Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eat, Pray, Mock

Page 178 of the latest Bali Lonely Planet includes a text box entitled “That Damn Book.” The excerpt begins, “You see them everywhere these days in Ubud: women of a certain age strolling the streets with that look. A mixture of self-satisfaction, entitlement and too much yoga, with maybe just a hint of desperation that they haven’t yet found their Felipe.”

I haven’t read the book, haven’t seen the movie, and have no idea who Felipe is but can only imagine what he must represent. Of course, I’m referring to Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best selling novel, “Eat, Pray, Love.” Within the first fifteen minutes of walking the streets of Ubud earlier this week, Lindsay and I had seen more than a handful and simply began saying, “Look, another EPL’er.”

I can only wish we were seeing stars from the English Premiere League; alas, we were witness to exactly what Lonely Planet had warned. Simply put and not to judge, but these women aren’t even a dime a dozen in Ubud, more like an Indonesia rupiah a dozen (to put things in perspective a rupiah is equal to approximately 1/9000th of an American dollar).

Every person has their own reason to travel and I hate to make fun of people for living a cliché. But here are a couple of pictures I was able to covertly capture during my time in Ubud that pretty much accurately portray the quote from Lonely Planet.

And yes, I get that it says something about who I am that this was the most entertaining portion of my day spent in the cultural center of Bali. While Lindsay appreciated the ridiculousness of the situation, had either of my buddies Jimmy or Morrow been along for the day, it would have been a much crueler (yet still funny, at least to us) environment.

I'm also proud to say I was the only American yuppie I saw proudly sporting an Iowa cap (though in the spirit of full disclosure, I've been a cliché before: I listened to the “Braveheart” soundtrack while taking the train from London to Edinburgh during the summer of 1996. I was in college, and let’s be honest, I was more impressed with the fact I could legally drink a Carling on that train rather than soak up the Scottish countryside with the smooth bagpipes of Mel Gibson’s periodic epic crooning from my Discman; in my defense, I thought the street performer in full William Wallace face paint and regalia was taking it a bit too far; like William would ever lower himself to playing bagpipes for schillings on the street).

Trekking in Bali

During our first week on the island, we had planned to keep ourselves active. And other than using the first day to rest rather than snorkel off the northwest corner (in our defense, it had rained and was cloudy, so not exactly the best snorkeling weather; plus, a bonus, the hotel was unexpectedly nice with $18 massages (I get the irony of a nice hotel with $18 massages) and a private pool to the front of our room that also had an outdoor living room that overlooked the ocean – it felt like being on the back deck of a really nice boat), so we decided to recover from the long travel day), we were able to find enough treks to keep us active.

The Bloody Trek
From our hotel in Munduk, where are room was basically a rice barn overlooking a paddy, treks were organized and started straight from the property. We hired a guide (at first we thought this might not be necessary but quickly learned we would have easily gotten lost) and were on our way to see two of Munduk’s more popular sites, the waterfalls. The waterfalls aren’t the interesting part of this story. The human falls are.
A daring jump; still no blood
While descending a set of steep, slippery stone steps, Lindsay lost her footing, her feet swept out in front her, and she promptly landed her ass on the corner of a step, bouncing down two or three more for good measure. For a simple fall, she ended up with quite the road rash, including scraped up back and a bloody elbow. The guide immediately pulled some strange tropical foliage, crushed it, and started rubbing it into the wound. I’m not sure exactly what it was and for all we knew it was just the first thing he saw, but it looked official and helped give us confidence that we were in good hands.

A few minutes later we were at the valley floor and it was my turn to go down. I wish I had something like a slippery stair to blame, but I have no idea what happened. All of a sudden I was lurching to the left, bracing the back of my hand against a rock. The net result was a chunk of skin removed from the knuckle where my pinky extends from my hand. I’m proud to report that my fall was far bloodier than the wife’s.
Strange topical foliage applied to the wound
The Rice Terrace Trek
Two days after we both bled, we hired the same guy to take us on the “village-to-village” trek which promised a walk from Munduk to Gesing, rice paddies, and a turnaround at the largest banyan tree on Bali. What’s not to like about that?

