The trip in Burma started with a cockroach so it seemed only fitting that it should end with one, too. On the first night in Yangon, my roommate and I bonded over a mutual dislike of these unsavoury creatures. With me brandishing the water jet (thank goodness they have those in the bathrooms in SE Asia) and Gesa gingerly lifting the toilet seat as she shouted “die, die” we rid the bathroom of pesky creature number 1. Or at least we thought we did. Because it was in the same hotel 2 weeks later that pesky creature number 2 was spotted, again in our bathroom. Apparently our squeals could be heard several rooms down the corridor. (Not even going to pretend that we were cool about this). Maybe it was the ghost of number 1? Either way, his life ended rather brutally by being crushed in half by the only weapon we had, a coffee cup. In fairness, mosquitos apart, we had very few insect issues other than the odd leech when we were walking in Kalaw. Which is where we were headed when I finished the last post.
From Mandalay we travelled into Shan State and to rich fertile lands around Kalaw, from where approximately 60% of Burma’s fruit and vegetables are produced. En route, we stopped at the iconic U Bein’s Bridge, a teak causeway renown for the early morning journeys made across it by the monks (I didn’t get up early enough to see that, but others did). At first blush you could be forgiven for mistaking the countryside for parts of Britain. It was only on closer examination of the rolling fields and hills that you realised the ground was being ploughed with ox and cart, and once you were in the fields that you took in the wide and varied produce that our climate just wouldn’t ever sustain – we saw tea plantations, coffee, avocados, mandarins, orange groves, banana trees, lime trees, egg plant, fields of cauliflowers (I am so over cauliflower right now, I think it has been in every meal for the last fortnight).
Kalaw was beautiful. We hiked through the fields in the rain led by a local guide, passing by a local monastery and stopping in a village for lunch made from local vegetables cooked by his friends. I realised how much I have missed exercising – we walked about 10k over the course of the day and I felt the best I had all trip.
After a couple of nights there we headed to beautiful Inle Lake where we spent our first day exploring the lake by boat. There is much to see – pagodas, floating markets, local industries – weaving with silk and lotus thread from lotus stems on the lake, ironmongers, silversmiths. Our day was full and as we proudly showed off our silver jewellry that we had bargained for at the market, it took our guide to burst our high quality negotiating bubble by pointing out that our “silver” was in reality likely to be a combination of copper and lead. 2 days later and my finger is already green, go figure…..
That evening, a few of us went for a drink at a local beer station. As we sat in the bar I had my first, massive stab of homesickness. It was the day of the rugby internationals (no, it wasn’t the sight of the rain that made me feel sad), and I knew it meant that my parents would be at my house before going to the game (Mum I hid anything interesting so no point looking). Man United v Crystal Palace was showing on the TV in the bar. As the teams were led out onto the pitch, there was a military guard of honour, and I remembered that it was Remembrance Sunday the next day. The Last Post sounded, there was a minute’s silence and I suddenly realised that tears were rolling down my cheeks. My group had no idea what had gone on and looked very alarmed until I explained. It felt particularly poignant as I have seen countless pictures on Facebook of the magnificent fields of poppies at the Tower of London. I am so glad I got to see those – although some time ago so sadly not in their full glory.
The next day was a free day. I went in search of wifi which meant sitting on the benches outside our hotel. There was a wedding taking place that day so locals started arriving as the morning progressed. At first I was a little unnerved by numerous local men standing over me, taking turns to either stand over or sit next to me. Then it dawned on me that they were intrigued by my laptop. They were looking at it from all angles, just watching me as I sorted through some photographs, unashamedly looking at the pictures. My attempts to engage with them were thwarted by the language barrier. Then the wedding party arrived and the bystanders lost all interest in me, surrounding the bride and groom to receive an envelope that they all hurriedly opened to see how much cash was inside. I never worked out if these people were invited guests or not. Our guide was explaining to me that the tradition is that people get in the way of the progress of the bride and groom, hence the payment to let them through.
After that excitement I went cycling with some of our group. We headed out to the local vineyard for a wine tasting. The white was quite drinkable, but the red, as one of the group so eloquently put it “was quite hard work in the mouth”!
The views from the vineyard were spectacular and worth the ride in itself. We rode on from there to the next village and as we headed off I took the lead. I was trying to understand why the motorcyclist coming towards me was headed straight for me until I heard the guys behind me shouting “cycle on the right Sharon”…. Ah yes. Not in England now. The village we were headed to was on the shores of Inle lake and we went in search of a beer. Parking up the bikes, we walked down a long teak bridge along on of the inland waterways and found a bar…on the other side of the water. Not to be thwarted in his quest to sell us a drink, the bar owner came and fetched us in his boat and we wobbled our way across for our liquid reward.
