Indonesia Part 3: Back…back.. to Bali… Bali

Our days of early bedtimes and obscenely early mornings ended when we stepped off the ferry and back into the beachy vacation lifestyle of Bali. We bought tickets for the local (un-air conditioned, PACKED) bus to Pemuteran, a small town in the middle of Barat National Park. Our hotel greeted us with fresh fruit smoothies and flowers on the beds – the perfect start to our third and final leg of the vacation. The park-like grounds of the tiny resort were quiet, serene. We took a couple hours to unpack, relax, and drink tea on the porch of our hotel room before heading to the beach. Unfortunately, mere minutes after arriving, the sky darkened, and fat drops of rain started falling. We made it back to our resort just in time to miss the downpour. None of us were too bothered by the rain – it gave us an excuse to sit and read and listen to the patterned patter of the drops coming down.

 

Jeff and I walked down the dirt road that led to our resort and found a nice restaurant where we ordered brick oven pizza and brought it back to the rooms. After eating our fill, we were all more than ready for bed; we’d been going strong since 1:30 in the morning! It was hard to believe it was still the same days as our Ijen Crater hike – had that been just this morning? The odd hours had my head swimming.

On our first full day back in Bali we booked an excursion to go snorkeling on the reefs of Barat National Park. Several boats took about 20 of us out, and we anchored for our snorkel trip.

Side note: We were the only Americans in the group; this is something I have come to use to gauge how “touristy” a destination is. The more Americans, the more touristy it is. Maybe that’s an unfair stereotype, but it seems that Americans are the last to discover the really cool places. Once they’ve found out about, it’s already overly crowded and unauthentic, though usually easy to navigate and plan. Say what you will about my vacation snobbery, but the places I’ve enjoyed most have been relatively undiscovered by the Western world.

Jeff enjoying the trip out to our snorkelling spot

Jeff enjoying the trip out to our snorkelling spot

Our leader hopped off the boat and we all followed suit, swimming along the edge of the reef drop off. Jeff and I have done some amazing snorkeling in the Philippines, so I wasn’t really expecting this trip to blow my mind. We saw TONS of cool, colorful fish, though. The water over the reef was really shallow in a few places, which made it feel like we were swimming WITH the fish, not just over them.

I got a little bored with the scenery and wandered closer to the drop off where I could see the bubbles from the divers among our group. Here, I could see the shallows over the coral and the immense depths of ocean. The divers’ bubbles were floating up from beneath that ledge, and just as I got over the top of them, a giant sea turtle popped up, most likely spooked by the divers. The relaxing sound of my breath in and out of the snorkel tube immediately ceased as I gawked at the turtle gracefully swimming up and out into the sea. The divers had followed the turtle out and looked up to watch him. They saw me and waved frantically, pointing at the turtle, and I gave the thumbs up. This was, by far, the absolute coolest thing I had ever seen!

Tearing my eyes from the turtle, I popped out of the water and started screaming, “Turtle! Turtle!” as loud as I could so that the other snorkelers would hear me. I was quite a ways from the group (such a rebel). Jeff and Jamie reached me quickly, and I thought Jeff was going to kill me. He couldn’t tell what I was yelling, only catching the fact that I was screaming, and he had assumed I was hurt. Ooops… He got over it quickly and swam out after the turtle. By then, the turtle was swimming downward and was much harder to see than he had been when he first popped out from under the shelf. We watched as he faded into the distance, just a tiny spec in the deep blue.

That experience settled it for me: I was going to put aside my fears and learn to SCUBA dive. Jeff rolled his eyes at my proclamation, “Oh, NOW you’re ready?!” He’d been eager to learn since we’d moved to the Philippines, and I had been extremely hesitant.

We all swam back to the boat for lunch, then some of us went back out to snorkel before it was time to leave. As the boat turned to head back to Pemuteran, we realized we were all FRIED. We’d applied sunscreen, but apparently it hadn’t been enough. I started to feel feverish and a headache formed. By the time we’d returned to our room, I was shivering and aching.

A hot shower helped a little, but I was clearly getting sick. Jeff went down to the main road and found me some medicine, and I crawled into bed to hopefully sleep it off while Jeff and Jamie went out to a reggae bar with the locals we’d met on our snorkel trip. I was disappointed to not be able to go, but there was no way I could’ve enjoyed it. Thankfully, the night in bed did the trick; my fever broke in the middle of the night, and I was feeling MUCH better by morning.

The next day we said our good-byes to the friendly resort staff and headed back to Ubud. The drive through the lush hills was gorgeous! Our driver dropped us off at our hotel, which was right on the river and had a great swimming pool. Our room was HUGE! Living room, kitchen, and balcony, plus the room and bathroom, of course. The only downside was the stairs. Jamie’s leg was still pretty bad, and we had to go up and down several staircases to get to our room.

We grabbed a late lunch at Murni’s, the restaurant across from the hotel. The food was, once again, excellent, and the view of the river and hills was impressive as well.

That night, we had “big” plans (aka, not going to bed before 9) to get dinner and go to the Laughing Buddha bar. After much walking and no progress, we gave up on the Laughing Buddha and stopped for a couple of drinks at another bar before heading home to relax and enjoy our balcony.

The next morning, I woke early and slipped back out to the balcony to read and enjoy the view of the river. I opened the door and found scat all over the balcony floor and one of the chairs. Weird… I pushed the chair aside and took a clean one. When Jamie woke, I showed her the mess, and we agreed that some animal had obviously made its home on our balcony for the night. We didn’t think much more of it, and the hotel staff cleaned it up when they took care of our room that day.

Since we had already spent a few days in Bali prior to our Java trip, Jamie and I had planned out what we wanted to get for souvenirs, and we spent our second day in Ubud shopping. Jeff was thrilled. We eased the pain by taking several breaks for drinks and food. At one of the cafes, we found a bunch of games and pulled out Cards Against Humanity. We ended up staying for over an hour, laughing uncontrollably.

Jeff found a barber and got his hair cut (3 weeks without a buzz – he was looking shaggy!). We went back to the hotel to clean up and headed back out. Fresh and so clean clean, we headed back out to find a place for dinner and drinks to ring in the new year. None of us were looking for the typical, cliche NYE parties, so we moved on when a bar had a cover charge. Several restaurants were already packed, and we were starting to get discouraged. It was already after nine, and we hadn’t even eaten yet. Finally, we stopped at a place we had passed several times – no cover, chill ambience, and a table had JUST opened up at the back – perfect! Dinner was delicious! Drinks were cold and tasty. We ordered a hookah and enjoyed the live music for the evening.

