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Monday, August 23, 2010

Off the grid - Second attempt

If at first you don't succeed...

Tomorrow morning we fly from Miri to Bario (Malaysia) to trek in the jungle (Kelabit Highlands) for six days.  Should be back on-line by the end of the month.

Have a great week!

Brett and Jenny

Friday, August 20, 2010

Jogykarta, Indonesia to Sipadan Island, Malaysia

Peace cannot be attained through violence. It can only be attained through understanding”. Einstein

Indonesia is a strange land. The political label “Unified in Diversity” feels like a superficial Kumbaya attempt to try to create the image of peace in a country in constant turmoil on multiple fronts. It is much more settled since the election of SBY, the current president. The country has gone from a 30-year dictatorship to a fairly stable democracy over the last 12 years. But there remains the fact of recent blood shed, yes, within the last 10-15 years, from East Timor to Kalimantan to Java. Aceh has been granted freedom to practice sharia law to keep them from pursuing violent tactics. The Javanese fundamental Muslims, think Mafia, are creating fear in Java. The tribes of the Apokayan Highlands in Borneo are fighting and killing to keep loggers from destroying their precious home. Hunger is rampant. Hunger drives human beings to do anything to meet basic needs.

After our encounter with the volcano Bromo we spent a week in Yogyakarta, a city known for its hundreds of universities and its intellectual atmosphere. It is also one of the few areas in Indonesia that still retains the power of a sultan (a Muslim king). Many Indonesians from the multitude of islands come here to study. We decided to do a little couchsurfing. We stayed with three hosts over the next week. Cool experience. We were able to experience Yogya (pronounced Joja) from the minds and hearts of three very different households.

Our first night we stayed with Wim and Phillip. Wim is a 66 year-old retired Dutch journalist who fell in love with Phillip 12 years ago, married him, and moved to Phillip's home country, Indonesia. They built a beautiful custom home outside of Yogya surrounded by beautiful landscaping, a live bird collection, and two clumsy sweet golden retrievers. We slept in a beautiful four-poster bed with crisp sheets and our own outdoor bathroom. Phillip, younger than Wim by 20 years, manages a business that exports housewares and d├ęcor to large shops such as Crate and Barrel, Cost Plus World Market, and Pier 1 Imports. Here's the kicker: Those items are EACH created and handmade under palm trees, in small storefronts, and in people's modest homes of tin and wood and dirt floors. There is no factory, no assembly lines, no machinery. Wim was very open and eager to share his experiences as a European living in Indonesia. He felt that one of the biggest difficulties for him was the inability to trust Indonesians. You never know what a smile means. Sometimes people fear the truth will hurt someone's feelings. They lie to save face. It's their culture; unwritten societal rules. But so different from what we value. It reminds me of the ethical dilemma that is sometimes encountered in Western hospitals... that Asian families will ask the physician and nurse not to tell their child or grandparent of their diagnosis so as to “protect them” from the truth. It's a hard concept for Westerners to grasp. We will always remember Wim for his wide view, or Ruimzicht (in Dutch). He believes, as his father did, in being open to all cultures, beliefs, and values. Live and Let Live.

You Go Girl!
We stayed for 3 nights with Mia, Edi, and their little boy Ega in their middle-class home in the northern suburbs of Yogya. Mia is a thirty-something go-getter with a drive to succeed like no other we have met on our trip. She fights her spoiled upbringing with humanitarian pursuits and work. She and Edi don't get to spend a lot of time together. He is busy as the second-in-command at a microfinance bank, mountain biking, and playing with Ega. Mia is busy running her English School, writing books, and spending time with friends singing Karyoke! She has an amazing voice. Always a surprise around the corner with Mia. We were guests on her one-hour English radio program for Jogja English School (JES) where she interviewed us about cultural differences and our travels. One caller asked us this: “ Hi. I was wondering what you do for a living. How do you like Yogya? Do you believe in the supernatural or ghosts?”. -Uhhh...
We thank Mia for the Al Jazeera fix, the meals, and the kindness and attention she gave us. “No You Didunt...” (with neck moving side to side and fingers snapping in the air...)  Mia - eat your vegetables!

