Archive for May, 2008

May 31st 2008
The Amazing Race

Posted under Vietnam

Our flight from Denpasar to Ho Chi Minh City was an undesirable itinerary to say the least. We had a seven-hour layover in Singapore from 12:35am to 7:20am. It was the cheapest itinerary, booked only by people like us who have more time than money. What we didn’t realize until checking in for the first leg was that, because the first leg was considered an evening flight and the second leg a morning flight, the airline would not check our bags all the way through. We would have to clear customs in Singapore and spend the night in the outer part of the airport until two hours before our morning departure when we could get a boarding pass for the second leg.

While we had spied some modern lounge chairs – perfect for a few hours of good sleep – in the inner part of the Singapore airport, there were no comfortable places to lay down in the outer part. Neither of us got more than a few minutes of sleep despite our best efforts to construct an elaborate nest on the floor with miscellaneous articles from our backpacks. The icy tile floor penetrated our bundled and buffered bodies while the fluorescent lights simulated a sterile sunny afternoon.

We cleared customs in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) around 9am and rode in a taxi through the buzzing streets of the motorbike capital of the world. HCMC has a population of 8.5 million people and 3 million motorbikes. In this developing nation, a single motorbike is often the sole source of transportation for a family and it is quite common to see two adults and three children cruising down the road. A cheap Chinese moped can be purchased in Vietnam for as little as $320, providing a lower to middle class family with a greater range of income opportunities.

As we checked into a hotel in the backpacker area surrounding Pham Ngu Lao, we were beyond exhausted. However, a critical task lay before us – acquiring Chinese visas – and we had no time to rest. We had two weeks total for Vietnam and Cambodia combined and, somewhere in there, had to get the visa since China was our intended next stop. Instead of collapsing onto our respective twin beds, we ingested our first dose of caffeine and sugar and pressed on. With a U.S. passport, the task of acquiring a visa is usually quite easy. Many countries do not require a visa of U.S. citizens and many others that do require visas make them available at the border in exchange for a fee. A handful of countries – India, China, and Russia among others – require that you obtain a visa in advance of your arrival. China – incorrigible little problem child that she is – has many pesky documentation requirements and restrictions over and above what we have experienced thus far.

Our original plans for China went something like this: fly into Shanghai; travel overland within China for a month, slowly working our way to Beijing; take the new fast train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet; tool around Tibet and then go overland to Nepal. At that point, our China plans were merely ideas – no reservations had been finalized. If you have been following world news, then you probably know that China isn’t letting tourists into Tibet due to recent uprisings of Tibetans, protesting their oppressive occupiers. The train to Lhasa was no longer an option. We would have to find another way from China to Nepal. We decided to make our first stop the Chinese embassy, which was, according to our map, reasonably close to our hotel.

Foreign city streets can be disorienting at first, even with a good map, so in the interest of expediency, we negotiated a lift on a cyclo – the Vietnamese incarnation of the bicycle rickshaw. The cyclo rider spoke zero English and did not know where the Chinese embassy was but, in our haste, we climbed into the passenger seat and trusted him to figure it out.

The Chinese embassy in Ho Chi Minh City only accepted visa applications between eight and eleven a.m. It was 10:30 and we were moving at a snail’s pace through congested traffic as mopeds whizzed by – a function of our rider’s age and frailty as well as the heavy, antiquated bicycle with a single gear. Our blood pressure rose each time we checked our watches through the gut-wrenching duration. By the grace of God, we arrived at the embassy building at 10:55.

Inside the gate were two small offices dedicated to visa applications. The first office was for assembling the documentation. There was an attendant inside, charged with the task of advising applicants on the process. He was bombarded with travelers who shared our same desperate ambition to hold Chinese visas in our hot little hands. With patient persistence, we finally got his attention and inquired about the official list of documents required. The man spoke about two words of English but produced a small card with a list of the requirements. I furiously scribbled the list into my notebook:

Passport with valid Vietnam visa inside (had it)
Disembarkation card for Vietnam (had it)
Two passport photos with white background
Round trip paper airline ticket to/from China
Printout of a bill from a hotel in China
130 U.S. dollars (that’s only for U.S. citizens, by the way; all other nationalities pay only $30)

The Amazing Race began.

Twenty-nine hours without sleep. From the embassy, we decided to walk back toward our hotel, a thirty-minute endeavor involving numerous opportunities to play chicken with clusters of speeding mopeds. The effects of the caffeine were waning and I began to feel the wave of exhaustion that comes just before the crash. We stopped to recharge at a Pho (pronounced “fer”) restaurant near our hotel. Pho is a common Vietnamese meal – a large bowl of steaming broth with rice noodles, meat and vegetables. We powered up with Pho Bo (Pho with beef) and Pepsi – the people’s petrol – which we hoped would buy us a few more precious hours of productivity.

After lunch, we pounded the pavement in search of a local travel agent who could help us. At the first office, a sharp, fiery young woman, named Tran, listened to our quandary and did some preliminary research for us. Flights from China to Nepal were expensive. After several phone calls to her mysterious contacts, Tran proposed that, for a small convenience fee, her contact could acquire a Chinese visa on our behalf. We simply had to relinquish our passports to the mystery man on the other end of her phone; none of the other documents would be needed. Having read warnings in our guide book about numerous fraudulent tour offices in Vietnam, including some offices that disappeared completely after taking your money and/or passport, we were skeptical. It just seemed too good to be true. Tran called her contact once again to confirm the details, resulting in a “two-hundred percent” guarantee that it could be done.

We decided to perform our own little background check by walking around to other tour offices to see if they offered a similar service. Most of the other agencies claimed not to deal with the problem child (China) at all. Others spoke limited English and seemed utterly dumbfounded by our request. In short, we struck out completely. With China seeming more impossible at every step, we decided to throw caution to the wind and gamble on Tran.

