Saturday, February 28, 2009

New Photos - The end of OZ

Hey all. We just got done captioning and uploading four new photo albums from the tail end of our journey through Australia. Hervey Bay, Byron Bay, Nimbin and Brisbane await your viewing.

View them all through the "Evidence" link on the right side of the page. Bali coming soon...

Ohhhhh - He have no ding-dong!

Bali - Hi!

Wow, Bali is a trip!! It's very exciting to feel like we've stepped off the plane into another world, as both NZ and OZ were very Western and familiar. Immediately we were struck by the thick, tropical humidity and subtle smells of incense floating through the air as we walked off the plane. After getting completely taken by paying $10 for a cab ride into the hectic town of Kuta (which we found out after the fact), we settled in at a little homestay costing us all of about $8 a night. Granted there wasn't a flush toilet in our attached bathroom (you just pour scoopfuls of water down to flush, which is surprisingly effective) and it was a cold water shower only, but it was quaint and comfortable and we had a cool view from our oversized balcony. In this heat we'd prefer a cold shower anyway!

We soon discovered that Bali is a land of stark contrasts....huge, elaborately beautiful buildings on one side of the street, and shanty little shacks that may collapse at any moment on the other. The Balinese as a whole are meticulously clean, constantly sweeping their sidewalks and wiping down shop floors, while huge piles of garbage are dumped on the beach, side of the road, in a forest of palm trees, etc. The people constantly hassle you to come into their shop/restaurant/stall/massage parlor to have a look (it gets old quickly but you also get used to it and become immune quickly) but they are also the friendliest, warmest, most generous and giving people imaginable. Everyone you pass on the street greets you with a cheerful “Halo” and we had countless conversations with the locals, with topics ranging from “how HANDSOME Obama is!!” (the Indonesian women are really smitten by him!) to how only the Balinese could forge an entire fake Hyatt Resort, even down to the towels and robes.

When we both came down with nasty head colds, Nyorman, our favorite local from Candidasa, insisted on driving Jer on the back of his moped to the only pharmacy remotely nearby (in the next town over) so we could buy some cold medicine, then refused to accept any gas money for his trouble. He later in the week (once the cold medicine brought us partway out of our snot-filled stupor) took us on his little outrigger boat to discover some amazing snorkeling sites that we never would have found on our own, and then on the most incredible jungle trek up to his local temple, which was perched atop the mountain hillside next to our resort. I honestly thought he was kidding when he pointed to the top and said that was where we'd be going! It was a gruelling, near vertical hike (if that wasn't going to sweat the 'bad' out of us, nothing would), but it paid off ten-fold. The temple was beautiful and crawling with hilarious monkeys, and the hike afforded views of rice paddies, coconut plantations, misty cloud-enshrouded Mt. Agung, and neighboring villages, all with the deep blue of the ocean as a backdrop. Oprah would agree that the whole experience was one of those “Ah-Ha” moments that I'll never forget. Norman led us back down the mountain through a series of giant stair-stepped terraces where local farmers grow peanuts, and eventually to his own home. He introduced us to wife, and we all sat down to eat snakefruit together before he led us back with a generous bag of the weird, scaly things as a gift. Even then we had to fight him to accept our tip for his graciousness and help.

This is but one example of the many we heard while in Bali....our German hotel manager told us of when he first moved to the island and woke up one morning to a dead car, ailed with some sort of mechanical failure. His neighbor (who he hadn't even met yet) insisted that he take his car to work instead! When he arrived home that evening, his car was up and running and as good as new. When Jergen tried to pay him for the parts and/or his trouble, the man refused, slapping him on the back and exclaiming “We're neighbors!” That's just what you do.

