Monday, July 26, 2010

That's All, Folks!

Davo and I left New Zealand three weeks ago.  Three weeks.  Twenty-one days.  I've been in four countries in less than a month.  Crazy.  Indonesia has been great, but lately I have done a lot of thinking about where I'm going, when I'm going there, and what I'm going to do once I'm there.

These questions raise others...  why I'm wandering, how I want to wander, and what I hope to give and get from this experience (oh, and how the hell to negotiate all of this with a partner).

Getting to the point...

ONE:  I don't like traveling.  You read that right:  I dislike suffering through bus rides, buying place tickets, figuring out where I'm going to sleep every night, and all of the other crap that goes with being on-the-move and gets in the way of being fully present in a place.

TWO:  I'm not doing too well with being a tourist.  I can't handle rolling into a town, well-thumbed Lonely Planet in hand, to "do" a place, checking off each of LP's "must see/ do/ eat/ sleep" locations.  I really can't handle being herded onto a shuttle bus with 20 other white people to drive to a national park, step outside, take two pictures, and drive on.

THREE:  I think I need to find a new way to travel.  Right now I'm in Ubud, the second most tourist-friendly place on Bali.  In the city, the only people who talk to me are the guys who want me to buy a taxi ride.  Shifting gears (literally), Davo and I took a bike ride into the countryside this afternoon.  EVERYONE said hello.  EVERYONE smiled.  Little kids chased my bike down a hill.  I don't want to be anonymous in a tourist city.  I want to stay in one place for a while, get to know someone and someplace.

And a few thoughts about travel blogging:

FOUR:  I don't find blogging to be useful.  Just because every other traveler out there has a travel blog doesn't mean I need one, too.  I'm not kidding myself--a 200-word post on wayang kulit or some place that I visit isn't going to broaden anyone's horizons.  If you want to broaden your horizons, get up off your ass and go to Indonesia, or wherever it is that you've always wanted to go.  The only thing holding you back is that you haven't bought your plane ticket yet.

FIVE:  I don't find blogging to be a rewarding form of introspection.  I'm very conscious that these words I write can be seen by everyone, everywhere.  I write very differently, and about different subjects, when I'm writing for an audience.  Sadly, my personal writing has suffered quite a bit on this trip.  I simply won't make the time to write both a public journal and a personal journal.  I'd have to sit in an internet cafe for hours per day.  I left Ithaca so I wouldn't have to sit in front of a computer for hours on end.  And what's the point of a new experience if it's viewed through the lens of "how will I blog about this?"

SIX:  In a weird way, I'm sick of having even the slightest feeling that I'm doing something for the viewing and/or approval of others.  I don't want to write this to show off what I'm doing.  I'm not cooler than you are, and I don't think that I am.  I don't write to rub it in that my life is more interesting and exciting than yours.  It's probably not.  Maybe I'm just sick of being part of the Facebook generation.

SEVEN:  This blog does not provide an accurate representation of what it's like to travel for an extended period of time.  Really, you don't get it (unless, dear reader, you are on a journey of your own).  I don't write about the awful public transport experiences, or the times that I've had to walk around the same woman begging on the street for a third time, or seeing tooth decay in a young child, or the times that Dave and I can't seem to communicate clearly to each other, or the times that I'm just sick of it all, homesick, feeling like all my friends have forgotten about me and moved on with their lives.  I write about the good stuff because that's the easiest to process and to share.  I take pretty pictures so I can remember the good parts, because dealing with the bad parts is pretty tough.  Besides, I hate the feeling of voyeurism, that the rich white woman with the digital camera is taking a picture of the filth, the poor, the worst of a developing country to show her friends at home, "Yes, I survived this."  I know exactly how I would feel if I were begging on the street and a rich white woman stopped to take a picture of me.

Maybe I'm reading too much into my experiences.  Maybe I'm looking for lessons and generalizations where there are none to be had.  Maybe I'm just cynical.  But I think I'm done with the tourist thing.  And I'm especially done with writing into the void of the internet for armchair spectators at best and no one at worst (or should it be the other way around?).  Writing about myself feels like a form of vanity at this point.  Most importantly, I think narcissistic writing for no one and everyone is incompatible with the type of wandering I hope to have the privilege to experience over the coming months.  If you want to know where I am or how I'm doing, please ask.  I miss you.  Otherwise, this will be the last post about our One Great Dewdrop for a while.

P.S.  I will continue to post photography at  Even though I have a crappy camera, photography is one of my two favorite forms of self-expression.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Easiest Mountain I've Ever Climbed

Mt. Bromo:  hands down, the easiest mountain I've ever climbed.

