Monday, February 28, 2011

Moni Moni Moni

After our Komodo tour, we rode for 15 hours in a spectacularly uncomfortable bus to go see 3 multi-colored lakes high up in the mountains. After much grumbling about how these stupid lakes better be worth it, we finally got to Moni. It turned out to be my favorite place in Indonesia (and also led to us singing "Money, money, money! Must be funny! In a rich man's world!" during most of our time here.)

Moni is a tiny village of 500 people. It's so rural, that they actually have a village chief! It is probably one of the poorest places we've seen on this trip, but undoubtedly also the friendliest. Every time we walked down the street (just one street), children and adults shouted greetings to us and waved. And whoever taught them these greetings must've been very polite - the most common phrase we heard was "Hello mister! Hello miss!" and it wasn't even followed by "You buy sarong?" which was amazing.

Moni was also one of the prettiest places I've ever seen. The village was nestled between beautiful, tree-covered mountains and rice paddies. Couldn't decide which direction to look first because everywhere you looked was just stunning.

Our first night, we were walking around town trying to find a place to eat, and we were approached by a man who wanted to talk to us. Because this is a place that hasn't figured out the concept of hawkers yet, we weren't immediately suspicious like we usually are, and we went over to talk to him. He invited us to his new restaurant which he just finished building himself, and the menu that he described to us sounded so amazing, we were instantly hooked. And even when he asked for advance payment of $5 to confirm that we would be there, and we knew we were probably going to get scammed, we still took the chance and agreed to meet him back there at 7pm. Scammers, take note: all you have to do is mention spices, coconut sauce, and curry, and we are so giving you money.

Amazingly, it was not a scam! His restaurant was very simple - just 2 tables in a tiny little shack - but we liked it. It was just us and one other couple. The food was really delicious, and Evan, the man who approached us, sat with us during the whole meal chain-smoking and telling us about Moni. Two of his kids were the waiters and the rest of his family was cooking for us in the kitchen. 

Suddenly, in the middle of our conversation, the woman from the other couple fell to the floor in her chair. It was a very slow-motion topple to the ground that had us all quite confused and trying not to giggle. I'm still not entirely sure what happened there. Shortly thereafter, the other couple left, and we were left alone with Evan. We told him that we were going to get up at sunrise to go check out the lakes the next morning, so he asked if we had a few extra minutes, and offered to draw us a map of the area. Since we were planning on getting a ride up to the lakes and then hike on our way back down, we appreciated that gesture.

Evan started concentrating very intently on drawing our map. He drew and drew and drew. Ross and I waited and waited. 10 minutes had passed and he was still very focused, adding more and more details to this map. After a while it started getting a bit funny. It was just so cute, how hard he was trying. Ross and I kept glancing at each other trying to hold back laughter. Finally, I just completely lost it, and burst out in uncontrollable laughter. It was so embarrassing, but I couldn't stop. He handled it well. He just smiled and gave me a look that was like, "Yeah, I know, I'm a nerd."

But when I saw the map, I had to admit that it was truly a piece of art. He'd labelled everything and given the approximate distances of all the landmarks. It even had a legend! Of course, the entire thing was practically illegible because he'd had to draw it on Ross's tiny little notepad, but still, what a thing to behold. 

In the end I was really glad that we took the chance on this guy. That dinner was infinitely more interesting than going to another random restaurant for another forgettable meal.

The next day, we woke up before dawn and were driven up a mountain on scooters in the dark. The man from the other couple at the restaurant also showed up, but the woman wasn't there. That was probably for the best - wouldn't have wanted her to inexplicably topple off of the mountain somehow. A few hawkers arrived, selling tea and pot noodles, so of course we bought both. Finally, a hawker who actually understands what we want. Well done, sir.

The lakes were okay - they allegedly turn red and yellow sometimes, but when we were there, they just looked lake-y.

