Fashion Never Seemed so Interesting

March 19th, 2013 No comments

Our exit from Saigon was to be an overnight train departing at 11:20pm, giving us a bonus night to partake of the rich nighttime street culture.

We began with a drawn out session of beers, appetizers and a meal at a Mexican restaurant with nice outdoor seating1, and were happy to participant in some of the local commerce by purchasing a Paulo Coelho book from one of the venders toting stacks of books about the street.  I’m a big fan of his work The Alchemist, and this promised to be a good read on the train2.

From there we let ourselves get talked into massages at a super sketcheroo massage parlor.  Tracy and I were situated in a dark, narrow room up on the third floor of a small building with 5 massage tables in a row, separated each by a curtain.  I opted for Thai-style, a sort of preview even through Thailand was still 2 countries away.  My tiny-yet-nimble masseuse adeptly maneuvered all about as she contorted me for one great stretch after another, standing over me on the table and pulling my limbs this way and that.  Tracy heard me giggle from two tables over, but what she didn’t know is that it was because on several occasions I swore I was like 2 steps away from being offered a happy ending.  And because I find the “naughty Asian massage” cliché just a kinda hilarious if not offensive, well, I found my situation oddly both super relaxing and genuinely funny.

She whispered in my ear sweet nothings about upgrading my 45 minute massage for the hour long option, to which I relaxedly mumbled “sure, if my wife is okay with us spending the extra time”.  My masseuse tried to clear this with the Mrs. but due to a gap in understanding came back with a reconfirmation of the fact that we’d chosen the 45 minute option.  When I shrugged at the report that 45 minutes it would be, my masseuse scandalously insinuated through wicked whispering that perhaps I feared my wife.  I know this is probably off script in this sort of situation, but I couldn’t help but just chuckle3.

Still, all in all she was a sweet girl and gave a really good massage.  She implored in hushed, urgent tones that I give her a tip right then while still at the table rather than have it go through the house.  Sure thing, a generous percentage on top of about 6 bucks was worth every penny4.  Tracy and I regrouped, paid up to the matron in the stairwell, and were on our way.

The hospitality of the Beautiful Saigon III Hotel shone once more when we returned at about 10pm to pick up our bags.  Tracy was heartily invited to take a shower in the lower level bathroom and was given ample towelage to do so.  A cab was summoned on our behalf and the bellhop politely insisted on carrying our big bags to it.

Training Through the Vietnamese Countryside

I was so looking forward to taking an overnight train but found it a bit hard to sleep.  As you might imagine, a sleeper car in Asia doesn’t easily allow the stretching out of my 6’5″ frame, and I must be getting too fickle as a sleeper for the rattle and hum of a massive locomotive making its way down decades-old tracks to be a soothing ambiance.  Still, a worn but clean pale green blanket looking like standard military issue was a most welcome piece of comfort for the ride5, and earplugs given to me by Yee-Pin back in Singapore turned out to be quite the godsend.

A few chapters in my bootleg book plus a brushing of teeth with questionably potable water and it was lights out.

I awoke to the sun rising over the Vietnamese countryside that was whipping by our wide window.  Rural and pleasant, rice paddies dominated the landscape with what appeared to be plastic bags mounted on sticks, as if masquerading as scarecrows6.

Turns out in the night we were indeed joined by two others, a fellow my age and his mom, from Japan and traveling about Vietnam as part of the work for his non-profit.  We made acquaintances when I overpaid for I guess 3 cups of tea from a woman poking her head into our car at one of the stops7.  I offered my third cup up to Soren on the top bunk across from me and netted a few good hours of company for it.

Upon arriving in Da Nang that afternoon Tracy and I headed a few blocks out to a bus stop, looking to catch a 40 minute ride which would take us into Hoi An.  There we found a couple of native guys also waiting, and for no real reason save for to be nice one of them offered me a banana, of which I was delighted to partake.  People are great.

Our first order of business in Hoi An, as if to further convince ourselves that yep, we’re well sated on the wandering-aimlessly-with-our-backpacks-in-search-of-lodgings front, we wandered aimlessly with our backpacks in search of lodgings.

It wasn’t entirely aimless though, for we were headed clearly towards the old part of town, the veritable perennial festival of lanterns that is the riverfront of the ancient city.  Every night, just after dusk the city comes alight with its myriad lanterns lining streets and bridges, and dotting the water itself in candles floating aboard small containers resembling colorful, translucent Chinese take-out boxes.  The visuals are most definitely worth a look over at Tracy’s blog.

Unexpected Appreciation for High Fashion

One of the signature facets of Hoi An is its thriving culture of tailors.  During walks through the main streets you’ll see shop after shop offering high fashion made to order.  I usually don’t pay much attention to designer clothing.   My understanding that “fashion” fashion, as it’s practiced most places I’ve been, is priced generally some 3-10x what I’m used to paying for comparable garb, thus my perception of it generally blocked by a thick veil of “yeah, that’s not worth it to me so I’m not going to pay any heed whatsoever8“.

But here in South East Asia the prices make my mind so much more open to considering, thereby enabling a glimpse into that joy of standing starry-eyed in the windows of some Madison Avenue gallery, imagining myself in such smart attire strutting into some fancy place amid important people.  Let that in for a moment, and dang, I have to admit the wear upon this endless stream of both male and female mannequins looks sharp indeed.

Tracy and I stopped at the robe (kimono?) shop one evening and picked out a pair of really kickin’ silk robes, thereby lending credence to my arguably rash decision to do away with our old ones before this trip.  “Don’t worry, love, we’ll get better ones later” I assured her.  Thanks, Hoi An!

The process of getting tailor made clothes is as easy and welcoming as it is affordable.  Just saunter past one of the open storefronts and pause to look with more than a fleeting interest9 at some of the garb on display, and a friendly tailor will warmly greet you, usher you in to be sat in front of a large stack of catalogs, and gracefully guide you through the pages to pick out something you like.  Measurements are taken, a small deposit is left, and you’re sent off to return 24 hours hence to pick up your made-just-for-you selection from one of the American-brand designer catalogs.  For about $30 Tracy got a flowing blue blouse and a remarkably nicely form-fitting white collared button-down shirt.

Maybe it’s the near 8 months of seeing only clothes from the same ol’ rotation speaking, but in that shirt she looks good.  Traveling as we are for the next 5 months there is to resist the temptation to order a nice new suit or other such svelte garb, for we would need to tote (and make good and crinkly) such things for some time to come.  So instead, I submit to you (and my future self) a tip for a future endeavor: come to Hoi An with a near empty suitcase and leave with a new wardrobe.


  1. A bastardized experience for sure, but the more legit food cart-style restaurants didn’t seem as appealing for hours of milling about.  When an eating establishment consists of 2 or 3 tables, it feels wrong to monopolize one for such lengths.
  2. Dear Mr. Coelho: 11 Minutes was quite enjoyable.  If you read this, please let me know where I can send you a few bucks, because I’m not sure you got your proper due from this sale.
  3. I mean really, I wasn’t about to fall for the bait of reasserting my self-directed manhood and up it to 60 minutes, much less double-down on independent machismo and opt for the hand job which may or may not have been on implicit offer.
  4. Er, Dong.
  5. For the lack of company in our sleeper car I was tempted to grab a second one from the bed above, but was paranoid that we’d be joined a few stops later and didn’t want to be that guy.
  6. Turns out that yep, that’s what they are and that’s why they’re there.
  7. The offers in these situations are delivered so smoothly, the unaware (or groggy from a night of overnight train sleep) are apt to mistakenly assume they are a complimentary part of the transit service.  Deja vu from the overnight up to Tikal.
  8. I happily own my cheapness here.  Frugality like this is the stuff of tradeoffs which enables other things like, say, travel.
  9. About 6 seconds should suffice.
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Lively Nightlife in the Streets of Saigon

March 15th, 2013 No comments

For the first 2 hours of our presence in Vietnam, I had concerns that I wasn’t going like it.  The airport was a bit drab and dirty1, and even though the high schooler in me enjoyed a cheap laugh at the big sign plastering the wall beyond the immigrations counter, a sign which proudly proclaimed in bright bold letters “Get more Vietnamese Dong with Your Visa”2 I felt a little blah about entering what I presumed to be the imminent chaos of a hot, crowded, and polluted city.

Having assiduously avoided the hectic streets of Denpasar for most of our stay in Bali, I was essentially out of practice with the whole thing, or perhaps feeling greatly diminished patience for the genre of environments after getting so very cozy with the calmer rural life and/or the Australian suburbs and/or New Zealand’s outdoor wonderland.  Sure Singapore was crowded and bustling as well, but that was beyond reproach clean and orderly.

The city vibe I got from the cab ride was right in line with what I expected of the metropolis, so no luck with expectation-defying pleasant surprises there.  Fair enough, I would endure the big city for three or so days before heading north, and I would just have to suck it up and not fantasize too much about the neighboring rice terraces we’d left behind days ago.

Fortunately, that was about as much time as my malaise had to fester about the bustling city, for once we made it to our hotel (led by an eagerly helpful bellman from the cab to halfway down a side street which admits no cars) my concerns were quickly laid to rest.  The Beautiful Saigon III is the hotel Tracy booked us online before we arrived3, and ah, what a find.  Four star accommodations for about $40US a night, a small and tidy hotel with only 15 rooms on six floors and super friendly staff.  And sharply dressed, too!  Women in uniform, snazzy red satin dresses with the slit that comes up way up past the waste, but with flowing satin pants that come right on down from there to keep it classy.  Yeah, you know the look.

A few pieces of fruit from the complimentary basket in our room, a nap on the plush, king-sized bed, and the realization that our tucked-away hotel location makes a peaceful oasis from the hectic swirl all around had me clear that we were going to be just fine.

Welcome to Street Food Heaven

We took it easy in our post-nap forage for food that night, and picked one among the many touristy restaurants tucked into our little urban enclave.  A noodle dish with shrimps was tasty enough for sure, but the real magic of Saigon didn’t begin reveal itself until my next meal quest, when I took to the real streets for breakfast at 6:30am the next morning.

Like I said back in Bali, the real challenge of eating in other countries is often just a matter of training your eye to recognize the opportunities all around you.  The plexiglass box with a few little shelves upon a wheeled cart is a visual signal that will get you far in Vietnam.  Food cart.  I found one with a few baguettes in view on the shelf, and wandered over.  With a little sign language and a few words in English, the woman working the cart cracked open a baguette, spatula’d in some mayonnaise, laid in some slices of cheese, cuts of pork, tomatoes and cucumbers, and laid on 4 distinct kinds of sauce.  Not knowing what anything costs I handed her a 50,000 Dong note4, and she made me 35,000 in change, meaning my sandwich cost about 75-cents US.

And the taste?  Holy moly that’s good.  The French influence from the imperialist days is still well in tact, at least as far as the bread is concerned: the baguette was pure perfection.  It had the sort of soft crackle about it, that unfakeable tell of freshness in the highest.  The meat was cooked and spiced to perfection, and the produce was fresh, cool and crisp.  And the medley of four sauces?  It’s clear that there’s a reason for every one, for the combination is just so good in the way you just wouldn’t suspect a mere sandwich to be.

An 8-inch baguette that tastes this good for under a buck?  If anyone cracks the code of exporting Vietnamese sandwich food cart technology in a cost effective way, Subway is screwed.

But wait, there’s more.  All along the streets, amid the undifferentiated bustle of motorbikes coming and going, there are numerous restaurants comprised of a slightly fancier cart setup surrounded by few little tables, and just making eye contact with the women presiding over the operation is enough to fetch you an invitation to sit on down.  And by “little tables” and “sit on down” I do mean just that.  Street culture in Vietnam has no need for the pretense of “adult sized” tables which we are used to.

No, the tables you’ll find at street food joints are low to the ground, perhaps raising 18 inches off and with small plastic chairs that would barely qualify as footstools in a western country.  Think the kids table at Thanksgiving, but smaller.  And believe me, with my 6’5″ frame I have NO reservations about hunching over to enjoy a meal in this setup, not for variations of the stuffed baguette with fresh scrambled eggs, permutations on the theme of rice noodles, meat and veggies, and, my favorite staple of Vietnamese cuisine, pho.

