Sunday, May 31, 2009

Balinese Sunset

While we were modeling different dresses for each other and pretending they weren’t horribly wrinkled and sandy from being in our backpacks for 3 weeks, the phone in our room rang. It was Made! He had tracked us down since it was his buddy who had driven us to Jimbaron and knew the name of the hotel where he dropped us off. Hey, who needs Facebook stalking when you have friends who work for taxi services? Answer: no one.

Made explained that he wanted to hang out with us again and that he’d be willing to drive an hour and half each way—just for dinner. (Melt.) Michelle and I agreed to meet up with him later on. In the meantime, we made our way to the Four Seasons hotel in our wrinkled formalwear.

Within minutes of arriving, we were sniffed by intimidating bomb dogs, greeted by a small Balinese girl who gave us each a flower for our hair (featured in above pic), and served some of the most impressive cocktails we had ever tasted. It was like a Kubrik film, but tropical!

As the sun set, we imagined lives for ourselves where this would be a typical start to an evening. Perhaps Michelle’s future Saudi Arabian husband actually owned this hotel? Yeah! And then Michelle could entertain all her friends who would visit her here for weeks on end, taking daily Balinese flower baths in our private suites and drinking Kopi Luwak coffee with breakfast everyday! But just for now, we’d have to settle for free bar snacks and our view of the guests-only fancy swimming pool. Plus, working our way up would make us truly appreciate life at the top, right? Assuming her offering of 5 coconuts had worked their magic, Michelle was officially on track to be the Eva Peron of Bali.


Back at the hotel, the case of the faulty pool chemicals seemed to have been resolved…or at least put on hold for the time being. As planned, Made rolled up in his jeep and drove us all to the Jimbaron beach known for its line-up of make-shift oceanfront restaurants that serve some of the freshest fish on the island (caught just hours before its hits your plate).

The three of us laughed our way through a huge order of crabs and some delicious Snapper--although only Michelle found it amusing when Made straight-up ate the eyes off the former ocean dwellers on our table. Nasty! Over Arak Attack cocktails, Michelle and I begged our Balinese friend to tell stories about growing up on the island, which he did. “What was your first girlfriend like?” “How do the Hindus and Muslims here get along?” “Have you ever considered that your Balinese ceremony makeup looks like gayboy drag?” In exchange, we taught him more American slang*.

At the end of the night, Made dropped us back at our hotel and took off for Ubud—not before giving us each a small keychain charm with none other than a Balinese flower inside. He wanted us to remember him, and I loved that this was the item that he thought would best keep him--and his island--on our minds. I’m not sure what this says about Michelle and me or our homeland for that matter, but she then gave him a ½ empty bottle of vodka that she had been carrying around in her purse. He seemed happy with it.

The End.


* My NJ crew (e.g. Doug) will be happy to know that somewhere out there is a Balinese man casually dropping the term “raw doggin.” I take no responsibility.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

When Green Does Not Mean "Eco"

We arrived in Jimbaron and waited at the front desk to check into our hotel. While we were standing around, we noticed that a bit of a scene was breaking out. Engaging my superstar eavesdropping skills (thanks for the training, Mom), I learned that the chemicals in the hotel pool had caused some problems for certain hotel guests. I took closer look at the people in heated discussions with exasperated staff and, OMG--they all had green hair! And by green I don't mean a slight tint. Think emo punk a la 1982...or would that be Glam Metal (thoughts?). Either way, the color screamed irreverence--but in an "oops" sort of way.


The funny part, though, wasn't so much everyone's green hair as it was watching people of different nationalities address the situation. For example, the German girl wanted immediate and fair compensation for a repair dye job that she had already researched and arranged at a nearby salon, the Swedish girl was kind of quiet and patient about the whole thing, and the English girl was simply mortified. Long live cultural stereotypes!


It's a good thing we had yet to go anywhere near that pool or Michelle would have taken one look in the mirror and opened up a can of good ‘ole fashioned American whoopass on the hotel staff. Let’s just say she is not one to shrug her shoulders at consequential oversights. No siree. Cross that Jersey girl one too many times and she'll run your sorry ass off the proverbial road. How's that for stereotypes? Answer: awesome.


Instead, we headed to our room to primp for our visit to the nearby Four Seasons hotel bar where we planned to hang out for our final Balinese sunset.

So Long, Ubud

Our last days in Ubud did not disappoint. After another incredible experience at Spa Nur, Michelle and I parted ways for the day. She headed out to visit a fellow Art major from her college who is now doing a ceramics residency in Sayan (a small town near Ubud) and I made my way back to rice paddies. I had heard about this farm/café called Sari Organic and was determined to check it out now that businesses were finally reopening after the Nyepi holiday.

According to some guy’s website, “Sari Organic was originally conceived as a community project to grow non-chemical rice and vegetables and teach local Balinese about non-chemical farming. It has now become something of an Ubud tradition supporting neighboring farmers who are converting their plots to non-chemical rice growing, actually increasing their incomes. Organic vegetables and herbs grown by Sari Organic are delivered to restaurants and individuals customers in the Ubud area.” Nice.

I finally figured out how to get there and pretty much fell in love. Not only is this organization doing great work, but it’s situated in an incredible spot with beautiful views of the Ubud rice paddies. Aaaaand the restaurant wait staff will let you go into the farm and actually PICK the vegetables you want in your salad. Enough said.

A few hours later, with a farm-fresh salad in my tummy, I was sitting next to Michelle on yet another car ride, on our way to Jimbaron, our final stop.

Indonesian Sisters to the Rescue. Or Not.