Crazy Indian and Crazier Indonesian
The last few nights we spent with Manu and Dede. Manu is Indian, and has been living in Yogya for over a year with his girlfriend Dede who is native to the area. It was with Manu and Dede that Brett and I found ourselves transported back to college, crammed into one car with eight people, reaching the nightclub by midnight. We had some amazing conversations with this unlikely pair over “goat bone soup” and thick black coffee with a hot wedge of glowing charcoal floating on top. They took us and the French gals to the banyan trees where we were blindfolded and made to walk between the two banyans in order to have our wish fulfilled. We touched the stone monument (Tugu) in the center of the city which indicates that we will return to Yogya again someday. And we learned the word Jembhut. You don't want to know. While staying with Manu and Dede we took a trip to the active volcano Merapi (last eruption was 2006!) and climbed it overnight with a steaming peak view of the sunrise the following morning. Then back to Manu's. My favorite memory of this crazy couple is riding on the back of Dede's scooter while she sang an entire Jason Mraz song about love and world peace.

Tarakan and the Lost Days
Tarakan was hard. It is a rough port town in Eastern Indonesia (Lonely Planet failed us miserably). It is a necessary evil to get to other destinations, but we stayed for four days trying unsuccessfully to plan our jungle trek into the interior. The gem in this town was meeting Dave and Joy Forney. We found Dave at Missionary Air Fellowship (MAF), a Christian organization that hires small plane pilots to live in third world countries and provide needed services. He and his wife had us over to their home for dinner and provided assistance in planning our jungle tour. They live in Tarakan with their 5 kids. They were recently given a baby gibbon (related to apes) who just wanted to hang around your neck and cuddle everywhere you went. Even Brett fell in love with that sweet little animal! Maybe since we aren't having kids, we could get a gibbon! Hee, hee!

Quentin Tarantino Moments
We seem to have one QT moment a month. The first was in the middle of the night when our overnight bus stopped at a roadside cafeteria for us to eat, somewhere in Indonesia (BFI). The lighting was yellow and dim. The music was loud and sounded like foreign elevator music. Everyone seemed to move in slow motion. A dusty old store front selling mementos, toys and kitch was open outside the restaurant door, poorly lit with a shadowy figure behind the counter.

The second QT moment was at the port in Tarakan awaiting our boat outta there. Over the loudspeaker a breathy woman spoke slow careful instructions in Indonesian while the sound reverberated eerily through the air. Motorcycles flashed by, large trucks covertly carrying goods slowly ground to a halt, and army men in fatigues piled onto the dock unloading their second-hand U.S. machine guns (M-16s), while seedy looking men lounged about the ticket counters.

The third QT moment...we watched the movie Inglorious Bastards! Disturbing.

The Plight of the Chinese
Everyone seems to marginalize the Chinese. We have started finding ourselves trying to defend the underdog. Indonesians historically have gone after the Chinese, burning their businesses and homes. The word on the street is that the Chinese either steal their business, or they cut corners and produce poorly made goods. It has been quite a theme in Asia. It resembles, in some ways, how the Jews are marginalized. Both seem to stem from the fact that both Chinese and Jews are hard-working and successful, and this creates the fear in others of being replaced or dominated. This is just an initial data here.

Ramadan started on August 11. What would this mean for us and our travels? Well, the call-to-prayer sounded all night that first night (seemingly). No Muslim eats or drinks during daylight hours for a month so that they may practice self-control and strength of spirit, mind and body. Many restaurants either close during the day, or just pull their door half-way closed. McDonald's, KFC, and the Chinese restaurants are open. We just have to be careful not to eat in front of people who are fasting out of respect. AND, no one can smoke all day! Heaven!