You wanna know simple joys?  Sit down on a 6-inch stool in a dank alleyway and be served a big bowl of pho, accompanied by some of the most flavorful and fresh pho mix-ins (Thai basil, cilantro, onions, lemon wedges, alfalfa sprouts, and chopped chillies that are hot as hell) you’ve ever had.  While you eat this hot, brothy bowl of noodles and meat adorned with whatever compliment of vegetables and herbs suit your fancy, look across the alley at the woman pouring thick black liquid through a crude cloth filter, and know that she’s brewing up Vietnamese coffee, some of the most flavorful, caffeine-buzz inducing coffee you’ve ever tasted.  Order and sip that in this dank alley, and watch hoards of motorbikes zoom past 20 feet from your perch.

Then.  Then you will know simple joys, in this case a small sampling of the simple joys of Vietnam street life.

The experience will set you back about three bucks.

The nighttime is even better: more food carts of the portable and semi-portable variety, thumpin’ tunes from the clubs around, and sidewalks that swell to 10 or 15 feet deep in front of regular establishments, to accommodate little table seating for the masses assembled to enjoy food and 25-cent beers.  It’s the best street life I’ve encountered yet, and I thought of several guy friends back home with whom I’d love to hang out with in this environment for a mandate5.

Go check out Tracy’s blog for visuals of the Saigon street life.

Realizations through Remembrance

One of our main to-dos here in Saigon6 was to visit the War Remnants Museum.  Formerly known as the “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” (and formerly formerly known as the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”), the museum gave what seemed to be a fair telling of the story from the non-US perspective.  Put another way, it wasn’t an over-the-top blame fest of the US.

Oh don’t get me wrong, in it were some legitimate gripes about our presence from ’61 to ’73.  In cultural references then (and perhaps a smidge now), what we call the “Vietnam war” is referred to as the “War of US Aggression”.  Numerous walls document news pieces of people and governments from around the world decrying the US involvement.  I recall reading a quote from Ho Chi Minh himself to the sensible effect of “In the future we’d prefer the US to let us, as a nation, work out our own internal conflicts, thankyouverymuch.”

Also poignant was a little education on Agent Orange, one of several chemicals sprayed by the US military all over the Vietnamese countryside which still continues to have lingering effects on the agriculture and livability vis-a-vis horrific deformations, cancer,  etc.  The widespread use of it to gain some sort of upper hand in the conflict just seems like a major middle finger to the slice of humanity who lives here.  All’s fair in love and war, I guess, but, I mean, Jesus.

Most moving  for me was seeing a tidy collection of honorary medals which belonged to a decorated US soldier who served in the war.  They were sent by the soldier back to Vietnam along with an inscription: “TO THE PEOPLE OF A UNITED VIETNAM.  I AM SORRY.  I WAS WRONG.”

My mom has a simple position on the abortion debate, and it goes roughly “How could you do that to a sweet, innocent baby?  No, no, you just don’t do that to a baby.  To a loving and cute baby?  No, you don’t do that.”  It is an argument which vastly oversimplifies and ignores any sort of surrounding context, but has a certain elegance.  As I took in the exhibits (and whilst in the thick of so far loving everything about this country and the people I’ve interacted with), her words on the matter popped into my head.  I found myself musing in earnest, complete with her sweet, old lady Midwest accent,  “How could you wage war against these people? Oh, they’re a lovely people and a lovely culture.  No, no, you just won’t wage war against the Vietnamese.  No, you just don’t do that.”

Some days it bums me out that we don’t live in a world where reasoning from such fundamental elements isn’t sufficient to settle the decision making processes.  I would love the deliciousness of a country’s cuisine and coffee to be a strong enough case to not wage war, but I grant that as a species we’re not there yet.

As we left and walked the bustling streets back to our neighborhood, a realization popped into my head, one that might seem trivial at first glance but was (for me) a profound realization.  “Hey Tracy, you know what’s awesome?”  “Um, no, what?”

“Peace,” I replied.  “Peace is FUCKING AWESOME.

“I mean, when there’s peace you can really do some shit.  You can enjoy time at a food cart, and leisurely read a book, and build civilization.  Man, peace is so great.”

I think thus far I’ve lived something north of 99% of my waking moments taking peace for granted.


  1. Not that the utterly world class airport that is Singapore’s is an easy act to follow.
  2. I’m totally serious about this.  Though to be clear, it’s not the suggestion that it might appear to be, that the global credit card company is somehow advocating the opportunity for elevated consumerism of male prostitution and/or whatnot in the southeast Asian country through use of its financial instruments.  Nope, “Dong” is the unit of currency in this fine nation, rendering this otherwise striking fodder for juvenile comedy a strictly above-the-board financial proposition.  Ahem.
  3. This new strategy represents an early-stage foray of our new “We’re Getting too Old For this Shit” program, here specifically regarding the ritual of wandering aimlessly with full baggage looking for accommodations.
  4. I got a lotta Dong with my Visa, if you know what I mean.  And since you’re the type to read these footnotes, the answer is yes, yes you do.
  5. Yes, the plane ticket price will override any savings realized from consuming cheap beer, I know.  It’s still a way cool experience.
  6. Or, as it’s officially known, Ho Chi Minh City.  Did I mention that yet?  After the north won the war, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.  But it turns out an edict from on high to map makers and signage crews doesn’t necessarily get through to the whole populace’s parlance, not even after 37 years and counting.
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Everywhere You Look, Skyscrapers

March 11th, 2013 No comments

Maybe it was just because of where we came from, rural Ubud, where anything over four stories counts as a rather imposing structure.  But I’m pretty sure that the city-state of Singapore has a statistically impressive density of skyscrapers within its tidy 272 square miles.

Our departure from Bali had only a touch of melancholy about it.  Our landlord Nyoman gave me a nice man-hug on our way out and said, in his characteristic friendly way, “See you next time.”  Next time indeed.  I give it 18 months, tops, and pre-hope that his place is available.

It’s funny, because Tracy and I both felt more sad and were waxing more nostalgic during our cab ride to the airport in Cusco back in September, yet by all accounts we enjoyed an even more lovely time in Bali.

I think this year is providing us with a lot of good practice at the mental task of setting up and tearing down life and living situations.  Being good at this means being quick to find fondness in a new set of circumstances, as well as readily accepting of the impermanence of things when it’s time to move on.  In our less practiced state surrounding our first month-long living situation, we were much slower to find our groove, and less ready to give it up once we had.

But here we were in the cab ride to the Bali airport, well rested and inspired to experience whatever lay ahead.

Against two months living essentially in the sticks, Singapore immediately impressed as a thoroughly modern and beautifully well put together metropolis.  The two little dishes at every station’s counter in airport immigration are exemplary of the attention to detail: one with candies, the other for the candy wrappers.  Welcome to Singapore.

Heck, we were just delighted to have potable water on tap again, and eagerly filled our 1.6 liters of water bottle capacity from the public drinking fountains like thirsty little urchins.

The change in the currency climate immediately revealed itself with a visit to an ATM.  In Bali, you have to type a lot of zeros in manually to get 2,500,000 rupiah, hope that the machine will actually allow such a big transaction (of about $260US), and then hope that it will give it to you in bills of the largest denomination, 100,000 rather than 50,000 notes (which basically leaves you with a fat stack of fivers).

Here in Singapore your best bet for being able to fold your wallet isn’t what equates roughly to a series of ten dollar bills, but rather you’ll get a tidy stack of 50 Singaporean dollar bills (worth about $39US a piece), meaning any withdrawal you make will fit in just fine.  You want S$300?  S$600?  S$1200?  No problem, just push this button here, no need to type in a lengthy series of zeros.

The light rail system out of the airport continues the immaculate and well-engineered mojo.  Just a look at the sign detailing the fines for mucking things up hints at how they keep it all so clean.  You wanna eat or drink on this train?  S$500 is the fine.  Smoking?  S$1000.  Bringing on flammable goods will set you back a few mortgage payments at S$5,000 per offense.  I don’t know if those fines are strictly responsible for curtailing infractions against the tidiness of the city’s public transit infrastructure, but goodness whatever they’re doing is working.

Amid my delight in how clean and well kept everything is, I couldn’t help but think that punk kid from the US who got caned here back in the 90’s for vandalism totally deserved it.  Having been a grateful guest of now 10 countries this trip and counting, combined with admiring the environment before me, makes the idea of going into another country, messing it up a little, and expecting an exemption from the law of the land when you get caught doing it seem utterly brazen and disrespectful1.

Upon arriving at the station for the rendez vous with our Couch Surfing host Yee-Pin, I was in desperate need of my first dalliance with Singaporean cuisine.  It did not disappoint.  A small counter in the station set me up with a pile of rice, some super flavorful chicken, and something deep fried of a potato nature, all for S$2.  My earlier concerns from the ATM withdrawal options that Singapore would be a baller city in terms of its pricing were allayed to know that delicious food could be had this cheaply.

After a quick rest at his place, set on the 6th floor of one of the many many 20+ story housing complexes in the neighborhood, Yee-Pin took us out to partake in two mainstays of Singaporean culture: food courts and mega malls.

The food court was just a few blocks away, an open air space on the ground floor with a sprawling lineup of varied Asian food counters.  Like so many countries with an abundance of skyscrapers, it’s probably fair to say that Singapore doesn’t have much of a native food culture itself, but rather boasts ubiquitous availability of neighboring cuisines.  In this food court you’ll find options for Malaysian food, Korean food, Chinese food, Japanese food, and so on.  With each counter restaurant offering between 6 and 10 staple dishes, there was so much delicious ground to cover.  I settled on bulgogi beef from the Korean joint.  Over dinner I did the math while contemplating how many menu items within eye shot seemed worth a try, and worked out with 3 days here I could work in 9, maybe 12 meals in Singapore.  Decent coverage.

After dinner we went to the mall.  The way neighborhoods are laid out, Yee-Pin explained, is that they are centered around a train station, and the mall which is generally within a few hundred feet of that station.  In fact sometimes you’ll exit a train and be somewhere nestled deep inside a mall.  Malls are generally tall, with a large central atrium and series of escalators taking you up the 3-6 stories.  Malls house food courts not unlike the open air one we just ate at (super clean and with really good food options), as well as movie theaters, grocery stores, post offices, and libraries.

Humility and Awe from a Positive Racial Stereotype

Malls also house arcades.  For grins and nostalgia I asked Yee-Pin and Tracy if they would indulge me a walk through, to see how over-the-top fancy arcade games are getting.

And to see if there was a Dance Dance Revolution machine there.

For back in the US, there’s generally an understanding that it doesn’t matter how good you think you are.  If you go out looking for a match in the arcade you will sooner than later meet, say, a 12-year-old Asian girl wearing a Hello Kitty backpack, and you will lose.  You can challenge her to a song of your choice, a tough one that you’ve mastered.  And at the end you will be out of breath, having managed a solid B, while she will have finished AAA with her perfect 536 combo and saying “Tee hee, that was fun, let’s go again!”

I think I’m pretty decent at DDR.  Now and again I can get an A on 8-footer (on a 10 foot difficulty scale, you see).  I’ll be winded, but I can do it and that’s more than most people can do without serious practice.  So here I was is Asia, in a thoroughly modern city with a mall loving culture.  Surely, I thought, I might see one of these legendary stars of DDR and thus quickly jettison any futile pride I might be carrying in this area.

Indeed I did.

As we encroached upon the DDR machine there was a guy, maybe 15, who was doing impossibly hard songs with sequences that spanned across both dance pads, and getting perfect scores.  For me this was a delightful grounding exercise, one to wipe away any delusions of grandeur regarding my prowess on the video game dance floor.  It was also just plain fun to watch and marvel, something to genuinely make me mutter WTF in awe and confusion as to how2.

