30 September 2009

Confusing Photo of the Week #6

Why, ass captain is the most important job on board, along with the bikini inspector and the muff diver....

Thank god the Cleaner and his helper were off that day, otherwise we would have all been in for a surprise.

28 September 2009

Singapore - The Ultimate Foodie Mecca

Big bulging greedy crab eatin' eyes.

Singapore. A country that is a city. A big, shiny, glossy fancy-pantsy city filled with luxurious shopping complexes that stretch for kilometres, litter-less streets and happy middle class consumers hussling by with Coach and Gucci shopping bags.

They are hurrying because they are hungry.

Singaporeans are well known for their love of food - more food than we can imagine. My first trip to the Big Uneasy was with work 18 months ago and I will be honest - I did not love it. I was put off by the modernity (compared with Vietnam, where I had just come from) and the oft-twee Disneyland atmosphere. But this time I got it - I understood Singapore. Because all I did was eat.

Hawker stalls, Sushi restaurants, food courts (a popular place to eat in S'pore- not like our atrocities of fast food at all) and dim sum - I ran the gamut and ate my face off. I saw Chinese people eating South Indian idlis, South Indians eating pig intestine soup, Malays eating pizza and everyone - and I mean everyone eating Hainanese chicken rice - the national dish. Unlike most places in Asia, food knows no race and has no cultural divide here.

Singaporeans are true foodies. I can get behind that - man, can I ever! I was so inspired by all of this edible harmony that I decided to document every meal, snack and alcohlic bevvie that I consumed over a 36 hour period. I have never been happier.

Salty, soft, squishy heaven.

Delicious, squishy salmon sashimi at a local sushi place near City Hall. While it wasn't cheap it rivalled Vancouver's freshness and authenticity - I also had a spicy tuna handcone, an ebi tempura roll and a 2 pieces of salmon nigiri. After a year away from my true love Raw Fish-san, (other than our brief tryst in Vancouver) I could little more than breathe a sigh of happiness and order another handcone.

One of their slogans? "If you want a skinny latte, drink half a glass."

Ya Kun Kaya Toast is a famous chain across Singapore - started by a little old man in 1926 (the year my granny and grandpa were both born!) They serve traditional coffees, runny softboiled eggs (like, barely cooked at all - they hold the eggs near the hot water) and kaya toast: thin slices of brown bread slathered with coconut egg jam and a thick cold slice of margerine. Although it sounds apalling, it was kind of nice- like cinnamon toast. It, like every other restaurant in Singapore, was packed.

Salty and crunchy with a bouncy shrimp in the middle. I do love shramp....

Oh sweet jesus - this was delicious. You may remember one of my previous experience with dimsum in Hong Kong - this was almost as good. Pictured above is shrimp wrapped in crispy beancurd skin, deepfried (like all good food is.) We also had some steamed shrimp dumplings and cokes served in ice cold tin cups. I am now convinced that that is the way god intended coca cola to be imbibed, so Atlanta you'd better listen up....

Pineapple, Chambord and vodka - was this created especially for Violet Dear?

A lurvely French martini at the Swissotel's 70th floor bar - we had a beautiful 360 view of all of Singapore with lightning as its decoration. The hotel was designed by I.M. Pei ( you know, the architect that Lisa Simpson references....) and it is a modernist's dream. The drinks, though exorbitantly priced, were wonderful - I recommend heading here for happy hour for a nice splurge.

Skinny jeans? Not for long, cabrones.

Choose. Your. Own. Tempura. Bar. Somebody open this in Vancouver please, so that I can always have 3 mushrooms, 2 asparagus, 1 onion chunk, 1 potato and 3 green beans instead of lame squash and pithy yam. The result was good - nice and crispy with light oil, tasty batter and perfectly cooked veggies.

Cheese. Cheese. Cheese. Ohmigod. Cheese.

How much money can a person spend on cheese in Singapore? Well, let's just say too much. One stinky stinky blue, one slithery creamy brie and one peppery gouda with a Scottish red cheddar for good measure. All of that slathered on fresh rosemary focaccia. Am I even still in Asia?

Next time, S'pore. No wait - for this price probably never. I'd rather buy expensive make-up and food.

This one is a bit of a cheat - I didn't actually have a drink here. The Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel is where the Singapore Sling was invented, and at this colonial landmark you can still sip a cherry brandied delight - for 35 Canadian dollars. I'm in Asia - that drink had better come with a sexual favour! We passed, even though it meant missing out on drinking history....

Fish Biscuit.

I posted this photo in my facebook photo album, and tons of people reacted with "ewww!" and "wtf?" I realize that I forgot to mention that these have no fish in them whatsoever. These are Japanese waffles, stuffed with gooey dobs of sweet filling - I played it a bit safe and passed over durian for chocolate. It was a perfect little sugary snack - the waffle soft and spongey and the chocolate warm. I have since been informed that we have these in Vancouver - I am there.

Looka likea styrofoam, tastea likea heaven.

