Friday, September 20, 2013


       I hope you will join me for further explorations of the travel realm with my new blog, spybird.
      You can find it here: Come on over and visit!

Thursday, March 21, 2013


       So, at the end of the road, what do we love, and what could we do without? Here is my own broad-brush opinion, based on three months living, working and traveling in Indonesia.

The Things We Love

1    The People. This is easy. Far and away, the best thing about Indonesia is her people --- warm, friendly, curious, respectful, great to be around. I felt different and people looked at me, but always in a friendly way. People offered help before I could request it. And I always felt safe and secure. I am happy to report that being a Westerner in the largest Muslim nation in the world was a non-issue. If I had any wariness or fear of Muslim people, it’s gone.

      Natural Beauty and Scenery. Indonesia is spectacular in many places, and simply beautiful in most. Unfortunately, I must honestly exclude Surabaya, and while I have not been to Jakarta, reports are not favorable. Urban planning has not been a big priority. But there are some pretty cities, and most importantly, many of the last great, wild and tropical places on earth are in Indonesia. Volcanoes, waterfalls, jungles and terraced rice patties dotted with ancient temples, perfect islands and lakes, exotic flora and fauna are all here and accessible with a little effort. You can still visit places that remain virtually unexplored, with indigenous tribes who have not seen white people ---- like you used to hear about 30 years ago in many Asian countries. And if you don’t want wild, places like Ubud and Yogyakarta provide both civilized alternatives and great cultural experiences. My copy of Lonely Planet Indonesia is dog-earred to mark the many places I would love to visit. My take is: Indonesia is the place to see, while it’s still its own, unspoiled place.

      Cost of Living. By Western and American standards, it’s incredibly cheap to live in Indonesia. Food, clothing and necessities are less than half than what I pay at home, and as a consequence, money goes so much further. A teacher friend’s girlfriend is a local, and has “a good job.” She‘s a secretary for a big company, and makes about $150. per month. Using this as a yardstick, you can extrapolate to consider what $1000. USD will get you. You can buy land (although there are real title issues), or rent cheaply. If anyone came here with even a modest nest egg and some kind of work (teaching?), he or she could live very well, and travel too. For a young couple that is willing to put down roots, and again assuming reasonable employment, I’d bet that you could be quite comfortable, and get in on the ground floor of a good future. But even for a short time or a vacation, it’s amazing (and refreshing!) to see how far your dollar goes.  

      Food. It’s good, fresh and inexpensive (see above). I have been eating very well on about $10. per day. At a food stall you can eat a lunch of chicken, tempe, two vegetables, white rice and a splash of sambal for about $1.00. Add a fresh vegetable juice or fruit juice for 50 cents more. Fresh fruit juices are everywhere and delicious. Tropical fruits are endlessly varied and so good, you don't need anything more for dessert. But if you want sweet, these fruits are often served on ice with tapioca, sweet gelatin, fresh coconut and some condensed milk. There are vegetarian options if you wish. Fish is also delicious (although in Surabaya I wondered about where it comes from). A tasty whole fried fish dinner with white rice, greens, sambal and an avocado juice at a good restaurant costs about $8.50. Supermarkets are pretty good and there are a few “specialty stores,” for cheese or something different. But if you don't want to shop you can also simply eat out well for very little money. The conditions are mostly not spotless, but there are also fewer genetically modified foods, pesticides or hormones in what you eat. I loved my Indo food.

 Muslim life / the “good.” The effect of the largest Muslim culture in the world on daily life is interesting. There is good and bad, I’d say. Indonesia offers plenty of good non-alcoholic beverage alternatives, which makes the likes of me very happy. Also, the lifestyle is relatively quiet, which, again, suits me fine --- not a lot of nightclubs or bars. This leads me to benefit #3 --- there are very few drunks in Indonesia. Personally, I don’t care if people can drink and handle themselves so as not to annoy or endanger others. But in my experience there are lots of drunks at home who are a pain in the ass, and when they drive I want to lock them up and throw away the key. In Indo, the whole issue goes away. It’s almost worth not being able to get a cocktail. Finally, one can see a real respect between young and older people which is very refreshing and seems “right” in my world view. It’s certainly a cultural thing we could learn from in the US.

