A Travellerspoint blog


Love Wins

Celebrating Galungan in Bali

sunny 23 °C
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It’s a big world
We’re hoping for a big change
We’re broken
In the fading light of a dying sun
We cry for redemption
There is hope...

Keep on dreaming of the day when it all will change
Believe in the end that love wins
If you’re waiting for the time when your sun will shine
Look above, for love wins

-- Robbie Seay

According to a Balinese legend, many years ago there was a king of Bali who was pig-headed (figuratively -- and literally, apparently, though I don’t quite understand that part). In his arrogance, the king declared himself divine, offending the gods. Shiva, the god in the Hindu trinity who represents destruction in the universe’s endless cycle of renewal, sent his lieutenant to bring justice, and after a mighty battle the evil king was overthrown. Good had triumphed over evil, and every year this victory is celebrated in Bali as the holiday Galungan -- one of the two most sacred celebrations in Balinese Hinduism.

After several days of rain that had hampered our plans to strike out into the Balinese countryside, the sun broke through just in time for Wednesday’s celebration of Galungan.

Holiday revellers

All over Ubud, people flooded the streets in their best traditional costumes with a few grains of rice stuck to their foreheads, carrying offerings to the temples and baskets of goodies for their friends and family.

I wouldn’t think a lace blouse over a bustier was “traditional,” but it’s what all the Balinese women were wearing... *shrug*

There were parades of children with noisemakers and dancing dragons. All kinds of hullaballoo.

Kids and noise -- a universal combination

And, of course, tourists doing their best to fit in by wearing their batik sarongs so they could enter the temples.

”Honey, does this sarong make my butt look fat?” “No; do these sneakers make me look like I have chicken legs?”

We had the honor of being invited into the home of the family who ran the restaurant across the street from our hotel. We were welcomed with a banana leaf bowl of wine-soaked rice, and I Wayan Darta, the father, told us the story behind the holiday and invited us into their family shrine to learn how they worship.

Darta and family

Offerings were placed on the altar, and then we were invited to bow five times with our hands held palms together before our heads: once in thanksgiving, once in prayer to the supreme god, once to the sun, once to all the gods, and then once more in thanksgiving.

Bowing in prayer

Now you can debate all day about the theology of general versus unique revelation, blah-blah-blah, but it’s an honor to be invited into someone’s home for a holiday, and the triumph of good over evil is a truth that I believe is universally revealed. And bowing in prayer three times has a nice symmetry with our own beliefs, so this worked out rather nicely for us.

Galungan is also the day for celebration of the marriage of everyone who has wed in the past year, and Darta invited us down the street to meet his nephew Ketut and his bride Komar.

The newlyweds, Ketut and Komar

We spent some time visiting with them, and all the while friends and neighbors were pouring in with baskets of food. Within an hour, the table was ready to collapse.

After a brief walk through the rice fields, we left Ubud in the afternoon for Kuta, wishing that we could stay longer and experience more of this beautiful part of Bali -- Kuta is definitely the ugly side.

Dudes -- surf’s up and our boards are losin’ wax!

This is Indonesia’s answer to Daytona: a nice enough beach despoiled by tattoo parlors and swimwear stores, bars and nightclubs, highrises and sleazy hotels, and more drunk Australians than you can shake a surfboard at.

”I just know there’s a beach around here somewhere...”

But it was close to the airport for the next day’s flight, and it was worth seeing for an evening of slumming.

At the busiest intersection in town is the Memorial Wall to the 2002 bombings that took the lives of over 200 vacationers.

Memories of October 12, 2002

A sobering reminder that while love does win in the end, we are still in the battle to get there.

‘Til then, we’ll keep looking above.

Posted by Bwinky 04:59 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

"How Green Was My Bali"

Rain in the land of fun-in-the-sun

rain 21 °C
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In the Hindu religion there is a concept called Rwa Bineda, or interdependent duality. This is sort of like the yin and yang idea -- for everything there is an equal and necessary opposite: light and darkness, life and death, pleasure and pain, etc. Nowhere have I seen this more played out, fittingly, than in Bali, the primarily Hindu island just off the east coast of Muslim Java.

