Monday, March 23, 2009

Patience, it is coming :)

Sydney... Fuck Yeah!!!!!!!!!!!!

"Fuck Yeah!!!" were the familiar words we heard on a beach on our second day in Sydney.
It became clear that we were not in Asia anymore. The words, or better said the screams came from a group of buffed-up, sweaty dudes, I mean mates playing ball(s) on the beach. It almost sounded as if one of them was reaching a climax: "Fuck, yeah, fuck yeah......... FUCK YEAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!"

So, we flew to Sydney from Denpasar, Bali and on our way there, we expected very hot weather due to the historical heat-wave. The day we arrived it rained and then it kept raining for the next few days.
My friend Jurgita picked us up from the airport, I was anxious about our meeting since we have not seen each other since 1996. It was easy to recognize her, she had not changed much. We became friends in Frankfurt, Germany before I moved to the US. Later she met an Australian, they got married and 6 years ago moved to Sydney, his home.
Jurgita is originaly from Lithuania, so back then we spoke German together. But now we automatically started speaking English to each other. With some people it does not matter how much time passes that you don't see them, because once you do, you just pick it up where you left it off the last time. It was like that for me and Jurgita. I was happy that we finally cought up with each other after 12 years.
Jurgita and her husband Aistis have a cute, 6-month old baby-boy whose name is Natas (Satan backwards :)
They live in a big house in North Sydney and we stayed with them. As soon as we arrived they gave us a mega warm welcome, even though I've never met her husband and Jurgita has never met Miko before. Staying at their place was a unique experience, like Aistis said: "Welcome to the commune!" Jurgita, Aistis and their baby live with Aistis' dad Dan, Aistis' "crazy" uncle, Jurgita's parents who are visiting for 6 months and remodeling the house, Alkina the dog, plus Hana and Miko :) Full house for sure.

Sydney was a nice stop. We did not do much which was the plan.
We saw the famous Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the beautiful Botanic Garden. There were exotic birds, funny Bottle tree, ponds with fishes, and large fruit eating bats all hanging in one tree bickering at each other. We took a nice nap there. Being in the Botanic Garden felt a little like being in the Central Park in New York, with the downtown buildings rising behind the tree line.

Outside of that we went three times to the beach: swimming, body-boarding and body surfing. The water was so warm and welcoming, I completely forgot they had big white sharks over there and there were 2 shark attacks just two weeks before (and later). Even though Sydney reminded us of a bigger version of San Francisco, the beaches here are quite different. Unlike in SF (cold & windy), they are friendly, warm, sandy beaches with great waves. We went to Manly, Dee Why, and Bondi beach. Manly stands out as favorite.

Miko got to practice driving a stick shift on the left side in a super loud and cute, yellow, little convertible Honda. Thank you Jurgita and Aistis, who gave us so much when we arrived, a computer to use and a cell phone, a roof over our heads and a car! Merci beacoup.

Being in Sydney was very nice but at the same time felt a little weird. Like we were back in the US, which made Miko little scared about the return getting closer. Before going to Australia, I always pictured it as an even mix between the European and American culture, but I realized it is closer to the American. People are not as big or buffed up as in the US.

We had a good time with Jurgita and Aistis, sitting in their backyard until wee hours, drinking and talking. They are both night birds. We stayed with them for 6 nights and then again got a warm welcome from Mr. Tom Proctor & Gen MacMahon (in absence). They have a great apartment in downtown Sydney. Miko used to work with Tom at Giant Killer Robots and with Gen at Tippett Studio. Unfortunately Gen was in New Zealand while we were in Sydney. On our first night there, we helped Tom make home made gnocchi with pesto sauce. Delicious. See Gen, you should have been there ;)

We also had the great honor to see Mister Andy Tamandl (another former Robot) on his visit home from LA.
It was nice to see those familiar faces and geek out about movies again.

So Sydney was pretty much all about chilling out, living in a commune, catching up with friends, swimming, body boarding, drinking beer and eating fish & chips, tasting kangarou meat (we did not get to see any of them alive :(, showing off in a noisy yellow convertible, revisiting McDonald, redescovering the movie theater, watching big boobs bouncing all over the city (what's up with the boobs on a platter says Hana), and enjoying coffee at local cafes. Plus great breakfasts at Bunker on Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst. Bunker you are the best!!! FUCK YEAH!!!

