A Travellerspoint blog

Couchsurfing in Japan

sunny 16 °C

I have always had an interest in Japan. For an ethnically homogenous island nation which has remained isolated for much of its pre-World War history, Japan has managed to export its culture throughout the world. Japanese restaurants line our streets, Japanese idioms have infiltrated our languages, Japanese technology fills our homes and Japanese design has made a marked impression on the things we build and wear. When I booked my ticket to Tokyo, I was curious to explore the inter workings of this culture exporting machine.
Even though my home in China was only a short distance from Tokyo, I had avoided traveling to Japan due to several accounts of backpacker killing prices. Apparently just a simple dorm bed in central Tokyo could cost upwards of $25, more than my entire daily budget in a developing country. Nonetheless, if I kept my travel distances to a minimum and utilized my couchsurfing account then I figured I could make a few weeks in Japan manageable on a backpacker budget. Due to small living spaces and long working hours, finding a couch to crash on in Japan is not easy, but I took the time to apply to many hosts and managed to organize a couch (or at least a floor) in every destination I was to visit before I even landed in the country. It was going to save me bundles but saving money wasn’t the only reason for finding hosts. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in temple hopping. I was more interested in Japanese culture. Staying with locals would provide interesting insights into typical Japanese life.
After a comfortable overnight flight from Jakarta I landed in Tokyo just as the sun was rising but I had to wait until the evening to meet my first couchsurfing host. So with a day to kill I threw my bags into a coin locker and set out to explore the city.
My initial impression of Tokyo was that it felt completely different from China or South East Asia. For a metropolis of over thirty million, many of Tokyo's districts feel quite quaint. I rarely encountered a traffic jam and the sidewalks were not particularly crowded. Few Japanese were outside save for a couple people walking their dogs. I guess everyone was at work.
The narrow streets of smaller neighborhoods just outside city center were lined with tiny cafes and sushi shops, many of which allowed only enough seating space for three or four patrons. Old temples and small green parks dotted the landscape. As I moved into more developed areas, I encountered larger more modern buildings, lots of bright neon signs and tree lined boulevards. The architecture and city layout took on a more futuristic element but it was not the futurism I was expecting from Japan. It was the sort of retro futurism. The technology was advanced but the design reminded me of the set of some ultramodern movie made back in the 1980s. Bubbled glass, colourful lights and shiny metal walls were common. Blade Runner came to mind. The thing I found most interesting, however, was the strong emphasis on detail. Everything, from the buildings to the parks to the table cutlery, was designed down to the smallest element to be both aesthetically pleasing and functionally efficient. I had never seen anything quite like it. Everything was beautiful in its own practical way.
After absorbing this initial impression, I returned to Nippori station to gather my things and meet my host Yuki who had just finished work. Of the fifteen people I applied to in Tokyo, Yuki was the only one who accepted my request. I really could not have found a better host. Yuki is a genuinely kind young woman who really seemed to care about my experience in Tokyo. Before I had even arrived she had read my blog and brainstormed various activities she thought I would enjoy during my stay. As is the case with most Japanese, her living arrangements were modest. She had only a small room with a bed and barely enough space to fit an extra futon. But even though her space was limited, she kindly allowed me to sleep on the futon for four nights.
After I dropped my bags at her place, we went out to find some food. She knew all the best cheap eats in her neighbourhood and we ended up at a popular sushi joint where you order from a computer attached to the table then snag your sushi as it passes by on a mobilized track. High tech shit. Each plate was only $1, one hell of a deal for Tokyo. We got to know each a little better over dinner before we went back to the apartment so I could finally get some much needed rest.
The following morning Yuki went to work and I set out to further explore Tokyo. While my initial impression of Tokyo was focused more on layout and design, my second excursion into the city was focused more on its inhabitants. Everyone I encountered was extremely polite. People often greeted each other by repeatedly apologizing for some small mishap. I heard ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) far more often than ‘konnichiwa’ (hello). Simple rules seemed to dominate daily conduct. Everyone kept to their own personal space, lined up properly when necessary and religiously obeyed all signs and traffic signals. I never once encountered a J-walker. Even if there was only a narrow one lane street with no cars in the vicinity, the Japanese would not cross until the little man turned green.
Everyone appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The few who did seem to have a little free time took part in one of several bizarre past times. Some shamelessly read graphic anime pornography in full view of those around them while others walked down to one of the city’s small rivers to a fenced enclosure where they could pay a small fee to fish for carp in the middle of the city. It was a catch and release system.
The fashion was also out of the ordinary. In the more youthful districts, woman dressed like hipster school girls. In the high class areas everyone looked super chic and stylish and in the business districts I rarely saw a man not wrapped in a dark black suit.
In my worn Levi jeans, ripped shirt and dusty brown cap, I certainly had the feeling I was a little underdressed for Tokyo when I returned Yuki’s apartment that night. Unfortunately, my vanity was no the only thing that was damaged. I had also developed a sharp pain in my left knee which had demobilized me by the end of the day. I thought a good night sleep and a couple of IB Profen would do the trick but I was wrong. The random pain ended up staying with me for the rest of my trip and slowed me to a limp for much of it. But even if I had to hobble instead of walk, I only had 18 days in Japan and I was not going to stop exploring now.
So the next day I loaded up on painkillers, bought a Tokyo metro pass and set out into the city once again. The expensive metro pass decreased my walking distances but increased my stress level. The Tokyo transportation system is probably the most extensive in the world but it is not the easiest to figure out. There are countless overland and subway lines which are run by several different companies. If you buy a ticket for one company’s trains, you cannot use it on another’s. It’s not like typical metro systems were you just need to buy a ticket for the subway and can transfer anywhere you like. In Tokyo, in order to buy a ticket you have to find the closest line, figure out the transfers necessary to make it to your destination without using any other subway company’s lines, then calculate your fare using a massive fair table posted above the ticketing machines. This system is just one example of how Tokyo can be likened to a big super computer. It’s huge, complicated, and takes time to understand, but once you have trained yourself in how to use it, it is incredibly fast and efficient.
Having the metro pass allowed me to explore many different areas of the city in a short time. I soon came to understand how every district of Tokyo has its own unique flavour and feel. I started in Shiodome, a high class business district next to the water. Unfortunately, it was a cold rainy morning and I only spent an hour or so enjoying the sophisticated architecture before I was forced to find refuge in the Subway station. Thankfully, the weather improved as I rode the subway to Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip youthful area and likely my favourite district in the whole metropolis. The buildings aren’t huge like in Shiodome, but they are more unique. The immediate area around the train station is home to a cool restaurant and nightlife scene packed full of more trendy joints and neon lights than you can imagine. In the surrounding area trendy artists, skateboarders and dancers occupy small green parks sandwiched between tree lined boulevards to hone their respective crafts. I happily spent a few hours hobbling from place to place and absorbing the atmosphere.
In the late afternoon I returned to Nippori station to meet Yuki who had just finished work. It was Friday night and Yuki had the following two days off so we hit up Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most developed nightlife districts, for some darts and drinks. At a small bar on the 8th floor of an office building, we ate edamame and ordered cocktails from an Ipad perched on our table. I was a little buzzed and Yuki was nearly falling asleep when we caught the last train back to Nippori at midnight.
After a good night sleep we awoke early enough to catch breakfast at Tsukiji market. Tsukiji is one of the world’s largest fish markets and it’s quite common for tourists to catch a sight of the early morning catch around 5AM. Yuki and I were satisfied with showing up at around 9AM to get a fresh sushi breakfast from one of the market restaurants. I’m not going to pretend I could actually taste the difference in freshness but it was definitely good sushi.
After breakfast, we took the subway to Asakusa to see Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. It was big and beautiful but too busy to enjoy. From the temple we took the bus to the base of Tokyo’s brand new sky tree, the tallest tower and second to tallest structure in the world. The observation deck was not worth the price tag so we just admired the giant building from the base until the rain forced us into the metro and back to Yuki’s apartment. My knee was bothering me and it was too rainy to explore so Yuki and I decided to stay in for the evening. I taught her a little guitar and we rented a movie.
The weather did not improve the next morning. Neither of us wanted to brave the cold so we spent the morning at a modern art gallery. I’m not really into the modern art thing but there was an exhibition on the evolution of industrial design in post war California which was actually quite interesting. After we were sufficiently sophisticated we walked to Roppongi, the foreigner district of Tokyo and home to a slew of international restaurant chains. We finished the afternoon by taking the elevator to the top of the Bunkyo municipal building. We only had a half hour at the observation deck to enjoy the view before I had to grab my things and head for the train station to catch a bus to Kyoto. Thank god Yuki came with me since the bus actually picked up at some random intersection a few blocks away from Tokyo station and I would never have found it on my own.
As I boarded the bus I thanked Yuki for her hospitality. She had been a great host during my stay and really added to my experience in the city. I then settled into my seat and prepared for an eight hour overnight ride to Osaka. Luckily, I was seated next to a friendly Australian traveler who had both a Gameboy and an Ipad. He was engrossed in the Gameboy and let me use the Ipad to watch movies. I was able to complete The Hobbit and few TV shows before we arrived in Kyoto at around 6AM. My host in Kyoto worked late and could not meet until 10PM so I had a lot of time to kill. I hadn’t slept on the bus so I put my backpack in a coin locker and found a nearby park to take a long nap. When I awoke a few hours later, I took a stroll around the center of Japan’s former capital.
Kyoto is a small relaxed city but due to its wealth of historical sights it attracts hoards of tourists. The city is a patchwork of small apartment buildings, old thatch-roofed wooden homes and some modern high class shopping areas. Thousands of ancient shrines, temples and parks are scattered throughout the town and its surrounding hillside districts. It would take weeks to explore them all and I had neither the time nor the money. Instead, I paid to see only a couple temples then spent the majority of my time walking the city, its parks and its shrines, all of which are free. I also spent quite a bit of time at Kyoto Station, an incredible piece of modern architecture. The station itself is full of photo opportunities and the roof has a nice garden which offers nice views over the city.
After sixteen hours of aimlessly exploring, I was finally able to meet my host, a friendly recent graduate named Manami who works a ridiculous schedule. She was not able to meet me until 10PM since she works sixteen hours a day six days a week. Everyday she left her home at 6AM and often did not return until after 10PM. This astounded me but I would soon come to understand that this type of work schedule is not that unusual in Japan. Given her crazy hours, I was not able to spend a lot of time with Manami but she generously gave me the key to her small apartment and told me to come and go as I like. I was amazed someone as busy as her still opened her small home to travelers in need. I hope she is shown the same courtesy when she travels the world.
After a long and well needed sleep, I found a cheap bento box for breakfast then started walking north towards Ginkakuji (The Golden Pavilion). This gold covered pavilion is Kyoto’s biggest draw and it certainly deserves the attention. The temple is small but shimmers with a coating of pure gold leaf and sits next to a beautiful Japanese garden amid colourful hills.
After snapping a ton of pictures of the temple I made my way to Arashiyama, a forested district north of Kyoto where many beautiful temples and parks can be found. The area had a nice mountain setting and a thick bamboo forest, but all of the temples were too expensive to enter. When I had my fill of nature walking, I bussed back to Kyoto and ate fried pork cutlets at a Japanese style diner before going to bed.
The following morning was dark and wet. I did not want to explore the countryside in the rain so I made my way to Gion, Kyoto’s old geisha district. The small neighbourhood was beautiful in the rain as the wet stone streets reflected their ancient surroundings. Occasionally, I would see a geisha, her face painted white and dressed in a colourful kimono, scurry from one beautiful old wooden building to another. The attention to detail in the design of these aged wooden buidlings was amazing. Everything from the windows ceils to the flower gardens were attractive and well maintained. When night had fallen, I bussed down to Kyoto’s main night life street. The neon laden alley followed a small river lined with cute pubs, chic restaurants and strip clubs. I did not have any intention of drinking. I was just curious. Beers started at $8 a piece anyways.
