Tuesday, March 29, 2016


After my travels through Australia, I flew up to Bali for a few days.  This trip to Indonesia was my first time in an Asian country, even if it was just the fringe. My hotel was in Seminyak, and I got my first lesson about Bali right away when the hotel way overcharged me for an airport shuttle.  Not knowing the currency very well yet or what things should cost, I agreed to the price they quoted, but in Bali, you're supposed to haggle.  So I paid 350,000 Rupiah for a 30 minute ride that should have only cost me around 125,000. What I really learned is that I should have done more research before going, but as it was a short trip I tacked on to the end of my months of exploring Oceania, that didn't happen.  
While I couldn't even trust the hotel in terms of pricing, at least everyone in Bali speaks English, so I wasn't totally at a loss. In fact, they are pretty much all tri-lingual, speaking Balinese (the local language of the island), Indonesian (the wider language of the archipelago), and English.  It really does make me feel lazy as an American who only knows English and Spanglish. 
The hotel Vasanti was a nice place, with a good sized room, including both shower and bath tub, and complimentary items in the minibar at check-in.  I also had a package that included a free 1 hour massage and breakfast every morning. I got in around 11pm local time, so went pretty much straight to bed.

The next morning, I got up and went down for an extensive breakfast selection, a combination of western and local cuisines. From there I decided to explore area the way I like to introduce myself to any new place, on foot. As it happens, Seminyak is not a pedestrian friendly place, with only occasional side walks beside narrow streets crowded with some cars and lots of motorbikes.  In Bali, it's a law that your horn has to work for safety, between the narrow streets, blind corners, and variety of vehicles on the road. But mostly I had taxis honking at me, because I couldn't possibly be walking around on purpose, who would do something so stupid?  (Answer: this guy!)  I passed by many small stores and mini-marts and tourist stands selling excursions, and along the sidewalk (when on a sidewalk) as I went I kept stepping over small paper boxes filled with flowers, a cracker or small food item, and sometimes incense.  These are offerings put out to thank the gods, and every town displays theirs slightly differently (what kind of plate or box, what is included inside).  Apparently there's no hard feelings if you step on one, since they are on the ground all over the place, but I made a point to tread carefully. The other thing I kept seeing around were bamboo poles decorated with coconut leaves in intricate braids hanging down from the front of buildings.These are called Penjors and symbolize the island's biggest mountain in the north, where pilgrimages for prayer are made; but to avoid having to go all that way to pray, Penjors are created and hung outside of each house, and remain there for the whole of Galungan, a Balinese holiday (around 35 days in total,  about every 7 months). 

Wandering without a map, I guessed at where I was going, but there are very few side streets, so not a lot of options for making a wrong turn (other than driveways).  So I found my way to Seminyak Square, the downtown area and main shopping center. Though I never really did master the art of haggling, I found a few souvenirs to buy at prices I deemed reasonable. 
From there I thought that I'd try to find the beach, which ought to be really easy in a coastal town on an island, but if I hadn't made a turn right when I did, I could have easily missed it.  The coast is dominated by hotels and beach clubs, leaving very few public entrances.  When I emerged to the beach, I was surprised to see no one laying out on the sand or swimming/surfing in the water.  There were signs everywhere warning of the dangers of the strong current, which was pretty evident in the big waves and visible rip tides, and amazingly people seemed to be taking these warnings seriously, despite the heat and humidity of the day. As for the lack of people lying on the beach, most were on lounge chairs with or without umbrellas set up at each of the many hotels and beach clubs I mentioned.  The thing about the lack of public entrances to the beach is that I walked a mile or so up the beach looking for a way to exit back to the main road, and couldn't find one.  I tried a couple of driveways that dead ended at houses (making me wonder how they got out to the road, and was shooed away from a beach resort. But it took a long time to find a way off of the beach, and I was absolutely pouring sweat by that time (sexy, I know). The road I finally found was not the same one I'd come from, and even with a map I'd picked up from the Square, I didn't know where I was. But like an oasis, I found a frozen yogurt shop, and stopped in to cool off and miraculously tap into their wifi.  From there I was able to map my way back to the hotel (another 40 minutes away, as I'd overshot it, and there weren't any side streets to cut the corners back).  I was elated to make it back to the hotel, rinse off, and after my 3+ hour exploration, spend some time in air conditioning.  

