Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Bangkok, behaving myself

I am in Bangkok now, via Malaysia. We hit up the Cameron Highlands and Penang. Pictures will follow shortly.

One more week here and then it is goodbye Asia for the time being, as I venture to England for the first time.

Monday, October 26, 2009

From the photo backlog

Just realized I hadn't put up any photos from the past couple of months, including Idul Fitri in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

We had a great time seeing orangutans and riding a boat upriver. It was a fantastic vacation in every way. Check out the photos here.

Also, we had gone to a local amusement park for a friend's birthday. Perhaps not as interesting to people who weren't actually there, but some of the photos are amusing. (Get the pun? Ha!) Check them out here.

So long, Surabaya

The Indonesian experience has come to an end. It was a good year, but also the time had come to leave the Sparkling City, Diamond of East Java, Paradise by the sea. Much thanks to all of our friends and the other various random people we met who helped make it a great year. Terima kasih banyak!

Sinead and I are now in Malaysia for about two weeks. She then heads back to England and I carry on to Bangkok for two weeks. Then, for me, it's Britain for a month, home for the holidays, then an extended period drinking beer and whiskey on my brother's couch while contemplating the future.

Sorry I haven't continued to be as frequent with the blog as when I started, but sometimes life gets in the way of typing about life.

For a fix of the life I've failed to keep you updated on, check out my friend's blog.

More photos will follow soon, possibly while I'm sitting on my friends' couch in Bangkok. Stay tuned; perhaps the adventures have only just begun....

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Days of freedom

We went to Bali for Indonesian Independence Day. The holiday apparently isn't as big of an event as I would have thought; the holiday was Monday, and when we asked a hotel staff member on Sunday what was happening, he said he had no clue and would know more the next day.

We started out in Lovina on the north coast and spent a day looking at temples. We then drove through windy hills to see a volcano and ended up in Kuta because it is close to the airport. We checked about fifteen hotels before we found one with an open room, so we ended up cramming five people into a crappy little sweatbox.

Check out the vacation photos here.

Next weekend, I may possibly return to the Ijen crater, but this is based on hotel availability.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Volcano!

We traveled southwest to Gunung Bromo, an actively smoking volcano in the heart of East Java. I managed not to fall into the crater, and the only physical damage I sustained was some mild sunburn.

It was cold there, so I had to wear all the warm clothes that I brought to Indonesia. We also borrowed some cold-weather gear from a friend, including a dazzling pink sweater that got passed around from person to person over the weekend.

Check out the photos here.

In two weeks, I will be heading back to Bali for the long Independence Day weekend. This trip will include more mountains and temples, as well as some celebratory buffalo races and possible dolphin sightings. I will try to not get trampled by buffalo or eaten by dolphins, since they seek revenge from the pre-dolphin-safe-tuna days.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Solo, but not traveling solo

Last weekend, we went to Central Java to see two temples outside of Solo. There was also a waterfall. Check out the pictures here.

My friend Ian, who is an excellent photographer, also took a lot of photos. Check them out here.

We had a great time and it was calamity free, except for blowing a tire on the way back. This weekend, we are going to Gunung Bromo, one of the most famous volcanoes on Java. I'll try not to fall in, or get pushed in.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The horror! The horror!

Here is a buffalo being killed at one of the funeral ceremonies. Do not watch immediately before or after eating.


Also, I've put the rest of the pictures up. Here are the links:

The sulfuric lake at Ijen Crater

The orangutan rehabilitation center at Bukit Lawang and Danau Toba in Sumatra

Random photos from the last three months

Enjoy! If you want higher quality copies of any of the photos, email me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Photos, finally

After some pestering from my mother during our last phone conversation, I decided to get my ass in gear and finally start uploading photos.

I'll upload them to Facebook and put the links here. On the Facebook pages, I'll try to put some informative captions so you know what you're looking at. I'm going to start putting the photos up from the most recent to those from about three months ago.

I just returned from Tana Toraja where I witnessed their unique funeral ceremonies and customs; you can view the photos here. The uploading is going fairly slow, but I should have them up by the end of the week.

I saw a lot of buffaloes sacrificed, but the most gruesome experience was when I was on the bus headed to the airport. Our bus ran over a motorcyclist and severed his right leg at the knee. The entire bottom half of his leg was gone. It was the worst thing I have ever seen and I keep having flashbacks to it.

Otherwise, the vacation was great.

Keep checking back for links to more photos as I attempt to recreate the last several months.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Yes, I am alive and well

Sorry I haven't written for so long. Several factors have conspired to keep me from writing. First, the internet went dead at our house for three weeks (service is not rapid here) so we cancelled it. Then my computer went into freakout mode. Also, I've had two four-day vacations and a nine-day vacation since I last wrote, so I have been away from technology quite often.