Seemingly every hawker stall in Singapore has a newspaper clipping enlarged and posted on their kiosk exclaiming that they are the best purveyor of blank in the city. This lady is apparently the queen of these little cakes stuffed with toasted coconut. I tried one, and I won't argue - yummy.

We waited in line for these for 15 minutes when no other stall had any business. That's how you know it's that good.

Here is another example of a famous hawker dish, served from the stall that has been deemed number 1 in Singapore by Makansutra, the street food guide. Soupy fried noodles with shrimp and squid, served in the husk of a betel tree (aficionados say that the husk gives them a special bitter flavour.) The broth was light and fishy (in a good way) and the prawns steamed perfectly atop two kinds of Chinese noodle. Bean sprouts rounded it out to add some crunch and freshness - win.

It was like a seafood Texas Chainsaw Massacre up in thar.....

Mastercrab - they didn't eff around when it came to naming their restaurant, now did they? This is in a sort of fancy outdoor foodcourt across the street from where our friend Tanya and her partner Peter live - they see fancy cars pull up here for some crab all the time, and so we decided to forgo a more swanky seafood place (I did that last time anyway, on Singapore Airline's dime.)

You guys know I like crab, right?

I have a bad habit of anthropomorphizing things, and well - doesn't this guy look he's about to take a bow? (He deserves one!)

Every city has its famous food - Chicago deep dish pizza, New York cheesecake, Montreal Poutine - I can go on. But none is so decadent, so exciting and so...well, crabby as Singapore Chili Crab. First created forty years ago, the half-cracked crab is served swimming in a savory mix of tomato, chilies and egg. It was amazing - I was covered in the thick succulent sauce from elbow to ear, sweating from the spice and ignoring my rice as per usual. It turns out they are the masters at crab.

It's the size of mah head!

I love pub quizzes, and it turns out that there is a great one right near Tanya and Peter's place. This was my first Hoegarden in Asia, and even though it was expensive (everything is in S'pore) I was in Heaven. This is like a private bucket of beer - I had to use two hands and even then it was touch and go....

I need-a dose-a this.... (groan)

If you have never eaten a South Indian dosa you are not my kind of person (I kid. Maybe you are anyway - but you should eat a dosa man, fast!) Dosas are a thin bubbly lentil pancake (sort of like crispy Ethiopian injera bread) filled with a masala potato mixture and then dipped (using only your right hand!) into a choice of runny sauces called sambars. Clockwise these were a really onion-y curry, shredded coconut sauce and a tomato-y mix that tasted like butter chicken (without the chicken, of course.) This is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I love them anytime. This stall is also highly ranked by Makansutra.

Mooncakes. They sure are....special? Different?

Don't these look like they would taste sooo good and perfect - like Hello Kitty herself crafted them with her paws? Well, they don't. Mooncakes are a once-a-year treat served during the Chinese Lantern Festival - the traditional version is stuffed with lotus paste and duck egg yolk. These days you can also get fruit filled versions, and so we tried a Lotus (had to taste the original) a mango, a cranberry and a green tea. They tasted like raw floury dough and extremely sweet congealed jam. But they sure are cute!

At the airport. I won't lie. I won't be ashamed. McDonald's fries are a secret vice. We all have at least one (or twenty, if you are Violet Dear.)

So, should you visit Singapore for the architecture, the pre-fab tourist attractions and the shopping? Hell no. Go and eat. Like, really really EAT.

You won't be disappointed...

Please help the flood victims in Manila

They need our help, just like you might one day. Lend a hand?

Hi guys - I have never done this on the 'site before, but I am stranded in Manila and powerless to help the quarter of a MILLION folks who have lost their homes and all of their belongings.

Tropical Storm Ketsana has dumped a month's worth of rain on Manila in ONE DAY - I was here and it was crazy. Over one hundred people have drowned, and the rains are not over.

Please donate to your local Red Cross (specify Manila Ketsana victims) as the Philippines branch does not accept credit card payments online. Any little bit helps - people really could use a hand.

Violet Dear

Update - as of Sep 30, the death toll is at over 250 with two million people having lost their homes. As we speak Ketsana is wreaking havoc on Vietnam and Cambodia, where the combined death toll is over 50. Please help.

27 September 2009

A Typhoon in Manila - Let's Go to the Mall?

From Reuters - taken yesterday in Quezon city.

Just when I was about to get out and enjoy Manila, to shake off the violating theft feeling that we had incurred on our first day here, to eat breakfast and lunch at the weekly Makati Farmer's market and to tour the city with renowned (and flamboyantly gay) comedian Carlos Cedran – that is the day that the typhoon hit. Our plans of catching a night bus to the ancient rice terraces of Banaue were dashed.

We woke to an ominous sound – a loud drumming coming from the roof. "What is that?" I asked S, causing him to fling open the window and look down four stories. "That, dear, is the rain."

Now, I am a Vancouver girl and a rain lover through and through. Thunderclouds are actually comforting to me, homey and nostalgic – 'grey skies are NOT going to clear up, so put on an cope-y face.' Vancouverites don't use umbrellas unless it is like, pouring – the people in rain coats with brollies are inevitably tourists or Toronto expats unused to the constant eight month barrage of moody grey droplets - we native-born Lotus Landers can sort of dodge the drops.