My second day, I woke up early to take advantage of a free yoga class offered on the grass by the pool.  Only two of us showed up, but that was fine, it was a very relaxing practice, Hatha, with a focus on breathing and stretching (not my usual form of yoga, but when in a Hindu country, how can you not take a yoga class from an old zen guy who was raised in the tenets of the practice?).  

After yoga and breakfast, I secured a lounge chair and umbrella by the pool before they were all snatched up and finished reading my beach book, The Girl in the Spider's Web, and then started on my iPad reading Station Eleven (I prefer not to read on my iPad on beaches or by pools, but with my paperback finished, I had to). After a few hours of laying out and swimming, and I surrendered the seat to one of the people circling in wait. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the phone with my airline and Orbitz dealing with a flight snafu I won't go into, but that necessitated me getting my complimentary massage that night. That was a wonderful hour of being rubbed with lavender oil and forgetting everything else.  From there I went upstairs to visit the rooftop restaurant for dinner and a Pina Colada, while watching a thunderstorm roll in from the ocean, lightening visible a long way off.  The result of my travel trouble was that I had to leave Bali a day earlier than originally planned, and spend an extra day and night in Sydney before flying back to LA.  That means my third day in Bali was also my last day, and I hadn't yet seen any of the sights I'd discovered in my belated travel research (done on wifi in my air conditioned room). Knowing the hotel would likely rip me off on transportation I tried to download Uber onto my phone, but the wifi wouldn't let me (and yes, I know I'm about the last person who doesn't have an Uber account, but I live in NYC, there's always a cab when I want one). I relented and went to reception and requested a car to Ubud center (the cost was about the same as my ride from the airport, though the drive is at least an hour). They got me a driver, a really friendly and knowledgeable guy named Agung who arranged with me to take me around to everywhere I wanted to see around Ubud and back to the hotel after (if you visit Bali and need a driver, I highly recommend him). 
It was a rainy morning, the storm I'd seen at sea the night before still passing through, but it was my last day.  I learned that the rainy season used to be earlier, but in the past few years, it has moved out about three months, which is why the rain was coming now, a side effect of climate change that has been really hard on the farmers.  
The first place we went I never would have known to go myself. It was a plantation that grows coffee, tea, and cocoa beans (chocolate). A woman there took me on a brief tour, introducing me to one of their luwaks, a small catlike creature instrumental to the production of their most exclusive coffee. Kopi luwak is made from coffee beans eaten, digested, and excreted by the luwak.  The beans are then extensively washed and roasted and brewed into one of the world's most expensive coffees. 

After the tour, they gave me free samples of 7 coffees and 8 teas (I did not try the luwak coffee), and 3 flavored chocolates. It was all delicious, and after this generosity, when she lead me to the gift shop, I was compelled to buy something. My mom has already dug in to the 100% dark chocolate I brought back.

The next stop was the Sacred Monkey Forest, per my request. This is a sanctuary for macaque monkeys amid old temples and ruins. Because the monkeys are protected, they walk freely around with no fear of visitors, even eat from people when they can. Watching them up close, it's incredible how their dexterous little hands eating and climbing and nit picking are so much like our own. I spent a nice hour or so wandering around there, the rain having tapered off by this point.

From there we went on to the place I was most excited to see, the Tegallalang Rice Terraces.  I know this doesn't sound very thrilling, but they are incredible to see.  I'd seen pictures online before, and you can see my pictures here, but it doesn't compare to the real place.  Tiers and tiers of rice patties up and down the hillside. 
Every so often, there are people who will stop you and ask for a "donation" to continue the climb.  I only went through 2 such tolls before deciding I'd seen enough angles of the terraces. There were also young children around with books of postcards asking you to buy them "for school."  I have no doubt they were being educated in the importance of tourism and the skill of haggling, and I admired that even at that age they had a strong grasp of English.  I had lunch at one of the cafes at the top of the hill, with a nice view across.

