Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanksgiving Thanks

Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone. It's the 3rd consecutive one I have spent away from home. 2 years ago, I ate my Turkey on top of a surfboard in San Diego, last year I was in Saigon, Vietnam anxiously awaiting the arrival of my best friend, Lily whom has since passed, and this year, I am in Australia, eating my bird and fixin's in the 85 degree heat in Australia with Mick...on Sunday, 3 days after the official holiday. I thought long and hard about what I was thankful for this year as we sat at our intimate plastic dinner table set for 2. Having visited places of extreme poverty, disease and famine, I am most obviously thankful for my finances, health and abundance, but what I am most extremely thankful for my faith in the world around me, and the cosmic coordination that has put me where I am today.
You see, my life has taken a series of interesting twists lately. Each and every object, person and opportunity that has come into my life has come at just the right time. I haven't needed anything that I couldn't get and I have managed to remain humble when gracious acts have been bestowed upon me, recognizing the higher power that lies beneath. There have been key players in my life including family, friends and complete strangers whom have laid the bricks for the pathway that I have so gratefully strode along.
This past weekend, Mick and I went to Airlie beach, a popular tourist/backpacker destination. We sat carelessly drinking Margaritas as we watched penny-pinching backpackers congregate on the lawn with their generic branded picnic lunches. That was us just 6 short weeks ago, and now, here we are, living it up! How we loved that life style of seeing how little money you can possibly survive on. Living in the back of a truck in constant search of free camping, good fishing spots and an information center complimentary shower. Working 10 hour days in the hot, humid Australian sun bent over all day planting trees and picking fruit. Having to cook dinner on the campfire and clean dishes with river water and sand when all we wanted to do was go to bed. Now we could afford to go out for sushi, drink at a bar and go back to an air conditioned bedroom complete with...get this, a bed! How grateful we were for these luxuries that seemed so unnecessary to us just 6 weeks ago. And then I think again, and thank my lucky stars.
I wish I could remember the cliche that goes along with this story, but it goes something like this:
Before you can appreciate what you have, you must realize what others don't.

You get the gist of it...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Halloween in Oz

Most of you know about the depths of my obsession with Halloween. To me, Halloween is a time to bond with friends, family and children in a fun atmosphere. In my eyes, is the one time of year that people can let their creativity shine, and be whatever they want to be. It is the "holiday"...if you can call it that, which separates the men from the boys, the leaders from the followers and, most importantly, the party-animals from the party-poopers. Halloween is one of those days that creates memories and bonds that last a life time, not to mention hilarious photographs. Because Australians are always willing to party and will pretty much always agree with an excuse to drink, it surprised me to learn that the adults were missing out on this favorite American tradition! I thought a little Halloween party was in order. Let's just say, I knew that it would be a hit, especially when we got funding!
The idea started with some home-made invitations, and spread like wildfire to the higher-ups of the company that we work for. Within 2 days of the idea, we were sponsored by the company with a $3000 budget! This was to be the party that I've always dreamed of, and trust me, we didn't spare a dollar. Our house mate/supervisor, Pete or "Wheels" or "Spaz" as he prefers to be called (he's 40, and an absolute wild man to say the least) was gung-ho from the very start. So with $3 grand, and my party partner-in-crime in place, the spending began. I have to say, finding halloween decorations and costumes wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but it all came together beautifully. We ended up spending $1000 on the best seafood money can buy, and the other $2Gs on decorations and booze...the makings for a fabulous party. We decked the house out complete with blacklights, spider-webs, hay bails and glow-in-the-dark creepy crawlies. After a week making tombstones, carving jack-o-lanterns and watching the candle wax drip onto wine bottles to create the perfect candlearas, I was in Halloween heaven. Now I just had to make sure that people actually showed up, my biggest fear considering that the invitees were all diesel mechanics...not really the costume type...or so I thought.
Not only did some of my coworkers show up in costume, but many of them brought their costume-clad partners and children as well! What a time we had, and everyone absolutely loved the decorations and personal touches. One of the wives came up to me and thanked me perfusely for giving her son the opportunity to dress up as the Joker, something he had been wanting to do for years! We mixed drinks, cracked shell-fish and danced until the wee hours of the morning, and everything went smooth as peanut-butter. My boss couldn't stop praising me for helping to get everyone together in a fun, zero tension atmosphere. The BIG boss for the entire company even showed up with his wife, dressed as a witch and a warlock! We weren't even expecting them...not to mention in costume. I think I made a pretty good impression that night, but most importantly, I had an absolute blast spreading my love of Halloween with my costume deprived co-workers and their families. The looks on their faces when they set foot in our haunted house was absolutely priceless. Now we just have to take the decorations down, and I must say I'll be sad to see them go. Maybe we'll just leave them up for one more day...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday, October 20, 2008

In 12 month's time...

One year ago today, I was setting foot on a plane to Bangkok, Thailand, alone and weary that I was making a big mistake. On the contrary, that was the adventure that started it all. With the travel bug imbedded deeply in my soul, I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced so much in such a short period of time. Looking back over the past 12 months, I've had a lifetime's worth of memories, challenges, and developments. I've visited 8 countries, spoken bits and pieces of 5 languages, made friends from all around the world, lost a friend nearest and dearest to me, and have accepted spirituality as an omnipresent force in my life. Most importantly, I have developed a trust in humanity that has changed my perspective of the world we live in.
At this "ripe old age" of 28, I have nothing and everything in the same breath. I have learned to live as a minimalist, with next to nothing, and have gained everything as a result. I have nothing to hold on to, and nothing to let go. I continue to grow, I continue to change, I continue to learn, for my thirst for knowledge is ever increasing. I will make new friends and learn new lessons. I will put the lessons that I have learned in my previous years to good use, for this lifetime is cumulative. We live, we learn. Change is the only constant as the tide ebbs and flows. I am taking observant notes as I pass by things of importance in this life, I recognize them and record them in my minds eye. I am flexible and free and ready for life to show me more of my story. I believe in destiny, as I always have, however I now know that I have control over it. I know that my personal decisions will influence the direction of my destiny. I know that all we can do in this life is treat all people with kindness and respect, and watch how the story unfolds. I know that being a good person is the secret to happiness.
What lies in my near future? I ask myself that on a daily basis, but I also quiet my mind and know that whatever is meant to be will happen. I have learned to let go of expectations, and live in the present. This is a development that is at the root of my happiness. Things come to me when I need them, and not when I don't. This is the very realization that has governed my life for the last 27 years. My job is simply to remain positive and allow the arms of destiny to catch me when I fall and empower me when I feel weak. I have guardian angels watching over me, whispering in my ear. I have learned to listen to them.
I think this attitude towards life has gotten me into the position that I am in now. I merely have to think of what I need, and it appears. When I last wrote an entry, I had just celebrated my 28th birthday at the Daintree Rainforest. In the days that followed, Mick and I spent 3 beautiful days at a place called Luster Creek, recommended to us by a lovely person named Robin whom had given us a blessing in disguise by telling us about this wonderful secret place where she goes to unwind. I knew Robin was special when I first met her. Luster gave me a chance to write about things that had been on my mind. Our days there were so memorable. I was able to meditate there, and ask the universe for what I needed. From Luster, we didn't know where we would go. We were nearly out of money, and there were no jobs around. The only thing we could think of was to go back to the strawberry farm, where we really enjoyed the people, living situation and the work. We rang up Marg, the owner of the farm, and left a message asking if she needed us back. She returned with an answer saying that she had plenty of workers, and that the season was slowing down. Disappointed, but unsettled, we felt that Marg would call us back. We were really good workers, and we knew that she valued us, and would do what it took to get us back. Two days later, we got a message from Marg asking when we could start.
We finished the season out at Marg's strawberry farm earning about $1000 for the 10 days work, which we figured would help get us to the next place...where that was, we did not know. We had just planned on driving south, looking for work. A few days before we finished, Marg's husband Allen mentioned that he might be able to get us a really good paying job in town building 3 million dollar trucks. A few phone calls, and a couple of days later, we were packing up our things, and heading to Mackay to move into a share house, and start our new job earning $38 dollars an hour, just the break that we needed. After having worked numerous picking jobs making decent money, and living in caravan parks (which we actually didn't mind) we would both be earning more money than we ever had, and living in a home again. And here we are!
While I never thought I'd be part of the labor commission wearing steel capped boots, work pants and a hi-vis shirt building trucks with a bunch of Aussie blokes, I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity. We are working in the paint division, sanding, painting and prepping parts to be put together to build a truck that will go out to the mines. If we can stick it out for a few months, we'll be really well set up to do whatever we want to do. I'll be earning nearly $1,600 a week, and at that rate, I should be able to pay off a good chunk of my debt, and have some money in the bank to set myself up for the next adventure, whatever it may be. I've learned that this life is all about rolling with the punches and paying attention to the signs. Everything has lined up to get me to where I am today, and I need to take advantage of this opportunity to get out of the hole. This will help to eliminate financial stress in the future, something that I have been putting on the back burner during my time of freedom and travel. I have a feeling that I will learn a great bit from this experience, and maybe, just maybe, some of my co-workers will learn a little something from me. Now, I just have to get home for the holidays...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rainforest Birthday!

