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10 December, 2015

Day 628: Flying Home

The bags are packed, we returned the scooter, handed back the key to Rendira II, and indulged in one final massage. By the time this post goes live, we’ll be somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, flying a circuitous route from Bali to Australia to Los Angeles and onward to Seattle. From takeoff in Bali to touchdown at Sea-Tac: 27.5 hours.

We left at 11:55 p.m., five minutes before our visa expired.

The past month in Bali was the perfect wind-down from the trip. To arrive back in a place this beautiful and already know our way around, have our favorite restaurants, and know its flow and patterns was truly a gift to be cherished. Countless travelers have come and gone since we were last here, yet we were remembered. The welcome back hugs from our instructors were a nice touch. As was having our “usual” orders remembered by the waitresses at our favorite cafe. Long-term travel isn’t about packing your days “doing things” but rather about selecting a location and simply being.  And that’s what we did. We went to yoga nearly every day, a 90-minute morning session in a studio set in the treetops. It was the perfect way to ease into a day of relaxation and reflection. A little swim to cool down afterwards — it was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit almost every day — and then a few hours being productive in a cafe before taking another swim, reading, and going to the grocery store. Just like home.

Our home away from home is Bali. Pinch me.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin cutting a papaya in our outdoor kitchen in Bali.

Kristin starts work on January 11th and was notified today that the company performing her background check needs to do a criminal search for each of the countries we spent more than 30 days in. It’s an unusual situation, she’s in. Before this trip, I had never been in a foreign country for more than ten consecutive days. But now? Thanks to the meandering style of our journey, they’ll be having to run those criminal checks in Morocco, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Japan, and Indonesia. Lucky for them, we came up a couple days short of thirty in France, Spain, United Kingdom, and Canada.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

We took the scooter for a day-trip up to the Tegallalang Rice Fields north of Ubud.

This makes me giddy. It’s amazing to look back over our itinerary and know that there are six countries that we’ve now spent over a month in (and over two months in Italy and Indonesia). And not because it brings me some sort of bragging rights, but because I know certain towns and places so well that I can go back tomorrow and know where things are. I would recognize people, be able to identify restaurants we ate in, markets we shopped in, and know how to get around. I wouldn’t be lost; I wouldn’t need a map.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there's going to be another procession to a nearby temple.

One of the joys of Bali is you never know when there’s going to be another procession to a nearby temple.


Brain Freeze!

Brain Freeze!

I never wanted anything more from this trip than to feel at home anywhere we went in the world. And we did. From Pamplona to Kobe to Bordeaux to Edinburgh to Fargo, and everywhere in between, we have memories. For the rest of our lives, we will hear the name of a city or a country or a mountain range and instantly recall a friendly local who took time to chat with us; a restaurant we dined in; or a road  we pedaled along. Bicycle touring gives one on-the-ground knowledge the likes of which is impossible to obtain otherwise, save for walking. It’s this knowledge that means the most to me as we head home. It’s my most cherished souvenir.

I just paused my writing this to read the above to Kristin, to check with her on the tone and content. I read it aloud, as she likes me to do, and she nodded and returned a sad smile from across the room. We sat in silence for a few minutes; time we really don’t have to spare. The bags actually aren’t completely packed yet. There’s a rotisserie chicken cooling on the counter, we’re leaving for the airport in less than two hours. And just this past moment, as we sat in that silence, it finally dawned on us that this is really over. Six years of planning, two years of doing. And now it’s over. I always knew there’d be some tears eventually.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons.

A lotus flower in the rooftop pond at the Four Seasons, a great place to stop for a drink in Ubud.

Where was I?

The same wonderful friends of ours, Katrina and Alan, who so generously hosted us after we sold our house and who drove us to the Seattle waterfront for our initial start, will be there picking us up tomorrow when we land. Great friends make the sturdiest bookends to our life’s biggest moments. We’ll be staying with them again while we get settled. They’re already filling our social calendar with Christmas parties and happy hours. I can’t wait. It’s also the reason why I’m so glad we took this time in Bali. We’ve met other long-term travelers whose segue back into real life was anything but smooth. People who were back at work within a few short days of pedaling their final mile. We used this past month to not only come down off the trip, but to plan for our return home. We’ve e-signed a lease on a townhome, finished a slew of digital chores we wanted to get done, and even started picking out furniture and a car. It might not sound like an effective use of one’s time in a tropical paradise, but that’s the reality of the kind of trip we’ve been on: the extraordinary eventually became ordinary.

And that’s how we knew it was time to go home.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss it.

The weekly dinner buffet at Yellow Flower Cafe. We had a standing reservation and are going to miss this place.


The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

The volcano was out for our final yoga class this morning. Going to really miss this studio.

Thank you for reading; see you in the New Year!

The two of us on our final night of our travels, at Bridges restaurant in Ubud for happy hour.

One final photo from our final night abroad.

PS: We’ll be back early in the New Year with some fun to share concerning our future travel plans. Some of our Facebook followers have been busy chipping in with suggestions; the results will be made clear soon enough!

24 November, 2015

A Four-Star Surfing Finale

The fish watches me as I scoop the floating cempaka and frangipani flowers out of the tub so I can shower. I don’t know why this particular koi always swims over to observe me as I bathe. I know it’s the same fish; it’s the only one the color of guava and the size of a papaya in the little stream that wraps around our villa. Lacking a grasp of the intricacies of piscine optics, I question if it can really even see me. Does it smell me? Does it expect me to feed it? I wonder these things as the water warms and I step down into the jungle-lined tile bathtub. The koi stays until I’ve returned the bar of lemongrass soap to the scallop shell, the miniature cannonball of botanical shampoo to its basket, and begin drying my hair. Without fail, the koi is always gone before the towel hits the rack. I’m going to miss having fish join me in the bathroom.

All eyes on the sunset surfers at Batu Bolong at Canggu, Bali.

All eyes on the sunset surfers at Batu Bolong.

Back in the spring of 2003, the first edition of a not-so-little book titled 1,000 Places to See Before You Die was released. We found the book, which has since morphed into an entire line of similarly-themed volumes, to be a huge disappointment. While 1,000 Places did contain plenty of noteworthy landmarks, festivals, parks, and monuments, it also contained a preponderance of hotels. The more time we spent paging through the book, the more we regretted the purchase. In our minds, especially back then at the budget-conscious age of 27, the hotel was just a means to an end, little more than a place to brush one’s teeth, store a suitcase, and, if all went well, fall asleep next to a special someone. We’ve stayed in nice hotels, both before and since buying the book, but never have we thought of a hotel as a destination we were glad to have visited before we died. Until now.

Our open-air bathroom at Hotel Tugu Balil, complete with a koi pond that wraps around to the front of the villa.

Our open-air bathroom at Hotel Tugu Bali, complete with a koi pond that wraps around to the front of the villa. We even saw a crab scurrying about in the pond one night while brushing our teeth.

The international terminal at Bali’s Denpasar airport lacks the exotic fragrance of incense and flowers that envelops the inter-island side of the facility. I held my breath as I made my way along the jetway in effort to better inhale a mighty whiff of that tantalizing Balinese scent, only to have my lungs fill with stale, air-conditioned air once at the gate. This was my first, biggest, and last disappointment of our five-night stay in Canggu.

Getting anywhere on the southwest coast of Bali takes time. Cars and trucks jockey for position along the two-lane roads as thousands of motorcycles and scooters wend their way through the congestion. Parades of scooters take to the crumbling sidewalks and motorcycles slip through on the center-line as all four-wheeled traffic grinds to a halt. The Hotel Tugu Bali, located within sight of a prime Bali surf break, was a mere twenty kilometers away, little more than twelve miles from the airport, but the drive takes nearly ninety minutes in midday traffic. The hotel’s driver, Wayan, greeted our delayed flight from Singapore, ushered us to his leather-clad Toyota SUV, and promptly handed us bottles of water, ice-cold washcloths for refreshment, and a delicious platter of fresh tropical fruit. If nature contains a more brilliant shade of purple than that of a fresh dragonfruit, I have not seen it.

Our room at Tugu Hotel Bali in Canggu, Bali with private plunge pool out back.

Our room at Hotel Tugu Bali with private plunge pool out back.