 After that, Agung took me to the Tegenungan waterfalls. You can swim there, but I didn't bring a suit, so I had to satisfy myself with wading through the waters, trying to cool off that way. It's a beautiful little hideaway, and if I had been there to swim I would have lingered quite a while.  I did take a little jungle path up to the top of the waterfall for the above view as well. The base of the falls are many steep steps down from the parking area, meaning it was a long climb back up after, and I was happy to climb into an air conditioned car at the end (once again soaked with sweat, a frequent occurrence in that climate, potential honeymooners be warned). 

The final stop on my tour for the day was the Pura Samuan Tiga temple. Here you are given a long wrap skirt to put on (women and men) in order to respectfully enter the temple grounds.  Rather than one large building, there are several courtyards filled with smaller shrines. The temple was originally built over a thousand years ago, but after an earthquake leveled the area about a hundred years ago, it all had to be rebuilt. There are intricately carved stone creatures outside each of the structures, to scare away evil spirits. 

While Bali is predominantly a Hindu island and they pay tribute to the gods, ancestor worship is a large part of their belief system as well. Known as the island of a thousand temples (and this doesn't include the family temples that exist in each household), religion is an important aspect of everyday life in Bali, and there are ceremonies and rituals for almost everything. I didn't have a chance to really experience any of this beyond my observation of the daily offerings and the penjors. 

On the way back to the hotel, Agung and I discussed the economy some, how little workers make an hour, which is why so many people drive motorbikes rather than cars (much cheaper). I kept seeing shelves of Absolut bottles filled with a yellow liquid at roadside shops and asked about them, and after teasing me that it was vodka that had been in the sun too long, he told me it's gasoline. With gas station few and far between, and the small tanks on motorbikes, some people will go to the gas stations and get enough to bring back to smaller towns and sell in bottles of under a litre at a large mark up.  I never did find out why they use Absolut bottles though. 
Back at the hotel, I cleaned up, packed up, and got ready to catch my midnight flight back to Sydney.  The first of my 3 red-eye flights in under a week on the way back across the globe home.

 I leave you with a little street art I found in Seminyak. Cheers!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