As it turned out, our jeep driver RULED. His name is Made (a common Balinese name pronounced “Mah-day”) and there was NOTHING he couldn’t do. When he’s not busy driving glamorous visitors like us to all the best secret spots in Bali, he’s out on the town performing and teaching traditional Balinese dance. He also sings, cooks, plays music, parties, makes good jokes (in English no less) and gushes about how great his family is. Certainly, he could add modeling to his potential activities list, but he’s probably too humble for that. Case in point.

We had a fantastic day with our boy Made, driving through the towns surrounding Ubud where we checked out craft-making like Batik fabric, silver jewelry, and traditional wood carving. He even stopped to casually play (beautifully) a Balinese xylophone that was lying around one of the shops (see below pic). While finishing up yet another lunch of Goda Goda, it became apparent that we would need to make an emergency stop at a drug store as the immediate need arose for feminine products (details spared).

Rather than explain the situation to Made, Michelle told him that we REALLY needed toothpaste (ummmm?) and next thing we knew, we were pulling into another one of those Indonesian superstores with a special aisle dedicated to rice cookers. Being the doll that he is, Made offered to accompany us, but we politely declined, telling him we’d be right back.

It’s still not exactly clear what was going on in this store, but suffice it to say that they had every feminine product EXCEPT for tampons. We’re talking at least 50 different alternatives stocked on 5 different shelves each 15-feet long—everything from hello kitty-style pads with pink wings and (were those sparkles?) to industrial sized Kotex monsters that really should have been located in the diaper section. Eww. We did our best to find what we needed and eventually gave up and flagged down help. After all, this was an emergency situation.

The woman who tried to help us looked to be about 25, certainly of reprodutory age. She didn’t speak very much English, so we did our best to explain what we needed which resulted in a blank look on her part...and growing desperation on ours. She soon disappeared, returning with a coworker who actually spoke even less English. Ugh. “Isn’t the world 'tampon' universal?” I asked Michelle. Completely at a loss for how to make ourselves understood, we began to demonstrate to our Indonesian sisters what we needed using made up sign language. Surely, they would understand.


It was during this explicit demonstration that we noticed Made standing behind us, dying laughing. He had gotten worried about us when we didn’t return to the car and came in to track down and scoop up his two American girls. Judging by his reaction, he understood what we needed.

The three of us left together in a mix of awkward silence and knowing giggles and Made took us to another store where we scored the goods, purchasing some toothpaste just for good measure.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


With just a few days left in Bali, we decided that they would be best spent back in the mothering arms of Ubud. Hold us, Mama. This time, however, Michelle was determined to cruise the town on a motorcycle…and who was I to turn down the chance to dry off after another Spa Nur visit with my well-conditioned, wet hair blowing behind me on a shiny hog? Bring it.

So we left Munduk and headed back "home" on what turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives I had ever taken. Along the windy way, we passed Lake Tambligan and Lake Buyan, stunning sister lakes surrounded by hydrangea flowers stretching out before Mount Lesong (check out below pic I stole from the InterWeb). Note: If you ever go to Bali, don't miss this drive. You pass fresh fruit markets, adorable mountain craft towns and scenes like this.

Flash forward to Michelle and me at a motorcycle rental shop in Ubud where we asked the guy behind the counter if he was SURE we didn’t have to actually know how to ride a motorcycle to take one out for the day. He swore up and down that it would be fine and sent us out to the road for a test drive. And by “us” I mean Michelle, since there was no way I was going to be our driver/navigator. Bad idea all around.

In order to appreciate what follows you should know a few things about our girl Michelle:

1) She drove a pickup truck when she lived in SF (manual, of course) aaaand parallel parked it on busy, hilly Fell Street. Every day. She also drove it sola across the country. Twice.

2) She worked as a public school teacher for at-risk, special ed youth in both SF and NYC (read: she is no sissy).

3) She more than held her own on the co-ed pool team at Murios (a shady bar in the Haight where you very well might just get your ass kicked for looking too happy).

Case successfully made for: Michelle Is Pretty Much a Badass.

With all these factors working in her favor, she received a 2-minute moto driving lesson (see above pic) that basically consisted of learning how to brake. Afterwards, the very, very handsome driving teacher sent her around the block on her own. Meanwhile, I tried to remember if my travel insurance covered motorcycle accident injuries. Ummmm...did it?

Twenty minutes later (during which I planned out the explanatory email I'd be sending to the above mentioned travel insurance company) my long-lost friend returned, white as a ghost, and announced that we would not be exploring Ubud via moto. Apparently, navigating through traffic on the “wrong” side of narrow roads while mounted on a Balinese moto required the ferocity of a Hell's Angel, one baby step above Ms. Michelle on the badass spectrum. Luckily, the cute driving instructor was free for the day, and willing to cart us around in his jeep. Done.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Smartwools Get Their Day in the Sun

After seeing just about all the fish (and crustaceans) we could possibly see, we ventured South, up into the mountains. Recommended by SF brethren whom we met in Amed, Munduk had a completely different feel from the rest of the island. Still lush and moving at the snail’s pace we had now grown accustomed to, this area was much cooler (love that mountain air!) and had a more rustic feel. Think coconuts meet….s’mores?

We wound up staying at an eco-hotel called Puri Lumbung, a picturesque collection of two-story cottages all of which are renovations of the original Balinese rice barns (called lumbung). Each cottage was made entirely of wood with fairy tale-style wooden shutters and beds draped in exotic-feeling mosquito netting. Our cottage was right on a little lake and the view from our balcony could not have been more serene.