Twenty minutes into the hike we found ourselves on a severely down-sloped (and again) slippery sidewalk. Add to that the swarm of mosquitoes Lindsay could see encircling the guide in front of her and this wasn’t exactly the recipe I needed to have a happy trekking mate. When she started complaining about the bugs, I let her know (as any good husband would) that they weren’t swarming her (they were). This seemed to appease her to some degree. Or at least enough so that we didn’t have to turn around as I sensed she might suggest. Shortly afterward, the guide started pointing out things like spiders and snakes; not exactly what Lindsay needed to see.

The trek description also promised rice terrace. As soon as we got out of the mosquito infested portion of the jungle we came across our first terraced section. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as “pretty” as the others we had seen (keep in mind that the day before we had driven to Jatiuliwih, which is a village with pretty much the best rice paddies in the world (at least UNESCO seems to think so as they’re on some sort of list to get protection). Soon after we passed the first, underappreciated terraces, we made a sharp turn left and started down into a paddy which seemed much more aesthetically pleasing, walking between the levels on the edges. This seemed to be more in line with Lindsay’s expectations. Her attitude shifted immediately and it quickly became her favorite experience of the trip (though it's been reported that she likes "alpine mountain style trekking far more than jungle mountain style trekking"). If you’ve never been in a terraced rice terrace, and I must admit this was my first time, there’s something exceedingly peaceful about the experience with the rush of irrigation water flowing from plot to plot and level to level.
Reflection from a water-filled rice paddy
Aesthetically pleasing rice terraces
 After another steep downhill, wading across a stream, and walking uphill through the village of Gesing, we arrived at our turnaround point, the banyan tree. Not surprisingly, if for no other reason than a temple appears about every 25 meters on Bali, there was a temple at the base of the tree, warning menstruating women to stay away (one of the quirkier rules of temple visitation in Bali). After climbing through the root structure, it was time to head back.
Wading across the stream
All the rules for visiting temples in Bali
Thankfully I met the criteria and was allowed to play in the tree
We crisscrossed the valleys back toward Munduk and found ourselves climbing through a second rice paddy. At this point, we experienced something we hadn’t in four days in Bali; blue sky. Not only was there blue sky, but there was a view down the paddy all the way to northern coast of the island. Not a bad scene.
Pockets of blue sky...finally
Unfortunately, at this point we made the mistake of thinking we were almost finished but still had a ways to go. In total, the trek took close to five hours and took a huge loop through the valley. Thankfully, the scenery got better and the bugs subsided else that huge loop might have been a quick trip down one hill and straight back up it to Munduk.

The Volcano Trek
After finishing the Rice Terrace Trek, we cleaned up, drove three hours to a village near Kintemani to base ourselves for an early attempt on Gunung Batur, Bali’s second holiest mountain and a very climbable volcano. We stayed at a very basic $25 per night lodge with a far better than $25 view (though the chemical smell emanating from the bathroom definitely brought the real total value of the room back into the $25 range).
$25 sunset view (Gunung Batur on the left)
The owner said he’d wake us at 3:30am for a 4:00am pickup. The wake up knock never came but we woke up nonetheless. At 3:55am a random Balinese dude claiming to be our driver knocked on the door. Seemed appropriate to us, so we hopped in the back seat of his car.

Within 10 minutes we were at the base of the volcano and were handed off to an official guide. We weren’t sure whether a guide was necessary but had read enough in Lonely Planet to know that guideless trekkers at times could be hassled by the official guides. That, assuming that guiding was probably a major part of the local economy, and the fact that it’s pitch black at 4:00am, and our “with a guide” decision seemed fairly obvious. And so we followed Jerroh up the mountain.