Well, I celebrated my birthday in the Daintree National Park, one of the most beautifu Rainforests in the world. I saw 4 crocodiles, a python, caught a pretty good size fish, and enjoyed a wonderful day surrounded by million year old trees. You simply cannont imagine how beautiful this rainforest is. It's so lush, full of wildlife and more birds that you can count on a thousand hands. I can't believe I'm 28!

Still not sure where the next stop is, but hopefully it involves making some money...I'm out!

Some photos coming soon!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Crocodile Country

Well, it's official. We are in Salt Water Crocodile Country. The adorable elderly lady at the information center told us that she wouldn't be caught dead (no pun intended) swimming anywhere north of Rockhampton, Queensland. You wouldn't believe some of the places that we have been camping either. We have had fresh fish, swimmer crabs, mud crabs or oysters for almost every meal for the last week...including breakfast on some occasions! Mick saw a Frilly Necked Lizard on the side of the road yesterday, and pulled over and chased it down. He's crazy! He thinks he's Steve Irwin or something, and he pretty much is. I'm learning so much about fishing, I should be a pro by the time I get back to the States!

There has been a slight change in plans. We were planning on going north to Darwin to pick mangoes until we heard from numerous people that it is upwards of 100 degrees there. I'm not really into working in extreme heat, with mango sap, so we decided to go just north to the Daintree NP (world famous Rainforest) and then see what happens from there. We are currently traveling along the Great Barrier Reef, so I'd love to get in some snorkeling...maybe for my birthday!

Next stop is Cairns! Australia is so WILD!! I love it!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

End of the Strawberry Flush...

Today was our last day on the strawberry farm. I must admit, I'm a bit sad to leave the countryside.

I'll miss waking up to the laugh of the Kookabura (Australia's iconic bird), eating fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs everyday, and mostly, the beauty of the early morning clouds that loom over the hills of the rain forest. This place is absolutely gorgeous. Being out in the "bush" really makes you appreciate Australia and all it's ruralness...if that is even a word. We've been sharing our living space with numerous large spiders, cane toads, and a pretty big brown snake, all potentially deadly, but none have seemed to bothered by us. We've made really good friends with Sofie and Ant (the pommies) and have just really enjoyed working on Marg's Strawberry Farm and staying at the hippie commune. Such an interesting dynamic here. The boys from the strawberry farm are real "true blue" (or as we would call 'em red-neck) Aussies, and the next door neighbor hippies couldn't be more opposite. The farm boys like to ride motorbikes, shoot kangaroos and go "pigging" (I'll explain later) while the hippies live a quiet, communal, conservative, no-kill existence. The two groups don't seem to see eye to eye on a lot of things, but somehow they coexist as next-door neighbors with completely different attitudes on life.

Okay, back to the pigging. So Australians actually "hunt" pigs. Actually, they buy dogs that hunt the pigs. They also have "utes" (pickup trucks) complete with pig cages. When they spot the wild pigs, they release the hounds, and the dogs grab the pig by the ear until the boys can make it out to stab the pig in the heart. Sounds pretty damn brutal to me! These boys (aged 16 and 18) absolutely love it. Oh, and get this, they even have a monthly subscription to Bacon Busters Magazine! The magazine itself is an absolute riot. They have "bush girls" posing with dead pigs, strange. If the hippies only knew...

Yesterday 4 new workers arrived from France and Germany, so it feels like it's time to go, after all, they are our replacements. Before they came, it was just me, Mick, Sophie and Ant, and we were feeling pretty cozy and settled in. Now it's a bit crowded at the commune, so it's our time to start heading north. We've got enough veggie oil to get us to the next main town, and the truck is running great since we put a new fuel filter in it. The plan is to head up to Darwin, which is in the far northern part of Oz to try to find work picking mangoes. There should be some good money in it, but it's meant to be pretty hard work. Darwin is very hot, and most people seem to be allergic to the mango sap (you break out like poison ivy if it stays on your skin longer than 30 minutes) which means we'll have to cover up our skin. I know, it doesn't sound like the most glamorous job, but I should at least make enough money for a plane ticket and change, and see some beautiful country on the way.

Our next stop will be Airlie Beach, which is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a pretty big tourist attraction. We won't do the islands, but will stop in the town for a day or two to check it out (and try to get more oil!). From there, we'll head straight across the desert to Darwin...I'm told there is a whole lotta nothing between the east coast and the northern territory, kind of like middle America. I just hope the truck goes okay.

We took home about 10 kilos of strawberries yesterday and cut, stewed, and jarred them for the journey, and to give to the hippies. I'm really looking forward to being on the road again. Who knows what will happen next, I just really hope we don't have a problem finding a job. That would certainly put a wrinkle in the works!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bio-Diesel, and Strawberries...Again!

Yes, again. I know what you are thinking, that's the second time I've said I was never going to do something and then, I've gone and done it...again! First it was planting trees, and now it's planting and picking strawberries! I must say though, this time it is under much better circumstances.

I'll start the story by relaying to you how incredibly convenient it is to be a working holiday maker (that's what I am) in Australia. It's virtually set up for travelers to make the grand circuit around the country following the multitude of harvest seasons while making money and seeing all the sights along the way. There are numerous caravan rental services that rent to travelers (some have really cool artworks on them), and even caravans for sale super cheap by the previous traveler-owners complete with kitchenware, chairs, tables and all! You can literally "work-about" Australia...that is, if you don't mind doing some hard work and camping in caravan parks of course. This time, we really lucked out.

The trip began on the Gold Coast (Queensland) with 30 liters of used vegetable oil from a Thai food restaurant strapped to the roof and about $600. Our plan was to get just about 6 hours north to Mundabera to pick some mandarins (something new!) for a week in order to have enough money to get all the way to Darwin (Northern Territory). We had probably just enough to get there in fuel, but not nearly enough for food and accommodation, so work was certainly in order. Our French friends had told us about the mandarin farm, and said they needed more workers, so we drove there confident that they would have jobs waiting for us...not the case. We were about a week too late, in fact, there were no fruit picking jobs anywhere nearby except, you guessed it, picking and packing strawberries. Here we are again!

We enjoyed the trip along the coast, and the newly converted bio-diesel truck was running just great, actually better than we thought. We stopped at any and every major town along the way in search of more veggie oil to convert to fuel for our big trip north. We managed to collect almost 50 more liters of used veggie oil, all from Thai food restaurants. We learned that most fish and chip shops use animal fat (YUK!) and that Chinese food restaurants didn't want to part with their used oil for some reason. We were sitting pretty now, with plenty of fuel to get to our destination and then on to Darwin. Then we ran into our first problem. On our way out to the job for the first day, (at 5:30 am) the truck began running a bit sluggish. The fuel to oil ratios mush have been a bit optimistic for the cool morning temperatures, and the fuel didn't seem to be getting to the engine properly. We didn't think we would make it to our first day of work at the job that we desperately needed. 2 hours and multiple stops to pump up the fuel filter later, we made it to the farm, and apologized to the owner...not the best first impression, but she liked us, mostly because we had previous strawberry experience!