Our first night there Michelle and I got massages followed by a leisurely dinner at the hotel restaurant. With the mountains of Munduk as the backdrop, we ate our Goda Goda feeling very relaxed, spacing out to the sounds of traditional Balinese music (to hear what it sounds like, check out this video I found on YouTube). A few hours later, we snuggled in beneath our mosquito netting and enjoyed our first night sans “Air Cone.”

The next morning we were up and at ‘em (confession: As recently as 5 years ago, I thought that phrase was “up and Adam” until my sister busted me and told my mom which resulted in a flurry of mocking emails). Preparing for a long hike on muddy trails, I parted with my growing collection of sun dresses and dug out those sneakers and Smartwools that had worked their way to the bottom of my pack.

After breakfast we met up with our guides and off we hiked into the forest where we saw an impressive amount of native fruit and spices, doin’ their thing: cloves, coco (see above pic!), lemongrass, date palm, ginger, Balinese rice, Bay leaves, vanilla beans, nutmeg and others, too. The guides, it turned out, could identify just about anything in the forest and tell you about its cultural history, nutritional value and its various uses in Balinese cooking. I bet if I had asked them nicely, they would have been able to create a working replica of my iPhone out of bamboo and berries.

About 2 hours into the hike, Michelle and her guide had to head back to the hotel so she'd be on time for her afternoon cooking class (look what she made!). Meanwhile, my guide and I continued onward and upward and he taught me about the most expensive coffee in the world, which, it turns out, comes from Indonesia. It’s called Kopi Luwak and it’s made by harvesting coffee berries that have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet.

Apparently, the berries pass through the animal’s digestive tract (aka “come out the other end”), mostly undigested. (Since the civet can only digest the berry’s outer layer, the remainder passes through its system at which point they are called coffee "beans.”) The beans are then scooped up from the forest floor, washed off, and sold as an international delicacy.

The theory is that this fox/mouse-like animal only eats coffee berries of the highest quality when they are at their perfectly ripe point, which means only the very best beans make it into the brew. It's kind of like if a really snobby and stylie gay man were in charge of a high-end second-hand clothing store. Yeah, like that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Makin’ Waves

After a heartfelt goodbye to the boys from Melrose Place, a driver loaded us in his car and deposited us 3 hours later in Amed, a small fishing village Northeast of Ubud. And for the next week or so, we focused mostly on fish—both to admire in their native habitat and to eat with Balinese-style salsa.

One notable thing about Amed, we learned, is that hotels don’t let you use credits cards to pay for your room aaaaaaaand there is no ATM around. Anywhere. This convergence of factors led us to hire a driver to take us to the nearest town with an ATM, about 45 minutes away.

An exciting result that came out of this little trip is that the ATM turned out to be located in a shopping area that included a Balinese superstore. There we found all kinds of treasures including an entire aisle full of different rice cookers—one for every imaginable ricing need. Note to self: consider doing a study of superstores around the world to see what one can learn about the local culture based on the inventory of mass-produced items. Sad? Yes. But also kind of fun.

After making 1 new fun friend who turned out to be my neighbor in SF, a 2-night stay at our kickass hotel, and a 3-hour snorkel expedition, we hopped a “fast boat” followed by a medium speed glass bottom boat followed by a slow and smelly horse and carriage to our next stop: the Gilli Islands.

Gilli Islands
Technically in Lombok, the culture of the Gilli islands (we stayed on Gilli Air) was a bit different from Bali. In addition to speaking a separate language and practicing Islam rather than Hinduism, the residents of these 3 small islands don’t use motorized traffic (it’s the law). Instead, transportation is all about boats, bicycles and the horse-drawn carriage. Yee haw!

Life moved pretty slowly on Gilli Air. When we weren’t snorkeling around (we saw Sea Turtles!), we were eating coconuts, chillin’ in beach huts and contending with the local beverage of choice, called Arrack. Note: when this (kind of nasty) alcohol is mixed with orange juice, the resulting cocktail is called “Arrack Attack” which is kind of fun/unPC.

One notable occurrence on Gilli Air was that we met this cute guy (oddly reminiscent of Namond's character on The Wire), who worked as a server at an outdoor restaurant near our hotel. He saw us engaging in an inspirational photo shoot involving Michelle snapping what turned out to be some blurry shots of me swinging back and forth over the water...pretending to be carefree and islandy.

Surely anxious to get in on this artistically promising endeavor, he suggested that Michelle join me on the swing, which promptly ended up in the two of us piled on top of each other covered in sand. Yep, our combined weight was more than this little swing could handle. To make matters worse, Michelle then got tangled in said swing and the cute island boy had to free her. So much for our budding careers as white-girl Indonesian supermodels.

We returned to Bali via the fast boat and jumped in a car to Lovina, another fishing town located on the island’s Northern Coast. There, we stayed for two nights in a fancy hotel that apparently catered to older European couples wearing sun hats. Nothing much went down on this leg of our journey other than finding a note in our room before we left, thanking us for our stay. It was signed “Room Boy.” And it was for reals.

And to complete the Great Balinese Snorkel Tour of 2009, Michelle and I drove out to Pemuteran. Located in the far Northwest coast, this town borders the Bali Barat National Park. Here we saw the most colorful and exciting fish I have ever seen (counting that time I melted down on the Great Barrier Reef). We also got to boat all around a mangrove where Michelle dedicated herself to the honorable persuit of crab sightings. Meanwhile, I laid in the sun and polished off Skinny Bitch, considering the ill effects of all the Balinese coffee I had consumed. Oh well.