We walked the lengthy, candle-lit, wooden walkway to a massive greatroom of traditional design with a soaring pyramidal ceiling. Two individual pots of coffee were brought for us to enjoy while our passports were being copied, the credit card swiped. Then it was tour time with Pande. First stop, the Red Room featuring a 300-year old Chinese temple that had been disassembled and reconstructed inside this blood-red room; the hotel owner wanting to save it from the wrecking ball of Chinese progress. Beneath the temple was a table that could seat sixteen or more; we took our dinner there alone that night, under the temple. Original artwork of Balinese kings line the walls of this room and the other across the wooden walkway.

The room facing the red room contains the largest single-slab marble table in Indonesia, a cannon left over from the revolution against the Dutch, and two intricately carved chairs that used to belong to the king of East Bali. Numerous other artwork and portraits in this room belonged to other regional kings of “Old Bali.” Back in the greatroom, where all traces of our bags and coffee had since disappeared, we were told the story of the thirty-foot wooden Garuda statue that dominated the platform stage in the middle of the room. The largest Indonesian carving from a single piece of wood, the Garuda was found lying in a woodcarver’s yard in Ubud, its original purchaser having had to cancel as the statue was simply too big for the government building it was acquired for. The owner of Hotel Tugu Bali had it brought to Canggu, ordered the walkway and entrance to the greatroom disassembled to allow it entry, and hired fifty men to carry it inside.

Eat beneath a 300-year old Chinese Temple inside the Red Room.

Eat beneath a 300-year old Chinese Temple inside the Red Room.

The tour continued across the grounds. The hotel has just 22 rooms, each of them spacious, with private outdoor entry, and set up as a collection of villas. Rock-lined channels with miniature sculpted waterfalls line the pebble-embedded pathways that massage your feet as you walk. Dozens of koi swim past wherever you go. Tropical flowering trees and shrubs combine with Hindu statues and torches and a miniature temple to envelop the grounds and create the feeling of private seclusion in a tamed jungle, despite a road and other buildings not being very far away. There is an herbalist shack, a barber in the bale that used to be a former Balinese king’s bedroom, the spa, and the public pool with several fountains flowing into it. It’s all very nice.

We finally reach our home for the next five nights. Inside the gate we pass numerous koi in a channel that wraps around the villa and terminates in our open-air semi-enclosed bathroom. The guestroom is massive. Over twenty-feet square with a massive teak king bed that has six linen curtains that can be closed around it. The tile floor is cool to the touch, the furniture comfortable, spacious, and high quality.  One wall consists entirely of windows, looking through to the flower-lined plunge pool that is ours alone. There are too many other niceties to mention without boring you, if I hadn’t already, not the least of which was the daily refills of incense, the scented candles that illuminated our bathroom at night, and the daily poems and notes that were left after the thrice-daily cleanings.

The Garuda wood carving and gamelan instruments at Tugu Hotel Bali's Thursday night Balinese dance in Canggu, Bali.

The Garuda wood carving and gamelan instruments at Hotel Tugu Bali’s Thursday night Balinese dance.

Whereas most of the three hundred hotels we’ve visited in the past two years were chosen based on price, we selected Hotel Tugu Bali in spite of its cost. As you might remember, we kicked off our previous stay in Bali with three nights in dirty, congested, raucous, Kuta. It was during that stay that a surfing guide brought me to Batu Bolong, a prime surf spot on Bali’s southwest shore, about forty minutes up the coast from Kuta. Batu Bolong can be crowded, but it’s got a great vibe, little development along the beach, and a parking lot near the temple with a beach bar, café, and multiple stalls to rent surfboards all in sight of the waves. Hotel Tugu Bali, as I saw online, was in the sweet spot, steps from the channel where we paddled out on my visit in April. Our credit card didn’t stand a chance.

Our feast for two with numerous banana leaf-wrapped goodies!

Our feast for two with numerous banana leaf-wrapped goodies!

Exhausted from the heat and the stress of getting our bicycles shipped home from Singapore, we were content to spend our first night indoors, tucked into the feathery nest of a bed. Only I couldn’t sleep as the sound of the surf kept me awake. It sounded big. Fast. It would be over my head, in more ways than one.

We took our breakfast on a grassy lot overlooking the beach, feasting our eyes on the surf, our teeth on the fresh fruit and eggs benedict. November surf wasn’t like the April waves I rode here last time. The tide was coming in and the waves were breaking with power. The lineup was crowded and tiny, the paddle out would be a long one. Kristin hurried off to her free one-hour welcome massage and I walked over to the beach parking area to rent a board for a few days, settling on a 7’2” thruster at 100,000 rupiah per day, about $24 USD for three days with a rash guard thrown in.

The view from breakfast. I can't believe I sat and ate while the surf was that good.

The view from breakfast. I can’t believe I sat and ate while the surf was that good.

I paddled out each day after breakfast, a little earlier each successive morning, and each day I got worked over. One wave even broke the fin from the board, snapping it off at the base; something I’ve never seen happen in my 23 years of sporadic surfing. The number of waves I rode compared to the number that broke atop my head was greatly skewed in the wrong direction. But I expected this. Surfing is the single hardest sport to maintain proficiency at if you allow your skills to atrophy. It’s not like mountain biking or skiing or any other sport I can think of; trails and mountains don’t actively try to kill you. And as each day went on, as it did back in April and the last few surf trips I’ve made to Hawaii and Costa Rica, I found myself wondering why I still pursued this old flame. Had, in fact, the passion already burned out long ago?

The crowds turn out at Batu  Bolong for sunset, just as they do everywhere on Bali's southwest coast.

The crowds turn out at Batu Bolong for sunset, just as they do everywhere on Bali’s southwest coast.

I’ve heard former deer hunters say that they eventually hit a point in their lives where they couldn’t justify sitting around in a tree all winter long. This is how I now feel about surfing. All that time sitting and waiting for a wave, only to find I was a few paddle-strokes late or too far to the left, or too far to the right, or worst of all, out in front of it and now getting rolled over and over and over in the surf like a shoe tied to a cork in a washing machine. I was never a very good surfer, but I enjoyed the road-trip camaraderie that accompanied every session, whether it was with my lifelong friends from high school or the ones I made in graduate school. The clichéd bromides about brotherhood and surfing ring true. The actual surfing, the act of riding a wave, is plain euphoria. There really is nothing like it. And I do get my share of waves and sometimes, when the planets and stars align, manage to induce some hooting from spectators on the beach (this happened precisely once, on a nice cutback I made here in Bali, and I will never forget that moment). But most of the time – nay, nearly all of the time – is spent waiting. And that’s where I realize that what I loved most about surfing was just hanging out with friends.

In Bali I paddle out, alone, into a crowd. Some polite smiles and what’s ups may occur, but mostly it’s a collection of international travelers, many with hired guides, quietly stalking the same prey. And I wait, like the lonely hunter in a leafless tree. A wave approaches. I’m in the perfect spot and it is gorgeous. Head-high, peeling to the left, and fast, but not too steep. It’s my ideal wave, only there are dozens of other surfers taking aim. And, thanks to too little recent practice, I’m too slow, I miss my mark, the gun jams.

No, that is not a euphemism for why we don’t have any children.

I continue paddling after waves that never seem to break as the tide drops. Unlike the beach breaks I was accustomed to surfing in New Jersey and North Carolina, the waves get mushy and the reef gets exposed with the lower tide here at Batu Bolong. I paddled in on that third day without having caught any waves. My first time getting blanked in memory. I returned the board and joined Kristin by the pool. I might not have made much use of the hotel’s surfer-friendly location but I would at least take advantage of its luxurious amenities.

A little ambiance in the great room at Tugu Hotel Bali.

A little ambiance in the great room at Tugu Hotel Bali.

We’re spending the next few weeks inland, in Ubud, celebrating the end of our two years of travel, relaxing in a tranquil oasis before returning home to Washington State and resuming our careers. I have no plans to return to the beach or go surfing while we’re here in Bali. And I’m not even saddened by this.

It’s the not being sad that sort of breaks my heart.

11 November, 2015

The Next Adventure

We were in our cabin aboard the MV Hatsu Crystal, showing the other two passengers the slideshow videos I’ve made. Iris and Wolfran smiled and commented enthusiastically as the past two years of our lives danced across the screen. I was anxious to show them the video of North America, as they had each only ever been to New York City; a crime of self-deprivation so many Europeans commit when visiting our homeland.