I bring up the almanac of West coast Canada to illustrate that I, unlike most people, am well equipped to cope with precipitation – like a duck, or a mushroom. I will go out in the most thunderous monsoon weather without the bat of a MAC mascara-ed eyelash – but this? This is a typhoon. An actual one.

I have seen waterfalls on the Trans Canada highway (you know, out there in the wasteland past Hope on the way to the Coquihalla) that have less water pressure than the rain in Manila today. The sky has opened up and I think we made it mad – sheets of rain are pounding the street and causing floods. The lobby of our hotel is swamped by a foot of water that is mixed with shredded newspaper bits and swirling mud – the doomen gave up bailing it out hours ago.

Our hunger and sheer boredom forced us to don body condom-like plastic rain ponchos to head to that infamous of all Manila institutions – the mega mall. After slogging through the lobby we emerged on the street wet and slimy and hailed a tricycle, a pedal taxi. He was draped in a vinyl sim card ad in lieu of a rain coat and was charging 4 times the normal rate to take us down the comicly flooded street – we agreed.

Careening through the near empty streets in our human powered tuk-tuk we had to lift our feet to avoid being soaked by the lakes of rain beneath us. Our driver pedalled his heart out and we arrived at the mall.

In Vancouver a really rainy day can only mean one thing – the malls will all be crowded, groaning with bored humans waving plastic and shuffling around zombie-like. In Manila the opposite was true – there were only a few shoppers ambling around and half of the stores were closed. However, this being the Philippines, land of the monolithic shopping centre, that still left a multitude of options.

After a few hours spent killing time (and money at Topshop, as they have them here but not in Canada – go figure) we headed back to our guesthouse, where the weekly wine and cheese night just happened to be occuring.

Drinking glass after glass of a decent Bordeaux (can you believe when I was there 10 years ago I didn't like wine? Shame – deep shame) we heard fellow traveler's stories of the day. One dude who had traveled to a far flung corner of the city actually saw people swimming in the road. S himself saw a parade of drowned rats and cockroaches floating by in the gutter when he went to the ATM.

Now it is 8pm, the rain is falling even harder and S and I have nothing to do but watch Men in Black II, drink this wine and wait for the rain to abate. Hopefully tomorrow we will be able to start our Northward journey to the Cordillera – but if not, well I hope the mall is open. It may be our only choice...

(We woke up to the news today that 60 people were killed and the rain was the heaviest since 1967. Truly horrible.)

*Note - as of Sep 28 the deathtoll has risen to over 90 and 250,000 people are now homeless - from our relatively dry point in the city we had no idea until we tuned into CNN. Please PLEASE make a donation to the Philippine Red Cross here for all of the victims of Tropical Storm Ketsana.

26 September 2009

A Stolen Camera (and Soul, For All You Melodramatics)

It is fitting that this post has no accompanying photos, as Manila has a way of doing that – making it difficult to take them. Why, you ask? Well, I can't really answer but I sure know who can – the person (I think it was a lady) who snatched our camera from the case strapped across S's chest and ran down the street. She knows.

There is that horrible moment when you realize that something irreversible and bad has happened – the sinking cold feeling in your tum, the instant denial and panic, the desperate moment when you just have to accept that this is now your life and incorporate this new reality – the shitty one – into it.

When we were first dating S and I went to see a friend perform burlesque at a local hall. We arrived late and the bar had run out of everything except gin – a spirit that I simply cannot stomach. It tastes like hairspray and poison to me, and until that point I had never had more than a sip. Let's stress until that point. S and I got giggly from gin and juice, making me exclaim “hey – this isn't so bad!”

When on the short walk home my stiletto heels began cutting up my feet S valiantly began to piggy bag me – until he slipped on the ice. I went over his shoulders, stunned and without putting my hands in front of my face. As a result it was my two front teeth that broke my fall, and well – just broke. The sinking “this is irreversible” feeling happened as I spat bloody fragments of teeth into my hand and witnessed S's face register a look of absolute horror.

It was a moment in time that a) made me upset and b) cost a lot of money and hassle.

The accident shocked me – I realized that in one tiny little moment everything can change – you could be walking down the street and be bowled down by an errant bus. Or you could spill over your boyfriend's shoulders and break your grill. Or a little thief could run off with your beloved favourite camera – a moment that a) made me upset and b) will cost a lot of money and hassle.

Today, moments after the theft, it was my turn to look at S with that same expression of horror and disbelief. While I will gladly replace a camera over my teeth (two root canals, two crowns, many many needles poked into my gums) it was still a punch in the stomach. While S frantically paced around the overpass near the Quiapo Church (which houses the famous Manila quirk, the Black Nazarene, of which I have no photos) looking for the person responsible, I stood and almost dreamily thought to myself “We now have no camera.” While S was in shaking, angry denial I had floated into shocked acceptance.

I suppose because we have been traveling for so long and never had so much as a dime stolen we thought we were invincible. We got careless. A piece of advice for Manila – make sure your camera bag has a zipper and not velcro, otherwise a biatch will reach right in and disappear into the masses (they're Catholic, so sometimes the masses are literal.)