When this spirited youth finished out his 4 songs (3 for the S$1.60 he paid for a game, plus a bonus one for being awesome: even the machine knew it), he graciously allowed me to step up for my turn, presumably allowing him a nice chance to take a breather (not that he looked like he needed it).  Like an old man out of touch I couldn’t figure out where to swipe my card to start my game, and after he patiently helped I played my 3 songs with joy and on a difficulty level that impressed no one.

Still, my peeps cheered me on and even the super star player gave me a thumbs up as I descended from my rondo of mediocrity.  I appreciated his and his friend’s patience during amateur hour, and hope that my gangly, flailing white guy limbs did provide entertainment for their break.  Who knows, perhaps just as I gained humility and grounding from watching them, my DDR performance served them as an exercise in sympathy and compassion.  Either way, they were super nice and the subsequent show of now two titans of DDR dueling it out was similarly impressive.

I thanked Tracy and Yee-Pin for their patience in all of this.

Incidentally, it should come as no surprise that my mini spiritual journey in the arcade was not captured by Tracy’s masterful photographic skills and equipment.  But you can see a grainy image of it taken by her iPhone, along with a few other fun shots of Singapore, here.

A Whirlwind of Milling and Malling About

The next morning we rose bright and early to do good on a perk for our hosts: Tracy did a yoga class for me, Yee-Pin, and his roommate Cheng.  After that it was breakfast at another outdoor food court nearby (Yee-Pin explained on the walk how Singapore is one of those cities where most everyone eats the majority of their meals out, owning to a combination of it being so good and so cheap, and generally tiny kitchen space at home).  Then we parted ways for the day, bound for the botanical gardens and then a lunch meeting with a friend.

One of the inciting factors to visit Singapore was a casual invitation months ago from a Dr. John Kenworthy, the first paying customer (and one of the most vocal fans) of my baby,  The serendipity of it was just too good to pass up, given that Singapore was already a worthy destination for a visit3.  Our face to face meeting after months of emailing back and forth was a treat, and yep, it was at another super fancy mall with a more than ample food court.

From there it was onto another mall, this time killing time with a snack, of a pair of gourmet creme puffs4, and a meal of noodles and dumplings.  The fancy, crowded atmosphere of even the basement level began to explain why in such a populous city you see virtually no one about on the hot city streets: everyone is packed into the air conditioned malls.

From there it was to The Stamford Swissôtel, a fancy hotel at which, in our rugged backpacker state, we have no legitimate business, but nonetheless they allowed our presence at the bar on the 73rd floor as we sipped our wine and took in views of the city from on high, looking down at the sea of skyscrapers.  I kept feeling as though we must have snuck past some snooty concierge to get there.

Dim Sum Cultural Exchange Program

Yee-Pin and Cheng were grade-A couch surfing hosts, an not just because the cushioned sleeping arrangement on their living room floor was way more comfy than you might expect.  It was the numerous conversations (spread over 3 breakfasts, 2 dinners, and 3 sessions of living room loafing) in which we compared notes of what life and society was like in our respective backgrounds.  Over mall dim sum for breakfast one morning in particular we went into all sorts of interesting nuggets.

Yes, Singaporean society does have a more strict set of rules for acceptable behavior (as suggested by the lore of caning and fines for metro offenses), but it’s hardly authoritarian, and the rambunctious youth still get away with defiance and malarkey.  As youth are, you know, apt to do.

The school system is setup to split students into separate tracks at the tender age of nine based on testing, which puts some serious pressure to perform early on.  Everyone’s mama wants their baby to get accepted to the engineers’ track as opposed to, say, the burger flippin’ track5.  Yee-Pin had the odd fortune and misfortune of being at the bottom of the elite tier.

It is hard to say which system is better or worse.  In the US, the great split doesn’t really happen until the dance of college admissions.  But the Singapore system is carefully metered to get the right mix of professionals, meaning if you make it into the engineering tier and finish there will indeed be a job waiting for you.  It is a much more solid proposition than how that promise in the US has been a crap shot for the last decade or so.

Male citizens of Singapore have mandatory military service for two years starting around 18, and then something like 10 more years of reserve duty.  While it makes for a bonding, shared experience and should be a rewarded mark of service, the harsh irony is the tendency for employers to disfavor young, male citizens for jobs because of their yearly need to take two weeks paid time off for their service duties.

The broad stroke economics of the upwardly prosperous city state are a real study in long term sustainability.  Everything is super nice, impressively architected, and just all seems to fit nicely.  But to keep it all going that way requires something like a 10% annual growth in foreign investment.  As such Singapore constantly strives to make itself attractive to outside capital6, and to fit it all in regularly bulldozes 10-story buildings to make way for 30-story ones.  Even affordable public housing, lived in by 85% of Singaporeans7, is getting progressively pricy and tricky to land.  People have to be married to qualify, unless you can land a rare rental deal from someone else able to legitimately get in.

Just a glance at a map makes clear that the only option is to build up, not out.  The mathematician in me, familiar with steady state analysis and exponential curves, wonders how many more years this can possibly hold together before something needs to fundamentally shift in the equation.

But until then, Singapore is a lovely place.  Make no mistake about it.

There was just one more  important thing we really learned from Yee-Pin & Cheng during our last breakfast, and that is the degree to which couch surfing hosts really want to hang out with their guests.  “That’s the fun of it.  I don’t want to host people just looking for a place to crash, I want to spend time with them and have conversations like this.”

Up until our fab host made this point so abundantly clear through such straightforward reasoning, Tracy and I erred on the side of not wanting to be a burden, treading cautiously to not require much time and attention.  Always grateful for the opportunities to hang out, for sure, but deliberately maintaining and independent and non-assuming demeanor throughout our stay.  To learn that our company was itself the perk of hosting (and so much more than a means for earning good hosting karma to be cashed in later) was a most welcoming sentiment indeed.

All told, our couch surfing hosts made our trip to Singapore a real gem.

After our 3 days here it’s on now to Vietnam.  Tracy, through her diligent homework back in Bali, has all of our paperwork in order to enter the country (it’s one of the most complicated to get into ’round these parts), and we are excited for it.


  1. I suppose this puts me just a few steps shy of yelling at children to “Get off my lawn!”, if I had one.
  2. I know people generally find their dose of such marvelous grace on say, a figure skating ice rink or at the metropolitan ballet.  Whatever, I find mine in Asian malls.
  3. Now, if he had invited us to swing back and visit him in, say, Cuba?  Whole different story.
  4. Seriously, this was from a counter that offered 30 varieties of creme puff.  We tried the Boston creme and tiramisu.
  5. I’m sure the actual track labels are much kinder this, I just don’t know them.
  6. You didn’t think those little candies at immigration were just to be nice, did you?
  7. Unlike many other countries, living in public housing is NOT a sign of poverty in Singapore–very few here live below the poverty line.
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So How is it That Bali Got So Magical, Anyway?

March 6th, 2013 3 comments

We are now rounding out our two months in Bali, and yes, I could go on with further reasons for my fondness of days spent living here.  I could describe the joys of making a fort with pillows and cushions for dollar-bootleg movie nights, or of being sold various articles Balinese fashion by pushy (yet ultimately masterful) women at the market1, or of sitting back and watching the beautiful afternoon rainstorms from the dry comfort of our very well designed house (in defiance of the utterly blurry line which separates the inside from the outside, judicious use of awnings keeps the inside remarkably dry amid heavy, wind-swept rains).

But I’m going to fast-forward, and consider it sufficient to say that Bali is, to my tastes, a remarkably standout place indeed.  I would go so far as to dub it “Planet John”, a place that so thoroughly agrees with me that I would be hard pressed to conceive of a better fit.

The amateur anthropologist in me has wondered from time to time what makes this island so stand-out incredible.  At dinner one night with Martin and Phillipa, Phillipa shared with the table her theory.  To a crude approximation, it goes like this.

Bali has above-average natural abundance.  Just a walk down the path to your hotel can reveal some 10 different sustenance-bearing trees and plants2.  All of these things just grow, naturally and without much special cultivation.  Of course there is the opportunity to carefully cultivate all of these plants for greater yield, but the key idea is that this baseline abundance requires no maintenance.

So for much of the region’s history, one can handle the work to hunt and gather enough for your family in, say, two or three hours per day.  (Contrast this to a harsher climate, like Afghanistan, for example, where it might take more like six hours a day to gather enough water for a family.)  So what do you do with all that surplus time and energy that you have when sustenance requires but a fraction of your waking hours?  Well, if you’re Bali, blessed with it’s relatively peaceful history, you spend that surplus creating carvings, sculptures, dance, music, temples, ceremonies, traditions, stonework, and floral incense offerings laid out everywhere you look, three times a day.

In essence, you create culture, and Bali’s is about as rich and dedicated to beauty as any I’ve seen.

Another facet to the theory behind Bali’s agreeability came from an unlikely source: the final paragraph of a magazine article on display in the Blanco Museum.  Don Antonio Blanco is reputed as the most famous artist to ever live in Bali, and, well, he liked the ladies.  Or at very least liked to paint them.  Nude, female, Balinese hotness is the subject matter of better than half of his paintings on display at the museum3.

Regarding Blanco’s preferred subject matter, the article about the museum points out that the Dutch East India Company (which ruled over Bali and all of Indonesia back in age of sail) explicitly forbade the Christian missionaries from entering Bali.  The result, as argued by the article, is that breasts in Bali never got subjugated to the realm of shame as they have been so commonly elsewhere in the world, thus they have remained awesome/regularly on display through most of Bali’s history4.

The broader implication of all this is that the absence of missionaries has enabled Bali’s religious traditions to remain more natively in tact, rather than become watered down by external influences.  Indeed, the main reason for the missionary ban was the hostile reaction that natives had to the missionary’s preachy edicts, specifically those telling them to destroy idols and temples as being of the devil.  The Christian converts had their rice fields sabotaged as a result, and were expelled from their villages.  Perhaps you could argue that it’s tough to say who was oppressing who, but I’m glad the natives held tough and kept all this beautiful stonework (and culture) in tact, rather than succumbing to a play to homogenize & assimilate.

Couch Surfing Karma

Towards the tail end of our stay we had the good fortune of someone taking up our offer to host after all.  In a delightful chance to back good karma, it was Charles & Amy, the couple from New Zealand who put us up for a weekend back in December.  They were in touch, telling us about the pollution and chaos of Kuala Lumpur.  We invited them to swing on over to Bali and stay a while with us, so that way we might delight in playing the host and repay their earlier favor.

This was a fantastic alignment of people and places, and there was only a small wrinkle thrown in by Charles when he replied to say, in effect: “We’ve booked our flight and will be there for 16 days, let us know if that’s too long.”

What an odd sense of conundrum that arose from this perfectly polite notice!  I mean, 16 days is a really long time to host people you don’t know that well5.  But they’ve been super nice to us already.  Our place was big and we were totally keen to host, so there’s this guilt of saying that anything less was preferred.  But it was preferred!  At least, we think it was, right?  I mean, that would put the kabash on skinny dipping for most of the rest of our time here.  And we’d have to schedule ourselves around them, and feel obligated to play host lest the situation degrade into 2 pairs of indifferent roommates, awkwardly co-habitating.  But we wanted roommates, we were excited to have people other than us to hang out and do stuff with…

And so on.  A rambling, incoherent, and contradictory stream of pro and con thoughts when looking at the prospect of hosting for 2+ weeks.  The opening to say it was too long was right there in the email, but our thought process was all underpinned by this desire to exercise gracious reciprocity and not be selfish, amazing-tropical-house hogging hogs.

The writers of Seinfeld could’ve made 8-minutes of banter out of the scenario.

We ultimately replied with a semi non-committal “let’s call it a week, and we’ll let you know if it’s too long beyond that.”

Sure enough, it was a total treat to host them, and they made fantastic guests.  Amy would cook fab dinner now and then.  We’d sit around for hours having what we dubbed “fruit parties”, slowly eating through big plate of varied fruits we’d gotten at the store, some known, some not.  We played card games by candlelight up on the terrace over beers, and had great companions for a day trip to various sites around the island.  We even hosted Martin and Phillipa at our place on one occasion, making us feel truly popular with a party of six in our home.

