Tuesday, March 29, 2011

THE TRAVELER


Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai

       Today I am off to meet Samantha, my daughter and favorite traveling companion, who is flying into Bangkok from New Zealand, where we are catching a late afternoon flight to Chiang Mai.

        Previously, we have only gone to Bangkok and the beaches of southern Thailand for diving, now it seems time to explore the mysterious north.  I have heard it is a beautiful historical area, the center of the LAN NA culture with a wonderful climate, a large number of retired expats, and many European winter tourists.  How could Chiang Mai be missed. 

      We arrived during the annual International Flower Festival, a vast outdoor affair which is part carnival and street fair with marvelous flower displays; unusual flowering plants, cactus, bonsai, trees and enormous floats made entirely of flowers. It is the last big night and although exhausted, off we go to see the show.  As we jostled though the massive crowds our tiredness abated and we are treated to fantastic food and beautiful and unique foliage.

         Because of the festival getting hotel rooms was almost impossible unless of course I wanted to spend $150 or more per room per night.  Not!  Finally I obtained rooms at MD House, which I would rate near the bottom of guesthouses I had so far experienced, not because of the guest house itself but rather because of their billing and breakfast policies, and five days of unpleasantness caused by their very own  ‘Dragon Lady’ in residence (see Sleeping Around).

        During our wonderings, we found bits and pieces of the old city wall, but these are generally located near where the four original gates formally stood.  The original moat is still around the whole city, which is a perfect square, with an interior area of two square kilometers.  With the rise of modern transportation the moat became a traffic obstacle, but that problem was solved by putting one-way roads along both the inside and outside perimeters of the moat. 

           Trekking is a big draw in the area and some guesthouses make such big commissions from the trekking companies that if the tourist does not make a trekking deal, they will be ask to move hotels after three days.  There are also private elephant parks, but tourists must be careful to check out which are for the conservation of the elephants and which exploit these beautiful beasts. The Elephant Nature Park rescues abused elephants.  Therefore, animals at this park are not required to paint, dance or give rides. But rather elephant lovers have a rewarding educational experience of learning about elephant behaviors and abilities, feeding the animals, washing them in the river and playing with their babies. Being a great cat lover, I was drawn to visit the special tiger sanctuary where I could actually pet the tigers, but then I found out that their claws had been removed and that these poor animals were kept in small cages when they were not ‘entertaining’ tourists.  Sorry about their circumstances, I could not go.

         Since most of the animal parks were unacceptable to us, other than masses of interesting WATS (Buddhist temples –must be one on every other street corner), one really sensational Burmese restaurant, great night shopping markets with large outdoor food emporiums, and the elephants and hippopotamus’s at the Zoo, during our first five days, we missed Chiang Mai’s charm.  Then it was out of ‘Dragon Lady’s clutches and off to Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai

       Chiang Rai is a bit of a backwater town in the northern part of Thailand.  I had heard and read that ‘there’s not much to do here,’ but both Sam and I are inclined to disagree.  Because of it’s size, it is much more maneuverable than Chiang Mai, and with a good map, it is a great place to walk to local the WATS, museums, restaurants and the in- town bus station.  It is also a good base for tours to the Golden Triangle (we had to skip this because Samantha’s passport was at the Myanmar Embassy), where the Burmese (Myanmar), Laos (the ‘s’ is not pronounced), and Thailand boarders meet.   Historically, this was the center of the world poppy growth and international opium trade beginning after WWII.  Also from Chiang Rai, one can tour tribal villages, take a boat ride up the Mekong River or go on a bike tour to the White Temple.

      Chiang Rai has two interesting museums, the Hilltribe Museum and Education Center and the Oub Khan, a private museum dedicated to the heritage of the LAN NA Kingdom (Northern Thai Kingdom from 1262 to 1774). 

       Much of northern Thailand is populated by hill tribes and the Hilltribe Museum concentrates on the six major hill tribes in the area, their agricultural and cultural activities, the importance and uses of Bamboo, ‘the truth about the Long-Neck Karen people’ (Many of these people, some imported from Myanmar, suffer the layering of rings on their necks just for the tourist trade), and the dos and don’t when visiting a tribal village. Because of the influence of opium in the area, the museum also focuses on the history and uses of this drug, which is fascinating. 

