Monday, November 29, 2010


November 27th, 2010, Juan Santamaria airport, San Jose, Costa Rica

Post 2 of 2 re: my tropical Thanksgiving getaway. Luckily for you, dear readers (assuming you exist), I'm at the gate roughly 6 hours early for my flight home, so this'll likely be a long one, to keep me entertained til boarding. Buckle up.

Shortly after my last post, I caught a bus from Colรณn into San Jose, a cab to the other bus terminal, ans then another bus out to Monteverde, a cloud forest reserve to the north, right on the Continental Divide. What was supposed to be a 5-hour ride turned into seven hours when we hit a mudslide. Not literally – it was a few kilometers ahead of us when traffic came to a dead stop. We sat, we waited, fruit vendors came on board and sold grapes, and finally one of them announced, in English, that they were blowing up a boulder in the road ahead and the wait would be about two hours. [collective groan.] Not entirely surprising, as mudslides and road closings are pretty common in Costa Rica after a big rain, and as it's right now getting near the end of the wet season, there's been rather a bit of precipitation lately. In other words, the boulders are a-rollin'. It was only about an hour and a half's delay, all told, and thank you Terry Gross for keeping me occupied through it. When we finally got to the work area it was pretty clear there was more than just a boulder being cleared; from the looks of things half a mountain or so of dirt had been scooped off the pavement.

At Monteverde – or rather, Santa Elena, the next town over, where all the carless tourists stay – I had three nights booked at Cabinas Vista al Golfo, in a package that came with a canopy tour and a night hike. Nice little place, if you're ever out there. On the bus out I'd run into Sunny, a classmate of Samantha's at Upeace, and her friend Lizzie, visiting from Georgia, and they decided to Stay at Vista al Golfo as well. New favorite drink, courtesy of the two of them – coconut milk, light rum, sugar, ice. And much needed after that bus ride, I have to say.

The birds woke me up at 6am Wednesday morning, and Lizzie and I caught a 7:30 canopy tour while Sunny stayed back and wrote a term paper. Turns out ziplines are awesome. The Tarzan swing I could have maybe done without – for those who haven't done it, you clip your harness to the end of a long rope hanging from a tree above, jump off a 40-foot-high platform, swing out over the forest, and scream like a girl. The ziplines, though, totally worth it. A piece of advice: whenever possible, book the 7:30am tour – our group had three people in it and moved along nicely; the 10am tour had 20 people and likely didn't. I hear the 1pm group was up to 33. No thank you.

12:30, so I'm taking a lunch break. The options are Church's Chicken, Schlotszky's Deli, Burger King, or Cinnabon. I should have gotten a posado to go at the soda where I had breakfast. Oh well. Brb.

$12 for a bag of Kettle chips and what, once I pulled off all the parts that had been contaminated with mustard, which the man at the counter neglected to mention in his otherwise thorough listing of ingredients (“what is 'the original, anyway?”), turned out to be roughly half of a ham-and-cheese sandwich from Schlotszky's. The Cinnebon helped, but I'm not even going to tell you what that cost me. Airports are ridiculous.

Anyway, Monteverde.

When the shuttle dropped us back at the hotel Sunny was still working on her paper, so Lizzie & I decided to walk back along the road towards the town of Monteverde. The views were gorgeous, though the hills were steep. We stuck our heads in a few art galleries, in one of which I spent far too much money on a gorgeous pair or earrings and a Costa Rican cookbook (I told you the food was good), and bought some handmade local chocolates at a cafe. (New truffle flavor: passionfruit.) We walked as far as the cheese factory, run by the American Quakers who settled the town in the 1950's while trying to avoid the Korean War, then turned around and met Sunny for lunch at a delicious, if somewhat upscale, 'nueva latina' restaurant. I had pork-and-plantain fritters, black bean soup, and ginger lemonade. Sophia's, the place was called. I'd go back for sure.

After lunch they took a cab back to the hotel to catch their shuttle to Mt Arenal, a volcano about 3 hours away where they were spending a few days. I took a leisurely stroll home, where I stopped at the Serpentarium and paid $9 to see a roomful of poisonous snakes in glass cages. Those were the only snakes I saw on the trip, and frankly I'm okay with that. Vipers are one species I'm okay with not meeting in the wild.

That evening was my night hike at the Santamaria reserve. It rained. A guide named Oscar showed me and four Germans around the trails, pointing out sleeping birds and insects and the occasional larger wildlife. Highlights were a mother two-toed sloth and her baby, a tree full of coatimundis, and a tarantula in a pipe. Very neat.

One of the perks of being a linguist: while my Spanish vocabulary at this point consists of the numbers on to ten, 'hola', 'gracias', and 'bien', I seem to have gotten good enough at saying those and at deciphering the usual greetings to convince people I speak Spanish, at least for a while. Which is pretty fun. Knowing Italian doesn't hurt, either, when it comes to pronunciation and reading menus. After my summer in Java I could barely get a word of Italian out; it felt like it had been painted over in my brain by the Indonesian. (Apparently I only have one slot available for languages starting with 'I'.) But all this Spanish seems to have excavated it again, hopefully not to the detriment of the Indonesian, though I guess I'll find out in class on Tuesday if I start coming out with 'buon giorno' instead of 'selamat siang'. (Though I did get to practice a bit with Samantha, when she turned to me at the Dutch ambassador's house and started speaking Indonesian so as not to be overheard. Do you know how cool it is to be able to turn and have a conspiratorial conversation in Indonesian at a diplomatic reception? Let me tell you: it's pretty fuckin' cool.)

Thursday morning, Thanksgiving, I took my own advice and booked a 7:30am guided tour of the Monteverde reserve itself. An older American couple and I spent three hours with our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about the park and everything in it. Again, more bugs, more birds, a coati at close range, and, after a number of false alarms, a quetzal. Quetzals are gorgeous birds, with a blue head, red breast, and long iridescent green tail feathers. They're native to the park, but apparently during the rainy season they decamp to drier climes, so we were lucky to spot one. How the guides spotted it (and half the other things they saw) is utterly beyond me; even after watching it through their telescope I couldn't find it again on my own. We also spotted a pair of howler monkeys, mother and baby again, eating lunch in a tree. Apparently howlers like to throw poo at people walking underneath; luckily we were far enough away to avoid that. And at the end was a hummingbird sanctuary, with roughly 10 of the 30 native species darting around, dive-bombing tourists, and swarming the feeders. The photos are great.

It was still morning when the tour ended, so after refueling with a cup of tea I headed back into the reserve and hiked a bit on my own. I didn't see nearly the amount of wildlife as before, though I'm sure it was there, but the plants and flowers and insects I did see were pretty stunning nonetheless. I went over a bridge suspended through the canopy and up to an observation point, La Ventana, where on a clear day you can see the Gulf of Nicoya on one side and Mt Arenal on the other. Well it wasn't a clear day, so I could see about 20 feet in any direction into a solid wall of cloud. Almost reminded me of the north of Scotland, with the mist and the wind. But it was a beautiful hike. Not a bad way to spend Thanksgiving – sure beats the hell out of watching old Bond movies and mashing potatoes, that's for sure.

At that point I'd had just about enough of that, so I decided to walk back to the hotel, which was a terrible idea. After a 3-hour nature walk and a roughly 5-km hike, a 6-km walk down a bumpy dirt road added up to more miles walked in one day than I'd really like to think about, and my feet reminded me of that every step of the way. And it rained. Started about 5 minutes in, continued in fits and starts the whole rest of the way. About halfway home I stopped at a bakery for lunch. No turkey available, so I had a chicken-and-veggie empanada and a sweet potato pastel. Close enough. And naturally, with aching feet, in the rain, I missed the turn into Santa Elena. The road I ended up on did take me to my hotel, but not particularly directly. The rest of the afternoon, in true Thanksgiving form, consisted of a nap.

Friday morning I moved on from the cloud forest to the volcano, Mt Arenal. My hotel offered a package with transport there, a volcano tour, hotsprings, and a night at a hotel in La Fortuna, which sounded to me like not a bad way to end the trip. The transport over was what's known here as 'jeep-boat-jeep': tourist shuttle over godawful bumpy roads to Lake Arenal, ferry across, and another shuttle into town. The roads on the first leg rivaled those in Java for sheer size and number of potholes – they make Rachel Carson Way look like a freshly-zambonied ice rink in comparison – but the scenery was gorgeous, especially on the lake. After an excellent posada lunch at a soda in town, the hotel drove me and a Dutch couple out to the Baldi spa for a 2-hour soak in the hot springs before another shuttle brought us to the volcano for our hike. Another fantastic guide – his name is Franklin, if you're ever in town – pointed out all the medicinal plants along the route (did you know a tea made from impatients is good for fever?), which ran through some rainforest and then up the lava flow from the major 1968 eruption, which destroyed two villages and first announced that this wasn't just another docile mountain. Since then Arenal's been one of the most active volcanoes in the hemisphere, and most of the time you can see lava oozing from its crater. Unless, of course, it's the rainy season, in which case you can see clouds. Oh well. But we hiked as far up the side as is allowed, which given how active the volcano is still leaves you about a kilometer from the crater, but is still pretty cool. On the way up we saw toucans and wild turkeys, and at the bottom, just after dark, gorgeous jewel-toned tree frogs. Costa Rican wildlife checklist complete. From there back to Baldi for dinner and another few hours in the hot springs. I hadn't realized earlier just how far back the complex went, and this time I and another girl from the hike, a geologist from Vancouver, discovered some waterslides and a spectacular hot pool with a waterfall and underwater lounge chairs. Worth missing the football for.

