For folks who don’t follow us on instagram (@bringasnack), we post lots of pics of the in-between, day-to-day sort of stuff. The Frenchman with no pants on, the misspellings on a lunch menu, the sort of stuff that isn’t really blog-worthy, but are still excellent little tid bits of life on the road.
Last week Zach and I went on our first visa run. We flew from Bali to East Timor so we could come back to Indonesia and stay longer. We booked a one way ticket and thought we might do some exploring. If we liked East Timor, we would stay a week. If not, we’d come back. Spoiler alert: by the end of our first day, we had flights booked back to Indonesia.
The internet told us that there had been a war that ended around 2002 and that the country was a budding tourist destination or an “Adventure Travel New Frontier,” as Outside Magazine boasted, with “Edenic beaches, soaring mountains, and dense forest. It was cheap, gorgeous, authentic.” (March, 2013) East Timor is host to the Tour de Timor bike race and is a spectacular, secluded dive destination. We couldn’t find much information on the internet detailing restaurants and accommodation and assumed that there would be plenty to choose from once we got there, just like in Indonesia. “Maybe they’re just not on the internet,” we thought. It didn’t really occur to us that there wasn’t much on the internet because there isn’t much there.
The most important thing that we didn’t know is that Dili, the capital, is prohibitively expensive. The United Nations was present until last December and because many people staying and working there were on the company bill, the cost of living is high. Our hot, dingy room in a hotel surrounded by barbed wire cost us a gobsmacking $60 USD for one night. To put this in some context, we have been paying $20 per night in Indonesia for an airy room with an outdoor shower, surrounded by palms, breakfast included. We couldn’t afford to stay in Dili, nor could we afford to rent a car and get out of Dili, taking the chance that the next city, 120km away, would be cheaper. We were stuck. I was sick. It was hot, dilapidated and expensive. And it was the only place I’d ever been where my smile was only returned half of the time. Dili was weird and I didn’t like it.
We stayed in the center of the downtown area and walked for 30 minutes looking for a place to eat. “It doesn’t really matter where we eat, let’s just go to the first place we see,” Zach said as we walked over gaping holes in the sewer system and dodged waist high pieces of rebar protruding from the ground. The city is poor and recovering from years of war. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, but nothing is being rebuilt.
They need the tourist dollar, but I wasn’t about to spend my hard earned dollar on something that wasn’t worth it. I worked hard to save. I want to see the world, but I also want to enjoy it.
East Timor may be an “Adventure Travel New Frontier”, but new frontiers are a totally different kind of travel, a kind that we didn’t expect. If you get out of Dili and into the countryside, I’ve heard it is gorgeous, raw, and secluded. But we didn’t. I couldn’t muster the spirit to go on adventures with a fever and we decided it wasn’t worth the dent in our budget to stick around. So we came back to Bali, where we can live comfortably for a price that works for us and that supports the local economy.
Gunung Rinjani is a 3,726m (12,224′) active volcano on Lombok Island in the Indonesian archipelago. The eruption that created its massive caldera is thought to have started the little ice age more than 800 years ago. It last erupted in 2010, with lava flows and smoke that spread 12km. And every day, hundreds of people climb it. Last week, we were two of those people.
It’s not that hiking Rinjani seemed dangerous. But these things never do until something terrible happens. And that’s just the beginning. I fully acknowledge that I’ve been jaded by of our recent year exploring New Zealand, but I just don’t think that the payoff in beauty was worth the considerable effort, expense, or risk of hiking Rinjani.
We’re neither ultra-marathoners nor first-time backpackers. We’ve put plenty of miles on our boots and like to think that we can hang with some seriously difficult walking. We’ve finished longer and more remote walks in the United States and down under. But Rinjani was, without a doubt, the hardest walk we’ve ever done.
There are a few options when booking this trek: one, two, or three nights camping on the mountain. We chose the two night option because we figured there was no reason to rush, but three nights seemed excessive. On our first day we were picked up at five in the morning and ferried first to Senaru in a taxi for two hours, then hopped in the back of a truck for another hour over to Sembalun. From Sembalun we began a gradual ascent through some cow pastures and over some rolling hills.
It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on us, so even though the walking wasn’t hard, it was unpleasant. But more unpleasant was the massive amount of trash littering the trail. We couldn’t walk more than a few feet without seeing something tossed aside by another hiker, and the areas where people stopped to rest were positively filthy. Aerosol cans, candy wrappers, many, many wads of toilet paper, and almost as many petrified logs of human excrement were in high concentration along every bit of the 50km trail. It was gross.
