Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thank you Indonesia

I feel like it was just yesterday that I was painting a world map mural with the kids in my village in El Sal.  All of us questioning how to go about painting Indonesia. The few dots that we painted represent the archipelago compromising of over 13,000 islands. It’s hard to believe that these small specs on the world map make up the  4th most populous country in the world.

I found my way to Indonesia via the Philippines. There I had a wonderful visit in Manila and Bohol with my Peace Corps bestie, Amy. The people there are very friendly, always responding with “yes, mam” or “yes, sir.” Sometimes it was a bit much hearing them respond to every single yes or no question with "mam."

I guess I should just be happy that most people there speak English. Manila isn't anything like I thought it would be. A city full of some of the worst poverty that I have ever seen along side any "Western" restaurant, gym, or other franchise you can possible think of. 

We took a flight to an island in the south, Bohol, where we saw the chocolate hills, and tarsier monkeys, the world's smallest primate. These will only be images as memories in my own mind, since my camera battery was left on the wall still charging in Manila.

It was a much needed relaxing week at the beach catching up on the past few years of our lives and reminiscing about our time in El Sal. Thanks for a wonderful visit Amy.

 Being a budget backpacker will often involve uncomfortable situations; like a 13 hour layover between flights instead of a direct flight. Since it was nighttime, I decided to camp out in the airport. Lucky for me the floor of the Singapore airport is cleaner than most of the hostels I have been staying at, so I was able to catch up on some zzz’s there.  After a long few days of traveling and surviving off of crackers, oreos and water, I finally arrived in Ubud, Bali.
Hindu Temple in Ubud

This place is considered the cultural center of Bali. I wanted to stay away from the drunken bikini scene so I headed straight here.  Instantly I felt the wellbeing and spirituality  all around. However, as much as Elizabeth Gilbert depicted this in the book Eat, Pray, Love Ubud can’t necesarily guarantee a remedy for every mid-life crisis (hehe)

the rice fields outside of Ubud

Ubud will still turn out to be my favorite place in Indonesia.
A place full of yoga centers, vegetarian restaurants, coffee shops, and spas. Who could ask for more ;) Ubud is predominantly Hindu so I spent most of my days here visiting the temples and joining the dozens of others all dressed in colorful sarongs.

  Balinese Hinduism is much different than Hinduism in other parts of the world. It combines aspects of Animism, Ancestor worship, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Monkey Forest
 For this, there is Monkey Forest.  It is a "sacred forest" that demonstrates the harmonist coexistence between humans and nature. Dear monkeys, we can live together in harmony, but please don't jump on me, unzip my bag and attempt to steal my shit.
 Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave was built in the 9th century and was served as a sanctuary. The entrance suggests that people are entering an underworld as they venture into darkness.

Goa Gajah
Another important temple in Bali is Pura Tirta Empul (water temple). It is believed that this spring water is sacred and is supposed to have healing properties.

Pura Tirta Empul (Water temple)
Most nights in UBud I spent watching a nightly performance at one of the temples. Dancing is a huge part of their culture and religion. Most of the dances are connected to Hindu rituals that express a story.

Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

A short bus and ferry ride later, I landed on Gili Trawangan. The Gillis are a small group of islands off the coast of Lombok (the island east of Bali.) The best way to describe this island is… Spring break Cancun meets the Middle East.  Going to bed at night to Kanye West “gold digger,” or any other out of date rap song, and waking up to the sound of the mosque. Muslims beginning their day with a morning prayer rehearsed over the loud speaker with a sound so loud it carries throughout the entire island. Every morning at 4am. Then 5 more times a day after that.

Gili Trawangan

There are around 800 people living on this island with most of their incomes coming from tourists. These islands are full of dirt paths without any motor vehicles, only bicycles and horse and buggies.

clear water makes for incredible diving

This island itself wasn’t anything special for me; as it is your typical island scene you can find anywhere in the world; Bob Marley, bean bag chairs, hookah bars, "magic" smoothies, dreadlocks, etc.. I went for the diving…. And to reunite with an old friend, James (who I met in Colombia 3 years ago J )

the beautiful beaches in the Gilis
There we went on two dives together, and the experience was unreal.  You lose yourself in the colors, details and variety of the infinite number of coral and fish. With a visibility of over 40 feet, there is so much to see it's overwhelming. My weightless body allows the current to take me away with it and I feel free.

