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Stories from Month 5

Gunung Bromo, Indonesia

Traveling to Java

michelleToday we left Bali and traveled by bus and ferry to Java. Within the first hour on Java I could already see a difference in the two islands. Gone were the lush green valleys. Instead, Java is much drier and flat. The eleven-hour trip from Ubud, Bali to Mt. Bromo, Java left us exhausted. Not so much physically, but emotionally due to the crazy driving!

Riding in the bus, sitting towards the front, we had a good view of the events on the road. Our bus must share the thin roads with bicycles, mopeds, ox and cart, cars, buses and trucks. Our driver passed other vehicles, at high speeds, by going into the opposite lane, with on-coming traffic clearly in sight. It felt like a giant game of "chicken". Neither driver would slow and at the last minute our bus would swerve back into the correct lane with just inches to spare before a collision. It was like he was daring the other vehicles to hit him. Many times I just had to close my eyes û it was too painful to watch. Thankfully we arrived to Mt. Bromo safely, late at night. top

Volcano Sunrise

timGunung Bromo (Mt. Bromo) is a live volcano located in eastern Java and one of Java's must-see attractions. It shares a surreal sandy landscape with two other mountains, actually formed inside the 10 km wide crater of another ancient volcano named Tengger Massif.

It is said that mountains in Asia must be visited at sunrise. For us, this meant stumbling out of bed to meet a jeep at 3:30 AM. The driver took us 15 km: up the mountain to the rim of Tengger Massif, down into the giant crater to the Sand Sea, across the Sand Sea to another mountain called Gunung Penanjakan, and up a winding trail to the highest point in the area (2770 meters).

At 5 AM the path to the viewing area buzzed with activity. Along the way, vendors sold noodles and hot coffee; bluish light from their florescent lights lit the path. The chilly air was much colder than most Indonesians and tourists are used to, so other enterprising vendors sold hats and jackets.

We waited in the darkness with rows of other eager people. Minutes later, a thin warm line broke the blue horizon, the horizon grew from red to yellow, and Mt. Bromo's shape took form in the center of the caldera. The sun continued rising and topped the distant mountains, spreading a golden light along the top of the smoking volcano. The light crept slowly down the side, passing the mountain's base and spreading across the Sand Sea of the caldera. It was a beautiful sight, worth the price of waking so early. top

The smoking crater of the Mount Bromo volcano of East Java (2,392 meters), Indonesia. The sun rises near the Mount Bromo volcano in East Java, Indonesia.

Solo, Indonesia

City Sights

michelleIndonesia is so different from home but yet I find it very comfortable. What I might consider drawbacks û the air pollution, crazy traffic, and constant noise û add to the flavor of the country. After a morning spent exploring Solo (we arrived last night), we sit in a cafe drinking chai tea and listening to funky music. Out the door I see motorcycles whiz by. A man across the street sleeps on a bench oblivious to the bustle around him. Becak drivers pedal high above their red or blue becaks, carrying passengers. A food vendor goes by with a cart full of food, ringing a bell. Vendors make different noises to advertise which foods they are selling. For example, this vendor is selling satay û meat grilled on skewers. If he was selling noodles, he would bang two sticks together. It is good to sit back and watch the activity outside, while escaping the heat. Observing the people, is it easy to grow fond of them.

The Indonesian people have had a lot of turmoil in their country. There were riots here in Solo in 1998 and you can still see remnants in the burned out buildings dotting the city. But the people we meet, despite their hardships, are consistently friendly, helpful and welcoming. top

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

The Water Palace

timThe Sultan of Yogyakarta built the Water Palace around 1760. It contained a fantastic collection of bathing areas, pools, waterways, and buildings.

The water is now gone, thanks to an earthquake in the 1900's. The lake that once held the royal boat is full of homes and many of the buildings have been reduced to rubble. But the Water Palace still holds (dry) bathing areas, stone corridors, and a mosque.

