Monday, December 14, 2009

A zeal for New Zealand

Greetings from Christchurch, New Zealand, the "Gateway to Antarctica," and the only city I know of that boasts three "CH"'s in its name.

New Zealand is the opposite of Australia: while Aus is tropical and dry, NZ is cold and rainy.

"Tropical and dry" may sound like a contradiction, so I'll describe Australia like this: beaches are to Australia what temples are to India. There are countless numbers of them. Australia is, effectively, a giant beach, with sand and desert in the interior and rainforest dotting the coastline. We've been to countless rainforests and beaches across Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and one of the strangest things about being in Australia is seeing this same tropical climate in a white, first-world country.

Australia's reputation as a tropical leader, its endless sunshine, its infinite beaches, combined with the thinning of the ozone over its skies, results in -- according to Lonely Planet -- a stunning 1 in 2 Australians developing skin cancer. As you drive down the streets in any Australian city, you'll see the same pattern of businesses: a McDonalds, a grocery store, a skin cancer clinic, another McDonalds, another grocery store, another skin cancer clinic, then a pub, then another skin clinic.

The Sydney, Australia preschool that my three-year-old niece attends asks parents to slather sunblock on their kids before they leave the house in the morning; then the teachers slather even more sunblock on the kids before they're allowed to go outside and play. The children all stand in a line as the teachers kneel in front of each kid, applying sunblock to their little legs and arms. Once outside, they're strictly held to the "no hat, no play" policy. And they can't wear just any hat: it has to have cloth coming down that shields the ears and neck from direct sun exposure.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has only 300 deaths from skin cancer a year, and its skies are commonly covered with rain clouds. One particularly beautiful section of the south island, Milford Sound, gets an average of 20 feet (6 meters) of rainfall each year. And though Christchurch students are home for the southern hemisphere's summer break, everyone is still wearing fleece jackets.

In short, I've traded palm trees for pine trees.

But the beauty of those pine trees cannot be described -- imagine deep green, forested hills rising up from clear blue lakes. Imagine vivid bursts of flowers -- brilliant reds, oranges, pinks, yellows, plums, creams -- catching your eye with each turn of the head. New Zealand's reputation for natural beauty is well-deserved.

It's reputation is so strong, in fact, that the number of international tourists who visit annually is 62 percent of its population. This country of 4 million sees 2.5 million visitors a year.

But the same reasons that draw visitors to NZ -- it's remote wilderness, its rugged beauty, its national heroes like Sir Edmund Hillary, its culturally progressive attitudes towards environmentalism -- are the same qualities that give some of the locals island fever.

After all, imagine being stuck on a remote island of 4 million for your entire life.

That's how my cousins' two sons, age 16 and 20, feel. Both have grown up in Christchurch, a "big city" of 400,000, and when I ask if they like it, they reply with a shrug. "It's pretty small," the 20-year-old tells me. "A couple of nightclubs. That's all."

His room is decorated with posters of 50 Cent and Eminem, artists who rarely if ever give concerts in his country. In one corner, he has a Lakers jersey hanging up, and he tells me a highlight of his trip to the U.S. two years ago was getting to sit in a massive professional sports arena and watch a live, internationally-televised game between two major-name teams.

I notice as we drive through downtown Christchurch that the performing arts center has only one musical playing (and its an old show, Anything Goes, not a new release like Wicked or Spamalot or Avenue Q). The city's well-reputed library is smaller than the one at my university, and charges $5 if you want to check out a new release bestseller.

I understand now what I wouldn't have understood 4 years ago, when I was in the threshold of my outdoor-enthusiam: beautiful landscapes can only entertain you for so long. Colorado is great not just because it has the Rocky Mountains, but because it has the combination of Rockies AND concerts, restaurants, galleries, nightlife, libraries, performance venues, and street art. And despite all this vibrant city life, I'm still itching because it feels too small, because it lacks a strong publishing industry and financial district and ethnic enclaves and waterfront.

But no place has it all. That's why we travel.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Family Reunion Down Under

Yikes! It's been more than a month since I've put up a blog posting ... a far cry from the beginning of my trip, when I was intent on posting 1-2 times each week. But in the Frequent Posting Era, I was excited about the adventure. Now travel is just a regular way of life. Familiarity makes people grow blase about anything, even experiencing the unfamiliar.

I've concluded the section of the trip in which I was traveling with two Germans from Darwin, Australia to Sydney, Australia, a distance of 4,000 kilometers -- equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh.

That's a LONG distance to spend on the road with anyone, much less with strangers who spoke varying degrees of English. In total, our road trip with these two Germans lasted nearly two months. We 4-Wheel-Drove through sand dunes, went to remote beaches, snorkeled over crystal-clear waters, gazed over vast cliffs, blah blah blah. We also spent at least three hours each morning cooking hash browns and drinking endless cups of tea.

In that time, they asked us a lot of questions about the English language, and those questions gave me some sharp insight into how tough it is to master -- not just communicate, but really, truly MASTER -- another language.

Theresa, a 25-year-old gereontology graduate, asked basic questions, like the definition of "inevitable," "bruise" and "callous". She was confused about the double meanings for "shallow" -- it makes sense in a pool, she said, but what do you mean that a person is not 'deep'? And what's the difference between 'done' and 'finished'?

Ollie, a 20-year-old who just finished a year of compulsory national service, lived in the U.S. from age 0 to 5, and asked relatively more complex questions, including my personal favorite: "What's the difference between 'carbohydrate' and 'hydrocarbon'"?

After I said goodbye to the Germans in Sydney, the Family Reunion Down Under officially began. I headed to the home of my sister Aruna and her husband and two kids. My parents flew in a couple days later, and within 48 hours, we had a troupe of cousins coming over for dinner. This time, as the only non-Nepali speaker in the group, I'm the one who's struggling with the mastery of language. Though I understand Nepalese very well, there are still times when I interrupt a conversation to ask the definition of an odd word here or there -- such as today, when I cut in to ask them to translate a word that turned out to mean "refreshing." Meanwhile, my sister's 3-year-old daughter, Shraya, needs the opposite -- the other day we were speaking to her in English and she (ironically) got stuck on the word "stick," needing it translated into Nepali. (How do you say "ironically" in Nepali, anyway?)

I didn't expect to give a second thought to language skills now that I'm in an English-speaking nation for the first time in more than a year, but Australia is English-speaking at work only. In their home life, Australians hold a wide berth of native tongues. The nation is incredibly diverse, thanks to the millions of Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, Malays, Sinhalese, Javanese, Balinese, Papua New Guineans, etc., who recognize this nation as the nearest First-World country and, accordingly, do everything in their power to move here. I looked at a photo of Shraya in her preschool class, and, I swear, there was only one white girl in the picture. The other thirty-ish kids all seemed to be East Asian or South Asian. (Ah yes, and the German girl asked what "-ish" means.)

The Outback is a different story -- the diversity there is mainly Aborigional. In the big cities you see evidence of Aborigional culture primarily in art and music, but in the Outback, particularly in Northern Territory and Western Australia, we saw Aborigional people everywhere -- in grocery stores, at petrol stations, at parks and beaches. Their culture has changed -- while some are still wearing white body paint and hunting bush goannas , others are listing to hip-hop and eating McDonalds. Yet they seem to be a strong and insular community; I don't see many examples of blended or interracial families.

Of course, my family hasn't blended either -- though we're scattered around the world, marriage has kept our bloodlines 100 percent Nepali, at least for the moment. And after a week of Family Reunion Down Under, Sydney-Style, visiting cousins and their spouses and kids from both Mom and Dad's side, it's time to take this show overseas once again. Tomorrow my parents and I fly to New Zealand to continue Family Reunion Down Under, the Christchurch Chapter.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Klaus the Camel Man

Camels were first imported to Australia by the British and the Afghans, who – before the railroad was built -- used these creatures as to carry supplies across the vast Australian Outback desert.

Klaus is another foreign import to this land. He arrived in 1968 from Germany. Now he, too, is using camels to cross the Outback.

We first heard about Klaus from a motorcyclist crossing Australia’s Outback plains. Despite the 15 liters of water, cooking gas and petrol clamped to this guy’s motorcycle, despite the leather and ropes and tent and mattress and pots and pans and pillow weighing down his machine, the biker didn’t imagine he was the most interesting show on the road. He knew that even his harrowing trip was outdone by Klaus.

Because Klaus, age 61, has been traveling Australia by camel for seven years.

