kill, nurture, dive

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most days if you were to say to me “hey Roark, lets go buy a carton of cigarettes, crash a funeral and watch some animals get slaughtered” i would take you for a crazy person, but if you would have said that to me on October 25th and we happened to be in Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia i would have quickly developed an infectious smile on my face.  BUT before i explain to you why this is the case and before i hopefully shed some light on exactly why you are staring at a couple of lifeless water buffalo with no skin, allow me to first explain how i got here in the first place.  as you may recall, my enchanted Raja Ampat excursion came to an end and left me back in Sorong in West Papua.  there, i slipped into a bit of post-amazing-thing travel depression then quickly pulled through it into big decisions mode.  there was no time to waste.  my visa clock was ticking and i had some big ideas festering in my brain.  one of these ideas formulated into a plan to venture deep into West Papua and trek possibly for days through the Balium Valley.  the only way to get to this remote region of Papua is to first reach the Capital city of Juyapura and then fly to Wamena.  i briefly entertained the idea of getting to Juyapura via three-day Pelni boat ride but then caved in the end due to time pressures and shelled out for a plane ticket.  this would end up being the most expensive mistake i have made on my odyssey to date because once i arrived in Juyapura, contrary to all the research i made, i learned that the only airline that flies to Wamena was booked solid for an entire month.  to add a little salt to my new travel wound i met a very nice Swedish/Belgium couple who had just returned from a multi-week trek in the Baliem Valley.  they regaled me with a detailed account of their Baliem adventures with the enthusiasm of a couple of kids who had just recently lived a life changing experience and had been made better people because of it.  rather than waste more time moping around i put my tail between my legs and immediately put magnificent plan B into motion.

 

KILL

the next day i hopped a flight to Makassar: the capital city of Sulawesi, then booked an overnight bus to Rantepao: the main hub of a mysterious and magical region of Indonesia known as Tana Toraja.  it’s safe to say that the Torajan people operate a bit differently than the rest of Indonesia.  set in the backdrop of a vast lush mountainous landscape stitched together by terraced rice fields are some forty tiny villages equipped with raised wooden houses with boat-shaped roofs.  among them live a people who spend the majority of their time and energy saving for, planning for and hosting elaborate multi-day ceremonies to celebrate the deaths of their family members.  after a family member dies they will keep their remains above ground in their house until they have saved up enough money for a proper funeral.  these funerals can last for days and usually involve processions, animal sacrifices, feasting and the consumption of mass quantities of palm wine.  tourists are encouraged to crash these funerals as long as they bring plenty of cigarettes or sugar to give to the families.

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since we arrived in Toraja in the off season, my new Spanish friend Arturo and i were not expecting a funeral crash experience to come our way.  then we caught wind of a rumor of a funeral happening far outside of town near a little village called Lempo.  we didn’t waste any time procuring our motorbike, carton of cigarettes and shitty map of the area.  then we set out in search for Lempo.  after many hours of negotiating Toraja’s unforgiving hills, rocky roads and stunning scenery we finally found the party.  tucked into a small valley and staged in the main square were a couple hundred Torajans socializing, laughing and drinking palm wine.  scattered about the ground was a large number of pigs all in various stages of active dismemberment.  some were being chopped up, some were being scorched, some were being bled out into bamboo vessels.

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we opened our carton of cigarettes right on queue and began handing them out to anyone and everyone who wanted them.  this ended up being quite a lot of people, all of whom immediately became our best friends.  we were offered all the wine and pork we could consume.  i sampled their wine which has a sour milky flavor i have not as of yet been quite able to develop a taste for, and i devoured a chewy but flavorful freshly cooked pig heart.  we spent almost the entire day with them and were even invited to come back the following day to witness the sacrificing of some water buffalo.

we arrived early again the next day.  the festivities started off with an auction.  a man with a microphone stood up in the middle of the family groupings and ran fast numbers as he facilitated the selling of the seven water buffalo that were to be sacrificed that day.  meanwhile a young man drove a wooden stake into the ground.  then before i could realize it the slaughtering had begun.  one after another they tied the buffalo’s front leg to the stake then slashed its throat with one swift strike of a machete.  at first the animal was calm as if it had no idea there was quarts upon quarts of blood spilling out of its neck.  this was followed by a build up to all out raw and robust panic when it came to realize it no longer had the ability to breathe.  hurling itself about with an incredible amount of power, tripping over it’s own feet and the other still dying buffalo, slipping and sliding in a pond of blood.  the more it struggled and fought to draw in air the worse its condition became as it sucked more and more blood into its esophagus making a gurgling vacuum sound.  after the beast was completely tapped of oxygen it would fall down one final time.  that may have been its final living moment, however it could have also been in the several minutes that followed as the beast would occasionally twitch and convulse involuntarily.  as soon as the seven buffalo slaughtering was complete the men wasted no time as they proceeded to skin and butcher them on site.  my appetite left me that day and didn’t fully return for several days.

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speckled about Tana Toraja are many creative grave sites.  some are carved into the side of rock cliffs and others are shoved into trees and caves.

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NURTURE

on an adventure to the neighboring town of Makale we saw a sign for a tiny airport and then turned and headed toward it without even thinking.  when we arrived at a simple airstrip we were befriended by a young Torajan named Abran.  Abran attends University in Makassar and was here on a family visit.  he invited us to his home to meet his family and friends where we sipped Torajen coffee and talked late into the evening.  Abran and his family and friends turned out to be some of the most friendly, welcoming and hospitable people i have ever met and for the next few days i kept coming back to spend time with them.  Abran and his friends were eager to give me the V.I.P. tour of the real Toraja while his mother Sitti made sure i was properly fed.  Abran and his dedicated following of high school girlfriends: Innang, Ivon, Clara and Linda accompanied me on motorbikes and gave me a unique and one of a kind taste of Tana Toraja through the eyes of young carefree Torajans.

out past the villages and farms where dirt roads become trails, we parked our bikes and bushwhacked barefoot down to a stream being fed by a trickling waterfall.  next to it was a partial cave filled with hundreds of skeletons and decaying coffins.  we carefully crawled amongst them while keeping our voices to a respectful quiet whisper.

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then once we got our daily fill of death we went down to the water for a boisterous photo shoot.

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later that night after some necessary house visits we went back to the airport and lounged around in the middle of the airstrip.

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mother Sitti loved to cook me fried goldfish and catfish over rice and one morning i even had the pleasure of joining her, Abran, and aunt Harman on a mission to catch the fish.  taking only plastic buckets and woven baskets (and not a single fishing pole) we walked single file through the backyard and into the jungle which eventually opened up into a patch of terraced rice fields.  in the center of one of those fields was a six-foot deep sinkhole reinforced with wooden planks.  Sitti and Harmon immediately waded out into the muck and started collecting mud to dam up the hole.  once that was complete Abran straddled the hole and started bailing the water out with a bucket.  not really sure as to the point of the exercise i jumped in to help him.  it was quite a bit of work and it took us a while but we damn near emptied that hole.  as soon as the water level in the hole got closer to the bottom i began to notice fish… lots of fish, all flapping about with no place to go.  one by one we grabbed them with our bare hands and chucked them into a nearby basket.  it was too easy.  most of the fish we caught were goldfish (each about 6-12 inches in length) but when we encountered the occasional catfish i was instructed not to touch them because of their stinging fins.  mother of course was a professional and knew how to catch them without getting stung.  she would swiftly grab them by their heads, take hold of their tail with her other hand and apply pressure forcing their heads into the rest of their body until it made a snapping sound.  then one by one she carefully tore their fins off.  when the basket was full and all the fish had been mined, mother undammed the hole and let the water rush back in.  then Abran chose five healthy looking fish from the basket (2 males and 3 females) and threw them back into the hole.  it takes about a year for the fish to fully regenerate and that day we mined about six months worth, almost all of which ended up in my belly.

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on my final day in Toraja before a long sad goodbye, Abran’s crew took me to a beautiful limestone caldera for one last boisterous photo shoot followed by a long contemplative stare out over the still water and tall cliff.  this place proved to be the perfect setting to enjoy the company of my new friends one last time.  it was in those moments i began to reflect on just how close i had come to these people.  this wasn’t just your ordinary local’s tour of Toraja.  i had become connected with these people on a personal level.  i’d been to their homes, ate their food, learned of their routines and gained insight into their hearts.  i truly felt like i had become a part of their gang and for the first time in a long time i did not feel like anything even remotely resembling a tourist.

