Friday, September 17, 2010

Back to Bali

Get yourself a drink and a snack… this is going to be a lengthy post. It’s another entry being composed on my netbook while cruising along at 37,000 feet. I’m on board an Air Asia flight back to KL from a nice, but far too short vacation in Bali. It’s really the first true break I’ve had since starting my job back in January, although there was a brief weekend in Langkawi for Chinese New Year. This time I went with one of my friends who is now living and working in Singapore and stayed for a lightning-fast three nights. This was my ninth trip to Bali since mid-2003… it’s hard to believe, really. I think five (or maybe even six) of those trips came while I was living in the States, and the balance have occurred since moving to Malaysia. So here we go... and remember, any of these pics can be enlarged by clicking on them (and some definitely should be).

It’s a short flight from KL down to Bali, a little under three hours. Here’s me on the tarmac at KL’s airport, about to board the morning flight. Woo hoo! When we arrived at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali, I got a bit of a nasty surprise. When I first started visiting Indonesia, the visa for Americans (or anyone) was free and valid for 60 days. In 2004, however, someone in the Indonesian government had the epiphany that a lot of money could be made by charging all these sucker tourists. Never mind that Bali was barely more than two years removed from the October 2002 bombing that completely decimated the entire tourism industry there. The Balinese shrieked in protest, but the Indonesian government still implemented a charge for the visa on arrival for nearly every country from which it drew its tourists… US$10 for a seven-day visa, $25 for a 30-day visa, which was now the maximum stay allowed. Since moving to KL, it’s no longer necessary to stay in Bali for two weeks to justify the flight (that was about a 25-hour sojourn from Denver), so I could just pay $10 and get a week-long visa and be fine. Well, not anymore! In the year since my last visit, they’ve scrapped that nicety altogether. Now, whether you stay one day or a month, the visa is $25, thank you very much. Greed is alive and well in Indonesia. Coupled with the outrageous departure tax that is actually 50% higher in Bali than in other places such as Yogyakarta, a family of four will see a whopping US$160 in entry/exit fees added to the cost of their holiday. My question remains: Where the hell is all this money going? It’s got to amount to a HUGE sum of cash given the sheer hordes of visitors descending on Bali (and other places in Indonesia, although over 80% of visitors to that country go to Bali and Bali alone). I can report quite frankly that, apart from now having a few jetways for passengers to use, that money is not going to markedly improve Ngurah Rai airport.

So anyway, I was bitter over the more than doubling of the visa fee for about two minutes, then got over it. Happily, in exchange for paying 150% more, at least they did away with the bloody full-page visa stickers they have vandalized my poor passport with for the last five years. On a page that can normally accommodate at least two entries and exits (four stamps), and usually three of each, Indonesia plastered a giant sticker, then stamped it. This was a persistent source of irritation for me every time I visited. Passports in America are not cheap at all, and I don’t need the very limited number of pages in mine consumed by stickers that cut the number of uses in half. One time, an Indonesian immigration officer in Jakarta put the giant sticker in my passport, then proceeded to stamp the opposite page (instead of stamping the space on the sticker as he should have), screwing up two pages instead of one. I was not amused. So yeah, apparently enough people fussed about it that they finally did away with the whole sticker program altogether and went back to a plain old stamp, like every other country in the world. So that’s great. I don’t see that $25 visa fee ever disappearing, though.

Since that horrible bombing in 2002, and the far-less horrible one in 2005, Bali visitor numbers have rebounded spectacularly. In fact, I think in many ways, Bali is a victim of its own success. There was just a crush of traffic in and around Kuta, which at times was just laughable. The tiny little roads and alleys were never, ever meant to accommodate anything close to the onslaught that’s unleashed on them regularly now. As Bali’s popularity has grown, so too have their prices, coupled with general inflation and cost-of-living increases. Tourists still seem to gladly fork over the cash for the higher prices, and so Bali’s wealth relative to the rest of Indonesia is substantial. So this draws quasi-immigrants for a share of the tourist cash – not really immigrants of course, since they’re still Indonesians, but they’re not Balinese. They mostly come from neighboring Java, itself the most populated island on Earth, and also from Sumatra and Sulawesi. I’ve even met workers in Bali who came from Kalimantan (on the island of Borneo) and East Timor. The allure of relatively easy money is very strong and the Javanese, in particular, have long cast a jealous eye towards their far more popular and wealthy neighbor to the east. So Bali, though a very small island in the grand scheme of things, has a population of some four million, perhaps more. And at times, it seems they’re all packed into the sprawling, congested Kuta-Legian-Seminyak conurbation.