Thirty-three hours without sleep. We returned to Tran’s office, ready to relinquish our passports.
“We have a small problem”, she said with a smile. “Now my colleague says that he needs all of the documentation for the Chinese visa. With the Olympics, China has become very strict on this.”
Curses! I felt my face fall and noticed that Aaron looked similarly deflated.
“How much do you care about China?” I asked, resolved at that moment to tell China exactly where she could shove her visa.
“I’d like to go,” Aaron responded.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s sit down here and try to make it work.”

With Tran’s unwavering patience and stamina, we spent the next FOUR HOURS exploring our options. It was a painstaking, frustrating, energy-sucking process. At the end of it, we were physically and emotionally drained and were left with only one China option: a very expensive round trip flight between Beijing and Hanoi, which connected to Nepal on the back end. The flight cost three times what we’d planned to spend on the Ice Train and the itinerary was a nightmare, including numerous plane changes and an overnight layover in the Bangkok airport. Our travel within China would be hindered by the outbound flight out of Beijing and the only available dates would shorten our China stay by almost a week. The tickets were nonrefundable and there were only two seats remaining. All of this and we still weren’t 100% certain that China would even give us a visa. Each new detail about the whole transaction made it increasingly unattractive. “Book it!” we said, after some fatigued deliberation, relieved at having made a decision. Tran took out her receipt book and we took out our credit card. “Four percent charge to use credit card,” she said…and that was the straw that broke the budget warden’s back. “Whoa, hold on a minute,” said the warden, suddenly re-evaluating all of the cons in this scenario that just became $80 more excruciating. We sat for a few moments, reconsidering, and finally decided against it. Tran said that she could hold the seats until morning and her office was open until nine that night if we changed our minds. Aaron slid a generous tip across her desk, which she politely declined despite our greedy monopolization of her last four hours.

Thirty-seven hours without sleep. I suggested that we stop at the hotel, grab our fold-up, laminated world map – one of Aaron’s more brilliant street purchases – and discuss our other options over dinner. I felt excited at the prospect of having a month to play with, somewhere in Asia. We strongly considered spending that month in southern India – a wildly delightful thought – and working our way to Kathmandu on cheap flights and Indian trains.

After dinner, I continued to look at the map in bed, tracing our recent and future paths with my finger. It was then that I realized what a gap would exist if we skipped China. I sensed that China was still lingering in Aaron’s hopes and, the more I thought about it, the more I felt the same prospective disappointment at missing out on China. It is an enormous country that has influenced art, architecture, culture and religion all over Asia and beyond.
“Let’s go to China,” I said, slowly melting into my bed.
“Should we go back to the office and book it now?” Aaron asked, without hesitation.
“I’m not leaving this bed until morning but you have the green light.”
When he returned a short while later, I was deep in dreamland.

The next morning, I streamed in and out of consciousness to the clickety clack of busy fingers typing away on a keyboard. I could almost feel Aaron’s wheels spinning, his practiced patience tested as he devised our mounting list of urgent tasks for the day. God bless him. He let me snooze. Fully cognizant of the magnitude of will power required to restrain from waking me, I rose quickly and we were out the door in ten minutes. The race continued.

Our paper airline tickets would arrive by courier at Tran’s office mid-morning. Before that, we had to get passport photos made with a white background. We scurried around on foot in search of a place that could create the photos pronto and found a tiny shop with a computer, a camera, and a young man who said he could make the photos in ten minutes. Aaron and I, in turn, sat for our mug shots against a light blue sheet; the man promised that he could make it white on the computer. We waited several minutes while he doctored the background of the photos, using Photoshop, a process that made me cringe with each stroke of his mouse. After twenty minutes, he was still at it. Aaron eventually left to go to Tran’s office and I waited for the photos. When the man finally tried to print the photos, his dusty, antiquated printer would not turn on. I stood by while he manipulated various flaps and buttons, growing ever more anxious at the thought of telling Aaron that Operation Passport Photos had failed. After another ten minutes of tinkering, the machine huffed and puffed and spit out our photos. And then I ran.

We had made a reservation the previous night for a Beijing hotel, using one of our many booking sites and had sent an email request to the hotel to fax a copy of the actual bill for our visa application. The booking site had sent the usual emailed booking confirmation but our sources had told us that the actual Chinese hotel bill was required. When I reached Tran’s office with the photos, Aaron told me that we had received no response from the Chinese hotel. He hastily completed our visa application forms anyway – opting to shell out an additional $30 each for same day processing – and assembled our documents in Tran’s office. The eleven o’clock application was fast approaching. At 10:40, we printed out the confirmation from the booking site (not the hotel bill) and hopped into a taxi bound for the embassy. We had to go for it.

The taxi should have been the fastest mode of transportation but mid-morning traffic was in a steamy state of gridlock. Finally, at 10:57, with the embassy building barely in sight, we paid the driver, weaved through the gridlocked mopeds, and made a dead sprint for the embassy gate. It must have been 10:59 when we slipped through. We made a hurried stop in the first office to glue our passport photos to the application forms, then scurried through the cement courtyard to the application office. The queue was short and we breathlessly presented our documents to the clerk. We had everything on the list. We were pessimistic about our substitute for the hotel bill but at least someone official would examine our documents and confirm that everything else was acceptable. The clerk hastily perused our docs.
“Where are the photocopies? You must have photocopies of everything.”
He didn’t say anything about the hotel bill.
“Where can we get copies?” we asked desperately. “Can we come back today?”
“Hurry,” he replied, ignoring the “where” question, “we close at 11:00.”
It was 11:05.

We grabbed our docs and hurried to the gate.
“Where can we get copies?” we asked of the guard. By the way, the Chinese are notorious for not speaking English. The guard fit the stereotype but magically produced the business card of a copy shop nearby. The card had a map on the back – the shop was about four blocks away.
“Tomorrow,” the guard said, as he started to close the gate behind us.
“No, no! He said, he said!” we protested like preschoolers, gesturing toward the application office. The guard said okay but we thought that there was a better than average chance that the gate would be locked and guarded by the pacing soldier with his automatic weapon. Still, we made a break for the copy shop, with backpacks bouncing and our important documents crinkling in my sweaty clutch. We found the shop with relative ease and the copy process was shockingly efficient. We were in and out in just over five minutes! We raced back to the embassy, laughing all the way at the prospect of this schizophrenic rat race actually resulting in a Chinese visa. The guard at the embassy gate witnessed our determined charge from down the road and, perhaps out of pity or respect for our hustle, he let us in.