 

After the cheesy countdown to midnight, we paid our bill and headed back to the hotel. Of course, the streets were insanely crowded, but this didn’t last long. Ubud is a VERY laid back town. Most of the young party crowd (wow, I sound so old right now) vacations in Kuta. The Ubud vacationers are there for culture and experience, not parties. By the time we reached our hotel, the streets were empty, but the staff was having a riotous good time in the hotel’s dining area. Very entertaining. ūüôā

We turned on the lights to the balcony and found that the mysterious scat scatterer had visited again. Just as we were stepping out to investigate, an apocalyptic SWARM of bugs attacked. Our room had no glass in the windows, so the bugs were easily getting in. We quickly turned off all the lights and hid in the bedroom. Luckily, the bugs hadn’t gotten that far yet, and with the door shut, we were safe. We asked the staff about the bugs and the scat the next morning. They explained that the scat was from some type of bat, which was drawn to the balcony by the bugs. Makes sense… and I’m really glad I didn’t know about the bat until our last day at the hotel.

We spent the day relaxing by the pool, finishing shopping, and just enjoying our vacation.

The next day, we left early for Legian. This was a last-minute group decision. Ubud has no access to the coast, and we decided to end our trip at the beach. The guidebook made Legian sound like a good fit for us, so I had booked a hotel through Agoda a couple days before, and we hired a driver for the trip. Easy enough.

We got dropped of at the hotel and I went to check us in, where I found that our reservation had not gone through… and the hotel was fully booked. Jeff and I set off to find a new place to stay while Jamie stayed with all our luggage. Had we had more time, we probably would’ve been pickier, but it was our last day, and we wanted to get to the beach. The first hotel we stopped at was full, but the second one had really gorgeous grounds and had one more room available. We’ll take it!

We went and got our bags and checked in to the new hotel. The manager showed us to our room, and my spirits drooped. I’d been trying to keep positive, even though I was tired and discouraged from our morning travel and hotel disappointment, but once I saw that room, I just couldn’t stay cheery anymore. Peeling paint, rusty refrigerator, sorry excuse for a shower… We dropped our bags and got out of there quickly, sure that the beach make all right in the world.

On our way to the shore, we stopped for breakfast. Legian was packed with loud tourists. If this was the “quiet, laid back” beach, I’m glad I’ll never see Kuta. We ate quickly and walked on to the beach. It was extremely windy out on the sand, but we rented loungers and umbrellas, got drinks, and settled in for a day of fun and sun. Jamie and I were content reading, but Jeff wanted to get in the water, so he headed into the surf. Minutes later, he returned with a disgusted look on his face. Apparently, the water, much like the beach, was full of trash. Disgusting. I ventured as far as the edge of the shore and no further. Plastic immediately clung to my legs, and I could see all kinds of trash around me. Of course I was disturbed by the garbage, by more so I was upset by the cause of this situation: tourists. Bali was a pristine paradise before we all started going there and destroying it.

We left the beach and spent the afternoon at the hotel pool, which was considerably nicer than the room. ūüôā

That night we found a great restaurant, Mozzarella, and took our time eating and having a few drinks, reflecting on trip highlights. Everyone named their favorite trip/hotel/meal, craziest memory, favorite driver/guide/local expert. We laughed a lot as we reminisced. It didn’t seem possible that we’d been in Indonesia for nearly three weeks. How was the trip already coming to an end? But as we talked over our memories, I realized just how much we had packed into our three weeks: hikes, sunrises, early AMs, snorkeling, shopping, blue fire, two islands, 6+ cities/areas, UNESCO sites, temples, foreigner photo ops… so many great experiences with two of my favorite people on the planet.

photo 3 (1)

Our last night on vacation – dinner and reminiscing at Mozzarella

 

 

 

Just a few, random photos from throughout our trip:

 

Indonesia Part 2: Java at all Hours

For the second leg of our vacation, Jeff, Jamie, and I checked out of our Ubud hotel at 4 AM to make it to the airport in time for our early departure. I wish I could say this would be our only early morning/late evening for the entire trip, but that would be a blatant lie. The Java portion of our journey was all about odd hours.

We landed in Yogyakarta on the morning of December 22nd and made our way to our hotel. The city was typical of most Asian metropolises I’ve experienced thus far: crowded, crazy traffic, less than clean. Fortunately, our hotel was located on a very quiet alley-like street, not even wide enough for cars. This made for a much calmer atmosphere. We had breakfast at a small restaurant across from our hotel and planned to spend the day exploring the city.

The weather in Jogja (nickname for Yogyakarta) was stifling, so our walk around the city was a sweaty one. Unfortunately, we ran into a lot of scammers who tried to convince us that the places we wanted to visit were closed and suggested we visit such-and-such batik center. The guide book warned about exactly this situation. We grew frustrated with it and went back to the hotel to cool down and make plans for dinner.

Omah Dhuwar restaurant was on the opposite side of the city, but it had rave reviews from travelers, so we hailed a cab that night and headed to Kota Gede for a slightly upscale meal. The restaurant was housed in an old mansion and had great ambience. Our table looked out over the garden, which was lit with a soft glow along all the paths. The salmon and mashed potatoes were mighty fine! After our dinner, we headed back to the hotel and were passed out by 8:30. Early mornings make for early bedtimes!

…And it was a good thing we headed to bed early, because we were up at 3:30 on the 23rd to travel out to Borobudur temple for sunrise. After our disappointing sunrise – too foggy for good pictures, we admired the massive temple.

Then our friendly driver, Golan, took us to see tofu and pottery production in the town. We stopped at two smaller temples on our way back to Jogja.

 

We were back to the hotel by late afternoon and took a break at the hotel before heading out for drinks at a bar that was supposed to have live music but didn’t. We learned quickly that the guide book was incorrect on several of its listings for restaurants and bars because the neighborhood we were staying in changed frequently.