All I know is that now, kind of like the ill-fated piggy back incident, I almost feel gun shy about wandering around this city. The difference is then I was in a state of caution just when walking over patches of ice or riding my bike - now I am scared to take my laptop or wallet anywhere. I feel...vulnerable.

Are you more likely to get robbed in Manila than in other Southeast cities? Are gin-drinking, icy sidewalks and shoulder rides a bad combo? Well, not always.

But usually? Yes.

(I'm sorry to have my first post of the Philippines be a tad....negative, but I gotta be an honest writer. I promise that there will be many more posts that are in a happier vein – most people have been amazingly smiley and friendly and the food and sights have been great. I can't wait for the Cordillera, Vigan and Bohol!)

24 September 2009

Up the Mountain, In the Dark: The Coloured Lakes of Kelimutu

Ahhh, the beautiful photo that I ultimately traveled 3 days (enduring livestock genitalia - read on) to see... Don't they look cool?

It's 4 am in Moni and cold – like really cold. I am bundled in yoga pants, 2 hoodies and socks with my trekking sandals (yeah, really.) While ten degrees Celsius would be completely tolerable in Vancouver I have acclimatised to the unrelenting thirty+ heat of Asia and am now shivering like mad. Even so, I seem to be in a better state than my motorbike driver, who is bundled up in a blanket with his sarong looped around his head (he looks sort of like Beavis acting like Cornholio.) He is smiling and waving at me as I climb the steps leading to the road from my menky guesthouse.

“Good Morning Mister! Now we go to Kelimutu!” His teeth are chattering as he says this. I manage a wan smile in return, the most that I can muster this early and look around for my helmet. “Helmet?” I ask him, gesturing at the white one he has on his own head.“OK, no problem! You take me.” He pulls it off and hands it to me.

Now, I don't feel super great about taking this poor man's head protection, but it is pitch black outside, there are no street lights and we are about to ride up a frickin' mountain. My mother's sternest expression pops into my head and my Grandmother's voice echoes in mind “Don't be schtewpid!” I take the helmet. It doesn't have a chin strap, but I figure it is better than nothing - S, behind me and straddling his own motorbike, has only his toque. I hop on the bike, careful to avoid the boiling hot exhaust pipe on the right hand side (something Brandon forgot to do on his trip, ending up with the famous “Southeast Asia tattoo”) and we get started.

We are up so early in the teensy village of Moni on the Indonesian island of Flores to see the multicoloured lakes of Kelimutu. Indonesia is the home of such heavy weight volcanoes as Krakatoa and Gunung Rinjani, but Kelimutu is special but for a different reason. Perched atop the mountain are three crater lakes, all bumping up against eachother, all dramatically different colours due to minerals and chemical reactions. That's not even the extra special part – every few years they change colours. Right now the lakes are a stunning turquoise, a dark forest green and inky black. A few years ago they were chocolate brown, rusty red and blue. And a few years before that....well, you get the picture.

Hot tea at the top to soothe my jangled nerves and frozen fingies.

I don't know why it has not occurred to me until this point just how dark it will be at 4am and just how winding the road is. We race along the narrow road, ascending switchback after switchback, the unguarded drop-off on one side of us tickling my brain with its horrifying possibility. As I often do when I am on a motorbike in a dangerous situation, I mentally compose my obituary:

“Violet Dear, acclaimed blogger and noted stylish dresser was hurled off of the side of a cliff today in a really backwoods-y part of Asia. Her helmet, serving mostly a decorative purpose, flew off of her head instantly as she flew through the air and finally landed on the sharp rocks. She will be remembered for her remarkable salad-making abilities, her knowledge of celebrity gossip – including British - and the fact that she finished every level of Legend of Zelda for Nintendo DS with no cheats.”

I'm snapped out of my daydream by the cold air that hurts my cheeks and rushes around the ill-fitting helmet to chill the back of my neck. All I can see in the black pre-dawn air is the silhouette of my driver and I in the orange headlight glow, eerily reflected on the side of the mountain. S is a few hundred metres behind us, and for forty minutes we weave up the dormant volcano's curvy roads.

Again, not many photos turned out, so....

We arrive at the top and as we are planning to walk down the mountain, we send our motorbike drivers happily on their way, having earned a roundtrip fare without having to wait around for us. Now we just have to find the path to Inspiration Point, where we will be able to see all three lakes at once and watch the sun rise up behind them. It is just starting to peek out now from the horizon, turning the sky grapey purple, deep tangerine and pale fuchsia. We start to hurry.

Which, of course – always makes things worse, yeah? There are no signs anywhere, even when the path forks into two. We make a random (and, I'll admit, tersely worded) joint decision to go right. We walk for about twenty minutes, finally realizing that this is the wrong way as the trail starts to slope dramatically downward. It is getting quite light out, the air that pale blue-ish of early morning, and we can now see the red arrows painted on the rocks of the jagged trail – they are pointing the other way, of course. “Awww, come on!” I shout. “What, is this Labyrinth? Where the f%$@ is Hoggle then! And where is Inspiration Point?”

