Thursday, September 29, 2011

YB2 Snake

Here's the green snake I saw yesterday when I was walking to to town. He was near these green bananas.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Making Myself at Home

I was back at the Bintang supermarket by early afternoon on morning three of my month-long stay in Penestanan, a small suburb of Ubud, Bali. Just yesterday, I'd been delighted that the Balinese coffee I'd purchased had come with instructions.

1) Mix 1 tsp coffee with one cup of hot water. You may also add sugar and milk.
2) Let coffee settle to bottom.
3) Drink. Do not drink the sediment at the bottom. 

Great! I’d been willing to give it a try. I'd had this style of coffee in East Timor a decade ago and it had been all right. You just mix in the finely ground coffee powder with hot water, then don't drink what's at the bottom of the cup. No problem. 

Then, the morning—blech. Maybe I’d had a bigger coffee cup in Dili. I got to the bitter grounds in just a few gulps. 

I'd consumed bad coffee all around the world during my travels this year, after more than a decade of carrying my own along. I had a marvelous little mug-with-plunger I normally carried, but the years had made me lazy and I'd taken to drinking whatever yucky instant coffee was on offer. But I didn’t want to do that for a month of working in my own apartment.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Morning Two in Bali

The rice fields glittered vibrant green at me from my breezy verandah on my first afternoon in my brand-new flat in Ubud, Bali. I’d spent all day looking at apartments before settling on this two-story bungalow in the suburb of Penestanan, and I allowed myself a few moments to take in my good fortune before racing off to the supermarket, unpacking, and starting in on my paying work on my laptop. I was lucky enough to be the first inhabitant of the flat. The new house ceremony, common in Bali, hadn’t even happened yet.

I hoped the Balinese gods didn’t punish me for moving in before the ceremony.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

House-Hunting in Ubud


Time to go look at a half-dozen apartments and bungalows for my month in Ubud, Bali.

I'd only given myself a single day to find a place. I couldn't afford the hotels here...I'd been shocked at the low vacancy rates and high prices in Ubud compared to a decade ago.

I'd done all the research I could ahead of time and was armed with a list of prospective places. What I'd discover over the next month is that there are loads of inexpensive bungalows in family compounds within the confines of the Penastanan rice fields. If you walk around the paths away from the road, you'll be approached every few days by a landlord looking to fill his bungalows.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Borneo to Bali

My hotel in KK was many things—cheap and friendly, mostly—but it was not really that on-the-ball as far as having a clue what to do with a tourist. And so I left in the morning and carried my luggage to the nearest taxi stand. Because asking at the front desk resulted on in my obviously incorrect assessment that the hotel had never encountered a tourist that might need to go to the airport before.

I left my bag at the AirAsia luggage drop and sniffed around the discount terminal—with its disappointing options—for some coffee.

Sniff turned out to be the right word. The KFC was open this early, but someone must have vomited in the nearby bathroom. The workers had set up a fan directly across from the registers, but I didn't think I could hack breakfast with the stink of vomit in the dining area. I fled to passport control and found coffee behind the departures barrier.

Air Delaysia lived up to its nickname but still got me to Kuala Lumpur in plenty of time to catch the flight to Bali. Though their free-for-all boarding was a mess. But they redeemed themselves by singing Happy Birthday to a passenger.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Back to Nature for a Night

I was in for a long evening, heading on a tour bus to see proboscis monkeys and fireflies, two hours back towards Sarawak in southwestern wetlands of Sabah.

I'd booked the trip yesterday after talking to several travel agents long enough to realize that they were all trying to book me onto the same trip with Only in Borneo Tours. I checked out their web site, then went to their office and asked for the online booking discount. They were fine with that.

Yesterday had been kind of a wash-out. I'd spent some time arguing with the front desk at my hotel. They'd given me a single room that included wifi, knowing full well that the wifi didn't reach the single rooms. I went up the ladder through four people until a woman made a call, and I was moved to a slightly larger room with an actual signal.

And then I got lost. In my room. I mean I had another one of those moments where I had to struggle to remember where I was. Not just what city, but what country and what part of the world. For a brief second, I thought "I'm near Bangkok, right?"