And so the Burma adventure has drawn to a close and it is time to reflect again. I have gone through some really mixed emotions during this trip. Elphaba (see previous posts) was right – the food is pretty dire and you do see a lot of temples. But you cannot fail to be awestruck by the vast majority of them, particularly in Bagan. The country is stunningly beautiful, which is just as well as the group I was travelling with did not seem to gel (with a handful of exceptions including my lovely roommate) and so I never really relaxed and found my mojo. My initial experience in Yangon apart, the people are peaceful, friendly and welcoming – as we cycled along yesterday the guys taking shade under the trees, passing by on their mopeds, all called out “mingalabar” (good day) as we or they passed. They are intrigued by westerners, during the course of the trip we had to pose several times for photographs with the locals, and some would even come up and touch our skin. Our guide even told us a story about how he and his friends as children growing up in a small village once followed a westerner to where he had been to the toilet (in the bushes) to see if his poo was the same colour as theirs, given that he was so fair-skinned.
I still can’t decide if it was best to start here when I had no knowledge of SE Asia, or if I should have started elsewhere and then better appreciated the lack of development and friendly acceptance. I would be interested to return in a few years to see how the country has developed. I went to meet a contact for a coffee when I arrived back in Yangon and there was a large queue of people outside an electronics store. When I questioned what it was for, I was told that the government had just released another 300 or so SIM cards, so people were queuing to buy one. Such a world apart from ours where the queues would be for the latest iphone.
The country still has a long way to go in terms of corruption and cronyism – but maybe that is inevitable at this point in time. More concerning is the ongoing questionable human rights record (we went past a building yesterday called “the Department of Special Investigations” which felt quite sinister given some of the stories that are told).
I finished the book I referred to in one of my earlier posts – Burma’s Spring, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the country. From what I can tell, and from the people I have spoken with, the book is an accurate reflection of life in Burma over the last couple of decades and as the country progressed from junta rule to its current tentative steps towards democracy. As we left our guide thanked us for visiting, for the employment opportunity this increase in tourism is bringing to local economies. Overall, the sense I was left with was of cautious optimism, and a reason to believe in a more democratic and prosperous future. But there is a long way to come and only this morning I saw a piece on Aung San Suu Kyi expressing concern that progress had stalled.
On the flip side, it reminded me that I should be appreciative of what we have back home – running water, toilets with seats (still can’t cope with the squat) reliable electricity, education for all, freedom of speech, a democracy (some may say not…but we don’t rig elections or write it into the constitution that you can’t lead the country if your husband or children are not from Burma, just to ensure that certain people can’t become president).
The country and its situation both fascinated and greatly touched me and I will follow its development with interest. As I travelled to the airport, there was much traffic and a heavy police presence – luckily no need to overthink that one – I was not being chased out of town for expressing my views, rather a certain Mr Obama was coming to visit imminently!
Did I say the traffic was bad in Bali? Did I say it was chaotic in Yangon? Welcome to Mandalay, where I spent the bus journey to our hotel with my head frequently in my hands, convinced that we were going to kill or be killed. And those in my group who have been to Bangkok and Hanoi tell me I ain’t seen nothing yet. Hopefully by the time I reach those destinations I will have mastered the art of simply walking into the road holding my arm out and believing the cars and bikes will stop or avoid me. I am a bit done with the group touristy thing so have given myself a day off from my Burma family today and am currently sitting in my hotel room plucking up the courage to take my life in my hands (sorry, I mean go for a walk around the city). I left the last blog expressing my excitement for the balloon ride and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It was the most mind-blowing experience, ever. Our pilot said that flying in Bagan is one of the most sought after locations for pilots after Africa, and I can understand why. Bagan is home to thousands of ancient Buddhist pagodas, temples and monasteries and the sight of it from the air is haunting and beautiful in equal measure. Hopefully the pictures speak for themselves (frustratingly I cannot upload anything at the moment so that will have to follow when there is a better wifi connection). The flight itself (my first time in a hot air balloon) was brilliant fun – an extremely serene way of travel, assisted by the view and the champagne on landing, although at 7.30 a.m. that was perhaps a tad early to have the second glass that we did.
Sadly shortly afterwards I succumbed to my first tummy bug of the trip, and lost a day curled up in my hotel room, in severe pain and fantasising about being at home in my lovely big bed with associated home comforts (At this point I would like to thank my sister for her moral support which largely came in the form of “man up Prosser”). Thankfully that hit me the day before we embarked on a 36 hour trip from Bagan to Mandalay down the Ayeyarwady river, on a boat which we were all grateful at least had a toilet of the sitting variety, because it didn’t have much else.