Kristin and I smiled upon finally queuing up the North America video, as did our audience, although for different reasons. While they oohed and aahed over the mountain scenery and the size of the bison and the raging waterfalls, we warmed with the reminders of home, one we’d eventually be returning to.

We just didn’t realize how soon.

Those in personal contact with us have known since the summer that before leaving Bali last June, we had placed a deposit down for a four-month rental house in the Penestanan area outside of Ubud. The plan was to wrap up the bicycle tour at the end of January, 2016 and then settle into a life of normalcy – whatever shape it took – in Bali. I was to spend those months working on the novel I’ve been developing over the past year and Kristin was to test the waters of remote-employment. Ideally, she’d already have a job lined up; if not, she’d spend that time conducting a job search while we lived inexpensively in Indonesia.

If you're ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don't hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea on Changi!

If you’re ever in Singapore and needing a bike shop, don’t hesitate to check out Soon Watt Orbea.

Kristin began putting feelers out at the end of summer to so see if anyone, including her former employer, was in a position to hire her remotely. Her baited hook received a few nibbles, but the rod never bent. And then, at the end of September, her efforts netted an unexpected proposal that drew our immediate attention. We spent the entirety of October in a holding pattern to see if the final offer turned out to be one she couldn’t refuse. Long days at sea were spent discussing a ceaseless stream of if/then scenarios, efforts to predict and mold into shape the remainder of this trip, and our lives going forward.

We are now very excited to share the news that our plans, as you are no doubt unsurprised to hear, have shifted yet again.

Kristin will be returning to work at her former employer, in Seattle, this coming January, helping to lead one of the company’s new initiatives. It is an opportunity that not only allows us to return to the location we love most – we’ll be house-hunting in our old neighborhood at the base of the Cascade Mountains east of the city – but also affords me the opportunity to focus full time on my fiction writing endeavors.

That beautiful Seattle skyline. Photo by Larry Gorlin.

That beautiful Seattle skyline… it won’t be long now! Photo by Larry Gorlin.

Our plans to cycle north from Singapore to Bangkok have been shelved. Instead, we have rescheduled our house rental in Bali and applied our deposit to a month’s rental, ending mid-December. Bicycle touring, to repurpose a phrase from the Peace Corps, is the hardest vacation you’ll ever love. We enjoyed this experience immensely and are thrilled to have taken it, but we’ve made our final dismount. The 52 miles we cycled from the port in Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia to Singapore were our last. Seattle to Singapore by bicycle and ship was far enough — 226 degrees of longitude without leaving the planet’s surface.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

Ready for the journey home to Washington State.

We arrived at the incredibly helpful Soon Watt Orbea bike shop, still sweaty from the sauna-like conditions we rode in, after dropping our bags off at a nearby hotel in this locals-only area of Singapore. We left our bikes for boxing and headed in search of lunch. That we didn’t look back or shed a tear of sadness was all the proof we needed to know that the timing was right. Nigel and his staff had the bikes boxed up by the following afternoon, leaving the boxes open so we could slide our panniers, shoes, and spare tire and miscellany down into the space around the bike.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood we'll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Aerial view of Snoqualmie Falls, the iconic waterfall two short miles from the neighborhood — and friends and mountain bike trails — we’ll be returning to. Photo by Puget Sound Energy.

Through much expense and several shipping-related headaches, our bicycles and touring gear have been sent ahead to our storage unit in Washington State.  We checked out of the somewhat grimy hotel near the bike shop three days later, our Ortlieb duffel bags serving as our sole luggage, and went across town for a few days, intent on giving Singapore a second chance.

We considered heading straight home, but it was always important to us that we take a few weeks to reflect on what we accomplished; to ponder what we saw and where we’ve been. Once upon a time we imagined flying to an island in the Caribbean from Tierra del Fuego, but we always knew, deep down inside, that the map you see here was, in all likelihood, for inspiration purposes only. Fortunately, we were able to shift our rental deposit from February to the present. One final month in Bali, right back where we were in May, should ease the transition and help protect us from burning out on reentry.

We know there will be some out there who will try to compare our initial plan with the ultimate path we took and feel we failed. Some will pose questions about the places we didn’t go instead of the ones we had; Negative Nancies who only see the holes in the Swiss cheese of life.  They’ll fail to see that this decision, like the one we made nine years ago to undertake this challenge, is every bit as positive. We’re excited to have done what we’ve done – cycling nearly 13,000 miles and visiting twenty or so different countries – and equally pleased to have zigged when we planned to zag. Some of our favorite moments from these two years came in places we never intended to go. And, perhaps most of all, we’re thrilled to be ending this trip in the manner that we are. When we are. On our terms.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon me home. Photo by Paris Gore.

The moss-covered forests of western Washington beckon us home.  Nothing like mountain biking in the PNW! Photo by Paris Gore.

As I wrote in a guest dispatch to another blog two months ago, the thing we’ve learned most during our time abroad is the need to be flexible. To continue on just because we once drew a line on a map would be foolish. Similarly, to accept this job offer if we both weren’t fully ready to begin the next stage of life, to embark on the next adventure, would leave us with a life of regrets and what-ifs. We have none, nor expect any. We’ve taken our bikes – and this trip – as far as we wish for it to go. Six hundred days on the road (and counting) is over forty years’ worth of two-week vacations strung together. And as everyone who’s ever travelled has admitted at one time or another, we (finally) miss our own bed.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but I do know someone who is. And he once (allegedly) gave some rather sage advice:

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

More to Follow: won’t be going anywhere. We’ll no doubt have at least one or two wrap-up posts in the future (in addition to a second-take on Singapore next week) and at least the occasional update on how the transition back to home – and work — goes. I will also have an update in the coming months about my new website and work-in-progress. We’ll continue to travel, naturally, and will continue to post future travel-related articles to this site.

An Open Invitation: Our most cherished souvenirs from this adventure are the memories of the friends we made along the way, and the generosity they showed towards us. We wish to extend an open invitation to everyone who hosted us, shared a meal with us, or whom we spent a day sightseeing with, to please let us know if you’re ever in the Seattle area. It would give us so much pleasure to return the favor. And if you thought we were excited when you met us on the road, just wait till you see how enthusiastically we embrace the role of tour guide back home.

22 October, 2015

The Chair and the Stool

I stood by the table, wallet in hand, waiting for the owner of the roadside restaurant to tally up our bill. Instead, he simply wrote the number 40 on the back of a scrap of paper. “Forty lira,” I asked “for kohvalti?” I was shocked. We shared a single plate of olives, vegetables, and cheeses along with a small fry pan of eggs and had two cups of tea each. It was a standard Turkish breakfast, the likes of which we’ve had a dozen times before, always included with the cost of our hotel. Hotel stays that often cost just 100 lira in total ($33 USD). I sighed, reached into my wallet and handed over the notes, $13 USD, along with a knowing, nodding smirk that let the gentleman know that, though I may not speak the language and couldn’t argue without resorting to histrionics, I knew damn well he was taking me for a ride.

That night, in the town of Kaman, Kristin and I sat down to a dinner of soup, salad, spicy adana kebab skewers with fries, Coca-Cola, and tea. Two of everything for the two hungry cyclists. The whole meal came to the equivalent of $11 USD. For every instance in which we felt we might have been getting overcharged, there were at least two or three times when we left a restaurant completely shocked about how much food we had been served for so little money. It all balances out in the end.

Matters of money and long-term independent travel go hand in hand. No matter what your budget, you can’t enjoy much of the latter without diligent tracking of the former. Kristin and I set out to stick to an average daily budget that we soon realized would be impossible for our preferred comfort level without spending a lot of time in less expensive countries. Front-loading our trip with North America and Europe, not to mention an unexpected five-week detour to pricey Japan, has yielded an average daily expenditure more than 50% over the unrealistic amount we budgeted for. Of course, that goal budget was essentially plucked out of thin air and “proved doable” on several short trips around Washington State. It’s easy to do without when you’re heading back to the comforts of home in a few days, less so when your trip is measured in months and years instead of days or weeks; harder still when wanting to indulge in the culinary delights of western Europe.

Wealth isn't a good indicator of how hard a person works.

Typical scene at the Ubud city market in Bali where hundreds of vendors supply all manners of food to the city’s residents.

But there we were, two Americans in Turkey and soon headed to Southeast Asia. Our financial tracking sheet showed our average daily spend dropping a little bit each day. And as it did, much to our delight, our out-of-money date pushed deeper into 2016.