We trundle back in the other direction, becoming aware as we go of the thick pea soup fog that is ensconcing the entire peak of the mountain – the peak that we have to climb to to see the lakes. “Aw Nuts!” I shout again. “Hurry, beat the fog! We have traveled for three days straight to get here! On buses that had all sorts of livestock strapped to the top with the luggage! I have endured a bus ride in which the goat strapped to the roof fell halfway off, right beside my face – his hind legs dangling away! Goat balls, S! I have survived the sight of splayed goat balls squished on my window for these lakes!”

I swear the black lake is there. It's not as much of a stretch as the next one, though....

Despite picking up the pace and remembering the squealing pigs (who were literally hog tied) and that poor, poor goat we do not beat the fog. By the time we make it to the staircase leading to the lookout the sun is up and the fog a thick blanket. We walk to the turquoise and black lakes and by peering up over their sides we are able to make out their colours – kind of. As for Mr Green Lake– it could be neon yellow now for all I know – I don't get a glimpse. We wait for an hour and it only seems to get worse. The few dozen of us that have scaled the top began slowly shuffling down, somewhat dejected but still happy to have seen Kelimutu, even partially.

See? What is that? The barest hints of blue allude to the fact that this is the turquoise lake.... Whoever google images this is gonna be pissed.

Our 3 hour walk down an incredibly steep hill to get back to the village is also ill fated. While fun and wholesome, filled with woodland critters (not like these, thankfully) and small rustic villages – I wake up the next morning and I cannot walk. Literally. I can kind of manage a crab-ish sideways shuffle, but normal steps are out of the question. S has to go and get me Indonesian muscle relaxants (grade? B minus) so that I can even get out of bed without ambling around like I have brain damage. My hip joints are so stiff, my tendons so tense and damaged that I resolve to eat an entire fish every day for the next week in order to get enough protein and healthy oils to heal me (this is a promise I often make. I love fish.)

Despite our difficulties, Kelimutu was an interesting science-y place with beautiful mountain scenery, endless green rice paddies and friendly people. You should definitely try to make it there - in the dark on a motorbike, of course. Some tips.

  • Bring your own helmet
  • Check the forecast for fog
  • Pack a sweater. Or three.
  • Mentally comprise a list of things for your obituary. Y'know. To pass the time.....

What is that next to S on the bus? Is that an upside-down chicken being held by the ankles by that old woman? Yes, it is.

Kelimutu (and the small town of Moni) is 2 hours from the major-ish city of Ende, which has an airport serviced by Denpasar, Bali. If you are arriving from your Lombok-Flores boat trip you can take a bus from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa (10 hours) and then on to Moni (7 hours) a few days later. Continue on to Sumba or Timor, or do yourself a favour and fly back, either from Ende or Maumere (3 hours away). You will not want to take these buses again (Goat balls. That's all I have to say.)

23 September 2009

Ngada Villages: A Discussion of Bones, Horns and Gourds

Bena village.

On our loooong journey from Labuan Bajo to Kelimutu S and I stopped for a night in the lovely hill station town of Bajawa. We arranged a trip the next morning to two of the nearby Ngada hilltribe villages.

The Ngada people of central Flores are, like most indigenous tribes in Asia, the product of a long and convoluted history involving colonialism, subjugation and migration. Their strange funeral customs and animal sacrifices link them to tribes in Sulawesi, Malaku and Sumatra – and even as far away as China, Laos and Burma – yet here they are plunked down in the centre of Indonesia's most Catholic island.

Pig jawbones. Someone is loaded around here....

The Dutch missionaries moved into Flores in the 1920s and converted the Ngada people enmasse, enforcing a rigid caste system and banning marriage between Ngada and other locals. While ostensibly a Catholic people, the Ngada's fierce animism has never been abandoned or even toned down. Therefore, images of Jesus and Mary with their eyes rolled skyward mingle with buffalo horns and pig jaws (a symbol of wealth) and effigies of ancestors.

Did someone get hit on the head around here?

Our first stop was Luba, a small village of about 20 thatched, stilted houses set in a square configuration surrounding a central courtyard. The courtyard was filled with the the raised tombs of important ancestors and umbrella shaped straw canopies that represent the male – ngadhu. Bhaga, to represent the feminine, are mini little carved houses that sit perched atop the actual houses, along with doll-like wooden images of men and women, representing family both long dead and recently deceased.

Concentrating on her ikat.

From the porch of each house peered wrinkled men, ancient women and dirt-smeared toddlers – everyone else either working or at school. We were waved over by the toothless old village head and asked to sign the guestbook that he produced with a flourish, along with a small donation to support local causes. Once we said our “Selamats” and “Hello Misters” we wandered amongst the dwelings looking at the beautiful ikat, colourful woven tapestries and sarongs.

Graves and piles of rocks and crosses and effigies.

The village of Bena was twice the size of Luba and built in the more traditional style of two rows of houses facing one another. Like in Luba, the space in between the parallel rows was filled with the familiar variety of totems, grave mounds and ngadhu.

