Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Happy Chinese New Year!

This guy needed a vaaayyyy-caaaayyy-tion!
Rice paddies, Bali, Indonesia 2012
  Well this is awkward. ..Let’s break this cyber silence between us with a festive Asian greeting:
Yea! Happy Chinese New Year to you and yours!
This occasion calls for some resolutions.  Yea?
As I’m new to Chinese New Year I’ve decided to make only one resolution this long 4 day weekend.  That is to catch up on allllll the blogging I missed over the past 4 months. 
Perhaps this blog entry will need a table of contents:
1) CNY (done)
2) Bali
3) Thailand
4) U! S! A! (Christmas)
5) Day-to-day Catch Ups
Ready? Go!
(Left) Statue in Ubud.  (Right) Gegger Beach, Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia

So if you want the full experience you gotta start at the beginning by imaging Alex soaking wet and running to hop into my waiting taxi at our flat in Singapore.  As always the boy works damn hard and our departure day was unfortunately no exception.  Being super-wife in that particular moment I’d lugged all our crap down stairs (which by the way we later learned you don’t need any of, just sunscreen really), booked a taxi, and waited with Alex’s flip flops in hand.  As we were budget air lining it from Singapore to Bali (about $100 each round trip, less than a 2 hour flight after work on a Friday, not bad!) I was worried Alex’s steel-toed work shoes would put us over the limits for luggage.  Thinking ahead I’d text him saying I had his flip flops on the ready.  Whisked away by a Karen Carpenter-loving taxi driver we were off on our first Asian vacation.
Bintang Beer.  So so good.  Not to mention huge.
Just a catch-up for anyone who hasn’t just Googled Bali…Indonesia is a chain of Islands and Bali is one of them.  It has mountains and jungles and lots of Hindu temples and rice paddies and beautiful beaches that are world famous for surfing and things like that.

Neither Alex nor I had been anywhere but Malaysia or Singapore in Asia.  We knew Indonesia was poorer than Singapore (where isn’t? really?) and had a friend who prepared us for some of the poverty we’d see.  If you’re reading this because you’re thinking of going to Bali, I’ll pass on the exact same advice: “Don’t judge the place by the airport.”  Glad we’d been told that.  

The airport, (Ngurah Rai) or what we could see of it when we arrived in Denpasar, was worn down, swarming with children begging for money, and men begging us to ride in their taxis.  Despite all my planning we were instantly overwhelmed.

Luckily, I’d made a Bali cheat sheet (something I now do for every trip).  I wrote down what stuff should cost, phone numbers and reservation numbers.  Our whole trip on one index card.  The taxi drivers were quoting us ridiculous prices (who can blame them? As shell-shocked as we must have looked).  I stood my ground and demanded a more reasonable price and was then shown to the taxi “booth.” 

Ahhhhhh.  Remember this part if you’re ever going to Asia.  It turns out to be relevant in at least 2 countries.  So, this booth is a great idea, at least for me, the taxi rider.  Instead of paying when you arrive at your destination you can pre-pay.  This discourages taxi drivers from taking tourists, like us, the “scenic route.” The booth then gives a slip of paper to one of the heckling taxi drivers who takes you to his car and away you go.  I’m sure this is a broken system, that the guy actually driving us gets less than we’re paying but sometimes (at 1am in a foreign country) you are happy to momentarily just go with that.
The view from Ellie's

 Our 1st hotel was called Ellie’s and it was near an area called Nusa Dua which is in the south east of Bali.  It was dark, we were going really fast, little kids were knocking on our windows asking for change…so by the time we got to Ellie’s we were so thankful for the oasis.  
The pool at Ellie's (and if you look closely, the rooster in the lot next door)
Ellie’s is a small family-owned hotel.  The owner Dave happened to have gone to primary school in the tiny village where Alex’s grandparents live.  Random right?  
The courtyard at Ellie's

Ellie’s was a 4-storey villa sort of a house that had been converted into a hotel.  The style of the actual hotel building was kind of Art Deco or in Alex’s words Art Gecko.  There was a lovely pool and two thatched buildings.  One was the lobby and the second was the breakfast area.  The people were so helpful from the moment we got there to the moment we left.  We felt 100% safe, trusted their judgment on activities and restaurants and were so glad we did.
Nothing can stand between this man and his chili sauce (Hard Rock Cafe, Kota Beach)
Pep e Nero's view.
We generally just relaxed in Nusa Dua, went to a few beaches and ate out at a great restaurant called Pep e Nero’s.  I didn’t realize before we went to Bali how handy Alex’s malay would be. While Bali isn’t part of Malaysia the languages are similar.  Like Australians and Americans, they can pretty much understand most of what the other is saying.  This was fun because Alex could order things, ask questions and for me.  Just attempting the language meant people warmed up to us much quicker than I think they would have otherwise.
Yes, a baby, a woman, and a pregnant lady out for a spin on the bike.