Bali is world-renowned for its lush natural beauty and its incredibly complex and varied artistic culture. It is equally well-known as party central for surfers and young Australians, and of course it holds a place in our memories for the 2002 bomb blasts in the resort town of Kuta that killed hundreds.

We arrived here three days ago after an excruciating overnight bus trip from Gunung Bromo. It's been cloudy and gray the whole time we've been here, and raining for a lot of it, which is disappointing considering this is such a "vacation paradise." But still, you can't help but be struck by the beauty of the place; it's just incredibly green and nature looks ready to take over any given space at any moment. We are staying in a place called Gusti's Garden Bungalows, set in a river valley full of water gardens. It's spectacular.

Gusti's Garden Bungalows

The town we are staying in, Ubud, is the cultural capitol of the island, and has been a center for painters, sculptors, weavers, dancers and musicians for over a century. It's a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples built with orange plaster that really stands out against the sky, and ornate gray stonework and sculptures of Hindu gods and monsters.

Pura Taman Saraswati, the water temple

Sacred monster statue

On any night of the week, you have your choice of a dozen cultural events -- sacred Legong dance with graceful dancers in fantastic costumes moving to the frenetic beat of gamelan, an orchestra of percussion, or Wayang Kulit, Hindu epic stories played out with ornate leather shadow puppets lit with candles behind a screen.

Legong dancer at the Ubud Palace

The Hindu religion pervades life here in Bali in a fashion that is pretty unique. Every home has a little shrine, and the people make offerings there every morning. They seem to build a shrine everywhere something significant has happened, it seems.

Making an offering

Tomorrow is the Hindu festival Galungan. It celebrates the victory of good over evil, and it's one of the major holidays here, so the whole city is preparing. In each home and all up and down every street, families are building big towers called penjors from a long bamboo branch, wrapped with palm leaf decorations and heads of rice hanging down the length of it. When they're finished, they stand them up in the ground so they hang, lantern-like, in front of their doorways.


Preparing for Galungan

You can't step out your door without almost stepping on little ceremonial offerings left everywhere -- usually a little banana leaf basket with some rice, a flower, and a burning stick of incense. In fact, I bumped into one when jumping out the way of a passing car and burned a hole in the back of the leg of my rather expensive mosquito-repelling travel pants, which would hack me off if it wasn't so funny. I regret that some profane expletives escaped my lips, which is ironic considering it was a sacred object that caused it.

And that kind of sums up the experience here, actually. The hawkers here are more persistant even than in Yogya, and you can't walk down the street without being accosted with offers of taxi rides, motorbike rentals, and batik sarongs. Bali is incredibly beautiful, and it's incredibly for sale. The sacred and the profane, karma and capitalism, beauty and rain.


Posted by Bwinky 23:57 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


Freezing our tushes off . . . on the equator!

sunny 4 °C
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We are leaving Milwaukee because we are just sick to death of being cold. We just can’t take it any more! It’s a fact: we both love being hot. One of the reasons we are loving being in Asia is because it’s so warm here.

Most of the time. Sunrise at the top of an Indonesian mountain, however, is most definitely NOT one of those times!

We left Yogya yesterday morning on a tourist minivan service direct to Gunung Bromo, the famous volcano in the eastern part of Java. We spent 12 hours in a van with six other travellers -- and mind you, this is a trip of only about 400-500km. There is no such thing as a freeway in Java once you get outside of the Jakarta region, and the majority of the trip was on two-lane road.