She is deep in thought trying to decide what to charge us. Note her indigo dyed blue feet.

The cackling old ladies that sat on each stoop were beautiful in their strange appearance, their teeth streaked with blood-red betel nut juice, feet blueberry coloured from the indigo dyes of their ikat, long grey hair twirled up into buns and affixed with shiny decorated sticks.

As we spoke to them in our broken (very broken) Bahasa they lifted their heads and cackled, more betel flying out from their creased mouths. We bought a few lovely pieces of weaving, and as I tried mine on as a scarf the woman began to howl with laughter and shaking her head, gesturing that it should be worn as a wide sash. I obliged her, and didn't even barter....too much.

Lookin' good, Uncle Peter.

At the far side of the village there was a Virgin Mary shrine atop a small hill overlooking the nearby smoking volcano peak of Wawo Muda and the deep ravine below. The view, of both the village and the mountain, was breathtaking.

Bhaga. Are they feminine because we're always lettin' people in to walk all over us? Zing!

“I can see the fascination people have with sort of thing,” I said to S, “ I can see why someone would want to be a cultural anthropologist and live and study here on an Indonesian island.” He nodded.
“It definitely has similarities to Tana Toraja. That would be interesting to study.”
“And think about Papua – over 250 languages spoken on the Indonesian side alone. Think about all of those villages! And tribes! And penis gourds! Let's go there too!” He sighed.
“One day, dear. One day....”

Little kitty asleep below the ikat.

Big bone-y (and horn-y) display of wealth.

21 September 2009

Smoke, Sati, Sadhus and God: Pashupatinath

An aghori sadhu.

Ochres and roans and rusts mingle with the pervasive swirl of white and grey ash. The air smells of burning leaves, incense, the ever-present reek of urine and a thicker, much more meaty smell that is holding them all together, sealing them into the hazy, smoky air. The river is little more than a garbage choked stream slowly gurgling through the concrete embankments. It is this murky slice of water that separates the ancient Hindu temple of Pashupatinath with its holiest of holy cremation site and me, a tourist forbidden from sullying it.

Stinking, smoking, steaming life.

The river, the Bagmati, eventually meanders through the Himalayas and pokes out of the mountains in India where it joins the Mother Ganga – the fabled, great Ganges, lifeblood of the Hindu religion. The Bagmati has the prestigious honor of carrying the ashes of Nepal's faithful masses, or at least those who can afford the pyre's wood, down to meet the holy waters.

A man prepares for prayer with smoking pyres in the background.

Now it is the dry, cold Nepali winter and the river is at its smallest, but even the monsoons of the wet season do little to widen it – within these concrete walls it always stays. No matter what time of year it is that leaves us, the non-Hindu foreigners, remarkably close to the funeral pyres of Pushpatinath. At its narrowest I am no more than 20 metres from the smoldering mounds of straw, wood and corpses.

Washing dishes in the heavily polluted water, near the cremation sites.

From where I am standing I can see funeral rites taking place, bright yellow and pink flowers being set into the murky dribble of river. I can see a small girl washing metal thali dishes in the fetid water. I can also see a white dog, streaked an interminable grey by the ash, worrying at a piece of human bone as he tries to wrench it out of a softly smoking pile.

Ash streaked dog.

The abject and the sacred, the profane and the profound, the madness and the beauty.

On my side of the river are dozens of elaborately carved stone huts each bearing the images of Bhairavi, Shiva's most terrifying form who is especially popular in Nepal. These stone structures were once used for sati, the infamous and now-outlawed Hindu practice of widow-burning. A widow dons her wedding sari, breaks her bangles and throws herself onto the pyre to be immolated along with her deceased husband. It is an extremely controversial and outdated practice and is so rare it could almost be considered extinct. Those rare moments weigh on my mind as I trail my fingertips across the sati huts, envisioning the melting silk of a sari.

Jolly Old Sadhu, sitting in a sati hut.

On the base of a monument nearby I approach 2 sadhus, their sinewy bodies painted in white ash and bright tikka powder, their long dreadlocks curled around their heads. A sadhu is a Hindu holy man, a Shiva worshiper who abandons his family to become a wandering contemplative, steeping his brain in bhang (strong marijuana) and religion. Most of these men dress in bright orange and yellow, but a rare sect called the aghori paint their bodies in human ash, hovering near cremation sites to obtain it. They eat the ash, bones and flesh that they find out of human skull bowls – a gesture to say that “all paths, even the horrible, lead to God.”

Friendly guys, although cannibals and stoned out of their heads.

And what of God? Pashupatinath is a place where you can feel God, literally sense something – and is a place where you cannot decide if that is a good or bad thing.
Where death surrounds you, close and stinking and somehow fascinating.
Where life is strange and surreal and utterly foreign.
And where both seem so, so very close together, two halves of a whole.

Maybe that is the secret of this all.

Coffins stacked near the entrance of the complex.

A man carries straw to the pyres.

