On The Road (In The Sky?) Again

It’s time to say good-bye to Indonesia.

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There’s something particularly wonderful about a climate where your home doesn’t need walls

It has been an eventful and busy eight weeks, and I think we’re all ready to move forward.

We boarded a plane heading north and were rewarded with the kind of spectacular sunset you can only see from an airplane window, followed by the best view of a lunar eclipse I’ve ever seen.

We arrived at our new apartment in Taichung, Taiwan, late last night. It’s very, very small, but Hugo would like you to know that “it’s still bigger than a big fish.” Future real estate agent, perhaps?

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The Kecak Dance and the Artifice of Tourism

Bali is a very “touristy” place, and it’s easy to see why people love coming here. There’s something for everyone: mountain hiking, diving, beaches, beautiful stone temples and a vibrant arts and crafts industry. But if you scratch just below the surface it’s an interesting case study of what happens when a place molds itself to the desires of tourists.

For example, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of a kecak dance the other night.

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Sorry for the poor photo quality, the main lighting is a fire in the center.

The kecak involves a chorus of 100 men who sit in three concentric circles accompanying a performance of portions of the classic Ramayana story.Through their voices, body and arm movements, the kecak gives an immediacy and intimacy to the Ramayana that is absent from the more classic performances with a gamelan accompaniment.

Here is a brief video of a daytime kecak performance to give you a better idea:

The Ramayana dancers would then perform in the center of the circle.

Attending a kecak performance is a common activity here, but it’s far from the “traditional” art form that most people think.

In fact, kecak was invented by a German by the name of Walter Spies in the 1930s specifically for performance in front of Western audiences.

And if it seems vaguely familiar to you, it could be because the kecak dance was the basis of the Na’vi dance in the movie Avatar. I found this great video mashup on YouTube of the movie with the real life dancers:

Remember the cool photos of the Nyepi statues I showed you a couple of weeks ago?

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These weren’t even part of the celebrations of Nyepi until the 1980s, and now are featured prominently in tourism advertisements for Bali as an enduring and traditional part of the celebrations.

A lot of people come to a place like Bali seeking an “authentic” or “traditional” experience, forgetting that people are not timeless, and that cultures are constantly changing and adapting. There is a performance element to what is presented to us, the tourists. I’m not saying not to come to Bali, or not to enjoy these performances. I really liked the kecak performance and would recommend it to anyone who asked, and would definitely recommend that anyone coming to Indonesia should at least spend a little time in Bali.

But I also think it’s important to examine our own expectations of what we are seeking through travel and how we can have meaningful intercultural experiences through a more nuanced understanding of both the places we are visiting and our own roles as tourists.

Ubud Wanderings

Most people who come to Ubud just stay a few days before moving on, but since we’ve got two weeks to fill I think I’ve explored every nook and cranny of town with Hugo, twice.

A visit to Ubud isn’t complete without a visit to the Monkey Forest.

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Look! Macaques everywhere!

Although I don’t think you can actually see any in that picture, trust me, the Monkey Forest is full of them. They also bite and will steal your stuff, so visitors beware. But, if you would like to experience a monkey jumping on your head, this is the place for you!

We’ve been to the market and touched everything.

If anybody wants anything from Bali, let me know! This is the place to get it. And no, I will not bring you a coffee table.

If anybody wants anything from Bali, let me know! This is the place to get it. And no, I will not bring you a coffee table.

We’ve had some street treats to eat.

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We’ve had some tropical fruits to drink.

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We’ve stuck a few straws into a few coconuts.

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We found hidden fish ponds.

If there is a fish pond anywhere, Hugo will find it.

If there is a fish pond anywhere, Hugo will find it.

We found the Pondok Pekak Library & Learning Center, where you can check out books or take language and art classes.

Seems plausible.

Seems plausible.

And they don’t mind if you just sit in the shady courtyard reading for hours at a time.

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Hugo has also discovered a love of swimming pools, so we’re spending a lot of time in the water these days. In fact, the other night he jumped in, fully clothed, during a birthday party for two of the students. Luckily, it wasn’t the deep end. I guess it will be time for some serious swimming lessons when we get back to Tacoma!

Happy New Year (Again!): Nyepi, The Balinese Day of Silence

The day we arrived in Ubud was the eve of Nyepi, a Balinese Hindu festival known as the Day of Silence. It is a full day where everyone stays home: no work, no travel, no special entertainment, just a day of fasting and reflection. The streets are empty of locals and tourists alike, and all shops and businesses are closed. Exceptions are made for life threatening emergencies, but the otherwise the only people on the street during the day are the traditional security men called Pecalang.

The silence of Nyepi is a stark contrast to the night before. Everyone takes to the streets for the parade of ogoh-ogoh, statutes of malicious mythological beings which are marched around town and eventually burned  as a purification symbol.

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Did I mention they are malicious? Because they really, really are.