As soon as I have time to fix my computer, I'll start writing again. Talk to you then. And soon, hopefully.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The last two weeks in bits and pieces

The last week-and-a-half has been reasonably eventful, but perhaps not travel-blog worthy. (Events included a Superhero party, karaoke, and the eating of imported cheese.) As I've settled into my life here, I often forget to write about things that seem normal to me, but would perhaps be strange to those of you back home. My apologies for not writing more frequently.

***

I eat a lot of local food. Even at the house, I cook with Southeast Asian flavors. But sometimes I miss the variety of tastes that are available back home. To remedy this situation, my group of friends has decided to do a weekly ethnic food night, which has turned out quite well. We've done Mexican night and Italian night (I made homemade pizza for the first time since I left home), with plans for a Caribbean night in the near future.

I've also been drinking a little more than I should.Despite its distinguished-looking label, this is not good stuff.

***

Two weekends ago, we met at a friend's house to try durian, a strong-smelling fruit that the locals love but is hated by foreigners. The locals often describe it as "custardy," but one of my friends described it as "cheese gone bad."Ian thought it was okay but not great, Sinead almost threw up in her mouth, and I thought it was quite alright, though this might have a lot to do with my lack of a sense of smell.

video

The fruit is extremely sweet, but has a strange squishy smooth texture, and it takes a bit of time to adjust to the way it feels in your mouth.

After our exotic fruit tasting, we went for food at a restaurant near our friend's house. Two of us ordered a dish named "Tofu Bokchoy Mushroom" from a section of the menu clearly labeled "Vegetarian." Of course, the main component of the dish was chicken.

Following our "vegetarian" meal, we walked across the street to Masjid Al Akbar, supposedly the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.
The mosque sprawls over a large area and took five years to build. It also has a tower that offers a view of Surabaya. From the top, we could see several rice fields, the city's hotels, and three cars broken down on the highway.

***

This past weekend, I went river rafting for the first time. The company we went through seemed amazingly well run, and everything went smoothly. We spent a little over two hours on the river (which featured class II rapids), including a stop for fresh coconuts and a jump into the river from a bridge ten meters above the water. I took the plunge first, and then waited while the girls built up courage to do the same. All of them did eventually jump.

After the rafting, we were given an excellent buffet lunch. Here are some of the girls relaxing after out time on the river.We are planning on doing it again in about a month, but as part of a combination rafting-camping trip. I'm already excited.

***

Thursday is a holiday, but school still makes us come in on Friday. Lord forbid they give us an extra day off. But I managed to schedule vacation, so I am headed west, first to the town of Semarang to visit a haunted building known as the "Thousand Doors."

Then I will carry on to Bandungan to check out the Gedong Songo temples, which are over 1200 years old. The temples sit on a natural terrace in the mountainside.

I will then swing through Yogyakarta and Solo on the route home.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Knee deep in trouble

Last night was one of the worst rains in years. My roommate and my friend all finished school early, but we had to wait an hour-and-a-half before a taxi could make it down to the school to pick us up.

The main road home was closed, so we made a large detour. However, the detour wasn't much better. We could feel water hitting the bottom of the car, and in a few spots it felt like we were floating.

The driver got us somewhat near the house, but we then had to walk five blocks through knee deep water to get home. Fortunately, our street, and our house, were not buried by the deluge.

Other friends made it, as well, and we settled into a pile of homemade Mexican food while the streets cleared.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

We had no indication what awaited us. We assumed the drive south to the beach at Sendang Biru would take three hours, the walk to the lagoon would be one hour, and porters would do all the heavy lifting.

We rolled out of Surabaya a little after 11am. Traffic backed up near the mud volcano; rains had caused some minor flooding. Six hours later, we arrived at the beach. We had planned to make it to the lagoon that day, but it was too late. We would have to wait until morning.

So we set up camp in a somewhat dry patch of dirt and grass near the beach's security station. And we drank. And chatted with the locals. And sang and danced. And crawled into bed shortly after three to sleep for two hours before going on our jungle trek.We awoke in the morning, packed up camp, and went on our way. We didn't know what awaited us along the path.Every step was treacherous. The rainy season had made mud. Ian, who was still drunk, kept falling down, and twice lost his shoes in the mud.

Shortly before the "bridge" made of four small logs, I had my only wipe out. I almost careened into a hole. I was fine, but Rowan started to panic slightly. She made it across the bridge, but the path continued to get worse. We walked along a narrow ridge where a misstep could tumble us into the water. We were worried but wished for the best.

Three hours after we began, we arrived at the lagoon. On the very last step of the path, Sinead slipped and landed hard on her tailbone. Fortunately, she was only bruised. We began to worry about the trip back.