Dave and I were planning our next move, and we realized that booking a package tour from Yogyakarta to Denpasar in Bali, with a stop in Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, would be nearly as cheap as going independently.  Sigh.  So, we joined the tourist herd for 48 hours.  In retrospect, even though the mini-bus was cramped and the air-conditioning didn't work and the whole shebang was incredibly disorganized, it was probably better than the multiply public transport buses, mini-buses, and bemos we'd have to take.

We got up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a jeep up Mt. Penanjakan to see the sun rise from the north of the volcanoes.  The sunrise wasn't anything amazing, but holy guacamole, those are some pretty pretty mountains!!!

almost like looking at a painting

We piled back in the jeep and headed down into the "Sea of Sands," the inside of the massive crater from which rise the three volcanoes in the foreground above (Semeru, the tall mountain in the back, is outside the crater, to the south).

So, this is how I climbed the easiest mountain ever.  The jeep drops you off about 1-2 km from the mountain itself.  You walk across the sand, avoid the local Tengger people selling bottled water and horserides at the base of the mountain, then climb 253 steps to the top.  Yeah, there's a staircase.  But the crater at the top is pretty sweet!

holy smokes...  literally!

Here are the rest of the pictures from the day:

Here's what I'd do differently, if I visit again:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Birthday Bash: Borobudur or Bust

Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist monument/ temple/ mandala (no one is really sure of its original purpose), is Indonesia's Number One Tourist Attraction.  This is the Macchu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, the Opera House of Indonesia.  I've heard that it's quite impressive in person, and since I have a personal interest in Buddhism, I thought it would be the perfect place to spend my birthday.

Davo and I set out on the afternoon of the 19th to catch a bus to the area, with the intention of finding a room for the night and experiencing sunrise at the monument.  We found the block where Bus 5 was supposed to come.  Two Indonesians, middle-aged guys, kept the buleh (white foreigners) company.  We waited...  and waited...  and waited...  for the bus which supposedly comes every 20 minutes.  After 1 hour 15 minutes sitting in the sun with our fully loaded backpacks with two Indonesians yapping in our ear the entire time, we gave up.  Defeated, we returned to our hotel for the night and booked private transportation to the monument the following afternoon.

We did make it the next day, along with 190,397,239,374 other tourists.  The monument itself, with the intricate carvings and mandala symbolism, is very special.  Dave and I walked clockwise around each level of the temple, in imitation of pilgrims who circumambulate each level three times, absorbing as much as we could in the short time we were given.  Unfortunately, it was distracting to see parents sitting their children on the 1,000 year old carved stone lions, to hear shrieks and laughing around every corner, and to pose for pictures with every teenage Indonesian girl within a 500 meter radius.  Not exactly a time or a place for contemplation.

As I approached the forest of stupas at the top, though, I still got the sense that I was approaching something very special.

At the top, I noticed a hillside about 500 meters away.  It seemed like a good place to get away from the tourist hordes.  I was right--apparently, this hillside is not mentioned in Lonely Planet, which means it either (1) doesn't exist, or (2) isn't worth visiting.  We had the terraces, pavilions, and greenery to ourselves for a quiet moment.

The rest of the photos are here:

A few suggestions if you go...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hypnotized by Wayang Kulit

I'm a very visual person.  If you tell me something, I won't remember it unless I see it written down.  I can take one glance at a map and find my way around a city for an entire day, but if I see written directions, I won't understand them unless I plot them on a map.  Dave taught me to drive a manual transmission vehicle by waving his hands in front of me to match the movement of his feet.

I think this is why wayang kulit, the Indonesian shadow puppet show, totally hypnotized me.  The puppets are beautiful--the leather is carved so some parts are thinner.  Then, the puppet is painted in vibrant colors with amazing detail, even though the puppets themselves aren't meant to be seen by the audience!  Luckily for me, we were permitted to walk around the stage and the gamelan orchestra providing the soundtrack.

How cool is this?!

So dramatic!  Here's what it looks like from the front...

Here are the rest of the pictures from our time in Yogyakarta...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Jakarta: Introduction to Pretending to be Indonesian, and Other Stories

When I think of Jakarta, I think of motor vehicles.

I think of mini-buses built in the 60's belching greasy, tar-colored smoke while men hang out the doorways, rapid-fire yelling the destination in auctioneer's staccato. Black SUVs with tinted windows sealed off from the airborne grime outside tailgate through the traffic at a snail's pace. Swarms of motorbikes weave around the larger vehicles, flowing through the street like water down a river. They buzz buzz buzz, a constant background drone eerily similar to the whine of a wasp's nest, rising to a harsh mechanical roar as they take off en mass from a cluster in front of a traffic light. Smog hangs over the city, clearly visible from the top of the National Monument, 150 meters above the traffic.