They ogoh-ogoh are made of paper and Styrofoam, so they are relatively lightweight for their size. They are mounted on a bamboo frame and carried by hand during the parade.

Some young boys waiting to carry a small ogah-ogah in the parade.

Some young boys waiting to carry a small ogoh-ogoh in the parade.

After driving across the island from our beach hideaway in the north, it was disorienting to be thrust into the crowds preparing for the parade. Ubud is a major tourist center in Bali, and throngs of people come out to see this once a year event.

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People getting a closer look before the parade

The ogoh-ogoh are put on display in an open area before the parade, so we were able to get a very close look.

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Some of them are very detailed and expressive.

We walked around the holding area, but had to leave before the parade really got started. That’s the down side to traveling with a small child who zonks out by 8pm. After the chaos of the parade preparations and street performances, the Day of Silence was a welcome respite.

I think this one was my favorite, especially the facial expression on the rat hiding between his feet.

I think this one was my favorite, especially the facial expression on the rat hiding between his feet.

Beach Life

Spring Break is coming to an end, so it’s time to say good-bye to beach life. We’ve been tucked away in a little beach house on Bali’s north coast in a village called Tejakula.

Every morning we were greeted by a bright tangerine sunrise.

I think I took a sunrise picture every day

I think I took a sunrise picture every day

In addition to the dolphin trip, there has been a lot of beach combing.

This rocky volcanic beach is just outside our door

This rocky volcanic beach is just outside our door

Time spent beach combing means even more time curating a collection of beach discoveries.

We have room for all of these in the suitcase, right?

We have room for all of these in the suitcase, right?

Then, there was even more time spent working on our beach architecture.

Coral pieces here, red rocks over there

Coral pieces here, red rocks over there

Unfortunately, Gareth had to spend a fair share of time working.

Grading final exams in a beach house is better than grading final exams in your office, right?

Grading final exams in a beach house is better than grading final exams in your office, right?

Although I’m not sure I could get any work done with a view like this.

Blue skies and shining seas

Blue skies and shining seas

This guy seemed to always know when to turn up to ask for food.

Bali dogs are a constant friendly presence

Bali dogs are a constant friendly presence

So with a final sunrise…

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And some last minute shenanigans…

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We’re brushing the sand off this grubby boy…

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And heading inland to meet the students and continue our Pac Rim journey.

Dolphin Spotting

It’s 5:20 am. There’s a faint gray glow in the sky. The sun is just beginning to rise behind a thick cloud cover. I sip my coffee on the front porch, look out over the gently lapping water and wonder if today will be today. We’ve tried almost every morning since we’ve arrived here, but are always foiled by bad weather and heavy currents.

I hear footsteps approaching on the wet grass. It’s our captain. “Today is good. We will go,” he says with characteristic brevity.

The boat is ready to launch

The boat is ready to launch

I finish my coffee quickly and go to wake up Hugo. I wrestle his drowsy body into a life vest as Gareth packs the camera and a snack, just in case it takes longer than we expect.

Heading out to sea

Heading out to sea

The sun creeps higher and pinkens the sky. The motor hums reassuringly as we slice through the water.

The sun is still hiding, a downside to traveling in the rainy season

The sun is still hiding, a downside to traveling in the rainy season

I’m really not sure how far offshore we have to go. I’ve become used to the ambiguities of life here, of only understanding a fraction of what’s happening at any given time. I just trust that the captain will find what we’re looking for.

An expert eye on the horizon

An expert eye on the horizon

Hugo is nestled between my knees. He doesn’t really have a place to sit in the narrow boat, so I keep a tight hand on him as we speed forward.

Everyone's keeping watch

Everyone’s keeping watch

The captain points: “There, I see them.” The race is on.

Suddenly they’re everywhere, hundreds of them, surrounding us. Leaping and splashing, a soft pffff as each one takes a breath.

It's an experience impossible to capture on camera

It’s an experience impossible to capture on camera

Sometimes it’s just a dorsal fin cutting above the surface, sometimes they leap, full body out of the water in twos and threes. We see their eyes looking at us.

Hugo kept saying "Maybe we'll also see some narwhals." At age 3, anything is possible.

Hugo kept saying “Maybe we’ll also see some narwhals.” At age 3, anything is possible.

It’s time to head back to land. The mist has burned off the mountains and we get a clear view of our house as we come around.

Coconut palms and mountain tops

Coconut palms and mountain tops

We’re home in time for second breakfast.

It was an early wake up call even for this early bird

It was an early wake up call even for this early bird

When I talk to our captain later that afternoon, he tells me (with more than a little self-satisfaction) that the fancy resort next door sent out some boats that same morning and never found the dolphins.

It was nice to have the pod to ourselves.

A Quick Update

Good morning faithful blog readers! Sorry for the lack of posts for the last few days, but we are sorting out our Internet problems and should be back to regularly scheduled blogging very soon.