Despite the struggles to get there, the lagoon was amazing. It was big and clean, and fed by water from the ocean that crashed through a hole in the rocks.The rain that had accompanied us on our journey soon subsided, and the weather was absolutely amazing. We set up base camp, a compact mass of tents.
We had packed some good food and some digestible drink, so we ate and drank and played in the surf and relaxed.The beach was busy, and had a pleasant vibe. People swam and slept and frolicked and played guitars around campfires.

The next day, we faced the reverse march back. We had come in with three porters, but had only one for the return; I am not sure why, since we had indicated we wanted three.

We were all overloaded and tired. We had decided to "luxury camp" but now regretted the amount of stuff we had brought. Ian had gotten too much sun and not enough water, and we worried that he might pass out with every step.

But we marched on and made it out of the jungle without incident, and plopped down in the inlet where our boat was waiting to take us back to the mainland.
We had gained some sore bodies, but also a little bit of knowledge of how to approach the situation. We will go back, but in the dry season when the path is friendlier.

***

For more pictures from the trip, click here.

***
On Facebook, EF has posted some photos from last week's volunteer teaching, so here are some shots of this guru (Indonesian for "teacher") in action.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Got my Mojokerto working

We were delayed a little while heading south to Mojokerto. Two of our party were supposed to meet us at a school in Surabaya, but got mildly confused while navigating the city's sprawl. Then, we had some difficulty finding the school we were going to, since it is set in the mountains up a small road and a ways from the nearest town.
Since we were late, the teacher in charge decided that instead of having our group of six teachers conduct activities together for the different classes (we were going to visit each class for twenty minutes), we should split up amongst the classes and do an hour-long lesson each. I ended up in a classroom with two local teachers.
"Okay, start teaching," they said.

"Ummm..." I said.

After a brief pause to think, I was able to work impromptu. I did alright, I think, and maybe I was able to teach the kids something.

The school is far different from where where we teach in Surabaya.Overall, it was a worthwhile experience, and I think I will look into doing some more volunteer work in the future, whenever the chance arises.

Afterwards, we grabbed some food at a nearby restaurant that also called itself the "Harley Davidson Club of Indonesia."I have not seen a single Harley since I've been here, though I sort of remember seeing a shop somewhere.

***

Here's a food pic. This is what some people consider "cheesecake" here.Yes, that is grated mozzarella on top of a frosted cake. This dessert was brought in for someone's birthday. I tried it; it was a little strange but not too bad. Both sweet and salty.

***

This coming weekend is a three-day weekend for us. So we are headed to Sempu Island (also, type the name into Google and check the images).

We are renting tents and going through the jungle for about an hour. We are carrying in all of our food, water, and alcohol. It should be an amazingly awesome rustic experience.

There are panthers on the island (according to Wikipedia, these are technically melanistic leopards, and therefore somewhat unlike the American cougar, whose existence in a black form are doubted by many biologists and zoologists), so in the morning I am going to buy a knife for protection.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The skin of the cow: when food doesn't meat [sic] my expectations

I hadn't been eating a lot of meat here, but a couple of weeks ago I gave it up completely. It's not that I don't like meat (I probably ate the equivalent of several pigs in my two months in Italy), it's that the meat here is often of unspecified origin. Maybe it was the intestines in the fried rice, or the gizzards in the jackfruit curry, or perhaps the liver satay my friend ordered because we didn't recognize the word for liver at that point in time, but I finally said no more.

I was doing good at being a vegetarian, but then the other day I ordered some nasi sayur lodeh (nasi is rice, sayur means vegetable, and lodeh is a type of squash but often means a coconut curry; click here for a clearly vegetarian recipe).

I didn't notice anything amiss at the time, but when my roommate ordered it the next day, one of the Indonesian teachers informed us there were little bits of cow skin floating around in the mix of vegetables. Not meat, just skin. Somehow I had not noticed this the day before, but I was reminded of my reasons for becoming a vegetarian in the first place.

***

This Saturday I am heading south with a couple other teachers to do some volunteer work in Mojokerto. Teaching the spoiled rich kids every day has been bringing me down a little, so I jumped at the opportunity to help out. Supposedly, a school with very limited resources is holding a charity event to help upgrade its English program. We'll be playing games with several different groups of little kids.

While the volunteering will require me to get up at about six in the morning, I am quite excited.

And then I will reward myself for my good-heartedness by going to an all-you-can-drink martini lunch on Sunday.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Close encounters of the monkey kind

I went to some friends' house last night, where I proceeded to drink 350ml of third-world "vodka." (The clear spirit is probably better than the "whiskey," though, which is a rice liquor with caramel color and something called "whiskey flavor.")(This photo is actually from Christmas, but I may have made this same face at some point last night.)

