Friday, April 27, 2012

Day 179 - 181: Perth and Fremantle, Part One

Our hosts in Perth were Rob and Fi, who moved over from the UK a year and a half ago and set up home in Osborne Park, in a cracking bungalow with a lovely puppy called Molli, who is stupidly cute.

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We had a quiet night in after getting picked up at the airport by Fi, and took a trip out to Fremantle the following day. After a stroll through the E-Shed markets, we hit our destination: Little Creatures Brewery.

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Famous in the town, and across the country, for its various beers - we even get it in the UK - Gilly and I didn't actually try any of the ales, but settled on their cider which was excellent. And so it should be, as at $9.50 (£6) it was the most expensive pint I've ever bought. It was an eye-watering introduction to Australia's cost of living which is, quite frankly, insane. We'd been prepared somewhat by everyone we'd met who has visited warning us that this was the case, but it still stung. The locals think nothing of dropping 150 to 200 bucks on a night out. How do they afford it? The jobs - even the menial ones - are very, very well paid. You could earn a relative fortune fruit-picking and even more in an office or doing skilled work. Thai workers come over to work for 3 to 6 months doing manual labour and earn enough to take the rest of the year off back home, thanks to the different costs of living.

Back to the brewery then. We met up with Paul and Fi who had also landed the night before and much enjoyment was had via the medium of alcohol. Remember kids, drink in moderation. Otherwise, you may end up like this character who arrived at the brewery as we were leaving:

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Fremantle itself is a very relaxed town. Known to the locals as Freo, It's a lot more organic than Perth, and feels closer to somewhere like Bristol. Lots of markets, historic buildings (old for Australia, anyway), and quite a hippie vibe.

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The sun was shining and the birds were singing; in this case, the birds were actually parrots. White parrots, in trees. It's funny, the things you see that must be an everyday occurrence to native folk, but create a sense of awe in visitors whose closest experience to a parrot in the UK is a wander through a pet shop.

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We rounded off the day with a BBQ courtesy of Rob's excellent cooking skills. Kangaroo burgers, succulent corn, prawns and lamb sausages. Yum.

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As we were going to be on the west coast for two weeks, and Paul and Fi had a decent amount of time here too, we decided to take a road trip up the coast. The next day was spent planning our route and shopping around for campervans and insurance, and after failing miserably to get free wi-fi in Perth centre, we headed back to Rob and Fi's. Thanks to sheer determination we managed to get a 4-berth hi-top Toyota van booked for the next day. Our plan was a 6 day round-trip, to head up as far as Monkey Mia on the west coast, and possibly further if time permitted. It was going to be a cosy ride, but we were all looking forward to it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 175 - 178: Ubud

If Kuta is the party town of Bali, and Sanur is the relaxing side, then Ubud is the cultural heart of the island. Everywhere you look, there are miniature temples, carvings and statues. The three main streets in the centre are littered with art galleries and shops selling woodwork, handmade gifts, and other paraphernalia. Ubud doesn't have guesthouses as much as it has homestays, fairly large complexes of buildings usually set in the grounds of old temples. Almost every homestay is like this, and so the surroundings of the place you choose stay are generally spectacular, even if the rooms themselves aren't much cop. An example:

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We couldn't get internet access to check whether our original request to stay at Jangkrik Homestay had been accepted or not, so when we arrived at the Perama bus station in Ubud, we didn't actually have anything booked. A tout offered us Hutama Rooms which seemed fairly comfortable, was the same price as Jangkrik and also came with breakfast. Just outside our room, we were treated to this:

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As I said, spectacular. Ubud was left pretty much unscathed throughout the various wars in the past, and there is a very "olde worlde" feel about the place. Culture is obviously important to the locals, not just for tourism but as part of their way of life. Many wear headdresses and sarongs day-to-day, and there is a more respectful, relaxed atmosphere in the town.

As soon as we got checked in, we went and found Jangkrik Homestay and immediately booked in for the following 3 days. It was head and shoulders above Hutama in terms of comfort, noise level and hospitality. We were looking forward to moving there.

First though, we needed to explore Ubud. After wandering around and passing an impressive amount of rather fancy caf├ęs, bakeries and restaurants, we eventually arrived at Melting Wok, a French/Laotian-owned joint which only had a small amount of dishes to choose from, all of which looked fantastic. A couple of stir-fry dishes later, and we could confirm they tasted as good as they looked.