The time did come when I again yearned for more autonomy over our home6, this was about day 10.  Consumed with the same (almost certainly irrational) guilt, I rehearsed a few times the right way to break the news over dinner that night.  “So… you guys have been fantastic guests and we’ve really enjoyed your presence, but now you gotta go.  I wanna enjoy skinny dipping for our last week here.”

Of course I needn’t have feared, for Charles and Amy took the news with immaculate grace and appreciated the heck out of our hospitality.  Not a trace of awkwardness, and I was all too happy to say “of course” in response to Charles’ request for a night or two more so that they could plan out their next move.

Exploration vs. Exploitation

At times during our stay I’ve casually insinuated to Tracy that we should stay here for a third month.  She always wisely says no, and I grant that I’ve never really been serious with the suggestion anyhow.  This is not just because of the extra complicated/expensive hoops one must jump through to extend a tourist visa beyond two months, either.

In machine learning, the branch of computer science concerned with how computers can learn to perform certain tasks automagically, there’s this notion of “exploration vs. exploitation”.  “Exploration” is the process of having a learning algorithm explore new things so as to learn.  Algorithms get better from the experience of doing the not-yet-known.  “Exploitation”, by contrast, is having a learning algorithm exploit knowledge it’s gotten from earlier explorations in order to perform the task.  No real learning or improvement to the approach happens during exploitation, but rather you just get results based upon prior learning.

To stay in Bali for another month or more would amount to simply exploiting the knowledge we’ve gained (i.e. the knowledge that this place is awesome).  But world tour isn’t about exploitation in the machine learning sense of the word, it’s about exploration.  To find lots of places that are awesome.  The game, which I decided once whilst talking myself off of the short-sighted “let’s just enjoy the rest of world tour here in Bali” ledge, is to discover TEN such places, ten places in the world good enough to come back to for a month or more.

This collection of ten, I figure, is knowledge ripe for exploiting later.  And we have to earn it first.  So we will leave, and not with me clinging white-knuckled as Tracy drags me on to the next place, but rather rejuvenated and excited to uncover other places that truly give us joy.

And where will we go next?  Singapore.  Turns out there’s a friend there for me to meet.


  1. And my gratitude goes to them–turns out I look pretty good in Balinese garb, and enjoyed putting on a small fashion show for Tracy.
  2. One possible configuration you might find: coconut, papaya, lemongrass, ginger root, rice, snake fruit, mangosteen, banana, cinnamon, coffee.  Makes my mouth water just to type it.
  3. In fact, the last room of the museum is dedicated to super explicit/borderline raunchy works that are pretty over-the-top by most any standard of taste.  I like to think of these the works as coming from his “You know what?  I’m famous and old, so, fuck it” phase.  Earning your stripes has its perks.
  4. The article adds that regular work in the rice fields, which has the effect of broadening the shoulders and toning the upper body, also helped the cause.
  5. Or even people whom you do know that well.
  6. Who am I kidding, skinny dipping.  I mean, other things too, sure.  But yeah.  Jumping into the pool all sweaty from a run in the morning heat after wolfing down a mangosteen and a snake fruit?  That’s just great.
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Reveling Further on the Indonesian Island

February 13th, 2013 1 comment

Last week we finally ventured to one of Ubud’s yoga venues, the Yoga Barn.  On this occasion it wasn’t for yoga, but rather for dinner and a movie.

The Yoga Barn is this somewhat sprawling complex set amid lush tropical scenery, with a restaurant, several yoga studios, and housing for people staying on campus for a week (or weeks) long nutritional cleanses and other such immersive courses.  Once a month the they put on a community movie night.  About $2 gets you in for the show with sitting space on any number of cushioney yoga props plus popcorn served up into little bowls fashioned from the round inner husks of coconuts.

For about $6 more you can come early for dinner, an all-you-can-eat spread of delicious Balinese fare which included salad, seasoned red rice, corn salsa, tempeh, hummus on pita, vegetable pasta and fresh fruit.  It was the stuff of hippy-dippy high cuisine featuring all of the key cliches: locally grown, organic, seasonal, fresh, non-GMO.  But then it had one feature not common among such proudly sustainable fair: it wasn’t strictly vegetarian.  Nope, here there were heaping piles of freshly grilled tuna fillets, seared & seasoned to perfection and in abundant supply.

The net result was a meal that fulfilled on the tall promise of what it is to eat in the (now increasingly touted) environmentally sound manner: feeling nourished, healthy, full yet light, and ultimately satisfied.

The movie of the night was called Genetic Roulette, a look at genetically modified foods which made a fitting topic against the backdrop of the meal we just ate.  Thought it suffered journalistic sloppiness in a few instances, it nonetheless raised valid points about health consequences, environmental impact, economic strong-arming, and the potency of lobbying to subvert public interest and rigorous science1.  For better or worse it gave us a glimpse of how the US is viewed on the world stage, in this case our tendency for ruthless attempts to improve upon Mother Nature, patent the shit out the result, and cram it down the throats of other world markets through a clever combination of marketing and political maneuvers.

Over dinner we made the acquaintance of Martin and Philippa, a pair of doctors from Sydney there on holiday with their two teenage daughters.  When we told them of our travel plans (do our year abroad, then go back to Denver to eventually get started on making little people, since my in-laws there are simply Grade-A grandparents just waiting to happen), their older daughter chimed in to report Martin and Philippa’s similar eagerness to get a’grandparentin’, citing her mum’s assessment of her boyfriend being something to the tune of “well he’s got good genes, so if you want to go ahead and get pregnant that would be alright2.”

It bears repeating that Tracy and I gravitate towards older people we meet while traveling, for we generally can learn so many things and get so much perspective just by hanging around them.  Throw in wicked smart and a most aptly demonstrated sense of humor, and you bet we exchanged numbers at the end of the night.

On Being a Sufficient Traveler

During these months of extended travel, we routinely have to deal with the disparity in travel motives between ourselves and others, who are usually in a given locale for just a few weeks on holiday.  It goes like this, as it did at the Yoga Barn with our new friends: “How long have you been here?” “About a month now.”  “Wow, you must have done and seen everything by now!  What have you all done?”  “Ummm…”

There’s this most reasonably held expectation concerning our rate of adventurousness that is predicated upon the idea that we’re all here to see and do as much as possible before we must rejoin the ranks of the real world.  But Tracy and I are not so much being vacationers for a year (gosh, it turns out that sounds exhausting!)so much  as we are living a lifestyle that is easily mistaken for vacationing, mainly because we’re not physically in our country of residence (and are physically located a lot in tropical ones).  So we take it slow and see in a month what a typical tourist is likely to see in one or two weeks.  I reckon Tracy and I have a standing rate of doing interesting and adventurous things of about twice e a week, and even that can be as simple as a night out at the jazz club.

So sometimes, when faced with this innocent supposition of our travel agenda, we have to check ourselves to see if we are in any way somehow squandering this gift of travelicious living.  For us it takes something to own the fact that we’ve been living in Bali a month and have barely scratched the tourism surface of things.

Fortunately, people are generally keen to chip in insights about what they’ve done and loved, so there’s never a shortage of conversation to be had or leads of cool stuff to be exchanged.  In this case Martin turned us on to a most excellent walk through what I suppose you might call a neighborhood of rice paddies just north of the city center, leading us to a delightful reward of a restaurant called Sari Organic.  Tracy documented the beauty, and if happiness is the real goal, I daresay I am a sufficient traveler to have an experience or two like that every week for a year.

Transportation Culture

I continue to be impressed by the ubiquitous culture of motorbiking here in Bali.  Last time I took any real notice (early college, I suppose), riding scooters in the US didn’t get a lot of respect.  Lines like “where do you put the batteries?” and jokes with the punchline “both are fun to ride but you wouldn’t want your friends to see” have my conception of motorbikes quite clear (from an uninformed distance) that it’s not cool, nobody does it, and for good reasons.

But ah, step into a motorbiking culture and actually partake of it in a country wherein it is the norm, and a whole other experience reveals itself.  Finding a parking spot is a cinch wherever you go, because what you need to park is so small.  It’s more comfortable than it looks, even for long rides.  With a backpack and a buddy you can do a serious haul from the grocery store.  When the temperature is right it’s super enjoyable to zoom about, even in the rain.  You feel like you’re part of the scenery through which you are passing, experiencing and living it rather than passively watching through the seals confines of a car3.  Overall it is a zesty means of transportation.

Oh, and it’s cheap.  You can buy a nice new bike like the one we have for something like $2000US, and as I mentioned earlier the rental for a month of about $50 is most affordable.  I can’t tell you what the maintenance and upkeep is like, nor how inexpensive the insurance is (assuming that’s even really necessary), but I can tell you that you can fill up for under $54, and that tank can easily last you a week (or about one round trip to the blue lagoon, about 90 minutes each way).

Realizing all of this, it breaks my heart a little that using a scooter or motorbike as transportation is so largely un-adopted and/or not respected in the US.  Setting aside the cultural disdain, I do understand that it would take a concerted effort to bring it into vogue as a viable means of transportation: they’re not practical to the extent that you need to use freeways to get where you’re going, and there is much to be said for strength in numbers and normalcy.  For when they are ubiquitous (and thus car drivers are trained to be aware of them) getting around by motorbike at 30mph or less is very safe.  Contrast this to them being a rare sight which leaves drivers surprised and wondering “what the heck is that thing doing in my lane?”, and I concede I probably won’t be using one in the US to get around anytime soon.

But oh how I would like to, and I reckon many others would be similarly surprised to come to the same fondness.  For now, I’ll just have to enjoy it while I can.  Like last night, when we went out for tacos5 and rode back through cool breezes amid the rice terraces, set under the huge silvery clouds lit up by a nearly full moon.

A Beach is a Beach

Because we never learn our lesson about beaches not being our thing despite white sands and turquoise waters being the gold standard for iconic paradise, relaxation and fun, we made a trip to the aforementioned blue lagoon.  Lured by the promise of snorkeling in a beautifully enclosed cove right on the ocean, we set out one morning on our motorbike for the journey to the east coast of the island.

The ride was great.  The island of Bali is surprisingly easy to navigate even with it’s signage all in a foreign tongue, and the lush scenery with one deep river gorge crossing after another, beautiful rock formations, and large stone carvings of elephants, Buddhas, and Hindu gods at every turn collectively made the maxim “it’s not the destination so much as the journey” very real.

As could be expected, the beach of the blue lagoon was beautiful and even had lovely snorkeling.  But when the usual sensation of being sweaty, sandy and hot invariably kicked in I was again left overall not sure what all the fuss is about.  A nice older woman was selling sarongs, so we looked for one that Tracy might like.  We found pinkish-red cotton one that was cute.  She started at 100,000 Rupiah (about $10) but after enough hesitation on our part the woman went down to 50,000.  I ultimately paid 10,000 more voluntarily because that seemed like such a good deal, which I suppose qualifies me as a truly terrible negotiator.  It just seemed so cheap after my silk one which went for nearly five times that amount.  Either silk is truly that much more valuable, or I got taken a bit on the tourist drag.  I’m sure it’s a combination of the two.

We originally planned to stay the night in Padang Bai because 3 hours on a motorbike sounded initially like a lot for one day.  But after looking at the ocean-side lodging options and considering what we’d have to pay to have anything nearly as nice as our house back at home (and considering how comfortable the ride in was), we decided to head back before sunset.

To simulate the joys of a night away, we decided to turn our living room pool into a mini swim-up bar, by virtue of a judiciously placed pair of glasses and a bottle of Bintang.  Years of being a hotel pool boy back in high school plus a childhood of having a pool in the backyard (with a father who proudly maintained it with a certain military rigor) collectively have me crystal clear on what a no-no it is to have glass of any sort near a pool, but, uh, I assure you we were very careful.  The transgression against pool maintenance standards was without calamity, and as we swam and lounged under the stars I again giggled at how ridiculously good life can be.

Still wondering where we’ll finding an exception to Bali coming up all aces.  Amazingly (though not really, considering the 24ish hour flight path to get here from the US), we still have no takers on our invite to come visit.  But that will soon change.