The weather improved the next day so I caught a morning train to Nara, Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto. Once again I had several hours to wait before I could meet my host so I went straight to Nara park where most of the city’s attractions are concentrated. The park is thousands of years old and is home to many of Japan’s most important historical sights along with hundreds of deer which have far become too accustomed to humans. The area was full of cherry blossom trees, lakes, pagodas and gardens. The main attraction was the Daijo-ji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world which houses the largest brass Buddha in the world. Both the temple and Buddha were very impressive but overrun by loud Japanese school groups. I found refuge from the busloads of kids in the many peaceful gardens and canals surrounding.
When evening came I made my way to Heijo station to meet my hosts. A smiling middle aged woman with a beige Japanese akita named Tan was waiting for me. Her name was Ayako and she led me through a neighbourhood of old style Japanese homes to a cute bungalow. The house was small but cozy and had matted white walls dissected by thin symmetrical wooden beams. When I used the washroom I was a little intimidated by their high tech toilet. It had a heated seat, an electronic control box which performed various cleaning functions and an automatic tap which dispensed water to wash one’s hands when it was flushed.
Ayako could not speak very much English but her husband Toru, who spoke English well, soon arrived home from his job as a social studies teacher. Like most Japanese, he had just finished a twelve hour work day. After I had settled into the guest room I joined Toru and Ayako in the living room. I noticed a sign taped to one of the houses wooden support beams which brandished a Canadian flag and read Welcome Braden. It was a very nice gesture. We sat on the ground of the living room floor, our legs kept warm under a small heated table which had a thick blanket attached. Since the house had no heating, this was how they kept warm in the winter. Ayako watched a manga cartoon about zombies while Toru and I got to know each other.
After a little small talk Toru declared that it was time to start drinking. He opened the fridge to reveal three different brands of Japanese beer and a couple bottles of sake. He then turned to me and stated his two house rules.
First, the guest must help himself to whatever food and drink he pleases during his stay and second, the more the guest eats and drinks, the more honoured the guest.
We both smiled broadly as I opened a can of Asahi lager and Toru poured himself a large glass of sake. Ayako soon appeared with a large bottle of Kirin, a plate of seared tuna sashimi and a bowl of edamame. We chatted about life in Canada and traveling in Asia while we ate and drank.
Once we had polished off the appetizers and a few beers each, Ayako returned to the kitchen where she put on a pair of surgical gloves and prepared a delicious meal of pan fried pork cutlets, mixed greens with mandarin dressing, tofu and miso soup. It was one of the best meals of my Japanese adventure. We watched a few bizarre Japanese TV shows before hitting the hay. Stuffed full of Japanese food, beer and good conversation, I slept very well that night.
When I awoke the next day Toru had already gone to work. Ayako took me on a quick tour of the neighbourhood then I wondered into downtown Nara. I spent most of the day exploring the ancient neighbourhoods surrounding Nara park which were full of temples, craft shops and cafes. I came across a local micro brewery and purchased a bottle of cherry blossom sake for Toru and Ayako before returning to their home at dusk.
Our evening was quite similar to the one previous. Once Toru returned home we all started drinking. Ayako made each of us a large sashimi rice bowl topped with pieces of salmon tuna and fish eggs for dinner.
I’m sorry, it is to difficult for us to make proper sushi
, Toru said as Ayako placed the large bowl of fresh fish, a salad and a miso soup in front of me. Not only were these two kind souls giving me a place to sleep, they were cooking me fantastic Japanese food then apologizing for it. They were too generous. After dinner Toru requested that I play them a couple songs on the guitar before bed. I gladly obliged.
I said goodbye to Toru and Ayako as they left for work the next morning and thanked them for their extraordinary courtesy. I showered, gathered my things and I caught a midday train to Osaka. As is typical in Japan, more than half of the train passengers were asleep. Some were sleeping standing up, others with their head between their knees. One girl feel asleep on my shoulder then, as if she possessed some internal arrival warning system, jumped up as soon as we reached her stop and exited the train without missing a beat. For someone who can’t even sleep on a train much less wake up promptly when required, I found this all pretty impressive.
I arrived in Osaka mid afternoon and, once again, had several hours to waste before I could meet my host. It was a beautiful day so I just wondered the city. Osaka felt quite different from Tokyo. It was a little busier and less organized. The people were a little friendlier but dressed crazier. I stumbled upon a youthful area called Amerika mura (America Village) where Osaka’s peculiar fashions were on full display. Goths, skateboarders, hipsters, hip hop MCs, Barbie girls, emos… you can find it all in Amerika mura. It’s like Halloween everyday down there. I ate one of Japan’s favourite snacks, doughy octopus balls covered in various sauces, as I people watched. Since it was a holiday everyone was in the streets drinking with friends, buying up the latest fashions and enjoying the nice weather. It was also one of the few places in Japan where I had a few locals approach me for a little broken conversation. The whole vibe was pretty fun and interesting.
The vibe changed as I moved into Umeda, Japan’s business district. The buildings were more imposing, the people more hasty and the atmosphere far more serious. After sunset I made my way to Dontonburi, a busy nightlife district plastered from head to toe with colourful neon lights and signs. It’s an amazing sight at night. My host was waiting for me at an Irish pub nearby where a couchsurfing meeting was being held. It was there that I met the majority of the people I would end up hanging out with during my stay in Osaka. First there was Shu, my excellent host who always seems to have something interesting planned and Zoey, a Taiwanese born kiwi who had recently moved to Osaka to teach kindergarten. We bonded over our similar experiences teaching cute little Asian kids. There was a Belgium party animal named Michael who was in Osaka for a month to learn a little Japanese and tear rip up the dance floor of every club. A friendly local woman named Aya joined us. She had such a youthful demeanour and appearance that I swore was younger than me. She was actually 38 years old. And finally, we had a Spaniard with us named Ivan, a romantic intent on finding himself a Japanese girlfriend. We got to know each other over some Kirin stout on the eighth floor rooftop patio of Dublin's Irish Pub. Since Osaka`s subway close at midnight, as the night wore on we had to make a decision to go home or stay out until sunrise when the subway starts again. Our small crew opted for a party so we searched out an underground hip hop club and danced until they kicked us out at closing time.
Since we didn’t get back to Shu`s place until about 7:30AM, we slept quite late the next day. Shu had some business to take care of in the afternoon so I met Zoey at the Umeda Sky Building to catch the sunset from the observation deck. We chatted about life in kindergarten and enjoyed the view before meeting Shu for sushi and beers.
The next day Shu organized a large group of couchsurfers to meet at a local festival. The festival had something to do with boys becoming men and carp. Hundreds of carp shaped kites were hung from lines running across a river. Children played underneath and various dance groups competed for a prize. We just sat on the steps and drank. In the evening Aya invited myself and a few other surfers to her favourite hookah bar for pizza and shisha. We finished the night with a few drinks at the pub before catching the midnight train home. No partying til sunrise on this night.
The following morning I thanked Shu for showing me a good time in Osaka and caught a mid day bus to Nagoya, the last destination of my Asian adventure. My host was a friendly young Moroccan name Otoman who was studying engineering. Otoman was busy with school and we spent much of our time together in the lobby of his residence surfing the net. But I rather enjoyed chatting up all the beautiful female students, many of whom spoke mandarin, as they passed by.
Nagoya itself is not the most jaw dropping destination but a nice relief from the more touristy areas I had visited previously. The city’s main draw is a big old castle which was rebuilt after World War II. The view from the outside is impressive but the inside felt more like a museum. It even had an elevator. The rest of the city center felt more low-key than Tokyo or Osaka but was still full of interesting modern architecture, fancy restaurants and some nice cafes. I found a great udon noodle bar just off of central park which had the feel of a New York style bar on one side and an entire wall of graphic manga novels on the other. The décor and the noodles were some of the best I had experienced in Japan. I returned to Otoman’s residence after sunset and caught an early night sleep.
I had to wake up early the next day to catch a 7AM bus back to Tokyo. The bus arrived in Shinjuku mid afternoon on a clear sunny day. It was the first time I had seen Shinjuku during the day and I was mesmerized by all the tall modern skyscrapers shimmering in the midday sun. I took the elevator to the top of the municipal tower for a nice view of Tokyo before heading to my hotel for a rest.
It was my last two days in Asia and my uncle Steve was in town to show me around. My Dad also generously booked me into a beautiful hotel room near Shibuya station as a welcome home gift. It was the nicest room I had seen in several months. This was bound to be a more comfortable weekend than I was used to. I met Steve at the station in the evening. I had not seen him since he showed me around Beijing over a year earlier. And just as he had done in Beijing, Steve treated me to some great local cuisine. For dinner he found a fancy Shabu Shabu restaurant. Shabu Shabu is Japanese style hot pot with thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a large pot of boiling water and served with various dipping sauces. We were in Tokyo, the food capital of the world, and since Steve had been in over forty times before, he really knew how to find the best places to eat. The food was fantastic and the staff polite to the point of irritation. I’m pretty sure sumimasen came out of our waitress’s mouth more than three hundred times during our stay. We spent a couple hours chatting about life in Asia and chowing down on various Japanese delicacies before meeting a couple of Steve’s friends for a drink at a Shinjuku pub. Steve had picked up a bad cold before arriving in Tokyo and I had been up since 5AM so we packed in it a bit early to get some rest.
The following morning we strolled around Harajuka, Tokyo’s equivalent to Amerikamura in Osaka. Unlike Amerikamura, however, Harajuka is all about the teeny bopper style. Lots of pink, plastic and glitter. We moved on to Ginza district to stop into the Sony building and catch up on all the latest gadgets from Japan’s electronics giant. As we left the building, we witnessed something very peculiar in the streets of Ginza. A long line of people were chanting and carrying banners down the side of a busy boulevard. It was a large peace protest in the middle of downtown Tokyo. I was rather surprised. Japan and public demonstrations did not hold a close association in my mind. But in true Japanese style, the protest was incredible organized and well mannered. Pylons were placed along the road to mark a clear protesting path so that traffic would not be disturbed. The march was organized into blocks, each led by a patrol car. When one block reached an intersection everyone would quietly stop behind the car and allow traffic to pass. Once the light turned green, they would continue chanting and marching down the pylon marked path.
There were almost as many riot police as protesters but their presence was actually more amusing than intimidating. They were decked out in thick riot gear but all looked lost or bored. They had nothing to do. When one of the protesters finally stepped out of line he was surrounded by over thirty police. There was no violence. They just huddled around the unruly gentlemen and slowly moved him towards the police van. It was the most organized and gentle protest I had ever seen in my life. We never did figure out exactly what it was for.
Once the tranquil protest had passed and we caught the tram to Odaiba, a man made island covered in modern architecture and a five story transformer toy. We stumbled into a German beer festival where hundreds of young Japanese were getting wasted on fine European beer and jumping up and down to a live western cover band. It was a ton of fun. In fact, if the beers hadn’t been $10 a piece we could have stayed there all night.
Steve once again treated me to a great meal in Shibuya for dinner. The set feast included a little taste of basically everything on the menu. We were each given close to twenty small plates of tasty Japanese delicacies. It was delicious.
Since it was my last night in Asia I decided a night out on the town was in order. Steve was still feeling ill and had to get some rest so I was running solo. I made my way to a couch surfing meeting to see if anyone was interested in a night out. There were over fifty people at the event and a group of ten were down to party. We went to Roppongi, Tokyo’s largest night life district, and found a little club with a big cover charge. The club was far too packed, the drinks were far too expensive and, to be honest, the night was a bit of a disappointment. Nothing bad happened, I guess I just had high expectations for my last night in Asia. I failed to realize that when your traveling solo, your the only one that really cares if its your last night. But I was stuck there until sunrise when the trains started running again. I paid for it the next morning when after less than an hours sleep I had to leave for the airport. I met with Steve briefly to thank him for, once again, showing me such a good time. Then, with my feet dragging, I boarded the train bound for Narita airport.
It was a sombre ride. After twenty months, my stint in Asia was coming to an end and the simple truth was just starting to sink in. I hadn't really allowed myself to think about it but as the train sped towards the airport, the thoughts were unavoidable. A sinking feeling lingered as I checked in and passed through security. It deepened as I boarded the the plane and I was nearly in tears as I settled into my seat. I knew that it would eventually pass, that soon I would be laughing and sharing experiences with a family I had not seen in ages. But for the time being, it was inescapable and exacerbated by sleep deprivation and a bad hangover.
I peered out of the cabin window while the aircraft gained speed and lifted off of the runway. As Tokyo disappeared below the clouds, I finally allowed myself to realize that this long crazy adventure was at last over. It was sober moment. The mackerel with brown rice, Haagen Daz ice cream and personal TV with a decent selection of Hollywood flicks onboard were a nice distraction. But there was no denying it, I had an amazing experience in Asia and I was sad to be leaving.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 21:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