Another thing the flow of money and rise in wealth has done is enabled many, many more locals to buy cars and motorbikes. A few days in South Bali and you might be tempted to think that every motorbike ever made is there. Of course, I’m not an idle observer to all this madness. An oft-misquoted portion of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that “the measurement of position necessarily disturbs a particle’s momentum,” and this has been expanded to imply that you can never be a completely neutral, non-impacting observer to any phenomenon. Your mere presence alters the equation, however minutely. And so it is with my presence in Bali. Though I observe these growing issues, as a tourist, I bring my money, I rent motorbikes, keenly aware that I’m a small contributor to the very problems that are diminishing the appeal of Bali for me.

The saving grace of all this madness has, in the past, been found in Ubud. Once a completely unremarkable inland village, tourism and Western expats such as Walter Spies, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, have transformed Ubud into Bali’s cultural heartland. I would get my fill of sun, sand, and general hedonistic abandon in South Bali, then beat a wearied retreat to the lush green valleys and ridges of Ubud, which provided an altogether different experience from that of Kuta.

This time, however, proved to be just more of the same. We took the motorbike up to Ubud, usually an hour-long journey. (Here's a shot of the bike on a relatively quiet stretch of roadway.) But we stopped in Denpasar to shop, then stopped at a wonderful roadside warung (food stall) to enjoy a distinctly Balinese lunch, something called babi guling. An oasis of Balinese Hinduism in a vast archipelago dominated by Islam (Indonesia, though a secular state, has the largest Muslim population in the world), Bali is the place for pork-lovers to go. Babi is pork (and pig) in the Indonesian language, and this dish comprises all manner of meats and treats from a slow-roasted suckling pig. You get it all… the meat itself, juicy and tender, the crispy fried skin (known to Southern Americans as pork rinds), sausages, pork satay, fried slices of liver, something red and fried whose origin I probably don’t want to know, but it was yummy, a piece of the smoked and roasted skin with a bit of juicy meat attached (which scraped right off), and a pork-rich clear soup. It’s all served with rice and veggies, and we washed it down with iced tea, and this was all still a veritable bargain at Rp. 25,000 (less than US$3). It was absolutely delicious… the first time I’ve had babi guling in probably four years.

So owing to the leisurely ride north, we didn’t arrive in Ubud until shortly after 3 p.m. and it was a complete nightmare. The traffic was completely appalling and it’s only because we were on a motorbike instead of in a car that we ever reached our destination at all. As we later learned, that’s the worst time to try driving in or around Ubud as numerous tourist buses arrive from the south and disgorge hundreds of people into the town. So the dozens of buses blend with the regular traffic and turn it all into the seventh circle of hell. I was completely gobsmacked, really. I mean, I expect it in Kuta, but I had never seen this sort of jam in Ubud before. However, we got to my favorite hiking spot at Campuhan Ridge (chomp-OOH-ahn), seducing as always with its many shades of green and fantastic views of the steep valleys cut on either side by rushing rivers. We spent awhile hiking, and then went to an art gallery, one of many in and around Ubud, which turned out to be an interesting experience.

