Archives for the month of: July, 2011

Nina, her friend Helga, and I decided that the best way to see some “highlights” of Bali was to take a day tour. While Nina and I had thought about spending a couple of nights in Ubud, neither of us was really that excited about it. This way we would see Ubud on our way to some other sights, while also experiencing a different side of Bali.

We hired a Balinese guide who said he would take us to all the “must see” spots. While we thought this tour was basically ours to plan, he had other plans. Although he asked us what we wanted to see and thrust a map into my hand, he had a bit of an agenda. I guess this is how tour operators make a little more money (from commissions when he takes us to someplace and we buy something), but at times it was annoying. Regardless, we saw a ton and had a great time.

First, we did the obligatory tours of the batik, silversmith, and wood carving factories. We didn’t buy anything, but it was interesting to see how all of this was made – even if it’s pretty much just a show for tourists, the “artisans” set up a bit like zoo animals.

We were then pretty close to Ubud, where we went to the very famous Monkey Temple.

This little guy held Helga’s hand for a minute before we went inside.

For the most part, the monkeys aren’t aggressive, and they are playful and remarkably unperterbed by the many many tourists who invade their home every day. We spent about an hour watching them and looking at their environment and the temple. At one point we did see a young woman get bitten by a monkey, which was scary enough for me to steer clear and not make eye contact:)

We saw many rice fields

and toured an organic farm where they make the very famous “poop coffee” (kopi Luak). This coffee is made from beans that have been ingested and, well, pooped out of the Luak, which looks like a mink or weasel. We tasted this coffee – quite strong but good.

We then traveled to a viewpoint for the Batur Volcano and had lunch.

Back into the car for more driving, and we stopped at Tampaskiring Temple (Spring Temple) which is constructed with a bunch of baths around a spring that is considered very holy. While it was interesting to watch the people bathe and worship, we got the best treat of the day when this massive procession or worshippers of all ages and many costumes came through.

It was a long drive home and a long touristy day. We were back in Legian just in time to watch another lovely sunset – one thing that never gets boring here.

Today Nina left Bali. It was a sad morning. We have had so many amazing adventures since meeting in Gili Trawangan. Where to begin…

We came back to Kuta to get organized, thinking we would take a trip to Nusa Lembongan and another little trip to Ubud. The planning for the trip to Nusa L was easy and after a little fun and games in Kuta, as well as a little mis-communication and confusion about our transport, we were on our way.

We had no plan for accommodation, as we were told many times that you basically walk along the beach until you find one that suits your desire for comforts and your budget. Once we found Agus Shipwreck, Nina and I were settled. We put on sunscreen and our swimsuits and went out for a walk to explore.

And found piles and piles of drying seaweed, garbage, and a rather quaint fishing village.

After exploring a while on foot and not finding much, we decided it was “Bintang Time” and headed back to our hotel. We reveled about this island – described by so many people as “amazing,” “breathtaking,” “incredible” and the only word we could come up with for it was BORING (but beautiful).

Boy were we wrong. We watched a most spectacular sunset, booked a snorkeling trip for the next day, and turned in early. Agus Shipwreck is a great place for sleeping; we both reported having the most amazing sleep since arriving in Indonesia.

Refreshed and excited, we met our boat captain, Wayan (child number one in Bali) who was full of smiles and not a lot of English. One other man, Stephano from Italy, joined us, and we were off.

The snorkeling was great – probably a little better than in the Gilis, but it did present an interesting issue with currents in the water. At our second diving point, we had to swim REALLY hard to get into the current; once in the current took us for a serious ride. There were amazing corals an fish everywhere.

On the way back, our trusty captain spotted a group of dolphins which was a huge highlight – one of the animals we had hoped to see in our travels.

When we got back, Stephano said he was going to rent a motorbike and tour the island and asked if we like to join him. Nina is an experienced motorbike driver; I am a reluctant passenger (more about this later, because in Indonesia one CANNOT escape being on a motorbike for many reasons). So, we said, “what the heck! This island is a bit of a snore so far – let’s make the most of it and go along.”

So, Nina drove the two of us, and we were off again for another adventure. Stephano had a bit of a plan, so we were basically following him. Once he realized that Nina was a careful, slow driver, he waited for us.