Flores, Komodo and Sumbawa

35 °C

I began my journey east on a thirty hour public ferry from Lombok to Flores. The boat was dirty but better than expected. Either that or I was becoming more accustomed to the punishing travel in Indonesia. Ekonomi class decks consisted of large dimly lit rooms full of wooden planks on which one could place a thin foam mattress. The sleeping pads gave off a funky smell but were comfortable enough for a weary traveler. The rooms housed around 150 people each and the humid air was thick with the smell of sambal sauce and cigarette smoke. Families with crying babies and boxes full of produce or men traveling for work were the norm. As is typical in Indonesia, everyone was very friendly and interested. Anyone who spoke a little English took the chance to practice.
Meals were included in the $16 ticket but consisted of a scoop of rice, two or three beans and a one inch block of dried fish. I had to supplement every meal with instant noodles and crackers. The boat made stops at various ports. As more people filtered in the decks slowly filled and the rooms heated. I was sweating bullets when I went to sleep that first night but was tired enough to make it through the night.
In the early morning hours I made my way up to the top deck to catch the last few minutes of the sunrise. When one of the ship`s captains walked by I asked where I could find some breakfast. Instead of pointing me in the direction of the cafeteria he invited me into the control room. He made sure I understood the trajectory of the boat over tea and grilled cheese sandwiches before I returned to the deck below.
On my way down the stairs I heard a "hello mister" from behind me. The greeting had come from a smiling middle aged man sitting on a bench with a set of crutches leaning against the wall to his right. He waved me over to join him. He had an endless array if questions for me to which I responded with shorter and shorter answers. When I could finally get a question in myself I asked what he was doing on the boat. "I'm on my way to find a doctor in Flores." He said pointing to his leg. Because of his relaxed and jolly demeanor I failed to notice that his foot had swollen to about twice it's size and turned all shades of purple, white and blue. It was not pretty and must have been very painful. He told me he had fallen from a coconut tree and that the doctors in Lombok had recommended amputation. He was taking the ferry to Flores in order to find a doctor who could fix his foot for an affordable price. Here was a man in the midst of a thirty hour boat ride, undoubtedly in extreme pain and facing the prospect of amputation, yet he seemed so content with life that I almost failed to notice his injury. It was a clear reminder of both how difficult life can be for those living in a third world country and how mentally strong these people really are.
I asked him if he had taken anything for the pain to which he replied that he could not afford drugs. "Wait a minute" I said as I ran down to the bottom deck to fetch my bottle of IB profen. When I gave it to him he was far too grateful. I felt it was the least I could for someone in such a tough situation but to him it seemed to mean the world. I wished him the best of luck before returning to my mattress, thoughts of the pain this poor man must be enduring still swirling around in my mind. He hobbled down the stairs later in the afternoon to ask how many and how often he should take the pills.
As the sun set the boat navigated through the small islands which dot the east coast of Flores. Soon we were docking in the picturesque harbor of Labuan Bajo. The colorful little town was built onto a hill overlooking grassy mounds of land rising from the crystal clear water. Small wooden vessels were scattered throughout the bay and the chaotically shaped green mountains of Komodo park made faint impressions on the horizon. If there was a ever a competition for most beautiful harbor in Southeast Asia, Labuan Bajo would have to be considered. My only previous knowledge of Flores had been it's proximity to Komodo dragons and I was surprised to see such it was such stunning place. The days to come would hold many more such surprises.
As I disembarked from the Pelni ship I heard a British accent yell "Hey" from somewhere behind me. As a turned my head I saw two young foreigners, one waving his hand to get my attention and the other attempting to walk barefoot across a dock covered in broken glass. I guess I wasn't the only white face on board. Eyes bloodshot and drenched in sweat they quickly approached me and blurted out "Man... were you on that boat? Thats got to be the worst ride we've ever taken." I actually quite enjoyed the ride but I agreed anyways.
"I never saw you guys on board" I said.
"We locked ourselves in our cabin for the whole trip. Where were you?"
"Economy class..."
They looked shocked "Thats crazy, how did you survive down there?"
"Well they had food, water and oxygen" I joked. Nobody laughed. They introduced themselves as Charles and Ben. We decided we all deserved a beer before splitting ways to search for hotels.
I found a guest house and and settled into a very cheap and very basic room. When I noticed a young backpacker booking into the room next to mine I walked over to ask if she was a traveling solo and if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She replied yes to both and twenty minutes later we were chowing down on spicy pan fried chicken legs, sipping local beer and exchanging travel stories. That's one thing I love so much about traveling. It really is that easy to make a friend. A level of camaraderie that can take weeks or months to build in the 'real world' can be established in just a few minutes on the road.
This new friend's name was Friea, a German girl in her late twenties who had run out of money traveling and was on her way to Bangkok to find work. She had some days to kill in Flores first so we decided to explore the area together. The following day we rented a motorbike to drive up the coast. We found a couple beaches where local kids were all to eager to practice a few words of English with us as well as a couple nice viewpoints overlooking the bay. After sunset, we booked a two day tour to Rinca and Komodo island leaving early the next morning. Anyone who has traveled with me knows I am not a big fan of tours but it's impossible to go to Komodo without one.
Bright and early the next morning we made our way to the docks to meet our tour mates. Low and behold, we were sharing the boat with Charles and Ben, the British guys from the Pelni ship. The boat was small but comfortable and seemed safe enough. Although I probably would think twice about taking it out for more than a couple days. It was manned by a captain and a cook, both of whom were all smiles but spoke not a word of English. There was no guide so everything we saw was a surprise. The tour was a never ending string of surprises.
Day one started with a long boat ride past bright green hills and rocky cliffs. After two hours we were docked at Rinca island to see the tour's main attraction, the biggest lizards in the world. Only minutes after stepping onto the island we caught our first glimpses of the majestic Komodo dragon, endemic to just these few small islands in Komodo park. They were certainly big and would have been right at home in the next Jurassic park film but they were also lazy and could not be bothered to move an inch in the midday sun. I got to wondering how these apparently deadly animals kill anything at all. When I expressed my concerns to the park ranger he told me that their mouths are full of so many bacteria that it only takes one bite for their prey's wound to become severely infected, after which it dies a slow painful death. I kept my distance.
The komodos are the main attraction but Rinca island itself is very unique. Its green grassy hills are sparsely covered by giant palms where cockatoos play and its hill tops offer nice vistas of baby blue sandy bays. After an hour of trekking we got back into the boat and sailed over to what was supposed to be a pink beach. The beach and the bay were gorgeous but the sand only looked pink if you held it in your hand. In the coral reef off shore we had our first taste of Komodo's famous underwater world. Colorful fish were feeding off even more colorful coral and bizarre marine animals made frequent appearances. When we got back into the boat I was a little annoyed to hear that everyone else had been swimming with a sea turtle while I was following around the far less interesting stingrays. Ever since I saw sea turtles gliding below the docks in Kabung island I had been desperate to swim with one.
As the afternoon became evening we made our way over to a random spot next to the island where the captain let down the anchor. None of us really knew what were doing there but the cook kept pointing at the sky. Minutes passed and nothing appeared. "What are we looking for?" we asked anxiously. He pointed forcefully into the sky. After several more minutes I saw a large eagle flying over the horizon. I had seen more than a dozen eagles since the tour began and was not very impressed. But this eagle was soon joined by another, then another. In just few moments at least a hundred soared over the horizon. As they approached the boat I heard loud screeching noises and I got a better look at their strange black wings. That's when I realized that these were no eagles, they were giant bats. Well over a thousand of them were pouring out of a cave somewhere beyond the hill and turning the sunset black. It was a surreal sight. For twenty minutes we sat watching this horror movie scene unfold until the last of them exited the cave and disappeared into the darkness.
For dinner our cook fried up some tasty squid in sweet and spicy sauce with noodles and rice, a satisfying meal. Usually on a backpacker boat tour such as this the food is the first thing to take a dive but every meal was plentiful and delicious. At night we played cards for a while then just laid on the deck of the boat watching shooting stars and mapping constellations. You could see trails of space dust in the sky it was such a clear night. When we were bored of the shooting stars we shifted our attention to the sea where plankton was glowing and flashing neon green all around the boat. We discovered that if we dropped something in the water all the plankton in the area would flash in unison. It was like wizardry when we began stirring the ocean with a large stick creating a whirpool of sparkling green light. After playing with the plankton, we noticed a bright yellow harvest moon rising just above the horizon and illuminating our surroundings with a subtle glow. The space dust, the shooting stars, the plankton and now the moon... it was almost to much to take in at once. We just sat and enjoyed the magic of it all for a couple hours. When we were ready, we laid out some mats on the deck of the boat and fell asleep.
The magic continued the following morning. I awoke in time for sunrise and the ocean's surface was completely still save for occasional ripples created by a jumping fish. It was like a mirror reflecting the vibrant colors of the sunrise. As soon as the breeze picked up, however, the effect was gone. Once everyone was awake, we fired up the engine and made our way to the next attraction. A school of dolphins made an appearance along the way. We arrived at Komodo island early and began a guided trek through the jungle covered hills. We saw a few Komodos on the trail but, like in Rinca, they were not particularly active. It was not until we finished our trek near the park HQ that we finally saw a giant Komodo lug it's giant body across the grass. At 3.8 meters, this guy was the biggest we had seen yet. His split tongue sampled the air as he placed one large claw in front of the other to slowly move out of the sun. Once he had found shade, it was time for another well deserved rest. A few of his buddies came lumbering out of the forest to join him and we really had to watch our step as we made our way back to the boat.
When we left Komodo island I was already more than satisfied with the tour. We had paid less than $50 each for the two days and had seen far more than expected. In fact, I had only really expected to see Komodos. But there was one more surprise in store. The captain navigated into shallow waters and the cook kept on saying "see manta" and spreading his arms wide. We got the message and I thought, if we were lucky, maybe we would see one manta to cap off an the tour. If not, it would not be a great disappointment. The boat chugged against the strong currents as we prepared our snorkels and fins. But before we were even ready to get in the water the cook yelled "manta!" and pointed to the left of the boat. About two meters below the surface were two giant black manta rays sailing gracefully through the water. We watched in awe as they glided past the boat. By the time we made it in the water they were gone. We held onto the ladder on the side of the boat as it's engine struggled against the current. If we let go, we would be swept away. Not the safest snorkeling I've ever done but it was the only way.
We waited for several minutes while the captain searched for more mantas. My eyes were scanning the sea floor below when Freia grabbed my hand and pointed forward. I lost my breath and my eyes widened. Only a couple meters away was a giant manta gliding towards the surface. It had massive dark black wings, a bright white belly and a long slender tale. It relaxed in the waves for a few moments filtering water through its gills before slowly diving to the ocean floor a few meters below. I wasn't able to breath again until it was out of sight. More soon appeared. Eventually we were surrounded by them. They sailed below us on the ocean floor and next to us along the surface. Some were close to four meters wide with mouths that looked like they could swallow us whole. They were huge, quite close and somewhat intimidating. And if the mantas didn't provide enough of a rush, a two and a half meter reef shark soon started circling below us as well. I had to resist the urge to scramble out of the water. We spent close to an hour swimming with the mantas. After we had seen over thirty we got tired and we got out of the water to watch them from the boat. I never thought I could get tired of swimming with giant manta rays. It was an fitting end to an excellent tour. As the boat sailed back to Labuan Bajo we all napped on the deck, our day dreams filled with dolphins and dragons. After washing up at the hotel, we celebrated our adventure by drinking beer and eating BBQ snapper at the local fish market.
The next day was a Komodo hangover day. We all slept late then sat on computers all afternoon. Charles organized a diving trip for the following morning and invited me along. Komodo is supposed to have some of the best diving in the world. I thought it would be a bit too pricy but the dive shop organized a trip to an island next to Komodo where we wouldn't have to pay entrance fees. They also let me do just one dive. For $50, I was able to at least get a taste of the underwater world without breaking my budget.
On the boat the following morning I told our guide I really wanted to swim with a sea turtle. She said she would do the best she could to find one. We descended into a beautiful reef with tons of bizarre coral and schools of colorful fish. We said hello to a spotted moray eel, pestered some stingrays, scared away a few puffer fish and swam with a humpback whale... just joking. There was no whale. But with the way things were going in this park I wouldn't have been that surprised.
After the dive we went to another spot to snorkel. My fins were killing me and the current was very strong so I didn't stay in for long but Charles swam around for over an hour. When he returned to the boat, he told me he had just swam with another sea turtle. I couldn't believe it. I had missed another one. He knew how much I wanted to see one so he told me to throw on my mask and follow him to the reef. We searched for about twenty minutes but had no luck. On our way back to the boat, however, our little shelled friend suddenly appeared in the rocks below. A smile formed around my mouthpiece. We watched him chomp down on some coral for a while, stopping occasionally to glance over at us. When he'd had his fill, he surfaced for a moment to take a breath then he strode off into the ocean. I had finally swam with a sea turtle. I was happy.
As we removed our wetsuits on the boat our guide pointed out a sea snake swimming in the shallow waters. It was small and didn't look dangerous but she told us it was more poisonous than a cobra. I'm glad I didn't know this before the dive. We returned to Labuan Bajo a couple of happy sailors. Another meal of fresh fish at the market, a good night sleep and my short time in Flores and Komodo had come to an end. What a magical time it was. Undoubtedly one of the most awe inspiring places I have ever visited.
Early the next morning I said goodbye to Friea, Charles and Ben then caught the ferry to Sumbawa to begin my journey back west through Nusa Tenggara. The six hour ferry was comfortable and surprisingly air conditioned but also full of more crying babies than adults.
The small highway which runs from Sumbawas east to west coast is a common route for tourists in Flores who need to get to the airport in Lombok. Many budget travelers buy a 40 hour ferry-bus-ferry ticket which leaves them in Mataram or Bali. Nobody actually stops in Sumbawa. Nobody except for me I guess. I had a week before my flight back to Jakarta and took the opportunity to see another untouched region of Indonesia. The large island is sparsely populated and save for a few Australian surfers (Sumbawa has some of the best but least known waves in the world) and a few miners, there were no other white faces around.
From Sape on the east coast, I took a chicken bus through the eastern mountains where the scenery is great. Rocky cliffs stood above terraced rice fields with rivers running below. I considered jumping off the bus to get a few pictures but given the unreliable transportion in the Sumbawa, I thought better of the idea. After a couple transfers I arrived in Dompu. It's the islands third largest settlement but only has maybe 25 000 people. It was nice little town but difficult to navigate and no one spoke a word of English.
I tried to organize a ride to take me around the countryside but trying to explain this to a local moto driver was futile. Luckily, a local student noticed the foreigner in distress and offered to show me around. His name was Triar and he had lived in Bali for three years selling trinkets to tourists so he spoke English quite well. He took me around the countryside by motorbike and down to Pantai Lakey, Sumbawa's top surfing destination and one of two places on the island where you'll see a few foreigners around. It's also the former stomping grounds of Ownee Anwan, a famous young surfer who is set to become the first indonesian to make the world circuit. It turns out that Triar is actually Ownee's cousin. He took me to the bay where Ownee first learned to surf where we drank beers with Ownee's brother out front the house where he was born.
I thought Triar was showing me all this out of the goodness of his heart but after a couple beers the Bali hustlers in him emerged. He started asking me to pay for everything and everything seemed bit a more expensive than was usual. Eventually I just asked him to take me home. I still gave him a little cash for driving me around as, hustling aside, I had enjoyed the day. But I was not interested in hanging out with him again.
The next day I took a jam packed chicken bus to Sumbawa Besar, the island capital of 50 000 people. The town was friendlier than Dompu and had a beautiful mosque in it's center. I checked into a hotel right next door so I could listen to the calls for prayer. The room had seen better days but the manager was very courteous. He drove me around the town to find an Internet cafe and a laundry service free of charge. He also let me borrow his motorbike for a few dollars since there was no moto renting service in town. I took the bike into the surrounding countryside to a small village called Poto. I had heard that it was famous on the island for producing handmade sarongs. I thought that would make a nice present for a lucky family member. It was difficult to find but after a couple hours of searching the dirt roads I made it to the quaint village. The rocky village trails were ringed by cute little fenced shacks where even cuter kids played. A local man took me around to various homes to find sarongs but most of the little old weaving ladies were fresh out of stock. Eventually I was invited into a small home where a woman sat on the ground with a wooden hand powered weaving device on her lap. She created intricate designs as she pulled levies and pushed switches with her slender hands. In an old wooden cabinet were a few finished products. I selected one, thanked the lady and made my way back to the main road. After driving my moto to Poto, I took it up into the mountains to the rice growing village of Semongkat. The tree covered path was well paved with only a few potholes. Small monkeys waited next to the road for scraps and curious faces followed me where ever I ventured. Unlike Bali, where the traffic is a nightmare, there was hardly any vehicles on the road. It was some of the best motorbiking I had done in a while.
The next today I started the journey to Maluk. First I went to Taliwang on a chicken bus where the attendant was overly curious of everything I owned. I was a bit cautious at first when he kept grabbing my things but quickly realized he was harmless. By the time we reached Taliwang he was listening to my iPod, playing my guitar and wearing my prayer bead bracelet. He was a little reluctant to give me back my bracelet. In fact, this was the third time someone in Sumbawa asked to see it then tried to keep it. I'm not sure why they liked it so much. From Taliwang I took a Bemo to Maluk, a coastal town which serves east Sumbawa's lucrative mining activity. Because of the mines, I saw a couple white faces around the town and there were some more upscale amenities in the hotels. For a few different reasons, my week in Sumbawa had actually been a little stressful so I thought I deserved some luxury. I treated myself to a nice $15 room which, to my surprise, had a TV with 'Fox Movies'.
The following morning I organized another motorbike and drove south down the stunning east coast of Sumbawa. I explored a few massive white sand bays surrounded by jungle and large rocky cliffs. The beaches easily gave those in Bali a run for their money and except for half a dozen small hotels and a couple villages which dotted the 50 km stretch, they were completely abandoned. I had some wonderful moments sitting on a hotel terrace, sipping a bintang and looking out over a gorgeous crescent bay where the only signs of life were myself, the waitress and a herd of cows grazing on the grass. When the afternoon showers moved in a made my way back to the hotel and watched three Hollywood movies before falling asleep.
Early the next morning a caught a bus and boat to Lombok to catch a plane. I spent one uneventful night in a dingy guesthouse. My neighbors were two older Indian gentlemen who cooked an entire Indian meal from scratch on there porch. By 'from scratch' I mean they actually defetheared a chicken and ground up the spices themselves. It made me want to go to India.
I landed in Jakarta mid afternoon and went straight to Ben's place to kick off another three days of partying. Although I still enjoyed second stint in Jakarta it was not as awesome as the first. A major reason for this was that I was simply sad to leaving Indonesia. I had a great time in this country and I was really going to miss it. The culture and the sights were amazing but the friends I made along the way were what made the experience. The country had forged itself a special place in my heart and a big part of me wanted to stay here for a lot longer.
Two months in Indonesia made me realize that experiencing a new country is like making a new romantic interest. There's several different approaches one may take. You can go for a one night stand in which you get in, see the major attractions and get out. You don't have any interest in really getting to know the country. You just want to see some things that lay within it's borders. When you return home you have a story to tell your friends about how you have 'been there' and 'done that'. Unfortunately, one night stands seem to be all backpackers are interested in these days as travelers compete to see who can get the most passport stamps and visas in the shortest amount of time.
You can also have a fling with a country. In addition to seeing the major attractions, you get to know the country a bit. You learn a few of it's secrets by taking the 'road less traveled' and you do your best to better understand the culture through basic communication with locals. This takes more time but you leave with a better understanding of who the country is and whether you would like to come back.
If you do return, you may consider starting an actual relationship with the country. Relationships offer the most meaningful experience but require commitment and effort. You need to learn the language and build trust with those around you. If you want to make it work in the long term you must make concessions, give up some things from your old life and learn some new things. It's a process that takes time but there's never any guarantee it will work out. If it does work, its a very rewarding experience.
Indonesia, however, is a country I could really consider a relationship with. I think it has the makings of an expat haven. It has an urban culture which is quite sympathetic to western ideas and ways of life, friendly rural populations that offer a more traditional perspective, a very learn-able language and decent grub. The tourism industry hasn't taken over so locals are still very interested in foreigners but you have ample access to those western niceties which keep an expat sane.
In addition, the travel opportunities for someone with an extended visa are endless. At the very beginning of my trip I met a backpacker who had just spent one year traveling just Indonesia. At the time I thought it was a bit odd but now I completely understand. I don't even think a year is enough to see everything this country has to offer. Indonesia takes diversity, whether cultural, biological or natural, to a whole new level. Every island has developed separately with its own language, culture and traditions. The landscape is ever changing and full of a wide variety of unique natural attractions, from old growth rain forest to volcanoes. And the wildlife is more diverse and abundant than perhaps anywhere else in the world. In Indonesia, you can party hard in a giant metropolis, chill with rare apes in a jungle, learn age old fishing techniques in a remote village and just about everything imbetween. The possibilities are endless.
To make a long story short, of all the countries I have visited in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is the only one I would consider as a place to live.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 07:06 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Laidback Friends in Volatile Landscapes