This particular gallery is run by an old-ish American lout who has been in Bali since the late 70s. We spent a few minutes talking with him and I wish I could say it was an engaging and enlightening conversation, but ten minutes into things, I got a very clear picture of who he was. Spouting off near-racist commentary and getting virtually everything he said about Malaysia dead wrong, he embodied that nasty expat character I’ve heard about and read about but have taken great pains to avoid. He lives a life of unimaginable wealth and comfort compared to most of the people around him, but is barely able to conceal his contempt for them. Fat, miserably belligerent, and ignorant, he was like an even less-likeable version of Archie Bunker. You know the type. The people who don’t know anything, but have somehow managed to not only be oblivious to their blatant ignorance, but to actually wear it like a badge of honor. You can’t tell them anything, so don’t even try. So this piece of work started babbling about the “MAY-lays” and how everyone in the whole region is fundamentally a “MAY-lay” (that’s how he pronounced Malay, not “muh-LAY,” as is correct). Now, the Indonesian race is definitely descended from Malays, but he was carrying on about even Chinese Malaysians and Chinese Singaporeans still being Malay (they are completely not). Then he launched into some absurd diatribe about how the Chinese control the Malays and “keep them Muslim” because then they can’t drink because once a Malay (“MAY-lay”) gets hold of alcohol, you can’t control them. My god. I’m not sure where he went with that idea, because at that point, I had just tuned out and concentrated fully on not rolling my eyes completely out of my head. So I waited until he took a raspy breath, redirected the conversation for about fifteen seconds, then politely bid him good day.

So a word about the accommodations this time. In past trips, I’ve always stayed either in luxury resorts, small hotels, or family-run bed-and-breakfasts. On my second trip to Bali, I stayed in a place that called itself a villa, but it was really just a fancy hotel in a different package. A true private villa is essentially like staying in a home, complete with everything you’d expect in a home. And that’s where we stayed this time… a lovely private villa in the village of Kerobokan Kelod, about 10 minutes north of the energy and bustle of Seminyak, and about 20 minutes from the general chaos of Kuta and Legian. Though staffed, we were largely on our own, with a stocked refrigerator operated on the honor system (take a beer, mark it down). There was also a larger fridge for guests to stock with anything they wanted. A small, but really nice (and deep) swimming pool was in the back garden, complete with a Jacuzzi and steam room. Of course, the foliage was just gorgeous, typical Bali. We had access to a good-sized library of books, music, and DVDs, and plenty of relaxation and privacy – the whole villa can only sleep 8 people and even that would be a stretch. It was expensive by Bali standards, about US$80 per night, but by American standards and certainly by Singaporean standards, where a basic 3-star hotel room can go for over US$200 per night, it was still good value for money. I definitely like the private villa experience. The bathroom was huge, too! I could only get about a quarter of it into this picture. It really was a nice place. I rented the motorbike in the photo above for about Rp. 35,000 per day and we were set. As challenging as navigating the roads of Bali can be, particularly the minor village roads, and especially at night, I was actually really proud that I never got us lost, or worse, killed. I’ve written on here before about the risks and travails of riding a motorbike in Bali, and I’m always fastidiously careful.

As ever, the food was a memorable part of the trip. Really, good food adds so much to any enjoyable vacation, doesn’t it? Continuing the “mmm… pork” theme, we had bacon every morning with our excellent breakfast spreads. Take a look at this! It was really a much better breakfast than I expected… a full complement of eggs, toast, cheese, butter and jam, bacon, orange juice, coffee, and three types of fresh fruit. Great way to start the day, even if we only once did it before 10 a.m. Ha ha … hey, it’s a vacation, right?

Another near-ritual I’ve grown to love is having bakso and Bintang on the beach at Kuta while awaiting the sunset. The former is a meatball noodle soup, the latter, a local pilsner beer. Once upon a time, the combo would cost only Rp. 15,000 (ten for the beer, five for the bakso). These days, it’s more like Rp. 27,000. But the beer is still ice cold and the bakso is as good as ever. The atmosphere on the expansive stretch of sand is so enjoyable... everyone is just relaxing and having a good time. It's the embodiment of the spirit of a vacation. Cheers!

