Sunday, January 30, 2011

At Long (Long Long) Last

This is the face of joyous relief. To give you the very short version - it turns out the volcano was on Java, not on Bali, and didn't cause any major problems for neighboring villages except for of course, the airlines, who were not able to fly through the ash cloud. And unfortunately, the volcano kept erupting and erupting get the idea. In the end, we entered the nimbus loop of flight delays and cancellations which lasted precisely 2 days, 3 hours, and 43 minutes. Gross. But Cathay was lovely enough to put us up in the airport hotel and feed us, so it was not the end of the world, just a little taste of purgatory.

 But enough of that. Ubud, the area of Bali we've chosen to spend our days, is stunning. We explored the market and village temples this morning and rounded out the day with a visit to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana). There are over 450 Balinese Macaques in the sanctuary, as well as 4 temples, a stream, and a lush jungle. The first thing to know about the sanctuary is that the monkeys run the show. They are stalking down every path, playing, fighting, bathing, drinking, and most importantly eating. And occasionally, they go up to a person and not exactly beg, but instead demand food.
And they don't mean in a few mintues after you've had a chance to exchange some rupia for a stack of bananas, they mean right this freakin instant. They will reach up and stick little hands in your pockets, stamp their feet in frustration, and generally make a little monkey mayhem until you give up the banana. Fortunately most of the time they are content to sit around, pick fleas out of each other's fur, lick the walls (for moisture the park ranger told us?), and generally tend to their monkey business.

And that worked out quite well for us, leaving us to explore the other sites within the sanctuary.  The site was built in the mid-14th century during the Pejeng Dynasty and contains three holy temples and two graveyards.

The Pura Dalem Agung Temple (Temple of the Dead) was the most ostentatious. We donned the sarang to be admitted (see above picture) and entered the temple gates. We were the only people in the complex so it was quiet and calm. We roamed around for a while, taking pictures of the moss-covered stonework, massive gates, and exquistely carved statues.
After Pura Dalem Agung, we headed down a long flight of stairs to the Holy Bathing Temple, which hugs the river and uses some diverted water to fill a stone bathing area, which is the sacred bathing place for the gods' disciples. This temple has three Mandalas (components). The holy bathing site is the Madya Mandala, the Utama Mandala is where the gods's rest, and the Nista Mandala, at the opening of the bridge over the river, is where the normal human beings bath. 
 The final temple is Pura Prajapati (the funeral or cremation temple). Cremation is a very big thing in Balienese culture, involving an elaborate ceremony, family, friends, and for wealthy families, even a flamethrower. Wow.

The photo on the right is of a park worker "cleaning" the moss off the rock carving with a blowtorch. Some guys have all the luck.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

When life gives you a volcano…

In the middle of Sarah’s viewing of The Kids Are All Right and Steve’s 17th viewing of Avatar, the pilot came over the airwaves to interrupt our entertainment service.  My (Sarah) thoughts immediately turned to the endless promotion of the duty free goods that bombard you at the Hong Kong airport, but his news was different.  A volcano has erupted near Denpasar, the airport in Bali to which we were meant to fly, but the sky is too filled with smoke and debris for us to land.  Also, they are uncertain of the volcano’s eruption rate, so we’re headed back to Hong Kong.  The mood on the flight right now is not that of panic, but rather many puzzled heads coming together to figure out just what to do when we return.  People are milling about and talking in big clumps, but generally with grins and looks of exasperation rather than looks of panic.

My (Sarah) heart did skip a beat when the man in charge told us he had “bad news” to tell us.  I was reminded of working in Hoboken when the New York black out happened and we all feared it was another attack.  And “bad news” from a pilot is not the most comforting thing to hear, but we’re sitting calmly now, having realized we can do nothing until we hear more from the airline and/or land. So until then, we play the waiting game. For now, we’ve decided that the three things we will do when we land are:\

1.)    Call our families immediately to let them know we’re fine and our plans are now TBD.
2.)    Call our travel agent extraordinaire to let her know the buzz and get her on board in case we need to do some fancy flight juggling.
3.)    Eat some dim sum and wait.
Several questions remain dangling in the air:  Do we hang out and sleep at the airport again like we did (surprisingly well) last night?  Will Cathay Pacific put us up in a hotel in Hong Kong, thus crossing Bali off our list and staying in the city for the week before heading to India?  Will we blow our budget if we stay in Hong Kong?  Should we fly somewhere else?  Can we still make it to Bali later this week, and cut into our India trip? 

Most important in this situation however, are our thoughts that keep turning to the people in Bali near the volcano.  Yes, we are both relieved that we didn’t land and get stranded there, but that thought is threaded with the usual western feeling of assumed safety.  We are the ones who roam the cities of reinforced earthquake buildings, we have evacuation plans, and savings accounts, and travel insurance, and families who could help us out in a heartbeat.  What about the Balinese?  What assurances do they have?  This trip has already been coloured by one natural disaster that didn’t touch us, but the floods in Queensland occurring at the same time that we were in Oz were very scary.  Sure, we’re happy we were safe – but we know how devastating these natural disasters can be for the locals especially in countries like Bali without the resources the States or Canada can muster when these things happen. We haven’t heard anything yet about how the Balinese have been affected, but we hope for the best and will be checking the news as soon as we get in.
We’ll let you know, dear readers, what the new plan is as soon as we have one.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll be frantically downloading the Lonely Planet guide on Hong Kong and seeing how we can do the city on the cheap.  Or maybe we’ll get to Bali tomorrow or ten years from now.  Flexibility is crucial in life to breathe, to be compassionate, and to be available when needed.  And when life gives you a volcano, it’s all the more important to maintain that flexibility.

Stay tuned.  And please send your thoughts to the Balinese.  They may need us all now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I am a Rock

If I could write the title of this blog post in Thai, I would, but alas, the only things I’ve learned how to say are “thank you,” “monkey,” “ghost,” and “fried noodles.”  Oh well.  But, as I was saying…I am a rock.  At least I feel like one, or part of one, or better for having left some sweat on one.  Let me explain:

For the past several days, we’ve been camping out in Railay, Thailand.  Railay is a little tourist destination in the southern part of the country, near the city (read: big town) of Krabi.  This place came highly recommended to us by many Thailand-vacationers and our trusty Lonely Planet guide as a destination for beach sitting, pad thai noshing, city recovering, and rock climbing.  The climbing around these parts in known worldwide for its smooth and far-reaching limestone faces.  Limestone is apparently a very hard stone (correct me if I’m wrong, geologists), and per mine and Steve’s theories, when all the other wimpy rocks got washed away by the crashing tides, what was left were the towering “karsts” of limestone, which stick out of the water and peninsula like thumbs.

These limestone mounds also cover the peninsula of Railay and make for great climbing and spelunking without the need for a boat.   Now you are probably asking yourself, “Wait!  Since when did Sarah and Steve become climbers and spelunkers?” Well, we did not spelunk and/or climb with any of the usual schmancy equipment associated with the two activities, but we did take the slightly more touristy route and traverse a limestone cave and do some “scrambling” up, down, over, around, and through some of the no-equipment-needed areas.  To give you somewhat of an idea of the severity of the situation, upon safely setting foot on sea-level ground again, high-fiving, and searching out the closest minimart for some water, I said something to Steve along the lines of “Not sure I would’ve gone for that had I known ahead of time how intense it was.” Steve had done some rock and wall climbing in the past, but this was certainly a (successful) first for me.  Hence, I am a rock.
Here are a few shots of our cushy walk into the limestone caves.  No headlamps were necessary for this well-trodden path, but the echoes and high walls of fabric-like limestone pieces certainly made me feel a bit like Indiana Jones at times. 

The real stuff came when we commenced our “scramble” of a 75°ish vertical incline up the red-clay covered limestone path. (What is it with the red clay on this trip?  Good thing we didn’t get stuck like this time.)  Observe Steve as he expertly climbs one-handed up the near-vertical red clay drop:

Following the success of the initial haul (and several exclamations of “holy sh*t, we’re actually climbing” uttered by yours truly), we came upon an amazing look out over the peninsula of Railay.  Notice the other, climbing walls taken on by the pros.  Piece of cake, says the rock. 

We wiped our sweaty faces on our non-existent sleeves, and set out for more hard core pastures.  After wandering through palm tree jungles in search of the lagoon we’d heard was hidden somewhere in our midst, we came upon 3 large drops which were being expertly navigated by a family of four in which the mother had climbed down first (using the ropes provided) and the father was calmly lowering the children down using true climbing gear.  This image gave me pause and a slight moment of panic, but when asked by my climbing partner in crime if I was up for it, I emphatically said, “Um…sure?”  Climbing up had not been too tough, as you’re usually able to see where to put the next foot or hand or scraped knee (in some unfortunate cases), but down was a different activity all together.  What if I couldn’t see where to step next?  What if my quads gave way and decided to forgo the climb and instead tumbled the rest of the way?  What the hell was I doing climbing rocks anyway when I thought we were going on a hike!?  After the children were lowered to safety and the father/expert climber assured us it was an easy climb down for the adults (heh heh), he poignantly advised me to “take my time and enjoy the climb.”  That was the final encouragement I needed (in addition to the hours of encouragement I’d already received from my expert climbing buddy). The above/right photo is of the climbing family.

Over the ledge I went, one step, two steps, relying and being quite pleasantly surprised by how my yoga-strengthened arms and legs (thank you, yoga mat) were comfortably holding me in place until my mind decided on the next step.    

Steve, yet again, impressed me with his skills and (apparent) confidence in climbing.  Though, there were a few moments while watching him that I couldn’t help by screw my face into varying looks of utter panic, fear, and remember-we-plan-to-have-children-together-one-day…or all of the above.  (Don’t worry, Jolie, I’m looking out for him.) 

We did, eventually and with massive amounts of positive reinforcement, make it to the lagoon where red clay lined the banks and visitors had left their marks with clay in very eco-friendly and creative ways…

And wouldn’t you know, we even made it back up and out of the lagoon and down the initial rock face to safety!

I’d be lying if I said the brief thought of “maybe I should take up rock climbing” didn’t cross my mind.  But, I’ve also baked a few pies in my day and I don’t think I’ll open up a bakery any time soon.  It is an amazing form of exercise and accomplishment with an added element of fear thrown in there for good measure, so I could see why it would be an addictive sport.  Maybe one day (after the bakery).  In the mean time, I’ll settle for just being a rock.  

Post-script: For your monkey-viewing pleasure…a “barrel” of monkeys (yes, that’s the correct term for a number of monkeys) lives on the peninsula and has made a daily appearance in our time here in Railay.  Steve was able to capture some of the, shall we say, usual goings-on of the monkeys during any given sighting.  Make sure to look for the loving, if not slightly aggressive head pats (at 0:52) that the mommy monkey gives her hanger-on baby monkey.  There is some other (cough, cough) monkey business in the video too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wat's the Story, Morning Glory

Wow. Bangkok. To try to capture a bit of the experience of our first massive Asian city (9+ million people), I’m going to make this post a little different. Sarah and I have selected our favourite photos from our first wild day in Bangkok, which are inserted throughout this post as a bit of a photo essay. The text of the post is my attempt to describe our transition from panic through unease and finally turning the corner to enjoyment of this sprawling metropolis. So, you can either just enjoy the pretty pictures, read the story, or do both in tandem. A choose your own adventure blog post.

So, the story. We flew for about 13 hours before we finally arrived in Bangkok around 6pm. The Bangkok airport is very new, lots of glass and concrete, and seems quite orderly, until you get to the customs area. A zoo of people cutting lines, pushing through, between and around you, and an extremely slow moving wait until you finally get stamped, photographed, and approved for your Thailand adventures.  All of this could have easily be solved with stanchions, but we quickly learned the Thai are not fond of staying within the lines.
By the time we got into the cab (there are thousands of cheap cabs in Bangkok), it was nearly dark and the hour ride into the city took us past eerie abandoned construction sites, massive billboards, roadside stands, and finally into the streets of Bangkok itself. The first thing that struck us about Bangkok is how much of life happens on the streets. Endless street vendors hawking everything from Buddha medallions to fresh (or not) food pack the sidewalks, mingled with plastic tables, chairs, lights, umbrellas, and people.

Our hotel (Boonsiri Place) was located a five minute walk from the main backpacker drag (Khao San Road) on a corner that seems to embody the experience of life in downtown Bangkok. There are, at minimum, two dozen people on our corner at all times, involved in a variety of different pursuits. At the time of our arrival, this was all under the glare of streetlights, but the same busyness was occurring as early as 6:30am on other days. At any given time, there are the couple of cabs that are parked in front of the hotel doors, their drivers leaning against the cabs, smoking and chatting. 
There are four separate vendors working out of what look like hotdog vendor carts but are actually wok-type devices on which they cook essentially whatever anyone would like. (Typically Thai restaraunts do not have menus, people just come in and order what they are feeling like.) Each vendor has at least a couple of plastic chairs and usually a friend or family member sitting with them. There are a number people just sitting on the curbs or sidewalks, watching the world go by or selling trinkets spread out on a blanket in front of them. There are tuk tuks zipping around the corners, which look like a cross between a motorized tricycle with a covered seat on
the back and a rider lawn mower. And then there was us, the only white people in a sea of Thai life, holding our backpacks and upon our arrival on that darkened street, feeling completely, utterly overwhelmed.
To be fair, it was nearly 2am Australian time, and we’d spent a very long day traveling with a backpack that smells vaguely of cat piss (a story for another day). We’d eaten enough and were tired enough that when we arrived at 8:30pm, we decided that braving the outside world could wait until the next morning. But when the next morning came (heralded by discordant music being played in the courtyard of the community college behind our window) we had our first moment of real dislocation on the trip. 
This was not a surprise, we’d talked a lot about how this trip would push our boundaries and make us uncomfortable at times, but regardless of how much we’d felt prepared for this, when it finally came, there really wasn’t much prep that would have helped. In truth, we were panicked about getting out the front door.
After a few half-hearted thoughts of heading back to the airport and leaving early for Bali, which I’m not proud to admit but mention now to emphasize our stressed mindset, we decided it was time for us to just suck it up and get out there. Armed with a heavily photocopied map of the surrounding area, a camera and a pocketful of bhat, we left the hotel and promptly headed in the wrong direction. And as tourists are apt to do, we whipped out our little map and consulted it. This, apparently, is a blatant tourist flag. A very polite gentleman came right up to us, welcomed us to Thailand, asked us where we were headed, and proceeded to draw all  over our map the locations of all of the Buddhas he thought were worth visiting (Reclining Buddha, Happy Buddha, Standing Buddha, etc).
After a moment, he gestured to the street and his “very good friend” came up who just happened to be a tuk-tuk driver and would happily show us around the city, including some very “special shopping opportunities” for just 40 bhat ($1.33). Recognizing the scam we’d read about in our guidebook, we politely declined and headed the other (correct) way towards the Grand Palace. It rattled me a bit to have so quickly encountered the scam we’d heard about and I worried this was going to happen over and over.
On the walk there, we walked by tiny storefront after storefront, each specializing in one type of good or another (guitars, surplus military wear, TVS, etc.). Each shop typically had just one store owner sitting on a wooden stool, waiting for the customers to arrive. In the 5 blocks to the Grand Palace, we walked by perhaps 30 storefronts, in which we saw zero customers. It was fairly early in the morning, but it still seemed remarkable to us that all the stores could keep up a business this way.
The Grand Palace is a massive complex formerly occupied by the royal Thai family, who built it in the late 1700s. It is a remarkable testament to Thai architecture, but also to the Buddhist faith. There are buildings with the architecture of other Buddhist nations (Cambodia and Sri Lanka), a 1km long painting depicting the battle between King Rama and an evil demon, and artefacts from the Buddha himself such as a lock of his hair, his original prayer book, and a statue of him. 

