Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Mama don't let your babies grow up to be (Kuta) Cowboys."

A month in to the journey and already we covered four countries, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. Granted, two of those countries are geographically very small and thus easy to cover in a short time. My next country was very large, and I covered only a small sliver of it.

I grabbed a bus from the hostel in Singapore to the airport and was on my way to Bali, Indonesia, hoping it would be the beach lovers’ paradise it had the reputation for. At the airport I met a Norwegian guy who was also heading to Bali. Out traveling, it seems you make friends quickly when you are going solo, and it is nice to team up with someone else who is doing the same. He had been out backpacking for a couple months already and spent a month in India where he met a few Russians who happened to be at that time in Bali, so one of his Russian friends picked us up at the airport and drove us down to Kuta where all the cheap guesthouses are so we could find a place to crash for the night. I stayed with my Norwegian friend the whole time in Bali nearly, sharing guesthouses, and the first two nights we even had to share a large bed, as nothing else was available. We both commented on how when you are out backpacking solo you tend to do things you would not ordinarily do. I certainly would not ordinarily share a bed with a gay guy I hardly knew, just as many of the women I met traveling who shared rooms and/or a bed with me would not normally share a bed with some strange guy she hardly knew, but when you are a budget backpacker, anything that saves you money you are just about willing to do.

Of course it did not bother me in the least that he is gay. I would not have even known had he not told me, and really he was a great travel mate. I paired up with a lot of people out traveling, and I have discovered that I do usually prefer pairing up with women versus men. Men tend to be cruder, often wanting to talk about banging the local chicks and how to trick someone in to having sex. My Norwegian friend was pleasant, respectful, and not the loud drunk that many guys out traveling tend to be.

Our first night in Bali, I went out on my own and hit up the raucous town. Kuta is a party town filled with Aussies and Northern Europeans with a bit of everything else splashed in. I went club hopping for several hours till I was exhausted and came back for a few hours rest. Kuta is an interesting place. It is a complete party town, famous for drinking, drugs, surfing, and sex. It wasn’t really my kind of town, but a good base for seeing the island, and a good landing spot for the island. Kuta even has what is called the Kuta Cowboys. Many places are known for either prostitutes or places where men love to go to pick up on women for easy sex. In Kuta, the women come for the men, and these men are the Kuta Cowboys, Gigolos dotting the island for sex hungry women willing to pay. I suppose Bali is just trying to even things out for the women, and give them a spot to act in degrading revelry. I tell you, most of the island did seem to be Aussies and Scandinavians. We stayed at one guest house that had 120 people, 105 of them were Swedish, 10 were other from other Scandinavian countries, and I was one of the 5 out 120 that was not Scandinavian. Good thing for me I look the part, but walking around speaking in English kind of gave me away. It seemed to me that Bali was more for vacationers than backpackers. Of course I did meet several backpackers there, but the island had a different vibe than other places. This was an island where people went on vacation, often only to that one spot, and typically went with a group of friends to just go and party and have fun. Perhaps because I am a backpacker, I tend to get a long more with backpackers. I find that backpackers are friendlier and more open to conversation. Vacationers don’t go so much as to make friends and meet new people, but more to hook up with a stranger for a night, get drunk, and have fun. Backpackers are anxious to meet new people and swap travel stories and give or gather advice on where to go and what to do, and solo backpackers are looking to partner up with someone for a day or two and share the cost of traveling. Bali didn’t have that vibe, but still met some good people, some beautiful women, and of course, some great Russians.

The next day we rented a little scooter and drove out to Nusadua to visit the Russians. There were two couples and they were renting a gorgeous private villa with a private swimming pool overlooking a beautiful beach spot on the island. We swam in the pool and they taught me how to play Hampy Bear, a traditional Russian card game. We talked, went grocery shopping with them and stayed for a home cooked meal. It was amazing and great hospitality, and interesting to see how apparent it was that it was the women’s job to cook, clean, and wait on the men. They didn’t sit down to chat with us or play card games with us or anything till everything was cleaned, and throughout the night they were sent to fetch drinks or snacks, and it was so overwhelmingly obvious that it was their duty to serve us men, and they joke about how the two of us were two nice, and they thought it was silly when we offered to help with anything. Of course, even in my country (the states) a woman traditionally does the same thing. When I visit my parents, my mom cooks the meals and cleans, and same with my sister at her house, at least for the most part, but with those Russians it was a complete different feeling and expectation. Again though, they were all such friendly people, and offered us amazing hospitality. I still keep in touch with one of those Russians. He is now in Borneo, still traveling after all this time. Oh, I envy him.

