Sunday, May 9, 2010

I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like ... Indonesia.

I cannot WAIT to get out of this country. Okay, I tried to put a positive spin on our travels in Java and had high hopes for Bali, but jeez Louise, this place has worn both of us down and out!

The very high point of our time in Indonesia was our time on the Gili Islands (we went to Trawangan and to Air)- they were spectacularly beautiful, the water is the clearest I have seen in my life, and the locals were really relaxed and friendly. We spent nearly two weeks reading, walking, swimming, and snorkelling there. I can highly recommend a visit if you fly right into Lombok, take a boat directly to the Gilis, and bypass Java and Bali.

Tomorrow we fly to Singapore, (we promise not to spit on the sidewalks) and on Thursday, we return to Portland.

This has been the most incredible adventure of my life, and I wouldn't trade anything for the experiences (the good and the not so good) we've had! See you all soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"But I need you today, oh mandi"

I thought you all would enjoy that song on a continuous loop in your heads. If I have to hear it constantly on my internal radio, you all should too. Share the joy, and all...

We have been in Indonesia for 8 days and seen 4 cities and a lot of countryside. Our flight to Jakarta was uneventful, the line for immigrations was interminable (though we did end up chatting with a nice young man from Pittsburgh, a Penn State student of mathematics and Mandarin, who's been studying in Singapore for the past year and a half), the city was huge, and we only stayed overnight and left the next morning for Bogor to see the botanical gardens. The gardens were quite pretty, though not nearly as well signed as you'd think botanical gardens should be. They did have an impressive variety of bamboos, orchids, and palms. From there we took off to Bandung for just an overnight in order to catch the train to Yogyakarta. The ride was bee-you-tee-ful: up into the mountains, through verdant rice paddies and plantations, just lovely!

Yogyakarta is supposedly the historical and cultural center of the island of Java, so we were looking forward to exploring the sights. When we arrived, we promptly got lost (between my already questionable sense of direction, the lack of street signs, the incorrect scale of our map, and our out of whack internal compasses from crossing the equator, we really didn't stand much of a chance) and spent an hour circumnavigating the train station and its surrounding neighborhoods searching for the street we wanted before giving in and relying on one of the local hotel touts to take us there. Best of all, it was only TWO BLOCKS from the train station! Anyway, we got a room and some dinner and an introduction to the batik industry for which "Yogya" is famous. Everywhere you go there are people selling batik everything. And you can't go to any of the sights without being invited to a "special gallery, only open the day you're there, the only government sponsored school of batik," and so on. Between fending off these folks and the becak (bicycle trishaws) drivers, it's absolutely exhausting. We did manage a visit to the sultan's palace one day, where we saw traditional Javanese dance accompanied by a gamelan (orchestra) and some really good examples of batik in their museum. The orchestras are comprised of gongs, metal and wood xylophones, drums, and singers. Sound like an awful combo? Your would be wrong, it actually was really nice.

The next day, we went to Borobudur, which is a 9th century Buddhist temple and a World Heritage site. It's from the same era as the temples of Angkor, but stylistically is completely different. The temple is 5 levels which rise like a stepped pyramid with a huge, central stupa. The scale is amazing! Like Angkor, all surfaces are carved, but the subjects are different, and the reliefs are much more deeply carved at Borobudur. It was, overall, mighty impressive.

This afternoon we leave for Bali (a 15 hour bus ride and ferry combo, leave at noon, arrive at 7am tomorrow), so we will (hopefully) be able to say we spent our anniversary on Bali, sleeping off the aches associated with a long bus ride and the usual case of "bus butt" (itchy, bumpy, chicken skin on the lower cheeks- not to be confused with "crotch rot," from hiking too long in sweaty pants).

Oh, since this is the first time we've been across the equator, here are a couple of notes: the days are getting shorter, I have no idea which direction is north, and, most importantly, the water in the sink whirls clockwise. My most scientific study involved toothpaste spit in the sink. Yes, I used the drainplug and let the foamy spit and water still before pulling the plug. And I repeated the experiment several times (one doesn't want icky breath) with the same result. And yes, I am easily amused!

PS: mandi is Indonesian for bathroom!

Toodles for now!!!