When I think of Jakarta, I think of heat.

Even supposedly air conditioned spaces are only marginally cooler than the smothering heat outside—I guess Indonesians get cold easily. As I write this, I'm sitting in an "air-conditioned" train car. A few rows ahead of me, an Indonesian man is wearing a wool beanie. My pant legs are rolled up and sweat is pooling in the small of my back. This morning, when Rheden left for work, he was wearing FIVE LAYERS to protect himself against the "morning chill." My glasses fogged up as we took our goodbye picture. Go figure.

When I think of Jakarta, I think of Rheden and his family. Dave and I researched couchsurfing/ homestay hosts in Jakarta separately, and out of the several hundred willing hosts, we both picked Rheden independently. He's in his mid-twenties, a teacher who describes himself as friendly with a mother who loves to cook. On our first night in Jakarta, he met us in front of Rumah Sawit Fatmawati on his motorbike. He looked at us—we are both bigger than him—and our backpacks—which are nearly bigger than him—and he laughed. Rheden laughs a lot. (We bottomed out the bike more than once. I didn't know that was possible on a motorbike.)

Rheden lives in South Jakarta, in a neighborhood of clay roofing tiles, children, skinny feral cats, and roving poultry. He lives in his parents' house, and his sister's house is 15 meters away, but the line between "his house" and "her house" is fuzzy and probably irrelevant. The blocks of houses are reached via small alleys punctuated by random ramps and stairs. The houses are extremely small by American standards. There is a living room, then a bedroom, then a kitchen next to a bathroom, where there is a water spigot and a non-flush squat toilet. The atmosphere is warm in both temperature and residents' temperment.

Back to the night we met Rheden. Our education in how to be Indonesian started right away with demonstration baskets of roots, leaves, and spices used in traditional Indonesian cooking, most of which were completely new to me. I carefully noted their names in bahasa indonesia on my notepad. We cooked fried rice and fell asleep on the floor of the living room.

Rheden wakes at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for morning prayers. Unaccustomed to the amplified wailing coming from the mosque, so did I. Around 6:00 a.m, he went to work, while I went back to sleep. Intent on ensuring that we'd have a complete instruction, however, he left an itinerary with his mother and sister for our day. We were going to visit a traditional market and a tofu factory, but our late start meant we walked at Indonesian pace (about 1 km/hr) to pick up Aldi, his 6 year old nephew, from school.

We stood sweating in the sun in the school courtyard while kids circled us, whispering. One bold boy shouted, "WAT IZ YOR NAME?" which touched off a chorus of giggles. In bahasa I responded, "Saya Nee-coe," and the laughs got louder. Dave pulled out a camera and asked, "Foto?" and the riot of jumping, squealing, and screaming began.

Of course, this level of interaction led to an impromptu bahasa and English jam session in the courtyard, reviewing the terms for "tree" and "shade" while sweat soaked through my shirt. And this, of course, led to us being ushered into a class of forty 9 year olds and, via gestures, encouraged to talk to the children. Even if I can't speak bahasa, I can entertain. So we continued our bahasa and English jam session, reviewing words from shoe (sapatu) to house (rumah). After an awkward, somewhat formal meeting with the headmaster—was she secretly annoyed that we interrupted her classes?—we were released into the steamy street.

That afternoon, we went to the city center to visit the National Monument (not worth the queue to go to the top) and the Istiqlal Mosque (worth every precious moment inside and around).

We took pictures with at least half a dozen random Indonesians, who apparently enjoy photos in which they appear with a white person.

We went out to dinner with Rheden and a friend, Cha Cha, to sample still more local foods and stopped by a fruit market to pick up local fruits for a tasting party. And, with Rheden and Cha Cha's help, we secured train tickets to Jyogjakarta. We fell asleep with a tired little Aldi in bed next to us.

Somehow, Rheden survives on a few hours sleep per night, but we slept in and planned on relaxing for the day. We spent the morning studying bahasa with the help of Dian, his sister, and "Bu," Mother. Dian and one neighbor speak a little English, but we're so far off the beaten path here that we were told that most of the children in the school have never seen a Caucasian in person before. The more bahasa we know, the better. After studying, Dian and Bu prepared us yet another delicious traditional lunch. Dave played badminton with Aldi in the street, but the shuttlecocks kept getting stuck on the roof.