We walked though a series of dark stone corridors to get to the mosque. It was quiet, secluded, and gave me just a hint of treading off into the past. top

Borobudur Thoughts

timBorobudur was built around 800 AD and, with over 1000 carvings depicting Buddhist thought, served as a 60,000 cubic meter stone guide to Buddhism for visiting pilgrims. The temple rises above the Javanese jungle in nine levels. The first six levels contain carved stone panels depicting the cause and effect of abusing sense pleasures; the top three levels represent achieving nirvana through conquering abuse of sense pleasures. We ascended the monument in circles, appreciating the stone carvings of each level's gallery. At the top, after playing tourist by trying to capture the moment on film, I relaxed and watched the sun rise above the quiet jungle. It was a peaceful moment; I sat imagining the hands that carved the stone around me 1200 years ago.

As impressive as the monument was, my mind was elsewhere when we left.

We watched an audio visual show on the way back to the car. The show itself was mediocre, but it explained the story of a Buddhist carving from a nearby temple. "The Bird with Two Heads" has a bottom head and a top head. The top head gets to eat delicious ripe fruit, while the bottom head is forced to eat rotten fruit that falls to the ground. The bottom head complains to the top head, but the top head just shrugs off the complaints arguing that it doesn't matter. "After all," it says, "the fruit all goes to the same stomach." The bottom head eventually becomes so despondent that it eats poison mushrooms, killing both heads.

The movie depicted the real-life analogy of this story well, starting with poor hawkers begging to sell anything to rich tourists and ending with society's self-destruction when such problems are ignored. The clash of Haves verses Have-nots is clear in developing countries. I'd declined pleading offers from hundreds of such hawkers in the last week alone.

The minds of travelers tend to dance around such thoughts, but the story didn't. What is my best response to this? In a week at home I make more than many people here do in six years - like the fisherman in Pangandaran who told Michelle he could get by on $1.20 a day with a wife and kid. My airfare to Indonesia alone would be $800 yet I'm living on a budget and reducing myself to feeling poor in an effort to save money while travelling. Even at my poorest, I'm more wealthy than many of the native Haves. I feel guilty for ignoring the conditions of poverty that cause people to beg me to buy from them, yet I get annoyed when they hassle me so often. I want to help, but how does buying one overpriced bottle of water help the 240,000,000 people that live in this nation alone? top

The massive Borobudur Buddhist temple.XXXXBorobudur was built around 800 AD and, with over 1000 carvings depicting Buddhist thought, served as a 60,000 cubic meter stone guide to Buddhism for visiting pilgrims. The temple rises above the Javanese jungle in nine levels. The first six levels contain carved stone panels depicting the cause and effect of abusing sense pleasures; the top three levels represent achieving nirvana through conquering abuse of sense pleasures. An underground passage from Yogyakarta's Taman Sari (Water Castle / Water Palace). <BR/><BR/>The Taman Sari complex was a grand water park built by Sultan Hamengku Buwono I in 1757. Much of its majesty has faded with the years, but visitors can still walk the ruins of the old passageways and buildings.

Pangandaran, Indonesia

A Fishing Village

michelleSquinting, I look out over the ocean. It's mid-morning and the sun in shining brightly and the sea air is thick with the smell of salt. Tim and I are standing on the beach of Pangandaran, a small fishing village in central Java. Directly in front of us the shore is covered with brightly painted fishing boats and the busy activity of fishermen working with focused intensity, bringing in their catches from the previous night.

Boats come and go, men carry large bundles of prawns in nets while fish are unloaded in large woven baskets. Down the shore I see people slowly and methodically pulling in nets from the ocean. Tim and I watch for almost an hour, mesmerized by all the activity.

Then we head to a restaurant nearby and pick from a fresh selection of fish and prawns displayed on ice. We watch as they grill our food and then enjoy a delicious meal for about $3.00.



Villagers in Pangandaran, Indonesia, pull a fishing net in from the surf. An evil monkey lies in wait for an unsuspecting photographer to happen by and take a photo - so it can bare its teeth and chase him around the beach in Pangandaran, Indonesia.

Jakarta, Indonesia

Get Used To It

timAsk travelers who enter Indonesia through Jakarta to describe the city and you will hear nothing but criticism. They cry out about the city's dirt, pollution, crowds, and traffic. They will tell you that the city streets are so crazy that you can't even walk across the street.

We arrived in Jakarta with these stories in our thoughts, but quickly dispelled them as false. Chaotic traffic filled the streets, but aside from the addition of noisy three wheeled tuk-tuks, the traffic whirled around us just like in the rest of the country. The same fumes from small motorcycles sputtered into the air. The same food stalls crowded the sidewalks and forced pedestrians to walk around. I didn't think of Jakarta as a nice place, but I was sure it didn't deserve the horrible reputation that my fellow travelers had handed to me with distaste.