I wish people were like that everywhere. Their sense of community also blew us away. After several nights of CRAZY rainstorms, the whole town of Sanur would be flooded: the elementary school next door, shops, homes, and just about every lane branching off from the main road. It seemed that the whole community would gather in the effort to pump unimaginable gallons of water out, a process they repeated every day for the whole week we were there. Nobody seemed upset or worried about it either. This must be a common problem during the rainy season and it struck me as another contrast. It's as if the Balinese don't value their time or skills the way we do. One would think it would behoove them to fix the problem once and for all, by building up the roads, etc. But no, they just follow the pumping process time and time again. The same goes for the handicrafts they produce: the most intricate woven baskets, bags, and boxes, beautiful hand-dyed batik fabrics, jewelry, art, paintings, etc etc all require a level of skill that blows us away. But it all costs next to nothing despite that! Even the daily offerings they put out in front of doorways and in cars (everywhere, really) are meticulous little creations of woven banana leaves and palm fronds, filled with fresh flowers, bits of food and sometimes amusing items like a cigarette, a few goldfish crackers, boxes of Milo, you name it. Each and every day we would see women patiently assembling these little beauties, as a freshie always replaces yesterday's offering.

Even though Bali is a small island, we were only able to cover a fraction of it. Thanks to the anal Pacific Blue agents in Australia, we were locked into our departure dates for Singapore. It's the only place so far that we've felt we were robbed time-wise, and were very sad to leave so soon. We spent a few days in Kuta, a week in Sanur, a week in Candidasa, and only one night in Ubud, but would've enjoyed more time in each of those places, not to mention the many others we didn't make it to. A week doesn't sound like long, but given the hospitality of the Balinese people, both Sanur and Candidasa truly felt like home for the time we were there. We fell in love with New Zealand, but Bali was the first place we felt we couldn't wait to come back to in the future.    

Friday, February 20, 2009

It's so cliche... (Caution - poop story ahead)

We both found it classically clich̩ that no more than three days into Bali (ya know, an actual foreign land, not just America with an accent) Courtney is stuck in bed with the runs. All the while, old Iron Gut Jer is having no digestive problems whatsoever. Typical. Well, at least we had a very nice room to wage our belly battle in Рour very own actual sit-down toilet (versus a squat toilet) that flushes and everything! (As opposed to having no water hooked up to the toilet and having to pour a small bucket into the bowl after each use.) Luxury.

Give it 24 hours and Courtney's back on her feet, ready to brave the hassling hawkers and start hitting the food stalls once again. So out we go, making it back to the room just in time to avoid the TORRENTIAL downpour that lasted ALL night. Apparently I forgot to find some wood to knock on when I was teasing Courtney about being down and out yesterday and me being just fine, cuz guess what – it's my turn. But hey, let's not stop at just a wicked little case of the trots. Let's throw a little salt in the wound. Thanks to a magical combination of factors - it being the rainy season (see TORRENTIAL downpour reference above and repeat almost every night), the entire island of Bali having a gloriously inadequate drainage system, and our luxury accommodation having its water pump go out due to the storm – guess what... we have no water.

So now I have the pleasure of not being able to flush my green apple splatter. Joy. It goes something like this – stomach starts to gurgle, cheeks clench (Don't trust a fart!), run to the bathroom, engage, clean up, walk downstairs to room 2 where they have a hose drawn into the shower from the house next door and fill up our bucket, head back upstairs to “flush”. All the while hoping that during this trip to fill up the bucket the stomach doesn't start gurgling again.

I've never prayed for a George Morlan or Home Depot so hard in my life! Where's that new f'n water pump?!?!

Fortunately as with Courtney, my war with Bali Belly only lasted about a day and the new water pump made it in about a day and a half. Unfortunately, smaller battles were waged for several weeks. It really took getting out of Bali and into Singapore, with its high health standards and drinkable water, to get me right. Now we're in Malaysia, where bottled water will again reign and we'll be a little more careful with the local fare, tap water and whereabouts of the nearest WC – just to be safe.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Australia - The Oys and the Noys


