A Few Days in KL

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. 

(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:

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:

Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Center

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.)


Atmos D-Box

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.

Dbox
They used only 3 rows for the D-Box seats – the rest are normal.
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!

Bali – Phase 3 – A Little Lux

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.

Vicecory Welcome
This photo isn’t really doing it justice…

Each “room” was actually it’s own villa:

Viceroy Doors
Even the door was elaborate

We had a massive bedroom, outdoor bathtub and shower, and a private plunge pool:

Viceroy Room
I didn’t know beds came that large…

Each villa was positioned overlooking the hillside, so it felt like you had the entire resort to yourself.

Viceroy Room Exterior
We used the plunge pool daily, just because we could.

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:

Viceroy Cake

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!


Tourist Time

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:

Balinese Dance

toured a temple:

Trita Empul Temple

watched artisans create ornate silver jewelry:

Silver Jewelry

had lunch by a volcano:

Lunch With A View

flew Randy’s drone near a waterfall:

The Waterfall

drank several coconuts:

Coconuts

went to a gorgeous spa:

The Spa at the Viceroy

spent several hours by the various pools:

The Viceroy Pool

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).

Monkey Forest Statue

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:

Rick's New Friend
This little fellow was disappointed that Rick had neither bananas nor mites in his hair.
Monkey Dress
In hindsight, wearing a dress with a flower print was a terrible decision.

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:


Room Tour

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!

(Not pictured is the final stop in Rick & Randy’s room, but you can imagine we were a bit sloppy by then..) 


And now…

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!

Bali – Phase 2 -Coworking Refuge

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:

The kitchen, laundry, pool, yoga deck, cafe and working space are communal:

And there is also a communal pet, Lulu:

Princess Lulu
I promise she’s alive – it’s just very hot during the day.

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:

Zumba at Roam
Not a bad spot for a class

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.


Ubud

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!)

Campuhan Ridge

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.

Butterfly
One of the nicer insects we encountered.

It seemed like there were even more temples and shrines here – it made walking to the grocery store more like a sightseeing trip.

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…


Vegetarian Heaven

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!


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.

Working at Roam
The German, hard at “work”. (Thanks to fellow Roamie, Scott, for this pic.)

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.

Putri Spa
My massage and body scrub at Putri Day Spa ended in a flower bath – so decadent!

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…

… 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.)


Rituals

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:

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:

Cremation 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):

Trita Empul

Even today, women who are menstruating are forbidden from taking part in any of the rituals, bathing or otherwise.

No Bathing

Thankfully, they relied on the honour system to enforce this, not any kind of inspection.


Next

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…

Bali – Phase I – Playing Tourists

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 1: playing tourists in Seminyak
  • Phase 2: staying at a “coliving & coworking” refuge in Ubud
  • 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 Amala
Plunge pool with jacuzzi jets, outdoor bathtub, shower with steam sauna, sink with many oils and salts and herbs for the bath and shower.  Not pictured: 2 sun loungers, a mini fridge with complimentary cookies and cold drinks.

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.

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!)


Seminyak

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.

Seminyak Beach
Brown water, dark sand, and quite a bit of trash

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.

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.

img_1110
You do have to be careful where you step

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…

Last Bits of Melbourne

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!

Coffee is serious business, with hipster lattes being the default. We rarely saw a Starbucks.

It’s easy to get around without a car (trams being the most popular form of public transit):

Trams
The trams are mostly very modern and quiet…

And there is evidence of creativity everywhere – street art, talented street musicians, weird window displays, quirky festivals, etc.

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:


Yarra Valley

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.

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:

Our group
Not the most flattering photo of me, but at least everyone is visible…

Attica

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.


FaceTime!

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.

FaceTime
Note to self: put on makeup next time

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.


Politics

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.

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.


My Accent

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.)


Moving On

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!

Zumba in Melbourne

I was in Melbourne for almost 2 months, so this is a long one…

The main reasons why I post these Zumba recaps are:

  1. to help other travellers find great classes.
  2. 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!

Post-Zumba Bubbles
For some weird reason, only a handful of us stayed for the bubbles…

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.


Gym Fail

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!

img_0872
Obligatory sweaty photo of Carmen, me, Nelly, Leora & Carol

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!

Fitness First
This photo doesn’t do them justice… best to see them in action!

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!


BodyJam

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!

Melbourne Jam
There were about 7 people leading and 5 following at this point…

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!

Tam's Jam
Tam’s in pink in the middle, lookin fierce!

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!

More on Melbourne

Pet-sitting has been giving us an idea of what “real life” is like in Melbourne… much more so than the sparsely furnished AirBnBs which are obviously only intended as short-term rentals.

Our first gig was in a southern suburb, taking care of a sweet Australian Heeler named Paddy:

Paddy
This dog was always this happy
Though it was only a 25 minute train ride south of central Melbourne, it felt much further away. It was a quiet but lovely area full of parks with running & cycling trails, off-leash areas for dogs, public golf courses and tennis clubs.  It was definitely dog-friendly – plenty of cafes with outdoor seating, shops with bowls of water on the sidewalk, and the parks all had doggie drinking fountains and free compostable poop bags. While it wasn’t the most exciting part of town to be in, it was a really nice spot for long walks through all the gardens and parks.