       AND NOWwww let’s talk about Strawberries!  Everywhere we went in Northern Thailand, there were rich luscious looking strawberries for sale.  This was because of the King.  Forty years ago, when King Bhumibol visited Chiang Rai, he found that most of the Hill tribe people were growing opium.  The king decided it would be much better for these tribes to grow a legal fruit rather than and illegal substance that killed.  They first tried peaches.  Then in 1957, strawberries were brought to Kasersart University in Bangkok and an appropriate strawberry was developed for Thailand’s highlands.  Strawberries have replaced opium as the premier product of Northern Thailand, although Burma (Myanmar) continues to be a major opium producer. 

       Down stairs from the Hilltribe Museum is the Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant.  At the entrance, who else, but a statue of Captain Condom greets us.  Except for his mannequin face, he is made entirely of bright orange and yellow condoms.  Opposite him is a Santa Claus statue.  His suit is also made of condoms in traditional red and white.  As an added incentive in curing the population explosion, on the wall is a large rectangular poster picturing the right condom to use depending on your particular profession.  I assume this could be particularly helpful to those who waver or prefer the exclusivity of a special condom just for them; i.e. the doctors’ condom, the dentists’ condom and so on. As for the menu, it looked very tasty, but we only had drinks, so I cannot really be sure. 
         In the center of town is a large night market, which surrounds an ‘L’ shaped outside food emporium.  Divided into two sections, one is service only, while the other has a series of self-service stalls.  Both have seating in the middle and both serves mediocre food. Each section also has it’s own large stage on which charmingly cheesy acts perform; native dancers, lip sinking girls in western evening gowns, a guitarist/ singer, with each act switching from stage to stage, so no one misses out. 
        One of our most delightful adventures was taking the local bus 13 kilometers outside Chiang Ray to the White Temple, a mix of Liberace, Disneyland and Buddhist/Hinduism. Amazingly stunning, with it’s silver, sugary white exterior that sparkles in the sunlight and it’s large Buddha seated inside surrounded by fearsome Hinduquse interior wall paintings.  Its official name is ‘Chapel of Wat Rong Khun.’  The Thai artist, Chalemchai Kositpipat, began this modern edifice in 1994, and like Gaudi’s Sagrala Familia Cathedral in Barcelona, it is another imaginative work in progress.  The White Temple is one of those fanciful world tourist venues like the City of Venice and Florida’s Disneyworld, that is a must see for the discerning traveler.  After experiencing the temple’s tourist shops, the artist’s art gallery (with a great painting of GW Bush and Ben laden flying across the sky sitting together on a on a rocket), and a noodle lunch, we took the local five PM bus back to Chiang Rai.
      The food here is not sensational with the exception of The Old Dutch Restaurant.  Walk in and you are automatically transported to Holland with walls covered with Delft blue artifacts, tulip and windmill pictures and a furniture d├ęcor that must have been shipped direct from a Dutch furniture factory during the 1970s or 80s.  The menu has a plethora of traditional Dutch/European dishes as well as local Thai fare.  To get a table is a major feat, yet the 70-year-old owner who has been running the whole operation for thirty years would like to sell. 
        If you like to cook and would like to step into a thriving restaurant in a charming town with nice people and great weather, here’s your opportunity.  As for lodgings, we stayed at the Baann Warabordee, a really lovely guesthouse a little off the beaten path with many of the amities we enjoy (See Sleeping around). 
         After five really busy days, in Chiang Rai, it was time board the bus for our five and half hour return to Chiang Mai where we looked forward to four more boring days before we flew off to our Myanmar adventure.  At least I had made reservations at Mini-Cost a marvelous hostelry with guesthouse prices and four/five star accouterments.  
     But wait!  The next day as I sat outside an upscale establishment on a little street Sam had read about, I perused a table of local magazines.  There I found one entitled ARTS and CULTURE in Chiang Mai.  Finally!  Mecca; I had finally hit pay dirt.  Their secret was out.  Upon opening this compendium of local knowledge, I found it was all advertisements for Antique and upscale clothing stores.  SHOPPING!  That’s what it was all about.  “Wait tell I tell Sam,” I thought.
       Over a glass of good wine nurtured by great food (we had found Hong Touw Inn, a second wonderful restaurant [See Eating your Heart Out]), I showed Samantha the brochure.  We are not much on hiking, climbing or camping, but we are hellious shoppers. And shop we did!  Ferreting out charming little dress shops, trying on linens and silks, and negotiating better prices when we bought two or three items from one of these delightful establishments.  We walked away with dresses, and jackets, shirts and antique silver jewelry.  Bundles of great buys, that we just couldn’t do without.   
       Chiang Mai had finally become fun and we were now ready for our next adventure: Myanmar.  Would it be as good?  We didn’t know.  All we could do was wait and see.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