It was a lovely way to see life along the river banks – although again, when you see villagers washing in river water that is so dirty it makes the Thames look drinkable, it reinforces the enormous differences between people’s lives in this country.
We moored up for the evening along a deserted bank and spent the night sleeping under the stars, at which point my supreme ability to overthink things struck again. I was woken around 2 a.m. by the sound of a couple of boats coming up alongside ours with men jabbering away to each other in Burmese as they flashed their torches along the length of our boat. Pirates, obviously. After they moved on, I fell back asleep and had such a vivid dream about having our belongings stolen whilst being assured no one was going to get hurt that I had to properly wake myself up before I could accept it wasn’t really happening. (In my defence, I would like to point out that I was not the only person slightly perturbed by this early morning visitation. We were assured the next day that it was just local fishermen but I still reckon we all looked so rough under our mosquito nets that they decided we weren’t worth kidnapping).
And so on to Mandalay which is….a city. We stopped off at Sky Hill, the centre for Buddhism in Burma.
Mandalay itself is known for being the cultural heart of Burma. It has over 7m inhabitants (Yangon has c.5.8m), maybe that is why the roads are so dangerous. So, I am off to walk gingerly in search of somewhere for lunch, and if I blog again, you know I survived ☺
[4 hours later]……as ever, poor wifi prevented me uploading so am trying again, having survived the walk! As for that walk….. what do you do if you ask 2 people which direction you need to walk in to get to your destination and they each point in the opposite direction? Well, those of you who know me well will have correctly predicted that I chose the wrong direction and spent half an hour walking that way before I realised! But I am glad I did as I went through some lovely roads before hitting a dead end and, knowing that shouldn’t have happened, turned round to retrace my steps, or at least thought I had until I ended up somewhere completely different again (no surprise there)….but an hour or so later found my destination having walked aimlessly around, laughing at myself for being so hopeless but at the same time mastering the art of road crossing (just step out with confidence and keep walking, people drive round you!). Bring on Hanoi. I found a café with great internet connection and wished I had taken my laptop so I could have actually tried to upload this with the photos I am so desperate to attach to illustrate my points. It then dawned on me that the fact it was super fast wifi meant that the place I was in was likely to be government backed – not a good thing for the local economy or my social conscience, so I hurriedly sent some messages from my phone and then left. As I walked back I realised the road I was on was completely different from others – large houses, nice cars, gated compounds, I even spotted some military uniforms – confirming my suspicion that I was in a more well-heeled, but perhaps less democratic, area of the city.
That notwithstanding, Mandalay has charmed me. The streets are wider, tree-lined, boulevard-esque in comparison to Yangon (though remember, everything is relative), the people are more friendly – every time I stood on a street corner like an idiot trying to work out where I was, someone would approach me, unprompted, with a smile and tell me where I was. There are fewer hawkers, and there is more of a cosmopolitan feel to it. But then maybe when I go back to Yangon next week I may feel differently about it, and my first few days were just such a shock to the system I was never going to adapt immediately. Tomorrow we travel back to the countryside in Kalaw, and then on to Inle Lake, promising fresh air and more great sights and maybe even a wifi connection that allows me to upload pics. Although that is unlikely – it is amazing what we take for granted in our world. Having said that, I posted a card home to my parents from Yangon on 29th October and it arrived today, 4 November so that is pretty speedy. If only the internet matched it….
The journey to Burma began with a relatively surreal and unpleasant journey from Lombok to Bali, involving a VERY bumpy sea crossing (Nelson’s Travella travel sickness tablets are either amazing, or I have a stomach of steel), a sweaty and rammed bus journey during which my neighbour (from Lombok) proceeded to take selfies of himself with me much to the amusement of fellow passengers, being dropped somewhere that wasn’t the airport to which I thought I was being taken…. But I made it there eventually so all’s well that ends well. I flew to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) via KL and arrived early Monday morning.
Two days later and I am still feeling very overwhelmed by the contrasts I am experiencing – both between the welcoming friendliness of the places I visited in Indonesia and the relative cautionary reception I have received here, and the gap between rich and poor in the country itself. Without doubt that is a reflection on where Burma is in terms of development itself.
A brief history: it was a British colony until independence in 1948, and was then subject to a military dictatorship for almost 50 years which ended in 2011. Officially renamed Myanmar several years ago, many western countries still refuse to recognise this name (as it was imposed by the dictatorship) and still call it Burma. There was a big uprising in 1988 when huge numbers of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed (anyone who has seen Beyond Rangoon, which I watched at the time it was released in 1995 and then watched again on the flight over – this is a fictional film but based on real events around the uprising). Mainstream tourism only really began a couple of years ago, since when hotel prices have tripled. There is still a questionable human rights record and just before I arrived here I read about a Burmese journalist who died in prison whilst allegedly trying to escape by stealing a gun from one of the guards.