Some travelers we’ve met make a show of demanding the lowest price possible at all times, regardless of where they are, where they’re from, or how it makes them look. They hunt for unconscionably low prices using their superior buying power (and often the desperation of the person they’re dealing with) as a weapon and tell tales of their conquests around the hostel table for all to marvel at. The less they paid, the more they gloat. Forget paying tourist prices, these people don’t stop until they’ve stripped every penny of profit out of the equation. These people may stretch their budget further than we will, but at what cost?

A woman selling fish at a market on the island of Flores.

A woman selling fish at a market on the Indonesian island of Flores.

It’s fun to get a good deal when you’re travelling. The less you pay, the more days you can enjoy yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve certainly marveled at some of the prices we’ve paid over the past eighteen months. But the one thing I don’t do, unless it’s part of the souvenir game, is haggle. Though I didn’t enjoy overpaying for breakfast that one morning in Turkey, I do think it’s important to sometimes take the loss gracefully and move on. Acknowledge the good fortune those of us from countries with a dominant currency are in and the inherent opportunity that exists simply from our birthplace. After all, long term travel is not something the great majority of the world’s population can ever even dream of doing. So we got charged a few bucks more than we maybe should have. So what? How many bottles of water did we buy this month for thirty cents each? Bottles that would have cost five times that in Europe or back home in the USA.

People have strong feelings about money and the economy. When we’re doing well personally, we think “the economy” is just fine. When we find ourselves out of work or fighting to get ahead, we project our own misfortune onto “the economy”.  This leaves nothing to be said of our political biases and preconceptions and the inherent geographic, skill, and educational variations in a large country. Not being an economist, I don’t really know (nor really care) how to accurately assess the condition of a nation’s economy. But I do know that, despite all of the political cheering and finger-pointing that goes on back home, the US Dollar is at or near an all-time high against a slew of the world’s currencies. If the US economy is as bad as I sometimes hear people say, then the rest of the world is doing even worse and we should still consider ourselves fortunate on the grand scale that is Earth.

It's easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they're just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they’re just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

Early this past summer a series of articles was published to The New York Times about the working conditions of nail salons throughout New York City. The gist of it was that the workers were being heavily exploited through a laundry list of illegal/unethical practices. I was very interested in some of the discussion that followed: women, customers of these various salons, were wondering what they should do. Should they boycott the businesses? Should they over-tip? Should they just go about things as normal and pretend they didn’t know any better? Many of the readers acknowledged that, by using these Asian (mostly Thai and Vietnamese) nail salons, they knew they were getting a really good service at a cost that was a fraction of that which a Caucasian owned and operated boutique salon would charge. They felt bad about that, but still wanted those low prices.

Ignoring the legal ramifications of the story in New York, the issue reminded me of a series of internal struggles I dealt with while in Indonesia earlier this year. Kristin and I had taken to getting frequent hour-long massages while in Bali. One day, we were asked if we also wanted a 30-minute foot rub after our massage. The massage was 70,000 IDR, the foot rub was going to be an extra 30,000 IDR for a total of $7.69 USD plus tip at the exchange rate at the time (it’d be even cheaper now). We said yes.

We took our seats in cushioned armchairs alongside three Chinese people and two Australians and sat back and enjoyed the relaxing comfort of a professional foot and calf massage. If you’ve never had someone spend thirty minutes professionally massaging your lower legs and feet with lotions and oils, it is even better than it sounds. But despite the wonderful sensation, I couldn’t help but feel bad about sitting in this nice elevated armchair as the young Javanese lady squatted down on a tiny stool and worked so hard to provide such an unnecessary, gratuitous service for such, through first-world eyes, a ridiculously low sum of money.

It didn’t feel right. I felt uncomfortable. It smacked of Imperialism, what with the visual of us, the moneyed tourists, sitting in the nice comfortable chairs on high, and the meager worker squatting over our bare feet. I looked around to those sitting alongside me: Kristin was dozing off, the Chinese people were playing with their phones and the Australians were doing likewise. A phalanx of young dark-haired, dark-skinned Indonesians squatted before us, working nonstop through the day and until late at night to give as many massages a day as possible.

Massage shops line many of the streets in the touristy areas of Bali and the women (and some men) call out to everyone who passes by. Some get desperate if business is slow. One grabbed me by the arm and pleaded with ever-lowering prices when I declined (I was late meeting Kristin for dinner). The prices are essentially standard, all of them offering an hour of pampering to the average tourist for the price of a McDonald’s combo meal; American prices, not European (Mickey D’s is far more expensive in Europe, no doubt part of the reason for the slimmer waistlines in continental Europe).

I know there are those who, upon reaching success, like to think it was all their own hard work that got them where they are. Hard work. People like to say that if you work hard you can be anything and have all your dreams come true. You just have to work hard for it. I’ve not seen many people work harder than these massage girls in Bali. Yet, there they were on the stool. And there we were on the chairs. I worked hard, was very good at what I did, but I didn’t work as hard as these girls do. I didn’t spend twelve hours a day, hunched over, working my hands and fingers and forearms into numbness for such little gain. The reason we’re in the chair and they’re on the stool is one of dumb luck. We won the birthplace lottery, being born in a first-world country (or to one of the right families in a modern China), whereas they didn’t. That’s it. We were born on third, as the saying goes. And we shouldn’t exploit those who were lucky to get hit by pitch.

“So, Doug, what are you going to do about it?” I asked myself.

I went surfing the next day and spent the better part of three hours thinking about that question. The answer that I came up with, which I’d like to now repeat as a reminder to myself as we prepare to spend our winter in Southeast Asia, is as follows: nothing, sort of.

Making daily offerings isn't a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is a incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone's day that much brighter.

Making daily offerings isn’t a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is an incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone’s day that much brighter.

My first idea was to boycott them, to not take advantage of our respective situations. But no, I decided, that only punishes them and deprives myself of something I enjoy. These are skilled massage technicians (they are every bit as good as any CMP I’ve experienced back home at a spa charging ten times that amount) who have come to Bali to do this. Why deprive them of the living they need to earn? Okay, so don’t boycott them, but maybe I should insist on tipping them a lot more? This gets tricky. Over-tipping can create problems of jealousy in the workplace, could lead to poor service to other customers, and could ultimately lead to a sense of entitlement and lesser quality of service. Am I even sure the girls get to keep their tips? No, I’m not. And if I’m the only one doing it, then what good does it do in the long run? Other than empty my wallet that much faster. Next question. So what about the base price? Never haggle. I didn’t anyway, but I’ve seen people routinely try to haggle down the prices. Don’t do that. The prices are already low enough for anyone who can afford to fly to Bali, even if coming from nearby Australia.  Let the shops set the price and pay what they ask. And so on and so on, I debated back and forth with myself a litany of actions and undesirable/inconclusive outcomes.

I decided that, as travelers visiting less developed, inexpensive countries, perhaps the best thing we can do is to just be aware. Acknowledge the situation, take comfort in our positions of good fortune, and refrain from taking advantage of those in a less advantageous position by trying to wrest even lower prices. Don’t demean, but don’t flaunt your relative wealth either. Don’t tell the clerk how cheap everything is — save your excitement or shock for when you are out of earshot. Not only is it insulting, but the more people going around remarking how cheap everything is, the more prices get raised, and the less buying power the locals end up having. Instead, employ their services, tip them an honest, fair amount, and most of all, look to the people you do business with as equals. For after all, that’s what they are. Equals. They’re human beings just like you and me.

Update: This post was written several weeks ago, back while we were in Turkey. We are currently on a freighter, bound for Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia and are out of contact until November 3rd. You can view our ship’s position here. I suspect this post will go live as we exit the Red Sea. We’ll be making a port call in Sri Lanka near the end of October.

9 June, 2015

Peeling Back Singapore’s Shallow Veneer

Letting our curiosity get the better of us and knowing our flight would connect in Singapore anyway, we decided to spend a few days in the world’s most expensive city. We needlessly compounded this mistake by foregoing a hostel in favor of cashing in some of my slowly replenishing loyalty points for three nights at the Hilton Singapore, smack dab in the middle of the retail mania that is Orchard Road. Those who like to deride my fellow Americans for their abject consumerism need to visit Asia; we Yanks can’t hold a candle to the Japanese and Singaporeans when it comes to shopping.