After lunch we began climbing steadily through the forest up sandy slopes and, seven hours after we began, we reached the crater rim and set up camp. It was a hard day, but nothing truly out of the ordinary. The walking was boring and the scenery average, but the view of the lake that filled the caldera at the rim was satisfying. We went to sleep with the sun setting over the other edge of the massive crater, tired from the early wakeup and steep ascent.
While day one was a hard warmup, day two was the backbreaker. Those making the summit push woke at two o’clock in the morning after a cold and uncomfortable night and set out with headlamps to make the summit by sunrise. After a 1000 meter vertical climb up a loose scree field we reached the top, though we were joined by about 200 other hikers. It wasn’t exactly the pristine and spiritual moment I’d envisioned. To deal with the cold, a group of trekkers were even burning plastic bags at the summit! Great idea!
Just after dawn we descended back down to where we’d camped the previous night, had a quick breakfast then continued the descent down into the caldera. One of the coolest things about Rinjani is that it’s central crater is filled with water, creating a massive freshwater lake at 2000m. There’s also a natural hot spring bordering the lake. I love hot springs (who doesn’t?!), so I was particularly excited about this part of the trek. Unfortunately, this was another experience ruined by the disgusting amount of trash everywhere. There was rotting food, used underwear, and pretty much every other nasty thing you can think of spoiling this fantastic natural wonder. The locals that were soaking there didn’t seem to mind, but I can’t imagine ever getting used to that scene.
After lunch at the lake (which was of course filled with garbage) we began the trudge up the other side of the caldera, back to the rim. The walking in this part of the trail was actually quite enjoyable, with a long and interesting traverse along the side of the crater walls. At times we were scrambling hand over hand and at others walking lazily along the crater wall. If the rest of the trail were built like this my tune would be completely different. As fun as this part was, it came at the end of a fourteen hour day of walking, so I was pleased to stumble into camp.
Day three began with a very steep descent down slick sandy soil and sharp volcanic rock. After a few hours of pain it leveled off a bit and the jungle popped up to shade us for a more reasonabley graded descent. We reached Senaru and our transport on the other side after about six hours walking, relieved to be finished.
So we’d spent 27 of the previous 72 hours walking through a terrible combination of steep ascents and descents, endless loose sand and scree fields, and poorly cut trails straight up the mountainside when a few switchbacks would have made good sense. Miles of pain are part of backcountry hiking, but this had the added element of frustration. With every two steps forward on the loose rocks and gravel, we slid backwards one, and every step down felt unsteady, ready to blow at any moment.
Further, hiking Rinjani isn’t cheap. Even though the trail is well marked and getting lost would be a feat in itself, it’s forbidden for foreigners to hike without a guide. And the guiding companies require use of their porters. I’ve never walked with porters carrying my food, tent, and water before, and though it didn’t sit well for me I understand the system. The mountain is their moneymaker and we’re supporting the local economy. As our porter friend Hero put it “In Senaru, you work in trekking, or you don’t work.” The porters were very nice and did exactly as they were asked, I just don’t like being strong-armed into paying $200 for a service I don’t want.
And where is that money going? The guiding companies are clearly making out ahead here. The local bosses running the show were well-dressed and drove fancy cars, while the porters sweating up and sliding down the dusty mountain with eighty pounds on their shoulders (and wearing flip-flops!) wore tatters and were over the moon for our modest tip. Did I mention that one of our porters was missing an eye?! This seems exploitative at best and criminal at worst, and I’m an accomplice. Don’t make the same mistake.
There are more things at play here and I won’t belabor the point. The mountain is clearly struggling to support all this activity. The summit was so crowded with people celebrating their accomplishment that I thought I might get shoved off a cliff. Erosion is a pending disaster on the many loose slopes. But these seem trivial now, as I consider all the other things at play here.
Rinjani is a unique mountain in that people with no technical alpine skills can summit a fairly high peak. It’s just being mismanaged by the government and exploited by a few small groups of people. If someone in power cleans it up, adds some simple toilets, regulates the guiding companies, and cuts down the number of trekkers per day, it will be worth climbing. In the meantime, don’t be a party to the crimes being committed on it every day.
“Sorry, no tonight. Maybe you come tomorrow?”
“Sorry, no lunch today. No shopping yet. My son has motorbike, we only have one.”