And then, this morning, I caught an 8am (carbon neutral – love this country) tourist shuttle back into San Jose to the airport. My transport options were that or a 4-hour bus leaving at noon, so if I was to catch my 5:30 flight I didn't have much choice but to show up very, very early. But they let me check my bag right off the bat, and between writing, reading my latest John le Carre, and browsing the souvenir shops for free chocolate samples (of which there are many), it's now about 10 minutes to boarding. I land in JFK around 2am, SuperShuttle back to the apartment, and stay for lunch and a Sunday matinee of Patrick Stewart's latest Broadway appearance before heading home tomorrow. So, until my next foray into interesting foreign places, adieu.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Welcome to Costa Rica

Question #1: Why do I always manage to catch a cold in the tropics? This one is mild, thank goodness, not like the monster I caught in Thailand that nearly made my head explode on the flight home. Three days later and I'm mostly back to normal. Still, I don't get it.

At the moment I'm in Ciudad Colon, not far from San Jose, Costa Rica. The big lesson so far: whenever possible when traveling, go stay with someone who lives in the country in question, particularly if the happen to be affiliated with a university which happens to be affiliated with the UN, like the University for Peace here in Colon, where my friend Samantha happens to be a student. Major perks. The rundown so far:

My plane to San Jose left JFK at 5am Friday morning, so I booked a Supershuttle to pick me up just before midnight at the apartment. Everyone else would be sound asleep by 10, I figured, so why not get out of the house early and catch a few hours' sleep at the gate rather than staying up late to wait for a shuttle at some ungodly morning hour, or worse yet trying to wake up at 2am to catch it. Well, that didn't work. My first mistake was a rather strong rum drink at Cuba Cafe with Monika earlier that evening, which made even midnight a difficult target to stay up for. I slept in the van on the way in, but when I got to JFK the security checkpoint to my gate was closed. Terminal 4 has a nice shopping concourse down an escalator from check-in but still outside security, so I wasn't stuck by the doors to outside (unlike a similar early-morning flight experience going to Bermuda senior year), but the concourse was bustling enough with airport workers and families taking 2 or 3am flights to god knows where - their gates, unfortunately, were behind different security points than mine - that sleep was impossible. The store just down the corridor whose theft alarm kept going off didn't help either.

(Side note - I was chilly there, so I wrapped my scarf around my head to keep warm. I definitely got some less-than-comfortable looks from passers-by. And yes, I took it off before I went through security - 3am enhanced TSA patdowns were not high on my to-do list.)

Just after 3 security opened to my gate. Surprisingly enough they didn't question the block of tempeh in my carryon. That would have been a fun explanation: "Well, officer, it's kinda like chunky tofu... Yes, you eat it. Well, I do anyway." Boarding was just after 4, and 5am we were in the air. I was out cold.

Copa Airlines isn't bad, by the way. The food's no better than you'd get on, say, Delta, but they give you real metal silverware, which I appreciate, and the leg room's no worse than any other coach seat. I'd fly them again.

Quick layover in Panama City and I got in to San Jose at around 11:30am local time. Taxi to Samantha's, and I chatted with the landlady for a bit until she & her fiance, Arvil, got home from class. After lunch we took the bus up the mountain to the UPeace campus, which is lovely. That night was an Asian cultural night, with food and performances from all over the continent. This being a UN school, they actually have students from quite a few countries - including one from Kyrgystan, whose food tasted Russian, full of dill (not that that's a bad thing), but whose traditional dress was awesome. From Indonesia there was a poco-poco dance and chicken sate; Samantha and I both wore batik.

Saturday morning we went to the market and had lunch at a soda, a traditional Costa Rican cafe-type place. The food here is nothing spectacular, lots of rice and beans and avocados and fried plantains, but it's good in a low-key sort of way. I had a drink made from the cas fruit, which tasted like the love child of a guanabana and a grapefruit. In other words, delicious. That night was a surprise 50th birthday party for the landlady, complete with a mariachi band, giant dancing traditional puppets, and the most spectacular birthday cake I've ever seen, all for about 80 of her closest friends and family. The puppets were the best part, big cloth-covered wire constructions that sat on the wearers shoulders with big paper-mache heads shaped like skulls, devils, policemen, and in one case, no head at all but just a bloody neck. The point seemed to be that they twirled and jogged around to the music and chased people, and occasionally snuck up behind you and bent down and tapped their head against you in an indescribably unsettling way. The pictures came out great.

Sunday was rainy and cool so we stayed in, struggled mightily to get some work done, and watched the Star Trek movie. Monday Samantha & Arvil had 6 hours of class, so I took a bus into San Jose. I saw the jade museum and the museum of pre-Columbian gold, which were pretty neat, and the central market, which wasn't bad, and wandered around for just long enough to realize that San Jose isn't that great a city, and took the bus back. That evening was a reception for UPeace students at the Dutch ambassador's house (again, the perks of UN affiliation), and they were nice enough to invite me along. Good wine, good hors d'oeuvres, a productive chat with one of the professors, and I get to say I went to the Dutch ambassador's house in Costa Rica. Not bad at all.

And today: packing, mostly, then at 2:30 I get on a bus up to the Monteverde cloud forest reserve. I was hoping for the beach but it's supposed to be rainy all week, so I figured I may as well go somewhere where the humidity's always 100% regardless, so what's a little rain gonna do? Already got the zipline canopy tour booked. Will post later re: monkeys & such.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Southeast Asia in a Kelapashell

This is gonna be a long one...

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Jakarta: The Big Durian

Funny it's called that, because Singapore, despite their best efforts, smells more like durian than Jakarta does. Then again, all of SE Asia smells like durian, so it's really just a matter of degree down there.

Anyway, I showed up in Jakarta on Thursday afternoon. At the airport I met another backpacker who pointed me towards the bus into town – I was headed for a taxi. His hotel was on the same block as mine so we decided to walk together from the bus stop. The problem was getting there. I would stop every so often and ask for directions in Indonesian, and get a response in Indonesian, and rather than following them he would then stop too and spend five minutes trying to ask the same person for the same directions in English, which in Indonesia doesn't work so well. Me: “he said we turn right at the next street.” Him: “Excuse me, how do we get to hotel Ibis?” Guy on the street: “What? I don't speak English.” (Much pantomiming and pointing to maps.) 5 minutes later: Him: “Ok, I think we turn right at the next block.” Me: “Oh really?” When we got there he asked me to find him on Facebook. Not likely.

My hotel, the Akmani, was awfully nice, way better than you could find in the States for that price. Jenny, a friend of mine from CLS, was in Jakarta for the week doing research, so we split the room. She said Jakarta reminded her of LA, and given that she lives there I'm inclined to believe her. As far as I could tell it was another Malang, if you made Malang 13 times bigger, with 50 times the traffic and some skyscrapers. It's big, grimy but modern, and sprawling, and the gridlock lived up to every horrifying rumor I'd heard. I didn't get to see much of the city, just wandered a bit around the backpacker district near our hotel before dinner than night and went down to Atma Jaya University for my meeting on Friday. The Mex Planck Institute in Leipzig has a field station at Atma Jaya where they do a lot of documentary work around Indonesia of the same kind I hope to start doing next summer, so it seemed prudent to drop by while I was in the country. I had lunch with the researchers there and got a lot of good advice on where to go and who to talk to – the deal in Indonesia seems to be that you pick what kind of climate you want, what kind of food you like, whether you want to be in a city or a village with beaches or mountains, and once you find a place fitting your criteria you're pretty much guaranteed to find a documentable language there too. Not bad. Getting home was an adventure – that damn traffic – and that night Jenny & I had dinner with a friend of Linda's.

Kuala Lumpur: Garden City of Lights

Saturday I flew back to Singapore – entry stamp #2 on my passport. The plan was to take a sleeper train to Kuala Lumpur that night, but I didn't feel like dealing with trains then so instead I went over to the AirAsia counter and bought a plane ticket up instead. Three hours later we took off – an hour late – and it was 1AM by the time I'd landed and taken a bus into the city. KL is like Jakarta in that if where you're going is more than two blocks from where you are don't bother to ask directions, cause nobody knows where anything is and you'll get three contradictory answers from three different people, so finding the hostel was a challenge. After about 40 minutes of wandering around Chinatown in a drizzle I finally managed to locate it. Not well marked (the hostel and the streets. Southeast Asia really needs to work on their street labeling.) My room was a little windowless cubby with barely enough room for the double bed and a fan on the ceiling, but at that point I was so tired I could have slept on the floor and not cared. The hostel turned out to be reasonably nice in the daylight, and they let me leave my stuff there while I wandered around the city all day.

If Singapore is like Miami and Jakarta is LA, then KL is like New York City, if New York had mosques instead of churches and palm trees instead of honey locusts. It was a place I could see myself living if the opportunity arose. I did a full tour of the city, or as close as you can get in a day. First up was Chinatown, which was far more interesting of a place in the daylight. From there I went over to the Central Market, where I bought some batik and did the fish spa again. In Bali the fish were tiny; if you were an Indonesian you might dry them and sprinkle them over your rice. In KL they were big enough to grill up and serve as appetizers, maybe three or four to a plate at a nice restaurant. When it comes to fish spas size does matter – in Bali it felt like a mass of little electric shocks, but here I could feel every little bite like a sandpaper suction cup on my foot. Not painful by any means, but certainly odd. And the big ones are far more efficient too – ten minutes with them had the same effect as half an hour with the little Balinese critters. After walking around in sandals all summer I certainly could have used more time, but there was lots left to see in the city so I moved on.