On our third day in Jogja we “slept in,” getting up at 6:30 to go to Prambanan temple on the outskirts of the city. The temple was magnificent, but the biggest tourist attraction was the tourists! We found ourselves surrounded by Indonesians almost the minute we stepped foot into the area. Of the three of us, Jeff certainly embraced the attention the most. I suffered through countless pictures with a fake smile. We were also approached by ESL students who were visiting the temple on a field trip and had an assignment to speak with English-speaking tourists. This was actually pretty fun… the first time. But after the 5th or 6th group of students had approached each of us, we were burnt out and just wanted to get away.

I had read about a nearby temple, Candi Sewu, so we left the Prambanan area and walked over to the smaller temple. I was very pleasantly surprised to find this temple completely empty! We had the whole compound to ourselves for at least 30 minutes, so we got to explore and take pictures without interruption.

By this time, it was getting really hot, so we headed back to the entrance to meet our taxi driver. It was still fairly early in the day, so we stopped at the Affandi Museum. The art museum was housed in Affandi’s former residence, which was comprised of several cool and eclectic buildings. This place was pretty excellent. We spent the better part of the afternoon exploring and enjoying the atmosphere at the museum.

That night we had dinner at a very small upstairs restaurant called Atap. This was just down another alleyway in our hotel’s neighborhood. All three of us ate an appetizer, full meals, and had drinks for less than $19! The price was no indication of the food quality – it was the best food we had had yet in Jogja!

After dinner, we headed out for a little entertainment at Oxenfree and Lucifers where live music was playing. Not your typical Christmas Eve, but our most enjoyable day in the city!

Christmas was our last day in Jogja. We packed up and had a relaxing day with lunch at a great restaurant – Via Via. This turned out to be more than just a place to eat. Via Via also arranges day trips and runs a small store that sells souvenirs made by women of the nearby towns and villages. Jamie and I stocked up on small souvenirs. I just wish we had found this place sooner; we would’ve eaten lunch there every day if we had known about it!

After lunch, we boarded the train for Surabaya, our stopover on our way to Mt. Bromo. That night we had a “delicious” Christmas feast of packaged foods from the convenience store located on the ground floor of our hotel. The highlight of the night was getting to Skype with Jeff’s family. Christmas has been a hard time for us since moving overseas, and we still haven’t figured out how to make it hurt less, but having Jamie there with us made it so much better than last year when we were alone in Thailand. (Alone in Thailand… I know, I sound like a spoiled brat!)

The next morning, our driver showed up very early, so we had no time for breakfast. We hit the road to Mt. Bromo. It was a lonnnnnng drive, but we did stop at a cool waterfall where were asked to pose for more “white people” photos.

We reached Cemoro Lewang (Mt. Bromo area) in the afternoon and took a little walk around the quaint village. Our hotel was nothing to write home about, but accomodations are minimal in this area of Java, so we didn’t have much for options. It was significantly colder at the higher elevation, and we were thankful to have pants and long sleeves for the night.

Our heads had barely hit the pillow before the alarm was blaring at 2:30 AM, rousing us for the sunrise trip to Mt. Bromo. The hotel provided the most pathetic breakfast I’ve ever seen – basically a piece of bread and some jam – which we munched on while we waited for our jeep. We drove up into the mountains in the dark in a massive caravan. Most people headed to the highest point for the sunrise, but we found a smaller side hill right of the road that was virtually uninhabited and staked our claim on a piece of ground. And sat. And waited. This time it was worth it. Unlike the disappointing sunrise at Borobudur, the sunrise over Bromo was amazing. Smoke furled out of the volcanoes. Clouds unfurled below the peaks, and the sun crept up, changing the scene every minute. I must’ve taken a hundred pictures.

After the sunrise, Jeff and I “hiked” the massive staircase up to the top of Bromo. It was packed with people, so took a couple of photos and went back down to meet Jamie. She had hurt her leg in the dark trip up the steep hill to our viewpoint and wisely chose to sit out of the Mt. Bromo “hike.”

At this point, it was still early morning, and we headed back to the hotel to pack up and move on to our final destination on the island of Java: Ijen Crater.

This leg of the trip was nothing short of brutal. 6+ hours in the car, ROUGH roads, and a driver who spook almost no English. It poured rain for a majority of the drive, which had me very nervous about the hike that was planned for the following day. I was so happy to FINALLY arrive at the hotel in the late afternoon. Imagine my disappointment¬†when we were shown to one of the crappiest hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in. Ugh.

After dropping our bags, we went to the outdoor dining area where we played euchre as more and more guests showed up. There’s only one reason to stay at Catimor, and that’s the hike to Ijen, so we knew everyone there would be with us on our trek the next day. We ate a subpar dinner and headed to bed at 8 PM… so we could be up at 12:40 AM for the hike. I am pretty sure Jeff and Jamie were mentally cursing me as we packed up a mere 4 hours after going to bed and headed out for yet ANOTHER early morning trip.

The Ijen hike turned out to be a lot longer than what I had read in descriptions online. Jamie’s leg was still really bothering her, so I felt terrible about the 2-hour uphill climb. She decided to stay at the top, rather than hike down into the crater. I really wanted her to go with us, but two minutes into the descent, I was so glad she hadn’t! The “trail” into the crater was craggy, ridiculously step, and very challenging. Jeff and I were questioning whether it was even worth it. It took 45-1hr to get down, and this was in virtually pitch-black darkness. Our guide had a flash light, and there were plenty of others on the trek as well, so we could mostly see where we were going. I was shocked to see people in flip flops or flimsy shoes and “city” clothes. We were in hiking pants and tennis shoes, and it was hard enough that way.

We FINALLY made it to the bottom and took a set on the rocks. At first, we couldn’t see much, and the sulphuric clouds were overwhelming. Within a minute, we say flashes of blue across the bottom the crater, and we instantly forgot about the long hike up and down to get here. It was absolutely stunning! The blue flames are caused by the extreme temperatures in the crater. The vents shoot out the heated steam, which makes contact with the sulphuric air and causes the reaction. As the morning wore on, we could see more and more intense blue flames. The sulphur made my eyes water and my throat burn so bad there were times I didn’t think I could take it, but we stuck it out to watch the “light show.” I later read that this is the only place in the world where you can see this, though it used to be visible in other places, like Mt. Vesuvius.

Once the sun came up, we could see Kawah Ijen, the world’s largest acidic lake, at the bottom of the crater.¬†The water was an opaque mint green, like nothing I had ever seen before.