After just one hour in the Malaysian capital city of Kuala Lumpur, I understood the slamming of Jakarta. Our plane arrived to a brand new futuristic terminal and a new air conditioned Mercedes bus took us down a beautiful four-lane highway past brightly painted buildings that sparkled with color. A permanent dense haze no longer colored the sky like the one I had become so used to in Indonesia. The streets were clean and orderly. Drivers actually stopped for red lights and let pedestrians cross in safety.

When you travel, your expectations rise and fall to the level of your surroundings. When I arrived to Jakarta, I had come from a month of traveling through Indonesia and it seemed like a great place. Most of my fellow travelers arrived to Jakarta from Europe, Australia, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore. The transition for them was so abrupt that they hated the city, yet I had some time to fall into the rhythm of the city before I arrived and I liked it.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you stick around long enough anywhere, you can enjoy almost anything. top

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Arriving in Malaysia

michelleWe flew into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia today. On the hour long bus ride from the airport into the city center I was immediately struck by the wide, paved highways, clear blue sky, unlittered ground - things we had not seen for 4 weeks while in Indonesia.

We found a hotel in the center of Chinatown. Although windowless, the room has air conditioning, television, and hot water. Luxury as far as we are concerned. Now if we could only get rid of the loud neighbors, thin walls, and an abundance of cockroaches!

Life in Chinatown is VIBRANT! Walking around you must weave your way through narrow aisles lined with stalls selling cheap merchandise - CDs, wallets, T-shirts, watches and knick-knacks. Equally present are food stalls selling roasted chestnuts, tropical fresh fruit, tofu drinks, peanut pancakes, and meat grilled on sticks.

I always feel in my element where there is good Chinese food. Tables flow out of restaurants right onto the streets here. I look for the restaurants full of locals and eat there. Noodles, tofu, stir-fry, dim sum, won ton... bring it on!

We will spend a couple of days here exploring the city and then head north.



A Muslim woman walks down a street in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.

Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

Jungle Boat

timTamran Negara National Park is fast becoming one of Malaysia's best tourist destinations. With 4343 sq kilometers of ancient untouched rainforest, it is easy to see why. Though hiking in the park is an experience not to be missed, getting there is half the fun.

OK, so the first half of the trip from Kuala Lumpur bored me. The four hours by air conditioned bus across average scenery lulled me to sleep, and I didn't feel the least bit guilty. But I woke up quickly when I walked down to the floating dock to board the ferry.

I was expecting one big slow boat. Instead I found several sleek looking long boats. They were proportioned like dugout canoes, but constructed from long planks of wood instead of one solid tree. Each boat sat 8 pairs of people, two by two down the hull. We sat on the floor close to the water on cushions. Above our heads, a thin tin roof pot marked with holes kept the sun away.

The 60 km trip up the muddy river wound us through the huge trees of the rainforest for about two and a half hours, treating us to views of half submerged water buffalo, fishermen throwing nets, little naked kids swimming, and houses floating next to the shore. It was a beautiful trip, made perfect on our arrival to the village when the setting sun cast a nice warm glow across the river.


The River Ordeal

michelleAfter a long day of hiking, Tim and I were looking forward to dinner. At the bank of the river are a number of floating restaurants. It's a relaxing atmosphere to eat while watching boats go by, but this night was anything but peaceful.

We just sat down and were looking at menus when at the far corner of the restaurant, near the kitchen, a woman started screaming hysterically. I thought maybe she burned herself. It took a moment before people reacted; the screaming took everyone by surprise. The woman's young daughter (about 3 or 4 years old) had fallen in the river and was somewhere submerged in the brown, murky water. Once the horror of the situation registered, people began running into the river desperately trying to locate the child. There was no sign of her. As the minutes ticked by, and no body was found I realized it was unlikely the child would be found alive.

During the whole ordeal, the sobbing mother stood in the water, grabbing at the river, the monster who had snatched her child. I stood and helplessly watched. I had not felt this helpless since watching my mother fight her monster, cancer. All I could do was pray that God would spare this little girl's life.