The Things We Don’t Love

      Sanitation in the Third World. They burn garbage in Indonesia. Every house has its own burning area adjacent to the street. There is no underground sewer system to speak of. Tap water is not safe to drink. People bathe in local waterways. Food preparation can be sketchy, as is refrigeration in the traditional markets. There is heat, flies and humidity. It’s the third world.

      Critters. Let the women leave now; this is a big drawback for the squeamish. Indonesian cities have rats, lots of them, and they live in ditches and the garbage. Also, large roaches, many bats, small and large geckos like I see in Florida, and mosquitoes to some extent. I experienced all of these in a suburb of Surabaya. And the rats and roaches really put me off, because you would see and hear them, especially at night.

 Low Standards of Quality. The quality of electrical and mechanical things is not great. Copiers are never fixed, they are merely repaired over and over again. Everything is “mickey-moused.” House utilities break down periodically. Time deadlines are merely suggestions. Medical and dental care does not compare to what we’re used to in Boston. If I were really sick, I might be concerned about treatment.

      Muslim life / the “bad.”  I never did get used to the call to prayer broadcast from the mosque five times a day. It happens in the middle of the night, and it’s very hard to sleep through. Sometimes, they will start reading the Quoran at 4 a.m. and just continue for seven or eight hours, on a Sunday, for no apparent reason. The other bad could be just in my head. Sometimes I wonder if the young people feel a bit repressed in their ability to express themselves. Not sure. The culture supports building more and more mosques (and there are SO many already), and the mosques are the best buildings in town. Where people live, on the other hand, seems very poor in comparison, and this seems misguided, at least to me.


Well, I’m back in the USA again, at home with My Lovah.

Looking at these last three months, I’d say that my time in Indonesia was very fruitful personally and professionally. The work went well. I learned about teaching kids and broadened my skill set; garnered good reviews; worked for a well-respected organization. The cultural experience was exactly what I was hoping for; that is, living and working as a local in a foreign world. I met some very cool people. And the travel was fantastic ---- Yogyakarta, Borobudur, Solo, Mount Bromo, Lombok and Ubud, Bali are all unforgettable and left a great impression.

I’m feeling lots of gratitude today. I want to acknowledge Cheryl’s enormous role in making this trip possible. She took care of me from afar and kept our life chores and home fires well tended. Also thanks to friends and family who kept in touch and provided support and much needed social contact. Finally, thanks to all of you who checked out the blog and sent encouragement. It’s been good therapy and great fun writing this way.

I’ll tell anyone who will listen to me that Indonesia is a wonderful country and tourist gem. I hope to visit her again and get to know her better. I hope you will be encouraged to discover Indonesia too. If I can answer any questions or provide any information, please let me know. 

Wishing all of you a good journey, wherever it takes you.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