Even more breathless now and certainly more disheveled, we handed over our respective stacks of photocopied documents. A manic moment passed before the clerk, devoid of emotion in the way that workers in government offices always seem to be, said the magic words, “Okay, come back 4:30 to pick up visa.” And the Lord looked down from the Heavens and saw that it was good. We staggered out of the office in shocked disbelief. Could we possibly have a Chinese visa in our hands by the end of that very same day? Neither of us was willing to believe it.

It wasn’t even noon yet and we were totally exhausted. With almost five hours to kill before returning to the embassy at 4:30 sharp, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a lovely patio overlooking the park. Judging by the clientele, we had stumbled into one of Ho Chi Minh City’s haunts of the young, chic and beautiful. We were the only foreigners on the premises and I received as many inquisitive glances as I extended. It felt good to sit and watch the world go by, if only for an hour. We spent the rest of the afternoon leisurely taking in some of Ho Chi Minh City’s tourist sites.

We returned to the embassy at 4:20 and waited nervously for the gate to open. At 4:30 we were third in the queue of equally doubting applicants, all wondering if today was their day for a miracle too. We watched anxiously as the clerk carefully inspected both sides of each note of U.S. currency and slid it through a machine before stacking it meticulously into a hidden drawer and sending the first two lucky winner away with visas.

When our turn came, Aaron slid his receipt along with three U.S. hundred dollar bills and one twenty dollar bill beneath the bulletproof glass. Come on, we’re almost there! I could almost feel my visa-laden passport in my hand. Suddenly, the clerk slid one of the hundreds back under the glass.
“Can you get a new bill? This bill not good.” she said, indicating a slight smudge on Washington’s face (clearly a result of normal wear and tear).
“That’s all I have,” Aaron replied honestly. We were down to the last of our coveted U.S. dollars. “Can you just try running it through your machine?”
“No,” said the clerk, with an air of finality. “Machine okay but Bank of China not accept. You must get new money.” And that was that. We had tripped and fallen, five feet short of the finish line. Where could we possibly get a new hundred dollar bill in time enough to return to the embassy before it closed at five, we asked ourselves frantically as we exited the gate once again? The question was still hanging in the air when Aaron spied a Western Union office in the distance. Another round of chicken. Another sprint.

Inside the office, we explained our dilemma to the young female clerk whose instinctive response was “No, I can’t help you. Sorry.” Then, another miracle happened. Moses again parted the Red Sea and through the divide walked a male employee with two fifty dollar bills from his own pocket. After a brief inspection of our bill, he made the exchange and we bolted out of Western Union and back to the embassy, where we were now at the end of the queue of ten people. As we waited in line, Aaron’s paranoia had reached its climax and he repeatedly critiqued the fifties, noting their every flaw and wallowing in negativity, driving me utterly insane for about ten minutes.

When we finally reached the clerk again and slid the money and receipt under the glass, she quickly repeated the inspection process and quickly produced our two passports and handed them over with another receipt. It was almost as if she sensed that we were hanging on to our sanity by a thread. Aaron immediately opened both passports to the page with the Chinese visa sticker. He checked the details – names, dates, etc. – for accuracy and gave me an assuring look. We walked out of the office and looked at them again in the sunlight before leaving the embassy grounds. We were too stunned to celebrate.

When we first began to share the news of our plans for this trip, several friends suggested that we apply to compete in The Amazing Race, a reality T.V. show full of physical and mental challenges quite similar to those we have faced throughout our travels. We had found the suggestion humorous at the time but have pondered it occasionally along the way. As we walked from the Chinese embassy for the last time, we laughed at the similarities between our visa ordeal and an episode of the well-known reality show. We concluded that there is no need for us to compete in The Amazing Race; as far as we’re concerned, we’ve already won.


May 28th 2008
The Painting

Posted under Bali

Happy to be back in Ubud, we commenced our usual daily activities of trekking, reading, dining and drinking. Morning tea arrived on our patio at 7:30 sharp every day and I found myself waking naturally around seven and reading quietly in bed until the clinking of tea cups signaled the official start of the day. Even Aaron was getting into the groove of total relaxation – a marvelous feat for someone with chronic multi-taskitis. We were achieving balance with minimal effort; merely the will to succumb to Ubud’s centripetal force, pulling us gently back to the middle.

With a full tank of petrol and an itch to explore, we cruised around on the moped, revisiting some of the places to which we had walked before and dodging jaywalking chickens in the process. Every time I saw a chicken waddle across the road, I silently questioned its motives. Why did the chicken cross the road? I would leave Ubud as yet unsettled on the subject. I have enough trouble figuring people out; chicken motives remain a total mystery.

Aaron’s retainers were supposed to be ready that day and, since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to stop by the Sayan Aesthetic Institute to check the status. The same friendly attendant from our first visit informed us that the retainers were due to arrive later that afternoon and he would drop them off at our hotel. We paused to admire once again the magnificent painting that hung behind the attendant’s desk. It was an original oil by a Balinese painter; the subjects reminded us of Degas’ dancers. During the three days since I had first laid eyes on the painting, my thoughts kept returning to it and, after seeing it a second time, Aaron began to show a similar affinity. At the risk of sounding cliché, the painting spoke to us like no piece of artwork ever had. I wrote down the author’s name and snapped a photo of the painting. With Ubud being the cultural center of Bali, we thought it likely that the artist might have a gallery in the city. We did some online searches and inquired at a Balinese art museum. We found only snippets of information, indicating that some of the artist’s work had recently sold at auction in Jakarta, but the trail ended there. I resolved to put the painting out of my mind.

