trip on the Zambezi with a guide. The canoe was capsized by a hippo (they are VERY territorial) and the hippo bit off one of the women's legs! She had to be airlifted out. My guide in Zimbabwe confirmed the story, but explained that these types of stories never make the news. The two primary sources of income in Zimbabwe are diamonds and tourism. If stories of incidents on tours get out, fewer people will visit.
Note to self - avoid hippos.
As we were heading back to the docks, we saw a "tower" of giraffe. It was pretty cool to watch them along the river as the sun set behind them. This boat trip was definitely a highlight.
The next morning, I decided that I was going to try the gorge swing. My seatmates from the sunset cruise had told me that they had really enjoyed it (one had also done bungee jumping and he did not like that!). I wished that I had friends along to give me a bit of encouragement, but I was confident that I would step off the platform!
I went back to the restaurant where I had spend the previous afternoon. It was odd to see warthogs grazing in the front yard of the restaurant, but this is Africa, after all.
I paid my fee before I could chicken out, then headed over to the starting point. It was really, really high!
The company offered a video of the event, which I declined, but I had to have pictures, didn't I? So I gave them $35 for emailed photos to commemorate the event.
They strapped me into several different harnesses, and I could feel my heart racing! I was hooked in from the moment I approached the platform, and they moved me from one set of hooks to the next until I reached the edge. Holy smoke - was I really going to do this?
The guide said "1, 2, 3..." and I stepped off! For the first few seconds, you are truly free-falling (thank you, Tom Petty!). And then the ropes catch, and you are really swinging. It was such a cool feeling, and I really did cry. I couldn't help it - I was so proud of myself for actually doing this! Maybe I am not that old after all...
The guides pulled me back to the side, and I rappelled up to the platform. I think I was still crying when I was finally unhooked. It was awesome!
I had an adrenaline rush and I was thinking about other activities that I might do for my last day in Zimbabwe, but I needed some money. So I went to the ATM. The nice guard smiled at me and told me that all the banks were out of money. Seriously! And since this was a bank holiday, as was the next day, they would not get money until Wednesday (today was Monday). It is pretty scary to be in a foreign country with NO ACCESS TO MONEY! I had been traveling for 6 1/2 weeks so my US dollars were mostly gone. I had $11 to my name. I realized that I had enough money to get to the border, but not enough money to do anything.
I went back to my hotel to pick up my bags and asked if perhaps the hotel would give me money on my credit card. The clerk told me that anything I needed could be obtained with a VIsa. I countered with the fact that the taxis don't take visa, and the guides rely on tips (the tour companies are all owned by Western companies who pay the guides poorly, so tips are their primary source of income), but the clerk had no sympathy. I was really glad to be getting out of this country.
I found a cab to take me to the border, and then decided to walk across so that I could stop and watch the bungee jumpers. It was really cool to see the jumpers go off the platform, especially now that I had seen them from below.
One of the vendors offered to trade me for a t-shirt, so I gave him a Peachtree Road Race shirt in return for a bowl (sure, I needed this!). And then I went to a restaurant on the Zambian side of the border to watch more of the adventurers. It was nice to have lunch (they took Visa), but I forgot to pay attention to the wild monkeys. One of them stole my French fries!
I had one day left on my adventure, so it was time to head to my last hotel. Last stop - Botswana!
My final destination on this Around the World adventure was Livingstone, Zambia. Arrived with few expectations. This was not my first visit to Africa - I have been to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Morocco - but each country is different. I had chosen to go to Zambia because of its proximity to Victoria Falls and because of the volunteer projects available in the country. I was looking forward to doing more outdoor work.
My accommodations in Livingstone were really quite nice. I was in a guesthouse with nine other volunteers, and this time I had my own bedroom and bathroom. Yay!
As we were all getting settled in, we decided to walk into town. It seemed close and there was nothing else to do. We really didn't even know what "town" would be, but we were confident that we could get local currency "Kwacha" and see a bit of the area where we were going to be living for a while.
Finding our way to town was easy - in Zambia, most people speak English. But they also speak their local languages and there are 72 different languages spoken in this small country. It provides for very interesting sounds as you move among the locals.
All the volunteers speak English, but for many of them, English is a second or third language. I realized how challenging this could be for some people when one of the other volunteers had her ATM card held by the machine because her transaction took too long. She wasn't sure about the meaning of the word "withdrawal". She had to go back to the bank the next day (as this was a Sunday and banks were closed) to claim her ATM card. It clearly happens often as the bank manager pulled out a stack of ATM cards from the machine!.
The nice thing about the city center is that it has pretty much everything you need. There aren't as many choices as we have at home, but I found good coffee (so important!) and free wifi. And several interesting restaurants. I could see that I would be walking into town (about 45 minutes each way) quite often.
The other volunteers in my house were either working on medical placements (providing immunizations, distributing HIV medications - the estimated HIV rate is 25% of the population! - , assisting with pre-natal care, etc.), teaching, or working in a senior citizens' home. It providing some interesting conversations over meals when we discussed our work days.
My project was in construction. In Zambia, education is not free, which means that many children do not attend schools. The organization with which I was working, Dream Livingstone, is building a school that will provide free education to children. I would be working to help build the school.
The facility itself was right around the corner from my guest house. The build was scheduled as a five year project, but it looks like it may actually finish in about 2 1/2 years thanks to the work of the local staff and all of the volunteer hours being put into the project.
The original plan was to build the caretaker's house first, and then have someone live there while the school is being built. But children started showing up at the facility before the house was even finished so Dream Livingstone revised their plan and began offering classes in the caretaker's home. On the days when I was working, 50-60 children would show up each day for class! Happy to learn and excited to have a place to go.
The construction team consisted of two Zambians who led the project, and then six guys and one girl - me. I think I held my own... but it was really hard work! We shoveled gravel and sand, made concrete blocks, cleaned out construction debris, and poured concrete. It was really great to be able to see the progress daily. And I loved being in an environment where the children who would eventually use the school were playing and learning right nearby. I hope to be able to see the finished project someday.
My daily routine usually involved waking very early (I never got used to the time change) so I would go for a walk and listen to a podcast. It was cold in the mornings - it is winter in the Southern hemisphere - but got pretty warm in the afternoons. The locals always say hi as you pass them, and the children run up to greet you! It's a pretty special way to start the day.
We had a long break in the middle of the day - the construction was really hard work! - and I would usually use that break to go for another walk. And after our project work finished at the end of the day, I would walk into town to explore. I hadn't really paid attention to how much I was walking until I met another volunteer who said "oh, you're the girl who walks everywhere." I guess I was...
The great thing about Livingstone is that I never felt unsafe. The people are friendly and eager to talk to you. I got asked for drinks several times (not sure if these were legitimate offers or whether the people were just being friendly) and was often asked to be in pictures with the locals. This was a beautiful place to spend some time.
The area in which I as staying was for people of moderate means, but I knew that this is not how everyone in Livingstone was living. I wanted to get a broader perspective of local life, so the Dream Livingstone team suggested that I go to see a rock mine. We asked a staff member to lead us on the "30 minute walk".
(Note - when people give you distances in Livingstone, it is always defined by how long it will take to walk there. The estimates given by the locals should be assumed to be shorter than the actual time it will take for you to get somewhere.)
After an hour of walking in the heat (it was a particularly brutal day!), we arrived at the quarry. This place puts life into perspective - those of us in the Western world truly won the birth lottery! Had I been born in Livingstone, this very easily could have been my life. The men use metal poles to separate the rocks from the walls - no jack hammers involved. Then the women break the rocks into smaller pieces and the children then separate the rocks by sizes. I watched one woman break down rocks while a baby was attached to her back! Her other child - perhaps he was 2? - was sorting rocks beside her.