We also learned about an interesting coral restoration project that's getting attention all over the world. Equally colorful and exciting were the local school girls who put on a badass traditional dance performance one night. Check 'em out.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Turn Up the Tourism

With just a few days left in Ubud before we’d be moving on, we decided to pick up the pace a bit. This meant increasing the speed dial from “Holy Shit, We’re Slow” to “We’re Pretty Slow, Huh?”

Some of the things we did were:

Checked Out a Shadow Puppets Show which wasn’t as cutesy as it sounds like it would be. We were kind of hoping for an assortment of fraggles and unicorns but instead the show depicted a culturally significant story involving traditional characters from Hindu epics. But it was still cool to see the shadow characters play out their little drama against a rice paper screen, backlit by a flickering oil lamp.

Made an Offering at Puri Darem Temple. Why? To cure Michelle, of course! As suggested by the healer, she had to make an offering of “5 young coconuts” in order to return to a state of health. Rather than pay Komang and his dynamic healing duo to do this for her, she took the situation into her own hands.

With our friend Deb in tow, we trudged through sweltering Ubud one morning to a gorgeous Hindu temple, clad in our Balinese best. This particular day was some special holiday (I promise it’s impossible to track them all), which meant that the local families were there to pray and make offerings. Inside the temple was a truly incredible sight—an explosion of fresh flowers, colorful baskets filled with incense (see above pic) and some of the most precious children you have ever seen.

Since we now knew how to participate in the Hindu prayers, we were able to join the locals. Once the priest blessed us with holy water, Michelle marched up to the alter with her 5 coconuts. Trailing behind her, I carried two offering trays provided by our friend Abud’s mother. (He was one of the guys who worked at Melrose Place and when he heard about our experience at the healer, decided that we best make a visit to the temple. It should also be noted this sweet boy also climbed a tree to get Michelle her young coconuts.) Hopefully, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and all the other Hindu gods were smiling down upon all of us that morning.

Climbed Mount Batur in the dark. After two and a half hours of climbing up the rocky exterior of this still active volcano, our path aglow with the light from our trusty headlamps, we made it to the top. Up came the sun (wow!), off came our wool hats and away we went with our handsome guide to explore the craters that remained from previous volcanic eruptions.

Hung Out with the Monkeys at The Monkey Forest which resulted in a narrowly averted health emergency when one of them bit Michelle on the leg--hard! Luckily, her cargo skirt took the brunt of the attack. (Confession: I was secretly monitoring her for signs of seroconversion flu for the remainder of the trip. Post script: she was fine.)

A Toast to Michelle’s Mom!

After my afternoon at Spa Nur, I met back up with Michelle at our hotel. Tonight was the night we had been waiting for! It would be our dinner at Moziac, a restaurant I had read about in a NYT article forwarded to me by my Aunt Diane (who rules, btw).

And how does an unemployed girl get to go to the best restaurant in all of Bali, you wonder? Well, that girl has a spectacular friend named Michelle whose incredibly generous mom decided we both deserved a special treat after a particularly difficult couple of months. It was like I was little again, getting to pick out one item at Toys R Us to cheer me up after getting stitches or something. And I picked...the full tasting menu, complete with wine pairings! (So did Michelle!)

And the experience at Moziac did not fail to cheer us up, which to be fair wasn’t a particularly difficult challenge considering we were in the middle of a 3-week tropical vacation in one of the most beautiful places ever. Not only was this the nicest, most interesting meal I have ever eaten and the best wine I have ever tried, but it was also REALLY fun.

This restaurant has the feel of an exclusive club, where you just might spot a celebrity behind a large sprig of cilantro, sticking out of an exciting-looking cocktail in his or her well-manicured hand. And for all anyone knew, this was how we rolled. You know, wintering in Bali, zipping around West Hollywood in our fancy convertibles and jetting off for a long ski weekend at our disco cabin in the Alps. No one here had to know about my actual life of frozen gyoza and sketchy laundromats.

And we must have really been owning our pretend sophisticated personas, because the super suave general manager asked us to join him for cocktails in the lounge following our meal. So join him we did and guess where he was from? Dubai! Ok, so it’s not exactly the same as being from Saudi Arabia (or even at all the same), but after a ridiculously “thorough” wine tasting, it seemed close enough. Michelle and I then and there decided that he must be her future husband, the one predicted by the Healer. I’ll let you know how that works out…in approximately 4 years.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

From Puffins to Papayas

When I got laid off in February, never did I think that my most extravagant endeavors were immediately around the corner. Before Bali, I had been subsisting on Puffins cereal, oranges purchased in bulk from the Farmer’s Market and Trader Joe’s frozen gyoza, plus the occasional sympathy coffee from a loving friend. Gone were the days of pricey Mixt Green salads with my buddy Rick, sushi on a Tuesday night just because I felt like it, and my all time favorite cocktail from The Orbit Room: “The Exit Row.” (Dear Exit Row, I miss you. Love, Lauren) And other than the mani-pedi send-off present from my adorable friend Beaux, all self pampering was strictly off limits. It had to be.

Enter Bali and the 2009 $USD/$IDR exchange rate. With $1 US dollar equal to about $12,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) and Indonesia generally being way less expensive that any city in the US, the mathematical outcome was: we got to eat sushi and get pedicures if we wanted. This is how it came to be that after our 100-degree Rice Paddy hike and a quick shower, Michelle took off boutique shopping and I made a beeline for a spa I had read about in my guidebook: Nur Spa.

