Waitomo, New Zealand
Black water rafting
Waitomo, New Zealand - (map)
We looked like clowns and Michelle couldn't stop laughing. On top of the full-body wet suit, gloves, and caving helmet, we wore purple pants and giant white plastic shoes. As any woman will tell you, the shoes make the outfit.
After a short bus ride, we arrived to one of the Waitomo caves - made famous for their spectacular glow worms. Our guide sat us down and led us through ridiculous drills designed to glide us through safely. Afterwards, he had himself a good laugh and told us to forget most of it. He just wanted to see us squirm.
Our small group hiked up to the cave entrance and climbed in. Our eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness. We walked carefully through the small stream, careful not to pop our inner tubes on the rocky floor. We passed through a waterfall, under low ceilings, and around obstacles.
The cave widened and the stream grew deeper. When we finally entered an area covered in glow worms, we sat down and switched off our headlights. The glow worms covered the black ceiling like thousands of bluish-green stars. Each point varied in intensity and grew brighter as our eyes adjusted to the absence of light. The effect was almost surreal, increased by the echoing sound of water washing over my feet.
The passage became a cavern and the stream grew into a river. We floated down on the tubes, enchanted by a line of glow worms hanging above us. After safely making it over a small waterfall, we continued with all of our lights off. I drifted slowly, looking up to admire the view. We floated that way, out of the cave and back to the car.
I enjoyed the trip immensely, yet the 52 (11 C) degree water froze my feet into numb blocks of ice. We took a long hot shower and drank hot soup after the trip.
A hot shower never felt so good.
Johore Bharu, Malaysia
Waiting for a Plane to Bali
Johore Bharu, Malaysia - (map)
We left Singapore from an airport in Malaysia. In choosing to leave from Johore Bharu instead of Singapore, we saved $160 and committed ourselves to waking at 5:30 AM to make our 11 AM flight. We left enough time to clear Malaysian customs, and ended up at the airport with 2.5 hours to kill.
While we stood clueless in the center of the airport, a 60-ish year old Singaporean man approached us. His looked both youthful and grandfatherly: neat and fit, yet with receding salt and pepper hair, gold wire frame glasses, and a conservative light green polo shirt tucked into dress pants. He introduced himself as Kway Tee Soo, and he too was on the bus from Singapore and waiting for his flight.
We talked while standing in the middle of the airport, then continued our conversation in the cafe. Mr. Soo insisted on buying our coffee when he found out that we lacked Malaysian currency. Though Malaysian by birth, Singapore had been home for many years. He spoke with pride about Singapore's rules, economy, and society.
You can learn from listening to outsiders talk about your country. Mr. Soo spoke at length about America, basing his views on the six weeks he spent in Cincinnati visiting his brother-in-law. Cincinnati isn't a tourist mecca of the US, but he certainly met interesting people there.
One such person was the bus driver of an inner city bus, who noticed Mr. Soo following the bus to the end of its line. When driver asked if he was lost, Mr. Soo explained that he was trying to see the whole town. The bus driver bought him coffee during his break and gave him the return trip for free.
Mr. Soo witnessed a child in a convenience store purchasing a condom. The Singaporean man was shocked, and asked the child with a thick Asian accent, "Hey you, why you need that?" The child said he had a girlfriend and wanted to be safe. "How old are you?" When Mr. Soo found out the child was 10, he left the store shocked.
He talked about American problems, such as trading food stamps for beer, in a unique sage-like manner. During his trip, he noticed four rough men outside of a convenience store drinking. In a move that only someone not American would attempt, he asked them the question, "I'll buy you each a beer. Who wants a beer?" In a chorus of yes's he made four instant friends. Mr. Soo was a cunning man, I quickly understood. His next question was not so easy. The Singaporean continued, "You are all sitting there on good hands, how come you not working?" I pictured him wagging his finger slowly down the line at each of the four men. "They just tell me they don't want to flip burgers, but they just sit there drinking. What else can they do? If nothing else, maybe they should be flipping burgers." Surprisingly, he left the store without a scratch. Mr. Soo was such a likeable person; I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of the men went out and found a job the next day.
A great flood swept through the Midwest during his visit. The government quickly erected temporary shelter, people volunteered in droves to bag sand, and 40-foot trucks overflowed with donations. As an American, I was happy to be reminded that we can be generous on occasion.