1)The Great Barrier Reef. Not much more needs to be said. We saw countless sea turtles, lagoon rays, funny furry looking pineapple sea cucumbers, fish of every color and size including lots of Nemos (but the most impressive was a HUGE bright green and turquoise Mary Rass, which of course we didn't get a picture of), beautiful coral forests of every imaginable color and texture, and even a few barracuda and sharks. The scuba diving experience we had was something we'll never forget. We're just hoping we didn't blow our wad by starting with the best first!
2)Beautiful beaches all along the east coast. Soft, white sand and crystal clear water. Unfortunately we weren't able to swim in the ocean until much further south, due to the box jellyfish that migrate through that time of year (their sting can be fatal). But the saltwater lagoons found in many towns' squares serve as a terrific replacement.
3)The wildlife was so different and impressive.....kangaroos, wallabies, penguins, emus, koalas, kookaburras, large monitor lizards, and the constant background music of every kind and color of bird imaginable.

1)The people. I debated commenting on this for fear of sounding too judgemental (I realize it's unfair to categorize an entire country based on a handful of idiots) but too many f'ed up things happened to leave it out. Our blog is meant to document the good AND the bad, right? With the exception of a wonderful older couple from Brisbane who sent us off with countless great tips for Thailand, the Aussie locals were such a contrast from the Kiwis! It ranged from small things like rude holiday park owners who treated us as a nuisance rather than an income opportunity, to people shoving their hands in our faces and yelling to scare us when we rode by on our bikes in Byron Bay (we had a few very near crashes due to this lovely behavior), to getting pebbles thrown at us from a third story window as we innocently walked down a city street in Brisbane in the middle of the day. New sport – tag the tourist? Not that we look any different from an Aussie local. Other travelers we met described them as aggressive and combative and we agreed that in general they seem to be an angry lot. We'd witness at least 2 or 3 fights a night while in Melbourne but the highlights were definitely these two instances: the night we met up with our friends from scuba school at a popular bar/restaurant in Cairns for our 'certification celebration.' We ordered dinner, Jer and I getting a large pizza so we'd have lunch leftovers for the 12 hour train trip south the next day. They were happy to wrap up our leftovers in foil as we continued to order drinks, dance, and hang out with our buddies for the last time. All of a sudden I see Jer being physically and forcibly escorted from the bar, surrounded by 3 large bouncers! Panicked and completely oblivious as to what could have happened to spur this (he was definitely tipsy, but you all know Jer is a happy and harmless drunk), I catch up with the stampede near the top of the stairs and plead with one bouncer to tell me what's going on, what did he do, why is he getting thrown out??? Instead of giving me any sort of explanation, the bouncer grabs my arm and shoves me down the long flight of stairs, through a huge crowd of people, and literally THROWS me out, down a few more steps and into another crowd of people. I had two huge black welts on my leg for over a month. I've never seen Jer so ready to tear someone apart as when he saw the guy shove me with so much force! All the while, the bouncers won't say one word as to why we're being treated like criminals. We finally got an explanation from the head of security - it turns out that once the restaurant switches to a bar license for the night, food is no longer served (or, apparently, allowed). So we were physically thrown out for having leftover pizza, that we bought THERE, that they were HAPPY to wrap up for us, and no one could even take one moment to explain this to us so we could have simply thrown the leftovers out! Wow. Can you say OVERREACTION????? The second and craziest instance of all happened as we strolled Brisbane's Botanical Gardens one evening. We saw some unidentified possum/rodent/ferret looking creature moseying along between the trees and stopped to take a picture of it. We hadn't taken 3 more steps before this crazy and obviously intoxicated white trash lady comes tearing out of the bushes, gets right IN OUR FACES and starts SCREAMING and cussing at us that we are so rude and disrespectful, we need to “step off,” who do we think we are, etc etc. Thoroughly and utterly confused as to what crime we committed to send this woman into a such a rage, I think that maybe she was doing something scandalous in the background and thought we were trying to capture her on film?? We desperately try to explain ourselves, that we were just taking a picture of the possum thing, didn't mean to offend, etc, when her WT man comes racing up and continues the same behavior. They are now both in our faces, reeking of alcohol and screaming and gesturing wildly, threatening us to get the hell out of there and “how dare we”, yada yada, though still not making much sense at all....I half expected the dude to pull a gun on us. Seriously. We hightailed it down the path, apologizing and hoping we'd just make it out of there in one piece.. We were both silent for a bit, trying to process the whole thing, and later it was hard not to laugh at the sheer craziness of what had just happened. Even putting all the pieces together, we are still utterly clueless as to what we did to offend them so greatly. There were a handful of other annoying experiences with rude and offensive locals that I won't even mention, as well as stories from other travelers about Aussies being the most racist people on the planet, spitting in the face of one traveler's Jamaican friend who was just walking down the street minding her own business. In the end we felt that we'd given Australia a little too much time, and would've liked it if our plane ticket had been booked for a few weeks earlier. Ah well. Though in Bali we still couldn't escape and kept running into more Aussies, since it's a close paradise location for them to travel to. Each one we came across were equally obnoxious but it seemed even worse since they were treating the sweet Balinese people with such disrespect. Jer openly admits that he now cringes when we hear an Aussie accent and he's come to despise Claire on Lost (thanks Nate, for buying all those seasons through our Itunes! We had benders while we were down and out with Bali Belly and bad colds). I think it's partly because she's so whiny, but mainly because he can't stand the sound of her! Sooo, not to discourage any of you from traveling to Australia, but consider yourself forewarned!
2)Blah food. Fried everything, (mainly fish and chips) and boring toasted ham and cheese sandwiches are about all you'll find on most menus. To be fair, NZ wasn't any better. Though Indian has proven to be good wherever we've gone. We ate mostly ethnic food all through OZ!
3)Lots of trash and rubbish on the streets, beaches, etc. No ones seems to have a problem littering and they definitely don't take care of the beautiful landscape like the Kiwis. We were also disappointed to find that for such a Westernized nation, they don't promote recycling or sustainable tendencies at all. Shame, shame!