20 September 2009

Top 10 Burma Travel Tips

Teenage monks atop Mt. Popa
1) You MUST fly in and out of Burma – no overland travel is permitted at all. The best deals are out of Bangkok with AirAsia.com – S and I were able to fly roundtrip for about 70 bucks CAD per person.

2) There are NO ATMs or real banks in Burma, and nowhere to cash traveler's cheques or do cash advances. ALL money must be brought with you in completely crisp, unmarked, unwrinkled PERFECT US dollars. Hundreds will get your best exchange rate. Change money at your guesthouse – the banks will give you an exchange rate literally three times lower (corruption yadda yadda.) There are a few US dollar ATM's at Bangkok Airport – one is past security once you check in, located at one of the pink exchange kiosks. This is non-negotiable. DO not head to Burma without USD.

3) Getting a visa is compulsory for all nationalities, and it must be obtained in advance. Most people elect to get theirs in Bangkok, and it is quite straight forward. The best directions I have ever found to anywhere – hands down – come via this link explaining how to get to the Myanmar Consulate in Bangkok. How thorough! How efficient! How positively A-type! Luh dis.
You will need:
  • *2 passport photos
  • *1 photocopy of your passport
  • *3 forms (all available day-of at the consulate) filled out, one of which is a detailed work history. DO NOT indicate any jobs involved in journalism/photography etc
  • *800 Baht
  • *A rough itinerary (they will grill you about where you want to go and why)
It will take 2 full business days – we dropped ours on a Wednesday and could only go to pick it up on a Friday. They will only do a rush if they deem in necessary.

4) The new, published in May 2009 Burma Lonely Planet is actually extremely useful. The rates and prices are dead-on and the recommendations kick ass. Seriously – for this one it is worth investing in the country-specific guide. (see note below)

5) Motherland Inn will meet and greet every single flight into Yangon – and what a treat this guesthouse is to stay at! Just go with them – the rooms are clean and the staff the absolute friendliest. The transfer is free (it would cost about 10 USD otherwise) to their close-to-centrally located Inn. Breakfast in included (put in an advance request the night before for Myanma foods, otherwise it is eggs and toast) and there is a big Western grocery store nearby (ask the staff) that sells Brie cheese for under 4 USD, as well as baguettes - perfect for the obscenely long busride to Bagan, Inle or Mandalay.

6) Bagan is amazing, yes – but it is murder hot. It is worth splashing out a bit more for a pool – we spent 18 bucks a night (our most expensive room by far) to stay at “Golden Express” (all of the horsecart guys know it.) Nice pool, buffet brekkie including omelette/crepe bar and air conditioning. Great value. Hire the same cart guy who drops you here for the following few days (you need one to tour the temples) the price is normally 10 USD for the whole day. Tip these guys well – they are struggling to eke out a living!

7) It is extremely important to remember that you are in a military junta-controlled country and though the people seem happy and smiley they are being oppressed, robbed and denied basic freedoms. Visiting Burma is important – but only if your motivation is to stay at locally run guesthouses, eat at local restaurants and avoid, whenever possible, government run businesses. This is quite difficult at times, because they really have their sticky fingers dipped into a lot of the economy (ie: your visa fees etc.) The Lonely Planet has quite a good list of dos and don'ts to ensure that your money is benefiting the average person and not a pork-fattened official. Read up and stay ahead of 'em!

8) Many people only have about two weeks in Burma – here is a great sample itinerary (It's what we did!)
  • 1 night in Rangoon (Yangon)
  • overnight bus to Mandalay
  • 3 nights in Mandalay
  • 3 nights in Bagan
  • 1 night Kalaw
  • 1 night at monastery between Kalaw and Inle (on trek)
  • 3 nights Inle Lake
  • overnight bus to Rangoon (Yangon)
  • 1 night in Rangoon
This worked really well for us! If you have a month a lot more become possible – just remember that distances of just a few hundred kilometres can take 10+ hours due to the terrible condition of the roads. Plan on night buses and a lot of patience.

9)Do not miss the Moustache Brothers in Mandalay, Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (although its 5 USD entrance fee does go to the government,) Inle Lake's Jumping Cat Monastery, a trek, the ancient villages of Mingun, Sagiang and Amarapura (near Mandalay) and Bagan's temples.

10) Internet can be sporadic (and is controlled by the government – at some computers there are problems logging on to gmail and facebook) and international phone calls are obscenely expensive, if the phones are working. Let your family know that you may be out of touch and unreachable – they can contact your embassy in Yangon if there is an emergency at home (your guesthouse registers you with local authorities each night.)

Burma is an unbelievable place to visit – well worth an addition on to any Southeast Asia travel itinerary. Enjoy!

(Click here to read all of my entries on Burma.)

****NOTE - this was written in 2009, and still holds true for the most part. However, as the junta loosens their control on the people of Burma, more and more tourists are visiting - which means that the 2011 Lonely Planet is outdated when it comes to accommodation pricing.  Expect to pay 50% more than the guides state, simply because the demand is higher than the supply - check the Thorntree forums for up to date advice. And you know what - that's still cheap! So go. Before all of the crowds. You won't regret it!