It is a fairly chaotic place, with traffic jams as far as the eye can see, no way of crossing the road other than to step out and hope (I have adopted the practice of standing down-traffic from a local and following them!).
People chew on betal, a kind of tobacco leaf, and then spit out the contents in the street, which is littered with red splats as a consequence. When I first arrived I thought my taxi driver was simply being polite by opening the door to spit, when he did it a second time I thought he was sneezing and said “bless you”. I now realise the spitting is commonplace and the people spewing red from their mouths are not coughing up blood, as I originally thought!
The city is hot, very smelly in parts, with obvious poverty: on many street corners people sit with alms bowls. Our guide warned us not to give to any monks asking for alms as the people doing this are not in fact monks. I have just returned from sitting in a café having some lunch, being watched by a number of women holding babies, and every time they caught my eye they would signal for food. It was really hard.
The architecture comprises some amazing (but fairly shabby) old colonial style buildings, together with run down blocks of flats with wires draped dangerously across the street from block to block.
The first afternoon I was here, I wandered around a part of the city where the embassies are generally based and that gave a small insight into what it may have been like during colonial times – beautiful large houses in spacious grounds now well past their prime but still retaining a faded charm.
In trying to gain some insight into life here, I am half way through a fascinating book called “Burma’s Spring: Real lives in turbulent times”, written by a British journalist who lived in Burma during recent changes. Each chapter tells a story about life from the perspective of a different person during the dictatorship. I am not sure if it these tales that are fuelling my current unease, or just the culture shock of being in a city that is in the early stages of democracy and tourism. It simply doesn’t compare to anything I have experienced previously.
I don’t mean any of this to sound too negative, I am just still getting my head around it. I am sure there are better parts of Yangon and have only ever heard good things about the country itself. I am very much looking forward to heading out of the city tomorrow to Bagan, the city of temples. I have a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Bagan booked on Friday that hopefully will prove to be as amazing as the photos I have seen, provided the weather permits us to fly.
Finally, I have another confession. In view of the culture shock, I did seek refuge in an ex-pat hotel yesterday. I had a club sandwich and a cup of tea in air conditioned luxury and it was lovely. Then it started to rain so I had to have a salted caramel dessert whilst I waited for the rain to pass… I acknowledge that a club sandwich contains both chicken and bacon which is slightly at odds with my conversion to vegetanariasm, but as one friend said to me “everyone has to have a ‘give up’ day” once in a while, and this was my give up day. I can promise you that after a visit to another local market today, not dissimilar to the one I visited in Lombok only here the trucks actually drive over the produce laid out on the ground (presumably the skill is ensuring the tyres avoid the food?), that the meat eating was only a temporary blip!
So. Here I am, sitting on the balcony, with my last Bintang (tasty Indonesian beer), fighting off the mosquitos and contemplating the end of the Indonesian chapter of my trip. (Note: Or at least I was until the internet stopped working, now I am lying in bed the next morning!).
My Lombok trip didn’t get off to a great start. If you recall, I was a little fearful about being sociable and joining a group trip. With that in mind, I arrived at my hotel, and before I had even opened my bag a figure loomed in the doorway. “Hellooo” came an English voice. “This is promising”, I thought, “a friendly person”. Unfortunately that was as good as this particular conversation got. It turned out that several of my Lombok “family” had just finished a tour of Bali as well and finished up in this hotel. This lady (let’s call her Elphaba*) was one of that group. Having complained to me about members of the group, the heat, the spicy food – so she booked a trip to Java and Bali why, exactly? – I then told her how much I was looking forward to going to Burma after the Lombok trip. “Oh” she said, rolling both her eyes and her head, “all you will see is temples. And the food is terrible”. And with that she flew off into the sunset, broom firmly between her legs.
You can imagine how much I was looking forward to joining the group after that. Thankfully, however, Elphaba was not on the Lombok trip. And lots of amazing people were. Two of the girls turned out to be from Twickenham (like, round the corner close, and with the same pilates instructor, small world-itis). The remaining members of the family came from Germany, New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii, and the entire group proved to be the most entertaining company for the next week.
Our guide, Agus, greeted us by assuring us that despite being muslim, he was a good person and not radical. And he said that in all seriousness, which for me was a really sad indictment of the current state of the world.