Marg's strawberry farm is tiny in comparison to the last farm that we worked on. It's basically just Marg, her husband, friend, 2 kids, 2 pommies (English kids), and us working on the farm, and that's all they need. Instead of a mass production like at the last farm (shipping to grocery stores) Marg's strawberries all get sold on the side of the highway of this teenie tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. We must pick and pack thousands of strawberries everyday and I am still impressed to know that she sells out almost every single day with people driving from all over creation just to get a punnet or two of Marg's strawberries. It feels good to be a part of a local farmer's harvest season, and we feel like they actually care about us. The other bonus is that there is no bending down all day...well, not really anyways. We have little trolleys that we can sit in and wheel along as we pick, and then after picking for 3 hours, we pack them and cut the second quality fruit up for jam. It's a really cruisy job. We start at 6:30 and end usually before 1, and still have most of the day to do what we like.

The best part of the job is the accommodation... Just on the other side of the fence from the strawberry farm is a, shall we say, "hippie commune" just at the base of the National Park. It's more of a permanent fixture caravan park, no, it's a full on commune. The people that live here put on a big folk music festival called Winter Moon Festival every year which attracts nearly 2000 people. The property itself is beautifully maintained. Large trees of different varieties including citrus share the courtyard with the flamboyant and creatively constructed campers, and there is an incredible little organic herbs and green garden that we are welcome to help ourselves to. The place is painted in all sorts of festive colors with hand carved totem poles and lush shrubbery all around. We have a full kitchen, outdoor showers, and even internet access here. I don't think we'll have to pay much, they just said we'd settle up with them before we leave...pretty amazing spot really...and the owners are a trip! I bet you guessed that though!

I've got to quickly mention also the only store in town, just so you get an idea of what we are dealing with here. Everything in the shop is stored in old unplugged meat refrigerators, styrofoam boxes and deli shelving. I know, it's hard to imagine, especially when you see the range of items for sale there. My favorite odd commodity that I found in the shop was a library of trashy novels from the 60s stored in an old deli refirgerator. They also have a plethora of aged appliances, still in their original, yet sun faded boxes, and an impressive collection of "Microwave Tips" magazine which I'm certain went out of circulation centuries ago. They DO have just about everything you could possibly need though, including a chatty sales staff!

We've made pretty good friends with the Pommies, they're called Sofie and Ant, and they are a lovely couple. We have been enjoying each other's company, which is great considering we eat, sleep and work with them! It would be a bugger if we just didn't get along!

Another week or so here, and then we'll continue our veggie-adventure north to Darwin...we just hope the veggie oil and the Ute (truck) continue to run well. At least now we'll have some cushion money just in case... Better safe than sorry, right mom?

Friday, August 22, 2008

On the Road Again...The Veggie Train Part 1

I know this is sideways, but it's worth it anyways!

Today marks the first day of our Veggie Adventures in the Outback! Yesterday, we collected our first bit of used veggie oil. Mick spent hours night last night and this morning figuring out a proper filtering method for it, and now we are ready to go! We don't know WHERE we are going, but we do know HOW we will get there...on recycled vegetable oil...mixed with diesel of course.

We can run the truck on 20% veggie oil mixed with the regular diesel for now. As the temperature gets warmer, we can start increasing the percentage of oil that we can add to the tank, eventually saving up to 60% on fuel!

Does it stink, you may ask? Not too bad, actually. This first batch we picked up from a Thai food restaurant and it was actually pretty clean to start with. I have a feeling that we will run into some chunkier blends as we continue up north and have less options for oil collection.

This is basically a work in progress, and if all goes according to plan, we will be saving huge on fuel and emissions! This is something I've always wanted to do, so I'm pretty excited about it. I just hope it doesn't stuff up the engine! I wouldn't want to be stuck in the 100+ degree Outback with a dead motor! Wish us luck...

I'm a damn hippie, aren't I?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Screw strawberries...what now?

Good question. I've been asking myself the same one for almost a week now. The strawberry situation turned out to be more boring than watching paint dry, and we weren't really making much money at all doing it. Towards the end, I averaged about $12 an hour! I never thought I would miss waitressing so much! I found myself dreaming about other jobs I could be doing, while dancing to my iPod and packing as many strawberries as I could as fast as possible. It was okay for a couple of weeks, but I think all in all, I actually got dumber from packing and picking strawberries. It was nice having all you can eat strawberries around all the time. We made some pretty darn good products including cheesecake, stewed strawberries for our cereal in the morning, and of course, strawberry banana shakes! Believe it or not, I actually still love strawberries (or strawbs as they call 'em in the industry!) but I certainly won't be picking or packing them again. There is one thing that is good about doing these types of jobs, you certainly figure out what you don't want to do with your life, and it gives you a bit of a kick in the pants to get motivated. That being said, now I will totally contradict myself:

So what now? Well, the initial idea was to head across the country and try to get a job in the mining towns, which has turned out to be a bit more of a lengthy process than we had planned. Basically, it seems as though a job in the mining towns wouldn't be feasible until the end of September, or even later depending on which one we would work at. I'm not ruling it out at all, in fact, I hope it does work out because it would mean really good money, but as of right now, I'm not quite sure how the cards are going to fall. If the mining town doesn't work out, I think Mick and I will be traveling to the Northern Territory, and picking Mangoes for a couple of months. You're meant to make pretty good money doing it, nearly $2000 a week if you are good at it, but I'd even be happy to make $1000 a week! If that is the case, I'll have a good chunk to keep traveling on (including getting home for at least Christmas...don't worry).

So, that's it in a nutshell (I feel like I should say: "that's it in a strawberry punnet", but that's too cheesy, but, I guess I just said it anyways!) I think we're headed to pack Mandarins with our friends from Italy. They live in the Alps in the winter and work as ski instructors and are traveling for their summer. We worked the strawberry fields together, and they've headed off to pick Mandarins, so I think we'll follow suit, at least for a couple of weeks, and see what happens. Fruit picking for a couple weeks, and traveling for a couple of weeks seems like the adventure cycle that I'm bound for, at least until we hear from the mining jobs. It seems to be my mantra these days, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

Confused? Me too! I guess I should embrace these times of uncertainty. There are so few surprises in life, at least in most people's lives! Not mine lately!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Back to Work...

Well, it's been almost 3 months since I had a job now, and the funds are running thin, which means, you guessed it! Back to work. I think I'm ready though. It's been so nice to just hang out and catch up with friends and family on the Internet and by phone for the past 2 weeks. I've had a lot of time to think about how much I miss my friends and family. My aim is to try to get home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and get to California in between the two holidays! Yay!

No, I won't be planting trees again (thank God!) but I will be doing another manual labor job. This one at least sounds a bit more romantic. I'll be picking strawberries in northern Queensland on the Sunshine Coast! It's back-breaking work, and I'll be bending over all day just like the tree planting, but I don't think it will be so bad...plus, I love strawberries! I have a feeling that might change in a couple of weeks. I think it will be a good experience to work on a fruit farm though. It'll probably only last a couple of weeks, and then Mick and I will have enough money to drive across the country to Western Australia...on Vegetable Oil! I'll write a blog about that once the idea develops a bit more, but as of right now, it's a possibility for sure!

I'm not saying I have an exact plan yet, but something along the lines of this is what I'm hoping for: Strawberries for a couple weeks, drive across Australia (taking the Northern route) for a couple of weeks, and then work in a mining town making big bucks for a couple of months. By the end of it all, I should have enough money to come home, visit friends, and travel again! I know, you think I'm crazy, I've heard that before!

Errrr, strawberries.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Missing Friends...

"I know that if I had nothing, in you all I possess friends who would do everything for me. And you know that in me you possess a friend who will help you in every way.
We are looking at God in one another. It is the most beautiful relationship."
Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda

Monday, July 21, 2008

Part 2: Nyung Nyung Island

After trekking through the jungle for 7 days, I must say that I was really looking forward to some beach time. The thought of being on the beach with access to crystal clear turquoise water, vibrantly colored coral and endless coconut trees sounded just about right. This, however, wasn't your typical island getaway. There were no pina coladas with decorative little umbrellas, no restaurants boasting fresh seafood, there wasn't even a beach chair in sight...again, exactly what I expected.

When we asked our trekking guide whom we left behind for this leg of the trip what life would be like on Nyang Nyang island, he had some simple advice for us, "Don't expect there to be anything there. If there's something you want or need, you have to bring it with you". Fair enough. We came prepared. In fact, we decided to bring something more than food, water, medical kit and washing supplies with us to the island. We brought a local 20 year-old named Gejeng.

Gejeng was with us on the trek, and we stayed at his clan's house for a night. His uncle was the man with the golden teeth, the Shaman who showed us how to make arrow poison. Gejeng actually ended up doing almost all of the work (to our disappointment, our guide turned out to be more of a finger-pointer than a finger-lifter) on the trek. Throughout the entirety of the trek, Gejeng served as chef, cleaner, porter, and even interpreter. We felt much closer to him than or guide in fact. Unfortunately, Gejang did not get a cut of the money that we paid to our guide (as we found out later). Our guide had taken advantage of this poor local's services. Once we learned what was going on, we knew we had to do something about it, so we invited Gejeng to join us on our trip to Nyang Nyang which he desperately wanted to visit. You see, for him and many other aspiring guides a bit of money or a foreign friend with a bit of money is needed to help them come even close to starting up a business. Even though Gejeng and his family live just one island over from Nyang Nyang, without the help of a foreigner, he would probably never visit the small surfing island, which holds a lot of potential business for him. We knew that paying his way to get him over there, and allowing him to hang with us would be more beneficial than just offering him money, and besides, we really enjoyed his company. We decided that we'd ask him to help us cook, and we would in turn feed him, entertain him, and even pay him a bit. He graciously agreed, and hopped in the "speedboat" with us on our way to Nyang Nyang. What a great call that was!

The boat ride from the main island of Sieberut to the tiny island of Nyang Nyang is a bit sketchy if you don't have a big boat or if you are on a budget. For us all of the above were true. We ended up as 5 people including the "captain" and the "skipper" in a dug out canoe with 15hp on the back crossing the open sea for 3 hours. In addition to the fact that we were in a boat that I would have deemed completely unsea-worthy before my visits to Asia, we also were getting started a bit late. The tide was still high, but the winds had picked up quite a bit with the afternoon sun. Within 5 seconds of boating, we were all completely soaked in salt water. With every (frequent) wave, we must have taken a half a gallon of sea water on board. Gejeng nervously bailed the entire 3 hours. I think it was his second time on the ocean, and he seemed a bit uncomfortable with the situation. When finally made it to land, we decided we weren't quite wet enough, and the three of us jumped fully clothed into the warm bath temperature water.

We pulled the boat onto shore, and carried our backpacks and numerous boxes of food across the immaculate white sand to the bungalow in front of the patch of sand we pulled up on. This was "Bidet's Place". It actually lacks a proper name, but any surfer who has ever come to Nyang Nyang island certainly knows of Bidet's Place because it is the one and only option for budget accommodation. Unfortunately, today it was full! Bidet's wife Sinti lead us down a sandy path past numerous unfinished bungalows, to a tiny little shack with two doors and a nearly toothless smiling woman sitting on the the front porch. This was Mumma's house, (Bidet's auntie) and she was more than happy to move her bed and belongings from her room on the right to the closet on the left to make room for us. We ended up staying in Mumma's room (which was actually the size of a normal western closet...just big enough for a bed) for 5 nights until something else freed up. The room consisted of a mosquito net, a few shelves, and a lampu (or lantern) and that was it. No electricity, no running water, no lock, no nothing. What the accommodation lacked in amenities however, it made up for in character.

Mumma insisted on doing the cooking (on an open fire stove with pots propped up on two level rocks), and as a result, we shared each and every meal with Mumma. She must have loved eating banana pancakes and coffee with sugar for breakfast! The first two nights, she killed 2 of her 7 chickens to feed us her beautiful chicken curry made with fresh coconut milk that she had grated and squeezed with her bare hands. The next 3 days and nights, she traded her babysitting services for fish enough to feed the 4 of us (me, Mick, Gejeng and herself). We also pitched in by catching our own fish and trading potatoes for fish with locals for most of our meals. Mumma was truly happy to have some company, even if it meant sleeping in the closet for a few nights! Gejeng even told me that I made her miss her daughter! How cute is that?

We were sad (and a bit worried) to tell Mumma that we were moving after spending 5 nights with her. You should have seen her little face when we broke the news, but we needed a bit more space and an escape from the flies that plagued Mumma's porch. She wasn't so good about disposing of the fish and chicken bones, which led to a pretty chronic fly problem. We laughed every day at the "clean up crew" of baby chicks, cats and dogs that came through to fight over the scraps from whatever we cooked. We moved, just 2 bungalows down, and still saw Mumma all the time...it's a small island. She came by every day for a cup of tea with lots of sugar to make sure we were alright, just as all good Mummas do!

Gejeng realized shortly after we arrived on Nyang Nyang that 5 or 6 of his friends that he hadn't seen in a few years had jobs on the island. He immediately began making connections as soon as we set foot on the island. One of his best friends Andy had been working there for a few years, and the two were so happy to see each other, they had back to back sleepover parties!

When I asked Gejeng how old he was, he didn't know his age or even when his birthday was. This is just the way it is in the jungle. Parents don't keep record of when their children are born. The Mentawaians usually just determine how old they are by the number of full moon cycles that have passed. I discovered this fact just in time for the Fourth of July, so I deemed it his birthday! I thought the idea of this jungle-dwelling Mentawaian's birthday being on the 4th of July was hilarious. I spent the afternoon making a Happy Birthday banner for him, and spreading the word about the party that evening. We had Bidet pick up some Tuak and Bintang beer during his boat run to the market and invited all of our new friends over to the main house that night. The turnout was great! There must have been 25 of us all gathered around. We played guitar and sang the night away, complete with Happy Birthday song and all! Gejeng was so happy, he praised me over and over for throwing him a birthday party, he was really appreciative. It was his first, and probably only birthday party.

The rest of our time there was spent surfing, fishing, and sunning. It was beautiful. Oh yeah, we did have a pretty scary earthquake one night. I awoke at 1am to the floor shaking beneath my sleeping body. I of course couldn't help but think that a tsunami might follow it, and had a hard time falling back asleep. No tsunami though, but if there was one, I had a perfect coconut tree picked out to climb!

As I sat on the beach recovering from the birthday party the next day, I began thinking about how I could help Gejeng get his business started. I didn't want to just give money, I wanted to give him some initiative and a competitive edge as a business man at the same time. I sat down with him and drew up a program for him to take tourists trekking and surfing. We figured out prices and logistics for a couple of days, and I am currently in the process of typing it up and adding some photos. When I finish, I will laminate it and send it along with some copies to the post office on the island. We also gave him enough money to buy a cell phone so that he can have a contact number. It sounds a bit ridiculous, I know, but everyone who is a local guide there has one and Gejeng couldn't afford it without our help. He'll have to walk a couple of hours ever few days to check his messages, but it's a start. It feels really good to give someone as kind and generous as Gejeng a chance to make a living for himself. Something as simple as a cell phone could completely change his life (that's an ironic statement, isn't it?) and he deserves a chance.

I probably should have written about the surf, the beach, and the weather (which were all absolutely amazing), and all the other stuff that surfers talk about when they go to stay on Nyang Nyang, but to me, our experiences with Mumma and Gejeng were the highlight of our adventure. They will be the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Nyang Nyang. I am just so amazed that people with so little can give so much.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to the Mentawai Jungle! Part 1: The Trek

I am currently sitting in a town house on top of a hill in beautiful Queensland, Australia fresh out of the shower in a leather lazy-boy sipping a hot cup of Sumatran coffee in clean jeans. I got all the dirt out of my nails, plucked my eyebrows and even took the time to blow-dry my hair. I've been waiting for this feeling. Superficially, I feel back to my good old American self again, but on the inside, I am beginning to wonder just what it is about being back in western "civilization" that just doesn't feel right to me. The scenario from the news last night is playing over and over again in my head. Almost all of Queensland lost cell phone and ATM capabilities for the day when a fiber-optic cable was accidentally cut by a worker from the telephone company. Nearly the whole hour of news consisted of stories relating to the giant inconvenience that was caused by people not being able to communicate or take out money for the entire day. Can you even begin to imagine what most foreigners would do in the middle of a jungle on a remote island off the coast of Sumatra with no electricity? It really makes me second-guess giving money to my new Mentawai friend Gejang to buy a cell phone (which he probably doesn't even know how to use) to start up his trek guiding business...

Anyway, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I can possibly condense the events of the last 3 weeks into a sensible, entertaining blog without losing the interest of my readers. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to explain such profound experiences in a way that does justice to the place of travel. I'm still stumped, but I have determined that I need to try to pick out the highlights and tell a few stories in order to even begin to give you the gist of what life was like in the Mentawai Islands. All up, we spent 19 days in the Mentawai Islands. The first 8 were spent trekking on the largest island, and the remainder were spent on the tiny world-class wave island of Nyung-Nyung.

I must begin with saying that there are so many Mentawai traditions, social customs and things that are considered "normal" in their culture that differ so much from life on mainland Sumatra and of course, in the west. Spending extended periods of time in places like these, you begin to forget what modern conveniences you even miss, and really question whether we even need half the things we have! You get used to eating rice, ferns, noodles, tree pulp, coconuts and tiny bone-in whole fish for every meal. You learn to train your thigh muscles to squat in the jungle or over a hole in the ground. You wake up every morning to the crow of a rooster, and live among various domestic pigs, chickens, cats and dogs that don't look very healthy. You wash your dishes in the river with sand, take a shower with a bucket of water deemed clean enough for washing, but not for drinking. You are happy to boil your drinking water, offer everything you eat to the locals, and fish with complicated hand-lines. All of this becomes like second nature, but even more impressive is that for these people, it's first nature. You begin to lose grip of what life was like in your "civilized" culture and start to truly focus on and become quite comfortable with the bare essentials. You even begin to challenge yourself to see how little you can really get by with...and that's where it all begins.

We started by taking a 9 hour overnight ferry from Padang, Mainland Sumatra to Siberut, the largest island in the Mentawais. The ferry was overloaded with cargo (you guessed it, live animals, petrol, food, goods, everything) and of course people. We paid an extra $2 to get a cabin room while the locals crowded into any open deck space available. At bedtime, the deck of the boat looked like something out of a war scene, with dirty brown bodies in tattered clothes sprawled in each and every crevice of the floor. This made late-night bathroom visits a bit of n obstacle course with the boat swaying to and fro. Once we arrived on the island the next morning, we began our jungle trekking excursion.

The adventure started with a 3 hour trip up the river in a motorized (15hp) dug-out canoe, or "speed boat" as the Indonesians proudly call it, filled with 7 people and all of our cargo (food for 7 days, and the belongings of 7 people). It is almost mandatory that the Mentatwaians have at least one canoe for the entire family. It is an absolute necessity for retrieving food and goods from the shops that are sparsely located along the river. The men in the family are usually the ones who build the boats, made from a hollowed out tree. This is a very time-consuming matter as the entire thing is carved by hand with a home-made axe. You are considered among the wealthy if you are fortunate enough to have a motor to attach to the back of your canoe, and you can make a bit of money off the locals and tourists if you do. This man must have been nearly 70 years old, and pretty feeble, and he was just chipping away at this thing for hours diligently. His precision with his axe and attention to detail were truly commendable!

Arriving at the first house in the middle of the jungle was, needless to say, shocking. It was however almost exactly what I had expected. The traditional houses of the Mentawais are split up into sections as small as 3 and as large as about 6 from front to back. Each section serves it's purpose: the back room is usually where the family sleeps and the Sagu (the tree that they eat) is prepared, while the middle and front rooms seem to be reserved for entertaining, also cooking and creative space. The houses are made up of wood found only in the jungle, and a ceremony must be held before and after the house is built. The first ceremony is to gain permission from the spirits (the people are Animists which means they believe that everything has a soul) to cut the trees down that they need to build the house. The second is held once the house is completed. The housewarming is a ceremony that includes the sacrificing of pigs and chickens in order to give a blessing to the house so that all the souls of the trees can live together in harmony, thereby allowing the "clan" that lives in the house to also live in harmony. If this ceremony is not held, bad spirits will haunt the house for eternity.

The front entryway of the house is adorned by sacrificed pig-skulls facing inwards honoring the soul of the ceremonial pigs. The skulls of feral animals such as monkeys are displayed in the middle room facing out to allow thier spirits to return to the jungle. The whole skull thing seems pretty creepy, but it's actually quite beautiful. The Mentawaians honor the soul of everything they kill, and they never kill without good reason and permission from the spirits.
The people themselves are also quite interesting. All of the men and women that we stayed with are still living the traditional way in the traditional style. A lot of the men are Shaman, or medicine men, and they are highly respected in the community. The Shaman men and their wives (or most of them) have tribal line tattoos all over their bodies, including on their faces and file their teeth. I'm told that the filing is to help promote dental hygiene. I guess they figure less stuff can get stick between their teeth, but it also makes them look pretty mean, which they are not...anymore that is. Your impression of them might be quite different if you had visited this place just 100 years ago when they were still head hunters! The man in the above left picture has created a set of "golden teeth" to replace his missing ones. The men still wear loincloths that cover only their frontal privates and wrap around the back in a thong-like fashion. I never found out what it was like to go to the bathroom for them, but I can imagine it wouldn't be very easy! The women sometimes still walk around topless and have a sarong tied around their waist and have a collection of orange and yellow beads (a rather new fashion custom) strung around their necks. The men also wear beads, but usually multicolored ones. When they leave the house, both the men and women have traditional beaded head-dresses that they wear as well.

The Mentawaians are hunters and gatherers to this day. They hand make all of their tools out of indigenous materials. They use hand made bows and arrows coated in homemade poison for hunting. Mick got to follow the with the man with the golden teeth to find the necessary ingredients for the poison recipe. They brought back numerous poisonous plants and roots, extremely hot chilies and something else that seemed to be very important, but was kept a secret. Next we got to watch the Shaman's process of squeezing everything in his homemade press and painting his arrows with the poison! The women of course are also quite crafty. They crochet nets for fishing (which is a pretty lengthy process), which reminds me of a hilarious story:

Our guide asked me if I'd like to go fishing with the local women in the traditional way. I of course responded with an enthusiastic "yes" and before I knew it, I was following a barefoot pregnant woman through the jungle looking for banana leaves to make a "fishing skirt" out of. Once she spotted the tree she wanted to climb to obtain the leaf, she told me that I'd better "wait here, danger!" while she retrieved our skirt material...that's right, I said pregnant, and no less than 6 months so at that! But that's not the funny part. When we got back to the house, one of the older women motioned for me to follow her to the back of the house where they were preparing for fishing. I was keen for a fish because I thought I would surely be able to catch something, since I considered myself a bit of an expert after having spent so much time fishing in Australia in the past few months. She held up the banana leaf skirt and motioned for me to take off my shorts. I didn't have any undies or a bathing suit on (it's difficult to wash things in the jungle) so I was obviously pretty reluctant to drop my drawers. Her body language insisted that it was necessary that I remove my britches, so, embarrassingly, I did. I got her to hold the skirt around me while I did it so the men inside the house couldn't catch a glimpse of my western nether-region. Once the skirt was tied on, I was relieved. At least nobody could see anything, and it didn't feel that intrusive be naked beneath the leaf, it was kinda cool actually. Then she told me to take of my shirt...once again, no undergarments. Now this was just pushing it too far, but what could I do? I couldn't say no! That would be utterly insulting! If they were going to do it, and I was going to join them, then I would have to step it up and respect their cultural tradition. They're just boobs anyway, it's nothing they'd never seen before. So, I pulled off my top. The woman left and began dressing herself for the fishing outing, leaving me standing naked, save the banana leaf skirt, on the back porch of a Mentawai house in the middle of the jungle. I was surrounded by pigs, chicken, children and Shaman (still inside the house) covering my breasts with a nervous look on my bright red face. I must have stood there for 4 or 5 minutes incredibly uncomfortable wondering when they were going to come get me. I was just hoping to God that I wouldn't have to walk through the house to find the women. When I finally looked back through the door, I saw all the women dressed in their banana leaf skirts with a tee shirt and sarong on underneath! Wait a second here...were they playing a joke on me? Maybe they just assumed that I would want to do it the traditional way, the way that they USED to do it...

Relieved, I quickly pulled back on my shirt, ran into the house and retrieved my bathing suit top and bottoms and put them on under my skirt. Okay, NOW I can go fishing... This was a different type of fishing. We fished with nets and waded around tree roots to catch the teeniest tiniest fish I've ever seen, and I didn't even catch anything! Another humbling experience!