On our way back up the crater, we encountered the sulphur miners. These men hike up, into, and back out of Ijen every day carrying 70-80 kg of sulphur in woven baskets. They make 2-3 trips each day. Naturally, they are in phenomenal shape. How they can survive that terrible smell and grueling hike is beyond me. They had my utmost respect, and Jeff and I did our best to stay out of their way as we climbed the crater.

The trip out was much faster, maybe 15 minutes, and we reunited with Jamie for the lonnnnng downhill walk. I was ridiculously happy when we spotted our young driver at the end of the trek.

Our drive from Ijen to the ferry was fairly quick. We bought our tickets, and before we knew it, we were saying sayonara to Java. I was really glad we made the efforts to see this part of Indonesia, but the Java portion of our vacation was by no means relaxing. Needless to say, we were all very excited to be heading back to Bali to end our trip.

Indonesia Part 1: A Taste of Bali

I am embarrassingly far behind on blogs, so forgive me if my account of our trip to Indonesia is abbreviated and more photographic than textual.

This Christmas, Jeff and I were lucky enough to have a visitor from home. Jamie, Jeff’s sister, came to travel around Indonesia with us. To say we were excited would be an understatement.

We had a couple¬†days after Jamie’s arrival and before our departure for Indonesia to show her around Subic, so we made sure to hit all the major highlights: giant fruit bats, mountainous margaritas, sunset drinks at the beach, and a Filipino food smorgasbord. Jamie was game for everything we threw at her, so I knew she’d make a perfect travel companion.

Our flight out of Manila left VERY early in the morning, so we took off for the airport in the middle of the night. Jamie caught up on jet lagged sleep on the way, and we all checked in bleary-eyed but excited.

We landed in Bali around 8 or 9 in the morning and set about finding a taxi to take us to Ubud for our two-night stay before we would fly on to Java for the first major leg of our trip.

Ubud is a smaller “hippie” city in central Bali, known for great food, a chill vibe, and an artistic scene. It is surrounded by rice paddies and jungle.

Our first day was spent relaxing and walking around a bit.

Our bike tour was a lot of fun. We started at a coffee plantation where the process luwak coffee, which is made from coffee beans that have been digested by the palm civet, a catlike creature. In essence, this is “poop” coffee, though the beans are still in their shells when the animal eats them. After, the excrement is collected, beans shelled and roasted, and some of the most expensive coffee in the world is produced.

After seeing this process (I declined to taste the coffee, not because I was disgusted, but because I didn’t want to part with $40 for a cup of coffee), we headed out on our bikes to see the landscape and visit a local village. The ride was mostly downhill, but we did battle up a couple of steep inclines towards the end. That, mixed with the heat, zapped my energy pretty quickly,¬†but the ride was definitely worth it.

The traditional Balinese dancing was very interesting to watch, but I had no idea what the story line was. The dancers used exaggerated facial expressions and intricate hand, finger, and foot movements which all had special meanings within the dance’s storyline. I was impressed by their skill, even though I couldn’t follow any sort of plot.

After our short stay in Bali, we hopped on a plan to Java, where we had plenty of excursions planned. The first taste of Bali had us all looking forward to ending our trip right where it had started.

Vietnam: Halong Bay and Hanoi

After our vigorous hiking in Sapa, we made our way to Halong Bay via night train and van. We were on the boat and headed into the bay by 1:00 PM on a cloudy, rainy Wednesday. Disappointed that we couldn’t soak up any sun on the top deck of the junk boat, we¬†sat inside the dining room and enjoyed views of the limestone cliffs and islands as the junk boat cruised along.

“Junk boat” is an off-putting name for the type of cruise ship we were on; nothing about the boat was junky, but this is the traditional name for these boats. The boat was made of gleaming wood with high-end fixtures. Our room had a gorgeous bathroom, giant bed, and a seating area right next to a 5-foot window. It was a fairly small boat,¬†maybe 20 rooms – nothing like the cruise ships I’m used to seeing.

Even though there were spotty rain showers, we decided to take advantage of the kayaking trip. The kayaks were extremely narrow, meant for kayakers with more experience than any of us, and we tipped precariously from side to side until we found our balance. I was sure we were going for an involuntary swim before the trip was over, but we somehow managed to stay afloat. We paddled around the islands with the others for about an hour, then headed back to the boat. Jeff went swimming, but I opted to cozy up in the room and read for awhile before dinner.

All of our meals were several courses of delicious food. Just when I was sure this was the last plate, another one would appear. We were full and happy after dinner.

A few of the passengers stayed up in the dining room, playing Jenga. We had two games going, and after a few hours (and drinks), we a crew member involved! Every time a tower would topple, the dining room would erupt in moans and cheers.

The next morning I got up early to watch the sunrise, one of my favorite vacation activities. Jeff soon joined me, and we watched, quietly content, as the sun peaked out from behind the limestone islands all around us. The clouds began to break up, and the sun shined brilliantly as we headed down to breakfast.

After eating, we made a trip to Paradise Island to check out a cave and swim for a couple of hours.

Lunch was served on the boat as we headed back to Halong. The tour was a really cool experience, but I got stir crazy being on the boat. I’m a pretty restless person by nature, and just the thought that I had nowhere else I could go was a hard adjustment for me.

After our two-day (really only one day) cruise around the bay, we headed back to Hanoi. We had already spent one day there at the beginning of our trip, so we had a good sense of what the city was like: chaotic, but charming. Crossing the street in Hanoi is a near-death experience, as scooters – the most popular form of transformation – stop for no one. We learned to avoid hesitating, shoot the gap, and when all else failed, close your eyes and run.

I know this city sounds a lot like hell, but for some odd reason, I loved it. The city was a mix of European and Asian architectural styles. Little cafes dotted every single street. The northern parts of the city moved at a slower pace where the streets were wider and lined with trees. Walking around the city, stopping in at different little shops and resting at cafes was my favorite Hanoi activity.

On Friday, we had plans to take a cooking class. Our hotel called a cab for us, and we set out to start our day. Ever the conversationalist, Jeff chatted with our cabbie, asking how his days was going. He answered shortly, “Not so good,” and that should have been a sign to all of us. I ignored the tiny twinge of anxiety that developed as I watched our driver edge tensely into traffic, and we headed to our destination.

Traffic on the main road was heavy, and our driver was maneuvering between lanes, trying to find the quickest route. He made a quick shift into the far left lane, and at that moment a cop stepped down off the curb and into the lane about 15 yards in front of us. Our cab driver continued forward, and I watched in slow motion as the cop eyed the driver, but up his hand in a “stop” motion, and the cab continued moving forward.