I always ask before I take pictures of people, but several women asked to have their pictures taken with me. There was a part of me that wondered if I was being exploitive of their situation, but I decided that I was not selling these photographs. Merely using them as a way to capture the experiences of these individuals.
As we walked out of the quarry, we were all quieter than we had been when we arrived. There were some children playing in the area - using tires as toys - and they smiled and yelled "misuno" (sp? it means white person) as we walked by. When I approached the street, a man holding an American flag asked if we could be photographed together, and I obliged. The walk back to our guesthouse did not seem so hot any more.
Since it was my last day as a volunteer, I joined some other volunteers to watch the sunset over the Zambezi river. We went to the Royal Livingstone Hotel, which has the distinctive feature of having wild zebra running around the grounds! Rumor has it that they have giraffe as well, but I never saw them. We got a table on the patio and toasted the week of hard work and watched the sunset.
On Saturday morning, I started the day with a cycling tour of Livingstone. Joining me on this tour was a woman from New Zealand who had spent the week working in a senior citizen home. She had some interesting observations about her experience, but expressed gratitude that the woman who runs the home takes such care in her position.
Our guides for the day were two locals - one of whom plays football for the Zambian National team. It does not pay well, so he does this job to make a living.
We spent four hours exploring Livingstone. We saw another rock mine - it was Saturday so there were fewer people working, but sadly, those who were working were women with children. We also visited a church service - such beautiful music and dancing! The people were truly enjoying the service. Our tour took us through a local village where we met a fisherman who was showing off his catch, which included a fish with nasty looking teeth. The fisherman bragged about his granddaughter who is attending school and so very smart.
The cycling company was started by a Zambian national who uses the proceeds to fund his own school. Our tour included a visit to the school, which was packed with children milling about on a Saturday. Each one wanted to have his or her picture taken and then see the picture on the screen. I wished that I could have printed out copies for them so that each could keep a copy.
We finished our tour with a visit to a local market. Most of the items sold were fairly common, but there were two products that were unusual. One was dried caterpillars. Apparently, these are popular to eat - deep fried, of course! The other was rocks. Pregnant women suck on these rocks in order to absorb the iron from them. Such a resourceful (literally!) use of something found in nature.
We finished out our ride along a road that had wild orangutans along the path. I was told that I would see many, many more wild apes when I finally made it to Victoria Falls- my next stop.
The Red Centre includes Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta is not easy to get to, so it is often overlooked in visits to Australia. But it is the key destination that MA missed when living in this country as an expat. So we added this to our list for our 50th birthday excursion.
To truly appreciate these sites, you need to get a brief understanding of the Aboriginal culture. The Aboriginal Australian people in central Australia lived in small communities spread across vast areas. When Europeans arrived to colonize the country, they brought with them diseases that caused dramatic population decline.
The British settlers treated the Aboriginal people as nomads with no right to land or water rights, and felt that these people would be happy living anywhere. But the Aboriginal people have strong spiritual and cultural ties to their land, which makes it difficult to relocate and maintain their cultural ties.
The Aboriginal people were seen as "unevolved" and there was debate about where they stood in the evolutionary scale between ape and man. This affected how they were viewed and treated by white Australians, and particularly by the Australian government. Although all Indigenous Australians were given the right to vote in Federal elections in 1963, the Aboriginal Australians did not receive the rights to the return of their traditional lands until 1992.
It wasn't until 1998 that an inquiry took place into the "stolen generation", the name given to the Australian government forced removal of Indigenous children from their families in a quest to "civilize" them. The Australian government actually issued an apology for their treatment of the people and a concerted effort has been made to make restitution and improve conditions for the Aborginal people.
Both Uluru and Kata Tjute are considered sacred sites by the Aboriginal people. This makes it difficult to encourage visitors to the area while still respecting the status of these sites by outsiders. One of the compromises that has taken place is that Uluru is actively marketed to tourists, while Kata Tjuta is not. It might explain why many non-Australians have never heard of Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas). MA and I wanted to explore these areas and learn more about their history.
We headed out of Alice Springs by midday. You are warned to get gas before you go and to carry lots of water. The highway to take you to these sites goes through long stretches of nothing - lots of grazing land for animals but few roadside attractions. It was going to be a long day of remembering to "drive on the left!". Somehow, we survived...
As we were driving, I looked out the window and saw a camel. Yes - a camel. You may not have realized that Australia had camels. Everyone knows about kangaroos and koalas, but someone had the bright idea to import camels to help work the land. So you do see camels in the Outback.
As you drive to the Red Centre, you have to watch out of animals on the road. Hitting a kangaroo is quite common, and quite dangerous. This knowledge helps keep your speed in check. Well, this and the fact that Australia has zero tolerance for speeding.
I will admit that I had little appreciation for Uluru as we headed into the Outback. Atlanta has Stone Mountain - a big granite rock that you can climb. In my mind, Uluru was very similar. But I was wrong.
The first time that I viewed Uluru I realized just how massive it it! The base has a circumferance of 6.2 kilometers so you can see if from a great distance. And it truly is red! We pulled over on the side of the road to get a picture with this rock as soon as we first saw it. It was my first understanding of why people make this trek.
After settling into our room (bunk beds! and shared rooms...), we drove out to see the sunset at Uluru. It was as spectacular as I could have imagined. The colors on the rock actually change with the light. But the sun sets quickly and it really does get cold. After all, it is winter in the Southern hemisphere.
We had reserved tickets to see a Bruce Munro light installation at Uluru. There are 17,000 lights dispersed across a vast area near Uluru. The view is amazing as there really is no other light interference - just these LED bulbs and more stars that you can imagine.
The next morning, we awoke in time to head to Uluru for the sunrise. At this point in my trip, I will admit to being jaded by sunrises, and tired of getting up this early to see something that happens every day! But the sunrise at Uluru was so amazing that I agreed to go watch the same event the next morning.
Our big plan for this day was to rent bikes and ride around the base. It was such a beautiful way to see the rock from so many angles! From a distance, the surface looks very smooth. But up close you can see how erosion has created these beautiful patterns on the surface.
The ride also gave us a chance to see the various sites that are sacred to the Aboriginal people up close. There are many places where signs ask that you not take pictures of specific parts of Uluru because of their sacred nature. We honored the request and continued the journey.
As we approached the end of our loop, you can see a place where you can climb Uluru. The Aboriginal people ask that you not climb Uluru, but they do not prohibit climbing. We did not climb - frankly, in addition to showing respect for the request, it is a scary looking climb! Many people must be rescued from this climb as they can make their way up but not handle the descent.
When we had the chance to talk with a ranger about why climbing Uluru is not prohibited, he explained the difficult position this provides to the Aboriginal people. On the one hand, they need the fees associated with the visitors as there is little opportunity to earn money while living in the Outback. Many Chinese and Japanese tourists companies market climbing Uluru as part of their travel packages. So the Aboriginal people just request that you not climb because of the sacred nature of the site, but leave the decision to you.
After we finished cycling, our next venture was to see Kata Tjuta for the first time. There was a short hike at the base, and then we planned to watch the sunset on Kata Tjuta. The hike was fairly easy, reflected in the fact that a bride was in here full gown (with hiking shoes!) with her groom having professional photos taken at the site.
The sunset was quite different from the one we had witnessed at Uluru, mainly due to the fact that Kata Tjuta is a series of 30+ peaks so there is more variety in the setting. But it was still stunning!
