(I started this post before I broke my rib so it’s looking like this is the last of the fitness posts for the next 6 weeks or so…)
I wasn’t expecting to find any Zumba at all in Bali and had resigned myself to a couple weeks of yoga as my physical activity. Don’t get me wrong – I always feel great after doing yoga and I know how good it is for me, but I just don’t enjoy like I do dancing. I’m not terribly flexible and even when I was doing yoga more regularly (back in my bellydancing days), I never felt like I got any better at it.
Yoga at The Amala
Our first hotel was in Seminyak and offered 90 minute classes twice a day for the reasonable price of 50,000 rph (approx $4). It was a lovely studio with huge windows, beautiful dark wood floors, and lots of new yoga mats and blocks.
My first class was Vinyasa Flow with Nita. She was very friendly and did a great job guiding 4 of us through the poses, speaking alternately in English and Indonesian. Because it was a small class, we got a lot of personal attention/helpful adjustments. I was thoroughly fatigued by the end and sore for the following days.
I also went to a Hatha class with Budi. He took the time to check with everyone’s experience levels and adjust the poses accordingly. There was a Japanese girl who claimed this was only her second yoga class ever, but either she didn’t understand the question or was just naturally bendy as she was far better than anyone else in the room. (While I was struggling with the basics, Budi kept telling her how to increase the difficulty!)
Bali Fitness in Seminyak
This gym did offer Zumba once or twice a week with drop-in pricing, but not on the days I was in Seminyak so I didn’t get to try them out. Their website schedule wasn’t current, so best to contact them in advance if you’re hoping to attend one.
Zumba in Ubud
Ani teaches at Ubud Fitness three times a week. The drop-in rate was around $5 USD, and the gym was really responsive when I messaged them on Facebook to check the schedule. The studio was open air, so even though there was a nice breeze and plenty of fans, I was definitely extra-sweaty by the end of class. It also meant we had the occassional chicken checking out our moves.
Ani is a tiny little firecracker with boundless energy. Her class was great all around – her cueing was fantastic, the routines were easy to follow, and she was always helping adjust where people stood, since the room could get quite full.
And on Valentine’s Day, she brought in these treats for everyone:
She offered Zumba Toning once a week, where you use the maraca-like weights for part of the class. They felt light initially but after several songs you could definitely tell they were working! She provides the weights so you just need to show up and shake them!
The other days she teaches Zumba to a packed room of (mostly) expats. It was always a great time! There was usually one or two other instructors in the class, and Ani was so gracious to give us each a chance to lead a song. (Her class was particularly excited about my routine to Bottoms Up, so hopefully the California-style booty shaking will continue once I am gone.)
She has a very active community on Facebook and everyone in the class was so welcoming – I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it if you’re in Ubud!
Zumba At Roam
There was an underutilized, gorgeous yoga deck at the place where we were staying, Roam, so I decided to offer a (free) Zumba class for any interested residents.
7 brave folks showed up for the first class (including 2 guys!). The humidity was oppressive – I was amazed that 4 people stuck through to the sweaty, sweaty end. So many of them had seen me working out on my own (with headphones) so it was fun to crank up the stereo and have a proper class.
When we returned for our second stay, several folks wanted to do it again. Zumba is always more fun with friends, so I held a few more classes. I was impressed with how willing the guys were to go for it!
One of our roomies took this timelapse of the last few songs – look at them work it!
When I wasn’t teaching a class or going to Ani’s, I would use the yoga deck to work on new choreography or just rock out on my own. It was amazing to have so much space to use, plus I could jump right in the refreshing pool afterwards!
Balinese Dance Class
To my untrained eye, Balinese dance looks similar to Odissi (Indian Temple Dancing), with angled body positions, dramatic eye movements, and expressive hands. Ubud Studio offered classes once a week for about $7.50, so I decided to give it a shot. (They also had a lot of partner dancing classes like salsa, bachata and kizomba.)
The studio was on the top floor of what seemed like a half-abandoned building (the ground floor was occupied by a pretty shabby-looking gym). The dance floor was lovely, though, with pristine floors, lots of mirrors, and a nice stereo.
I was the only person in the class that day. While it was amazing to get a private lesson, it also meant there was no disguising my cluelessness. We literally spent the first 40 minutes just trying to get my body into the default standing position, which required more flexibility in my hamstrings than I had. I did do better at the basic walk, so we managed to do the tiniest little combo before the time was up.
The instructor was very good and a lovely dancer – though her English was great, she also wasn’t shy about giving me hands-on adjustments. She told me she had been studying this dance since she was very little, including spending an hour a day with her arms wrapped over a pole to try and open her chest and improve her carriage. Suffice to say, I have new respect for how challenging this dance is!
All in all, it was very easy to find classes in Ubud, which seems especially set up to handle travellers. Whether you want to do acro-yoga, ecstatic dance, Zumba, salsa or just meditate, there are plenty of classes available!
Bali is dominated by what we started calling the Local Taxi Mafia. Local guys with mopeds or cars were constantly offering you a ride, and you had to negotiate the price depending on the distance, mood of the driver, time of day, and how good your bargaining skills were. There were signs everywhere forbidding Uber and even metered taxis. (I know Uber is far from innocent as a company, but there have been several cases of the local taxi mafia dragging Uber drivers out of their car and beating them.)
In an otherwise peaceful and friendly place, this has been a frustration… It seemed like I was constantly offered rides when I didn’t need them, but couldn’t find anyone when I did. I finally decided to rent my own scooter, as many of our other roomies did.
I had never driven a scooter before. I watched several You Tube videos about it, practiced a bit in the driveway of Roam and a nearby empty parking lot, and then figured I would just go slow and try to avoid the busiest parts of town. (The German was understandably nervous about this plan.)
I spent the first day driving around with my turn signal on the entire time, but otherwise made it to the grocery store and back without incident.
At this point in our travels, driving/walking on the left feels more natural, so the “driving” part was pretty easy, but traffic certainly took some getting used to… there were heaps of scooters on the road but no traffic signals or stop signs. Essentially, you just “go with the flow” (like a school of fish) and hug the left as much as possible. (People are often driving down the middle of the road to avoid parked cars.) I mainly wanted the scooter so I could get to a 9am Zumba class across town, which meant dealing with a lot more traffic than I would like but I managed to handle it several times without incident.
One day I decided to take the bike on a longer drive, out to a jewelry workshop about 3.5 miles/25 minutes away. I was feeling more comfortable, and figured I could just take it slow and pull over regularly when I needed to check directions.
It started off well… there were far fewer people on the road than in central Ubud and the countryside was lovely. However, just a few minutes away from my destination, I lost control around a sharp corner as someone was passing me and slammed into a wall, landing in a ditch with the scooter on top of me.
There was so much blood that I immediately knew I was about to violate our cardinal rule of the trip: no hospital visits.
I texted the single word “help” to The German as several locals came rushing to my aid. They pulled me and the moped out of the ditch and got me a bunch of kleenex to try and stop the bleeding. At one point, one of them removed my prescription sunglasses from my face – the frames were intact but both lenses were missing. After a lot of frantic discussion, they moved the moped into a nearby driveway and then threw me in a car to rush me to a local clinic.
Neither my rescuers or the nurse spoke English, but I could tell from their conversation and gestures that it was bad. She went to work cleaning me up and kept saying “hospital” while the guys tried to help in any way they could. They kept trying get me to call someone, so they were relieved when I showed them that The German was making his way towards me on Find My Friends.
Just as the nurse was applying the last bandage, The German arrived. He quickly paid the bill ($3) and got directions to the nearest hospital. He tried offering money to the guys who rescued me but they refused to accept it. I was so incredibly grateful for their help.
We rushed to the Ubud hospital as I struggled to stay conscious. I was wearing a helmet when I crashed, but my head was bleeding from somewhere and the site of the deep gash in my knee was making me woozy.
At the hospital, they started to work on a more thorough cleaning but they soon discovered their x-ray was in an error state and would take an hour to fix. (Huh?) They recommended we switch to a different hospital rather than wait. The environment there was pretty chaotic – a screaming child, wailing adults, and the 7 beds were all full so The German ran into the street to negotiate another taxi.
Moving was a challenge and the adrenaline was starting to wear off so I was becoming painfully aware of just how banged up I was. It was an agonizing 15 min drive, but definitely worth it – Kasah Ibu Hospital had been constructed in the last year and had very modern equipment, plus I was the only patient in the ER.
They quickly started an IV with painkillers and fluids as they prepared for x-rays. Dr. Dyah spoke perfect English and had a very professional team, lifting me from a gurney to various tables for a CT scan and multiple x-rays. (I suspect they were excited to have a chance to use some of the equipment- there was a lot of staff in attendance.)