I remember thinking to myself, “He’s not going to stop,” and the cop seemed to simultaneously register the same¬†thought. His eyes widened and he started to hop backwards as our cab driver drove right through him, hitting the cop, who clumsily fell onto the hood of the car, rolled off to the side, and whacked the car’s side mirror with his club, all the while screaming what I can only assume were obscenities.

DID THAT JUST HAPPEN?

We were all silent for a moment, turning wide-eyed to look at one another, and I watch in the rearview mirror as the cab driver’s face slowly broke out in a smile. Soon we were all laughing at what had just happened. The cop was unharmed; we had been going very slowly when he was hit. I laughed nervously, wondering what in the hell was going on, when the cab driver explained in broken English that the policeman only wanted his money. It didn’t seem to any of us that our driver had been doing anything wrong when the police officer tried to stop him. According to our driver, the police often stop¬†cabs and fine them arbitrarily. Apparently, he wasn’t in the mood for an unfair fine!

Not two minutes later, a scooter flew up beside us and pulled in front of the cab, the road-kill cop on the back pointing and angry finger at our driver, who immediately threw the car in park and rested his head on the steering wheel.

A lot of angry shouting ensued as the officer opened the door and gestured wildly. I was sure a gun would be brandished and we’d make world news as¬†the cabbie was murdered before our very eyes. Instead, his license was taken, along with a large sum of money, and we road the rest of the way in silence, while our cab driver ran his hands frantically through his hair and muttered to himself. I assume we were his last clients for a lonnnnnng time.

After that little adventure, our cooking class seemed like child’s play. We were taken on a tour of the local markets before we got down to business, and when we made our way back to the house, we found another person was joining our group. We chatted amicably, and found out we’d both been trekking in Sapa. Eric had been there just a day before us, and as we talked more, we discovered that Eric was the guy Peng, our Sapa trekking guide, had been talking about during our hike! Eric has booked a tour with the same company just a day before us – small world. We laughed about it throughout the cooking class.

We learned how to make spring rolls, a tofu and tomato soup, eggplant stew, and several other dishes. My favorite was the eggplant, with the tofu a close second, but the one I will probably make the most is the spring rolls, which were the best I’ve ever had.

 

After lunch, we parted ways with Eric and set out to see some sites, all of which ended up being closed. Regardless, it was a nice way to see more of the city, and we took our time stopping for drinks at a few different places.

As day turned to night, we found a market where the streets were closed off, and for the first time, I walked casually, no need to fear for my life. The market was pretty disappointing, but it allowed us to explore more of the city.

After the cab adventures, cooking, and walking MILES, we were all exhausted and headed to bed fairly early.

Our last day in Hanoi, we tried banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. These were delicious, but simple. I could eat them every day.

After breakfast, we made our way back to the Temple of Literature, which had been closed by the time we found it the day before. Because it was a Saturday, the place was packed with graduates taking photos for their ceremony. It was neat to see, but it made it hard to walk around and see things. We didn’t stay long, heading to St. Joe’s Cathedral.

There was a mass going on at the cathedral, we walked quietly around the outside of the gorgeous old church and headed up to a second-story cafe across the street.

Danette and I were anxious to shop, having scouted out all the best stores, so we sent the boys off to have drinks and relax at a nearby bar while we looked for souvenirs in the local shops. I found a few bamboo bowls, a cotton dress, and small presents for friends before tapping out and going to meet the boys for a cool drink on the bar balcony.

The rest of the day was spent killing time before our PM flight. It wasn’t hard to find cool bars and cafes for a snack or drink, and we savored the slower pace of a day with no agenda.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the best way to explain Hanoi. To me, it’s a city of loosely defined spaces where people seem to live on the edge of inside and outside. All the fun seemed to happen on stoops, patios, balconies, and street-side cafe tables. The streets themselves were too dangerous, and the interiors too quiet. On the fringe of these two worlds was where real Hanoi thrived.

 

Vietnam: Sapa Trekking

Way back in February of 2013 when Jeff and I decided to move to the Philippines, I began assembling a list of dream vacations on which we would embark. Top of my list was Thailand – scratched that one off last Christmas. Second on the list was Vietnam. There is something about this country that has always enticed me. I knew very little about it, and all my ideas were closely tied to the Vietnam War. But even in my ignorance, I felt a strong desire to see the country. Fortunately, we were able to cross #2 off our list this October when we spent seven days in Northern Vietnam with the Keshkas.

Because I knew nearly nothing about Vietnam, I went into the trip with pretty low expectations, mostly just excited to expand my view of the world. I find that my travel experiences are always better when I don’t build them up in my mind. In the one year that we’ve been in the Philippines, I’ve learned that no adventure goes exactly according to plan, and you are much better equipped to deal with those situations if you anticipate that SOMETHING will go wrong.

The first leg of our trip landed us in Sapa for a trekking excursion with Ethos¬†trekking company. Sapa is a region of Northern Vietnam scattered with small, primitive villages made up of farmers and craftspeople. Our ideal trek involved beautiful scenery, a challenging hike, and an authentic experience. Many of the villages on the main hiking trails are set up or staged for tourists. It’s not that they are “fake,” but they are over-exposed to outsiders, so the lifestyle in those villages is not typical. We were hoping to avoid that, to see the REAL way of life for villagers in Northern Vietnam.

Our overnight train pulled into Lao Cai early in the morning, and we boarded a van for the drive to Sapa’s main city, the hub for most trekkers. We were dropped off at the Ethos headquarters where Hoa,¬†one of the owners of the company, greeted us warmly. Hoa served us coffee and a delicious breakfast while she explained our trek. We had the option of staying in the home of a village family (no running water, no Western “beds”) or staying at a homestay – basically a dorm for hikers. We were adamant that we wanted to stay in a village home, but Hoa stressed that after a day of hiking we might change our minds, so either option would be open to us.

DSC_2059

Bellies full, we loaded up one backpack for our overnight trip and headed out to meet our guide, Peng. Peng was energetic and full of good humor. We got along with her right away. Our first stop was at the local market where Peng bought supplies for our lunch and dinner; then we were off to find a taxi to drop us off at the trail.