And finally, Miko's interesting talk with the owner of a surf shop, a genuinly nice guy who was racist against anyone not Australian, especially Americans ("all perverts & druggies") even though some of them were his friends. He told Miko that it was good that he is going to New Zealand next: "They like foreigners over there."

New Zealand here we come....

PS: This entry is short because some of you complained that our entries are becoming too long. Hope this is short enough for your lunch break Yann ;)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bali the Beautiful

It was the middle of the monsoon, and I was concerned about it for a while. Would we be able to appreciate the place if it is constantly raining? And what about the heat?
I remembered Chennai (India) where we stopped on our way to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The air, humid and hot, was oppressing. It was 26 degree Celsius but it felt like way over 30.
Hana doesn’t handle the heat well and it can become a bit tense between us when the conditions are extreme. I was afraid to be stuck in a place having a bad time for 2 weeks. (Poor little me worrying about how the weather will affect my extended vacation when the world is collapsing)
Well, I quickly realized that I was completely wrong to worry before.
Yes, it was raining a lot, but was not too hot. The air wasn’t heavy and dense like in Chennai. To my surprise I liked the weather. May be because it made the experience start on a different note. Something fresh.

Our trip from Bangkok to Bali was very easy, breezy. We had a nice flight, and then got a taxi to take us directly to Ubud, the center of culture, arts and crafts in Bali. By the way the traffic was incredibly busy, and a little dangerous. So many motorcycles are competing with car on very narrow roads.

Ubud is dense with trees, houses and dark concrete covered with moth. It sounds bad but the combination of it all is really pretty, really graphic. The houses have really interesting architecture. There is a very large variety of trees, plants and flowers. Lots of flowers. The people are really friendly. They smile a lot. The way they speak is soft. And the pace was pretty slow here also. I guess it is South East Asia in general: more or less slow :)

Finding accommodation was easy as well. We looked at two places and picked the second - “Kabera”. We got a bungalow with a cute terrace looking at a rice field in the center of Ubud. Nice setting, full of plants and a small pond with a big fish who kept trying to jump out. The price was 70,000 Rupiahs ($6.40) including breakfast which our lovely host Ketut would bring to our terrace every morning. We just had to get used to the cacophony around us starting in the middle of the night until morning. We thought we were far away from the freaking laud roosters of Laos. Wrong! Not only the roosters but the ducks, the chickens, the frogs, the crickets, even the jumpy fish from the pond couldn’t shut up. Ah Nature! It is almost lauder than cities sometimes.

One of the first things we learned about Balinese culture is the explanation behind the names. The names in Bali are gender neutral and indicate the social status and birth order. Most Balinese belong to the lowest caste – Sudra. They name their first child either: Wayan, Putu or Gede; the second child: Made, Kadek or Nengah; the third child: Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth child: Ketut. If there are more children in the family, they would repeat the order. It was funny to meet all those people with the same names. What’s you name I asked one girl. Ketut she answered. And the girl next to her?... Ketut :)


When we arrived in Ubud, I had a few things I wanted to do there and on top of the list was a visit to a spa. In almost every country we’ve been to, I had either a massage, or sauna, or a spa experience. The most awkward one was in India. For my b-day I went to get an ayuverdic massage. When I walked into the room, two ladies were there and told me to take all my clothes off right there in front of them. This was strange, especially because I’ve been in India for a month already and women everywhere were dressed even when bathing. So now I was naked in front of these Indian ladies and one of them put a narrow piece of cloth between my legs and used another piece to tie it around my waist. The result was a tiny, cloth g-string which did not cover much. Awkward.

The opposite of that was a massage I got in Phnom Penh by a blind person. In Cambodia, there are several places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where they train blind people to become masseuses and have a vocation. Otherwise they would not be able to find any work. The massage was very good. A mix of acupressure and Japanese massage. But opposite of my Indian experience, I was fully clothed. They give you a pajama-like pants and shirt, plus they cover you with a sheet so there is never any contact with the skin. Not even on the hands or the feet.