I’ve not read or seen the film of Eat Pray Love but as I was planning our trip everyone I spoke to kept referring to it when I was looking into going to Ubud so I’ll mention that Ubud is totally where the main character “Loves.”  
The view from the backseat of Ketut's van.

We got to Ubud by the very best way imaginable.  Someone I worked with had recommended a driver to us.  I’ve never had a private driver so had no idea what to expect.  We were expecting only that he would take us from point A (Nusa Dua) to point B (Ubud) and then back again later in the week.  Instead we got a full-on tour of Bali.  It was AWESOME.  By far the highlight of the trip.
Alex got Indonesian food, Ketut got Fish and Chips.
For a very reasonable price we had an 8 hour tour of little artisan houses and volcanoes…all on the way to Ubud.

Here’s where we went with our driver and now friend, Ketut: 

1) Family jewelry maker
2) Lunch at a yummy restaurant on a rice paddy
3) Family wood cravers
4) Family coffee farm
5) Volcano
Beautiful rice paddies
In front of a volcano (Ketut took this picture while saying, "Look like you love each other!!")

6) Rice paddies
7) Ubud

At each stop we’d go in and watch craftsmen and women making various items.  We’d then get to chat with them for a while before we could decide if we wanted to buy anything.  The whole process felt a little forced at first but once we got the hang of it and reminded ourselves that this process was a good way to support Bali’s tourism and thus economy we had a blast.

My favorite by far was the coffee farm.  I thought we were walking into a hidden jungle just beside the road when we came upon two thatched open-air huts with a family sitting around and chickens running everywhere.  An older woman was roasting a big metal pot of coffee beans over a wood fire. 
We walked around the farm and saw every kind of tropical plant from pineapples to ginger to coffee and coconuts.  
Baby Pineapple
A coffee bean straight off the tree.

We sat under the hut where the daughter brought us a line of tiny mugs.  Ketut explained what was in each and we tried: 
  • Ginseng tea
  • Ginger tea
  • Hot chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Chocolate coffee
  • Luwak coffee

Here is a Luwak the family we met had to help them collect the right coffee beans.
Luwak coffee was something I’d heard about but with Alex and me not being coffee drinkers we didn’t know all the details.  Luwak coffee is named after the creature who “cultivates” the beans.  Basically a monkey-cat looking creature picks and eats only the ripest coffee beans.  Then, when he poos them out they are cleaned and roasted and made into the most luxurious coffee IN THE WORLD.  I think they told us that the retail price for a cup of Luwak coffee in New York City was something like $75 a cup.  We’re suckers, we totally bought some beans.  We also got chocolate and ginger tea.  It was all so good and the people were so friendly.

I was glad we had Ketut for lots of reasons, most of all he was a great ambassador for Indonesia.  We felt like we could ask him things about the history and culture without him caring about how ignorant we were.  I also liked that he understood my allergy and when he took us to lunch at a traditional Indonesian restaurant was able to speak on my behalf about my allergy.  Ah! The relief to get to try local food without being fearful.  
Breakfast with a view, Ubud.
Results of our Silver smithing class.
My personal Silver smith.
Walking around Ubud
Early morning in Ubud.
Ubud was a great town and I’d recommend spending a day or two there.  Alex and I took a silversmithing class we’d found on TripAdvisor.  It was fun to try something new and again support Bali’s economy.  Like all the people we met in Bali the silver smithing teachers were kind and friendly and patient.  We thoroughly enjoy it.  
Alex waiting for another lemongrass and pesto pizza.
Cafe Luna, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.
We found a restaurant in Ubud that made amazing lemongrass and pesto pizzas and got hooked.  I think we embarrassingly ate pizzas about ½ the meals in Bali but for two vegetarians with a peanut allergy it is ideal.