He has two camels, in fact; Snowy, age 11, and Willie, age 12. He bought both of the camels 7 years ago when he started crossing Australia, and these original camels remain with him today.

“I have a pension now so I don’t have to waste time working,” he said, while patting Snowy’s nose. “I got no time for it, anyway, too busy.”

The camels dragged the body of a campervan behind them for the first few years, which was roomy, but not terribly efficient. Three years ago, Klaus traded in his campervan for the shell of a Suzuki Microvan, which, as the name implies, is smaller than a minivan – its about the size of a tiny truck that a college grounds staff drives across campus.

All of his automobiles are 100 percent camel-powered. The animals are attached to it through an aluminum mast taken from a catamaran, which is pressure-fit around the shaft coming off the steering. This steers the front wheels. When we examined it, the aluminum was fatiguing and cracking at the joint.

“A Suzuki without an engine is a pretty good car,” Klaus told us. “With its narrow size, I can walk in the shoulder quite comfortably. Any wider and I wouldn’t be able to.”

Four solar panels are bolted on top of the Suzuki – a mishmash of different brands, sizes, and wattages. The two panels over the cab of the Suzuki were the smallest, at 30 watts each, while the largest stood at 50. (To put this in perspective, our car’s solar panel is 80 watts, and doesn’t do much more than power a few camera batteries and this laptop I’m writing on).

We met Klaus the day after the motorcyclist told us about him. “He’s about 15 kilometers down the road,” the biker told us, “so you should be able to catch him tomorrow.”

Sure enough, we found him only a few kilometers away from where the biker had met him the previous day.

“Word travels faster than I do,” Klaus quipped. He walks 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon, slowing down as the camels graze for Spinifex plants (which taste best in the morning when they’re covered in dew). Most days he averages 20 kilometers, but lately he’s been going 15 kilometers a day, “which I’m fine with, because its bloody hot.” He estimates he’s traveled 30,000 kilometers over the past 7 years. (To put this in perspective: we estimate we’ll drive about 30,000 kilometers in the 1 year we stay in Australia.)

Klaus has walked every inch of those 30,000 kilometers, rather than riding in the back of the Suzuki.
“(Whether you walk or ride) makes no difference to the camels,” he says. “But you’d fall asleep at that speed. You feel better when you’re walking. I feel sorry for people who have to sit on their butt all day, no matter how important they are.”

He never bothered with a desk job, working on machines as a pipefitter since he immigrated to Australia in 1968 from Germany. His job carried him across Africa, Asia and Australia, but he notes that you can’t really see a country when you’re there for work. Now that he’s retired, he’s seeing the country slow.

His lack of family ties make this possible. He was married for 14 years but divorced a decade and a half ago, which coincided with the last time he owned a vehicle with an engine. The couple never had kids.

He sleeps out under the stars every night, using only a mosquito tent. “I like looking at the stars, and besides, its too messy inside,” he says.

I peeked inside the Suzuki – it contains Dan Brown’s newest book, a small electric mini-fridge, and a dog named Shorty, who he received two weeks ago from a traveler who learned that Klaus’ initial dog was killed by a snake.

Klaus himself was bitten by a poisonous spider a few weeks ago, and taken to the northern city of Katherine for treatment. He kept his camels tied to a tree during his hospital stay, because – as he notes -- who’s going to steal a camel?

He’s never been in an accident. When giant trucks pass by, the drivers CB radio each other, so that every truckdriver knows to look out for him. “It’s the campervans that are worrisome,” he says. “The drivers seem like they don’t realize that what they’re towing is wider than their car.”

Klaus was eager to learn about our trip – what strange animals had we encountered? what interesting characters have we met? – and I realized he must get quite tired of discussing himself over and over, answering the same questions again and again.

The one question we never asked him is why he chose to travel. I suppose we thought the answer was obvious. The question was so simple it doesn’t need to be asked.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Renovations in house, car, year

The Nepalese celebrate occasions according to a lunar calendar, and so, each year, the date of my so-called ‘birthday’ changes. On any given day in September or October (has it ever happened in November?), in accordance with the position of the moon and stars, my parents surprise me with birthday greetings, at which point I’ll realize that today happens the lunar anniversary of the morning I came kicking and screaming into the world.

2009, however, is fabled to be a hallmark year: for the first time (at least, I think it’s the first time), my lunar birthday and my American calendar birthday – you know, my ‘normal’ birthday -- fell on the same date. I wondered if that meant that this was the year that is supposed to usher in strange luck; perhaps the stars are signaling that this year is bound for fortune, fame and glory.

If that’s what the stars meant, they have a funny way of showing it. For precisely the evening before my birthday, just as dawn was beginning to set, we found that the clutch no longer worked.

It happened mid-drive; we were at an intersection, trying to turn right, when suddenly we discovered we couldn’t shift into First Gear. As the line of cars behind us blared their horns, we tried, and tried, and tried, and tried, and eventually coaxed the clutch into First. But then we stayed in First, gradually working our way up to Second, carefully avoiding all traffic lights and disobeying stop signs, until eventually, we rolled into a Woolworth’s parking lot, where our car summarily died.

It was a Sunday night, and in the great Australian tradition, every shop had closed at 5 pm. But we noted, with glee, that we happened to break down in a shopping plaza that hosts not only a grocery store, but also an auto parts store, a hardware store, a mechanic’s shop, and a pet store (for cuddly entertainment while we wait; though we later discovered that, in the great Australian tradition, this pet store had zero cats and dogs, but plenty of bearded lizards).

So we did what any traveler would do: we began eating dinner in the parking lot next to our broken-down Nissan.

We'd just found our forks when a security car pulled up.

“Get the F&%$&(&%#* out of here!” he bellowed; the first words out of his mouth. No ‘hello,’ no ‘are you okay?’, not even a ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’ No, he started out cursing, and picked up speed from there.

“You F&*^$* backpackers, you’re all the same! Well, you F*^$#*(*& better F%&^$@* get the F%$#^&()^% away from here before I call the F*^$& cops!”

All of us were too shocked to speak. We sat silently for a minute. Then Sara, the most diplomatic of the group, ventured, “Sir, we’re broken down.”

“I don’t give a F&^$*(! That’s not my problem! Now get the F&^$#* out of here, you filthy backpackers, before you leave your rubbish everywhere and crap in our gardens!”

“We have our own trash bag in the car,” I piped up. “And there are public toilets right there.” I pointed.

“Did I tell you to F&^%% talk? No! Get the FO()&*(&^% away!”

“Um, we can’t go anywhere. Our car is broken.”

“I don’t F(&(*^*&% care! Get out of my face!”

So we abandoned the car, jumped the concrete fence separating the parking lot from the street, and ate our dinner, in sulky silence, sitting on the street curb. It seemed like more of a public nuisance than eating in a parking lot. At least in the parking lot, we weren’t a traffic hazard.

Then we sent two delegates back to the parking lot (better that all four of us aren’t there, lest Mr. Dirty-Mouth decides to pop a blood vessel in his forehead in our honor) to retrieve the tents from the roof rack. We walked for five or ten minutes deep into the bowels of a construction site, and when we were satisfied that we were far enough from the road that we couldn’t be spotted by passing traffic, we fell asleep.

When we awoke at 5:30 a.m. we could hear construction cranes at work; because of the daytime heat, workmen begin their shifts quite early. Soundlessly, we packed our tents and zoomed out of the construction site in record time. Returning to our car, I hung out in the passenger’s seat reading back issues of Vogue until the auto-parts store opened at 8 a.m.

From that point forward, the car-savvy travelers in our crew effectively lived on their backs underneath the car, tinkering with cables and hoses and whatnot, while I passed my time at Big W, the local Walmart.

By 9 a.m., my friends surprised me with a discount birthday cake from Woolworth’s. Mmmm, breakfast.
By 10 a.m., I had read most of the celebrity gossip magazines in the check-out lanes, and by noon, I had bonded with the bearded lizards in the pet shop.
By 2 p.m. I had so thoroughly raided the free samples at the makeup counters that my face was caked with at least a dozen foundations, powders, and concealers, half a dozen shades of eyeshadow, and a blend of no less than four each of lipsticks, lipliners, eyeliners, bronzers, primers, and blush shades. I raided the “tester” nail polish display and painted each fingernail a different color. And I was finally starting to get bored.

Finally I decided to do something productive with my time and complain to the shopping center management about their foul-mouthed security guard. “A simple ‘could you please leave the premises’ would have been fine,” I told them. “There was no reason to swear like a drunken sailor.” The kindly management apologized profusely, and were polite enough not to comment on the fact that I was wearing enough makeup to make Bozo the Clown cringe.