Most of our days trekking in the jungle went something like this: You wake up and have a breakfast of usually banana and/or coconut pancakes or an omelet. All days except one, we trekked for about 3-4 hours through dense jungle. The ground was almost always muddy, and more often than not, you are using all of your concentration on walking on thin, slippery logs that line the track from village to village. It was more mentally challenging than physically! Most of the locals, (including our darling guide-to-be Gejang above) do it all barefoot. I had a hard time doing it in sneakers, especially when we were crossing over a slippery muddy log that was 3 or 4 feet above water! On our last day of trekking, it rained so hard that all of the jungle trails were completely flooded. We were basically walking (with our backpacks) in water up to our knees almost the entire day...I must admit, I kinda liked it! I've always imagined myself in that situation. Perhaps it was a premonition, but trekking through the lush green jungle in the pouring rain seemed perfect to me at the time.

After trekking, we'd usually arrive at a local house in the late afternoon. After tea and lunch, we'd relax and observe the locals going about their everyday chores which included processing Sagu (a local tree that they eat the pulp of), widdleing nails for building, crocheting, cooking, and sometimes hunting and fishing. The evenings were also a really good chance to spend some time with the children, which I did a lot of. We made masks, colored, and played games. We even taught the locals how to make the coconut leaf hats that we had learned how to make in Java. They were really excited to learn! Each place we stayed at seemed to have an activity associated with it. For example, we got to go see the making of a dug-out canoe, fishing, making poison, Sagu processing, you can even get a tattoo if you want to! Don't worry, I didn't get one!

Each night after dinner, you usually sit around and listen to the locals chat. It's a big event when they have tourists as guests. It seems as though everyone in a 3 hour radius pretty much knows that there are Westerners with cigarettes in the area and they come one after another to pilfer the goods, which means most evenings were a celebration of sorts. Oh, how I wish I knew what they were talking about half the time. Our guide would occasionally translate for us, but not often. When he did, he would usually tell us that the locals were talking about "gossip" regarding others in the village or their pigs who had gotten into some mischief. One good story was about how the man with the golden teeth's dog was eating the baby pigs. You can't blame the poor thing. After all, his job as a hunting apprentice is to round up the animals. His punishment was pretty steep as you can see. This was so he can't chase after the pigs anymore!

There are so many other stories I could tell about eating deer on the floor with the locals, watching a Shaman perform "magic" and watching our guide select and kill a chicken to make curry with (they burn the feathers off a whole chicken over an open fire) that would take days to write and hours for you to read. I'll save some of that stuff to tell you in person. I've got plenty more photos as well that I will post to a website for anyone who is interested.

The whole experience of trekking through the jungle on a remote island off the coast of Sumatra is pretty much all it's cracked up to be. These are corners of the world that most westerners don't ever have a chance to explore, and I feel pretty damn lucky to have had the opportunity to live like the locals. I also am happy to have added some survival techniques to my repitoire. If I ever need to make poison arrows, catch my dinner, or de-feather a chicken, I know how.

Now back to my (cold) cup of coffee...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Visa Run...Success!

Whew. After partying, puking all day, and sleeping on the most uncomfortable bed ever for 3 nights, I was ready for a shower and a comfy bed. Oh, by the way, we found out that our visas had expired a day sooner than we thought, so we needed to get the hell outta Dodge! We booked our flight to Malaysia a few weeks earlier and had neglected to realize that our 30 days was up on the 19th, not the 20th. Whoops. Nothing a little $20 can't fix. It turned out to be no problem at all. I did have my doubts though...

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia early on Friday morning. After a shower and a nap, we jumped on the Monorail for a great view of the city. KL boasts that they are home to some of Asias biggest things. The twin towers of KL were the biggest in the world at the time of completion in 1980 and they have the biggest mall I have ever seen. We spent all day on Saturday in the mall and didn't buy anything except food, Imax tickets and candy!) The thing has 10 floors, an indoor theme park complete with roller coaster, and the biggest movie theater in SE Asia. KL is a pretty upscale, really clean city that is competing with Singapore for the titles of biggest, strongest and best in Asia. There is a large Indian population there as well, which made for some interesting meals as well.

Though KL was a quick stop-over in order to renew our visas, I'm glad i got to check it out. It served as a good contrast to the experience that we are about to embark on...10 days in the jungle as far away from civilization as you can get in Indonesia.

Tomorrow we head out on the over-night boat to the Mentawai Islands, which are just off the coast of West Sumatra from Padang. We have organized a 10 day trek with Ed (from Bukittingi) who has been taking tourists there for years, and has a wife there as well. He claims that it is the most remote trek we will ever do, no matter where we travel in the world, and I believe him. I can't wait to see what the next 10 days brings. I've read reviews from other travelers, and I really think I am in for the time of my life. We are fully prepared, and should be just fine, although there is a threat of Malaria there. We have been taking malaria tablets for a few weeks now, so we shouldn't have a problem. The people of the Metawais are very primitive and are one of the few primitive peoples in Asia still living the way they did hundreds of years ago. I plan on writing a really in-depth essay including pictures about it for anyone who is interested.

So, with that, I will be out of contact for at least 2 weeks. I will certainly write when I have the chance. Please keep me in your thoughts and send some good positive energy to this side of the world for me. I can't wait to tell you all about it!


Reggae in Indonesia...with Cinta Cinta!

In the last 6 days, I've had some very different experiences, so much so that, once again, I need to split them up into two blogs. First things first.

From Bukittingi, we got directions from a local guy names Ed (who will also be our guide on our 10 day jungle trek in the Mentawais) to his friend Teddy's (not-so) brand new guesthouse in a fairly remote part of Western Sumatra. The selling point about staying at Teddy's place was that we would be the first Westerners to stay there, so naturally, we were in! As I explained in my last blog, the place also has a surf break or 2 that haven't ever been surfed. This also means that the village has rarely seen a foreigner (maybe even never) and have certainly never seen a surfer before. I think that pretty much sets the scene.

So we arrive at the bus station in the pouring rain, and manage to explain (with the name written on a piece of paper) where our final destination would be. We got on the right local bus, and headed 4 hours west to Muaro Binguang also known as Teddy's Place. When we arrived at the bus stop, we were greeted with looks of sheer confusion. Especially when Mick pulled his surfboard off the roof. When Teddy came over and greeted us, he offered a warm, firm handshake. Teddy didn't look like most other Indonesians. He had really nice curly shoulder-length hair, a small face and a very genuine smile and just seemed so happy to receive us. We knew right at that moment that we would become good friends with Teddy.

As we walked over to his motorbike, he explained to us that we still had another hour or so ride until we got the house...and, yes, it's still pouring rain. So, Mick hopped on the back of Teddy's bike with his surfboard under his arm, and I jumped on the back of Teddy's friend's bike and we were off. Right away, I noticed that road was really sketchy. It was just a mess of potholes and dirt speed bumps, which given my past experience, made me very nervous. I clenched the shoulders of my driver and asked him to please "Hati Hati" (be careful). He smiled, and laughed a bit, and continued on very slowly, which eased my mind a bit. Just as I started to realize that we were going too slow to do any real harm, I noticed that Mick and Teddy had turned off, and we continued on straight. We were a bit ahead of them, so I simply couldn't oppose...great. Now I am on the back of a motorbike with a stranger going down a dodgy road in the dark and it's friggin' raining cats and dogs I can't communicate with the driver who doesn't speak a lick of English. I sigh, and ask internally what I had gotten myself into this time. Every bad thought you could imagine went through my head, and I tried not to panic. I kept looking back and looking back, and still, no sign of them.

After about 15 minutes or so, I saw a headlight in the distance. Then I heard Mick laugh. Ahhh, I relaxed my jaw and thigh muscles, and shot an angry look at the two of them. "You Okay Krissy" asked Teddy? "Yeah, I was getting worried" I replied (that was obviously a tremendous understatement. Turns out, the two of them had stopped to retrieve the very thing that would dictate the happenings of the rest of our stay at Muaro Binguang...TUAC!