Friday, April 9, 2010

It's a zoo

Formula 1 frenzy is over for the time being. Last weekend was the race at Sepang, which is about 25 miles from Kuala Lumpur. Colin went to the track Friday to watch the practice sessions, and both of us went Saturday and Sunday for qualifying and the actual race. It was quite an experience to be part of the festivities after seeing the races on television. The cars are smaller than I imagined, and the noise was DEAFENING!!! Fortunately, we both brought earplugs. Saturday, I tried (with reasonable success) to memorize the teams' car paint schemes (none of them have numbers) and drivers in preparation for the big event. This year's race was the first with no rain in its 12-year history at Sepang, and it finished without major incident or injury to any drivers. All in all, a loud, sweaty, fun weekend was had by all 97,000 spectators.
Since we'd already seen what we want to see of KL and had a week to kill before our flight to Indonesia, we took off on Monday for Taiping. It's a small city off the normal tourist trail, and for the first time since we arrived in Malaysia, we actually felt like strangers in a strange land (we encountered no other non-Asians during our stay). There's not a whole lot to do there besides look at the pretty Chinese storefronts and 100-plus year old government buildings, but it's really a nice, quiet, and relaxed town. Its jewel is the Lake Gardens, which were landscaped in the 1880s on an abandoned tin mine. The pair of lakes spread like fingers through the park, and the trees and flowers are beautiful! We saw many vividly colored birds, more than anywhere else, in the trees and hunting bugs in the grass as well. The real surprise was the zoo in the center of the park- we thought it would be a tiny one since we circled the outside perimeter looking for the entrance, but apparently it's in a wormhole and expands once you're inside. The zoo was pretty nice (it's not the NC zoo or the National zoo) and has mainly animals that are native to SE Asia and the subcontinent with some African lions, hippos, and rhinoceroses thrown in the mix. We were fortunate to be there during feeding hours, so everyone was out and about munching their snacks. The local troupe of macaques who live around the zoo but aren't part of the zoo looked forlorn (what are we, chopped liver?!?! Oh, I guess that's the trade-off for being FREE!) when the zookeeper fed the animals in the enclosure below them
We're now back in GeorgeTown (yes, again!) until Tuesday, when we fly to Jakarta for the last leg of the trip (for now). We are bypassing Sumatra after all (it's raining, they just had yet another earthquake and more civil unrest in Aceh again. Call us wusses if you want, but we'd rather live to fight another day. Plus, Jakarta has a MUCH better reputation for stability- HA!). Our tentative itinerary includes Java, Bali, Lombok, and the Gili Islands, but it is subject to change with our whims.
We have uploaded the photos from Malacca, Kota Bharu, Kuantan, Kuala Lumpur, the Perhentians, and are working on Taiping (with a bunch from the zoo). Alas, you will need to look for Silat (the bizzarro martial art) examples yourselves- we deleted our movie (referenced in the previous blog post) in order to get photos uploaded. Anyway, toodles for now!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slummin' in paradise

Last we chatted, we were in Kota Bharu. It's the very conservative, predominately Muslim, northeastern corner of Malaysia, a place with no malls, movie theaters, alcohol, or bowling. It is home to traditional Malay culture though, since the people were basically cut off from the rest of the country until fairly recently, when they built a road on the east coast. We went to the Kelantan State museum while we were there and saw an exhibit on the elaborate kites of the region. We also took in a performance that included a mock Silat fight (Silat is a Malay form of martial arts), which was one of the top ten oddest things we have witnessed. I won't try to describe it, you'll have to watch the movie when we get it uploaded. The musical accompaniment was by oboe (normally one of my favorite instruments, but in this scenario, think snake charmer, not symphony orchestra) and various drums and gongs. The oboe player was truly amazing - he could somehow play continuously without a single break in the sound- we have no idea how he did it. Before the Silat performance, another group of men played kertoks, which are drums made out of coconut husks with a wooden board attached to the top. You bang the board with a dowel wrapped in rubber bands (I got to try it, and yes, once again impressed Colin with my total lack of rhythm), and it make a lot of noise. I had fun!
The next day we took a speedboat the 16 miles to Pulau Kecil (Little Perhentian Island). You all would have hated it! The island is really rustic- electricity by generator (our bungalows only had power from 6:30pm until 8:00am), no phones, no vehicles other than boats. There is almost no development on the island- just three sandy beaches, a few bungalows and dive shops on each, and one dirt path across the middle through dense jungle to connect them. Our bungalow was right next to the water (we would open the sliding door and watch the boats from the bed in the mornings). The water was so clear! We went snorkeling by swimming right out into the bay- we didn't even have to take a boat trip to get to live reef. The sea creatures were amazing: we saw giant clams (the clams themselves are really colorful, the shells have coral grown around them), huge parrot fish, gobies, sea cucumbers, and... NEMO (okay, his distant relations. They were clown fish and lived in anemone houses nonetheless.)! We also saw all sorts of colorful coral formations, a HUGE puffer fish, and other technicolor fish we couldn't identify.
As for other island fauna, our constant companions in the open cinderblock bathroom vent were a pair of tokay geckos (blue with orange spots), which we believe, accounted for the lack of mosquitoes in our bungalow. There are also monitor lizards of small to very large (5ft?) size strolling freely everywhere. The greatest excitement for everyone was when some of the local men caught a reticulated python that was probably 6ft long in a palm tree in front of our veranda. The men were talking animatedly about its barbecue potential (it was hard to tell whether or not they were joking; we had vegetarian dishes that evening for dinner).
After an epic boat to bus to bus to bus to hotel in Kuantan to bus to Kuala Lumpur journey, we're settling here in KL through the weekend for the F1 race (hopefully we won't get too waterlogged- rain is in the forecast, but it's a nice, warm deluge!)and to plot our next move.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't get your panties in a twist.