THE TRAVELER

THAILAND
Bangkok
Bangkok is a stimulating city, intermingling the antique and the modern, the historical and the hysterical. The former includes the King’s palace, an enormous reclining Buddha, and shrines, all opened to the public, and massive shopping centers such as the Siam Paragon, which has everything for sale: Lotus cars, Hermes, local crafts, a food court to die for, a specialty grocery store and gold jewelry that could replace ‘diamonds as a girl’s best friend.’ The more exotic are Khao San Road, and the Red light district (with shows in which women shoot ping pong balls out of their private parts into a bowl),  unusual distractions for a price.

Other than the Sunday outdoor market in Madrid, Bangkok has one of the largest flea markets I have ever visited. It also has inexpensive great restaurants (the Hemlock and  the Saffron Bakery), and nice and not so nice reasonably priced hotels.    
         
 During an earlier trip to Bangkok, the first night I stayed in a horrible little cubby with no window.  I must of given off an air of sophistication (not) of someone who spent most of their travel nights at the Ritz in London or George V in France because the desk clerk kindly sent me around the corner off the main tourist street to the Siam House II, which turned out to be a perfect fit.  During this trip, I  was pleased the Siam House II had installed in room WFI, as it took two days just to arrange hotels for my daughter’s and my venture into northern Thailand and Myanmar.


Upon arriving at the entrance to the city, there are enormous pictures of King Rama IX and the queen. Visitors are at once overwhelmed and charmed by a series of more large pictures of the royal couple as they ride along to the city center.  Though out Bangkok, one often sees pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadel (nicknamed 'Lek' by his family).  If it is outside a military base, he is in an army uniform, outside a naval port, his dress is that of a naval officer, at a school in the picture, he is surrounded by children.  


King Rama IX has been on the throne for 65 years, becoming king at age nineteen.  He is revered by his people; almost considered a god-king.  Yet, I have been told that if one is heard insulting or criticising him, it can result in up to fifteen years in jail.  Currently this beloved 83 year old monarch has heart problems and is comfortably ensconced in a hospital on the shores of the Chao Phraya River.  

One of the most charming aspects of Bangkok are the river ferries which ply up and down the Chao Phraya River carrying massive numbers of locals, school children, monks and tourists. There is a ferry connection to Bangkok’s wonderful Sky Train, which I used to go to Siam Paragon and MBK shopping mall (where CANON CARE repaired my camera), the Myanmar Embassy and flea market at the end of the line.

It also has one of the nosiest, most vibrant backpacking areas of any city I have visited. Full of inexpensive guesthouses, open-air food stalls, street hawkers, tailors, used bookstores and cheap massage/beauty parlors mashed together to create one big human circus. But the flagship street is Khao San Road.


Khao San Road

Khao San road is the Disney world of Bangkok, but it is the participants rather than the shops that are the main attractions. Crowded and scrubby, the shops along the road are somewhat blocked by clothes selling street stalls, food stalls offering everything from fruit drinks, Pai Thai, fried bugs and insects, set up both on the sidelines and in the middle of the road. Street barkers hawking phony press cards and driver’s licenses, to native tribal finery, cheap jewelry and little wooden frogs with rippled backs that when rubbed with a stick make an annoying frog burp, just like the real thing. Added to all of this is an occasional tuk-tuk or car circuitously trying to maneuver through the crowds, and a Sikh fortuneteller who will even tell you the exact year you were born for thirty baht.

Although opened all-day, it is long into the night when Khao San Road is most exciting. When the beer floes and the music swells. When perfectly normal people become crazed by the atmosphere; men with their beards braided in front and long hair braids down their backs, ‘suits’ wearing circus colored clothes they would never be seen in at home, both men and women having braid extensions put in their hair that snake down to their waists, hair colors changed to rainbow hues, and more body piercing on all ages then I have ever seen on a weekend nighttime ride on the London underground. As for tattoos, they are the modus operandi of this whole population of ‘three week vacation’ fantasy street people.

My friend Yassine, an exotically handsome guy with a Dutch mother and Moroccan father from Holland, tells the Khao San Road story of Kevin, who said to Yassine, late one evening: “If you buy me a bucket of whiskey for 200 baht and pay for the tattoo, I’ll have your name tattooed to my ‘arse’.”

Kevin a young bleached-blond British traveler from Robin Hood’s neighborhood asks everyone he meets this same question. Unfortunately, he asked Yassime during the early morning hours when the tattoo shop had just closed. So they agreed to meet the next evening, and by One A.M. the deed was done. By the end of evening, Kevin had about 25 names on his derriere; continuing a project he had started 3 weeks earlier. It seems while Kevin drank his buckets of whisky, he also kept a diary about his travels and the friends (those whose names were on his ‘arse’), whom he had met along the way from Laos to Puket to Bangkok. But Bangkok was the mother load, where for Kevin, the most tattoos were inked and the most whisky flowed. Is this true, absolutely? I have seen a ‘charming’ photo of a smiling Yassime pointing at the tattoo of his name on Kevin’s ‘arse.’

You too can go to Khao San Road, drink ‘Colonel Saunders sized’ buckets of whiskey or beer, be safely jostled about by the crowds, buy lots of cool stuff you probably don’t need, and make some memories of your own, or be a voyeur like me and just enjoy the ‘Disneyesquse’ passing scene, eat the street foods and find out your ‘real birth year.’ It only costs thirty Baht.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

THE TRAVELER

Although I had many other adventures in Bali, it is time to move on to Thailand. But before I do, I’d like to insert a bit of information about travel Paperwork)


PAPERWORK



PASSPORTS: Wouldn’t you know, no matter what one does in life, there’s always paperwork. In travel, it is in the forms of passports and visas. Your PASSPORT is your most important travel item. These days you can’t go anywhere offshore without it. Whether you go on a cruise or even to a US territory. So get a passport.
VISAS: Visas are ‘mini-passports’ placed within your US passport, that give you permission to enter a foreign country. Generally, you get them by filling out a form on line, printing it out and mailing the form, the amount of money requested and your own passport to the embassy address listed on the website. Most often foreign embassies have a private recommended company (found on the embassy website), which takes care of visa processing for them and you for a small fee – charged to you of course.
The visa entry date (date at which you are allowed to enter their country) begins the date the visa is processed. This can be a problem if you are traveling to multiple counties and you have been authorized a 30 day visa only to realize upon arrival that because it is the second or third country on your itinerary you might have only a few or no days left on the visa.
Example: Currently India has three tourist visa choices for US citizens: a six-month visa, a five-year visa and a 10-year visa. If you want to spend a full six months in India and the start date on your India visa is October 5, 2010,and your trip begins October 15, 2010, it doesn’t work. You are already at least twelve days short (two days travel time to get there) of your six-month visa period. Therefore, you need to spend the extra dollars and apply for the five-year multiple entry visa.
You say ‘ok, I can live with the loss of twelve days of my visit.’ But wait, what if you have bought a great ticket that allows you one or two free stops on the way. Often when traveling to India (again an example) you get a free stop in Dubai. Are you going to pass that up? Not unless you are abnormal, on an exceeding stiff budget, or have a lover anxiously waiting in New Deli or Mumbai. Taking advantage of extra stops cuts even deeper into your India visa days.
Some countries do not require a visa from US citizens; you just get an entry stamp upon arrival with the number of days you are allowed to stay in that county listed on the entry stamp. While others allow travelers to get visas at the border, or have them arranged by a travel bureau. Some are arranged at the country’s embassy in a neighboring country. Here again, examples: (1) you are in Thailand and decide to go to Laos or Cambodia, after all they are right next door. The travel bureau, which is arranging your travel tickets, can also expedite that visa with no fuss. (2) You are in Nepal and want to get that six-month visa for its neighbor, India. Just go to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and in four to seven days, you have an India visa in hand. (3) You decide in a moment of madness, you’d like to go to London for a long weekend. All you have to do is arrive in Great Britain and get that stamp.
Whatever you travel plans, make sure to read all the counties’ visa rules (these can change often) and coordinate those with your itinerary. It helps to prevent ugly surprises, makes your life so much easier, and your travels a whole lot more fun.
Another item you might wish to have is an International Hostel Card. These are now for travelers of all ages, and in countries like Australia and New Zealand, where hotels can be prohibitively expensive, they are of great use. Also and International Driver’s License is of great value. Both of these items can be obtained on line with very little effort and could be invaluable in certain situations.
Now for the dirty word: SHOTS. Whatever your travel plans, be sure to check with the CDC (cdc.com) to find out what travel shots you need for each particular country. You also can find this information on every country’s individual website. Travel shots can be gotten through your family doctor or in cosmopolitan areas through a medical company that specializes only in giving travelers shots. They are expensive, but do it. Getting sick while traveling because you didn’t bother to get the proper shots can really ruin a travelers day, week and depending on the disease, one’s future life.
ELECTRONICS: I am aware there is no paper involved here, but what you choose to lug around really influences your ability to travel with speed and comfort. I travel with a Mac book Air so I can write, as well as communicate with friends and family. I also carry a small camera. But for those people who want to just check their email, call ahead for reservations and take great pictures, a smart phone does the trick. I have seen pictures taken with an I Phone that are spectacular. Then there are others of you who are photo-artists traveling with cameras using lenses of different sizes and tripods for picture perfection. Whatever your needs, consider these carefully, to decide what fits your travel lifestyle. What is most important to you?

NOTE
Note: re: visas - Also be aware that countries have different visa requirements for citizens of different countries.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

THE TRAVELER

BALINESE OFFERINGS


Unlike most of the Indonesian islands' populations who practice Islam, the Balinese are Hindu. As part of their Hindu ritual, everyday through out the island little coconut leave baskets filled with rice, chili, flowers, incense sticks and holy water are placed everywhere, in front of businesses, homes, and hotels and on cars. Called canang these baskets are woven in any of three symbolic shapes; triangles denoting the triple deity, squares for the four directions and circles representing the universe.
Balinese women prepare and place these baskets everyday of the year all their lives (if all the women of a household are having their period at the same time, then the men of the family must fulfill this daily duty). Women are taught from a very young age to weave these little baskets and they can be seen daily weaving them in Ubud and around the countryside as they prepare fresh baskets for the next day. When the canang are placed at various locations a prayer and mantra is recited. At an ancestor’s shrine and at the household temple (every household has a temple), the ibi Pertiwi (mother earth prayer) is said to ‘ensure the security of the place, particularly if it is facing a road(s), bridge, gate, or other place that the owner of the household, often with the advice of a holy man, feels it is necessay. During my Teba House home stay,it was alway a peacful morning moment, sitting on my covered porch sipping tea and watching as Ayu,or Diah (the two women of the household) placed canang baskets on the shrines on every building in the compound, sprinkling on holy water and saying a quiet prayer. Often basket offerings are just placed on the ground to attract butha kala, the earth spirits. This particular offering (called Kajeng) is a one of a number of special ceremonies based on the Balinese calendar and moon cycles.
I was often worried that I might step on a sidewalk offering found in front of a shop or businesses, but no worries. Once the incense is burned, the essence of the offering is sent into the universe, and the canang is no longer considered a holy offering, just another part of everyday life.
The Balinese use the Wuku calendar system, which is based on a week rather than days. There are 30 weeks in one cycle and two cycles in a year. Each cycle consists of 210 days called an oton and there are two otons or 420 days in a year. The Balinese calendar is used to determine the most auspicious days for farming, raising animals, starting businesses and the dates of temple ceremonies.
Twice a year there is a moon festival. These religious ceremonies are held at temples throughout Bali. On this day, women can be seen walking along the roadways wearing their traditional Balinese finery and carrying temple offerings in baskets on their heads on their way to their local temple shrine. Clans, or families attend with family members coming from all over the island to meet together at a designated temple to celebrate this festival together. The clan is determined by the last name of oldest living male member of a household.
Fortunately, I was in Bali during one of the moon festivals and attended with two different clans. Not far from the seaside town of Candidasa is Pura Besakih, the largest temple in Bali, which contains 33 temples within the major temple complex.
Tomasz, another visitor staying at Teba House, told me he was leaving one morning for Candidasa and the temple to see the festival. “May I tag along?” I ask. And Tomasz gave and enthusiastic “Yes.” I called a guesthouse on Skype and made reservations for two rooms. By eleven that morning, we were in a van with six other travelers. Two hours later, we arrived at our Candidasa guesthouse. Upon our arrival, we found that seaside meant steep stairs down to a very unappealing narrow grey pebbly beach. During a late lunch at the hotel, we met Kristen and his partner Anne (an attractive, enormously pregnant young woman) both from Denmark. Tomasz proceeded to tell them about the Moon festival and about a unique little village called Tenganan, which was going to be our afternoon side trip and Kristen and Anne decided to join us.
After lunch, we became a merry troop of travelers, much like Dorothy and her friends on their wizard quest, off to see Tenganan village situated about three miles back from the seaside.
As we rode Tomasz regaled us with the village history.

‘Many hundred of years ago, King Bedhulu lost one of his beloved horses. Finally his right hand man, Ki Patih Briu found it dead in a field. As a gift for finding his horse the King told Ki Patih Briu that he and his clan could have a piece of land within his kingdom equal to the area in which the aroma of the flesh of his horse could be smelled. Being a clever fellow, Ki Patih Briu cut carrion off the horse and put it in his pocket. Thus where ever he and the king’s representative walked the scent followed. After the land was designated to him, he and his family walled in their future village, which can still only entered by one of four gates, leaving the majority of the land outside to lease to others to farm.’
‘When making the gift to the Ki Patih Brui’s clan, King Bedahulu also made two rules. One, all visitors must be out of the village by sundown, and two, if a villager marries outside the clan, he could no longer live within the village confines.’ Tomasz continued. (The second rule I later read was changed in 1925, when it was decided that a clan member could marry a woman from outside the village if she was of high cast, and still live in village. Even today if a bride is not of high enough cast, then the villager is relegated to living outside the village walls forever more.)

By the time Tomasz finished his story, we had arrived at the small kiosk at the entrance, to find that no fee was required, a small donation sufficed and we entered the gate. The village consisted of buildings on either side of what once must have been a wide cobble stone walk way but had become a random path covered with slippery mud, dirt, and shards of stone to make it easier to maneuver up the occasional slight inclines past the numerous houses.
Many of the houses were open with little teashops or antique shops in their entryways or ‘front parlors.’ Others had looms where women sat weaving kamben gringsing cloth, which is woven in only two other places in the world, Potala, India and Guatemala, Central America. (Because of the sale of their cloth and their farming leases, Tenganan is one of the richest communities in Bali).
But I found it a dreary place with its bits of trash strewn here and there. There were neither streets nor cars in the village (which is probably a good aspect), although by taking a path beside one of the houses, we found that along the backside of the houses, it was clean with a small grassy knoll. Yet, except for learning its interesting history, and the pleasure of being with such delightful companions, visiting Tenganan was from my viewpoint a waste of time.
That evening, we dined el fresco each enjoying delightful fish dinners, and the next morning off we went to Pura Besakih temple for the festival.
The evening before, I arranged with one of the staff at the expensive hotel and spa across the street for a car and driver to squire us around the next day to the festival and after to a traditional Balinese lunch. We could not have found a better companion for our festival adventure, for the driver not only brought sarongs for each of to wear within the temple confines, he also told us all the tricks of the voracious guides who prey on tourists like vultures waiting for the last breath of their victims to be exhumed. And prey they did with ‘in your face’ nasty remarks, haranguing and hisses. This behavior continued by any number of young men all the way to the temple as well as inside. “You can’t go in there, you are foreigners.” They shouted at us. Finally in a peak of anger, I lied, “I am Hindu.” That stopped them but only momentarily, and soon they began again.
First of all, “Although they will plague you unmercifully, you do not need a guide.” Our driver had explained. “Also, unless you find walking up the somewhat steep hill to the temple too wearing, then you do not need to hire a ride up on the back of a motor bike no matter how many times you are ask. Once you are at the temple, no matter what the pushy young men, who will be harassing you at your every turn say; you may certainly join a clan’s ceremonies. But please do not stand there watching, rather quietly sit down in the back and be respectful observers.
On the way up to the temple, women were selling pre made canang and Anne bought four as our offerings to the ceremonies. Then up the steep hill we trudged, a band of miscreants ready to make offerings to the Gods. The first clan ceremony we encountered was the biggest we saw all day. In a large temple with large baskets of offerings placed on the dais in the front and prayers, who were mostly dressed in white sitting on the ground, a leader in the back on another dais using a microphone was leading the prayers. As we entered I softly ask a man who seemed receptive to our presence if we could sit and he directed us a place in the back. He also slid before us a large basket filled with flowers and a burning incense stick. Kristen took two of our small offerings to the dais and Tomasz enthusiastically filmed the whole ceremony.
Upon leaving the sanctuary within, we wandered to the top of the hill and we all photographed the numerous temples and shrines below. Heading back down through the temple environs, we came across another much smaller service and quietly joined. Again we were welcomed. Here Kristen gave our other two offerings and in return we were blessed, annotated with ashes placed on our forehead and the naps of our throats, and holy water sprinkled on our hands and our heads. We each gave a generous donation to their clan prayers basket and happily left festivities.
When the nasty young men saw us exit the second ceremony, they were momentarily stopped it their tracks. Here were westerners annotated like themselves and their nasty behavior made a 180-degree turn to curiosity then joy. We were one of them, not the interlopers they had assumed. And we happily descended the long downward stairway out of the temple.
We had all contributed to what was for each of us a magical event, and although not a religious moment, it was a gift to us as travelers; leaving everyone with a memory of togetherness and joy with each other and those who allowed us to share their festival with them.