I’ve written previously about the outstanding pizzas served up out of the scorching hot, wood-fired oven at Chasers, on Jalan Benesari in Legian. Here’s a picture to prove it. Once again, “porkapalooza” continued… ham, salami, pepperoni… YUM. Now, toppings and cheese matter a lot on a pizza, and of course the sauce plays a prominent role, but the crust is definitely the most important part of a pizza, and the crusts of Chasers’ pizzas are brilliant, cooked to crisp perfection on the stone floor of the oven. If I’m being totally truthful, this place may turn out the best pizzas I’ve had outside of America… and that includes my trip to Italy. Though they’ve naturally raised their prices over the years, it’s still a great value at Rp. 34,000 (just under US$4) for any pizza or pasta dish on the menu. If you’re in Bali and craving a good pizza, I recommend this place. Just go during a busy time of the day, so the fire in the oven is being continually stoked and kept blazing hot. That searing hot stone is the key to the perfect crust. Wow… now I’m hungry. Ha ha.

I’m not much of a flower aficionado in general, but put a camera in my hand and I’m drawn to the colors and shapes of flowers almost as much as I am to waterfalls and lakes. My two favorite flowers are the blue columbine, which is the state flower of my home state of Colorado, and the frangipani, which actually grows from the branch tips of a very weird-looking tree that usually looks half-dead since its branches and limbs are largely barren. Oddly enough, and I don’t really know what the reason for this is, many cultures in Southeast Asia associate the frangipani with death, funerals, graveyards, and in the case of Malay culture, vampires. Some folklore holds that the trees provide hiding places for ghosts and demons. (The sap of the tree is poisonous, but poses no harm to humans apart from being a skin irritant.) In Bali, the flowers are routinely used for temple offerings. Frangipani flowers are just amazing. They’re incredibly aromatic, particularly at night, and the scent is truly beguiling. They come in numerous colors, are usually perfectly formed, even in their bud state, and with their five-petal spiral arrangement, possess a wonderful symmetry. Once they fall from their tree, they still retain their shape and powerful fragrance. If you drop the fallen flowers into a basin of water, they will float perfectly and will stay vibrant for many days. This shot of the still-growing yellow frangipani flowers was snapped from the balcony of our villa. This other one? I don’t know what it is, looks sort of like something in the lily family, but it sure caught my eye. This is definitely a nice pic to enlarge (as is the frangipani pic).

In pursuit of some real relaxation despite the short holiday, I vowed to do two things. One was to find a book (I knew ahead of time about the villa’s library) and read it. The whole thing. The second was to get a long massage. I succeeded on both counts… not only did I read a really good novel, getting completely absorbed in the myriad characters and arc of the story, complete with plot twists and a dénouement that wasn’t revealed until the final page of the book, but I also got TWO lengthy massages, the first a 90-minute affair, pretty straightforward, and the second, a full two-hour Javanese mandi lulur. This treatment combines a 90-minute body massage with an exfoliating green tea scrub and a cucumber-yogurt body mask treatment, followed by a soak in a scented bath and a serving of ginger tea and biscuits. It’s a staple of Indonesian massage, and it’s money very, very well spent, I promise. (It’s also a complete bargain by US standards at about $20 for two hours; and even by Malaysian standards, pretty cheap as well… less than RM65, which will get you a basic one-hour traditional massage in KL.) I could easily go for one of these treatments on a monthly basis… very therapeutic and de-stressing!

More later… we’re descending for the approach to KL.

Back at home now and fully unpacked, a day later. In retrospect, this was a good trip, just a bit too short. Two or three more nights would have been great. Despite all the minor irritants with South Bali’s growing congestion, the island itself is still enchanting. One just has to look a little more closely now, and endeavor to push beyond all the tourist trappings. The rich culture, the warm and friendly people, and the amazing food are all still very much present. I’ll conclude with a few more photos…

This is a shot from Kuta Beach one evening at sunset. Though not the quintessential electric orange sunset that Kuta is famous for, the deep blue tones made for what I thought was an evocative photo.

This is a photo of the detail of one of the stone carvings at a temple we visited near the village of Kedewatan. I have no idea of its age, but it seemed pretty old to me. This next shot is a wider view of one of the temple structures. The level of craftsmanship in the wood and stone carvings I see in Bali (particularly the things not specifically produced for the tourist trade) continues to amaze me.