The best foot massage I got was in our hotel spa in Kuala Lumpur by a very strong man. He reminded me of a panda bear. Very strong arms but also gentle. In Vientiane, we had the best sauna experience: traditional Lao style herbal sauna. It was very hot and steamy with strong smells of sandalwood, lemongrass, and something else, can’t remember. I especially liked the rustic, natural setting of the place.

Finally, the culmination in Bali was the traditional, 2 hours long treatment called MANDI SUSU (milk bath). It begins with one-hour, deep tissue massage using the sandalwood oil. Then a body scrub with a paste made from herbs and milk, followed by a fresh yogurt mask. The treatment ends with a soak in a scented bath, enjoying a ginger tea and cookies. I absolutely loved it. The Balinese really know how to relax you and take care of you. (Forgot to mention that the massage covered the breasts as well!!! That’s how they do it, I guess?) And it cost me $12.

We have spent 10 days in Ubud and liked it a lot. Instead of writing what we have done every day (since it’s a bit of a blur), here is a list and a brief description of our favorite activities/sights there.

LEGONG DANCE – traditional Balinese dance performed by young women. I loved the costumes – very colorful and elaborate. The dance is accompanied by a Gamelan orchestra and it’s very jerky and jumpy but with very precise movements. The facial expressions are very important in this dance, very theatrical and exaggerated. The whole thing does look a bit crazy first time you see it, but fun. (watch the video)

BABI BULING (suckling pig) – traditional Bali dish, pig roasted with spices: chilly, ginger, turmeric, shallots, garlic, coriander seeds, all in coconut oil. Delicious. Only once though because it’s fatty.

WALTER SPIES – an interesting German painter and musician, born and raised in Russia. One of the first Westerners to move to Bali in 1927. I liked his paintings of Bali a lot, even though the museum has only pixilated reproductions. Still, they looked great from a distance.


–A visit to 3 small temples, situated in a monkey forest in Ubud. You feel a little like in an Indiana Jones movie. Great sculptures and again beautiful vegetation, and mischievous monkeys who seem all to have ADD. They are constantly moving, jumping and chasing each other, or even climbing on you looking for food. That’s where Hana lost her bang-bang (double chocolate caramel snack), stolen by a monkey.


RAFTING – short but fun rafting trip. The river was very fast and there were many boulders we were trying to dodge (mostly unsuccessfully). The vegetation on both sides of the river was amazing, very lush and green, waterfalls, narrow canyons. Really liked the scenery around.

HIKING – We went on two really good hikes around Ubud. On the first one, we were walking through the rice fields, then crossed a river on a tiny, wobbly, bamboo bridge, and walked on a ridge between the two rivers. Really beautiful.

The second hike had one portion, about 1.5km, which was great, walking through jungle like vegetation and rice fields (again). Can’t get enough of rice fields in Bali!

FALUN DAFA – Well, this was a very weird thing. As we were walking around Ubud one day, we saw a group standing with their arms raised up and closed eyes. A woman was standing in front of the group, handing out brochures. She told me they were meditating. Then she proceeded telling me how this movement – Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) originated in China but that now it is forbidden there and people can’t practice it. The next she said is that they eat babies in China. I thought I misunderstood, but she called her assistant who spoke better English to explain to me and show me pictures. They had a photoshoped photograph of a fetus in a noodle soup! The man told me it’s because they don’t believe in God, being communist and all that. He could not have found a better person to talk to regarding this… Unfortunately, we met more ignorant and racist people like them later.


One of the main reasons we came to Ubud was because it is the crafts center of Bali. So, knowing that I decided to take some woodcarving classes.
Ketut, the manager of Kabera, suggested me a village nearby Ubud called Mas to find a woodcarver there instead of taking overpriced classes in Ubud. I found Mr. Made Sudarsana, a really friendly and hyper little man who spoke pretty good English. He was charging 50,000 Rupiahs ($5) for a full day, compared to 200,000 Rupiahs ($20) for 3 hour class in Ubud! I took carving classes with Made for three days. We were working on his porch facing the street. People would come to buy wood from him and chit-chat for a while. Made and his wife were always making sure that I was fed and had water to drink. Every morning, when I arrived, his wife would bring me coffee. The lunch was always delicious Balinese food. In the afternoon, we would have tea. She would also bring me sweets and a couple of fruits. I was so well taken care of.