While the drinking and associated late arrival to my bed did not stop me from leaving Surabaya for the day, it did result in me leaving my backpack with my camera at my friends' house. So I didn't take any pictures on today's trip. My apologies.

I awoke this morning fairly early. I thought it was later than it actually was because I had somehow managed to change my bedroom clock to an hour ahead. So instead of heading to the bus station at 10am, like I had planned, I left the house at 9am.

I got to the bus station and climbed aboard the bus. It left two minutes after I got on, was half-empty, and may have been the only bus in Indonesia with a bathroom. Aside from an awful hangover, or the possibility that I was still drunk, things were running quite smoothly.

I had expected a four or five-hour bus ride, but I arrived in Tuban in two hours.

The sky was drizzling rain, but it soon cleared up. I asked a becak driver about a good restaurant, and he took me to a place. I then had him take me to Goa Akbar, a cave located in the city. The driver asked if I could buy him a ticket, so I did, and he accompanied me into the cave.

The cave is developed for tourism, with paved walkways and railings marking the path. But it is impressive. At one point, the driver said that he thought it was "luar biasa," or extraordinary. I agreed.

He took me back to the center of town to see klenteng Kwan Sing Bio, a chinese temple that wasn't that interesting to me. The driver charged me way too much for his services, but I was feeling generous so I didn't argue. He had been a good companion. I told him I wouldn't need a becak again, but he kept trying to convince me to use his services later in the day. I had told him I wanted to go to the nearby town of Bektiharjo, which is eight kilometers away, and he offered to take me there for an insane price. I told him I would be okay, thanked him again, and then we parted ways.

I walked down the street and hired a bemo to take me to Bektiharjo for way less than half of what the becak driver had quoted. The bemo driver was a sociable and kind old man, and we tried chatting during the drive.

He brought me to the local pool, which has been filled by natural springs. Because of the eye infection that plagued me after my last swimming experience, I wasn't there to swim. I was there to see monkeys.(This is a Balinese monkey, but the Javanese monkeys I saw looked about the same.)

I sat down on a ledge near the playground. One of the local food sellers set her basket of things next to me, and started walking over to one of her friends. A monkey walked up, looked at me, and then started eating one of the crackers from the basket. I called out to the owner of the basket, and she turned to look at me.

Then, I tried to shoo the monkey away by waving my hand in its direction, but the monkey didn't like this at all. He bared his teeth and then tried to lunge at me, but he caught his arms under the edge of the basket, which resulted in the basket getting flipped upside down and all of the food falling to the ground.

The monkey was briefly distracted, so I walked away while he helped himself to a hearty feast.

Later, the old man took me back in to town. I had exhausted my meager itinerary of sightseeing excitement, and it was still early. I decided that it seemed ridiculous to stay in the city and pay for a hotel room, so I abandoned my plans to spend the night and climbed aboard another bus. Home and my own bed were back in Surabaya, waiting.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

After the fatigues to run far

Been thinking lately, perhaps too much. Been thinking about what's next. A few days ago, for the first time, I thought about staying. Maybe not Surabaya, but maybe Indonesia. I'll have some language before the year has passed; I'll be better suited to survive here. But I haven't been sleeping well lately, so perhaps these thoughts aren't the thoughts of someone who's thinking straight. And the weather's been strange, days of blazing heat interspersed with days of cool wind. Perhaps this weather helps make for strange dreams and musings.

***

I might head northwest this weekend, for the first time. I've done some searching on the indispensable East Java tourism website, and the town of Tuban sounds interesting. Caves and near the ocean and described as "an ancient town." Paciran also sounds intriguing, with more caves and a rock shaped like a frog. I may go it alone this weekend, for the first time.

***

Although I love the East Java tourism website, the language varies wildly from very accurate to very erratic but weirdly poetic, but this is perhaps part of the website's charm. Here is an excerpt describing the road to the Tretes waterfall, located in the Jombang regency:
Complicated length road seems to be its beautiful self, because the fascination panorama of the environment around. The saturation fringe the road towards waterfall dosed by the ruthless of brotherly nature, bird chirp and the member of around that very friendly.

Tretes waterfall seems entertain, after the fatigues to run far, the visitor spill their body to the rapid waterfall, sitting on the scattering stones around the waterfall.

***

Lastly, two Indonesian proverbs for you:

"Pikir itu pelita hati."
Thought is the light of the heart.

"Patah tumbuh hilang berganti."
Whatever broken will grow back, whatever lost will be replaced.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A brief encounter

After a meal of seafood washed down with a mint gelato milkshake, I climbed into a taxi for the ride home. The pounding rain from earlier in the day had subsided into a light drizzle.

We approached an intersection where two young kids were standing near the median. I heard the driver click the doors locked.