For our last day in this area, we hiked through the Valley of the Winds inside Kata Tjuta. It was a very difficult hike, made more complicated by the fact that we both had the wrong shoes for this hike! The views were spectacular, but we were unable to photograph these because both of our camera batteries were dead. Not good planning...
Our drive back to Alice Springs was uneventful. I was so grateful that MA had added this destination into our itinerary. I knew very little about the Aboriginal people before I made this trek, and have a better appreciation of their culture now that I have visited one of their sacred sites.
MA was leaving me the next day, and I was really sad about this fact! We got along so well throughout our 3 weeks together - no spats at all! But there was still one last stop on my journey. I was off to Africa!
We arrived into Darwin early in the morning. It was winter in Australia so a good bit cooler than it was when we left Bali. The Darwin airport is tiny, but it does have showers. What a nice perk!
I needed to get a local SIM card so that we would have mobile access in Australia. Since we had a long layover here, I thought that I would take advantage of this time to get this handled. There were no vendors in the airport, so I decided to set off to a local airport hotel for guidance. The clerk pointed me to a card in the hotel store and it should have been very easy to use. Only problem was that the Telstra web set-up would not accept my hotel address in Alice. This meant that I had to chat with an agent. Not fun.
The Darwin airport allows you 30 minutes of free wifi, but you need the wifi to set up the SIM card, and in my case, it took longer than 30 minutes. We had to move to different parts of the airport to ping off separate towers to finally get the plan up and running. I am still not sure why they required all of this information for pre-paid cell service! Most countires are happy to sell you a card and allow you to go on your merry way.
This airport downtime gave MA and me lots of chances to observe the goings-on at the airport. Apparently, there had been a serious security breach at the Sydney Airport recently that required an evacuation of the whole airport. This put everyone on alert, so those things that seem like not a big deal on a regular day get heightened alerts.
For example, a guy sitting near us left his bags alone while he went to get coffee. When he returned, there were four police officers waiting for him and he was subjected to a great deal of questioning. This guy did not seem to get the fact that the police were quite serious in their concern about his bags. at one point, he asked if he could step way to go pick up his coffee - I thought that lead police officer's head was going to explode!
Our flight for Alice Springs left midday, and it was then that I realized that we could have flown directly from Darwin to Uluru (which was our primary destination). MA had planned this section of the trip so she must have had a reason.
We arrived in Alice in time to see the sunset at Anzac Hill, a military memorial spot. There are plaques on display that pay tribute to Australian contributions to military conflicts. It also has incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
Our first stop for the next day was at the tourist information office. MA had two main sites that she wished to visit - the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air - and I was open to anything. We got our bearings and then went to find the Royal Flying Doctor Services station.
This is a very cool place! The first thing you see as you enter is a live map showing all the flights in operation at this particular moment. The service covers all of the Northern Territory, an area that has vast distances between people and care. The service provides not just emergency transport, but also primary and pre-natal care to those who do not have access to traditional medical facilities. They also provide medical transport to centers of excellence throughout Australia. Only 20% of the flights include a doctor - most are handled exclusively by highly-trained critical care nurses. The tourist office said that we would spend about 30 minutes at this site, but we were there fo nearly two hours!
Our next stop was the School of the Air. I had no expectations for this place but it too was incredible. This site provides live classes to 142 students scattered across 1.2 million square kilometers. Students can start school at 4 1/2 and continue through year 9 of schooling. Classes are spread throughout the day and each child is expected to spend 8 hours per day on his/her education. All students have a local tutor - often this is the child's mother but it may be someone outside the family. All kids come to Alice at least twice per year, and may come as often as 4 times per year, so that they can meet and interact with each other and their teachers.
The classes take place via satellite and each child is visible on the video screen. In addition to all of the technical equipment, including the satellite dish, packets of supplies are sent to the children so that they have everything they need to participate fully in classes. The children also receive 30 library books at a time. I cannot tell you how cool this set-up is but we spent more time there then we planned, as well. And we both now have t-shirts showing off the program.
Our final destination in Alice was Desert Park. I wish we had had the time to bike out there from town, but that will have to happen on a future visit. Desert Park is an area where the various animals of the Northern Territory are exhibited. It is not like a zoo - many of the animals are in open environments. For example, the bird program uses wild birds that respond to calls (and they know they will be fed!) to show us some of the unique birds that we might see in the area. There is also a place where red kangaroos are housed and you can walk among them (not interact with them, sadly, but I guess they really don't like people).
The park closes around dusk. You notice that most cars are off the road by dusk. This is so you don't hit wild animals! There are signs all along the roads to be aware of wild animals. They can do tremendous damage to your cars, and most rental car companies exclude damage caused by wild animals. Scary to think about...
We finished out the day with dinner at a steakhouse,. I thought MA would try one of the unusual animals on the menu (kangaroo??) but she stuck with steak. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. We had a long drive ahead of us as we headed towards Uluru. But the answer to my question in the title of this blog is "yes" - it was worth the detour to Alice.
Indonesia is a series of 17,000 islands created by 147 volcanoes. Some of those volcanoes are still active, as is evidenced by the fact that Mount Sinabung on Sumatra erupted two days ago, spewing ashes for nearly 3 miles. It probably did not make the news back home, but volcanic eruptions are a constant part of life for Indonesians.
MA and I wanted to make sure we saw some of this geography up close so we headed into Eastern Java. This required taking another overnight train. This one left at 1:20 am so we had to find a way to entertain ourselves (and stay awake!) until that time. We decided to splurge on "Executive Lounge" passes for the train station. The perks were limited, but they did separate the smokers (yay!) and gave us free wifi. Junk wifi, but enough to get our email. The more interesting part is the shows that were on tv in the lounge!
The first show was some sort of talent competition. The costumes were garish, and included a larger woman wearing something that appropriated Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. At one point, there was an audience participation section where the entire crowd joined in some sort of dance that included more steps than the Macarena. It was fascinating.
When that show finished, an Indonesian soap opera came on. I have no clue as to the actual plot, and I could not understand a word of the dialogue, but it was easy to get hooked. There was some sort of spell-casting and mysticism and scandal, all acted in an over-the-top manner. MA and I crafted our own plot to go along with the story, and I was actually sad when our train arrived because I had gotten sucked into this silly show. Now I will never know whether the witch successfully cursed the new wife...
Anyway, we got into Malang early in the morning. Kat's mom was waiting for us at the train station. We had a chance to take showers and get settled in before we met the family for coffee. I don't talk much about specific hotels or restaurants in this blog, but I have to comment on The Library. This is a lovely spot up the street from Kat's family home. The coffee is all grown locally and they make great lattes. The food was delicious and the wifi is excellent! What more can you ask for when you travel?
There was a great deal of discussion about our plans for the two days that we were in town. At one point, there was a discussion about hiking up to Mt Bromo for sunrise. But we decided that one volcanic sunrise was all we needed. We would spend this first day exploring the area around Malang and then head up to the Ijen Crater.
We spent our time in Malang at the Secret Zoo (which far exceeded expectations!), the Transportation Museum (which had an incredible collection of vintage cars and some pretty incredible photo ops), and then visited a small mountain community where Kat's family established a church and school. One amusing thing we noticed in this part of Java was that MA and I were novelties to many of the residents. We were often asked if we would allow people to have their pictures taken with us. I think 50 year old white ladies, traveling alone are not a frequent site in this area. At one point, while watching a lion feeding in the Secret Zoo, MA was asked to be in a photo - not to include the lion! MA was also asked to be a part of a couple's wedding photos. I guess this is a small taste of life in a boyband...