One day on Bali we took the scooter down to Ubud, winding our way through the countryside of Bali, zigzagging through cars on the road, stopping for directions, and enjoying the beauty of the drive and the wind of zipping down the roads in true Asian style. Ubud is known as the cultural center of Bali, and we began our stay there with a walk through Monkey Forest, which is just a dense forest with tons of monkeys scattered around. There were hundreds of them roaming about scavenging for food, and locals stood outside selling bananas to tourists. Carrying bananas seemed to be a bad idea, as the monkeys were not shy in chasing people down and jumping up on them to steal the bananas. It was funny to see, and many women scampered off frightened and crying, or hid behind their boyfriends or husbands screaming at small little monkeys with very sharp teeth. The monkeys would even steal water bottles and hold the bottle up to their mouths correctly to drink. The forest was lovely, the monkeys a little humorous, and there were also small temples, a small cemetery, and various statues sheltered throughout the park.

We walked all through the town and the central and hectic market and spent the night in a quaint and quiet guesthouse looking out to palm trees and small rice paddies. In the morning, breakfast was served in our room and we ate outside with our incredible view and the privacy of mountains and greenery. We left early and took the scooter out to the rice terraces. I walked down the slopes through the muddy, narrow trails, and walked around the terraces. It was terribly hot and the sun burned my skin and the humidity drenched me in my sweat. The terraces were beautiful though, built in a ravine cleared of jungle with palms dotting the scenic slopes. Rice fields are pretty, but rice terraces, they are truly beautiful, manicured mountains of green, heavy with water and landscaped perfection. They are so beautiful, and although cultivated and built, they blend it so wonderfully to the natural beauty surrounding, and even add to the awe and wonder of what nature can look like. I quite enjoyed the terraces there, and the few days with the scooter, zooming through the roads and various towns of Bali. Each night I sat outside with the pleasant cool evenings and a soft breeze that blew perfectly. I spent time walking the beaches and, and watching the sun set each night, dipping down in a mesh of color. I also made sure to surf the famous waves, and found a beach great for my novice level of surfing, and the two Russian guys met up with me and we three surfed together and enjoyed the waves, the sand, and the salty water. The waves were great for me, and I rode them in on my long board and marveled at me surfing in Bali, Indonesia. Yes, my list begins to grow, and it does seem I value my life based upon a list.

My last day in Bali I was alone, and explored the beaches solo, discovering new places, and new beaches, and that night, I slept in the sand on the beach in Bali with backpack and all. There was a mix up with my Air Asia flight, and the airline forced me to buy a new ticket at full price for the next day, even though it was their error. They were extremely rude, and their service was deplorable. I saw a lot of that in Southeast Asia, though I also saw a lot of great hospitality. I was stranded in Bali with no place to sleep and an early flight. I made the most and found some spot in the sand with my head against my backpack. The waves crashed in, and there was a lightning storm in the distant sea pulsing flashes of purple in the quiet sky. The next morning I left Bali. I left the drunken tourists, the Kuta Cowboys, the waves, the beaches, the rice fields, the Balinese Dancers, cuisine, and the small offerings of rice and flowers that dotted streets every morning, offerings to their Hindu Gods. Burning incense christened the air and gathering worshipers were easy to spot behind short walls of temples. I know I missed a lot on Bali, though I saw a lot as well, and was off to a new place.

In the morning I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and found a dirty little hostel for a few dollars a night in China Town. I had to rest a few hours as my feet were worn with blisters stinging from under callouses. I took my dull knife, as sharp as a chopstick, and dug and dug beneath the hard skin, releasing pockets of puss and some blood. It oozed and squirted out in a sharp sting, and each step I took, it sent new shoots of stinging pain through my foot and up my leg. Oh, all part of traveling, all part of walking miles and miles in flip flops or barefooted. All part of exploring and adventure, and I would take one thousand blisters on my feet, hobbling and hopping for such adventures.

In Kuala Lumpur I did a self-tour of the city. I took a bus out to Batu Caves, and hiked the mountain of steps. Hindus sat in worship at shrines in the caves offering up incense and flowers. Parents brought small children with shaved heads and foreheads adorned in painted yellow clay. The Batu Caves are a limestone mountain with a series of cavernous caves high up in the mountain, sacred to Hindus, a spot for pilgrimage with small shrines inside the caves. The caves are dedicated to Lord Murugan, with a 140 foot statue painted in gold standing peacefully and majestically at the base of the mountain.