I lose my mind to what I see; Below me a purple starfish suctioned around a piece of coral. A sea turtle swimming next to me in the same direction, we make eye contact and share a moment. A shark below swimming in circles along the seafloor.

From Gili T, we embarked on a 4 day sailing trip to Flores.. 20 of us… starting as strangers and ending as friends.

Our group on the 4 day boat trip - one of my favorite experiences in Indonesia
 Hours of traveling from island to island; through the day and night. Snorkeling with turtles, sharks, and fish.  Passing by dozens and dozens of islands... Wild monkeys roaming freely along the white sanded beaches. Serene sunrises and sunsets.. and best of all... komodo dragons!

Komodo dragons! eek

 We stopped at Komodo National Park and Rinca to “hunt” (as stated in the itinerary) komodos. These giant creepy (yet somewhat cute) lizards that are the size of a crocodile. An animal that could eat me whole in an instant if it wanted.

snorkel spot on Rinca Island
 After a day of swimming amongst many forms of life underneath me, night time comes revealing with it billions of stars. All of this naturally puts life into a different perspective, leaving me feel so small. 

where we slept

With the stillness in my mind and the calmness in my heart, I surrender myself to the magic of the colors & variety of life form below me in the sea. I surrender myself to that full bodied moon and the stars above shining on me.

dinner time on the boat

 Days and nights of sailing that seemed like forever ...it's unbelievable to think the distance we covered is just a small spec on the world map.

sunset from the boat

Into the great wide open we go… not one of us knows anything about where we are going or what we will do when we get there.. but that’s all part of the fun and excitement about traveling.  You always find everything works out ...

Flores, here we come.

school girls in Flores
After arriving at the harbor it took a few hours of walking around to find a place that would host 7 of us. Flores is a beautiful and fascinating island with loads of dive shops. I spent one day diving here and lost more of myself to that great vast sea one last time in Indonesia.  After spending weeks by the sea, I decided to switch it up for my last week in Indonesia and travel inland (in Flores, then in Java.)

a mosque in Flores
Based on a recommendation from a friend, I set out to try to find Wae Rebo, a traditional village. This would consist  of a 5 hour long, bumpy ride through the hill sides to Ruteng. From Ruteng it is another 4 hour ride on a motorcycle to the start of the 2 hour trek up the mountain to Wae Rebo.  The ride was a very nice one through the hillsides, along the beaches, and overlooking rice fields. Every time we passed through a village, all of the children would come running after me until I disappeared screaming, "hello, sir." or "good morning mister."

spiderweb rice fields outside of Ruteng

 Even their mothers, who sit on the doorstep, look up from their weaving to wave at me. Unfortunately, my time at Wae Rebo wasn't as good as expected. The scenery was nice and the houses were quite interesting to look at, but the experience wasn't as authentic as I would have liked it to be (considering the effort involved to get there.) The ride there was better.

Wae Rebo Traditional Village in Flores
It seemed all they wanted from us was our money and they didn't include us at all about sharing their culture. They said they would perform a ceremony for us, but each of us had to pay $25... uhm.....no. We already paid $25 for the night to stay there. Unfortunately this is what happens when more and more tourists come to an area and it really does take away from the real, true, authentic feel of a place.

inside the houses
After spending a night in this village, I took the bus back to Labuan Bajo.  Another long, yet interesting bus ride with the locals. The man next to me, with both his finger and toe nails painted, is practically asleep on my shoulder. A hindu man in a sarong sits next to me and a muslim in front. Chickens at our feet. How could I almost forget to mention the twelve other people sitting on the roof of the bus.  Oh, and a pig is up there too.
cupping, Indonesian style.
We pass a number of villages on the way; the stores full of banners advertising Malboro cigarettes or Bintang (local beer.) On the side of the road a woman carries a  woven basket on her back and a pile of firewood on her head. Her barefooted child runs to catch up to her.  Teenagers pass by on their motorcycles with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. Stands of people selling gasoline along the side of the road.  Rice fields filled with water glistening in evening colors of the sun.