  1. Look up Monsanto’s battle to not be required to label GMO foods as GMO for a tidy instance of all these things.
  2. Fun fact: when I first heard this my imagination went to the quality of said boyfriend’s jeans, not making the connection that Phillipa the gynecologist would probably have a much higher regard for solid genetics over solid fashion sense.
  3. Nod to Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wherein he describes this phenomenon very well.
  4. Even without the Indonesian government’s subsidy on gasoline, which made our spend at the pump closer to $1.50.  Our tank needs 3.5 liters to fill, or just under one gallon.
  5. Even delicious Balinese cuisine could use a break now and then for the sake of variety.
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Unfamiliar Produce and the Joy Thereof

January 28th, 2013 No comments

Last week we had a Balinese cooking class and, as is par for that sort of thing, it included a tour around the local market.  This is such a good thing to get in early during a stint spent in a foreign culture, as it trains your eyes (at least partly) to recognize food as actually delicious and edible.

This seems like an odd thing that shouldn’t really be necessary, but hear me out.  Yep, food is food, and if someone’s selling it in a food market, logically one should be able to perceive it as such and take on faith that “yeah, I could buy this, take it home, make something with it and put the result in my tummy”.  But at least in our experience, that leap of rational understanding seldom happens on its own.

What happens instead is that our eyes lock immediately onto (or desperately seek) food that we already know and can recognize.  And that’s what we buy.  Everything else is reduced (by our all-too-quickly discerning brains) to visual clutter which must be sifted through, obstacles as it were to get to the [apparently little] actual food is present.  It’s a trick of perception, and an insidious one at that.  In a sufficiently foreign place one might think “Ugh, there’s nothing to eat in this country!”1

Luckily we’ve never yet been that disoriented, but we do have countless instances of having delightful treats right under our noses for weeks, before some gentle soul turns us onto the fact and thereby takes one or more items out of the “visual clutter” realm and into the happier land of “hey cool, they’ve got these here and I’m gonna buy some!”

This month our gentle soul was the most jovial Chef Ketut Budi of Payuk Bali, and our easy-to-miss delightful treats included jack fruit2, durian fruit, three types of ginger (two more than I knew to appreciate before), turmeric root, snake beans3, and snake fruit4.

This cooking class felt completely in line with the rest of Bali (as we understand it), which is to say it had an air of charm, beauty and general awesome which permeated every aspect.  The visit to the market was nice, yes, but so was the stop by the gorgeous rice fields, the time spent making the little offerings, the break time for enjoying tea and fried jack fruit dipped in honey, and of course the very hands-on main cooking event.

What was most striking for me about the cooking we did was the never-clearer experience of transforming raw ingredients into elaborate and lavish foods.  Raw IngredientsKetut began by showing off a platter containing no fewer than 16 distinct ingredients, each of which, aside from some which had been dried, could’ve been pulled or picked from around the island and gotten to their ready state with nothing more than a knife.  Nothing imported, nothing requiring elaborate mechanical processing.  To loosely quote Chris Tucker from Friday, “This shit’s from the earth, yo.”

Our main task in the first segment was to chop these ingredients all down to small bits.  We did so using these cool circular cutting boards that were essentially 4-inch thick cuts of tree trunk (to accommodate my height I was given 3 stacked atop one another, leaving me thankfully much less hunched over for the task than I would have otherwise been).

Once our constituent raw ingredients were chopped, we were shown these big ol’ mortar and pestle sets, perhaps 16 inches across and carved from indigenous volcanic rock.  Our chef went down the line and dropped the right combination of ingredients into each of three mortars to make our three sauces, and invited us each to take up a pestle and start grinding things together.

Like magic, grinding up our respective sets of freshly chopped ingredients started to turn things into our respective sauces.  Our essentially dry set of finely chopped veggies turned a thick but unmistakably saucy consistency.  The result was bursting with fresh flavors of the constituent elements, and more than fit for bottling up, slapping on a label, and selling at about a buck an ounce to internationally-curious yuppy types in a fancy suburban grocery store.  (“Oooh, honey, do you think we should try this new Balinese peanut sauce?  It say here it’s made by real tourists, in the outskirts of rural Ubud!”)  Seriously though, if you do see this in your local Whole Foods or wherever, you should totally pick some up.

I wish I could tell you that all 3 of us valiantly managed to grind all our well-chopped bounty of the earth into salable sauce, but the truth is the resident chef’s aides were on hand to relieve our quickly fatiguing selves, politely offering to take over with a clear sub-text that “Look, you’re new here and kinda suck at using a mortar and pestle.  I could leave you to finish the job but you’d take 2 hours, about 60 minutes of which would be you nursing and resting your cramping wrist.”

I gratefully deferred to their technique and musculature, both of which were much better honed than mine for the task.

These three magic sauces served, as is ubiquitously the case in Balinese cuisine, as the basis of flavor for staples like steamed rice, tofu, tempeh, and boiled vegetables, transforming the boring and bland into exquisite and varied.  Our resulting smorgasbord of all vegetarian dishes was tremendously satisfying.

As a consumer of heavily processed and/or imported foods to at least some degree for virtually all of my life, it is remarkable to understand and participate in the process of going from what grows in the ground to a delectable meal in mere hours, with no help from the good people, impressive machinery, or lengthy supply chain of the industrialized food complex.  Heck, drop me on an island of similar climate and natural abundance as Bali with a knife and a few matches in my pocket and I might not starve to death.  If I can find an suitably shaped volcanic rock I might even be eating pretty well after a few days, and have well-toned hands and forearms by the end of the week.

For full on visual coverage of each segment of our well-above par cooking class, Tracy’s got you covered.

Another lovely takeaway from our cooking class was the friendship of Cassie, the other participant joining us for the day.  Cassie is from the US but was vacationing from South Korea, where she’s been teaching English for now three years.  Hanging out with her for drinks one night afforded us the opportunity to learn about life in South Korea, for it has been in our “maybe” pile for the World Tour path for a while now.

“Yeah, all those beautiful, culturally rich things that you see in the tourism promotional material, I’m not sure they exist because I still haven’t found anything like it.  They do a really good job of putting forth a good front.”  Umm… you guys have google and Trip Adviser there to find stuff like that, right?  Yes, given her presence in Bali and upcoming itinerary she’s clearly no slouch about finding things worth seeing in the world, they just have to exist.

Wow, good to know.  Our hypothetical itinerary just got simpler.

Even more interesting is what Cassie could tell us about North Korea.  She’d never been, of course, but living living in such (relatively) close proximity to the troubled nation reveals a steady stream of anecdotes pertaining to the bizzaro situation in which its [essentially] imprisoned people live under.  We learned that a pair of socks is a coveted commodity, a single pair trading for some twenty pounds corn.  A local hero in South Korea came up with a way to float a box full of socks over the boarder using a large balloon, a clever way to send aide when doing so is otherwise basically impossible, thanks to the military standoff.  We learned of the business of mules who will try to smuggle you out of North Korea and on into South Korea, taking the roundabout way of going through China and into Thailand.  If you manage to make it, you walk into the Korean embassy there and they deport you on back–mercifully to South Korea, because you are automatically classified as a refugee.  This service costs something like $10,000 US and comes with no guarantee.

There is no internet, no outside literature or culture5.  For most people the only evidence or reminder that there’s an outside world that’s not as shit-tastic comes from things like flyers raining down alongside air-dropped socks.

The sum of these sketches of life made me wonder how the heck can such a place and situation possibly exist in this day & age.

On a lighter note (and zooming back out to broader first-hand accounts of Korea), it bears mention that Cassie is utterly tired of “Gangnam Style”, which, in South Korea, is endlessly touted as it’s proudest and greatest cultural export since spicy pickled sour kraut.   For the record I’m still enamored with the video, but can appreciate how endlessly in-your-face it must be when you’re living within a 100 mile radius of PSY’s hometown6.

Last night, to further celebrate the independence afforded to us by our motorbike transportation, we made a date night out to the Jazz Cafe, Bali’s first ever live Jazz venue (opened back in 1996, don’cha know).  After having lived 8 years in St. Louis I have a deep and abiding fondness for sitting back and nodding along to the rhythms of top-shelf jazz performances.  This being a small town inland of a small island in the South Pacific Ocean we didn’t go in with any unfairly high hopes, so my goodness we were delighted by what we found.

It was Sunday night, acoustic jazz night.  On stage was just a guy strumming an acoustic guitar and a native looking woman holding a mic, the resident vocalist Nancy Ponto.  They were incredible.  Granted, my reaction may have been because I haven’t been to a good live Jazz show since leaving St. Louis back in 2009.  Nonetheless I immediately thought this woman could stand in for Norah Jones at anytime with minimal ticket holders demanding their money back, and Tracy agreed.  It was one of those “What are you doing here?” moments, as in “Why aren’t you in some fancy recording studio cutting an album?”

The night was pure bliss to my ears, to my soul.  I was designated driver for the night, so while having a glass of Malbec wine like Tracy had would’ve been lovely7 I was more than contented to sip my froufrou tropical fruit cooler out of a tall glass, eyes closes while my ears devoured the brilliantly rendered jazz standards and my body reclined on the swanky and always comfortable lesehan style seating8.  We topped it all off by sharing a chocolate mousse, and agreed that our roughly $20 night out was a most worthy way to pass an evening.

As we continue to rack up experiences outside of our paradisaical situation at home, Bali’s stock just keeps rising.


  1. And then from that assessment you might erroneously conclude that everyone there should already be long dead from starvation, which would be just plain embarrassing.
  2. I originally dubbed these “tree balls” when I first saw them growing back in Nicaragua, ‘cuz again, I’m kinda juvenile.
  3. These are just like regular green beans, just longer and winding.  So you’d think we’d have noticed ’em on our own, but no.  Ugh!
  4. Actually I bought a bag of these just the day before and had already discovered their tastiness.  Same principle, though: someone at a tiny store just up the street from our house in the boonies pointed to it and said (in so many Indonesian words) “Hey, you buy this, they’re good.”  I’m happy to be so highly suggestible in this domain.
  5. Notable exception: Kim Jong Il’s DVD collection.  I hear that guy was just nuts for Hollywood films.  Still, it is presumably hard for average citizenry to get an invite over for movie night.
  6. I wonder how many North Koreans have seen it?  I’m guessing it’s about 100% or 0%, depending on whether it’s celebrated or censored by the regime.  My money’s on 0%, ‘cuz like, if you’re a government official in North Korea, “Fuck South Korea” is probably one of the affirmations you read out loud to yourself in the mirror each morning.
  7. Wine here goes for 90,000 rupiah a glass, or about $9 US.  A pricey indulgence by Bali standards but still a most reasonable one considering we’re on a tropical island hundreds of miles away from the nearest vineyard.
  8. Lesehan style seating is the setup in which a platform about 2 feet off the floor is adorned with small tables that rise maybe 18 inches off the platform, and you sit on cushions that are positioned around the cute little table.  So it’s kinda like you’re sitting Indian style on cushions on the floor, but it’s not because the whole thing is raised, making the whole thing seem more grownup friendly.  Commonly in setups you’ve got part of the platform perimeter against a wall, and thus still more cushions which you can lean back against.  I think they are way more fun than conventional tables, and I dream of someday having a breakfast nook or something with this style of seating.
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On the Left Side of the Road

January 24th, 2013 No comments

Sure enough, as soon as I felt well again it was a very happy living situation.

The nearby Bintang grocery store has a number of items that we’ve taken to be the emblematic staples of Balinese cuisine.  We bought a 5-kilo bag of rice and make daily progress on it (amazingly, it cost less than $4), and Tracy has quickly become masterful at fixing up many variations on the theme of rice (or noodles) plus vegetables plus tofu (or tempeh) plus a base of flavorful elements like garlic, ginger, soy sauce & apple vinegar, and finally topped with freshly chopped cilantro and/or spring onions.