Aaron’s retainers were delivered later that afternoon, as promised. The attendant followed up by phone the next morning on their fit. The bottom retainer did, in fact, need some adjustment and we were invited to stop into the office in the afternoon. Our day began, like many others in Ubud, with morning tea followed by a long walk. The walking itinerary described in our guide book covered a distance of ten kilometers with a mix of urban and rural terrain. We walked the first couple of hours on paved roads, with no sidewalks and unimpressive scenery. Still, it felt good to stretch our legs and get some exercise. After hours in the hot sun, we reached the landmark – a carved stone wall hardly worthy of mention – that was supposed to give way to a trail through the rice fields, which would be the home stretch of our journey. When we reached the wall, a local gatekeeper informed us that the trail was closed to tourists for a big Balinese ceremony. This news did take the wind from our sails though we were not overly surprised as we’ve discovered that the Balinese have some kind of ceremony or celebration almost every day of the week. Wilted and weary, we backtracked a ways to the main road and walked along until we spied a narrow trail leading into the jungle. My bushwalking tolerance was fading fast and I suggested hailing a taxi to take us back to the hotel. Aaron had other ideas. “Fine,” he said, stubbornly, “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” I was hot, tired and exasperated but my curiosity coupled with the challenging tone of Aaron’s voice got the better of me and I followed my compass down a muddy trail into the jungle. The difficulty in trekking through jungle and/or rice fields is that the trails are unmarked. Even when you think that you are following written instructions verbatim and your natural compass tells you that you are heading in the right direction, there is room for error.

Grass on both sides of the narrow path made my bare legs itch as we followed it further and further down the hill and away from the main road. I tried not to think about the bugs. Aaron walked confidently ahead on the path, hopeful that we would intersect the rice field trail from another direction and find our way home. We soon came upon a lone Balinese farmer who was quite surprised to see two tourists so deep in the jungle. The farmer spoke no English whatsoever but still managed to communicate that the only way back to Ubud was back on the main road. He gestured toward a big house at the top of the hill with a metal staircase extending about halfway down the steep slope. We thanked the man and slowly made our way toward the staircase only to find it gated and locked. The only other option was to backtrack again on the trail…or so I thought. Again, Aaron had other ideas.

The property surrounding the house was fortified with fierce-looking barbed wire but there appeared to be a lightly-trodden path around the right side. Aaron led the way up the narrow, steep, mud-slick path with dense jungle on one side and barbed wire on the other. I could touch both without fully extending my arms. Morning rains had left mud everywhere and we had to take our time climbing up, holding onto tree branches, exposed roots, clumps of jungle grass or whatever we could find to keep from sliding back against the razor-sharp metal barbs. Despite these conditions and their associated insects, I managed to keep my trucker’s mouth in check…until we reached the top of the hill and discovered that the barbed wire fence extended along the top as well, leaving us no way to go but back down. After a five-second meltdown that would have to have been blipped out entirely for public television, I regained my composure and we started back down the hill. Despite our extreme caution, Aaron managed to slip on a muddy patch and cut his hand on the barbed wire. It was not a deep cut but bloody nonetheless and Aaron spent the next bloody hour as the poster child for travel vaccinations.

We re-emerged from our failed detour, bloodier, muddier and sweatier but no worse for the wear; the farmer spotted us, and pointed to a tiered retaining wall alongside the locked staircase leading up to the house. Without further hesitation, we scaled the walls and trespassed onto the obviously private property, half-expecting someone to come charging outside with a shotgun. But this was Bali, not the Wild West, and we made it to the main road with no problem. My legs and shoes were covered with mud and grass; the seat of Aaron’s shorts and the back of his right calf were smeared thickly with mud; we were both soaking with sweat in the sticky tropical heat. This time, Aaron humored me by hailing a bemo – the light blue converted vans that serve as cheap public transport – and we rode silently back to Ubud. It was quite an adventure.

Back at the hotel, we showered and relaxed for a while before heading out for a late lunch in town. After that, we made our way to the Sayan Aesthetic Institute to get Aaron’s retainer adjusted…and to see the painting again. By this time, we had had several discussions about the painting, gauged similar interest, and tossed around some numbers between ourselves. As we dismounted our moped and walked across the parking lot, Aaron suggested that we make a bid, even if it was a lowball offer. I was pessimistic and intimidated. I am not a negotiator by nature. The attendant, excited by our interest, also suggested that we state a price that he could take to the owner and start the negotiation. Aaron and I exchanged looks, reading each other’s eyes (we’ve gotten pretty good at this by now), and after a few moments pause, I opened the negotiation.

With Aaron’s retainer satisfactorily adjusted, we continued our afternoon with some last-minute shopping in town since we were scheduled to depart from Ubud the following day. When we returned to the hotel, there was a message from the attendant that he would stop by our place later that evening. He arrived shortly thereafter and the three of us sat outside on our cottage patio. After twenty or so minutes of decidedly awkward negotiations, we actually reached an agreement! A few more moments of awkwardness passed, followed by a wave of surrealism. The attendant left, promising to see us in the morning, and Aaron and I just sat, staring at each other for a long while. Did that really just happen? Did we really just commit to buying a large and expensive painting with no house or jobs to speak of? Our hearts raced with a strange combination of panic and excitement. We could speak of little else that night until sleep finally came.


We arrived at the office around 9:30 on a gray and rainy morning and were told that our painting was in the boutique and we could complete the transaction there. The very extravagant boutique was several hundred meters up the road so we took the moped there and found the painting propped up against a display table just inside the doorway. We had requested that the canvas be removed from its wooden backing and rolled into a shipping tube. The painting had caused some excitement in the boutique that morning and there were five or six staff members collaborating to remove the staples and roll it carefully into a length of PVC pipe which had been cut for our specific purpose. The whole process took almost two hours and then we were on our way. The painting was ours! The PVC pipe and end caps fully enclosed the fragile canvas, protecting it from the rain. I held it awkwardly, because of its length and weight, on the back of the moped as Aaron navigated the wet roads. When we arrived at the hotel, our car and driver were waiting to take us back to Kuta, where we would spend our last two nights in Bali.

