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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Expecting the Unexpected in Bali

Bali is a very different place, but we are already getting the hang of backpacking around here. We???re used to dealing in rupiah, which has an exchange rate of approximately 8,800 to $1, and figuring out what the prices should be. (And in the process figured out that we did indeed get ripped off on our hotel in Kuta.) We successfully dealt with our first ???tourist scam.??? (A driver took us to a tourist trap restaurant with a beautiful view of Mount Batur, but the drinks were four times as much as they should have been.) Car rides, while not exactly comfortable, have ceased to be a heart-stopping adventure. (I???ve even figured out that honking a horn means many things, including, ???I???m passing you,??? ???Move over, I???m passing you and there???s oncoming traffic,??? ???Tourist, do you need a ride???? and the universal, ???Get out of my way, you idiot!???.) And as far as bartering goes, we???re still not great at it, but improving all the time.

I???m even starting to get used to many of the strange sights we see every day, like the cargo people balance on motorbikes.?? A family of four, a dozen water cooler jugs and huge baskets of produce are all things we???ve seen perched on mopeds. All the restaurants and warungs are open-air and nobody bats an eye when a stray cat or a chicken wanders in. Speaking of the chickens, they wake us up almost every dawn???no need to set an alarm clock!

The interesting religion here, while not exactly clear to us, is no longer a cause of constant surprise. Most of Indonesia is Muslim, but the island of Bali is Hindu. It???s not like the Hinduism of India, though. It???s more a unique blend of Bali native beliefs and Hinduism. They believe there are many spirits that play an active role in life and need to be kept happy. Apparently, these spirits are not satisfied very easily, as the Balinese are constantly setting out small offerings to them. The gifts are small boxes, about the size of my palm, and are usually filled with flowers and food. Sometimes they leave a burning incense stick with the offerings as well. These little trays are on the sidewalks outside of every doorway???so basically, they???re everywhere. Brad had a hard time not stepping on them when we first got here.

We???ve seen more of the countryside and spent time in small towns and villages. I???m constantly struck by how lush and green everything looks outside the cities. In Tirta Gangga, we went on a short hike up a hill near Mount Agung, where we had a 360?? view of green rice terraces and trees.

My favorite adventure so far happened while we were biking outside of Lovina. Around lunchtime, we rode by a small warung that smelled really good. It looked like just a few tables with locals eating, nothing fancy. We stopped and went up to the guy standing there. He asked us if we wanted fried rice, and I said no. Then he popped open a cooler and, to our surprise, started holding up dead fish. I asked if he grilled them and he said yes, we could pick any of them. We couldn???t tell what types of fish they were, so we just picked a red one and asked how much it was. 25,000 and it included rice and vegetables. We said that???s fine and then he lead us around the corner to this really nice eating area right off the beach where there were many more people eating. Later, he brings out our meal and, sure enough, it???s the exact same fish, just grilled up nicely. I???d never been served a whole fish before and we weren???t quite sure how to go about eating it, but once we figured it out, it was delicious. So we enjoyed this awesome, fresh, fancy-restaurant- quality, ocean view lunch for $2.84.

Even scuba diving had some interesting surprises.??Women carried all of our equipment for us, and they balanced everything-including air tanks-on their heads and shoulders.??It was also the first time we experienced the??phenomenon of having no idea what our divemaster was saying above water, but understanding him perfectly underwater. We did three dives, two at the wreck of the USAT Liberty and one off the shore of Jemeluk. It was our first time diving a shipwreck and we really enjoyed it. The Liberty sunk in 1963, so by now it???s covered by coral and a lot has been destroyed, but we could still make out some of its features. I thought it was interesting how a disaster for us could become a home for so many different fish and creatures. It was a pretty striking example of the circle of life (although nobody died when the Liberty sank). Our dive in Jemeluk wasn???t quite as exciting, but we did see several lion fish and even a scorpion fish, which apparently is one of the world???s most poisonous fish and there???s no antivenin available. Good thing it didn???t sting us!