In the meantime, rest assured that we made it to our destination! And just where are we, you ask?

After a short 1 hour flight to Denpasar on the island of Bali, we took a somewhat white knuckle ride up and down the central mountains (the down part being the most perilous) to the village of Tejakula on the northeast coast.

Don’t worry, beautiful photos and amusing stories are coming your way soon!

The Last Day In Yogyakarta

I hate packing. It’s not just the thousands of small decisions that come with preparing for a long trip, but also in the middle of the trip when all you have to do is just throw everything into the bag. For some reason it generates a feeling of inertia like no other.

It’s our last day in Yogya and we’re taking care of a long list of last minute things to prepare for the next leg of our trip.

I’m definitely ready to move on. It’s not that I dislike Yogya, but our living situation has been less than ideal (somewhat isolated location, difficult to get transportation), and there were seemingly endless little things wrong with the house: only one bathroom drain that works, a roof that leaks in the most inconvenient places (onto the bed, right over the exact spot you would like to stand to brush your teeth), the somewhat hazardous wood floors. Don’t even get me started on the tokay that lives just outside our bedroom window.

Hugo also gets a bit out of sorts on packing days. Despite how much we talk to him about each place we’ll travel and making sticker charts to count the days to each destination, he still gets upset to see all his things zipped into his bag. He is much happier once we’re on our way.

I’m excited to share our next destination with you! Stay tuned…

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A Day At The Kampung

Mt Merapi looms ahead of us, a perfect dark cone, partially enveloped in mist. My ears pop, proving we’re gaining altitude even though the road doesn’t appear to be going uphill.

They say the volcano is smoking 300 days a year. Every time I look at it I doubt my vision, half convinced that it’s just wisps of cloud like we see around our more familiar and benevolent volcano at home, Mt Rainier.

Mt Merapi’s last major eruption was in 2010, the year before my previous visit to the area.

Today we’re taking a day trip to a village (kampung ) in the shadow of Mt Merapi where the students are doing a brief homestay.

Looking for fish, of course

Looking for fish, of course

Except, instead of spending time with the group, Hugo decided he’d rather spend time with his new friends.

Another 3 year old who likes throwing big rocks in the water! What are the odds?!

Another 3 year old who likes throwing big rocks in the water! What are the odds?!

Notice the black volcanic dirt:

Three boys, some trucks, and a pile of dirt

Three boys, some trucks, and a pile of dirt

The highlight for Hugo was this moment:

"I touched a baby duckling!"

“I touched a baby duckling!”

This village is also the home to a gamelan, which is a set of instruments used to play traditional Javanese music.

A detail of one of the pieces of the gamelan

A detail of one of the pieces of the gamelan

There are mostly xylophones and gongs, but one person will play a hand drum to keep the beat.

Hugo grabs a mallet and gives it a go

Hugo grabs a mallet and gives it a go

The pieces range in size from a xylophone about 18 inches across to this enormous hanging gong:

This calls for a bigger mallet

This calls for a bigger mallet

If you’re interested in hearing the gamelan in action, check out this video below:

We headed back to Yogyakarta, Hugo exhausted and dirty, the best way for a toddler to end the day.

Malls Are For More Than Shopping

In the US, malls are on their way out. People would rather shop online, and visiting a mall, even at the holiday season, is kind of a depressing experience.

Here, however, malls are glittering, exciting, bustling centers of commerce. We came to the mall to look for some new English books at the book store, stock up on groceries at Carrefour, and, most importantly, check out the indoor playground.

Everyone remembers their first time in a ball pit, right?

Everyone remembers their first time in a ball pit, right?

I’ve mentioned a few times that there really aren’t public parks with playgrounds here. In fact, the only place I’ve actually seen a playground was at the zoo, although I’ve read that some of the fancier hotels have playground areas for guests’ children.

The playground in the Amplaz mall is 35,000 rupiah ($2.69), and boasts slides, climbing structures, trampolines, and a ball pit.

There was a lot crammed into a small space

There was a lot crammed into a small space

There was a train shaped like a lion that kids can ride for an extra fee. Hugo hates rides of any sort so we skipped it.

Seriously, I forced him to ride on a carousel once thinking he’d like it once it started: worst idea ever. I guess this ride-o-phobia will save us having to endure a Disney vacation in the future.

Well that was a bit of a tangent. Back to the topic at hand.

There was this waterbed trampoline thingy that would slosh around when the kids jump on it

There was this waterbed trampoline thingy that would slosh around when the kids jump on it

There were also different kinds of blocks for stacking and building, and an art area (the art area was closed when we were there).

This was the best part by far:


I’m pretty sure those are the squeals of a child who had forgotten how much fun it is to go down a slide.

There were just two other kids there, so I encourage you to go on a weekday to avoid any crowds. The place seemed a bit run down, but was safe and clean. I think we’ll be stopping by again before we leave town!