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After lunch, we visited the Seniwati Gallery which focuses on art created by women. Some of the local Balinese pictures portraying the rice terraces were outstanding. This was followed by a visit at a local outdoor gallery which had various grotesque carvings carved directly out of living trees:

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 The old water palace was also nearby:

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This, like many of the other large open spaces and temples in the area, is used as a performance ground for a plethora of dances and shows that take place each evening in Ubud. I have to admit, my experience of "dance" on our travels so far hasn't been thrilling. The performance of an excerpt of the Ramayana in the royal theatre in Luang Prabang was almost enough to send me to sleep, so the opportunity to see some Kecak (pronounced KEH-CHAK) dancing didn't really interest me. However, Gilly was quite keen, and it did also have some sort of fire trance dance involved as well, so we took a gamble on it. Apparently, Kecak dancing is predominantly a male activity (there are many groups performing in and around Ubud) but we were lucky enough to book to see one of the first female Kecak groups. After walking up to find the area the dance was going to be performed in, we met a man who was busy husking coconuts to be used for the fire. His wife was one of the dancers, and we decided to buy tickets from him rather than one of the many, many touts around town. He zoomed off on his motorbike and returned 5 minutes later with the tickets - presumably having bought them from a tout! The dance was interesting. It was all done acapella-style, with sections of the group making the beat, whilst others were chanting. There wasn't much "dance" as such, more like sitting down and swaying. The Ramayana was involved, of course, and they condensed a large portion of one story into quite a short period of time which made things more evenly spaced. The costumes were very ornate, and the man playing the evil king that Rama has to overcome had an amazingly evil laugh. It sounded like something out of a cartoon.

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The highlight of the show was the fire trance. A man came down the steps wearing a grass skirt which was fashioned into a horse, and was put into a trance by another chap which seemed to be done solely by flicking water at his face. Then a mountain of coconut shells was set on fire, and the hypnotised man proceeded to stamp all over the red hot embers of the coconuts.

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If that wasn't enough, he then took some of the embers and put them in his mouth. I have no idea if he burned himself, but after he was brought out of the trance by the water-flicker, he didn't look particularly comfortable.

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It was an enjoyable hour and a half, and it was nice to engage in some local art performances - the last time we'll likely be able to afford to do so, at least until the US. 259 We moved to Jangkrik Homestay the next morning, and were introduced to the family there - Made, Kadek, Wayan, Nita and Komang. We learned that it was Nita's birthday on Saturday, the day before we were leaving, and the family were holding a joint party for all of the people staying there, as one of the guests, a Dutch lady called Ans, was also celebrating a birthday the day before.

We had lunch at Gula Bali, which did fantastic BBQ chicken and the largest prawn crackers I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling too well before lunch, and got progressively more rundown throughout the afternoon.

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We managed to make it all around the ARMA museum, which was set in a series of beautiful buildings and lovely grounds.

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In one of the buildings there was a dance school for children which was just starting as we arrived. Presumably this was to train the next batch of dancers to ensure that Ubud's traditional arts continued.

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Dinner was at Wild Ginger, which is inexplicably popular on Tripadvisor. The food was good but the portions were tiny, and it was more expensive than other places around town.

Ubud is famous for its Monkey Forest Road which, as one might imagine, is a road that leads into a forest and contains, yes, monkeys. That's a Ronseal street name, right there. We went there the next day after another lunch at the wonderful Melting Wok, and we found that it was full of monkeys. Vicious, bipolar monkeys who look cute, but which turn ferocious at the drop of a hat. If you have food in your hand - and a lot of people do, as banana sellers are crawling around the entrance - then the monkeys will climb up you to snatch if from your grasp. If you don't have food, they will crawl up you to rifle through your pockets if they suspect you have anything in there. Gilly found this out as she sat down on a wall, and a monkey immediately became "friends" with her, only to leave moments later when she didn't have anything to offer.

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For some reason, monkeys have a tendency to lick the walls of the temples which are dotted around the forest road. No-one knows why, but it's certainly odd to watch.

Gilly also had a run-in with this beast, who was attempting to smash a bead with a rock, and didn't take kindly to her rolling the bead back to him.

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Shortly after this photo was taken, he bared his teeth, sauntered over and bit her leg - thankfully, it was more of a gesture of dominance than anything serious, she was looking away (making eye contact is a no-no) and her shorts protected her leg - it was gentle, and she didn't feel anything. After that, we decided to stay the hell away from the monkeys. I guess that's the problem when you mix wild animals with tourists who feed them - their natural behaviour is all but shot to pieces, and they have to adapt to strangers wandering through their home.