The trail started out simple – a wide, poorly paved “road,” but it quickly switched to rocks and gradually moved uphill. We traveled this way to our lunch destination – Ka’s house. Ka is one of the guides that works for Ethos, but she had the day off. We played with the puppies outside her house and helped prepare the lunch vegetables. I watched, impressed, as Ka cooked our entire meal in a pot over an open fire. The pot balanced on a piece of rebar that had been bent in a long V-shape and laid on two blocks of wood over the shallow pit. Ka kept the temperature even by adding and removing small pieces of wood. I can barely function with a gas stove and oven, and this woman was effortlessly making three meals a day over a fire. The food was delicious! We sat (squatted) on the 6-inch stools that we would eventually grow accustomed to, eating voraciously. My experiences with chopsticks had been limited until recently, but I was quickly becoming a pro.

After our meal, I politely asked the way to the bathroom and was answered with a shrug of Ka’s shoulder. “Anywhere,” she replied. I took it in stride, and went to find my “bathroom.” At this point, I decided it was safe to say we were getting the authentic village trekking experience we had asked for.

We thanked Ka profusely for the meal and headed off for the second leg of our trek. The rocky path turned back into road for awhile, and we came upon a gorgeous rock formation. Jeff and Brandon shed their backpacks instantly and started scrambling up the boulders like boys on a playground. This more than terrified Danette who “demanded” that Brandon get back on firm ground while we all laughed.

Soon, we diverged from the road and set out on a dirt path into the forest where the hiking intensified. We were climbing up and down, jumping across small streams, and, well, HIKING. The going was definitely tough. Just as it was starting to get dark, we started our descent into the village.

Peng took us to her sister’s house for the night. Even though I was exhausted, I felt rude sitting idly by while Zee (Peng’s sister) and her daughter, Voo, prepared our dinner.¬†I asked if I could help, and Peng tossed some jobs my way. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty inept when it comes to the kitchen, and this was painfully obvious as I prepped food. Voo, Zee, and Peng chatted amicably, and I focused on the “difficult” task at hand. More than once, I glanced up to find one of the ladies watching me and suppressing a giggle. I couldn’t blame them; here I was struggling with the kinds of things they did every day, could do with their eyes closed. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

Zee cooked for us, and as the pot of veggies and chicken simmered, people began trickling in. Within 20-30 minutes, the small room was practically full of women. I anticipated that dinner would be pretty awkward. We spoke no Vietnamese, and Peng and Zee were the only people who knew any English. We sat at our corner of the table, eating and quietly commenting to one another while Zee’s family and their guests ate and talked at their end of the table. I was disappointed that neither we nor they were making more of an effort to mingle, but my disappoint was soon put to rest when Zee whipped out the rice wine!

Peng had been talking about rice wine during our hike, warning us that it would be offered. We were given thimble-sized shot glasses and the bottle was passed around. For the first time, our table acted as one group as we raised our tiny drinks and drank them down. The four of us coughed as the liquid burned down our throats and lit our bellies on fire, and the women around the table watched us and laughed. After taking our first “shot,” I noticed that the village women still had over half of theirs left. Unlike us, they sipped the rice wine. The stuff was so potent, there was no way I could politely sip it; it was all at once or not at all.

I am not much of a drinker, but I planned to take a couple of drinks to be polite and to experience the culture. The rice wine (kept in a recycled one-liter water bottle) came around again. I took the drink again. Round 3… round 4… the bottle kept coming. It became clear that we were not having a polite after-dinner drink; the plan was to finish this bottle of rice wine. Then beers appeared. Then another bottle of rice wine. As we drank together, we spoke through Peng to the women around the table and learned that there were no men around because they had left that day for the fields and would be gone for a week or longer.

Peng and I ended up in a rather deep conversation about marriage in Sapa’s villages. I have to say that I was disheartened to learn that abuse is not an uncommon part of many marriages for villagers.

I asked Peng about the festivities occurring. Was this a normal nightly activity? Did these families and friends always eat dinner together? Peng explained to me that our visit was the reason¬†for the large gathering and the rice wine drinking. The villagers in this area weren’t accustomed to outside visitors; trekkers weren’t often brought to their village because it was off the beaten path. The villagers were just excited about meeting us as we were about meeting them.

After dinner and drinks (and more drinks), we headed to bed. The Keshka’s “room” was a curtained off corner just off the main living space, and our “room” was the floor of the lofted space above the living room, complete with blankets and mosquito ¬†netting. Exhausted after the day of hiking, relaxed from the night’s festivities, we passed out almost instantly. After about four hours of deep sleep, I was awakened by the sounds of the family’s pig rooting and snorting in her pen just outside the house. A rooster began crowing. Dogs barked. Birds and other creatures rustled trees and grass. Ah, the peace and quiet of a remote village! It couldn’t have been more than four in the morning, and I was wide awake.

As soon as I heard movements from the bedroom where Zee, her family, and Peng were sleeping, I crawled down from the loft and went outside to stretch my aching muscles and use the bathrooom (outhouse); then I helped prepare breakfast (more polite giggling at my ineptitude).

Zee began the day’s chores before the sun was up by making a hot meal of grains and seeds for the pig, preparing breakfast, and getting her son ready for school. Her daughter, Voo, did not attend school most days because she was suffering from an unidentified stomach ailment. The government provides medical care for the villagers, but the family did not believe in the use of Western medicine, choosing to treat Voo’s illness with ¬†methods they were more familiar with. Unfortunately, they had been unable to relieve her symptoms, and Voo was losing weight. We all suspected it was a parasite, but we’re not¬†exactly doctors ourselves.

As the morning dawned, the family roused from sleep, the Keshkas got up, and eventually Jeff came down. We ate our breakfast alone – Zee prepared a meal of noodles and eggs for us, but the family typically eats a small bowl of rice for breakfast. It was very polite of her to serve us a more substantial meal, and we thanked her diligently.

We said our good-byes to the family and set off for our hike back to Sapa. The second day was an easier hike. While I welcomed a day “off” from hiking, I was pretty bummed to miss out on the bamboo forest.

We hiked to a nearby town for lunch and had the taxi pick us up for the trip back to the city. Our drive took us back through the mountains and rice terraces where we had hiked for the past two days, and Peng pointed out the route we could have taken, had we opted for the longer hike. Seeing the forested hills, river, bridges, and villages, I was immediately regretting the decision to do the easier hike. Yes, it would’ve been a day of hellish work, but it would have been worth it. I made a mental note to never take the easy way out, even on vacation.