Tuac is a fermented coconut wine, that has a serious knack for creeping up on you, and is the local drink of choice (probably because it's so cheap!) When we arrived at the house, there were 2 other foreigners there already! They had arrived just 1 hour before us (damn it!) but they were excellent company. Carlos (from Spain) and Pedro (from Portugal) greeted us with warm and loud salutations. We all sat around, and it began. Out came the first pitcher of Tuac, and it didn't go down so smooth. It's really hard to describe the taste of it, but Tuac smell-tastes kind of like rotting something. I guess it's fruit, but that doesn't do it justice. Let's just say, it ain't that pleasant. After the second one, it's not so bad though....until you have too many. After many-a-glass of Tuac, we realized that the house we were staying in was home to an Indonesian Reggae band named Cinta Cinta. The guitars and percussion instruments came out not too long after our 2nd glass, and it was a good old fashioned jam session! Me on harmonica, Teddy on reggae vocals, Mick on the Djembe and the other guys on percussion and guitar. What a blast...and these guys were really good!

It's hard to make this long story short, but I will sure try. The next morning, we all went to the beach to watch the maiden surf voyage. We had to go 3 at a time because you have to take a hollowed out canoe across the lagoon for about a half hour and then walk to the surf about 20 minutes from there. A local family watched as I swam in the water and Mick caught a few small waves. They were just taken aback. They didn't quite know what to think of these two whities splashing around in the water. They were silenced when Mick stood up and carved a turn in the first wave. Within a half hour, all the kids were in the water with me, and they were all cheering Mick on. Talk about an ice-breaker!

That afternoon, we went clamming in the lagoon with 3 other local guys. Ori, who is also in the band and lives at the house and two of his friends showed us how to do it, and we emerged with enough shellfish to feed an army! After a sunset swim, we waded back over to the house where the gang was waiting for us to take us to a wedding rehearsal...I know, crazy day huh? It just gets better...

We arrive at the house of the wedding rehearsal an hour later to discover that we are pretty much the guests of honor. Teddy and the band agreed to play (in a very casual style) at the celebration through a friend. Before the music, we are all invited into the brides home, and are shown to the dinning room. This is not your typical dining room, it's actually the very room that the ceremony will take place in tomorrow. It is clad in gold and red, and there is a throne fit for a king and queen at the center. On the floor lies an amazing feast to be enjoyed by us with the accompaniment of the groom. We all sit on the floor Asia style, and are asked to begin. There were so many dishes to choose from, and a heap of rice of course as is tradition. I sampled some non-threatening dishes, and tried to be as polite as possible when the groom asked if I wanted to try the traditional dish. Then I made the mistake of asking what it was...Goat heart. How could I say no to the groom? So, I did it. Yuk. And I payed for it the whole next day.

The rest of the night was comprised of, you guessed it, Tuac and music. It made for a really fun celebration, and as I was later told, the first of it's kind. Cinta Cinta, which is the name of the band, plays Reggae, a genre of music that is not really recognized by most Indonesians. Of course, the loved it (despite the old-school men who just wanted to hear something they knew...universal). As I cheersed with my neighbor, I looked around and noticed that I was the only girl at this celebration. Perfect. I can only imagine what they must have thought of me! So funny. We had a grand old time, drank way too much, and got a ride home in the flat bed of a local's truck. It was a bumpy ride on the same road we had come in on, and I was quick to bed when we got back, already beginning to feel the negative effect of the Tuac.

The next morning, I was sick as a dog...all day long. I think it was the combination of Tuac an Goat Heart that did it. I stayed in bed pretty much all day, and the men of the house took good care of me feeding me Honey ginger tea and antacid tablets. The next morning, I felt fine, thank god, because we had to leave.

That's the really quick version of the story. I wish I could go into detail about each of the people that I became friends with and how much of an effect the band, and the ideas behind their music had on me. I had a really special experience at Muaro Binguang. I've got some photos that I will post later that might help you get the picture.

Tuac Oi Oi Oi Oi, (Tuac, my my my)
Tuac Oi Oi Oi Oi, (repeat)
Tiga Ribu, (30 cents)
Hagi Satu Bottle (it costs for one bottle)

That's the song of the time. I don't think I'll ever drink Tuac again...unless, of course, I have to!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Indonesian Nuances..FUNNY ONE!

This is one of my favorite things to write about. When you travel, you just come across so many things that seem strange to you, but are just a part of everyday life in the countries you travel in. Here in Indonesia, there are many customs that are different to the rest of Asia, and many others that carry over from Thailand and Vietnam.

One that seems to be pretty standard across the Asian board is traveling in local buses. For example, whether it is a mini-bus, or a large local bus, they always fit as many people as humanly possible into the thing. What I mean is that the number of seats on the bus does not, by any means, equal the number of passengers. Sometimes it's doubled leaving people sitting on laps, floors, even rooftops of these buses...not so safe, or easy for large westerners with long legs. It does, however always make for an entertaining trip every time. Even when you think they can't possible fit another body in there, they do. You get pretty up close and personal with your neighbor!

This next one only occurs in Indonesia (thank God). As you know by now, there is quite a large population of Muslims here in Indo. Well, Muslims are very dedicated to their religion. So much so that they are expected to pray 5 times a day starting at 4 a.m. It all kicks off with blaring intercoms located everywhere (and I mean everywhere, even in Harau Valley) with recorded voices chanting for an hour and a half. As you can imagine, when searching for a place to stay, the first thing you look for is the nearest intercom-bearing Mosque. The place I'm currently staying at is right next door to one. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep this morning. That's just the beginning. Remember, I said they pray 5 times a day, which means, there are prayer places sprawled across the city and countryside. The funny part is where you find them sometimes. Two of my favorite "Mushollas" so far have been in the gas station and the airport. The gas station one is hilarious. The big illuminated sign outside reads (in Bahasa): Petrol, Snacks, Drinks, Toilet, Musholla (prayer room). The Jakarta airport one was actually pretty depressing. It was just a glassed off 20 foot long area with a brick wall. 6 people were crammed in there with their shoes off praying to a bunch of brick...I guess it doesn't matter where it is for the Muslims. Just as long as they can fulfill their duty.

Another good one that again spans across Asia, is that there doesn't seem to be a driving or smoking age. Every boy here smokes and drives. I've been the passenger in a small local (short-distance) bus with a driver as young as 10 smoking a cigarette and blasting American Pop-Rock.

Oh, this one is hilarious. Did you know that Indonesia has Dunkin Donuts? Yep, and KFC too...everywhere! We don't even have Dunks in California, and it's made its way all the way to Indonesia! Weird. The other funny thing was that when we flew from Java to Sumatra, everyone was bringing huge boxes of doughnuts to their loved ones!

Speaking of food, the local food here in Indonesia is a cultural experience all in its own. Remember how mom used to always tell you not to eat with your hands? Exactly the opposite here, in fact, it's encouraged! This is a little sketchy sometimes because, much like India, Indonesia has a "food hand" and a "poop hand". Left is poop, right is food, and don't mix 'em up or else you'll come down with a swift case of Hepatitis. You may want to wash your hands after shaking with a local too, you just never know. Anyways, the food. So they serve you a huge heaping bowl of white rice and anywhere from 5 to 25 plates of various dishes to flavour your rice with. You then dip your right hand into a bowl of water, ball up a bit of rice and mix it with your choice of tasty (and sometimes really spicy) Indonsian cuisine. It's usually something along the lines of a curry or a fried fish, chicken or beef dish. It's actually quite good, and really fun in a rebellious kind of way!

The markets in all of Asia are quite impressive as well. The good ones have everything, and I mean, everything! From live chickens and rotting fish, to hand made jewlery, clothing, jilbabs (Muslim head coverings) of every color and woodcarvings, you can usually find it all in one small, congested series of corridors that seems to be never ending. Good luck finding your way out of these markets. Most of the vendors sell almost exactly the same thing in every shop. Sometimes they are divided up into departments, and other times, not so much. Most of it is junk, but you can find a diamond in the rough sometimes. Basically, you have to know exactly what you are after to make it worth your while.

My favorite Indonesian nuance is the greeting that you get in Indonesia. Whether you are male or female, young or old, there is one sweet greeting that lets you know that you are in Indo. "Hello Mister". You'll hear it 20, 30, 40 times a day, and it gets old real fast. I like responding back with the same "Hello Mister" in a high pitched voice. That seems to get a laugh...

I'll keep em comin'!

Harau Valley...A.K.A. Ewok Villages

Harau Valley was just what the doctor ordered! We were getting pretty sick of the hub-bub of city life (which I write about in my next blog titled "Nuances") and needed to make a b-line for a quieter, more relaxing atmosphere.