This site is among the most sacred sites to Hindus outside of India, and the worshipers surrounding and praying the caves manifested this. A man climbed the steps lighting each one with a small piece of tar paper, smoke fuming upward from the small fires gently placed on each stair. I saw the giant Petronas Twin Towers and relaxed and people watched in the back of the towers overlooking parks and gardens and ponds, and people enjoying the beauty of the city. I walked the city, gazing upon mosques and churches and parks, and in places it seemed the jungle wished to beautifully reclaim the city. I spent several days exploring the streets and markets, and street stalls, tasting the food, and gazing upon the blend of concrete and jungle. I took a train out to the bus terminal around 11:00 p.m., the last train of the night, and spent the night there where I met a friendly Iranian couple who extended a warm and gracious invite out to Iran to visit them there. It is extremely tempting, and it is certainly a country I would love to visit someday. I didn’t sleep that night, and around 3:00 I took a bus to the airport for a flight to Chain Mai, Thailand to continue on with the journey, and this is where I will leave you for now.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where is that again?

The Philippines certainly was a great start to a journey. It is hard to describe the experience of swimming with the Butanding. Imagine being arms-length away from a creature whose mouth could fit ten of you inside it, and is as long as a two story building is tall, yet there is no fear, no worries, only a calm excitement and hope the creature does not dive down. We swam with nine separate whale sharks, and spotted a tenth from the boat, and I could have stayed out hours longer in order to swim with another twenty. I have learned to truly love the moments spent observing what goes in spite of me, and not because of me.

We did many other things on the Philippine islands. We took many a jeepney or trike ride and spent two days with a scooter bike rental cruising around the Palawan islands. We rode out to a prison where the inmates made their own homes, grew their own crops, and made souvenirs to sell to tourists. This prison even had a resort with a swimming area for tourists to vacation in. It had a small market and general store, a chapel, a playground, and a community center. It was a massive place, and we each remarked how the prison seemed to be a nicer community than most of the villages just outside the gates of the prison.

We also took a day trip up to the Taal volcano, north of Manila. We saw other volcanoes that trip, one massive one just outside of Legaspi where we spent a whole day and did not even notice the volcano until we were near leaving. The volcano was easily the biggest and most recognizable thing in the while city, or for 100 km even, and yet we somehow seemed to miss it most of the day. We had a good laugh at that, and snapped some quick photos. We had a young Filipina gal join us for a few days. She took a liking to Dallin, and her family all hoped he would come back for her. She certainly made an effort, and while she was a cool gal and we both enjoyed her company, Dallin was obviously not so interested in her. Oh, to be a man as high in demand as was my brother.

We spent some time at the bay and Manila Mall and saw the first annual music-pyrotechnic Olympics, where several countries went head to head in a fireworks show set to music. It was billed as the best fireworks show in the world, and while it didn’t seem to be the best, it was enjoyable, and before the show began we watched the sun set over the water. It reminded me of nights on my rooftop deck in California, watching the fiery orange ball slowly slip from sky to water. Sun sets are something we never really seem to tire of.

After the journey in the Philippines, we flew to Borneo and spent some time in Kota Kinabalu meandering and exploring the Malaysian part of the large Island. One day we took a ferry out to Labuan Island, a three hour ferry ride. It is an island that played an important role in WWII, and was where the Japanese surrendered in the Pacific war, though the island sees very little tourism now. We spent one night there, and early the next morning took an additional ferry ride out to Brunei, a small sliver of a country surrounded by Malaysian Borneo. It is among the smallest countries in Southeast Asia, but the wealthiest, rich in oil fields, and the Sultan of Brunei was once the wealthiest man in the world, living in a home that cost $350 million when built, and has 200 bathrooms. He is the political, military, and spiritual leader of the country, and is part of the longest lineage of aristocracy in the world. His family has been ruling since the 1400’s and are direct descendants of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Mostly we went to Brunei for the stamp in the passport, though did the highlights around the small capital city. We walked through the plank pathways of the largest water village in the world, all the homes built on stilts rising from the water. We walked around the famous mosque, silently watching the sacred ceremonies of prayer on their holy day. Prayers rang out through the temple grounds and crowds of men gathered. After the prayers, we walked the grounds and washed our face and hands in the holy fountains. Brunei was my first experience in a truly Islamic state, and I was fascinated with the calls to prayer, and people watching, and the beauty of the mosque. I suppose it would feel different were I to revisit, as I now live in an Islamic state in the Arabian Gulf, though even here I still find myself fascinated at times and enjoy the differences and uniqueness in the culture.