We parted ways during our layover in Kuala Lumpur. No doubt Mr. Soo is out there now, saying hello to another stranger.
Ubud, Indonesia - (map)
After arriving in Ubud, we set out to explore the town. Ubud is known for its culture and artists. In central Bali, it is surrounded by picturesque rice fields and temples. I was excited to experience the town I had heard referred to as "the Santa Fe" of Indonesian for its many artists and galleries.
As we walked along the main road we soon came to a large crowd gathered around a large decorative paper-mache lion and colorful multi-tiered tower. The Indonesian men wore black sarongs, shirts, and head coverings. The Indonesian women wore fancy lace tops and sarongs. The tourists all had their cameras poised, ready for the event to begin.
We had stumbled across a cremation ceremony. The dead body is placed at the base of the tower to be carried to the cremation ground to be burned. As the ceremony began, the air was filled with music, yelling, laughter, and excitement. The funeral is a happy event, symbolizing the release of the soul to be with god. The men lifted the two large structures on their shoulders and started running down the street in a crazy zig-zag path (to confuse the spirit so it would not return home). Following in the procession were musicians, women carrying offerings, and hundreds of people. I think the whole town came out for the ceremony.
We walked through the town, up a steep hill to the cremation ground, surrounded by rice fields. There we watched as the lion, tower and offerings were set on fire. It was surreal to watch the lion's face slowly consumed by orange flames while listening to the ceremonial chants. It was a great introduction to Ubud and the Balinese culture.
Ubud, Indonesia - (map)
Ubud is a well-traveled city full of tourists, and the tourists create a demand for entertainment which the Balinese happily supply. In a few days, even the most hurried person can sample several varieties of Balinese dance and music.
Tonight was the first public performance of this all-child dance troupe and gamelan orchestra. If I can get my hands on a high-speed internet connection on the road, I'll add streaming audio of this concert as I did in Samoa.
Ubud, Indonesia - (map)
We met Nyomen Suradnya while inquiring about batik classes. His easy going personality was about 50% pure Balinese and 50% well-traveled artist-hippie. Inside of his family compound and art gallery, his batiks and watercolor paintings hung side by side with plants and caged song birds. After brief introductions, the long-haired Indonesian offered us a drink and suggested we sit down, chill out, and take it easy. We chatted for a while and casually scheduled a class for a couple of days later.
We arrived for our class in the morning, accepted an offer for thick Balinese coffee, and set to work. We were each given a white cotton cloth stretched across a wooden frame and a pencil to lay down a design. I sketched a geometric pattern, while Michelle drew a turtle.
Batik is a process of waxing and dyeing cloth to produce unique patterns and designs. Indonesia is known for such cloth, as the variety of batiks offered for sale in every market here will testify. The process is simple: cover the fabric with bees wax to prevent dye from soaking in and dye the fabric. Like a screen print, the lightest color is used first and is covered by progressively darker colors.
The wax is applied with two tools, the chanting and the brush. The chanting works like a wax pen. One "draws" with the chanting's point as it pulls hot wax from a reservoir. Different size chantings draw dots and lines of varying sizes. The other tool, the brush, is used to cover large areas of fabric.
After a few fumbling attempts using the chanting on a practice cloth, I began outlining my sketch in wax. As each layer of wax seals in the current color, these outlines would remain on the finished piece as white. I worked for 30 minutes, and went on to the next step of dyeing the cloth yellow.
We continued through the layers of wax and colors. I next painted the area I wanted to remain yellow, and dyed orange. Then painted and dyed through red and blue.
I finished, yet had no idea what the piece looked like. It was a sloppy mess, covered in wax, hard, and dripping with dye. Delaying my need for instant gratification, I handed it over to Nyomen's assistants and planned to pick it up later.
In my absence, his assistants fixed the dye with natural chemicals, boiled the cloth to remove the wax, and set the cloth out to dry. Nyomen was showing our finished pieces to a fellow Washingtonian traveler when we returned. She thought the pieces looked great, and much to my surprise, I did too.
In case you are ever his way, you can reach him at (62 361) 975 415 or email@example.com.
Ubud, Indonesia - (map)
A few images of Ubud
|Children watch a cremation ceremony from behind school walls:|
|While other children look on from a closer location:|
|A figure from the Hindu Ulan Dano Temple:|
|Michelle sits on the stairs of a Hindu temple:|
Bus Ride to Lovina
Lovina, Indonesia - (map)
After a pleasant stay in Ubud, Tim and I decided to head north for a couple days. Our destination was Lovina, a beach resort area in north central Bali.
Our shuttle bus pick-up arrived on time at our hotel and took us to the main bus terminal which consisted of a small open-air hut full of red faced, sweaty tourists. It was still morning but the heat and humidity were taking their toll.
We all started to pile into an old unairconditioned bus. I wondered how the long line of passengers and all our luggage would fit. Suitcases and backpacks were piled high in the front of the bus and then spilled down the middle aisle and under seats. What we had been told would be a two hour ride was actually a bumpy four hours. As motorcycles whizzed by and hot air and dust flew through the open windows, I enjoyed my view of Bali. We passed lush green rice terraces carved into hilly slopes, children in uniform returning from school, and an endless amount of shops selling everything imaginable. We sped by masks, mirrors, fabrics, furniture, iron works, food stalls, wood carvings and much more. I know over one million tourists visit here annually, but I couldn't imagine even ten million tourists buying all the merchandise being sold.
When we arrived in Lovina at the bus stop we were greeted by more sweaty, red faced tourists. Only they were trying to leave Lovina. They had been waiting for our bus to arrive so it could turn right back around and take this new load to Ubud. It was a chaotic mess as luggage was unloaded off and loaded on, people disembarked and others lined up to board. Tim and I moved off to the side to let the dust settle a bit and figure out where we would spend the night. Touts approached, showed a brochure with pictures of their hotel and offered us free transportation. It sounded good so we grabbed our packs. Two motorcycles pulled up and one of the guys said to me, "Hop on." I stood looking at the small motorcycle and then looking at my huge, heavy backpack and shook my head saying, "You don't understand. It is REALLY heavy!" I couldn't see how my pack, the driver and myself would balance. "You can just balance it up front" he replied pointing to the area between the handlebars and the seat. I'm not a physics major but knew enough to understand the precariousness of the situation. Again I shook my head no, refusing to get on. I could just see my backpack, the bike, the driver and most importantly, myself, sprawled on the side of the road. There was an awkward moment of what to do when luckily, a van drove up that could take us.
When we arrived at the hotel (safely I might add) Tim did a wonderful job negotiating a rate for a room: 50,000 RP. For the equivalent of $6.25 a night we got a nice room, breakfast, and the use of a sparkling blue pool surrounded by gardens, aquariums and cages with exotic birds. Not bad!
Lovina, Indonesia - (map)
The Lovina dolphin trip vendors used up my patience within five minutes of yesterday's arrival. Standing in packs outside our hotel room, they promised great deals and special prices. I wanted nothing more than a shower to wash away the sweat and dirt from our bus ride, so we waved them away with ambiguous answers.
Later, individual vendors approached us on the beach and on the street. They knocked on our room door, then woke me up from an afternoon nap by the pool. (I know, rough life.) We eventually gave in to their demands and booked a tour with the cheapest guy.
Waking up at 5:30 AM to see dolphins is a bit extreme, but I would have woken up then anyway because of the cacophony outside. Roosters crowed, motorcycles roared, people yelled, children cried, dogs barked, and Germany's worst Elvis impersonator sang the refrain from "Can't Help Falling in Love" at least 20 times from the room next door.
Elvis was especially loud, as his voice echoed over the thin baffle separating our bathrooms.
We arrived to the beach before sunrise, where an endless line of white dugout canoes stretched across the sand. Our boat looked very similar to the others. It held just four passengers and a captain. The hull was thick and heavy, yet carved just wide enough to seat one passenger. Two angled arms reached over each side holding a bamboo outrigger. The outriggers made the other boats seem spider-like as they skittered across water.
We launched our boat and followed the pack out to sea. Minutes later, the sun rose from behind the hazy mountains and reflected brilliant orange rays off the glassy water. I admired the view only for a minute, my attention diverted to the spectacle up ahead. A tangle of boats raced haphazardly around in circles looking for dolphins. We entered the confusion in our boat and began to look.
