Monday, July 27, 2009

It's a hard life

Yet another travel post. It's a manic Monday morning here in Indonesia, and things are hectic in Bali; can you believe that its only noon, and I've already had a swim in the pool, a laze by the beach, spent two hours reading in the shade, and have had to drink two mojitos? The afternoon's not looking any better; I have a massage at 2 pm, and will probably have to schedule another session with that damn swimming pool. Oh yeah - there's a follow up call at 5 pm to wrap up the day's events with another batch of mojitos.

Shit. This is tiring work.

Yes, I know, I'm a smug b*stard. But frankly, after the kind of hellish working hours that I've put in over the years, not to mention the stress of travelling for the past four months, I think I'm well within my rights to kick back and relax for a week.

That's the plan, anyway.

I was getting all excited by the prospect of (a) surfing, (b) diving, and (c) horse riding, but given that this is high season in Bali, everything is either booked out or freakishly expensive. So I'm resigned to vegetating by the pool, getting lots of 20 dollar massages (SOOOOO good), and the odd book as I consume novel after novel.

Getting to Bali from Yogyakarta was an adventure in itself. A normal bus ride would take 15 hours, but I decided to do Mount Bromo on the way. So the two day adventure began at 9 am in Yogyakarta, where I bundled myself into the back of a Mitsubishi min-van, which then proceeded to drive me and seven other tourists for the next 12 hours to Probolinggo. Even for me, a seasoned Asian road traveller, there were times I felt that we were done for, especially when the minibus rammed the side of a truck carrying beer. At least the impact woke up the driver, who I suspect had started to nod off. The minivan's air-con was fried though, and there's something distinctly unpleasant about slowly toasting in a car for sustained periods of time.

Made me feel like a poodle.

Getting to Probolinggo, we all transferred into another rickety bus for the ride up the volcano to Cewang Lawang, the mouth of the volcano and hellhole / tourist trap. I was supposed to be in the cheap budget hotel, but due to the mechanics of the Indonesian backpacker tourist rip off industry, I was mysteriously upgraded to the fancier, "volcano view" hotel (that was not its name - it was called Cemara Indah Hotel, and had a view of the entire Bromo caldera). Not that we knew anything about this view, mind you, as we reached the hotel around 10 pm (we had initially been promised a 7 pm arrival), and it was pitch dark. Oddly enough, after doing a slow roast to Probo, during which all I could do was fantasise about standing under a stream of cold water to cool off, the arrival to Cewang was meteorologically disorienting, as we were around 2500m up, it was raining, and average temperatures were around 12 degrees. After dinner, all I wanted was a hot shower.

Bizarre.

Anyway. We were roused from restful slumber at 3:15 am by a persistent knock on the door; the adventurous souls that we backpackers were, we had opted for a jeep ride up a hill at 4 am to catch the sunrise (supposedly an awe-inspiring view). Sitting in the back of an old school Toyota landcruiser, being flung from side to side, with the wonderful scent of diesel fumes permeating my clothes, not to mention sleep deprivation (I'm not used to functioning with only 4 hours of sleep these days; I quit my job, remember?! :) ) we got to the observation point and I really felt like I was going to throw up.

Luckily, I didn't. Neither did any of my co-passengers, though a couple were threatening to.

Finally we get to the observation point. The locals, always keen to spot a business opportunity, had migrated from hawking Buddha souvenirs, t-shirts that said "Borobodur" and blow-tubes to renting raincoats and parkas for the poorly equipped. Given that it was around 12 degrees, I could see value in the the merchandise, but coming from London, where we laugh in the face of damp and will sit in shorts and t-shirts around our barbeques in 15 degrees, there was nothing my hoodie and jeans could not cope with. It was amusing, however, to see the serious climbers all kitted out in North Face and Berghaus - within the hour they were all turning puce from the heat inside their artic-calibre mountaineering gear.

Two hours later, with nothing to show for sunrise except some grey clouds that obscured the entire view, we drove down to the peak itself to hike up some volcanic grey sand and horse shit to the top of the caldera, again for the purported views. Again, nothing, thanks to the cloud cover. I should have stayed in bed instead. Oh well. By 8 am, I had had more exercise than I've had this entire trip, which can't be too bad a thing.