Abran, me, Lisa, Innang, Ivon

Abran, me, Lisa, Innang, Ivon

Abran, Lisa, me, Ivon, Innang

Abran, Lisa, me, Ivon, Innang

Abran, me

Abran, me

Innang, Lisa, me, Ivon, Clara

Innang, Lisa, me, Ivon, Clara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

we arrived back home at sunset where i got to enjoy one last fish feast.  i embraced each of the girls one by one as they made their final exits.  then i made my own after one last group hug with Abran and family.  of all the places i have traveled on my odyssey to date.  this place was by far the hardest to leave.  who knew that tucked into the hills of rural Indonesia live a people with hearts this pure and with so much love to give?

me and Mamma Sitti

me and Mamma Sitti

ma ans Aunt Harman

me and Aunt Harman

 

a couple of weeks after i left my newfound family i learned that they had made-to-order twelve glass mugs with my name on it.  a symbol of my visit that they can share with all until my return.  i’ll tell you this much.  if i am never seen or heard from again it’s probably because i returned to my second home in Toraja and never left.

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DIVE

this adventure concludes with a trip to the small Island of Bunaken off the far northern tip of Sulawesi.  there, i spent my final week of my second visit to Indonesia relaxing in my Bunaken bungalow, drinking wine, playing music with the locals and partaking in some world class scuba diving.  each night the receding tide would reveal a shallow shelf that extends for hundreds of meters out into the sea where concentrated groups of bio-luminescent plankton gather in pools and wait for you to step on them.  each footfall gets rewarded with its very own light show splash and once you add in the starry sky above you really can’t help but feel like a Disco Jesus.

 

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so much death, so much love, so little time.  goodbye for now Sulawesi.  you’ve not seen the last of me.
-R

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Raja Ampat

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on October 9th i boarded the “Sea Safari 8″ bound for Raja Ampat.  i was reunited with my parents for the first time in 9 months, then introduced to the passengers and crew and shown to the lower deck.  like me, everyone’s quarters were pre-assigned but that didn’t stop us from trading rooms time and time again until we were absolutely confident we could hang our hats in the one that suited us best.  i ended up with a most exquisite little cabin with a bunk in the bow of the ship.  the wall next to my bed even curved along with the ship’s hull leaving little room for my feet at the bed side and plenty of ceiling to stare at while i was rocked to sleep each night.

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she was a fine ship: approximately 113 feet in length with a solid metal hull and a wooden superstructure that creaked appropriately on a rough sea.  every cabin had its own bathroom with a hot shower and every room including the dining room and observation lounge was air conditioned.  a seemingly comfortable setting for me and the other 13 passengers, however it would be the 11 dedicated crew members, our cruise director Dalton and guide/naturalist/photographer Ron that would ensure our days were long and packed to the brim with adventure and as little sleep as possible.

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Raja Ampat is a remote archipelago of over fifteen hundred mostly uninhabited islands.  it was created when a massive shelf of limestone (formed from many generations of compacted coral remains) was thrust to the surface by shifting tectonic plates.  over the years rain seeped into the porous rock dissolving it from the inside out.  subtle dips in terrain turned into deep valleys and deep valleys became the ocean itself.  this left behind hundreds of dramatic oblong shaped islands all within close proximity.  to top it all off, a limestone eating parasite called the chiton is rapidly consuming all of the limestone at the intertidal zone giving the islands a cool mushroom-like look until their imminent collapse.  sadly, the future is grim for these oblong wonders.  it’s only a matter of time before they are reduced to nothing and returned to the sea once again.  BUT in the meantime, a view from the top of even one of the lesser peaks proves to be of the more stunning the world has to offer.

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due to Raja’s remoteness, lack of tourist infrastructure and well… lack of people in general, experiencing it properly is very difficult and/or very expensive.  i had the luck and honor of experiencing it quite properly in the company of 13 well traveled individuals who were all a tad bit wiser than i.

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we barely had time to get settled after leaving port before the adventures began.  we stopped off at a small island and took the tender boats to its shores for what i assumed would be a leisure stroll along the beach…  and then something wonderful happened.  Ron our tour guide opened his mouth and elegant science started spilling out.  he knew the scientific names for everything.  he knew all the relationships between the flora and fauna.  he was well versed in the geology and natural history of the area and he could explain it all in one constant and digestible stream of thought.  often his scientific rants would get briefly interrupted by new discoveries.  be it a simple flower or a fallen seedling, to him they marked new pieces to the habitat puzzle that surrounded us.  the puzzle that almost always boiled down to the same burning questioron1n that is always on his mind, “who’s pollinating who?”.  he also explained how various plants could be used in a survival situation…  to paraphrase: “the hard bulbous fruit from this plant is a fisherman’s friend.  not only because its natural buoyancy makes it a useful buoy to hold up your fishing nets, but when you grate the skin and sprinkle it into a shallow bay it will deplete the oxygen in the water causing the fish to suffocate, die and float to the surface.  if you had enemies, you would use the sap from this common plant.  one drizzle of this touches the skin and you’ll be dead in less than an hour”.  on and on he went…

it was in those moments that i began to realize the gravity of the situation i had just stumbled into.  not only was i about to venture into a remote and wonderful realm that very few people ever get the chance to see, but i’d be doing so with someone who has the ability to elegantly explain every aspect of it to me.  after witnessing my first Ron rant i turned to my dad and simply said “wow… i didn’t realize it would be THIS kind of trip”.  he then patted me on the back and laughed and replied with “Ron’s the reason we came here”.  from that moment on i began to think of this trip less as a Raja Ampat trip and more as a ‘Ron trip’ that just so happens to take place in Raja Ampat.  most of the other passengers had done trips with Ron before and many will again because they recognize the value a guide worth this much salt can add to an adventure.  i’m sure that if Ron was so inclined to organize an expedition to a Walmart somewhere in rural Kansas, the people would follow him.  i sure as hell would.

IMG_2411 (copy)But who exactly is this Ron K Leidich?  from what i could gather, he’s a naturalist/marine biologist/ornithologist/World War 2 historian/environmental activist/writer/photographer/tour guide/teacher/dive instructor/business man/family man.  when he’s not leading tours through Raja Ampat, Palau and Borneo, he is taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, and when he’s not taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, he is researching and documenting the undiscovered relationships between tropical plants and their pollinators.  he also lives in Palau where he runs his Kayaking company “Planet Blue” and is working on a book about the native plants of Palau that will be published next year.  he also played an instrumental role in the banning of shark finning in Palau.  does that about sum him up?  probably not even close but it’s a good start.

for the next ten days our daily routine would go something like this:  birding at 6:30am sharp, followed by breakfast, followed by first snorkel, followed by lunch, followed by second snorkel, followed by a hike/beach walk/island exploring, followed by a well deserved couple of beers followed by dinner, followed by a lecture or daily photo review, followed by passing out hard.  whether we were weaving through tiny limestone islands via tender boats, hiking through dense jungle or along sandy beaches,  snorkeling through coral reefs or watching a detailed power-point lecture, we were quite efficiently unlocking all of Raja’s hidden treasures and becoming smarter in the process.

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my second dose of hard reality hit when i equipped my mask, snorkel and fins and jumped into the water for the first time.  all of my past aquatic experiences combined could not even come close to preparing me for the bio-diversity and aw-inspiring beauty that lies beneath Raja’s surface.  from the mass profusion of giant corals that compete tirelessly for aquatic real estate to the countless species of invertebrates, crustaceans, mollusks and fish that make their homes amongst them.  it would seem that Raja Ampat is the marine equivalent to a metropolitan melting-pot at rush hour and the best part is that it’s all taking place less than ten meters below the surface making it a true snorkeler’s paradise.

(all professional-looking photos from this point on and including a few from above are courtesy of Ron K Leidich)

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please have a gander at some of my favorite underwater oddities:

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Wobbegong
will you believe that this freak of nature is a type of shark?  this is a sit-and-wait predator with tassel-like lips meant to fool fish into thinking it’s just another anemone until they swim by too close and get swallowed whole.

 

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Walking Shark
i found this little dude sleeping behind a rock.  though he is perfectly capable of swimming, he likes to use his fins to walk along the ocean floor.  his kind is also endemic to Raja Ampat.

 

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Blacktip
OMG, big f*ing shark!

 

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray (copy)

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray
this little blueberry pancake loves to lurk underneath hard flat corals

 

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Clown Triggerfish
sure you have all seen Triggers but have you seen them with giant white spots covering their belly?!  Triggers earn their name from their ability to erect their first dorsal spine and lock it into place with their second dorsal spine which then acts as a ‘trigger’ to release the first spine lock.  triggers will go trigger-up either when angry effectively communicating “you mess with the fish, you get the trigger”, or when they are frightened they can dive head first into a tight patch of hard coral and use their trigger to lock them into place.  at that point they would sooner die from getting ripped in half than give their predator the satisfaction of prying them loose.  as you can see, Ron seems to have riled this one up pretty good.

 

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Mantis Shrimp
this sharpshooting maverick of the sea comes equipped with either slashing or bashing appendages that are capable of slicing a fish in half or shattering your camera if you get too close.  he strikes with the force of a 22 caliber rifle, so fast that the water around its appendages boil and send out an underwater shockwave.