True story to illustrate what Ramadan looks like: Brett and I had hopped a 2-hour bus from the airport to Semporna one evening. The bus was full, Brett and I the only bulays. (white people or foreigners). Suddenly, on a long stretch of road lined with palm trees for as far as the eye could see, the van briskly pulled over and came to a stop. There was a flurry of activity and opening of plastic bags, paper and soda bottles. After a moment of discombobulation, we realized the call-to-eat had occurred, and all of the Muslims in our van had just been waiting for that moment to satisfy their hunger! We later were told that they only have a few minutes to get those first bites in or the devil would get in. I cannot substantiate this belief as true, though!

Diving in Mabul
For the last week we have been in far eastern Malaysia in Semporna. We were led here by our Bali dive guide who said this is one of the best places in the world to dive! We have seen some pretty cool stuff during our seven dives in two days. Cuttlefish, tons of green turtles, rockfish, leafy scorpionfish, mantis shrimp, lionfish, Indian walkman, etc. Life underwater is so weird, magical, otherworldly. But we are waiting out the better part of a week to get to the real treasure...the Sipadan dive with sharks.
The Reality of Travel
Okay. So those of you who have done this kind of travel probably warned us. But do we ever listen? Naw. Traveling the world is not so romantic. It is a lot of the mundane, interspersed with some incredible moments and experiences. It's sleeping on buses, getting stuck waiting hours at ports, being stinky and sticky, finding out after staying in a creepy dirty room for 4 nights that it was in vein because the trip you were planning fell through. Travel is easily summed up by the wisdom: Wo-man plans, God laughs. It is spending every breathing moment with the one you love, or who you thought you loved, or who just gets on your every last nerve!!! But, it is also a time for reflection. It is in the reflection that the true meaning of all this comes. It is in the crash course in communication skills with your life mate that you grow. Ya know...listen with intent, repeat back what the other person said, and acknowledge their feelings. It is about learning compromise, not just saying it, but really practicing it. Because you have to. It is a lesson in maturity, of staying cool under stress and change. It's about pushing your limits. It's about knowing the world in a different way. Knowing how China feels. Knowing how Indonesia thinks. Feeling the quiet miracle of floating near the bottom of the ocean amongst strange creatures. And of glancing at your partner with a knowing look that says, “Yeah, I know. I thought that too.”

Saturday, August 7, 2010

New and Improved Itinerary

Hi friends. As we expected, our itinerary is changing again! We have updated it to the right of our homepage. In a nutshell, we decided to go to Nepal earlier to buy time for the heat to dissipate in India and Burma.

Sooo, if you want to come meet us for some adventure, check it out! Right now we are meeting:

~Ang in India in October
~Rob and Jess in PNG and Great Barrier Reef in late December, early January
~Poppy and Moppy McCurdy in Australia in late January?
~Todd and Carrie in New Zealand in March
~Karen and Louise in South America?

Love to all. Jen

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

60 days and 29 different beds...

  1. July 27th, 2010: Welcome to Indonesia – Brett

    Ahhh, after a month of hard travel we are ready for a couple days of relaxing on the world-famous beaches of Bali. We have a lot of reading and planning to do, and a lot of writing to catch up on. Besides, this trip is supposed to be fun too, right? Maybe some snorkeling, naps on the beach, sleeping in... We both have this vision of a little bungalow on a deserted piece of sand where drinks are cheap and the water is warm.

    The best laid plans...