They administered antibiotics and gave me a tetanus booster (eve though I already had one in the past few years) since the wounds were so dirty. Both my knee and elbow were so deeply cut that the bone was exposed. I was going to need a surgeon.
The x-rays showed I had a fractured rib and a small fracture in my elbow, but my knee wasn’t broken and surprisingly, neither was my nose. I had quite a lot of road rash on my legs and a cut on my forehead, but the scans didn’t show any internal bleeding so they started surgery prep at 9pm.
I was anxious, but everyone seemed very competent and the facilities were modern and clean. I woke up around 2am with The German by my side, who had been answering my same 4 questions in a loop as I was regaining consciousness.
Around 3am I was transferred to a room. We got a complimentary upgrade to an “Executive” room, which wasn’t nearly as nice as some hotel upgrades we have received, but it had a second bed for The German, so that’s all that mattered.
All of the staff did their best to communicate in English (though it was a challenge at times). They always made sure I was comfortable, though, and modestly covered when there were male workers around. They apologized each time before touching me (“sorry”) which was very sweet and we loved how they always referred to each other as “friends”: “my friend will bring you pain killer” or “my friend would like to change the sheets”.
The kindest of them all was the one I thought of as “Nurse Pee Pee”. (She was the night shift and always inquiring about my bathroom needs. )
The surgeon wanted me to stay at least one more night so I could continue with the IV cocktail of fluids, pain killers and antibiotics. Moving was painful so I couldn’t really argue with the logic of staying in the mechanical hospital bed.
The German spent the long, boring day adjusting my pillows, talking to insurance people, and keeping our local pals updated. The food at the hospital was some of the worst I have had on this whole trip so he would periodically run out for coconut water and other treats. He also managed to get the guy who rented me the scooter to go collect it. (It was 20 minutes outside of Ubud in a random driveway, so no easy task… The German assured him I wouldn’t be needing it again.) I couldn’t imagine dealing with all of this without him – he has been an amazing caretaker.
The second night was rough as they tried to reduce my pain killers but my broken rib made it hard to sleep. We awoke just before the 6.4 earthquake commenced, shaking the building for 20 seconds. Nurse Pee Pee came running in and said we needed to go down 4 flights of stairs to safety, which frankly, seemed impossible given my mobility. By time I made it to the hallway, the tremors subsided so we stayed put. The building definitely handled it well – the only evidence of the quake was the crooked paintings on the wall. (Even the fake flowers on the table didn’t fall over.)
They switched me to oral pain killers, re-dressed all of my wounds, and we collectively decided I should stay one more night. Between the wounds on my knees and right elbow, the broken rib, the IV in my left arm and arm soreness from the Zumba Toning class I did Monday morning, it was hard to transition between sitting and standing and I needed to be more mobile before I could go.
The German arranged for Dr. Dyah to pay us another visit. Her English was by far the best and she was able to answer all of my questions about after care. Aside from all of her helpful medical tips, she also told us we encountered the largest earthquake in a decade and apparently people ran into the streets screaming…. what an exciting couple of days!
The next morning I was determined to leave the hospital. Moving was still a challenge and laughing really hurt but I desperately wanted the IV out of my arm and access to better food. After a final inspection from the surgeon, they changed all my bandages to “waterproof” and started the discharge process!
Amazingly the grand total came to 10,000,000 less than their original estimate:
That works out to be less than $5,000 (USD), which is certainly a fraction of what that would have cost in the US.
I am now happily back at Roam, recovering in our room with easy access to fresh smoothies, lots of friendly faces, and plenty of pain killers. Though I am technically cleared to fly, I am still struggling to get in and out of bed and walking around at the pace of a zombie so I can’t fathom dealing with an airport right now. We will certainly stay put for a few more days while I recover.
Bali was just so comfortable and easy that after Borneo we decided to return to Roam (the coliving space), for another couple weeks of new friends, great vegetarian food, cheap massage and lots of Zumba. Thanks to my scooter mishap, this turned into a lot more hospital time and a lot less Zumba than I originally planned, but it was still a good spot to recover and meet some more interesting people.
Throughout Bali, the housekeeping staff we have encountered have all been men. There were plenty of women in other roles – cooking, working reception – but men handled cleaning the rooms, washing the dishes, etc. (I have been told women also hold these jobs, but we stayed at 3 different hotels and never saw any.) I also noticed a number of local women working as house painters and lugging bricks to construction sites. I enjoyed the contrast to what I normally encountered in the US.
Most sidewalks and driveways had ornate designs. Decorative pavement costs the same as the plain, so most people opt for the ornate. It made even a short walk more lovely.
Differences & Similarities
One of the main reasons we wanted to stay at Roam was the chance to meet so many different people. Just like last time, there was great diversity in age, background, passions, and country of origin. I was particularly excited to discuss politics with someone from Russia, and hear more about life in Saudi Arabia.
It would be so easy to make incorrect assumptions about people from certain countries (or certain religions) based on the current news in the US. It was a good reminder to try and avoid making superficial judgements – even a casual chat with someone from a different background than my own quickly highlighted several similarities we share. (I hope I was similarly able to leave them with a positive impression of Americans, despite what the foreign press might be conveying.)
I think there would be a lot less fear if people took the time to get to know each other, even a little bit. This Danish video really sums it up beautifully…
Saka New Year
Because of our unplanned extension, we managed to be in Bali for the new year celebrations which are designed to restore harmony between nature, man and the spirits. This is the biggest holiday on the island and spans for 6 days, inlcuding 24 hours of silence (for the whole island, enforced by the community police).
Prior to the day of silence, everyone on the island prepared to scare off all of the evil spirits. They constructed these large, intentionally ugly Ogoh Ogoh sculptures. Communities come together to create them for weeks ahead of time, and you could tell they took great pride in their creations.
Once it grew dark, we headed to the starting route of the parade (which was thankfully only a 15 minute walk, given that I wasn’t terribly mobile). All the Ogoh Ogoh were lined up, with the local children excitedly waiting to carry them.
Adults were watching the perimieter to keep spectactors safe as they sent fireworks into the air, annoucing the start of the procession. As the gongs picked up pace, the children worked together to lift these huge paper mache scultpures and start the parade.
At various intersections they would shake or turn the Ogoh Ogoh, sometimes backing them down another street just to trick the evil spirits. Some of the sculptures were so large that people had to use sticks to lift the power lines so the monsters could pass.
The procession takes a meandering route through town accompanied by lots of noise and fireworks before the sculptures are all set on fire, eradicating any evil influences on life. Though I wasn’t mobile enough to go the whole route, we continued to hear the sounds of fireworks for hours.
The next day was Nyepi, or Silent Day. It is intended to be a day of self-reflection and an opportunity for nature to have a respite after 364 days of human pestering. Absolutely no one is allowed in the streets except for community police and ambulances. The strictest observers avoided eating, using electricity, working and traveling. (Yes, even the airport was closed.)
As foreigners, we were not required to participate but we were also not permitted to disturb our neighbours. This meant we could use electricity (and wifi), but needed to make sure the curtains were closed in our rooms at night so we wouldn’t cast light onto the surrounding houses. We were allowed to cook our own food, but obviously all cafes were closed. And while we did talk, it was certainly quieter than usual, despite having all residents together for the day.
It was a gorgeous, clear day and the town was blissfully peaceful – chickens and dogs were the dominant noisemakers. At night, the sky seemed like it was overflowing with stars since the town was so dark. It was a really nice break from all the noise and hustle of the normal days – I think it would be a great addition to all cultures, but it would really only work if everyone participated.
It’s been 10 days since the scooter wreck and I am a lot more mobile. I’m still moving slowly as the cut on my knee and the road rash on my ankle are still healing, but all the stitches have been removed and I am thrilled that I no longer have a bandage on my face.
Given that the cherry blossoms have started to bloom, we are going to head directly to Japan now. I am expecting it will be quite a shock to go from the small, lush town of Ubud to the modern metropolis of Tokyo, but I am excited to try and improve my Japanese, get a haircut, and hopefully get to enjoy the peak blooms of the sakura!
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. It is home to some of the world’s oldest rainforests and 46 species of endemic mammals, the most famous being orangutans.
We arrived in Sandakan in the early afternoon. The island was incredibly green and looked like a jungle, even from above.
Each room at our lodge was its own chalet, nestled in the trees on the edge of a small river.
As The German astutely noted:
“There is a lot of nature here… “
As soon as we got in our room, I inadvertently stepped on a massive wasp (thankfully I was wearing shoes). Walking to the main part of the lodge involved dodging bees, butterflies, ants, and whatever was falling from the trees. Also, fruit bats made a mess on our porch every night.