It was a lovely visit, but adventure was waiting for us. We headed out to see the sunrise at the Ijen Crater. This involves a midnight hotel departure followed by a two hour drive, then a chilly climb in the dark up to the summit before a descent to the sulfur mines to see the Blue Fire. In order for this plan to work, we needed to go to sleep early (hello, Tylenol PM!) and set an alarm for 11 pm.
The alarm went off and we quickly got ready. Our grand plan included a return to the hotel for a quick shower after this event. This would be a two hour detour but neither of us felt like spending the day in a car, smelling of sulphur. So we left our bags behind at the hotel.
We had read several travel guides about the hike so we were well prepared. We had headlamps and multiple layers of clothing and had left our jewelry behind (rumor had it that the sulfur tarnishes silver - we believed it.). I was too anxious about the climb to sleep on the drive to the crater so I watched the scene out the window.
We arrived at the start and made one last trip to the toilet (of course they were stand-up toilets!) before we purchased our tickets and began the ascent. We did not feel the need for a guide as we would merely follow those in front of us (note to self - hire a guide next time). We put on all our layers and started to walk.
It was really dark as we started climbing. It did not help that it began raining so the moon and stars were blocked by clouds. I was going to be very irritated if we got up this early and hiked in the rain but saw nothing (Flexible Maggi 2017 was not with me at this time - she was smartly sleeping in a hotel room). There were actually local guys who were willing to pull you via trolley to the top if you could not climb on your own. No thank you!
This may be the scariest hike I had ever done! We wore head lamps and rain jackets so our vision made it appear that we were walking through a tunnel. There were no switchbacks and the terrain was slick. We made a point of walking very slowly and deliberately towards the summit. We knew that the climb was expected to take 1 1/2-2 hours and then we would reach the descent. All of this would take place in the dark.
There were a series of flat sections which helped us to catch our breath, and then we reached the area where we would begin a single-file, steep descent. There were actually a few people who were coming out as we began heading down - show-offs! MA and I were happy to take our time.
As we approached the Blue Fire, we could finally see why this trek was so worthwhile. It was truly amazing! I wish any of my pictures did it justice, but I think you will have to see the pros for that. The sulphur somehow reacts and creates a true blue flame. It stinks like crazy down there - thank God we had good advice and were wearing masks. When the wind switches directions, you can be enveloped by the foul smell. Luckily, it switches often so you have time to adjust.
We watched the flame for a bit, then decided that we wanted to go down to see the sulphur miners. These guys have it rough! The mining is done by hand - each miner collects two buckets of sulphur and then carries this across his shoulders to the summit and back down to the start for collection. The miners wear little more than wet rags over their noses and mouths to protect them from the fumes. The guys get paid about $0.08 per kilo of sulphur or $12 per day. We as tourists are asked to pay 5000 Indonesian Rupiah (about $0.45) per photo is we take pictures of the miners. Some of the tourists try to sneak pictures without paying! Seriously... as if they cannot afford to (or don't want to! which is worse) to offer these guys coffee money but can afford to travel to Indonesia.
Rant over - We still had time to make it back to the summit in order to watch the sunrise over the crater. This was beautiful! And I have pictures to prove it. The yellow sulphur against the blue green water was incredible to see. Flexible Maggi 2017 arrived in time to see this event, and was really glad to be there.
As we waklked out, we could now see the path that we had taken in the morning. There was no tunnel - just slick tracks across a volcano. It really was a beautiful place.
The climbs in and out were both difficult for us. We determined at the end that we had each taken 2 falls, and we had the bruises to prove it. I was really glad that we had downtime in the car when this was over.
As we finished our walk out, we saw something that I need to share. There were three older, white people who were being carried on litters (Confession - had to look this word up. MA and I both knew what were talking about but neither of us knew what they were called. Google helped us figure out what "those things that were used to carry Caesar and Cleopatra were") up to the summit. It was one of the most imperialist things that I have ever seen! Four Indonesia guys each carrying one fat Westerner up to see a volcanic crater. Gross.
When we finally reached our car, neither of us felt good. We had probably breathed in too much sulphur. I had a wicked headache and MA had an upset stomach. Our driver then told us that we would have to take a detour back to our hotel - so the ride would be closer to three hours. It turned out to be four. We really wished we had brought our bags with us...
When we finally arrived back at our hotel, we had missed breakfast and we barely had time to take showers before we had to check out and begin our drive to Bali. We would end up spending 12 hours in the car, including a beautiful ferry ride from Banyuwangi to Gilianuk on the island of Bali. A day of leisure was calling me...
After two weeks of nearly continuous touring, we arrived in Bali without an itinerary or tour guides. We chose to stay in Ubud - not because of "Eat, Pray, Love" (frankly, I did not even know that it was filmed in this town) - but because it was described as an artists' community and away from the beaches. I was ready for some downtime.
We arrived at our hotel after nearly 12 hours of driving. Both MA and I were exhausted and tired of eating bread and bananas. So I suggested that we drop our bags and go out for a meal and a glass of wine. I had just seen the sign for a restaurant that had "Trattoria" in the name. So I thought they would have non-Indonesian food and decent wine. I was right on both counts.
We had agreed not to make any plans for our first day in Bali. Our only goal was to find a place to do laundry and get a lay of the land. I saw a sign for yoga as we were returning to our hotel so I decided that I could put that on my list.
After such a long day of travel, we set an alarm for 9 am so that we would not sleep the whole day while we were in Ubud. But we never needed it as we were both up by 8. MA went in search of tourist information while I took a yoga class.
I think I fell in love with yoga because of classes like this one. It took place on a raised bamboo platform with open sides. The area around the classroom was filled with flowers and an organic garden lined the path to the studio. It was my favorite type of class - long stretches in poses, focus on breathing, few "ohms". This is the perfect way to start a day in Bai!
When I finished class, I went out to explore the area near our hotel. I had hit the jackpot! There was a laundry place across the street, several places that offered massages and pedicures (boy, could my feet use that!), tour offices, restaurants, and a few shops. But the best part was that it was away from the main tourist streets. A little quiet haven.
I relaxed by the pool (luxury!) until MA got home. She had lots of good information about our options for the next two days. We decided to take a bicycle tour of the area and then spend a day snorkeling, Now all we had to do was drop off laundry and do some shopping.
On our way into town, we passed the Monkey Sanctuary. Signs warned us to hold onto our bags and not to interact with the monkeys. Monkeys cannot read so they chose to ignore these signs and left the fenced in area to try to interact with the passers-by. Tricksters!
We wandered around the main parts of Ubud and came across the Yoga Barn. This gave me my first taste of the "Eat, Pray, Love" phenomenon. The "parking lot" was full - all mopeds and motorbikes. Classes and workshops were held all day and you could even stay here. Most of the patrons appeared to be Westerners, not Indonesians. The typical backpack contingent. The place had a good assortment of classes so I decided to try one the next day (this never happened because there was just no time!).
We skipped main meals on this day and chose instead to take food and drink stops at places that had interesting names or views (Three Monkeys, Cafe Wayan - with a view of the rice fields). While eating at one of these places, we witnessed a pretty awful moped accident, which reinforced our decision not to ride these.
We had to walk back to our fabulous hotel via the Monkey Jungle. It was dark so I am convinced that all the monkeys were sleeping. But we did have to share the narrow path with all the motorbikes that were using this as a cut through. I waved my flashlight in hopes that all the drivers were paying enough attention to avoid us. We finished the evening with pedicures and enjoyed a good night's sleep before our bike tour.