Melbourne is very bicycle-friendly. In the parks, there were often separate trails for bikers and pedestrians.  And in the city, the bike lane is very safe since the parked cars are on the inside… cyclists don’t need to worry about dodging cars that are entering & exiting parking spots.

Melbourne Bike Lanes
Trams are in the center, then cars on either side, then the parked cars, with the green bike lane closest to the curb.
With few exceptions, people have been incredibly friendly.  Cyclists thank you for giving them room to pass on shared paths,  cafe workers are generally cheery and attentive (and tipping is not customary here), grocery store clerks go out of their way to help you find things, and strangers help anyone with a pram or heavy bag on and off the tram.

Eco-consciousness is the standard.  Every place recycles and composts, from private homes to public trash cans. It’s strongly encouraged by the city, as you can tell from the adorable decor on some of the cans:

We saw boxes for donating clothing, household goods and eletcronics all over the place – there is clearly a very concerted effort to minimize landfill. That said, both of the homes we stayed in were on the cluttered side… this could be a side effect from all the encouragement to re-use things.

People are very sensistive to power consumption – while most places have clothes driers, everyone typically hangs their laundry outside to dry (when it’s sunny). And all wall outlets have switches so you can avoid unnecessary power drain by turning them off. Our first petsitting house had a huge tank for collecting rain water, which they used to water their massive garden.

It really seems like eco-consciousness is a way of life here. There’s no need for a plastic bag surcharge at stores because everyone is already sesnsible about their consumption. I’m not sure how this has been achieved, but it’s admirable.


Brunch (and other treats)

Brunch is serious business in Melbourne. It’s available every day of the week, and there are countless great spots for coffee and “brekkie”. We’ve been in many places where brunch isn’t a recognized meal, so I have been reveling in the abundance of smashed avocado on toast with poached eggs, breakfast pastries, and excellent lattes.

 

And while I’m on the subject of food, gelato is also exceedingly popular here. Pidapipo has excellent flavours which change daily, plus they will add hot nutella to your cup or cone (obviously a brilliant idea). And salted caramel is an expertise here – SF ice cream makers would be blown away by the rich flavour that Gelato Messina achieved. I also loved their  fantastic flavour combinations: Burnt Caramel & Ginger, Salted Caramel with White Chocolate, etc.

Luckily I’ve found some Zumba classes so I can offset all the gelato.


New Year’s Eve

Like any city, there were a million different options available for New Year’s Eve.  I’m typically more interested in doing something quieter with friends for this holiday but since we don’t know anyone in Melbourne, we decided to go out. I saw posters for a party put on by the local “House of Burlesque”. They encouraged everyone to dress in 20’s attire for the 3 course dinner and vaudeville-style show.

I purchased a sparkly dress in Bangkok in anticipation – I knew I would be sad if everyone else was glittery on NYE and I just had my same 6 dresses to choose from.  As we made our way across town that evening, I was surprised to see that people on the train were in shorts and t-shirts… I may have found the one place in the world where women don’t dress up in shiny things for New Year’s Eve!

I was happy to see that others at the event made more of an effort – there was still a fair share of casually dressed folks, but also some fringey flappers, feathered fascinators and strands of pearls, and a couple men in top hats or suspenders.  SF could definitely teach people here a thing or two about theme parties, though.

We were seated at large communal tables and the people next to us were a lot of fun. When they were looking for male volunteers on stage, our gregarious table-mate named Luke tried his best to get The German up there. This backfired entirely and he found himself obligated to compete in a tassle twirling contest:

House of Burleque Tassel Twirling
Luke is the larger guy on the right – they were all good sports about it.
Overall, the show was pretty amateur – I think we are spoiled from the caliber of performance that happens regularly in SF.  On the awkward side, there was a girl pointlessly posing in a giant bubble, some butterfly dance where it seemed a bit like she was wrestling with her wings, and the backup dancers in the Fosse numbers looked lost at best (and occassionally terrified).  Only one girl actually took any kind of clothing off, where she briefly revealed pasties and then quickly put her top back on…  “burlesque” must have a different meaning down here.

House of Burlesque - Bubble
She looked pretty – it was just a little weird.
On the plus side, there was an impressive rendition of Sweet Child O Mine played on a saw, a hilarious performance with a singing skeleton puppet, and the recreation of the Fosse numbers had great costumes and a couple good dancers.

We missed the fireworks because the show was running behind, but it was still a good way to spend NYE – fun people, plenty of bubbles, and I left a trail of glitter in my wake.

NYE
Happy 2017!

What’s Next?

We will be cat-sitting in Melbourne until Jan 20th.  It’s a cute little row house in a nice neighbourhood, walking distance to cafes, shops and bars. It’s pretty comfortable and I’ve been enjoying our feline housemates:

 

Beyond that, we have a few weeks that are still unplanned. In February, we are headed to Bali where we will spend some time at a “coworking and coliving space” before meeting up for some fun with our SF pals, Rick & Randy. Then its a brief orangutan expedition in Borneo before making our way to Japan. There’s still a lot of flexibility, though, so if you’re headed to Asia or the South Pacific, let me know!