Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bali: The Differences We Noticed

I said I was going to try to stay away from lists, but I just love lists. My journal is full of them. Here is one list we made while in Bali:

Differences between Bali and Japan
  • Surprisingly, you take off your shoes MORE in Bali than in Japan. You take them off before entering an internet cafe, most shops and the porch at your homestay. There are no cute shoe cubbies though, you don't have to line them up perfectly and there are no indoor slippers to use. You just flick off your flip flops and assume no one's going to take them.
  • In Bali, PDA is A-OK. You don't really see couples canoodling too much in Japan, at least around our parts. It's nothing like in Latin America where you almost felt uncomfortable in the plazas some nights. They keep it in the love hotel here, I guess. One night in Ubud as we were leaving a Balinese dance performance we saw a Japanese couple in front of us holding hands and thought--they don't do that back home, I'll bet.
  • Indonesian food was more flavorful than Japanese food. Japanese food is delicious but pretty subtle, especially for a western palate. With the exception of wasabi, there's not a lot of spice. In Bali they keep hot sauce on the table so you can spice your dish up. Regardless, the food was very flavorful--whether it was salty, spicy or sweet, they were going for it. Japan holds back a bit. Or maybe they're just more focused on umami.
  • Japan is a lot cleaner than Bali (or darn near everywhere in the world). They are trying their best down there but, as with most developing countries, they're just living closer to the land and it's tough to keep the bugs at bay when you haven't paved over everything. We're used to disgusting bathrooms and all from our travels, but I was surprised to find the Denpasar airport bathroom literally crawling with cockroaches. I was pretty paranoid that they'd crawl into my bag and I'd inadvertently bring them back with me. We also saw a huge rat at the airport while we spent our last rupiahs on some beers. Luckily, while all of this was going on we were chatting up 2 very nice couples from New Zealand.
  • Balinese people speak more English and are more outgoing. The reason for this is pretty clear--tourism is the main business on the island and it behooves people to learn English. That said, when we'd mention to a Balinese person that we lived in Japan we'd soon find out that they knew about as much Japanese as we did in addition to their stellar English. Even if Japanese people know English, they're pretty shy about using it. They hate making mistakes. We were reminded by how little attention we are paid by Japanese people when we were lavished with it by the Balinese. They all wanted to know where we were from, for one thing. (Pretty sure the wrong answer is Dutch since they colonized Bali.) I can only remember being asked that a few times here and at least 2 of those times the person asking was drunk. (Alcohol is a very important social lubricant in Japan).
Obviously, there are myriad more differences. As they say, Japan is like another planet and Bali is a very unique Hindu island in a Muslim nation. Those are just a few that stuck out to us.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bali: The Books We Read

There was a lot of beach time on this trip and we were pretty excited to have access to relatively cheap used English books after having to order them online here in Japan. We took full advantage. John eats books, especially when he had Bali belly and was laid up.

I guess we're supposed to be of the Kindle generation, but I love the synchronicity of finding a gem of a book in the middle of all the Dan Brown/Danielle Steele clogging up those book stands. Like when I found Elizabeth Gilbert's novel Stern Men in Kuta or when we found a book recommended to us by my uncle or....well, here's the list.
  1. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson--The Swedish title is actually Men Who Hate Women. Everyone and their mother is reading this book right now so we gave in and jumped on board. We were constantly tempted to buy the 2nd book but we heard that it doesn't end, just rolls right into the 3rd one and it seemed too much of a commitment to buy the next two. Now we're watching the Swedish movie.
  2. What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell--impulse buy, Tokyo airport. Interesting essays.
  3. Marching Powder by Rusty Young. I've been wanting to read this book for years but couldn't find it at my local library. Biography of a British drug smuggler in San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. We laughed, we cried, we liked it.
  5. Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. Really good novel.
  6. Journeys through Shadows by Dewa Anggraeni. Takes place in Bali and Australia.
  7. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Premise is what if Japan and Germany had won WW2?
  8. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. This is a must read for everyone who eats.
  9. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi. Funny/poignant graphic novel by the author of Persepolis.
  10. What is the What by Dave Eggers. Novel/autobiography about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan
  11. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. John loved it. Leave it to him to read a 560 page book set in the 16th century on a beach holiday.
Started but not finished or brought home unread:
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Some only one of us has read and some we both read. We liked all of them.

Please send us your reading recommendations. We have visitors coming this fall so maybe we can order some used books online and have them sent to our visitors to bring over to us. Happy reading!

Bali: The Things We Ate

For "budget travelers" we probably spend more than most on food. We're happy staying in a total dump if it allows us more wiggle room in the eating department. Bali was billed as a vegetarian paradise and it didn't disappoint. The veg options were sometimes limited but you could always find something. This is in stark contrast to places like Guatemala where you'd sometimes have to ask if they had eggs and potatoes and could they just fry those up please?

As for protein, they eat tofu, tempeh, eggs, peanuts, etc. For instance, gado gado is a plate with all of those, plus veggies. Sometimes the tofu had a weird taste; maybe it wasn't too fresh. You couldn't go wrong with the tempeh although no belly can handle too many fermented soybeans. It's unclear why the Japanese don't eat it. They're doing everything else but with soybeans. Aside from frying it in yummy sauces and including it in stews, the Balinese were making tempeh burgers.

In Ubud we took a vegetarian Indonesian cooking class. We learned to make a number of dishes including the all important sambal--chili based sauce/condiment. Here's what it looked like when John was mashing it up with the mortar and pestle:

By far our favorite Indonesian dish was Sayur Urab(p)-- cooked vegetables with grated spiced coconut on top. Oftentimes it had green beans, which we haven't really seen in Japan. It's like cottage cheese--you don't realize you miss it until you're 6 months into living in Europe and start looking for it at the grocery store. Sayur Urab manifested in various ways:

As for drinks, you could always get fresh juices of all kinds, my favorite being pineapple. Juice with yogurt = lassie (best with mango). Bintang or Bali Hai beer. Arak, the local spirit made with palm sap or rice, was really effective and tasty. We also drank a lot of Balinese iced tea with ginger. For a splurge on our last day we began our meal with young coconut for me and a kombucha tea for John.

There are a number of things that are difficult to find or expensive to buy in Japan that we procured in Bali. While we bought some gifts for friends/family and souvenirs, our bags were also full of things like:

vanilla beans, hoisin sauce, flax, lemongrass, curry paste, coconut syrup, dark chocolate, coffee, Indonesian peanut paste, cous cous, barbecue sauce, toothpaste with fluoride and various other spices and odds and ends!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gili Trawangan--Ramadan Romp

I think it's more interesting to tell a few anecdotes rather than list what we did or saw. Here's a little bit about our time on Gili Trawangan.

The Gili Islands are located off of Lombok (a mostly Muslim island east of Hindu Bali). There are no motorized vehicles on the island, which is really saying something. Finally a break from motorbikes. Most of the accommodations are right across the street from the beach and at most restaurants you can eat with your feet in the sand. It's really laid back and the beaches are beautiful--white sand, nice coral reefs. Tons of people come here for scuba diving. It was high season so hotels were expensive (not to mention booked up). We headed inland to look for a homestay and found a suitably dank and cheap room at Lucky's Homestay. The dad made us pretty darn good jaffles and pancakes for breakfast while his kids watched Sponge Bob Square Pants. A 2 year old light-skinned neighbor boy was often around and we were told that his dad was Austrian (and back in Austria but knew his son). This was reminiscent of a stunningly blue-eyed Balinese baby we saw in the Ubud market.

Anyways, to get to our homestay we had to walk right past the mosque every day. Most tourists stay on the outskirts of the island near the beach and probably only vaguely hear the call to prayer but I was always throwing sarongs over myself as I walked past. Moreover, we were there for the beginning of Ramadan so the iman was broadcasting whole sermons on the loudspeaker. Every night the mosque was full of praying people on their prayer rugs, the women head to toe in white. Pretty intense. Some French people were taking pictures. Pretty inappropriate. We'd walk past the praying fasting pious Muslims and then go get a happy hour drink. Pretty incongruous. But that's Gili T, as they call it.

One night around sunset we were walking around waiting for the movie to start (one bar plays a free movie every night if you just order something to eat or drink--surprisingly enough, they had the best popcorn). It was on the fancier, more resorty side of the island. People kept wandering into bars or restaurants only to have the staff yell--we're on break! We want to eat! They couldn't eat, drink or smoke all day until sunset, of course, because of Ramadan. Everyone's English was so good and rapport reached so easily that you were always talking and laughing with the locals. It was these types of instances that reminded you they had their own cultural/religious commitments to navigate.

Around the perimeter there were hotels boasting fresh water showers and air conditioning and serving Mexican food and imported booze. In the middle of the island there were palm trees and a few goats and cows. No crops could grow. An elderly neighbor woman was constantly keeping a fire going to boil water and cook over (outside). They shut off the electricity and water in our room in the middle of the day. Basically everyone worked in tourism somehow because that was the only source of income. Islands are interesting. Everything must be brought there. As we waited for the ferry to take us back to Bali we watched them unload crates of beer and food for the restaurants. They loaded them in this horse drawn wagon and brought them around the island.

There's just something weird about eating corn tortilla black bean enchiladas and sipping sangria on a tiny Muslim Indonesian island.

Back from Bali!

We had an amazing time but it's great to be back! We have a lot to say about our 3 weeks in Bali so we'll spread it out over a few blog posts.

Highlights included:
  • Trekking up Mt. Batur to see the sunrise and then continuing up and along the crater rim.

  • Enjoying the beaches at Kuta, Seminyak, Lovina and Gili Trawangan, especially at sunset

  • Checking out the local flora and fauna. The flowers were gorgeous. As for animals we saw dolphins, monkeys, centipedes/millipedes, rats, hummingbirds, sad dogs and tail-less cats, cows, goats, huge spiders and lots of lizards.
  • EATING yummy Indonesian food, learning how to make it at a cooking class and visiting markets. By far our favorite dish was sayur urab(p):

Bali was very different from other places we have traveled. There is a lot of tourist infrastructure and everyone speaks English. It takes some of the adventure out of things. Also, instead of meeting hippie kids and teachers as we did in Latin America Bali was teeming with rich Europeans (also Australians and some Russians!!). Most couples we met were engineers and such who had come for the trekking. Also, as Minnesotans we're not that good at doing the beach thing. That said, Bali is beautiful, interesting and very accessible. It's easy to get around, learn about the culture, speak with the people, etc. Maybe it's just a little too easy, is all. 3 weeks is a long time to steep in your privilege. After a while you just feel guilty. You can't help but worry about sustainability when you can't find a place to fill up your water bottle and have to buy more plastic that you know will not be recycled. On places like the Gili Islands there were very real problems with waste, water and power once you looked past the surface. It was great to have a break from Japan, really get outside of ourselves and see/experience a new place. We're glad to be back though and that much more grateful for our clean house, stellar bathroom and own kitchen!

More to come....