We were really lucky to get such a good group for our bike tour. MA has searched through reviews of the various bike tour options and we had seen numerous comments about the poor condition of the bikes on many of the tours. Bali Hai Bike Tours (love the name!) received high marks for both the tour itself and the bikes. They picked us up and our first stop was one of the rice terraces, Tegallang You could spend hours wandering this place, but we only had time for a brief look.
Our second stop was at a place that offered the Luwak coffee. I did not need any more of that stuff, but I did try out the ginseg coffee. It was a treat.
After lunch, which took place at a location in the mountains that was known for its amazing views (we missed this as the whole area was engulfed in clouds), we mounted our bikes to begin the tour. The first part of the tour took us through a bamboo forest, along a perfect path away from the traffic! In our whole time cycling this area, we only passed one motorbike. Most of the riding was easy, but I did take one fall into an irrigation ditch along a rice field. It was raining at this point so I didn't even mind being soaked further.
We then went to a Hindu village which gave us a chance to see how the community lived and interacted. Each household has a family temple - elaborate structures which are beautifully maintained - and the families in the community then visit each other's temples for special occasions. Only big events take place in the main temple.
We finished out our bike ride through more rice fields. By this time, it was pouring and I was ready to get off the bike. But I kept my opinion to myself and started to focus on the fact that we had to pick up our laundry on this day or we would never get our clothes back again. It was a distraction, but not a good one.
We had a great dinner with the bike company and then began the drive back into town. The traffic was horrible, which made me focus even more on laundry. MA was thinking about the same issue but she actually had crafted a plan. We eventually ditched our ride and then ran back through the streets of Ubud to the laundry. We arrived not long before it closed, for which I was extremely grateful. So I convinced MA to join me for wine to celebrate our good fortune.
Our final day in Ubud was spent on a snorkeling excursion. Many people make the trip to Bali exclusively to dive so we wanted to make sure that we got at least a taste of the undersea world. We had found a trip that allowed us to walk off the beach to a shipwreck - the USAS Liberty. The weather was perfect for this adventure. We wore short wetsuits and had clear visibility. it was a great way to end a visit to Bali, and I have already decided that I would like to go back!
We got dropped off at the airport after our adventure. Once again, we had a hideous flight time - leaving sometime around midnight with a 5 am arrival into Darwin. The worst part was that, with the time change, we would only get 2 1/2 hours of sleep before we arrived. We then had a several hour layover before we would fly to Alice Springs. We knew that we did not want to spend all this time in the Bali - Denpasar airport.
As it turns out, this brand new airport is on the edge of Kuta, a town known for its beaches. Where there are beaches, there are restaurants, bars, and shops. We checked our bags in the luggage storage area and asked the attendant how to get to town. He looked at us like we were crazy and recommended we take a taxi. Looking at the traffic, we knew that we could walk faster han the taxi so we just used Google maps to lead the way.
We had enough time to visit a Catholic church, get gelato, visit a craft brewery (MA even got a cider! What is this world coming to?) and even contemplated a massage. We eventually skipped the massage and headed back to the airport.
It was time to say good-bye to Indonesia and hello to Australia. I was looking forward to no longer hearing the call-to-prayer throughout the day and skipping rice. And I could not wait to get a piece of fish that was no longer attached to its head and tail.
Indonesia is a fascinating country, about which I knew very little before this trip. It is the 4th most populous country in the world; Indonesian is the 6th most spoken language in the world (and I don't believe that I have ever heard it spoken before!); it has 17,000 islands, most of which are uninhabited; and its people represent 6 primary religions, with 87% of the people being Muslim. We were going to get a small taste of its rich cultural history by exploring central Java.
Our train pulled into Jogyakarta (Jogya) at 4 am. We had a driver, Mas Dito (Mas means "Mr" and his first name is "Dito" so we quickly started thinking of him as our "mosquito" as he drove us through traffic), waiting for us to take us exploring that day. Our original plan was to go to our hotel, drop off our luggage, and then drive up to where we would watch the sunrise. But Mas Dito said that if we took the time to take our luggage to the hotel, we would miss sunrise. It wasn't until that evening that our hotel was a mere kilo away, but it is a perfect tribute to Indonesia traffic.
We had two options for watching sunrise - a fancy version from Borobudur (that included breakfast!) or one that was visited by mostly locals. We chose the local option. It was interesting to see that many places in central Java offer lower entrance fees for Indonesian locals at a fraction of the cost of the fee charged to tourists. I am actually in favor of this idea! The locals do not make much money and the tourists can obviously afford to be on a trip to Indonesia. For the locals, the cost is often less than US$1 and about US$3-4 for tourists
Hiking up to watch the sunrise was a beautiful way to start our visit to this region. The weather cooperated so we had a perfect view. We took pictures on swings with the mountains behind us and forgot how tired we were. After we were finished, we headed over to see the "chicken church". If you have ever seen the Big Chicken on Cobb Parkway in Atlanta, you get an idea of its design - with the added bonus of a gathering space for worship - in any religion.
After we left the chicken church, our guide asked if we wanted to try Kopi Luwak. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I love coffee. So we sad yes!
Kofi luwak is the Indonesian coffee that became famous because no one could believe that you would actually drink it! And it is expensive. Why? Because the beans have gone through a very special process. They have been eaten by these cat-like creatures called "luwaks" (they are actually Asian palm civets). The animals eat the coffee beans and then they are partially digested and then vacuated (not sure if this is the right word, but you get the point) via their bowels. The beans are then collected, then cleaned through numerous processes, before they are then roasted and ground for coffee. The coffee came to the world's attention via BBC and CNN stories about the costs of the coffee (in the "if you have to ask how much it costs..." kind of way).
Since they have gotten so much attention, many places are exploiting the critters, using intensive farming methods to produce more coffee beans to make more money. But the place we went (so we were told) is the first place to offer these beans, and keeps their civets in a wild environment. I could have been sold a story, but I did see the wild civets and one slept beneath my legs as I drank coffee.
In my opinion, the coffee is not worth what they are charging for it. It was good, but I like my coffee with milk and sugar, so not worthy of paying five times more than regular arabica beans I do not have a sophisticated palate so there is that fact to keep in mind... We did not buy any beans to bring home.
There were two highlights of our visit to this area - Borobudur and Prambanan.
Borobudur - This is the world's largest Buddhist temple. It rises like a pyramid with nine levels topped with a large central dome. There are 504 Buddhas around the lower levels, along with carved reliefs of stories about Buddha and Javanese history and folklore. At the higher levels, there are 72 Buddhas on stupa (temples). To properly see the site, you follow along clockwise from the base, ascending on the stairs on the east side at each level. The site was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.
We spent about 3 hours exploring the site. It is not to be missed if you are in Indonesia. One weird thing that I noticed here (and visible everywhere in Indonesia) is the presence of musholas. Musholas are small temples for Muslim worship. Each one has a washing station - men and women are separated - and then a place for prayer. I thought it was interesting to see these in a Buddhist temple pavilion, but then I saw them again the next day at a Hindu temple.
The second site was Prambanan. This is a 9th century Hindu temple in central Java. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a large central temple surrounded by several other smaller temples. The temple was largely abandoned in the 10th century, then most of the temples collapsed during an earthquake in the 16th century. and then re-discovered outside Indonesia in the 19th century during the British occupation. Archaeologists did some excavation work on the compound, then the Dutch began to reconstruct the compound during their rule. This work continued under the Indonesian government and the site has again become an important religious center for Hindu rituals.
In 2006, the temple experienced major damage from an earthquake and again in 2014 after being covered by ash from an eruption of a volcano in eastern Java. As a visitor to this site, you see an area with an assortment of stones that they have not yet determined where they were originally from. It is like a giant puzzle with pieces of assorted sizes, which may or may not still resemble their original design. DOM might enjoy such a puzzle.
To cap off our visit to this site, we had tickets (VIP!) to see the Ramyana ballet at the Prambanan. I am not going to be able to do this justice, but picture seeing an outdoor performance on a stage with UNESCO World Heritage site as its backdrop! It was amazing!
Leaving the performance to return to our hotel brought back a taste of reality - traffic! It was 10:00 at night and we moved as slow as during the day. I offer eternal thanks to the fact that someone else was driving as I would not have been pleasant to be around if I had been the driver.
The town where we were staying, Yogyakarta, is known for the variety of art that is found in the area. One of the trademarks of the area is the beautiful, locally made batik fabrics. We had the chance to watch the patterns being drawn by hand with wax syluses on fabric, and then dyed with the lightest colors first (I think!). Many of the patterns are used exclusively to represent a particular family. In visiting the "keraton", the sultan's palace, we learned that each wife (he had four! along with several mistresses..) had her own batik pattern. These are on display, along with the historical family batiks.
Indonesia is a presidential constitutional republic, so you might be wondering why it has a sultan? During the revolution for Indonesian independence, the Sultan supported the new republic. and even fought on the frontlines and financially supported the new country. He was rewarded with a non-elected governorship in the Republic. He is very highly regarded in Yogyakarta, to the point that when the current government tried to eliminate his unelected position, they were widely rebuked!
Leaving Jogya involved another over-night train. This time, we were headed to Malang, to see an area where there are few Western tourists. Kat's family is from this region so we were going to learn more about her background. I was looking forward to being "taken care of" by Kat's family again ... and (hopefully), leaving the traffic behnd.
MA's roommate is from Jakarta. As we were planning this trip, MA decided that this was the perfect reason to go to Indonesia, so she asked if we could come for a visit. Nothing like inviting yourself to visit people you have never met... I had never even met MA's roommate, Kat!
Kat's Dad and sister joined her to pick us up from the airport and our first destination was an English language Mass. It was a beautiful church and a lovely service, but in a tip to Indonesian traffic, Mass started late because the priest was stuck in traffic. Little did I know that this was just a normal way of operating in Jakarta.
After Mass, we went to a typical Indonesian restaurant. I learned two things quickly: 1) that I really like Indonesian food!, and 2), that Kat's family was going to stuff me every chance they got. "No, thank you. I'm full" is translated to mean "I don't want that particular food item but perhaps something else." All the food was amazing, but it took me a while to figure out how to convince Kat's family that I really was finished eating.
I have mentioned (twice!) the traffic in Indonesia, so I have to provide further insight. I have traveled a good bit. Admittedly, I have not been to China so I cannot say that the traffic there would be worse. But of the cities and countries that I have visited - including Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Sri Lanka - Indonesia, and Jakarta in particular, is the worst that I have seen! To provide some context, the roads themselves are good. There are not many potholes and in Jakarta, the roads are fairly wide. The issue is all the things that are competing for space on these roads and the way people drive.
Asongan - Motorbikes provide an affordable transportation solution for many Indonesians. It is not uncommon to see entire families riding on one bike (baby is "secured" by a sarong to one of the adults), weaving in and out of traffic, passing cars on both sides of a lane. The Asongan are motorbike riders who sell pretty much anything you need to those stuck in traffic. One writer referred to them as "mosquitoes" for their ability to flit in and out of lanes of traffic.
Bajaj - These are three-wheeled vehicles, not much different from the tuktuks I had seen in other places throughout Southeast Asia. The key distinction is that these had doors, and belched black smoke as they transported people around town. A "plus" for riders was their "A/C Alam" - natural air conditioning, or open windows. The same author as above referred to them as "cockroaches".
Becak - These are three-wheeled pedal or motobike rickshaws. When I first saw them, I thought that they were mainly used by tourists. But they are actually affordable transportation for many locals.
MetroMini - These are small buses that are crammed to the point of over-flowing (they won't even move until they are full), which roam the streets of Jakarta, picking up fares. They stop to drop-off and pick-up passengers anywhere they choose and spew nasty exhaust out their tail ends.
All of these vehicles compete with passenger cars and trucks to move through the country. On top of this, all the drivers seem to view road signs as "suggestions" - stop signs are clearly optional - and pedestrians have no right-of-way. It makes for utter chaos and long commutes.
The previous governor (who now is in prison for blasphemy - a Christian in a majority Muslim nation) started a project to bring a subway system to Jakarta. The plan is for this to open in 2019, but the new government is not prioritizing this project. It is a shame because the traffic issues are a true hindrance to development.
There is my traffic rant. I have to confess that I never had to deal with this as a driver. Those who have ridden in a car with me will be happy to read that I did not drive in Indonesia. Kat's family provided us with transportation for all of our adventures in Jakarta.
One of the things that you notice in Jakarta is the number of high-end malls. Kat explained to us that because of the pollution (the smog in the city was scary!) and the heat, locals like to go to malls to wander. They treat the malls like parks - and the malls accommodate all their needs. We went to malls several times around meals, largely to walk around.
Here are some of the highlights we saw as tourists:
Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII - Kat's cousin thought we would be very disappointed by this park, but we loved it! This is a park that was commissioned by the former first lady of Indonesia, Tien Suharto. This park is a cultural recreational area that showcases the unique features of each province of Indonesia. We started our visit by taking the overhead tram to get a feel for the layout. We realized it was a very big place so we decided to rent bicycles to get round the park. The bikes provided transport, but it was clear that these bikes were long past their useful life.
Of course, it started to rain when we were at the furthest point from the entrance. Oh well, we had a komodo dragon to see. And plenty of other reptiles. Visiting the Reptile Park within this park could easily convince you to avoid much of Indonesia. Scary, deadly stuff.
You could spend days at this park, but we had time to only visit few areas. One highlight of our visit was the Tana Toraja pavilion. This culture has a unique way of celebrating the death of loved ones. The body of the deceased is kept - sometimes, for several years - until the family can afford a suitable burial ceremony. You can visit the dead family member before s/he is finally placed into a cave, whose level of placement indicates their place in society.
We did not make it to this remote province, but we did get to see its miniature at TMII, which showed off the caves. But what we really enjoyed was a troupe of local girls learning a traditional dance inside the pavilion. I later learned that cultural dance is part of the educational curriculum in Indonesia, and you can see many of the beautiful dances on YouTube.
Wayang Museum - Javanese Wayang (shadow) puppets are one of the items that you see throughout Jakarta. We wanted to see the museum to learn the history of the puppets and to learn about how they were used in Indonesia to tell stories.
Throughout our Indonesia travels, the fact that we had an Indonesian guide (Kat) along for the ride. In the Wayang Museum, we were allowed to attend a movie that was being shown to a student group, which was not open to the public! Unfortunately, he film was in the 3D and we did not have the glasses, and the dialogue was in Indonesian. So MA got to hear Kat's translation but I got to make up my OWN story to match the movie!
It reminded me of my first time I saw opera - It was at the Met. Wagner's Master Singers. It was six hours long on a Monday night, and we arrived too late to read the synopsis. First (!!) intermission was two hours into the performance. I thought the story was about a trial...
But I digress... after the movie, I asked for a synopsis, and learned about Ramayana. I would learn more about this story over the next 10 days.
As we were looking at the large puppets inside the entrance of the museum, a young man started talking to Kat. I thought he was flirting with her. He offered to give us a tour of the museum, so we obliged.