However, don’t think for minute that a two-lane road means two orderly lines of cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes. Oh no, my friend. We’re in Asia now, and two lanes is plenty for passing -- in both directions -- plus a motorbike lane or two. Our driver, a haggard 60-ish Indonesian guy with a couple of teeth perpetually clenching a kretek (clove cigarette), felt it was his moral duty to overtake any other vehicle brazen enough to get in his way, and make every single passing/passed vehicle (and pedestrian, for that matter) aware of his presence by sounding the horn, not just for a moment, but for as long as they were in the same time zone.

This was, in every sense of the word, an exhausting journey. When we pulled over at a road-side eatery for some nasi goreng (fried rice, which you can get to go in a plastic bag), David and Elise, the very nice French couple who had been sitting next to him in the front seat, said, “We haff to ask eef we can please rotate seats every sree hours or so? We can no longer take seeting up zere weeth him, eet ees too scary!”

But we eventually did make it in one piece to the hotel on the edge of Mount Bromo. Of course, by that time it was dark so we had no idea where exactly we were; we grabbed some dinner and headed to bed, because the wake-up knock would come at 3:30am for the jeep ride up to the top of the next mountain to see the sunrise over the crater.

Getting up at that ungodly hour is tough any time, and especially after a day like that, but throw in a temperature of 40°, and it was pretty hellacious. Or more accurately, arctic, since I think lack of sleep probably intensifies the chill. Let’s just say we’re really glad that we stopped at REI in Houston and picked up some fleece sweaters!

But of course, it was well worth it. Gunung Bromo is a smoking crater resting in a sea of sand and ash in the caldera of a big ancient volcano, with yet an even larger volcano sending out puffs of steam behind it for good measure. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of the scene as the sun rose over the edge of the valley.

Sunrise over Gunung Bromo

Of course, it would be incredible to experience it alone with the beauty of God’s creation, but that’s not remotely possible. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty popular tourist destination, and we hardly had the place to ourselves. There were probably 500 other travellers packed together up at the peak, standing around waiting for the sunrise and jockeying for the best photo position at the rail.

Ah, to be alone...

After the sunrise, we took our jeep down to the bottom of the caldera to hike up to the top of the crater. The scenery on the way down is amazing; you would actually swear you were in Switzerland, not the tropics.

Yodels, anyone?

Once you get to the bottom it’s a moderately challenging hike through the ashy sand and up a steep stairway cut in the rock to get to the top.

Hiking across the sea of volcanic sand

The extremely challenging part is negotiating your way through the hundreds of guys at the bottom wanting to sell you a ride up on their horse. This is a feature at every big tourist site in Indonesia (and probably everywhere else we will be): hawkers. They want to sell you something, anything. It gets really annoying after a while because they are incredibly persistant. No matter how many times you try to politely smile and say ”Tarima kasi, no thank you,” they just keep on following you until they spot another possible mark. I don’t blame them, of course, since I’m a died-in-the-wool capitalist, but it does take the edge off the beauty you’re trying to experience.

Every beautiful thing comes with a price, I guess. You just need to mentally put on your fleece to insulate yourself against the unpleasant part.

Posted by Bwinky 21:40 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


Joggin’ around Jogja, the Indonesian way!

sunny 29 °C
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We have a new friend to introduce, Lutfi Handayani, or Ciluk (chee-LUKE) as she is nicknamed. Ciluk is a 22-year-old student studying English at the University of Yogyakarta, and she and her family hosted us for the three days we spent here. Yogyakarta (used to be Jogjakarta under the Dutch, and that’s how it’s pronounced) is the cultural capitol of the island of Java, and it’s a fascinating city, much more enjoyable than the big and stinky Jakarta. But for all that Yogya has to offer -- and it’s a lot -- by far the most rewarding experience of our visit here was getting to know Ciluk and her parents, and experiencing life with an average Indonesian family.

The Handayanis' kampung

The Handayanis live in a house in a middle-class kampung, or neighborhood, called Jagalan Landoksari (which means “neighborhood of Jagalan Street”) next to the river, across from the main part of downtown Yogya. The main part of their house is about 70 years old, and is built in the traditional Javanese style: four upright pillars holding up a pyramidal tile roof.