 

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Wrasse
these fish have some interesting mating habits.  both males and females participate in group spawning which pretty much entails gathering around and launching your sperm and eggs into common area and hoping for the best.  unfortunately if you are a male wrasse, this is the only type of action you are ever going to get.  however if you are a female wrasse, not only do you get to partake in the fish orgies but you have the option of changing your gender and transforming into a “super male”.  this involves growing twice your size and gaining brilliant colors.  once in this form you become a total fish babe magnet with a harem of females to follow.

 

Spiny Devilfish (copy)

Spiny Devilfish
this little guy is the most poisonous fish on the reef.  it’s a good thing he’s only crawling at a snails pace using those little pectoral members.

 

Nudibranch, Phyllidia varicosa (copy)

Nudibranch
very small, very colorful, comes in over 3,000 flavors.

 

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Giant Clam
gills on one end and blow hole on the other.  go in for a closer look and get a blast of sea water in your face.

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during my ample time in the water i decided to dabble in a little free diving.  strap a few weights to your belt, descend slowly and move as little as possible while maintaining a zen-like state and you’ll be surprised at how little oxygen you really need.

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Raja has a vast trove of treasures above sea level as well.  we woke extra early one morning and ever so quietly stepped trough the interior of the island of Gam and witnessed the Red Birds of Paradise perform their mating dances in the canopy above.

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this osprey swooped down and caught a snapper with its talons right before our eyes.

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this rare species of cuscus as well as this fruit bat were just asking for it…

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we even visited a paranoid pearl farm.  i use the term paranoid because of the many guards with machine guns that keep it secure.  when you are dealing with that many pearls at once you are going to need some muscles to compliment your oysters.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

 

our fishy finale on our final day in the water was one i wont soon forget.  we let the soft current carry us along the coast of Kri Island to a rounded corner where the shelf dropped off into a deep blue abyss and an opposing current met us head on.  perhaps it was the clash of currents, perhaps it was the dawn of the full moon or perhaps it was just that time of day when fish get especially randy because when we rounded that corner we were greeted by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of schools of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors.  they all weaved into one another gracefully but stayed determined to keep formation.  several meters below i noticed multiple schools of trevally coming from different directions and all converging into a central point forming a dense knot of fish below my feet.  i filled my lungs with air to their fullest capacity and descended into them.  rather than swimming away from me they simply opened their circle slightly leaving a safe arms-length distance allowing me to enter.  i sunk to the center of the circle and before long i was completely surrounded.  when i glanced up to the surface to gauge my depth my view had been obscured and the circle had IMG_2619 (copy)closed over the top of me.  i was completely engulfed in a sphere of fish so thick that no ocean scenery could be detected beyond them.  it was just trevally in front of trevally one after another in every direction moving fast and vigilant on a tight circular path over and over again.  i found myself elated and disoriented at the same time.  i was also on the verge of a minor panic and was starting to entertain unreasonable thoughts.  these were not small fish and if they all suddenly decided to turn in on me at once and tear the flesh from my bones i would be reduced to a sinking skeleton in a matter of seconds.  i darted swiftly in one direction in an attempt to exercise any dominance i had over them but they only shifted the inner circle slightly to uphold their safe arms-length distance.  it became clear that i was less than an afterthought to them.  trevally are among the fastest swimmers in the ocean and the least likely to pay any mind to the likes of an awkward lanky surface dweller.  i posed about as much of a threat to them as a Wile E Coyote does to a roadrunner and if there were any part of me that had the slightest bit of doubt about that fact the record would be set straight in the seconds that followed.  somewhere in the orchestra a single fish must have omitted a low frequency sound to indicate that it was being threatened quite possibly by one or both of the blacktip sharks who were lurking nearby.  to say that news travels fast in fish community would be an understatement because in the span of that next second every single last fish suddenly vanished all at once leaving me all alone surrounded by the familiar blue abyss.  i looked up and was relieved to see that the surface was in plain view.  it was time to start breathing again.

umbrella_boatit was hard rain on our final day as we packed ourselves and our belongings into the tender boats and headed back to Sorong to go our separate ways.  we didn’t let the torrential downpour get in the way of long goodbyes, but even then the goodbyes didnt seem nearly long enough because the next thing i knew the passengers had all dispersed and just like that i was right back to the harsh realities of world travel and decision making, soaking wet with half a plan.

 

 

fam1

keluarga basah

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keluarga kering

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Captain Roark

8 Comments

a sudden change of plans

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last we spoke i was most likely sun bathing on a jetty on Mabul: an island somewhere off the coast of Sabah in eastern Borneo.  well folks, since then i have stirred things up quite a bit.  in fact it was not too long after pushing the ‘post’ button on my last blog entry that i proceeded to haphazardly slingshot my way across Asia.  from Mabul i took a boat to the mainland port of Semporna then took a bus to Tawau at the far southeast end of the overland Borneo trail.  from there i took a flight to Kuala Lampur, then another flight to Jakarta, then another flight to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia then a final flight to Sorong in West Papua at the far east end of Indonesia and almost off the map entirely.  my layovers were long and the crammed budget-air conditions woke up muscles i didnt know i had only to numb them again with a slow dull ache.  this was all made worth it when i was greeted in Sorong with four-star treatment that all began with a very nice man holding a sign with my name on it.

why the sudden ‘West Papua or bust’ action you may be wondering?  one night while on Mabul drinking Tanduay Rhum with my new dive buddies and mentally plotting my path to the Philippines i received an urgent and unexpected message from my parents.  as it turns out they were just about to embark on a posh ten day scientific oriented live-aboard snorkel adventure in Raja Ampat: a tropical archipelago off the coast of West Papua.  a couple they were to meet there unfortunately had to back out at the last minute suddenly leaving an empty cabin on the boat bought and paid for and about to fall directly into my lap as long as i could get myself to West Papua as quickly as possible.  after giving the matter very little thought i put Philippines on the back-burner and headed as fast as i could in the opposite direction.  with the help of a very useful flight search engine, my credit card and the patience and pain tolerance i had built up over the past seven months, i was able to make it to Sorong in West Papua in record time with three whole days to spare before meeting my parents and my new home for the next ten days.

sorong5when i first arrived in Sorong it didn’t seem like much.  a poor, dusty, long and slender town built along the shore with a market and port of appropriate size and one road to connect it all.  i was put up in the nicest hotel in town which was by no means a Hilton but compared to the accommodations i was used to it may as well have been the Bellagio.  after my first wave of jet-lag passed i initiated my routine wander mission.  i made it down the street and rounded a corner when i witnessed a child’s reaction to me unlike any i had ever seen before.  it’s mouth and eyes widened to their absolute fullest extent out of pure necessity just so it could purge itself of the raw excitement boiling inside.  somehow it managed to stay upright while twisting its body and launching its limbs in all directions in random patterns.  this child was accompanied by others who were also made ecstatic by my sudden presence but none had the spark of this child.  this child was one hundred children.  once in my lap, one hundred children became a calm dead weight that could be easily held and molded into any shape.

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my wander mission soon turned into a scout mission or rather a hotel hunt.  the truth of the matter was that when my posh ten day boat trip was over i would be on my own once again and stranded in a foreign land.  when that time comes it would be in my best interest to be prepared with a list of accommodations far more modest than the one i was currently staying in.

along the way groups of young (but not too young) girls would rush out of schools and shops and bolt across busy streets and circle me in hopes to get their picture taken with me.  once i gave them what they wanted they would scream and flail their arms about as if Justin Bieber himself had just kissed them on the cheek.

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i could get used to this…

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i could get very used to this…

sorong2about seven kilometers into my hunt i was stopped by a nice young man in business attire who introduced himself as Patrick.  once he learned of my predicament he insisted on assisting me with my hunt.  i graciously hopped on the back of his motorbike and he took me to every single hotel in town.  we sang to each other along the way and had heated discussions about which artist sang the better rendition of “i will always love you”.

i soon learned that budget accommodations are almost non-existent in this town.  in fact, budget anything is almost non-existent in this town as well as in all of West Papua due to the hard logistics of this remote and underdeveloped part of the world.  this intensifies the further inland you go since many villages can only be reached by air.

after the hotel hunt was complete, Patrick continued his grand tour by taking me to the university he was attending to meet his class mates and then to a rehearsal of the A cappella group “Voice of Glorify”.  there forty voices filled my ears with song.

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i was hand delivered to the doc early on my final morning in Sorong and shuttled via tender boat to my new home on the magnificent “Sea Safari 8″.  i was reunited with my parents for the first time in 9 months, then introduced to the passengers and crew and shown to my quarters.

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stay tuned for fishy tales from what is quite possibly the last untouched and most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet Earth.

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Sabah Sabah

this adventure starts off with a Brunei exodus via jungle boat taxi starting from the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan then into Sarawak, Malaysia then back into Brunei’s Temburong district.  from the small river port town of Bangar it was an easy bus to the town of Beaufort and we were back in Sabah once again.

 

we spent the night in Beaufort: a small Malaysian town of little excitement.  we procured cheap lodging across the river at a Chinese run motel and made friends with the young bar maids at the “Comwel” bar near a small market.