We???ll keep trying to post our pictures, but it???s been hard to find an Internet connection quick enough for uploading. Our next stop will be the island of Lombok. I don???t really know anything about Lombok, so I???m looking forward to seeing how it compares to Bali. Until then, goodbye and I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving!

Out and Ubud

We???re in Ubud now and it???s much nicer than Kuta. In a way it???s just as touristy, except the tourism here is kind of cool because it???s all centered around art. The shops lining the streets in Kuta all sell the same kind of crap: cheesy t-shirts, fake designer sunglasses, keychains, etc. Here, they mostly sell beautiful wood carvings, paintings, sarongs and sculptures. They???re of varying quality, of course, but it???s still nice to see so much celebration of the arts.

I was also surprised by how easy it is to get out of town here. There are two main streets, Monkey Forest Road and Jilan Raya Ubud, where all the crowds and shops are. Off of those streets, you can walk in any direction and be surrounded by beautiful rice paddies in about fifteen minutes. We???ve spent whole days walking. One of the first places we explored was the Sacred Monkey Forest. The monkeys that live there are actually long-tailed macaques and they???re not very nice at all. They???re known for snatching things right out of people???s hands. I saw a couple of them actually jump on people to try and get whatever they were holding! Luckily, none of them jumped on us.

We also went for a long walk through the countryside where we saw beautiful rice paddies and coconut trees. It was probably exactly how you picture Asia in your head. There were even men using cows to plow the fields. It was so quiet and peaceful, especially compared to the noise and traffic in the city. And then we took a wrong turn and our little 8.5 kilometer walk became more like a 15 kilometer walk. Oh well, at least we weren???t in a hurry to get back!

In the evening we went to a dance performance. Since Ubud is the cultural center of the island, there are tons of different dances and venues to choose from. After doing some research online and getting even more confused, we just randomly picked one. I wasn???t expecting much, but it was amazing! The one we picked was the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance presented by the Desa Adat Sambahan troupe in the Pura Batu Karu. It was held outside in the temple ???courtyard??? under a huge tree. A chorus of men singing and chanting rhythmically made up all the music and dialogue. The dancers, in beautiful costumes, danced and acted out the story. The style of dance is very unique. They keep their eyes open very wide and constantly move their arms, hands and fingers into awkward-looking positions.

They were acting out a section of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The story is a bit complicated, but the general gist is that the evil Rahwana kidnaps Princess Sita while her husband, Prince Rama, is out hunting a magical golden deer. He then tries to get her back and is helped by monkeys and the King of the Birds. Interestingly, the Kecak is only part of the story, so it ended before Rama got Sita back. The story was printed on the program, but they did a good job acting out. Even though it was all in another language, I could follow along with what was happening and who was who.

When that dance was over, there was the much shorter Trance Fire Dance. A man came out and dumped a pile of coconut husks on the ground and lit them on fire. Then another man, dressed as a horse, came out and ran through the fire barefoot, shuffling the husks and embers all over the place, while the chorus men chanted. The first man swept the embers and flaming husks back together in the center and the horse scattered them with his feet again. This pattern continued until the fire was totally out. Apparently it???s supposed to protect society from evil forces and epidemics, but I???m not quite sure how it does that.

As you can probably tell from this long post, Bali is a very interesting place and it???s been quite an experience for us. Despite often feeling lost (literally and figuratively), we are really enjoying our time here. Internet connections haven???t been the greatest, but we???ll upload some pictures as soon as we can!

The Training Wheels Are Off

Our first day in Bali was just as chaotic as I expected. On the plane, I was very nervous. I kept thinking about Indonesia’s sketchy flight safety record! But we landed safe and sound.

We were feeling pretty cocky in the airport because some people were total idiots–didn’t know they had to pay a visa fee to get in, standing in the wrong line, etc. Before we even left Darwin, there was a girl on our shuttle to the airport that forgot her phone and wanted the shuttle to turn around so she could get it. We found out that once she got to the airport, she couldn’t get her ticket to Indonesia because her passport expires in less than a month. Some people are really not very well prepared for traveling.

Our cockiness was short lived. As soon as we got out of the airport, we were hounded by hawkers. We were expecting this and had read that much cheaper taxis could be hired on the road outside the airport. So, not sure exactly where we were going, we walked through a parking lot and ended up on a very busy main road, and tried to hail a cab. None of them were stopping. (In retrospect, this is hard to believe, as you normally can’t walk three feet down the road without someone yelling, “Transport? Taxi, yes?” at you.) We gave up and were walking back to the airport when a taxi just happened to pull out of a driveway in front of us. It was a Bluebird Group cab, which we heard was the best. They use a meter, so you don’t have to haggle for a price. We were hoping for 20,000 and it ended up being 23,300, but a cab from the airport is 50,000.

The cab ride was crazy! I mean absolutely crazy. Indonesians drive on the left side of the road. They also drive in the center, on the right side and sometimes on the sidewalks. The roads are narrow and jam packed with cars and motorbikes. Tons and tons of motorbikes, darting through traffic in every direction. I had to shut my eyes a few times.

We finally arrived at our road in Legian, a town that’s basically connected to Kuta. Since we didn’t know much about the area, we just went with what Lonely Planet said. We stopped at an inn that wasn’t listed in Lonely Planet and checked out the rooms there. The cheapest double room with fan and cold water was 150,000 and the guy wouldn’t budge on the price at all. We had read about rooms for 70,000, so we decide to keep looking. We start walking. We’re wandering around in the heat with our packs on, fending off countless hawkers, but we don’t see any other guest houses. I start to get frustrated and worried that we won’t even be able to find the first one again. We turn around and on our way see a sign for a place listed in Lonely Planet. Turns out it was right down the street from the first place, we just didn’t see it.

The room there is also a double cold-water-only and it has a ridiculous USA bedspread. Just like the first place, it’s 150,000 and the manager wouldn’t drop the price at all. We have a feeling we’re getting ripped off, but we take it anyway. Even if it is a rip-off, it’s only $17 total. In Australia, we were paying $47 total for a shared dorm room.

Once we get settled in, we face our next challenge: finding food. We set out again and I’m feeling more confident about my sense of direction, but we don’t see any cute little local joints. All we see are empty Western restaurants. Brad declares he wants an Indonesian dinner, so we turn onto the??side streets??and keep looking. Eventually we find a warung that has a few locals eating in it. The place isn’t super busy, but it seems promising. We feel pretty conspicuous and stupid, but we walk in anyway and I use the little bit of Indonesian that I know. We both end up with a plate of “nasi campur.” I thought we were going to get an awesome meal. I was wrong. Everything was dry and hard, except the chili sauce. The chili sauce was amazing. I eat as much as I can, basically whatever I can cover in chili sauce. There’s a bowl of soup, too, but it’s also not very good. Surprisingly, Brad eats almost all his food. We go pay the bill: 30,000, or $3.40. After that we stop in a bar for happy hour and split a large Bintang: 24,000, or $2.72. Kuta may be crowded, run-down and touristy, but I could get used to these prices!

Now I’m sitting in the little garden of our guest house. In the distance I hear loud noises. It sounds like a mix between a drag race, a construction site, and a festival. I’m not sure what exactly is going on or if this is normal. We already decided to spend another night here. Not so much because we like it, more to get acclimated and buy a few odds and ends. I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring, but I know it won’t be boring!

Country Recap: Australia

G’Day! What an amazing month it’s been in Australia. In about five weeks, we’ve traveled the entire east coast of the country–roughly the distance from Florida to Wisconsin–and flown to the boiling-hot top end. We’ve gone from cool and windy weather to intensely hot and humid. Along the way, we’ve come face-to-face with enough exotic wildlife to fill a small zoo: from commonplace kangaroos and cockatoos to koalas, emus, and crocodiles. We’ve spotted sea turtles, dolphins, whales, clownfish, stingrays, and many varieties of fish. We saw world famous icons that define Australia–the Sydney Opera House, Twelve Apostles, Great Barrier Reef, and Whitehaven Beach–and relaxed on some beautiful beaches. We scuba dove, hiked up a mountain, floated down a crocodile-infested river, and held on for dear life on the side of a speeding ocean raft crashing against big waves.

With our flight to Indonesia, a big phase of our trip has come to an end. In the coming months, we’ll be in places that don’t speak English, where bartering for everything is the norm, and where Western standards of punctuality, transportation, and hygiene don’t always apply. The days of relatively easy travel are over for a while, but we’re also excited to experience different, vibrant cultures, landscapes, attractions, and people. It’s been a great couple months in New Zealand and Oz, and we’re excited for what’s to come!

In the meantime, let’s look back at Australia….

Top three experiences?

Nikki: We’ve had such an awesome time here, it’s really hard to narrow it down to just three. I guess I’ll say:

  1. Diving the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, we’ll probably dive in places with better visibility or whatever, but there’s something incredible about being in the GBR. It feels like you’re visiting the biggest underwater metropolis in the world.
  2. The Great Ocean Road. Spectacular scenery with koalas and kangaroos!
  3. Walking through Sydney, especially when we went around taking pictures at night.

Brad:

  1. Diving the Great Barrier Reef. Absolutely stunning!
  2. Whitsunday Islands. Whitehaven Beach and a fast cruise over some big waves made it a great day.
  3. Great Ocean Road. We saw a lot of wildlife (koalas, kangaroos, emus, and colorful birds) without even trying very hard.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Very long Greyhound bus rides.
  2. All the icky bugs, especially the huge spiders.
  3. The hostels. I don???t know if New Zealand has the world???s best hostels or what, but they???re much nicer than the ones in Australia.

Brad:

  1. Noosa. It poured on our day there, so we didn’t get to see much of the beach or area, though I heard it’s a great place. I just wish the weather would have cooperated with us better.
  2. Darwin. It’s extremely hot, wet, and there really isn’t much to see in the city itself.
  3. Australian hostels in general. Compared to their New Zealand counterparts, they’re more run down and dirty (seriously, nobody cleans their dishes in Australian hostels!). Plus many people stay in them for extended periods of time here, usually for work, and they sprawl their possessions all over the share rooms.

Best meal?

Nikki: The Thai noodle and seafood dish I had in Melbourne. It had shrimp, mussels, fish, scallops and crab along with the noodles and veggies.

Brad: The chicken curry dinner at Carrie’s house while we stayed with them in Brisbane. Absolutely delicious!

Worst meal?

Nikki: Our attempt at chicken and rice in Airlie Beach. To be fair, it’s hard to cook when you don’t have adequate kitchen supplies.

Brad: A lunch break on the Greyhound somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney. It was a tiny rest stop that had no good food, no selection, and was really slow. Overall disappointing.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: I would have to say Ben, our GBR dive master. Really, really funny guy.

Brad: Julien in Sydney. He joined us on a day trip to Manley so he could practice his English. We ended up having a great day!

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Losing one of my contacts at the beginning of our Whitsunday Island tour. I didn???t have my glasses with me, so we fashioned an eye patch with my sunglasses and black electrical tape. Really bad time to not see out of one eye!

Brad: Free wine Friday night at our hostel in Sydney. That night definitely didn’t end well….

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: With Carrie and her family in Brisbane. Great people, conversation and food in an actual house: what more could you want?

Brad: Carrie’s house in Brisbane. Staying in a house is far more comfortable than hostel life, and they were incredibly wonderful hosts.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: The YHA in Darwin. Kind of a sketchy, run-down place. Although the whole city seems sketchy and run-down, so maybe that’s normal?

Brad: The two overnight Greyhound bus rides. I only got a few hours of sleep on them, and on one overnight our stop was at 4:00 in the morning, which meant we had to wander around an empty town and hang out in the hostel’s common room until a room became available.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Going out to eat in the yummy Thai restaurant in Melbourne. When we were in a pharmacy, I asked the lady working there if there were any good restaurants around. She recommended one down the street and when we saw the line nearly coming out the door, we knew it was going to be a good meal.