We walked at Indonesian speed to the market with some of the neighbor women. It was like being on parade—everyone stares, a few people shout something in garbled English. Dave is the tallest person in the street, and I'm second tallest. At the market, we see a package of shuttlecocks for sale, and we conspire to return to purchase them as a gift for Aldi. Reverse the slow crawl to the house, a lame excuse about purchasing snacks for the journey tomorrow, and we're back into the street (although this time the walk takes 8 minutes instead of 30).

Being here is like being a child all over again. I'm learning to speak, what to say, how to say it, when to say it. I'm learning how to cross the street here (when in doubt, find a local and follow him). I'm learning how to eat like an Indonesian (mix everything together; enjoy chilis). I'm even learning how to go to the bathroom properly (no toilet paper here, nor a toilet seat). My mission to the market for badminton shuttlecocks was the final exam: could I find my way through the alleys, cross the busy street, correctly purchase and pay for the shuttlecocks, and beat the neighborhood gossip back to Aldi so his present would be a surprise?

I'm proud to report that our mission was a success, and Aldi loved loved loved his present.

On our final night in Jakarta, we enjoyed our fruit tasting party with two other French couchsurfers. I finally tried durian, the king of the fruits, with its reputation for being smelly but delicious. (It was somewhat smelly and somewhat delicious, but didn't live up to its reputation). My favorite was rambutan, which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

We left Rheden, Bu, Pak, Dian, Alex, Aldi, and Mutiara in South Jakarta this morning. Rheden and his family are amazing: I've never experienced hospitality and generosity like theirs. I think it will take a while to process and appreciate the experience fully, but I think it was the absolute best introduction to pretending to be Indonesian.

Photo journal:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sweating in Singapore

Our flight left Darwin nearly three hours late, so we arrived at Singapore's Changi International Airport long after the trains to the city stopped running. Since the cost of a taxi was about one day's budget for Indonesia, we wisely decided to take advantage of the free wi-fi, air-conditioning, and spotless floors by sleeping in the airport.


We wanted to chill out in Singapore, so we didn't attempt to arrange a couchsurf host. We walked around Little India the first day and Orchard Street the second day. We skipped the tourist attractions, like Sentosa Island, and I don't feel like I missed out on anything. Otherwise, we slept, caught up on email, tried new foods, and Dave played pick-up ultimate frisbee one evening.

little india streetscape

Impressions of Singapore: it's clean, orderly, logical, hot, well-planned, hot, a melting pot of ethnicities, surprisingly easy for English-speakers, hot, wealthy, and hot. I've read that it has the highest quality of life in Asia, and 11th highest in the world.  Singapore is right at the equator, which means it's 80-90 degrees year 'round. Fortunately, air conditioned spots are easy to find.  Read the Wikipedia article for more basic information about Singapore.

super orderly public transport even tells you how to board and alight from the MRT

My favorite memory of Singapore is the awesome availability of fresh, cold juices and drinks, especially sugar cane juice.

sugar cane juice on the left; glass jelly juice on the right

I also tried mee goreng and laksa. I thought both were typically Singaporean, but I've seen "mie goreng" everywhere in Indonesia, so maybe not. Mee goreng is rice vermicelli noodles in a spicy sauce. Laksa is a spicy soup of noodles, tofu, and rice cake.

laksa:  this is delicious

Photo Journal:

Some recommendations if you plan to visit Singapore:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Outback Adventures

We spent our first full night in the Northern Territories aboard Inti... a yacht! We met Rob in virtual reality through Couchsurfing. He invited us to spend a night in his home, which happens to be a boat. We talked about life as nomads, philosophy, politics, economics, and all the other things that make the world go 'round. I feel like I met a kindred spirit in Rob. It was inspirational to meet someone who has lived according to his own vision and values well past the age when certain pressures to "grow up" subdue even the most dedicated idealist. Rob, you have a home wherever we are, and I look forward to the day when our paths cross again!

Darwin turned out to be much more expensive and crowded than we anticipated, as we didn't realize it was peak tourist season (one potential downside to showing up in places randomly). We tried one night in a hostel, but even though we didn't arrive until 3:00 a.m, still I barely slept. So, it's back to sleeping outside! We rented a "ute," or a utility vehicle, actually a small pick-up truck, for only a few more dollars per day than a hostel booking for two. Grabbed a canister of butane for the camp stove and a mosquito net and it was back to nights with nothing but clouds between my closed eyelids and the universe.

(Side note: we obtained two camping mattresses via legal but dubious means. The first night we used them, we spent +/- 3 hours determining whether they were infested with bedbugs via careful application of the scientific method. No, not kidding. Verdict: no bedbugs!)