Java, Bali and the Gilis

sunny 35 °C

As my plane took off from Pontianak airport in Borneo enroute to Jakarta I was a little sad be leaving the big island but content with the experience. After three weeks in Borneo, my taste for remote adventure and raw culture had been, at least for the time being, more than satisfied. Nonetheless, my taste for nightlife had remained unchecked for quite some time. I will admit, I am a greedy traveler and I like to enjoy the best of both worlds. So as I was on the way to Jakarta, a city which is considered by many to be the nightlife capital of Southeast Asia, I had one thing in mind, party.
Before leaving Pontianak I posted my intentions on couchsurfing Jakarta and made a call out to any locals or travelers who had similar plans in mind. My call was answered by Eka, a 24 year old student from Bogor who was in Jakarta for the weekend and looking for some people to join her and some friends for a night out on the town. She told me to meet them in Kemang, a wealthy suburb of south Jakarta where much of the city's eclectic night scene is centered. Because of the high prices and distance from train stations, few travelers make it up to Kemang. Well, few travelers bother spending any time in Jakarta in the first place. But I was curious to see what all the hype was about.
Unfortunately, Eka wanted to meet at 9PM and my plane did not land until 7:30. Given the distance from the airport and Jakarta's horrible 24 hour traffic there was a good chance I would not be able to make it. I had to make a decision. Either head to Jalan Jaksa next to the train station where the city's small backpacker scene is centered or take the gamble of heading south where there was only one hostel but a night out with some locals waiting for me if I made it in time. I decided to take the gamble.
As I took the shuttle bus from the airport to Kemang I was amazed by how many massive ritzy shopping centers dominated to landscape of Jakarta. Running between them were multi lane highways jam-packed with honking cars and trucks. The traffic was, as expected, horrible. For a metropolis of such immense size without any rapid transit system to speak of, I didn't expect anything less. The city certainly deserves the title of 'Worst Traffic in Asia'. After two hours of grid locked bus and taxi travel I finally made it to my hostel.
When I texted Eka to tell her I was coming but would be a couple hours late she told me not to worry as she would be arriving late too. In fact, everyone would arrive late. As I would soon come to understand, everyone in Jakarta is always late for everything.
When I finally got to the small beer garden at 10:30 the only other person who had arrived before me was a 30 year old American expat named Ben. Eka soon arrived along with her friend Feni, a cute recent grad in her mid twenties who was a bit shy at first but quite interesting to talk to and two friendly dudes from Eka's University named Erik and Yodi.
Everyone was dressed to the nines. I had on levis jeans, a t-shirt and my hiking boots. When Eka made a comment that we all were probably not dressed well enough to get into the most posh clubs in Kemang I confided in Ben telling him under my breath "these are the nicest clothes I have." "Don't worry" Ben replied "These aren't even my clothes." We both laughed. I could already tell I was going to get along well with this guy.
Ben was born near Seattle and lived in Portland before moving to Jakarta where he has been living the expat life for three years. It was great to meet someone from the same corner of the world as me who understood my crass Canadian sarcasm and was well able to dish it out himself. We quickly became friends and he invited me to crash at his place instead of wasting money on Jakarta's expensive hostels. He was having a birthday pool party for his 30th at his apartment the next day anyways. I accepted and said I would only be staying a couple nights before moving on to Yogya. He just smiled slyly and said "that's what the last Canadian who stayed with me said, he ended up staying a week and a half."
We all got to know each other over some cheap beers at the corner store before we were joined by the last member of the crew. Ben's friend Aidi, a talented singer songwriter and guitarist who had just finished a gig, met us at a small bar before we headed to Jakarta's largest underground club. It was multi level monster club that was so packed with chic looking locals we could barely move. Getting to the bathroom was a mission which took up to ten minutes. Aidi quickly had his wallet stolen in the crowd. Eventually we made it to a spot were we could dance for a few hours and wait out the crowds. But even at sunrise the place was just as busy as when we arrived. It seemed as though nobody ever left the building. As we jumped in a cab Ben told me that the club is often bumpin' until noon.
We went back to Ben's place for a quick sleep since he had invited us all to his afternoon bday party the next day. The next morning we awoke hung-over and tired but Ben was already out and about picking up supplies for his birthday bash. At around one he returned with snacks and boos before his friends started to filter in and congregate around the pool where there was an assortment of Indonesian food, BBQ and sushi. It was an interesting crowd which included English teachers, embassy officials, NGO workers and students. However, I spent most of my time chatting with Feni. She had studied in Ohio for a year as part of her degree in agriculture so she spoke English fluently. I found her passion for plants and bizarre amphibians both interesting and adorable. Since she and Eka were quite tired, they left early but Feni and I agreed to hang out again during the week.
Later in the evening a small reggae band showed up and set up around the pool. Everyone got trashed and danced or swam around until they, one by one, either called a taxi or passed out somewhere on the floor in Ben's small apartment. It was quite the party.
Ben somehow went to work the next morning. He is a professional sign language interpreter and translates for an American student at an international school. I just slept through most of the day then took a minibus to the mall to pick up a few things. Minibuses in Jakarta are quite the experience. They are stifling hot and because of the traffic it can sometimes be faster to walk, but there are always some interesting characters on board. As the rickety rusted metal boxes creep their way along the side of the road, a constant stream of musicians jump on to play a song or two before asking for change. Sometimes they are quite good, sometimes not, but I always gave at least a couple a few thousand rupiah.
That night I wanted to do something a little more low-key so Ben took me to see the seedier side of Jakarta. We went to the hooker bar street, not to pick up hookers but because the bars have live music and free pool. We lost a couple games to some bar girls who should really consider pool as a new profession before grabbing some noodles and heading home.
The next day I joined Ben after he finished work at his kickboxing class, a rigorous sweat filled hour and a half of kick punch combinations. Then I met Feni for our first real date. We started at Kemang's fancy Irish pub where we learned a bit more about one another over some mojitos, moved on to a sushi restaurant for California rolls and edamame then finished the night by jiving on the dance floor of NuChina, Jakarta's newest hip club. Good fun.
The next day I woke up with a sore throat and decided to stay in for the day but after the sun had set staying in was not an option. Ben, Aidi and I went to a couchsurfer meeting for a few beers before dragging some of the surfers out to a local club called venue which sported a swimming pool out back. My throat was killing me so I went home early but Ben rolled in at 5AM with just two hours of sleep to spare before work. How he was able to do this night after night is still a mystery to me.
The next night we hit yet another club. This one was called X2, one of Jakarta's most famous. At 2AM the dance floor was cleared to make way for a random fashion show with four local designers and ten foreign models. It was almost as ridiculous as the drink prices.
Once again, I slept through the next day while Ben went to work. At night I met Feni again at an Italian pizza place called Pizza y Birra. She decided on the restaurant since it was in an area of the city I not seen yet called Kuninggan. In fact, the only places in Jakarta I had seen were Ben's neighborhood, Kemang's bar district and the nearest mall complex. It's hard to venture far in Jakarta without transport. It's hard enough with transport. We devoured some tasty pizza before heading to the backpacker area for some drinks. I was curious to see what it was like. It turned out to be relatively empty compared to Kemang's packed clubs but there was a couple places playing good live music for us to hang out in.
The following day I said my goodbyes to Feni who was on her way to her hometown for the weekend to visit family. Then I bought a train ticket for Yogyakarta departing early the following morning. I did this out of a growing fear that if I didn't book a ticket, I would never leave Jakarta. Later in the day I met up with Ben for an afternoon massage after which he showed me around his neighborhood for a bit.
My last night in Jakarta was naturally filled with high priced drinks, strobe-lights and dance floors. We started at one of Jakarta's most chic bars where Ben was meeting an old friend. The guy was visiting on business and luckily picked up the tab since the beers were $10 a piece. They were even selling Kilkenny for $14 a pint. We returned to X2 for another long night before being forced to leave due to my early train departure time. We went straight from the club to Ben's apartment where I grabbed my bags and ordered a taxi. I said my goodbyes to Ben and thanked him profusely for showing me such a good time. When I arrived in Jakarta I had only planned to stay a couple nights. One week later, we were having so much fun that I could barely bring myself to leave. We made a plan to meet again in Bali during Ben's vacay time and I jumped in my taxi bound for the train station. I left on a Sunday at about 6AM an hour and a half before my train was to leave but Jakarta's traffic fooled me again. I barely made the train.
The train journey to Yogyakarta was difficult. I had no sleep, no food, I was hungover and the cabin was humid and hot. The volcanic scenery was nice but I had never been so happy to get off a train when I arrived in Yogyakarta ten hours later.
My Lithuanian friend Maya who I had met in West Kalimantan a couple weeks previous was at the station waiting for me. Maya lives and studies in Yogya so she offered me a bed in her house where she lives with three guys. As we were driven to her house by a friend named Ayu (who just so happens to be the goalie for the Indonesian national soccer team) I was able to catch my first glimpses of the city.
Yogya sits amongst several imposing volcanoes. On a clear day, the scenery is spectacular. The city itself feels small but is actually quite spread out. The buildings are colorful and most neighborhoods are very quaint. Beautiful graffiti covers unattended fences and once barren walls. Horse driven carriages and rickshaws dominate the roads around the center of town and the street food is delicious.
Yogya is also Java's university city and a primary center of arts an culture. Thus, the attitude is much more progressive and open to western ideas than other parts of Indonesia. Ironically, a flip-side to this openness is that much of the younger 'artsy' crowd tend to be a bit pretentious and not always very friendly. At times I felt like I was hanging out with a bunch Indonesian hipsters. But, for the most part, Maya's friends were always very cordial.
My first sightseeing activity in Yogya was visiting Pramanban temple where a Hindu festival was being held. Pilgrims flock here to touch the breasts of a particular female statue. I'm still not sure why. Next I visited the Kraton (Sultan's palace). For being such a progressive Asian city, the citizens of Yogya made the odd decision of retaining a sultan instead of holding democratic elections. The Kraton is where the sultan resides. The palace grounds hold little interest but the old neighborhoods around it where the small army of palace workers live are very interesting. Colorful cobblestone alleyways and worn down stone houses this time warped little area especially charming. Inside the houses are people living out there daily lives in service to the sultan.
The following morning I had to make a visit to the visa office for an extension, always a frustrating experience. I was told I needed a ticket out of the country to apply. I went back to Maya's, used her computer to Photoshop a fake ticket then returned the next morning. After applying I went to Borobudur, one of the largest and most famous ancient Buddhist structures in the world. The temple was impressive but I found the surrounding volcanic scenery to be more interesting. It was so hot on the temple grounds I could only spend an hour there before returning to Yogya.
I had a couple days to wait for my visa and nothing else to see so I just relaxed at Maya's place and read. Maya took me for some fantastic local food and to a few bars. Maya's roomate John, an American student, took me to the internet cafe to play video games. I hadn't played counterstrike (a game I played so much in high school my mom was forced to password protect the computer) in about five years but it all came back to me pretty fast. When my visa was ready I thanked Maya for her hospitality, promised to stay in touch and took a minibus to mount Bromo, probably Java's top natural attraction.
I booked a direct minibus through a tour company to prevent having to stopover in Surabaya for a night. The agency tried to sell me a complete Bromo package including hotel, tour and transport to Bali but I refused. I can't stand tours and this one sounded especially ridiculous. The tour itinerary was as follows: First take a minibus from Yogya to a village near Bromo. This bus, the only par of the tour I bought, was supposed to take 10 hours but actually took 14 leaving us in the village at 11PM. Upon arrival I was given the hardsell again. At 4AM the tour group is loaded into a jeep and driven up to a viewpoint for sunrise. They are given less than one hour at the viewpoint before being herded back into jeeps and driven to the base of the crater. They are given less than one hour at the crater and return to the village by 8 AM. Once in the village they board another minibus for an 11 hour journey to Denpasar, Bali.
Since Bromo is a huge area with lots to see I thought surely at least a few tourists would try the do it yourself approach. But when I arrived late in Bromo I realized that absolutely everyone had booked the tour. I guess all anybody is interested in these days is checking things they have seen off of a list. Nobody thought that perhaps they would like to spend more than an hour or two in the park. Of course the tour agencies are mainly to blame. They make it seem as though it is impossible to see the mountain on your own then try to create as big of a monopolistic network on transportation, tours and hotels in the area as possible to funnel tourists into the package deal. This is typical of famous but remote attractions in South East Asia.