As we waited for the light to change, the younger of the kids leaned against my window. "Mister, Mister, Mister," he repeated over and over. I glanced at him, then faced forward and hung my head. He repeated the words. I closed my eyes, and then he was gone.

I glanced back. About two hundred meters away stood one of the city's few churches. Its red neon cross glowed through the intermittent rain drops.

I looked forward and we drove on. Home was just minutes away through the wet Surabaya night.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Dude abides

We went bowling today, at the Patriot Bowling Club. The place was fairly large, with 32 lanes. It resembled a rundown American Midwest alley circa 1983 (including the name), except with some first generation computer scoring machines. I felt instantly at home. I belong right here, I thought.

I was a little worried at first because our friend who organized the outing said they did not have beer, and it is hard to bowl without beer. Or whiskey. Or a White Russian. But she was wrong abut the beer, and it was the cheapest I've found in Surabaya.

We paid for our shoes and they handed us a pair of socks. This was good, since many of us forgot socks (not me, though; I am always prepared). And it makes sense, because many people here constantly wear sandals. Some people probably don't even own shoes or socks.

I was also a little worried that they wouldn't have bowling shoes for my giant white-man feet. As we approached the shoe hut, there was a diagram with shoe sizes. It went up to 10. I wear size 12. The man behind the counter looked at me weirdly when I told him my size, but they did have a pair that fit.

Apparently the cheap Bintang beer made for some good aiming juice, because I managed to roll a 185 in the second game.
We were reminded that we were in Indonesia about halfway through our four games when the power went out for five minutes. And when I went into the bathroom and saw where a previous rainstorm had leaked a giant hole through the ceiling.

Despite the brief power failure, we had a great time and will definitely go back. Cheap beer and cheap bowling is like a siren's call for us displaced Midwestern sons. Sometimes we just need that little taste of home, to keep us from running back to where we came from.

Bathrooms and bowling

After class today, I went into the bathroom to attend to my eye. I had tried wearing my contacts again after about six days of wearing my glasses and regularly applying anti-viral cream, but over the course of a day-and-a-half, it looked as if the virus was trying to make a comeback. My younger students asked me if I had been punched in the eye.

A student who was also in the bathroom asked why I was applying the cream to my eye. He then informed my that the Javanese believe that a swollen eye is a punishment handed down to those who peep, and that it is a physical manifestation of sin. I swear that, for me, this is not the case.

***

On another bathroom note, I'm pretty sure that the little kids at our school who are too short to use the urinal just stand in front of the urinal and pee on the floor beneath it.

***

I'm going bowling tomorrow! I have no idea what an Indonesian bowling alley is like. Details and pictures will follow soon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A new disease and a new delight

We went to a public swimming pool over the weekend. It was fun at the time, but the result was the acquisition of a viral skin infection around my eye. This is what I looked like when I woke up this morning, after taking a quick shower to wash away the discharge that had glued my eye shut.I had purchased some antibacterial eyedrops the previous day, but they obviously didn't fix the problem, so I got in a taxi and headed to Rumah Sakit Surabaya Internasional. (Rumah Sakit translates as "sick house" and is Indonesian for hospital.)

I brought my camera but didn't take any pictures. There was nothing remarkable about the hospital; it looked like a hospital, which is a good thing.

A doctor briefly looked at my eye, asked some questions, and sent me on my way with some anti-viral opthalmic ointment. I was in and out in about half-an-hour, with a bill of approximately $20.

***

We went to the amazingly nice new mall a street over from our house for an after-dinner beverage the other night.

We were situated across from our most frequent dinner haunt, Izzi Pizza, and I noticed that they had a sign advertising the new "Obama Pizza." I went over to investigate.

The server explained the pizza quite poetically, saying that it combines the flavors of America and Indonesia (Obama lived in Jakarta for four years as a youth). It has an Indonesian rendang sauce of spiced coconut milk, and is topped with chicken, peppers, onions, and cheese. It is not, however, topped with a big portion of "Change!"

After finding out about the pizza, I settled my seat at Black Canyon Coffee (despite the cowboy logo, they are a Thai restaurant) to try an avocado drink. In Indonesia, the avocado is considered equivalent to any other fruit, and is therefore usually in sweet concoctions as opposed to savory dishes.

I ordered this shake partly because it came in a cool glass, and partly because I felt I had to try an avocado shake at some point in time. The drink I ordered was a blend of avocado, coffee, chocolate, and a hint of rum.
video
Part of my inital reaction was because the drink was surprisingly bitter; despite being green, the main taste was of coffee. After a few sips to equilibriate myself, the drink was pleasant, and my favorite part was the bigger chunks of not-fully-blended avocado.