A little of the way down the road to the western side of the island, we encountered this woman:

Now, we don’t quite understand if she’s affiliated with the temple in the photo or not, but she certainly is in charge of the road past it. She stepped RIGHT in front of Stephano’s motorbike and demanded money for us to pass. He promptly paid up (a true gentleman) and then she got really nice and insisted we have a photo with her in front of a temple. Not a bad trade for about 2000 rupiah (30 cents).

We were on our way again, heading across a very scary suspension bridge to a place called “Jumping Point” where, we heard, you could jump from 8 or 11 meters into the ocean (for a mere 50,000 rupiah for 3 jumps). This place was stunning, and with the high seas no one was jumping.

So we relaxed and took a little break from the motorbikes, and took a ton of photos.

After exploring there, we looked for the “Secret Beach” which was so much of a secret that we could barely find it! At this beach there is an abandoned guest house that looks like it could have been quite an amazing spot had it been finished.

We saw these three guys on the road both on the way to and from the Secret Beach.

When we first passed them they yelled “honeymooners!!!” at us which of course made us laugh; on the way back we stopped for a chat and realized none of them spoke English, but they were sure full of jokes, which, of course, we all laughed at. (This is a kind of thing in Indonesia – joking around is a HUGE part of the culture, and if you don’t have a sense of humor or don’t think their jokes are funny, you’re in for a bad time here:) I happen to think they’re hilarious and have laughed until I cried on more than one occasion).

More motorbiking around, and we got to Sunset Beach where, of course, we watched a sunset.

And then we had a FABULOUS seafood dinner and, once again, turned in early for an AMAZING sleep and departure early the next morning.

Nusa Lembongan was a great trip – highly recommended to anyone lucky enough to see this part of the world.

I continue to count my blessings and squeeze every last drop out of life every day.

Where to begin about my experience in Gili Trawangan? You’ve seen the bike and the story about how I got here; now I will attempt to capture the experience in photos and some brief explanation.

First day I explored the island on bicycle. It’s not large, and getting around is pretty easy. I stopped often, taking photo after photo of scenery that I can only describe as “stunning.” It was so nice to have the mobility of a bicycle after almost three weeks with this stupid sprained ankle!

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I found a comfy spot on the beach, laid down with a book, and lounged the afternoon away in the sun.

When I wanted to check my email, I found Cafe Gili (recommended by another traveler) and settled in for a beer.

A few minutes later I was admiring the salad the woman next to me was eating, and a few minutes after that we were fast friends and travel buddies. Amazing how things work out.

Anina is from Switzerland. She is a teacher (speech therapist) on holiday, also traveling by herself.

As we talked, we realized we had similar notebooks, where we record

  • similar travel stories,
  • schedules,
  • new words,
  • email addresses and names of people we meet,
  • and other little tidbits, such as little pictures drawn by anyone.

We both keep said notebooks in grocery bags within our canvas beach bags. As we laughed about this, we shared more stories and trivialities (and strange coincidences) and made plans to meet that evening and the next day for a turtle hunt.

Three days later and we have shared so many amazing adventures, laughs, and lovely memories. We both leave Gili T tomorrow, but we will meet and spend time in Kuta and travel to Ubud together in a few days. She is a gem and a friend for life:)

Here are some photos:

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We had to make sure her friend Freddie got out a bit and had a good time:

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We think he enjoyed sunset point.

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We sure did!

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Sunsets here are stunning.

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Frustrated by our lack of turtle hunting skills, we went on a snorkel trip today and saw some.

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We also saw Gili Meno and Gili Air, where we ate lunch at a restaurant with this great sign.

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And Strawberry, a mush of a cat.

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Tomorrow we leave. We sadly contemplate this fact at Cafe Gili over a Bintang. Life is good.

I wish I had a good excuse for not writing – laziness? Writer’s block? Too busy?

Entering the third month of my trip, I left Tana Toraja and its lovely people and teachers, spent a couple of uneventful days in Makassar, then headed down to Bali. Which is where I have been “stuck” for a little over a week. Not a bad spot to get stuck!