“Sorry, no tofu, only tempeh. No pork. You like chicken? You have chicken.”
“Sorry, no more Bintang.”
Maria’s operates by Maria’s rules. It is, after all, her house and her Warung, or shop, here at the end of the main road on Lembongan. As you walk along the one lane, shoddily paved strip that is used as a two way road for motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens and dogs alike, you’ll pass twenty or so Warungs serving a similar menu to that at Maria’s. But none will be as good or as inexpensive and the diners won’t have that giddy smile that you get when you know you’re about to chow down on some delicious food.
We didn’t get served the first time we went. The bar was full, the power was out on the whole island and they weren’t taking any more customers. So, just as they suggested, we came back the next day. Again, the bar was full, but we ate inside. When I say inside, I mean inside the house, which also doubles as the dining room. We met up with a friend who had just ordered. “Hope you’re not hungry, because it’s going to be awhile,” she told us. We had a laugh and ordered a round of Bintangs, which a nine year old looking girl brought to us from the household refrigerator in the corner of the room. I laugh a little to myself every time a kid brings me a beer and it happens every other day.
We waited two hours for our food that night. Not an onion was chopped beforehand; everything was cooked to order. One appetizer came before our food, one came with a main course, and all of the main courses came at different times. Our friend who was there before us got her food last, but none of that mattered. You eat when your food is hot, offer bites to those still waiting and suffering from food envy and just hope you’re not the last one to get your plate.
I expected the mie goreng (friend noodles with veggies and egg) to be greasy and the sweet and sour sauce to be sticky and kind of gross, but nothing here is anything except exactly how it should be. It is no problem that there’s no tofu or no pork because everything is good. You eat whatever they suggest and when there is no Bintang, you just run across the street to the mini market, buy a round there, and bring it back. No problem.
Dinner for two (appetizers, mains and two beers each) was $12 USD. Unbeatable.
Christina and I are now PADI certified Open Water Scuba Divers! Please, please, no applause. The course was four days of theory and practical application in pool dives and ocean diving, but anyone with moderate athletic ability (the 200 meter swim was probably the hardest part) and a firm grasp of logic would pass. That said, it was a big challenge for me because I’m a not a great swimmer and, before this course, was terrified of water deeper than my head. If I can do it, you probably can too.
World Diving in Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia was a big part of my success. They were extremely professional, well organized, and thoughtful throughout the course. Our instructor, Sarah, is a superstar. She explained everything with ease and knew exactly when to push the details and take her foot off the gas and let us relax. The PADI curriculum was well designed to highlight important things a repeatedly times over the course of a few days, while still detailed enough to be comprehensive. Fun fact: World Diving exclusively hires Indonesian Dive Masters, which is cool for many reasons.
But the best part, of course, was the diving. We did four open water dives in the ocean, among beautiful neon angel fish, awkward frogfish, and psychedelic coral. We learned how to maintain neutral buoyancy to avoid damaging the reefs or ourselves, and dealt with strong ocean currents pushing us away from our boat. We even mastered entering the water from a boat backwards and in sync with our dive partner. The name’s Helm, Matt Helm.
And now we can drop in to any dive center in the world and go on an awesome dive for a day or a week, learning about and exploring a brand new environment. The wonder of breathing underwater is incredible, and the addition of completely foreign and beautiful surroundings make scuba diving a magical experience. I’m excited for a lifetime of new adventures above, and now also underneath the water.
Nusa Lembongan, a small island just south of Bali, will teach anyone the fine art of patience. Here you have no choice but to let your western aggression slip away and go with the flow, because anything else gets you nowhere fast. As soon as you recognize and embrace this, you begin to appreciate it. You start moving slower. Really. Maybe its the uncomfortable sandals, but I honestly walk slower now than I did a week ago. You bring a notepad to lunch so you can scribble out a blog post while you’re waiting for your nasi goreng. And you realize how silly it is to rush through life searching for something while it’s is right there in front of you.
We’ve met a lot of people here in Indonesia that moan about the way things used to be on Bali or the Gilis. They whinge poetic about the good old days before Eat, Pray, Love ruined Ubud and how there’s no paradise left in paradise. But they’re all here, and they all say that Nusa Lembongan is the last island in the South Pacific that hasn’t been invaded by droves of shirtless, fist-pumping Aussies. Please don’t tell.