My biggest mistake for this trek was something that I should be smarter than doing. I figured it was acceptable to eat nothing prior to starting a hike that was 3 km each direction with an 800 meter vertical change (like that metric system, right?). At least I remembered water, so I’m not a total moron. I also had a Clif bar, so all was not lost. Lesson learned though; eat something before you start.
Christmas Eve "Sunrise" (though to be honest it was tough to tell the exact time)
We arrived at the summit shortly before the sun was set to rise. Unfortunately, conditions were variable. As in, variable degrees of cloudiness. Some clouds would pass to the east, some would pass straight through us, while others maintained a blanket on top of us. Not exactly ideal conditions to see a sunrise though certainly a memorable way to begin a Christmas Eve.
At the summit. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Driving in Bali

The best advice we received before coming to Bali was from our former neighbors from Holland; that is, rent a car and drive it yourself (thanks, Loes and Pierre). Sounded simple enough, but little did we know we’d be one of very few sets of travelers doing just that. Much like in India, few Westerners drive themselves. Thankfully, with my year in India I’ve become an expert rider in developing world Asian traffic and finally found a place to put those months and months of watching to use. Bali traffic more closely resembles India than any other place I’ve been. There’s not quite the diversity of implements on the road, but still a great number of slow moving scooters, slower moving trucks, and stray dogs to avoid while swerving in an out of oncoming traffic on roads that are typically a lane and a half wide. In hindsight, it’s probably easy to understand why people don’t drive the island, but I must admit I felt a certain amount of pride when asked where our driver was by cheerfully responding that I had my own car.

That car was a late model Daihatsu Feroza, a two-door mini-SUV type contraption. I had forgotten that Daihatsu was even a company much less think I’d ever have the pleasure of getting behind the wheel of one of their fine vehicles. While exceedingly basic, it got the job done. And at $25 a day with insurance included, it seemed a small price to pay for complete freedom of movement. It included a guy that met us at the airport upon arrival and agreed to pick up the vehicle at the boat landing in Sanur where we caught our fast boat over to Nusa Lembongan.
Yep, I'm that excited to get behind the wheel of the Feroza
Perhaps what scares many visitors to Bali from driving are the various warnings one can come across while researching the topic prior to traveling. Based on Lonely Planet and other online research I performed, it convinced me into getting an international driver’s license for fear of getting pulled over at any intersection by a Balinese cop looking for a handout from an unsuspecting foreigner. As it turns out, the rental car place could have cared less if I had that license and I was pulled over a grand total of zero times. I was only told I didn’t know what I was doing one time when I started down a one way in Ubud in the wrong direction. I learned then that the concept of “one way” only applies to vehicles with four wheels as any number of motorcycles and scooters seemed exempt from the restriction.

Having come from India, it doesn’t phase me to see entire families on a motorcycle. If it’s the most cost effective way to transport one’s family, who am I to argue? What seemed odd to me in Bali wasn’t the number of people on scooters and motorcycles, it was the age of the children driving them alone. Maybe I’m getting old and teenagers look younger than they used to; or maybe kids wearing school uniforms are simply allowed to drive themselves around.

While most of what we saw could probably be done by taking day trips while staying at one of the more traditional tourist centers of Bali (Kuta, Seminyak, or Jimbaran in the south or Ubud a little further to the north, home of the “Eat, Pray, Lover’s” – more on them in a later post), driving it ourselves helped us get away from the tourists and enjoy the island at our own pace. If you ever make it here; heed this simple advice: get a car and a map, bring some patience, don’t be afraid to ask directions, and you’ll have an unbelievable experience.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mr. (and Mrs.) Luth Go to Bali

Maybe we're selfish DINKs; maybe we're taking advantage of being halfway around the world; maybe there's part of us that wants to act the way Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon originally intend in "Four Christmases." Whatever the reason, this Christmas will be the first holiday season that we don't spend with family. It's a bittersweet little experiment to not be home for Christmas, but having been home for the month of October and with planned visits from parents in February and March, this seemed the opportune year to try something a little different. Bali.