Since we arrived much later than they had originally told us and were dropped at a hotel that was conveniently located 10 minutes drive from the village center where more accommodation could be found, my first task was finding a place to sleep. The hotel owner would not sell me a room at a reasonable price unless I booked the tour. Luckily an Argentinean traveler over heard me talking to the manager and discreetly offered to split the cost of his room. He was a real friendly guy named Bruno who was just beginning a trip through Asia and I am quite sure he was the only other foreign traveler in the whole park who did not book a tour. How we were lucky enough to randomly meet in the lobby of this particular hotel late at night is a mystery.
Room sorted, we started grilling the manager over alternative transport arrangements. I knew he knew about local moto drivers in the area who could take us up the mountain but he would not tell us. He assured us that his expensive tour was the cheapest way to the sunrise viewpoint. As Bruno argued I noticed a group of local men sitting out front listening intently to our conversation. I approached them and, sure enough, they were local drivers looking for tourists to shuttle into the park. We made a deal for a fraction of the cost of the tour and caught a little sleep before they picked us up at 3:30AM.
The early morning mountain ride was chilly, but we arrived with plenty of time to spare. As the sun rose from the east it illuminated one of the most intriguing sights I have ever seen. The scene was other-worldly. Three volcanic peaks, one turned into a large crater by an explosive eruption rose from a sea of barren black sand. Small clouds of sulphur gases puffed out of the craters settling into the multicolored sun laden clouds above. The rays of yellow sunshine spilling over the edge of the craters made it appear as though they were erupting with liquid gold. Large cliffs which marked the beginning of the barren landscape casted imposing shadows over it. Beyond the cliffs was a patchwork of farms built over a diagonal lush plateau. It was one hell of a postcard picture.
A half hour after the sun appeared, the tour groups were called back to their jeeps and Bruno and I were left with the view virtually to ourselves. When it was light enough we hiked further up into the mountains for some alternate perspectives. Then we hiked down the mountain through the sea of sand to the base of Bromo's crater.
The crater was even more other worldly than the viewpoint. Sulphur gases engulfed the area making it difficult to see the greenery beyond the barren sand-dunes. The crater was huge and mesmerizing. We walked around the lip for well over an hour pausing from time to time to peer into the bubbling sulphuric pool well below. When my head started to hurt from the gases we made our back to the village by moto for some food and well needed rest. We arrived back at the village ten hours after we had left at the end of a very satisfying day.
The next morning I wanted to make it all the way to Banyuwangi on the eastern coast of Java by public transport instead of giving any more money to the tour companies. First I had to hitch an early morning ride in the back of a pickup down the mountain, then I had to catch a moto into the city and jump on a local bus heading east. Three stuffy buses and a couple local minibuses later I finally made it to my destination.
Banyuwangi is a very laid-back and friendly town. For being only an hour ferry ride from Bali and the main transit point for the island, hardly any tourist actually make it into the city. There is only a few hotels, some internet cafes and, of course, lots of curious friendly faces. My main reason for booking a room in the town was to use it as a jumping point for Kawah Ijen, an active volcano and sulphur mine 35 clicks west of town.
Finding a Moto driver to take me to Ijen for a reasonable price was difficult. I eventually settled on a driver who was more than happy to shuttle me up the volcano for a steep price. From the base it was an hour and a half hike to the crater rim. Like Bromo, the scenery along the trail was fantastic. Unlike Bromo, where it sometimes seemed as though there were more jeeps and motos shuttling people around than people being shuttled, there were very few tourists on the Ijen trail. Instead I was sharing the path with worn and weary looking sulphur miners who were each carrying well over 50 kg of bright yellow sulphur down the side of the mountain. It is back breaking work and one miner told me he does the trek three times a day. There arms and shoulder blades were deformed and contorted into bizarre positions and they were continually coughing due to gas exposure.
As I approached the crater I found myself surrounded by more and more sulphur gas. When I peered over the edge I got a look at its source. The crater was large with steep silver like walls which glistened in the sun. At the bottom was an baby blue sulphur lake with a large gas vent on its periphery. I was short of breath from both the beauty of the crater and the gas.
I watched as the miners carefully descended into the crater their mouths stuffed with old scarfs and bandanas. I decide to shove my own shirt in my mouth and follow to get a closer look at the lake. They seemed happy to see a foreigner descending into the harsh environment alongside them.
The gases made the descent difficult but I eventually made it within a few meters of the lake. The volcano must have noticed my presence because as I took the final cautious steps towards my goal it coughed out a thick cloud of sulphur gas. I was quickly engulfed. My eyes began to sting and I was unable to breath. I fell to the ground and began crawling blind in an attempt to escape. I stayed low for about twenty terrifying seconds until the smoke cleared and I found refuge behind a large yellow sulphur rock. As I ascended out of the crater I could not help but wonder how these guys manage to endure this day in and day out. I had a new found respect for them and gave a few some water and a little cash in exchange for a picture to supplement their income. The least I could do.
I awoke the next morning with the intention of making it all the way from Banyuwangi to the Gili islands. My friend Ben had a week off work and we had made a plan to meet in Bali with a few of his friends. But Ben was not to arrive for another three days which I planned to kill on the islands. I thought the Gilis were off the coast of Bali but after an hour ferry ride to the island and a four hours bus trip to it's capital city Denpasar, I was told by a local driver that the Gilis are actually off the coast of Lombok a five hour ferry ride (or a very expensive fast boat) away. I decided to look for a quiet spot on Bali to lay low for few days instead. I was still recovering from a cold and had some work to get done on the computer anyways.
I asked a local at the bus station where I could find such a place and he pointed me in the direction of Sanur beach. When I arrived in Sanur it quickly became apparent that I was actually in the retiree capital of the Bali (people often refer to it as "snore"). For my purposes, however, Sanur was alright. Only when I went looking for a beer and could only five 65 year old Australians line dancing to a Neil Diamond cover band did I wish I was somewhere else.
I had two days to kill so I rented a motorbike to explore the island. First I rode up the east coast. As expected, once I left the central area around the airport the tourists thinned out considerably.
I passed many beautiful mountains and rice patties but what struck me most about Bali was the architecture. Every home and business was built of strong wood or stone, adorned with beautiful statues and carvings, topped with a thatched roof and surrounded by a intricate hindu style stone fence.
The locals I met along the way were also interesting. Many wore colorful traditional clothing and accessories and everyone seemed to be taking part in a ceremony of some type at one time or another. For a people that deal with as many drunken Australians as they do, the Balinese were very cordial and kind. Everyone was helpful and seemed to radiate a positive energy.
On my first day of biking I made it about 80 km up the coast. As I was on my way back my eye caught a weather beaten wooden sign which read 'White Sand Beach ->'. I decided to check it out. Two km of steep dirt road later I stumbled upon one of the nicest beaches I have stepped foot on. Nice first and foremost because of the flat white sand, clear waters, rocky cliffs and jungle back drop but also because there was only one restaurant and about ten other people there. I only had time for a quick dip before I had to race home to beat the sunset.
The next day I drove straight through the center of the island from the Sanur on the south coast up into the mountains and down to Singajara on the north coast and back again. It took about seven hours and I had a sore ass by the end of it but the scenery was worth the discomfort.
The following day I made my way to the infamous Kuta beach, often considered the epicenter of tourism (and douchebaggery) in Bali. I cannot believe how overdeveloped that beach town is. But I had already heard all the stories about Kuta and the only reason I went was to meet Ben who flew in on a late flight. As soon as he dropped his bags we were out the door for a night out in Seminyak a short drive up the beach only to return well after sunrise the next morning.
We took a taxi the next morning to a more relaxed environment in Ubud, the hippie Mecca of Bali. Unfortunately, the hippies in Ubud are more interested in looking like hippies than living like them. But the town is lovely and Ben set us up in a great place perched on a hill overlooking a rice field and owned by an awesome Balinese architect. She was always up for a good conversation and never shy to break out her bottle of patron to liven up the night. Ben's friend Ming, a dutch traveler working at a cafe in Ubud, was staying with us as well. The night we arrived we all made our way to a local music festival where an American band named 'Medicine for the People' was playing. They put on a good show.
Soon we met up with Rachel, another one of Ben's friends. Rachel is an forever laid-back kindergarten teacher who came to Indonesia ten years ago as a traveler and never left. After spending a little time in the country I can see why. A Spanish couchsurfer named Lare also joined the party and we all made a plan to climb the largest volcano in Bali the next day. Lethargy soon downgraded this plan into camping on a quiet beach on Bali's east coast. There we bought a large bottle of arak off some locals and got stupidly drunk while drawing shapes in the sand and sword-fighting with drift wood. As we relaxed in the moonlight we were constantly witness to the twenty four hour a day ferry bound for Lombok leaving the nearby port on the hour every hour. I made the suggestion that we catch the 3AM ferry to make our way to the Gilis for a few days. We all pondered the idea. Rachel took a large swig of arak to allow herself to be convinced that she could miss her flight the next day. Soon we were packing up the tent and stumbling over the hill on our way to the docks. We boarded a surprisingly busy ferry, found an uncomfortable place to lie down and fell into a drunken sleep.
Five hours later we awoke to a sunrise over the towering Rinjani volcano on Lombok. We chartered a car to take us to Bangsal harbor for the Gilis. From the little I saw of Lombok on this one hour ride it seemed far less developed and sported far more natural beauty than Bali. Looking back I wish I had given myself more time to explore it. But for the moment, the Gilis were the goal and we arrived on Gili Air mid-morning. The island was scorching that day. We soon found shelter in a classy bungalow with air con and an outdoor shower. In the afternoon we made our way to the far end of the island to chill on the beach at 'Space Bar', a trippy little beach hut decorated with glow paint. The bartender blared psychedelic techno all afternoon. We each got ourselves a magic mushroom shake (don't worry mom, they're legal in Indonesia) and enjoyed the ocean front views. The mushrooms were not particularly powerful but certainly added some beauty to our surroundings for a few hours. Gili Air is not the party island (Gili T holds that title) but there was a full moon beach party that night which turned out to be alright.
The next day we did exactly what one would expect a bunch of vacationers on the Gilis to so. Eat, drink and sleep on the beach. Since it was Ben's last day on vacation before catching a boat back to Bali and a flight home, he persuaded me to give another batch of mushrooms a try. Later in the evening we each downed a bundle of buds with a tuna steak and some French fries. The second batch was much more potent than the first and I had a good time making my own little world out of the roof of our bamboo hut.
The following morning I said another goodbye to Ben knowing that I would see him again in a few weeks when I was to return to Jakarta. Rachel, Lare and I decided to catch the boat over to Gili T to check out the scene there for the night. I can't say I was a huge fan of Gili T although I may have not spent enough time there. I found some of the locals to be quite rude although Rachel did have a few friends on the island who were friendly. After another island style night out I got a little sleep and woke up early to begin a long couple days of travel the next morning. I said goodbye to Rachel and Lare then took a boat and bus to Lembar harbor in Lombok. After five hours wait, I boarded a dingy public ferry bound for Flores to begin another journey through the Nusa Tenggara and eastern Indonesia. But those stories are for my next post.
For now, I can say that the Indonesian islands I have experienced so far have been fantastic. Java, Bali and the Gilis wonderfully contrasted my time in Borneo offering a very different kind of experience. While still boasting some interesting sights, for me these islands represented the raw fun which I was craving. When backpacking it's just as much about the people you meet as the places you go. I was lucky enough to meet a great group of expats who have added so much to my experience on these islands. In many respects, they have made the experience.
But as fun as Java and Bali can be, they are also quite developed in comparison to the rest of Indonesia. Now it's time to take a step away from the paved tourist track and onto a less travelled trail as I try to find my way through the Nusa Tenggara. Stay tuned.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 04:16 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Wildlife and Local Life in Borneo