Lembongan is both paradise and rough around the edges. The streets are tiny and littered with trash. The beaches aren’t easy to get to and the surf is rough. There are chickens and cows roaming freely through town. But for all its faults, it’s still gorgeous. The surfing is awesome and the diving is world-class. The people are welcoming and it’s easy to get to. Flights arrive in Bali daily from all over the world and there’s a cheap public boat (with chickens!) every morning from Sanur for a mere $6.
If you come to Nusa Lembongan:
-Stay at Pondok Baruna in a seaview room on the beach ($30 per night).
-Take a 4 day PADI Scuba Diving certification course at one of the many dive centers ($395 per person, including 4 open water dives). World Diving was awesome (more to come on them in the next few days here at Bring a Snack) but I have no way to compare.
-Eat at Maria’s (meals from $1.50-$4) at the north end of Jungut Batu village, where the road turns sharply right toward the mangrove forest.
-Take yoga classes at the Yoga Shack, an open air bamboo hut where the singing birds and the call to prayer are your soundtrack ($8 per class).
-Rent a motor bike ($6.50 per day) and drive to nearby Nusa Ceningan, where you can jump off a 20m ocean cliff into Blue Lagoon ($5).
-Enjoy a large Bintang Pilsner ($3) while watching the sunset over the water as the local seaweed farmers pull in their harvest.
-Most importantly, relax and settle into island time.
We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 on a Friday night, people staggering in high heels down cobblestone streets and smoking cigarettes in grafittied alleys. With our backpacks still on, Zach and I made a beeline down Little Bourke Street to Chinatown for dumplings. I’d never been in this city before, yet it felt so much like home. We asked a dude eating out of a takeaway box where he got his dumplings, followed his directions, and proceeded to order a tableful of garlic drenched Chinese broccoli, sesame pancakes and dumplings. We didn’t have much to say at dinner, mostly because chowing down was a much better use of one’s mouth.
We didn’t really have a plan for Melbourne. “I just want to go and sit in a coffee shop and spend the day writing,” Zach had said of our four days in the city. So instead of planning, we went armed with a list of cafes and bars, an appointment at Alchemy Tattoo, and no real agenda for much else. We didn’t do any museums or see kangaroos. We went to eat and write, drink coffee and feel the vibe of the city.
Birdman Eating, Fitzroy
Robyn and Stephen, our beloved roomies from Wanaka, recommended this brunch spot in Fitzroy. A minimal space with excellent espresso and tasty, interesting food combos. The highlight of the meal was lunch dessert of homemade blueberry, rosemary and pistachio nougat and a glass of rose.
The Carlton Club, CBD
Annita, the tattoo artist that did my tattoo, sent us bar hopping in the CBD as a rainy afternoon activity. Did I mention that I like her style? We started at this swanky bar with massive taxidermied animals and a covered outdoor space that felt like a rainforest in the mid afternoon downpour.
Penny Blue, CBD
At the end of an alley off of Little Bourke, we found this craft beer bar with Gatsby inspired vibe and comfy, vintage couches. They let us in even though they weren’t quite opened yet and being only 5:00, we were the only people there. We popped out the computer and worked on some wedding plans while sampling local beers from Little Creatures and Bridge Road Brewers.
Trippy Taco, Fitzroy
Nothing fancy. Just really good tacos. Chewey corn tortillas, black beans, smoky hot sauce, fresh lime. You don’t need much else. It had been awhile since we’d had good, cheap tacos and Trippy Taco delivered.
A few months ago, one of our friends confided that he felt “lost in travel”. He said, “don’t forget why you travel, don’t just do it for a stamp in the passport.” Why you travel can be a very personal thing, something that can’t be dictated by a guidebook of sights that you just have to see. For us, Melbourne was a familiar, comfortable place to stop and think after a life changing year in New Zealand and before diving into Asia.
Even though we’re traveling on a tight budget, it’s still important to splash out once in a while on something we love to do. For some people maybe that’s a new outfit, a night out dancing, or a tattoo. For us, its eating. On our recent detour to Melbourne that meant eating at MoVida.
A few friends in New Zealand praised Frank Camorra’s restaurant up and down for inventive, delicious food. The days preceding our reservation were filled with building anticipation, like the days approaching Christmas or a birthday when we were kids. These are the moments that make breaking the budget worthwhile.
The food is served tapas style, so we knew we’d have a chance to try a lot of new and interesting dishes. The problem, sometimes, with tapas restaurants, is that the multitude of choices and flavors produce a disconnected and ugly contrast. To avoid this, we left ourselves in the hands of our waiter, with whom we immediately connected.