We leave India tonight, have a short layover in Kuala Lumpur, and should be on Bali by 12:30pm local time on Sunday. The basic plan for the trip is to rent a car (which I've heard can be a bit of an adventure in and of itself), work our way clockwise exploring the island for a week, dump the car, hop a short thirty minute boat ride to Nusa Lembongan for a couple nights, head back to relax on the main island in Jimbaran for a few nights, and then cap it off in Kuala Lumpur for New Year's Eve.

We'll celebrate Christmas by waking at 3:00am on Christmas Eve morning for a two hour trek up Mount Batur and a sunrise view from a volcano. Not exactly the traditional scene of relaxing with family next to a fire, but I'm not going to complain.

I have no idea if I'll post while on the trip though I'm not imposing any personal technology restrictions on myself so it's likely.However, in the event the internet doesn't work on Bali, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Gurgaon Connection Holiday Brunch; December 12, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The "No Heat Chill" Factor

Note: All temperatures in this post are in Fahrenheit. I realize I should learn to convert but can only do that when it's at or near freezing or blazing hot in India (the former because I've been to school where, even in America, they teach you that zero equals thirty-two, the latter because it makes me sound like I know what I'm talking about with co-workers in the summer). Also, I wrote a little about this a couple weeks ago; obviously it's not getting better.

Having lived my entire life in a climate where it can go weeks without getting above freezing, I shouldn't be cold in India. I see posts on Facebook from friends complaining about below freezing temperatures and snow storms. They talk about the wind chill factor to give some idea on how cold it really feels because as we all know 6 sounds colder than 16. The same phenomenon occurs here, but instead of the "wind chill" factor we have the "no heat chill " factor. I'm not exactly sure how to calculate this completely fabricated concept, but my best estimate would cut an additional twenty to thirty degrees from the thermometer.

I get the irony of being the same person that once complained of the "hair dryer effect" when walking outside a building in the summer now being chilled to the bone by the mere thought of a slight wind when walking home on a 50 degree evening. I expect no sympathy from those in cold weather places, and I completely understand the sentiment they'll have upon reading this: I'm a weather wuss. To put things in perspective, as I type this, I'm bundled up in fleece, drinking coffee, and utilizing the heat from my laptop to keep myself warm. Go ahead, make fun of me. I would do the same. It's 50 degrees.

Part of my warmth issue stems from the fact I refuse to admit it's cold. Basically, I treat every 50 degree day here like the first 50 degree day of the year in Chicago. If you live in a cold weather place, you know what this means, you under dress just a bit because "it's now warm" (note, I'm not one of those people on the first "warm" day that feels the need to pull out shorts). Friday night we went to a party that we knew was going to partially be outside on a patio. I wore a sweater, a light jacket, sat next to an open fire pit, and had a couple warm German gluhweins. I was still cold. Having imported a down jacket for a trek next summer, I found myself wishing I had broken it out for the evening.

One morning this week it was 50 degrees in my adopted home of Gurgaon while it was 13 degrees in my actual home of Lake Zurich, IL. I'd be crazy to say that I prefer the Chicagoland winters over anything experienced here, in fact, I would gladly take 50 degree mornings in Chicago in December. However, as you've probably gathered, Delhi isn't like Chicago. The reason? This time, at least, it's the lack of central heat.

When here during the winter of 2004-2005 I was admittedly confused by the people huddled in the streets, wrapped in blankets, braving the winter chill dressed in their woolens. I was dressed in a plain button down dress shirt, cracking jokes about how they couldn't handle the cold. Of course, I was coming from the comfort of a centrally heated hotel while they, in all likelihood, were not. I now (sort of) understand their plight. Other than my laptop, the primary source of heat in our apartment is space heaters that we were smart enough to buy from our neighbors that moved back to Holland. While we could have bought them in an actual store, I have a feeling that trying to buy space heaters in the winter here is a little like buying a snow shovel in Chicago after a huge winter storm; in other words, think ahead because supply is probably an issue. Regardless, we're lucky enough to have two.