After sunrise we walked back down the mountain to Moni, passing through several farms and even poorer villages on our way. Again we were astounded by the views, so we decided to rent a scooter and go ride around the mountains for the day. And again, we were shocked by everyone's friendliness. Even as we buzzed by people on our scooter, they shouted greetings to us. I felt like a celebrity. I wish the whole world was like this. Ahh, Moni. <3

After Moni it was time to get a ride to Maumere, from which we were flying out to Singapore. The car we ended up chartering was driven by a teenager, with 2 other guys in the car. Very soon, it became obvious that this guy was literally the worst driver I've ever been in a car with. Just as an example of one of the myriad things he was doing wrong: he would signal every time he turned the wheel left or right. Not when he was turning left or right, just when the road wound to the left or right and he had to turn the wheel to follow the direction of the road. I'm pretty sure there's no one in the world who would've taught him to do that, leading me to believe that he'd just taught himself how to drive a few days ago from watching a cartoon or something.

He was also driving faster than any sane person should drive on a dark, windy mountain road where everyone has the tendency to drive on the opposite side of the road just for kicks. Every single time he sped around a corner, I kept picturing a giant truck coming towards us and him being unable to stop in time. I was convinced that we weren't going to make it to Maumere alive.

Just then, he turned into a tiny alley and stopped in front of a house. It was almost completely dark. Suddenly, there were 10 guys surrounding the car and talking. This is it, I thought. This is the part where they rob us and kill us. Ross got out his pocket knife and I just sat there mumbling about how we were going to die.

But we didn't die. (Yay!) They just dropped off one of the guys, chatted for way too long, and then we were back on the road, continuing to speed around blind turns and nearly colliding with everything in the road. After what seemed like several years, we finally arrived in Maumere. I got out of the car and just burst out in tears.

That drive taught us several good lessons, the most important one being: if you are in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, GET THE FUCK OUT, no matter how much money you lose. We should've gotten out of the car the moment it became clear what a horrendous driver he was. We would've lost 13 dollars, but we would've also arrived without having taken years off of our lives.

Now we're in Singapore, and it's lovely. Everyone speaks in a posh English accent, the food is really delicious, and the city is very well-designed. It's not terribly exciting, but we're enjoying hanging out here until our new Kindle arrives. I'm so happy for the new Kindle. Book exchanges are not very useful when usually there are only like 4 books on the shelf that are in English.

One more happy memory of Moni:

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Our last week in Indonesia was spent on the island of Flores, an outrageously beautiful island that turned out to be my favorite one of all the ones we saw. We flew into Labuanbajo, a tiny town where we organized a 2-day tour to Komodo and Rinca islands. These islands are home to Komodo dragons, the biggest lizard in the world - they can get up to 3 meters in length! Their saliva contains many strains of poisonous bacteria which ensure that if their bite doesn't kill you, a bacterial infection will do the job in a couple of days. Komodos are perfectly content to wait it out. They are patient like that.

We sailed with our really friendly captain, Mat, (and his first mate) for several hours among a string of pretty little islands before making our first stop on Rinca island. This is Captain Mat:

A guide took us on a 2-hour hike across Rinca island to try to spot Komodos and water buffaloes. We saw Komodos almost instantly, huddled around the cafeteria, attracted to the smell of the food. It turns out that Komodos like Indonesian food too. (Surprisingly, we also saw lots of monkeys hanging about. No one ever mentioned there would be monkeys here!)

Our guide explained that Komodos are deceptively slow and clumsy-looking, when in reality they can run at 10 km/hour when they want to. They can hunt any animal on the island, including the poor water buffaloes, whom I felt most sorry for, for some reason. Although they don't tend to attack humans very often, recently a few victims have included several farmers and children from the villages on the island, so he carried a big forked stick just in case. (Although after hearing all of that, I can't say I was very reassured by a 'stick.') Then he told us that an anti-bacterial medicine might save your life if you did get bit by a Komodo, but they don't keep any on the island. Oh.

So, when they say "guide," what they really mean is "man who will take a sick pleasure in scaring the shit out of you."

Soon it became clear that the situation wasn't quite as dangerous as he made it out to be. Halfway through the tour, he got a sneaky little smile on his face as he asked us if we wanted to touch a Komodo. 

"For 100,000 rupiah. Special deal for you. You no tell." 

At first we agreed -- $10 to touch a Komodo, who could turn that down? -- but then we decided that the Komodo probably wouldn't want strangers touching it, and we didn't want to encourage this practice, and we politely told him so. Oblivious to our good example, when we later came upon a sleeping dragon, he lifted up its tail and stroked it affectionately. But then, strangely, at the end of the hike, he apologized for making us this offer and tried to say that he was "just joking." Perhaps we managed to do a good deed after all?