Made, on top of teaching me wood carving, was also instructing me on Balinese culture. He gave me a tour of his house and explained how the Hindu Balinese compound is organized. The entire family lives in the compound: grandparents, sons & their wives & their children. And sometimes

other family members. Every man in Made’s family is a woodcarver. I met his dad, 75 year old and still carving. Each Balinese compound has its own family temple, always situated in the Northeast corner. The front of the house faces the South. On the East side is an open wall area, the ceremony center, where weddings, funerals and other events happen. It is called “Bale dangin”. On the North side is the “Bale Daja”, a building where the bride and groom stay for 2 or 3 nights before they get married. The West side, 20-30 years ago used to be the family meeting area, but now this is used as the living area for the entire family.

Talking to Made, even though he would not admit, I noticed that there is some tension between Hindus and Muslims in Bali. Especially with Java and Sumatra. He even said that the Tsunami in Sumatra was maybe God’s punishment to Muslims for not solving some problems (I don’t remember which problems he was talking about). Just the statement shocked me. Then I asked him if there are mixed marriages between Muslims and Hindus. He said there are not many, and even if there is a marriage like that, the woman always has to convert to the man’s religion. He also said that in every couple the man is always older or the same age as a woman. So, I told him that my family was Christian but I was not baptized and had no religion, and that Hana’s family was Muslim, but that she also did not follow any religion. Then he asked me what will happen to me after I die if I have no religion. I said that I had no idea and that’s why I should enjoy life now. We both laughed at it.

The three days I have spent carving there ended up being an important cultural experience. Everybody I encountered there was really nice and a bit curious about me. It does not happen often that a foreigner sits on the front porch of a house in a small village carving. Even some tourists took photos of me working.
Learning carving was great, but difficult. My fingers, especially my
thumbs were not strong enough to do the fine work. Also the position I was working in was difficult for a tall, inflexible body like mine. When carving, I had to hold

the piece of wood between my feet and work on it with some very sharp tools. And that’s how I cut myself on my ankle. It’s all part of the learning process. At the end of three days we made 2 masks and I got 2 stitches!


After a few days in Ubud and after Miko took a break from his wood carving lessons, we went on a bike ride to see some rice terraces in Jatiluwih in the middle of Bali. That area was supposed to have the oldest rice terraces in Bali.

The ride and the landscape were beautiful, but what we remember the most from this day is how nice and helpful the people were. Every time we stopped to figure out which way to go, people where always helping us with a big smile. And sometimes they would come over to help even if we were just looking at the map or just looking around. The area we visited is made out of villages and rice paddies. If you like green, you need to go there. Amazingly beautiful. We had a lunch break in a local warung (little restaurants by the road) and went for a walk in the rice fields. After we headed further up Northwest to visit the moody temple (great description for once by Lonely Planet) Pura Luhur Batukaru. There were almost no tourists there but us... We had to rent sarongs in order to enter the temple. It was fun. By the way, we learned that women are not allowed to go into temples during their period… Too impure I suppose.

After a 9 day stay in Ubud we were ready to go to the Gilli Islands near Lombok. Unfortunately, a few hours after we bought our tickets, we were informed that because of bad weather and very high waves, all the ferries going to Lombok were canceled. It was time for plan B. Since we had so much fun riding a motorcycle in Bali, we decided to go on another road trip.


From Ubud we went up to the North Coast of Bali. Our first stop was going to be Lovina. Unfortunately we encountered some bike problems early on. Every time we were going up a steep hill, the bike would just die. On one of those stops, a young Balinese couple (also on a motorbike) stopped and talked to Miko for a bit. When they heard that we were going to Lovina, the girl suggested that we should go to Gede’s bungalows by the beach, owned by her uncle. Ok, they seemed like a nice couple so we wrote down the info. Later, as we were getting closer to Lovina, a guy driving next to us on a motorbike asked: “Where are you going?” (typical Balinese question). We were not in a mood to answer and chat since we were in the middle of traffic, but he followed us to the gas station. He told us to go to his uncle’s guest house, really nice place, and guess what; his uncle’s name was Gede! When we finally had arrived in the street where the Gede’s bungalows were, another guy approached us and told us to go look at a very cheap and very nice place, called Gede’s Bungalows. And guess who Gede was….of course his Uncle!!! WTF!!! It was all bullshit and I was so annoyed I did not even want to look inside.