       I just left Ubud, Bali a few hours ago, and I’m already scheming about how to return, with Cheryl this time. It’s such a beautiful and fascinating place, and offers so much to its visitors.
        Ubud sits in the gentle foothills of Bali among rice paddies, and has patches of jungle and streams. Nearby is the majestic Mount Batur, an active volcano, with a lava field and lake a few miles away. Ubud and environs are naturally attractive in a serene kind of way, but they are not the big draw. This area is the cultural center and archive of Balinese arts, especially music, dance, crafts and painting. These arts are publicly performed, taught and celebrated on a daily basis, so they are very much alive. A visitor can see and learn first hand about Balinese dance, gamelan music, painting, wood carving, whatever.
        Most importantly, religion in Ubud and all of Bali is a heady mix of Hinduism and animism, and it is very much part of day to day life. Offerings to spirits are made at family compounds, which always include a temple, but also at spiritually important sites, businesses, trees, on motorcycles, many places. Most offerings take the form of small “dishes” made of palm leaves with a flower or two, maybe a spoonful of cooked rice on a banana leaf and a stick of incense. They are sprinkled with water while a short prayer is recited. Living in the midst of this kind of open spirituality makes you begin to think about your surroundings in a different way; everything has a “vibe” to it. There are also some lovely old buildings, natural places and public temples where a visitor can see culture and religion celebrated together naturally, and it is a very affirming experience.
        There are three or four main streets downtown with good independent clothing and craft shops (no international chains, I’m happy to say), restaurants, a few bars, and a very helpful tourist information center that sells tickets to cultural events and is located across from the palace complex. There are also two fine art museums ( I really enjoyed the Neka) and several galleries.
        Finally, Ubud has developed into a center for body care, yoga, spas and health centers, reflexology, and meditation. Many of the hotels have their own spas and packages.
        I love the way people dress in Ubud. Great colors and beautiful fabrics in sarongs for both sexes, and the men wear headscarves tied at the front. The younger people have a more modern take on style, but they also look very cool.
       I must say, this place has a strong personal magnetism for me, maybe because I had so much fun here. Please check out some of my recommendations that follow. Trust me, you will find plenty to love about Ubud.

Komaneka at Tanggayuda. A bit of a splurge, yes, but very much worth it. This Trip Advisor “Travellers’ Choice Winner for 2013” has it all ---- great service, beautiful villas (mine with a private plunge pool), lovely grounds, complimentary tea time and yoga, a personal assistant to help with plans, logistics and any problems, great food, homemade cookies and fruit in the room, a cooking school, etc. etc. The reviews are excellent, and they don’t lie:  There are four Komaneka properties in Ubud, and they run a shuttle or provide free transport to any number of places in town. They are simply lovely people with a great attitude about genuine service. A wonderful home away from home.

Bali Eco Cycling Tours  I am pleased to plug Bali Eco Cycling Tours, although this fine company has already received accolades from the likes of Lonely Planet, The New York Times and others. I did the day long bicycling tour, which starts with breakfast and views of Mt. Batur and its crater lake, 
breakfast view
travels mostly down hill on easy back roads, and makes interesting, educational stops along the way. We stopped at a coffee and spice plantation, a typical Balinese family compound, in rice fields to do some harvesting, at a wood carving shop, at a 300 year old Banyan tree considered a sacred place, and ended with a terrific buffet lunch including smoked duck and other delights. About $36. Excellent value and so much fun. An exciting moment for me was barely avoiding a live green pit viper (very poisonous) when a local called out “Snake!” and pointed to a spot about 10 feet ahead in my path (yes, Frank, more snake adventures).
Working in the rice paddies. The ladies thought we were hysterical.

 50 shades of green in the terraced rice paddies 
Bali Bird Walks. Long-time resident and eccentric bird man Victor Mason founded Bali Bird Walks 15 years ago. It’s a small operation and an intimate experience. The web site is here: Nowadays the amazing Su takes visitors out for half a day and a terrific lunch for $37. You can visit rice fields, streams and a little jungle, and besides 30 or so bird species, you get to see butterflies, medicinal plants, insects and whatever else Su’s eagle eyes observe. 
Su on our bird walk --- personality plus
We met a farmer who carved up a fresh coconut for us. The high point for me was the Java Kingfisher (because I’m a kingfisher guy), but just being with Su was immensely educational and entertaining. A lot of fun and a wonderful way to see Ubud. Highly recommended! A short ride from Ubud will take you to Bali Bird Park, where you can roam several acres to see 250 species of birds in attractive aviaries, open spaces and interactive situations. The Park is well-maintained and beautifully designed. Special draw for me were several species of Birds of Paradise from Papua, and large hornbills which park employees put on my shoulders for photos.
"Hornbills...on my shoulders...make me happy..."
Ibu Oka – Warung Babi Guling. Wiki Travel calls this humble eating establishment “a place of pilgrimage.” Every day Mrs. Oka serves up her famous babi guling or spit roasted pig to the masses from 11 am until the day’s supply runs out. When you order “the special” you get a little of everything --- the crispy skin, some meat, some blood sausage and fried offal, the works. It’s delicious and for $3.00, maybe the best bargain around. Some local people I met said they like their babi guling a bit spicier, but I was not about to quibble. In fact, I restrained myself from having seconds.
Tasty suckling pig, great cheap eats
Traditional Balinese Dance. It’s easy to see wonderful traditional dance in Ubud. There are maybe seven or eight performances each week at different venues around town, many in incredible natural surroundings. Tickets are sold at the venue or the tourist office for $7 or $8 dollars. The costumes are colorful and beautiful, the dancers are very talented, and there’s a full gamelan orchestra providing music. 