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the next morning we caught the train back to Kota Kinabalu where we spent the next several days plotting our next moves, recovering from our last moves and making frequent visits to the cinema.  over the last several months i have become increasingly more of a sucker for the cinema.  after weeks of hard travel a good night staring at the big screen can be just the thing to make me whole again.  this time however, we went a little over the edge.  i wont tell you exactly how many films we saw but i will say that it was way more than a few.  we must have been the Centerpoint mall’s best customers by the end of our stay there.

20130917_222736on our fourth morning we embarked on our new Sabah adventure starting with a seven-hour bus ride to Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah.  Sandakan is home to a very disturbing and lesser known piece of World War 2 history called the Sandakan death marches.  it was here that the Japanese brutally tortured over two thousand Australian and British POW’s, tried to make them build an air strip and finally failed, then marched them 260 kilometers west to Ranau while they slowly died of starvation, dysentery and malaria.  the few that made it were crammed into unsanitary huts and left to die.  after the war ended the Japanese executed the remaining soldiers and torched the Sandakan POW camp in an attempt to hide the evidence of their war crimes.  luckily a handful of prisoners were able to escape and survive long enough to tell their tale and bring about justice.  many of the events have been pieced together in this PDF book if you are interested in a quick read.

one curiosity of mine that had to be satisfied while in Sandikan was the whereabouts of the mysterious ferry to Zamboanga City in the Philippines.  i was fully intending to take this ferry until my hopes where crushed a week prior when Zamboanga City shut down due to an unfortunate battle and hostage situation that broke out there.  having been fixated on this ferry trip for so long, part of me was hopeful that they rerouted the ferry to a more desirable local but i think i mostly just needed to hear the words “no Roark, you will not be boarding that ferry” in plain broken english.  since the mysterious ferry embarked from an equally mysterious port some miles from town, we were directed to a hotel in town where all ticket sales were handled.  the manager there then directed us to a different hotel a kilometer south of town where we were directed yet again to a place called “Block H” across the street.  soon after crossing the street we realized we had stepped into a different place entirely.  here, row after row of long oppressive concrete buildings stand four stories tall along the waterfront all marked with a letter A to Z.  it had the look of a concentration camp gone rogue.  each building had a little character that had crept into it over the years.  the locals were happy to make our acquaintance.  after a few failed attempts at speaking Malay to them i came to realize it was a large seemingly isolated Filipino community, some of which had just arrived and some of which had already become Malaysian citizens.  we finally managed to locate Block H but the trail went cold from there.  i never found the answers i was looking for but by this time i was too distracted to care, especially when we traversed the coast a little further and discovered a small water village sandwiched between a clump of fishing boats and an old rusty barge.  the village was so rundown and ill maintained that negotiating what was left of its walkways was nothing short of an obstacle course.  when i reached the end of one walkway i was greeted by a dozen hyper charged children who got a little excited when i set my camera to video mode.

 

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several miles west of Sandakan is the Orang Outang Center and we arrived just in time for feeding time!

 

our next stop on this adventure was Sukau: a very secluded small town in the jungle built along a meander of a river.  the man who ran our guest house took us out on his boat as we searched out crocodiles and proboscis monkeys.  the monkeys were abundant and the crocodiles would occasionally bubble under the murky surface then reveal their long scaly backs to us.

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down on the southern east coast of Sabah is the small dirty port town of Semporna.  this is the jumping off point to many islands including the very exclusive and coveted island of Sipadan.  only 120 people per day are allowed to visit it and they usually need to book 6 weeks in advance and pay a pretty penny to partake of its world class diving.  rather than jump immediately into an island adventure i decided to let myself get a little distracted.  i wandered into a water village with my guitar and made some friends.  then later i got well taken care of by some locals at a nearby bar.  we played songs late into the night, had arm wrestling contests and engaged in long winded borderline inappropriate conversations about our cultural differences.

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from there i hopped on a boat to the island of Mabul to meet up with Nicolas who had gone there the day prior.  this island is small enough to circle on foot in 30 minutes and for whatever reason has an obscenely large population of children.  the water is so shallow among these islands it’s common to see water villages and structures built miles off shore.  Mabul has an interesting mixture of scuba diving eco-conservation enthusiasts and illegal Filipino immigrants who dump rubbish into the sea and fish with dynamite.  sure there is tension between them but it’s masked with smiles exch20131002_180459 (copy)anged at a very laid back island pace.  my first day here was spent swimming, scoping out the village and sipping rum smuggled in from the Philippines.  my second two days here were spent coping with the effects of a flu-like illness i had contracted.  when my fever finally lifted and my apatite regained i was already overcome with the ease of the place.  i had become good friends with the dive staff and their few customers.  i had become quite accustom to relaxing on the jetty during a sunset and gorging on the three well balanced buffets served each day.  i also went on three dives as i discovered the wonderful world of macro diving.  it is what Mabul is known for after all.  not too far below the surface are thousands of species of very tiny, very unique and wonderful creatures (such as nudibranches).  i also encountered some special creatures of a bit larger size: frog fish, Mandarin fish, and the notoriously fast sharp shooting maverick of the sea, the mantis shrimp.  this little bastard has the ability to strike with the force of a 22 caliber bullet, so fast that the water around its appendages boil in the process.  in the last minutes of my final dive i got up close and personal with a hawksbill sea turtle.  the biggest i had ever seen.  his shell alone must have been five feet in length.  even when i positioned my eyes two inches away from his i could tell that he wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned.  i am sure he realized that if it came down to an underwater battle of Roark vs the giant sea turtle, he would most certainly win.

i never ended up getting my Sipadan dive permit, though honestly i didn’t try all that hard.  i think subconsciously i was just creating a reason for myself to come back… heehee… and i totally could too.

 

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welcome to Borneo

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i arrived at Jarkata’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport 6 hours early for a flight that departed 10 hours late to Kota Kinabalu: the capital city of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.  i made my home right there in Terminal 3 nestled up with my pack as a teddy bear and my guitar as a pillow.  the nice flight attendants woke me up every once in a while not to inform me about the status of my flight but to hand me my consolatory box of chicken and rice: a humble apology on behalf of Air Asia for having to endure a free night’s stay on a clean carpet in an air conditioned room.  after spending 56 days in Indonesia i felt i had only scratched its surface but i was also eager to move on.  Borneo has been a much anticipated entry in my travel docket since the very beginning and in just a few hours i would be looking down over the vast blanket of clouds that covers it.

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Kota kinabalu (or simply “KK”) is a walkable town of about half a million.  it’s comprised of a small grid of unique strip mall-like buildings that line the north-western coast that overlooks the 5 islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.  along the water front is a thriving fish market with plenty of fishing boats to sustain it.  other than Malaysians, KK has a large mixture of Chinese and Indian people that both keep to their respective areas.  the downtown area is bookended by two large awkwardly designed shopping malls.  quite an intriguing place considering it was destroyed several times over during World War 2 then rebuilt from scratch in the early 60’s.

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i was very excited to be reunited with my long time French-Canadian travel companion Nicolas who arrived several hours after me.  between my recent jet trauma and his latest traumatizing adventure in Northwest India, we were both looking forward to some R&R.  this of course would entail sharing stories of our travels during the consumption of strong ale, catching up on all the latest American films and sampling the Chinese/Indian/sea influenced food.

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we devoted two whole days of our R&R to two of the smaller football field-sized islands of Sapi and Mamutik to get our fill of hiking and snorkeling.  it was here i experienced my first proper sunburn in months, not only from direct sunlight but from the sun’s reflection off the glistening white skin of the hoards upon hoards of Chinese tourists.

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only after we were good and ready did we embark on our adventure to the sultanate of Brunei.  we first made a mandatory interstitial stop at the duty free Island of Labuan.  there we thought it appropriate to rent motorbikes (i nicknamed mine “Labuan James”) and give the island a thorough traipsing.  we found the place to have an interesting mix of rustic water village communities and industrial monoliths.  it seemed like every road we took eventually dead-ended onto a giant oil refinery or a Halliburton blah-blah.  Labuan also has a very impressive deep harbor filled with a hundred large ships waiting to unload.  the duty-freeness was of course the cherry on top.  you almost cant throw a stick here without hitting a shop selling a wide variety of very inexpensive spirits, chocolate, perfume and tobacco.  from here non-Muslims are allowed to bring two liters of alcohol into Brunei.  i was tickled by the thought of purchasing my favorite gin for half the price i was used to and then consuming it in a small country where the purchase and public consumption of alcohol has been banned for the last twenty years.

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Brunei is a very unique and special place with a fascinating history.  it’s home to less than half a million people, a little more than half of which occupy the main city of Bandar Seri Begawan.  of those, over 30,000 inhabit the Kampong Ayer water village built in the middle of the Brunei River witch also happens to be the largest village on stilts on the world.  the Brunei River and its tributaries act as the main arteries through the city.  they are bustling with water taxis eager to take you anywhere and everywhere.  in the center of town is a giant lavish mosque resting on a circular lake.  at the far end of town is the sultan’s palace perched on a hilltop overlooking all of his subjects.  here i truly felt as though i was in an intimate kingdom.