Though we only experienced a small portion of Australia, and would like to check out the outback and west coast, it will probably be a long time before we head back here. There are so many other places to tackle before giving OZ another shot!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Getting Out of OZ - Just kind of sums up this place...

I would like to know who makes up the entry/exit requirements for different countries, who decides if they're actually going to be enforced and why there never seems to be a straight answer available about what we are going to encounter at each new location. From PDX to New Zealand and into Australia, the most “hassle” we had was from the American Airlines ticket agent in Portland asking us if we had a return ticket from NZ. Obviously our answer was “No”, to which she replied that we may find that troublesome. The basic theory being that the countries want to be sure that once you get in, you're able to get out. No overstaying your welcome. Almost all countries have some rule like this on the books, but of course there are ways to get around this requirement – flash a credit card or bank statement showing “available funds” to purchase a ticket, sweet talking or greasing palms. All of these we have now seen work.

The part that really bugs us is when the rules seem to be applied completely at random, by people they have no bearing on. When we flew from OZ to Bali we ran into one such ticket agent at the Pacific Blue counter.

Ticket Nazi. “May I please see your proof of onward travel?”
Adorable World Travelers “We're actually doing a trip around the world and don't have any future tickets booked quite yet. We're only planning on staying in Bali for two or three weeks though.”
“I'm sorry, you need an onward ticket.”
“We don't have one.”
“You'll need to get one.”
“You suck.” (I wish.)

So we had to go spend the next hour at one of the travel agents that were located in the airport. (ie: super cheap...) We had to lock how long we wanted to spend in Bali and then make the call that we were going to then go to Singapore. Not exactly a decision, or a purchase, we were really wanting to make on the spot. But ok, we did it. Future tickets in hand we run screaming back to the Pacific Blue check in counter as we're now on the verge of missing our flight to Bali. Proof of onward passage provided, getting checked in was a breeze. What's even more confusing is that nobody at the Australian customs/immigration or Bali customs/immigration gave a rats ass about our onward travel. “Hope you had a good stay in OZ. Hope you have a nice stay in Bali.” Aren't they the ones who are supposed to be worried about how long we're staying?!?!