Our Rinca guide, contemplating a sleeping Komodo:

As for the water buffaloes: they were surprisingly cute, for an animal that spends all its time lounging around covered in mud and flies. (Just imagine it wiggling its big pink ears around.)

We sailed along for several more hours, and Captain Mat came out every once in a while to give us platefuls of fruit. Since then we have frequently wished that we could hire Captain Mat to accompany us around the world. His only job would be to bring us fruit every few hours. It would be great.

We snorkeled twice that day. I haven't snorkeled since I was little, and I forgot how incredible it is. I particularly enjoyed staying perfectly still for a few minutes, so that eventually I would be surrounded by hundreds of fish, just swimming along, doing their fishy business.

The next day we set off for Komodo island to see more Komodos. I thought this would be the better of the two islands, being the one that the dragons are named after and all, but actually it turned out to be pretty dull. In our 2-hour hike, we only saw a few Komodos, and no other animals at all. In fact, the most interesting part was our guide, "Jack," a 23-year-old guy born in the farming village on Komodo island.

This is Jack (on the left):

At first we found Jack a bit irritating because his English was almost completely incomprehensible. Not a good quality for a guide. But then he started asking us about our lives in that overly personal way that Indonesians often do ("How old are you? How long you together? You married? You love?") and this led to quite a surreal conversation.

When he found out that we were from America and England, he started talking excitedly about Titanic. "Like Jack and Rose!" he exclaimed. I was amazed that even someone born on Komodo island had seen Titanic. Is there anyone in the world who hasn't seen this movie? He asked us lots of questions about the actual Titanic voyage. He seemed to have no idea what an iceberg was despite seeing the movie. He also expressed astonishment that a ship could hold 1,500 people, the entire contents of his village. As we walked, he kept repeating the name "Jack" to himself quietly. We later realized that that's probably where he came up with his English name. So cute.

He then started asking us about the size of our countries - "Which one bigger, America or England? England or Canada? Canada or America?" He also asked to try on my glasses and was disappointed when they made the world blurry for him. 

In short, he was exactly what you would expect someone born on Komodo island to be like. It was my first time meeting someone with so little knowledge of the outside world. I loved it. 

Jack's little brother really wanted to take a picture with me:

The end of the tour took a sad turn when Jack asked us if we had any malaria medicine. Thinking that he was just trying to make sure we were protected, we said yes, but then instantly regretted it when he continued, "I malaria. You give me medicine? I malaria. Please." He mimed the intense shivering that you get during a malarial episode. He said that he went to a doctor in Bali who gave him medicine, but the medicine was no good. I wondered why any doctor would claim that medicine would be good for malaria, when in fact there is no cure. Once you get it, you have it for life, with recurring episodes every few years. I made a mental note never to go to a doctor in Bali.

We tried to explain that our medicine is only preventative, and that it doesn't do anything if you already have malaria, so it wouldn't help him. But he didn't understand and he just asked us again. (YOU try explaining the word "preventative" to someone who doesn't speak much English.) We didn't want to just say "no" and have him think that we were heartless bastards, so we asked him to come with us back to the boat so that we could have Captain Mat, whose English was pretty good, translate it to him. This turned out to be an even worse idea, since he followed us to the boat thinking we were taking him there to get him the medicine. He kept thanking us on the way there. Ack.

When we relayed our message to Captain Mat and asked him to translate, he spoke to Jack in Bahasa Indonesian for a little while, and then turned to us and said, "I told him that he needs to go to Bali and have the malaria diagnosed by a doctor and get medicine from the doctor." That wasn't what we'd asked him to translate, and in fact it was quite a bit more harsh than what we wanted to say. Frustrated, we asked him again to translate our exact words, and he spoke to Jack again. He claimed to relay our message this time, but I'm not sure he did. Jack seemed very embarrassed and quickly left after that. So now I guess he thinks we're heartless bastards after all.

It seems really fucked up that people should be born on an island with tons of malarial mosquitoes, with no bug repellent or preventative medicine (not to mention deadly Komodos that eat village children). After this whole episode, I felt really quiet and melancholy for a few hours. And after that we started taking the issue of mosquitoes quite a bit more seriously. Funny how having someone beg you for malaria medicine will do that.