That said, I loved hearing all the sounds of the birds, frogs, lizards, and even the insects as we went to sleep each night.
Our first afternoon was spent at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. The 400 acre mangrove forest was originally purchased for commercial development. However, the owner fell in love with the monkeys and instead built a modest viewing area for tourists, leaving the rest of the habitat largely untouched.
Each day they provide a small amount of food to supplement the monkeys’ diet. (The sanctuary claims this is due to dwindling natural resources, but I suspect it’s really so tourists can get a closer look.) Still, these monkeys were certainly wild – there were no fences, and while they mostly ignored us, the displays of strength made between the various large males were intimidating.
They are normally very high in the treetops so it was absolutely amazing (and sometimes a little scary) to be that close.
I found them fascinating – the females had these adorable, witch-like pointy noses:
… while the males seemed like sad old men who needed a hug:
They made some really cute sounds:
And they put on quite a show – eating, grooming, fighting, swimming and even mating.
This turned out to be my favourite stop on our trip – we got to have close encounters with these fascinating animals with very few other tourists around.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Borneo. This organization rehabilitates former pets or orphans and releases them back into the wild. They have had great success, and see formerly released orangs successfully raising their own babies in the wild. Teaching these juveniles how to be orangutans is a tremendous achievement, and important work since they are critically endangered.
We were able to watch the youngsters getting their breakfast in the outdoor nursery. The goal of this area is to teach the orangs to stay off the ground (where they could come in contact with detrimental bacteria) and improve their climbing skills.
The observation area was behind one-way glass (to avoid over-exposure to humans) so while it was tough to get a good photo, it was a fantastic vantage point for watching them swing, climb and play.
We also visited the open air feeding platform where older orangs might come for a snack. Providing supplemental food makes sure the newly released orangs are getting enough to eat. It is also a great opportunity for the staff to observe their health, especially once they start having babies of their own.
Orangutans are solitary animals. It was interesting to see how they each took turns at the pile of fruit, giving one another a chance to eat without being disturbed.
We were incredibly lucky to have a couple close encounters. (Only the youngest residents are quarantined in cages for a short period – all others are free to roam as they please, including leaving the rehabilitation center for the larger forest.)
This clever girl snatched a coconut and distanced herself from the other young ones as she did the hard work of breaking it open to retrieve the meat:
We also encountered this lady, who preferred to use the handrail of the visitor path instead of the trees as her route:
Crowds notwithstanding (it was a surprisingly popular spot given how remote Borneo is), it was amazing to have close encounters with them, and I never got tired of watching the little ones play.
These are the smallest species of bear – I am certain some of my friends have dogs that are larger. It was tough to get a good photo from above, but they were very active and it was easy to spot them foraging for food.
While we were there, they also pointed out a deadly viper, resting leisurely on a tree:
We opted to go on a night walk into the rainforest. As soon as they handed us rubber boots, I started to second-guess our decision.
The ground was very squelchy in places, with thick mud that tried to snatch the boots off your feet. I wasn’t terribly excited to see cockroaches or spiders, but we spotted an orangutan putting the finishing touches on her nest for the evening, the tiny frogs were cute and it was interesting to identify the sources of all the sounds we heard at night.
The next phase of our trip took place along the Kinabatangan River. Sukau Rainforest Lodge is located right on the river banks so there was quick access to game viewing by boat. It really felt like a remote location – we rarely saw other boats on the river, our phones barely got a signal, and there was a constant soundtrack of birds and bugs.
We met many different groups of monkeys on our first afternoon cruise. After seeing the Proboscis monkeys up close, it was nice to see them bounding through the treetops. We also encountered long-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques, salt water crocodiles, and a variety of unusual birds, including several kinds of hornbill.
Dinner was served in an open-air pavilion over the water, where we took turns swatting beetles off of each other while we ate. (Lesson learned: avoid white shirts at night.)
We were both pretty surprised to discover that they woke you up at 5:30am each morning for the first cruise. (The German shot me a look of death when he realized that wasn’t a joke.) This was obviously not going to be his favourite stop on this trip.
The setting of the lodge was really gorgeous and it was lovely to be nestled in the rainforest. However, the rooms lacked charm and the walls were very thin. (We could hear our neighbors snoring.) We weren’t sleeping or eating well, but the staff were wildlife experts and I loved seeing macaques run through the property.
And that’s why it’s called the rainforest…
We arrived at 5:45am for our first morning cruise, only to have the skies open up and start pouring rain. (It was still on the edge of the wet season, so we knew that was a risk.) The boats were open top and we didn’t have hardcore rain gear, so we opted out of the excursion. (Frankly, our guide was talking everyone out of it as he kept explaining none of the animals would be out.)
It poured all day and into the night. We quickly understood why all the structures were built on stilts:
The lodge tried to entertain us with a lecture about orangutans and a walk around the property via a covered walkway, but there wasn’t much else to do. It was hard not to be disappointed… the lodge wasn’t very comfortable, wifi was scarce, and the only wildlife we saw were mosquitos. It felt a bit like we were trapped in a terrible summer camp.
I braved the elements for the afternoon boat ride. We did spot a large crocodile and a few monkeys, but had to rush back due to another thunderstorm.
Thankfully, the rain calmed a bit and our new guide did everything in his power to help us make the most of our last day. Even when we couldn’t find wildlife, he taught us how to listen for monkeys based on the sound of the leaves rustling (macaques shake the trees when looking for food, while orangutans use their weight to bend the trees so they can switch from one to another without jumping), and how to identify birds based on their flapping patterns (the Oriental Pied Hornbill always flies with 3 flaps followed by a glide).
Though there was only one orangutan sighting, we got to see quite a few monkeys, crocodiles, and rare birds plus I definitely learned a lot about the local wildlife.
Cave of Doom
One of the recommended activities was to visit Gomantong Cave and watch 300,000 bats perform a mass exodus at dusk. The cave is also home to thousands of swiftlets, who create the vaulable nests used in bird’s nest soup and Chinese medicines.
What they don’t tell you in advance is that the cave also contains the largest infestation of cockroaches in the world (literally).
It started off innocently enough with a walk through some lovely canopy to the large entrance to the cave. The wooden walkway made it look like it would be an easy jaunt.
However, once we hit the darkness we had the dreaded realization that the walkway and handrail were crawling with massive cockroaches. (Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). It was like being in a horror film.
Everything was slippery from the moisture of the cave and thousands of years of bat poop. The last thing I wanted to do was grab the roach-covered handrail so I was moving pretty slowly. The German decided to ditch me and move rapidly toward the exit while I took timid steps, continuously yelling at our guide to stop using his flashlight to illuminate the horror show.
Suffice to say, we were thrilled to get out of there. While the bat exodus was interesting to see, I’m not sure it was worth braving a cockroach marathon.
Fun fact: 6 guards have to sleep in the stinky, cockroach-infested cave to keep people from stealing the valuable birds’ nests. Next time I am having a bad day, I will remind myself that things could be worse – at least I am not one of those guards.
After a series of boats, cars and planes, we spent our last night in the large city of Kota Kinatabu. Our hotel room was delightfully modern and bug-free, and we had our first great meal of the week.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the wildlife, we both agreed that we aren’t jungle people and were excited to be headed back to Bali. Still, I will miss having easy access to so many monkeys and apes.
Here’s a short compilation of some of the many primates we saw:
We had to fly through Kuala Lumpur to get to Borneo from Bali. Our last visit to KL was pretty much just 24 hours of non-stop rain but I had fallen in love with a bowl of noodles while The German had fallen in love with a hotel, so it seemed like a no-brainer to stop over for a few days.
Our typical routine upon arrival in most major international cities involves dropping our bags at the hotel and immediately going in search of cheese. Though it had only been a few weeks since Melbourne, I was definitely suffering from withdrawal. It took a couple hours of wandering around before we located an expat-oriented grocery store with a gloriously large selection of imported cheeses. We ultimately returned to the hotel with our spoils, and spent the first night devouring goat’s cheese, triple cream with truffles, and aged gouda in our large, modern apartment/hotel.
Corner apartment on the 38th floor
Modern kitchen (with a view)
The bedroom has a fantastic view at night
(Believe it or not, this place was $85/night.)
Kuala Lumpur felt arid after Bali and we actually managed like to walk around without immediately sweating through our clothing… it’s amazing how a slight change in the humidity can make such a huge difference!