Coming out of that meeting, I encountered the German girl with whom we’re traveling, Theresa, who told us that she had shared our hard-luck story with two locals who were running some errands. Then she introduced us to the locals.

“Eh, I feel sorry for ya guys,” said the man, who had a sun-wrinkled face and spoke with such a heavy south Irish accent that it took all my concentration to understand him. “Wouldja like to come to our place for dinner?” His wife, a thin, toothy woman with curly hair and a consistent smile, nodded.

The four of us travelers looked at each other and had the same thought: wow, real home-cooked food. Maybe even something that requires an oven.

When we reached the house, we were greeted by piles of dust, loose gravel, planks of wood, cement slabs, and enough saws and drills to supply a small-town hardware store.

“We’re renovating the place,” the man explained. “I own a company that builds and moves homes; we’re hoping to finish this project by Thursday so we can get it on the market and then we can all go home.”

He ushered us down an expansive, freshly-painted hall which were lined with large, bare rooms.

“If ya got sleeping bags, ya kin sleep on the floors,” he said. “We just put in carpet.”

By now we were all grinning. Our luck had changed! For the first time since August – since August, for Christ’s sake -- we could sleep indoors. We could stretch and stand up and move about freely during the night. We didn’t have to hunch under the low roof of a car, or cram into a tent, and we didn’t have to pack up our mobile sleeping units at the first sound of cranes at daybreak.

“Sounds great!,” Ollie, the 20-year-old German, said. “We’d love to.”

It was then that the Irish-Australian stranger turned Good into Great.

He smiled and handed Ollie a $50 bill. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Go down to the bottle shop and turn that $50 into a pack of Pure Blonde beers. We’ll start the lasagna while you’re away.”

Lasagna! Made in an oven!

I don’t have to describe the rest of the night, and I didn’t have to spend too much time studying the moon and the stars on that particular evening. All the strange luck of the day played out on earth, and I knew it was going to be a good year.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Port Hedland is Ore-some

For almost a month, we haven't driven though any towns at all. We covered 3,000 kilometers without hardly ever seeing a traffic light.

So we were pretty excited when we rolled up to Port Hedland, population 6,000.

“Guys, Port Hedland is so big it even has a suburb," Sara announced.
“No!” said Marilyn, the French girl.
“Oui!" Sara replied. "It's suburb is called South Hedland. I bet this place will have a McDonalds. Anywhere big enough to have a suburb should have a McDonalds.”

We were excited about this not because we love Big Macs, but because McDonalds has free wireless internet. Which, in the land of uber-expensive cybercafes, is the only way we can ever go online.

We pulled into Port Hedland, a mining town in which every building is covered in a thin layer of red dust, and a fair number of the cars have yellow reflective tape attached to their sides so they can be seen through the dust.

The first place we went was the visitors center, where we noted the internet was $6 an hour. “Is there a McDonalds?”

“Goodness, no, not in this town,” the lady at the desk said with a chuckle. “But there is one in South Hedland.”

“So what is there to do in this town?”

“Well, you could watch the trains go by. We have a nice viewing platform where you can take pictures.” She pulls out a piece of paper. “Now, here’s the train schedule.”

Hmmmm. “Anything else?”

“Well, you could go on a tour of the mines. We’re the largest ore mine in western Australia.”

"Wow, that's fascinating. Maybe next time. Thanks anyway.”

Despite the lack of entertainment, the visitors center was piled high with Port Hedland souveniers – it sold postcards of the mining operation, of the port, of the salt flats. It stocked illustrated books about how to avoid roadkill and how to cook in the bush. And it had dozens of t-shirts that read, “Port Hedland is Ore-some!”

We drove to South Hedland and spent the next several hours at McDonalds using wireless. After visiting the grocery store for produce, and after buying a bag of ice for a whopping $6.50, we figured we’d run to LiquorLand for a box of wine before heading out of town.

We pulled into the store at 6:20 p.m. The shelves of ‘cask wine’ were covered up, and a big sign in front read, “Cask wine sold only between 2 pm and 6 pm.”

“Why is that?” we asked the freckle-faced guy behind the counter.
He shrugged. “Thought it was pretty weird when I moved here too.”
“So this rule applies only to your store?”
“No, it’s the law in this town.”
“But you’re the only liquor store in town.”
“Then yeah, I guess we’re the only ones that need it.”
“Do a lot of people buy cask wine between 2 and 6 in the afternoon?”
“Oh yeah, tons. Cheapest wine there is.”
“And do a lot of people come looking for it after 6?”
“Nah, the locals all know when to get it. Only the out-of-towners don’t know, and we don’t get a lot of them.”
“So what good does it do?”
He shrugged again. “Like I said, I thought it was pretty weird when I moved here too.”

We decided to branch into a new topic of conversation.

“You like living here?”
He shrugged again. “It’s better than prison.”
“Do you get to get out much? On your days off?”
“Nah, there’s no where to go, really.”
We put two $5 bottles of Chardonnay on the counter. “We’ll take these.” Sara handed him a debit card.
“You want a flyby?” the freckled guy asked.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“That’s okay.” He rang us up. “How do you like South Hedland?”
I smiled. “It’s oresome.”

We camped that night in a little 24-hour stopping area some 50 km to the east, where a big sign said that the toilet facilities had been removed due to continuous vandalism. A small river ran nearby, which invited a torrent of mosquitos, and a herd of cows sat riverside. Their cow dung was scattered across the ground, and in the morning we could hear the occasional moo, over the sound of the millions of birds.

“Those birds! So loud!," Marilyn said through an angry French accent. "I want to take rock and” – Marilyn indicated a throwing motion – “put it on the bird.”

She was drinking tea out of a sandy cup. Scattered around us were dishes that hadn’t been washed in 4 days, since we left Exmouth. We are saving our water for drinking, so we wait for the remnants of dinner to dry, then wipe them off the plate or pot with a dishrag before using again.

Tracey, the British girl who is quite new to camping, keeps marveling at all the idiosyncracies of our lives.

“Dressed for bed!” she said on one of the first few nights, as she was going through her routine of pulling on jeans, two pairs of socks, a jumper and gloves before hitting the sack. “I’m getting dressed for bed!”

Now that its hotter, and we’re starting to stink more, she’s marveling over our unkemptness.

“I feel downright nasty,” she said in the morning. “I’m sweating everyday, covered in dirt and sunblock and red dust, and I haven’t had a shower in so long.”

“We shower soon before,” Marilyn countered. “In Exmouth.”
“That was 4 days ago,” said Tracey.
“Yeah, so not that long ago,” I said. There was a brief moment of silence, then we all started laughing.

Later that morning, as we were disassembling the bed and morphing it into shelving units again, Tracey noted our bedspread, looked at me, and said, “you use sanitary napkins as a pillow?”

Until she said it, I had thought that was a normal and unremarkable choice. After all, a package of pads are quite soft and compact; they make the perfect pillow, really. They're far better than a rolled-up jacket, which comes unraveled as you toss and turn. And they take up far less space than a real pillow; a valuable trait, since space is a precious commodity in the car.

But the way she asked that question – the hint of incredulousness in her voice – clued me in that perhaps, laying your head on a package of sanitary pads was a creative thing to do.
“Uh, yes, its quite soft,” I said.
“Why, that’s a great idea!” she said.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Western Australia with our new 4WD Nissan Patrol

We're in Australia right now, and we've bought a red 4WD Nissan Patrol -- the big brother of the Nissan Pathfinder -- loaded it up with 2 spare tires, tons of extra water, dried foods, a spare 60 liter canister of extra petrol, camping gear, and a French girl and a British girl -- and are driving around western Australia.

A few anecdotes:

Buying the 4x4:
Because we’re buying the car from backpackers, we go the old-fashioned route and start looking at flyers in hostels. In addition to showcasing their vehicles – year, mileage, recent repairs -- the "car for sale" advertisements also noted they have a “roo bar.” Apparently, its de rigeur to keep a kangaroo bar attached to the front of your car to prevent damage when those lovely little creatures dash in front of your car on the highway.

Preparations for travel:
Consisted of lots of details that you don’t think of before you set off on such a trip. We’d need a can opener, wine bottle opener, and a cutting board. We’d need plastic plates, bowls, silverware, tin coffee mugs, pots, pans. We’d need a gas stove, gas canister, Tupperware of many sizes, and a table. We need a cooler. We need cardboard boxes – or preferably, empty milk crates – to store this all in. We need dish sponges, dish soap, a metal-wire scrubber.