I will have to give avocado shakes another try at some point in time, but sans coffee.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Strange happenings in the haunted land

The people here love horror movies. And many Indonesians believe in ghosts. When I ask my students if they believe in ghosts, they say yes. But except for one or two, none of them claim to have seen a ghost, though they say their grandparents tell stories.

But Rowan and I had a strange experience about two months ago.

We were sitting in the office researching some vacation ideas on the computer, which is about six feet from the door to the bedroom. It was about 11 at night. We heard the door slowly opening. "Yes?" I asked as we turned around to look. We both saw--or thought we saw--a hand on the door handle and a woman's face.

The door closed quickly but smoothly, and soundlessly. I jumped to my feet and sprinted to the door, opened it, and ran into the kitchen. No lights were on, and no one was there.

Our kitchen is reasonably large, and it would have been impossible for someone to have gone from our bedroom door and out of the house in the time it took me to reach the kitchen. Especially impossible to do so without slamming the doors shut on the way out.

I went back to our room, where Rowan and I confirmed that we had seen the same thing.

We haven't had any other strange experiences, except for the lights occasionally shutting off in the kitchen, though this is probably more the result of living in a poorly built house in a developing country than the trickery of ghosts. I would be much more concerned if the lights were turning themselves on instead of off.

But we are still searching for an explanation of what we saw that one night.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Haunted hotel

I had intended to stay in Surabaya and spend a weekend doing absolutely nothing, but when Rowan told me she had heard of a haunted hotel, I had to say goodbye to the big-city lights.
Hotel Niagara was built in 1918 and designed by Brazilian Fritz Joseph Pinedo. The hauntings are supposedly the result of a suicide on the premises.

Rowan's coworker roughly translated one website, and said the hotel is known as the "Three Beautiful Ghosts" hotel, and rumors also include the murder of a Dutch woman by a Japanese soldier during Japan's occupation of Indonesia.

The hotel, while faded somewhat from its original grandeur, is still quite impressive.The woodwork is still in good condition, and numerous windows let in lots of light during the day. There are several large sitting areas and several smaller ones, the larger areas having once been ballrooms. The character is far different from a modern hotel.

However, the place has the strange feel of an old artifact being forced into a modern mindset. At night, the place is lit with the hideous fluorescent lighting that seems inescapable in Indonesia. The lights hum loudly, echoing against the cracked tiles.

The top two floors, the ones that are supposedly haunted, are closed to entry. I stood at the base of the stairs leading to the fourth floor and looked upward, and one of the hotel staff gruffly informed me that I could not enter.

We saw no ghosts, and if we heard any they were lost in the sounds of the city.

***

The hotel is situated next to a market, so when we weren't sitting around waiting for ghosts to appear, we went exploring.The people in Lawang are very friendly. While we got the usual amount of stares, we heard fewer chants of "bule, bule, bule," and saw less finger pointing.

We ate dinner at one of the nicer small warungs we've seen in Indonesia.The tables and chairs were of nice wood, the floor was of nice stones, and the place was impeccably clean. The menu, though small, offered some nice options.

We chatted briefly with the girl working there; she was 18 or 19 and finishing up school. She told us we were the first foreigners to ever visit the warung, which has been operating since 1976. She asked why we had decided to eat there, and we told her we liked the vibe.

We also said we'd recommend it to our friends. So here goes: If you ever get to Lawang, East Java, Indonesia, there is a market just past Hotel Niagara. At the start of the market, go up the hill until you reach warung Bu Um, on the right-hand side of the road. The have a good soy peanut sauce, which is on most of the dinner entrees, which are all presented very nicely. They also have some buttery, flaky pastry/bread, which is quite hearty and delicious. For a drink, I recommend the STMJ, a mix of milk, egg, honey, and ginger. It sounds strange, but it works.

***

After checking out of the hotel, we went up into the hills to the village and tea plantation of Wonosari (the link has sound). Wonosari is a sprawling complex with a zoo, orchards, tea fields, a factory to process the tea, and other attractions. It offers enough amusement for several days. However, the weather wasn't cooperating, so we didn't take a full tour of the place.But we did go swimming for awhile. And we also rode a mini-train through part of the plantation. Overall, everything went well on the trip, especially while heading home. We finished eating lunch and had not taken two steps out of the restaurant when a bemo pulled up and asked if we needed to go to the town. He then dropped us off on the main street where a nice bus to Surabaya picked us up two minutes later.

Before we knew it, we were back in the sparkling city. And our own haunted abode.

What? I haven't told that story yet? Next time...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Keeping our heads while travelling

We headed north to the island of Madura. If you google "Madura" and go to the images, the first picture is of a man from Kalimantan holding the severed head of Madurese man. Rowan discovered this when she searched for pictures of the island.

Madura, and the Madurese, have a reputation of being rugged, a rough land where the men are quick with a knife.