Mrs. Handayani's kitchen

The outdoor kitchen is off the main house and is connected to the new part -- their house was damaged in the 2006 earthquake that rocked Yogya, damaging many of the ancient monuments. The new section contains several bedrooms and a mandi, or bathroom (more about that in a moment) around a main room. The construction is completed, but it needs to be painted yet. Things take time here.

Breakfast in the new part of the house

Bathrooms take a little getting used to here. While you still run into the traditional Asian squat toilet here (usually with flies in a holding pattern if it’s at a road-side restaurant), most houses and newly constructed places have western sit-down models. Toilet paper, however, has yet to catch on: all Asian toilets have a hose with a sprayer connected to them. And while showers are becoming more common as well, the traditional Indonesian way to wash up is in a mandi, which is a small tank of water with a scoop.

A mandi

Quite simple: you scoop up some water and dump it over your head, and it exits via a drain in the floor. Once you get the hang of it, it’s rather nice -- especially since the room-temperature water feels great after a day in the hot Indonesian sun.

Ciluk’s father works at a local TV station, and her mother is renowned as the best cook in the kampung, so people often order food from her for special occasions. Her specialty is apeh, which are spongey white sweetcakes. Apeh are traditionally served to guests because they symbolize forgiveness, along with sweet sticky rice, which symbolizes friendship, and coconut milk -- which Ciluk couldn’t remember the reason behind. She has a younger brother named Nur who is in high school.

Mr. H, hard at work on his day off

Like 90% of the Indonesian population, the Handayanis are Muslim. Ciluk serves on several committees at their mosque, which is small and meets in a house for worship, and is currently trying to find property to build. When she graduates from the university, Ciluk hopes to find work in the tourism industry, and hosting visitors through CouchSurfing and showing them around Yogya is good training -- she’s an excellent guide.

"Gitcher motor runnin', get out on the highway..."

The day we arrived, Ciluk and her friend Fransisca showed us around the city on their motorbikes, which are the primary mode of transportation not only for students, but for probably 50% of the population of Indonesia, it would seem. The streets swarm with them, and zipping down the main street, Jalan Malioboro, on the back of one is equal parts exhilaration and terror.


Sisca is from West Kalimantan, in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, and her family are Dayak, the tribal people who traditionally live in longhouses. Like most of Kalimantan, they are Catholic. In both Kalimantan and Yogya, Muslims and Christians get along well, inviting each other over for Christmas and Ramadan celebrations.

The Kraton

Between visits to the Sultan’s palace (yes, Yogya still has a sultan) and the water gardens, we stopped at a warung, or road-side food stand, for some lunch -- in this case gado-gado, a bean sprout and vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce, which turns up in a lot of Indonesian food.

Lunch at a warung

Warungs sprout up all over Indonesia, with several on any given street. The people who run them, mostly women, specialize in a certain dish, but might have several other things on offer, like deep fried tofu in the case of the one we stopped at.

Being huge archaeology buffs, the other highlight of our visit was taking trips to Borobudur, the huge Buddhist temple, and Prambanan, the Hindu temple complex, both of which were built in the 9th century. At Prambanan, they perform a Javanese ballet of the Ramayana, the traditional Hindu epic, that is amazing.

Sunset at the Buddhist temple Borobudur

The Hindu temple Prambanan

Rama and Sita, heroes of the Ramayana Ballet at Prambanan

We also nearly gassed ourselves in the noxious sulfurous smoke at the volcanic Dieng plateau. If there is a Mordor on Earth, this is it. Great fun.

Stinky sulfurous fumes over Dieng

Don't fall in!

But all of that history and natural wonder paled in comparison to making some friends we will not forget.


