Though we were originally dazzled by the fact that AirBnB #2 had actual furniture, we did ultimately have to admit that it lacked any charm… the furniture was pretty uncomfortable and the decor mostly consisted of “House Rules” signs. That said, it was unquestionably an improvement over the last place, especially because the wifi was obscenely fast.
Speaking Japanese (I Really Think So…)
Having failed at finding an in-person option for Japanese tutoring, I decided to try some Skype lessons via the website iTalki (which was recommended by someone I met at Roam Tokyo). You can choose between experienced conversation partners or professionally certified teachers for almost any language.
I first had some sessions with a conversation partner – a Japanese woman who teaches English professionally. She did a great job keeping the conversation flowing while correcting my grammar, and was also happy to role-play any day-to-day scenarios where I felt less confident (like making restaurant reservations over the phone). And as a bonus, she sent me a recommendation for a vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo.
I also had some sessions with a professional teacher. She paid close attention to my intonation (which is very important in Japanese) and had a number of exercises designed to help improve my speaking speed. Though both types of sessions were valuable, I could certainly tell the different between the two.
I took advantage of the great wifi and scheduled quite a few sessions. Just being forced to use Japanese daily has been great, but having this outlet for reviewing the situations I encountered and correcting my grammar has really helped.
Thanks to improved confidence with my Japanese, I was able to purchase prescription sunglasses from a local shop, enjoy a cat cafe where no one spoke English, ask strangers to help me identify onigiri that didn’t contain fish (because reading is still a challenge), and even successfully made restaurant reservations over the phone!
I hope I will keep these up after I leave Japan, too – I spent far too much time studying it in college to let it all fade away.
Seeing Old Friends
Our string of rendezvous continued with my college pal Erik. I hadn’t seen him since before his son was born:
It was like no time had passed! He & Stephanie looked just the same as when they left San Francisco 15 years ago. It was fun catching up with them and meeting their British friends over countless sushi rolls and glasses of sake.
Our next date was with our former colleague from Apple UK, James, and his girlfriend Lauren. We caught up with them over an elaborate tempura dinner:
It was fun to talk tech, catch up on mutual friends, and exchange travel tips. (And the tempura was exceptional.)
It’s easy to feel isolated in Japan… As the movie Lost in Translation highlighted, the cultural differences make it very difficult to meet locals. And until my rib is fully healed, I can’t go to Zumba, which was another way I connected with people during our travels. This means we especially valued having these encounters with various friends throughout our time in Kyoto.
Once the last of the sakura petals had fallen, I was able to focus on some other local highlights like Nishiki Market (full of local delicacies), Nijo Castle, green tea parfaits, and cat cafes.
The German & his very manly ice cream
Those aliens are supposedly edible
If you look closely, there’s an egret on the egde of the pond
Falling Petals (aka Sakura “Snow”)
The entrance to Nijo Castle
Part of the Nijo Castle grounds
This poor fellow had a skin condition, so they made his wear this humiliating outfit
He fell asleep and was audibly snoring as I pet him
This is Momo – I am obsessed
Someone is sleeping with the boss…
Green Tea Parfait – various chewy rice blobs, green tea & vanilla ice cream, and grean tea whipped cream
We are spending the next 2 weeks in Japan with our very good friends, Beth & Todd. Since I haven’t seen them for 8 months, I would be excited to see them anywhere but it will be especially fun to explore Kyoto & Tokyo together. I’ve been saving all the major sights and activities for their arrival, so I anticipate every day will be jam-packed with adventure!
We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. The whole experience was delightfully civilized – the train was perfectly punctual, very clean, and had spacious seats with a window at every row. Tokyo Station had an impressive array of food packaged especially for travel so we enjoyed a nice lunch during our 3 hour journey.
Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. The weather was cold, grey and rainy, and our AirBnB was comically problematic. Because it was peak cherry blossom week, we should have booked a place 6 months in advance (or more). There was very limited availability event a couple months out, so we took a gamble on a listing with no reviews and only one photo because it was reasonably priced. (Any hotels with rooms open were close to $1000/night because everyone wants to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Kyoto.)