Then, of course, you can’t venture hundreds of miles from civilization without spare petrol canisters, spare water canisters, at least 2 spare tires (including a spare wheel rim), a car jack, jumper cables, and a basic tool set – at least a wrench. Back at home, we have half a dozen old wrenches lying around in garages and tool sheds, but here they’re $10 at the hardware store.
Ditto with building the bed – we needed metal screws, yet another thing that everyone at home has, but here in a new country, we need to get it from the store. We also need a hacksaw.

First day:
I put food – gallons of canola oil, at least 15 kilos of dry beans, 2 kilo of oats, 4 of flour, 5 of rice, and a boxload of fruits and veggies – into cardboard boxes across the hardwood floor of my friend's living room in Perth. Some of the boxes are so heavy I can’t lift them, and spread out over the floor they take up what seems to be the entire center of the room. I wonder how we’ll ever fit this into the car.

I wander outside. Sara has strapped the 2nd spare tire to the roof rack, and it seems to take up half the space. She’s standing on the roof attaching camp chairs, a shower jug, and a soft-shell second cooler to the remaining roof space. “Shove the food in under the bed,” she says, referring to a narrow cube of space in the back. I go back inside and try to lift the heavy boxes. No can do. I drag a box across the wood floor. An edge of a plastic bag holding 3 kilos of bulk chickpeas snags on something, and the beans spill out over the floor.

Hmmm, I think, looking at a sea of thin, easy-to-tear plastic bags filled with beans and lentils. This could be a problem. I suppose I could line a cardboard box with a trash bag, and any bags that rip would spill into the trash bag. Then I could throw them all into a soup. But we don't have a plastic trash bag.

I wander back outside. Sara is still standing on the roof tucking things under the cargo net. She’s got a plastic net hook in her mouth. “Hey, I think we should get some ratchets,” she says, “so if we have to break hard for a kangaroo, all our stuff won’t go flying over the highway.”

Another $30, I think to myself. These trip costs are adding up fast.

The first week:
Our LPG (natural gas) tank is leaking. We know because we drive 140 kilometers with a full tank, and then stop to refuel; we fill 45 liters. There’s no way 140 km burns 45 liters. No way. So we pull into Geraldton at 3:30 pm and call a mechanic who specializes in LPG installations and repairs. By 4:40 he’s figured out what we need, a 1.5 hour service that can be done in the morning.

“Know any place around here to sleep?” Sara asked. “A camping ground, someplace free. We can’t afford the $25 a night camp sites around here.”

“Ah, well, you could drive 10 km out of the city and look for something,” the guy said. “Lots of brush in those parts. Or if you want, you could sleep here after we lock up.”


“Sure, you wouldn’t be the first ones to do it. We lock the gates at 5, so once you’re in, you’re in. But you can spend the night here, sleep in the office if you want, use our kitchenette. You’ll get to meet the dogs, too. They’re our guard dogs, attack anyone who tries to get thru the gate. but don’t worry, they’re real friendly.” large Doberman and Labrador. “Don’t let em put you off. They bark like mad. Bark at every little sound. They bark at their own bark.””

Sara came back to us with the plan. “What do you think, guys?”

“This place would be warmer than a tent,” the British girl said.
“And it has a kitchenette, with a real stove,” said the French girl.
“And a proper toilet,” said the British girl.
“And running water. We can wash our dishes. Get the sand out. They’ve needed to be scrubbed for two days,” I said.
The vote was unanimous.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Malaysia and Singapore

No place on earth is as cosmopolitan as Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian capital is home to a blend of Chinese, South Indians, Malays, Thais, Koreans, blacks and whites. Sit at a cafe and people-watch, and you'll see Chinese girls wearing short skirts and tank tops, redheads pushing strollers, Indians in saris. Even the Muslim women can't agree on the 'proper' way to dress: you're equally likely to spot women draped head-to-toe in black burqas, with only their eyes showing; others wearing brightly-colored headscarves, cinched at the chin, with regular clothes, and yet others wearing a transparent scarf loosely over their head so that their roots and their ears are exposed.

There seem to be no ethnic tensions in Kuala Lumpur: this rich blend of diversity gets along famously. The city could be a living advertisement for racial harmony. After spending a week there, I've figured out why. The people of this city have united over one common, shared love: Shopping.

Yes, shopping. Kuala Lumpur is the world's biggest shopping mall. It's not so much a "city" as it is a vast network of malls. The train stations connect from one mall to the next, letting passengers on and off directly inside the mall. And each mall has a pedestrian crossing that connects, underground, from one mall to the next, so you can walk across whole neighborhoods without ever stepping outside for air.

Of course, the constant air-conditioning that malls provide are, for us, the prime reason to go, as KL is devestatingly hot during the day, and a stroll through a crowded shopping-plex provides the ultimate relief from the sticky, muggy heat. So all week, we strolled past Cartier, Fendi, and Lancome counters, we browsed books at Kinokumiya, ate masala dosas at the Food Court, and watched $2.50 screenings of newly released Hollywood films.

We stayed for so long because we had to wait for our laptop's hard drive to get replaced. Did I mention our power cord was stolen about 3 months ago? Well, it was -- the laptop was fine, but the cord was lifted. As a result, we spent 2 months hauling our MacBook, now a giant paperweight, around primitive parts of Indonesia that aren't modern enough to carry contact lens solution or tampons, nevermind the possibility of carrying replacement power cords. (Ask me how I know.)

When we finally flew to KL, the city that's a shopping mall, we made a beeline to the Mac Store. But alas, as soon as we plugged our laptop in, tingling with excitement at this reunion, the hard drive immediately crashed. I blame the thieves. I don't know why or how, but I blame the thieves. It seems like too much of a coincidence.

Nonetheless, we lost all our data. All my journal/diary entries from this trip -- notes I was keeping for the book I plan to write -- have disappeared. Most of the photos we've taken on this trip are gone. We now have a souvenir hard drive wrapped in tin foil. And we stare at it, glumly, knowing one year's worth of journal entries and photos are sitting somewhere in that hard drive, refusing to get out.

So when we said good-bye to the Billabong stores, Arabian Oud perfume shops and sushi conveyor belt cafes that characterize Kuala Lumpur, and headed south to Tioman Island, I made sure to keep notes by hand. And since I'm too lazy to dredge them up in order to write this entry, you're going to read strictly what I can remember off the top of my head.

Tioman Island: home to the cheapest beer in Malaysia, thanks to its status as a duty-free island, which means its cans of Carlsburg aren't subject to the "infidel tax" that the Islamic-influenced government assesses on alcohol. (They're both morally opposed to, and profit handsomely from, alcohol consumption).

But beyond the cheap beer -- which still isn't cheap -- wildlife is the best reason to go to this little island in the South China Sea. There are no cars on Tioman Island, no paved roads; only a dirt path that bikes occasionally travel. Hardly any people live on the island, other than hotel and restaurant operators; if it has an indigenous population (which it may or may not), it's quite sparse.

As a result, if you look high into the tree branches on Tioman Island you can see pythons napping in the sun. At night bats fly overhead, hunting the mosquitos that live in the island's dense forest. Thank God for bats. They're nature's DEET.

Tioman Island is overrun with monkeys, big grey long-tailed monkeys with fluffy white beards that leap tree-to-tree. Its skies are filled with tropical birds. Its grounds are covered with monitor lizards, big scaly creatures with sharp claws that look like little Komodo dragons. These monitor lizards, from head to tip of tail, extend longer than the length of my leg.

The wooden walls of our beachfront bungalow on Tioman Island was home to spiders the size of my hand. I used to sit on my porch at night and watch geckos on the ceiling nibble at bugs and insects.

The island is completely overrun with cats, all of which resemble each other in color, size and design, representing a starting lack of genetic diversity and a high degree of inbreeding. Most of the time they meow pathetically at your doorstep, but I'd occasionally spot a cat with a gecko in its mouth. And it's no coincidence that Tioman Island was one of the first places in the past few months where we didn't have any mouse or rat problems.

And because the island is so small, and car-free (in fact, it's pavement-free), its also de riguor for all bungalows and restaurants to be on the beach or in the forest (the only thing seperating ocean from forest is about 35 feet of sand.) Though every meal was eaten on a wobbly table while sitting in a cheap plastic chair, it was always directly on the beach.