In the evening we ate at Laba Laba, which had some delicious pork satay - possibly the best satay I've eaten on the trip so far.


I got a haircut on our last day in Ubud - there are so many spas and boutique salons around that it was difficult to find somewhere that just cut hair. Thankfully, Made took me out on his bike to a local barber (one guy, one chair, one mirror) who trimmed my afro to a more manageable size, and with a brief stop at the pharmacy on the way back to pick up some painkillers, the rest of the day was spent strolling through the town, eating lunch at Ibu Rai - a fairly bland affair, but Gilly enjoyed her meal more than I did - and then heading back to Jangkrik for Nita's 18th birthday party. It looked like she'd invited half the teenagers in the town, all crammed into a fairly small courtyard. I'm not sure if it was a traditional Bali birthday celebration, but there was an MC complete with microphone and a number of Nita's friends were called up to say - presumably nice - things about her, before being fed cake from Nita's hands. We had the traditional "Happy Birthday" song for Ans, followed by the Balinese equivalent. One of Nita's friends sang a song whilst accompanying himself on guitar, and then parcels of food (fried rice, fruit, etc) were handed around the guests, along with some cake.

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It was a great way to end our stay in Ubud, and indeed, South East Asia. It felt like we'd barely touched Indonesia - and I guess we really hadn't. We didn't get to visit Komodo, sadly, but it's being put on the list of places to go to when we next come to this area.

We were now moving into the more pricey second half of our round the world trip, and Australia was up next. Perth was our first destination, and we were pretty excited.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day 171 - 174: Sanur & Lembongan, Bali

The breakfast at the Ndalem Suratin guesthouse had become progressively worse over the three days, and after being presented with noodle soup on our final morning I was happily ready to leave for the airport. As it was a daytime flight, we were treated to some great views from the window as we flew to Denpasar.

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After arrival, a painless taxi journey took us through Kuta to our destination of Sanur, where Paul and Fi awaited. Kuta looked like a built-up mess; we’d had no plans to visit, as everyone who had mentioned Bali had told us to avoid the place unless we were into 18 to 30-style drunkenness, surfing, or tacky tourism. We weren’t.

Sanur was also built-up but not to the same extent. The roads were wider, and consisted mainly of hotel resorts and restaurants. It’s supposed to be more of a family-oriented destination, and that seems appropriate. It’s fairly quiet, and that’s what we liked about it. We checked into the Hotel Ramayana in the early evening, and met up with Paul and Fi and their new friends Tom and Erin, all of whom were next door in the luxurious Swastika Bungalows (don't snigger). They have a mere three swimming pools on the complex, in case you needed a change of scenery for lounging around, and we could make use of all of them. We dipped a toe – the water was still warm, even at almost 7pm – but decided to wait until the next day to make full use of it; a trip to the night market for some food was on the cards.

Paul and Fi had organised some diving for us all with Atlantis Divers for the morning. We got taken from their hotel to the base on the beach in Tulamben (a good 2-3 hours away) and got kitted up. These would be our first ever shore dives; the beach itself was black sand, and the sun was as hot as normal so we were quite happy to get into the water. Our divemaster was Sunny, who was as smiley as her name suggests and we were in good hands for the entire time.

The first dive was at the Liberty wreck, our second wreck dive. Shore diving is very easy. You just walk into the water and swim down. No jumping in from boats and getting water up your nose, or landing awkwardly and having to reorient yourself. On the downside, it’s a trek from the beach to the sea wearing full equipment and in blazing heat. Underwater, we saw both the Denise seahorse and the pygmy seahorse: two miniscule seahorses which cling to weeds and mimic their colour almost exactly. We also saw a school of jack fish which we swam under, until they completely surrounded us, as well as a gobi shrimp and an ornate ghost pipefish. The wreck itself was fairly large, and there was a small swim through on which Paul and Fi both banged their heads. The bridge was also accessible and we even got to hold the wheel but not turn it; it had rusted in place.