Located on Hanoman St/Jin in downtown Ubud, this place feels like a Buddhist sanctuary. There are pretty stone statues scattered around the grounds, among beautifully tended gardens and royal-feeling relaxation huts. You can choose from more than 50 different treatments, including traditional Balinese cream baths, head massages and exciting ingredient body scrubs (like ginger!). To give you an idea of pricing, a 90-minute massage costs around $20. So long self depravation, hello Deep Healing Massage and Traditional Papaya Bath.

To adequately convey the true splendor of the massage and bath experience, I am first going to have to admit something: I’ve had a lot of massages. There. I said it. I know it’s not the most responsible use of income, but as it turns out, neither is investing in the stock market. So there.

That said, I know a good massage when I get one and this one was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The guy who massaged me must have had a sixth sense for knowing which body parts needed to go where and do what so as to make their owner immediately consider selling everything she owns and moving to Ubud just so she could come here every day. We weren’t five minutes into the massage before I had priced out the Craigslist value of all my belongings.

After what may have been the best 90 minutes of my life, I was escorted to a woman who would be in charge of my bath. I couldn’t believe there was MORE. The setup was gorgeous—a stone bathtub filled with all different kinds of Balinese flowers floating on top of the water (Frangipani, Jasmine, Bungan Kemoning, Hibiscus and others). After being thoroughly scrubbed with a papaya mixture and ladeled off with warm water from a bucket, I was left alone to hang out in the bath. (Whole truth: Had I not been broken in by Turkish bath ladies a few years ago, this naked scrubbing/bucket experience would have been a bit much).

Alone and sufficiently exfoliated, I stepped into the bath and sank down. Laying back, I lifted one foot a few inches out of the perfectly warm water. It was like an ad for the fancy nail salon that Beaux had taken me to! The toenail polish was the same color as one of the flowers and could not have looked prettier. I was in girlie girl heaven! I wished they had some music in there. I would have requested some Lilith Fair lesbian hits…just to take the “I’m a girl” experience to its limit.

For the next 30 minutes, I smelled and studied each and every type of flower, tried out all the different organic soap bars that were set up on the side, and forgot all about my old life of Trader Joe's frozen gyoza.

A Uneventful Walk Through the Rice Paddies

The next morning, we woke up feeling anxious to continue our exploration of Ubud. So we downed our fruits bowls, dodged Ping and Komang before they could book us for God knows what, and hit the road. We walked across town to a path that would lead us to the Rice Paddies. By this time it had to have been 100 degrees.

Eventually we found a trail through the woods that took us to the edge of the rice paddies. Not sure what to expect, we walked up a steep path and suddenly found ourselves in a clearing. Stretching out before us were acres and acres of bright green grasses shooting up out of water, water that was reflecting the early morning sun. It was stunning. I had never seen anything like it.

The path led us around in a huge circle. We walked alongside chickens, under palm trees, and past charming buildings that appeared to be guest houses. We strolled by local artisans who had set up their work along the path and stopped to marvel at the incredibly precise upkeep of the paddy fields. Who worked here? Where was everybody? We guessed that whoever it was, they must be smart enough to get out of dodge before high noon since the heat had now become unbearable. We were drenched in sweat…and running out of water.

“Let’s bounce,” I suggested to Michelle. She snapped one last picture of a chicken (poooossibly, her favorite animal of all time) and we were out. "To the spas!," I declared, attempting/failing to wipe the sunscreen-sweat-bug repellent mixture out of my eyes.

Note: I later learned that “rice is the number one crop in Indonesia but the rice paddies have started to disappear. As tourism has become a billion dollar industry, Balinese are abandoning farming. Rice paddies are now being replaced by golf courses, hotels, villas, and industrial parks. On average, Bali is reducing its rice production by about four thousand tons per year.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tropical Lockdown

The following day was Nyepi, the much anticipated Day of Silence. We woke up with the roosters at (can you guess?), yep, 5:45am and started our morning. Before the sun was all the way up, I had removed my eye mask and knocked out a few chapters of this kind of boring and extremely long “literary masterpiece” called Of Human Bondage. What was interesting to me about this book, however, is that my friend Beaux had recommended it.

Side note: You really learn a lot about someone based on the book recs they give you. For years, I’ve thought of Beaux as this upbeat, optimistic guy. He has these two happy dogs and always seems to be zipping around town, chatting with pals about celebrity gossip, his latest career dream and the next international expedition that he and his boyfriend would take on. Never did I think he’d recommend a depressing Bildungsroman (10th grade English teacher, eat your heart out!) about a disabled British orphan who suffers ridicule, starvation, heartbreak and one philosophical crisis after the next. Beaux? You OK, friend? Next time the mani-pedis are on ME.

Anyway, over my morning fruit bowl and Balinese iced coffee, I started thinking about how there were about 30 of us staying at this hotel. And no one could leave unless they had an emergency that warranted a violation of government enforced lock down. Who was here, anyway?

Having started on Lost after finishing up with The Wire, I imagined that our group of hotel guests would somehow come together to pool our resources and trade skilled services. Was there a doctor in the house? Would Michelle’s pool sharking history somehow come in handy? What if the hotel ran out of food? This was almost as exciting as that time we got snowed into the dorms my Sophomore year and lost power…and I was pretty much the only person on campus who knew how to drive in the snow except I couldn’t drive stick…which meant that we were still snowed in.

Before I could get further ahead of myself, a girl about my age came over and asked me where I was from. She was also American and had been living in Hawaii, working as a photo journalist. Little by little, people started gathering together to trade travel stories and share sun screen…which was (kind of?) like pooling our resources. By lunchtime, Deb (the travel journalist), Nicole and Eli (the adorable mom and son team from The OC), Michelle and I had formed a Nyepi collective...that was anything but silent.

