Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Australia, here we come!

So in a few hours we will board a plane from Bali down to Sydney. This means an end to our 5 months in Asia! We're pretty excited to get back into a Western culture. We're not going to miss the heat, the geckos, the mosquitoes (ok, all the animals), the noise (loudest continent on Earth!), the difficult-at-times travel, the mopeds everywhere, the trash fires, and the language barrier.

But there are so many things we're sorry to leave behind--the children (their smiles, waves, hellos, etc), the food, the culture, the surprises around every corner, and much more. Our time in Asia has been so special and unlike anything we've ever encountered before (except for getting lost in Chinatown on a hot summer day). We expected it to be a lot tougher of a place, and although we were pushed out of our comfort zone at times, we were generally surprised by how certain things that blew our minds at first eventually stopped phasing us (lack of sanitation and customer service, ruthless touts and traffic, squat toilets, etc) and became the butt of many jokes.

The highlights are too many to name and completely overshadow any inconveniences and lows we encountered. It was refreshing to be seen as just a westerner instead of American, however no matter where we went we were seen as walking dollar signs first and foremost. Technology and globalization definitely have their pluses and minuses...

We are leaving Asia with a huge smile on our faces and a bit more patience. It's been surreal being on the road for so long, living with a limited wardrobe and not having seen the Simpsons in too many months (I wonder which of those applies to which of us?) but it feels great to consolidate your life to a backpack and walk through a living museum for a while. "Buy the ticket, take the ride."

So we leave you with our last impression of Asia: a cloud-obscured sunset behind the coastal temple of Tanah Lot. An incredible, Zen-like escape from the Australian suburb that is Southern Bali which left us gazing in awe at the waves breaking on the temple rocks.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How do you say "paradise" in Bahassa Indonesian?.

"Don't disturb me, I watch a movie on the beach." Have truer words ever been spoken? Here in Gili Trawangan there are two fine establishments that have DVD-watching bungalows located ON the beach. With over 500 titles to choose from, including brand new releases (thanks to prolific video pirating in Asia), we've probably watched 15 movies so far here. Some of our top picks have been: You Do Not Mess With the Zohan, Walk Hard, 21, National Treasure 2, Blood Diamond, Babel, Lucky Number Sleven and today we're having a Harry Potter marathon (guess whose choice that was?). Man, life is tough. Pictures below of the bungalow and also the beach.

Other than watching movies, we've done copious amounts of crossword puzzles, two fantastic scuba dives (we even saw a 6' reef shark), caught up to April in our New Yorkers (thanks, Mom, for the care package!), walked around the island for sunsets and have had incredibly cheap and fresh sushi feasts in the sand almost every night. So yes, life is beautiful. It's pretty hard to drag ourselves away from this paradise island, but Australia beckons.

Speaking of my mom, she just finished her second book, titled "The Keys to Senior Housing: A Guide to Two Generations." So if you know any publishers or literary agents, please let me know.

Time to go soak up some more rays. We'll check back in once we get to Australia. Happy summer, everyone!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Of Rice and Men

Ok, well really just of "rice." We've seen our fair share of rice fields on this trip--in literally every country we've been to (save for the 2 hours I spent shopping in Myanmar's equivalent of Tijuana). Vietnam stands out as having the most beauitiful rice paddies--the most striking greens we've ever seen with the conical hats poking above. But in central Bali the hilly terrain doesn't allow for endless tracts of rice stretching to the horizon. Here they have to terrace the land and grow rice in small patches that drop in elevation every 10 or 15 feet.

And it's really something. Scroll down to the previous blog post to see the most breathtaking pictures. In Ubud we've spent hour after hour walking through the rice terraces, watching the ducks sip water from the flooded paddies, men with curved knifes whiddling wood and children flying kites higher than the far-off cell phone towers. Watching the reflection of the sun set (right) in the flooded paddies is an image that will always stay with us.

In South America there are tons of stray dogs everywhere--which means that no one cleans up after them. This leads to a problem when walking down the steet: you constantly have to look down at your feet in order to prevent stepping on unwanted dog droppings. Here there are much fewer dogs so it really isn't an issue, but there is something new keeping our eyes fixed on the ground--small Hindu offerings called "canang sari."

