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.
For out final day at Mirror, the staff took us to the White Temple Wat Rong Khun. This is a privately owned temple on the outskirts of Chiang Rai. The artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed it and constructed it, devoted his life to work and opened it to the public in 1997. He could be seen working on the temple until the day he died,
What makes this temple so unique is its color and the details used in his design. For example, as you approach the entrance, you walk across a bridge (called the cycle of rebirth) of outstretched arms reaching out from the water. They symbolize unrestrained desire The artist painted images of Saddam Hussein and President Bush the eyes of his Buddhas as a protest to the war in Iraq. There are also images of Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger, and Neo from the Matrix - all symbolizing the fact that people are wicked. It is a very unusual place.
After visitng the temple, we headed back to Mirror to pack Our songtows took us back into Chiang Rai where I boarded a bus for Chiang Mai. I really enjoyed Chiang Rai and wish that I had time to see the Black Temple. But I will save that for a future visit.
The three hour bus ride to Chiang Mai was uneventful. I read and looked out the window at the scenery. I was ready to get somewhere where I could take a hot shower and make my own schedule for a few days. I had nothing actually planned at this point, but I did have a list of things that I wanted to do.
There were three memorable things that I did in Chiang Mai: 1) got a massage from a prison inmate; 2) took a Thai cooking class; and 3) went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
Women's Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center - Anyone who has visited Thailand will tell you about the abundance of personal services available. After a few days of outdoor work, I was ready for a massage.
Several volunteers had told me about a facility where they teach women prisoners how to do massage. This gives them a skill that they can then use when they leave prison The prison offers paid massages so that the women can practice their skills. I was in!
The fact that I still have not been able to adjust my sleep schedule in this new environment came in handy as I was one of the first people to sign up for a massage that day. By 11:00, they were no more apointments for the day.
The massage lasted 2 hours and cost 400 Thai baht (about $12, $15 with tip), It was fantastic! There were two times when I had to cry "uncle", but I felt great afterwards. I now felt ready to tackle all the wats around the city.
Thai Cooking Class - My fiend, KB, told me that one of the highlights of her time in Chiang Mai was a Thai Cooking Class. I am certainly not a chef, but this seemed like a good way to learn about the culture and have a great meal. So I arranged to take a class from Red Curry Cooking School.
My instructor, Aon, picked me up at my guesthouse and we went straight to the market. This place was really cool. They sold all the parts to any animal they offered. Which meant I saw pig heads next to intestines and hearts and feet! There was a whole area dedicated to insides of cows. As I walked through this section, I was fascinated with what I saw but very happy to be a vegetarian.
The produce was beautiful. I saw so many items that I had never seen before. And the smells made me hungry. We picked up the items were were going to need for our meal today and then headed out to the kitchen.
The Red Curry Cooking School operates out of the River Market. I was Aon's only student so I got lots of instruction. We made coconut soup, tofu green curry (we made our own curry paste!), sticky rice with mango, and something else that I cannot remember. I was full by the time I left, but so happy!
Elephant Jungle Conservancy - Up until recently, the highlight of many people's trips to Thailand would be a ride on an elephant. But as people became more educated about the impact on the elephants (their spines are not designed to hold weight), demand for this experience has tapered off.
I notced that most of the brochures for elephant experiences highlighted the fact that they did NOT allow riding, and that no prods or chains were used on the animals. I only saw a flyer for one program that still offered the elephant riding experience. And the amazing thing was that this program was about 2/3 of the cost of the non-riding experiences, meaning that they thought a lower cost could overcome the negative impact on the elephants. It is good to see that education can have such a positive impact.
I was picked up early on the day of my tour. The elephant conservancy was about 1 1.2 hours outside of Chiang Mai. We arrived and hiked up to the property where the elephants live. They have about 60 acres to roam, which is certainly not how they would live in the wild, but these elephants would not survive in the wild. They have all been rescued from circuses or work farms, and even from other tourist camps where they used to give rides to humans. These elephants are well-fed and appear to be happy.