all seasons in one day 35 °C

Borneo conjures up images of an unexplored wilderness teaming with bizarre animals and populated by small tribes of feather clad natives. And in many parts of the island this image is not far from the truth. Borneo truly is home to some very remote areas and an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Upon boarding my flight to Kuching, however, I was unaware of the large and incredibly diverse human population which inhabits the island as well. Borneo has nearly twenty million inhabitants. It's sits in the center of southeast Asia within arms reach of China and thus settlers from several distinct cultures seem to have forged enclaves in various regions of the island. During my three weeks in Borneo, I quickly came to understand that it is not only a place for spotting wildlife, but also a place experiencing interesting and diverse culture.
My first port of call in Borneo was the friendly modern Malaysian city of Kuching, Malay for 'cat'. Kuching is very developed, has many western amenities and is a comfortable place to relax in between trips to the rainforest. Like mainland Malaysia the city is a real cultural mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian. But several local Bornean cultures are present as well such as the Dayaks and Ibans.
The city is spotless, has a beautiful riverside walkway and, at times it almost feels almost too nice. I think a trip to Borneo should involve getting some mud on your boots but with Kuching's proximity to several interesting attractions, one only needs to make day trips returning to the city every night for a hot shower, a cold beer and even some McDonalds if one is so inclined.
I had to wait around in the in Kuching for a few days for my friend Murat, a Turkish traveler I met in mainland Malaysia to arrive from Kota Kinabalu. So I just checked into a homey hostel run by a friendly Iban local who was covered in traditional tattoos and enjoyed the comforts of Kuching. It was Chinese new year so everything was closed but I managed to find a few restaurants and bars to keep myself occupied.
When Murat arrived we finally took our first steps into the Bornean rainforest. First we trekked to a waterfall through kubah national park, a primary growth forest full of imposing trees and clear streams. Next we went to Semenggoh wildlife center to see semi-wild orangutans (semi-wild means the orangutans live in the wild but have their diet supplemented by forest rangers through regular feeding). When we arrived there was a large sign out front the ticket office stating that it was fruiting season and the orangutans were not likely to come out of the forest. We were a bit worried but after waiting about an hour, the orangutans finally appeared. A 45 year old grandma, her daughter and a couple grand kids happily hung out in the branches around us for an hour munching on bananas and sweet potato. It was fun to watch their many human like facial expressions and mannerisms and I was quite amazed at how close we were able to get to them. At times they were less than two meters away and remained calm even when surrounded by several tourists. They were clearly accustomed to the whole feeding drill. After an hour we went back to town where it was pouring rain. Instead of walking through the monsoon to the hostel we just ducked into a nearby theater to see what was playing. I am now ashamed to say that I actually watched the new Die Hard in Borneo and was mildly entertained.
The next morning we waited for an hour in the monsoon rain for a local bus to Bako national park, one or the oldest and most famous in Sarawak. We were royally ripped off by a monopolized boat scheme in order to enter the park but it was worth the money. The dense rainforest of Bako sits on a large peninsula ringed by steep eroding cliffs and pockets of sandy beach. Its a really interesting area with a diverse ecosystem. The trek was beautiful but unfortunately the rain turned the path into a river and, after a few hours of trekking, we were soaked as we made our way back to park HQ. I was a bit disappointed that we hadn't seen any wildlife on the trails but as we approached the HQ we stumble upon a large group of proboscis monkeys. With their human like legs, multi colored fur and large penis like noses, they are quite funny looking creatures. I had to resist the urge to yell 'hey dickface!' at the dominant male. As we continued towards the HQ we were surrounded by little leaf monkeys, one of which tried to rob Murat. Then wild pigs started roaming the beach. It was a bit ironic that we spent all day trudging through the muddy forest only to find that the wildlife prefers to hang out around the park HQ.
Upon returning to Kuching, Murat and I started looking into our trip to west Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo. While Malaysian Borneo is very developed for tourism (if not overdeveloped), I could find very little information on west Kalimantan. The lonely planet doesn't even include a chapter on the region (part of why I chose to go) only stating that it is a difficult place to travel. Even online it was hard to find any confirmed information about attractions. Some told me that there is just nothing there but I thought surely every region on an island like Borneo must have some things to see. Eventually I found a written account from some adventure traveler who raved about a large national park in west Kalimantan so we bought our bus tickets to Pontianak and made Gunung Palung national park our main destination.
As we crossed the border into Indonesia the contrast between the two countries was very apparent. Malaysian Sarawak had a smooth divided highway but, after collecting our shiny new Indonesian visas, we soon found ourselves averaging about 20 km/h down a weather beaten road. The well maintained homes of the Malaysians were replace by worn down albeit colorful road side shacks and when we stopped for a meal we quickly learned that, unlike their neighbors to the north, the Indonesia Borneans do not speak any English.
After a few hours of rumbling through the beautiful jungle landscape we came upon a large center of logging activity. It was a sad sight. The dense forest had been stripped down to barren land, often flash burned to make way for agriculture. The closer we got to Pontianak, the more barren land we saw. While crossing the bridge which leads to the center of the city, I had my first glimpse of the mighty Kapuas river, one of the largest in Borneo. In this city setting, however, it looked far from mighty. The brown water was full of trash and barges packed full of rainforest wood floated by the ramshackle shacks crammed along the riverbank. The closer we got to the center of Pontianak, the more rundown it looked. I was surprised by the horrible traffic congestion. Borneo and traffic were not two things which went together in my mind. The river port city was quite spread out, busy and polluted.
Even it is a little rough around the edges, however, Pontianak is also one of the friendliest cities I have been to. Clearly very few foreigners have ventured into the area and the locals relished in the opportunity to say a few words in English, take a picture or give me a high five. Occasionally we would come across someone who spoke English and they were always very helpful. We actually planned to only spend one night in Pontianak before leaving for the park but Murat came down with some type of infection and needed a couple days rest. During that time we checked out Pontianak's one attraction: the equator monument. Since the city lies directly on the equator, the locals built a monument in 1928 to mark the exact spot. It's cheesy but fun attraction. The night before we left for the park we met two of the most bizarre and interesting people I have ever met in my life. We were at KFC and recognized two guys from our hotel. They were definitely Japanese and gave off the vibe of a couple of Tokyo hipsters. Given the setting, we were immediately curious as to what these guys were doing in Pontianak. We asked to join them and started firing some questions.
It turns out one owns a small magazine company in Tokyo based around reptiles and the other was his one biologist employee who could recall the Latin name of basically every reptile in the animal kingdom. He was a pretty crazy dude. He told us several stories about the multiple times he had been bitten by a poisonous snake or caught a tropical disease and been rushed to a third world hospital only to return to the bush a few days later. He had a passionate love of reptiles. Whenever he spoke of a particular species he would always finish by throwing two thumbs in the air and stating "their super!".
For ten years the odd couple have been searching Borneo for the rarest reptile on the planet. It has not been seen for almost thirty years and most consider it to be extinct. They had been absolutely everywhere on the island, from Sabah to south Kalimantan. They work by hiring a car to take them to a remote area then hike deep into the bush where live for several nights sleeping during the day and hunting at night (since the reptile is nocturnal). This seemed crazy to me considering how hard it is to navigate in the rainforest without a local guide or even a trail. When we asked what they ate the said "cookies! ther vely gooda!". When we asked them what they wore they said "this!" referring to the clothing they had on. One was wearing flared jeans with stars on the ass, a duster and had an amine style haircut. The other was a bit chubby, wore a tuque, a purple wife beater and a pair of short shorts with a red and white striped pattern.
Finally we asked the million dollar question: had they seen the lizard. They exchanged quick glances at each other, then pulled out their camera. "Don't tell anyone" they said and flipped through several shots of three small crocodile like lizards with long tails and snub faces. They claimed these were the only known pictures of the animal in the last 30 years. After ten years of searching, they had finally found their prize lizard seven hours drive from Pontianak. For two guys who had just realized their life's work, they seemed remarkably calm. For a couple hours we grilled them about how the started the magazine and how we could get involved with this type of thing as well. It sounded like a dream job. But eventually we tired them out with our relentless questioning. After a week of forging through the in the rain forest in the dead of night, they had to go get some sleep. Those are the people you remember.
I left the next morning for Gunung Palung with images of the rain forest forest painted from our conversation with the Japanese dudes fresh in my mind. I truly did not know what to expect from the park. I read on a couple websites that it is a great place to spot wild orangutans but I thought perhaps this was expecting too much. We had to take a speed boat down the Kapuas to get to Sukadana, a small town and the park access point. The boat ride was ridiculous. They put thirty of us in an over sized dingy designed to seat at most twenty and strapped two 200hp engines to the back. It was one of the most uncomfortable boat rides I have ever had. We sat next to a friendly Muslim gentlemen named Agus who was a government official in the town. Surprisingly, Agus spoke near fluent English and offered to help us organize a guide. Without him we would have been lost trying to get into the park. He also told me about a large festival in his hometown of Singkawang a few hours from Pontianak called Chap Goh Meh, the Borneo version of the final day of Chinese new year. When I expressed an interest in going, he offered for me to stay with his family. I thanked him for his generosity, told him I would consider the offer and took down his number.
Agus organized a great guide for us as well named Sufianto or 'Sufi'. Sufi was an eternally smiling little guy in his late twenties who was an expert at spotting wildlife. He lived in small village right on the edge of the park and since it is quite expensive to sleep at the park campsites, we ended up staying with his grandmother in a small home-stay. The house was very basic with just a few rooms, a bucket of water fed by the stream as a shower and a cozy little porch. We slept in a small room with nothing more than a hard mattress and a bed net. The grandma was priceless, constantly babbling in the local dialect and shooting us big toothless grins every few minutes.
Sufi's older brother was named Sri Malianto, a tree planter who took a keen interest in learning some English from us and taught me quite a bit of Indonesian as well. Both brothers had wives and kids who they were keen for us to meet. We spent much of our time in the village going house to house to see extended family and friends. Everyone seemed happy to have us. Surprisingly, the village was originally settled by Balinese sailors and, while Sufi's family is Muslim, the majority of the inhabitants are Hindu and practice Balinese rituals. Another example of the immense cultural diversity of Borneo.
After eating a delicious home made dinner we went to bed but at 5am the roosters made it impossible to sleep. Sufi made us tea and took us around the village before we set out into the park. As soon as we left the edge of the village we were in dense bush and after short walk we were in the midst of untouched primary growth rain forest. As we climbed towards the wildlife site the trees got taller, the rivers rushed faster and the jungle sounds got louder. This was the rainforest adventure I was looking for. Soon after entering the park we spotted a couple red haired leaf monkeys keeping a watchful eye on us. We came across a few large alien looking insects and some super sized trees, one which must have been 50 meters high. When we reached the wildlife site Sufi showed us some bat nests (with sleeping bats inside) and made us lunch while we listened to the call of gibbons all around us. After lunch we hiked further up the hill in search of wildlife. Sufi spotted a gibbon but it was too quick for my eyes. There were a few more red haired monkeys and some old orangutan nests way up in the trees but nothing else. I didn't actually expect to see anything spectacular, the rainforest itself was beautiful enough, but Sufi was clearly not satisfied with showing us just a few monkeys. As the afternoon sun was waning he finally found what we all wanted to see. He grabbed my arm, told me to be quiet and pointed through the thick foliage. There sitting in a tree eating fruit was two adult orangutans. They had clearly spotted us but were waiting for us to pass. Sufi dragged us off the path to get a better look which prompted the apes to start moving. They didn't run away but seemed to be cautiously moving into positions to get a better look as too. When we got too close, they made kissing noises. Then they started breaking branches off the trees and dropping them next to us. The sheer size of these branches was a testament to the strength the apes. I don't think were tying to hit us, just warn us. Eventually we got the message and moved on. Still buzzing from the site of our Ginger-haired relatives we took a swim in a pool of clear river water sculpted by a waterfall before heading home.
We returned to the village for another home cooked meal. After dinner I played cards with Sri and his daughter on the porch before I went to bed with a smile on my face. That day was one of the best I had spent traveling in quite a while. The next morning Murat planned to go back to Pontianak to catch a flight to Jakarta while I planned to stay another day in the forest. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with the park fees and I did not have enough money on me for another day. The mix up was nobodies fault, just miscommunication. Clearly these guys did not have enough experience with tourists to be ripping us off and they really went above and beyond the call of duty in showing us a good time. Sufi spent every waking hour with us during the two days making sure we were kept busy. He seemed so genuinely happy to have us in his home and really cared about our experience in Palung. We agreed to split the difference between our bill and Sufis bill but in the end Murat and I just sent the rest with the boat man. It was only a difference of $20 each and they deserved it.
On board an overstuffed speedboat back to Sukadana I was very surprised to see another young white face. It was a Lithuanian girl named Maya who was traveling with a local Pontianak friend named Ellen who had spent the last ten years in the UK. They were traveling around Ellen's old stomping grounds and had come to Sukadana to find some of her long lost relatives. The two girls were just as surprised to see us and we got to chatting about the area. They told me they were also going to Singkawang for the Chap Goh Meh festival and Ellen, who had been several times before, told me that it was really worth the trip. We decided to discuss it further over a dinner in Pontianak that night. As we munched down on some Chinese food, Ellen told some stories about Singkawang and the festival. I was soon convinced. I called up Agus and arranged to stay with his family, said goodbye to Murat who was on his way to Jakarta and hitched a ride to Singkawang with Ellen and Maya the next day.
Singkawang is an exotic town close to the coast and surrounded by jungle mountains. It's known as Indonesia's Chinatown because of the long history of Chinese settlers. Most of the inhabitants look Chinese and speak a variation of Hakka, a language from Fujian province in southern China. Thus, it is the perfect site for the Chap Goh Meh festival, one of the largest in Borneo, which marks the end of Chinese New Year.