I did a fair amount of beach sitting, eating, and Bintang drinking, wishing that my ankle was well enough to surf. Kuta beach has a pretty perfect beginner wave and would have been a good spot to get back at it.

But alas, it was not to happen. I did meet a great group of locals and travelers – locals who work on the beach kind of “adopt” their customers, and will make sure everyone is happy, fed, and entertained. I feel lucky to have found the group I did, who took great care of me, a Swiss woman, a couple of Germans and Italians, and, yes – even a young American from California. We learned about some places that only locals know, and always had a resource to ask about “best price” for this and that. Honestly, I’m still awed by Indonesian hospitality.

This morning I traveled by “fast boat” to Gili Trawangan. Yes, the boat was fast, and the ride was quite bumpy. In just a few hours I was wading to shore at Gili T, armed with info about a hotel from a nice young Canadian I met this morning in transit. The fact that he said his mother loved this hotel and he thought I would as well makes me both cringe and laugh. It sounded perfect.

So, when one disembarks on Gili T it’s a pretty sure bet that s/he won’t have accommodation. I didn’t, and was re-assured by one person after another that this just didn’t matter. Once I was on Gili T I could basically just start walking into places until I found one I liked. And, of course, I would be approached by people who make a commission to take you to “their” hotel/ guest house.

Having the recommendation from my young friend was re-assuring, though, because there are many “backpacker” and party places that I knew I wanted to avoid, and he mapped out a perfect plan for me.

I went to the Cafe Gili where he told me I could get Wifi; ordered breakfast, Skyped home, and searched for this hotel on Trip Advisor (great site, BTW, if you need travel recommendations). But alas, the Woodstock Homestay was not reviewed. I was a bit worried, and proceeded to search for the others that had signs next to the cafe. No luck either.

I started down the road to The Woodstock, and was almost immediately approached by a local asking if I needed accommodation. I said that I knew where I was going, and he followed me, promising “best price.” He asked where I was going, and I said “The Woodstock,” and he said, “Well, that’s where I work!” I’m still not sure whether he actually works there, but he followed me there and escorted me in. The place was charming and quiet, and I knew I had to stay there.

However, I was right behind three groups who were snatching up the last three rooms. The horror!!!

Then the strangest thing happened: the owner/ manager, Ketut (meaning, the 4th or 8th child in Balinese) said that he would vacate his room for me for the night, then move me to another bungalow tomorrow. Within minutes I was in a cleaned manager cottage getting changed for the beach. Did I mention Indonesian hospitality? No money was exchanged; no paperwork, credit card, or passport. Ketut, the owner/ manager, was happy to lend me his space for tonight. And the rest of the staff could not have been more accommodating either. All this and free breakfast in paradise for a mere $30 a night!

I got some wheels

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and was off to explore this little slice of heaven.

I think this might be the place that cements Indonesia into my heart forever:)

Some of you have asked how this whole teacher training/ Indonesian adventure unfolded. So before I talk about how it went, I will explain.

Last summer, my dear friend Hope and I were traveling Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam together. We had an ambitious itinerary which included, among other stops, Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay.

We took an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay on one of the famous “junk” boats called The Golden Lotus. That is where the picture on the top of this blog was shot. It was a great trip for so many reasons.

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After cave touring and kayaking on day one, Hope decided, and I was persuaded, to jump off the three-story uppermost boat deck into the bay. This stunt HAD to be captured on film. We did it a few times with no photographic luck. My little camera just wouldn’t cut it.

Through the tour and kayaking, we got to know Ranan, another guest on the boat who was traveling with his wife and daughter. He is an avid photographer who was kayaking around the bay with a very impressive camera that I feared might fall into the water at any moment. Not that he appeared careless; rather, if that camera had been in my hands, it would end up at the bottom of the bay.

Long story short, Ranan shot a multi-frame action sequence of us jumping off the second deck of the boat (by this time my adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t go up to the third any more without having a heart attack). I asked him to email me the photos, and he did. Here’s one:

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I kept in touch with Ranan via Facebook throughout the year, learning that he works in a resort town in Bintan, Indonesia – a favorite retreat for Singaporeans, who travel there via ferry for holiday.