When I said we are flying back on April 6th, what I meant to say was May 13th. Actually, we've decided that this is still fun, and since we don't have to be anywhere anytime soon, we will continue our travels to either Sumatra or Borneo (haven't decided which, but either way, I see orangutans potential in our future). We're in Kota Bharu right now, heading for the Perhentians (finally) tomorrow.

The lack of new photos on smugmug is because we have yet to find an internet cafe that is set up for uploading photos. We will add them when we can. As someone once said, "patience is a virgin."

And remember: it's good to be flexible.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Coasting toward the finish line

Let's just say it's good to be flexible with one's traveling agenda. Instead of going to the Perhentians, we detoured to Kuala Lumpur (heretofore known as KL) for the purpose of obtaining Formula 1 tickets for the race at Sepang the first weekend in April. That will be our last hurrah since we have actually committed (with mixed emotions) to a return date of April 6 from Singapore to Portland. sigh...
While in KL, we stayed in Chinatown on the main drag, Petaling Street, which is the place to get genueeeen (the shopkeepers say they're real, so mustn't they be?) Fendl or Louis Vittoon bags, Billadong t-shirts, and real Rolex watches for a very low price. It's chaotic and noisy: we were serenaded each night by our mega nightlight of a video screen with psycho soundtrack promoting Malaysia tourism (it served its purpose- it made us want to go anywhere else just to escape the noise). But it was fun. KL is an interesting mix of Moorish, colonial, and very sleek, modern architecture and has a multi-ethnic culture like much of the country. We spent one day in the National Museum learning about Malay culture and history and were both quite inspired by the spirit of cultural harmony that pervades the nation's independence. Unlike so many places that had long, bloody battles, here the three main ethnic groups (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) sat down together with the British and ... talked. How novel! We were there on what must have been an elementary school field trip day (permission slips must have read: "Dear parents, we will go to the National Museum for the day. The main activities will be running, squealing, and whistle blowing. Please ensure your child wears appropriate running shoes and brings his/her favorite noise maker.") . All I can say is, it must be much easier for Muslim girls to get away with things at school, because in their matching uniforms and head scarves, they all looked very similar.
We also went to the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world and one of the tallest buildings overall) and took the elevator to the 41st floor skybridge for a panoramic view of the city. The elevator was actually the most amazing part of that trip- it took 41 ear-popping (literally) seconds to climb 41 floors. And in and amongst all of our really delicious regional meals, we had dinner at a Papa John's (here they provide sit-down service with white tablecloths and china, but the garlic sauce still tastes like home!) with dessert in leather club chairs at the Krispy Kreme next door! We really haven't eaten much western fast food on this trip, but every now and then, pizza and donuts is a nice, comforting addition to the culinary mix.
After KL, we took the bus to Melaka (or Malacca, both are correct) and have been here for 5 days. We've visited virtually every museum devoted to every darned thing here (we're officially getting museum-ed out). The old parts of the city have been beautifully restored- it's a colonial mishmash of Portuguese, Dutch, and British with Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian styles rolled into one city. We've seen the ruins of the Portuguese fort and Catholic church with its 400-year old head stones, the Dutch stadthuys (governor's home and town hall), the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the People's Museum (exhibits on traditional kite making and top-spinning as well as one on beauty practices like foot binding and lip plating), the Naval and Maritime Museums. Wow, that was a lot of sightseeing. We've also eaten a whole lot of great food (my pants still fit, though). Tomorrow we begin the journey to the northeastern part of the country to hit the Perhentian Islands for real this time. See you soon!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chicken claws: they're not just for breakfast anymore!