While the streets of Bali were flanked by dogs (that may or may not randomly bite you), Kuala Lumpur is a cat town. It seemed like there were kittens everywhere! They were obviously strays and a little skittish, though many businesses put our cat food in the evenings so people must be happy to have them around.
Kuala Lumpur isn’t exactly scenic… the cityscape is a mix of skyscrapers, malls and cramped apartment buildings. During mealtimes, the sidewalks are taken over by stalls selling food:
There are lots of malls (and lots of traffic)
There is a lot of great food to be had at the sidewalk stalls
Our room has a great view of the KL Tower
The pride of the city is the Petronas Twin Towers (which we saw last time). Otherwise, there’s not a ton of things to do. We got the impression that people mainly come here to eat, drink, and shop, which is mainly how we spent our time, too.
I visited my favourite vegetarian food stall daily for my $2 bowl of curried noodles with fake meat:
And we also visited a local coffee shop a couple times for lattes, cakes, and kittens.
Since this was the largest city we will visit over the next month, we also took the opportunity to sort out a few necessities. (ie. The German got a haircut while I picked up some new glitter nail polish.)
There are over 30 malls in Kuala Lumpur, so it wasn’t surprising to find plenty of modern cinemas. One of them advertised something called “D-Box seats”, which were described as “immersive motion”… “The signal is then sent to the actuators that act like little robots under your seat.”
The German wanted to see Logan and I wanted to see anything that involved a robot in my seat, so off we went.
The D-box seats are kind of like a gentler version of movie motion rides you would find at a theme park. They vibrate, tilt, and rock independently and each seat has its own control for adjusting the intensity.
At times, it was fun – when the characters were driving on a gravel road, you experienced the same sensation. At other times, it was distracting – when you were watching several people fight from an external perspective, there was no need for the chair to be moving. I thought it showed promise but needed refinement. The German hated it from the start and immediately switched it off.
The German enjoyed the movie (but hated the seats) while I loved the seats but was lost through parts of the movie, having not seen any of the prior X-men films. (I didn’t even realize it was part of the X-men franchise until we got to the theatre.) Regardless, it was a fun way to spend a few hours, and it’s always interesting to see the unique aspects of going to the cinema in a different culture.
Do these types of seats exist in the US someplace? I am not sure if these types of experiences seem new to me because I rarely went to the movies in SF, or if Asia is advanced when it comes to enhancing the cinema experience…
Off to Borneo
Next we are off to Borneo for some wildlife adventures in the jungle! Expect lots of orangutan pics in my next post!
My friends Rick & Randy travel a lot and they have invited me to join them on numerous occasions – from live aboard dive boats to snowmobiling in Iceland. Timing never seemed to work out, so I was super-excited to rendezvous with them in Bali.
Given my unemployed status, they agreed to slum it at one of the more reasonably priced (but still 5 star) hotels in the area. I somehow convinced The German we could afford to splurge a bit and immediately made a non-cancellable reservation (at a very discounted rate).
The Viceroy did not disappoint. We were welcomed with flower necklaces and mojitos while overlooking the beautiful property.
Each “room” was actually it’s own villa:
We had a massive bedroom, outdoor bathtub and shower, and a private plunge pool:
Each villa was positioned overlooking the hillside, so it felt like you had the entire resort to yourself.
For some reason, they thought it was our honeymoon. It’s not beyond me to fake something like that for some extra perks, but in this case, I have no idea where they got that impression. I wasn’t going to correct them and have them take away this free cake, though:
Service was impeccable, the property was gorgeous, and even the food was amazing. It’s impossible to have a bad day when you start it with an amazing 3 course breakfast overlooking the lush landscape!
Even though we had our own little pool, the
It even had a swim up bar…
We intentionally didn’t do too many tourist things before Rick & Randy arrived because we knew they would want to maximize their time in Ubud. In just three days, we…
saw a Balinese dance performance:
toured a temple:
watched artisans create ornate silver jewelry:
had lunch by a volcano:
flew Randy’s drone near a waterfall:
drank several coconuts:
went to a gorgeous spa:
spent several hours by the various pools:
tasted lewak coffee, took an early morning bike ride through the rice paddies, and went white water rafting! Somewhere in there, we also managed to have several great meals and found time to sleep.
The Monkey Forest
One of the highlights was visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest. This beautiful park on the edge of town is home to 115 different species of trees, 3 temples, and about 600 long-tailed macaque, who roam freely throughout the park (and beyond).
The park is owned by the local village and everyone is thrilled to have the monkeys around, despite their sometimes naughty behaviour. Not only does this tourist attraction create many jobs, but the community uses the profits to fund religious ceremonies and temple festivals. It is also a way to encourage balance between people, nature, and spirits – a key value in Hinduism.
As everyone warned, the monkeys were very friendly:
And though they were very cute, some of them were quite aggressive… A large male challenged Randy when he came too close, no doubt fearing that Randy was trying to steal his coconut. A bit later Randy got chased down the path with a younger monkey grabbing at his ankles. (Rick and I were so busy screaming at Randy we missed our chance to get photos.)
Despite their dislike of Randy, it was hard to deny their charm and amazing to get so close to them:
There were 7 of us staying at the hotel as Rick & Randy had an entourage headed on a diving trip after Ubud. Our social group was quite a contrast to the other guests, who were primarily honeymooners seeking privacy.
Each room was a little different, so Randy had the great idea of a roving room party. It took quite a bit of explaining before the staff understood the request to bring the bottles of champagne to different rooms every 30 minutes, but it in the end, it worked out perfectly! We had a great time seeing the different room layouts and swimming in each others’ pools, all while sipping champagne!
Stop 1: Our Room
Stop 2: Tim’s Room
Stop 3: Marc & Matt’s Room
(Not pictured is the final stop in Rick & Randy’s room, but you can imagine we were a bit sloppy by then..)
It was incredibly fun to spend a few days in such a luxe setting with old friends (and make a few new ones). We definitely made the most of our time together, filled with a lot of laughter and great conversation.
The guys all headed to Komodo for dragons and diving while The German and I went to Kuala Lumpur for a few nights. Next up for us will be the jungles of Borneo to see orangutans, sun bears, bats and proboscis monkeys!
Even though 18 hours of thunderstorms commenced the moment we arrived, we were still delighted with the first impressions of our home for the next two weeks, Roam. We had to apply in order to secure a room at this “coliving and coworking refuge” where they curate a community of digital nomads for their 25 rooms.
Everyone gets their own room and private bathroom:
Our bedroom and small balcony
Small sitting area with a view of the nearby rooftops
The kitchen, laundry, pool, yoga deck, cafe and working space are communal:
Pool for the residents
The yoga deck (including equipment) is available for use anytime
Everyone gets a spot on the shelves and in the fridge to store their food, plus they provide a lot of the basics like eggs, etc.
Cafe and coworking space, with great coffee and also cocktails!
And there is also a communal pet, Lulu:
They organize events several times a week, and have negotiated discounts for residents at a lot of local cafes. It has all the social aspects of a hostel, but with nicer facilities and a much more diverse age range. Most people stay for a week or more.
Like in many homes, the kitchen turned out to be the social hub. As we were cooking and eating, we exchanged recommendations for Ubud, discussed various work projects, or just learned more about each others’ journeys. It was a diverse community in age, gender, and country of origin and really interesting to hear what attracted people to Roam. Some of the other residents included: a recruiter, romance authors (2 of them!), an international tax attorney, a boutique owner, a woman who started her own line of pajamas (during her stay here!), a fitness instructor, a photographer, a digital storyteller, an entrepreneur and several developers; hailing from America, Australia, Canada, France, Russia and the UK.
By creating a space with such a specific intention of community, they have broken down the usual barriers to social interactions. It was very easy to strike up a conversation with others, and just as easy to excuse yourself if you had something else to do.
Having a built-in community was a really nice way to experience Ubud – one night we stayed up late drinking wine and discussing philosophy/politics, another evening a group of us headed to the Ubud Food Truck festival, and one afternoon I taught a Zumba class for any interested residents:
A favourite group outing was to the weekly farmer’s market a few doors away. Just before 9am each Tuesday, an organic farmer parked his truck next door and unloaded the harvest. At exactly 9am, the frenzy of grabbing commenced. It was a great way to get produce, and as much fun to watch as it was to buy.
Those alien green things are actually cucumbers
Edamame (still on the branch!) and some Dragonfruit
I couldn’t resist the little tomatoes in the palm leaf basket
It was a little chaotic
Ubud is in the interior part of the island. Though it is only 15 miles from Seminyak, it takes over an hour to get there by car because the roads are small and meandering.
The landscape is much more lush by comparison. It has somewhat of a jungle feeling with dense greenery, tropical flowers, and sounds of birds and geckos all around. (I never knew how noisy those little lizards could be!)