I add my carnitarian twist to this mix by way of the fish fillets that Bintang offers, the tuna and red snapper being my favorite.  Available for under $2 US and perfectly cut like a single serving steak, these easily sear to perfection with a little butter, squeezed-on lime juice, and a few shakes of salt and pepper, completing the meals which feel light, filling, healthy, and very nutritious.

I could get used to this, which is good.  During one of our state-of-the-union pool meetings I began to lobby for two months in Bali, which met with little resistance.  “The way I see it, this place is good enough to merit two months, plus staying a while will give me time to work and replenish the well of travel funds.”

Once back again on my feet the first order of business in adjusting to life in the outskirts of Ubud was to learn to ride the motorbike.  Our landlord Nyoman had me all set up with a motorbike parked right outside our door, and left us helmets and a pancho on the table in our living room.  When I stepped out one day to give riding a try he was right there to give me a little lesson.

Nyoman doesn’t speak much English (Indonesian is much more his forté, really), but he’s got enough to give me a lesson on operation of the motorbike.  I believe the sequence of words uttered were, interlaced between demonstrations, “blinker”, “horn”, “break”, “gas”.  The information-rich (and words-lean) demonstration was capped off with “Don’t panic”, accompanied by a bright smile and thumbs up.

It is with no sarcasm that I say it was a rather confidence inducing lesson.  Seriously: just the basics, none of the over thinking.  Pure presence.

I was ready.

I slowly made my way down the alley walkway and onto our quaint, outskirts street.  I went to the right, so as to enjoy a larger radius for my first motorbike turn.  We’re in a country that drives on the left side of the road here, don’cha know.

To recap: in this moment I’ve never driven a motorbike, I’ve never driven on the left side of the road, and I haven’t driven any sort of vehicle in about 6 months.

Everything seemed to go by so fast, for in this situation my brain was going quite slow.  Everything needed to be run through conscious awareness, so much of what I was experiencing and doing was not yet automated.  So I went super slow, taking it all at my own pace, but then of course having to contend with getting passed a lot more.  I went north a ways, did an about face and then went south a ways.

All I really wanted was to get a little experience without incident.  Have an accident on the first day and I was apt to deem it a bad idea overall, if not for my own lack of faith then perhaps for a most reasonable concern from my beloved over my well being.  Thankfully my 15 or so minutes of riding passed without incident, and I pulled back into our place with an air of triumph.  Not because my riding was particularly studly, but because I’d survived the first experience unscathed.  It was all downhill from here.

A motorbike is a perfect example of the brain’s ability to rapidly learn and condition itself to something very new as an adult.  One round of geriatric-style driving was all it needed to go to work during sleep, and be ready to go the next day.  My second ride was a different experience: it was like time had slowed down considerably from the day before.  By the fruits of offline learning work done in the night, my brain this time had plenty more bandwidth to deal with the (now) somewhat familiar happenings.  Throw in that increased comfort meant going faster meant less getting passed, and you’ve got a nice upward spiral of confidence and ability.

It was like magic.  Brains are awesome.

In the days that followed I took on progressively more difficult situations as I grew into comfort with our new means of transportation.  Open ended cruising around.  Taking the narrow path into town.  Navigating traffic on the main drag.  Going up and down steep, winding hills.  Schlepping groceries over my shoulder.

On about day six I was ready to take the most precious wife cargo.

One of our first field trips together on the bike (aside from groceries, of course) was to the Sacred Monkey Forest.  I think we can all agree that monkeys are, ostensibly, cool and a worthwhile attraction1.  Every country I’ve been in that has indigenous monkeys has some sort of attraction or tour promising to show monkeys.  The thing is, though, most of the time your guide will point to some indiscriminate figure up high in a distant tree and say “Look at the monkey!  Do you see it?”  Umm…. yeah, I guess that’s a monkey.  Alright, cool.

In my experience, best case scenario you’ve got like 3 monkeys whose figures can be made out clearly, at least two of which are taking a nap.

So against this backdrop of mild monkey frustration2, it is hard to overstate my jubilant delight over the literally hundreds of Macaque monkeys milling about and playing throughout the tidy and beautiful Sacred Monkey Forest.  Spanning little more than an acre or two, the forest has enormous ancient trees, beautiful stonework temples and bridges, and a river running through a deep ravine with vine works and stone steps that collectively constitute a platinum-class monkey playground.

And play they do.  All around the forest are piles of yams, yucca root, coconuts and corn to serve as veritable buffets for the inhabitants, and just watching a pudgy Macaque gnaw on a coconut is enough to keep me entertained for 10 minutes, minimum.  They climb, they swing, little ones cling to the underside of mothers, and they all think of you as a more or less interesting distraction from whatever little tedium they experience in their monkey days.

The advice ’round these parts is to not carry any food on your person, for they will take to it in a very forward manner, as if to say “Aw, you brought me a treat!  Here, let me get that for you, no need to make you carry food all the way into my den AND have to get it out from within that zipped compartment, that would be asking too much!  I’ll just be a minute.”  Even without the lure of food, stay stationary enough and they’ll take to your sitting presence as an invitation to use your body as a newly installed climbing fixture.

You bet that I sat idly long enough to take in the experience.

After our jaunt through the Monkey Forest we took lunch at the Pu Nani Warung3 and then tried our hand at negotiating for some Balinese fashion to wear about our swanky villa.  We stopped in one of the many many clothes shops lined upon along the major streets in town, preferring it for the prominence of dresses that were apt to fit both Tracy’s style and (apparently) enormous ribcage (when compared to the cuts of cloth more suited for the locals’ frames).

By now I was fixing to have some traditional garb of my own, and a silk sarong looked mighty comfy.

So Tracy and I went about our parallel tasks of shopping, her picking a dress and me a sarong.  I quickly converged on a royal blue silk one with golden patterns.  Before long Tracy found a nice flowing dress of auburn red patterns on a very light creme color.  When it came to talk price we realized our mistake: because we were shopping in tandem and had both found items we liked, it was harder to negotiate.  There’s a dampened ability to make like you’re going to walk out on the sale when you have concerns of depriving your spouse of the purchase they want to make, so without better-than-average married people ESP that day our tandem negotiation only got us a few bucks off: my $25 sarong came down to $23, and Tracy’s $30 dress came down to $25.

Pricey prices by Bali standards, but still not bad for what we’re used to in the US.

Back at home, the sarong with nothing else has quickly become a preferred outfit.  Cool breezes wafting off the rice terraces, and me rockin’ a 3×6 foot piece of silk wrapped around my waist.  Delightful!

It’s funny how things come full circle.  Back in Madison during college, one of the regulars of the ballroom dance club scene used to wear a sarong all the time.  Between long hair, big nerdy glasses4, and what my 20-year-old self took for a woman’s skirt I thought him rather eccentric.  I was “polite” enough to not say anything, but the thoughts “you’re dressed like a girl”, “you’re a weirdo”, and “don’t stand so close to me” all totally crossed my mind.  (I was a charming example of a human being back then, I know.)

But now?  Holy smokes, sarong guy, you were on to something.  Here in Bali that sort of traditional garb is worn all over the place by the men folk, and there’s nothing effeminate about it.  It’s cool and light, positively agrees with a tropical climate, and these fabric rectangles have no shortage of style in the myriad colors and patterns.  You’d be an oddball to condemn anyone for wearing one in these parts, and I bet on a crowded ballroom dance floor the sarong scores serious points for both thermal comfort and movement freedom.

I find it instructive indeed to see how relative tastes truly are, particularly as they pertain to fashion, and even deeper issues like masculinity and femininity.  It’s freeing to realize the degree to which it’s all made up.

Bali bliss continues to run high.  We should probably begin tending to the visa renewal process soon to up our welcome for another 30 days.


  1. The barrel-full thereof does constitute a standard metric of fun, after all.
  2. Which I presume to be essentially universal among your average, North American monkey-going tourist.
  3. Giggle.  Ahem, “warung” is the word that designates a small shop that serves food.  If you’re hungry in Bali the word to look for on street signage is warung.  Through sheer coincidences in language, some are named more humorously than others.
  4. For the benefit of those who didn’t know me back then, let me lovingly sound the insecure hypocrite alert.
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You Might Say We’re Ballin’ in Bali

January 19th, 2013 No comments

To my mom and anyone else who might not be familiar with colloquial ‘hood: ballin’ is urban speak for “doing really well, specifically pertaining to a certain lavish affluence”.  It derives from the notion of being a baller, which refers to one who transcends urban poverty by making it as a well-payed athlete, say, playing basketball.

The night we got into Bali there was what we perceived to be magic in the air.  In fairness to observable reality, that was probably just the cool breezes wafting over the nearby greenery and the soothing symphony of the insects within, easily audible above the very sparse hum of traffic.

When we awoke to a thermos of rice tea set out on the table of our second floor porch, we saw the beauty of our rural settings more clearly: rice paddies extending in all directions, set against a backdrop of wafting palm trees and buildings adorned by surprisingly ornate carvings and statuary.  As tropical architecture goes it was a beautiful upgrade from the cinder block and corrugated metal rooftop construction seen so prominently around Central America.

This felt like a whole new world, one of mindful attention to detail and beauty woven into all aspects of life, an attention that showed from the temples & compounds spanning decades (centuries?) to the ubiquitous offerings of flowers &  incense laid out several times a day as a devotional practice.  And there are more statues of Buddha, Ganesh, and other spiritual figures and figurines than you can shake a banana leaf at.

Our potentially premature bleary-eyed fascination with Bali turned out to be well justified indeed.  This was a rare instance of neither of us doing really any prep research about a country, and for it I think we were rewarded by the heightened attention to and appreciation of what actually is, rather than a cursory comparison to pre-cultivated expectations of what should be1.  That first morning we decided we should be delighted to spend a month in Bali.

With the aid of the internet and a friendly cab driver named Kadek we set about our quest to find a suitable home for the month.  When you’re white and stepping out of a guest house, drivers know there’s like a 20% chance that yes, you actually do need a taxi, thank you, so the offers in that setup come quickly and regularly.  Grateful am I that Kadek called out to me that second morning when we were about 4 steps out of the guest house, for, left to our own devices, Tracy and I will stubbornly walk everywhere (this is in defiance of the fare dance which usually leaves us feeling screwed).  From the prior day’s research we had a few places in town to go look at, and Kadek explained he was available for hire for 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah per hour, minimum two hours, to take us around town and help us in our quest.

For those not savvy to the conversion rates in Southeast Asia, that’s about $5 an hour for a knowledgeable ally and ride around town.  Sold.  Hey, can you take us some place to get a cell phone?  You can?  And the phone plus SIM card will only cost us $20?  Let’s go!

Three hours later we were spent but had 2 viable places in the winner’s circle.  Our barrage of inquiries about other promising properties found online was much less fruitful, but we did get one thoughtful note back to the tune of “Sorry, my place isn’t available but you might contact my friend Jared, a broker in town who might have something for you.”  We decided to give him a call.

“Ah, I’m just on my way to Denpasar.  But, okay, you’re looking to make a decision today… if you can meet me in 10 minutes there’s a place I can show you before I head out.”  Whether or not Jared was really on his way out of town or if that was just consummate showmanship to create a sense of urgency and excitement, we may never know.  Either way, we went for it.  We left our guest house once more and I handed the phone to the first cab driver who detected our Caucasian, ride-needing presence.  We rendezvoused with Jared at the location hashed out with the driver, and he on his scooter led us out of the city and towards the property.

In Bali there’s a culture of getting around on motorbikes and scooters.  What you mostly see on the road are motorbikes and minivans (all suitable for toting around 4-6 tourists), and the ratio is easily ten to one.  Yes, cars are permitted, but motorbikes rule the road and the automobile drivers are well trained to be aware of their presence.  Tracy and I observed this on day one and, being safety conscious and head-splitting accident averse, resolved that we’d need to get a place close enough to things so that we would be generally set as pedestrians.

But now Jared was taking us far out of the city center, more like the middle of no where, it felt, as the 7 minutes of following him down the rural road ticked on.  “I’m not sure this place is going to work” I said to Tracy, concerned that perhaps we’d wasted the man’s time.