Our last stop was snorkeling to look for manta rays. This was quite different from the snorkeling we did before, which was next to the shore of an island. This time, Captain Mat had stopped the boat in the middle of the ocean, with no islands around. We had sailed through rough seas to get here, and the waves were pretty big in the spot where we stopped. The ocean floor was about 10 meters below us. Scary shit.

As we swam behind Captain Mat to find some mantas, I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation. He was swimming quickly through the waves to look for them, and as I struggled to keep up with him, I started to lose confidence in my ability to stay afloat, even with fins. I was also worried about water getting into the breathing tube, with such high waves. It turns out that I am a huge wimp when it comes to being in the middle of the ocean.

Just then, Ross pointed down at the ocean floor, and I was shocked to see a shark. A fucking shark!! We were both so busy freaking out and going "HOLY SHIT IT'S A FUCKING SHARK" that we totally forgot to take a picture. While this experience was really cool, it didn't do anything to calm me down.

After a few more minutes of intense swimming, we finally saw a manta ray on the ocean floor. It was much bigger than I expected, and looked like it was having a much easier time in the water than I was. At that point I decided, fuck it, I've seen my manta, I'm done with this craziness. I swam back to the boat and was seriously relieved to be out of the water. Ross stayed out with Captain Mat another few minutes.

When they came back in, Ross showed me his arm - he had been stung by a jellyfish! In the last 2 hours, we had hiked with Komodo dragons, been begged for malaria medicine by a person born on Komodo island, snorkeled with a shark and a manta, and been stung by jellyfish. What the fuck.

After that we were exhausted, and when we started back towards Labuanbajo, I was okay with the tour being over. It's funny how tiring it is to spend 2 days having someone parade you around exotic islands.

And that is the story of our trip to Komodo and Rinca Islands. Hopefully I will have written Part 2 about our time in Flores by tomorrow. What a truly insane part of the world.

Monday, February 14, 2011

George and Stan

We have been to so many different places in the last 2 weeks that I don't really know where to start - Padang Bai and Pura Besakih in Bali, Gili T island, Senggigi and Kuta in Lombok, and now Mataram. Where to begin? Please forgive my cop-out just this once, but perhaps I will just describe my favorite snippet from each place.

Padang Bai: A tiny village on the east coast of Bali. We rented a scooter to visit the night market in a nearby village to buy Ross some shorts. There was nowhere to try anything on, so when we picked out a pair, the lady did this trick where she held them around Ross's neck to determine whether or not they'd fit. She proclaimed that they fit his neck like a glove (or did a gesture to that effect, since she didn't speak English), and we figured, that's probably legit, right? And now we have a pair of slightly-too-small shorts. Hah. Damn sneaky old ladies.

Pura Besakih: The most important temple in Bali. We decided to rent a scooter again to go see this temple, except this time we decided to take "smaller roads" to get there. What the map didn't mention is that the "smaller" road eventually became just a muddy, gravelly, pothole-ridden footpath up a very steep hill; not actually a road at all. We stubbornly persisted for about half an hour because we figured that several people told us this was the right way to go, so it must get better. It was only when we hit a giant pothole and toppled off the scooter that we decided to stop being dumb, and spent another half hour backtracking to the main road. Because of this, we got to the temple extremely late, and we were heading back right around the time that the afternoon monsoon was starting. Trying to scooter during a monsoon is the most terrifying fucking thing ever. Kids, don't try this at home. You are not as hardcore as the kids in Indonesia.

(A brief aside: I just want to reiterate that people here are really, really, ridiculously hardcore. As just one example, in Ubud I witnessed 3 old ladies doing construction work in flip flops, in 90 degree heat. They would each spend about 10 minutes putting bricks into baskets until the baskets were full. Then the three of them would help each other lift the baskets on to each other's heads. Then they'd all walk off with the baskets of bricks on their heads, come back with empty baskets, and repeat. And one of the women doing this only had one arm!!!!)

(In flip-flops!!!!!)

Gili Trawangan Island: A tiny island next to Bali that is well-known for snorkeling, diving, and partying. I know I am in a very small minority here since most people can't stop raving about it, but I have nothing positive to say about this island. I found it to be a gawdy tourist trap with terrible food, abundant mosquitoes, and frequent power outages. We were woken up at 5am and then again at 8am by the people praying in the mosque over a loudspeaker. I absolutely do not get what everyone sees in this place. As we were leaving, we met a group of people who had just spent over a week there and loved it, so clearly Ross and I just missed the point or something.