Heading back to base, we enjoyed a complimentary lunch (mmm...burger and chips), and were soon ready for the second dive at Coral Garden. This dive was even more fun than the first. Aside from seeing a flat fish, a blue spotted ray, a blacktip reef shark, an anemone which shrank back into the ground rapidly when I brushed past it, and a school of triggerfish which were surprisingly calm about me swimming over their territory, there were a couple of special highlights. First was getting the chance to stroke a moray eel who was sat in a crevice swaying back and forth. Sunny was obviously familiar with his behaviour and indicated that he wasn’t feeding at the time, and therefore safe to stroke. It felt like running my fingers over a bowl of jelly, really bizarre. Not quite as bizarre as the second experience: getting cleaned by some shrimp. Cleaner shrimp usually hang around in “cleaning stations” where fish swim over and the shrimp remove parasites and other crud from the gills and body of the fish. The fish have irritations removed and the shrimp get a meal. Fair enough. However, they appear happy to perform the same service for humans. We stuck our hands out near the coral, and the jumped on to give us a manicure. For the braver divers, there is also the option of getting your teeth cleaned – simply take a breath, remove the regulator, stick your face in close, and smile. The shrimp leap onto your face and immediately go to work as living floss. Possibly the strangest underwater encounter I’ve ever had, with two shrimp acting as dentists; Sunny did even better, as when we glanced over she had six or seven shrimp hanging off her face. Superb.

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For dinner, we were all pretty hungry after a day’s diving and fancied an Indian. Gateway of India was our destination, and was possibly my favourite Indian meal on the entire trip, absolutely fantastic.

Back at Swastika Bungalows the following day, we took time to enjoy the pool(s) with Paul, Fi, Tom and Erin and practice our diving:

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We waved Erin and Tom off in the early afternoon and Paul and Fi departed in the evening, but not before we’d had a decent mid-afternoon meal at Swastika Restaurant (part of the Bungalows but further down the road). An attempt to find a place for a haircut failed miserably, so we lazed around the pool for the rest of the day. We were going to meet up with them a week later in Perth.

Not far from Sanur is an island called Nusa Lembongan (Nusa means “island”) and this is where we had chosen to spend the next couple of days, doing some more diving. We got over for about midday the next day, and found some very basic lodgings in Rama Beach Villa, which absolutely did not look like this:

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These are properties for people on a non-backpacker budget. What we had was a basic room with a fan, a mosquito net with holes in (thankfully there were very few mossies around), and a toilet that smelt like bad varnish.

We got some diving booked in for the next day with Lembongan Diving Centre. We’d hoped to be able to go to Manta Point and swim with some manta rays, but that was off the agenda as the swell was a lot bigger than would be safe to dive in, and it was only going to increase throughout the week. A shame, but we still have Australia and Fiji to go and we may get lucky there. We had lunch at Podok Baruna which was average, and for dinner decided to splash out on food at The Beach Club at Sandy Bay for our 7 year anniversary. They have a huge selection of fresh meat which they BBQ after you choose it, and I went for a full rack of ribs whilst Gilly chose fish; both were excellent, as were the cocktails.

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The restaurant is located right on the beachfront, so we had lovely views of the waves crashing onto the sand.

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Diving took place around Nusa Penida the next day, an island a short boat ride away. We went to two sites: Crystal Bay and Toyapakah. The latter was our first drift dive, but it wasn’t a particularly strong current. Toyapakah also had some of the best coral I’ve seen on any dive, including Sipadan, which made up for the lack of big marine life to see. Having said that, we did see plenty of smaller creatures: Goat fish, mantis shrimp, thornback cow fish, leaf scorpionfish, magnificent chromodoris, ribbon eel, blue spotted pufferfish, peacock-tail anemone shrimp, pink sea cucumber, redtooth triggerfish and yellow boxfish, amongst many others. Lunch (nasi goreng) was served on the boat by the French owner and divemaster Valentin, and was pretty good.

There’s not actually much to do on Lembongan other than dive or surf. I’m not a surfer; it simply doesn’t interest me. I’m not particularly a fan of sea swimming (I dislike salt water) and sand gets everywhere so I’m not really much of a beach fan either. I don’t get on with sunbathing – I burn, then peel, and it’s deathly dull to just sleep in it (as well as being pretty dangerous with my skin – so beaches are nice to visit, but not really something that grabs my attention unlike the majority of UK holidaymakers who rush to the nearest coast as soon as the mercury gets above 20 degrees and it looks like there may be a spot of sun amongst the never-ending cloud. Give me decent weather, a nice hotel pool, and the option of shade any day. Sihanoukville's Otres Beach was perfect as you had comfortable cushions and seats right on the beachfront so you could pick your activity. On Lembongan it was either burn or be damned.