Well, Phuket (we now pronounce it, eeewwww) was not our cup of chowder. Two days was all it took to determine it is Thailand's answer to South Beach, Myrtle Beach, and Cancun wrapped up into one convenient, over-priced, crowded package. We did see plenty of large, leathery, old European tourists in speedos and other inappropriate attire, as well as at least four McDonald's in a twenty minute walk along the beach road. And... our pal Bernie from George Town was right where he said he'd be! We did have a nice afternoon chat with him while standing shoulder-deep in the Andaman Sea, so it wasn't all bad, but we did move the next morning. Since we enjoyed our extended stay in George Town, we decided to head toward Malaysia via Hat Yai (I've mentioned it before) for a couple of days.
There's really not much to do in Hat Yai besides plan an exit strategy to somewhere else, so we took the local bus to Songkhla, a nice, little city on the coast with some interesting sculptures, for the afternoon. After walking the shore picking up some really neat shells and taking photos of the sculptures, we decided to join the hordes of school children and locals in their quest for lunch from the food vendors lining the sidewalk. Lots of people were ordering what looked like salad with some kind of sea life (abalone maybe?) from one lady, so we went to investigate. I asked what it was, and she replied, "chicken foot," NOT what we wanted. The next tray had actual pieces of chicken meat, so I (thought I) ordered two salads with chicken, and we sat down on the grass to wait for lunch. When she handed me the first tray, it was... the chicken foot salad. Thinking it must have been my fault for ordering the wrong item, I accepted the tray with thanks (you'd be proud, Mom) and pointed at the chicken meat before she made the second one. Colin and I sat there looking at this tray of food in front of us, wondering what we're going to do with it. I have no earthly idea how exactly one prepares chicken feet to acquire such a ghastly appearance, but imagine floppy, irregularly shaped pieces of a pure, white substance with the texture of scaly chicken foot skin that looks like it's been soaking in a tub of lye for hours. Now imagine trying to put that between your lips. Our mantra is, if millions of people eat it, it can't be that bad...WE STAND CORRECTED. So Colin (not me) tried it. He managed to get it in his mouth, bit down and found something hard, either a claw or a piece of bone that somehow remained un-gelatinated by the cooking process. A horrible gagging sound emanated from Colin's mouth at the same time our lady turned to give us the second tray of food. I really thought he was going to spew, but he managed to keep the contents of his mouth between his lips until the nice lady turned back around and then he spat it into a tissue. I was impressed by his efforts but determined that no way, no how was I going to make the same mistake. The surrounding salad itself was quite tasty. After this and a nice walk back into town, we hopped the bus back to Hat Yai. That night, we went to the local market for dinner to have one of our favorite local meals, khao mok kai, which is a Muslim-Thai chicken and turmeric rice dish. It always comes with a bowl of clear soup with some vegetables in it. Well, when Colin put his spoon to the soup bowl, he asked, "is that what I think it is and if so, please remove it before I see it in its entirety." It was what he thought is was, another chicken foot, lurking at the bottom of the bowl under a piece of winter melon. If anyone had ever told me that there would be a day in our lives in which we'd have chicken feet in two meals in one day, I'd have said, "get outta here," (or something much less polite). Anyway, Colin survived, and I'm just glad to be old enough to ignore the two bite rule we had in our house growing up.
The next day, we took a minibus back to Georgetown. I am going to be really disgusted when we get back to the states and see gigantic SUVs with one person inside after this trip. Our minibus was a 4-row minivan with 10 adults and 3 kids plus luggage inside. The kids were well-behaved throughout, but unfortunately, the little boy sitting in his mother's lap next to me shot back two boxes of milk at the beginning of the journey and then happily bounced around for awhile. I knew the state of events was getting ready to change for the worse when he got very quiet and laid his head against the seat back in front of him. When he started gagging, I moved my bag to my lap (off the floor), and his mom gave him a towel to throw up in. Colin had an empty plastic grocery bag and handed that over to the boy, who promptly hooked one handle over each ear like a horse's feedbag (now why didn't I think to do that in my younger days when I was Barfarella?). We thought it was ingenious until he started holding it up to his mouth and breathing into it. He was on the right side of natural selection that day and survived the remainder of the drive.
Anyway, we made it back home to George Town (they even gave us our old room back!!!!) and will be here until Monday. Then we go to the east coast to Kota Bharu and the Perhentian Islands for awhile. There are more photos on smugmug, including some from the end of the Chinese New Year celebration in George Town. We thought it was the year of the tiger, not the year of Tigger (see photo)!