The four of us looked after little Eli while we drank Bintang (the local beer) and laughed at each other’s stories about the hotel staff here at Melrose Place. It turned out, they WERE paying extremely close attention to us and trying to figure out ways to get us to book services through them/make out with them. Deb and Nicole had both been pressured to see Komang's healer and had all sorts of reports about their curious encounters with our Balinese pals. Well, whatevs. Now that we knew the score, we'd be invincible.

By the end of the night, we had shared relationship battle scars, magazines, career advice, cigarette lighters, digital travel photos, hilarious stories of teen angst and the requesite facebook info. I learned about the ocean expeditions that Deb went on to photograph endangered sea animals, the Indonesian surf camp business that Nicole and her husband run, the contents of Michelle’s application essay for a computer art master’s program in NYC and Eli’s fascination with the contrast between big and little.

After many, many hours, the conversation devolved into the consideration that the Melrose Place staff was videotaping us in our rooms and selling bootleg DVDs in Kuta. While downing her final Bintang, Michelle decided the name of the hypothetical video would be One Night In Uboob. It was time to go to bed.

The Healer

The next day we woke up at our usual time (5:45am, when the Balinese roosters started crowing), ate another fruit bowl and mentally prepared to visit Komang’s healer. Michelle was terrified that he was going to tell her “something bad.”

Before she could reconsider, Komang shepherded us into the backseat of a jeep and drove us beyond the borders of Ubud. Wait! We love it here! Why are we leaving? Where are you taking us? Visions of this show I once saw about foreigners getting sold into the sex trade flashed through my head. As we drove through some sort of upscale jungle neighborhood, he assured us that everything was fine. Then we pulled onto a dirt road…and kept going.

We wound up in dusty compound consisting of what appeared to be multi-family homes. Komang was greeted by a few different people who were all quite friendly and didn’t seem to have the air of sex trade kidnapper about them. We started to relax.

He led us to one home and suggested we wait on the outside porch area until the healer and his assistant arrived. There we sat for about an hour, drinking tea and growing anxious about what we would soon learn about our bodies, the people we loved and our fate. (See? Wouldn’t this be a good show?)

The healer, a curious-looking fellow, finally arrived (see above pic). He was about 60…with a gold front tooth and a mustache, sporting an “Emo Rocks” T-shirt and a traditional head dress. His assistant was a pretty young woman. Neither spoke a lick of English.

Warming Up
Komang followed them into the house, which revealed itself to be a small temple. We took off our shoes, put $20-worth of Rupiah on the alter and knelt on the cool marble floor (note that this was ½ as much as our hotel room cost per night). For the next 20 minutes, the female healer led us in prayer and religious song. We learned the Balinese Hindu prayer, involving a beautiful interaction with incense, flowers, and holy water.

Having grown up agnostic in a small Catholic town in NJ, situations such as this tend to bring back uncomfortable memories of those post-sleepover mornings at church with my friends' families where I would sit alone in the pews while everyone got up to take communion. We would stand up and sit down, again and again, all the while watching my friend for cues as to what to do next. While I sat through unfamiliar songs about our savior, I’d think about the x-treme fort building from the night before, new ideas for the front walkway or the back deck popping into my head. But this was different. I was completely absorbed.

Michelle’s Questions
When we finished the prayers, Komang told us we could each ask a few questions. With his translation help, Michelle inquired if there was anything she should know about her health. The female healer asked for her last name, lit some more incense and began talking to the alter—as in having a conversation with someone…or something. The two healers collaborated for a few minutes and then an answer was presented. This is where things started getting intense.

Our Hindu gurus were dead the point where I started sweating a little. They knew about Michelle’s lower back injury (OMG, the one she got when she was 15 while playing field hockey). They also knew that the back of her neck had been bothering her for a while (true!) and that she had recently experienced some dizziness (yep, while doing yoga that morning). Knowing Michelle as well as I do, I was already aware of these health issues…and was shocked by the accuracy of this assessment.

Michelle asked some other questions about her family (I’m not sure how revealing those results were. Michelle?) and then she asked about her love life. She wanted to know who she would marry and when, damnit. Nodding, the female healer lit some more insense, reengaged in her eerie conversation at the alter, and whispered with her teacher for a few minutes. She then told Michelle (via Komang) that, in approximately 4 years, she would fall in love with a man who has a strong connection to Saudi Arabia. Huh? Would he be an oil tycoon? A prince? How and where would she meet him? Unfortunately, the specifics ended with Saudi Arabian. Damn.

My Questions
I was up next. Michelle went out to the porch with the male healer who was going to do some massage on her lower back. Curious about my own health after recently experiencing a weird issue resulting in minor surgery and brief painkiller abuse, I also asked for an assessment. The answer I got was not what I expected.

The healers agreed that my body was in perfect health (really? hooray!) but that there was a problem with my heart, not related to anything physical. At first I was confused what this meant, but then it became clear….and the tears started flowing. There was indeed something weighing on my heart and this woman knew exactly what it was. She described the situation in chilling detail and assured me that everything that had happened was for the best. She even explained why.

I’m not sure if it was the topic of discussion that sent me over the edge or the fact that this 90-pound stranger in some Indonesian compound was completely in tune with something so personal to me…or maybe it was that I hadn’t slept past 5:45am in a week. The reason for it was unclear, but the next thing I knew, I was having total meltdown. I cried like I hadn’t cried in years to the point where I think I made everyone uncomfortable (except for Michelle who knew me when I was taking this really hard statistics class that brought me to tears on a regular basis. Plus, she falls apart about neglected animals all the time—so she knows how it is).