Harau Valley is located about an hour to the north of Bukittingi and is just breathtaking. To get there was a bit of a mission, I must say. 4 buses, and a side-car motor-taxi later, we arrived in what I think was ultimate paradise.

The valley itself sits beneath 600 foot limestone cliffs (ideal for rock-climbing) and lush rice paddies. There is only one home stay in the whole valley, appropriately named "Echo Homestay". In the morning, the valley is filled with the sounds of whooping Gibbons (the black monkeys with that cool little bubble under their chin) and peaceful bird calls. Not many tourists find their way to Harau, which made it even more perfectly relaxing. Days were spent cruising around taking in the amazing scenery on the back of a motorbike, doing yoga in the musholla (make-shift mosque), floating in the pool of a waterfall watching local climbers, children and monkeys scale the cliffs with no ropes and bare feet and playing chess with the locals in the evening. We did a really beautiful trek to the top of the cliffs (despite my excruciating cramps) with our friend and local guide Ik that we made at Echo. We had some great conversations with him as well about American Politics, and world domination!

The property itself was simply amazing. Traditional Mingkabu (Sumatran) houses are adorned with beautiful soaring rooftops that resemble bull-horns. The guest huts are made of flattened bamboo and come equipped with outdoor bathrooms...perfectly simple.

Three nights there was just the right amount. Feeling quite refreshed and really starting to feel strangely at home here in Indonesia. I've picked up a bit of the language, mostly the numbers and basic greetings and necessities, and can now communicate (a little bit) with the locals. It's not so intimidating

Today we are heading to a friend of a friend's home stay on a beach on the Indian Ocean. We will be the first foreigners to stay there, and Mick might even get to name the un-surfed wave in front! We're told that there is plenty to do including canoeing, fishing, surfing, playing guitar and trekking in the jungle! The owner is really looking forward to having us, so it should be a pretty good way to spend our last few days before we take the flight to Malaysia on Friday to renew our visas (hopefully!)...

Pictures to come, I promise. Nobody has CD Rom drives here, so loading them is a bit of a problem...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Metawais in the Near Future

Well, the boat that we were supposed to take across to the Mentawais cancelled. They changed their schedule, so we can't head over there until after we get back from the visa run to Malaysia. It's too risky to get over there and not know when the return boats will leave, so we figured, we'll just hang around Padang, Sumatera until our flight to Kuala Lumpur on the 20th.

Right now we are in Bukittingi, which is a pretty beautiful mountain, or should I say, Volcano town! Bukittingi is home to Sumatra's most active volcano called Merapi. Don't worry, the last eruption was 30 years ago. Today we hiked through a beautiful canyon to the so-called "silver village" which basically consisted of one house with one guy that makes silver jewelry. A little disappointing, but I gotta say, the hike was great! Last night we saw some traditional martial arts, dance and beautiful music. Quite the performance really!

Today we are off to Harung Valley where we will stay in ewok houses for a couple of nights and trek to some jungle waterfalls. Gibbons (monkeys) are indigenous to the area as well as water buffalo, giant beetles and a few snakes.

You've gotta be a flexible traveler I guess is the moral of the story. Great news though, not only did I get my tax return, but I also got an extra $600 from the federal government! Guess I'll stay in Indo another month! You gotta love it when it works out that way!

Love Love

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pangandaran, My Home in Java

Pangandaran, located on the west coast of central Java, is a VERY special place, and will forever remain in my heart. In July of 2006, Pangandaran was devastated by a 3 meter high Tsunami that tore the beach town and the hearts of it's inhabitants to pieces. An earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale set off the Tsunami that came without ample time to escape. Many did manage to climb to the top of some local buildings or flee to the nearby hills, but still about 550 were killed and nearly 50,000 lost their homes and businesses (many of which were established literally ON the beach catering to tourists). While much of Pangandaran was rebuilt in just a few months, there are still visible signs of the havoc caused just 2 years ago.

The long stretch of beach with 3 excellent surf breaks seems eerily quiet during the week, which makes for an excellent tourist destination. The local economy has suffered tremendously due to the natural disasters and the Bali Bombings of 2004. Tourism is now merely a trickle of what it once was just 5 years ago in this beautiful resort town. As a result, the locals are incredibly helpful and friendly, and with that, we meet Yoga.

As soon as we checked into our amazing hotel room, we headed down to the beach, where we were followed by Yoga, a local surfer/Renaissance man. His intention (as requested by the owner of our hotel) was to inform Mick that the surf is quite dangerous due to the very heavy rip tides. Before Yoga had finished his shpeel, Mick was already paddling for the huge wave that locals had broken many-a-surfboard on. Most of the local don't even surf this spot anymore because they can't afford to repair or buy a new board if theirs breaks.

Mick came down hard as the wave closed out and crashed on him and his board. He came up unscathed, and Yoga and I breathed a sigh of relief. Yoga thought Mick was crazy, and then began our friendship. When Mick came in, he was greeted with a handshake and respect from Yoga for taking such a hard fall. Yoga told us that we needed to meet his Belgian friend David that also liked to surf this spot, but didn't like to go out alone. More on David in a bit.

As we were discussing the awesomeness of the crash, a body boarder came peddling down the beach on his bike with his board and fins in the basket. He immediately greeted Mick with a handshake and said that he too, saw the crash, and wanted to make sure that Mick knew that someone saw it...that it wasn't all for nothing. This fella's name was Darren...and then, there were four. David, Darren, Mick and I.

As i mentioned before, Yoga was quite well-rounded. A 28 year old native Javan, Yoga is very friendly and a pretty hard worker. When he's not surfing the local spots with his surf buddies, he's entertaining tourist by taking them on tours through the National Park, giving surf lessons, renting out his motorbike to pay for his loan, and organizing transportation to and from Pangandaran. Because he was so friendly and his English was so good, we became immediate friends. He really treated us like family the whole time we were there. He took care to make sure that we were happy and had everything that we needed. Yoga introduced us to all of his friends (foreign and local) and showed us all the surf spots. I think he really liked us too, because every day that we spent in P'daran, he was with us. He would come by in the mornings to see what we were up to, and keep in touch all day long to make sure that we could all hang out at night as well. Yoga and I got to have some pretty in-depth conversations about politics, religion and travel as well. I think our conversations got his mind turning as much as it did mine! Yoga became a really good friend, and he is the reason that we made friends with the other two guys, Darren and David.

Darren, or Daz is the Australian body border who we met on the beach the first day. What a special guy. As soon as we met Darren, we knew that we wanted to spend more time with him. His cool, collected and almost adolescent smile was so inviting. We knew immediately that we were on the same wavelength, and hoped that we would become friends. Sure enough, the next day, Darren and Mick went for a surf in the morning together, and had a blast. That evening, I really got to have a great conversation with Darren. He accompanied Mick, Yoga and I to the fish market and we laughed and talked the whole time. The next day, as we were sitting on the beach having a great spiritual conversation, Darren revealed that he studied as a monk for 2 1/2 years in Burma. I knew there was something special about him! He also told us that he had an 8 year old daughter named, brace yourself, Lily. Perfect. We had lots of good times and laughs with Darren, and hope to meet up with him again in Australia.

That leaves David, whom we spent a lot of good quality down time with. David, the one who liked to surf the big waves that Mick did, was very special as well. He was our age, and from Belgium, and had a certain quality about him that makes for and instant attraction. He was very smiley, carefree and patient in conversation. The kind of person who's company you can always welcome, and never get sick of. He taught us how to make hats out of coconut leaves, and did so with so much patience. He accompanied us on all of our adventures in Pangandaran and surfed with Mick and Darren every day as well. I think we may meet back up with him again soon.

I have some great pictures of all of these people, and will do my best to load them on as soon as I get a chance.

From P'daran, we took a bus to Jakarta, and flew straight out from Jakarta, the capital of Java (and also the most populated city in the world), to Padang, Sumatra where I sit now. Today we will take a 15 hour ferry to the Mentawai Islands where there is some of the best surf and trekking in the world. The islands are so remote, that finding accommodation is difficult. We basically have to find someone who looks friendly, and ask if we can stay at their house for the week. Should be interesting, and I should come back with tons of photos and stories. this will surely be the most adventurous part of our trip thus far. If you have a chance, Google the Mentawai Islands, Sumatra.

Ahhh, traveling!