Now that we have the heaters, I don't actually use them. It's one of those things where I worry that we'll use them, get used to the warmth, it will get colder (you know, like 40 degrees), and I will once again be cold. And yes, I realize how ridiculous this sounds.

Stay warm, Chicago, and I'll try and do the same. It's more difficult than you'd think.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My International Driver's License

While researching our upcoming holiday trip to Bali, source after source mentioned how an international driver's license was required to drive on the island. I honestly neither knew this license existed nor how to go about getting one. If caught without a license, the punishment varies but the prevailing scenario seems to be that one pays the cop off at the going rate, somewhere between $10 - $20, depending on how much cash the cop thinks you're carrying. Since we're planning to spend a majority of the trip driving around the island, I decided to lock in my expense and get the license. Perhaps I'm more risk averse than I like to think.

What does it take to get a license? You pretty much go to this website, fill out the application, send in an electronic copy of your signature, passport photo, and current valid government-issued driver's license, select your method of delivery, and two to ten business days later you have a license.
Pretty sure if there's ever a "wanted" sign for me, this is the picture they'll use
The most impressive part of this entire process was that I actually received the license. With time being of the essence, I was forced to select DHL international express shipping, which goes for the low, low price of $59. Or, said another way, three to six Indoensian bribes. Not needing the undo attention in the event of pullover or two (which apparently are fairly common for visitors), I easily justified the added expense. Having placed the order on Monday morning, I was shocked when my driver pulled it out as he dropped me off tonight. And yes, I realize that sounds ridiculous, but thankfully both our drivers are friendly with the building guards and have some sort of system worked out to get us our packages. Whatever it takes; I'm not one to complain.

With my new international license in hand, which even though until two weeks ago I had no idea even existed is valid in any United Nations country, I'm allowed to drive just about anywhere. I can't wait to whip it out to my trusty driver Kailash, tell him to hit the passenger seat, and take him on a little ride through the streets of Gurgaon.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Roadside Flowers

For months I've ridden past the small stalls and shops that line most of the streets in Gurgaon from the relative comfort of the backseat of my Honda City. In our part of town, barbers, fruit stalls, key makers, and florists seem to make up the bulk of commerce. Intrigued by the idea of a roadside haircut yet fearful of the impact of getting knicked by a stray blade, having found other means to acquire fresh fruit, and having a full supply of the necessary keys, my most logical entrance into the roadside economy was the florist.
Traditional view of roadside florist from the backseat of speeding car
On the way home from, interestingly enough, a haircut over the weekend, I asked my trusty driver Kailash, "Kailash, where would we go to buy flowers for ma'am?" He thought for a second, went straight past the apartment, took a U-turn at the golf course, and stopped the car at the closest possible shop. Unfortunately, the flowers were there but the florist was nowhere to be seen. Strike one. Kailash thought again and headed toward Super Mart-I to the stall set up on the main road just outside the shopping center. He parked on the road and we both approached to check out what was being offered (I wanted to participate to some extent but figured the pricing structure might be a little different if Kailash negotiated; though I'm sure his ability was somewhat limited when flanked by a tall, goofy white dude).

Kailash quickly learned the stems I liked were offered at INR 12 per (around $0.25). Seemed fair enough so we told the guy to start a bundle. A few minutes later he had prepared a bouquet, complete with ribbon tied around the stems. The full price? INR 150.
$3 bouquet next to our Christmas decoration
The lesson learned? For a little over three bucks, I can get a legitimately nice bouquet of flowers to take home for the wife. I have no idea why it's taken me this long to realize this fact.