Next up was the MRT to the Petronas Towers. For the record, SE Asia kicks our ass when it comes to subway-type public transport. Faster, cleaner, cheaper. Case in point: Singapore, KL, Bangkok (both underground and skytrain). Even Jakarta's got dedicated lanes for city buses that zip right along when the rest of the traffic is at a dead standstill; they just need way more routes.

Anyway – the Petronas towers look huge, not because they're actually that huge but because SE Asia is short, both the people and the buildings. I don't think there's anything in Malang over six or seven stories, and even in the real cities the average building isn't over four. (Compare this to Manhattan, where anything under ten looks stunted). What with the Sears Tower and Taipei 101 and that new monstrosity in Dubai, Petronas comes in somewhere in the top 10 of tallest buildings in the world, depending whether you're counting by roof height or the top of the spires or antennae or what. Anyway, they're a landmark, and they look pretty cool from below. Tickets to the skybridge at the top are free but there's a limited number each day. On this particular day they ran out at 11:30am, and I showed up at 11:45. Damn. Still, I got to see the gift shop.

From there I decided to walk back towards Chinatown, which is an awfully long walk, especially in the tropics in August. First stop along the way was a tourist/cultural center, notable mostly for its air conditioning and public restrooms. Next door to that was a chocolate shop, which of course I had to visit. I apparently got there just after a big group of Chinese tourists, so I followed them around the store for the free samples. The coconut chocolates were (or course) delicious; the sesame/white chocolate ones were surprisingly good; and the durian truffles were about as horrendous as they sound. I've now tried durian as a cake, as a shake, and in chocolate, and it's official – it's gross. Fruit shouldn't taste like onions, onions shouldn't taste like fruit, and oniony fruit should never come near chocolate. Amen.

In the middle of KL there's a jungle called the KLCC Park . If this were New York it would be Central Park, but since it's Malaysia it's a jungle. It's centered on a hill with some hiking paths, and at the top is the KL Tower. I hiked my way up to the tower but didn't feel like paying the equivalent of about seventeen bucks for a ticket to the top, so instead I had some mediocre Indian food at the base and kept walking. It's an odd feeling, coming out of a jungle path and immediately being faced with a big ol' tourist attraction, complete with overpriced cafes, pony rides, and a flight simulator. Then five minutes later you're back in the forest, watching out for poisonous snakes with nary a soul in sight. At the bottom, back on the main road, was a forest conservation center, and out front were two museum staff, three tourists, and a monkey, who was climbing all over them. This particular monkey, it turns out, was about nine months old and named Norah. She may well have been a macaque, though I couldn't swear to it. The story is that she came from the park but was orphaned and adopted by the conservation center staff. When I first arrived she was sitting on top of a trash bin at about eye height. She took one look at me, got a look on her face like a cat about to pounce, and launched herself at my head. It was my sunglasses – never wear anything shiny when there's a friendly monkey around. She grabbed them and ran, then sat on the ground playing with them for a while before the staff managed to get them back. After being warned that she also likes to eat earrings I took out my dangles, but apparently that wasn't enough – in her next attack, Norah went straight for my ear and pulled out a stud. I managed to grab her hand before she could eat it, and we wrestled for a while before I got it back. But once I'd taken off the rest of my earrings and my watch she was a lot of fun. Baby monkeys are adorable.

From there I kept walking. I saw the Independence Plaza, where the first Malaysian flag was raised after independence in the sixties, got caught in a rainstorm outside the country club where Somerset Maugham used to drink (still members-only inside; I had to wait under the awning for the storm to let up), went into the Jamek Mosque (brought my own headscarf and jacket to avoid having to wear their ridiculous robes), just missed visiting the National Mosque, and got lost a few times. At 8pm I caught a train three hours south to Gemas, and from there started my trek north.

The Perhentian Islands: Pulau Surga

From Gemas the next morning I took the Jungle Line up through central Malaysia to Wakaf Bahru for the Perhentian Islands. There's an overnight train, but I'd read that the scenery was spectacular so I settled in for a long ride on the day train instead. It did not disappoint. At Wakaf Bahru I split a cab with a couple of other backpackers to Kuala Besut, a little town on the coast with ferries over to the islands. That province of Malaysia is especially conservative, and it's Ramadhan, so we had to wait another half hour for evening prayers to finish before the hotels and restaurants opened for the night. Dinner was delicious – thank you E-Ching for introducing me to the Malaysian/Singaporean deliciousness that is roti canai pisang, or a buttery chapati-style Indian flatbread filled with bananas and dipped in curry sauce. The hotel, not so much. What's with Malaysian hotel rooms not having windows? That's three for three. Which isn't that big a deal except that the bathroom smelled of mildew – this being SE Asia it was one of those tile rooms with a drain in the corner and a shower head next to the toilet, but instead of tilting towards the drain the floor just sagged in the middle, so the water never really went away. Bravo on the engineering there. The sink took its cue from the floor and didn't drain either. Classy place.

The next morning we got up to get to the pier at 6:30 for a ferry which, of course, didn't leave til 7:30. Ramadhan still, so no breakfast available. The “ferry” was a largish speedboat, and in about half an hour we pulled up to the pier at Coral Bay, the smaller and quieter of the two main beaches. Most places there were fully booked, even on a Tuesday morning, but I managed to find a little cabin – with attached bathroom! - for about $20/night.

Everything I'd read about the Perhentians described them as low-key, undiscovered, and underdeveloped, with gorgeous beaches and world-class diving, what Ko Tao in Thailand used to be before it got overrun with tourists (and before its namesake turtles decided it was too crowded for their taste and moved to Perhentian instead). I'd actually originally planned to go to Ko Tao, but decided tht this sounded more my style. I was right. There's two islands, Perhentian Kecil (the small one) and Perhentian Besar (the big one). Kecil, where I stayed, is cheaper and has more going on; Besar is quieter and more expensive. There's no roads, no cars, no motorbikes; just a bunch of speedboats between the islands and brick paths through the jungle to get from one beach to the other. No ATMs and few places that take credit cards, so bring your ringgits in cash. Guests are mostly European backpackers and a couple of Canadians – I don't think I met another American the whole time I was there. Two months in Java and a childhood of summer in the Adirondacks were good preparation for a week in the Perhentians – most places, mine included, have no wifi, no AC, no hot water, and electricity only twelve hours a day, so you can turn on the lights and the fan at night. It was, shall we say, bare-bones. (For the less-rugged, there's at least one or two places with all the modern comforts, but you do pay for them.) That said, if you've been sweating in the sun all day, and the water's been heated by the sun all day, a nice cool shower before dinner is actually pretty refreshing, and it cools down enough at night that a fan and open windows do the trick. It was a nice balance, a place where I could be alone after two months of constant group time in Malang but not isolated, since everyone from the guy at the shop where I bought my bottled water and paid for my room to the staff at the dive shop and the other divers and snorkelers were all super-friendly, so I was never lacking for conversation if I wanted it.

There's really nothing to do on the island other than eat, sleep, swim, and relax on the beach, so I did a lot of all four. My first day, after finally finding breakfast – no Ramadhan in a tourist economy – I found a snorkeling trip. In six hours we hit up five sites plus lunch at the fishing village on Besar. I'd been bowled over last year by snorkeling off the beach in Zihuatenejo; well Mexico's got nothing on Malaysia. The islands are surrounded by spectacular coral reefs and ringed by big granite boulders on the shoreline, which means that nearly anything that swims in that part of the world lives there. As my diving guide said later on, open up the fish identification book, close your eyes and point to something; chances are you just saw it underwater. There was a sea turtle, spotted rays, two black-tipped sharks, barracuda, sergeant majors, giant sea slugs, urchins, anemones with clownfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, normal parrotfish, giant bumphead parrotfish, mackerel, yellow boxfish, and plenty of other brightly-colored critters that I have no idea what they were. (The picture of the spotted ray was indeed taken at the Perhentians, but not by me - I pulled it off the internet.) There were even some monkeys on the shoreline at one point. My underwater camera had nowhere near enough shots on it; I can only hope some of them came out. (Mom? Dad? Christmas? Digital?) Of course there was a catch, which in this case was that the water-resistant sunscreen I'd slathered on actually resisted the water for about half a second before it ran screaming, and I got nicely seared all along my back and the backs of my legs. I'm talking Maine lobster red; sitting down was seriously painful for several days afterwards.

That didn't stop me from going scuba diving five times over the next three days though. Good luck getting so much as a freckle when you're 30+ feet down and wearing a wetsuit (though getting that wetsuit on and off was less than fun). The diving there is cheap, and even more spectacular than the snorkeling, especially after my second dive when the divemaster fixed my mask so it wouldn't fog up anymore and I could actually see. I ended up at a dive shop about three minutes' walk from my cabin, run by a Canadian named Shane with excellent abs. If I were Elizabeth Gilbert we would have fallen in love and had a passionate international affair; as is I admired his abs in the boat and wondered a bit if there was anything more than bubbles between his ears. In any case he was an excellent guide, and over the next few days I saw everything I'd seen snorkeling but closer up this time, along with huge porcupine pufferfish, triggerfish, nudibranch, wrasse, a Jenkin's ray, and again plenty of other gorgeous things whose names I've forgotten. All that time and money I spent getting certified last semester – totally worth it. I was supposed to leave for Thailand on Friday morning, but they were doing a dive to a pretty incredible site called the Temple of the Sea that day – 24 meters deep! Great fish! - so I stuck around an extra day.