The ride was quick and easy and we rode into Kuta on a sunny afternoon with no hotel reservation. The driver waited in the car with our bags while we walked around looking for cheap accommodation. Kuta has many narrow lanes which are nearly impossible for a car to navigate. We found a row of four budget hotels along one of the lanes and checked into the cheaper of the two rooms that we looked at – rock, paper, scissors had worked in Aaron’s favor this time, resulting in a room with a cold shower that saved us $10/night. Both nights, we spent the savings on massages so I couldn’t exactly complain.

In a final mad dash to the finish, we rented a moped and sped through the streets of Kuta, searching for the DHL office. After a series of wrong turns, we slipped through the doors of DHL with literally two minutes to spare before the office closed on a Friday afternoon. We spent our last days in Kuta as beach bums. Aaron surfed while I caught up on some reading or listened to music, staring dreamily out to sea. At times, I thought that I was daydreaming, only to blink and discover that the dream was real.

Leaving Bali was something that I’d never really contemplated. It is an exotic destination, like Tahiti or Bora Bora, which many people add to their list of dream vacations and, if they happen to make it there during one of their two weeks of yearly vacation, divide their time equally between the posh resorts and beaches of the southern peninsula. I suspected that we would do the same but, surprisingly, we found ourselves drawn away from the beach to beautiful Ubud, where skin and sin are replaced by art, music, tranquility and rural simplicity. In Ubud, I found myself thinking almost daily, I could live here. Strangely, as we rode toward the airport in Denpasar, I was not overcome with the sad nostalgia that I have felt about other places we’ve been and gone. Most of those places I will never see again. To Bali I will return often, if only in my mind. I will be somewhere, sometime, with a happy, distant expression on my face. Someone will ask me what I’m thinking about. “Oh, nothing”, I’ll say with a smile.

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May 25th 2008
Water, Water Everywhere

Posted under Bali

We had fallen in love with Ubud and together decided to spend the rest of our Bali days there rather than running around the island, trying to see it all. Ubud just felt right. Nick’s Pension was treating us well and we were pleasantly surprised by the diversity, ambience, and culinary samplings of the many restaurants. Live jazz was playing somewhere every night of the week and free Wi-Fi was ubiquitous. While our morning treks had given us a good feel for the city and balanced out the decadence of our evenings, many of Ubud’s treasures still awaited to unfold.

We made one exception to spend a day diving the Liberty wreck off the shores of Tulamben on the east coast of the island. We had pre-arranged one night of accommodation and two dives on the wreck the following day. This was intended to minimize our time away from Ubud. In a chauffeured car, we made the picturesque two-hour drive to Tulamben in the afternoon, stopping for rice terrace photos along the way.

Side note: A wise man once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” While money will never buy happiness, it certainly helps grease the wheels in getting things done. We have noted often lately how much easier it is to travel and conduct business in less affluent countries where there is more competition for the same dollar; if you hold that dollar, the world is your oyster or so it seems. Name your desire and everyone knows someone who knows someone who can make it happen…for a small commission, of course. The same idea holds true in affluent countries but that same liberty levies a much higher toll. Money is a powerful motivator.

So we arrived in Tulamben in the late afternoon and settled into a beachfront hotel down the road from the dive shop. Tulamben is what you might call a “one horse town”, composed almost entirely of small businesses aimed at scuba divers who come to dive the Liberty wreck. The town is set against Gunung Agung, an active volcano looming in a foreboding purple haze. Children play in the street and run around the shops; the older ones are often left in charge of customer service while parents attend to other matters. The people are friendly and everyone knows everyone.

I woke before sunrise, which is highly unusual, and walked outside to the restaurant deck to savor a few moments of solitude. The morning tide was high, flooding the black volcanic shore and beating against the retaining wall that supported the hotel. I have always loved the quiet calm of early morning – a time of mental clarity and peace before the mind becomes a pin cushion for external stimuli – I just hate waking up for it. We ate a quick breakfast at the hotel and packed our bags to store at the dive shop. Two guys from the dive shop picked us up on mopeds – a blessing since we were running late – and drove us, with our heavy load, to the shop. We had selected our rental gear the night before and were quick to organize ourselves for the first dive.

“In January 1942 the US Navy cargo ship USAT Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near Lombok. Taken in tow, it was beached at Tulamben so that its cargo of rubber and railway parts could be saved. The Japanese invasion prevented this and the ship sat on the beach until the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung broke it in two and left it just off the shoreline, much to the delight of scores of divers.” (Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok March 2007)

After a briefing of the dive site, we walked across the road and down to the beach where our assembled gear was waiting for us. The wreck was located a mere fifty meters from shore so we could wade in and swim underwater to the site. The trickiest part was wading in against the waves without falling over; the weight of your equipment and the slick, rocky terrain also working against you. Boat diving is so much easier! But we managed and, once underwater, were amazed by the blackness of the volcanic ocean floor. I was so mesmerized by the intense colors of the fish against the black sand that I didn’t even notice the hulking stern of the Liberty until I looked up, startled to find it less than ten feet in front of me.

There is an eeriness that surrounds all sunken ships, similar to the feeling a child gets while walking through a graveyard, her young mind swimming with ghost stories. Shipwrecks all have ghost stories and, through the underwater silence, I always try to listen for them. They are not the chronological details of reference materials but rather the resonating cries of young shipmen; brave soldiers praying to God to return them to their wives and children, struggling against fate with all of their might; a captain summoning the courage to go down with the ship. Those are the stories I imagine I hear, stories that touch my heart and send shivers down my spine.

The Liberty is more than a hundred meters long and lies in ten to thirty-five meters of water. It is coral-encrusted and teeming with vibrant marine life. Though the outer shell is largely intact, the sheer size of the coral-camouflaged mass makes it difficult to envision its former seafaring appearance. We were able to swim through parts of the interior and I, being naturally claustrophobic, was surprised to find that the confined spaces didn’t wake the hyperventilating beast within. We were fascinated by the sunken ship’s rapid transformation to a thriving marine ecosystem. There was such vibrant life in and around it, creating an artificial reef. The gentle current and good light from above and water clarity made for ideal diving conditions. Normally, my attention span for a single dive is about forty minutes. Our first dive on the wreck lasted fifty and I came up wanting more.