On a whim, when I was thinking about how to continue the Asian adventure started last summer, I emailed Ranan and asked him if he had any contacts in Indonesia for whom I could volunteer. I pictured maybe doing some kind of physical labor or help in tourism. Little did I know that he had bigger ideas based on my teaching career.

Ranan connected me with super- Principal Dina and super-woman Merda who both jumped at the opportunity to have a teacher trainer at their disposal this summer. A few million emails later and it was all set: after a month of being a tourist in Vietnam, I would travel to Bintan for eight days and then to Tana Toraja for ten, to train teachers and learn about education in Indonesia.

It has been great to have a “purpose” on this trip other than mere tourism. I have learned and experienced more than I imagined was possible in such a short period of time. Working with Dina, Merda, and these teachers put me in touch with two very different areas and cultures in Indonesia that I would have never seen as a typical, street-level tourist.

So that’s the how/ why this adventure was born. It’s crazy how life works, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I’m committed to come back to both communities next summer – just need to work out the details and save pennies. And now that I have more of a clue about Indonesian education and teachers, this training can only get better.

I want to send a huge “thank you” to Ranan, Dina, Merda, and all the teachers and others I’ve met here. You have changed my life and worldview in a tremendous way.

Here is a collection of photos that highlight my time in Tana Toraja.

Ester, my seat-mate in the 10-hour ride from Makassar to Tana Toraja. She took VERY good care of me!

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Merda and me next to one of the stars of the buffalo fight: part of the Torajan funeral celebration.

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The sign that greeted me – along with 80+ teachers – to training. Made my knees shake a bit.

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Teachers, having fun but also showing what they learned.

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I signed a lot of certificates!

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It wasn’t all work; Merda took me to the local market and many other places. Here is where i learned why the chicken here tastes so good. Before (right) and after (left).

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Parents at the meeting “opening” a new, remote pre-k and kindergarten. Merda delivered what the parents had wanted for years. 55 students who didn’t have school until 1st grade will now have a place to prepare!

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The views here are outrageous.

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School visits.

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I learned so much from this truly life-changing experience. Can’t wait to go back to Toraja and Bintan next summer!

My time with the incredible teachers of Bintan and Tana Toraja ended a couple of days ago, and I’m now a tourist again. The transition from purposeful teacher to aimless tourist is a bit of a challenge. Now I have to make my own decisions!

There’s so much more to tell about all I’ve experienced so far. I’ll just start with some rather random thoughts and hopefully it will all make sense by the end. Tana Toraja teacher training will take a lot more time and another blog.

First, language: the Bahasa Indonesia language is the most comprehensible language I’ve experienced yet in Asia. It’s not a tonal language like most other Asian languages. So, even though one word may have several meanings, the meaning has more to do (I think!) with context, suffixes, or prefixes, not the way it’s pronounced. Because of the way it’s pronounced, it sounds more familiar to me. Hallelujah!

There is a lot of repetition in Bahasa Indonesia, meaning I’m hearing the same words, though in different contexts. This repetition gives the language a certain rhythm that is easy to follow after a while. By hearing them a number of times, I’ve learned a disjointed set of words and phrases, mainly having to do with food and education.

Indonesians, like Americans, seem to be expressive with their hands, and to use a fair amount of body language – both of which look familiar enough to me that they help me make sense of, at the VERY least, what is being discussed.

And perhaps the most obvious reason I seem to be kind of clued in to teachers (with whom I’ve spent a lot of time) when they speak Bahasa Indonesia is that many education terms used in English and their language are either shared, or they are cognates – they sound alike. Sometimes I can follow a simple explanation of a teaching idea or strategy just by paying careful attention and listening for education-related words, which the two groups used expertly and frequently.

Does all this mean that I have learned Bahasa Indonesia in the last three weeks? Sadly, not much. My best excuse is that my brain has been swimming with education terms, ideas, planning, and evaluating, not to mention learning about yet another Asian culture. At this point, I’m more than ready to start using some simple Indonesian phrases for small-talk and other occasions. The challenge now is to get these words to really stick in my head and flow from my mouth.

Culture: the national slogan, translated as “unity through diversity” pervades every aspect of Indonesian life. The ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity (hundreds of cultures; over 700 languages) that defines this massive country also appears to unite it.