“What are your favorites?” Christina asked.
“Oh, I love that question. Awesome.” And he ran us through five or six options.
“Great, those sound good.”
“Cool, but…you’ve got three really rich dishes in a row here. I’d maybe swap out one of these for something lighter to break things up a bit. Maybe seafood?”
“Sounds good.” And later on, “can you help us with wine to match our courses?” Christina asked.
And I said something I never thought I’d say: “I’m kind of curious about sherry.”
“Oh, awesome. I was hoping you’d say that,” our server said.
At a friend’s house the week before, we mentioned we’d be going to a well-regarded Spanish tapas restaurant.
“Do they have sherry?” Our friend Steve said. He’s worked in the beverage industry, so he knows his booze.
“I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I care,” I said. Sherry was for old people and came in jugs, or so I thought.
“You should.” Steve fished out a bottle of Manzanilla from his liquor cabinet. “Here, try this.” I tried it and was impressed, but not blown away. The flavor was intense and unusual. The biting tang and sharp acidity were so different from other beverages in the class I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t for me…yet.
Last night, everything changed. First, our server recommended the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet to for our first course, and with it, a sherry (of course). Our trust in Steve and our trust in the server, and maybe a bit of curiosity won out.
It was perfect. The sharp tang of the dry sherry cut through the savory anchovy, while extremely salty fish was tempered by the strong flavor of the liquid. It was as if a key were fitting into a lock on both sets of flavors, opening each other to a new world of tastes. I’ll never look back. I’m a sherry convert.
It’s not often that a beverage and a food jive so well that they transform each other. It’s even rarer that a food and beverage pairing opens your eyes to ingredients you hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Our first course at MoVida in Melbourne on Sunday did both, partly because we left ourselves open to trying new things and our server led us down the right path. Good servers can immediately read customers for certain preferences. And good customers communicate their preferences clearly.
I’ll never look at sherry (or anchovies!) the same way again.
When I think about a mid winter’s farmer’s market, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and jams come to mind. And vendors shivering, possibly clutching a cup of coffee with two gloved hands. I didn’t expect much from the St. Kilda Farmer’s Market. So when we arrived at the colorful, bustling, market boasting roses and daffodils, oranges, pistachios and tomatoes, chai tee, coffee, beer and wine, and cuts of meat from every beast under the sun, I was flabbergasted and wishing I had a kitchen. We sampled meat pies and Mt. Zero olive oil, spinach dip and home made bread and got a recommendation for a brunch spot that serves bloody marys. It has been a year since I’d had a bloody mary. It didn’t disappoint.
On our way from the market to “the diner with the bloody marys”, we passed Veg Out, a massive community garden and oasis for creativity. It was the wonky iron fence and prayer flags that first caught my attention, and the exploding plots of green and chicken noises that drew us in. What is this magical place? Rhinestone adorned statues, mailboxes in the gardens, chickens that look like Tina Turner and food growing everywhere. I want to be here all the time. I felt like I had found my place. Zach marveled at the composting set up while I checked out the community kitchen. We walked among the plots, checking out the leeks and greens, and planned to bring a place like this to a place that doesn’t have one. That, we decided, would be a good use of our energy.
Veg Out is a shrine to healthy, delicious food. It is a place for people to come together and dig and chat and make soup.
In the last year I have:
Served as a guest judge in a lamb competition.
Delivered pizzas while loudly singing along to classic rock radio.
Learned a variety of food preservation techniques including fermentation, curing, dehydrating, and jarring.
Relaxed in natural, mud-bottomed hot pools after a seven-hour trek across treacherous swing bridges.
Learned how to make butter, cheese, bread, and whiskey (kind of).
Spent hundreds of hours climbing the schist cliffs around Wanaka and the limestone boulders of Castle Hill.
Failed (twice) to solve very simple problems with our van, which in my defense was of legal drinking age in the US.
Saw the sunrise on Mt. Cook/Aoraki with avalanches falling on peaks around me.
Harvested oysters, mussels, and red snapper from the ocean.
Learned how to skin, gut, and butcher poultry, small game, goats, and pigs for consumption.
Met dozens of new friends from all over the world (England, Australia, Argentina, Germany, France, Chile, Israel, New Zealand…) that I’ll share the rest of my life with. (But don’t worry, old friends, I still love you and miss you all.)
Got engaged to be married to the woman of my dreams.
It’s been a good year.