Lovely young ladies and their thanika

18 September 2009

Thar Be Dragons - A Boat Trip From Lombok to Flores

(I tried to post this entry a few days ago, but it got all garbled. Here it goes again - I promise it is fixed! Read me! PS - any comments that got left on this one got deleted, please re-comment!)

The route - Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo and Flores

As much as all travelers dismiss the Lonely Planet, mocking it relentlessly and pretending that we do everything completely on our own – that is pretty much a load of crap. Most backpackers have, shoved deep in their packs a Lonely Planet or similar, clandestinely consulting it on buses and in the safety of their guesthouse rooms far from the (often extremely) judgmental gaze of other, more hardcore backpackers. My general rule of thumb is “don't always do what LP tells you to do, but don't ever do what they tell you not to do” (don't do what Donnie Don't does.) Basically, if they advise strongly against a brand, business or hotel they probably have good reason and you should avoid it.

Hence it was with an extreme sense of trepidation that we set out on a 4 night/4 day cruise from Lombok to Flores with a company other than Perama. The Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide and your small Indonesian grandma were uniform in their advice: Do not, under any circumstances, book with the myriad other companies plying the backpacker trade in Bali and the Gilis. Go with a trusted name. Do not get stuck on a floating rustbucket in the middle of nowhere with only rice to eat and conniving crew with sticky fingers breathing down your neck. And if you do – don't blame us.

But – on the exact day we needed, for the exact price we could afford, traveling the exact itinerary (Lombok, 2 stops in Sumbawa, Komodo, Rinca and Flores, with a few snorkeling stops on the way) we wanted was another company. Kencana. Shudder.

The transportation to shore...

S did not want to book, fearing cockroaches in our beds and mealy plates of rice on the table. “Can we fly?” “Flights are booked.” “Can we go overland?” “It involves a 24 hour busride.” “Can we skip the dragons?” “No.”

Kencana it was. We boarded the small minbus that was to take us the 3 hours to the other side of Lombok from Sengigi and immediately met Will and Jo, two lurvely Brits on their own epic journey around the world. Slowly the bus filled up and we set off. Things looked promising.

Zee amazing incredible tiny boat - 24 of us lived here for four days.

We arrived at the boat and I assumed that it was the boat taking us to meet the real, larger boat. Until I saw the eighteen thin matresses lined up on the upper deck. No, this tiny boat was to be our home for the next 4 days, along with 6 crew. 24 people on a vessel that I would estimate could comfortably sleep 8. S glared at me. “Well, look at it this way – we have no beds or tables, so your fears can't come completely true!”

S having a go at some pishing. He caught no pish. Puck pishing.

The boat, once we settled in and made friends, turned out to be just fine. Yes, the slow put-put motor meant that we sailed late into the first night and all the way through the second, making sleep a precious luxury that we were forced to seek in the afternoon. Yes, the meals were repetitive and completely lacking protein, with the exception of the three live chickens kept aboard the boat and killed daily (if you are planning to do this trip, bring A LOT of yummy snacks. If you are vegetarian bring tofu. A lot.) And yes, it was baffling how the “pishing” never actually resulted in catching “pish.” But we snorkeled some beautiful reefs, saw loads of Komodo dragons and met some really great people.

So, as usual Lonely Planet – stick it in your ear.


The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the two stops we made in Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last remaining habitat of the fearsome (just ask Sharon Stone) Komodo Dragon.

Arriving on Komodo. Note to self - long hair and hat = Kim Mitchell.

There are approximately 1300 dragons living on Komodo Island, and another 1100 on nearby Rinca. Komodo was our first stop in the region, and we did see quite a few (not to mention about a gazillion horse-sized huge deer) but they were mostly found lazing their fat bodies near the snack stalls.

Six lazy guys - that is, until a bird landed....

The following day on Rinca we saw dozens more. Some were lazy 'retirees' mooching near humans, but also a lot of guys (and I do mean guys - male Komodos outnumber females 3.5 to 1) hanging out in their natural desert-y habitats. Their huge lumbering weight is incredibly impressive up close, and they look sluggish and slothful. That is, until we saw a bird touch down near a group of six - it was then that I realized how potentially dangerous these beasts are.

Sharpening their claws. K, I'm gonna go over here....

Surprisingly fast on land, faster in the water and with an ability to scale trees easily they actually deserve their frightening name. Komodos are also conniving beasts, biting huge water buffaloes and then creepily lurking around until they die weeks later from their extremely toxic saliva. Not surprisingly, a ranger guide is compulsory at all times. They carry big sticks. My request for one was turned down....

A Komodo (a bit camoflauged) near it's nest.

All in all - taking the Lombok - Flores boat trip with a non-reputable company is a gamble - and in our case it paid off. Well, that might be too glowing - it was more like a draw. But it reminded me that comfort is sometimes a luxury and I don't always need it. Give me a thin mat to sleep on, some lukewarm Bintang to sip and plate after plate of plain noodles and I'll be happy. For a few days, at least. Well, as long as there are dragons....

Um, Violet...there's uh....a Komodo Dragon right effing behind you.....