The men in the water decided the child must have floated under the restaurant. They quickly untied the ropes attaching the restaurant to the shore and pushed it deeper into the river. As they lifted and struggled with it, the child emerged. Thankfully, other than looking a little dazed, she seemed ok. It was all so confusing that I am not sure what happened, but she must have been trapped in an air pocket below the restaurant.

The evening had a happy ending and I cried as I watched the mother sob as she was reunited with her daughter. But the memory of the woman's screams will haunt me for a long time. top

The Jungle People

michelleWhile in the jungle, Tim and I took a tour of the "Batek" people, the Orang Asli - the Malaysian aborigines who live in the jungle. Our guide, Ismail, was a local Malaysian who lived in the village where we were staying. After a short boat trip up the river we landed on a sandy shore. We climbed up a muddy, steep bank and then walked down a path into the jungle. It was evening and the sun was setting. After a couple minutes of walking we arrived in a large clearing. Many eyes stared at us from the dark shadows of the crude shelters before us. The batek people live in simple structures floored of wood and roofed with woven dried leaves.

Ismail sat us down on benches and started to explain their culture. They did not speak Malaysian or English, so they just stared and watched us. I was amazed at the number of children. It is not certain their origin, but they looked African with their dark skin and curly hair. They are nomadic, moving five to six times a year and are reliant on the jungle to survive.

They mostly eat vegetables and fruits, but also eat small animals from the jungle û barking deer, monkeys, and squirrels. They use long blowpipes and small poisonous darts as their weapons. The pipes and darts are made of bamboo and the poison is from the sap of a tree. The poison is so strong it kills humans in two to three minutes. We were given a demonstration of how the blowpipe is used. A tribesman blew one of the darts into a small target on a distant tree. Impressive! I thought to myself, I would never want to meet one in the jungle as an enemy!

As we were sitting there, Tim nudged me to look at a young boy sitting a few meters from us on a log. From his lips hung a cigarette and he was intensely carving with a ferocious looking knife. He looked about 6 years old but had the presence of an adult. Our guide said they start smoking at four or five and work with knives from the time they are able to hold them. Looking around I saw some toddlers playing with fire and others using large knives. In the States, children that age would just be beginning to play with Legos.

The batek people don't have a specific religion but are spiritual people. When an adult dies, the men take the body deep into the jungle and climb to the top of a very high tree. There they build a platform and place the dead body, wrapped in a blanket and leaves, on top. They believe that when an adult dies, the body is full of sin. By placing the body high in the tree, the rain can wash their sin to the ground and free their spirit to enter heaven. Children are born pure and have no sin yet û so they are buried in the ground.

The longer we stayed, the friendlier the children became. They never approached us but the girls would smile and giggle, hiding behind the adults. The women and men mostly just watched us curiously, but rarely returned a smile. It was hard for me to imagine their life in the jungle and the generations of wisdom they possessed about using the plants and animals in the jungle to survive. top

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia

White Sand

timPalau Perhenitan Kecil, or "Island Perhenitan Small", is located off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia about two hours distance on a slow ferry. Like the name says, the island is small. It isn't cluttered with roads or cars. Only a single lizard-covered jungle path cuts across the island. Individually owned generators supply electricity, but only when the owner of a guesthouse or restaurant wants to run one. Everything on the island crawls at a snail's pace. Don't expect to eat food quickly, it may take 30 minutes to get a menu and another hour to get food. But the beach is white, the water blue, and the relaxing atmosphere comatose.

When the rainy season starts on Palau Perhenitan Kecil, around late October, the island hibernates until the sun returns. We arrived to the island near that time, so we expected to get wet. Instead we lucked into four days of sun, visited only by thundering nighttime tropical storms.

We spent our time wisely: waking up late, reading, writing, talking, snorkeling, and sitting on the beach. Fully relaxed, we are ready to move on. Tonight we take a 10-hour night bus to the bustling town of Penang. top

Kota Baru, Malaysia


timPhoto check-in. top

Women surround themselves in produce in the Kota Baru market, Malaysia.

