We’ve just left Indonesia after spending a month touring around Bali, Lombok, and the surrounding islands. Along the way we’ve learned a few things that we would have liked to know before we went, and because we are nothing if not public servants, here they are:
- For travel between the islands of Bali, Lombok, and the Gilis, take Marina Srikandi boats. They’re priced the same as all the other fast boat operators, but they have the largest boats and don’t oversell them. Trust me, getting seasick is a great way to ruin a day of your trip.
- Like a lot of Asian tourist destinations, the tout system runs deep. To avoid paying the tax, go directly to the source for things like rooms, boat tickets, airport transfers, laundry, etc. If you ask someone to arrange anything for you or even point you in the right direction, be prepared to pay for the service. Free information is rare.
- That said, we found the security and open market competition of Agoda.com or Booking.com helpful for locking down rooms a few days in advance. Proprietors lower prices on empty rooms as the date approaches and the price-shopping power of the web is fully in your favor. You can probably get even cheaper rates if you wait until you get to a place and hit the streets, but you’ll spend a lot of time carrying around your luggage and sweating. Usually it’s worth the few extra bucks to just book in advance – even though it violates rule number two above.
- If you like spun out waiters offering you crystal meth after dessert, go to Gili Trawangan. If, not stick to the far more family-friendly Gili Air.
- We found the water in Nusa Lembongan and Penida clearest and best for diving, but the wreck of the USS Liberty near Amed was awesome as a historical relic and massive, easy to access wreck. If you’re in the Gilis, snorkeling is a must do.
- Don’t bother climbing Gunung Rinjani unless you really dig wading through trash and feces on your way up a miserable, dusty hike.
- Catch the Bali sunset at Tanah Lot. There are multiple temples there so you don’t necessarily need to stay at the first one you see.
- It’s crazy cheap to hire a driver for a day in Bali and see loads of stuff. Five of us shared a car for US$55 for ten hours and saw way more than we ever would have hoped for if we were on our own.
That’s it for now. I’m sure there are more, (share them in the comments!) but this should get you started on any trip to Bali.
We’ve gotten pretty used to people trying to sell us things, so I was ready to say, “No, thank you” when the barefoot owner of Beten Waru pulled up a chair next to us and asked, “You like a very special dinner, special just for you? Six hundred people have my special chicken and not one say any bad thing. A spicy chicken, vegey-tables, rice. And then after, fruits. All different fruits. You must tell me one day ahead so my staff can prepare.” At $25 USD, it wasn’t keeping within our $20/day food budget, but I wanted special chicken. We could skimp on some lunches to even it out for special chicken. “Could I watch you cook?” I asked, as if I made it a learning experience it would make me feel better about blowing the budget. “No problem,” he smiled.
Iluh (pronounced ee-loo) and Ari were making dinner that night. They do just about everything from keeping the rooms to grounds maintenance to making the Chicken Tutu, our special chicken. They kindly let me take pictures while they worked and told stories in impressive English while they prepared dinner.
Chicken Tutu is a whole chicken, steamed first in water and then in a chili and garlic sauce, served with stir-fried veggies and rice. It might not sound like much, but it is. It is indeed a special chicken.
Note: There are several ingredients that you might not have at home. Lord knows I don’t usually have shrimp paste on hand. So either get a new ingredient and have a go at something totally foreign, or leave it out. I’m pretty sure it is going to be good regardless.
Chicken Tutu: a Laid Back Recipe as observed at Beten Waru in Amed, Bali
Get the rice cooking, then the chicken, then work on the veggies.
- A whole chicken (get a good one, don’t mess around with any old bull shit Perdue bird)
- A handful of whole, peeled garlic cloves (actually a handful, maybe 10 or more cloves?)