We were asked to put on colorful shirts that everyone wears when the elephants are fed. The elephants know that the people in these shirts have bananas, and they love bananas! We then fed them corn, which they didn't seem to enjoy as much.
The big experience came next. We got into our bathing suits and followed the elephants down to their mud hole. I could not believe that I was going to be swimming with the elephants! We were given some safety precautions - don't stand behind the elephant and watch where the elephant is going to lie down (so you don't end up under the large beast!). And then we followed them into the water. It seemed pretty cool at first, and then the elephants did what all creatures in nature do, and you quickly realize that you are swimming in their toilet. I had to get out.
Our final interaction with the elephants was down at the waterfalls. This gave us a chance to get somewhat clean, and splash around with the elephants. It was a great way to cool off and finish our encounter.
I really enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai, but I was excited to move on to my next country. Besides, I would finally have some company - my sister would be meeting me there! God help her because I have not talked much in the last two weeks so she is not getting many words in for the first few hours!
This post has very little to do with travel - except in terms of dealing with travel issues. But it tells you a bit about me. And since it happened while I am traveling, I am including it here. Fell free to skip to Chiang Mai 😉
I like plans. Everything does not have to be planned, but once I have a plan, I don't like to change it. It is a character flaw, but it makes my life work. If you have ever traveled with me, you are nodding your head as you read this.
A perfect example of this is a typical day at Jazz Fest. The car leaves from Soniat at 10:15. If it leaves at 10:10, I am thrilled. But it does not leave at 10:20. Once I arrive at the Fest, I don't really care what happens, but I like to have my start of the day planned.
When I turned 40, I decided that this inflexibility was something that needed work. So I took a vow to try to be more flexible, and became "Flexible Maggi - 2007". The fact that the title of this blog references 2017 gives you some indication as to how well this is going... it is a work in progress.
On Monday morning, I got to take this new iteration of Maggi out for a test drive. And I survived the plan change without a tear, at least I think so. This also explains why Monday was such a very long day for me.
My older sister - MA is the smartest individual I know personally. But all that knowledge mixing around in her brain sometimes means that simple things are overlooked. This is one such event.
MA and I began planning this trip about six months ago. we had been playing around with itineraries, but the big pieces started to fall into place in January. Over the next few months, we began to work out details around specific cities and flights. The internet is a glorious thing!
As our departure date approached, I sent MA several reminders to bring her passport down to Atlanta. Everything else is easily replaceable, but the passport is a pain. When she arrived in Atlanta, she sent me a note confirming that her passport was with her. The countdown began.
Over the next few weeks, we finalized our plans, and talked about packing. Typical travel stuff. I left for Thailand two weeks ahead of her, so she was able to fill in some gaps for me with items that I had forgotten. I reminded her to call the bank and make copies of key documents and there were a few other minor items to address. But she was basically packed.
I awoke on Monday morning early and looked at my phone. There was a WhatsApp message from my other sister, MO, asking me if I knew where to find MA's passport. A bit of panic crept in. I was on the other side of the world and unable to help search, so all I could do was stress.
I started sending frantic messages with suggestions as to where to look. I knew that it had made it to Atlanta, and had been used to obtain an Australian travel visa, but that was about all I could offer.
After 2 hours of searching in Atlanta, my sisters decided that the passport was truly lost and MA was going to have to obtain and expedited passport. So with me in Thailand and the two of them in the US, we started doing research on obtaining this document. MA's plane was scheduled to leave at 1:05 pm on Monday. It was now about 9 pm in the US.
The first piece of bad news we received was that the next appointment for an expedited visa was on July 14th. The passport then usually takes 1-2 days to arrive, so this would mean a one week delay (minimum!) to MA's travel, and leave me by myself for 56 extra days. I was really sad about this fact.
MA and MO finally decided that their best opton woud be to go down to the passport office to see what coud be done in person. The office opened at 7 am on Monday. MA went ahead and printed all of the required documents and the two of them finally went to bed.
The old Maggi would have cried, and maybe she did, a little bit. But flexible Maggi decided that Mom (who passed away in 2011) knew where the passport was located. And the best place for me to talk to Mom is in a Catholic Church. Crazy, I know but it works for me. So I went online to figure out where in this land of Buddhist temples was a Catholic Church.