Sort of.

I'd spent the evening at Kota Kinabalu night market. It was a market. At night.

Obviously, I needed this trip out into Sabah. I was starting to lose it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Brunei to Kota Kinabalu

My plan for the day was to catch a Bandar Seri Begawan city bus to a boat to the island of Labuan, then catch another boat to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia. I was following these instructions, more or less, in reverse.

Easy, right? Anyway, there were three local buses and one express bus from the Bandar bus station to the port, so I shouldn't have any problems although the distance was 25 kilometers. I thought. I didn't set out to catch the express—it left obscenely early and I couldn't think of any reason to go on the first boat out. Plus, I wanted that excellent free breakfast at the Brunei Hotel.

But when I ended up waiting 45 minutes for the bus, and then had to change buses once, I started to see the merit of the early express bus.

I was still on the bus when the ferry I'd been planning to catch left. On to Plan B! The final ferry of the morning was the 10 o'clock to Lawas, Sarawak, where I'd have to catch an onward bus to Kota Kinabalu.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Grass and Humidity

I was allowed onto the new air-conditioned bus bound from Miri to Brunei half an hour before the 3:45 departure time. The bus wasn't even half full. We left promptly and cruised quickly to the border, where all of us passengers were stamped out of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. We reboarded and drove to the other side, where we all got off the bus again.

We were all stamped into Brunei, then moved into a small, older bus. An Irish passenger who lived in Sabah groused "This isn't a 40 ringgit bus."

But I'd read about this…there are rules about Malaysian buses going into Brunei. Never mind that the Malaysian bus was vastly superior to this Brunei bus. Rules were rules.

The crappier bus headed out along the Pan-Borneo Highway, a perfectly paved road that runs parallel to the coast, passing through small towns that looked like suburbs of Houston, complete with lawns, garages, fences, joggers, oil derricks and Shell signs.

Rain kicked in just before we arrived in Brunei's capital city after dark. This was the tropics, the weather reminded me.

At 7:30—the bus freezing from the overpowering air-con—we pulled into the drizzle of Bandar Seri Begawan, passing Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Ah, that was near my hotel! I'd seen it on my map. After circling round the block past the bus terminal, the little bus pulled up nearly in front of my hotel, Brunei Hotel, which I'd booked into for two nights on my bank points.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Road to Brunei

"Ugh. Rain."

My alarm woke me up at six. I hit the snooze. I hit it again about four more times, and by the end, the rain in Borneo's Mulu National Park had stopped.

But I hadn't gotten up early enough to pack, clean up, go on the 0700 canopy tour, and still make the 0900 taxi to the airport. Or maybe I did. But after yesterday's 20+km total trekking, I didn't feel inspired to go up to the canopy, as I had in Ghana. I felt inspired to go to the national park lodge and get my free pancakes that came with my room.

I pulled on my clothes and dragged myself over to the meeting spot at 0700. There was Silvia, the park ranger that had led the night walk my first evening here.

"I can't make it. Sorry," I mumbled.

"That's okay," she said. "You know it's too late to get a refund?"

"No problem." I hadn't expected to get one, notifying them at the last possible minute as I was.

I went back to Racer Cave (my room) and packed up, showered, stopped by the lodge for my pancakes and Nescafe (you pay extra for real coffee), then got my bag and left my key at park headquarters. I walked over the suspended bridge, over the river and out of Mulu National Park.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bats and Caves and Batcaves

I awoke to a barking frog in my shower.

I couldn't find it, as it shut up every time I got anywhere nearby. I grumbled and headed out to my day's excursions—two "show caves" and the evening bat exodus. The hills of Gunung Mulu, or Mulu National Park, are combed with caves. Some of them are for spelunkers only, while others are for soft adventure. The show caves have been tamed with walkways, lights, and railings, so that tourists can walk safely without destroying the environment or slipping.

Several long, flat boats motored us tourists up the river, stopping at a small village for those who needed supplies (or souvenirs). Then, we continued on to dock and walk up to first Wind Cave and then Clearwater Cave.