Brad: The rainforest around Mission Beach. We hiked up a hill overlooking the beaches and Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, we saw the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen in my life. Back at our “treehouse” hostel, we were surrounded by tree frogs, colorful birds, and gigantic bugs.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: A guy from Finland telling us about how they eat reindeer heart in his homeland. I think you had to be there, but it was a very bizarre conversation and instantly became one of our running jokes.

Brad: The two guys dancing by themselves right in front of the blues band at the bar in Byron Bay. They didn’t seem to even notice everyone looking at them!

Statistics for Australia

  • Days in the country: 38
  • Places we stayed: 21
  • Rainy days: 7
  • Blog posts: 8
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 5*
  • Photos taken: 1501
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 378, 25% of all photos taken
  • Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 68.75
  • Distance driven: 1473 kilometers, or 913 miles
  • Foster beers we drank: 0

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 2
  • Days on the road: 73
  • Places we stayed: 43
  • Rainy days: 15
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 7
  • Photos taken: 3751
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 662, 18% of all photos taken
  • Distance driven: 6504 kilometers, or 4033 miles

* Melbourne’s Carlton Gardens, Sydney Opera House, Blue Mountains, Wet Tropics of Queensland, Great Barrier Reef

Litchfield National Park and Jumping Crocs!

We’re currently in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, and there’s not much to it. It just seems like a small, run-down city to me. Darwin is probably most well known for being bombed by the Japanese in 1942. We’ve seen many war memorials and plaques, but it’s so hot here, we’ve spent most of our days in the shade or air conditioning. The real sights in this area are outside of town.

Cathedral termite moundWe rented a car and drove out to Litchfield National Park, which was pretty cool. It’s not quite in the Outback, so there are still many trees and plants, but the dirt is red. First we saw giant termite mounds. I know it sounds gross, but it was actually really interesting. There are two different types of termite mounds: Magnetic Termite Mounds, which are oriented north-south to protect them from the floods and heat, and Cathedral Termite Mounds, which are really incredible feats of architecture if you think about it. We figured out that if termites were the size of people, the Cathedral Termite Mounds would be five times taller than the tallest building in the world. Incredible.

After that we took a break from the heat and went swimming under the waterfalls in Florence Falls. This was all fine and dandy until something bit my foot. Twice. I had to get out of the water, even though Brad was making fun of me for scuba diving with thousands of fish, but freaking out in a shallow pool with a handful of fish. (For the record, hanging out and observing fish in crystal clear water is very different than being attacked by an unknown assailant in cloudy water.)

We spent the night in the Litchfield Safari Camp. They had a carpeted tent for us to stay in. It’s the beginning of rainy season here, so it stormed for a while in the afternoon. After the storm, we grilled up sausages and watched wallabies hop around in the nice, cool weather.

The next day, when we were driving out of the park, we witnessed a sad scene. Brad was driving the speed limit on a two lane highway when all the sudden one of these huge, 4×4 Outback trucks comes roaring around to pass us. Right after the truck passes us, we see a wallaby hop out in the road. Now these trucks, besides resembling mini-monster trucks, all have steel grill bars, mainly to protect them from kangaroos. So the truck smacks into the wallaby and it falls right in front of us. Brad had to slam on the brakes and swerve away to avoid hitting the poor thing. There wasn’t anything we could do, but I still felt bad that the poor wallaby died just because some jerk was in a hurry to get to some small town in the middle of nowhere.

Jumping CrocodilesLater that day, we went on the Jumping Crocodile Cruise in the Adelaide River, where they feed saltwater crocodiles from a boat. We were both surprised by the lack of safety regulations. Some of these crocodiles were massive, about five meters long, and there were no rules like “stay seated at all times.” With everyone going from one side of the boat to the other, I kept thinking about what would happen if we capsized. Obviously that didn’t happen and we enjoyed watching the crocs leap up out of the water and eat pork chops off a pole.

Anyway, our time here in Australia is almost over. It’s been great, but we’re very excited for the next leg of our trip, Indonesia!