Greetings from Indonesia!

Sunday, May 23, 2004
In my last newsletter we were about to board a bus to go visit a giant volcano and crater. The bus was scheduled to arrive at our destination at 2 in the morning… but upon further inspection of our guidebook and lengthy discussions with our Indonesian friend in the row in front of us… we decided not to go. Like many places here, it is not really safe. It’s not an unusual situation, but the bus station is known for being really shifty and we were going to have to wait there until daylight, since that is when the first bus departed to the gunung (volcano). Lucky for us, the bus was headed to Bali, and as it turns out – so were we! As soon as we got to Denpasar’s bus station (Bali’s capital) we took another bus out to the port town. We decided to spend the night there since we had already racked up about 20 hours of traveling time.

In my first newsletter I mentioned that most people had been really nice and very helpful – but unfortunately that was because we were in relatively non-touristy areas. Since then people have done nothing but harass us… trying to sell us everything under the sun… and in Indonesia everything IS under the sun! It was so bad a couple of times that they wouldn’t even tell us which bus was the public bus that we wanted. Nothing was really posted with signs, so we were at their mercy, and they like to charge about a billion times the going rate to tourists. Once we paid a negotiated fare and the other time we just didn’t go!

One of the major reasons we came to Indonesia was to see the Komodo Dragons – the largest monitor lizard in the world. But, keeping in mind some of the transportation issues that we have been having… it seemed like a nightmare to spend 3 days getting somewhere, only to spend two days there. Also, they discontinued the ferry service we were going to have to use for the last leg of the trip… so you have to go fours hours PAST the island and the charter a boat to take you BACK to visit Komodo… and then reverse the trip!

While on the first leg of the three day trip, it just didn’t seem worth going to Komodo, so we abandoned our trip and decided to go to a place called the Gili Islands… and the best part was – we were almost there!

That was an absolutely fantastic decision! We spent 10 nights because we liked it so much. It was like a vacation from traveling! Carla – it was like our trip to Club Med Tahiti last year… except the hotel cost three dollars a night! And, despite the fact that you can walk around the island in less than two hours (including time for two swim breaks and one beverage break) there are great restaurants and a good nightlife. Almost all of the restaurants and bars are all located one little part of the island and the rest is virtually empty except for the village in the center. Other than the tourists only one hundred people live there.

There are no motorized vehicles on the island. There’s not a moped to be found! No engine revving and no fumes. All travel around the island is done by bicycle or horse and buggy (even the trash removal). It’s hardly considered an inconvenience, given that there is only one dirt road around the perimeter anyway! There are also no dogs. This has lead to the proliferation of many, many cats. Apparently, it is considered good luck to feed the cats. No one claims actual ownership of the cats, but they are all very well fed and groomed. A cute little kitten curled up in Rob’s lap one night while we were watching a movie at a bar. That bar was great – they had these Japanese like floor cushions in a semi-private setting with your own TV and DVD player. You could choose from the couple hundred titles they had. Not only are there no vehicles or dogs - there are also no police on the island. Had I been an avid drug user, I would have anticipated the plethora of available drugs on the island… but I’m not, so it never occurred to me! I have never been offered so many drugs in my whole life.

Random Things About Indonesia...

  1. Most Indonesians learn to make kites when they are children.
  2. On buses in Java a group of “professional” musicians will generally climb aboard to play two or three songs and then most passengers will give them a few rupiah. One band included an instrument (worn like a harmonica in front of his mouth) that was a comb nailed to a piece of board.
  3. Tourism has dropped since the World Trade Center bombings in New York, and then dropped even more when the bomb exploded in Bali in 2002. The level of visitors has fallen 75% of what it used to be. I hear that the numbers are headed back up again, but after the visa changes, who can tell!
  4. We met a guy on a ferry whose brother works for the United Nations in Indonesia. His job relates to education and he visits different islands doing whatever he does. The government places education so low on their list of priorities that the UN has to pay the government every time they hold a meeting with them. Also, the UN bought thousands of books to give to schools and they are currently sitting in warehouses unused. The government doesn’t wan to waste their resources distributing them… they say that if the teachers want them, they can come pick them up on their own. But, most teachers don’t know about the books and if they do, they can’t afford to come and get them in the capital city.
  5. In Bali, the beach town of Candidasa was very up and coming and had a beautiful coral reef. So, they started building some big hotels there so they could accommodate more people. In order to get limestone for the concrete to build the new buildings they tore up the coral reef – which contains limestone. The reef acted as a barrier to prevent beach erosion. Without the reef, the beach disappeared. Now there’s no reef and no beach! Apparently they have constructed some large concrete barriers in the water to build the beach back up. I wonder if they used coral for that concrete…
  6. They are Hindu in Bali and make constant offerings of these tiny little banana leaf trays filled with rice, flowers and miscellaneous biodegradable pretty looking stuff. They put them in every doorway, at the crossing of every street, and lots of other places. You have to be careful where you step!
Regards, Alison

Crossing the Equator to Indonesia!

Friday, May 7, 2004
Our plan of taking a short ferry from Malaysia to nearby Sumatra, Indonesia was foiled for many reasons. It is actually the first time since I left to travel 2 years ago that I have had to change my plans due to safety reasons. We wanted to go to the north of the island of Sumatra called Aceh to go to the famous turtle reserve and the best surfing beach in the world, among other things. But, as it turns out, the region of Aceh is under martial law! A place with martial law and mostly Muslims just didn’t seem like the ideal holiday spot, so we skipped it.