After Ubud we went back to Nusa Dua as planned.  On the way back we went back to the wood carvers.  There had been a carving that had caught our eye but was way out of our price range.  Alex and I are terrible hagglers.  We feared insulting craftsmen and it took encouragement from our driver Ketut to have a second chance at buying the wood carving.  We were successful and will never forget our trip now that we have a huge memento.  
You should have seen my what-do-you-mean-I-can't-carry-this-on-the-plane face...priceless.

 It might sound boring that we went back to Nusa Dua but Alex had been working so so hard I wanted to make sure we began and ended the trip relaxing on beaches.  Nusa Dua’s beaches are beautiful.  We liked Gegger beach best.  You have to take taxis or rent a motorcycle but it’s really easy to figure these things out.  Everywhere we went in Bali there were people trying to sell us things.  I appreciated some advice from the owner of Ellie’s, he told us that it’s part of Bali’s culture to be friendly and talk to people.  If you simply brush off the salesmen they’ll go away but try and be friendly as they mean well.  This was especially true on the beaches.  We were fairly good customers at Gegger beach.  Each time we went we paid for: chairs and umbrellas for the day, full body massages on the beach (two old women with no teeth per person for about an hour…$11!), food, drinks and taxis.  
$11 dollar massages with Hindu temples in the distance.
We loved that Ellie’s had a huge stash of DVDs for when we’d had enough sun (yea, poor us right?), and the pool and breakfasts of pancakes and fresh fruit smoothies were perfect.
We’re really looking forward to going back to Bali someday and if we do we think we’ll definitely be going back to Nusa Dua and Ellie’s.  In fact, we kind of have to go back because Alex pinky-swore a waitress we’d be back.
Our favorite waitresses and us after our 4th trip to Pep e Nero.

Ao Nang Beach, Krabi, Thailand
So after Bali we were ready for more.  When asked, Alex requested to go somewhere “like in James Bond with blue water and rocks sticking out.” So that’s what we did.
James Bond film-esque rocks.

Ao Nang Beach, Krabi, Thailand.
Railay Beach from the water.

The beach hut shops at Railay
Thailand felt like one step further afield than Bali for a few reasons, it was actually further, we didn’t speak the language, and we knew there would be more chances of encountering peanuts.
Yummy wraps and salad at our hotel.

half way around the world and look who shows up.

Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand.
We decided to go to Krabi which was described as less developed than Phuket but not as rugged as some of the other islands.  Perfect.  We picked a chain hotel that had a restaurant.  Our thought being, if we could communicate to the staff in one place we’d save ourselves time and energy not having to repeat 100 times.  
Hotel in Krabi.

All the hotels are outdoors at least partly (see outside through the bird cages?)
Before we left I printed out a page from an ingenious website called www.killerpeanuts.com.  It provides translations related to your peanut allergy for a variety of scenarios (restaurant, hospital etc).    If you have any severe allergies you got to bookmark this one.  I was able to hand this to the kitchen staff each time we ate and they would confirm they understood.  Peace of mind!
Boat ride "home" from the beach.
We added another two modes of transportation to our growing list whilst in Asia, the tuk tuk and the long boat.  We used this winning combination to get us from the hotel down to the beach and then from the nearest beach to various secluded island beaches.  It felt like paradise!
Tuk tuks come in two forms.  One is sitting in the back of a truck but with benches running down the sides of the truck, and the other is crammed into a little box shoved onto the side of a motorcycle.  I think we preferred the second as it seems more fast, scary, and fun.  
Railay Beach, Krabi, Thailand.
View from the long boat.
The long boats were also exciting.  Having navigated the taxi system in Bali and then again in Thailand (same system) we were ready for the long boats.  You buy tickets to various beaches and present your papers to the boat drivers.  When they get a critical mass of randomers going to the same place you depart.  The first time we were confused and wanted order but by the second trip we were corralling confused looking tourists and explaining what to do. 
Long boat motor and prop.
Our boat driver.
Boats at Ao Nang.

The boats are handmade and wooden with an outboard motor with a prop on the end of a loooooong rudder.  They are sturdy and as the water isn’t at all rough (felt more like a big lake than the ocean) we felt plenty safe.   
Walking Street at Railay beach.  Great for food!

The two beaches we went to were Railay and Phra Nang.  I preferred Railay because it had a little more in the way of food and facilities (a bucket behind a door rather than a few bushes).  Both were great and we’d go back to both.