Google sent me to Sacred Heart Cathedral which a about a 40 minute walk. I knew that this break would do me good.
This whole experience brought back memories of my Mom. I can remember spending a good day or two after each vacation searching through Mom's room to see where she had hidden her rings this time!
We had been burglarized one time and this left a lasting impression. The hiding places were often ridiculous! I can remember finding her rings in the toe of a sock that had been paired and stuffed back in the drawer. There was more than one time when I would arrive home to find my mother on the floor of the kitchen, sorting through trash to find something that she ad accidentally thrown away. So I knew that if something could be found, that lady would show me the way!
As I walked to the church, I started to realize that we had options. MA had used my Sky Miles for the ticket, so the easiest thing to do would be to cancel the existing ticket, re-deposit the miles into my account, and book a new ticket using miles to Jakarta, which is where we were eventually scheduled to connect. MA could then extend the trip at the end to make up for the shortened front-end. I was actually feeling pretty good about these options!
So I found the church, but it was locked. Fortunately, it had a grotto, which would have to do for my conversation with my Mom.
By the time we were finished, I had a plan. I moved to a coffee shop across the street and began searching for alternate flights on miles. The options were surprisingly numerous, though each would involve 3-4 connections. I took some screen shots and sent them to MA. It was late in Atlanta, and early morning in Chiangmai Mai, so I had a few hours to kill until something could happen, so I went to continue my exploration of the city.
As I was walking up the street, I saw a boat launch for tourist boats. What the heck - I had time to kill. So I signed up for a river cruise in the afternoon, and continued my walk.
There are no real highlights from this day, but it kept me busy and it served to distract me from the situation in Atlanta. I did find a good technology store and decided I might be able to improve my IT issues if I got a new power core for my iPad ( I was partially right - a five year old iPad will still have its issues). The boat ride was fine - nothing that interstitial to share, but it did give me a feel for the area around Chiang Mai. There are some very nice resorts up the river.
I found a good Indian restaurant for dinner - no curry for the first day in a while - and then headed back to my hotel. It was getting close to morning in the US and I was eager to see what was going to happen with my sister. I was surprisingly okay with any outcome at this point.
Some time after 6, I received a WhatsApp (may I refer to these as texts from here on?) from MA saying that she had not had an epiphany overnight so the passport was officially lost. She and MO were headed to the passport office to try to be first in line.
There was not update until after 8. MO sent me a note that said MA had an appointment that morning for a passport and that there was a possibility that she would be on her originally scheduled flights! This was not even a possibility merely 7 hours ago! I tried not to get too excitedly because - really - this is a government project. I am cynical whenever government is involved. But I started to think "just maybe..."
The crazy thing is that I got a text from MO around 9:30 that MA had finished her interview and the passport would likely be done in an hour! Seriously! Now I was anxious.
The next update I received was around 11:15 and it said that they were pulling into the airport. There is a 90 minute cutoff for international flights so I thought that she might actually make it. I sent a note that said "if she doesn't have time to check a bag, she can buy anything she needs in Singapore." Holy smoke - she was going to make it!
Then I heard nothing. Flexible Maggi resisted the urge to request an update. It was not easy.
Some time around 11:50, I received a note that said MA had made it through security and was now waiting at her gate for departure. I breathed a sigh of relief and said a big thank you to God (and my Mom, frankl, because I would have not made it through the day without her counsel) and finally went to sleep. My sister WAS going to be joking me - as planned! - after all.
In case you are wondering how this showcases the "new and improved" Flexible Maggi, 2017, the old Maggi would have cried several times and NOT considered any reasonable alternatives. And this experience has already been put into practice three times in the time since! I consider that a win.
If al goes well, there will not have to be a Flexible Maggi 2027.
And I meet up with MA in Jakarta tomorrow afternoon!
We returned from our home-stay in time to change clothes (back into the smelly ones!) and load up the trucks. My body hurt, but in a good way. Like after a great workout or one of Tony's Pain Cave sessions.