However, we found the people to be amazingly friendly and helpful. We had some lengthy conversations despite the fact that we barely speak the language.

Although the island is a short ferry ride from Surabaya, we headed to the main city of Sumenep, which is over four hours inland by bus. Fortunately, we had air conditioning for the ride there.

We arrived at our hotel, which cost about $5 a night. After eating a late lunch, we went in search of a Chinese temple that was briefly mentioned in some of our travel literature. We could not find it, and none of the locals we asked had any idea what we were talking about.

So we rode a becak to a restaurant/cafe/karaoke place/gym/pool hall.(Our becak didn't look like this, but we didn't have to ride with ten other kids, either.)

We sipped some non-alcoholic drinks and shot some pool. (We had heard rumors that Madura is a dry island, and while alcohol is difficult to find, we did track some down the next evening.)

The following morning, my friend Ian and I checked out the sprawling local market. We got a mixed response: some people simply said, "Buy!" over and over again, some wanted to say hello and ask where we came from, and some wanted their pictures taken. We smiled and shook hands and spoke Indonesian poorly.

Some interesting things were for sale.Later in the day, we commissioned a van and went to two of the island's beaches. The weather was nice and the water was warm, and we had our pictures taken with piles of local kids.

After the beaches, we went to Kalianget, where we stayed in the best rooms in the only hotel in town for less than $4 a room.

That evening, we bought some beers at the local convenience store (an accident, really; we weren't actively looking for beer, but my beer-dar started going off like crazy when I entered the place) and then sat on the second-story balcony of the hotel and watched the rats run around in the courtyard below.

The next day, we took a big wooden motor-powered canoe across a small channel to a nearby island. We wandered into the village, and also looked at some of the utilitarian beaches the island had to offer.
Then, our friend Ian asked one of the becak drivers if he could pedal for awhile.We took a boat back to the bigger island, and then climbed on a crowded, A/C-less economy bus for the six-hour journey home. (We would have had to wait five hours for the better bus.)

It was slow and sweaty, but we made it back in one piece, our heads still firmly attached to our bodies.

***

For more pictures, visit: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=75620&l=b7812&id=547792060

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seeing life where we live

We stayed in town this past weekend. We have left town for many weekends in a row, and decided it was time to explore the homelands.

We hopped in a bemo (a cramped little van that serves as public transportation; it can get a person across town for 30 cents, as opposed to $5 in a taxi) and headed toward the so-called "Arab market," which is, of course, located right next to Chinatown.

We visited two markets: a small one selling some clothes and other items, as well as massive amounts of dates and golden raisins, which are somehow important to Islamic culture; and a sprawling market filled with spices and other food, most notably garlic.While Rowan was paying for some cinnamon sticks, an old woman tried to take the money out of her hand. We then had a small group of women following us for a little ways just repeating, "Money. Money. Money..."

Rowan and our friend Sinead also were groped and grabbed several times, always by women. I don't think they thought it was a pleasant experience.

After we walked out of the market, we wandered the neighborhood for awhile. The locals, when they noticed that I had a camera, would insist on posing for pictures.Also, the locals like saying any English they know, even if it is not contextually accurate. I was walking down a narrow street when a truck passed slowly by. A man leaned out the window, waved, and yelled, in a friendly manner, "Hello, Mister! Non-smoking!" He nodded happily and waved again. (I will point out that I was not smoking anything at that moment.)

I had some amusing little conversations with my small amount of Indonesian, though some people would just randomly answer with their little English. For example, I would say, "Apa kabar?" ("How's it going?") Sometimes the response would be, "Yes?"

And the entire day we heard, "Good morning!"

After the markets and the neighborhoods, we wanted to walk to the nearby cigarette factory. However, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the river, so we needed to take a boat across.Local price for the ferry is 500 rupiah. The first ferryman quoted us 5,000. This seemed a little absurd. We went to the next ferryman, who quoted 1,000. This seemed like a more reasonable foreigner markup.

The cigarette factory offers random art exhibits in partnership with the French Cultural Center. Currently, they have a photo exhibit on loan from France.We also took a brief look at the cigarette museum. I was surprised to find that Indonesia is only the fifth largest cigarette market in the world. Everyone here smokes constantly; I expected us to be higher. (In the 2008 rankings, WHO places us behind China, the US, Japan, and Russia.)

We then went for ice cream. Because Rowan loves ice cream. This was followed by a movie (Yes Man with Jim Carrey; it sucked, but movies are only $1.50 during the week and $2.50 on weekends here) and even more ice cream.

While we will never love Surabaya (it lacks good bars, comfortable cafes and coffee shops, and events such as concerts and art exhibitions), we are becoming more comfortable here. It was good to see another part of the city, and to get a feel for the ways of life. I don't feel that I can ever truly understand the people here or have a completely objective view of the culture, but I think it's important to expose myself to as many different aspects of the city as I can. We can't spend a year in a bubble; that would make this year almost worthless. So far, I feel like we are getting a lot out of the experience.