 Families working long days together in the fields for their dinner tonight. Volcanoes appear in a distance – so high that the top of it is hiding somewhere in the clouds. Women washing clothes in the river as their naked children splash water at each other. Tires screech and up ahead stands a cow standing in the middle of the street. Rows of colorful houses, many of which have a tombstone of a deceased ancestor next to their house.  
the crater at Mt. Bromo, Java
Long bus rides are a good time for reflection. Traveling takes you on an unexpected ride not only into the world, but in to the self as well– full of ups and downs – and always full of surprises. Always expect the unexpected.  Traveling isn't always easy, especially for a single female traveler who is on a tight budget who likes to get off the beaten path. You have to work for it, step out of your comfort zone, and push yourself.

Hindus walking to the temple
Days come when you think you are done, you’ve had enough, the exhaustion is killing you.  Days come where all you can do is look the other way … the slaughtering of a pig in front of your eyes, children pooping in the street, men catcalling you as you walk by, a woman with her arms outstretched begging for some change while her malnourished toddlers lies next to her playing with an empty medicine bottle and her infant wrapped tightly in a sling in front of her. 

Why don't the children wear helmets? I don't know. It's Asia..
a place where I have learned to stop asking questions
 All of this certainly changes my perspective of my “rough days” of traveling. The nights of sleeping on a wooden plank. A bowl of white rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A 20 hour bus ride that turns into 35 hours. The bed bugs. The inescapable stomach problems from the food. These days don't seem too rough anymore.

the crater @ Mt. Bromo
It's the hard you learn to love. It's the challenges that help shape your character. Those lows in traveling make those highs that much higher. The small things that seem so huge.

They come to you right when you need them.  Reminders of why you travel are in those moments that inspire you, excite you, amaze you ... those moments, those people, those sights, those experiences that keep you going. It's these moments that happen almost daily. Each day is something new, and there is something exciting about not knowing where you are going from here..

It's in that feeling you get when you remind yourself where you are... and how it was once a dream of yours to be here. The gratifying feeling that makes you feel blessed with life; the bravery and courage you were given by your creator to do and see things that most people can only dream of.


 Traveling is the best way to expand your mind and soul.   It's the beautiful sites you see and the immersion into a new culture that gives you a better understanding of the world. It's the other travelers too. People from all over the world, with different stories and backgrounds; that have all come to this place at the same time as you. It's like you are traveling the world while still staying in one place.

sunrise over Mt. Bromo, Java
It's all of those incredible sights you see as a traveler that soothes your soul. Sights that are so breathtaking you almost can't believe that it's real.. The expansion of your mind and soul provide you with an energy that keeps you going and going.. leaving you always wanting more and more.

You may be far away from your comfort zone, but you are only rewarded with something remarkable in the end.
A Hindu Temple in Yogyakarta, most of it sadly destroyed by the earthquake
I don't want to sound like a cheesy inspirational speaker, but it's simple; if you can dream something you can do it. . If you are not happy with what you are doing then why are you doing it? If you have "always wanted to travel to Indonesia" or "climb Machu Picchu" then what is stopping you? Fear. Well guess what, that is only a concept you have created in your mind. . Take a risk... that leap of faith will take you places (into the world and into the self.)

 All it takes is that initial step out of your comfort zone, and things only get easier from there. It's simple ~ all you have to do is trust yourself, trust the universe, and trust the kindness of strangers (while still having a guard up and maintaining your street smarts.) 
To think that in a few weeks from now I will be in a place that I have dreamed of going to for over 10 years.  India, a place I truly never believed I would go to. A place that seemed impossible to my once small, closed, narrow 18 year old mind.
Lia (solo female traveler from Holland) and I on the becak

With it being my last day Indonesia, I spoil myself; a 2 hour massage ($9) , a pedicure ($3), pizza and a banana split. I deserve it :) 1 month in Indonesia - done and done. I'm ready to move on to a new country, and I can only hope I will be given the opportunity to come back to this amazing place.