- 3 or 4 medium-spicy chilis, seeded
- a knob (2″) of fresh ginger, sliced
- Small knob (1″) of fresh turmeric, or 1tsp dried turmeric
- Pinch of brown sugar
- Enough oil to make everything into a sauce
- 1-2 stalks of Lemongrass
Blitz the garlic, chilis, ginger, and turmeric into a loose puree. Simmer gently to cook the garlic. Add a pinch of brown sugar and salt to taste. Steam the chicken until cooked, about 30-45 minutes. Drain most of the water. Pour the delicious puree over the chicken and rub some on the inside as well. Add a little water to the pot and submerge the two lengths of lemongrass in water. Continue to simmer until you finish the veggies.
- Sliced shallots, maybe 5 of them
- 3-4 sliced spicy chilis
- Diced garlic
- Prawn paste
- Sliced green beans
- Sliced carrots
- Roughly chopped cabbage
- Freshly grated coconut (When in the states, I’ll use unsweetened, dried coconut)
Sautee the first three ingredients in a little oil. Add a small amount of prawn paste. Iluh crumbled what looked like 1/8-1/4 tsp into the pan from a larger block. In a separate pan, steam the beans, carrots and cabbage. Drain the steamed veg and add to the shallot mixture. Add the grated coconut and a pinch of salt and continue to sauté for until the coconut is heated through and nicely combined.
Plate the rice and the veggies and serve the chicken whole, in the center to be shared. Serve with a Bintang or other tasty pilsner. Enjoy!
**Big thanks to Iluh and Ari for my cooking class!
Christina and I have now been traveling for over a year. Holy crap. This trip has been an incredible, life-altering experience for me. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned:
- Patience. I used to be a high-strung New Yorker. Now I’m far more comfortable relaxing. I can better identify when I’m getting irritated because of my impatience and cope with it better. Casual restaurants here in Indonesia are notoriously slow with service, so now I bring a notepad to meals and jot down thoughts. It’s a simple thing but one that improves my life. Easy.
- Communication. Christina and I have spent almost every waking moment together for the time we’ve been traveling. This has been a challenge, but one that’s made us stronger. Problems tend to bubble to the surface much faster than when we could retreat to work or out with friends. Now we’re forced to deal with all the little things on a day-to-day basis, which lets us move past them faster. For example, I hate airports. I don’t mind flying, but I have a terrible fear of missing flights or getting stuck in security or customs. Maybe its an authority thing. Christina is much more casual about these situations. This used to create tension when we traveled together, but since I’ve explained my problem she’s happy to leave a bit earlier than she normally would, and I pledge not to check the time after we begin the trip to the airport, confident that we’ve got plenty of leeway.
- The Art of Negotiation. I’m no Bill Shatner yet, but I like to think I’m getting better. When we arrived here my way of dealing with people trying to rip me off was to get angry and storm off. Now I can laugh at them, then they laugh back and we can settle on a price. I know I’m still paying the tourist tax, but its a few bucks at most.
- Priorities. When you’re inundated with one version of success it’s hard to imagine anything else. In reality, there are many ways to be successful and exposure to those has made me rethink my priorities. I’ll probably never be wealthy in a traditional, money-in-the-bank sense, but I’ll have a rich memory of experiences to recall for free, whenever I want them. I see people all around Indonesia that are “poor” by western standards but still walk around smiling because they have what matters to them: food, a home, and a family. Both here and in New Zealand we met plenty of intelligent, well-educated people that had opted out of the rat race and into a simpler lifestyle. It’s refreshing, and it has shown me that earning six figures is just one version of success.
- Reflection. Travel has allowed me time to think, reflect, and write rambling blog posts like this one. On a typical “vacation” you’re pressured to do so much with your two weeks paid that you feel guilty just hanging around cafes or the beach for a week. When you’re thinking in months, a chunk of time writing or staring at the ocean is nothing. And without those moments of reflection how much can you hope to get out of travel?
What’s odd is that even though so much has changed, I still feel the same. I’m the same dude that likes screaming at the television during basketball games (G’Orange!) and has a crippling internet addiction. These new experiences have brought new things to the surface much faster than they might have otherwise.
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.
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.