When he finally stopped we got out of our cab, followed him on foot down the narrow alleyway between two family compounds, and through the gates into the house he had to show us.

We’d seen some nice places in our two day quest.  This villa blew them all away.

Bedroom & bath on the first and second floor, very new and modern fixtures, wide open space with vaulted ceiling on the second floor, upstairs terrace overlooking rice paddies, well appointed kitchen, and a pool right in the living room, all enclosed into a private little paradise with lush tropical vegetation serving as a garden for ambiance.  Only photos do it justice.

Perhaps we might reconsider our self-imposed motorbike ban, after all.  To business then, I said to Jared  “Like we mentioned on the phone, $1100 a month is pretty much our splurge price point… what does this go for?”

“$1500 a month, but in Bali everything’s negotiable.  I’ll let the owner know you’re interested, and I won’t show it off for the next 24 hours to give you guys a little time to think about it.  I’ve got one more property to show you, but she’s not picking up right now.  How about we meet tomorrow morning and you can have a look at that one as well?”

On the cab ride back Tracy and I considered Jared’s words about motorbikes: they’re easy to learn, the conditions are safe because people ride slow and cars know to look out, you can rent one for $50 for a month, that we’ll be much happier and more autonomous with our own transportation.

The next day we met at the other property, this one a sprawling estate that had four bedrooms and three (three!) pools, located on different levels fitting the slope of the land down to the river upon which the property was perched.  Jared explained “Here if you guys wanted it I’d only rent you whichever one room you liked, and just not rent the other 3, so you’d have it to yourself.”

Wow.  This castle would’ve felt much too sparse and deserted for just Tracy and I, but darned if I didn’t have a few lovely visions about taking it over for a week or two with some family and/or friends.

“We like the other one, and if $1100 can be done we’ll take it.”  Jared phoned Nyoman, the local who lived right next door and owned the house.  $1200 plus electricity is the offer that came back.  Electricity was apt to be between $50 and $150, depending on how much we ran the AC.  Not too bad, because we’re pretty good about keeping our usage low.  We told Jared we’d think about it, and he zoomed off on his motorbike to go to his next meeting.

We walked along the street from the castle towards our guest house, and perhaps 2 minutes later Jared zoomed back in our direction to say “Just talked to Nyoman again, $1150 plus electric and it’s yours.”  Tracy and I exchanged glances briefly, and then to Jared I nodded “done deal.”

And that was that.  In real estate there’s this concept of moving in (to a place you’ve been shown and like) in your head.  It’s when you start to let excitement grow and attachment build before you’ve actually made a deal.  From a negotiation standpoint, this is a dangerous thing to do, for it makes you less free to walk away and woe is your position if the party you’re negotiating with knows you’re already attached.  We were careful not to mentally move into the villa with a pool in the living room before we we had actually secured it at a workable price2, and so in that moment it was very sweet indeed to finally let ourselves get excited for where we would spend the next month3.

Two hours later we called Kadek to take us to our shiny new digs, dropped off our bags, got the keys, and let ourselves be chaperoned for a proper grocery run by which to stock our fridge and pantry.  After the 2 and a half days of house hunting, we were elated to kick back with confidence that we’d made a perfect landing.

After all that running around on top of our 22 hour day of travel from Australia, things caught up with me and I pretty much immediately came down with a nasty cold which lasted a week.  If I had to be sick, this was a space in which to do it and keep in good spirits.  I was so happy to be where I was I just patiently waited it out.  Every day at some point I would just look around, be struck by the fact that in this moment this is my home, and giggled to myself that we should find (and be allowed to live in) such a place.

I felt like a baller.


  1. Our only real intel on Bali going in was from reading Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago, which was surely our hint to seek out Ubud.  If you haven’t read it already, go ahead, I’ll wait.  Skip the movie with Julia Roberts, though, that’s garbage.  On a plane we stopped watching well before she got to Indonesia, so yeah, we had fresh eyes going in.
  2. It became tricky once thoughts of skinny dipping in the moonlight crossed my mind, but manageable.
  3. I was now free to embrace thoughts of skinny dipping in the moonlight.
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Enchantment Lay Beyond the Pricey Countries

January 9th, 2013 No comments

Evey year on New Year’s Eve, the city of Sydney in its harbor puts on arguably one of the most spectacular fireworks shows that the world has to offer.  Being in Sydney for the occasion presented us with an opportunity.  How could we miss it?

Tash recounted her time of attending the fireworks 2 years ago.  Something like 1.6 million people congregate along the harbor for the show each year.  To get a good view of the show, she and her friends set up on a sidewalk in a neighborhood at 10am, spent the day in the sun drinking from flasks, knocked on a neighborhood house door or two to use the bathroom, and after the show hung out at a bar until about 3am, waiting for the crowds to disperse so they could catch a bus home.

That sounded like a LOT of work just to see a 20 minute fireworks show, even if it was liable to be the greatest display of fireworks we’d ever seen and were ever likely to see.  But then again, we were here, and when would this opportunity ever going to come up again?  And what else were we going to do to make our time in Sydney quite as memorable?  Were we just going to sit sadly at home that night in the suburbs, watching the show on TV even though it was happening just one bus ride away?  How could we call ourselves world travelers if we squander such peak experiences?

So we were on the fence a lot about this one.  What largely settled it for me was when my friend Anne gently paraphrased my own lowbrow profanity right back to me, saying plainly “Well yeah, so stop being such a great big pussy and go see the amazing fireworks show, already.”

Touché.  At about the same time Tracy had similarly come around to the idea, that we should pack a lovely cooler of food to last, get to one of the harbor-side parks at around 11am, while away our time with e-readers, conversation and cards, avoid the sun under cover of umbrellas, and just have a nice picnic day with the bonus of a fireworks show at the end.

So we did just that.  Out the door at 10:10am, we took the 309 downtown, walked 5 minutes, and queued up to enter the park.  It was a winding queue that took about 2 hours to get through, putting us in the park around 1pm.  All the spots with good views of the harbor were taken, but it didn’t really matter: everyone would be standing and crowded into the good vantage points for the actual show anyway1.  We whiled away the day just as planned, and by our training of enjoying idle times with things like layovers and other transit events, it was a well-shaded cinch: hardly the suffering we’d imagined from Tash’s account.

The nine o’clock fireworks were very nice, and indeed the location of our blankets had no bearing upon where we would actually watch the show from.  Afterwards we realized we had two and a half hours to pass before the midnight show, and we were feeling already a bit sleepy.  So we simply napped, spooning all cute-like on our blanket.  Now, I’m not saying that this is a lifestyle habit that I’m looking to cultivate, but man, sleeping in a city park was quite comfortable.

Firework warning shots served as our wake up call.  Refreshed from the nap, we again huddled close into a group of revelers with a passable view through the trees and enjoyed the show.  It was satisfying to think that we had indeed bucked up and gotten ourselves out for the event.  The day was pleasant, it was not hard to pass all that time, and it was neat to think at that moment that I may indeed be watching the greatest fireworks show in all the world this year.

The night finished well.  After the show we packed up and walked on back the way we came, right to the park-side street at which we were dropped off, and what did we find?  A barely loaded 309 bus, just waiting to fill up and take us right back home.  Five minutes later we pulled out, and we were back home by 1am.  The process of getting home after our long day was smooth as silk: no camping out at a bar until 3am required.

My computer surgery ended up a long winded affair.  For one reason or another, I couldn’t overcome the technical hurdles of cloning over the old drive to the new, and so eventually bit the bullet and resigned myself to reinstalling/rebuilding everything on my new hard drive, and copying over the important data piecemeal from the old.  Though it broke my heart to lose those few good productive days, there was simply to manage the situation as it presented itself.

In the interest of good karma and fulfilling on our promise to be Grade-A house sitters, we made certain to leave Tash and Simon with their house in as good a condition as possible.  We stripped & laundered our sheets, tidied the spaces, stocked the fridge with a case of Victoria Bitters, and greeted our hosts’ noontime arrival with a prepared lunch of quiche, salad, and fresh fruit2.  When it was time for us to leave we exchanged fond goodbyes, I let Mustard jump on me and lay doggie slobber on my hands and arms one last time for good measure, and we were off.

Tash had welcomed us to stay with her & Simon for those last two days in Australia, but in the interest of experiencing a speck more than just Sydney during our visit to the continent we declined and opted instead to head for Katoomba, a small town nestled in the Blue Mountains just a pleasant train ride away.  Our time there was pleasant but largely unremarkable, another chance to hike about some great outdoors and spend more than we ever thought possible on mere hostel accommodations.  Given our sparse gear it was better than sleeping out in the bush.

One night for dinner we went to an Indian restaurant.  I ordered a $16 lamb korma and Tracy a $12 daal dish, and I requested rice for our meals, thinking nothing of it.  After a delicious meal we both had a bit left over, and asked for a little rice to go so as to make a great snack for later.  When we were awaiting the bill I said to Tracy “I wonder if the rice is gonna be extra?  What do you think, one or two bucks?  That’d be fine, I guess.  Four bucks and I’m making a scene.”

The universe sometimes, it seems, has a delightful way of calling me out to see me follow through on things I’ve brazenly declared3.  Our bill cost $12 more than I calculated it should.  The reason?  $4 for my rice, $4 for Tracy’s rice, and $4 for our takeout rice.

“Excuse me, but, $4 seems a bit excessive for rice, and why is it not included with our meals?  I don’t recall seeing it as a surcharge listed anywhere on the menu.”  I was told it was on the menu, that people usually don’t ask for rice, or if they do they just ask for a little bit and he charges one or two dollars.  “So wait, you’re telling me that you expect people to order a $16 dish of lamb in a bowl with lots of very flavorful and spicy sauce (it was delicious, by the way), but not order rice?”

“Well, they just order a little, or have naan with it.”

Our waiter, who might have been the owner as well, went off to tend to something else for a minute, mentioning that they had just opened last night and were still ironing out some of the kinks.

“Excuse me,” I called to some guys who had been recently seated at a nearby table, “do you might if I have a look at one of your menus?  Thanks, mate.”  A quick scan revealed no line item for rice, let alone $4 rice.

When our waiter returned I continued about the objectionable state of our check.  “So there is no mention of rice in the menu, and I swear you said it was no problem to get a side of rice with our meals.”

By this point, I’m told, I had the full attention of the dozen or so other patrons in the small dining area.

I continued, “I’m a bit taken aback that our $40 meal has jumped to a $52 meal with something that I can’t imagine you not including with the meals you serve.  Does everyone else here know that their meal will probably run them $4 more than the menu price, or do a lot of people in Australia just eat Indian mains not on a bed or rice?  This feels like a nasty tack on, and had I known you charged $4 for a scoop of rice it would have been a different story, we simply would have not eaten here4.”

While I was oblivious to the attention of the fellow patrons, I reckon our host was not.  Before long I recall the words “I just want to you to happy” being said as precursor to an offer to remove the offending rice charges from our bill, presumably an urgent gesture to rush me out and end the mealtime show.

It felt good to take a stand.  Charging for rice is a pardonable sin, but doing so without getting informed consent is not.  Because I’m either kind or stupid, I effectively nulled out a large chunk of the protest savings by tipping generously.  After dinner we went to the store to get some picnic fodder, and with the adrenaline fading the humor of our dinner bill situation started to creep in.  “Hey, this loaf of bread is kinda pricey, but at least it’s cheaper than rice!”  Everything in the store was either cheaper than rice, more expensive as rice, or about the same price as rice.

So Australia was expensive, and the next phase of World Tour beckoned.  With our strategic reserves of English-speaking white people more than replenished, we were ready to move on to less familiar cultural surroundings.

Our second morning in Katoomba we awoke to a 4am alarm, did our solitary walk in the brisk moonlight back to the train station, and watched the sun rise as we headed back to Sydney.  Our travel day was long: 2 hours to the city, a 4 hour flight to Perth, a 5 hour layover, and then a 3.5 hour flight to Bali.  Bleary eyed, we arrived at around 9:30pm in the Bali airport, did the dance through customs and getting a visa-on-arrival, and grabbed a cab.