The rest of my time was spent stretched out in the shade reading. Over the course of the summer I got through all three Steig Larsson books. My advice: read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The writing's a little awkward, and he name-drops brands left and right, but the plot's good. Skip the other two. Once he started getting into defected Russian spies and giants who feel no pain, he lost me. What is this, John Le Carre meets Carl Hiassen in Sweden? They both do it better. Stick to your little locked-room mysteries, Steig.

And the food. Not mind-blowing, like Singapore or Bangkok, but stick to the curries and the roti and you'll do pretty well. Anywhere in SE Asia with backpackers will have banana pancakes, which are worth a go, even if, like in Bali, they're more thick crepes than pancakes. Actually, the best ones I had were lime rather than banana. This being the tropics the juices were great, of course – two that stand out in particular were a bright purple dragon fruit on blended with ice and a carrot/apple/lime/honey, but I went through plenty of watermelon and soursop too. (Why are things like soursop and dragon fruit so hard to find in the US? And forget about mangosteen. If you want good fruit, go to SE Asia.) And every restaurant had an evening barbeque, with chicken and various kinds of just-caught fish grilled over coals and served with your choice of sauce. Again, go for the curry. I don't know what's in it – coconut milk, turmeric, deliciousness – but damn it's good. There's plenty of pizza and pasta and such on the island as well, but I don't know why you'd bother. Unless they put curry on top...

And I should say a word about the wildlife on the island. Fish, yes, and I mentioned the monkeys, though I only saw them from afar. Plenty of stray cats, this being Asia. But what sticks with me is the monitor lizards. You've seen them in zoos; they're related to Komodo dragons, carnivorous, and according to Wikipedia often smart enough to count. Luckily they're also reasonably scared of people. I surprised one lounging near the trail between the beaches one afternoon; it saw me and bolted. It was moving fast but I'd put it at around five feet long, which is entirely possible (again, according to Wiki). There was a smaller one, maybe three feet, that liked to hang around near my cabin and under my porch, which wasn't too disconcerting until I watched it march across the path and climb a tree. If it can climb a tree it can climb a porch. Or a cabin. And I'd heard something skittering around my roof the night before, which may or may not have been a cat. And I sleep with the windows open...

Bangkok: The Big Mango (who comes up with these nicknames, anyway?)

Saturday morning I finally tore myself away from the islands – and I was running out of cash; thank goodness the dive shop took Mastercard – and headed for the Thai border. 8Am ferry back to Kuala Besut, then I split an hour and a half long cab ride to the border town on Sungai Kolok. ($15 each. New York City this ain't.) You stamp out at a window on the Malaysian side, cross a bridge over the Golok river, and stamp in on the Thai side. From there it's a half-mile walk to the train station, and a 20-hour train ride in a first-class air-conditioned sleeper car to Bangkok. Or so I thought, based on the reading I'd done. Actually, on that particular day at least, it's a 24-hour ride on a fan-cooled train with seats that lean back a little. But I'll get to that. I arrived around 10am Thai time and my train wasn't til 2:20 (in reality 3:15, since when does anything happen on time in that part of the world?), so I wandered around a bit. I passed a market and decided to buy a bunch of bananas, since who knew what the food situation on the train would be and besides, southern Thailand is very Muslim and it was still Ramadhan, so there might not be anything til sunset. Thank god I did, too. I found a place serving lunch (heathens!) and talked to some Malay highschoolers while I ate. That close to the border everyone speaks Malay, which is nearly the same as Indonesian, so I got by just fine.

The train, when it finally arrived, was reasonably comfortable, at least for the first few hours. A few stops in someone handed me a note: “Hello, It's nice to meet you. I would like to talk with you. -Thailand” Well you know what, Thailand? I'd like to have a talk with you, too. First of all, this train. Special express, says the website? Then why are we stopping in every little podunk town between here and Bangkok? And it's hot and humid here – no more cool mountain air – even with the fans going and the windows open I'm sweating like nothing else. What happened to my AC? And my sleeper car, while we're at it? I was expecting a bed tonight, not a plastic-upholstered slightly-reclining chair. Also, Bangkok. Great temples and all, and the food's incredible, but why do I feel like I'm being constantly scammed? No, the government isn't subsidizing tuk-tuk rides specially today; you just get a cheaper ride if the driver takes you to a shopping center along the way because that way he gets a free gas card. So why do people keep telling me this? No, man on the corner, the temples and the subway aren't closed til 3pm for cleaning on Mondays, actually everything's up and running normally. Thanks for that. It may have actually been a Buddhist holiday, but frankly I'm starting to doubt it. National Fuck With The Tourist Day, maybe. (That can't be good karma.) And so on. Look, if you don't want me here just say so, alright? All this smiling and lying is not cool. (No, I didn't go talk to the guy with the note.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Thailand is beautiful, and large, and apparently full of cows, even more so than Malaysia. The whole place smells like delicious food; even when we were passing through nasty industrial zones on the outskirts of Bangkok somehow the smell wafting in through the windows was of lunch. The food situation on the train was less fantastic. Every so often people would walk down the aisles selling drinks, snacks, and sometimes meals in styrofoam containers. The problem of course, aside from the usual concerns about street food in tropical climates, being that I had no idea what was in them (and in this part of the world you really do want to know), no way to ask, and no way to understand the answer. Same goes for the price. So I ate bananas and coconut cookies. Again, thank god for those bananas. At one point in the morning a guy went past selling omelets over rice (with a cellophane top, so I could see it). I was hungry and getting sick of bananas, so I pointed, handed him what I assumed was too large a bill, and got what I hope was the right amount of change. It was an awfully good egg.

The southern provinces of Thailand, as I mentioned before, are Muslim to the rest of the country's Buddhism, and there's some separatist groups trying not entirely peacefully to win independence, so for the first eight or nine hours each car had a couple soldiers with machine guns for safety. Yeah, that makes me feel real good about my travel plans. It was mostly uneventful – a couple of times the train stopped in the middle of nowhere and the soldiers stuck their heads & guns out the window to look around, but that was mostly it. The one bit of excitement happened around 1am in lord knows what small town. There was some shouting in a car behind us before we pulled into the station, and everyone in the car was turned around, necks craned, to see what was going on. I don't speak Thai, so don't ask me. At the station the yellers got off, still far enough back that I couldn't see. It sounded like two or three men and one very shrieky woman. We sat there as they yelled for maybe forty minutes. Still no idea what was actually happening – maybe an argument? Maybe someone caught a thief? - but still it was interesting enough for everyone to stick their heads out the windows to try to watch. Finally we pulled away, and as we were going I heard from the station a gunshot, followed a few seconds later by a second. We kept going; I fell back asleep.

The other problem of all this was my sunburn. It had gotten less painful by the time I left Malaysia, but all this sitting was starting to really sting, and by the morning when I went to the bathroom I looked down and saw big chunks of skin peeling off my legs, probably prematurely from those damn seats. I looked like a victim of radiation poisoning, which actually I kind of was. (I'm still peeling from those damn sunburns, and it's September 1st.) That along with the heat and the fact that the seats really weren't all that comfortable made the last few hours of the trip rather unpleasant. Even gorgeous tropical landscapes get boring after 15 hours or so. I don't think I've ever been so happy as when we finally pulled in to the station in Bangkok.

The best part of Bangkok was my hostel. I was paying $12/night for a bunk bed in a dorm, but it was clean, and had hot showers, air conditioning, good wifi, and 24-hour electricity – I may as well have been at the Ritz. Also, across the street was a little place with a sign out front that said 'Duck House'. They served duck. Over two breakfasts I tried their duck soup and their roast duck with rice & chinese broccoli, both of which may have been the best duck I've had in my life. With a bottle of something to drink it came to a little under $2 a meal. Not half bad, eh?

The other great meal I had was on my first full day there. I was walking around the Democracy Monument (funny, that), and turned off onto a side street with a bunch of cafes. I picked one mostly by smell. They didn't speak any English, and I don't have a word of Thai, so I sat down and pointed to a picture on the menu. They pointed insistently at a picture of a basket of sticky rice to go with it, so I nodded. I swear, that lunch (which I found out later was larb) was one of the best things I've eaten ever. Again, I think it cost me about $2.

My first day was mostly temples, a lot of walking – Thailand has a wonderful subway and skytrain system, but it doesn't go anywhere near the parts of town with most of the sites – a lot of natives telling me I had to go see this or that site and pointing me to a tuk-tuk, which took me first to where I wanted to go and then to a tailor. Soon enough I gave up on those. The temples are gorgeous, of course, and I saw a lot of gold buddhas before the day was out. That evening I met up with my friend Fatima from CLS who's doing an internship at the UN in Bangkok for the fall and two of her friends at Khoasan Road, the backpacker center of Bangkok. We had dinner at an Israeli place – they'd been interning in a small town to the north for a few months and were somehow sick of Thai food – which was good but couldn't compare to the duck or the larb.