Senggigi: A small beach town on the island of Lombok. I really enjoyed lying by the pool for 4 days reading a random book by Maeve Binchy that I found in the book exchange in our hotel. Yay for hotels having a book exchange for tourists who still haven't gotten their shit together enough to replace the broken Kindle! (But who totally will soon!) And more importantly, hooray for pools.

Kuta, Lombok: Another, even smaller beach town in Lombok. We decided to go try some crab after Lonely Planet raved about this one particular restaurant that serves amazing crab. The waiter came out holding 2 live crabs in tongs and asked us to pick which one we wanted. I don't know about you, but wow, that is the fastest possible way to make me NOT want to eat crab. My brain instantly named both crabs (George and Stan) and I instantly began to regret my impulse to come eat crab. And then the crab itself was so very hard to eat, so messy, so SPIKEY, and for so little reward, that I feel like I was the butt of a Lonely Planet prank or something. Why would you go out of your way to recommend that people eat crab? That's just not something I would do to anyone. Perhaps the author of that entry was a life-long crab person. I don't understand crab people. Meaning people who like crab, not some sort of freakish human-crab hybrid species. That would actually be pretty cool.

Which brings me to where we are now. I am writing from Mataram, the capital of the island of Lombok. It's the first big(ish) city we've been in since getting to Indonesia, and it feels fucking wonderful. I can't remember the last time I was so happy to see a mall! (The last shopping we did was at the night market of trickery.) I even managed to find flip-flops that aren't made of rubber. Success!

Mataram is also the first place we've seen here that isn't on the tourist trail. It's known primarily as a transportation hub because it has an airport. Indeed, we're only here because we decided to fly out from here to the next island rather than making a 27-hour journey involving 3 buses and 2 ferries over rough seas. (I have a whole new appreciation for rough seas after our last experience here on a boat - I was literally planning out who would get my computer and whatnot if we didn't make it out alive. I decided my cat would probably enjoy inheriting the computer the most. She always liked to sleep on the keyboard while I was typing.)

I've found myself enjoying Mataram quite a bit. It's genuine. It's not a veneer put up just to please tourists. For the first time since coming to Indonesia, we were served lunch that we weren't quite sure how to eat. It was one of those "Is that a soup, or is that a bowl of water in which to rinse my fingers?" sort of situations. (Answer: neither, it was a broth that you pour into your food to dilute the spiciness.) And because it's a bit less traveled, most people here look at us as just a couple of strange gringos, not as walking ATMs. I don't even know how to convey how refreshing that is.

It's also starting to feel quite a bit more foreign now. For one thing, Lombok is the first place I've been to that's predominantly Muslim, which I'm finding very interesting. We're starting to see women in headscarves and men in taqiyahs (and even the mannequins at the mall were wearing headscarves). We've also noticed that the body language is all different here. Instead of shaking their head to say "no," people here twist their hand from side to side. Maybe that's what we should've been doing to get rid of the hawkers all this time!?

We're flying to an island called Flores today. It's supposed to be quite stunning. And after that... giant deadly lizards, here we come!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Motorbikes and Religion

We are now in Padang Bai, a tiny village on the east coast of Bali. We're exploring the east coast a bit from here, and then heading out to some of the smaller islands to the east of Bali, including Komodo island!

Yesterday we rented a scooter to go to Tirta Gangga, a water palace built by a Balinese rajah in 1948. Although Ross had driven a scooter in college, we decided that I should be the one to drive, at least initially, because Ross doesn't have a license. I was slightly nervous at the idea of doing this because not only is the traffic completely insane here, but it also comes from the left. I've also never driven a scooter before, and I don't have an international license. Other than that, we were all set. 

We rented the scooter from the ladies at our hotel. They took us out and showed us where the turn signal and headlights were, how to open the gas tank, and how to turn on the scooter, and that was it. Then I freaked out all of us by asking, "So, uh, how do I go faster and slower?" They got a slightly panicked look on their faces when they realized it was my first time driving a scooter, their BRAND NEW SCOOTER no less, but for some reason they let us take it anyway. They sat and watched us as we got on the scooter and I tried to gather the nerve to start it. Then we set off, wobbling down the street and screaming. The ladies looked on in complete terror.