Stepping out of our air-conditioned palace — please mind the Ferrari parked outside  — and into the sweltering heat of Singapore, we eschewed the subway in favor of a lengthy walk across the city, from one end of the tourist map to the other, pin-balling our way past myriad Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Chanel storefronts. Pedestrian passages led under busy intersections into multi-level underground gauntlets of shopping malls. Buy, buy, buy! Several blocks later, the same luxury boutiques repeated themselves. This is where I’d try to force a simile about replacing other cities’ ubiquitous green and white coffee cups with luxury handbags, if not for a sign announcing a celebration for the opening of Singapore’s one-hundredth Starbucks. Apparently, you can have both.

Appropriate art along Orchard Street in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.

Appropriate art along Orchard Road in Singapore: Businessman posture while ladies shop.

Some ninety minutes later we arrived at Gardens By the Bay, one of the few free, natural attractions in a city designed to pamper the expense-report-filing businessmen and their platinum-card-wielding wives. In fairness, the whole of Singapore is one giant park, meticulously landscaped gardens and groves of trees occupy nearly as much prime real estate as the stupendous architecture. Gardens By the Bay is different, though. The sprawling greenery is home to over 100 hectares of gardens containing the native species from a dozen different Asian countries, anchored by eighteen artificial “super trees” that provide support for fifty meters of vertical gardens. It’s stunning, even if the rivulets of sweat streaming into your eyes make photography a challenge. Of course, a free walk through the impressive grounds only makes the two climate-controlled biodomes all the more enticing. The glass-domed, air-conditioned Cloud Forest garden simulates the environment at 2,000 meters, similar to that of the famed cloud forest of Monteverde in Costa Rica. Definitely worth a visit, even if only to learn about how the park manages to be energy neutral through the use of biomass furnaces and solar power. And, despite the signs, buying a ticket to just one of the domes is entirely possible. Just ask.

Gardens by the Bay with a few of its "super grove" of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions.

Gardens by the Bay with a few of its “super grove” of trees and its giant climate-controlled attractions. An absolutely world-class attraction — and partially free! — in a city seemingly devoid of things to do other than go shopping.

Back outside and hungry, we were faced with the reality of being a tourist in Singapore: the prices are insane. Walking along Boat Quay near Marina Bay, we saw signs advertising a bucket of five bottles of Corona beer for S$48 ($35 USD). A single bottle of Bud Light, a beer I try not to drink even when offered free, cost the equivalent of $11 USD. Okay, maybe it’s just alcohol that’s expensive, I try to tell myself. We go in search of lunch and bounce from restaurant to restaurant in search of an affordable meal. Singapore has a well-deserved reputation for serving up some of the world’s best food, but it doesn’t come cheap. The prices started out as laughable and migrated to insulting. Small dishes of stir-fry, little more than glorified side-dishes, were more than three times the price we would expect in North America or Europe. Finally, after allowing our sticker-shocked faces to show for a little too long, one of the servers at a sidewalk restaurant approached with an offer: “If you’d like, you can have anything on the menu for 30% off.” She then handed us another menu, one focusing just on the live seafood dishes, with prices up to 60% off. Still, an order of Singapore’s famed chili crab would have set us back about $60 USD. “Only S$9 for a jug of beer,” she added, sweetening the deal. We’d be whispered similar offers of lower prices throughout our stay.

Realizing that we were quite literally haggling for our lunch, I didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or amused. Many of us go through a phase as children where we want to have the most expensive things as a way of staving off mockery from our classmates. In my youth, for us boys, it was sneakers. There were the kids with the Nike, Adidas and Reebok sneakers and then there were those of us with the discount-store Velcro embarassments. And of course, having the latter meant non-stop derision from those sporting the former. I couldn’t wait to go to school that first September in which I had my first pair of name-brand shoes. Fortunately, most of us mature and eventually begin to celebrate a bargain. For me, finding a very good product at a bargain price is far more impressive than being able to afford top-of-the-line at a sky’s-the-limit price. That is not a mentality for Singapore.

The majority of Singapore's 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one.

The majority of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government housing projects such as this one. Careful city zoning ensures that everything a person needs (police, medical, library, groceries, etc.,) is found within 5km of each of these project buildings.

Seeing the prices for the food and drink, the multitude of exotic Italian sports cars, and the luxury storefronts — complete with tourists posing for photos in front of sculpture-like Chanel and Prada signs while clutching their matching shopping bags — I couldn’t help but think of the phrase, “F-U Money.” Only here, the neologism should be interpreted: If you even have to think about money, the joke is F’ing on you!

Singapore isn’t just expensive, it’s a price point that doesn’t make sense. I used to think people got rich for being smart and, usually, conservative with their money. No, there’s nothing smart about the prices here. It’s not about intelligence, but about ostentatious wealth and flash. And the money is flowing south from China. Walking back along Orchard Road to our hotel, I remembered a conversation that we had with a British ski instructor who had spent his winter working at a Japanese ski resort in Hokaido. He told us about the Chinese tourists who would book four hours of private ski instruction, arrive on time, pose for a group photo with him, and then pay and leave. “They didn’t want to learn how to ski or snowboard; they just wanted photographic proof that they could afford four hours of instruction from a white ski instructor,” he said shrugging his shoulders in a I-don’t-understand-it-either kind of way. The same people, he added, would brag about how much they overpaid for a hotel room or dinner to other tourists or insult complete strangers by asking them which hotel they were staying in, only to then express pity or say how that hotel, often of the four-stars variety, “just didn’t meet their standards.”

Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers.

Trendy restaurants along Boat Quay in Singapore where colonial-era buildings bump up against futuristic skyscrapers and the city’s many waterways.

It’s one thing to worry about the costs as a budget-minded long-term traveler, but what about the tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees who have come from Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Malaysia? These people taking perilous journeys in hope of a better life? Where do they live? How do they eat? On a free walking tour we learned that nearly 85% of Singapore’s 5 million residents live in government-subsidized housing projects (reports show that, despite being the most expensive city in the world, most Singaporeans suffer from a ridiculously low standard of living and some of the lowest wages in the developed world). Safe and relatively clean, these buildings are largely free of the problems that plague “the projects” that many of us westerners immediately associate with the term. Cramped, but safe. Then again, that should be expected in the “fine city” of Singapore where bubblegum is illegal and seemingly minor infractions of spitting, littering, or petty vandalism will earn you penalties ranging from S$500 to a caning. The immigration form completed upon arrival is stamped in very large red letters “Drug Traffickers Will be Sentenced to Death.” Singapore doesn’t mess around.

Kristin and I split up after lunch one day and, still wondering about where the people of below average income live in this city, I took the subway to the last stop shown on the tourist map, exited the station and walked off the map. It wasn’t long before I found the Singapore I was looking for. It was just a few miles out of view.

Yes, it does get hot here.

Yes, it does get hot here.

I was soon navigating through a crowded sidewalk, past all manner of hole-in-the-wall convenience stores, produce markets, and cheap eateries that wouldn’t have been out of place in Morocco. A man sitting on a blanket outside a pharmacy sold bubble-packs of unlabeled pharmaceuticals by the side of the curb. Blue and purple pills for all! A sign advertising frog porridge and chili bullfrog got my attention, but I kept walking, still full from my expensive (but delicious!) lunch. The streets are numbered and I made my way some twenty blocks through a crowded neighborhood, side-stepping the streaks of garbage juice on the sidewalk, bending around the scaffolding occupying much of the sidewalk, and pausing only to periodically buy another bottle of water. The heat is inescapable, adding unnecessary literalism to the melting pot metaphor so often used when describing Singapore.

I turned down the last of the numbered streets and saw a group of multi-colored umbrellas set up in the streets. They looked like hot dog carts from a distance, but were actually sidewalk barbers. Just enough shade for a customer to sit on a stool out in the street while getting his haircut. I got closer and a heavyset Indian woman sitting on a plastic crate grabbed my arm. “Special massage?” she asked while smiling a semi-toothless grin. No thank you. I snaked my way up and down the side-streets in a serpentine fashion and got solicited for a special massage several more times. The prostitutes got more attractive: thin, petite Malay, Thai and Chinese women in short skirts and snug tube-tops lined the sidewalk between cellphone repair shops and stir-fry counters. Another grabbed my arm and offered another quote-unquote massage. Upstairs, she mentioned, motioning to a narrow door and stairway into a nondescript building.

Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.