Though nicely styled on the surface, the AirBnB turned out to be very poorly designed in function. It was one small room plus a tiny bathroom with the trains running outside the front door. Our host suggested we buy earplugs (gee, thanks), but having lived on Market St in SF, the train noise wasn’t the biggest issue.
It was clear that the host never lived there – the only furniture were the Japanese futons for sleeping and a coffee table. There weren’t any garbage bags, or cooking implements, and there was only 1 plate. In order to use the induction burner, we had to unplug the refrigerator (there was only one plug in the vicinity). The shower & sink were in one small corner together, making it awkward to use either of them.
Worst of all, the host lied about the amenities and there was neither a washer nor wifi. While we could certainly go a week without washing clothes, the lack of wifi was extremely inconvenient and we burned through all of our data on our local SIMs in 5 days. This issue highlighted all the shortcomings of AirBnB – we paid for things that weren’t provided yet it was impossible to communicate with a real person from the company. (While I could handle basic communication with our host, the complexities of explaining that we felt scammed were beyond my vocabulary).
As a result, we spent far more time in Starbucks that I care to admit. Though I am not a huge fan of their coffee, I was incredibly grateful for their decent wifi. (Hotspots are pretty rare in Japan, unfortunately.)
Noodles with Friends
Our disappointing AirBnB didn’t prevent us from having some fun, though. Getting noodles with friends started to emerge as a welcome theme. Blake & Santiago, pals from SF, were visiting Kyoto with Blake’s parents. We all took a break from our various cherry blossom strolls to meet for soba at a restaurant that has been making it for hundreds of years. As you’d expect, the noodles were fantastic and it was fun to see them. The German especially enjoyed exchanging sympathetic tales of banged knees and near misses on concussions… the struggles of being tall men in Japan. (Blake & Santiago make The German look short).
We spent another day with them, powering through several top sights including a temple with some beautiful gardens, the bamboo forest, and a monkey park. We really enjoyed seeing them and exploring Kyoto together.
“Everyone, point at the best bamboo!”
Blake’s Dad had no idea he was being followed…
We were very lucky in that we managed to hit Kyoto just in time for the peak blooms. Like Tokyo, everyone was out to admire the flowers and take millions of photos. However Kyoto-ites upped their game and often had professional photographers in tow. We saw a number of shops where you could rent a kimono, get your hair & makeup done professionally and hire a photographer for the day.
People in Japane are always so polite.Without being asked, people would queue up to take photos from certain vantage points, or patiently wait to cross a bridge or take a narrow path while others were taking photos.
I spent the first few days going to all the major cherry blossoms spots and taking far too many photos… here is just a small sampling:
All the fallen petals collected at the end of the canal…
Japan is known for being safe, clean and orderly and I am pleased that none of that has changed. I would much rather queue for the subway than push my way on.
There are far fewer smokers than I remember. Even the sidewalks have designated smoking areas!
Though finding vegetarian food in restaurants has always been a challenge in Japan, I had forgotten how great and reasonably priced prepared food is. Every place from 7-11 to supermarkets to fancy department stores had a huge selection of freshly made food – it was a great way to sample a lot of different dishes and though I occassionally had to ask a clerk to read the kanji to me, it was otherwise easy to find vegetarian options.
Having failed at finding in-person Japanese classes (the shortest ones required a one-month committment), I scheduled some Skype lessons with native speakers. While I can (mostly) understand what people are saying, my speaking is still coming very slowly (and likely inaccurately) so I hope some tutoring can help me rapidly improve.
We have a week and a half before our pals Beth & Todd arrive from SF, at which point we will go into hard-core tourist mode. In the meantime, we gleefully changed to a new AirBnB. While it was objectively kind of drab and lacking in charm, it had incredibly fast wifi and actual furniture so it felt like a major upgrade. We are both much happier.
I wanted to stay in Bali until all of my stitches were removed, so we abandoned plans for Hong Kong (and possibly Taiwan) in order to minimize how many non-refundable flights and hotels we had to cancel or change (plus I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms). We wound up taking a red eye from Bali to Tokyo as it was the only non-stop option. (We were also trying to minimize how much hobbling through the airport I needed to do.)