We hired a water taxi to take us down the river past the Sultan’s palace, barely visible through the trees. We jetted through the villages made of homes on stilts, all lined in curving rows, old decaying wooden homes with large patios and hanging pots holding colorful flowers.

We taxied out to see the river, the forests surrounding, the palace, the mosque, the villages, and the animals living along the banks, birds and the unusual, long-nosed proboscis monkey jumping from tree to tree and splashing in the shallow banks of the river. We walked around the city for the sake of walking and seeing and exploring, and watched the sun set over the small city, and at dark returned to the mosque to walk the grounds with the mosque a glow in the dark sky. Colored lights and lantern lit paths carved out around the sacred building, spotlights gleaming on to the marble white walls. Buildings such as this I think are best at night, the way the lights blend against the stone and marble and walls. We circled the building gazing at each new view, each new corner and angle, walked over cement bridges on to cement boats that seemed to float atop calm water that surrounded the mosque in mote like fashion. This building was the thing I most wanted to see in all of Brunei, having seen the pictures in photography and travel books, and I crossed one more thing off my list, adding another yellow dot upon my map, and my brother, another dot to his. We are fortunate souls this way, as fortunate as we make ourselves to be.

At night we snuck in to an empty room at a hostel and showered and slept. We woke early the next morning and tried to hitchhike to the ferry terminal to ferry back to Kota Kinabalu, and bid Brunei adieu. It is a fun thing to think we have been to Brunei, been to Borneo. They are even fun to say, and now when each of us look at maps, we’ll know that small spot far down in the pacific is a spot our feet have walked, and will such a thought ever cease to leave a smile?

After Borneo it was Singapore, another small country in Southeast Asia, though a much larger population than Brunei. Singapore is a city state, where the whole of the country is comprised of only one city, a population of over 6 million. It is a remarkably and ridiculously clean city/country. Smoking in public is illegal, as well is chewing gum, and for that matter, gum is not sold within the country because the government does not want people spitting it out on to the streets. It is a bit of a joke there how everything is against the law, all in effort to have a neat, clean, and orderly city. They do well at it though, and we enjoyed our time there.

We stayed in a nice hostel in Little India, walking distance to the shopping and food that Singapore is so known for. One day we went out to the Singapore zoo. I am not typically a zoo fan, something about seeing animals in a captive state takes out the thrill and amazement of seeing animals, but this zoo was a great zoo, and many of the exhibits were remarkable facsimiles of a natural habitat. We walked the zoo near all day, the enormous grounds housing hundreds of species of both flora and fauna. We joked around and grabbed some good pictures, and there are certain places where my brother Dallin makes for great company. He’s hilarious, and when we both are in sync with our humor, I love the moments.

In Singapore we also toured the city on push scooters with a small group from the hostel. It rained that night, and we waited for the rain to calm down, threw on some rain ponchos, and grabbed the kick scooters and headed out on to the wet and slippery pavement, in some places sliding more than rolling, but it was a fun tour, through China Town, and Little India, the Malaysian District, to the Singapore Museum, around government buildings, around the bay and waterfront that was lined with trendy pubs and restaurants with fashionable people enjoying a Singapore evening. It is a beautiful city, clean and well-laid out, and at night, lights shone on to the buildings and the bay creating a lovely skyline surrounded by water.

We went out to a bar one night with some people we met at the hostel, and between the bartender and another guy there, we were given several rounds of beer, plus, the bartender came out and taught us how to make his specialty house drink, letting us all help with the mixing and the shaking. He gave us that drink for free as well. Singapore is an expensive city, and the alcohol particularly expensive, so had I been a drinker at all, those free drinks would have been a truly grand treat. I didn’t drink, but still enjoyed the night and the gestures, and had a great time. Dallin was a little more adventurous than I that night and went out clubbing. I should have joined, but was exhausted and stayed back at the hostel and struck up some wonderful conversations with people there.

Dallin left Singapore early in the morning and flew back to Manila for a few days before going home. I stayed in Singapore till early evening and explored the city by myself before catching a flight to Bali. I said goodbye to my brother, who I had not seen in a year before the trip. It was great to travel with him. I know I would have done things differently had I been on my own. I would have gone to different places, seen different things, and perhaps stayed longer in certain areas, and spent less time in others, but I would not have experienced some of what I did, and I certainly would not have built memories I am now able to share with a family member, nor would I have experienced my brothers return to his former home. I was sad to see him go, and was truly on my own the rest of the trip, not even sure how long the trip was going to last, but looking forward to all the various moments of the journey. I’ll brief through the rest of it all later.