We walked back to the dive shop to spend our required surface interval by the pool. As we deposited our weight belts and dive accessories into our designated bins, we noticed a very backward situation in the division of labor. The dive guides and front office shop personnel were all men, laughing goodheartedly over the lighter tasks of the day while the grunt work of transporting the heavy dive setups over two hundred meters between shop and shore was born by the women! Small-statured women, ranging in age from about fifteen to fifty, labored in the hot sun carrying not one but TWO metal air cylinders on their heads, some with BCDs attached! To clarify, air cylinders weigh upwards of forty pounds each – it is a struggle for me to carry one just a few feet – and a wet BCD adds at least another five. Wearing flip flops on the uneven gravel terrain, the women carried the heavy equipment back and forth all day long as dive groups embarked in intervals to the beach. They even carried the equipment for the male dive guides! It was like the Twilight Zone or an episode from the original Star Trek series about an alternate universe. So the women have to give birth AND do the heavy lifting? It’s madness, I say! I told Aaron not to get any ideas.

Our second dive on the wreck was as thrilling as the first. We did not penetrate the ship the second time but rather slowly worked our way around the exterior, studying the coral formations and making some fun underwater videos. It had been a superb day of diving and had wet our fins sufficiently to hold us over for a while. Our dive days have likely come to an end for this trip anyway, with perhaps an odd exception. We’ll be spending Euros soon and, with that (barring a miracle in the currency markets between now and July), will come a “look but don’t touch” lockdown period, which we are fully ready to embrace since it is the only way to see Western Europe with deflated dollars and no jobs. We are confident that our sacrifices will be fruitful.

We had pre-arranged for our driver from Nick’s to pick us up that afternoon and, after two hot plates of post-dive nasi goreng from the local warung, we were back in the car and on our way to Ubud. We decided to do a bit of sightseeing on the way, stopping first in the neighboring town of Amed. The drive from the main road to the sleepy fishing town cut through expansive rice fields set against a mountain backdrop. The fields were full of villagers working together to bring in the harvest while other farmers tended to younger crops and walked behind man-powered plows. The black sand beach at Amed was fit for swimming, as demonstrated by a group of giggling naked boys splashing around in the carefree manner of youth. The small, wooden fishing boats curved around the shore; their white paint glowing against the black sand. We only stayed for a few photos but would love to have spent a few days there.

Our next stop was a famous water palace, called Taman Tirta Gangga, meaning Water of the Ganges. Our guide book made little mention of it but it had been recommended highly by a fellow diver. Unsure what to expect, we walked through the requisite vendor stalls and bought two tickets at the entrance. Our first glimpse of the water palace took our breath away. The grounds were composed of sparkling pools, their glassy surfaces almost perfectly still on the breezeless day. Landscaped stone walkways, an ornate footbridge, statues and fountains accented the pools and gave the grounds the appearance of a watery playground. We were delighted and skipped like children over the walkways and stepping stones. Our favorite pool was stocked with carp and had a maze of stepping stones within it that made you feel as though you were walking on water. There was no palace on the property at all but rather an old temple and a posh hotel and restaurant so we took our time through the magnificent grounds and then continued on our way to Ubud.

We arrived in time to settle back into our cottage, sit for afternoon tea, pick up our moped, and head out for a quiet dinner. With four more glorious nights ahead in Ubud and no agenda whatsoever, Bali was starting to feel like a dream…a dream from which I didn’t want to awaken anytime soon.

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May 23rd 2008

Posted under Bali

We hired a taxi to drive us an hour north to Ubud. It is thought that Indian traders introduced Hinduism to Indonesia around the 7th century and the indigenous people adapted it to their own animist beliefs. Centuries later, as Islam began to spread its black shroud across Indonesia, many of the artists, scholars and theologians from the newly Islamic islands fled to Bali, and especially Ubud, cultivating the budding rural town into the cultural center of Bali. Today Ubud is a nucleus of artistry, industry and proudly preserved elements of Balinese culture and Hinduism.

We checked into Nick’s Pension – a complex of two-story Balinese-style cottages surrounding a small rice field. It was located along a quiet side street, across from a larger rice farm, giving it the rural charm of a tropical hideaway. As we settled into our cottage, afternoon tea was served on our shaded patio – a lovely touch, we thought. Weary from our surfing exploits earlier that morning in Kuta, we dropped everything and sat down to enjoy the tea in the lush garden setting of the property, meticulously kept by an abundant staff. The grounds were adorned with ogre-like stone-carved statues decorated good-humoredly with fresh, bright red flowers behind their ears.

We rented a moped for the duration of our stay and rode into town to have a look around. Monkey Forest Road, named for the actual forest full of long-tailed Balinese macaques at the end of it, was lined with lovely shops, boutique hotels, alluring restaurants and cafés. We didn’t get far before stopping for a beer at a Japanese-inspired tapas bar, called Waroeung, with funky jazz music luring passersby. It was a good spot to check out the scene and plan our next move. Planning to walk a bit after that, we made it about five feet before a sign for 2-for-1 mojitos at the restaurant just next door grabbed our attention. The rest of our first evening in Ubud is a bit hazy in my memory.

Day two took on its own direction. There were many recommended walking itineraries for Ubud in our guide book so we put on our walking shoes and headed out for the day. Ubud is known for its traditional Balinese dance performances and our first stop was at the office of tourism to pick up some tickets for the evening show. As we perused the brochures for the various performances, Aaron randomly spied a pamphlet for the Sayan Aesthetic Institute, which advertised cosmetic dentistry. Why mention this, you might ask. The answer is the story of one of our most frustrating challenges thus far on the road.

