2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.
Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina: I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.
Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.
Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.
Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.
Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules
Favorite Photo You’ve Taken
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.
Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor
Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.
Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya
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.
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.
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.
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.