He also pointed out that whilst in Europe we may think someone crazy if they are a stranger and they smile and wave at us, but here in Lombok, that was entirely normal.And normal it indeed was – fantastically so. I am not sure I have ever been somewhere where the people were so welcoming and happy. Those of you who have visited the countries I am yet to reach may tell me that this is commonplace. If that is the case, bring it on.
We first went to Tetebatu, to experience the real local Lombok culture. Long rice field walks and village visits to see the local weavers at work – it was fascinating, and just such a world apart from the UK.
En route, we came across a number of traditional wedding ceremonies – huge processions, trucks rammed full of people going to the celebration. The bride walks with the women looking mournful as she leaves her family, followed by marching bands (in the Lombok sense) and the groom. After a couple of days there we continued on to Senaru, in the foothills of Mt Rinjani, which at 3,700m is the second highest volcano in Indonesia. En route we stopped off at a local market at which point my contemplation of going vegetarian on this trip became a determination – 38 degree heat with chicken laid out bare… yikes, never eating meat again. Day 5 meat free and coping!!
Once at Senaru we did more walking, this time visiting a traditional Sasak village, where people still live together in single room huts, the bathroom is a hole in the ground (thankfully not a homestay for us) and women are still battling for recognition – our female guide was one of just a handful of women employed in this fashion following the establishment of a women’s association. We visited the beautiful Singang Gila waterfall – our guide told us that if you bathe at the secret second waterfall there it makes you look younger. So we all scrabbled over rocks and through tunnels to reach it in search of the elixir of youth. You decide…
Then we went on to Gili, which I was beyond excited about. But if Gili Meno, the island I visited last week, was Cinderella, Gili Trawangan, where we stayed this time, was its ugly sister. Don’t get me wrong, it still had beautiful white sand and turquoise water, but to walk to the beach we had to walk past piles of garbage, it was very commercialised, perhaps a reflection of the ugly side of exploitation in the name of tourism. And I don’t think it helped that we arrived in the midst of the heaviest rainfall in months. I felt a bit deflated before escaping to Meno for a day, following which equilibrium was restored.
After a couple of nights in Gili we went back to Lombok and the trip was over in the blink of an eye. The rest of my group left today and I leave Indonesia behind tomorrow as I head to Burma. I have barely scratched the surface and wish I had longer here, but even Elphaba cannot quell my excitement for the next chapter.
And so to reflect so far:
Where I have struggled:
1. Garbage. Everywhere, unfortunately.
2. The crushing disappointment of Gili Trawangan not maintaining my Gili magic.
3. Hawkers in Sengiggi, a completely different experience to Ubud. Although you have to hand it to them for persistence – when one of our group said “no thank you”, one responded “why not”? One tried to sell me 5 (crap) postcards for rp200k, before I went down the road and bought 5 (good) postcards for rp15k!
4. Holes in the ground excuses for toilets. And there haven’t even been many. I know I am going to have to suck it up but I think it may take a while.
What I have loved:
1. Smiling and waving. Kids running to school gates on seeing our bus, jumping up on the railings to wave at us. Families resting in the shade of their porches, looking up and greeting us as if we were old friends as we passed. They should introduce this concept on the Waterloo and City line.
2. The colour green. Green as far as you can see. Now I understand the real meaning of “verdant”. Jaw dropping landscapes of rice paddies as far as the eye can see that my photos simply can not do justice to.
3. The smell of frangipani and incense in Ubud, and its great vibe, somewhere I felt completely safe, despite being on my own.
4. My Lombok travelling family, who have reminded me of the importance of laughter, acceptance, and kindness.
5. “The moment”. It finally happened. I was sitting on the bus en route to Senaru, I put my headphones in and had an overwhelming sense of “this is it, I am actually travelling”. And reality kicked in and it was so very uplifting (and I maybe even shed a tear). Even though the song was “Bad day”!
6. Gili Meno. Without a shadow of a doubt still the highlight. I think a little bit of my heart will always remain there, probably as much because it was the starting point of my journey as for how beautiful it is.
7. The sense of anticipation. Burma beckons. I can’t wait.
*The wicked witch of the west. That one is for you PRG!
A selection of pictures from the last few days:
the video of the parade I saw before I headed to Gili (hopefully it works)…
And back in Bali …
I have a confession.