Just a small portion of the durians on display at this shop in the Geylang area of Singapore.

After giving some thought to these offers and thinking about where I was and the money in my wallet and the desire to live a life more exotic and adventurous and try new things, I did what I think most happily-married, disease-fearing men in my position would do. I looked around, saw something that caught my eye across the street, and after a short exchange of unpleasant haggling, sat down to enjoy my first durian.

The puzzling, smelly, slippery,  fruit of the durian.

The puzzling, slightly smelly, slippery, fruit of the durian.

The pit squirmed between my fingers as the pudding-like skin slid across the mushy fruit of this spiky notorious smelly fruit. The taste is indescribable. My first bite was interesting, but with each successive bite I knew that I would not eat all four pieces. The durian stand stretched for half a block and must have contained a thousand of these spiky tropical enigmas. One man spent his day cutting open the malodorous durians and scooping out the four fleshy pieces of yellow fruit tucked inside the inedible husk (fortunately, only the husk smells bad). Another worker packaged the fruit on a styrofoam tray, wrapped it in cling-wrap, and assigned a price. A third sat around waiting to collect the money. Packages ranged from S$2 to S$15, based on quality I was told, but they all looked identical to me.

Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find!

Inside a friendly bar at Emerald Hill with an honest-to-goodness affordable Happy Hour special, extremely friendly staff, and free peanuts. What a find! And no tiered pricing — many bars increase the price of their drinks as the night goes on.

I continued to wander the streets of this other Singapore, eventually making my way to a filthy bathroom at a metro station. Litter on the floor, vomit in the urinal, the rank smell of uric acid in the air; I smiled as it reminded me of New York City. Disgusting as it was, I was happy to spot it before crossing back onto the edge of the free tourist map handed out at the airport. One last example of the not-so-ideal before returning to the perfectly dull, neon-lit collection of mega-brands on Orchard Road.

The Marina Bay area of Singapore.

The Marina Bay area of Singapore.

The Singapore we visitors are directed to is squeaky clean, manicured, and sparkling. This fifty-year old city has made an improbable transformation in its short life as an independent nation. But I can’t help but see it as a soulless walking suit of steel and glass with an eye focused solely on profitable efficiency. Impressive to look at, but not very interesting. A Kardashian of world capitals; a shallow, superficial playground that strokes the vanities of the super-rich, the business traveler, and the easily impressed. And it is impressive. There’s no denying the beauty of the city’s architecture and parks. And it’s extremely efficient and safe. But it’s also painfully boring. Unlike the Lamborghinis and Ferraris rolling through its streets, Singapore never fully roars to life, throws your back against the seat, and makes you shriek with joy. It can’t. It’s a kit-car with high-gloss paint, a fancy logo, but very little under the hood.

Special Thanks: Continued monthly thanks go to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc for their ongoing support of our journey.

Back on the Bikes: We’re heading back to Rome on June 23rd to reclaim our bicycles and touring gear and will be pedaling southeast out of the Eternal City on June 27th, bound for Brindisi and Greece. Finally, after six months of being off the bikes, we’ll be back underway and headed towards Turkey!

A Look Back at Bali: Our video slideshow of our time in Bali has been uploaded. You can view it on our Gallery page or by following this link. Enjoy!

22 May, 2015

Warrior Poses and Dragon Tongues

My right leg is wrapped around my left, thigh over thigh, foot tucked behind my calf. Sometimes. My quadriceps quivers as I entwine my arms, the palms flat against one another in front of my forehead. My left leg begins to wobble as I sit back onto an invisible chair as my elbows reach up and I bend forward, an attempt at the advanced posture for this pose I’m told is called Garudasana. Google would later translate it for me: Eagle Pose. I bend at the waist but keep my eyes up and all I see is a lone coconut palm, my drishti, the very same tree I affix my gaze to every morning. It’s the tallest tree on the distant ridge, across the valley of rice fields and jungle, to the right of an orange-roofed villa. I can spot this tree from whatever mat I claim in the window-walled yoga studio at Intuitive Flow and I must for it is the source of my balance, shaky as it may be. For ninety minutes every morning, day after day, regardless the pose, I see no further than this coconut palm across the valley in the achingly beautiful Penestanan area of Ubud, Bali. Nor do I want to.

Bend at the waist, hands touching the floor. Inhale, right leg back.
Exhale, heel down and turn out the toes. Rise into Warrior One.
Hips squared, arms raised, focus on your Ujayii breathing.

One of the local ladies we see most mornings on our walk to yoga.

One of the local ladies we see most mornings on our walk to yoga. She’s carrying a large basket of offerings to the nearby temple. Families in Bali each make 25 small offerings a day, but this was a festival day so she had a much larger offering prepared.

Our first night in Ubud was something else. We went to the cafe nearest our house, Alchemy, a holistic, cold-pressed, vegan, organic oasis for the spirit-seeking, yoga-crazed, Eat, Pray, Love pilgrims who flock, unbeknownst to us at the time, to this part of Bali. The place was a caricature of itself; I had no idea cafes like this existed outside of South Park and Futurama punchlines. All around us, long-haired, barefooted, Sanskrit-tattooed men and woman in breezy clothing, most younger than us, sat cross-legged on sofas, their dirty feet unabashedly brushing the numerous pillows. Snippets of conversation involving phrases like heart space and total soul floated across the room. “Everyone,” I remember commenting to Kristin, “is so affected. This can’t possibly be authentic.” We sat and sipped our all-natural smoothies through our fresh-cut papaya straws and enjoyed a most unforgettable hour of people-watching.

Our table at Yellow Flower Cafe, where we can be found almost every day.

Our table at Yellow Flower Cafe, where we can be found almost every day.

After yoga each day Kristin and I walk along a narrow concrete path delicately perched on the edge of a terrace between jungle, rice fields, villas, and a narrow water channel, to the nearby Yellow Flower Cafe where we settle down to read over too many cups of coffee and a whole coconut. We sit atop thin cushions on a raised floor in the corner, leaning our sweaty backs against a curved wall, the same spot every day. Sometimes for hours. The coffee is local, cheap, and strong and the food organic and delicious; the setting is priceless. We are slowly becoming part of the scenery and often fall into conversation with whoever claims the other low table in this nest-like portion of the cafe. Perhaps a woman or two from our yoga class, or one of the instructors, or a retired Australian couple, or European newlyweds. It doesn’t matter. Ubud is the anti-Seattle. Here a warm smile inevitably leads to a lengthy conversation, an exchange of email addresses, and a hug. The staff knows us now too, knows that we’ll be back tomorrow, and knows we want a table for two, sometimes three, no-you-better-make-that-four for the Sunday night Indonesian buffet. They don’t fret for a moment when we realize that we’ve run out of cash and have to return the next day with the rest of the money we owe. It’s happened twice.

Back foot meets the right and Downward Dog.
Turn in your elbows, hips to the sky, exhale.
Inhale and slide forward into plank. Exhale and hold it.

One day last week we didn’t go to yoga and the cafe but instead rented a motorbike and took off across the island, up into the mountains. It was a 75-mile day trip, pushing our 110cc Honda Scoopy to its limit as it gamely carried us up steeply switchbacking 20% inclines to the rim of an ancient, weathered volcano. Bali is beautiful, from tip to tip, just as we suspected. Though our trip to a lakeside temple, waterfall, and rice fields yielded a very memorable day we opted to scale back our plans for other similar forays on account of our newly-formed, instantly-treasured routine back in Ubud.

Legong dancers take the stage at Ubud Palace.

Legong dancers take the stage at Ubud Palace.

Still, as the days went on, my drishti began to change. Though my physical eyes remained affixed to that same stalwart ridgetop tree, the towering nail that refused to let the wind hammer it down, my inner sight saw far beyond it. I began seeing all the way to Rome… and our bicycles. And then, a few poses later, my gaze fell beyond the Greek Isles and Turkey and all the way around the world to southeast Asia. Further always, forever looking around the bend in the road or to the next page of the calendar. It is my blessing and my curse. It is why we are here in Bali. And why we’ll leave next week. Dammit.

Focus your awareness on your heart as you breathe deeply.
Feel the air passing through your heart from your chest to your back. Hold it.
Follow the air as it moves from your back, through your heart, and out your chest.