East Coast Australia: Surfer's Paradise to Sydney

On the Gold Coast, our next stop driving down the East Coast was Surfer's Paradise. As implied by the name, this is a haven for surfers, as is much of the area, with big waves and without much worry of stingers, which aren't so common there.
We stayed for 2 nights, and my hotel room was bigger than my real apartment, a one bedroom with a hallway, a living room, a balcony, kitchenette, it was massive. So large that I was actually slightly nervous sleeping there alone. 
The night that we got in, we all fended for ourselves for dinner, and then met up for VIP entry into one of the clubs along the strip, Sin City, where all the bartenders and servers dress in lingerie, an extra treat for the guys. I like dancing, so that's what I did, as much as I could in a really crowded club where if you could make it onto the dance floor, it could be tricky to actually find the space to move.  After a few hours at the club, a couple of us headed down the street to a more low key bar playing music I actually liked (as opposed to Bieber, whose songs stalked me throughout this trip, I couldn't get away, and yes, it's much to late to say sorry). A little while later, we got some pizza, and decided to get a ride back to the hotel in one of the pedicabs we kept seeing all over.  With three tipsy girls in the back, the guy got his workout for the night and earned his fare.
The next day, most of the group decided to head down to the beach.  It was still very fine very white sand there, and as I mentioned, we could go swimming without fear of jellyfish.  So out into the waves we all went and got tossed around a good bit. 
After a while drying off in the sun, I decided to check out the town in the light of day. It's a small downtown, lots of shops, and I was especially happy to find a Ben & Jerry's to cool off a bit on my walk back to the hotel.  With my huge hotel room, I opted for a quiet night in with the TV, watching from the balcony as the rain fell while the sun set.
The following day on our drive down the coast, we stopped at Currumbin Sanctuary, where you are allowed to hold a koala and get a picture taken with it.  Some states won't allow you to hold or touch koalas, but in Queensland it's still ok, lucky for us. They are heavier than I expected, and kinda stinky, but still very cute. Sadly, their population is decreasing because of drought (not being able to find water safely) and an epidemic of chlamydia (seriously, koala STDs are a big problem). 
We also were able to feed some kangaroos, see crocodiles (they have an electric fence around the area with the fresh water ones, because they really will kill you if they can, and not just for food), tree kangaroos (which are small and reddish and like to climb),and I finally saw a dingo, lying in its doghouse totally docile.  
As I wandered around and checked out some of the birds, I saw a family of geese in the open crossing the path in front of me where a stream ran under. There were four adults and some cute babies, I took a picture and waited for them to get safely to the other side before continuing on. Apparently some of them didn't think I'd given the babies quite enough space, because two of the adults flew at me, wings spread, feet and beaks out, squawking like crazy; the first just shooed me further away, but the second I thought was going to land in my head, I screamed and ran away as it came at me. I'm sure it would have been hilarious to watch, but somehow right then no one was nearby to see! In a country full of exotic and deadly animals, I was attacked by geese. 
When we left the sanctuary, we crossed from Queensland into New South Wales, and also changed time zones. Not all states use Daylight Savings Time, so depending on the time of year, the time in adjacent sates can be the same or different. That night we spent in Byron Bay in a hostel.  We drove up to see the lighthouse and the furthest east point of the continent, and then down into the small town, another surfing community with a very hippy culture. 
We all bought our own food and had a little picnic dinner on the grass expanse above the beach while some local musicians played guitar and sang. There was a plan to go out to a club that night, but I had been under the weather, and had to get up early the next morning, so I was on the fence. When I got back to the hostel, my key didn't work, so I went to the front desk, and they said I was supposed to check out that day. I explained that I'd just gotten there and the group I was with. Apparently they had my room number wrong in the computer, so they had moved me out of the room and given it to someone else. I had a serious moment of panic not knowing where my stuff was when they let me check the room and their baggage closet to find nothing. But they had it all behind the desk (leaving me to wonder why send me off to look for it?), and they put me into another room. While traveling for so long, having everything I own disappear, even briefly, plus knowing it isn't safe in my locked room and that someone went through my things (I was somewhat unpacked when they moved me), it all shook me up, so I decided I was done for the night, not leaving my things alone again. 
The next day a few of us with our Scuba certifications had arranged a dive out at Julian Rocks, just a mile or so off shore. Early in the morning, I checked out and put my bags in storage before I left. It was a rainy morning, but underwater, it was incredible. Right away, lots of leopard sharks were swimming around the reef right under where we anchored. And then a sea turtle, a manta ray, and tons of other colorful fish swam all around us. It was amazing how much there was to see in a small area. 
I somehow went through my air faster than the rest of my group though, so I had to surface before them. It was rainy the rest of the morning as we all got some lunch and then boarded the bus.
A surf camp in Coff's Harbour was our next stop.  It was a really small place on the the beach, just a couple of main buildings for eating and gathering, and our rooms were converted shipping containers. We got there and immediately got ready for our surf lessons. Having lived in LA for a few years and never gotten a surfing lesson, I was really happy to check this off my list.  Carrying the boards down the beach was the hardest part, long heavy things, my arms were going to fall off. But once we reached the right spot, we did a little practice on the sand first on outlines of our boards. We learned the pop up, and also some slower easier methods of getting to our feet.  And then into the waves! On the first one I tried, I actually made it to my feet, it was pretty cool.  Fighting out through the waves to a good spot was more difficult for me, I kept getting smacked in the head by breaking water. Surfers always seem very zen and chill, but I was swearing constantly as the waves crashed on me. But once I was able to turn and paddle and catch a wave, I made it to my feet several times, and rode out to the shore twice.  Lots of fun.
Then it was time to carry the boards back, and I really didn't think I was going to make it, my arms were giving out (there's been very little real exercise in my travels). Rain started to pour down, and I was the last one to make it back to the shelter. My head hurt and my muscles felt shaky, all I wanted to do was lie down.  But first a hot shower because I was coated in fine grain sand.  I ended up resting through dinner, but made it back out to the main building to buy the pictures they took during the lesson and some Gatorade to revive myself. We all played some cards in the evening, and I made it another early night, still fighting off a cold.
Early in the morning we got back on the bus for the long ride down to Sydney, our final stop. I know a lot of people may question my judgment, and I know it seems cliche, but this city is the place I went where I could best picture myself living. As the first colony, there is a lot of history in Sydney. There are also a lot of green spaces, including Hyde Park, right near our hotel. Sydney is of course famous for its harbor, spanned by the bridge, with the opera house on its banks.  