Tuesday I decided I was templed out, so I signed up for a cooking class at a vegetarian restaurant with a good reputation for such things. In the morning, after my duck breakfast, I wandered around the neighborhood of the hostel a bit and then caught a cab – no stops at tailors – out to the class. There were three people signed up but I was the only one who showed, so it ended up being basically a private lesson. The food was delicious, and I bought some of their curry pastes on the way out. That evening I got a foot massage and a mani-pedi, not as cheap as in Bali but still better than the States, an here they use nail polish. That night Fatima and her friends and I met up at the Vertigo Bar on top of the Banyan Tree hotel, one of the poshest spots in Bangkok. It's a rooftop bar on the 59th floor, overlooking the entire city. (Again, not New York – this was the tallest building around.) I had a Singapore sling – it seemed appropriate. The view really was spectacular. Not a bad way to spend my last night in Asia.

New York: The Big Apple

Wednesday morning I took a flight to Singapore, then had about ten hours to go back to E-Ching's house, repack all my stuff, eat dinner, and go back to the airport. It was a 24-hour trip from takeoff in Singapore to landing in JFK. My advice, next time you've got a long flight: fly Emirates. Seriously nice. There were hot towels before takeoff, blankets made of actual fabric, individual screens a great movie list – I saw Iron Man 2, Up In The Air, and The Men Who Stare at Goats; it was a George Clooney kind of day – even little stars in the ceiling when they turned down the lights. Before takeoff in Dubai – a 14-hour flight – they handed out little bags with a pair of socks, an eyemask, a toothbrush and toothpaste – I haven't seen that since I flew British Air in the mid-'90s. And, most shockingly of all, the food was actually good. Like, I enjoyed eating it. Mostly it was sort of Indian-leaning; I had a lamb dish, and one with mutton, and a chicken tikka wrap, as well as a nice European omelet. They even gave out metal silverware in coach. (Things I don't understand: going through security at the gate in Singapore, they confiscated my cuticle clippers. Since they're small enough to be legal to fly with in the US, I asked why, if it was special for flights to Dubai or what; the lady said you couldn't fly out of Singapore with them. I didn't point out that I'd already flown out of Singapore with them twice in the last two weeks. Come mealtime though I had to wonder – my cuticle clippers are too dangerous, but you give me a metal butter knife? Sure, that makes sense.) Anyway, landed In JFK, got through customs without a hitch – have I been near livestock? Of course not, there were no sheep walking past my house every morning or chickens in the streets. And plant products? Please ignore the coffee & tea & curry pastes in my bag, thanks. - took a cab to Jaime's and spent the night in Brooklyn. First thing I ate back was a slice of pepperoni pizza, and a bagel for breakfast. Friday morning I caught the train up to New Haven and now I'm home.

The one thing that's really struck me here is how quiet it is. No call to prayer five times a day, no kaki limas going past ringing bells or hitting sticks or yelling to advertize their food, no sari roti song, no sheep, no mufflerless sepeda motors, not even many cars on my street. Everything here is closed off from the street instead of spilling out into it like in Indonesia. Frankly, it's a little boring. Sorry, Connecticut. Plus I can't find tempeh for sale anywhere.

So that's the end of that. Congrats if you made it this far. I'll be writing again next time I go somewhere interesting, which hopefully will be later this year but who knows. Sampai nanti...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Some hard-won wisdom

If you ever decide to take a long-distance train ride through Thailand, book in advance to make sure air-conditioned sleeper cars - or any sleeper cars at all - exist on your train. Then, just before you click 'confirm', go to and book yourself a plane ticket instead. Seriously.

Some thoughts from Malaysia

-Rambutan trees are pretty funny looking. But then so are rambutans. 
-European backpackers need to shower more, have a shave, and seriously rethink those ridiculous pants. Just cause you're in the jungles of Malaysia is no reason to smell like that.  
-I must be getting old - I'm willing to pay extra for a room of my own and an indoor bathroom. Five years ago it would have been bunk beds all the way, and shower in the ocean. How bourgoise of me. 
-Don't expect breakfast on Ramadhan. Or hot water ever. Internet costs extra.
-Giant monitor lizards really are giant, and really are terrifying. They climb trees too.  
-Sunburns suck. So does "water-resistant sunscreen" that resists water about as well as Imelda Marcos might resist a shoe sale.
-Scuba diving: totally worth it.  
-Snorkeling here kicks the shit out of snorkeling in Mexico. Incidentally, add to my Christmas list for this year a really good waterproof camera and tickets back here. 
-Things I saw while snorkeling/diving: sharks, a sea turtle, rays, more sea slugs than I'd like to think about, triggerfish, sea anemones (complete with clownfish),  zebrafish, angelfish, butterflyfish, giant parrotfish, giant pufferfish, giant clams with iridescent blue frills around the edge, coral that looked like a brain, coral that looked like fungus, coral that looked like seaweed, coral that glowed in the dark, coral that looked like nothing else I've seen on this earth, plenty of other fluorescent-colored creatures, a wheelbarrow, monkeys.    
-Monkeys are adorable.   

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Highlights of Kuala Lumpur: Tried durian chocolates. Had a monkey steal my earring + try to eat it. Got to the Petronas Towers ten minutes after they ran out of tickets to the top.  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Singapore to Jakarta and back

I'm writing this on my iPod touchscreen in the Singapore airport, so we'll see how long I can type before I get sick of it. That's how it'll be between now and when I get my netbook back on the 25th. Sorry. I was planning to catch an overnight train into Kuala Lumpur tonight, but I didn't feel like taking out more Singapore dollars, schlepping to the train station, and spending the night on a train, so I dropped by the AirAsia desk and booked a flight out instead. We leave in about an hour.

So I guess I last posted from E-Ching's house Tuesday morning. Monday night I flew as far as Singapore with the CLS group (or what was left of it), But instead of gettng on the next flight up to Tokyo I grabbed my bags, and left. E-Ching's house is beautiful by any standards, and particularly so since it had all the things I'd been missing: real showers with hot water, fast Internet, even AC. Singapore's not a large country, but it was a whirlwind two days trying to pack it all in. The family has a driver, which certainly helped. My first impression of Singapore was that it reminded me of Florida - it's so much cleaner than Malang, more modern, more smoothly functioning. The first thing that hit me was the complete lack of both motorbikes and potholes on the roads. In the daylight I'd cmpare it more to Manhattan, if Manhattan only had the financial district and Curry Hill, less trash, and more palm trees. It's new, it's clean, it's tropical, and it's hugely diverse - roughly 5 million people and four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. I got there the night of National Day, the Singaporean Fourth of July, so there were flags everywhere and government posters: "Fly our flag, live our dream." What elsewhere might be propaganda here just sounded like advertising.

On Tuesday we saw a government housing development - roughly 80% of Singaporeans live in one - then lnch at a hawker center and the afternoon at the zoo. The Singapore zoo is pretty famous, and rightly so. They're big on fenceless enclosures, so the only thong between you and, say, the tigers is a big ditch. Rather disconcerting at times, especially right before the feeding when they're looking hungry. Lots of free-range monkeys too. I stepped in orangutan poop. Ew. The only drawback was the weather, which we found out later was about 37* celsius, roughly 100* F, and humid as anything. I really was spoiled by Malang's cool mountain air. That night was a dinner party thrown by E-Chng's parents for the new neighbors, with some fantastic roast chicken and the first wine I'd had since May. Mmm.

Wednesday we went to Chinatown and the heritage museum there, then lunch at an even bigger hawker center downtown. Calvin Trillin, as usual, was right: the food in Singapore is pretty spectacular. Plus with the hawker centers you can eat what you lie and not worry about getting typhoid or dysentary or whatever like in Indonesia. There was a sudden downpour while we poked around Raffles Hotel - a British colonial relic if I ever saw one. Then we drove to Little India, where I bought a camping backpack for the rest of my trip and we snacked on banana parathas, a local specialty, and chai. I had barely enough time back at E-Ching's house afterwards to change into non-sweaty clothes and start printing my travel itineraries before I headed out again, this time to meet E-Ching's brother, who works as a playwright/blogger/etc in Singapore. He gave me a walking tour of the arts district, then we saw December Rains, Singapore's first Mandarin musical. Thank god for subtitles. It was just a melodramatic and over the top as you'd expect a Chinese musical to be, but fun regardless. I got home and crashed around 1.

Thursday morning I flew into Jakarta and met up with Jenny, a friend from CLS, but my typing fnger's getting tired so you'll have to wait to hear about it. Maybe on the train to Gemas tomorrow. We'll see.

Saturday morning

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sampai Jumpa, Indonesia!

I'm currently sitting in Singapore at a friend's house, enjoying the air conditioned room, fast internet, and hot showers. It's the little things... I flew out from Surabaya yesterday, with roughly two more weeks of travel before I head home. First, a wrap-up of my last week in Malang.