    1. The airport: 800 people waiting for a “Visa On Arrival” with five immigration officers working. Plus our biggest fight of the trip. Not a good start. We finally get out of there around midnight to head to our hotel on the beach.
    2. Bali: First night's hotel is kind of a dump complete with sex tourists, brownouts every two minutes, and a location that is decidedly not anywhere near the beach (but had more than it's fair share of stray dogs, both dead and alive). A quick internet search yields “Padangbai” as a “cool backpacker hangout on a crescent of white sand” about 15 miles up the coast. Sweet.
    3. Padangbai turns out to take about five hours to get to and is anything but cute. A small harbor full of tired fishing boats and a brick wall most of the way along the beach. WTF! As the sun sets on another wasted day, we order a whole pitcher of sangria made with arak (the local spirit), and drink until we feel better (not recommended – an arak buzz comes on like a freight-train). We wonder what everyone loves so much about Bali. More internet searching scores “the Gili Islands” (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) as a cute little piece of paradise just waiting for us a few islands away. It's 2.5 hours by expensive speedboat, or 6 hours by local transport. We opt for the local method and spend 9 hours getting hassled, lied to, and hearded around by various unscrupulous types whose primary job in life is to separate us from our money. We arrive on Gili Trawangan after dark – tired, irritated, with no place to stay, and really hoping for something better.
    4. Gili T: Well, we kind of have our bungalow and the beach is mostly deserted, and there are no motorized vehicles, which is nice. But we are both sick (head-cold, not intestinal), the beach is all coral (no barefoot strolls), and the prices are going to bust our budget. Time to move on to the smallest speck of white sand in the area – Gili Meno.
    5. Gili Meno, population 300 – An open air (and saltwater-only shower/tap) bungalow on a deserted beach. Finally meeting and talking to some locals (breakfast of banana crepes every morning with Denin at his little cafe that is literally in the water during high tide. Visiting the primary school in the middle of the island as a guest of Zaneur (the local teacher and horse-cart driver). Finishing our China writing. Romantic dinners of fresh fish, gado-gado, and cold beer watching the sun sink into the sea with Bali's iconic volcano, Mount Agung, in the background. Days in the sun snorkeling and napping. Wandering through the tide pools. Trading books with cool fellow travelers (Carolina from Equador). And enough time to plan a rough itinerary for our time in Indonesia. Wow – a week after ariving in Indonesia, we've finally found what we were looking for. But now it's time to move on.

    Indonesia has been like that for us. There are some gems here, for sure, but they are hard to find. China seemed to provide wonder around every corner, but Indo has been frustrating. We have definitely found some cool people and some beautiful places, but they seem to hide behind the poverty, the traffic, the hassling for money, and the oppressive heat. Our purpose is to see the world and meet its people. To learn what they think and how they feel about their place in the grand scheme of things. The language barrier is certainly part of the difficulty, but we have struggled to connect with people like we did in China. Maybe it is because most of the folks we interact with on a daily basis here are dirt-poor, service-industry people. We have so little common-ground and the obvious have-have not discrepancy makes it difficult to connect as equals. More on that later...

    In the mean-time I'm going to hit some highlights!