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on our way through customs we befriended a very nice French/Belgium couple named Hugo and Laure.  for the next several days the four of us marched vigorously from attraction to attraction starting at the water village then continuing on to the mosques and museums.  every place we went was clean, air conditioned and seemingly empty.

we wandered carefully through the water village for hours at a time on its maze of rickety wooden walkways raised above a mud plane.  near one entrance of the water village is a small info center with a few exhibits that glaze over the history and traditions of the Brunei people.  toward the end of the last exhibit we discovered a small paragraph that mentioned a tradition called “Sunat” which involves the circumcision of Muslim females between 40 to 60 days old.  coming from the western world we were understandably alarmed by this.  its description in this museum was quite vague so we decided we might try to inquire further by asking some actual Bruneians about the matter.  working this into a conversation was not easy for me but once on the topic they seemed to discuss it with the ease and comfort of any other mundane subject.  i asked one security guard who turned out to be well versed in the male procedure but when asked about the female procedure he simply said “i don’t know, i’m not a female” as if the question was as preposterous as asking a caterpillar what it’s like to flap its wings.  Hugo had a little more luck when he asked our hotel manager who assured us that the tradition is still widely practiced but he couldn’t tell us exactly what the procedure entails.  i finally resorted to the almighty Google who in addition to amplifying the vagueness produced many claims (including a first hand report) to suggest that their procedure is far less damaging than the ones practiced in parts of Africa.

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the mosques we visited were a far cry from the usual cozy modest digs i was use to seeing.  with fine marble, crystal chandeliers, gold plated everything, gushing fountains and elaborate foot washing facilities, no expense is spared here.  during non-praying hours we were permitted to roam freely and relax in the main chambers.

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courtesy of Hugo

our last full day in Brunei also happened to be the beginning of the Sultan’s two-week 67th birthday celebration.  the streets filled with spectators to watch the opening ceremony.  hundreds of solders marched in formation, golden cannons blared and jets flew overhead leaving trails of color.  we were even graced with an appearance of the sultan himself who made quite the entrance.

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being some of the only foreigners in town, we were approached, interviewed, filmed and photographed by a couple of local news publications (including this one).  and here is an excerpt of me running my mouth on the evening news.

 

also, i have been a traveling fool for over 6 months now… woot!

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bug bites and red lights

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i spent my remaining 12 days in Indonesia on the island of Java.  first visiting Malang and then Yogyakarta (pronounced like “joke jakarta” and simply nicknamed “Jogja”).  i spent lots of time wandering the endless network of alleys that squirreled about the pockets of compact Muslim neighborhoods, listening to the music of their chants that were constantly a20130827_170629 (copy)mplified from the many mosques.  i gorged on delicious street food while becoming an expert on the various ways to obtain it.  hot soups with rice and chicken, fried noodles with vegetables and egg, skewers of beef parts barbecued over a thin metal troth.  i didn’t realize i had been eating cow tongue until long after it had become my favorite dish.  i could infiltrate a caravan of food carts circled around some benches and stuff myself on dish after dish for less than $2.  i could douse all of it in that molassesy soy sauce of pure ecstasy that i found sitting on every table.  then at night i would hope the black ants would leave me alone long enough so i could get a proper night’s sleep.  many nights they did but others i would wake up violently itching all my skin off.

then i had a change of perspective…

20130829_170946 (copy)i had a very sobering moment of realization upon waking on my first morning in Jogja.  i had yet a another fresh track of itchy bumps running down my arms and legs and there were no ants in sight to speak of.  then the thought occurred to me that just because i am constantly surrounded by angry biting ants doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the ants that feast on my skin at night.  do ants really go to such great lengths to protect their nest that they would go out of their way to leave long trails and even clusters of wounds on a person’s skin?  as horrible and annoying as they are, even ants don’t harbor that much malice.  their time and energy is better spent providing for their own.  whatever was biting me was obviously doing so for means of nourishment.  had i carried a blood-sucking pest half way across Indonesia?  and if so, how many beds had i infested along the way?  i quickly pushed these fruitless thoughts and others like it far from my mind and focused on the current matter.  i needed to get on top of the situation and i needed to act fast.  with my skin marked up and scabbed as it was i was already starting to resemble an unsavory and potentially diseased person.  the kind you might try to avoid in the less reputable parts of your city or town.  even the locals were starting to comment on my declining physical appearance and i longed dearly for an itch-less night of sleep.  the obvious question was, what the hell was i going to do about it!?  look in the non-existent phone book for a non-existent industrial strength laundromat?  perhaps i could go knocking on people’s doors and say “excuse me, i seem to have become infested with blood-sucking pests and i was wondering if i could use your facilities to get all of my belongings to above 130 degrees fahrenheit”… sigh…  i then stood up in a fit of rage and ripped apart the bedding from where i lay.  then something caught my eye and i moved the top mattress to get a closer look.  there lurking in a crease was one honest to God bed bug no bigger than an apple seed.  did i put it there or is this country really so disgusting? (fruitless thoughts… fruitless thoughts).  just then a beautiful idea came to me and this little guy was going to give me all the leverage i needed to put it into motion.  i arranged my clothing onto myself the best i could so that only the new bites would be visible, then i put my best distraught face on and went downstairs and explained to mother that the room she rented me was tainted and had attacked me in the night and that i will be needing to switch rooms as well as commandeer her kitchen to boil everything i own.  she responded to my request with apologetic warmth then sent her son up to my room to investigate the matter and assist me with anything i needed.  i showed him little Johnny-Bug-Apple-Seed and then proceeded to proudly lecture him about all the telltale signs of a bed bug infestation (i had become an expert in the last 10 minutes from the Googling).  not only was he less than impressed, he didn’t understand a lick of english.  i spent the rest of the day boiling all my clothing and meticulously cleaning the rest all the while to the soundtrack of daughter screaming on the floor next to me.  then i went back to my room and sprayed my backpack down with the pressurized bum gun (as it was too big to boil).  i slept a little better that night knowing that i had ruled out the possibility of further blood-sucking luggage pests and hopeful that if bed bugs really were the culprit then it would only be a matter of days before i start to resemble an actual person again.

20130901_005050 (copy)several evenings later, looking and feeling a lot better, i emerged from my hotel and instead of turning right in the alley like i’m ‘supposed to’ i decided to turn left.  i got no further than twenty steps when i was greeted by three Indonesian gentleman who strongly urged me to turn around.  i quickly calmed them down and made it clear that i knew exactly where i going.  you see, for whatever reason situated right next to the backpacker neighborhood is a small red light district and tonight it was bumpin’.  spread out amongst the squirrelly maze of alleyways are a dozen or so “VIP Karaoke” rooms.  Indonesian men of all ages line up outside and wait for bouncers to usher them into the dim neon lit air conditioned rooms filled with young attractive women in skimpy outfits.  it has its charm on the surface.  i might even go so far as to call it adorable.  but the deeper into it i ventured the more bleak and desperate it became.  i had of course come here for one reason and one reason only.  to procure some “black wine“… or anything stronger than the weak beer i had been drinking for the past two months.  i was working off the logic that if you want an inexpensive stiff drink in a predominantly Muslim country then you should look in the areas where the laws of the land are not held in the highest regard.  when i came to realize that the super secret shop from which i had recently purchased it was closed i decided to ask a bouncer at one of the karaoke clubs.  after a bit of confusion followed by some gentle persistence followed by more confusion i was cordially invited to sit at a table already occupied by two gentleman when my black wine and a glass arrived moments later.  over the past several days i had become used to its sweet anise flavor so i was more than delighted when one of the gentleman filled my glass.  then he said to me “so you’re the guitar player”… i guess any foreigner who wanders into town with a guitar strung about him is bound to cause a stir.  “why yes i am” i said, to which he countered “i have a guitar, will you play for us” to which i countered “i would love to”.  to my surprise he handed me a well kept classical to which i tuned and began to play.  after impressing them with one song he motioned to his minion who then fetched him a full bottle of Johnny Walker Black and three glasses.  he then poured us each a glass and told me that he would refill my glass after each song i played for them.  i was a little dumbfounded.  i hadn’t tasted real whiskey in months and now my 20 years of guitar playing was suddenly going to gain me access to as much of it as my heart desired.  so i played and he poured.  every several minutes my music would get completely drown out by a wave of awful karaoke accompanied by a gust of cool air every time the doors to the club would open to let the next batch of men in.  it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in there but at the very least i knew it involved karaoke being sung mostly by the girls.  the men i was sitting with seemed important and well respected.  not only could they produce Johnny Walker out of thin air, but whenever one of the girls would come out on what i assumed was a break they would excitably throw themselves onto them and shower their faces with kisses.  did they own or manage the place?  were they pimps?  i made it a point not to ask too many questions.  the girls also seemed quite uncomfortable with my presence.  when one man made an attempt to introduce me to one of them she took one look at me, screamed and ran the other way.  i did my best to mitigate any direct brutal ego damage caused by the incident by focusing immediately back on my guitar playing.  i played all my original songs, then i played through all the parts of songs i had recently made up trying my best to pass them off as full songs, then when i was completely tapped of original material i played the only non-original music i knew which happened to be the handful of Nirvana songs i taught myself when i first learned to play guitar.  the timing was perfect because the Johny was near empty and my fingers were quickly losing their athleticism.  we had drawn a crowd by this point and i had them all singing along.  i thought it appropriate to end the set with “Rape Me” to which we all screamed the lyrics at the top of our lungs.  i think if Kurt Cobain were there he would have fully appreciated the irony.