You've already heard about my cobra-eating adventures on Tuesday night, so I'll skip that. Classes ended on Wednesday, which for my class meant a few hours of review and then a field trip to Cafe Ria Djenaka for melon juice and chatting with the teachers. Tari gave us all wooden shadow-boxes with models of masks & spears from her home town in Kalimantan (Borneo) as kenang-kenangan (parting gifts). Thursday was somewhat hellish; four hours of final presentations followed by a final exam. I love all my fellow-CLSers, really, but after four hours of powerpoints I was about ready to shoot myself. Mine went smoothly, and I now know the words for 'endangered language' and 'extinct', which should come in handy. And the final exam... well, lets just say that my 150-word essay was closer to 50 or 60 words; by that point I just wanted to be done and outta there. The university gave us all custom-tailored alma mater jackets – basically suit jackets with an Universitas Negeri Malang patch on the lapel – so everybody was looking sharp. That night was the closing ceremonies, with performances from the traditional dance and gamelan classes. We'd been told to dress up (my peer tutor: “Emily, you need to wear makeup tonight.” Me: “I'm wearing makeup now.” Her: “Oh... well wear more!”), so I put on a batik skirt from Bali and put on some lip gloss, my typical informal dressy look. The Indonesians, on the other hand, were stunning. Salon appointments for hair and makeup, traditional costumes from around the archipelago for everyone in gamelan class, which was almost everyone, seriously fancier outfits than I'd seen at the wedding a few weeks ago. I didn't recognize a few people on first glance. A sharp contrast to the few unlucky Americans who'd been assigned “traditional” Papuan dress for gamelan, which ended up being a shiny yellow poncho and skirt with rainbow-colored feather trim and feathered headbands, sort of Big Bird meets Pocahontas. And Mas Wyatt, who git drafted as an MC, in a bright-red sequined outfit and cap that made him look like a Chinese re-interpretation of a Christmas elf, but six feet tall. Ingrid was suckered into MCing as well, she dealt with it by filling a water bottle with Pocari Sweat and vodka and taking swigs before the show. It was a fun night.

Friday was a near-unbearable mandatory re-entry workshop (yes, I know what reverse culture shock is...) and oral feedback session. Listening is obviously not the administration's strongest suit; when Jenny complained that the intermediate class was hard because of a wide range of student abilities, but that having so much homework made it hard for them to find time to go out and talk to real Indonesians, Dinny wrote on the form “many different levels in class – maybe give more homework next time”. Um... no? Afterwards a few of us went out to Cafe Und for the evening. Mbak Nissa ordered her first-ever plate of pancakes, with chocolate sauce and sprinkles – very East Javanese.

On Saturday I made up for any ecological sins I may have committed with the cobra blood by going out to Batu with Samantha, Kyle, and Jake and planting trees with schoolkids. There's a conservation area up in the mountains there, around the source of the Brantas river, which is a major water source for East and Central Java. There used to be over 200 springs feeding the river, but since the area has been deforested for agriculture in the last ten years that number has gone down to about thirty. So now there's an arboretum, environmental education for local kids, and a reforestation program going on, where any time a diplomat or major group visits the region they donate a tree to be planted near the river source. Samantha, who studies that sort of thing, found out about the project an raised Rp. 600,000, roughly $60, from people in our program, which was enough to buy about 100 trees. So on Saturday we went out there, met up with a group of ten local middle-schoolers, and planted them. It wasn't nearly as back-breaking as it sounds; the trees were small and the holes had already been dug, so all we had to do was plop them in the ground and cover them over with dirt again. A 5-minute walk up to a spring that feeds the river, where we washed the mud off our hands. There were speeches about the importance of conservation, and afterwards we bought them ice cream as a little positive reinforcement.

Sunday I discovered cream baths, which I wish I had known about two months ago. You go to a salon and they smear your hair with some intense conditioner, followed by a 45-minute head, neck, and shoulder massage, all for about $3. Things I wish we had in the States... After the creambath about 20 of us went out to karaoke. You haven't lived until you've watched a sweet girl in a pink jilbab and braces do an impeccable performance of Timbaland's 'The Way I Are'. Seriously, word-perfect. Mas Wyatt followed it up with 'I Want It That Way' – old school late-'90s Backstreet Boys – and it ended with the whole room singing 'My Heart Will Go On' from Titanic. (No, mom, the microphone never came anywhere near me. That would take far more alcohol than is socially acceptable in Indonesia.)

Yesterday I finished packing and left the house at 9:30 in the morning to catch the bus out to Surabaya. A pile of tutors and teachers came with us, so the bus was packed. Yusinta gave me a pair of wayang earrings that I'd seen in the store and admired (terima kasih, Yus!) and a photo collage; I gave her a framed picture of the two of us in silly hats at Blitar and a shirt my host family had bought. 11am the bus headed out; 2:30 we got to the airport. Lots of teary goodbyes. Our flight was delayed, of course, and took of at 6pm rather than 5, but that's to be expected. My bag was 2 ½ kilos overweight, but the guy at the counter let me get by without paying. Our flight out of Jakarta was half an hour late too, so I got into Singapore a little before midnight local time. Luckily my bag showed up; since I was still booked on continuing flights to the US – United couldn't cancel the rest of my ticket without changing me to a different fare class, which was Verboten – I wasn't sure it would. But it was Garuda to Singapore and United the rest of the way, and luckily for me they don't have a baggage agreement, so all our bags had to be re-checked in Singapore. I just took mine and left. I was picked up at the airport by friends from Yale, so now I'm at E-Ching's parent's house waiting for the day to start (I'm still on Javanese time, which means waking up several hours earlier than any sane person in the rest of the world). I'll write more about Singapore later, but it's quite a change from Indonesia.

And lastly, a change of plans for the rest of my travels. On Thursday I'm flying back to Jakarta for a meeting with some linguists at the Max Planck Institute field station there, who do pretty much exactly the same research I want to start on next summer. From there I fly into Singapore again and take an overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. Most of a day there, then more trains up through the jungle to the northern part of the country, where I'm stopping (appropriately) at the Perhentian Islands ('perhentian' means 'a stopping place') for some R&R and what's supposed to be excellent scuba diving. Then across the Thai border, 20 hours on another train, and four days in Bangkok. Fly back to Singapore on the 25th, get my luggage back from E-Ching, then back to America just after midnight that night. I'd thought about taking that tour, but decided for $500 I could do it myself and have money to spare, since it wasn't going to be a complicated itinerary. I'll meet my friend Jenny in Jakarta and Fatima in Bangkok. So that's my jungle adventure, and here's hoping the trains run roughly on time and I get where I want to go. Ramadhan in Malaysia should be an interesting experience too. I'll write when I can, but who knows what the internet situation will be. Sampai nanti...

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Pengalaman Sangat Indonesia – Not for the faint of heart

Remember a month or so ago, when I was writing about my adventures in the mud at Pulau Sempu, and I mentioned that I'd missed out on drinking cobra blood in Jogja? Well... the other night, I made up for it.

After hearing about the two people who did it in Jogja (and seeing them alive and well the next day), Leslie and Chris decided they wanted to try it too, so Pak Gatut took them to his friend who runs a cobra restaurant – of course Pak Gatut has a friend with a cobra restaurant, don't you? - and they too came back still kicking and with a great story to tell. So it was in the back of my mind for a while. Then on Tuesday, Wyatt and I decided to give it a try. The plan was to make it a class trip, and Judith seemed game, but in the end kickboxing class won out and it ended up being just the two of us and Gatut. Lame.

After Wyatt's gamelan class I headed home to tell my host family I wouldn't be home for dinner, I was going out for snake blood instead. They thought I was a little nuts, but then that's about usual by now. We all met out at Gatut's house, then on to Depot Cobra Rejeki. It's a warung on a back street in a wealthy neighborhood, slightly dingy, and entirely deserted except for the four of us (myself, Wyatt, Gatut, and Pak Imam, the driver for the program). We went to the back and watched as the proprietress one by one fished three cobras out of a wooden box, held them out for us to see, then with a mininimum of fuss cut off their heads with a cleaver, drained the blood into a shot glass, took off the skin and removed the stomach, the contents of which ended up in a smaller shot glass with a touch of wine. A cobra is like a chicken, apparently, in that the head keeps snapping at you for a good ten minutes after it's cut off from the body, and the snake keeps moving roughly until the organs are out, though it's already thoroughly dead. The little garbage can that the heads were dropped into was actually rocking on the floor as she was cleaning the meat in the sink. Imagine, you can still be bitten and killed by a severed cobra head. Hati-hati...

I'd struggled a bit with the idea of going out to have an animal killed so I could have the thrill of eating it. But when you get down to it, what's the difference between that and ordering roast chicken at a restaurant, or grilling a sausage? In both cases an animal dies so that you can consume it. And here, rather than going to the grocery store for an anonymous package of shrink-wrapped meat from lord knows what factory, I saw the snake and watched it get slaughtered – unlike the usual American eating experience, I was, for the first time, face to face with the death involved in producing my food, and for the first time it was impossible not to recognize the sacrifice involved. Not that I'm ready to go watch a cow get slaughtered for my hamburger, but it was an experience I'm glad I had. And because we ate the meat and some organs for dinner, very little was wasted, again unlike the usual American eating experience. I don't know much about cobra populations in East Java or whether the hunting practices are sustainable, so maybe it was entirely ecologically irresponsible of me, but again, given what I know about livestock operations in the States, I think the comparison still holds. Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.