 

 

We arrived back in the city around 1 or 2 in the afternoon and had a few hours to kill before our van to Lao Cai for the overnight train back to Hanoi. Splitting from the guys, Danette and I headed to the market to shop for souvenirs, then settled at a coffee shop to discuss the first leg of our Vietnam vacation. We agreed that an extra day in Sapa would’ve been great. The “city” was very small and full of cute shops, cafes, restaurants, and bars. It would’ve been the perfect place to rent a little room and rest our muscles after the trekking trip.¬†It’s always a good sign when you wished you’d had more time in a place.

Soon after we took our seats at the cafe, Jeff and Brandon made their way up the hill. We finished our drinks and walked back up to the trekking office to catch our van to the train station. We said our good-byes and set off for the most relaxing leg of our Northern Vietnam trip: a cruise in Halong Bay.

 

 

A Dress from the City of Dreams

The sign on the street read “Manila: City of Dreams,” and we all had to laugh. Manila? Dreams? More often than not, it was our city of NIGHTMARES: horrible traffic, overcrowded, dirty, smoggy, etc. I had certainly had more bad experiences than good in the capital city.

After trying on numerous dresses at four different stores in and around Des Moines, Iowa, I gave up hope of finding a dress for Jeff and I’s wedding reception/celebration. Everything I tried on was too fancy, too formal, too uncomfortable, too expensive, etc. I gave up hope and went to plan B: have a dress made in the Philippines. Lianne, one of the teachers I work with, had told me the previous year to not even waste my time on finding a dress off the rack, but I didn’t listen. So when I came to her, hands lifted in surrender,¬†and asked for the names of a few good designers, she was more than happy to help – in fact, she offered to do the search for me! After a few weeks, she brought me the names of two designers. I did a little research of my own and eliminated one designer whose work just didn’t fit my own personal style. The other designer, though, had done work that I absolutely loved, so we made an appointment to meet with Maureen Disini at her studio in Manila. I was instantly intimidated by 1) the idea of meeting a designer to have a dress made and 2) meeting this specific designer who is incredibly talented and becoming more popular by the hour. When I mentioned to a local friend that I was having my wedding dress made in the Philippines and was meeting a designer, she asked who. When I mentioned Maureen, my friend nodded enthusiastically. She had heard of her?! That only made me more nervous about meeting her! But there was no going back. Appointment made, and girls weekend planned, six of us hopped in Lianne’s SUV and headed to “the city of dreams.”

I spent the better part of July, August, and September scouring the http://www., looking for dress ideas. I had no trouble finding beautiful designs; I had plenty of trouble making decisions. I am the self-proclaimed most indecisive person on the planet. Pair my indecisiveness with my anxiety regarding meeting a legitimate designer (why would she waste her time on me?!), and you can imagine how I was feeling.

We arrived at the Ritz (the Ritz!) for my appointment at 11:30 and took the elevator up to Maureen’s floor. We were ushered into her studio, and like true newbies to the fashion world, gaped and gawked at the posh studio, with it’s floor-to-ceiling windows, modern furniture, and impeccable decorating. We sat at the all-glass table in clear plastic chairs to wait for Maureen to finish a fitting with another client and did our best to compose ourselves as we were served water and melon.

Maureen was nothing like I expected. I expected distant, aloof, condescending. She was completely down to earth, incredibly nice, and – thankfully – very straightforward. I felt all my anxiety and nerves dissipate as she looked over my ideas and gave me honest feedback about what would work and what wouldn’t, what was trendy and what was classic. What I had spent 3 months deliberating, we had figured out in¬†30¬†minutes!

After taking my measurements, we planned for our next appointment and chatted a little about her upcoming trips to Europe and New York for fabric. I did my best to appear nonchalant as she talked of finding materials for my dress in the fashion meccas of the world. The entire meeting, I was pinching myself to make sure it was real. Maureen is amazing, and I feel incredibly lucky to have my dress designed by her.

To top off an already perfect experience, I mentioned liking one of her dresses – a short, black and white striped racerback – and she GAVE it to me! I¬†stammered through a “no, thank you,” but she insisted I have the dress and went to get it for me, saying the timing was perfect because they’d just finished a trunk show for that collection. As soon as she walked out of the room, I looked around at the other girls and saw they were just as shocked and awed as I was. The best part: it fits!

We left soon after with plans to go over sketches in about a month. The whole way down in the elevator and to the car, I just kept thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening! I’m having a one-of-a-kind dress made just for me by an AMAZING designer… and she GAVE me one of her designs!” If I were the kind of girl who squeals and screams, that’s exactly what I would’ve been doing. Instead, I quietly relived each moment in my head for hours, while Lianne laughed at¬†my faraway facial expression.

The rest of the weekend¬†was spent shopping at markets and stores we don’t have in our area and eating delicious food. We made it to several resaurants unparalleled in Subic: Wild Flour for breakfast, a Japanese place called Geisha in the Fort for dinner, and my favorite, a restaurant called Earth Kitchen that served local and organic fare.

Every one of us had her own goals/desires (“dreams,” if you will) for our trip to Manila, and we laughed about the city of dreams every time one of us got that one thing she was looking for: special flour, an elusive book, a perfect pair shoes, pearls, and of course, a dress!

The trip was made 100 times more enjoyable by having “tour guides.” Lianne and Dimps both have a wealth of knowledge about Manila and were able to guide our posse to the best locations, stores, and restaurants. Lianne booked an amazing apartment that was really cheap. Any time one of us mentioned something we needed or were looking for, Dimps and Lianne were quick with an answer as to where we could realize our “dream.” Instead of spending 1/2 our time searching for things, we got there quickly, or they had a better alternative. I don’t think I can ever go to Manila with out those two again.

Manila is still dirty. It’s still overpopulated and crowded with traffic and trash. The smog still hangs heavy in the air. But if you know the right places to go and the best shortcuts to get there, it’s a really great city to explore and a great place to realize a dream… or at least a dress.