While I don’t have any specific horror stories, I do feel like this is one of the buggiest places we have been (so far)… there was everything from giant dragonflies to huge wasps to beautiful butterflies and ants of all sizes. I quickly learned to always keep any bags zipped up, or risk uninvited guests. (This applies to indoors as well as outdoors.) I will be surprised if I don’t find tiny ants inside my computer after we have left.
It seemed like there were even more temples and shrines here – it made walking to the grocery store more like a sightseeing trip.
We saw this guy on the way to the supermarket
This guy was a few doors down from my gym
They were in front of shops, houses, pretty much every building…
The German thought the temples looked like they were designed in the game, Minecraft. Their blocky geometrics would certainly be easy to replicate in pixels:
There were so many I think it would have taken months to try and see them all…
There are so many vegetarian restaurants in Ubud that it was rarer to find a place that served meat. It was a hippie’s dream – you could get a smoothie bowl and a coconut milk latte at the same place where you bought essential oils and got some”vibrational energy medicine”. I steered clear of the “emotional release quantum shift” (I’m still not sure what that meant) but I did appreciate the abundance of fresh, tropical fruits. And to be fair, that place recommended some tea tree oil which quickly cleared up some very itchy ant bites on my legs.
It was such a delight to be overwhelmed for choice by the menus – at a normal restaurant I can quickly pick from the few items that are vegetarian. In Ubud, I have pages of delicious options and choosing just one or two things was tough!
Tofu “chorizo” tacos
Smoothie bowl with fresh coconut
Mango and coconut “ceviche”
Iced Coffee Frappe
Various little desserts
Carrot, baby potato, quail egg
Dragonfruit and banana smoothie
A Leisurely Pace
The sticky climate didn’t exactly make you want to do anything in a hurry, and we rapidly adjusted to the leisurely pace of the island. In the mornings, The German would retire to the working space for a coffee and computer time while I either went to a Zumba class or worked out on my own on the yoga deck.
Our afternoons were spent exploring the area on foot, hanging out at a local cafe, or sometimes I would opt to enjoy one of the many spas.
Labour is cheap and plentiful here. While many shops and cafes seemed over-staffed with workers who weren’t especially attentive, the spas were a different story… there were an endless number of them, each better than the next. And since massages were $9-$15/hour, I was tempted to go daily.
One of my favourite spots was Karsa Spa in a peaceful setting overlooking the rice paddies. In addition to having incredibly gorgeous grounds and treatment rooms…
Part of the open air treatment room
Entry to the treatment room
… the deep tissue massage was one of the best I have ever had. (I was sore for days afterwards.)
I also had an extremely decadent “Twin Massage”, which meant two therapists massaged me simultaneously! There really isn’t anything better than someone massaging your shoulders while someone else rubs your feet – all for $15!
(The German was quick to remind me that I shouldn’t get too used to this.)
It seemed like there were constant rituals taking place. Some of them were quite small, like the daily offerings of flowers and rice to various spirits:
Daily offering in front of a spirit statue
The flowers are refreshed daily
Palm basket with a daily offering of flowers and rice for the spirits
While others consumed the whole town. We were fortunate to witness one of the largest, most elaborate cremation ceremonies in years. When someone really important/wealthy dies, they build these large floats:
The body is carried up the ramp and placed in the tower. The ramp is then removed, and the bull and the tower are carried from the Royal Palace to a temple on the other side of town, accompanied by musicians and the entire population of Ubud.
It was a slow process. The floats took up the width of the street and required dozens of men to carry them. They would run for a while, then stop briefly to drink water and catch their breath:
Then there was a rallying cry of the leaders, the music would increase in tempo, and they would lift the structure and resume running:
I was sweating from just watching – I can’t imagine running down the street carrying some enourmously heavy structure. Once they reached the temple, everything was set on fire. (I was not dressed appropriately, so I didn’t go into the temple to witness the actual burning.)
Friends take note: something simple like this would be fine for me when it’s my turn. 🙂
We also visited Tirta Empul, a temple known for its holy spring water. It was interesting to watch the bathing ritual, where people would immerse themselves under each consecutive spout of fresh spring water (fully clothed – sarongs are mandatory for men and women):
Even today, women who are menstruating are forbidden from taking part in any of the rituals, bathing or otherwise.
Thankfully, they relied on the honour system to enforce this, not any kind of inspection.
We have enjoyed staying at Roam so much that we have decided to return in mid March, after our adventures in Borneo visiting primate sanctuaries.
Now it’s time to head to the other side of Ubud for a luxurious couple of days with our friends from SF…
I didn’t know much about Bali before we decided to come here, but The German was intrigued by a coworking refuge he read about and we had the chance to overlap with some friends from SF. People always speak about Bali as being a relaxing, spiritual place (except for Kuta, which is the party city filled with drunk Australians, apparently).
When we were in Melbourne, we overheard an Australian guy telling his friend how he met a healer in Bali who educated him on his past lives. He went on to gush about how he felt so enlightened about his current relations, as his past life was obviously influencing the way he interacted with people. What was his past life? I thought he said “tyrant”, but The German heard “pirate”. Either way, it certainly painted an interesting picture of what kinds of people we might encounter.
We planned to spend about 3 weeks in a couple different spots:
Phase 3: rendezvous with our friends at a luxury hotel outside Ubud
Getting a flight from Melbourne was easy. There wasn’t a good option for using miles so we went with the cheapest possible ticket. JetStar is about as budget as they come – luggage is charged by the kg and no complimentary anything (if you want water, you can get it from the back yourself). The reviews online are overwhelmingly awful so we braced ourselves for long lines and a horrible 5.5 hour flight.
Despite it being low season in Bali, the Dreamliner was nearly full of Australians headed on holiday. Though the seats were quite cramped (easily the narrowest seats I have ever experienced), it was otherwise not as bad as we envisioned. So yet another reinforcement that it’s best to go in with low expectations (and a couple glasses of wine).
We made the mistake of not buying SIM cards in the airport. In hindsight, 12GB for $7 was more than reasonable, but our flight landed at 12:45am Melbourne time so we weren’t thinking clearly. Instead, we wound up bartering with some guy in a shop the next day who had to trim the SIMs using what looked like kiddie scissors. A few days later (with help from someone at the hotel) we discovered that mine was expiring in a few days (it was supposed to last for 30) and The German’s barely had any data on it. This is certainly not the most expensive mistake we’ve made, but next time we will be sure to buy them at the airport.
Our Hotel in Seminyak
I spend quite a bit of time researching where to stay to make sure we get the best value for our money. It’s a complex mix of Trip Advisor, Hotel Tonight, AirBnB and Expedia. The German often teases me about this, but it usually results in us getting an unusually funky pad/saving money.
Yet again, I have to sing the praises of Expedia (which I only started using at the beginning of this trip). They usually have the best prices on hotels, and we have used them enough that on rare occasions we get some extra perks. In this case, it was a complimentary upgrade at The Amala Hotel.
Our room was so large we thought they were touring us through the spa. Here is part of the outdoor bathroom:
The hotel only has 15 rooms (I think?) and since they will deliver breakfast to the room at no extra charge, we rarely saw anyone else.
Salts, oils and herbs for the bath & sauna
The mosquite net wasn’t just decorative, unfortunately
Not a bad setting for breakfast (if you decide to leave your room)
The outdoor bathroom and tropical climate meant dealing with more bugs than I would have liked, but otherwise, our biggest problem was that the tree was constantly dropping leaves in the pool. (Life is so hard!)
I chose Seminyak as it seemed to be a popular destination and was close to the beach. Bali isn’t known for its beaches, but apparently the waves are good for water sports and Seminyak is a popular surfing spot.
The main roads had sidewalks (always a delightful surprise in southeast asia!) so it was pretty easy to walk around. Even though the shops looked very modern, there was some kind of shrine or temple every 3 or 4 buildings so it was an unusual mix of old and new.
These small shrines were every few shops
There were many lush passages as shortcuts
A nice temple, right on a busy street
Shops seemed to be built in and around them
So many temples!
The main streets had a lot of clothing shops (you can get a lot of clothing at a fraction of what it would cost in the US or Europe since it is made here) and a lot of places selling silver jewelry. Otherwise, it was restaurants, day spas, and tattoo shops.
While we did have one decent meal, overall the food wasn’t especially good. Labour is cheap and plentiful, but alcohol is heavily taxed and it seemed like getting nice produce was a challenge.