Masked dancer at palace performance 

Thursday, March 14, 2013


       I have been hearing about Lombok since I first began reading up on Indonesia, months before I ever set foot on its soil. What I heard was peppered with glowing superlatives, from trustworthy sources who eschewed corporate resort hype and cruise line adverts in Travel & Leisure. Lombok’s first devotees were front-line tourists --- divers, trekkers, back-packers, and sun-seekers.  They found nearby Bali a bit overly-touristed, or maybe tainted in the aftermath of bombings in 2002 and 2005. In any case, it has been only seven or eight years since this part of the island arc called Nusa Tenggara has truly come into its own. And friends, that’s a major part of the charm.  Lombok still offers a very authentic experience. It feels “real.”

       And my God, it is incredibly beautiful. The three Gilli Islands are like the quintessential tropical islands of your dreams. They offer simple bungalows on fabulous beaches at bargain prices ($40/night), lots of live coral for primo diving and snorkeling, surf and even some nightlife if you want it (on Gilli Trawangan). On the main island of Lombok, the impossibly blue-green waters roll up to miles of superb white sand beaches, and I can report that there were few people on them (it is technically still rainy season here, although there has been no rain during my stay). The northern interior of Lombok boasts the majestic Rinjani volcano, Indonesia’s second highest peak. It is protected by its own national park, and there are 2-3 day treks for the willing. Lombok also offers beautiful waterfalls, coffee and rice terraces, a monkey forest, a crater lake, Balinese Hindu temples, superb seafood, pearls and weaving, and the warm hospitality of the Sasak Muslims who call the island home. Best of all, because this is Indonesia, paradise comes at a price that can work for almost any budget, with as much added luxury as you want (and can afford).

      But please don’t wait too long. One can detect the first whiff of corporate leisure development and infrastructure in the wind. Small condominiums are being built on the Gillis, and beautiful Kuta Beach on the south shore has apparently been slated for a $600 Million development project. Before the digging begins, I would suggest everyone check out Lovely Lombok without delay. Some highlights and notes follow:

Tugu Hotel Lombok ----- Tugu Hotel in Lombok certainly has location going for it. Lonely Planet calls Sira Beach “insanely gorgeous” and I could not agree more. Dramatic views of Rinjari, expansive white sands, great swimming and snorkeling, and swaying coconut palms set the scene. 
Tugu Lombok on Sira Beach from the water
The Hotel has only 17 accommodations, set on beautiful grounds filled with enormous antique Hindu and Javan statuary and two buildings that were faithfully reconstructed from 200-year-old originals. The service is exceptional --- friendly and attentive without overdoing it. Examples: the staff baked a cake decorated with “Thank you for staying with us” in chocolate; prepared ice and fresh aloe upon hearing about my sunburn; carved up a coconut and presented to me it with straws and a spoon because I happened to be sitting near a palm they were harvesting. The rooms are very large, well-appointed and comfortable. Mine had its own front yard with table. Some may not love the semi-enclosed (but completely private) outdoor bathroom. I did one tour and a day of snorkeling in the Gillis --- both arranged by the hotel --- and the service was terrific. The Tugu also offers a daily “high tea” service with complimentary sweet and savory snacks, bicycles, a free half hour massage, and daily tropical fruit in your room. Full breakfast, included in my $258. per night room price (all tax included), was sumptuous. And you can take meals in any number of places on the property, including the beach.

