Feb 22, 2008

Gili Air and a mountain town with a man named Yoga

So I'm back in Ubud, Bali on the grid. We thought Senggigi on Lombok had slowed our pace, but in the off-season the 3 Gili islands just off the coast of Lombok are even slower, maybe as slow as Fiji time - maybe slower. After a couple amazing scuba dives (a lil' shipwreck, turtles AND sharks) in pretty rough currents but good visibility [we literally didn't have to use our fins but just drifted along - fast], we landed on the medium size island, Gili Air. [note, Gili means island in Indonesian]

No motorized vehicles on Gili Air, so the non-walking mode of transport is horse-drawn carts. We didn't need 'em though, bc the perimeter of the 900-person island is only 5 km. most of the tourist activity is on the beachfront all the way around the island, with gaps of nothing - or wrecked boats washed up, in between. The rest of the population lives in the middle of the island, which doesn't take long to cross trough. But there really wasn't much tourist activity, as we saw maybe 10-15, if that, other tourists in our 3 nights there.

Sat around one night on pillows on the open-air raised-platform-with-thatched-roof tables, singing the type of songs tourists know & love with some local guys - "every breath you take", "you look wonderful tonight" & some beatles tunes. Yoga, a.k.a. Lombok man, also sang some of his originals in Indonesian. He said one song is about tourists and how the locals should take care of the coral so the tourists will keep coming. apparently he's somewhat of an activist on the island, as Susan learned in a heart-to-heart conversation with him. Alas, when we took Yoga up on his offer the next day to be our guide up to a mountain town in north Lombok, a day trip we were considering anyway, we ended up finding out that Yoga is somewhat of a lier/scam artist who took us for a bit of a ride. and then no ride home. we paid a pricey (relatively speaking), but comparable rate for a day tour that we had researched, and his was to also include dinner & overnite at his "family business villa". what his did not include, that the other options would have, was a ride back to Senggigi after our overnite stay in Senaru, a town at the base of the island's volcano. of course we didn't realize Yoga wasn't going to take us the 2+ hour ride back until the next morning. so we had to hire another driver, as we weren't about to pay him any more money. good lesson learned. oh, and of course another guy in town who we hired the driver from said Yoga is definitely not the 'cousin' of the place where we stayed [which was so ridiculously miserable, a board of a bed, no running water in the middle of the night, and they tried to charge us for toilet paper]. Yoga's not from Senaru as he claimed, and the guy said he's really not on the up and up. When we tried to convince him that he had to drive us back, Yoga claimed that he was upfront with us and that we were now confusing and upsetting him. Sad end to what was a fun day trip - but we could've done without the meal that was included (hot water with tomatoes - aka soup - and top ramen, we opted out of the deer meat that seemed to still have hair on it).

I don't mean to harp on a negative experience, and we're certainly a bit wiser and expected to be scammed sooner rather than later, but it's humorous now. Also, we got to see a part of the island that few tourists travel through, rice paddies, markets that smell like bad fish even from the car as we drove by, cute kids in Muslim school uniforms (well, cute kids are everywhere), and Lombok folks just living their lives. Pretty primitive and very rustic.

So Yoga's song about the tourists, well, we now think it might really translate to something about keeping the tourists coming so Yoga can scam 'em. Whatever it is though, we had a great time on Gili Air.

Feb 16, 2008

Time to photograph people

Now we're talking. Don't get me wrong, traveling in first world countries is comfortable, easy and amazing. But developing countries can be a thousand times more interesting and eye opening for me. Not to mention 90% cheaper.

We stayed in Kuta, Bali our first night in Indonesia. While a dip in the quaint Indonesian style hotel pool (much nicer than the backpacker with bunks joints with shared bathrooms that we've become accustomed to) and a $1 beer at the swim up bar was a breath of fresh air, we didn't find much in the town center of Kuta.

Hopped on a plane the next day to the island of Lombok. Luckily the flight was only 20 minutes bc we all looked at eachother with a nervous grin when pieces of the plane (frames above heads where the A/C lights are) popped out upon the pressure of take off. I've never experienced such a speed upon landing a plane, but the plane did arrive in one piece.

As it's off season (the restaurants and hotels are pretty much empty), we booked a luxury villa outside the town of Senggigi online at a deep discount. Still, we didn't expect the true luxury that we've had for the past 3 nights. I highly recommend Puri Mas Boutique Resort & Spa to anyone who finds themselves here in Lombok. Once I can post photos, you'll see what I mean. The service is 5-star, and the "welcome drink" alone [fruit of the gods blended in a fresh pineapple adorned with flowers of the gods] found us in heavenly paradise.