From what I have observed, acceptance, harmony, collaboration and community are strong cultural values. Most Indonesians appear to practice some kind of religion faithfully (even silently praying before meals). Religious tolerance is the norm; while religion is not “in your face,” it is certainly omnipresent.

Community – in the family, village, neighborhood, etc.- is extremely important. In Bintan, my first Indonesian home away from home, resort workers and their families have created their own “family” and village away from their homes. They eat together, pray together, work together, and celebrate together. They are generous with their time and their homes. The teachers and principals know each other very well, and they seem to really get along. It was a very comfortable place for my first Indonesian experience. I look forward to returning.

Tana Toraja – 8 hours from the closest big city, Makassar – is a built entirely around family relations; even though it’s a rather large community, people know each other – or at least know OF each other. Family (last) names are important, and can even signify which part of the region a family is from. This fact becomes very important during celebrations of life and death; Tana Toraja is well known for its elaborate funeral parties. Merda and I went to a 50th wedding celebration for some relatives of hers and there were EASILY 1000 people there – she seemed to know everyone!

I have been the delighted recipient of the Indonesian value of politeness to strangers more times than I can count. A smile goes a long way here; like in Thailand, losing face or getting angry is considered very poor form. Some friends of Merda’s joked that this smiling – and sometimes even laughing – is a kind of defense mechanism used to reduce tension; sometimes it goes on long after the seriousness of the situation has been realized. In encounter after encounter Indonesians have cared for me, provided me meals and A LOT of coffee, and have assured my safety and comfort when my total lack of language was an issue. I have felt like a welcomed, honored guest in most every situation. Merda confirmed that this way of treating newcomers and guests is a strong cultural norm throughout Indonesia. It even went so far that, when we were en route to a “remote remote” (read: hours of barely drivable road) location, we used the toilet in the homes of people Merda and her family either knew or were related to. These potty stops also involved coffee and tea – unbelievable to this American that, after barging in on a distant relation to use the toilet, that family not only warmly welcomes us and engages in friendly conversation – they also offer us coffee!!! (Two notes here: if we stay for more than an hour, food will also be served. Note two: coffee makes you have to pee more – hence more potty stops!) Charming, but does not make for a quick road trip. My American cultural norms were challenged to the extreme.

Frugality/ lack of consumption/ resourcefulness: Indonesia, with its abundant cultural and natural wealth, is still a poor country. Ask different people, “why,” and you will get different answers. As no expert on politics or social or economic issues in this or any other country, I can only report what I observe: in Indonesia, people cherish and use resources well; they are not a people of over-consumption; they value what they have; and they have to work very hard for it all.

Bintan is a resort community, but the workers who support the resorts live in provided employee housing, shop locally, and have little resembling a tourist experience. They are paid decently, but still have to save for a long time for precious plane and ferry tickets to visit home and relatives. The township was comfortable and safe, but not lavish in any way. Humble, resourceful people living the best lives they can.

Tana Toraja is a very rural community. Merda and I talked about the words “remote” and “rural,” and I had a hard time differentiating these terms when discussing the area. At times we would drive hours on seriously challenging roads, after which she would declare that this was simply a “remote” – rather than a “remote remote” area. The way I see it, a “remote” area has government supplied electricity (albeit limited and spotty) and a water source. The road to reach it can be driven with a 4×4 vehicle, but you might just feel like you have been for a violent spin in a brand-new washing machine by the time you get there. Your car might bottom out and lose parts (true story). But this is just a remote community; imagine how challenging it might be to get to a “remote remote remote” place? And what one might find when she gets there?

There are places in Tana Toraja (and, I imagine, in other parts of Indonesia) where children walk four hours EACH way to school. Which is compulsory. Can you imagine sending your six-year-old out the door at 4:00 am to walk to school?

And yet, school is so greatly valued by Torajans, and Indonesians in general. They see the need to educate their children; the challenges for many are nearly insurmountable. And yet, you don’t hear a lot of complaining, demanding – the “bitching and moaning” so often heard in other places.

That’s all I have for now, but I have 20+ pages of journal to share, and some unbelievable stories to tell. Thanks for coming along!