We arrived in Singkawang mid afternoon on a beautiful sunny day. We stopped off at the town's most famous noodle spot before Ellen's driver dropped me at Agus' mother's home. As I entered the small wooden house I was greeted by Agus' family. I thought I would just be staying with Agus and his mother but the whole gang had come home for the festival. Agus is the oldest of three brothers. The middle brother's name is Zul, a very friendly guy who seemed to know everyone in town on a first name basis. The little brother is Tri, a kind soul who has several small businesses in Singkawang and takes good care of his widowed mother while his brothers are at home in other towns. The grandmother, a quick and snappy old lady, was often the life of the party. All of the brothers have wives and energetic young kids. Soon after I arrived the kids greeted me by all running up to me and yelling "oh my god!", I guess the only words they new in English. I couldn't contain my laughter. The three brothers were the only ones who could speak a little English but Agus was a good translator. There were so many cousins and friends in the small home as well that I found it nearly impossible to remember everyone's name and who was related to who.
Agus had a fever the night I arrived but Zul was eager to take on a motorbike tour of the town. He took me to many of the major temples and monuments before we sat down for some local noodles and a cup of tea. Over tea and cigarettes he told me I was the first foreigner he had ever met. I told him I was honored. When we finished, Zul insisted on paying the bill as he did with almost every bill. In fact, much to my frustration, I was not hardly able to pay for a single thing while staying with the family. They weren't rich and I felt bad about them buying so many meals, drinks and gifts. But, on this point, they were unmovable.
The following morning I woke up early to the sound of roosters. Everyone was waiting for in the common room with sweet rice porridge. Once we'd had our fill, Zul gave me a helmet, threw me on the back of his bike and took me into town to see the festival. For such a small town the roads were a nightmare. Many people from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan frequent Chap Goh Meh so every year the hotels are all booked months in advance and the roads are full of rental cars and bikes. Every street was jam packed with people and lined with glowing red lanterns. We dodged our way through the crowd until we reached the epicenter of the festival, the oldest Chinese temple in town. This is where the Shamans began their parade.
Given my experience in China I was well aware of the typical CNY celebrations so many facets of the festival were already quite familiar to me. As the parade began, I saw thirty meter long dragons, portable temples and various Chinese costumes paraded through the lantern lined streets to the deafening sound of Chinese percussion. What was special about this festival, however, was the Shamans, something I had never seen before. The Shamans come from all over the countryside of Borneo to parade in the festival and represent a more local grown Bornean animism which has deep roots in the interior of the island. They are who everyone comes to the festival to see. They began the day by adorning themselves in various bright and outrageous traditional costumes. Some wore crowns and green silk jumpsuits, others had vests made completely from monkey skulls. They all had a unique color set and the bands of followers who shuttle them through the streets dressed accordingly as well. At the main temple, they each performed a ritual to become possessed by a holy spirit. Once they are possessed, they claim no harm can come to them. They proved this point by performing various stunts on top of specially made sedan chairs carried by their followers.
As I wrestled my way into a spot close to the close to the parade path, the Shamans began to pass, one by one, performing their miracles. Most had large hooks or barbs pierced through their cheeks sometimes with fruit hanging from them. Their sedan chairs were specially designed with sharp swords pointing out in every which directly. The Shamans would sit directly on the tip of a sword transferring all their weight onto it without piercing their skin (although I did see a couple who were bleeding). Others stood on the swords or on beds of nails while cutting their hands and tongues with knives, once again without injury. By the middle of the morning it was raining quite heavily causing people to scatter under the awnings but the Shamans just continued to parade. Nothing seemed to phase them. Their eyes were glazed, they danced in strange rhythmic movements and they always seemed to be in a state deep concentration.
As interesting as the Shamans were, however, I became as much as a festival attraction as them. I was stopped so often for pictures that at times I found it difficult to keep an eye on the action. One person would stop me for a picture prompting everyone in the vicinity to join in. Sometimes I had one group take as many as ten different pictures with different cameras and different combinations of people. I can only hope I didn't steal some of the Shamans' thunder. After five hours of body defying stunts, the parade started to dissipate and streets slowly began to clear. Zul and I got some lunch then went home.
The festival was the kind of experience that, even if just for a moment, makes one believe in the supernatural. Its hard not to wonder how they perform their tricks. At one point, I got up close and personally with one of the sedans and felt the blades myself. They were certainly sharp enough to cause some serious damage. Yet only a couple out over a hundred Shamans showed any sign of injury. Magic or crafty tricks, supernatural or not, the festival was an incredible experience and something I will not soon forget.
After returning home, Zul and Agus took me to a nearby rainforest park so the kids could swim in the river and Zul could show me his durian and coconut farm. As the sun set, we returned home where the entire family was waiting with another delicious home cooked meal. I was still buzzing from the festival and could not stop talking about it. Zul offered to take me to another similar festival in a smaller town the next day and I graciously accepted. During dinner, somewhat randomly, the subject of religion was broached by Agus. Perhaps more due to stereotypes in the west than anything, I was a little nervous discussing religion with such a devoutly Muslim small town family. I was having such a good time and did not want to create an awkward situation. But I calmly told them I do not adhere to any particular religion. Agus then asked me if I believed in Darwinism to which I replied that I did not have enough education in the subject to make a comment, my best attempt at skirting the question but Agus was clever enough to read between the lines. To my surprise the family was very tolerant and not forceful in the least with their ideals. Agus explained how his family liked to learn from people who were different to better understand cultural diversity around the world. He thought it was important for his children to understand and accept the differences between in people. I was touched when, after commenting on his traditional Muslim hat, Agus left the table to fetch another one from his room and offered it to me as a souvenir. This prompted Zul to leave the table as well and return with a shirt from his drawer to offer. Perhaps a little brotherly competition but very kind nonetheless.
After dinner, since Agus was leaving with his family back to Pontianak, it was picture taking time. I think the family took about twenty different pictures in various combinations of myself and different family members. Each of the brothers wanted a picture with me and their family, then just myself and the kids, then the brothers and me and finally the grandmother made sure she got a shot of just her and myself as well. As Agus left for Pontianak I thanked him profusely for allowing me to stay during the festival and showing me such a good time. I told him it was one of the most special experiences of my life. I wasn't lying. The kids gave me a traditional uncle's goodbye as they left by placing the back of my hand against both of their cheeks and their forehead. Then Agus and his family was off. As I left to go back to my room, grandma gave me a bag full of bananas, rice crackers and water in case I got hungry during the night.
It was a hot muggy night, I had no fan or bed net and the mosquitoes were rampant, but I slept very well. The next morning Zul took me to Pemangkat, about an hours drive from Singkawang to see another festival. The festival was very similar to the Singkawang Chap Goh Meh but since the town was smaller and their was just as many people it felt much more intense. It was also quite clear that the majority of the Pemangkat residents had never seen a white person before. If I thought I was getting a lot of attention in Singkawang, Pemangkat took it to a whole new level. I could not walk more than a few meters without being stopped by screaming girls for a picture. Even the Shamans were taking an interest in me. A few of them stopped the parade procession to step down from their sedan and perform a trick especially for the foreigner. One put a large knife close to my face as he easily sliced through a pear, then he pulled me even closer as he proceeded to drag the blade across his tongue in a rhythmic motion. He removed the blade to show that there was not a single mark on his tongue. I just stood there dumbfounded for a minute before moving on. We heard that one of the Shamans planned to eat a live duck but the parade ended quite quickly and I never saw it. The Pemangkat festival may not be as famous as Singkawang's but I found it more interesting and more exhilarating.
After the festivities subsided, Zul took me to the tiny local port to take a boat across to the island where he lives with his family. Since he works for the transportation authority, he new absolutely everyone at the port. When we arrived at the island we decided to play a little gag on the locals. Zul taught me how to issue tickets for the passenger dingies. He then sat back and chuckled while confused villagers (most of whom had likely never seen a white person before) approached the window and struggled with my limited bahasa Indonesian to buy a ticket. There were some priceless moments for sure.
After Zul raced us back to Singkawang to avoid a rain storm, I got a text from Ellen, the girl I met on the boat from Sukadana, inviting me to join her and her friends on an island called Kabung for a few days. I agreed and met them that night to discuss the details. The next morning, I said a heartfelt goodbye to Zul and Tri who had done so much for me the last few days. Zul gave me one last gift, a tourist t-shirt from the Singkawang festival, before he returned to his village.
Soon Ellen and Maya picked me up and we were off to Kabung Island. There was a good group of people going. The trip was organized by Deni and Venni, a couple who own a small tour company which specializes in the responsible development of remote tourist destinations in western Borneo. There was also an older Australian volunteer named Tony who was working with them to produce a documentary on the Shamans of Chap Goh Meh, a couple of Indonesian girls named Novi and Sandy who worked with the organization and finally a 20 year old Australian giant named Miles who was completely unprepared for this type of remote travel. Ellen and Maya had met Miles in Java a few weeks previous and invited him along. Little did they know that Miles is the prototypical Aussie party traveler with little experience or interest in cultural travel. In fact, I think he was one of the most cultural insensitive people I have ever seen on the road. He wasn't a bad guy but got on everyone nerves pretty fast.
Since the ocean close to Singkawang was full of trash and sediment from the river, I was not expecting much from the island. I was in for one hell of a surprise. As our boat got farther away from the shore and closer to the island the water went from brown to crystal blue and turquoise. The small Island rose out of the water in two jungle covered peaks. Directly off shore was several colorful reefs full of bizarre fish. Upon arrival, Deni and Venni took us to a small village which had never hosted outsiders before. We were kind of like guinea pigs for their development project. The villagers clearly were not prepared. All of us were placed in a old wooden shack which had not been maintained. There was no bed nets or mats and we had to sleep on a splintered wooden floor. The bathroom was fed by stream water which drained into a small well. As usual, we had only a bucket to wash ourselves. Electricity on the island was scarce and only provided for a couple hours after sunset by gasoline powered generators. But the locals were very nice and the atmosphere was super relaxing. It was a true village experience.
The island itself was stunning. The water was crystal clear and the view of the surrounding islands was great. If there had been sandy beach instead of a rocky one, it would be the perfect remote tropical paradise. The village life was also interesting. Everyone's livelihood depended on fishing and clove picking. The young men sat in bagans (wooden fishing platforms) all night long to catch squid and anchovies while the woman went up into the hills during the day to pick and sort cloves. In front of everyone's home was large bamboo mats covered in fish and cloves which were left out to dry. From sunrise to sunset the villagers seemed to be working, albeit at a very relaxed pace. Some were fixing boats or docks, others were building new bagans, but everyone had a chore to do.
On our first island day we took a boat out to the reef to do some snorkeling. The reef was quite colorful and made for a nice day of swimming with the fishes. That night we took a boat to another village to work with the fisherman on a bagan. Bagans are rickety looking platforms which have a large descend able net beneath them. At night, the fisherman place a generator powered lamp close to the water surface to attract squid then lower and lift the net in thirty minute intervals for the entire night. It was interesting to watch them work and we even got to sort the catch when they brought it on board. We selected a few squid and fish and barbequed them right there on the bagan with some sambal sauce for dinner. I never tasted such fresh fish in my life. After dinner, I spent the rest of the evening trying to attract the fish by playing soft melodies on the guitar. Since the shack back in town was so muggy and mosquito infested, we decided just to sleep on the bagan. The generator noise made it difficult but we all managed to catch a few Zs on the bamboo floor before catching the first of several stunning sunrises on the island. Since it was rainy season but the clouds tend to collect over the larger landmass across the water rather than above the island, the sunrises and sunsets on Kabung are some of the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world. They are part of what makes this place so special.
The next morning we took a boat across to the village to relax on a shaded dock built out into the reef. We spent a few hours watching the sea turtles and bizarre looking fish float by under our feet. I went for a walk around the village and found myself at the small local elementary school. I joined the kids in their morning exercises and they taught me a little bahasa Indonesian for a few hours from the science books in their tiny school library. I was really impressed by one student in particular who, at the age of perhaps nine or ten and with little to no previous contact with native English speakers, was able to communicate with me, albeit in a very basic manner. Eventually the teachers collected the kids to start class and I made my way back to the shack for a nap.
In the evening one of the fisherman showed up in front of our house to show off a small reef shark he had just caught off shore. The villagers quickly started a fire and soon we were chowing down on delicious shark meat which was swimming around in the ocean only a couple hours earlier. We then caught another amazing sunset at the dock. After dark, little green glowing creatures started appearing all around us. Soon the ocean was glowing with what looked like the reflection of green stars. I had never seen anything like it and still have no idea what it was.
We spent one more night fishing on the bagan before it was time to leave the tropical paradise early the next morning. While lack of facilities made living on the island a bit difficult, Kabung is one truly remote and special place. Had I brought a mat to sleep on, I could have stayed there for a while. Upon returning to the coast, we caught a share taxi back to Pontianak where I boarded a plane to Jakarta to conclude my Borneo adventure. As I took off late in the afternoon, I was treated to yet another fantastic sunset, a fitting end to my time on the big beautiful island.
Borneo is a unique and special place. It is constantly under threat by intense logging activities and over-development but it is so big that it is still possible to find beautiful and remote paradises untouched by tourism. These places are not necessarily easy to find as a foreigner but I was lucky to meet the right people to show me the way. I was given two awesome experiences, Singkawang and Kabung, through a couple of simple conversations with locals who happened to speak English.
Most people come to Borneo to see the wildlife but the local life is just as interesting. There are so many friendly people from such a diverse range of cultures and, especially in Kalimantan, hospitality and generosity are never lost on a outsider. As is the case in most remote areas, the locals truly want you to leave their home with a good impression and some good stories to tell you friends and family. I think they succeeded.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 20:46 Archived in Indonesia Comments (1)