Update: Life in Subic

I promised to blog more this year, even when new and exciting things aren’t happening, so here’s a look into our everyday life:

Cross Country

Team_CC

Our season ended at 11:48 PM Friday, October 3rd,when the bus pulled up at school. We had our last meet of the season at International School of Manila. The meet was a last-minute addition to the season, which “officially” ended the previous Saturday. We asked our team if anyone was interested in attending another meet, and about a dozen runners chose to participate. It was a nice change of pace, having a final week of practice with 1/3 of our usual numbers. We got to know this group of runners a lot better, and I felt like they formed more of a bond as they cheered each other on.

We received the results from this meet on Tuesday, and I was floored to see that 11 of the 12 runners had set new personal records; some beat their previous best times by several minutes! What a great way to end the season.

All in all, it was a success. We had a handful of strong runners that competed in the top 10-15 at most of our meets. All of our runners worked on personal goals, and everyone improved in one way or another Рbe it attitude, endurance, speed, or mental toughness.

The season was a lot less stressful this year; we knew what to expect and had already built a base relationship with our team the previous year. It was a fulfilling experience again this year, but I’m looking forward to having my afternoons free again. Maybe now I can do some running!

New Home

Our new house is wonderful. We made a great decision when we decided to move. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that the staff are incredible, and that’s still entirely true. We were invited to a community party in September. While I was a little hesitant to accept the invitation, our headmaster encouraged us to go. He attended last year and said the food and entertainment was worthwhile. Plus, the people at TPV work so hard for us; it seemed only right to attend their party.

Upon walking in the door, we saw two tournament-style brackets set up with the names of the male residents and workers: an arm-wrestling competition! Mr. Higgins had mentioned this, but I didn’t really believe it would happen. Craig, Jeff, and Bob are all big guys, and most of the TPV staff went down without much of a fight. The competition ended with Craig and one of the wheel-chair bound retired Japanese tenants duking it out for the championship. Craig came out on top, much to the delight of his many adoring fans – the female staff at TPV love Craig, who bears a striking resemblance to Thor. The entire experience was quite surreal and extremely entertaining. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.

Now that we’ve gotten settled in to our new place, the plans for decorating have begun! Just this afternoon Danette and I went down to the market to purchase fabric for new couch and chair covers. Pictures are going up on the walls. Next up is a custom dog bed for Ringo.

Last year I didn’t spend much time or effort on our house because I knew we were planning/hoping to move. Now we have a place that actually feels like home, and I’ve started making plans to spruce the place up a bit. It’s good practice for our future, more permanent HOME. ūüôā

School

School is going really well. There is such a significant difference in the ease of beginning this year compared to last year when we were new. The kids are used to us and we are used to them.

The one struggle has been due to large class sizes for Jeff in PE. He has a couple of huge¬†sections that keep him very busy; activities are a challenge to plan and coordinate. Of course, he makes it work. Jeff’s very well liked among the students (I think it’s safe to say he’s¬†one of the most popular teachers in school), so most of the students work to please him. It helps that he has so few discipline issues to worry about.

We just had Spirit Week here. This is basically homecoming without the football game. Instead of a “big game,” we have a house rally. Our students and teachers are divided into two houses: Gold and Azure. All year long we compete in various athletic, creative, and academic contests, and a winner is determined at the end of the school year. Jeff and I are both in Gold. Last year Azure won the overall competition. The first house rally this year consisted of house cheers (orchestrated by the team captains), obstacle courses, and relay races. Things got pretty intense, but everyone managed to have a great time. Azure and Gold tied in the events, but¬†Gold came out on top in the cheer competition. Finally, we got a win!

In a couple of weeks we’ll have Book Week. I’m on the committee that plans for this, and we’ve got some great ideas planned. Blog to come!

Around Subic

I have been on a bit of a photography mission this year, so I took some time to drive around Subic taking pictures of some of the more interesting sites. Subic Bay used to be a U.S. Navy base, and many of the buildings are from that era. I’m fascinated with the almost ghostlike history of the place. The base was turned over to the Philippines in the mid-90s, and many of the quonset huts, offices, etc. have been repurposed. I’ve gone to so far as to dig around on the Internet for old pictures from when the base was in operation, trying to get a better sense of what this place looked like, teeming with American life.

Just a couple of weeks ago 3-4 ships docked in the bay, and Subic has been overflowing with Navy personnel. We went out for dinner Friday night, and I was shocked to find a normally quiet restaurant PACKED with Americans. We’re used to seeing U.S. Navy ships here, but this stay has been longer than usual, and people are definitely talking about it.

BTPI 

A few weeks ago Danette and I went on a photography trip to Bataan Technology Park, Inc. (BTPI). BTPI used to be the Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC), a refugee camp for people from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and other SE Asian countries. The camp operated from 1980 until the early 90s when funding ran out. This is yet another historical tidbit about this area that fascinates me. Before our trip, I spent an afternoon researching the PRPC and found several personal accounts of escape and rescue that ended at the refugee camp. Most of the people who found their way to the PRPC were quickly processed and sent on to the U.S. and Canada after short stays, so the atmosphere around the camp was said to be lighthearted and optimistic.

While most of the buildings from the camp days have been torn down, a few still stand, along with monuments and statues installed by the refugees. It was a rainy day, but we made the most of the few pockets of dry weather and checked out statues of Buddha, breathtaking views, and the museum, which houses one of the boats used to escape war-torn Vietnam. One look at the boat sent shivers down my spine. A simple wooden structure, it looked like it wouldn’t survive a float in the bay, much less a journey in¬†the Pacific. The fact that people would be willing to risk their lives on these boats in order to escape the horrors of their home countries was a testament to just how bad it¬†must have been. I can’t begin to imagine a life so hard that it would be worth risking almost certain death. These refugees have my respect and sincere admiration.

The trip to BTPI was incredibly interesting, but the weather didn’t allow us to explore as much as we wanted. We’ll be making a return trip one of these drier days.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Life so far this year has been comfortable and less stressful. Now that we feel more like “regulars” around school and have learned our way around Subic and the surrounding area, we’ve really settled in. We have our routines – Tuesday Night Football, Sunday night massages for Jeff (Starbucks for me!), monthly book club, etc. The novelty of life overseas has worn off, but what we’re left with isn’t exactly an absence of¬†enjoyment. If anything, I’m enjoying life MORE now that the novelty has worn off and normalcy has set in. I feel settled, comfortable, like I belong. The stress and anxiety of a new, foreign home just faded memories.

We leave for a 7-day vacation in Northern Vietnam in two weeks. I cannot wait to see another part of this great big world.