Musical performance at the Kraton; Yogyakarta
If I had to choose the best experience I have had here it would be the hike up to Mt. Ijen. For the second day in a row a trek up an active volcano at 1am to watch the sunrise. Working your body up that steep mountain of sand, through the blue fire (created by the sulfur in the crater), passing by miners who risk their lives just for a few dollars a day.

miners carrying sulfur along the ridge
 Standing on the top of the crater under a  dark sky full of stars waiting for God to bless us with light and warmth. Waiting for the sun to reveal something magical before our eyes. There it is; below a sky full of blues, oranges, purples, and pinks appears a stunningly beautiful turquois color lake inside a volcano crater.

sunrise at Mt. Ijen
It's amazing what one month in one country can do for you and your soul. I'm leaving for Thailand tomorrow, but a part of me will stay behind in Indonesia.

Borobudur Temple; a 9th century Buddhist temple
A part of me will remain in that vast ocean; the schools of fish wiping away all my worries. Those sharks I saw while diving that ironically erased away all my fears. The sea turtle providing me with peace as we swim side by side together.  The 5 foot manta ray swimming into the infinite abyss taking with it all of my anxieties.

a few girls from Borneo

 Those relaxing nights on the beach… watching the tide wash up the phosphorous to the land, and pulling back into the ocean all of my concerns. The wind whispers to me, everything will be okay.
Borobudur is the world's largest Buddhist temple;
getting a tour of the school in Probolingo

A part of me remains in the sun that was given to it during those spectacular sunrises that burned away all of the negative and warmed me with positive.  I left behind something on the steps of the Hindu temple and in that Buddhist temple on top of the mountain. I lost myself in the eyes of those Balinese traditional dancers and in the hands of the school children who want nothing more than to shake my hand and take a picture with me.

 Thanks to the kindness of strangers- all those local people who helped me out along the way. Those who have shared their culture with me - who have helped me from getting from point A to point B.

 Thanks to the other travelers that I have met along the way, whether it was for a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks, it was nice meeting you all. Experiences are better when shared.

Thank you Indonesia. You treated me well..

On to…. Thailand … con mi amiga Laura ;) 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ride the wave where it takes you

So there it is.... 18 months in China and with a blink of an eye it's all over. It's hard saying goodbye to this country and all the wonderful people who have impacted my life here.  All the people, places, and experiences there now only occupy a part of my mind. One door closes and another one opens for me.... 4 months in Southeast Asia =)
Shane and Lissy showing me around Guilin- locals I met on the train

The plan (for now) is to make my way to Hong Kong by land. With only 2 weeks left of my visa here I plan to embrace this country and take in as much as I can before leaving it (potentially for good.) On this 17 hour train ride from Kunming to Guilin (in Guanxi province) I admire the landscape of southern China (rice fields, stone forests, and mountains.) The women next to me nurses her infant. Men chew on sunflower seeds while playing a game of cards.  A young girl slurps her bowl of noodles whilst staring at me, this strange foreigner. 

 Freedom .. what an amazing feeling.  With only my backpack, my mind, my heart, and my trust in the universe I could go in any direction from here.
The Sun and Moon Pagoda in Guilin

 First stop: Guilin

Guilin is a place filled with charm and culture, and of course chaos and pollution (as most medium-large Chinese cities go.) However, I still found it nice and relaxing; mainly because of.... well... the freedom.  I spend most of my time here wandering the streets taking in the sights; men practicing tai chi,  elderly doing calligraphy, and the women dancing in the park with a smile on their face and a fan in one hand.  Many different forms of art that I take the time to watch.  All things I could see regularly in Kunming but after awhile became normal, or that I was too busy to even care.

children warming up before their tae kwondo class
During my travels I try and get off the beaten path when I can, while still trying to play it safe. I read about Jiangtouzhou in a travel guide, a fascinating 1,000 year old village whose 800 inhabitants are all surnamed Zhou. A place only 25 km away from Guilin which somehow or another took me over 3 hours to get to. 3 buses, a motorbike, and a short hike  later I finally reach this ancient place.

preparing for dinner in the village

After a few kilometers out of town the bus stops begin to disappear and the bus driver only stops when the passengers advise him to.  Just as I began to wonder how on earth I was ever going to find this place, the lady next to me turned to me and asked where I was going.  She told me that she lives close to this village and could take me. As I normally don’t trust people this easily, something told me that this lady with her 6 month old baby were completely harmless.