Aaron had used Invisalign to have his teeth straightened several years ago and had continued to wear the molded plastic retainers at night. Shortly after our trip home for the holidays, Aaron managed to melt his retainers – both of them – in the cleaning process using water that was too hot. Anyone who has had orthodontics knows two things for sure: one, it usually takes at least a month to get in to see an orthodontist, especially as a new patient; and two, the retainers themselves are not made by the orthodontist at all. He or she simply takes impressions which are then sent off to a lab that makes the final product. This product can take days to weeks and that’s in the States where orthodontics is common practice. We were in India and traveling to a different city every few days. Looking forward, we both agreed that New Zealand or Australia would probably offer the best chance to have new retainers made. As we traveled on, we found it very easy to find travel medical clinics but there just isn’t much of a market for emergency orthodontics. Aaron made a frustrating attempt in Oceania to get an orthodontist appointment but we were not surprised to find them all booked out at least a month.

I wore braces for three years – from fifth to eighth grade. Before the braces went on in the first place, I recall having several teeth pulled as I, like many others, was born with too many teeth for the size of my jaws. After the braces came off – a glorious day – I had a permanent retainer set into my lower teeth, which was decidedly a good thing considering the short length of time that I wore my removable upper retainer before retiring it for good. Thankfully, my teeth are still as straight as the day the braces came off. Aaron, on the other hand, had his teeth straightened as an adult but never had the excess teeth extracted that had made his teeth crooked to begin with. After a few months without the retainers, his top and bottom teeth had begun to noticeably shift.

Aaron inquired at the tourism office about the location of the cosmetic dentist’s office and we decided to walk there first. It took us a couple of hours to find the place, located on the property of a posh hotel called The Mansion. We walked past the unimposing security guard and into the office where we were greeted by a welcome burst of air conditioning and a friendly attendant. Aaron explained what exactly he needed and, miraculously, the attendant said that Aaron could be seen in about thirty minutes! While we waited, we perused Asian travel magazines, admired the local art on the office walls (particularly a large painting behind the attendant’s desk), and refreshed our wilted appearances in the spa-like bathroom. When I commented on the painting, the attendant suggested that it might be for sale and offered to call the manager for an ask price if we were interested. “Sure, why not?” Aaron chimed in, sensing my interest and surprising me in the meantime. The ask price came back exorbitant – nearly three times my mental appraisal – and I expunged the possibility from my dazzled mind.

The molds for the retainers were completed in about ten minutes and the attendant offered to deliver the retainers to our hotel in a few days. Those words were music to our ears. Initially, we had thought it rather odd for a hotel to have a cosmetic dentistry office but it’s actually a clever idea. While enjoying your Ubud vacation, you can get your teeth whitened or straightened with little effort. The office also advertised a nouveau non-surgical fat-burning procedure which, I must admit, piqued my curiosity. While it certainly was tempting, it just seemed a little too good to be true. Even without the fat-burning procedure, we left the office a little lighter on our feet, as though a great weight had been lifted.

Continuing our walk, we soon discovered what makes Ubud a very special place. Spreading out from the tourist-driven city-center were expansive rice fields with small-statured fieldworkers, wearing traditional rice paddy hats, laboring in the hot sun. In many fields, teams of ducks are sent in regularly to eat pests and leave fertilizer; they can be seen and heard noisily splashing through the muck. Small towns and villages on the outskirts were dotted with artists’ workshops and private galleries; painters, stonecarvers, woodcarvers and weavers worked on their latest creations in the shade of their open air workshops and beckoned passersby inside for a personal exhibition. Almost every restaurant and hotel doubled as an art gallery, the quality ranging from “my five-year-old could paint that” to shockingly impressive with prices to match…but everything’s negotiable in Bali. Just a short distance from Ubud, you could trek trails through tranquil rice fields or sit on the patio of a beautiful resort restaurant, glass of imported wine in hand, and enjoy the brilliant contours of the green and gold rice terraces glistening in the sun. We did a bit of both. In town, the sidewalks are narrow and broken, often missing huge sections entirely, threatening to send you express delivery into the sewer below if you happen to be window shopping and not paying attention. Small rice fields are tucked into empty plots between homes and commercial buildings, bordered with coconut palms and banana plants, giving Ubud an eclectic mix of artistic urban, colorfully cultural and tranquil rural characteristics. Traditional music and dance are proudly practiced, not only for tourist audiences, but also as a part of daily life in private celebrations and ceremonies.

Our favorite Indonesian dish is nasi goreng – fried rice with chicken and prawns, topped with a fried egg and accompanied by prawn crackers and skewers of chicken doused in peanut sauce. Nasi goreng is offered in most restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner and, on occasion, we have had it for all three. There are many small, family-run eateries, called warungs, which usually have four or five small tables and cheap Indonesian eats, though many proprietors in central Ubud have commercialized the warung concept to a trendier and pricier level.

Balinese Hinduism is part of daily life, as evidenced by the daily offerings of incense, rice and flowers laid at the step of every home, statue and building. The tiny offerings, assembled in cleverly woven palms and laid on the ground, are accidentally kicked by passersby and ravaged by the stray animals, which doesn’t seem to bother the locals. Despite the prevalence of Hinduism in Bali, the cow is not revered as it is in India. Beef appears on many restaurant menus and the buxom bovines do not roam free on the streets. Chickens and dogs run wild, however, scavenging for scraps; even in the busiest parts of town, you are more likely to hit a jaywalking chicken than another vehicle. The dogs in Bali are amazingly streetwise – they actually look both ways before crossing the road! They generally seem to be in better overall health than the stray dogs of India and we have fed them as much nasi goreng leftovers as possible.

The traditional dance performance started at 7:30 that evening. After an early dinner on a patio overlooking rice fields at sunset, we rode to the temple venue of the Kecak (Monkey Dance) Ramayana and Fire Dance. In the courtyard, illuminated by a large flaming sconce, a cast of more than two hundred chanted and danced in the firelight. The costumes were colorful and elaborate and the energy was high as the dramatic scenes of love, battle and deceit played out before a captive audience.