After go go go, activity after activity, we've finally slowed our pace to hours lounging on the raised poolside bed underneath a thatched roof, walks on the beach hanging with schoolkids, and cheap Bintang pilsner. Cheap delicious food, even at the fancy hotel. Best fruit crepe breakfast i've ever tasted. Walks down roads viewing people as they live, not just for tourists. Families riding on mopeds. Scary driving - taxis beep to signal passing cars & mopeds & bikes, but we get a little too close for comfort [good thing they're not wearing ipods]. Nothing like the driving in Vietnam or India though. And no traffic.

Muslim prayer calls heard daily. Slow internet. We're going on 2 dives tomorrow, weather permitting. It's been storming for weeks (off season for a reason).

After the Gili islands for a few days we hope to head to Sumatra upon many recommendations. But, taking it day by day, as one does here. Nice way to live.

Disneyland with the death penalty

My friend Lori emailed me a description of Singapore - Disneyland with the death penalty. Only spent 4 days there, but this is right on. Only edit I might add would be: Disneyland located in one big mall with the death penalty. The city/country is literally one mall after another. Of course the A/C was much appreciated.

Outside the malls there is a unique blend of cultures - Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and the thousands of ex-pats. Our favorite ex-pat is Arnaud, a friend of my good friend Jeanette. He and his fiancee Puy treated us to a riverside meal of the traditional chili crab, set amongst a backdrop of Disneyland-esque structures & neon lights. We also enjoyed their hospitality for a poolside bbq at their highrise apt - I do miss cooking & especially grilling.

I treated myself to an eyebrow threading (Indian-style) in Little India, and we adorned long robes while visiting the big mosque at the Arab Quarter. It was fun to listen to a teacher explain Islam to a group of Chinese schoolkids. They seemed more interested in us taking their pictures.

Our visit was timely given Chinese New Year's, Year of the Rat, and we stayed right in the heart of the action, with a Buddhist temple next door. We weren't too keen on some of our Year of the Rat predictions, but I liked the one that described Tigers (that's me) traveling a lot this year.

Singapore was a nice gateway into SE Asia, as most folks do speak English and it is clean. Ariella chewed some gum upon arrival, luckily she didn't get caught. No death penalty for us, phew.

Dive Master K

Okay, well maybe I'm not a dive master, but a dive master's student & PADI certified diver I am! After good times exploring the highlights of Melbourne & Sydney, we flew up to Cairns to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Wonders do abound. Since we couldn't swim in the shoreline oceans (deadly box jellyfish disallow swimming in the region for half the year), the obvious thing to do was to get our open water SCUBA certification.

I've always wanted to get certified but also feared it. Breathing under water? Snorkeling I love since breathing out of the water is just a head bop away. Not so when dealing with surfacing from up to 18 meters deep (limit for the basic PADI certification). But after our first 30 minute straight session in the pool I realized breathing oxygen from a tank is way smoother than breathing 50/50 air/salt water when snorkeling. I wanted to come up after a few minutes due to some panic that I might cough or something and not be able to breath, but knew I had to keep going through the series of skills our Dutch instructor Sjouke was demonstrating and testing us on - passing the course was more of a driver than allowing panic to win. And it worked. Once I gained more confidence in the breathing, skills like filling up my mask with water and clearing it by blowing air out through my nose became more challenging.

So we passed the written exam and moved on to 2 nites/3 days liveaboard a large catamaran that just hangs out in the outer reef. Now the fun begins.

I mean, if you're going to get certified, the barrier reef isn't too shabby. Problem is we may have just set the bar really high for ourselves. 9am on the 2nd boat day we jumped for joy as we passed all of the underwater instructional dive tests, many of which were performed kneeling on the sand 12+ meters deep (that's over 36 feet for those of you who are slow with the converstions). The best part was that we still had 6 more 'fun' dives without a guide. It was quite a high the first dive where just the three of us mastered the buddy system, the air checks, ear equalizing, navigation, safety stop for 3 min at 5 meters before surfacing. Susan, a natural athlete at any sport, was a perfect leader & made sure we were following everything we just learned.

The final day I had some ear issues and ended up not being able to dive. After trying to equalize for several minutes to no avail and sharp pain, I signaled that I had to go up. I temporarily became totally dizzy as can happen - Susan and Ariella were right there to drag me back to the boat just as we had learned for such situations, and the dizziness went away. Kinda scary though. Luckily for me, we were at dive spots where the best diving was in shallow water where snorkeling was just as amazing. I mean, amazing snorkeling.

I won't even try to describe the other world that we saw under there - i'll let the underwater photos do the talking [that is, once I have a fast internet connection to post more photos - I'm in Lombok, Indonesia as I write]. Imagine a soundtrack of breathing Darth Vader style. All of you divers know what I mean - for those who haven't yet - just do it. Most of the earth is ocean, you gotta check it out. I feel very very blessed, as I do every day right now.