We spent 6 nights on Tioman Island and were sad to leave so soon, but we had to hurry if we wanted to have enough time to visit 3 more locations:

(1) the world's oldest rainforest, where we spent 1 night sleeping in a shelter deep inside the jungle

(2) Malacca, the world's most recently-crowned 'World Heritage City' by the United Nations. Malacca was made famous for the pirates in the Straits of Malacca, and

(3) the richest country in Asia, Singapore. I didn't think I'd like Singapore -- it seems to business-like and boring, like "California run by Mormons," as the guidebook says -- but it's actually a really sweet place to visit.

First of all, it has paved roads, and stoplights, and neatly-trimmed hedges. It's buildings have to live up to a building code. It's avenues have medians and pedestrian crossings. In a word, it's developed. This alone makes me love it.

Singapore appeared, to us, after a year of rats, tin roofs and trash heaps, after a year of dirt roads, potholes, and diesel exhaust, after a year of buildings that are so crooked that your round items actually roll from one side of the room to the other.

After all that, it's wonderful to see a country that has neatly-trimmed hedges. Someone in the country owns a hedge-trimmer! Wow!

Singapore is home to a great riverfront (eat your heart out, Cincinnati!), the world's sweetest city botanical gardens (worthy of an entire day of your life, easily), and home to the universe's most incredible zoo. I saw orangutans for the first time in my life, thanks to the Singapore Zoo. (Fun fact: in Indonesian, "orang" means human, and "utan" means forest. "Orang-utan" is literally the man of the forest. And with their opposable thumbs and the expression in their eyes, they really, really do resemble humans. Picture your hairy Uncle Steve. That's what an orangutan looks like.) The Singapore Zoo even manages to keep polar bears, despite it's location 1 degree from the equator. I went there twice in the 2 days we spent in Singapore, and I regret that we didn't stay in Singapore longer, just for the sake of spending more time at the zoo. If I lived there, I'd go to that zoo monthly. And I'd go to the botanical gardens near-daily. Seriously, this place is worth seeing. And its air is clean, and its people are well-behaved.

In Singapore, you can ask someone on the street for directions, and they'll give you directions. Just like that! Without asking for a tip, without trying to sell you a taxi ride, and without saying 'oh, I'm going that way, follow me,' and then leading you to their perfume shop where they morph into a high-pressure salesman. I'm shocked by the honesty. Shocked. And I love Singapore for it.

But I've written enough for now. Stay tuned.

And P.S. -- no, the photos on this posting we not taken by me. You'll have to wait until I load the Malaysia photos onto our brand-new hard drive. This takes a lower priority to everything else that must be done to get this new hard drive up to speed. Because guess what? We lost all our Southeast Asia photos in the Great Hard Drive Crash of 2009, and now, frankly, I don't care anymore about loading photos.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Renting a house in Bali

We've been on the road for 10 months now, and many people have been asking us: "aren't you homesick?"

Not exactly. We're not homesick for Colorado, per se, but we do miss HAVING a home. We miss being able to unpack our belongings. We miss being able to store food in the refridgerator and cook our own meals. (The service is quite slow at most restaurants, so every breakfast, lunch and dinner turns into a one-hour affair. There's no such thing as snacking; no such thing as grabbing a 'quick bite'.)

The solution? When we arrived in Bali, we decided to settle down in one place for three weeks -- that's the longest we've spent in any area -- and rent a house.

For the first time in a year, we've unpacked. I mean, really, unpacked. We've put our clothes on shelves. We put our sunblock inside a drawer. Our books are in a cupboard. We've even used hangers. It's amazing to use a hanger. Remember that everytime you see one. When you can open the door to a closet or cupboard, and see your shirts just hanging there -- not bunched up inside a stuff sack at the bottom of a backpack, but actually hanging up, as shirts are meant to do -- it feels like order is restored in the world again.

The house a two-story beauty; two bedrooms, wood floors, tiled roof, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an enormous front porch that looks over a koi pond. The kitchen is a detached from the house, due to a culture that sees cooking as servant's work -- the kitchen is made of concrete and has no windows, so when we're cooking we occasionally lapse into coughing and sneezing fits and have to run outside for air. The rats are everywhere, so we have to store everything in the refrigerator -- Oreos, Ritz crackers, cooking oil, ketchup, all must live in the rat-proof fridge. In spite of this, the rats ate our soap and toothpaste on the first night; items we forgot to protect.

The rats accessed it because the bathroom, though attached to the house, is "outdoor" -- it's made from stones and has no roof. There's just a big hole in the wall, and when you step through it, you enter a beautiful garden with plants and flowers and a stone fence, with moss creeping up the stone and plants growing through the cracks. And on one end of this stone fence is a little showerhead, and that's where we bathe. It's quite beautiful to shower outside; like being under a waterfall.

We chose to live in Penestanan, on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali for two reasons. First, its a lush region where life can't help but grow. Life is everywhere. Vines creep up tree trunks and wind around fences. Little plants grow on the vertical rise of each stair. Trees bloom with pink and red flowers, whose petals get blown to the ground by the wind, so that the streets are littered with flower petals. The Balinese people leave offerings of rice to the gods every morning, and chickens and birds spend the afternoon pecking at the offerings. Caterpillars climb up walls, ants build highways along the sidewalks, and we can see every variety of butterfly and bird known to man -- purple/red/white/orange/violet butterflies and blue-white-black winged birds with long curious beaks.

There are water fountains and water fixtures everywhere (apparently water fountains are quite cheap: just dig a hole, fill it with water, stick a jug in the center and attach a pump.) Fish, usually koi, live in all of these, and all day long they dig up insects from the bottom for food, so all through breakfast we listen to fins splashing as the koi dive-bombs to the bottom of a pond, and the afternoon soundtrack is the crowing of chickens and twitter of birds, and evening brings a symphony of insects (along with a smatter of mosquitos.)

Nighttime is also when the geckos come out to hunt, big blue-striped geckos bigger than the distance between my middle fingernail and my watch. We watch them, sometimes, as they hide behind a clock or a roof tile, waiting for a praying mantis or a smaller gecko to wander near, and then *snap*, they catch their dinner. Life just keeps happening in Ubud, playing out its many dramas.

The town of Ubud itself, about a 20-minute walk from our home in Penestanan, is dedicated to art. There are galleries and museums strewn all over the city, and spas and restaurants offering 1 hour Balinese massage for $5 dollars, or one-and-a-half hours for $7. Every night there are cultural performances, which I usually shun (cultural song-and-dance feels contrived, when most of the locals are listening to Bollywood soundtracks on their mp3 players). But Ubud is like the New York City of Balinese music and dance; the cultural performances are the authentic production of talented lifelong dancers, who get on stage in silks and gold and heavy makeup and tell the Hindu saga of the Ramayana with their hips.

But the art and culture isn't the second reason we chose to live near Ubud; our second reason was for the food. For the first time in nearly a year, we can eat more than rice. I repeat -- we finally are free from the obligation of eating rice and noodles. These supermarkets sell bread; real sliced bread. They even sell brown bread and focaccia bread, which now tastes to me like manna from heaven. And I nearly fell down and wept with joy when I saw that they sell cheese. Cheese! I can't remember the last time I ate cheese, except on the occasional overpriced pizza. But here it was in all its varieties: feta, brie, goat's cheese, cheddar, mozzarella, edam, gruyere. I bought it all and ate until I was sick and loved every moment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Five weeks in Flores, Indonesia: an anthropologist's dream

Most people go to Flores for a week, hit the tourist hot spots, and jet away. We stayed for 5 weeks.

Why, you might ask? In a word: transport.

The roads on Flores are undivided unmarked lanes, suitable for one and a half lanes of traffic, and filled with two lanes of cars and motorbikes flying around blind curves and weaving around each other. Buses are filled with live chickens, chain-smoking passengers, and sacks of potatoes. The bus conductor hands you a plastic vomit bag when you board, and all through the ride, you watch and smell fellow passengers get carsick. When you're trying to get off the bus, a team of 10 hawkers surround you, blocking your exit, yelling "taxi? taxi?" The daytime heat this close to the equator is oppressive, and you sweat buckets as you haul a backpack around.

In other words, there's ample incentive not to move around too much. If you find a nice spot, you stay there.

We found our first nice spot in a verdant hilly town called Moni, in eastern Flores. Because of Flores' arduous terrain, ethnic tribes speaking distinct languages and practicing various faiths blossomed in valleys that are as close as 20 kilometers apart, but seperated by the volcanos in between. Moni is a tiny village of Catholics -- population: 300 -- who speak a local language, Lio.

The village has only one road with very occasional traffic; the odd motorcycle cruises by every few minutes. It has a tiny number of cafes, where chickens wander freely around your feet as you wait for your order.

Once at dinner, we ordered chicken. "How many people want chicken?" the waiter asked. Three of the four of us raised our hands. He nodded. "Okay, I go kill it," he said, and began walking out back, where the livestock roams freely in the fields. "Wait, no, no!" We couldn't stomach the thought of issuing a death sentence -- fresh as the meat would have been.

The same is true for vegetables. It takes at least an hour, sometimes 90 minutes, for the servers to bring you a simple fried rice with vegetables, and I suspect this is because they're picking the vegetables after you place your order. All the houses and cafes onto terraced hills where the villagers grow rice, corn and various staples.

We stayed in a spacious guesthouse, elevated on stilts to protect it from the nearby creek. It was built entirely from rough-hewn wood, with big gaps in the floorboards that allowed the sun to shine through (and that you could lose earrings or loose change through.)

All the furniture was handwoven bamboo, which means its both authentic and uncomfortable. (Suggestion Box: A few cushions could really improve a bamboo couch.)

Every morning we awoke to the sound of hogs squealing in the field next to our house; in fact, we awoke BECAUSE of the volume of hogs squealing.

Space is ample in this village, so our guesthouse had a wraparound front porch and an actual living room -- yes, a real-life living room, a room with just a coffeetable and chairs, and a sink (sinks are a luxury here), and a door connecting to the bedroom.

This guesthouse bore the closest resemblence to a "house" we've seen in the last 10 months, and having that living room plus porch was a major reason we stayed in Moni for so long.

Most tourists dash into Moni, spend one day seeing the tri-colored volcanic lakes nearby, and promptly leave. We defied convention by staying for a week. For the first two or three days, this confused all the villagers. "Why aren't you leaving today?" they'd ask, or they'd try to sell us on a taxi ride to the tri-colored volcanic lakes.

But after we'd stayed for 3 days, they understood that we were comfortable, and we weren't leaving. And that's when Moni became really, really nice. That's when locals stopped trying to sell us things, and just started to talk to us like fellow humans.

So we spent our days reading books, splashing around in the nearby waterfalls, and taking long walks through the lush green rice paddies. The showers at our guesthouse were too cold, so we bathed in the same place all the villagers bathe -- in the natural hot springs. For a week, we got to unpack our belongings, spread them out, and LIVE somewhere.

Then we flew across Flores, and took a boat to some very remote islands off the western coast. These islands had the capacity to hold 24 people -- in their 12 bungalows -- but only 2 bungalows were occupied. In other words, we had the island all to ourselves. White sand. Clear blue water, great for snorkeling -- in an average morning, we could see moray eels, stingrays, parrot fish, angel fish and all kinds of multihued coral. The front porch of the bamboo bungalow made a perfect spot for reading.

Our days fell into a blissful routine: watch the sunrise, eat breakfast, read, go snorkeling, eat lunch, read, go snorkeling, take a walk, watch the sunset, eat dinner, read, fall asleep by 9 p.m. We stayed for 10 days.

I took a break from paradise long enough to complete the next level of my scuba-diving certification. I completed four dives in Komodo National Park, some in water with very strong currents, and recieved my new license to dive down to 60 feet, independent of a divemaster's supervision.

We also saw the Komodo dragons -- enormous lizards. "Lizards" is too weak a word. The Dragons are larger (from head to tail) than I am tall. The adult lizards outweigh me, outrun me, and are natural predators against humans. They're also cannibals; the mothers eat their own babies. Many scholars believe that the mythological Chinese dragon is based on the Komodo Dragon.

Komodo dragons are also nearly extinct. They only live in one place on earth: inside Komodo National Park, a series of islands off the west coast of Flores. (Between the dragons, the skeletal remains of the prehistoric "hobbit," and the vast array of tribes and languages, Flores is an anthropologists' dream.)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Update on the motorcycle victim and the da-da-da-da guy

On the motorcycle accident victim:

"You'd need an entire team of microvascular surgeons to repair that leg," our medical-student friend declared. It was true: the muscles, tendons and ligaments had been ripped apart. Bone was visible.

"These doctors just stitched up a flap of skin over the wound. They didn't repair the torn muscles," our friend said. "He's going to have serious problems with that leg for the rest of his life. He might not be able to use it again."

On the driver:

Hermanns, the driver of the car that hit the motorcycle, was still at the police station a full two days after the accident. Through the grapevine (Flores is a close-knit island), we learn that his fate is dependent on the whim and discretion of the officers, and on the severity of the victim's injury.

On the da-da-da-da-da guy:

Allegedly, this 21-year-old guy was perfectly healthy until 7 months ago, when he fell down during a drunken brawl and hit his head. He isn't mentally retarded, as we presumed. He has a severe head injury. And with no way to properly treat it, he now spends his days chained to a bedpost, flailing his arms and repeating the sound "da-da-da-da-da."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shattered silence ... and window

Video of the "da-da-da-da-da" guy.

We heard his voice the first night we slept in Labuanbajo, and we couldn't believe what we heard. We thought it was a one-time affair.

But we heard his voice again the second night, and the third night afte
r that. And we heard it during the day, sunrise to sunset. His tone never changed. Nor did his words.


He repeated that phrase, day in and day out. We asked around; we discovered that he is a mentally handicapped 21-year-old man whose affliction causes him to be handcuffed to a bedpost. And from that bedpost, day and night, night and day, he repeats the sound, "da-da-da-da-da-da-da."

By the time our Group of 8 finally left Labuanbajo, we agreed on two things. One, we felt sorry for him and his family. It must be awful to be, or to care for, a mentally handicapped person in a country where resources are practically nonexistant. Second, on a more selfish level, we agreed hearing his incessant "da-da-da-da-da" was driving us bonkers. We were glad to have a peaceful night's sleep in the next town.

When Sara and I returned to Labuanbajo -- a small port town on the western coast of the Indonesian island of Flores, an island which rose to fame as the archeological site where the the three-foot-tall "hobbit" was discovered -- we checked into the same hotel and didn't hear his voice. One night passed, then another, without disturbance. Silent night.

Then the sound of "da-da-da-da-da" shattered the day. Sara was in the room when the sound started, but she felt confused. The sound wasn't coming from its usual direction. She went to the window to look out, to see where the sound was coming from. She spotted the guy. It was the first time she'd ever laid eyes on him. He was standing shirtless by the water, flailing his arms, chanting "da-da-da-da-da." Strange, she thought. How did he get untied from his bed? She looked away for a minute, and then, fortunately, looked up just in the nick of time.

He was standing 10 feet away from her, outside her bedroom window, swinging a stick through the air. She watched as a split-second later, he reached his arm back and hurtled the stick toward the window. She covered her face with her arm as the wood shattered her bedroom window. Glass shards flew everywhere.

She caught her breath. Except for a few minor scratches on her back, she was uncut. But glass shards were covering her room, her belongings. It would be a long, cautious afternoon of cleanup and moving.

By the time she looked out the jagged hole where the window had once been, the man was gone. But his voice carried through the distance.


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Trauma on the Trans-Flores Highway

If only we had left the hotel five minutes earlier. If only lunch had taken 1 minute longer. If only we hadn't pulled over at the drivers' aunts' house to get a pair of pliers. If only we had to pause for a bathroom break.

If the timing had been 1 minute off, we wouldn't have rounded the blind corner at the exact moment the motorcycle came barreling downhill in the other direction, hugging the curve a little too far inside.

But our timing was perfect. All I remember is the crunch of plastic, the sound of headlights shattering. The thud of his body hitting the side of our SUV. The wide-eyed frenatic face of our driver as his neck whipped around to watch the motorcyclist flip over. My moment's hesitation before I opened the door and ran outside, to where the motorcyclist lay moaning on the ground. The blood spilling from his head and leg. The bone protruding near his right knee.

The medical student among us whipped off his t-shirt and used it as a tourniquet. I ran to grab our first aid kit, not knowing how far away the nearest hospital might be. Locals rushed from their homes to stare. Three Indonesian men grabbed the motorcyclist, picked him up by his arms and legs, and carried him to the backseat of our SUV. My friends scrambled to get out as the local men loaded the victim inside. Our driver sped off with the motorcyclist moaning in the backseat. Our medical student friend, still holding his t-shirt against the victim's leg as a tourniquet, rode along, elevating the motorcyclists' leg and not letting him see the wound.

We got directions to the nearest clinic. By stroke of luck, it was less than 2 kilometers away. We walked there, single-file. Taxi drivers and touts shouted at us during our walk, wanting to make a quick buck off the Westerners, as they always do -- "you want taxi?", "hello, hello, where you go?" "I sell you pearls?" -- but their words sounded especially hollow. How could they even think of goading us into spending money at a time like this?

The clinic was bare, empty, white. It had 4 rooms with not much more than a bed inside each room. When we arrived they were operating on the victim's leg. The injury wasn't as bad as expected. Nothing had shattered. His bones were intact. The gash in his knee was severe. He looked like a cadaver; tendons and muscle visible. A man in a green military uniform and flip-flops was sewing up a flap of skin over the gash. It fit together like a bad jigsaw puzzle, leaving a border of visible muscle around it. The room had no lightbulbs. The man in flip-flops was operating by the light of the afternoon sun streaming through west-facing windows.

A Muslim woman in a white headscarf and flip-flops was swabbing at his superficial cuts with cotton balls. She placed a blue trash can under the operating table, where his blood was flow into. Sometimes the blood barely dripped into the trashcan; other times it gushed like a broken dam.

The motorcyclist kept moaning and groaning, his voice low like a dying animal. He never screamed, never yelped in pain, never raised his voice. He seemed to be in shock. Occasionally he'd lean over to vomit off the side of the operating table. I later learned that was a symptom of head trauma. All I could notice at the time was that he was regurgitating mostly rice.

A crowd of children with dirty clothing and bare feet stood in the open double-doorway of the operating room, watching the gory sight with passing curousity. They were all boys, around 8 years old, distracted from their football game. None of the adults paid attention to them.

A man with glasses and good English came to speak to me. He said he'd seen Michael Moore's movie "Sicko" and asked how much this operation would cost in the U.S. "I don't know - $10,000?" I said. He asked for $16 for the ambulence that would come transfer the patient to a larger hospital.

The driver told us he'd have to stay in town for at least 2 nights, sorting things through with the police. Apparently under Indonesian law, when a car and motorcycle collide, it is always presumed to be the car's fault, even if (as in our case) the motorcyle had crossed over into the wrong lane. Ultimately the final arbiters are the police, and our driver was now faced with the task of convincing them of his innocence. He told us to catch a bus to the next town and be on our way.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The G8 Summit

Sara and I have now met up with 6 -- that's right, 6 -- of our friends from Boulder. Now we're traveling around Indonesia as a group of 8. It's like a party on wheels; a group of friends, all from Boulder, all who have known each other for years and years.

We reunited on Gili Air, a small island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia. Gili Air is a storybook-perfect location: it has no roads, no pavement, no streets of any kind. It's small enough that you could (and often do) walk in a circle around the perimeter of the island in 1 hour. The water is crystal-clear. If you're standing in the water you can see your toes below. The water is filled with coral life, with makes it a great snorkeling location (perfect for spotting sea turtles, barracudas, angel fish, parrot fish, or just swimming through the seaweed).

As a group of 8, (I've started calling us The G8 Summit), we rented out an entire small hotel (actually, there was one French guy staying there alone, and he quickly became our new friend and an Honorary Coloradoan.) Each of us were staying in wooden bungalows with large front porches that opened out directly onto the sandy beach. We'd gather each morning in a gazebo for complimentary breakfast, where we'd sneak bites of our eggs to the hungry stray kittens who always knew when we were eating, but who cuddled with us and played with us even when we were food-free. Then we'd spend the rest of the day swimming, snorkeling, reading, and going on walks. The restaurant next door served the world's best vegetables-with-peanut-sauce for $1.50, and mixed fruit smoothies for $1.

We befriended several local Indonesian guys living on the island, who told us stories about the year or two that they lived in Saudi Arabia as restaurant servers (many of them have worked in the Gulf temporarily, because the pay is better, but most returned because they missed their families). They were sad when our Group of 8 left, but even paradise gets boring after a few days. It was time to move on to bluer waters.

After 2 solid days of interminable bus-ferry-bus-ferry transit, we've now arrived on the island of Flores, which in my opinion is far superior to Bali. Bali is the place you go if you're either 1) an avid surfer, 2) interested in seeing temples, temples and more temples, or 3) a 16-year-old Australian on Spring Break. Bali is so over-developed that it's turned into a maze of concrete and big-box retailers, and its narrow roads are congested, even at midnight. Flores is the island to visit if you're interested in getting back to nature; it's the island of coral reef life, lush forests and mountainous terrain.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mantis Attack

This video was shot by my friend Sara from outside our bungalow in Koh Tao -- literally, "turtle island" -- Thailand.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is the world's biggest shopping mall. This place has more Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Valentino designer shops than (probably) NYC and Paris combined. It's the ideal location if you want to buy a $250,000 watch.

Why such extravagence? In a word, oil money. We paid homage to this yesterday by journeying to the viewing platform of the Petronas towers, which used to be the tallest towers in the world until, recently, a tower in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, took away that honor. (Petronas -- like "petrol" -- is a multinational oil and gas company).

Leaving Thailand was bittersweet. We spent a total of 2 months in Thailand on this trip, and I could easily turn around and spend yet another month there. It's a paradise of beaches and islands and jungles. It's not "cultural travel," so to speak (its so full of tourists that in some places you could easily go 24 hours without seeing a Thai person), but when you're on a 2--year trip in some of the world's most difficult places to visit, you sometimes just want a utopian slice of heaven that gets away from it all. Thailand is that place. Now we're back to "reality," in K.L., but only for a moment. We fly to Bali tonight.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Now I'm a mermaid

It took six days, private coaching and a remedial course-for-dummies, but I finally got my darn scuba-diving license.

But man, it took forever.

The ordeal began when I innocently signed up for a 4-day class that certifies students to dive unsupervised down to 60 feet. About a zillion people I know have this license, and they'll all universally agreed that it was an easy class.

I should mention that in Thailand, there are certain islands where there's only one thing to do; there's one theme that draws visitors. People go to Rai Leh and Ton Sai to rock-climb. EVERYONE there is a climber, and if you're not, don't bother going. Similarly, people go to Koh Tao to get a scuba-diving license. It's not the best place to dive if you're already certified -- there are areas on Thailand's Andaman Coast with more coral life -- but thanks to warm waters and zero ocean currents, it's the best place to take classes.

I should also mention that Koh Tao looks like a postcard. Crystal-clear turquoise waters that run royal blue over the reefs. Blossoming scented trees. Coconut trees that entire porches are built around. Straw rooftops. Young, beautiful people. Our hotel has a deep blue swimming pool with infinity edges, where introductory scuba lessons are held, and hardwood floors, and banisters made from teakwood logs.

Should be paradise, right?

It was until Day 3 of the class, when our instructor, Julian, took us 6 students into the ocean on our first dive. The instructions sounded simple enough: deflate your buoyancy control device, achieve neutral buoyancy, equalize your ears and sinuses, descend a meter, equalize again, don't forget to breathe through your regulator, check your air levels, and adjust the inflation levels in your vest as needed.

Okay, the instructions sounded complicated. But manageable.

So I went under, a few feet at first, and then a few more, until finally I was about 20 feet underwater. I was breathing through my mouth, since my nose was enclosed in a mask. It felt fine at first.

But then water flooded my mouth. I blew it out. More water flooded it. I coughed it out. I reminded myself that my mouthpiece was designed for coughing in; I could even vomit into it if I needed to. But then an enormous amount of ocean saltwater flooded into my mouth, more than I could cough out. I couldn't breathe with a mouth was full of saltwater. I needed to clear my mouth to be able to breathe again. I tried swallowing it. I coughed some more. I swallowed again. No avail. There was too much water inside my mouth.

I signaled to the instructor that I had a problem (you obviously can't talk underwater, so you're trained to use specific hand signals to communicate). The instructor, who had 5 other students distanced between 5 feet to 60 feet underwater, wasn't looking anywhere near me. I decided to ascend. It felt like the only way to clear my mouth.

I came up sputtering, breaking the surface of the water with a cough that cleared my mouth. A minute later my instructor followed me. He was angry; the veins in his temple showed it. "Back on the boat," he barked.

I swam back to the boat ready to cry. I had just flunked out of scuba school. I had ascended when everyone else stayed underwater. This meant I couldn't get my license.

It's okay, I tried to tell myself. Lots of people drop out of high school. Lots more drop out of college. You made it through both of those. You'll just be a scuba-school dropout. Or, rather, a flunkee.