Friday, March 4, 2011

THE TRAVELER

The Hole

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually the storm had abated, although a Bali rainy season downpour is like a berretta automatic machine gun pistol pulsating the ground with 1100 hits every two minutes; continuously repeating it self with no relief. While Bali thunder makes the same sound as the backfiring of a GM 671 diesel engine, the lightening flashes are almost blinding in their ferocity. The claps of thunder make me cringe. Bali rains are the most ferocious I have ever experienced. A Florida hurricane rain is timid in comparison.
Thunder rumbles, lightening cracks, plants grow. Eddies of water between the higher walkways and the garden create small ponds and lakes among the plants and flowers.
The weight of the downpour emancipates the heavens and crushes everything beneath. Trembling, crashing, bashing. One step into the downpour and it not only drenches your skin, but also enters your pours and soaks your whole body inside and out.
Originally the streets of Bali must have had open drain sewers to contain the runoff of these tremendous downpours. Throughout Ubud, the sidewalks, which consist of about one foot by two-foot slabs of ceramic tile, are built over these three-foot deep canals. Some with flowing waters, others with patches of mud, dirt, sand, and sometimes a bit of trash in the bottom. Often plastic bottles, sticks or other paraphernalia are used as markers to designate a rough or broken patch of sidewalk. Sometimes there is no marker at all. Which was the case with my personal hole.
After another excellent dinner of Seafood Paella at Sagittarius, an acquaintance and I were walking ‘home’ to our respective guesthouses. We decided to walk on the cross street parallel to the football (soccer) field which connects Julan (road) Monkey Forest, and, Julan Hanoman . We turned off Monkey Forest on to Julan Dewi Sita, walking at a steady clip. It was very dark. What light there was, was blocked by the SUVs parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I went down. I fell into an unmarked hole in the sidewalk. I stepped forward but there was only air. My left shin and thigh scrapped against the edge of the forward slap pulling up my pant leg as I fell. Because my right leg was bent in an automatic walking position, my right thigh hit the same ceramic tiles from another angle and my left elbow slammed down hard on the left side of the cement frame that was there as a brace for the missing sidewalk slap. When the shock of my situation wore off, I realized I was in a HOLE; hip level in a hole.
What was I to do? The woman with me ask, ‘can I help?” Surveying the situation, I decided no. This is the kind of situation where one can either become hysterical or remain calm and have a moment of quiet to figure it all out. Fortunately, I did the latter.
As I stood in my hole I surveyed all my body parts. My elbow hurt yes, and fortunately I was not standing in water or raw sewage; although in the darkness I couldn’t see, but I didn’t feel that I had any broken bones. Using what little strength I have in my arms, I am a 120-pound weakling; I pushed my self up on my left knee. I rested for a moment, and then brought the rest of my body to ground level. As I slowly stood up, the throbbing pain of my injuries seemed to supersede all other thoughts. My cuts, scratches, and sores were encased in blood, dirt and grit. ‘Infection. I have to get back to my guesthouse and clean my legs up before infection sets in.’ was my first thought. I limped down the street looking for a taxi, and as usual when you most need something, it’s never there. A security guard at a local restaurant offered to take me to Teba House on the back of his motorbike and I was there in a zip. After a good but painful dosing of water and proxicide, antibiotic cream and bandages, I surveyed my pants. I only had two pairs of long pants with me and these that I was wearing were now scrapped with long strips of pitch-black dirt embedded in the cloth. Damn! God, I was a mess. And I ached. Then like a lightening bolt, the golden rule of clothes and travel popped into my head – ‘clothes are sold everywhere in the world.’
The next morning I woke to find I had developed about a four by six inch burse on my upper left thigh and a swollen right ankle. Fortunately my cuts and scrapes healed, the burse turned from purple to yellow to gone, and the neighborhood laundry cleaned my pants to wearable condition so I didn’t have to invade my shopping budget. And I learned a new Golden Rule:
Beware of Holes in the Night