***

Chinese New Year is fast-approaching. We have no school on Monday because of the holiday. For the long weekend, we are heading to Madura, a somewhat large island just north of Surabaya across a narrow strait.

The Madurese are somewhat distinct culturally from the Javanese; they are known for bull races and their jamu, or herbal love potions. Madu is the word for honey, and some people say the island's name refers to the sweetness of the women.

Our travel guide offers minimal information about the island, so we will leave it behind and do things the way people did things before travel guides: by talking to people. This should be a good chance to practice and polish our Indonesian speaking skills.

Wish us luck.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rats and sinking ships

Above our windows, which for some reason are not screened and therefore offer no air flow, we have little ventilation gaps covered with screens. Yesterday, our roommate looked up and saw a rat in the vent-hole, face pushed against the screen, staring in at us. Perhaps this would have been a cute scene if the creature wasn't a rat. I grabbed the feather duster and bopped it in the nose about five times before it ran away.

Only afterward did it occur to me that I should have had Rowan videotape the proceedings. However, I do have this artist's rendering of the creature:
***

Over Christmas vacation, two of our coworkers were on a boat that sunk. They survived unscathed, but lost everything they had taken with them: laptop, iPods, cellphones, and most of their clothes. The company reimbursed them for their troubles to the tune of about $300 apiece.

Today, I came across the following article: "Why don't Indonesians know how to swim? Plus, why are their ferries always sinking?" Everyone except our parents should feel free to read the article.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The weekend, and other musings

A week back now, and life is settling into its familiar routine. We had initially intended to stay in town this weekend, but soon changed our minds and headed to Tretes, which I've heard described as a resort town.

While there were several hotels, it wasn't really a resort town, since the people seemed surprised to see tourists.

The town lies high in the hills, so the weather offers a coolness that is far different than Surabaya. Some of us packed sweatshirts, and we actually needed them.

This is the view from one of the terraces of our hotel.The hotel was only $10 a night per room. That price and the view made up for the amount of cockroaches roaming the premises. As Rowan said, at least none of them crawled into the bed.

***

When we had visited nearby Trawas several months back, our friend Dr. John informed us that Tretes has a relatively large Australian population, mostly because the Australians visit on vacation and eventually end up marrying their prostitutes.

We randomly met an older male coworker of ours in Tretes. (Rumor is that he also married a lady of the night. Surabaya is home to southeast Asia's largest red-light district, which draws many men seeking certain nocturnal activities.) He tried to get the men in our party to join him in his quest for women. "The girls are just 200 meters down the street," he said. "Come on, it will be educational."

I politely informed him that I wasn't interested in that sort of education.

***

During Christmas vacation, people spoke English almost everywhere we went. While there were occasional breakdowns in communication, things mostly went smoothly.

Back in East Java, though, communication is a little more difficult. However, I feel like I am picking up enough of the language to function a little more ably here.

At the hotel, I asked the staff how late they served food. They just stared at me. I then asked in Indonesian, and got an immediate answer. I felt victorious.

Later, my friend was not so successful. The hotel offered breakfast, including separate options of toast and jam, or eggs. I mused to my friend whether they could do toast and eggs.

When I found him later, he told me that he had asked and it was "no problem," according to the waiter. When his food arrived, he had only toast and jam.

I believe that humans are, mostly, communicative creatures, and I tend to get frustrated when communication breaks down. I wonder if we are just that poor at communicating in this strange world, or if there are broader cultural aspects at work. We've often lamented on the seeming inability of some of the people here to "think outside of the box." If we make any requests, no matter how reasonable they seem to us, we have no idea what to expect. But I don't want to label an entire group of people as uncreative.

We've learned not to expect anything to ever be done the way we expect. That way, when things do work, we feel elated. A strange way to think about the world? Perhaps. But it is what I do to keep my sanity. And I like my sanity.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Back in the big city

We are now back in Surabaya. We started teaching again this past Monday. Vacation was long, and great, but it's always a little difficult to get back into the flow of work. The week will drag a little, but then life should be back to normal. Or as normal as life gets here.

A couple highlights from the vacation:

We saw some amazing sunsets.We did some snorkeling.
We took in some culture and stuff.At one restaurant, we overheard an obnoxious Australian lady talk about how she was in Bali for the culture, such as the beaches and cheap massages. Yup, good old indigenous culture, that stuff is.

And, of course, there were the previously mentioned monkeys.
***

For more monkey pics, go to http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=71216&l=0c2e1&id=547792060

For more vacation pics, go to http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=71587&l=b000c&id=547792060