Eventually we settled into a room next to the Gede’s and went for a walk on the beach. The beaches here are black sand, from the volcanoes. Not very inviting, but the little fisherman village by the beach was very nice. People were nice and friendly even though we couldn’t communicate. Finally nobody was trying to sell us anything. One woman offered us some fruit but I was hesitant to take it thinking she will ask for money. But she did not. She even peeled it for me because I never had salak before.

We sat down at the “Rasta Café” for beer and had one of the most interesting conversations with the local so far. Here are the highlights:
  • People who have white skin, have cold blood. There was no convincing Jack the Ketut otherwise. Our blood was cold not warm and that was it.
  • Black, very dark skin is ugly and it is not good when it is mixed with white.
  • He liked brown skin (like his) the best.
  • 75% of population in Thailand has AIDS, 80% in Africa, and 50% in Java.
  • In Sumatra they are so poor they eat their children
His name was Jack but actually Ketut and he worked as the manager at the “Rasta” bar. He was so ignorant that it was mind-blowing. Ignorant and racist. He was surprised to hear from us that polygamy was not legal in Europe or the US. And he was shocked to find out that beating up a woman, even if she was your wife, could get you in jail. And on and on it went. I will only give him credit for saying that there is only one God. Different ways of getting to him, but only One.


During our stay at the “Rising Star” in Bunutan, it was impossible not to notice this very skinny, shaky, little kitty that would not stop meowing. Seeing the poor thing who had no mom, we pet him and he was so happy sleeping on my lap. More than food, he needed body warmth. Seeing it, the staff told me that I should take the “Problem” (that’s what they called it) home with me. Thinking that nobody was taking care of him, we decided to get some milk and feed him. So, in the afternoon we brought him up to our room and fed him and let him sleep on Hana’s lap. He was sooo happy there...
What a mistake that was! That night, as we came back from dinner, we realized horrified that “the Problem” was waiting on our door step and started meowing as soon as he saw us. We tried to take him away but he kept coming back, all the way up the stairs to the
first floor and right in front of our door, and would restart meowing. He kept us up most of the night and our neighbors as well. We were so embarrassed that our naïve mistake affected them too.
By the morning, we did not like “the Problem” very much anymore. We let the kids downstairs play with him hoping our problem would become theirs :).... Success!
The following night the owners locked “the Problem” in the kitchen and after a good night sleep everybody liked
“the Problem” again. This little kitty could be so annoying constantly meowing, but he was so cute and already on the second day he did not look so shaky and fragile, running around playing with branches and fighting with bouncing leaves.
We are not so sure we will get a kitty after the trip like we initially wanted, aferall :)

Our little road trip in the North of Bali lasted 5 days. We loved riding the motorcycle through Bali. On the way to Lovina we had to cross a mountain and besides the bike dying every time up a steep hill, we also got rained on. For about an hour we rode in pouring rain. Imagine Miko on a bike in a big poncho, Hana in the back wearing a rain jacket and using his poncho to cover the legs. It was exciting! and cold. Luckily the sky opened up once we got closer to the coast.
We stayed only one night in Lovina because we did not like it that much and then drove to Amed, another town on the coast were tourists come to snorkel or dive some wrecked ships. Because of our laziness and the cut on Miko's ancle we did not do any of it. We relaxed, read books, talked to locals, rode along the coast while hi5 the kids along the road. The further south along the coast you venture from Amed, the more rural and resort free it becomes.

The 6 hour ride back from Amed to Ubud was beautiful and interesting. We tried to use side roads as much as possible and it was a good decision. (Also, because of our bike problem we could not go up steep hills, but had to find the most flat roads :) The scenery, like on our trip to Jatiluwih was wonderful: rice paddies (drier this time), cute villlages, green hills, windy roads, dense forest, mostly good weather and again super nice, helpfull, smiling locals. We almost did not see a single tourist. We stopped in a village known for its silver and gold craft called Budakeling. There was only one cafe with english on it, it said: "Place to ask", so we did. We had some Balinese coffee and talked to the owner Ratu for a while. He spoke very good english and was patient with our questions. We talked about Bali and Balinese culture, and life in general. Miko wanted to know what would be the nicest road to take us back to Ubud.

The entire ride was nice but the best part was a little detour we took after Duda. We stopped to have lunch in Duda and these lunch stops in local restaurants (warung) were little highlights on this road trip. At one place, Hana confused the 10,000 and 100,000 bill (both red) but the woman in the warung pointed out the mistake and returned the money. Hana was giving her about $20 instead of $2 for our lunch.
Anyway, on our little detour, we came upon some kind of a religious ceremony in the middle of the countryside. People, dressed in their best clothes, were seating or standing in groups in the shade, creating little patches of color on this green canvas. In the center, where most of the people were, the priest was blessing the food offerings.
It was very atmospheric, especially when the trippy drumming was playing.We stood around observing for a while. It did not seem that we were disturbing anything. People were friendly to us, always smiling.

After that little stop, on our way back to Ubud, we saw a monkey cleaning an old man's head. Then a crazy woman, who would not stop talking Balinese to Hana, with a machety under her armpit.


On our flight to India, Miko saw a documentary about architecture in Bali, specifically Pita Maha in Ubud. He liked the gardens very much and since we were going to Ubud he wanted to visit it. So, one afternoon we went there on our little scooter. It was actually a resort and one of the employees gave us a tour. The place was fancy, very, very fancy. It was built on a cliff, facing another cliff covered in green jungle with a river running in between. The gardens were beautifully designed, all very tasteful. But then we saw the villas… Each villa has a private swimming pool, a big bedroom overlooking the pool with the green landscape in the back, a gigantic bed which could fit 5 people, plus a living room, and a bathroom with a heart shaped bathtub…

That’s when Hana got the idea that we should come here for our anniversary and spend more money in one night than we did during our entire 2 week stay in Bali... So after our plan to go to Lombok was canceled due to bad weather, we made a reservation at the Royal Pita Maha for one night. We showed up in our worn out clothes and dirty backpacks feeling a little out of place. Then we spent the entire 23 hours in our private villa, mostly walking around naked or wrapped in sarongs (gifts from the resort), swimming in the pool, sun bathing by the pool, drinking in the pool, eating fruits by the pool, taking many photos & videos by and in the pool, taking a bubble bath and drinking Arak (a Balinese alcohol made out of palm tress which you can mix with honey and lemon), watching movies (note: this fancy place has only DVD copies, badly cropped and recorded in the movie theater). We went to bed late and got up early to enjoy the remaining 5 hours of our luxury. We really used every minute and every corner of that villa. Used it and enjoyed it fully! At the end of the day, we had a free taxi ride to the airport. The rain was pouring down and we felt really lucky to have had such a nice, sunny, and warm weather on our anniversary the day before. A great ending of our trip to Bali.


We left Bali very happy and content with our stay. For the first time we were not feeling like we needed a few more days. We loved it and it was the right amount of time for what we did. Like India it is a place we definitely want to go back to. Bali has such a strong cultural background and a beautiful aesthetic. This aesthetic is visible everywhere in everything including buildings. And it is not going to disappear like in other parts of South East Asia we visited. The government has created a law by which people have to build according to old Balinese architecture.

We also really liked the people there. They are so
friendly and helpful, always smiling, especially inland. They were a little more aggressive on the north coast, but compared to India or Cambodia it was nothing. It was more annoyance than harassment.

It rained a lot sometimes, but half of the time it was sunny and we were lucky the weather in flux matched our schedule. The rain just made everything even greener. It was beautiful to look at the rice terraces, and palm trees with those dark and menacing puffy clouds above and the sun shining through. The weather only stopped us from going to the Gili Islands. But we didn’t mind it. It allowed us to explore more of Bali, and gave us one more reason to come back.