In the (nearly) two weeks I have been away so far, I have done really well to stick to Indonesian food, morning noon and night. But today I couldn’t help myself. I walked past a Starbucks in Ubud (if you think that’s bad, there is also an Accessorize, but don’t let that put you off this wonderful town). I resolved not to go in, then found myself retracing my steps. “Do you have real milk?” I asked. “Yes” was the reply. So I had a grande tea and I savoured every last delicious sip. (Remember I am not a coffee drinker, those of you thinking “Starbucks? Tea?”). Obviously I blame my parents. When I face timed them yesterday, they were both drinking cups of tea and it gave me a craving. In fact, the mugs of tea were pretty much all I could see, those and Mum’s thumb – in the same way I haven’t mastered the art of breathing under water, they haven’t quite figured out how to talk to the iPad camera with their faces in view.
Anyway, I have got ahead of myself. I came back to Bali yesterday after all, despite contemplating extending my stay on Gili. Largely because the internet was so bad it precluded me from making the necessary arrangements to stay out there. Before doing so, I completed my PADI open water certification (only 2 more panic attacks and a big telling off from Nico for surfacing without him).
I honestly thought I would never get there. But I did, and am a little bit in love with my instructor and buddy for getting me across the line. To those of you who work with me/know me well, it will come as no surprise that Nico’s analysis of my approach was as follows “Sharon, you are great at diving, but you overthink everything when it comes to zee skills”. Overthink things? Moi? No shit sherlock, that is the story of my life! Just ask me about the time I sat outside a boyfriend’s flat for 4 hours convinced he was dead on the sofa…..
We celebrated with drinks and dinner, and as I said goodbye to everyone and walked away later that night, one of the instructors (with no knowledge of my blog or the title) said to me “Don’t forget to look up at the sky”. It seemed such an appropriate way to end my Gili Meno trip, walking back along the beach to my room in the pitch black, looking up at the stars. Happy days indeed.
Looking up is a dangerous thing to do however back in Ubud (I am going to skip the description of the boat trip back to Bali as it brings back unhappy memories, and I have to do it again in a week’s time). I have never been somewhere where the pavements are so uneven – they resemble a mogul field, and are full of holes. Not little holes, we are talking big wide, break your ankle (if not your neck) holes that end in a deep pit of dirty water. So it is best to look down when navigating your way around the streets here, even if that does mean spotting the occasional rat, although the less said about that the better. You can’t go 2 metres without being ambushed by a man saying “taxi?” (I assume they are offering a taxi service, as opposed to adopting the English male (*adopt different tone*) TA-XI expression when faced with an unattractive woman – that would be quite demoralising). But despite the hawkers and the taxi drivers, it is a wonderful town, with a chilled out, friendly vibe and an intoxicating smell of incense mixed with frangipani. I am so happy I came back here and explored it properly before moving on.
I am staying in a homestay (a room in a compound much like I described in my first blog post, albeit slightly smarter), and for £15 a night (including breakfast) it is positively palatial. I have learnt that the best thing to do is rid myself of British reserve and ask whenever I need anything – directions, recommendations – my hosts here have been brilliant at suggesting where to visit/eat, and tonight I had one of the best meals of my trip so far on the strength of a recommendation from Luhde, a local girl I met on the boat crossing to Gili, and whose jewellery shop I subsequently visited today. And it only cost me £7.50, including pudding, beers and tip! That gave me almost as much pleasure as my dad gets from finding the cheapest box of red wine in France (“try this Sharon – only 2 euros!!” – the difference being my curry tasted fantastic).
I am approaching tomorrow with some trepidation as I have to rediscover my social skills and make new friends. I have really enjoyed the solitude of solo travel but tomorrow I start my first organised group trip (to Lombok) so will meet my new “family” tomorrow evening. I am not sure I am ready for it. On the plus side, the trip takes in another 2 nights on the Gili Islands, so every cloud….
(Incidentally, relaxing obviously makes me look younger. I sat next to an English girl in her early 20s on the bus back to Ubud from the port who said I looked “amazing for someone that old” when I told her my age. Sigh. At least it still has a 3 in front of it, for a few more months at least.) Cue the paradise selfie I promised…..
Am going to upload some more pics shortly…
Some people can’t cook. Some people can’t sing. Turns out I can’t dive*.
So what I would really like to write is this: diving was awesome, I took to it like a duck to water, I am going to dive my way around SE Asia and hang out like a cool dude with diver types for the next 6 months. Sadly, as many of you know, I am far too honest for my own good, so here goes:
As I bobbed on the surface of the ocean, tears streaming down my face, on my fourth panic attack in 2 days trying to achieve my open water diving certificate, the only thing that kept me going was the thought of not wanting to write on here that I had failed. That, and a patient yet persistent chain smoking French instructor who basically gave me no choice but to overcome “zees sing in your mind zat stop you breazing”. Turns out it is quite important to breathe, and turns out I am not that good at it. My brain has never been particularly adept at taking more than one instruction at a time, and seemingly the same principles apply under water, when the thought of both breathing and taking my mask off to do all the skills training sent me into a hyperventilating fit on more than one occasion. (I wish I were exaggerating, sadly not). But I got there eventually thanks to Nico the instructor, and Agnes, an extremely lovely and equally patient dive buddy who persuaded me that it wasn’t unusual to be this terrified. (Poor woman, I am not sure she anticipated spending her honeymoon cajoling a pathetic me to JFDI**).