the next morning i awoke with a feeling i had not felt in a very long time.  a true honest to God hangover.

oh, and i did some tourist stuff too… Yogyakarta is centrally located amongst many historical sights including:

Borobudur – a 9th-century Buddhist temple…

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and Prambanan – Borobudur’s 9th-century Hindu cousin…

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flashy turquoise helmets both protect you from and keep you from seeing the low hanging doorways

flashy turquoise helmets both protect you from and keep you from seeing the low hanging doorways

and a “Kraton” – Royal Palace in the center of town filled with gazebo after gazebo of beautiful Gamelan instruments!  this brought me back to my collage days when i was in a Gamelan band.  hey look i even dug up an old recording of a song we did called

Lutung Bingung.

i played the bonang on this track.  that’s the nipple-pods-like instrument down in front.

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on my 8th and final day in Jogja i made preparations for my eight hour train ride to Jakarta.  when i was in the final stages of packing my bag i noticed one healthy full grown bed bug spring from it onto the bed.  i tried my best to fight back my urge to cry as i watched it leisurely stroll across the sheets.  it crawled proudly as if it was well aware of the fact that it had defeated me.  in a fit of anger i flicked it onto the floor with my room key then thrust my foot down upon it hard and with extreme prejudice reducing it to a dark red scuff mark.  then i shouldered my pack and left the room slamming the door shut behind me.

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a little downtime

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even though i had a free round trip ticket to the Gili Islands burning a hole in my pocket i was not quite ready to go there.  not only would the place be bubbling to the brim with mid-August tourists, i was in need of some recuperation time.  that’s right, i needed to recuperate from that vacation i just took from traveling.  one could easily come to the conclusion that the immaculate beaches, breathtaking sunsets and relaxed paces that the Gili’s are famous for would be a more than acceptable place to recuperate, but i am a different sort.  i was a traveler needing to make the transition from vacation mode back into travel mode and hopefully recycle much of my wanderlust in the process.  this could not easily be done while surrounded by other tourists and insanely beautiful things.  i needed a non-special place where i could hang my hat for a while, preferably large enough to establish a living-like routine.  it needed to be hard but not too hard.  so after a minute or two of careless researching i decided to use the first leg of my free Gili trip to go to Mataram: Lombok’s capital city.

after a couple of days of roaming aimlessly without purpose (my absolute most favorite thing to do) i came to the conclusion that Mataram was perfect for my needs.  not only was it just the right amount of not special, it had a worn-out olympic-ish sized swimming pool only 15 minutes walk from my homestay.  i spent the next 10 days forming and clinging to what could resemble a routine.  this involved waking up and getting served my complimentary breakfast of coffee and a fried egg sandwich, followed by an hour or two of swimming laps (using the speedo and goggles i just so happen to have brought) either with or without a pool full of naked screaming children, then eating my 3 favorite dishes at my 3 restaurants of choice, then back to my porch to drink the water they call beer and fully escape into the wonderful world of audio books.

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i ended up getting pretty tight with the mother/daughter team that ran the homestay.  mom liked to fish recyclables out of the near by stream and daughter seemed to be prone to seizures.  one day mid-conversation she suddenly went limp and fell out of her chair.  her fists clenched up and she began to drool.  mom came to the rescue without hesitation.  then a moment after she regained her consciousness she headed to the garden to pick flowers as if it never happened.

on the second day of recuperation i woke up to realize that i was covered quite literally head to toe with itchy red bumps.  this would be my first of a few beyond annoying encounters with the tiny black ants that seem to infest many parts of Indonesia.

20130818_115717 (copy)around day six i decided to take a break from my recuperation from my vacation from traveling.  i rented a motorbike and drove like a mad man around the entire lower half of the island.  i visited the hippie-surfer-bum beaches of Kuta, the rural fishing villages on the southeast peninsula and then headed half way up the east coast and shot straight through the middle of the island with the sunset in my eyes.  all in all i found it to be quite different from its Balinese brother.

by day ten i woke up ready for the Gili’s.  after paying my sizable bar tab and saying a sad goodbye i boarded a bus followed by a boat to Gili Air.  Gili Air is the island of chill, while the other two Gili’s are purposed for honeymooners and party animals.  at about 1.5 kilometers in diameter there is nothing quite like being on an island of this size.  i could easily wander its circumference in 90 minutes at a stroll.  the west coast of Air was the most desolate as well as the most beautiful at dusk.  from there you could look out at the other two Gili’s at low tide while the setting sun colors the sky a blood red and back-lights Mount Agung on Bali.

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i befriended two Brits and an Aussie who had arrived a day before me to seek refuge from two solid weeks of partying on Gili Terawangan.  we did some snorkeling, tormented some crabs and starfish and then found a restaurant that would serve you an entire chicken and show you a film via projector screen on the beach.  that night’s attraction was the original Blues Brothers!

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i guess the moral of the story is that traveling the world isn’t always peaches and puppies… but sometimes it’s quite a few peaches and puppies.

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my summer vacation

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do you ever just wanna get away from it all?…  to take a break from the hard pressures of living and unwind?  perhaps you like to chase the beach honeys and work on your beer gut.  perhaps you like to curl up with a good book and pretend like you don’t exist.  whatever your fancy, a good vacation can be just the thing to rejuvenate your soul.  i was in need of such a vacation just last month.  that’s right… a vacation from traveling.  and what better way to embark on such a thing than to fly from hectic Kolkata, India to beautiful Bali, Indonesia?

actually, my decision to goto Bali was a little more premeditated than that.  as it turns out, my dear friend and ex-coworker Dj was already planning on a Bali getaway of her own.  so between the perfect timing of that, my desire to cross Indonesia off the travel docket and the ever worsening Indian monsoon, it was a no-brainer.  so to Bali i went!20130720_161938 (copy)

Bali is the perfect mixture of tourist traps and clandestine masterpieces.  from the soulless upscale resorts clogged to the brim with tourists along the shores of Kuta to the pristine rice fields and rural farming villages that rest among the high mountain lakes.  there is something here for everyone… unless of course you are a cheapskate backpacker, than your options are to either leave Bali or temporarily set your habits aside and give in to the pampering.

if there is one thing you should know about Bali it’s that it’s littered with tens of thousands of temples.  all very ornate and carved out of stone, many of which are monkey infested.  take a large concentration of these temples, pepper them with trendy handicraft shops and mediocre restaurants and you have Ubud (stop #1 of our circumnavigation)  in the center of town is a delightful monkey forest where you can turn your body into a jungle gym if you have bananas.

 

one of the more impressive sites we saw was Klungkung Palace east of Ubud.  it has a floating pavilion with a painted ceiling from the mid-nineteenth century which depicts different punishments in the afterlife.

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collage of the painted afterlife

in the western outskirts of Ubud near a town called Tamen we found immaculate rice fields that stretched as far as the eye can see.  there we spent countless hours frolicking about, pestering the local farmers and pretending we were in the land of make believe.

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one intriguing yet hard to stomach pastime we stumbled across was cock fighting.  trap two enraged roosters in a ring and you can watch them slowly peck each other to death, but also strap sharp 2-inch blades to the backs of their feet and now you have a sport!  a couple hundred Balinese men huddle in a concrete pit and holler out their bets while two men rouse their cocks in the center of the ring.  the hollering comes to a crescendo and the men release their cocks who then charge at each other, jump, kick and slice each other to death.  the winner gets to keep the dead one and 10% of the all winnings goto the corrupt government so they will keep looking the other way.

 

our next stop was a yogi surfing village called Cenggu to “hang some ten and barney the barrel” (AKA: try my hand at surfing for the first time ever).  to my surprise the getting up came easy for me, especially when my beginner board is the size of a boat and there is a very nice, very strong Balinese man choosing my waves and pushing my board behind me.