Western Comfort and Eastern Illness: Malaysia and Singapore

sunny 35 °C

To bobble-head elephants with their trunks held in the air were dancing on the dashboard of a cramped mini van. I was sharing the backseat with a couple of giant Swedes, one of whom was falling asleep on my shoulder. Sigur Ros was blaring through my headphones while I ignored the uncomfortable situation by contemplating life on the road.
This was how I crossed the border into Malaysia. After 14 hours packed into the back of a series of four overbooked minibuses I was tired and cranky but looking forward to a few weeks in a country I knew very little about. All I had been told about Malaysia was that it was modern and a bit more expensive than other SE Asian countries. I had a lot to learn.
I arrived in Georgetown on the Island of Penang after sunset and checked into my Japanese themed hostel, a place called Ryokan which boasted that it was not a backpacker hostel but a 'flashpacker' hostel. I didn't understand the term so I asked the desk clerk to explain. He informed me that a flashpacker was a quasi-backpacker who pays a little more to stay in nicer hotels and hostels, eat fancy meals and carries a good pair of shoes to get into the chic clubs. I can't say I fully agreed with or understood the phrase. Nonetheless, I came away from the conversation with the conviction that I am definitely not a flashpacker...
As soon as I dropped my bags I set out to sample some of Penang's famous street food. It was late but the Georgetown vendors serve up tasty snacks late into the night. As I went from vendor to vendor I was surprised by the cultural mish mash of cuisine. There were several types of Chinese, Indian, Muslim, indonesian and western foods. The vendors competed for business often telling customers (in perfect English) to avoid certain ethnic groups who were known for cheating tourists. The chinese told us to avoid the Indian vendors. The Indian vendors told us to avoid the malays and so on. Occasionally one vendor would verbally berate another for stealing his business and little spats were common. After spending a little time in the country, I came to understand how this little vendor market could easily be understood as a microcosm of the social situation in the Malaysia. The country is home to several distinct cultures who quite clearly do not always live in harmony. 
I perused the bewildering selection of quicks eats and eventually I decided on some hokkien noodles. As I was looking for a place to sit I was called over to a table by a couple of guys who recognized me from the hostel. One was a funny British police man named Rob in his mid thirties who had quit his job and rented out his house to travel former British colonies. The other was a younger Turkish engineer named Murat who was four months into a world tour. Murat was the first Turkish backpacker I had ever met. We enjoyed some fantastic food and a beer each while comparing some road stories.
The next day we all met in the hostel lobby, took a bus up to Penang hill for a view of the island and walked around the city. Parts of Georgetown felt like some of the old city centers in China with old broken down colonial style buildings adorned with red lanterns and Chinese signs. Other areas felt very western sporting large shopping malls filled with brand name clothing, fast food and electronics.
That night we caught a few beers at one of the many reggae bars in town. Local bar owners in southeast Asia have come to realize that to attract young tourists all you need to do is play Bob Marley's 'Legend' on repeat, sell cheap beer and hang a red, green and yellow banner out front the bar. A sure formula. Thus, the spread of reggae bars throughout the region is endemic. Not that I am complaining. I, like most people, enjoy the reggae vibe and this particular bar was a good travelers meeting place.
The following morning I slept in and missed a bus for the first time since I arrived in Asia. Luckily, I booked through a travel agent who was able to put me on another one heading to Cameron highlands later that morning free of charge. Penang had been sweltering but as the bus climbed up into highlands the temperature dropped significantly offering a nice relief from the typical heat. I shared the minibus with one other traveller, a friendly Dutch girl in her mid twenties named Stefanie. We chatted about backpacking for a while then decided to tour the highlands together for a couple days.
We arrived in Tanah Rata in the evening and, after booking into a ten bed dorm, found some Indian food. We then hit the convenience store for some ice cream, a deck of cards and a small bottle of cheap vodka; three objects that characterized the rest of my nights in Tanah Rata. During the day, Stefanie and I tried hiking to a tea plantation before realizing that what we thought was a trail on the map was actually a highway. We caught the bus instead to one of the famous Boh plantations a few kilometers away. It was more impressive than I expected. A misty valley of super green hills covered in a patchwork of tea bushes. After enjoying a cup of the jasmine green tea we made our way back to town for some more Indian food, cards and vodka. I didn't get a great night sleep due to a group of loud swedes who were up all night partying on the patio so I was pretty tired when I caught my bus the next morning to Kuala Lumpur. I was also a little light headed but I figured it was just from the vodka the night before. The morning bus ride was full of beautiful scenery as we made our way through the misty rainforested hills of the highlands and eventually landed in Kuala Lumpur mid afternoon. 
KL city center was very modern with large fancy brand name shopping malls on every corner and eight lane highways dissecting the impressive skyline.
I took an hour to walk around the china town before I jumped on the skytrain to Petaling Jaya outside of KL to meet my couchsurfing host. In case you have not heard of it before, couchsurfing is a online community of travelers and hosts. If you create a profile, you can apply to hosts in a surprising number of cities around the world for a place to stay and/or a friend to hang out with. Since hosts are travelers too, they are usually sympathetic to your cause and interested in meeting like minded people. It's a well established and ingenious service.
My host was a very thoughtful and kind freelance writer named Catherine. Her and her roommate Kevin, a popular DJ on one of Malaysia's most listened too English radio stations, were very welcoming and lots of fun. As soon as I arrived at their suburban flat, Catherine and I began chatting and she told me some interesting things about Malaysia. She described Malaysia's three main ethnic groups: the muslim Malays, the Chinese Malaysians and the Indian Malaysians. From her perspective, the country was dominated by the muslim malays who held political power and instituted laws which granted Malays special treatment. She said that Chinese Malaysians must pay more for government services and have a difficult time gaining positions of power within the government. She went as far as to say a system of apartheid is present in the country where the Muslim majority oppress other ethnic groups.
Since I knew so little about malaysia, I found this all very interesting, but unfortunately, mid-conversation I was hit with a horrible headache which forced me to lie down. I  thought it was just from lack of sleep so I took a couple painkillers and napped for an hour. When I awoke I felt better so Catherine and Kevin treated me to some excellent street hawker food. Soon after finishing the meal, however, my headache returned with full force and I felt unusually fatigued. I figured I still needed to catch up on sleep and just went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up in a cold sweat with a fever, a splitting headache and a bad stomach ache. I took some more pills and managed to sleep a bit but the next morning I awoke early with muscle pain in almost every part of my body. I soon realized that I had caught some kind of virus and hoped it was just a bad flu that would resolve itself with rest. 
But in the days that followed my symptoms only worsened. They would come in waves. Sometimes I would feel a bit better and decide to join Catherine or Kevin on a small trip to the mall or to a movie. But once there I would be hit with another wave of symptoms which would force me to catch a cab home. I started running a high fever and was waking up at night in copious amounts of sweat. Even in the sweltering heat of KL I was getting chills and I could not eat without feeling nauseas. One time I collapsed in a restaurant and vomited all over the floor after only one sip of soup.
I finally allowed myself to consider the possibility that this was more serious than a nasty flu and made a trip to a clinic. The doctor advised me to take a course of antibiotics to determine if it was an infection. I don't like taking antibiotics so I declined the drugs and decided to move into a hotel room to wait out the symptoms and find a second opinion.
I had been communicating with my mom about the illness so she put me up in a fancy downtown hotel and convinced me to get a blood test for tropical diseases.  When I went to the hospital the doctor put me on an IV to replace lost fluids and told me to wait one hour to get the results. When he returned one hour later, he carried with him a sheet of paper which confirmed that I had dengue fever. I was astonished, both because I didn't think my symptoms were bad enough for dengue and because I couldn't believe my bad luck. I guess I had been careful with mosquitos in rural areas where malaria is more common but more careless in urban areas where I thought I was safer. Little did I know that urban areas are actually where dengue mosquitos dwell.
The doctor offered me a bed but I declined saying that I had hotel nearby. As I exited the hospital I was very surprised by the $150 bill I was given for a simple blood test and IV drip.
The doctor ordered me to return the next day for another platelet count but, after almost a week since it began, I could already tell I was through the worst of the sickness. A couple more tests, a few of days of sleeping and watching movies in the hotel and the symptoms eventually subsided. I was only left with a tiredness that lingered for another week or so. 
When I felt strong enough to move on I checked out of my cushy room, threw my bag over my shoulder (it felt quite a bit heavier than usual) and headed to the bus station to continue the journey. Next stop, Singapore.
The five hour bus to Singapore was ridiculously comfortable. The sparse group of people on board each had a small TV and a seat which folded down almost completely into a bed. Definitely the nicest bus I had ever been on. When I arrived at the Singapore border I made my way through a slow moving line at immigration. But when I made it to the other side I could not find my bus. It had disappeared. I asked a local worker who informed me that the buses only wait 20 minutes before leaving for the city. I thought this was pretty ridiculous as 20 minutes is barely enough time to make it through immigration even if there is no wait time. The worst part was that I had no Singapore dollars to take the public bus and their was no ATM or exchange at the border. I was stuck. I just started asking random bus drivers if they could give me a ride into the city center but to no avail. Eventually a local woman saw I was in trouble and offered to give me a ride to a place where I could change some money. She was with a group of British students who were doing some type of internship in Singapore so I jumped in their van and got a ride to a mall where I was able to get some cash and take the subway to my couchsurfing host's apartment.
In KL I had organized a CS host more for the experience but in Singapore I simply did not want to spend $35 for a hostel bed. My host was a Philippino IT specialist named Wendy who worked from her 19th floor apartment just outside the city center. The apartment complex was really nice with a couple large swimming pools. She shared with four others so the flat was a little dirty but still comfortable. When I arrived late in the evening she told me the spare mattress was dirty and I would just be sleeping in her bed. I thought it a bit odd but I didn't really care. Then she invited me to go clubbing with her and her friends. I was still recovering from the dengue, however, and thought I night out in the clubs was not a good idea so I just made myself comfortable and stayed in. She had a large flat screen TV with satellite so I watched a couple Hollywood flicks before falling asleep. I awoke in the morning to find that she had never come home. Around 9AM she rumbled in wearing the same clothes she had left in the night before and cursing about how she was late for work. I just got dressed and left to go explore the city.
Singapore is a bit of an enigma in southeast Asia. The streets are cleaner than anywhere on the planet, everything from the public transit to the queues run smoothly, the skyline is sleek and the population is bizarre mix of uber westernized Chinese descendants. Unfortunately, the city also seems to lack a strong culture and at times feels somewhat artificial. Even the china town and little india were just too clean and disneylandish to feel real.
Since I was in the city during Chinese new year the streets were empty and many businesses were closed. I just walked through the beautiful modern buildings and snapped a few pictures of the skyline from the harbor. With the city's outrageous prices, looking at the skyline was about all I could afford to do but I  nonetheless found it to be quite impressive. None of the buildings are particularly large but they are well designed and all work well together. From the marina it looks as though someone designed the entire skyline at once. 
On Chinese new year's eve my host took me to a party at a Nigerian man named Ola's home. The party was boring but the Ola was a great cook and served up some tasty snack food. The next day my host went to visit relatives and I stayed in the room watching movies until it was time to catch my flight. After watching both Kung Fu Panda movies I made my way to Singapore's ultra modern airport, ate some fast food and caught my flight to Borneo. My Malaysian peninsula experience was complete.
Even though mainlaind Malaysia and Singapore were some of the most modern and comfortable places I have travelled, my couple weeks there ended up being quite a challenge. I was allowed many western comforts I had not experienced since being back in Canada but had to deal with a tough eastern illness. It was a rough week.
With the dengue aside, however, I found the social situation on the peninsula to be quite interesting. A mix of distinct cultures was apparent throughout the region but the cultures did not always mix harmoniously. There was clearly some age old tensions which have yet to be resolved. 
Everyone spoke english well and enjoyed western niceties yet many seemed to cling strongly to their cultural heritage. The large modern shopping centers were outfitted with places of worship, even many McDonalds had a halal menu and the air-conditioned pizza huts were full of woman in hijabs. It's a confusing place at times and, perhaps due to the overwhelming western influence, not one of my top destinations but I am glad I visited and would likely return if given the chance. 

Posted by bradenelsewhere 05:28 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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