The lack of activity did give me more opportunity for reading, though.

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On Rob’s Bookshelf:

Room(Emma Donaghue): This was a lot different to most fiction I’ve read. Set in a self-contained room and told from the perspective (and in the voice) of a 6 year old boy named Jack, Room is about a mother who was kidnapped and held for over 7 years, and who had a child whilst in captivity. The only world he knows about is that of Room, and all of the objects within – Table, Wardrobe, Bed, and so on. They have a TV, which his mother tells him shows him other planets but which aren’t real, they’re “TV”, they play games and do exercise, and Old Nick is the kidnapper who brings them food and the occasional “Sunday treat”. As Jack gets older though, he starts to question things more, until his mother starts to run out of answers and needs to decide how best to handle the hopeless situation they’re in... Room has an interesting voice in Jack, and the author cleverly shows how a child in captivity with a caring mother would develop a much bigger vocabulary and become far more advanced in certain areas whilst obviously lacking in other social aspects. The book goes down an interesting path around the halfway point, but it loses its focus somewhat; the conclusion is satisfying though, and would certainly warrant a read.

The Da-Da-De-Da-Da Code(Robert Rankin): One of the first comedy fantasy books I ever tried to read (even before Pratchett) was They Came And Ate Us by Robert Rankin. I was probably a little too young to get the jokes at the time, but I never forgot the title or the author. As it happens, Rankin is one of Paul’s favourite authors, so when I saw this sitting in a bookswap shelf in a Kota Kinabalu bar, I took a punt on it. The plot about a missing piece of music by a legendary musician that causes your head to explode if you listen to it, is meandering and – by the author’s own admission at various stages in the book – full of holes. This would be fine if it was funny, but it isn’t. Paul read it after me and said it was far from his best work, so I may give one of his better books a go at some stage, but I’d advise against reading this one.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(Stieg Larsson): Unless you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the Swedish author’s best-selling trilogy. It was hyped beyond belief, had three films made in Sweden, and a well-received US remake of the first book was out a few months ago, starring Daniel Craig. With all of the hyperbole surrounding it, I came into this first book with low expectations, thinking it would be just another Dan Brown flash-in-the-pan. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The book is a deftly plotted crime thriller – not a genre I’ve ever read before – about a journalist trying to solve the disappearance and murder of a young girl some decades earlier, and it had me hooked from start to finish. The main characters are well defined, and the supporting cast is given enough shape for any one of them to be a suspect; I’d changed my mind about the perpetrator at least three times and still ended up surprised by the finale. I immediately hunted down the second book in Sanur once I’d finished this. For once, the hype is well-deserved. Sadly, Larsson died after finishing the trilogy and didn’t get to see the praise and fame his books received.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven(Mitch Albom): A gentle tale about a dejected maintenance worker at a fairground who, in his twilight years, is killed by one of the rides he works on and in true Capra-esque style, is shown the value of his time on earth by five people in heaven who were touched by his life either directly or indirectly. Not the soaring, uplifting yarn you’d expect about making the most of your life, and not as spiritual as the praise-heavy blurb would have you believe, but an easy, worthwhile read nonetheless.

Use Of Weapons(Iain M. Banks). After falling in love with Consider Phlebas, I was expecting big things with Use of Weapons which is actually the third book set in the Culture universe, but which can be read as a standalone novel like the rest. I came away a little disappointed; the story simply wasn’t as interesting as the first book, whilst the author used an unnecessary gimmick throughout to flit between two different stages of the main character’s life...the second of which seems to be rendered pointless by the twist at the end which seems to undo everything that had happened before. Whilst the main narrative isn’t much cop, there are some excellent individual sections and there is less philosophising about whether the Culture is a benevolent force or not, which threatened to overpower the first book in places. Instead, there is a discussion throughout the book about whether larger powers should intervene in the struggles between two races, and if so, to what extent. An interesting thread which also suffers from the twist at the end. Paul assures me the second book is as good as, if not better than Consider Phlebas so I’ll hope for a more enjoyable read once I get my replacement Kindle in Perth.

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Two nights on Lembongan were more than enough – with no good diving to be had later in the week, and not much else to do there, we cut our losses and took a boat back the next morning to the mainland, followed by a bus to Ubud: our next destination in Bali.