Unfortunately, the flight was full so we landed at 8:30am, fairly discombobulated from lack of sleep. Tokyo felt delightfully dry compared to Bali’s intense humidity, but going from 85° to 45° was far less pleasant. It was immediately obvious that we didn’t have the right clothing for this weather.
The German was trying to handle most of the luggage on his own, given my broken rib and still unsteady right leg. It basically took us 3 hours to get from Narita Airport to Roam Tokyo (involving trains, lots of walking, and eventually a taxi). However, I was pleased that my rusty Japanese was sufficient to navigate us there, plus purchase the advance tickets we needed for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
We decided to spend a week at the Tokyo branch of the coliving place we loved so much in Bali. Having fellow travelers and a friendly staff seemed like a great way to ease into our Japan experience.
The Tokyo location has only been open a couple months. It did feel like the staff were still figuring things out, though they were incredibly friendly and helpful if we asked for anything. The rooms were huge (by Tokyo standards) but pretty sparse – pretty much just a bed and a bonsai, but it had a very zen feeling to it.
We didn’t get as strong of a sense of community as we did in Bali – it may have just been our timing, or perhaps Tokyo is so exciting that people spend more time exploring the city than hanging out on the property. Still, we really enjoyed the folks we did meet, the kitchen was fantastic, the location was great, and the wifi was blazingly fast.
The room is mainly just a bed and a bonsai tree
The communcal kitchen
We were lucky to score a room with 2 windows
Some of the seating off the kitchen
Though we were exhausted from the red eye flight, we didn’t want to miss a chance to see our friend Celine (whom we last saw in Lapland). She was in town for a gaming conference and was also exhausted (from an intense week of meetings and conference after-parties) so we thought we would have a low key dinner and then call it a night.
Having no reservations on Friday night in Tokyo, we wound up at a pizza spot that served only two types of perfectly crafted pizzas. The whole place was barely larger than their wood oven. As anticipated, they really had made pizza an art form, and we all agreed this was some of the best pizza we have ever had.
Halfway through dinner Celine got an invitation to join some folks for a drink. One thing lead to another and we ultimately wound up at a night club where our host ordered a jerobaum of champagne:
So there we were at the club, me with my broken rib and fleece shirt, surrounded by stylish Tokyo-ites dancing to hiphop. It was a hilarious yet fantastic way to kick off our time in Japan!
We were fortunate to arrive in Tokyo just as it was hitting peak cherry blossom season. Despite the chilly temperatures and regular rain, the locals didn’t hesitate to spread out tarps in the parks to picnic beneath the blooming trees.
People would often queue at certain spots, just to get the optimal perspective for a photo.
And on weekends, it was common to see kimono-clad ladies strolling together, pointing out especially beautiful branches of blooms. As The German noted, it somehow felt similar to Christmas.
At night, certain spots would be overflowing with people strolling past the trees, sipping pink sparkling wine and taking tons of photos.
While the trees were undeniably beautiful, the people-watching was just as much fun.
Fun with Friends
We were excited that we had a steady string of friends who would be in Japan at the same time as us. In addition to seeing our Finnish friend Celine, we also met up with my pal Dan from SF.
Here we are enjoying modestly sized bowls of udon:
We also spent several hours wandering around Tokyo, which included a stop at Uniqlo where we purchased their signature down jackets:
Due to a the bizarre rules and some communication confusion at a popular cake spot, we wound up eating strawberry cakes while the Incredible Hulk loomed in the background:
It’s always nice to see friends while we are traveling, and especially fun to have wacky adventures in Japan with them!
Though I am feeling better every day, I am still moving at a pace that is considerably slower than normal and my knee doesn’t have the stamina for long periods of walking. At times, it’s frustrating – I’d love to be out and about exploring Tokyo all day, but I know my body is still healing. On the plus side, I see improvement every day: moving from sitting to standing no longer involves an awkward baby-giraffe-like dance, my left knee is looking almost normal, and I no longer need to take the pain killers to get a decent night’s sleep.
(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: