Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Eat, Surf, Eat: Bali

I'll admit it. A big part of the reason I wanted to go to Bali for vacation was because the book Eat, Pray, Love. Indonesia has always fascinated me so after reading Eat, Pray, Love this winter  I was determined to discover what it is about Bali that keeps tourists coming year after year. Unlike the Philippines, I had no preconceived notion of what Bali would be like. Nice beaches of course. Temples? Lots of delicious fruit. What else?

Shea and I arrived in the Jakarta airport around midnight to once again attempt to spend the night in the airport. After paying $25 for our colorful, crisp, new thirty day visa, we ventured out to find where we could stake a semi comfortable place in the airport to sleep for a few hours before our flight to Bali. After evading the rush of so called taxi drivers heckling us to take us to the domestic terminal (and discovering that we needed to somehow get to the domestic terminal), and figuring out the currency conversion and trying four atms before getting some cash, we finally found an empty bench to snuggle up on for a few hours sleep. Or so we thought.

August is the month of Ramadan (the holiest month of the year for Muslims) this year, so the airport was filled with people ready to start their pilgrimage to Mecca. Side fact: Indonesia actually has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Muslims are the majority in this country but it is actually rather religiously diverse: Christians, Hindus, and some Buddhists as well. Bali is mainly Hindu, making it very different from the rest of Indonesia. All this would have been okay if it was not for the little Indonesian child who was wearing "cute" (or so her parents thought) shoes that squeaked every time she stepped. Lucky for the child I did not have a weapon handy otherwise her squeaking would have ended very quickly. In spite of a lack of sleep Shea and I managed to meet a lovely Indonesian man who is an engineering professor and had traveled to Zimbabwe and South Africa, get on a cheap taxi for the five minute journey to the domestic terminal, and finally make the quick journey to Bali.

Unlike the Philippines where we were unable to find couchsurfing host and instead had to settle for $4 a night accommodations, Bali has a vibrant couchsurfing community that basically ensured the success of our visit. After a bit of a fiasco we were met at the airport by our host Ramon who willingly took off work to pick us up in the morning. Since he had to work the rest of the day he dropped us off with another couchsurfing for a day of parasailing, and eating (hence the title).

It's difficult to describe in words how wonderful Bali was. Between the people, the food, the scenery, the activities we did, and its "vibe" I can fully understand why people visit Bali and just stay. In our short week we encountered nearly every nationality possible: lots and lots of Europeans (particularly of the German and French varieties), boatloads of Australians (particularly of the surfer variety), Koreans, Chinese, a few Americans, Spanish... Bali is literally overrun with tourists. BUT, in spite of the hoards of tourists that keep the island's economy alive there is an inescapable beauty, culture, and atmosphere about Bali that makes it so tantalizing. Shea and I filled our days with beach time, surfing, hiking a volcano, eating amaaaazingly delicious and cheap food (I didn't think it could get cheaper than the Philippines but try $1 for a full plate of deliciousness), visiting a few beautiful temples, biking through rice terraces of the most vivid green I've seen, guarding our belongings from monkey thiefs, stuffing our faces with tropical fruit and most importantly hanging out with fun, friendly locals.

Our host Ramon, and the other couchsurfers we met along the way, went above and beyond any expectations I had. Ramon drove us all over the island in his free time, took us to nooks and crannies we never would have found on our own, and provided us with a much needed opportunity to joke around (something I've severely missed in Korea). The Balinese people are happy, content, and fun. Unlike many "developed" countries, in Bali every local we spoke with (even those who were well traveled) assertively said they will never settle anywhere but Bali. Leaving this relaxed, and open-minded culture to the competitive, fast, and non-stop culture of Korea was more than difficult. But as Ramon said best: "Bali is relaxed but the pay is also relaxed". But does money really ever bring one happiness...

Our trip ended with a fabulous night with a large group of Balinese couchsurfers: homemade dinner, traditional tea, then karoake. I will never forget the friends I made in Bali and while I didn't find the same kind of love that Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, I am in love with the food, culture, and people of Bali. One more place to return to.

Photos stolen from Shea because I have not sifted through mine yet.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Colorful World: Palawan, Philippines

Traveling to the tropics confirms my belief in God's creativity: bright blue skies, fluffy white clouds, aqua water contrasting with white sand beaches, fruit in array of colors I didn't know existed, and sunsets that fill the sky with an infusion of stunning purples, blues, oranges that take my breath away. Every part of the world has its own hidden beauty, but the combination of colors, plants and wildlife that can only be found in the tropics never ceases to inspire me. Vacation in the Philippines and Bali was the perfect combination of interesting people and culture, jaw dropping scenery, and fun activities.

Shea and I arrived in Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan in the Philippines late morning on a Saturday after a brief night in the Manila airport. After ensuring that we didn't get ripped off on our short tricycle (see future pics) ride from the airport to our pension, we spent the afternoon letting the sun work its magic and acquiring our first sunburn of the trip. My first impressions of Palawan were colorful, clean (yes, in fact much cleaner than Korea), and friendly. We snagged free rides to and from the beach from friendly locals, and enjoyed having REAL conversations in English with everyone we met.

After a day in Puerto we woke up at the crack of dawn and climbed abroad the local bus to El Nido, among lots of Filipinos, some chickens and bags of rice, a few palm tree leaves, and a goat or pig (we never determined which) we picked up along the way. The seven hour drive to El Nido gave us a taste of the landscape of Palawan: aqua colored coast against white sand, thick palm tree forests, and rice fields scattered through the entire. Palawan reminded me of Costa Rica and Nicaragua with the Asian addition of rice fields.

For the next three days, Shea and I filled our days lazing on white sand beaches all by ourselves, a boat trip to  small islands, coves, and lagoons for some snorkeling in the bath water temperature water, kayaking to a private beach, and enjoying dinner with a backdrop of color brushed sky as the sun set. Often I felt as though I was in a scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean with the pristine, uninhabited beaches, and limestone cliffs. Because El Nido is located in a very protected bay filled with small limestone islands the water was so calm it was easy to forget it was even the sea.

Three and half perfect days in El Nido and we boarded the bus back to Puerto Princessa. Taking local transport always makes for an adventure. This time around the bus was so packed I actually wondered how the bus would make it over all the hills. But eight hours later we safely arrived in Puerto. The last "wonder" that Palawan offered us was a tour of the longest underground river in the world--8.5 km long. This natural river is actually in the running for one of the new seven wonders of the world.

A short flight brought us from Puerto to Manila for another day and half to rest at Shea's boyfriend's aunt's place in Manila. It would be difficult to name my favorite part of our trip but like most of my travels what always sticks with me the most is the people you meet. The highlight of the trip was enjoying two meals with a kind and friendly Filipino woman (Liselle) in her home in El Nido. After friendly chit chat one morning on our walk into town she invited us for dinner. Besides the phenomenal (and cheap) food she prepared, it was wonderful to hear her stories and learn more about Filipino culture. The taste of her chili crabs was unforgettably divine. Besides Liselle, we spent two days hanging out with some fun Spanish exchange students  who were studying in Singapore. I realized how much I've missed being able to effortlessly converse with strangers and friends, while staying in Korea. It's exhausting and often unrewarding, trying to communicate in broken English and Korean. Filipinos exhibited a remarkable language ability. The Philippines is a country with roughly 26 languages, so unlike Koreans, Filipinos are accustomed to hearing several different languages and seem to have a knack for picking up languages. It was a pleasure to chat in English and effortlessly communicate my desires and wishes.

Colorful Palawan left me with healthy glowing skin, lingering tastes of new exotic fruits and foods, new friends, and another place to add to my ever growing list of places to return to. Saying goodbye would have been impossible if it wasn't for Bali to look forward to.

Soon I will bombard this blog and facebook with photos to put my words into visual form, but for now I'm busy wrapping life in Korea up. So for now you will have to take my word that Palawan was amazingly beautiful.