We made the very good call of hiring a guide to show us around, a very wonderful man named Geoffrey who worked as a guard in the palace 5 days a week and gave tours for the other two days. He was able to explain so much of what we were seeing, as well as give us some details about Thai politics, gender relations, and some tidbits about Thai pride in the King and the royal family’s car sponsorships (i.e., the Prince, this year, has been sponsored by BMW, who knows what car he’ll drive next year?). 
Being with a guide was a very grounding experience. We no longer felt like we had to sort it out for ourselves, but could relax a bit and listen to the interesting cadence of Geoffrey’s narrative and lovely English. 
 Afterwards, we look a walk along the riverfront (much of Bangkok life circles around the river) towards the two wats (temples) we hoped to see that day. We walked through a market with stalls of cooking food, trinkets, and clothes and just let the sounds, smells, and experience wash over us. I typically have a hard time in crowded spaces like this, but for some reason this seemed manageable and made me feel hopeful for the rest of the experience.
We strolled down by the water until we found a small park on the riverfront where we sat and took a few minutes to relax. We watched the longboats go zipping up and down the river, enjoyed the warmth of the sun and munched on some trail mix. 
A Thai family of father, mother, and angsty teenage daughter sat down next to us and after a few minutes offered us some of the fruit they were eating from a big paper bag. They did not speak more than a few words of English and our Thai basically consists of “thank you,” (Khao poon ka) so lots of hand gesturing was involved. We offered some of the trail mix but they grimaced a bit and declined. The fruit looked a lot like lychee, with tough shells to peel back and sweet, grapefruit-like fruit on the inside. I hesitated before eating, still a bit freaked out by the whole day and the cautions we’d heard about food in Thailand, but eventually just decided that being in the moment deserved a little leap of faith. 
For me, this small kindness from the family who clearly noted our unease, and my convincing myself to eat the fruit was a turning point in the day. It reminded me that despite the vast differences which felt overwhelming, there are, of course, some commonalities that bridge all the gaps.
We hopped on a quick and cheap (3 baht = $0.10) ferry across the river to Wat Arun, a beautiful temple where we were able to climb up and get a bird’s eye view of the river and city. The beauty of this smaller temple was more visceral for being able to climb into the temple and not view things from afar as with the Grand Palace. After a quick, delicious lunch on the river, we hopped over the river again to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha. This very large wat has extensive, peaceful gardens which are a shocking contrast to the melee on the streets and did a lot to sooth our nerves. We walked the grounds for a good hour, taking in the many Buddha statues, before finally seeing the enormous reclining Buddha which is a centerpiece. A lot of the photos in this post are from Wat Arun and Wat Pho. 

Eventually, we ended the day with a tuk-tuk ride, one of the things you must do if you visit Bangkok. After a quick negotiation on price (driver – 200 baht, Steve – 30 baht, driver [laughs] – 100 baht, Steve [returning laughter] – 50 baht, driver – 60 baht, Steve – Done) we were flying through traffic back towards our place to wash up and get ready for dinner. (See tuk-tuk video below.) Arriving back at our hotel room – the site of our utter panic that morning – we laid down to rest our tired feet and Sarah said something like, “Wow, Bangkok is awesome.”
I’ve been struggling to understand exactly what it was that freaked us out to such a degree.  I’m not yet sure, but I think it has to do with a combination of factors. First of all, so many things about Bangkok life are different from what we know, from the smells of food cooking on the streets to the omnipresent and traffic law spiting motorbikes to the process of negotiation that goes into every transaction.
Taking in and understanding so many changes reminded me of how I felt when I first arrived in New York City and had not the slightest of how to negotiate such a vast metropolis. Secondly, from reading the guidebook, we were aware of all the scams you may be subjected to and so, as a result, were hyperaware and on our guards. At least for a little while, this was the predominant lens through which we were looking and it tainted some of the initial experience with fear. It took that wonderful family’s offer of fruit to bewildered travelers to start to break out of that mode. Thirdly, our trip up to this point was so very, very comfortable with our dear friends Tanja and Joel and their wonderful family in Australia and being on our own was its own type of shock. In the end, I think our reactions made sense logically, but emotionally we were quite the mess that morning in Bangkok where it took all of our willpower (and drying of tears) to get out of the front door. I’m proud of us, but also humbled by the experience. It isn’t often we are challenged so deeply and it makes me realize the limits of our flexibility and also the possibilities beyond it.