    1. Ubud, Bali. Like Boulder on steroids! New age center of the universe packed full of juice bars, yoga studios, and $5/hour massages. We loved it! Yes, it's touristy, but my god is it beautiful. We took dance classes, did yoga in this amazing, open-air studio in the middle of the rice paddies, took bike rides through the country side with Aspen, Colorado ex-pats Rally and Kathy (now living in Ubud running a textile business), shopped for beautiful art, attended traditional dance performances, and took another cooking class. Okay, now we're starting to see what people love about Bali.
    2. Scuba diving off Nusa Penida island (SE of Bali). Oh. My. God. Unbelievable. It's better than any promotional scuba diving film you've ever seen. While Jenny finished her certification, Brett got in a little over his head (ahem) with a group of dive masters who thought that Brett was a little more experienced than he really is (lost in translation is a common theme for us). A drift dive at 75 feet with massive currents and really strong up/down wellings – HOLY cow. Combined with the fact that I haven't been diving in ten years – well, I burned through my air in 40 minutes just trying to keep up. Second dive went much better but damn I have a lot to learn! The next day was awesome as we got to dive the wreck of the USS Liberty together near Tulamben off the NE coast of Bali. Floating upside down in 60 feet of water seeing Jenny silloueted above me in a swarm of fish next to the rusting hulk of this huge ship is an image that will remain one of those highlight memories in my brain. We even got to swim through the old cargo hold and Jenny chased a shark!
    3. Surfing on Kuta Beach. The original Indo surf spot served up perfect, long, smooth six-footers in deep water that you could ride all the way to the beach. Probably rode 40 waves in one morning. Un-freakin'-believable! (Randy H. - I did get served HARD by a ten-footer when I got a bit cocky... ouch. Reminded me of that morning in Newport.)
    4. Finding McDonalds soft-serve right on the beach in Bali. $0.22 will get you a perfect mound of cool, white perfection. For 8 cents more you can get it dipped in chocolate. Mmmmmm – our favorite late night snack (open 24 hours).
    5. Smiles everywhere. The Indonesian people love to smile. Kids, grandmas, soldiers. It's awesome and it makes you feel happy.
    6. Watching the sun rise over the smoking cone of Bromo volcano as it sits in a pool of swirling mist. Wow! We later climbed to the rim and peered down into the gaping cauldron as it spewed noxious, sulfurous steam. Volcanos just have a way of inspiring awe... Java is a land where volcanoes bring life (the most fertile soil on earth) and death (there are 20 something active volcanoes in this area, the latest eruption killed a thousand people in 2006).
    7. Our current homestay with Buti and Morni in the little village of Canderejo (bet you a hundred bucks you can't find it on Google Maps). Hint – it's in the middle of freakin' nowhere on the flanks of the (active) volcano Merapi (translates as “much fire”). Here we have played with the local kids as they prepare for the upcoming homing pigeon competition, we have ground tapioca root and pressed it into “crackers”, we have gone native (there is no TP and even if there was, there is no place to put it), and we have learned the joy of bathing each other with a small ladle and a stone basin of water. And tonight we will join the local village trance dance where I have been warned that I may try to chew glass (no drugs involved – the trance is brought on by chanting). Do you think my insurance will cover this?

    Yes, 29 different beds in 60 days can definitely take its toll. No doubt I am home-sick for family and friends and familiar food. But as I look back on the last two months it is hard to feel anything but gratitude and wonder.

    As the sun sets and the haunting call to prayer echoes out across the valley I want to thank you for being a part of this journey.

    Selemat jalan (safe journey),
    Brett and Jenny

Authenticity in Indonesia - Jenny

Brett and I set out to experience the authentic world...the real people, cultures, countries. After the first six weeks of traveling, an unsettling feeling was creeping in. Where was the connection with the locals? Our yearning to connect authentically with many people felt cheap. We are relaxing, vacationing, dining while the locals are laboring, going about their daily chores, sometimes even serving us, often just trying to make ends meet. And there is the obvious socioeconomic discrepancy that taints even the best intentions. When one is revered based solely on location of birth, and is seen as business for the tourist industry, a cynicism grows regarding any “meaningful” conversations. Also adding to the authenticity conundrum is the factor of time. In order to reap the rewards of a bilateral and equal exchange, some level of trust and relationship-building is necessary. And this sort of travel doesn't lend itself to this kind of time. If we become involved by donating money or doing volunteer work, the relationship seems more fair, but still not equal. So, we are realizing that the depth we seek may not be possible, but that we can still glean bits of connection with people everywhere we go.

The unsettling feeling doesn't stop there. Beginning in China, there seemed to be a loss of cultural soul. The Mao years stripped China of much of its character and historical traditions. But something greater than that was experienced. The elders seemed to have a resignation about them, while the younger generations seemed to have little concept of ancient Chinese culture, which appears to have been watered down by “modernity”, science, technology, and progress. Dances are staged. Works of art are replicated thousands of times over, and are being marketed as “originals”. Tourism and making the sale has stripped much dignity from the vendors, begging at every chance to not only make a sale, but to try to fool any would-be buyer into paying huge excesses over what an object is worth. Gone, I think, are the times when a traveler is invited into a local's home out of kindness, and the “find” of an original hand-made artifact is relatively non-existent. Travel, even in the smallest of towns, seems to be an industry.
Just as this world started to feel soul-less and staged, we landed in Indonesia. Still a place of richness, connectedness, authenticity. Not to be confused with pure authenticity. Bali and the Gili Islands were quite touristy. But there exists in Indonesia a pride, a deep familial thread, that binds generations and keeps the cultural torch burning brightly. In this realization, I think Brett and I began to see that our experiences will most likely vaccilate between true authenticity and the sickeningly commercial nature of tourism in all of its forms. But after Candirejo, Central Java, Indonesia, we know that authenticity and rich cultural souls still exist. Will travel in another 100 years reveal a world void of the richness and variation of “other cultures” in the face of globalization? I don't know. But I do know that it still exists in the present. And it looks much like this, during our homestay in the village of 4,000 people called Candirejo...