There were a lot of dogs wandering around, especially in the evenings. They don’t seem to be strays as they have collars, but they don’t obviously belong to anyone nearby. As I stopped to take a photo of a temple, a couple medium-sized dogs came running and barking (and not wagging their tails), so I decided to move along quickly. And then on the way back to the hotel, a little dog (kind of like a large chihuahua) came running up out of nowhere, bit me on the calf and then ran off again. (Thankfully, the skin wasn’t broken and I have had a rabies shot.)
So in other words, we weren’t exactly falling in love with Seminyak. That said, we really enjoyed lazing around our lovely room and having a fairly easy transition into this new country (SIM card experience notwithstanding). Though it is rainy season, the dramatic thunderstorms mostly happened at night so it was nice to watch the lightening from our mosquito-netted nest.
Yoga & Bali
Yoga is everywhere, and classes are very cheap. (Our hotel offered them for around $3.50 for 90 minutes.) The first class I took left me sore for days, which The German found so intriguing that he decided to accompany me to the next one. Neither of us are especially bendy, but it did feel good afterwards…. at least I thought so. The German kept claiming “everything hurts” and struggled with basic movements like sitting up.
I am not sure why yoga is so popular here, but I suspect it is related to the predominantly Hindu population. The island is full of temples and there are a staggering number of shrines.
They believe that pretty much everything has some kind of spirit in it, and there are many rituals designed to keep balance between the spirits, humans, and nature. For example, each shop or house places a daily offering of flowers and rice in a small palm leaf basket on the curb or doorstep. This is to thank the spirits for peace, and also an expression of gratitude that they have enough that they can afford to make this offering.
You see them everywhere. And while they start off as colorful adornments, they wind up strewn across the sidewalk or the side of the road. I suspect the wandering dogs also serve as a clean-up crew.
So while I think Seminyak was an easy transition into Indonesia, I am looking forward to Ubud which I think will feel very different, and am intrigued to see what this “coworking refuge” is all about…
I think it’s safe to say that after 8 months on the move, we were both feeling a bit travel fatigued… it is surprising how much time and effort it takes to get comfortable someplace! Even though we have been traveling slowly, by time we have figured out where to get good groceries and what Zumba classes are happening and what’s going on in a city, it’s been time to move on and start the process over again somewhere else.
We were really enjoying Melbourne, so we decided to forego New Zealand and stay put for almost 8 weeks. I had finally found a bunch of dance classes and developed an addiction to some local goat cheese, and The German discovered some tech-related meet-ups, and there was also the 5 weeks of free accommodation through petsitting gigs, so we weren’t feeling motivated to move on in a hurry.
I have often described Melbourne as being “the best bits of San Francisco and London”. It feels familiar in a lot of ways, which is probably what made it so comfortable for us:
It’s a very food-centric city with everything from high-end, molecular gastronomy restaurants to casual neighbourhood cafes, and every place is vegetarian-friendly. They even have food truck festivals, artisanal ice cream, and bakeries where you can stand in a long line!
Cruffins from Lune Croissanterie
Heirloom tomatoes with burrata
These freshly dipped ice cream bars at an Australian tradition
Enjoying a “nutella burger” at a food truck festival
Melbourne means business when it comes to gelato!
Just some of the cheese at Spring Street Grocer
Coconut-crusted brioche french toast with coffee caviar
Coffee is serious business, with hipster lattes being the default. We rarely saw a Starbucks.
I have been told this is not a joke…
It’s easy to get around without a car (trams being the most popular form of public transit):
And there is evidence of creativity everywhere – street art, talented street musicians, weird window displays, quirky festivals, etc.
A gelato truck at the Coburg Velodrome Food Truck Festival
Love the row houses here… especially the one in the middle.
This building appropriately contained a florist
There was a giant slip-n-slide set up downtown just after NYE.
It does have a few unwanted similarities… In SF, everyone says “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes”. In Melbourne, the saying is “all 4 seasons in one day”. So in other words, I still needed to bring a jacket even if it looked sunny.
All in all, Melbourne was safe, clean and friendly, with plenty going on. We liked it immensely. And as a bonus, I got to take care of some pretty fantastic critters:
Paddy, our pal over xmas
Hallee is likely suffering luggage withdrawal since we left
Another similarity to San Francisco is that wine country is very accessible. Yarra Valley is only about an hour’s drive from Melbourne and is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production. The German wasn’t in the mood for tourist activities, so I booked myself onto a small group tour through Vinetrekker, whom I highly recommend.
We went to 5 different wineries and tasted over 40 (!!) different wines… thankfully there was also plenty of food included along the way, including some fabulous cheese.
De Bortoli Winey, which also have great cheese
It was a friendly group of 11 people with a knowledgable but not over-bearing guide. It included Melbourne locals as well as tourists from Amsterdam, Manchester, and Brisbane. There was a doctor, a pilot, a chef, someone in finance, someone who worked for Telsa, and a restauranteur… it was a diverse and fun bunch!
We went to a few smaller, family-run wineries that had some really exceptional wines, as well as some of the larger producers (who obviously know what they are doing). Chandon is one of the biggest in the country – they have a huge vineyard where they produce plenty of sparkling wine in the style of champagne, as well as a sparkling Shiraz that is unique to Australia (and the only kind of Shiraz I like).
Unlike Napa, we never felt overwhelmed by crowds, even at the larger houses. Most places offered some lovely food options to accompany their tasting… at one winery I bought more cheese than I did wine.
I enjoyed getting to know everyone and getting out of the city to see more of Victoria:
Attica is one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. It’s a small place with barely a dozen tables that book up months in advance. We didn’t plan far enough ahead to secure a reservation, but we got really lucky with a last-minute cancellation. (I put us on the waiting list for every night we were in town – it was like winning the lottery when they called!)
All the dishes were Australian flavours with a molecular gastronomy twist. Ingredients were grown locally, much of it from their own farm. And yes, The German ate kangaroo. Most dishes included at least one item we had never heard of – things like wattleseed, bunya bunya, Santa Claus melon, and quandong.
Though we’ve been trying to be more budget-conscious lately, it was a unique experience with really wonderful staff… well-worth the splurge.
Aged Santa Claus Melon
Smashed Avo on Toast
An Imperfect History of Ripponlea (told with tarts)
Lance Wiffen’s Mussel
Baby Corn (served in husk), Beef (served on the bone)
Bunya bunya covering Salted Red Kangaroo
Crayfish, Quandong and Pearl
Whipped Emu Egg with Chocolate Cream
I’m not sure why it took me this long to arrange a couple FaceTime dates with some friends from SF… it was so fun to interact in real time! At one point the doorbell rang and while I went to answer it, I could hear my friends Beth & Sue laughing in the background… at that moment it really felt like they were in the living room. It was really nice to see folks, and we spent hours drinking wine and laughing until our devices ran out of battery.
We also met a few folks in real life, including Robert Padbury’s brother (and his brother’s wife) who gave us all sorts of tips on Melbourne and insider knowledge. We also got to see some hilarious childhood photos of Robert (which I cannot unsee), so that was a treat.
And we spent some time with a really interesting couple that The German met through a digital nomad community (called the Nomad List – it’s a really useful source of info for people who are on extended travel). Jodie & Ben are a talented duo with multiple businesses. They spend every other month at their home in the UK, and then stay somewhere else in the world for the alternate months.
They are an impressively productive couple who are also very serious about powerlifting… despite Jodie’s pixie-ish appearance, she could easily lift 2 large men. They’ve had some really unusual experiences and it was especially interesting to hear how they manage to make their part-time remote lifestyle work.
I will admit that I lost days reading the New York Times and panicking about what is happening in US politics, and I have succumbed to more than one futile Facebook debate. It feels like everything is out of control, and it’s hard to know how to help when I am so far away.
I was thrilled to discover there was version of the Women’s March in Melbourne. While it was modest in size compared to DC, LA and SF, there were still a lot of people and a lot of great signs.
Such a great t-shirt!
Very calm, despit the crowded space
I am also pretty concerned
I was impressed that they were distributing leaflets with suggestions of follow-up actions. It was divided into 3 sections: for Americans, for Victorians, and for Australians. I was also pleased that the police were passive observers, who mainly seemed to be occupied with ensuring no one got hit by a tram (as the location was next to a very busy stop).
The speakers that we saw were focused on the themes of inclusion (ie. pro-immigration/anti-racism), women’s rights, and the environment. Their point was that US politics affects everyone, especially when it comes to the environment. They were encouraging everyone to put pressure on their own government to not accept hateful speech or stay silent on policies that could have local ramifications.
I found it very comforting to be there. It was validating to see that all these people who are on the other side of the planet also think the situation is insane. It was nice to be part of a large gathering and not be fearful of the police or the others in the crowd. And it was especially great to hear people preaching positive sentiments – the language was intended to inspire and lift people up.