IMG_2426 (copy)a pizza house near where we stayed (one of our favorite hangouts) was having their one-year anniversary during one of the nights we were there and everyone who was anyone was attending.  they had a live karaoke band and served complimentary wine.  they also held a drinking contest that involved four contestants in a race to pound a single 12 ounce beer.  the first to finish and place the upside-down empty bottle on his head would win a free round-trip ticket to the Gili Islands.  when the open invitation came for the four contestants to come up i was already standing on the stage before i even had a chance to think about it.  two decades of alcoholism was finally about to pay off and i was quite thirsty in addition to that.  we were each given a brief introduction and then handed our beers.  after a short countdown i tipped the bottle into my mouth and drank its cold bubbly contents as fast as gravity would allow, all the while feeling the familiar burn in my throat.  when all was consumed i placed the overturned bottle atop my head and let the residual froth leak down onto my face.  i looked over at my rivals to see them still burping down their first sips.  i left that stage with a mixed sense of accomplishment and shame but more importantly i also left that stage with a free round-trip ticket to the Gili’s!

20130812_104650 (copy)speaking of alcoholism, if there is one more thing you should know about Bali it’s that it’s extremely difficult to get a decent beverage there.  foreign spirits are taxed so heavily that even the rich and desperate would think twice before throwing money at the problem.  that is if you are lucky enough to find a shop that sells the spirits.  due to the high Muslim population, in many areas you will only find plentiful amounts of an extremely light beer called “Bintang”.  the only domestic spirits made there is a semi-illegal moonshine called “Arak” made from the sap of palm trees.  sometimes you can find Arak in a labeled bottle but in most cases you’ll find it in giant jugs behind shop counters if you ask the right questions.  it’s also a well known fact that many un-trustworthy Arak operations will cut their product with methanol.  however, even without the methanol any Arak you find will be sure to knock you on your ass and make you wish you never bothered in the first place.

from Cenggu we ventured north to the mountains to explore two crater lakes.  Lake Batur rests in a valley with the giant volcanically active Mount Agung towering over it.  from there we traversed the tops of several ridges near the volcano via some dangerous off-roading, discovered a sinking village and got blessed in a temple completely by accident.

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Lake Bratan to the west is a smaller holy lake with the beautiful temple “Pura Bratan” built into the water off the shore.  this lake was surrounded by an odd mixture of Muslim villages, strawberry farms and giant empty resorts in various stages of neglect.

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and to our surprise the place we stayed had it’s very own karaoke room!


we ended our journey in Pemuteran at the northwest end of the island where we found the best beaches and the most inviting accommodations.  there we attained a whole new level of relaxation (like tourists in hibernation) for our remaining days.

on the final day after saying a sad goodbye to Dj, i properly packed my trusty travel bag, slung it on my back and felt its full weight for the first time in a month.  then i made my way east to Lombok Island.

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a final pose with Dj dearest on our last day in Bali

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back inside the Indian clown car

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when we arrived at the ever hectic New Jalpaiguri railway station my brain immediately snapped back into Indian busy mode.  we negotiated our way through the train station bureaucracy with maximum efficiency and booked a sleeper headed for Kolkata.  with plenty of time to spare before our train left, Escapo and i entertained an unexpected crowd at a nearby restaurant.

i slept on the train in what seemed like hundreds of ten minute increments.  before we even arrived i was already bracing myself for the impact of the chaos and sensory overload that large Indian cities tend to throw at you, but after spending just a little time there i found the place to be… well… pleasant. not only pleasant, but actually one of the most fascinating places i have ever been.

rickshaw2all the processes necessary to maintain human existence all take place out in the open here.  on the street next to the bustle of traffic or tucked into tight alleyways.  animals are slaughtered, prepared and consumed, people sleep, bathe and peddle their wares.  everything that can happen is happening everywhere and it’s all taking place within very close proximities.  it’s life in its ultimate compact and transparent form.  it seems like chaos at first but the more i watched and interacted with it the more i began to notice the fine mechanics.  the fruit seller knows to step over the sleeping man, the chicken killer knows to hold down the dying chicken with his feet so it doesn’t disturb the fruit, the bathing man washes himself discretely so not to un-appetize the passing customers, etc..  everything has its imperative time and place.  these men and women may look like poor savages but in actuality they are professionals of their environment.  it’s not dirty or offensive but rather graceful and efficient.

among them are some of the most helpful, sincere and honest people i have ever met.  they pride themselves on helping you find your way when you get lost and they want to explain things to you… anything.  the people are by far the main attraction of this city.

in the center of town is a giant indoor market with an attached goat slaughterhouse inside an old decaying warehouse where i spent quite a lot of time observing the men go about their work.  they line the goats up on one aisle and herd them into cages under the raised floorboards until they are ready to kill and butcher them on the next aisle over.  i watched one very muscle bound butcher who was aggressively chopping up giant blocks of ice to keep his mutton cold.  next to him were two separated piles of heads and feet and a moat to collect the blood.

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the goat’s heart is the most valuable part

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this urban shepherd lets his sheep out to graze while the children improve their cricket game.  we see him the following day on the other side of town carefully herding his flock through rush hour traffic.

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sandwiched between the Hooghly River and the financial district is a thriving flower market.  right above it a bridge extends to the other side of the river.  this is one of the main arteries through town.

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Hooghly River mouth

when i first looked at the map of the giant sprawl that is Kolkata, i could not help but notice that there was a suburb named “Salt Lake City”.  being born and raised in the other Salt Lake City, it immediately became my mission to pay it a visit.  i simply couldn’t leave Kolkata without visiting what i could tell is the only other Salt Lake City in existence.  after all, how many people on this earth can truly say that they have been to both Salt Lake Cities?  after several days of convincing Nicolas it was a good idea we got in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Salt Lake City.  besides being confused as to why we would want to go there he also asked us where in Salt Lake City we wanted to go.  it is a whole city after all.  Nicolas quickly looked at the map and pointed to a random hospital in the city center.  i also cleared the air by telling the driver that i was from Salt Lake City.  after driving for almost an hour the scenery grew rural then less so when the driver announced that we had crossed the Salt Lake City limits.  it was far different from the Salt Lake City i knew but still very functional.  there were some high rises, nice neighborhoods, shops and restaurant.  the one thing it had in common with the other Salt Lake City is that it had a salt water lake with an island in the middle of it.  we could tell from the reactions of the people that we far from the beaten path.  there was no obvious sign that read “Welcome to Salt Lake City” so instead i had the driver creep slowly through the streets until i saw the words “Salt Lake City” written on an awning, then i would jump out to take a picture.  again i would tell the shop owners i was from Salt Lake City.. as if that made it all better.  the driver took us to the hospital as promised then stopped the car.  yup… there’s that hospital we wanted to go to.  Nicolas and i looked at each other for a moment.  “are you over this yet?” i asked.. “yup” he replied.  then i asked the driver to take us all the way back to Kolkata.  anyway, please enjoy this collage of Salt Lake City signage i pieced together from awnings and buses.

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we also got to put our tourist hats on.  having an extensive history of British rule, Kolkata is speckled with sites including a beautiful cathedral and a giant memorial built for Queen Victoria with a very interesting exhibit inside that covers the span of the British occupation from the rise of the East India Company to the Indian liberation after World War 2.  we also saw Mother Teresa’s final resting place which was my favorite of the sites.  her tomb sits in a chapel in a convent in the middle of a ghetto.i_thirst  when i entered the building and walked into the multi-story courtyard an air of gentle peace washed over me.  the sisters were all there going about their daily business while giggling at each other from opposing balconies.  i saw the prison cell of a bedroom that Mother lived in for over 50 years.  i saw the few well worn worldly possessions she had and read the accounts of her life and works.  her tomb was a simple and sleek marble box that had the words “i thirst” written in flower peddles across the top.

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Victoria Memorial

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

we took a shortcut through the Muslim ghetto that lead back to our neighborhood.  i couldn’t keep my eyes open wide enough to take in all the stimuli around me.  these people seemed so happy despite their destitution.  the next day i came back to the ghetto to give the place a proper surveying by walking the grid of streets in a zig-zag pattern.  a group of gentleman invited me to take cover under a makeshift awning during a brief monsoonal outburst.  they fed me tea and explained the dynamics of their neighborhood.  here Muslims and Christians co-exist in peace.  here a man’s worth is measured by his willingness to help his community.  here community is survival.  my mind was blown.  my ‘zig-zag the grid’ plan soon turned to shambles after several of the narrow streets twisted and turned.  i was lost but i didn’t care.  i was granted additional audiences with more of the neighborhood’s inhabitants.  they were very curious about me and tried their best to explain things as they saw them.  they were so proud of their little community and i can see why.  i was ready to throw in the towel and live amongst them.

on our fifth and final day in Kolkata it came time again that Nicolas and i had to part ways.  after spending every waking moment with him for almost two months i knew it would not be easy.  he had gotten an offer from a local casting agent to take part in a Bollywood film so i waited with him at our favorite bar until the dark and mysterious SUV came to pick him up.  it was a little surreal to watch him get in the vehicle with his backpack and drive away with out me in it.  alone again for the first time in far too long i wandered my favorite streets one last time.  then when i was ready i gathered my things, hailed a taxi and headed for he airport… that’s right, i said the airport.