This island is unique in that it is almost entirely Hindu, whereas Indonesia as a whole is the largest Muslim country in the world (with a whopping 240 million people). So every day, in front of every store, house, temple, staircase, etc, you will find one of the offerings shown above. They are put out three times a day and only Shiva knows how many we stepped on. At the right is a much larger and more elaborate offering given for the Festival of Knowledge, a holiday that occured while we were in town.

One of the days we spent taking a cooking class, which of course centered around rice (served with every course). We never bothered to steam it, but we did eat plenty of it with each of our creations. On the left is Deanna with our teacher, Ketut, making a fantastic vegetable dish that employed the base gede, or basic spice (their version of a curry paste). Below you'll see Deanna working on tempe manis and a chicken curry. Further below, you'll see me working on an Indonesian satay, which is more like a meatloaf on a stick than a regular satay bbq skewer. Mmmmmm...

We managed to pull ourselves away from Ubud to spend a week or two on Gili Trawangan. Just off the coast of Lombok, the next main island east of Bali, there are three tiny islands, known as the Gili islands (the word "gili" means "island" so go figure). We're on the larger one, Gili Trawangan. I could spend a few paragraphs writing how crystal clear the water is and how quiet and tranquil the beaches are, and how beautiful the sunset looks behind Bali's big volcano, but there's really only one detail worth noting. There is a sushi bar here that is ON THE BEACH. We're talking IN THE SAND. There is nothing more amazing and relaxing and perfect than eating sushi with your toes in the sand. Life is good...

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Getting the Bali monkey off our backs

We finished our wonderful sojourn in Lovina with a sunset fishing trip with our new buddy, Bikul. In staying with the traditions of the islands, we fished manually--fishing line wrapped around a short segment of bamboo (above right). No rod or reel, so now if Deanna ever makes it onto "Survivor" she'll know what to do. On the left you will see the one fish that I caught (at a whopping 5"). I also managed to get two of my three hooks ripped off--Bikul thinks that I snared two small snapper and then a baracuda ate them, hooks and all. Patient Deanna didn't even get a nibble on her bait.

From Lovina we took a breathtaking minivan ride inland through the mountains, lakes, monkey forests and hydrangea fields to the great town of Ubud. Surrounded by terraced rice paddies, this town has it all--music, food, temples, shopping, and scenery--tons of culture. On the left you'll see us in front of spectacular rice terraces that cover every hillside. We've been here for a week and it's pretty hard to motivate to go anywhere else.

On our first night here we caught a traditional Bali Ketcak fire dance show. The vocal music was supplied by 70 village men, young and old, sitting in a circle. They did rhythm and melody for over an hour, just with their voices. The first act was a take on the ancient Hindu saga, the Ramayana (below left), and the finale was a man with a horse costume walking through coconut husks on fire (below right). That, coupled with the Gamelan music played nightly behind our bungalow, has given us an authentic feel for the endearing Balinese culture.

In between visits to the fantastic library, which has every book we've ever wanted to read, we've kept busy with a few day trips around the region. The first was to the Sacred Monkey Forest. It was great to see all the wild macaques running around the forest temples, but when one mischevious monkey chose my back to climb on, we decided it was time to get out of dodge.

Other Ubud highlights have been a trip to Goa Gajah (the elephant cave) and Gunung Kawi, one of the most beautiful places we've been to on this trip. The latter, pictured right and below, was a small river valley with altars carved into the mountain side. Deanna, with her impressive hawk eyes, spotted a tiny sign in one of the farms that said "Waterfall 200m." We followed the arrow and about 2km later, a local farmer guided us the rest of the way. During the entire walk we were surrounded by spectacular rice terraces (below right). Since we were the only people around, it felt like our private paradise.

The elephant cave is a temple chiseled into the hillside in the middle of the jungle/forest, surrounded by ceremonial spring-fed baths. The lush plant life in the temple complex made it a sight worth seeing. Stay tuned, as we have more Ubud pictures and stories to tell (as soon as we find a faster internet connection).