I have been struggling about how to be politically active while abroad. I am signing petitions, sending emails and trying to make phone calls via Skype (though it’s hard with the time change). I have also donated design support to some worthy causes . And as many of my friends saw on Facebook, I spent a few hours encouraging businesses to pay more attention to where their ads were appearing… I was very pleased with how quickly the businesses reacted and took positive action. It was an easy thing for me to do, and so satisfying to see that it had an immediate impact.
There is so much division in the US right now – I hope we can find a way past it.
This is the first country where people have constantly commented on my accent. In my mind, I have a “neutral” accent (despite growing up in the southern US), but “neutral” to me is “American” to everyone else. While I feel really comfortable here, I apparently sound very foreign.
Meanwhile, The German clearly looks really German because people make that assumption before he even opens his mouth. It’s funny how often people approach him speaking German right from the start. (It even happened on the beach in Zanzibar.)
I have to confess I am a little sad about leaving Melbourne… I have been loving all the dance classes (which I have been doing 7 days a week, sometimes multiple times per day) and am leaving just as I started to get to know the other students. I even graduated to having an official “front row spot” in one of the BodyJam classes, next to a fabulous gay boy who went from throwing shade to insisting I stand next to him. (My fellow dancers know that this is a serious honour.)
I’ve become addicted to a local goat cheese (marinated in olive oil and peppercorns – it’s seriously amazing), figured out my favourite local wines, and have been here long enough to have sampled all the artisanal gelato producers and determined my favourite. (It’s Pidapipo.)
In the last few days, I got one more good haircut, stocked up on beauty products from Aesop, and ate as much gelato as I could manage… ready or not, it’s time to head to Bali!
I was in Melbourne for almost 2 months, so this is a long one…
The main reasons why I post these Zumba recaps are:
to help other travellers find great classes.
to help other instructors become better. When a class is bad, most often the students think it’s their own fault… that they aren’t good at Zumba, or that they are terrible dancers. The main point of Zumba is for everyone to have fun, so no one should leave feeling frustrated, insecure or awkward. I’m not trying to publicly shame anyone – just offering some constructive critique which I hope will be helpful to others. It certainly has helped me be more aware of the areas where I need the most improvement.
And of course, I hope it’s fun for you all to share in the comedy of these adventures, especially when they take me out of my comfort zone.
Hunting for Classes
Because we had been moving around Vietnam & Thailand, it had been several weeks since I had been to a Zumba class. Even though I had done some practicing on my own, I know I don’t push myself as hard as when I am in a room full of people. Also, it’s really nice to have mirrors so I can check my form – in my mind I always look amazing but in reality there is room for improvement. 🙂
I encountered my usual struggle of trying to find out about classes (where do you look if not zumba.com?), not having a gym membership, plus many places were on hiatus due to Christmas & New Year’s. (It’s summer in Australia, so this is peak holiday time.) Another challenge was that we were staying in 3 very different parts of the city and reliant on public transit.
My lesson learned is that even if a dance studio or gym doesn’t advertise a “pay-as-you-go” option, it’s worth inquiring… At a minimum, you can usually get a free trial class out of it, but most of the time I have found there are unpublished options for short-term visitors.
Zumba, Latin, and Bubbles…
I was really pleased to discover Dance Dynamics. They have a few different studios throughout Melbourne (I was closest to their Malvern location) and offer a variety of dance and fitness classes. They had an unadvertised “casual membership” for people who are not residents. The catch is that classes are only 30 minutes long… this is probably great for people who are busy or too intimidated to try a full hour, but that’s far too short for me. I wound up doing several classes back to back (as did many other attendees).
I loved Tara’s Zumba classes. She was super-friendly, easy to follow, and had some very fun routines. (Some of them involved “spanking it”, and there was even some quick dabbing at one point.). She had 3 of the same songs that I do (Booty, Talk Dirty, and Shaki Riddim) with completely different choreo, so it was an extra challenge to try and follow along even though my muscles wanted to do something else entirely.
As a bonus, there was champagne after class to celebrate the holidays!
I also went to a class called “Dance & Tone”, which was basically a more fitnessy version of Zumba. The first time I went, the instructor was not that great – she used vocal cues (without a mic, over loud music) which were impossible to hear, so I found myself getting frustrated. However the second time was a different instructor and much better. As with most dance classes, the quality of the experience often depends on the instructor.
Carla was another favourite of mine. She taught two classes – “Latin” and “Street Latin”. The Latin class was basically like Zumba but with only Latin rhythms. Street Latin was more of a choreography class – we learned a very easy bachata sequence and she gave us a few notes about technique along the way. This made it feel more like a “dance”class, but it was still accessible to any skill level.
After she broke down the sequence, we danced it over and over to all kinds of bachata covers of pop tunes like Roxanne and Careless Whisper (which was extra dramatic given George Michael’s recent death – we all let out a mournful sigh when it came on). Carla was super-enthusiastic throughout all of her classes – I would happily take from her again given the chance.
Goodlife Health Clubs have a number of locations around Australia. There was a free 5 day trial option on their website, and I was pleased to learn they have a 4 week (unpublished) membership option. They have many different classes – from Zumba to Yoga to Boxing to Pilates Reformer. It sounded promising.
I went on Sat, Dec 24 to try out a Zumba class at the Glen Iris location. The normal instructor was away and the substitute was terrible. She started off by being late to class and literally half the people (wisely) left when they saw her walk up. (Apparantly she substituted a few days earlier so those folks knew what was coming.)
She spent some time fumbling around trying to get the CD player to work. (The stereo is clearly optimized for digital input.) She was wearing a mic, but even so it was impossible to hear her over the music (and I was standing very close to her). She rarely cued and her movements were tough to follow.
People were trickling out, one by one, stopping to complain at the front the desk. I tried to make the best of it, but after 45 minutes I was too frustrated by her muddy movements and inaudible mumbling so I also bailed. On my way out, I let them know I would be happy to substitute, as they clearly seemed desparate. The staff was super-apologetic and acknowledged I wasn’t the only one who was frustrated by the class.
I didn’t go back, mainly because we moved across the city at that point. The normal instructor is actually a Zumba Jammer with a huge following, so it was probably just bad luck on the holiday timing.
Zumba at Fitness First
Fitness First is another gym with multiple locations throughout Australia with tons of classes, including: Zumba, Les Milles programs, Yoga, Boxing, Pilates, etc. I got such an amazing deal on a one-month membership it seemed suspicious… I figured the manager must have had some end-of-year quota to hit.
The catch was that I had to buy the membership that day – having never set foot in the gym. This was a little worrisome given my last experience, but they had so many dance fitness classes on the schedule, I decided to go for it.
On my first day, I first spent 15 minutes trying to find the door to the gym, which was in a massive mall. I could see it was on the top floor, but no matter which escalator, staircase, or elevator I tried, none of them went high enough. I felt ridiculous, but I eventually had to call them and get directions to the right bank of elevators. (So embarassing – I was basically lost in the mall.)
My first class was a 45 minute Friday lunchtime Zumba session with Nelly. Typically, short daytime classes are low impact (ie. tailored for an older audience) and aren’t enough for me… but that was absolutely not the case with this one! Nelly was high energy, high impact, and left us all happy and sweaty. She was very easy to follow, friendly and up-beat.
I really appreciated that Nelly gave me some really thoughtful feedback on one of my songs about how to breakdown a movement so students would be able to pick it up easily. It was a small adjustment that made a huge difference. I have often wished there was a forum for soliciting feedback from other instructors for the sake of improvement – I really need to be better about requesting it when I do a song in someone else’s class. (When I was bellydancing, I thought of organizing an event where dancers could perform for each other and then get constructive critique from other dancers – perhaps an idea for a Zumba workshop when I’m back in SF.)
Julia was another instructor with fantastic energy and flawless cueing. One of her routines included a move I named “angry muppet” and she also used Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” which I loved.
Carmen was over-flowing with enthusiasm – you could really feel her love for teaching Zumba. She is so full of joy it was impossible not to have fun and work yourself into a sweat. She was especially good at creating a “party” atmosphere, and also briefing new students on what to expect (which removes any pressure on them to feel like experts after only one class).
Towards the end of my stay, Carmen pulled together a special class which included me, Nelly and Carol & Leora from Sydney. Because it was at the gym, we had to use official Zumba songs (due to licensing rules), which meant I had to pull out some pretty old routines. It was a ton of fun to have so many different instructors in one place and I was impressed at how many students stayed through the whole class, which went for almost 2 hours!