Back out to the front, we sat at a table and a tray was brought to us with three big shot glasses of blood and three little ones with bile and wine. My snake was on the small side – I got a girl cobra – so they had to add a little of the blood from Wyatt's snake into my glass. On the table were cups of water and bowls of mints – apparently it's not uncommon for people to puke after drinking it. One, two, three, cheers! The bile shot went down first. A little bitter, tasted mostly like wine. Next the blood. Cheers again. It tasted like, well, blood. A little salty, a little thicker than you might want, but swallow fast and it's not too terrible. Nobody puked. (I found out later that three guys who'd tried it earlier had gagged, so I was a little proud of myself.) A few minutes, a mint, and some water later the meat came out, stir fried with ginger and garlic. It looked like snake. A little chewy, but tasted mostly of sweet Indonesian soy sauce. Afterwards we chatted and smoked kretek (the ubiquitous Indonesian clove cigarettes), which seemed entirely appropriate after drinking the blood of a deadly reptile. It came to $7 each, including rice. They said we wouldn't be able to sleep well that night and indeed I didn't. I can't say I felt any dramatic effects the next day – no extraordinary glow of health or virility – but then I also didn't feel any worse for my sleepless night, so maybe there's something to it. In any case, I can now say that I've eaten cobra. Worth my $7.

Postscript: When I got home, my family, though still slightly skeptical of my sanity, suddenly thought I was awfully adventurous, and started reeling off lists of slightly strange native Indonesian foods I'd yet to try – horse satay, snails, various soups and stews. We had goat kebabs last night. Honestly, cobra's tastier.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Malls, Markets, Graves

A quick update on this week: The program's nearly over, and classes are winding down (though don't tell Pak Peter that!). When Wyatt heard from his (gay) host brother about weekly games of bola banci – transvestite volleyball – at one of the local malls, and told my class about it, naturally we had to go. Indonesia has a strange relationship with gender issues – in general, don't even think about being gay, unless you're wealthy and Australian-educated and threaten not to come back from studying in Thailand where you're living with you boyfriend (Wyatt's host brother), but bancis are like the drag queens in the New York subway system: you look twice, you maybe say something to your friends, but it's pretty much accepted. In any case, while everyone seems to know that bola banci exists, nobody can quite say when it takes place. Probably 4pm, we heard, maybe Tuesday, or Wednesday, or possibly Thursday. Or Saturday morning, could be. It was already Wednesday afternoon, so we decided to try on Thursday. A short motorbike ride later, we arrived at MOG. No bola banci. If at all possible we'll be trying again next week, hopefully better luck then. Instead we went to the mall, like the twelve-year-old girls we secretly are. Hence the chocolate-banana-cheese crepes from earlier.

Friday, off to another mall to see Salt. Movies in Indonesia cost roughly $2, so I feel I got my money's worth. The best part was the subtitles – either Indonesians don't swear, or the translators are unwilling to render expletives faithfully. Hence 'shit', as in 'Shit! The Russian assassin/spy just escaped after an excruciatingly long and dramatically choreographed chase scene!' came out as 'sial', or 'bad luck', as in 'Oh no, I just dropped my ice cream on the floor. Sial!' 'Bullshit' was 'omong kosong' or 'empty talk'. Etc. Anyway, Liev Schreiber's still amazing, even if the movie had no actual ending. Sequel, anyone?

And Saturday I got in a car to Blitar, site of former president Sukarno's grave, some nice temples, and Mas Toriq's parent's house. We visited them in that order: firth the dead dictator, then the 800-year-old ruins, then lunch at Toriq's. On the way home we stopped at a giant dam for a photo op. All around were kaki lima – food carts, with signs advertizing 'sate 02'. I know what sate (satay) is, but 02? Shorthand for snail, it turns out, a reference to old slot machines. I didn't try any.

And today I spent a quiet day in Malang with my family. Out at 6:30am to see the Pasar Minggu (Sunday Market), eat some bubur ayam (chicken rice porridge, quite good) off the back of a truck, and browse the stalls, back home for a while to work on my final presentation for the program, then out again to a salon where I got a mani-pedi and a haircut for a grand total of Rp. 70,000, or just under $8. Not the best mani-pedi I've ever gotten – no polish, and the poor girl working on my toes didn't even manage to get off all the old polish from last time, though lord knows she tried – but I love the haircut and the hand massage was worth eight bucks on its own. Now I'm sitting on the balcony while my host family naps, plotting out my next week and daydreaming about Thailand. Not a bad weekend at all.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

An Admission

I just ordered a banana-chocolate-cheese crepe at the mall. And it was delicious.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More Cultural Differences...

Last night we went to Toko Oen, Malang's oldest restaurant from back when the Dutch ran the place, for Kiley's birthday. Cool resto, with rattan chairs and a mixed Dutch/Indonesian menu. My plans for a ham, egg, & cheese sandwich were thwarted when they ran out of ham, but at the bottom of the page was a section for 'Toast Plates - Flying Saucers'. Not entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded interesting. I couldn't decide between chicken, egg, or cheese (chocolate was also an option), so I went for the kombinasi (combination), expecting a plate with three or four pieces of toast with different toppings. Instead I got a single hamburger bun, cooked inside an iron to press the edges shut. Inside was a combination - of chocolate sprinkles and cheese. Not bad, actually, but not quite the dinner I'd been expecting. I ordered a bihun goreng to round it out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cool things I did this week

Recognize this photo? (If not, look up to the blog header.) I took that yesterday. This week's mandatory fun was a trip to Bromo-Tengger-Semuru National Park and Mt Bromo, about 2 ½ hours east of Malang. Bromo is actually a small but active volcano inside the crater of a massive ancient volcano, the Tengger Caldera. Next to Bromo (the gaping hole with sulfurous steam coming out in the photos) is Mt. Batok. The area inside the ancient crater is filled with sand and known as Laut Pasir Tengger (the Tengger Sand Sea); aside from Bromo and Batok there are three other volcanoes in the caldera. The tall one in the back is Mt. Semeru, the tallest mountain in East Java and outside the caldera but still in the park.

We left on Friday, but luckily didn't have anything really planned for the day outside of dinner. Our hotel was perched right on the rim of the caldera overlooking the sand sea – hell of a view. The 'observe local Tengger people' (who brought their binoculars!) section of the schedule turned out to mean 'free time, but we can't officially say that', so a few of us hiked out along the ridge for a better view of the mountains inside. It was misty all afternoon, but right at sunset the clouds started to clear and we got a beautiful view of the peaks with orange sky behind them.

Saturday morning we woke up at quarter to three and took jeeps out to Mt. Pananjakan, one of the mountains in the Tengger Massif but outside the caldera, to watch the sun rise over Bromo.Waking up wasn't easy – despite our best efforts to get to bed at 8, the room next to us stayed up late talking, and through the thin bamboo walls we could hear just enough of the conversation for it to be tantalizing but, aside from a few choice bits, not enough to actually know what was being said – though that was plenty to make falling asleep a challenge. Plus they hadn't booked enough rooms for everyone who ended up wanting to come, so we were four to a room with just-larger-than-twin-sized beds, a little on the cramped side if you're not looking to cuddle. (Though I can't complain; apparently the peer tutors were four to a room with only one bed.) When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed it was freezing – okay probably in the forties, but when you're used to 80 and packed for maybe 65, that's pretty cold. Most of us had bought hats from the hawkers the night before – roughly $1 for a hand-knitted hat ain't bad – but my longest pants were capris, and some people (I guess they missed the 'climbing a mountain' part of the schedule) were stuck in flip-flops. The Indonesians had told us it would be cold, but Indonesians think a cool breeze on a summer afternoon is practically Antarctica, so nobody really took them seriously. I had my thick Yale sweatshirt, and luckily had decided to humor my ibu when she suggested I bring a scarf. Between that, some layered t-shirts, and my new hat I was mostly okay, aside from my exposed calves; the Indonesians were bundled up like Eskimos and still shivering.

The view from Mt. Pananjakan was spectacular, though from my vantage point I missed the best part; I stole some photos from facebook from those with better seats. The pic above was taken from an overlook a little down the mountain on our way out. After the sunrise we took the jeep across the sand sea out to Bromo. I wrote before that the roads through East Java to the Bali ferry were the worst I've ever seen; I take that back. From the parking lot it was a short hike partway up the crater, followed by stairs to the top. I started out walking but started getting winded in the thin air – love that high altitude; I got a sunburn too – and opted for a horse ride the rest of the way. At the top you could go right up to the edge of the crater and look in at the steam rising out of it. The locals still harvest sulfur from inside. I recommend not standing downwind.

The other cool thing I did was on Thursday. My class had planned to go out for coffee with Pak Gatut – not everyone had tried the kopi luwak yet – but during our 10am break he mentioned that a relative of his was getting married that afternoon, and would we like to come. It's wedding season in Indonesia, and I'm probably one of the last in my program who hadn't been to one yet (though my host family flew to Jakarta a few weeks ago for the wedding of one of my host dad's 10 younger siblings), and Indonesian weddings, or at least the receptions, are pretty laid-back affairs, and everyone there would probably really enjoy seeing a pack of Americans show up. Plus, as it turned out, Pak Gatut was the uncle (?) of one of the people getting married (I think the word used was 'keponakan', which means non-gender-specific 'child of my sibling'), and an important enough guest to be making a speech, so really he could bring whomever he wanted. The actual ceremony had already taken place that morning – usually it's a small gathering for family only – so what we saw was the reception. Arrive, eat, leave is the general pattern, which is what happened here. Lots of great batik shirts; we stood out a bit in our jeans and t-shirts, though this being Indonesia we weren't the only ones in flip-flops. The bride and groom wore beautiful, ornate traditional Javanese dress, lots of gold and wrapped cloth. There were speeches and singing, and after the family photos someone decided it'd be awesome to take a shot with all the bules. Good to know I'll be part of someone's wedding memories forever.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

So I went to Bali last weekend...