       There is a downside to staying at a place like Tugu Lombok. One disadvantage is that by booking activities through the hotel you are paying quite a bit more than if you booked them yourself, using outside providers. The second disadvantage is related to the first: the location of the property is a bit isolated, and leaving it is not made easy. Personally, I can live with the downside. On vacation, convenience is king, and door to door (or shore to shore) service has value worth paying for. The hotel vetts providers, answers for any problems and assures a better quality experience. To the second point, I am not a guy who needs to be on vacation with everyone else. I am fine being a bit isolated if the location makes a good trade-off, and in this case it does, no doubt.

Snorkeling in the Gillis ----- These three tiny islands are maybe 20 minutes by boat from Sira, and have become a vacation hotspot, especially the largest of the three, Trawangan. On the mid-sized Gilli Meno I spent about an hour “on island” wandering past the shoreline cottages, visiting a turtle sanctuary and having a coffee with two local guys, one of whom lent me a guitar to play. Very mellow.

Saved turtles at the sanctuary supported by donations only
       It’s so much fun feeling like you’re swimming in a giant aquarium, and this is the experience of snorkeling around the coral reefs of the Gillis. The fish are varied, with all the psychedelic colors you love in tropical fish. Pencil fish, small barracuda, angel fish, and parrot fish, schools of them. The biggest thrill for me was seeing an old sea turtle, maybe 3 feet long. He swam to the surface, put his head above water, and then descended into the depths.
Snorkeling near Gilli Aire. Boat guys did not "get" the zoom .
Lucky egg-eating eel
Pura Lingsar ----- The largest and holiest temple compound in Lombok is a stone’s throw from the town of Mataram. Built in 1714 and sitting amid deep green rice fields, Pura Lingsar is multi-denominational, although its architecture is Balinese, and both Hindu and Muslim priests live on the grounds. There is an enclosed holy pond dedicated to Vishnu and at the small opening to the pond you may feed hard-boiled eggs to the Holy Eels (great name for a rock band, no?). It is supposedly lucky to see the eels. My local guide said that a tour bus from Jakarta we saw departing was a bit miffed at seeing no eels. I saw two, a monster and one that was mid-sized. Supposedly I am blessed. Vishnu, if you are listening, I would like to share one eel’s worth of luck with those sad folks from Jakarta.

Monkey Forest ----- They line up along the roadside watching cars go by, and they appear to be hitchhiking. My guide stopped at one spot where some locals were watching the monkeys. I had half a bag of peanuts which I gave to a local kid so that he could feed one of the simians. The monkey in question showed its gratitude by promptly engaging another monkey in sexual intercourse, right next to the young boy. His mother gave me a nasty look. I just shrugged with my palms up. Hey, lady, I was only trying to be helpful… 

The Best Fish I Ever Tasted ----- This award is no small thing to someone who loves seafood as much as I do. And all bragging aside, I have eaten some ridiculously good seafood --- in Maine, Costa Rica, New York City and Nice, France, among other places. But my favorite so far is Warung Manega in Senggigi. Super-fresh fish is grilled over smoky coconut husks and then served with four different sauces --- sambal, garlic, sweet soy and chili-lime-vinegar. We had red snapper, but I bet the grouper and king prawns are rockin,’ too. With greens, white rice and limeade, about $12 per person. Simple but so delicious, I wanted to hire a cab and drive the hour to return for dinner the next night. I should have. For those who like to dine al fresco, you can eat on tables set up in the sand.