After some breakfast, and a miraculously hot shower, it was off for another 15 hour bone crunching bus ride to Denpasar, on the island of Bali. Still, the air conditioning worked this time, so there was less poodlage and more sleep happening. I was also sat next to a Swiss biochemist who was reading Dumas, so conversation wasn't too bad either. (I generally keep my Joseph Conrad well hidden when talking to other backpackers for fear of being branded a nerd, but that was a low risk here, I thought.)

Finally to Bali, at 10 pm at night. Finally to the nice hotel I'd booked, with a little private garden, a verandah, hot water, and cable tv. Finally to those damn sessions with the pool and mojitos.

Finally, time to chill and rest.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see a mojito rather urgently.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Volcanoes, Vampires, Voldemort, Vatever.

So here I am in a little (well, okay, its huge) internet cafe in little (okay, its not massive, but it ain't no village either) Yogyakarta. For the uninitiated or un-Indonesian among you, that's pronounced Joge-Ja-Karta. I think that the pronunciation was a little joke that the Javanese played on the Dutch colonisers. Everyone knows that the Dutch pronounce the "J" as a "Y", so why not mess with their minds and pronounce a "Y" as a "J"? Just to clarify, Java is NOT pronounced Yava...

Indonesia is the latest on the travel itinerary. I got into Jakarta (not Yakarta) on Friday from Bangkok. All was well when I left Bangkok Suvarnabhoomi airport (which is pronounced Su-warn-a-poom; don't ask). With a two hour layover at Kuala Lumpur, I decided to explore the wonders of the airport (not much) but found a TV screen playing CNN, and it was there that I found out that there had been two bomb blasts in Jakarta, at two luxury hotels downtown.

Groan. The last thing I wanted was to head into a war zone, or be under threat. If that was the kinda adventure I wanted I would have gone to Kashmir. Still, there wasn't much to be done about it but to just suck it up and get to Jakarta.

Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta (I don't even KNOW how that's pronounced) airport is quite unusual and exceptional in South East Asia's glitzy airport populace; it feels like something out of air travel in the 1970's; you expect people to be wearing bell-bottoms, loud floral print shirts two sizes too tight, and to be chain smoking Marlboros. Still, the airport had all the chaos and hum of people that you can expect from any self-respecting Asian airport, so it wasn't all that unsettling. After an HOUR at immigration (the queues were...challenging) I finally got out of the airport. The best thing about the airport has to be the big signs saying "Welcome to Indonesia; DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKING".

Just so that we're clear on that, you see.

So I'm outside the airport, trying to figure out whether I want to head into Jakarta city (my trusty Lonely Planet told me that the city popularly called the Big Durian wasn't great on culture or pretty things to see, but was great for chaos, mayhem and overall pandemonium.) Feeling that a city that is chaotic on a good day might be a little unbearable the day two massive bombs rocked through the business district, I grabbed a minivan to Bandung, a town about three hours away from Jakarta.

Word of advice to the uninitiated; do not take a minivan in Indonesia unless you are used to travelling in Asia by road, and definitely do not do it if you are weak of mind, spirit or bladder. Our driver seemed intent on careening headlong into the big trucks carrying metal poles all over the highway, while other cars and minivans were racing him for the privilege of doing so. Sitting at the very back of the van, I spent some time trying to calculate how much impact the three rows of human bodies in front of me could take before I got to the metal poles in the event of a collision. Sadly, I left Physics and Biology after school, so it wasn't a very enlightening time.

Anyway. I made it to Bandung at 11 pm at night, most unexpectedly in one piece, and the city looked completely comatose. Unable to find Kebonjati road (which I also struggled to find the next day in bright sunlight) I decided to follow the "Splurge" box in my Lonely Planet and ended up at the Savoy Bidakara Homann - a hotel dating from the 1910's that was redone in the art deco style sometime in the 30's. It was also a stone's throw away from the Asia Afrika Museum, which commemorates the Bandung Conference that helped establish the Non Aligned Movement during the Cold War, and most importantly, had satellite tv, hot water, and air conditioning. A night well spent, even though I ended up watching my first episode of True Blood (DUDE! Well cool, as they'd say in an American version of England...)