Carol & Leora always teach together, and they are a super-fun pair! They have incredible energy and play off of each other so well… you can tell they are great friends as well as great dance partners (and it made me miss my girls even more!) If you are ever in Sydney, definitely check them out!
In 4 weeks, I only had one bad Zumba class at the gym, which was bizarre in a unique way… First, the instructor stopped before every song to explain something, or tell us how great we were, or to pass out props (ugh). It’s impossible to keep your heart rate up if there are long gaps between each routine…. I really don’t need to high-five my neighbour constantly, or be told to pretend I’m a butterfly emerging from a coccoon, or have very basic chorography explained.
Her songs were all very slow (most of them were designed to be Cool Down numbers) which could be fine if the intention was a lower-impact class, but the choreography was also far too repetitive. While you don’t want movements changing too often, having only 2 moves throughout an entire song gets boring quickly.
Several students had never done a Zumba class before and left feeling like it was weird and they didn’t get a good workout. I encouraged them to try again with Nelly or Carmen.
So the gym wasn’t perfect, but overall really great and I definitely got my money’s worth on classes!
One of the other classes offered at Fitness First was LesMilles BodyJam, which the gym described as “the cardio workout where you are free to enjoy the sensation of dance“. (What?)
Instructions came via a mic (which isn’t my preference, but at least the levels were adjusted properly so I could hear them) as well as some non-verbal cues. The class was spent learning long combinations of moves which worked with a number of different electronic songs. We started with one or two combinations at a time, and then gradually added on until there was a long sequence that I (almost) remembered. They repeated the same choreo for about 3-4 weeks, so it’s not surprising that the first couple classes were challenging.
Learning and dancing one combo lasted for about 20 minutes, accompanied by one long megamix of mostly techno with some trance and hip hop mixed in. There was always one or two warm-up songs, and then one “recovery song” between the two halves of class. The cool down was almost non-existant and there was no stretching. There was definitely a lot more potential to hurt yourself (especially your knees and back), so you had to be disciplined about taking care of your own body.
I was surprised to see that the class was consistently about one-third men! I’m not sure why it has a stronger appeal to them over Zumba… Perhaps it was the electronic playlist? Or that the movements weren’t as girlie as Zumba? Or that the class repeats for several weeks (so you have time to master the combinations)?
David MC was my favourite instructor – instead of using the names of the movements, he would describe what was happening, like “now you’re going to use your arms to clear people off the dance floor, and then you’re going to dance in that space”. Visuals like that make it so much easier to remember the moves. And it was also hilarious to have someone yelling things like “spank it like you mean it!”. He was incredibly sassy and I loved him.
There were usually other classes like “Body Attack” that followed, with the next group peering through the glass doors (impatiently) waiting for us to get out. One day class ended with what I can only describe as a “big gay dance party” – everyone was free-style dancing with each other to Diana Ross. I can only image that the hardcore circuit trainers were outside rolling their eyes as we were all prancing around the studio for the last few minutes of class.
It was fun and I grew to love this class, sometimes doing Zumba in the morning and then Body Jam in the evening.
Jammin with Tam!
I was super-excited for a Jam Session with Tamara Pitts during my stay. The goal of these sessions is for instructors to learn 5 new routines well enough that you can start leading them in classes right away. It’s basically 3 hours of non-stop Zumba: dancing the rountines, breaking down the steps, going over cueing, and then dancing them some more. It is as exhausting as it sounds.
Tamara was a ton of fun! The routines we learned were great, but I think the highlight was actually her warm-up… it was a rock mashup of songs like “I Love Rock n Roll“, “Rock You Like A Hurricane” and even “Enter Sandman“.
Typically, these sessions are 30-35 people but in this case, less than 20 attended. I’m not sure if it was the holiday timing or because it was literally 100 degrees outside, but this meant everyone had a great vantage point in the huge studio and plenty of room to move. It was a luxury to have a small class with such a fantastic instructor.
In these sessions, instructors take turns leading each other as practice. At one point, there were more people teaching than there were followers – ha!
Tamara really pushed us to keep our energy up for the entire 3 hours. (There was only a 10 minute break.) I was definitely ready to spend the evening on the couch with a big glass of wine when it was all over!
You Get What You Pay For
MeetUp.com advertised a free Zumba class that was very near one of our petsitting gigs. The organizer seemed to be really active in fitness so I thought maybe he had city sponsorship or something. The event was billed as a class followed by social time, so I thought it might be a good way to meet some people.
Unfortunately, the class was really, really terrible in almost every way. It was in a small, carpeted room with no mirrors and poor ventillation. The instructor was far too green. We chatted briefly before class and when she learned I was an instructor, she starting offering up excuses – that she was used to using a mic, and having mirrors, etc. (Neither of these should be necessary for a great class.)
She spent the next 45 minutes shouting unintelligble things at a wall while we watched her back and tried to figure out what was going on. The routines were far too complex and inconsistent, there was no cueing, and I have no idea why she wouldn’t face the room (even if this meant starting on the wrong foot). She often fell off the beat – even clapping in time to the music was challenging. The fastest songs she did were the 3 she described as “cool down”.
She was not ready to be teaching a class on her own – she should either be doing a song or two in someone else’s class, or holding practice classes with friends until she’s more comfortable.
When that was done, they invited everyone to stick around, socialize, and buy Herbalife shakes from them.
Keeley’s Zumba Class
I made contact with Keeley over email, who offered to have me teach a few songs so I could get into the gym for free. It was a weekday morning class at Collingwood Leisure Center. They do offer the ability to buy one-off classes, but they are not cheap ($17 AUD per class) so I appreciated the hook-up!
It was mostly a (much) older crowd, which isn’t surprising given the timing. There were a couple younger women, and I could tell from eavesdropping that they would appreciate some higher impact songs.
Keeley has great form. Her songs had more complex choreography, which I think was a struggle for some but I really liked them. The routines were lower impact, which made sense given the audience. I enjoyed getting on stage for a couple songs and giving them a taste of some higher energy numbers.
The group was really friendly and clearly a lot of regulars. Many of them go out for coffee all the time and invited everyone to join them. It was nice to see such a close-knit group, which reminded me of my own class (except we always opted for tacos & margaritas instead of coffee – ha!).
Kpop, Waacking, and Other Dances I Can’t Do
Passion Dance Studio offers various street-style dance classes 6 days a week. They have 2 small studios with great floors and huge mirrors, plus they don’t do advance registration so you can just show up! The class styles are pretty specific: KPop, Waacking, Popping, Locking, and Krumpography (along with some general Hip Hop). Most classes are for beginners, so I thought I would try some out.
My first class was Kpop. (Kpop classes usually teach you the choreography from a Korean Pop Music video.) It was marked as “Beginniner/Intermediate”ont he schedule, but I knew I was in trouble when I watched the Beginner Hip Hop class that was wrapping up ahead of us. As it turned out, I probably needed something more along the lines of “Remedial/Pre-Pre-Beginner”.
The teacher demonstrated the choreography once, talked through 4 phrases of movement without counts, and then had us run it at full tempo just once before moving on. I managed to catch about 6 of the first 32 moves, but they didn’t look pretty. It continued like this for most of the class.
He gave us a few notes on nuances of movement, while a third of the class (including me) was struggling to just remember what we were supposed to be doing. Clearly, I needed something that covered the basics before I jumped into memorizing a music video’s worth of chorography in 1 hour!
The waacking class, however, was so much fun! (Waacking is a form of dancing with really expressive, fast arm movements – it’s reminicient of vogueing. Some of you might recognize this clip from Princess Lockaroo’s audition for So You Think You Can Dance.)
The instructor, Marnie, took us through strengthening drills and a technique breakdown for the first half of class. The movements are all very fast and mostly near your face. (I won’t lie – I did smack myself a number of times but managed to avoid giving myself a black eye.)
After we were done with self-flagellation, we either learned short combos or practiced the basics while walking across the floor. Waacking is as much about attitude as it is technique, so each time she challenged us to bring more – I did my best to channel my inner gay man and werk it!
Class ended with an (optional) dance circle – people could take turns moving into the middle to freestyle. Marnie would start and end it for us, and it was fabulous to watch her dance! Almost everyone else was too intimidated but I forced myself to give it a shot at the last class before leaving Melbourne. (There’s no need to be embarassed when you’re about to flee the country, right?) Suffice to say I am not in danger of being recruited by a Waacking crew, but it felt good to challenge myself. I would love to learn more!
Despite the how many great dancers were taking classes there, I found everyone to be friendly and supportive. And the studio’s website and Facebook page is always up to date with the latest info (a rarity!), so all in all, two thumbs up!