The caves are moody and dramatic. The whole experience reminded me of being in Carlsbad Caverns or in one of the Virginia caverns. Lots of stairs were involved, but my calves could use the exercise.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Mulu Park and Barking Frogs

Flights are cheap in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Really cheap. And that's good, because there are plenty of places in Borneo that you can't get to by road.

One of these places is Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is full of caves and cool plants and animals. You can get there by a multi-day combination of boating and hiking, or you can take a puddle-jumper out of the city of Miri in Sarawak.

When I was trying to figure out where to go in Borneo, I didn't think about flying anywhere at first. That seemed silly and cost-prohibitive. But then I started reading about the caves at Mulu—which seemed like a must-see once I'd read enough—and flying was back on my radar.

Of course, there is a catch. Accommodation is limited and not at all cheap in comparison to transportation. Or rather, it is, if you're willing to sleep in a basic dorm in the back of someone's house, but the online information wasn't clear on this point, and I couldn't really visualize how Mulu worked based on the bits and pieces I read.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Day in Cat City

"You didn't have to go see orangutans," said the Malaysian grandpa at the hostel breakfast table, there with his extended family. "We're right in front of you!"

He was a character, this one.

I was at loose ends in Kuching, Sarawak, in Borneo. I'd been planning to go see proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park, but yesterday I'd learned that there was a water shortage at the park, so no overnights were allowed, and the monkeys didn't come out in the heat of the day.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Little Wookies

The downside of staying in a smaller backpacker's lodge was that they didn't have a morning excursion going to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre today. No one else had signed up.

No problem. I'd just wandered down the street to the much bigger lodge—Singgahsana—and booked onto their morning tour. And that's how I found myself listening to Curious George Rides A Bike en route to seeing some orangutans. A mom in the van was reading to her daughter.

Curious George barely got anywhere on his bicycle before we were at the park and offloaded onto hiking path. I followed a huge group of people into the reserve to see the morning feeding of the reserve's semi-wild orangutans.

"Wow, they are like short wookies," I thought, watching the orangutans sturdily meander onto the feeding platform. I watched for ages, until the orangutans left, aside from a shy mother and baby, who came down a tree on the other side where the ranger met them.

I had really started to enjoy my trip recently. And I wasn't sure I wanted to go back home anymore. Home is full of challenges, much harder than problems you encounter on the road.

This IS my comfort zone.

Here are more photos of orangutans and of the later part of the day when I went wandering around Kuching.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Process: Planning

Here's a sample of how my haphazard RTW trip comes together. These are some of my notes for Singapore and Borneo, culled from online and guidebook sources at the last minute.

Singapore to Kuching

Really, the world will be a better place if we all drop the gum-jokes when we mention Singapore. And any sort of dog-eating joke in reference to Asia? Give it a rest.

Taking great care not to make any remarks implying that I had some hot info about Singapore due to its partial-gum-ban (hey, we can give caning jokes a rest too), I packed up and headed back to the airport for my AirAsia flight to Borneo.

I was flying to Kuching, a city in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Borneo is the island, and there are parts of three countries on the island—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The Malaysia bit consists of two states, Sarawak and Sabah. I was flying into Kuching and out of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah ten days later.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Day in Singapore

What the world needs, I thought, is a contest for the grumpiest traveler. With cash rewards.

I had one full day—today—in Singapore. I wanted an early start. But my hostel's free breakfast didn't start until nine, so I stood outside the bar at 8:20, wondering if free toast was worth hanging around for.

Not really. I headed over to the nearest coffee shop, which turned out to be Starbucks. That's all right. I could use my Boingo Asia membership there, the one I'd signed up for back in Tibet when my hotel that "didn't have wifi" actually did, so long as you paid for it.

What I was searching for online was a good travel store in Singapore. With a few clicks, I found half-a-mall-full.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bangkok to Singapore

I was packing up to head out of Bangkok to Singapore, when I discovered slime in the Zip-Loc bag that held all my just-in-case pharmaceuticals. And how long had those seven acetaminophen pills been melted together?

Travel=glamour, I thought as I scrubbed out all my Zip-Locs in the bathroom sink.

I'd taped together my compression packing bag which had somehow split open, and I'd put a rubber band around my travel soap dish, which had been broken by the cleaner on Sunday. Had it happened on, oh, say, Saturday, I could have gotten a new one. But I'd only learned this in the shower now. I could probably find a good travel store in Singapore. My friend Stephanie would know one, or Larry Hama's friend Gabrielle. I had actual people to see in Singapore.

My pack gets heavier with every bit I throw away, I thought as I hoisted my bag onto my back to head down to the airport shuttle.

Yes, I was taking the plane instead of the train. AirAsia is one of those budget airlines where you end up saving money by flying. You have to be on top of it, remembering to disable the automatic flight insurance and the thing that wants you to pay ten bucks for a seat with extra leg room, but even if I had left those on, I'd be paying way less than if I took the sleeper train for two overnights and paid for a night in Penang (the train has a layover there).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Marie's Souvenir Shop

I received a note today that a friend of mine in Washington, DC, had gotten her souvenir in the mail, which I'd sent from Darjeeling. 

Not surprisingly, we've had some hiccups in the mailing process. I'm pretty sure a baby-yak-fur blanket is sitting in Kuwait Customs, for example, and have no idea how to shake it loose. I've begun to send trinkets directly from the countries of origin, but this has not really worked out financially as shipping costs then are the same as the cost of the souvenir. I am not sure I can keep the souvenir shop going—though I will for the moment as I'm too disorganized to figure out what to do about it. It's in the link at the top of the page, where it says "Get A Souvenir!"

I've had loads of fun buying souvenirs for people. Here are some of the souvenirs people have gotten over the past several months.

Laura in Portland got the Ask to See Our Tongues
stamp, which my friend Sam's idea.
Kathmandu thangka that went to John in Ohio

Looking Back at Zanzibar

I wasn't in the USA ten years ago on 9/11. I saw the events of that day on television from an Internet cafe on Zanzibar.

I thought I'd have something to say today, but I don't. 9/11 wasn't about me—I wasn't in New York, I didn't know anyone who worked in the World Trade Center, and the only people I knew who were nearby, I've already mentioned in my book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, and in the raw material that I typed out on my website that day.

Here it is, in its unvarnished form, written a decade ago.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Gearing up in Bangkok

My internal clock was off and so I awoke at six in the morning in my little room in Bangkok. All my physical clocks were messed up too. My phone, my laptop, and my travel alarm clock all disagreed about the current time. And they were all wrong, and had been wrong since I'd gotten onto the plane in Bhutan.

Of course, time passes differently in Thailand so it's okay.

Out the window, a scantily clad still-wobblingly-drunk couple narrowly missed bumping into a monk holding out a pot of rice for his morning alms. I sat up and thought about what I needed to do in Thailand over the next few days before continuing on, first to Singapore and then to Borneo.

Let's see...I needed soap, shampoo, conditioner, aspirin, passport photos, alarm clock battery, phone time, eye drops, cashews, peanut butter, blah blah blah...restock, resupply, and then I had to eat more mango-and-sticky-rice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Home Again to Khao San Road

Ugh, my plane out of Paro was scheduled for 7:10 a.m. in the morning. This was deliberate--I could have taken the afternoon flight. But I didn't want to hit Bangkok during the evening rush hour, so I forced myself out of bed at 5 a.m.

I hadn't slept much. I'd had a good-bye dinner with my guide, then packed until late.

I'd put off filling out the trip review form until morning, and now here I was, exhausted, late, and feeling inadequate given the lengths Tsering Penjor and Ugyen Dorji had gone to for my Bhutan individual tour. And now I had to write something brilliant that didn't involve the Shangri-La cliche and gave credit to both Ugyen for his organization and Tsering for his care and feeding.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Last Day in Bhutan

Ugyen Dorji and Tsering Penjor were taking me to the Haa Valley for a picnic on my last day in Bhutan.

I could barely comprehend what a Haa Valley was, because I was tired. Hadn't I just gone across the west coast of Africa only a few months ago? On the BUS? Why did I tire out so easily?