The water is tidal and salty and clear but not rough like it was in parts of Bali.  We swam and read and ate and repeated all three for hours each day for 4 days.  We went at the very end of Thailand’s monsoon season (right before Christmas) so it did rain a little everyday but luckily just at the time we were getting crispy and needed to come inside anyway.

Overall, I think Bali was breathtaking and worthwhile but Thailand was a little bit easier, cheaper, and comfortable.
Two happy vacationers.

Going home was great.  It was also a looooooong trip.  My 4 favorite things from our trip were:

1) Lake Norman Christmas! I’ve really longed for Christmas with the Sailstad crew for a while now.  It is so fun to be around my cousins and my brother and parents and aunts and uncles. We played board games and went to the movies and generally just laughed a whole lot.  I used to worry that growing up would damage those sorts of fun times but John, Chrissy and Alex are all such important additions to our tribe…and beer…it’s fun drinking beer with your family, didn’t do that way back when.

On a more serious note, I was really glad Alex and I got to say goodbye to “Grandma” Helen who is my Aunt Rosie’s mom.  She was a great lady and in the last few years as my cousin said so aptly was “outliving her body.”  She died a little over a month after we left the US.  It was hard not being there for my family when she passed but we are so thankful for the times we had over Christmas.

2) Class of 2003 10 year reunion.  Who knew?  I wasn’t actually even looking forward to this event despite being one of the organizers.  I knew the event would be good but I was so so so nervous about seeing people from high school.  After all I’ve pretty much been away from Durham since and hadn’t kept up with hardly anyone. I don’t know what I was so anxious about.  Everyone from my high school got along and why I would have thought the reunion would have gone any differently beats me.  We drank and ate and danced until the bitter end.  Alex got to put some faces with names which was fun.  All in all, I can’t wait to do it again in 10 more years.

3) Catching up. We counted we planned to meet up with and met up with over 40 people in the 13 days in the US.  How stupid was that? Totally my fault but we’re glad we did.  We had many fun meaningful catch ups.  I really love Durham but I seriously can’t live without some of its people.  It’s good to feel so loved and affirmed and return those feelings. Mmhhmmmm! Christmas-y Durham!

4) New Jersey New Year.  Mannnnnnn I love New Jersey.  I love the pizza and the bagels and the beaches and my family.  Alex hadn’t been to New Jersey (we’re not counting all the times he’s been to Newark) so it was fun to show him why we love it.  He road on a quad with my cousin Dylan and my Uncle Kenny, met my grandpa, and rang in the New Year with the Murphies!  My cousin Kelly was such a huge influence on my life when I was the age her girls are now that it feels extra special to hang out with them.  The circle of life and all that stuff.  We laughed so hard in New Jersey I think we’re set for 2013.  Also, we loved riding in the car with my parents.  It was really memorable to talk and eat and drive just like good old times but with my husband.

So yea, those were our trips.  Do you feel caught up? 
Singapore continues to be its own adventure.  We learn new things all the time.  We’re really starting to know our way around and most day to day things are getting to be second nature.   I think I didn’t realize how overwhelming stuff can feel until I relaxed at home in the US and went back to crazy life in Asia.  Commuting by train really exhausts me.  I’m not a real city girl.  I don’t like having to push people to get to work.

Monsoon season was pretty much the whole time I’ve not blogged and could very well be what I blame for my absence.  Whether it’s the darkness in England, the cold in the US, or the rain in Singapore, there is always something to moan about.  It wasn’t until the last two weeks or so (the end of the monsoons) that I felt I was finally getting over my rut of weather-weary.  

One thing that really helped was planning Reggie’s trip! Alex’s little sister Rachel (affectionately referred to by us years ago as Alex’s “poor lil’ brudder” when she was about 9 and whined about something, which then morphed into naming her a little brother name, which was Reginald and now is just “Reggie” or “Reg”) is coming to visit!  It will be so special to have her close by and to share our little world with her.  We’ve got some fun stuff planned but in case she might happen to read this, I’m going to keep that hidden away for another blog.

We’ve had a quiet Chinese New Year in with many Skype dates, exercise, and watching some movies.  My main goal was to not die from peanuts as everything within a 5-mile radius of Chinatown is supposedly dripping in the little things. 

More soon.