THE TRAVELER

Staying in Ubud and stuff

There are a plethora of places to stay in Ubud, everything from swanky hotel spas of international renown, monthly rentals, lovely less expensive small hotels with pools and views of the rice paddies (at a minimum of $40 a room, Balam Bali Villa is a great choice), as well as home stays, many created out of the traditional unique walled private homes of many Balinese families.
As I always like meeting the local people, I chose a home stay and what a fortunate choice. Teba House run by a lovely family and Brownie the dog was a memorable stay.
I stayed in both the row of simple non air-conditioned rooms as well as the snazzy little bungalow. My tenure in the lovely air-conditioned bungalow ended when Donna Angelina S., a young Indonesian jewelry designer (you can find her designs on the web), who had pre-booked the room showed up. So I had to move to another room. Off to non air-conditioned room I go again. This time I had and end room with two windows and the owners kindly switched the two chairs on my new porch with the bungalow’s chaise lounge porch couch. I lovingly enjoyed the chaise, and was able to continue my Cleopatra fantasy while residing in my lowly fan room. I had considered moving to their elegant upstairs air-conditioned suite, but have changed my mind, because I like my cozy corner room, and I enjoy Brownie’s visits in the morning. Brownie has the important job of having breakfast in the morning with only those guests who are in need of his personal attention. I have discovered that he prefers butter to jam on his toast and likes a little honey on his pancake pieces. He will also play ball if you are so inclined and is not a barker, which puts the frosting on the cake during one’s Teba House experience.
I have an infection on my foot from wearing flip-flops. Other than having dinner with a woman I met from California, I am not wearing shoes today, and am staying close to home.
I'm in Ubud for another 10 days. I plan to see some Balinese dancing, and go on another tour to the Northern coast. I was thinking of going to Lombok, the next Island south. I am told it has white sand beaches and Kamo dragons. But actually, I'm too lazy. Who knows? Until my foot heals, I’m not going much of anywhere. Yesterday, I wasted $65 going to a local clinic. It seems the night before, I had, unbeknownst to me (as the sore was still puffy and swollen) squeezed the entire puss out of the infection and the sore was already on the mend. Kudos to Dr. Bob. I am extremely afraid of infections in the tropics. In my opinion, they can quickly take over one’s body--- and with the marginal medical care available, unless one goes to the very expensive International Hospital, it seemed better to be safe than sorry. I like having both my feet. .
The weather is really quite warm and humid but not as bad as south Florida in the summer. I walk many miles most days to museums, shopping, eating up the mood and essence of the community. Still I have mixed feelings about Ubud, being an over traveled tourist destination, over-ridden with shops, hotels, B&Bs and day spas. Yet the people are so lovely, and Ubud has an aura about it that is very seductive. But I cannot put out of my mind that the winter the beaches along the coast are polluted. Whereas my favorite place, the British Virgin Islands, looks staid next to Ubud’s inland fantasy of colors and high energy, Bali does not stir my soul like the view and scent of Tortola's soft white sands, azure waters, and crisp Caribbean tropical breeze.
Will I come to Bali (Ubud) again, absolutely, but next time it will be during the dry season with some side trips to other islands.