So, having finally mastered my skills training, we dived this afternoon – and I have to concede that it was worth it. In these two days diving so far we have seen a juvenile eagle ray, turtles, scorpion fish, eels, trigger fish, to name but a few, together with NEMO (yes, I found him!) – totally stunning. 2 more dives tomorrow and then I am fully certified. Although whether I will ever dive again remains to be seen.
We surfaced in time for me to recover, much needed beer in hand, on a beanbag by the beach, watching the local taxi drivers wash their horses (see previous post) in the sea as the sun went down and just soaking up the Gili Meno way of life. Which, I have learnt, is “if it is too much effort, don’t do it” (should have thought about that before signing up for the dive course). And with that in mind I am contemplating skipping the return trip to Bali and extending my stay here for a few more days until my trip to Lombok starts. I think it is very important to be totally relaxed before the proper travelling begins! There is barely any internet, no cars, no hot water, no shops, no tv. I love it! Being compelled to switch off is perfect. Plus, it is absolutely stunning. In an ideal world, I would stay here forever.
As a final thought, I have to admit, at this morning’s low point, I did really miss the ability to call on my friends. There were several people I could imagine talking me back down below the surface and as I contemplated the horizon (my instructor had left me above surface to “reeelax” whilst he did the skills training with my buddy) I really wished I could phone a friend for a pep talk. It brought back memories of Jackie on the Cervinia ski trip a couple of years ago shouting “t*ts down the mountain Sharon and just SKI” as I bricked myself at the top of a black run….. in this case I think the mantra is “insert the regulator and just bloody breathe!”. If only it was that simple (in both cases!).
*actually, I can’t sing either. But I can cook.
**Mum, it starts with “just”, contains a swear word at “f” and is something you probably wanted to say to me whenever we debated the merits of me tidying my bedroom as I grew up…
On my last night before I left Ubud for Gili, a friend and I went out for dinner in Ubud. As we drove through the main town, our taxi driver explained that we would have to stop for about 15 minutes as there was a festival procession making its way down the street. And what a procession! On chatting to a local on the boat to Gili I subsequently discovered that it was a village temple celebration that happens once ever 50 years. A procession of hundreds of Balinese made their way down the narrow street towards the temple, playing music and carrying their offerings. It was an amazing spectacle, which as the title of this entry suggests, took place without me having my camera on me. I did manage to capture it on my phone however, so whilst the quality isn’t so good, it will give you an idea… (when I can eventually upload it)
A few drinks later we headed back as I had an early start to Gili this morning. There I learnt my next lesson: when you see your bag disappear without warning amongst chaotic scenes at the port, have faith that it will make it on to your boat, because sure enough 2 hours later mine did, despite me being utterly convinced it was gone, never to be seen again. We arrived at Gili (boat trip not as rocky as people had suggested!), had to transfer from the fast boat to another boat for the 20m (yes, metres) to the harbour itself. There we offloaded (still into the water, despite the additional boat trip) and my journey to my current accommodation was by taxi in the form of horse and cart – there are no cars on Gili Meno. I tried not to be alarmed by the “sir likes sex” sign painted on the cart, and was grateful when the driver took his payment in rupiah…
This is a sleepy paradise – perfect for me to completely switch off. And on the basis it has taken me 24 hours to get this wifi connection, I don’t think I am going to have much choice. Photos are going to have to follow when I get back to the mainland, as there isn’t enough wifi power (I am sure there is a proper expression for that – bandwidth?) to do any kind of uploading. Which is annoying as it is incredibly beautiful here and I want to share that, as well as the selfie of me in the crystal clear turquoise waters. Karma hits again eh!
So I am going to switch everything off for the next few days, learn to dive, sleep, relax, enjoy the view, and will update this with photos later in the week.