One of the things I most like about Bali is that, for the self-initiated, the island can give you almost any sort of vacation you want (outside of snow skiing). If you want a rich, cultural experience, one where you can learn the language, cooking skills, art, or music, you can have that. If you want an adventure holiday, filled with parasailing, diving, and river rafting (and even bungee jumping), Bali offers that, too. If you want a laid-back "fly and flop" vacation, doing little but relaxing on the beach, well of course, that's no problem at all. Though the island is suffering from both general overpopulation and certainly a glut of tourists and tourist-related trade, it still retains its inimitable charm. While certainly not as fresh and new to me as it was in my first few visits, Bali is still a great vacation spot and there's still plenty to explore there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Two-Year Mark!

Mmmm... chicken rice, one of my favorite local dishes. I can't believe it... two years in Malaysia. It's gone by so quickly in many ways. I arrived here on September 5, 2008. Everything was different and exciting and new. And now I've lived here for two full years -- learning the culture, eating the food, meeting the people. I feel that, for the most part, I've done what I set out to do. I think that if jobs were plentiful back in Colorado, I might be at least considering a return home. But in reality, it doesn't make much sense to move back and be unemployed.

My job here keeps me busy, probably almost too much so. About three weeks ago, I got to go down to Singapore to host a VIP event at our office and executive lounge there. Honestly, for those unfamiliar with fine wines, this sort of thing wouldn't make much of an impact. However, for people who know wine, and know the very best wines, telling them that I got to drink all five of the legendary wines from the First Growth estates of Bordeaux evokes a sense of envy and wonder. These five wines are regularly among the most expensive and highly sought-after wines in the world. As I told my guests that night, even getting to pop the cork on any one of these wines would be a treat. To have the opportunity to drink all five in the same night is an event of singular rarity, something that for many on hand that night, would indeed be a once-in-a-lifetime
chance. Here's a snapshot of me before opening the bottles... from left to right, Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild, and Château Latour.

That's the wondrous thing about life, isn't it? We never really know what's just around the next corner. As recently as four years ago, I'd never have even dreamed that I'd be living in a foreign country, and even after arriving here, the prospect of being in senior management for an international investment company in Asia, serving up the finest wines in the world to our happy Singaporean clients never would have even entered my wildest dreams. That's not to say the job is a great dream — most of the time, it's a true job. Frustrating, tiring, overly demanding. You know... work. But this great journey, this life I feel so fortunate to lead, always surprises me with fascinating twists and turns. Not all of them enjoyable... not by a long shot. But if everything was always terrific, we wouldn't even know the difference. The rough patches just serve to make
the good times that much more enjoyable. And without this attitude, and this weird sense of adventure, I'm sure I'd never have discovered "Chad Potatoes." Of course I have no idea what they are (they look like plain ol' standard potatoes to me), but they're all mine!!

Next up for me, a return trip to Bali with friends. It's my ninth time to the tiny "island of the gods" since my inaugural trip there in June 2003, perhaps the catalyst for the tiny bit of wanderlust that brought me to live, if only for awhile, here on the Malaysian peninsula of Southeast Asia. Where else would I find such deranged flavors of Pringles?? In addition to these, I've also seen "grilled shrimp" and "seaweed." So it's not just pizzas they're messing up, it's good ol' American junk food, too. Is nothing sacred??

Shortly after the Bali trip, I'll be flying back home for two weeks to enjoy the spectacular Colorado autumn and to tend to my mother, who will be recovering from major surgery by that time. She'll be having a mass near her pancreas removed, so I'm not sure if that will help remedy her issues with staying balanced and upright, and it'll almost certainly not do anything to help her complete lack of proficiency with anything involving technology, but it'll be a good thing nonetheless. With any luck, she'll be in full recovery mode by then, and with even more luck, my baseball team will be in the playoffs and we can catch a game.

The journey continues ever onward... stay tuned!