Grilled red snapper. It doesn't get better.
Does it sound like I enjoyed Lombok? I did; I absolutely loved it. One of the highlights of Mondo Indo for sure. And now, I'm off to Ubud, Bali. Please check back soon, and thanks so much for coming along with me!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MOUNT BROMO (and some Javan Hospitality)

       Mount Bromo (2392 m) is an active volcano and one of the most touristed sites in East Java. The reason is its dramatic setting. Rising up from the Tengger caldera, the mountain is flanked by three other volcanoes including Semeru, Java’s highest peak (3676 m). In addition, Bromo sits in a “sea” of volcanic sand several miles in diameter called Laotian Pasir (Sand Sea). The resulting landscape is other-wordly and the vistas are pretty awesome. The local people, known as Tenggers, ride horses around and sell visitors rides across the crater bed. There is also a Hindu temple at the base of Bromo. The Tenggers, who are Hindu, have a ritual of throwing flowers, chickens, vegetables and money into the volcano once a year as a sacrifice to the volcano.

I visited Bromo last weekend the way most people do. Rise up at 3 a.m. for a coffee and fried banana; the jeep ride to a neighboring peak to be there at sunrise in the hopes of catching an incredible view of everything described above (we saw only fog); a jeep ride into the Sand Sea; then, the pilgrimage up the sandy approach to the volcano before the final 253 steps which leave you at the lip of the crater.

The dawn photo that we missed. I bet this was taken in dry season.
Bromo is in the foreground. (From Wikipedia)
And then you are there --- staring into the steaming, sulfurous heart of the volcano. The edge is very narrow and the railing is broken in most places. With the stiff wind that is common early in the day, I’m amazed more tourists are not sacrificed to Bromo.
Not a great shot, but note stiff wind and no railing. Watch your step!
Staring into the crater 
The area around the Bromo-Tengerr-Sumuru National Park is lush and green. My guide for the weekend, Taufiq, took me and our driver on a quick hike to a local waterfall, which was lovely. 

       We parked his car at the home of his uncle, and on our return from our hike, his uncle invited us in for coffee. We removed our shoes and sat in the typically Javan front sitting room, where Uncle Tiq served coffee and bread. He was dressed in a green and white sarong, a green polo shirt, and a white songkok or peci, a woven cap worn by many Muslim men in Indonesia. Taufiq mentioned that I like durian fruit and had noticed some roadside stands selling local durian. Uncle Tiq said he had a friend who sells the best and immediately began punching his cell phone. A quick motorcycle ride with Taufiq and a few minutes later we were at the stand making the purchase (at a “friend’s price”). 

Durian seller prepares taste test,
to make sure we're happy.

We took the durian back to Uncle Tiq’s for a  snack. Taufiq mentioned that this home was very old and had been in the family for generations. I was invited to see the kitchen where Taufiq’s aunt was working. The room was only partially closed in from the elements. There was a pit with burning wood and a grill over it used for most cooking chores. Decidedly old school.

After a bit more conversation and translations, Taufiq said that his aunt was preparing some food and we were invited to stay for dinner. “Your choice of course, but my aunt is a good cook, better than the hotel. She is preparing three different kinds of rice, which is special for you.” I said I would be honored. In a few more minutes we were served a great meal consisting of said three kinds of rice --- local rice, Javanese rice, and rice with corn ---- fried fish, tempeh, tofu, and greens. It was delicious. For a special treat at the end of the meal, Uncle Tiq brought out an unmarked bottle of wild jungle honey. I had a spoonful and freaked over it; so good! Uncle Tiq smiled and insisted I help myself to some more.  

I thanked the couple and complimented Bu on her cooking. After a bit more conversation and a photo moment (see below) we took our leave. I enjoyed this experience so much. What strikes me in retrospect is how easy and comfortable it was, despite the language barrier. This is genuine, easy-going hospitality which is so much a part of Javan culture.

A really enjoyable visit with these warm people. Unfortunately for my photo,
Pak Tiq had changed out of his more traditional clothing.