Trying to get to the top of the Tangkuban Perahu (big volcano close to Bandung) the next day ended in tears and a sprained ankle. Ironically, the sprain happened even before I left Bandung, so I was not too pleased. Still, I value my joints more than random Javanese volcanoes, so I decided that the best course would be to hit a bookstore and then a movie rather than try to climb rocks and scrabble across lava flows with a strapped-up ankle. Bookstores in Bandung have limited collections of English fiction, so it was either a choice of reading the Brisingr trilogy (just finished it) Danielle Steel (would throw myself into boiling lava first) or Twilight - the latest vampire craze. Having hated the movie (I actually fell asleep in it) I was sure the book would be equally stimulating. Still, beggars being choosy and all that crap.

Thankfully I found a Starbucks (though my order for a double tall sugarfree vanilla skinny latte was enough to confuse the entire team; we finally settled for a double tall vanilla non-fat latte; sugarfree is not a word they are familiar with in Indonesia, or so it would seem...) so the caffeine was enough to keep me awake.

Having a whole evening in Bandung with a sprained ankle, my first option of sitting in a dinky hotel room reading sleep inducing vampire teenage romance novels was not thrilling. I did, however, manage to figure out with my non-existent knowledge of Bahasa that Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was out and playing. A quick trip (literally - I fell again inside the office) to the tourist information centre and I was off to watch HPATHBP in a theatre full of families, children, and mobile phones that just wouldn't stay switched off.

Random? But of course.

The next day involved an early morning train to Yogyakarta, where I spent around four hours trying to find a room. I finally settled for a hideously overpriced one in a nasty little guesthouse (they're called Losmen here). Still, it was air-conditioned, with a private little hellhole that passed for a bathroom. The owner found it fascinating that I was from India (not fascinating enough, though, to negotiate a lower room rate) and insisted on calling me "Shah Rukh Khan" and singing "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai".

Gaah. Damn you Bollywood.

I then spent yesterday being ferried around the Javanese hills in another dinky minivan (what can I say - I'm a sucker for punishment) and managed to get in the Dieng Plateau, which has some (self-admittedly) unimpressive Hindu temples, a smoking crater full of sulphur, and a lake that's the weirdest colours of blue thanks to all the minerals the volcanoes throw up.

That was followed by a trip to Borobudur, the big-ass Buddhist temple.

Wow.

Big, beautiful, serene (despite the HORDES of Indonesian families crawling all over the place, in blatant disregard of the "no climbing" signs) but still absolutely stunning. The coolest thing about it was that the hundreds of Buddha's on all four sides are each in different postures, or mudras. Totally cool. Pics to come soon too. I promise. I was expecting to be a little let-down after Angkor Wat and its glorious, massive architecture, but Borobudur was equally spectacular, if in a very different way.

Now its off to some more Javanese explorations, before hitting the beaches of Bali to chill and party for a couple of days. I'm looking forward to not doing much more than chill on a beach for a few days before returning to the mayhem that is Jakarta, and then to India, so very excited.

Watch this space.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Return of the Prodigal. Still travelling though...

So I never did get around to replacing the tagline on this blog to say, formerly full-time banker, now full-time traveller, etc. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't back home in London for long enough to spend the time fiddling with Photoshop to get it sorted (yes, I'm tech-savvy, and yes, I know how to use Photoshop. I even used to tell my office IT guys what to do when my PC froze and I didn't have admin rights for the damn thing to make the changes. So sue me. I'm brown - we're good with IT.)

So anyway - what is with these random digressions? It's like my brain has a GPS set permanently on scenic route. It used to be bad when I was working in the big bad corporate world, but generally I could focus on something long enough to be sensible and intelligent. Now that I'm travelling, its like I'm permanently like Dory from Finding Nemo (do I know you? are you following me? oh wait, I think I can speak whale...)