With the house locked tight, cheap supermarket bags stuffed with a change of clothes, sunscreen, and our ever-present Kindles slung over our shoulders, we set off at 5 a.m. to catch a ride back to Denpasar for an early morning flight to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. Of all the things I ever wanted to do in this corner of the world, visiting Komodo National Park sat atop the list. And we were going to do just that. Kristin had booked us for a three-day boat trip from Flores to Rinca and Komodo Islands. We saw eleven Komodo Dragons during our three mile hike that first day at Rinca Island, enjoyed a gorgeous sunset in a sheltered cove off the coast of Komodo and Kalong Islands, and watched as thousands of very large “flying foxes” took to the night’s sky. Bats. The next morning brought an early wake up and opportunity to hike Komodo Island where we’d once again spot another ten Komodo Dragons before going snorkeling.

The ranger drew the dragon's attention and took this photo while our guide, armed with a stick, protected us in case the dragon turned.

The ranger drew the dragon’s attention and took this photo while our guide, armed with a large forked stick, protected us in case the dragon turned around. Komodo Dragons are extremely fast over short distances.

This dragon on Komodo Island was prowling the ranger's quarters.

This dragon on Komodo Island was prowling the ranger’s quarters.

The dragons can grow to ten feet in length, from nose to tail, and were every bit as intimidating as I had hoped. Park rangers, armed with a lengthy, forked stick made sure we kept close together and stayed always, always, behind him. Komodo Dragons have attacked–and killed–humans and our guide Cuba “Call me Fidel Castro” on Rinca admitted to having to use the stick on numerous occasions. “Every year over 60 people apply to be rangers at Komodo National Park and only one or two make it through the training. This is very dangerous work,” Fidel said. Though it’s possible to survive a dragon bite, the toxic bacteria combined with the bleeding will likely kill any victims before they can reach the hospital at Bali, a ninety-minute flight away. Fortunately, the dragons eat only once a month and their preferred prey–water buffalo and deer–are still plentiful on the islands. Sadly, the dragons on Komodo Island did manage to wipe out the entire population of pygmy elephants that used to inhabit the island.

Lie on your back with knees bent, heels a hand’s length from your butt.
Hands behind your head, palms down, fingers towards your shoulders.
Slowly raise your hips and arch your back. Rise into Wheel Pose.

We smelled the incense from the tarmac: Bali. It was great to be back… home? It was late and we were tired. With our feet dirty from hiking a cave on Flores and in dire need of a shower, we did what anybody else staying in Penestanan would do. We headed straight to Alchemy and got two massive salads and a bottle of raspberry coco-biotic water. After all, our frequent salad-buyer card was full and we were due a free meal. And there we sat, flip-flops kicked off, feet on the couch, eating our kimchi-, coconut crispy kale-, and spicy cashew-topped salads, saying hello to the familiar faces, and smiling at the new ones. We no longer notice the half-naked children running around or the overheard snippets of conversations about spiritual healing. We only notice the great food, the warmth of the space, and the way we feel when we’re there: blissfully relaxed and healthy.

Always talk to strangers! We started talking to the neighbor of the warung where we were eating in Munduk and not only did he speak English, but he took us on a tour of the rice fields down in the valley below.

Always talk to strangers! We started talking to the neighbor of the warung where we were eating in Munduk and not only did he speak English, but he took us on a tour of the rice fields down in the valley below.

The next day, on a drive from Ubud to the immigration offices in Denpasar, we met a Swedish woman, Mia, who has come to Bali several times and now hopes to stay as long as she can. She just rented a house for a year and her excitement for Ubud mirrored our own. We’ve met others holding one-year leases with designs on staying in Ubud for as long as possible. It’s contagious. One of the many “digital nomads” residing here in Ubud she periodically works out of the popular co-working space Hubud and does yoga or walks in the rice fields daily. We’ve met several others like her; programmers, writers, women working on business plans, designers, and yoga instructors who have come to Ubud to live and work for as long as they can. “Hopefully forever,” they often add.

Lie on your back, feet at the corners of the mat, palms up near your sides in Shavasana.
Close your eyes and think of someone special who is having a tough time.
Send them a piece of the joy and peace you received here today.

Kristin sighed over her coffee this morning and, when prodded, told me that she was struggling to find a way to explain this place to her sisters. I had been thinking similar thoughts. What is it about Bali and, more specifically Ubud, that makes it so special? I’ll try to explain. It’s the natural beauty for starters. Of course. The seven minute walk from our house to Intuitive Flow each morning is a walk through Eden. But it’s so much more than that. Whether it’s the effect Ubud has on its visitors or the people who come to Ubud I don’t know — I don’t really care for chicken-and-egg dilemmas — but I know the people who are here are among the most welcoming, supportive, warm, and friendly people I’ve ever been around. And though we barely know any of them, we feel their warmth. It’s in their hellos, their smiles, and the way everyone seems to be assisting and encouraging everyone’s endeavors. It’s in the conversations we overhear, their love for themselves and the world and the way they care for what they eat and drink. It’s in the way people discuss what matters, really matters to every day local living, and completely ignore and dissociate from the manufactured noise that poses as news back home. Wherever that original home might be. There are no ill-spoken words, no tempers flaring, no rudeness, no ideology, no politics. Some would say it’s a bubble, but I think of it as an envelope of beauty and support where anyone, with any idea, can find nurture. The people we see each day, our new friends, ourselves, are not affected as I initially thought. We are both cause and effect of a place made by and for people who cherish the intrinsically good. From the native Balinese to the relocating Briton.

Nothing like sibling rivalry, err, love.

Nothing like sibling rivalry, err, love.

I’ll be going to Hubud several times next week to give the co-working space a proper test run to see if it is something that works for me. We’re still headed back to Italy in June to get our bicycles and continue our journey eastward, but my drishti has again changed these past few days. It’s settled back on that coconut palm and Penestanan and when I lie in Shavasana, my mind is not blank. It’s here. In Ubud, with designs on how we too can return. “Hopefully forever,” as the others say.

Congratulations: To Megan Knight, one of Kristin’s former co-workers, for winning the May “Postcard-and-More” giveaway. Woo-hoo! If you want a chance to win, just sign up for our newsletter via the link on the right-hand side of this page (near the top) and sit back and cross your fingers. And don’t worry, we respect inboxes of all shapes and sizes.

Thank You, A Favor: Our blog and FB page have been getting a lot of increased traffic lately and, whether by coincidence or as a direct result, there’s been a noticeable uptick in sales/borrows of my travel story “One Lousy Pirate” on Amazon these past two months. Thank you so much, I hope you enjoyed it! If you were one of the super awesome people who downloaded the book, could you do me a favor and leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads? Reviews are extremely important for indie authors like myself and, unfortunately, only about 1 in 500 readers ever leave a review. Don’t feel bad, as I’m guilty of it too. But if you read the book and can take a minute to leave a review, I’d really, really appreciate it. Thank you!

4 May, 2015

Welcome to Bali, Boss

Bali is not designed to give a pleasant first impression, especially if you arrive by plane and then, as so many tourists do, head straight to nearby Kuta Beach. Take those idyllic visions you have of shimmering white sand beaches and tubing azure waves; of rice fields and tropical fruit trees; of friendly, smiling locals and the quiet sounds of nature and leave them with the empty peanut wrappers in your seatback pocket. You won’t find them near Kuta. As I wrote in an email to my sister on the night we arrived, “Kuta is everything I hated about Morocco, only with a McDonald’s and Circle K on every corner.” It wasn’t just that I already missed Japan, I was plain sorry we even came.

A shrine in the center of this traffic circle in Kuta receives dozens of offerings each day. Many are placed on the street and others on the table.

A shrine in the center of this traffic circle in Kuta receives dozens of offerings each day. Many are placed on the street and others on the table. This was one of the rare lags in the traffic.

Wanting to do some surfing — it had been over six years since I last paddled out into noteworthy waves — and spend a few days in a tropical beach town before heading inland, we decided to bug out of pricey Tokyo after just five days and head to Kuta, Bali. Sure, we knew it would be crowded and even a bit dirty — it’s the developing world, after all — but the shock of going straight from oh-so-polite and courteous Japan to the streets of Kuta was the most drastic cultural shift we’ve encountered on this trip. Our short stroll after dinner had us fending off myriad t-shirt peddlers and Javanese massage workers, all while dodging an unpredictable stream of motor bikes. Every taxi that passed slowed and honked. Every store we passed called out to us, “T-shirt, boss? Just one dollar, boss!” Every fifty feet, another person trying to rent me, boss, a motor bike. Boss this. Boss that. Every twenty seconds. An endless loop of attempts at grabbing my attention. Kristin was invisible. All efforts to negotiate a transaction and pry the six-figure Indonesian Rupiah notes from us were directed only to me. Politeness faded and my “No thank yous” and “Maybe tomorrows” eventually fell into silent, unfortunate rudeness. Eyes ahead, just keep walking.