We arrived at Tigerland Farms and headed out to the fields. Today, we were going to re-plant the seediings that we had pulled the day before. This involved separating each seedling, combining 3-4 of them, and manually sticking them in the mud so that their stems were above the surface of the water. Although it was time-consuming, this was far easier (especially on my back!) than the harvest.
The mud seemed much stickier today so it was hard to stand up. Right before lunch, I lost my battle with balance and ended up seated in the muck. So now I was hot, sweaty, and wearing soaking wet pants. Good thing we only had about 3 hours to go!
We finished re-planting all of our seedlings around 3:30. Mirror had a reward for us after all that hard work! (Not beer, sadly. There is no drinking at Mirror.) But we did get a trip to a waterfall where we could swim and cool off after all that hard work. It felt great! The mud on my pants had since dried, but it was nice to feel somewhat clean.
As we re-loaded our trucks to return to Mirror, I reflected on the past few days: This was my first time to do outside work as a volunteer and I really loved it! The experience gave me the opportunity to work side-by-side with some of the local people and see the area outside the city. Although I have enjoyed my previous volunteer experiences working with children, it was really cool to look at the work we had done and see the finished product! I am looking forward to doing this type of work again in Zambia.
When we arrived back at Mirror, everyone was eager to shower and head into Chiang Rai. I had not really seen the city (other than the Night Market) so I was interested to get to explore. We took songtows into town, and I agreed to meet some people for dinner before going my separate way.
At this point in my travels, I have seen many beautiful wats. It reminds be of the tour of churches that is a vital part of any European vacation (or as someone from Australia referred to it - the ABC tour, meaning "Another Bloody Church"). But there was one real highlight of this evening - the Blue Temple (real name Rong Sear Tean Temlple).
I was fortunate to arrive at dusk so I got to see it in daylight and at night. And I happened to arrive at a time where the only person there was a monk who was vacuuming the rugs. This meant that I got to see this place without being surrounded by selfie sticks (I really hate those things! People seem to forget that others are around them while using them! IMHO).
I cannot wait to post pictures as this place is beautiful! It is unique and blue. Most other temples are gold so this provided a really nice contrast to the others which I had seen. I wandered around for bit and I even got to see the sunset behind its white stupa (dictionary.com defines this as a "monumental pile of earth or other material in memory of Buddha"; I think of them as white edifices that tend to be shaped like the top of a bishop in chess).
As I left the Blue Temple, a huge tour bus was pulling up. Lucky girl!
I finished the evening with dinner at a lovely restaurant (Chivit Thamma da Coffee House and Bistro) that seemed out of place in this environment. It was right along the river and looked like it would fit right into a Charleston or New Orleans neighborhood. We had a great, non-Thai meal capped off with dessert from their in-house bakery. A perfect way to end my week at the Mirror.
Some of you who are following along may have read days 1 and 2 out of order. That is a "blogger's" error (meaning mine!). Yesterday was a very long day and I accidentally posted both instead of scheduling the second to post at a later date. I was just so happy to have both completed that I was not focused. The details of what caused the crazy day will be shared on Thursday. The good news is that it had a happy ending.
So back to Day 3 - I was able to sleep for the first time in Chiang Rai. Being physically exhausted will do that to you. I was still up very early, excited and nervous for what the day had in store. It was already very hot...
After breakfast, I put back on my still-damp clothes from the day before. I could smell myself, and it was not pretty. But everyone else was re-wearing their same clothes so I quickly decided that these items would never leave Chiang Rai.
We piled into the trucks and headed back to Tigerland Rice Farm. Today we were going to actually do rice farming. I didn't know what that would require but I was interested to find out.
To get to the fields, we had to pass (not use - the cement was not yet dry) the road that we had built. I was pretty excited to see. it. It does not look like much but it was a serious improvement from the sticky mud that we plodded through as we walked beside it.
We dropped off all our stuff - our lunch for today, tools, and many, many water bottles - and we were asked to circle the field for a demonstration of that day's work. It is helpful to provide a visual (and I still cannot post photos) of the land so that the work makes sense. The field is divided into rectangular subplots of a variety of sizes. From what I could tell, they ranged from 25 feet by 50 feet to 35 feet by maybe 65 feet?
The fields in which we were working were lush green, with a thick layer of silty mush beneath. Our job was to pull these rice seedlings up by the root, wash the mud off, and then bundle them into clusters that were about 3 inches in diameter. We bound these together with a piece of bamboo (used like a twist tie) and then gathered all of these bundles together so that their roots were soaking in the sooty water.
It was a hard job! But after moving and placing rocks all of the day before, this task seemed not so bad. But the squatting and bending were pretty brutal for my back. I just wanted to make sure that no one felt like I wasn't carrying my weight! I was easily 20 years older than the next youngest volunteer.
We worked until 4, having cleared all the seedlings in the upper half of the field. So we cleaned up our mess, and piled back into the trucks for a quiet ride home. I think we all were exhausted once again.
Mirror wants to make sure that their volunteer get a chance to see where the Hill Tribe people live. To accomplish this, they have integrated home-stays into their volunteer curriculum. Since I was only staying for one week, I thought I was off the hook for this experience. But that was not the case. I was to spend Thursday night with the family of one of the guys with whom we had been working for two days.
I admit that I was exhausted and would have been very happy to get out of this commitment. But it was a gracious offer of hospitality, so I rushed to get clean when we arrived back at Mirror. This meant racing to get one of the three showers (I should have won, but one of the volunteers from Mexico came into my shower wrapped only in a towel, so I let her go first).
An amusing aside - I wanted to wash out my clothes from the day (since I was going to have the pleasure of wearing them again for a third day|) I went back to the laundry area, and there were two other people washing their clothes. Here I remind you of our dress code in Mirror and the reason for the request for conservative attire. We as volunteers are merely guests in this place. One of the young male volunteers was washing his laundry while wearing a white towel wrapped around his waist. That is all. I admit that he was very handsome and this is an efficient way to make sure that ALL of your clothes are clean, but this seemed like it might not be acceptable in Mirror. What do I know?
Nikki (she of the email about "stupidity" for going home with the wrong airport escort) came looking for me to see how long it would be before I would be ready to go to home-stay. When she saw this man, she stopped and said "you cannot be out here dressed like this". He seemed surprised with the admonishment (good word, if I used it right!) but agreed to leave to put on more clothes. Nikki is my hero for never losing her cool.
There was one other volunteer who was also only staying for one week, so we jointly headed out for our home-stay. The Akha Village is about 10 kilometers away from Mirror. We were fortunate in that our home-stay has beds (as opposed to mats on the floor) so we did not need to bring sleeping bags or pillows. The rooms also had mosquito nets so all we needed were toiletries and a change of clothes. It really was only one night
Our driver gave us a brief tour of the community and told us some of the history. I don't remember many of the specifics but I do know that about 100 people live there and they moved to the land about 20 years ago. We met some of the residents, and played with the kids for bit, then we were on our own until dinner.
It didn't take long for an older woman to invite us in for tea. How nice! Of course, she also had some of her handmade goods available for sale. I now have a few more braided bracelets.
It was time for dinner so we headed back to the place where we were to stay the night. The food was excellent! But it seemed like they must have been expecting more guests. There was too much food. And more courses kep apearing. I was going to sleep well tonight.
After dinner, we planned to go straight to bed to read. But as we were getting up from the table, one of the children asked us if we wanted wifi. Well of course we did! As it turns out, the wifit in the village was better than it was at Mirror. There went another 30 minutes...
It was finally time for bed. That's when I realized that the steps to the nearest bathroom were terrifying! Pretty much like a ladder with steps. This was going to be dangerous after dark! It wasn't even easy during daylight. I resolved to make it through the night without a bathroom break. Not likely...
Actually, if it weren't for the roosters (which crow whenever they feel like it), it was a pretty good night's sleep. And I awoke to an excellent breakfast (French fries AND hashbrowns!) and wifi. It was going to be a good day.
It finally stopped raining some time overnight. This was good news for the project, but I still did not know exactly what we would be doing. I was in for surprise!
The songtows and pick-ups were ready for us at 9 am. The rubber boots were already hot so I knew that it was going to be a long day. We drove about 20 minutes to Tigerland Rice Farm, the land that Mirror had purchased for the Hill Tribe.
The ride was awful! The rain had left huge craters in the road, and riding in the bed of an over-stuffed pick-up made sure you felt every bump. My butt was numb when we arrived.
As we arrived, I think all the new people were overwhelmed. This is a beautiful place - rice fields as far as you can see; green, lush hills; and mud. It was hard to get past the mud.
We carried our supplies to the hut here we would have lunch, were reminded to fill our water bottles and put on bug spray, then asked to meet our leader at a place along the path. It was not easy to get to this location as the mud was thick and slippery. As it turned out, this would impact our work for the day.
This road that we were on was used by many of the Hill Tribe people to get from Point A to Point B. Since the rain had left this such a mess, we were going to use the day to build a road. I had never done this before, and I am pretty sure that most of my fellow volunteers had not, either. But with about 50 of us, we had the labor to get the job done.
Our first task was gathering stones of a variety of sizes from the nearby stream. This would be the primary task of the bulk of the volunteers for the day. Although the boots helped keep the water off, these boots had no traction. They were not much more than rubber socks. It made moving about the area quite a challenge!
The Tiger family works the farm. Several of them were out leading us by showing us how the work was to be done. I am not an engineer (after all, there is a business school at Georgia Tech and we can't all be athletes!) so I am probably missing some key elements, but the process involved these steps:
1. Use bamboo to lay out the path or the road
2. Use rocks of a variety of sizes to provide a foundation for the road
3. Mix cement and pour concrete (I never remember whether you use cement to make concrete or vice versa?)
In my little brain, it seems simple, but i will tell you that this is the hardest work I have ever done! And I loved every minute of it!
It was so cool to see a muddy path be transformed into a usable surface. I spent most of the day alternating between carrying bags of rocks from a stream to the path and laying out the rocks so that our new road had a solid foundation. We laid large rocks along the edges, medium size rocks in the center, and smaller stones to fill in the gaps.
As an aside, the whole process reminded me of that old story about priorities. I wish I knew to whom I could attribute this but the basic idea is that you need to add the big rocks first, the the smaller rocks, and fill the remainder with sand. The message is that it you add the sand first (a symbol of our petty tasks) you don't have room for the big rocks (our really important tasks). I loved seeing this put into a real life setting!
Other than a short break for lunch, we worked for 7 hours. The cool thing is that the Tiger family realized that with all of our resources, we could make the road longer! So we kept adding bamboo and rocks until we ran out of cement. And the finished product was awesome!
When we finally called it quits, we were all exhausted. The Tiger Family asked that we wash off the equipment so that the cement wouldn't set. Then we filled up the Songtows and pick-ups to head back to Mirror.
After the ride that morning, I decided that I was too old to ride in the back of a pick-up so I found a spot in the cab. As we were pulling out, I felt something on my arm and asked loudly "what is this?" (there may have been a scream). Kitt Tiger, who was driving, reached around to the backseat and pulled this thing off me and said "that's a leech. It will start to bleed. Put this paper on it." He was very matter-of-fact, but I was creeped out!
When e got back to the Mirror, we all went our separate ways, in search of showers and clean clothes. I have never been as happy to have a clean shower and flip-flops! After 8 hours in rubber, non-breathable boots, my feet were very wet and sad. And although i did not have laundry detergent, I took my clothes to laundry facility at the back. It was then that I met the pigs!
When I initially toured our compound, I missed the pig pen. This was impossible to miss while you waited for your clothes to wash. The Mirror had four very large pigs in a far too small space. I admit that I know nothing about raising pigs. But these pigs, who ate all of our composted leftovers, seemed to be kept in a far too small pen. It is honestly my only complaint about Mirror.
When I finished washing my clothes, I was desperate to go to bed. But I knew I needed to eat fist. So I rushed through dinner and happily crawled into bed before 7.
Tomorrow I would start work in the rice fields.