By the time I pulled myself together and we bid our farewells (note how red my eyes are in the above pic), it was like we had all been through something big together. And if Komang did intend to scam us, he was now very surprised…and very exhausted. Ha! Kind of like in that movie where the bad guy steals the car and there’s a kid in the back seat and the trailer voice over announces that the bad guy “got more than he bargained for.”

I wondered if we would now become the girls in line at the organic café, talking about our personal growth. Well, one thing was for damn sure: I was never going wear a Michael Franti shirt.

A Starring Role in Indonesia’s Melrose Place

After a few days in our really, really cute hotel, we had gotten to know the staff a bit. Little did we know, however, how well the staff had gotten to know us. The seemingly endless rotation of handsome Balinese men between the ages of 25 and 30 not only knew our names and where we were from, but it soon became clear that they were up to speed on our recent tourism activities and with which hotel guests (the majority of whom were pretty girls, traveling solo) we had been keeping company.

“Did you enjoy your yoga class?” Ketut asked one afternoon. I didn’t remember telling him I had gone to one. Wait, but I did tell Ping. Hmmm. Then Komang asked if we were still interested in visiting with a local healer. Funny how we had never talked about this. Whatever. Anyway, yes! We did want to meet with a healer. Maybe he could tell us about Wayan, of Eat, Pray, Love fame.

According to Komang, Wayan had become a total sell-out as a result of her international stardom. What does that mean, exactly, I wondered. Were her herbal remedies now purchased on Amazon rather than mixed from the contents of her backyard garden? Was she just trying to get her own book deal? Maybe a TV show where she heals people with all kinds of ailments? Oh! That would rule. Note to self: pitch this show to…someone.

Before we could get to the bottom of the Wayan situation, Komang had us promising that we would go to his favorite healer the following day. Meanwhile, Abud had heard that we wanted to climb Gunung Batur (a mountain about 2 hours Northeast) and was busy coordinating our transportation. Huh? Well, ummm, ok.

How all of this information was being transferred was a mystery, one that we didn't really care to solve. It was too hot. And it was kind of funny to be part of a tropical gossip mill fueled by Indonesian boys on motorbikes. Instead, we just shrugged our shoulders, ate the delicious daily fruit bowls (provided by the hotel--see above pic) and taught our handsome Balinese friends/scam artists important American slang like "let's bounce."

Slam, Puke, Strip

Putting police-enforced silence and the demonic effigies out of our minds for the time being, Michelle and I set out to explore Ubud. The best way I can describe this little city is a mixture of tropical island culture and the Northern California spa scene with a twist of East Village glamour. And by scene, I mean scene.

Michelle was instantly annoyed by the conversations we couldn’t help but overhear as we made our way around town….about “spiritual path exploration” and “feeding the light within.” For those of you who have been to Café Gratitude in SF, just imagine what their staff members would have to say about life in an island paradise. (Other than “I am…tan.”)

Now imagine it’s crazy hot out and you’re in a long smoothie line behind said people and you’re trrrrrrrying to talk about Michelle’s impromptu NYC photo shoot starring herself as Mary in a real manger scene. Meanwhile dozens of 20- and 30-something X-pats wearing fitted Michael Franti T-shirts are trading REALLY LOUD updates on their inner work/trust funds.

OK, maybe we were just overheating and unfairly losing our patience, but Michelle was annoyed, and I felt it was my duty to help her. She was headed for a melt down.

Background: On the plane ride over, we had talked about how our trip to Bali was not going to be like the experience that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about in Eat, Pray, Love. Nope--too boring. Not that I wasn’t dying to meet with Wayan (the Ubud medicine woman with an uncanny knack for developing flawless herbal remedies), but we were going to approach our introspection and various healing procedures with some flare.

I thought that now might be the time to figure out what that meant. After some discussion regarding possible titles for our Indonesian adventure, we settled on Slam, Puke, Strip*. Suddenly, Michelle felt a lot better.

*We thought this title would be likely to draw in our target audience, the charmingly irreverent, fun people...once we found them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Wait, What Demons?

Our hotel choice in Ubud felt like a big decision. It was important to set ourselves up somewhere we liked—not only because we’d be there for a while, but also because we’d be trapped INSIDE this particular hotel for a complete 24-hour period. Yep! This year, the Balinese New year, called Nyepi, fell on March 26th which meant that we would have to spend that day in sequestered silence.

It was interesting to see the way different tourists handled this situation. We met one couple from Sydney who were completely panicked about finding a nice hotel room with a DVD player. They couldn’t imagine entertaining themselves quite that long and had purchased at least 15 pirated movies in Kuta to get them through the holiday. Clearly, they were underestimating the entertainment value of a group of trapped, bored tourists with access to alcohol…and a shared swimming pool. Or so we hoped.

Trying not to get caught up in the hysteria that seemed to be taking hold of our fellow tourists, we settled on a cute little place near The Monkey Forest. It didn’t have DVD players, but it did have a really pretty garden. With Lilly pads!

Anyway, we had bigger fish to fry, like the papier-mâché demonic effigies (called ogoh-ogohs) that, according to the accounts we read, would soon be paraded through our village accompanied by “a cacophony of gongs and cymbals.” The ogoh-ogohs would be set on fire so that the combination of noise, music and flames would “chase away the demons for another year.”

Holy shit.

Earnin' Our Street Cred

Known as a tropical sanctuary for those committed to healthy living and “spiritual enlightenment,” the town of Ubud was the next stop on our tour de Bali (click on the above map to see where we were). Rather than hire a driver (which is pretty much how visitors get around the island), we thought we’d save our hard-earned Rupiah for eco/organic/vegan/cruelty-free/fair trade cocktails at our destination and try out the public transpo.