 The lady wrapped her infant in a cloth around the front of her and I hopped on the back of her scooter.  We drove through the beautiful countryside only seeing a few farmers along the way.
After a short ride, she dropped me off at the entrance and I took a walk around this ancient place.

from the top of a house in Jiangtouzhou

  The following day, I headed up to the Dragonback Rice Terraces. Although it is not the season to go (the best time being when the fields are filled with water) I still found it pretty remarkable. I met some girls from Spain and we hiked together to the top of the terraces and spent the night.

even the ladies of the minority group must stay connected somehow.
The following morning the girls headed back to Guilin early, but I was feeling up for an adventure and decided to stay at the terraces. I hiked 5 hours through the rice fields to the next village (where there would supposedly be a bus back to Guilin.)
Dragonback Rice Terraces
 The walk was a little quiet passing only a few local ladies all offering to be my guide. (All the signs have been taken down by the local people as a way to lure hikers into paying them to show you the way.)  I somehow managed to finish the hike on my own only to find out there is no bus out of the village that day because of a landslide.
hiking con las chicas de Espana
 While traveling, people appear out of nowhere just when you are about to have a mini breakdown/panic attack/ or other "now what the hell do I do?" moments.  This is when I met Mark & Anna, siblings from Germany, who were likely in the same situation.  We ended up paying a local guy to take us down to the mountain where the slide happened.  We had to hike for about an hour around this landslide to get the bus back to Guilin. The three of us ended up traveling together for the following 4 days.  
Mark and Anna from Germany in Yangshou
We left the city of Guilin and headed to Yangshou, a cozy little mountain town.  Loads of Chinese tourists flock here on the weekend which unfortunately changes the feel of this place; the charm and authenticity of this place are slightly lost.  You can understand why so many people come here.  The karst mountains, that surround this town, make the scenery seem so surreal.  The mountains in the area are the scenery used in many famous Chinese paintings and the back of the 20 yuan bill. 
the 20 yuan bill
I spent 4 days exploring these mountains; boating, hiking, biking, and cruising around on a motorcycle.  After 4 days you reach a point where the mountains around you just aren't as spectacular as they were when you first came. Time to move on...

on the bamboo raft

Since I started traveling through China I have grown to appreciate this place even more. Viewing China through the eyes of other travelers has shown me just how far I have come with this place. Their one or two bad experiences in their few weeks of traveling have allowed them to completely write off this place.
painting fans on the street of Yangshou
 I remember being in their position many times, and now I can look back at that and what I had to do to adapt to the most chaotic, disorderly, and uncivilized place I have ever been to. So this place pushes me, tests me, and takes me out of my comfort zone more and farther than I'd like sometimes. However, there is something to gain from that. This place will make you go crazy, if you let it. Or it can offer you so much, if you let it. You can accept it for what it is. You can’t change this place but it will certainly change you. I’ve had to adapt, overcome challenges, change my perspective in order to be okay with surviving in a place like this. 
calligraphy; a popular form of art amongst many Chinese
  Coming here with a closed mind will only leave you to suffer from the indifferences and difficulties trying to adapt to such a crazy place.  You can try to understand it all you can, but no matter if you are here for a few weeks or a few years I’m not quite sure any Westerner can fully understand this place. Just when you think you are about to figure something out, something comes up that makes you realize you aren’t even close.. It leaves you only wanting more (well at least for me)

This place has helped my mind expand . It helped me not only learn a lot about another culture (a culture that consists of nearly 1/3 of this world's population), but also to learn a lot about my own.
Chinese families are revolved around their one child (or grandchild)

Next: Hong Kong