However, after a couple minutes I had things figured out and we were basically okay after that. Driving on the left is not as hard as it seems! From now on maybe I will stop calling it the "wrong direction." The only hard part was resisting the urge to scream "Oh my god!" every time a car coming from the opposite direction would veer manically into oncoming traffic (i.e., MY LANE) in order to pass a car or a scooter. But even that wasn't as bad as when we passed by a school that had just gotten out for the day, and we were swarmed by children driving scooters home. There is nothing more terrifying than a child in a school uniform and pigtails driving a motorbike, with a smaller child on the backseat. I stopped worrying about not having an international license right around then. Clearly there aren't really "rules" as such down here.

The ride to Tirta Gangga was gorgeous. When we finally got there, as I was trying to pull over into the parking lot, I tried to signal that I was turning left, and suddenly heard a "BEEP!" behind me. I had a mild panic attack, thinking I had cut someone off, but it turned out I had just mixed up the horn and the turn signal and scared the crap out of myself. Ross nearly bust a gut laughing at me. Then I almost fell off the goddamn bike while trying to park it, and a little old lady selling fruit nearly bust a gut laughing at me. Good times. After that I asked Ross if he wanted to drive us home. It turns out that he was way better at it than I was!... Which was probably not that hard to do.

Tirta Gangga was beautiful:

With strange carvings:

Since talking to people here a bit more, I've learned a lot more about Balinese religion. The "shrines" that I mentioned earlier are actually offerings to their gods to ward off black magic. They put out offerings at least twice a day, usually containing flowers, food, and incense. Once in the morning, to ask for a good day at work, and once in the evening, to thank the gods for having a good day and to ask for protection throughout the evening. I think it's lovely that they do this every day, even if it wasn't necessarily a good day at work. Just having work means it was a good day. Although it's ironic, really, since one man told us that one of the reasons people here are so poor is because they have to spend so much money on these offerings.

They put them everywhere - on doorsteps, countertops, sidewalks, even on the hood of our scooter (which I appreciated). They also put one outside the door of our room every morning on our behalf. It's really interesting - I've always read about people making offerings to gods in textbooks and whatnot, but I think this is the first time I've witnessed it firsthand.

When we got back, I found out that there was going to be a Barong ceremony right by our hotel that night. This ceremony is performed every 15 days to ward off evil spirits and protect from black magic. I was pretty excited, because how often do you get to see evil spirits being warded off? When I got there, I found hundreds of people dressed up, sitting on the ground in prayer. There was a muezzin praying loudly, drums, bells, and lots of anticipation. A table full of hundreds of offerings stood in front of all the people. I stood and waited for the warding to begin.

Then shit got real, yo (as I'm sure they would attest). Several men dressed in all white came out and began to give people blessings. Each one carried a bowl full of some sort of holy liquid and a brush. He went from person to person, dipping the brush in the bowl and flicking some of the liquid onto each person's head. He would do this three times. Then he would flick some water into their hands, and they would drink it. They also did this several times. After a person finished receiving their blessing, they would stand up and accept some rice, which they would put on their foreheads.

Unfortunately that's as much as I saw. After that, I was handed a flyer which explained that if tourists wanted to stay to see the rest, they had to be dressed properly and be sitting on the ground for the performance. "Dressed properly" was described as:

-Wearing a sarong to cover the lower part of the body
-Wearing a belt to express the firm intention to separate the lower and upper parts of the body
-Wearing the undong (turban) for men and flowers in their hair for women to show the value of the head which represents the spirit

Damnit. I didn't have a sarong, belt, or any flowers, nor did I feel like sitting on the ground, so I just came home. But I'm happy that I got to see the beginning of the ceremony, at least, and now I know what each part of their outfit represents, so that's pretty cool. And maybe no evil spirits will fuck with me for a while.

And can I just mention one more time before I wear out the welcome of this post: the food here is SO consistently and mind-blowingly good that I never want to leave. Asians have perfected the art of cooking. I can't wait to just eat and eat and eat in the next few months. There, now I'll stop mentioning it in every single post.

More pics here.