Penang, Malaysia

Dawn Arrival

timWe entered Penang on an all-night bus from the west coast town of Kota Bahru. I awoke to the noise of activity as people packed bags to leave and the driver shouted that we had arrived. My head felt thick with sleep. My shirt advertised this condition with a large blotch of drool centered on my chest. My blurry eyes read the time as 5:00 AM. I stumbled off the bus with the rest of the crowd.

The locals quickly went their own way, leaving us with a small group of dazed backpackers that had gathered on the curb and were trying to pinpoint their location on the Lonely Planet guide map. The conversation drifted to places to stay. One member of the group had a "great recommendation". The rest of the crowd decided to follow.

Few vehicles passed by us in these predawn hours. Nothing broke the silence but the occasional rev of a small motorcycle. Streetlights cast a sepia tone hue over the scene. Our group forged ahead like eight crazed villagers in a Frankenstein movie, holding our guidebooks up like torches.

We reached the castle gates of the guesthouse, but the castle's rolled steel doors were closed for the night. "Bang, bang, bang!" Our knocking echoed inside the building and woke up the proprietor, who looked with shocked confusion at the large group of people standing out front. Luckily, we all got rooms and slept the bus ride off until a more decent hour. When we woke up, the streets had filled with color and activity.

For better or worse, Penang is the cultural opposite of Kota Bahru. Kota Bahru's population is homogeneously Malay and Muslim. Residents appear in public with covered heads, attitudes are conservative, and people are reserved. In comparison, Penang's British founders gave the city an international feel similar to its neighboring cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (on a much smaller level). The indigenous Malay culture in Penang mixes heavily with Chinese, Indian, and British influences.

We stayed in the center of Chinatown and walked the city all day, soaking in the views of crumbly old buildings with shops selling Indian textiles and Chinese medicines, trishaw drivers who ply the streets looking for fares, street side noodle vendors stirring vats of broth, and old Chinese men sitting in the shadows watching life go by.


Asian street vendors such as this one in Penang, Malaysia, sell an amazing variety of cheap but excellent food. Two old men work outside in Penang, Malaysia, making keys. A rickshaw driver pedals down the street in the rain.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Durian Tasting

michelleToday is Tuesday, but it doesn't really matter. While traveling, the days seem to meld together and become one long stream of vibrant experiences.

We took a six hour bus ride today from Penang to the Cameron Highlands. The Highlands is a hill station known for it's cool temperatures and fertile land. People come here to relax, hike and enjoy the views. While in the Highlands we plan to visit a tea plantation, strawberry farm, a honey farm, and hike.

The road up to the Cameron Highlands is quite steep and windy and it was painful for our bus as it climbed up the mountain, groaning and shaking around each corner. We pulled up to the bus station safely, just as the sky opened up and began to pour.

Once Tim and I settled into our guesthouse and the rain had slowed, we set out to eat lunch. We found a pleasant Chinese restaurant and ordered. While waiting for our food I noticed outside on the sidewalk a group of men eating the fruit durian.

Durian is a popular fruit in Asia. The outside is green and spiny while the inside is white and fibrous. People who eat durian claim it tastes wonderful, but first you have to get over the smell. It has a distinct, foul smell that invades it's surrounding environment and offends the nose. Often we see signs forbidding durian entry in hotels because of how bad they smell.

The men seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely as I watched them slurp and suck at the fruit. I had seen durian at road stands, in the markets and smelled it everywhere, but had yet to see the inside. So filled with curiosity, I went out to the street to get a closer look. I was immediately invited to a taste. Cautiously I took a little. I found it had an interesting distinct flavor, but what it tasted like is hard to explain. It wasn't sweet the way I normally think of fruit. But it wasn't terrible either. I could see how one would need to acquire a taste for it though.

The men immediately decided to give me a durian tasting lesson. So one of them ran over to the durian vendor down the street and bought two more types. Durians are considered a specialty fruit and can be very expensive, so I was impressed at their generosity. Even though my first taste was plenty, I sat down with them and continued to eat. Every time I stopped eating they would cry, "Try! Try!" and encourage me to take some more. Soon we were discussing my ethnicity, where I was from, and how I liked Malaysia.

Inside the restaurant I could see Tim watching me, our lunch steaming in front of him, wondering if I was going to eat lunch with him. I was having so much fun talking to the men, it was hard to leave. But I had definitely had my share of durian! top

A cactus grows in a nursery in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. A cactus grows in a nursery in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.