 

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i am no longer trekking, yet i still exist

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when this thought first came to mind on my first post-trek morning in Naya Pul it made me laugh, then as the days progressed it became less funny.  the truth was that i just couldn’t know who i was unless i was mindlessly marching through mud for 6 to 10 hours.  trekking is hard work but the mental prowess required for the task is far less complex than anything i had previously allowed myself to grow accustom to.  you simply look at the trail and walk on it… that’s it.  you could possibly add one layer of complexity by carting along a map and playing connect-the-dots but lets face it, there is no need and your map is soggy, illegible and no longer worth its weight.  i wish someone would have warned me about this apparent post-trek-syndrome and given me some pointers on how to remedy it.  at that point i only knew that step one was to NOT put my smelly boots on and trudge through mud for 6 to 10 hours.  i didn’t want to imagine what the next steps would entail… re-accepting the existence of a lot of humans in a single place, being reunited with all my things in Kathmandu and then suddenly having to actually ‘have’ those things, making drastic “planning” decisions about what i was going to do next… it was a heavy prospect.  so instead of trying to attack it all at once i just hopped on a bus to Pokhara.  at least i was not alone.

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Pokhara lakeside

Pokhara is like the main trekker hub of Nepal.  it’s conveniently situated at the base of the Annapurna and is loaded with shops selling anything and everything one could possibly need to get lost in the mountains for any desired amount of time.  most trekkers start and end in this town (though we did not do it like that).  the touristy part of town stretches along the shore of a sizeable lake and is loaded with restaurants and bars.  we spent the next 5 days visiting most of them until we became re-acquainted with the idea that having a multitude of delicious cuisine in your immediate grasp was a normal situation to find one’s self in.

DSCN1947 (copy)one fine day a group of five of us rented 4 motorbikes and drove them to a near by lake for a pleasant swim.  on our return we were greeted by a severe monsoonal outburst.  we had all experienced our fair share monsoonal outbursts, just not while also operating motorbikes.  the droplets of rain came down hard and felt like millions of tiny BBs being shot at my chest and face.  it took all my concentration to keep my eyes open and focused on the road.  about 20 minutes away from our destination we pulled off to the side of the road to take a break and find shelter.  to our surprise we spotted an open lit garage just big enough to house our 4 bikes.  we drove in and parked without hesitation.  next door we found a small tea house with a covered raised caged room with a perfect view of the storm (a little too perfect).  we crawled up into it and were promptly served hot tea, blankets and pillows.  there we laid back, cuddled our shivers away and strategized our next move while we sipped our tea.  it became obvious that the storm was not letting up but rather getting worse.  lightning would strike and turn night into day and stop all the rain drops in their tracks for a split second, then we would count: one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand… thunderclap!!  we strongly considered rain_dance4just sleeping there.  it wouldn’t have been so bad but we were worried that the folks from whom we rented the bikes might want them back eventually.  we thanked and paid our caretakers, mounted our bikes and drove off into the thick of the storm in the pitch black.  the BB-like rain drops from before had turned into continues streams of water all seemingly connected.  other than the fact i could still breath, there was pretty much no difference between being underwater and my current situation.  it was also more or less pointless to keep my eyes open unless there was some source to light my path.  luckily the lighting struck often and imprinted enough of my surroundings on my retina to keep me going.  i could let my eyes rest for seconds at a time and drive from memory.  when we finally reached Pokhara the streets had become a series of small lakes submerging up to half my bike in places.  my front fender would serve up a flurry of water jets that arched over our heads. i tried my best to drive through them at that perfect speed so not to get swept away and to not hydroplane.  we made it back in one piece just in time to dance in the rain.

by the time we arrived in Kathmandu i was eager to be reunited with all my things.  they were still right where i left them over a month before at The Happily Ever After Hostel.  it was good to have it all back though weird to suddenly have clothing options.  most importantly it was good to see Escapo.  he had been well taken care of and had been played and loved by many in my absence.  we moved locations from trekker mecca to “Freak Street” – an older, quieter, more character/less functional part of Kathmandu and relaxed for several days while we slowly chipped away at the final step – “planning” our next move.  the planning went very slowly at first as we settled into a comforting and lazy routine of rooftop relaxing and city wandering.  i was not afraid to let my feet drag here as i had no place to be and no place to go.  i was completely free and unbound by any commitments as is often the case these days.  the more i wandered at the Kathmandu pace the more i felt apart of the place.  i’ve spent more time here than any other place so far on my odyssey.  only a total of 12 days but it’s the closest thing i have felt to home since my actual home.

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Freak Street

one evening in order to give parting friends Lieselot and Ilanka a proper send off, we decided to let loose and visit a gay dance club called “Fire” in the heart of the Tamil district.  this place was gay Nepali style to the core.  it had all the right curves in all the right places if you know what i mean.  after about 7 minutes of cutting the rug my friend Dror manages to get his canvas tobacco pouch stolen by a large Nepali body builder.  we all saw him do it too yet there was nothing any of us could do about it short of losing an arm or an eye in an attempt to get it back.  even the slightest attempt to communicate with the man set off the unruly enraged pitbull within him.  we made our best diplomatic attempts to encourage his friends, the club’s security guards and even a policeman from outside to help us but they were all unwilling to give him a thorough searching.  this man was untouchable.  the only thing left to do at this point was to sit and stare at him from across the room.  stoic and cold, i tried my best to convey to him that i pitied his pitiful existence, but in the end it was actions like these that got us politely and promptly escorted out of the club.  after almost all hope was lost our other friend Micaiah (a sweet and gentile Frenchman) becomes himself enraged, gets a very determined look on his face and then re-enters the club.  4 minutes later he returns holding the canvas tobacco pouch and said “it was in his pocket!”.  how did he do it!? that is a very good question.  i guess certain situations call for a little French finessing.

Lieselot and i left soon after this to make the long walk back to our guest house when we got pestered by several cycle rickshaw drivers.  it’s usually my habit to ignore them but due to the nights events and the sizeable quantity of rum i had consumed, i was in a mood.  i made a deal with one cycle rickshaw driver that i would commission his bike to take us to our destination for a fair price as long as he agreed to let me drive it there.  he happily agreed and got in the back seat with Lieselot.  i mounted the bike, set it in motion with a jolt and then proceeded to veer off the road into a gutter and crash it into the side of a building.  ok, i’ll admit that this was not my finest moment but i would like to state for the record that cycle rickshaws are EXTREMELY difficult to drive.  i jumped off the bike and apologized profusely to the man.  he just laughed and then checked the wheels.  the bike was fine but i had more or less destroyed the silly umbrella that jutted out from the top of the handle bars.  “i drive now” he said to which i replied “oh no you don’t, we had a deal!”.  again he gets in the back seat with Lieselot.  together they giggle uncontrollably while i made attempt after attempt to get us home.  he barked commands at me while i negotiated every cobblestone, dip and turn.  i was quickly becoming a pro and the road was quickly becoming my bitch.  when we finally reached our destination i helped him bend his broken umbrella back into place, paid him five times what i owed him then retired to my room.

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view from my balcony in Darjeeling

after almost a week in Kathmandu enough of a plan had started to materialize to allow us to start moving in a direction.  that direction being east across Nepal to Ilam then crossing the border back into India.  after a couple of days of hard traveling involving a 17 hour bus ride infested with baby chicks, a nights stay in Ilam and a not too painful border crossing, Nicolas and i arrived in the delightfully precious town of Darjeeling – situated at the far east end of the Himalaya, stacked tightly atop a mountain ridge and spilling down either side with avenues that wind through it both narrow and confused.  this place is quite Nepali, relaxing and chalked full of tea.  there is a toy train station in the center of town with a toy train that you can ride to a neighboring town.  we spent days wandering its silly streets while giggling at how such a bizarre place can exist on the same planet as us.  we visited the local zoo, a mountaineering museum, drank tea and dined with a random family in the middle of a small street after getting lost on purpose.  as it turns out, Darjeeling was the exact reset button i needed to heal my post-Annaporn blues and get me re-psyched about the fact that i was STILL traveling the world for an unknown amount off time.

P1030845 (copy)from Darjeeling we took the adorable toy train that never exceeded 5 miles an hour to the neighboring town of Kurseong and did a one night “home stay” at the Makaibari tea plantation.  this included a tour of the tea factory, a tea tasting and accommodations plus three square meals at a private home of the tea overlord’s choosing (not much happens in this town without the consent of the tea overlord).  i now know a great deal more about the production of tea than i did previously.  for example i was surprised to learn that the different tea varieties (white/green/black) actually all come from the same plant… hmm.  the family we got assigned to was very kind and mother cooked a mean Dal Baht.  we ate everything they threw at us and slept soundly despite the philharmonic dog barking orchestra.

i wanted to stay longer up there with the hill people.  in the recent weeks i had become accustom to their gentile ways and they were familiar to me like an old teddy bear.  but as travel land would have it we had to abide by our new realized agenda which was beckoning us elsewhere.  so we said a sad goodbye to the Himalaya and inched our way south toward the third largest city in India.

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