He was a good guide, but I am grateful that we had Kat to translate. After exploring the museum for a while, our guide informed us that we were "lucky" to be there at a time when we could see a performance of the puppets! Kat finally realized that our "guide" wanted a tip, so she indulged him and we headed off to see the puppet show.
I now own a shadow puppet. it is pretty, but I am grateful that I got to see the 15 minute version of the story instead of the 9 hour version. Tourist list - check.
MA and I had been looking for postcards since we entered Indonesia. Oddly, it appears that this common item is not one that the many tourist shops have embraced! t's been two weeks since we mailed the ones that we finally found from the Jakarta main post office and they have still not arrived in the States, so perhaps this is why. We finally found postcards for sale behind the cunter of the post office.
We visited the ceramics museum and then went to Cafe Batavia for lunch. It was one of the first places that we saw Western tourists on our visit.
After lunch, I was ready to walk. Kat was agreeable to this idea so we headed out to walk towards Monas - the National Monument of Indonesia. It didn't look very far on the map. But what I did not realize was that the sidewalks were not reserved for people - cars often park along the way so you must weave into traffic to continue moving forward. I thought my sister was going to kill me for this choice, but she stayed with Kat and we moved forward.
I like to walk in cities! It allows you to see the real, street-level activity that you miss in the car. It is easy to "top-up" your SIM card or buy memory for your camera, and there is always plenty of coffee!
I will admit that there were several places where crossing the street was a challenge (WWTFD - get a taxi!) but we kept going. We arrived at the Palace in time for the changing of the guard so MA decided to take pictures. Bad idea! The guard gave us the universal "don't even think about it" signal. As an aside, in Moscow, i took a picture at the front of a government office and the guard came over to me, took my camera, erased the photo(!), and then returned my camera to me. I knew that these guards took the "no photo stuff" very seriously! So we moved on to the monument.
There have been many terrorist acts in Jakarta, most recently on January 14, 2016, so you become very aware of the heightened security in the city. As we entered Monas, we went through another security screening. It really focused your attention to the issue.
We were unable to summit the monument - it was never clear whether it was closed or that they were out of tickets. The monument had a basement museum which housed many dioramas of Indonesia's struggle for independence. We spent some time there, learning about the country. But it was interesting to see when the history ended - Pre-Soharto.
We finished the day at the central mosque - which holds 200,000 people during Ramadan! - and then on to the Catholic cathedral across the street. Our 1 1/2 hour commute through traffic took us home , and then we treated ourselves with Indonesian massages. Yay!
Our host family grows corals as their business. MA and I wanted to see how this was done so we were taken to their local office. The majority of the growth takes place off the coast of Bali, but the corals are then shipped Jakarta before being sent around the world for use in aquariums. I am not a diver, but I do like to snorkel. I really enjoyed seeing these and learning how they are made.
Our final night in Indonesia included a visit to a local street market to have street food (made in front of us so that we could "duplicate" the cooking at home...) and a chance to meet Kat's aunt who owned a booth at this market. It was another great meal!
We had a great visit to Jakarta - mostly thanks to Kat's family - but there was much more of Indonesia to explore. Our next adventure began with an overnight train from Jakarta to Yogyarta (Jogja). We splurged for First Class, which meant we got assigned seats, a reclining chair, and a blanket. - all for about $30! The train was FREEZING! Completely over air-conditioned. I slept but was very happy when we arrive to Jogja at 4 am.
I flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and stayed the night at an airport hotel. This was a bit of a splurge for me on this trip - $80 for one nigh!t! But the descriptions from other travelers of getting to other nearby hotel seemed inconvenient. "Take the overpass across the freeway and walk 10 minutes to the place where you pick up the key and the hotel will be about a block away." Not happening with my big backpack. (This is one time when I properly answered the question "WWDTFD?")
My morning flight took me to Jakarta. My sister, MA, and I had plans to each get a local SIM card then find a place to meet via WhatsApp. But as I was waiting in baggage claim, I looked over to see that that the flight next to mine was coming in from Singapore. And standing there, waiting for her bag, was MA herself. I was so happy to see her!
We had no plans for that afternoon, which was good because dealing with MA's phone was harder than we anticipated. It turns out that MA's first phone was locked, and her back-up phone would not accept an Indonesian SIM card. So we were going to have to stick together for this trip.
Getting from the airport to the hotel gave us our first taste of Indonesian diving. It was awful! In the short, two kilometer trip from the airport, we learned that there is really no right-of-way. At one point, our shuttle driver was pushing his way for space against a large truck. Somehow, we won (yay!) but it came at the expense of a commingling of our sideview mirrors. The guy who was "directing traffic" (I was told that these guys are "self-employed" and rely on tips from drivers) untangled the mirrors from each other and the truck driver gave him some money, and we each went our separate ways. There were no raised voices; no threats;. It was a very civilized way to settle a conflict.
We arrived at our hotel and we finally had a chance to talk about our plans for the next few days. I had given MA responsibility for planning the Indonesia part of the trip (after all, she was the reason that we were in Indonesia). All I knew was that we had an early morning flight to Tanjun Pandan - Belitung. But I had no idea what we would be doing once we arrived.
For a bit of background, Belitung is an island east of Sumatra, one of Indonesia's five main islands. Its beaches are known for their granite boulders and calm, clear water. The town in which we were staying is a jumping off spot for catching a boat to see the smaller surrounding islands and snorkeling.
MA had been told about a book called Rainbow Troops (Lasker Pelangi), which had one the New York book award for fiction in 2013. The author grew up on Belitung an wrote the book as a fictionalized account of his and his classmate's struggle for an education on the island. The tin mining industry, in which 60% of the island inhabitants work, wanted to limit education opportunities for locals. The book has been made into a movie, but neither of us had either read the book or seen the movie.
I am open to exploring new places, but I like to have a bit of knowledge about where I am going. So we pulled out Lonely Planet to do a bit of research. There was absolutely NO mention of this island in the whole book. Not a good sign.
But our reservations were made, so we would just have to visit the tourism office when we arrived into town. Flexible Maggi 2017.
Our flight was short but they actually fed us! Just a muffin and water, but better than six peanuts in a bag. Take that, US airlines!
We landed and headed to baggage claims. One of us would wait for bags while the other would visit the tourism desk. But there wasn't a tourism office so we would just have to wait until we got into town. My bag arrived, but MA's did not. Oh well... we arranged for MA's bag to be sent to the hotel and headed into town.
The hotel was nice but I was not really seeing much in the area. There were no elephant pants roaming the streets so I got the feeling that there were not many tourists here.
We got settled in at the hotel, found the tourist office on Google maps, and started walking to the beach. It was overcast but not really raining so it felt good to walk! We continued for a while before I realized that we must have passed the turn-off for the tourist office. We re-traced our steps and consulted the map again. We should have been standing right in front of the office, but all we saw were chickens! Perhaps it had moved??
We finally found someone who spoke enough English to explain to us that the tourist office had closed. I now understood why Lonely Planet had left this place out of their guide.
As we walked on towards the beach, we saw a sign for a museum. It was becoming more cloudy so we decided to tuck in for a break and to buy some postcards.
The Museum Maritime Bangka Belitung was very well staffed, but no one there spoke English. We paid our 2000 Rupiahs (about $0,15) and went inside. It was soon clear that we had overpaid. The whole museum consisted of two rooms - one with swords and a few other pieces of military equipment and the other was full of items discovered in archaeological digs in the area. All the signs were in Indonesian so I cannot tell you ore about what we saw.