Oh, wait...I was completely exhausted then too.

Non-stop new cultural input is an assault on your senses. Traveling is fascinating but it's sure not relaxing. I wasn't retaining anything I'd learned from the last few days. I was just hoping to store it in my mind for future processing.

Ugyen had helped me digest it all a bit last night. He'd taken me to a tasty little upstairs cafe in Paro for dinner, while Tsering took a break to go home to see his dogs and do his laundry. Ugyen has a foot in Bhutan and another in my world, as he'd attended a Muslim university in southern India and started out as an IT professional. That explained his sleek Bhutan Your Way website and Internet-savviness. He'd known I was a writer before he'd responded to my first web inquiry, when I'd initially approached three operators based on personal testimonies I'd found on and Over dinner, I'd asked him for his opinion on many things, including the way forward for this fledgling democracy and the impact of popular culture on today's kids.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Archery! Cheerleaders! Drunk Guys!

Here's a better look at some archery matches in Bhutan. First, you'll see modern bows, then cheerleaders (and drunk guys), then the traditional bow match.

Sightseeing in Paro

Breakfast time in Paro, Bhutan. I was giving the hairy eyeball to my guide Tsering Penjor and my tour operator, Ugyen Dorji. They'd both showed up at breakfast before I'd had my morning coffee, and Bhutan being a pleasant country, I was trying to be polite but this was a challenge at the moment.

"Never chat with a tourist before she's had her coffee," I thought. But I didn't say that out loud, of course. Still, Tsering probably knew. I'd just met Ugyen for the first time, but I'd spent enough time with Tsering now that he was beginning to see that my under my steady stream of one-liners was one exhausted traveler.

But there was time to rest in Bangkok in a few days. I had limited time here in Bhutan, where my mere presence incurred a $240 per day admission fee. I could sightsee now, then process and rest later.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

On to Paro

Tsering had eaten dinner with me last night and then built me a fire while I stood by—useless and awkward—but this morning, he was being cool, hanging out with the other guides at the breakfast bar. The guides were all chatting and shooting the breeze until some monks who had been chanting downstairs showed up and sprinkled water on them. To a man, they obediently bowed their heads as if they'd been having water sprinkled on their heads by monks their entire lives.

Which they probably had.

"What was that about?" I asked after the religious guys had roamed around the room a few times, chanting and sprinkling until the ceremony had ended.

"The hotel has an annual ceremony to ward off evil spirits."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Punakha to Phobjikha: Day Four

I'd been too exhausted to complete my weekly Wanderlust magazine website blog entry last night, so I awoke at five in my Punakha hotel room to work on it.

But still I wasn't done by breakfast time. I huddled over my laptop in the corner of the hotel restaurant while the busload of Thai tourists made short work of the breakfast buffet. When my guide Tsering Penjor came in to find me typing, I looked at him sheepishly.

"I'm sorry. I'm not finished yet."

"I recommend you finish here. I don't think we'll have Internet access tonight. We can wait."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On to Punakha: Day Three

Tobgay, our driver, pulled some professional trekking sticks out of the hatchback and handed them to Tsering Penjor, my guide.

"What're those for?" I asked.

"To help you steady yourself when we walk up to the monastery."

"That monastery?" I pointed to a building on a distant hill. But not too distant. A 20-minute walk over some rice fields and then up a gentle slope.

He nodded.

"I won't use them." I am lazy and I may be in my worst physical shape since I lived in no-walking/lots of junk-eating Kuwait City, but I am certainly not so lame that I can't trek up a gentle slope.

In the Mountains Over Thimphu

"You are lucky today," said Tsering Penjor, my Bhutanese guide, as we gazed out over the white-topped Himalayan range in the distance, from atop a ten-thousand-foot mountain pass. This view is frequently shrouded in clouds and fog.

I wasn't just lucky today—I was lucky during most of my trip in Bhutan. I'd gone in at the tail end of the rainy season, though I'd pushed it as far as I could, hanging around Darjeeling and letting the days pass. But I still have half a world to get through before I have to show up for my first day of teaching comic book coloring to seniors at School of Visual Arts in New York in early January.