Indonesia also changed their visa policy 3 months ago. It used to be that they were quite liberal; you could arrive for 3 months at a time and enter and enter by land, sea or air at any one of their borders. The new rule (in addition to levying a fee) is that you can stay only for one month and you "probably" have to enter and exit from the same place. I say probably because virtually NO RULES have been issued by the government, so rulings have been arbitrary and based on the mood of the border guards. We have had to follow the updates from other travelers on an internet message board. Some people have been turned down when trying to leave the country - border patrol saying that they have to go back where the came from. Others have said that they weren’t allowed into the country unless they had $2,000 in cash or traveler’s checks. Others have been denied entry if they didn’t have an onward flight.

All this considered, we decided to buy a return ticket to Jakarta, the country’s capital. Fortunately for us, a new low cost airline just started! In case you are interested, it’s called AirAsia and it’s kind of like Southwest Airlines in the US, but more like Ryan Air in Europe. It was actually cheaper to fly than take the ferry!

Between the new visa rules, the bombings in Bali last year and general unrest in certain regions, tourism here is at an all time low. Yesterday we went to Indonesia’s number one tourist destination, called the Borodur Temple. It’s ancient Buddhist temple; something like a mini Angkor Wat. We were two of 10 foreigners that visited the temple while we were there. Even the souvenir vendors have packed up and left the site! There must be hundreds and hundreds of empty stalls. The hotel we are staying in was listed as the number one recommended place in the city, and for the first night we were the only people staying. Since then, one other girl has checked in. The price we paid for the room is 25% of what is listed in the brochure. It appears to be the same all over Java, at least it was the same at Pangadaran, the now deserted beach resort in the south of the island. You can have it all to yourself if you go now!

We arrived to this Muslim country on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. I think he’s the one that created the religion of Islam. I don’t know much about this religion, but have learned a little. Did you know that they pray five times a day and the first time is at dawn? Most mornings that’s how we wake up here in Indonesia.

Since we arrived we have been on the island of Java - home for half of Indonesia’s 230 million people. Java is half the size of the United Kingdom and has twice the number of people. It’s packed! And, as we discovered on our first day of bus travel, not a highway in sight. Nearby large cities seem to have a few miles of toll highways, but nothing to get you from city to city. In the past week we have spent 25 hours on local buses navigating the two lane roads from Jakarta to Yogyakarta!

It’s unfortunate for the locals that the place is so deserted, but we are certainly appreciating the lower prices and always available best hotel rooms! The people have mostly been really friendly and we are really looking forward to Bali and the Komodo dragons! This afternoon we are taking a bus to a large crater that contains three volcanoes. The installment will hopefully be from the white sandy beaches of Bali!

Greetings from Malaysia & Singapore!

Saturday, May 1, 2004
We planned the end of our stay in Burma to coincide with the arrival of Rob’s friend, Nick in Bangkok. We weren’t really sure if he was coming or not since he doesn’t have email and we don’t have a phone, but we knew if he was coming, April 5th was the day. As it turns out, his plane was taxi-ing down the runway immediately after ours. We could see his plane before we even got out of our plane! Then we bumped into Nick at customs. It was a real surprise for him – he had no idea we were coming since we only booked our flight the night before. The next coincidence was that their friends (who got married only the day before) were going to be honeymooning in Thailand, first stop Bangkok! So, even though Rob missed their wedding – we joined them on their honeymoon for 2 days.

After spending time in Burma, it was great to take advantage of modern Thailand. We did some shopping, some sightseeing… but mainly we ate. We ate a lot! Nick’s girlfriend, Anne, is Thai and knows lots of great places to eat – and what and how to order them too. We also went to the Floating Market and a Thai Boxing Match. When we were filled to the brim with Thai food, we took an overnight train heading down to Malaysia with Nick and Anne.

Last time I was in Malaysia it was rainy season. Note to self: don’t go to Malaysia in the rainy season. I heeded my own advice and this visit was a thousand times better! First we visited some gorgeous islands called the Perhentians, complete with a coral reef outside our bungalow, falling coconuts, and nightly fish barbeques.

Despite the fact that most of Malaysia is covered in palm oil plantations (their biggest export), they created a national park called Taman Negara to preserve some of the oldest rainforest in the world. Apparently the Malaysian Peninsula was never hit by the Ice Age and all other earthly rainforests were, so it wins the “oldest” title. While we were there, we got to walk the length of longest tree canopy walkway in the world! It’s a bunch of rope with planks strung through them and you walk from treetop to treetop. Carla – it was nothing at all like the one sturdy metal canopy we went on in Tasmania! Taman Negara is also where we spent my 30th birthday! Fun fact: 3 birthdays have past since I got laid off from my job.

In Kuala Lumpur, we tried going to the Petronas Tower three times, but all three times the tickets were sold out! Also, I bumped into a friend of mine that I met last year while in India! His name is Natesh and he lives in Bombay. It turns out he was in Kuala Lumpur on business. He had some time between meetings and was taking a bus somewhere when he spotted Rob and me walking back from the Petronas Towers (again). He couldn’t find me when he got off the bus, so he went to an online cafĂ© and emailed me right away. I happened to check my email about an hour later, so I called him and we met for dinner! Amazing! It’s not the first time we’ve had such coincidences in the past few months – and hopefully it’s not the last!

Now here we are in Singapore, the fine city! Okay, I know it’s the same joke as last time I wrote a newsletter from Singapore, but I still think it’s funny. I learned a few more things about how “fine” it is: apparently some years ago they did not allow men to have long hair and if you arrived at the airport with long hair they would not let you through customs if you didn’t immediately let them chop it all off. They no longer have this rule, but you still aren’t allowed to chew gum. We were also noticing today that no one has any pets… maybe it’s a law around here or maybe a preference. I plan to look into it. It also turns out that they only open the palace to visitors on selected national holidays. One of which is Labor Day... which is today! So we got to check the place out. It's smack in the middle of the city, very modern, and they turned most of the grounds into a golf course!

Love, Alison