As we were preparing to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a park out back. So we went to look around. This space was actually what I will call the saddest zoo I have ever seen! There was one sad crocodile who was stuck in a pen in which he could barely move, a boa constrictor curled up in the corner of his cage, a rooster (which was particularly odd since chickens roamed freely around this island), and a few other assorted animals. I could not wait to get out of this place! And no, I did not take any pictures. There were no postcards.
We wandered on towards the beach and found a place for lunch. Since we had one more full day on this island, we needed to figure out what to do. So we went to Google for some ideas.
The few articles we could find suggested going to the Andrea Hirata Museum about Rainbow Troops, and renting a boat to take us out to the islands. They provided suggested prices, but told us that we would need to negotiate in advance. At least we now had a plan.
We tried again to get MA's phone fixed - after all, we had plenty of time in our day. While trying to get the local cellular agent to fix the phone, Buon walked up ("Buon - not James Bond") and asked where we were from. He then offered to put together a tour for us for the next day. The prices were all in line with those that had been suggested, but he was riding a motorbike (these are very popular over here) and he needed to find a car. At least we had an option..
They were unable to fix MA's phone, so we continued exploring the town. There was not much to see. We finally came across a travel agency so I suggested we talk with them about arranging a tour (and perhaps getting a map - what a concept!).
The travel agent was very nice and agreed to put together a tour for us, and arrange for a car and driver. We had a plan for the next day, but still no map.
As we walked home, it started to rain. This couldn't last long. After all, it was the dry season. But it rained, and rained all night long. The weather forecast showed that it was going to continue to rain for days. Not my idea of boating weather, particularly in a small boat that rides right on top of the waves. Visions of Gilligan's Island went through my brain.
Our driver arrived and we discussed our options. It was pouring! We asked if we could go to the Hirata Museum before getting on the boat and he agreed. Our first indication that we may have to work harder to communicate effectively when we pulled up outside the very same sad museum that we had visited the day before. There was no need for a second visit to this place.
We were finally able to communicate where we wanted to go. Our driver, Fendi, explained that this museum was on the other side of the island. If we went to this museum, we would not be able to go on the boat. It was still pouring so we decided that the museum was a better option.
The drive out to the other side of the island was interesting. The roads were surprisingly good but there were areas we could see where the water was collecting. We didn't think anything about it.
Our first stop was the museum. I am pretty sure that our guide expected us to spend about 30 minutes at this place before we were ready to move on. This was not the case.
The museum itself was small. But it was delightful! The walls were multi-colored and there were reading nooks throughout. Andrea had covered the walls with quotes from his favorite books from around the world. Many of his chosen works had similar themes and we enjoyed reading through them Each of us took away an author and a book that we will read when we return. MA bought a t-shirt, but there were no postcards.
After leaving the museum, we headed towards the beach for lunch. The rain had let up a bit, so we were looking forward to spending the afternoon exploring this part of the island.
For lunch, Fendi took us to a local place along the water. He helped us to order - why must they serve fish with the heads and tails on??? And I got to have a beer. This was a treat for me as alcohol is not easy to find in this Muslim country.
After lunch, Fendi took us to the tourism office. Oddly, this exists far from where most tourists would visit. You could tell that they did not have many visitors by the fact that we had three guides to take us around the place. And we were finally able to get a map. But not postcards.
The tourism office showcased a history of the island along with a caged crocodile (once again, in far too small of a pen), a Tarsia (the world's smallest monkey), and some snapping turtles. They also had some exhibits where you could see many of the traditional items from the area.
At the end of the tour, we were asked to take a quiz on all we learned. With a little help from our guides, we passed. Then they asked if they could take our picture. Did I mention that they do not get many tourists to this place?
As we left the tourism office, the rain picked up again. As we drove around to see more of the island, we drove through spots where the road was completely flooded. But I wasn't nervous becaue Fendi did not seem nervous.
Our last stop on the tour was at a coffee shop. Bitung, the town in the part of the island, is known as the land of 1,001 coffee shops (though this does seem to be a bit of an exaggeration). So we had to stop.
We had coffee and Fendi decided that there was one last mosque that he wanted us to see. As we were driving to the mosque, Fendi showed his first bit of concern. After driving for a bit, he decided that we probably ought to head back to our hotel lest we get stuck on this side of the island. We had a two hour drive ahead of us.
We drove for a while and made it through some mighty deep puddles. Fendi had decided that as long as we were in a caravan behind other cars (and were not first!), we could go through these long stretches of flooded waters and would be fine. I don't know that science would support his position...
After traveling for a while, we came to a place where all the cars were stopped. Fendi said that he would check in with the other drivers, but we might have to stay on this side of the island and make our way back on Sunday. This was a bad alternative since our flight left at 7 am on Sunday. I needed to be Flexible Maggi 2017.
Fendi came back and showed us photos of the road - well, at this point, it was a river. There were people rafting in this section so we were not going to attempt to drive across. Fendi told us that one of the guides had another route we could try. This seemed like a plan. Both MA and I started to pray.
After another hour of driving, re-tracing our route through Tandung, I was starting to relax a bit. That was until Fendi pointed out that we needed to be concerned about crocodiles if we were to get stuck somewhere. Seriously!
Now I was really nervous. Each puddle we passed through seemed deeper and it was still raining. I was watching for crocodiles (though it was far too dark to see anything).
About an hour later, I started to believe that we might actually make it back to the hotel. Fendi asked if we needed a bathroom break. I did but I did NOT want to take a chance on losing the caravan and meeting a crocodile. So we continued.
Around 8 pm, Fendi breathed a sigh of relief and announced that we had made it to the airport. We were about 20 minutes from the hotel so we would make it home! I could finally relax and Fendi announced that he would need to make a bathroom stop before he dropped us off. Of course!
We made it to the hotel and Fendi graciously offered to pick us up to take us to the airport in the morning. He would not take no for an answer so we called it a night. Our two hour drive had taken 4 1/2 hours, but we were safe.
As I prepared to finally write this post, I Googled Belitung and came across two great guides to the place. Apparently, we missed out on white sand beaches and crytal clear water for snorkeling. I'll have to take their word for it.
A short post this time.
If you have traveled in Southeast Asia, you know about elephant pants. For others, these are lightweight pants that have an elephant print as a primary part of their pattern, usually as a row of elephants running up and down the pants. I think you only see them when traveling in places where there are many backpackers.
Lots of tourists wear them - male and female. I didn't understand the appeal of wearing an image of the largest land animal on an area of your body that we usually try to minimize.
I resisted these pants in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Ecuador and Guatemala also offer these pants even though the only elephants you will see here are in zoos. Okay - there are no wild elephants in Nepal, either. I could not understand the appeal.
So I now have a confession - I own not just one but two pairs of these pants! And I love them... The fabric feels like butter. I had resisted for far too long but I now understand their appeal.
So what caused the change of heart (other than the commitment to Flexible Maggi 2017)? It was the work plan at Mirror. I knew that we were going to get muddy and disgusting so I decided that I would buy cheap pants (they always seem to be less than five dollars a pair) that I could wear for outdoor work and then dispose of at the end of my placement. But then I tried them on, and I "drank the kool-aid", so to speak. They are heavenly pants.
I quickly decided they were too nice for outdoor work (and we learned from other people's experience with them on our project - not up to the task!) so I was going to wear them only to sleep in.
But yesterday, after my day with elephants, I put these pants on for my last walk around Chiang Mai. They were perfect for pulling up around my knees as i experienced my first fish spa (which I will do again!). And the easiest pants to wear while getting a Thai foot massage and pedicure.
I am a convert! Elephant pants will be with me on any future vacation.