At least now that we're on mainland Asia we can claim overland passage from country to country and won't have to worry about having future tickets in hand for the next few months. I guess this is just one of those fun little parts of traveling that will make our adventure more exciting.

By the way, getting in and out of Bali and Singapore was a complete breeze. See, no interesting story there (ie: no jack ass counter agents to mess around with).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Merry New Year!!! (Recap)

So from the looks of it, we found one of THE places to be for New Years. Byron Bay, Australia, which is about 2 hours south of Brisbane on the east coast, proved to be somewhat of what I would envision as a miniature Las Vegas – just make it a small, surfer haven of only a few thousand during the off-season, minus casinos, add camp grounds. Come December you add in the “schoolies” (those who have just graduated from high school), the families on holiday and everyone else who has descended onto Byron for their holiday celebrations. Shake it up with a whole lot of booze, fun in the sun and holiday cheer and you have the makings of one of the most entertaining and potentially debaucherous New Years Eves on record.

We limped into town (Courtney literally, me because I was carrying both of our backpacks) and found a lovely little tent site next to the stagnant pond inhabited by the local monitor lizards, giant molting beetles and squawking bird life.

Tip number one – if you plan to go to Byron Bay over Christmas/New Years, start saving. One nights fare - for a tent site - was $75 AUD – two to three times what we were typically paying for a night in a campground. A CAMPGROUND!! Ridiculous. And this bargain priced accommodation was really the only place even available – partly because it was over 2km out of town. Fortunately a relatively inexpensive bike rental and a nice paved pathway made for a much easier commute into town.

The campground was fairly massive, with different “blocks” spread out over who knows how many acres. Or is it hectares here? Still not straight on that metric conversion. Each block consisted of a single-wide come bathroom facility, scarce areas of shade and throngs of drunken, party-going hipsters. It was funny to see the contrast in styles of camping from home to here.. Camping for us is usually a grungy affair – quick rinse in the creek in the morning if needed, camp fire circling and PBR swilling. Now there was no shortage of cheap beer consumption, but the pre-party primping was taken to a new level. If you will, picture a sorority bathroom (don't let your imagination run too wild with this thought) - heaps of girls filling every available electrical outlet with hair dryers, curlers, straighteners and the like, primping, make-upping, dolling up and doing whatever it is girls do before a big night out on the town. To see this taking place in the bathrooms, kitchens and laundry rooms of the campground was comical. Then a short while later seeing the newly glossed beauties heading out of their tents in high heels, miniskirts, bedazzled tops and glittery lotion brought it to a new level. Pretty sure that's never going to be a sight we see on any of our future trips to our favorite off-the-beaten-path camp sites back home.

So after our own trip to the local liquor store, necessary imbibing and successfully getting a couple of German teens completely trashed while playing Drunk Driver (Don't worry moms and dads, it's a card game.), we made our way into town to check out the scene. Down the bike path we go, efforting not to be tagged with a BUI, eventually we make our way to the main beach where the lights seem to be shining brightest. We weren't about to shell out the $80 to $100 that most of the bars were charging as a cover (per person!), so opted for the beach which was just as exciting. They really had gone all out – ghetto carnival rides, massive crowds of people stretching down the beach as far as the eye could see, lots of loud music, people being carted off by the cops and thank you Lord – a corn dog stand. The ringing in of the New Year itself was a bit anticlimactic, as there were no less then 15 separate countdowns going on at different intervals. No ball dropping, no Dick Clark and no fireworks to officially mark the arrival of Baby New Year. Oh well. We hung out on the beach and took in the scene, made our best efforts to avoid the drunken a-holes and called it a night without too much pomp and circumstance.