Whatever.

So this post is being written from a computer in the common room of my hostel in Bangkok. I got back to Thailand earlier this afternoon from Cambodia, where I'd spent the past four days gawping at the amazement that is Angkor Wat. Seriously, of all the places I've ever been to in the world, this one has got to be a top runner for one of the best. Ever. No shit. Interestingly, I wasn't as overwhelmed by Angkor Wat, the main temple, the first time I went, but the second time I was there I managed to find a quiet corner of the compound to just sit and soak in the atmosphere (and also soak up the moisture - it was like 35 degrees and 80% humidity). And it was there that I got this very tranquil feeling about the temple. I loved its ruined / preserved / restored look, with the large grey stones soft where the carvings had faded away, the black rainwater stains, the faint enscriptions in Pali and Khmer on the walls, even the thousands of damaged statues that litter the corridors. I also went back to the big bas relief carving of the Mahabharata and managed to inspect the whole thing in much more detail. So this time around, I found Bhisma lying on his bed of arrows, I saw Dronacharya leading the Kaurava armies, I saw Karna - one of the saddest faces on the block, plus triste - as he turned to free his chariot wheel, and I saw Arjuna's arrow piercing his neck.

Damn. Karna always gets me down.

So that was Angkor Wat. I think my favourite moments were walking through the old royal city ruins of Angkor Thom, smack in the middle of a park with NOTHING resembling cover when the July skies opened and all the water that the monsoons can throw at you descended from the heavens. It probably took less than a minute for me to be soaked to the skin, and I've never been happier for a waterproof backpack since atleast my camera, money and passport were dry (can't say that about my Lonely Planet though. Oh well.) But the thing is, my whole Indian thing creeps out whenever it rains in a hot country, and I'm like, woo hoo!

Rainy days, however, do not get me down. It's probably just a very little Sridevi trying to get out from inside me and frolic in the rain. Either that or its the pernicious influence of my parents' water-crazy Rottweiler, Cookie.

So while all the other tourists are scrambling for cover, I just keep walking around the site in the rain. Eventually though, I was convinced I was going to kill myself by slipping on the mud and splatter my brains out onto the rocks. I had visions of my red blood streaming out and blending into the red earth of the area (yes, it was red soil, so yes, it WAS a Red Earth and Pouring Rain moment.) So there I am, wandering around looking for cover, and this old Cambodian woman, who sells pineapples and mangoes to tourists, and was hiding under a very large Coke umbrella fixed to her bicycle, gestured me over. About two minutes later, two French tourists joined us, and since it seemed that French was the most widely spoken language in the group, we had a nice chat. I even bought some mangoes which were not bad.

It's like a joke - two French tourists, and Indian and a Cambodian are standing underneath a Coca Cola umbrella eating mangoes. The Indian says...

Anyway. So that was Angkor Wat. A friend (who was also a relapsed blogger) has shamed me into taking up blogging again through her now alarmingly frequent posts, even though she's just moved continents and is getting married in a month, so I really had no excuse to not get back onto the blogging wagon. Given that I'm travelling, I should have more interesting things to write too, so watch this space. The only thing I'm going to struggle with is uploading the relevant photographs, but hey, nobody's perfect. You can google locations if you're that keen on the imagery, right?

So now in Bangkok for just one night - flying out tomorrow morning to a new destination - JAKARTA!

Until the next country.

P.S. I'm reading the Eragon trilogy while I'm travelling, and they're pretty cool. It took me forever to get around to the first one after being subjected to what is probably the worst film adaptation of all time by a recalcitrant sister. Still, its like the universe was trying to convince me, a regular believer, that films are never as good as books, by torturing me with the worst movie ever. It's like, dude, what gives? I get your point, and agree with you. Stop making me watch this crap. I could have walked out, but you see that way I would let the evil cinema owners win and get my money without providing full service.

P.P.S. I want to see Bruno. NOW. And also HPATHBP (which is the acronym for the New Harry Potter movie). AND I want so see them without Asian censorship.

P.P.P.S Thai keyboards are cool.