Then it happened - someone spotted them. Over thirty-five boats turned and raced toward the poor animals. The dolphins played for a minute and disappeared. The cycle continued over and over again for 30 minutes: dolphins sited, dolphins chased by crazy tourists, dolphins vanished. I enjoyed the absurdity of the hunt more than seeing the dolphins themselves, even when we became the lead boat and saw them up close.
When we returned back to the hotel after a short snorkel trip, we were again serenaded by Elvis.
"Wise men say, only fools rush in...."
Lovina, Indonesia - (map)
Paul was an opportunist. Two days ago he knocked on our door and sold us a dolphin tour. Today he returned with a rooster under one arm and invited us to a cockfight. He extended the invitation in a friendly way, like asking a friend out to dinner. But under the act, I felt him looking at me like a human ATM. When he mentioned the 10,000 rupiah entry fee we would have to pay him, I knew he was lying. But I didn't mind shelling out $1.20 US for a guide to an event that I couldn't attend normally.
We collected three other travelers, walked inland for about twenty minutes, and arrived to a dusty clearing. Past the rows of motorcycles lay the main attraction: a 20 x 20 foot bamboo square staked into the ground like a two foot high boxing ring. Men gathered in clusters around the ring talking, their bouts of laughter occasionally breaking the mummer of light conversation. Only five women were present, but three were tourists in our party and two were selling drinks.
Paul handed his chicken to a shriveled old man who ran the event. The old man worked quickly, attaching sharp knives to the rooster's feet with endless loops of thin red string. As Paul's rooster was a three-time winner, the old man tied the knives closer to the center of the feet to give the opponent an advantage.
Bets were completed and the match began. The old man placed the cocks in the center of the ring and riled them up. The roosters went after each other in a clucking frenzy, pecking at each other, ripping out feathers, and drawing blood. The crowd howled and feathers flew.
The old man paused the match and placed both chickens in a woven overturned basket, where the fight continued in a confined space. Paul's chicken jumped and slashed the challenger's leg. The old man lifted the basket so the fight could continue in open space, but the challenger slumped to the ground. Blood covered both roosters, but Paul's rooster won the match.
Michelle winced and looked away when an assistant slit the throat of the loser and handed the body to Paul to keep. He held it up, joking about having chicken soup for dinner. The loser's previous owner looked at Michelle and sadly mouthed, "I lost."
By this time the crowd had grown to over 80 people. A freshly erected gambling area sat adjacent to the ring, and drew the cockfight spectators over. I didn't understand the rules of the game, but it involved cards, numbers, and lots of money.
We didn't stick around for a second match, but plenty of other events kept our attention. A man slashed three of his fingers with a poisoned knife used in the fight and immediately passed out. Amazingly, a group of men carried him to a motorcycle, sandwiched his limp body between two people, and drove him over dirt roads to a doctor.
As a vegetarian, I found the cockfight somewhat gruesome. Nevertheless, I'm glad I had the opportunity to go. Most importantly, I enjoyed asking Michelle what kind of chicken dish she wanted for lunch as we left the dusty clearing.
I think she may be one step closer to becoming a vegetarian herself.
Lovina, Indonesia - (map)
Today Tim and I rented a motorcycle to ride through the north hills of Bali. Tim owned a motorcycle years ago so I had confidence in his driving skills, but I was still nervous. Drivers here are unpredictable and our helmets were cheap plastic hats.
Off we rode, rice fields on our left and the ocean on our right. Eventually we turned inland, heading up steep, winding roads. The motorcycle would sputter and cough at times, struggling with the steep incline. We had a fantastic view of the ocean and surrounding valleys below.
People were unusually friendly. Not many tourists come through this way so Tim's white face must have seemed unusual. I waved to people as we passed. Children would run out to the road shouting greetings while adults would smile and wave. Once we stopped to ask directions and it seemed the whole village came out to see us. One little boy even grabbed my buttocks! I, of course, gave him a disapproving look and then we both giggled. With all the attention I think it was the closest I will come to being famous.
We made a couple stops along the way. First we visited some hot springs, watching people bath in stone pools with water-spouting carvings. Then we stopped at Bali's only Buddhist monastery, Brahmavihara Arama. The monastery was very tranquil, with people sitting quietly in front of Buddha statues meditating.
We returned the motorcycle late in the afternoon, sweaty and dirty, but smiling. It was a wonderful day.