We spent a few days wandering around Litchfield National Park, which was crowded with mostly Aussie vacationers. Memories... every night, there was a very bright object in the sky, perhaps a planet. One night after dinner, a teeny tiny frog hopped up my skirt and landed on my thigh. Once I was done screaming and hopping around like a frog myself, that was pretty funny. Wild cockatoos are enchanting and goofy. It was so hot that everything slowed to a crawl: my thoughts wandered out of my brain, my feet simply refused to get a move on.

The most memorable tourist attraction in the park was a non-tourist attraction. It wasn't on any map. We stopped to explore some interesting rocks. They reminded me of some sort of ruins, the way they were stacked up in the middle of an otherwise flat, dry landscape. Clumps of grass switched at my calves as I tiptoed around, putting footprints in sand that hasn't seen human feet in a long, long time. One potential upside to showing up in places randomly, I'd say.

On the way back to Darwin, we stopped at Territory Wildlife Park, sponsored by Northern Territory government and featuring only species native to the region. This was the single touristy thing we did, and I'm happy with that. Highlights for me were the wedge-tailed eagle, the "saltie" or saltwater crocodile, and the rock wallabies.

On our last night in Darwin, we drove out to what we expected would be a quiet, dark, deserted park. Imagine my curiosity when a group of flashlight-weilding, rubber-glove-wearing, plastic-bag toting adults and children started wandering around the truck! I approached one of the kids, Brandon, who eagerly explained that they were searching for cane toads to grind into mulch.


Turns out cane toads are a non-native pest animal here, interfering with hermit crab populations, like possums and stoats interfere with bird populations in New Zealand. "Do you wanna join me? Please?" little Brandon asked. As if he had to ask! Dave got a pair of rubber gloves to protect his hands from the skin irritants in the toads' warts and I got a plastic bag. Brandon entertained us with his stealthy yet showy ninja toad catching moves as we wandered around the park. And thus we caught toads until it was time for bed.

Photo journal:

Here are a few suggestions for Darwin and Northern Territory:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Best Brownie Recipe

I made these brownies our last evening in Tuateawa.  I've been meaning to post this recipe for a week--don't want to loose it--it's a keeper!


1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
optional:  1/4 c. chocolate chips.

Melt butter in a saucepan, then beat in sugar, eggs, and vanilla.  Beat in the cocoa powder, flour, salt, and baking powder.  Spread into a buttered, greased 8x8'' pan.  Optionally, sprinkle chocolate chips on top.  Bake in a preheated 350F/ 175C oven for 25-30 minutes.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sydney: 24 Hours

We left Tuateawa for the last time on Sunday afternoon, taking the ferry from Coromandel to Auckland. On the ferry, Dave and I met a new friend, Alex (age 7), who was very upset at leaving her mother to visit her father in the city. We played cards, walked around the deck, and admired her school portfolio, and she seemed much happier by the end of the ferry ride.

In Auckland, we had a quick Thai dinner at Food Alley per Bexie's tip (thanks, Bex!). We took the bus to the airport and found a nice bench to spend the night (the first of many nights spent in interesting places).

Once in Sydney, we headed for Circular Quay, home of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge, via the train. The Opera House is much cooler in person than in pictures... it's an amazing work of architecture! The Harbor Bridge was, uh, a bridge. I don't understand why folks get so excited about it.

After a lunch with one of Dave's friends from a 2005 semester abroad in Sydney, we wandered around in the drizzle, wrapped up in our rain shells, backpacks tucked into rain covers. At one point, I found myself eating ice cream in front of a neuron-shaped modern sculpture while watching some parrots and thought, "This is a little bizarre—but I would rather be no where else right now!"

We noticed a crowd of people standing at the waterfront and went to investigate. Someone said it was a free ferry, so we decided to hop on, without really knowing where it went (why not!). It went to Cockatoo Island, a former penal colony/ ship yard that has been turned into a home for contemporary art. We wandered around, watching video of tap-dancing men in white suits feeding meat to wild dogs, contemplating Balinese-style wood-carved sculptures of suburbanites as Eastern-influenced gods, and realized the day couldn't get weirder. Or more awesome.

The next morning, we met up with Dave's cousin Jess, who happened to be in the city for a vacation. We got breakfast, wandered around, and chatted for a while. She's a lot of fun, and I'm happy I got to meet her. After saying our goodbyes, it was time to take the train back to the airport... ready for more adventures!

A few recommendations for Auckland and Sydney:

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ten Backpacking Recommendations for New Zealand

I'm leaving New Zealand in 30 hours after being here 4.5 months.  Here's a collection of recommendations I wish I knew before I arrived.  May this assist you, anonymous fellow traveler!