We were so very tired when we arrived in Ubud at about 11:20pm (or about 2:20am as far as our bodies were concerned, thanks to timezone traversal).  And yet, Bali had something magical about it that was immediately palpable.  We got settled into a room in a guest house, and I forget who said it to whom but the conversation was something like “Hey I know we just got here and it’s dark and there’s nothing happening, but, I think I love this place.” to which the other quickly agreed, with just as sparse an understanding of why.


  1. We heard banter of folks who arrived at 7am to find all the spots with good views already taken, so no sense beating ourselves up over that one.
  2. Tash was a dear and kept her weekly farmer produce delivery service in tact during our stay.  We honored that thoughtful gesture as best we knew how by letting very little of it go to waste.
  3. This one time I told everyone we’d totally get rid of our stuff and travel the world for, like, a year.
  4. Did I mention I was feeling a bit price sensitive after nearly a month in Australia/New Zealand?  To say nothing of how the unexpected surcharge plus their lack of credit card acceptance would necessitate another visit to an ATM–ugh!
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New South Wales: Lovely Yet Already Familiar

December 28th, 2012 No comments

From my vantage point, and save for a few exceptions including the ubiquitously cool & novel accent, Australia’s southeast province often felt like we may as well have been anywhere in the US.

Our last few days in New Zealand were uneventful.  Wanaka was everything it promised to be: a pristine and picturesque city perched on a beautiful lake.  And like the rest of New Zealand, it was pricy.  The first morning I managed to find a breakfast of pancakes for $161.  At this point we were just tired of traveling about, and so during our 48 hours we didn’t venture far from the rather nice YHA hostel beyond grocery store runs and a few meals out.

We’d been in travel/tourist mode for just over three weeks, and were looking forward to having a more regular home.

Our laying low at the YHA made a good proxy for this.  The kitchen was well-above-average impressive.  With its island containing no fewer than 5 burner stations and a comparably well-equipped perimeter it could’ve passed for the kitchen of a happenin’ restaurant.  From around 6 to 8pm it positively hummed with groups of travelers of many cultures all working to prepare meals that were way more involved than what you’d expect in a hostel kitchen2.

The common space was pleasant and spacious, like that of an alpine lodge and complete with a Christmas tree, that handy reminder of the so easy to forget fact that Christmas was, yes, next week.  In the evenings they put on a movie in the separate TV room.  One night we caught “Mao’s Last Dancer”, a biographical film about a Chinese ballet performer who visits and subsequently defects to the US.  In this film the US is portrayed as a bit excessively decadent as well as a super awesome alternative to going back to communist China.  As with the Hopkins film the week before, it’s fun to see how different cultures view the US and which points of contrast stand out.

It’s probably worth noting and remembering how well it worked to have a TV not in the main room of socialization and gathering.  At the Wanaka YHA the television is situated in its own [sound] space, a dedicated & closed-off room with comfy couches arranged to mimic theater-style seating, and dark-lit ambiance to match.  We’ve been in countless places where the TV is an unavoidable presence in the common space, and whether it means to or not it kinda dominates the space.  When turned on, it has to be loud enough so as to be heard, so it necessarily drowns out normal speaking voices which relegates (again, whether it means to or not) actual communication and conversation among fellow travelers to second class status.  This effect is largely invisible until you experience a common space without it–without a TV contending for attention, I couldn’t help but notice a lot more meeting and mingling among travelers was happening.

That and you can really just enjoy the movie when it’s movie night.  Brilliant use of a second room.

When it was time we caught our bus back to Queenstown.  One more night before our flight on to Australia and our house sitting gig.

On the whole I am just so struck with how good natured the whole of the New Zealand population again and again showed itself to be.  I adore their mannerisms, which may be the only thing that explains and/or excuses why I’ve been incessantly quoting lines from Flight of the Concords.

One instance stands out in memory.  During the bus to the glacier towns we had a stop in a park and I hit the restroom.  As I came out an older fellow, a member of the parks department with this huge grey beard called out to me.  “On holiday, are ya’ now?  Gonna see the glacier?”  “On holiday?  Yeah, I guess so: my wife and I are traveling for a year and have some time here in New Zealand, it’s beautiful here.”  He beamed back “Right-o, then, good on ya!3“.  And they he merrily went about his task of polishing the metal on an outdoor garbage receptacle.

I don’t know for sure, but I feel like I come from a culture where cleaning a trash can would overwhelmingly be viewed as draining or menial work.  Yet here was this fellow, cheerfully chatting with tourists while contributing to the very pristine quality that makes the area/country so endearing4.  I’m not saying you can’t find similarly cheery retirees doing basic manual labor in the US, but I’d wager you won’t on the first try.

Though I certainly wasn’t among 100+ other passengers, I felt like a VIP as we walked some 50 meters on the airport tarmac towards our plane, all nestled in mountainous beauty.  I’m walking along the cordoned off path, summery blue skies above, the outdoor terrain looks like this, and I’m about to fly to Sydney on a Wednesday afternoon.  I feel blessed.

A few hours later we landed in Australia’s world class capital.  Through no fault of its own, our first glance impression was strikingly lackluster.  New Zealand is a tough act to follow: suddenly in the streets of the city we saw regular bits of graffiti, a few pieces of litter, and less than perfectly lush and splendorous nature.  It looked like hell.

It wasn’t, of course: that impression is just a function of what our eyes were accustomed (and not accustomed) to seeing the last 11 days.  It’s totally unfair to be the destination city of a flight that originated in New Zealand.

Onward we navigated the bus system to the Sydney suburb where our charge lay, Mustard the dog and our hosts Tatiana and Simon.  Tatiana (or Tash for short) had provided immaculately detailed instructions and we made it straightaway.  We were invited to stay a with them a few days before they headed off for holiday in Thailand, so that we could get settled and to give Mustard time to get used to his new caretakers.

Tash’s hospitality was stellar.  On arrival we were greeted with homemade laksa, a spicy noodle soup from Malaysia with a coconut milk base.  Tash isn’t Malaysian, but Japanese in ethnicity and born and raised in Brazil.  That plus her cooking prowess makes her all kinds of worldly.  Being done with school and off from work, she pulled out all the stops to show us around her proud city during the next two days.

Our first stop was down to her place of work: Captain Cook Cruises.  She scored us some free tickets for a boat tour of the harbor.  Aside from featuring the legendary (and deservedly so) Sydney Opera House, Sydney’s harbor boasts the rightly famed Sydney Harbor Bridge, a kickin’ city skyline, sandstone cliffs, beautiful beaches, and collections of $10+ million dollar houses.  See the photos here.  If there was ever a good way to be impressed upon the world classiness of a city, this was it.

When we got off the boat, Tash led us on a surprise run along the harbor to the Opera House.  Turns out she bought us tickets for the tour, and we had to hurry to catch the 12:30pm.  At $28 a piece, Tracy and I left to our own devices might well have skipped it, contenting ourselves with a walk around the outside and popping our heads into the foyer.  It’s ridiculously beautiful up close and personal, well worth the price of admission.  Many thanks to Tash for treating us to an experience we might otherwise have let slide.

We rounded out our adventurous day with walk along a harbor inlet through the Royal Botanical Garden, lunch at a mall food court at which I cemented my new love for laksa soup, a guided tour of the Susannah House (an historic neighborhood building of 5 apartments built in 1844 and stylistically still quite in tact), and a delicious pint of beer at Fortune of War, Sydney’s oldest pub which dates back to 1828.

It was quite the day arranged graciously by our hostess, a perfect sampling of Sydney at its best.

Ah, if that weren’t enough, the next day she took us to the Bondi beach, one of Sydney’s finest.

By day three of our stay we were well acclimated and feeling right at home.  In the afternoon Tash and Simon were off for their flight, so for the next two weeks the house and all its dog-tending duties were ours to manage.

Mustard is about 75 pounds of muscle, built no doubt in part from devouring 2 chicken wings whole in the morning every day, and then 2 again at night.  Shaped like a bouncer with a barrel chest and slender waist, about 90% of the time that he’s looking at you he’s got this big, loving smile on his face.  It’s super cute, he’s a good looking and friendly dog and that grin just gives you the warm fuzzies inside.  During walks and between breaks to smell things, he’ll get you up to a sprint if he can by toting you along on the leash.  And if he spots another dog within 100 feet, there’ll be a lot of barking and a mini tug-of-war as you pull to prevent a doggie altercation.

From Mustard I learned a very important and subtle distinction about me: I am a dog liker, but it turns out not a dog lover.  As a dog liker I love to pet and generally love on any dog whose path I cross, be it my Mom’s dog when I go home to visit or stray dogs running around the square of a city in Central America.  But I am not a dog lover in the sense of wanting to sign up for the ownership gig with its years-long haul.  For me the novelty wears off, leaving me with substantial daily responsibility and an upper limit on cleanliness that all that slobber and hair puts on your home5.

So we are lovingly tending to our Mustard duties and even get a lot of enjoyment out of the excuse for early morning fresh air and the games of catch in the backyard, and at the same time we take comfort in the fact that we won’t have to do so forever6.  What is so great about learning this here and now over a mere two weeks in Australia, is that we’re getting effectively inoculated against the premise of owning a dog now, well before our hypothetical children fall in love with a dog and bring impassioned pleas for us to get one.  Now that Tracy and I have a clear picture of the experience, we’ll be better equipped to quell such requests, and less apt to fall for innocent lies like “I’ll take care of it, it’ll be my dog!”.

Christmas was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  By that I mean it was the first, and most likely the last, time the Christmas was a strictly just-Tracy-and-I affair: no family, no friends, just the two of us with literally zero fuss on our part about gifts, decorations or other such preparations.  It was chill and low key, yet had a certain decadence about it.

In the morning we made egg sandwiches with fresh fruit atop yogurt and meusli.  Then we drank beers and played cards in the backyard.  Then we had a 30 Rockin’ around the Christmas tree marathon of watching 30 Rock, drinking wine, nibbling on cookies, all while our feast cooked: twice baked potatoes and a beef roast on a bed of veggies.  You get the idea.

My laptop’s hard drive has been in slow decline since Nicaragua and the situation has now come to a head.  Australia (like I imagine most countries that are not the US) totally closes down for holidays, which is most inconvenient when you need specialty parts to do surgery on your computer.  Today around noon I realized to my utter chagrin that my next-day shipping for an order I placed online wouldn’t ship until the first or second week of January.  With that plan out, I managed to find a store that was open until 2pm, and then not again for 5 days.  A $94 one way cab ride across town ensured I got there on time to make my purchase, saving me from another week of idling, work-wise.  No regrets, but youch, I wish I’d known an hour earlier that I might spend more like $7 on public transportation to get me there.

Right then, on to computer surgery.


  1. Though in the pancakes’ defense they were uncommonly deluxe, featuring fully 5 distinct types of sweetness: maple syrup, a sweet butter cream spread, sweet raspberry sauce, the pancakes themselves, and sort of candied like molasses that was melted and hardened into an artful formation, anchored in the cakes to rise 7 inches above my plate.   So, you know, no regrets.
  2. You could argue that Tracy and I, with our spaghetti and PB&J’s, did our best  keep the average culinary complexity more in line with that of your typical hostel.
  3. “Good on ya” is like a standard verbal blessing that Kiwis give generously.  Entirely secular, I take this blessing as a shorthand for “I dig you and your style, may good be upon you as you go through your days.” What a great phrase.  Make your world more awesome and say it to someone you love (or someone you just met) today.
  4. I didn’t ask the guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an instance of the Zen concept of finding joy & satisfaction in the small and seemingly inconsequential, because it contributes to and is part of something much bigger.
  5. We made a habit of wearing socks around the house at all times.
  6. Especially because Mustard goes nuts with barking and jumping whenever I show even the slightest affection towards Tracy, be it a kiss on the cheek or a hug from behind.  He’s like the most strict chaperone imaginable, and pleas that “dude, it’s okay, we’re married!” fall on deaf doggie ears.
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