I am at risk of spending more time trying to work out how to do this blog malarkey than I am spending sunbathing. For those of you who know me well, you will appreciate how that is impacting my stress levels. I keep reassuring myself that I have 5 months to get a tan, but if I haven’t nailed this blog in the next 5 days I may as well give up. The template had a cool “where am I now” tab, but can I find it?? Not for the life of me. I apparently have access to a 24 hour support centre so I suspect I may need to call on them. I did demonstrate my technical genius at the airport by phoning the helpline for assistance getting my hard drive to work, and (more importantly) then getting my hard drive to work (a small victory for a big technophobe), so I have faith that I will get there eventually. In the meantime it seems only appropriate to post in a manner that my parents can relate to.. “Got here safely, good flight, weather lovely, people very friendly, haven’t been mugged yet”. Or in my Mum’s texting style “Arrived . Gd journey .Weather gd . Bad reception. Wil TRY again in a few days . LOL Xxxx” (love you Mum, but you know I am right about the texting style).
So as most of you know, my first stop is a bit of a concession to luxury and I am staying in a lush spa in Ubud, Bali. It is some much needed decompression time and it is rather lovely. I have slept lots, started 2 books, had an amazing Balinese massage, drunk a few lychee martinees….just chilling. I did however feel a bit of a fraud today as I went out on a morning guided bike tour around the Ubud countryside and saw the real Ubud/Bali – and instantly wished I was staying somewhere a bit more authentic. However that is coming down the line – when I come back to Bali from my diving trip to Gili Meno, I am doing a home stay for a couple of nights before my trip to Lombok starts, so I don’t feel so bad. I had a brilliant guide – Merta – who started the trip by making me practice changing gear and using the brakes, which was sensible, given I haven’t been on a bike for some years. He then took me to the compound where his family live – compound not so much in the large, secure, ex-pat sense, more a series of single dwellings in a gated area, with a communal social area and, most importantly, its own temple. I was fascinated by the fact that outside each compound we passed was a chalk board with the name of the head of the family, together with the other occupiers, and the numbers of males and females. It is slightly odd being asked within 10 minutes of meeting a man whether I am menstruating – but it would have meant I couldn’t have entered the family’s temple if I was. In keeping with my affinity for religious places I almost passed out, hopefully just the heat and not any kind of karma. I recovered sufficiently (having promised Merta’s mother-in-law, who was with us at the time that I had had my breakfast – see Mum – there is a mother figure everywhere!) and we went from there to another temple in the village and watched the female priest prepare the day’s offerings.
To enter this temple I had to put on a sarong, tied with a separate sash at the waist. It is believed that this is necessary to ward off evil (contained in the lower half of the body – God being in the head, and the torso being the human).* I am not going to pretend that I took on board all of the different gods and religious rites that Merta was describing to me. I was however struck by the profound and simplistic faith that he had. You had to leave your evil thoughts at the gates of the temple, or reframe those thoughts in a more positive way as you entered. Or yin and yang, as he put it. I googled yin and yang this evening as I wrote this and found a world of different quotes. The one I liked the most, was this: “Either learn to love thorns, or don’t accept any roses”. Too true. I love thorns. I am still however trying to reconcile this faith, and the fact that it is practised by most Balinese, with the fact that as we rode through a more affluent village and I queried this obvious difference, Merta told me that many of the people in this village made their money gambling on cockfighting. As he told me this we went past a house bedecked with cages full of the birds and I felt slightly uneasy – not part of the culture I will be looking to experience.
We then rode through the countryside into the rice fields – and into a different world. Green as far as the eye could see, an intoxicating smell of vanilla and magnolia, and the sound of wind chimes to ward off the birds. Magical. We cycled down narrow tracks with a steep drop on one side, every time Merta told me to “be careful” I tensed up that little bit more (whoever coined the expression “its just like riding a bike” was lying). I had to remind myself that it was like skiing, the more you relaxed, the easier it got, and the less likely you were to fall off/over. I also discovered the mimosa plant – the “touch-me-not” plant whose leaves fold and stems droop if you touch them. Hours of fun….(I tried and failed to upload a video clip). After a stop for some coconut water from a local seller, we headed back to the spa, not before taking my life into my hands by cycling down the main road through Ubud – I am not sure it is possible to have more mopeds on one road, and with potholes in equal measure. I just had to close my eyes and hope for the best. I wasn’t sure if I was being dramatic until I got back and read a guide to Bali which had a “Luxe Loves” and “Luxe Loathes” section – under loathes were “Plastic bags and potholes – the scourge of the wayside” together with “Traffic – maddening and downright dangerous“…. not just me then. It is fair to say I am a touch saddle sore now, but absolutely loved it and feel like my journey has now begun. No plans for tomorrow other than to work out my route to get to Gili, which I think needs to start very early on Sunday morning if I am to catch the fast boat, which all reviews suggest is going to make me very sick…. but there is no other way!
* On a more frivolous note, it struck me that maybe I should wear a sarong to the office – would the same concept of warding off evil apply??? (no reference to my lovely colleagues intended, but those in the know, know exactly what I mean).