~I sit in a bamboo armchair in its broken yet functional seat in front of the home of Budi and Morni as the sun rises. The smell of wood burning from nearby kitchens preparing breakfast mixes with the cloud of dust filling the air from the neighbor sweeping the dirt in front of her home. With a short brittle straw broom she labors removing trash and forming clean lines on the ground, like I do with the vacuum cleaner. The small pile of litter is burned on site, and adds to the cloud. Two adolescent chickens race by my peripheral vision leading my eyes upward past the parked motorscooter, past the magenta flower-filled tree hosting the largest butterfly I have ever seen, to the random scattering of men beginning to congregate at the crossroads – men donning batik wrap-around sarongs, pressed button-down shirts, sandles, and peci, the circular felt hats that Muslim men wear. Music resembling a slow Arab folk song plays in the distance, joined by voices greeting each other with “Salamat pagi” (good morning), the occasional puttering of a 100cc motorscooter engine, and, is it? Could it be? Yes, it is...the whistle on the back of an incoming homing pigeon, signaling the upcoming pigeon competition.

Just last night we ate dinner at the simple home of Budi and Morni. They are 30 years old, and Morni is four months pregnant with their first child, a boy. Much of the food Morni prepares is fried in coconut oil...tofu with carrots and cabbage, tapioca, potatoes, and the ocassional chicken. Budi says they eat a chicken about every two weeks. I asked how they choose the chicken to be sacrificed...he responded “We take the slowest one!” After dinner Brett and I bathed in the mandi Indonesian-style bath, using a ladle to pour water from a well over our bodies in an outdoor concrete structure that shares the backyard with the chickens and goats. It is time, Budi, tells us, to go play in the gamalan orchestra, succeeded by a dance (or two) following the gamalan. Three evenings a week the villagers gather to play clangy repetitive trance-inducing music on instruments resembling drums, xylophones, and gongs. They invited Brett and me to play with them. 16 16 16 16, 56 56 56 56...I'm doing it! I'm doing it! Wait, where is 5, oh wait, 1, agghhh! We were the only foreigners present, and clearly not the best at gamelan. Next, we attended the first dance production – talented dancers in beautiful, jingly, elaborate costumes. Again, an all Indonesian audience of villagers, with lots of families and children running around. Our awkward, gangly whiteness stood several heads above the crowd. We got a lot of stares, and a lot of smiles. At a break the dancers left the stage, and the two hosts suddenly pointed to us and said something into the microphone about “the Americans” and “welcome”. The crowd of 50-100 Indos all turned to examine us.
Then we all three (Budi, Brett and myself) hop on his trusty little scooter to the next dance, a more “casual” production of locals with old worn costumes and a dirt floor. The characters came out with some semblance of order, but over the next hour would regress into a chaotic messy group of trance-dancers eating glass and fire, and falling on the ground lifeless, requiring full assistance to eventually get back on their feet . I asked the 18-year-old villager next to me of one of the men, “Is he okay?” She casually answered, “Yes, of course. The devil just took his soul.” Duh.
Not only was this finally the authenticity we craved, but the perfect paradigm of Indonesia. A Javanese village of Muslim farmers who pray five times a day in a mosque, who build homes and educate their children in ways influenced by the Dutch, whose art and dance is Hindu with relics of mysticism and animism, and whose cuisine and architecture bears a striking resemblance to the Chinese.

Authenticity revealed. The world is still pretty big.