Right after Michelle shipped home the wool sweaters and ski jacket I forced her to bring (ok, fine, I know), we hopped a Northbound Bemo. Note: That’s what the kids call “getting on an overcrowded public van that’s only $5 but sweltering hot where people are smushed against you and you’re scared you might get some kind of sweat-transmitted skin infection from them.”

Over the next few hours, we tried hard not to contract MRSA while looking out the window. As we headed away from Bali’s Jersey Shore (Kuta and Legion really reminded me of the Wildwood boardwalk) to the land of enlightenment, the scenery gradually changed from rugged Aussies carrying surfboards on their shoulders to sleek Europeans carrying yoga mats in designer hemp bags.

We pulled into the station, peeled ourselves off our van mates, and set off to find a hotel. Our street cred having increased exponentially, Michelle and I were ready to take on the Yogis.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mythical Chariots Meet SPF 40

On the plane ride over, we decided to stay somewhere “sort of nice” on our first night. That way, we’d have hot water and a place to regroup before setting off on our counterclockwise travel course through Bali.

It turned out that, for $25 each, we could stay one of Legion’s (pronounced “leg-ee-an”) fanciest hotels! And by fancy, I mean that the floors were marble, our personal veranda overlooked a spectacular garden and the hotel swimming pool cozied up to a 50-foot by 20-foot statue of a mythical chariot (see above pic, noting size of swimmers). Oh, and there were life-sized cement horses scattered around, casually.

Our few days in the South of Bali (known as the Kuta area) treated us well. While we were planning out our trip and adjusting to the heat and the time change, we palled around with a very sweet Australian, named Xavier, who was on holiday with a crew of 12 in celebration of his mother’s 60th birthday. Between his ongoing obligatory family dinners, each complete with Indonesian birthday cake, he was eager to meet some friends with whom he could take off and explore the island. Enter the two American girls. And their eye masks. Little did he know what he was getting himself into.

Xavier? If you read this you can speak for yourself, but you LOVED us, right? Sorry about dragging you through the 95 degree night, on foot, for hours, along that sketchy road, to find the Legion Night Market...that no one had heard of. But that fish dinner was worth it, no? :) Hopefully, we made up for it with the golden chariot.

So Long, Smartwools

Michelle and I made it through SFO security (despite our leaking quart of take-out from Osha Thai that somehow sailed through the baggage screening machine)...and settled into our bargain seats on China Airlines. As we fished through our carry-on bags for our eye masks, we marveled at the flight attendants who, without question, could have easily landed higher paying jobs as fashion models.

For the next 13 hours, we drifted in and out of consciousness, awakening to find a curious selection of movies on the big shared screen in the main cabin. First, my fellow SFO to TPE passengers and I watched a strangely unsettling dance musical that I can only describe as Vaudeville meets the circus meets Fred Rogers. Immediately following this were a few episodes of “Living Lohan.” Assuming China Air knows how to play to their target audience, I was intrigued to know who else was on this flight.

Our layover in Taiwan was mostly uneventful, although the Hello Kitty airport temple managed to keep our interest for as long as it took us to consume our bubble tea. Everything from key chains to dish sets to jungle gym equipment to actual furniture--all in the Hello Kitty vein--was nothing short of...very pink.

Our next 5 hours in the air went quickly. Just as we polished off our quart of green curry (now likely radioactive), we found ourselves in the Indonesian customs queue. “Drugs are illegal in Indonesia. Carrying them into the country may result in Death Penalty” read a foreboding sign. “Xanax doesn’t count,” I assured myself.

After a quick stop at the Despansar airport ATM, we hopped in a taxi, our wallets full of cheerfully colored Rupiah (see above). The air blowing in the window was oppressively hot and humid, a welcome change from San Francisco. In the back seat of the taxi I switched my sneakers and Smartwool socks for a pair of strappy sandals. We had arrived.

Out Came the Headlamps

With a few solid weeks of regrouping under my belt and enough knowledge about inner-city Baltimore to last a lifetime, I felt ready to take on a new endeavor. It was time for a trip.

For the last two years my friend Molly had been begging for her buddies to come visit her in Shanghai, but I just couldn’t bring myself to brave the cold and deal with the kind of rain that hits Northern China in March. Not on a vacation, anyway. Visions of me shivering while struggling with a wet, deactivated subway ticket were more than I could handle...even with my superlative blood pressure. Sorry, Mollz—I’ll make it up to you (here in SF).

For lots of reasons that would require an entirely separate blog to adequately explain (trust me), Bali won out as the destination of choice and my friend Michelle earned the coveted position of Travel Partner, 2009. After living for 15 months in a dysfunctional group house on Fell St. back in 2003, we knew we could handle 3 weeks together in Indonesia. Hell, after that, err, experience, we could handle 3 weeks in an alternate dimension...where there's no sun.

Ten days later, she boarded a plane from NYC to meet me in San Francisco. Kind of like a scene from an 80s movie where the endearing protagonist is forced to change her look in order to overcome some challenge (a transformation that usually takes the form of a montage set to an inspirational song perhaps by Cindi Lauper), I stripped Michelle of all things fancy and literally rolled up her sleeves. Off came her diamond necklace, away went the fabulous leather hand bag, on went a sports bra and out came the headlamps.

In the final scene of our montage, Michelle effortlessly slugged a pack onto her back, casually tossed her blackberry on my dresser with a shrug and flagged us a taxi to the airport.