One of the additional pleasures was seeing the chaotic aftermath of the nights events. While making our way back through town, one really couldn't pass a street corner without seeing a group of decked out girls, sitting on the curb, crying about God knows what. Obviously something didn't go quite right with their BFF or Johnny Surfer Rockstar dude. Sad way to end the night. Say, aren't those the same girls who we saw primping at the campground earlier tonight? Come the next day, with the unfortunate lack of Bowl games to stare at in glassy eyed, hungover lethargy, we relaxed around the camp site and toured around town a bit. It was late into the day when we started seeing many of the previous evenings girls stumbling out of their tents, making their way in hurried fashion to the toilets. Sounds of hurling ensued. Say, weren't those the same girls who we saw crying on the street corner last night?

I think I see a pattern.

Byron also offered some great waves for me to attempt to look cool. Here was one try.

It also had a ton of really cool graffiti all over town. It seemed like every utility box, alley wall and open vertical surface had some cool mural on it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Turning Back the Clock - New Zealand Pros & Cons

We decided we're going to try and summarize our experience in each country with a list of pros and cons. This one is a tad old by now, but oh well!

The list of pros for NZ are extensive:
1)Jaw dropping natural scenery. Everyone on the North Island said the South Island was even prettier but I had a REALLY hard time imagining that to be possible. But now I believe it...we've gone from lush greenery and rolling hills to giant snow capped mountains plunging directly down into the the clearest, bluest ocean/lake/river (insert your preferred body of water here) you've probably ever seen.
2)The Kiwis we run into are truly the friendliest, most helpful people who genuinely take an interest and joy in helping you along your way.
3)The fruit (Anya, you would die!). We bought a 20 lb. bag of KeriKeri oranges (the area is dotted with orchards) for $3 USD and they are the sweetest, juiciest oranges I've ever tasted. They are like candy! We've been eating them for breakfast/lunch/snacks/dessert for weeks now and they haven't gone bad. The kiwis are juicy and amazing (and inexpensive) too.
4)The exchange rate. It's bounced around a tad since we've been here, ranging from .52 to .62 cents on the dollar. Nice.
5)The birds. There must be a gazillion different types of birds in NZ, all with their own sound and personality. When they get going together, it's really something. We seemed to wake up to a cacophony every morning, no matter where we were. I had an existential moment listening to the birds one night, but when I've tried to convey the experience to anyone else, they all look at me with the crazy eyes, so I'll keep it to myself. It was an amazing moment though. Now that I think about it, I've had a few bonding moments with the wildlife on this trip so far.
6)NZ is a very environmentally friendly place, which the hippie in me absolute loves. Every toilet (even in gas stations, campgrounds) has a half flush option. Rarely will you find paper towels for drying, and the superpowered airdryers dry your hands in a flash. Recycling is generally easy to find, everyone uses cloth shopping bags, and the population is conscientious enough to pick up after themselves. In general, it seems much less wasteful in terms of nearly everything. It's refreshing. They are obviously aware of this treasure of beauty they are living on, and intend to do whatever they can to keep it that way.

Cons (aka things America does better):
1)Single ply toilet paper. Wow, I didn't realize how much I appreciated that nifty little invention until it was gone! Eeeevery once in a while we'll stumble upon a place with double your pleasure two-ply and it really feels like Christmas when that happens!
2)Sand flies! These buggers are so small you don't see them coming but boy do they leave a lasting impression. They love to snack on our feet and ankles, leaving itchy welts that last for WEEKS. They are like the mosquito's evil cousin.
3)This is one I've yet to figure out – the faucet sinks are nearly always separated out into two taps. This means that you can't have a happy medium temperature when washing hands, doing dishes, etc. It's either scalding hot and removing layers of skin or freezing cold so that you can't feel your fingers after washing. This is not a better solution! Not only that, the taps are usually always very short in length so that the water runs at the very back edge of the sink which makes getting hands and especially dishes actually INTO the water stream somewhat of a feat.

So all this being said, the pros of New Zealand infinitely outweigh the cons. It has been one of our favorite places to visit so far and we HIGHLY recommend it.