Four days free, so how could I not? A group going to the Gili Islands off of Lombok nearly seduced me away, but in the end gorgeous temples won out over beautiful beaches. (Though the beach in Sanur wasn't half bad.) Airfare was expensive and a hassle – step one: 2-3 hour traffic-choked drive to the Surabaya airport – so we (Kevin, Samantha, and I) decided to go by travel instead. A travel is a tourist shuttle, pretty common in Indonesia, that picks you up at your door, feeds you dinner, and drives you to wherever. It's basically a big van, with room for about ten passengers and seats that recline like in an airplane. Our trip took twelve hours door-to-door each, but the fare was about $40 round trip and we saved a night's hotel stay. I got picked up a little before 6pm on Thursday night. Around 9 we stopped for dinner at a restaurant owned by the tour company, and at 1am, after 6 hours on the bumpiest roads I've ever encountered, we boarded the ferry. The sea was reasonably calm, but the whole ride a guy with a microphone was walking up and down the aisles selling cheap crap to travelers. The three of us were the only bules on the boat – this is not the tourist route. An hour later we landed in Bali, and a little before 6am the travel dropped us off by the beach in Sanur. First stop was coffee – yes, we slept on the travel, but with seats like an airplane you sleep about as well as on an airplane, but an airplane that accelerates and brakes suddenly and makes liberal use of the horn.

(Tangent on Indonesian drivers: They drive on the left, which I don't entirely understand, since it was the Dutch who colonized here, not the British. Seatbelts are entirely optional, and often don't exist. There's probably four motorbikes for every car on the road, some of whom drive more cautiously than others. The default speed for any sort of rented car or travel is as fast as possible – they want to get where they're going and be done with it. The result of this is that they pass anyone in front of them who isn't going as fast as they'd like, which in practice means everyone. To pass, you pull out into the right lane, make sure nothing bigger than you is coming at you, honk to let the car/truck/bike/bus in fron know they're being passed, accelerate as fast as possible until you've passed everyone or oncoming traffic gets too close, then slam on the brakes as you pull back into your lane so as not to hit whoever you didn't manage to pass. Repeat constantly for the duration of the trip, no matter how windy the roads or how choppy the pavement.)

We found a fancy hotel on the beach for breakfast – fruit with yogurt and banana pancakes that were more like crepes – then Kevin took a bus out to Kuta to surf and Samantha and I rented lounge chairs on the beach for the day. I'd hoped to do some scuba diving – Sanur's got a nice reef offshore a bit – but because of the 'gaping open wound' on my leg (Kevin's words, and reasonably accurate – see my previous post about the knalpot) I stuck to sunbathing while Samantha swam. After lunch – pork, for the first time in a month; Bali is predominantly Hindu rather than Muslim – we did a little shopping on the main road and checked into our hotel. Pak Gatut, one of my teachers at CLS, has a former student, Brant, who lives in Sanur with his Balinese wife, Risna, and they had arranged our room for us. $10 each for the night and we even got hot water and AC. That night we had pizza for dinner., and a gin squash for dessert.

Bali feels like a different country from Java – sort of like Italy and France, you can see the commonalities but it's definitely a different culture. A lot of that I think stems from the difference in religion and the fact that Bali is full of tourists, while Malang at least has very few, especially non-Indonesians. There's no five-times-daily call to prayer in Bali, which means nobody wakes up at 4am; the streets are full of stray dogs instead of the cats you see all over Malang; pork is a common dish but there aren't any food carts on the street; almost no women in jilbabs; the whole pace of life is much slower and more relaxed; there's temples every fifteen feet on the street and offerings every five – Bali smells like incense.

Saturday morning we had breakfast at a cafe with discounts for guests at our inn; hashbrowns and bacon have never tasted so good. Scrambled eggs, duck sausage, and toast with butter too. Nice change from nasi goreng and chicken curry. I did a little more shopping while Samantha read by the pool, until we realized that Bali is an hour ahead of Malang and we'd missed our shuttle to Ubud. So we chilled for two hours til the next one at Brant's bar by the beach, drinking watermelon juice (me) and margaritas (Kevin).

We already had a room reserved on the outskirts of town, but stuck in traffic in the center Samantha saw a place that looked nice and called from the car. They had a triple available at what worked out to about $7 each per night, though in exchange for the great location we got a cold-water shower. The main street in Ubud, Monkey Forest Road, is lined with souvenir shops and consequently mobbed with tourists, at least on the weekend, but we turned onto a side street and found dinner for a third the price of the restos on the main road. Afterwards we went to a legong performance – Balinese traditional dance. Pretty incredible. Plenty of pictures already posted, videos to come once I get reasonably fast internet.

Sunday we took a tour of the temples in the area – Goa Gaja, the elephant caves; Pejeng; Gunung Kawi; Tampak Siring, the holy springs; Kintamani; lunch overlooking Gunung Batur and Lake Batur; and a coffee plantation, because why not. It was the three of us, a Spanish couple, a Frenchman, and a driver in a van driving site to site, and honestly all the temples were amazing; I took more pictures than any reasonable person should. At Goa Gaja we hiked into the jungle to see a little temple tucked into a hillside; at Gunung Kawi I managed to kick my burn going down the steps down the mountain and made it bleed, then spent the rest of that visit limping around; and at Tampak Siring I dipped my leg into a special pool devoted to health and I swear it didn't hurt the rest of the day, for the first time in a week. The coffee plantation had free tastings of most of their products, and for Rp 30,000 you could get a small cup of kopi luwak. Kopi luwak (civet coffee) is made from beans that have already passed through the digestive system of a luwak, a little animal that looks like a cross between a cat and a ferret and apparently likes eating coffee berries. Apparently the digestive enzymes in the luwak's stomach alter the bean's chemistry and improve the flavor; in the US it can go for $100 or more per pound. Of course I had to try it. Turns out I still don't like coffee, not even really expensive coffee, but Samantha and Kevin were happy to finish the cup for me.

We were supposed to get back to Ubud around 3pm, but with all the souvenir shopping we didn't get back til around six. All the sites had lines of souvenir stalls, most with the same crap but a few, especially at Gunung Kawi, with some beautiful crafts – coconuts carved into lamps, carved ox bones and skulls, wooden masks and batik sarongs. I bought a few gifts, took pictures of a few especially nice bone carvings. I got some pretty good deals – they don't expect a bule who knows how to bargain, much less one who can bargain in Indonesian. At each site the sellers got more insistent, until by the end they were wrapping scarves around our waists as we tried to cross the street and holding handfuls of postcards through the car windows.

That night we went to see a kacek performance, described in the tourist office as a traditional 'fire and trance dance'. Unlike legong, which is accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, in kacek a group of men sit around a fire and sing a capella while the dancers dance around and through them. The last bit had a guy on a hobby horse, ostensibly in a trance, dancing around and occasionally over a bonfire of coconut husks. I could barely watch. Afterwards we stopped for dinner at an Indian place, where Kevin had his first-ever samosa, then to bed.

Monday morning, after banana pancakes at the hotel, Kevin went back to Kuta to surf again and Samantha and I headed off on our own. I poked around the Ubud Palace and a few local temples, looked in a few souvenir shops, then went to the monkey forest, which is exactly what it sounds like – a patch of forest with some lovely temples and a whole lot of monkeys. The monkeys are small-ish and completely uninterested in humans, though completely unafraid as well, unless of course you happen to have food – bananas sell for Rp 20,000 a bunch at the entrance. Mostly they sit on or near the path and do monkey-ish things – fight, groom, swing on vines, eat yams, play with the fountains. One monkey held her baby by the tail as he tried to run off. The one temple I made it to was where locals get cremated after they die – most gruesome stone carvings I've seen yet. Walking back to town I had been thinking about getting a massage, which go for cheap here, but instead I ended up in a Doktor Ikan shop – for Rp 55,000 you sit on a bench for half an hour with your feet in a tank of water while little inch-long fish nibble at your dead skin. It's a strange sensation, kind of tingly, and an even stranger sight to see hundreds of tiny fish swarm your legs, but my feet came out nice and soft, which after a month of walking around Malang in sandals was a nice change. Lunch was babi guling, spit-roasted pig stuffed with spices and served with rice and veggies. The warung was packed but the food was cheap and delicious – those Javanese are really missing out.

At two we caught the shuttle back to Sanur, where the travel was supposed to pick us up at 5:30. To kill the time til then Samantha and I decided to get massages and body scrubs while Kevin drank beers at Brant's bar. The massage turned out to be not the best I've ever had – especially when she forgot about my burn and squeezed it, hard, through the sheet – but the body scrub was nice, especially since my Sempu sunburn was peeling, and the whole hour and a half cost about ten bucks each.

At 5:30 we were waiting outside Restaurant Piccadilly for the travel to come pick us up. At 6:00 they hadn't come yet, so I called the company, who said they were stuck in traffic. At 6:15 we went into the restaurant, where a British guy Kevin had met at the bar bought us all beers and we ordered french fries and garlic bread. At 7pm the travel finally came, and at eight it broke down. An hour later we were on our way again, and thanks to our driver, who drove like a crazy person to get us there on time, I got dropped off at home a little before 6am. Class started at eight. Needless to say, I slept well that night.