Posted by Bwinky 04:58 Archived in Indonesia Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Big Durian

Nasi nasi nasi... Nasi goreng...

semi-overcast 31 °C
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As I write this it is 4:22am, and I’m sitting on a train from Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, to Yogyakarta, its spiritual and artistic capital. The train is not exactly luxurious, but not too bad -- we have a reasonably comfortable padded seat, and while it is not air con, there are fans (which have not been running since we left Jakarta) and the breeze from the windows is nice. This train is “bisnis” class; there are much more comfortable “eksekutif” class trains, but they were full and I wasn’t about to pay a scalper 350,000 rupiahs (about $35) for a ticket that cost 200,000 and risk that it wasn’t valid.

But then, there are also the “ekonomi” class trains that are hard benches packed to the gills, so I’ll take the little bit of luxury we got -- anyway, an overnight train ride for only $10 isn’t too bad. We are the only Westerners on this train. There is a family of four in the seat ahead of us, with the mother sitting on the floor so her two little kids can lay down on the bench. A couple rows ahead, a girl in a Muslim headscarf is checking on her cage full of mice. The girl in the seat opposite us, who is dressed in a fashionable jean jacket with a black pattent leather handbag, is busily sending text messages.

The most annoying thing is the vendors who crowd aboard at every major stop. The aisle suddenly fills with people chanting their wares: “Ayam” (chicken), “Es” (crushed ice with coconut milk and syrup), “Dodol” (a caramel-like candy that will pull out fillings), and of course “Nasi Goreng” (fried rice). They make it really hard to sleep, and if they notice you even looking anywhere near them they stick what they’re selling in your face. One keeps chanting “Bap mie, bap mie, bap mie” and I want to say, “Yeah, c’mere and I’ll bop you one, alright...”

Jakarta, the "Big Durian"

Dwight’s driver dropped us off in Jakarta where we intended to catch the train to Yogya yesterday, but as it was full we decided to spend the night at a hostel in the backpackers’ ghetto, a street called Jalan Jaksa. Every major tourist city in Asia has a street like this with cheap hotels, restaurants serving burgers and banana pancakes, travel agencies, and bars with cheap beer that attract a lot of scruffy, dreadlocked Western kids. They’re kind of fun, though the hostels aren’t very nice: our room at the Bloem Steen Homestay, which cost us a whopping $7, was just a bed and a table with a fan, and one tiny window.

Bloem Steen -- good thing we brought mosquito netting!

The shower and toilet were shared with the whole floor and flip-flops are a must. I know that most people would find staying in a place like this totally revolting, and maybe someday we will too, but for now I still enjoy them as long as they don’t feature a bar. If there’s a bar, it always means loud music late into the night and that is where I draw my line.

Jakarta is not exactly an attractive place. It’s a massive city of shiny glass skyscrapers and barely-held-together hovels. It’s called “The Big Durian,” after the Southeast Asian fruit that looks like a spiky watermelon and stinks like rotting flesh. But inside, it has a custardy flesh that some people think is heavenly. I haven’t tried it yet so I have no opinion, but I can see the comparison. We spent the day wandering around Kota, the old Dutch colonial area, looking at colorful Indonesian schooners in the harbor, and sipping iced cappuccino under the ceiling fans at the Cafe Batavia, Jakarta’s original expat bar, feeling very Somerset Maugham-ish.

Kota, the Dutch colonial area

Sunda Kelapa harbor

Sunda Kelapa harbor -- that orange thing is a bajaj, a noisy two-cylinder motor scooter taxi

We also spent some time exploring the tiny back alleys, being chased by laughing kids, and attempted to talk with a friendly woman named Nona who was washing her clothes in a tub under cages of birds. Smiles and “Hello Mister!”s everywhere.

A back street in a kampung -- or neighborhood. Nona is sitting there with her friends.

But a day is about all you can squeeze out of Jakarta, really, and we are off to meet Ciluk and her family, who are hosting us in Yogya.

Posted by Bwinky 20:02 Archived in Indonesia Tagged train_travel Comments (2)

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