The fire dance was performed separately after the Kecak Ramayana. A large bonfire of burning coconut husks was built in place of the large sconce in the center of the courtyard. As the male cast members chanted a trancelike mantra, a single man in a contrived hobby horse costume ran barefoot through the flames, sending burning husks flying in the direction of the audience, seated in a semi-circle of plastic patio chairs. The horseman repeated the exercise of running through the flaming husks until they had all but burned out. Miraculously, no one in the audience was burned, though the hot red embers fell within a foot of the crowd. That part of the show frightened me and I was ready for it to be over before it ended.

As we exited the temple, the performers were one step ahead of us, mounting their motorbikes to hurry home to their families. It had been a beautiful but long day and we were early to bed that evening to rest for the morning’s adventures.

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May 20th 2008
Adventures in Bali

Posted under Bali

We hired a car and driver from our hotel for a day of sightseeing and tailored our own itinerary: the rice terraces of Jatiluwih and two Balinese Hindu temples. The first temple – Pura Luhur Batukau – was located in the mountainous interior of the island. As we drove north, away from the more populated southern cone, the scenery transformed from steamy city streets to green mountain slopes covered with ancient rice terraces. The terraces were designed to take advantage of the fertile volcanic mountain soil and retain all available surface water so that the rice seedlings could thrive in their plots of mucky utopia. The small villages surrounding Jatiluwih has some of the most beautiful rice terrace views in all of Bali.

The mountain regions are dotted with farming villages where children play in the streets and women carry heavy loads on their heads. Interestingly, on Bali, it is the women who do the heavy lifting, transporting such things as baskets full of bricks while the men take on the lighter tasks. The subject came up at our lunch table at the John Hardy compound the day before and one of the Balinese women said, first (with a laugh), that men are lazy and, second, that the Balinese women are strong for themselves; they do not wait for their men to be strong for them. Hinduism is the dominant religion of Bali and even the smallest villages have ornate temples which serve as the community center and venue for festivals and ceremonies. After about two hours of driving over winding mountain roads, both sealed and unsealed, through rice terraces and quiet villages, we finally arrived at the first temple.

Pura Luhur Batukau was tucked into a tropical mountain forest; the cool, misty air bathed the temple grounds in an ethereal glow. Because of the temple’s remote location, the noise of tourists and touts is noticeably absent and replaced by quiet serenity. We paid a nominal fee to enter and were requested to wear the sarongs provided in the small baskets while on the temple grounds. A sign at the entrance listed restrictions for entry: pregnant women, menstruating women, and children with baby teeth among others were forbidden. Only Balinese were permitted entry into the inner sanctum so we walked the manicured gardens around the exterior and ventured a few steps through the main entryway on the heels of the only other pair of tourists whose guide ushered them a few steps inside. There were marvelous stone carved statues covered in rich green mosses which only added to their aged beauty. Some were adorned with fresh, brightly colored flowers.

The most striking and unique features of Balinese Hindu temples are the merus – multi-layered, pagoda-like wooden shrines with thatch-covered tiers. The merus are often dedicated to animist spirits of the Balinese religion and contain ceremonial items hidden behind the wooden doors. (Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok March 2007) After taking in all that we were allowed of the temple compound, we relinquished our sarongs and headed back down the mountain.

We stopped for lunch at a seaside restaurant near our next temple stop and invited our driver to join us. He was nice enough but his English was mediocre and conversation required some effort in order to avoid the uncomfortable silence. At the end of the meal, he thanked us for lunch and discreetly walked over to the restaurant owner to collect his commission for bringing tourists to this establishment.

We drove around to the parking lot of Pura Tanah Lot – the most photographed and commercialized temple on the island. We purchased our tickets and walked through a large area of souvenir and refreshment stalls before reaching the entrance. Set on Bali’s west coast, the sea temple is reputedly thronged with tourists every day at sunset but it was relatively quiet in the early afternoon. The temple is built on a rock about fifty meters off the mainland. At low tide, you can walk across the shallow water to the temple although, again, non-Balinese are not permitted to enter. We found it slightly disheartening to pay an entry fee to a temple we could not enter. Still, the outside of Pura Tanah Lot was impressive. It had a mystical, storybook appeal with winding stone staircases leading into dark, mysterious caverns. There were several outdoor restaurants on the cliff overlooking the temple and it would have been a lovely place to watch the sunset but we were happy to avoid the crowds and catch the sunset on Kuta Beach instead.

The beach at sunset is the place to be in Kuta and Legian. Aerobicized tourists walk in the sand; Balinese boys play pickup soccer games all along the shore; there are still plenty of surfers trying to catch that perfect wave before dark; and cheap, ice cold beer is served on plastic patio chairs for those who want to sit back, relax and take it all in with the postcard backdrop of hazy pink sunset. A cold beer is best enjoyed at the end of a long, hot day and we were completely relaxed with our icy Bintangs as a local guitarist played mellow American cover songs in the seat behind us. Even Aaron contentedly sat for a second round of beers before we wandered off through the darkened streets to find dinner.

On our final morning in Kuta, Aaron decided to take a surfing lesson. He had been talking about surfing since South Africa and Kuta just seemed like the right place. We set out early for the beach. I had no interest in surfing – I’m still convinced that Jaws is waiting to mistake me for a seal – but I went along anyway in the capacities of family photographer and entourage. Aaron rented a board on the beach and started his lesson immediately with a few exercises in the sand. Five minutes later, he and his young Balinese instructor were headed for the waves. He got up on his third attempt and several times after that for the next hour. He took a short break and then went out again until I gave him the signal that it was time to go shower and check out of the hotel. He had a great time and I could tell by his big smile that a new surfer was born.

We rushed back to the hotel, checked out, and negotiated a transfer to Ubud. Our final assessment of Kuta and Legian is that they were a lovely first glimpse of Bali but a bit too touristy for us. The beach was an integral part of every day and the range of hotels and restaurants spanned every taste, whim, and budget. The travel is easy in Bali and it is one of the few remaining places where the American dollar still goes pretty far, much to the budget warden’s delight.


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