Not long after arriving, we prepared to go on an evening bridge climb, walking up and across the top of the bridge as the city lights lit up the night sky. We were put into jump suits, given head lamps, headsets (to hear the guide up front), and harnessed to a guide rail along the side of the walkway.  Before going, we were also breathalyzed, as they don't let you go up if you have any alcohol in your system. The view from the top was really stunning, but I wasn't allowed to bring a camera up. Though I usually don't, I paid for my photo package from the bridge walk.

The guide told us some people have gotten married at the apex, and they have a New Years Eve celebration up there. He also told us about a man proposing to his girlfriend at the top, and being turned down. They had to walk all the way back down hooked up next to each other with the rest of the group pretending they hadn't all just witnessed the sad humiliation. 
After making it back down, we visited a nearby Irish pub, and then met up with more of the group at this bar closer to the hotel that had a speakeasy feel, down an alley through an unmarked door, dimly lit with fancy themed cocktails. But the decor inside was more like Texas (if you only know Texas from the movies). Here were various animal heads mounted on the walls, including a huge moose. Last call at a lot of the bars is earlier than in the US, so it wasn't too late of a night.
The next day most of us got up and took a ferry from Circular Quay out to Manly Beach, to the north.  It was much less crowded than the infamous Bondi Beach, but a nice place to lay out and enjoy a sunny day.  At least for a few hours.  
After that, I took the ferry back to the city, and took a walk around.  In front of the hospital there is a bronze statue of a boar named Il Porcellino believed to bring good luck to those who rub it's snout (which is the only shiny part of him). 
From there, I walked through Hyde Park, past the fountain with statues of Apollo and Artemis, and Theseus with the Minotaur, and through the Anzac memorial. 
After a quick turn around at the hotel, I headed down to China Town for some excellent food (there is a high Chinese population, given the proximity to Asia) and some cheap souvenir shopping (but if you're reading this, anything I may have gotten you is authentic and expensive).
That night we had a group dinner down in Darling Harbour at The Strand, where we grilled our own steaks (mine turned out delicious).
From there we headed out to Three Wise Monkeys for the last official night of the tour.  There are three floors, so we took one over and all had a really fun time, a little dancing, a little drinking, and lots of group photos. 
The next morning was semi-early (which no one was too happy about after our long night out) to drive out to see the Blue Mountains to the west. They derive their name from the haze released into the air by the eucalyptus trees throughout the area, which gives the air around the mountains a bluish tint. 
We first hiked one of the many trails out to Wentworth Falls, and then went over to view the famous Three Sisters rocks (named for an Aboriginal legend of three sisters turned to stone). 
A thunderstorm came through as we were driving back to the city, but didn't rain on our picnic dinner out by Mrs MacQuarie's Chair on the harbour. The idea is that the wife of the last autocratic governor was so bored in the new colony that she sat watching the ships coming in from sea. 
It was a cloudy evening though, so not the most impressive sunset, but still a pretty view of the bridge and opera house. While the tour was officially over after the Blue Mountains, most people were staying until the following day. 
After our dinner, a bunch of us walked back through the gardens and discovered a Spectrum festival going on, with live music, food, and Latin dancing. The actual concert was a ticketed event, but the rest was open to the public, much like a similar Fringe festival I visited out in Perth. It's always fun in cities to happen upon these kinds of events. 
My flight out the next day was in the evening, so I checked out of the hotel, left my bags in storage, and spent most of the last day further exploring the city.  I walked through the Botanical Gardens, got a close up view of the opera house, visited the New South Wales state library, went to the Customs House to see their giant model of the city housed under a lucite floor (the kids totally fascinated, crawling along the floor pretending to be driving down the tiny streets was the best part), walked down George Street in the retail district, back through Hyde Park and to my hotel to reclaim my bags and board a shuttle to the airport. 
From this angle, the buildings remind me of crusader helmets. 
Notice above the small statue of a cat on the ledge behind Captain Flinders, his pet who accompanied him on all of his voyages. 

My next stop was Bali, which I will write about next time, as well as one more day in Sydney before leaving the Eastern Hemisphere. Thanks for reading!