A couple minutes later, Nicole, a sweet and tiny German girl in my class, came up behind me on the boat. She had tears in her bright blue eyes.

"I'm out of the class," she cried. "I got too much water in my mask, and I couldn't clear it out very well. I had to surface. He yelled at me."

I was glad to have a fellow flunkee to commisserate with. We moped for the rest of the afternoon, waiting on the boat while our classmates finished their underwater tests. We both went home feeling like crap.

But my two friends back at the hotel, both of whom have Advanced Diver licenses which certify them to dive 130 feet underwater, had a different reaction. "How can he throw you out if you feel uncomfortable on your very first dive?" they said. "It's your very first dive! An instructor is supposed to instruct!"

At their urging, Nicole and I appealed to the head of the school, who assigned us a new teacher; a South African named Nick who spent the next two days working with just the two of us.

I honestly didn't think getting a new teacher would help; I thought the problem was me. I figured I was just a bad athlete. I'm the slowest high-Himalayan trekker in our group, I'm too scared to lead-climb most routes, and we all know how ill-fated my Spanish bicycle trip was. And Julian, the dive instructor who flunked Nicole and I, confirmed this fear: "Some people aren't meant to scuba," he said, "just like some people aren't meant to drive a car."

Oh crap, I thought; I'm also bad at driving a car. I hate driving at night, in the rain and in snow. Geez, can't I do ANYTHING? Am I just bad at EVERYTHING?

But if there's one thing I've got going for me, it's persistance. With Nick, my new instructor, I practiced scuba drills again and again and again in the hotel swimming pool. I dove 10 feet underwater, exhaled every ounce of air from my lungs, filled my mouth with pool water, and practiced clearing my mouth so I could breathe through it again. I took my mask off underwater, dropped the mouthpiece, and located it blindly. I went through everything -- everything that was so-called 'easy' to do by the zillions of people who came before me -- until I had it down, better than any other student I observed.

And then I went back for another test in the salty open ocean. And now, after six days, private coaching with Nick, and endless practice, I finally have that license.

Well, not THAT license, exactly. I aimed for a lesser license, one that certifies me to dive 40 feet underwater instead of 60 feet underwater. But hey, the devil's in the details. I'm licensed. As my friend says -- "now you're a mermaid!"

And Julian was wrong. Some people ARE meant to scuba -- with a little extra effort.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cambodian Killers

Note: I'm back in Thailand, but I want to say something about the 10 days or so that we spent in Cambodia in March. Also, I added new photos of the Water Festival to the previous post.

Imagine seeing a human skull.
Not an ancient skull. Not some fossil in your anthropology class. No, a very recent human skull, belonging to a woman who was murdered thirty years ago with a blunt force blow to the head.

Now, imagine seeing two of these skulls. Both belong to murder victims.

Now imagine four.

Imagine eight.

Imagine, if you will, an entire platform, six feet by six feet, blanketed in skulls. End-to-end.

Had enough? We’re not done yet. Now picture 17 of these platforms, stacked vertically from the floor to the ceiling, like some grotesque bookcase. Now imagine that every single platform is covered in skulls.

The platforms that are at eye-level have only one layer of skulls, for the benefit of the viewer. The shelves below and overhead have mounds of skulls, two feet thick. Skulls piled haphazardly on top of skulls on top of more skulls.

Signs hover over each section of the platform, labeling the skulls “female, age 20-40” or “male, age 40-60” or “female, age 10-20.”

Welcome to Cambodia. Home to one of the worst genocides in recent memory – the indiscriminate slaughter of 3 million people from 1975 to 1979. Half as many people died in Cambodia thirty years ago as the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust sixty years ago.

Yet we never seem to hear about Cambodia. We never read books on it, or study it in school, or watch movies about it, or hear pop-culture references to “Khmer Rouge” the way we hear pop-culture references to “Nazis.”

Some people say we hear more about the Holocaust because it happened in the “civilized” world, in Europe. But the genocide in Cambodia was 1) carried out by Paris-educated elites, and 2) extremely “civilized.” Every victim was photographed, numbered, and documented in exquisite detail.

So here's a primer on what happened 30 years ago:

The Khmer Rouge – French for “Red Khmer” – was founded by Paris-educated Cambodians who sympathized with Marxism and Leninism. They fantasized about creating a utopian Cambodia in which everyone is a farmer.

In their ideal society, there would be no labor divisions or social stratification. Everyone would plant and harvest the land. Each person would be allotted about .85 kg of rice a day, and the rice surplus would be taxed by the government and exported to other countries. The money generated from these exports would pay for imports of farm equipment and machinery. There would be no education; there would be no need for it.

Even if that theory could have worked, it would have had some massive downsides. A society where everyone is "equal" and "works with the earth" is a society devoid of poets, artists, lipstick, popsicles, magazines, music, restaurants, chocolate, books, videos, and finding your favorite pair of really warm winter socks.

In practice, the Khmer Rouge's "agrarian utopia" economic theory couldn’t pan out. The people couldn’t harvest enough rice to feed everyone. The rice tax had to be paid first, and the meager leftovers didn’t provide enough food for the workers. Thousands starved to death.

The tax, they said, was necessary for buying farm equipment. Without that equipment, even less rice might have been produced, and even more people might have starved to death. It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

A social stratification grew between the lifelong farmers and the city-slickers. The city-slickers, less talented with the land, quickly became viewed as second-class citizens and as worthless, inexperienced farmers whose presence was more a burden than a blessing. This only added to their malaise, which began when they were forcibly ousted from their city homes and displaced to a farm.

The government assigned only nominally-trained people to work in medical clinics. Thousands with illnesses and injuries died at the hands of these untrained medical workers.

This disasterous economic situation would have been bad enough by itself.

But to make matters worse, the Khmer Rouge decided that it wanted to crack down on anyone who might be bold enough to oppose their communist ideology. The people who were most likely to do that, they decided, were the educated ones – the privleged class, who had the most to lose.

So they began summarily rounding up every learned person in the country – teachers, doctors, anyone who spoke a foreign language, anyone who wore eyeglasses.

First, they tortured them. They tied them to beds and beat them with steel rods. They hung them upside-down until they lost consciousness, then dunked their heads in cold water to revive them, then hung them upside-down again, repeating this cycle until the prisoners went crazy. They forced them to live in solitary cells and blocked their ability to commit suicide as a means of escape.

The torturers extracted a forced “confession” in which, under severe duress, the victims accussed neighbors of allegedly bad-mouthing the government’s policies.

Once they “confessed,” however accurate or inaccurate their information, the torture stopped. And the killing began.

To save the cost of bullets, the KR forced the victims to line up on their knees in front of a mass grave. They struck the victims in the back of the head with a heavy blow, murdering them by blunt force. They pushed the body into a mass grave – these sites became known as Killing Fields.

From 1975 to 1979, the KR killed a whopping 3 million people, out of a total population of 7 million.

Many Cambodians, scared of getting killed, decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. They enlisted to work for the government, as torturers and executioners, in the hopes that this would spare their own lives.

That tactic failed. The paranoid and suspicious KR leaders began executing their own executioners. They increasing suspected their own staff of harboring secret anti-communist ideals. Their goal was to wipe out every living teenager and adult, whose minds have already been tainted by capitalist ideals. Then they could re-start a new society of babies, who would grow up learning nothing but communism and agrarianism.

They nearly succeeded.

Today, walking around in modern Cambodia, its evident that just about the entire population is under 30. As we walk down the streets, ride buses, and eat in restaurants, we rarely notice anyone older than we are.

One of the beggars I saw was the most pathetic-looking human being I have ever laid eyes on.

In India, you see some extremely pathetic beggars; people so crippled by disease that they have to crawl on all four (or three) limbs, clutching their begging bowls in their mouth. But even India didn’t prepare me for this.

Cambodia has almost no beggars. Most would-be beggars have been killed. But the few who live are extremely disfigured. The heartwrenching beggar that I saw had half his face melted off and one eyeball gouged out. I don’t remember how many limbs he had; I was too repulsed to count.

But what’s magical about Cambodia is that everyone is smiling. I mean, truly smiling – beaming from the heart. Grinning so wide they have crinkles of laughter around their eyes.

Why they smile, I have no idea. How they’ve found reason or hope in this crazy world, I can’t explain. But you look at the smile of a Cambodian, knowing that literally every family has lost at least one person to the genocide, and you can’t help but think that every stupid little problem in your own life is a hollow figment of your dark imagination. If these people, who have every reason to frown, can find reason to smile, there’s no excuse why we all can’t be grinning.