Great food, interesting atmosphere at Fat Chow, an excellent little restaurant in Kuta on Poppies II.

Great food, interesting atmosphere at Fat Chow, an excellent little restaurant in Kuta on Poppies II.

Kedac, the surfing instructor I hired* for two days of private coaching, picked us up after breakfast the next morning and, after a quick glance at Kuta Beach, decided the waves were too small. We went over my surfing history by email so he felt confident in taking me forty minutes up the coast to the beach at Batu Bolong. There we paddled out into the most crowded lineup I’ve ever experienced, this coming from a guy who learned to surf at overpopulated, compact New Jersey breaks. Kedac was fantastic, constantly advising me to adjust my position a few strokes here, a couple strokes there, instantly infusing me with a season’s worth of local knowledge. I was in perfect position so many times, but the waves were too small and too slow and the board I was on was too short for my atrophied paddling muscles. Unbeknownst to me, Kedac rode a wave onto the beach and rented a 7’8″ egg from a nearby rental stand and then paddled it back out to me. I caught the very next wave I paddled into, a nice stomach-high left that seemed to stretch all the way to Java. The stoke was back! But every wave was a party wave; there was no surfing etiquette here where the number of true beginners outnumbered the veterans ten to one. Someone dropped in on me on my next wave, they fell backwards while popping up and their foam longboard shot into the air. I caught it as it hit my waist and tossed it aside as I continued my glide along the face for another fifty meters. Kedac was relieved to see me laughing off the newbie’s faux-pas.

Batu Bolong is a very crowded break, where surfing etiquette is also on vacation. Not for agoraphobes or aggro surfers who can't share.

Batu Bolong is a very crowded break, where surfing etiquette takes a vacation. Not a break for agoraphobes or aggro surfers who can’t share the fun. It’s frustrating, for sure, but you have to just laugh.

Impressed with what he saw the first day, my jello-arms aside, Kedac felt confident in taking me to Green Balls, a more powerful reef break on the south of Bali, not far from famed Ulu Watu. This was the Bali beach of our dreams. Unlike ugly, litter-strewn Batu Bolong, Kristin would have that perfect sandy beach to lounge on while I surfed, shaded by the mouth of a basalt cave and the jungle of trees on the cliff above. Five hundred stone stairs hug the side of the cliff leading down from the parking lot to a small patch of beach. The return trip, tired after a long day of surfing, tends to keep the masses away. My sore arms and shoulders were painful to the touch and kept my side-sleeping self awake most of the night, but the faster, slightly larger waves were easier to catch and I soon found my groove. The waves peaked exactly where Kedac predicted they would and though there was a long wait between sets, I was still often in the perfect position. Three hours later, exhausted and thirsty but satisfied that my muscles remembered how to surf, I paddled in, back to the Kuta I was slowly coming to accept.

Me on a nice left at Green Balls, happy to not have to share it.

Me on a nice left at Green Balls, happy to not have to share it. The waves were breaking pretty far out and Kristin’s camera doesn’t have much zoom so we don’t have much in the way of surf shots. Most waves were stomach to chest high. A high pressure system settled over Bali the week we arrived so much of the island lacked surf.

The greater Kuta Beach area is neither Paradise lost, nor found. It’s a special plot of Purgatory. On the beach at Green Balls, the Indian Ocean still dripping from my hair, I was immediately surrounded by some very haggard looking Indonesian women trying to sell me homemade bracelets and questionable alcohol. No thank you. Not now. One reached out to start touching my shoulder. Massage? I asked her to please go away through gritted teeth while my inner voice roared in frustration. She hissed and left, heading straight for the next white-skinned target.

The 500 stairs down the cliff aren't so bad in the morning, but the return trip is a bit tougher.

The 500 stairs down the cliff aren’t so bad in the morning, but the return trip is a bit tougher after three hours of nonstop surfing.

Showered, massaged, fed, and rested, we decided to test the waters of Kuta’s hedonistic nightlife. Fifty meters from the monument dedicated to the victims of the Bali nightclub bombing, we paid the 100,000 Rupiah cover charge (two beers included in the $8 USD entry fee) to enter the club that replaced the one targeted by Islamist terrorists in 2002. Sky Garden Lounge is a sprawling cavernous place, four stories tall, with eight separate clubs and bars in one. Hundreds of Australians, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans, mostly college-aged, packed the dance floor as two bikini-clad, rock-solid, Indonesian dancers gyrated on either side of the deejay. A lone, bald, septuagenarian Aussie male in a tank top and shorts, his legs crossed femininely, watched from a bar stool with a broad, warm, reminiscent smile. Youth is indeed wasted on the young.

We climbed a staircase to a balcony overlooking the dance floor then another to a catwalk and finally reached the rooftop bar where a breeze offered refreshing comfort in this tropical sweatbox.  A few cold Bintang pilsners later we decided to brave the dance floor, a most unusual decision for us. And an hour later, reeking of smoke and drenched in sweat, we made our way for the exit, passing a half-dozen Indonesian prostitutes waiting patiently for those unable to land a partner for the night. The kilometer walk back to our hotel took us past numerous prostitutes and drug dealers. How odd to be openly offered marijuana, mushrooms, and cocaine the very same day the Indonesian government executed eight foreigners for drug trafficking. But that’s Kuta for you.

The delicious Nasi Campur at Yulia's Kitchen in Kuta, where we ate lunch 3 times in 4 days.

The delicious Nasi Campur at Yulia’s Kitchen in Kuta, where we ate lunch 3 times in 4 days.

We spent our final day in Kuta taking the best and ignoring the worst. I rented a board for 50,000 Rp ($4 USD) on the beach in Kuta and paddled out into the tiny, mushy, beach break that was all too reminiscent of the summertime swells I surfed with friends as a teenager. As was the crowd. Three hours later, thirsty and sunburnt, I found myself sitting on a plastic beer crate in a circle, cold beer in my hand, with a group of Indonesians who spend their days renting surfboards and selling drinks out of a cooler to tourists. They passed around a bag of singkong chips while discussing the more intimate details of Japanese, Australian, and Balinese women and together we laughed and drank until the afternoon rain started to fall. A truck would soon be by to pick up the hundreds of empty beer bottles consumed that, and every, afternoon on the beach.

The rest of the day was spent doing the things one should do in Kuta. We got another Balinese massage that afternoon, our third in three days; we enjoyed another extremely tasty and ridiculously inexpensive meal; and we had another Bintang or three at a pub on Jalan Legian. And over and over again we were asked if we wanted to buy a t-shirt or shoes or drugs. But we didn’t focus on the constant solicitation, but rather on the scents and sights of this place. For even the most derelict souvenir shop burned incense throughout the day and had fresh, flowery offerings in a lotus-shaped palm basket on the sidewalk in front of their store. The offerings of flowers and herbs and sometimes a little bit of food were replenished daily, always adding a welcome splash of color and beauty in this filthy, concrete, tourist playground.

We left Kuta on our fifth day in Bali and transferred inland to the cultural, yoga-centric town of Ubud; real Bali, the marketing brochures proclaim. Kuta may not have been the Bali of our dreams, but it’s still Bali. And to skip it entirely would be every bit a mistake as to never leave it.

Sunset on Kuta Beach.

Sunset on Kuta Beach.

*I first filled out a request for intermediate coaching from the highly-rated  Pro Surf School but, being as I was only one person and not a beginner they punted my inquiry over to Kedac at Blue Ocean Surf Guiding. Kedac charged $40 USD for a half-day private instruction, including board, leash, rash guard, and transport. He also made sure to get Kristin and I bottles of water and some snacks after each session. I’d certainly hire him again, even if just for the transport and board rental though it was very helpful having someone share locals-only advice throughout the session.

Special Thanks: Continued thanks to Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc., for their ongoing support of our trip. We’re currently formulating our plans for the rest of this year and though we haven’t any finalized plans to share just yet, we are going to be back on our bikes sooner than we originally thought! Details coming in the next newsletter!