April 26th, 2004
Subject: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia...
2 minutes, 13 seconds. Thats how long it took from when I hit the "COMPOSE" button in Yahoo!Mail to when this window popped up. Seemed excruciatingly slow. But then I thought what a spoiled world that we live in when I get irritated when it takes over 2 minutes to send off a message to hundreds of people around the world. All the same, its something that usually takes a unit of time so quick that its immesurable. But the page is loaded, the palate is blank, the vibes are good, and the stories are many so lets get on with it shall we.....
When Dave and I were in Singapore, we had found out about a boat show that was going on the upcoming weekend. It would be a great place to see if we could find more boats needing crew, and in Daves case, some information on finding information on his apprenticeship in boat building. But that was on Monday, and spending a week in Singapore was an expensive proposition. So we decided to head to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia to see some sights and save some bucks. We hopped on a night bus heading to KL (as everyone calls it) hoping to catch some sleep. As per my previous record with busses in Asia, I didnt hold out much hope. To my surprise and delight, the these were the Cadiallacs of busses. Instead of 4 seats across, there were only 3! A row of 2-across and a row of single seats. All like Lay-Z-Boy recliners. I could barely touch the seat in front of me!! Woo Hoo. I still didnt sleep. I'm just not a being suited to sleeping on transport.
We arrived in KL at 2am. I never like arriving at that hour. So few people around, its dark, and you're basically left somewhere you dont know to figure your way around. There was the usual gaggle of taxi drivers there to accost you when you got off the bus. Sometimes they can be real aggrivating. You've just come from a relaxing bus ride, or long sleep and you get off the bus to "Mister, where you going? I take you, come on! Where you go? Where? You like hotel? I take you to hotel. We go. Come. Where you going?". This rapid fire questioning. If ever there is a driver relaxing against his car, we will go over to him, but there rarely is. In any case, the drivers wanted 30 Ringgit ($8) to take us to the backpackers place we were looking for, or a closer one if there was one. He refused to run the taxi meter. So did everyone else. It sounded way too high, as we had heard other travelers tell us it should be 5R, so we told the guy to go away. Another driver came up and said he'd take us there for 15R. Still sounded high, but at this hour, I wasnt about to quibble over 4 bucks. Dave wanted to demand a fair price and the taxe driver went in to a rant. Right there on the street. He threw up his hands and couldnt believe we had the audacity to offend him like that. Screaming and carrying on. Then he handed us the keys to the car and said if we could find a cheaper price anywhere we could have his car. Temping offer bud, but I'm too tired to try. I told the dude to chill out and we'd take it for the 15R. As we were walking to the taxi, there was a hotel right across the street. Looked cruddy, but do-able for the night. We could sleep and find better accomodations in the daylight when we had our bearings. We went in and the owner said the hotel was for Malaysians only, but there was a backpackers place one minutes walk away. Sure enough, there was. The taxi guy was going to charge us 15R to take us one block. Bastard.
I'd like to say that the rest of KL got better from the standpoint of getting ripped off, but it didnt. As a tourist, you become accustomed to paying higher prices than the locals, and to some extent, thats fine, really. But the extent to which we felt it in KL was much higher than elsewhere.
We spent our first day just walking around the city, and checking out the markets at Chinatown. Chinatown markets have about 5% cool Chinese-like things, and about 95% knock off clothing, watches, CDs and shoes. All the same, its a bunch of fun to walk through them and see all the wares.
Later that night, we were planning to head out in to the city to check out some of the bars and clubs. Theres a little backpackers code of ethics that works as such: if you're leaving a place and have found cool things to do, impart these findings on those coming in. So, when there were about 8 people in the common room of our hostel watching a movie and we asked "Can anyone recommend any good bars around here?", we were surprised when the answer came "Yeah, go to Thailand." Ok, granted, many visitors to KL might be coming from Thailand where the nightlife is some of the best in the world, but to ignore a city and what potential it offers because you've come from there, is just silly. So we announced we were going to see what we could find and if anyone wanted to join. No one did - all too engrossed in their movie. As we walked towards city center, at the end of our street, about a 3-minute walk, there was a huge celebration going on.
Turns out that this day was actually the Hindu new year, and that this temple was one of the most promenent in all of KL, although if you passed by in the day time and didnt look inside, it might look like any other shop. There were people chanting, praying, and smashing coconuts. Smashing coconuts? Yes, over the year, if you've broken a vow, you need to confess it to the gods, so you take a de-barked coconut, light it on fire and smash it to the ground as you ask for forgiveness for breaking your vow. The sound of the smash awakens the god and lets him hear your prayer. Then, the helper of the god happens to be mouse, who will be appeased as he can eat the remains. We learned this from 2 really nice Malaysian guys that we had stopped to ask. We ended up chatting with them for about an hour and a half about the rituals and life in Malaysia in general. As we walked away, we thought about the people at the hostel watching the movie unaware that a festival was taking place just outside the door. We did find a couple cool bars that night, but ended up calling it an early night.
KL is home to the worlds 2 tallest buildings. Petronas Towers 1 and 2. Offically the 2 highest buildings in the world. As of now. One being built in Taipei is set to beat it in a couple years and the proposed WTC design in New York will beat that too if approved. But anyway, we wanted to go up to see the view, but as it turns out, you have to get up at 8am to get tickets. That wasnt going to happen. Besides, the tickets only get you in to the observation bridge, which is half-way up the building. For a better view, we decided to check out the Mekala tower. Its actually at the same height of the Petronas tower, only because its built on a big hill. In any case, it was great to get a view of the city from above, and really get to see how awesome it is.
Our hostel in KL had recommended a homestay in Singapore we could check out if we liked. Well, we hated the place we stayed last time, so we figured we'd give it a shot. We called them as we were getting in to town and they said they'd come to the bus to pick us up. Thats kind of out-of-the-ordinary, but ok. Well, Annie and Percy were there to pick us up and give us a ride. Incredibly nice people, if not, too nice. And a bit hyper, but in a good way. Turns out they run a hostel in Chinatown, but its under renovation, so they've put some extra beds in their highrise apartment and are renting it out. Cool! Percy is a devout Buddist ahd prayed several times a day and burnt various offerings off the back deck. He explained some of it, but most of it went over our heads. But it was so nice to be in a house, just relaxing. We had a livingroom with a couch we could sprawl on, a TV with movies we could watch, a kitchen we could use, and a host that was awesome!
Well, the boat show was here, and Dave headed to get his information while I scouted Chinatown and the markets for some things I needed. He got the information he needed, but came back to report there were no boats looking for crew. Oh well.
We spent the rest of our time in Singapore enjoying our homestay and heading out with friends. We were able to meet up again with Anba and Keenan our at a place called east beach, and also got to meet up with Nina and her crew out at a club. Along with Kelly and Jules who were staying at our homestay, we met up with them at a cool sidewalk resturant for beers before going to the club. This is standard practice in Singapore where the beers are $5 at the resturants and $15 in the clubs. Nina was nice enough to put us all on the VIP list for the club, which in itself is a reason to go. But the music was good and the company was even better. A very fun crew to hang out with.
Our plan was to leave Singapore for Indonesia the next day as soon as I picked up a package I had delivered to the FedEx office, an ordeal which ended up taking over 5 hours. The trip to Indonesia wouldnt be a quick one. It can be made by taking 2 ferries from Singapore, which combined take 12 hours, or a bus to Malaysia and a ferry to Indonesia which should take 10 hours. Either way, thats to East Sumatra and we wanted to go a further 12 hours to West Sumatra. No matter how you slice it, its 24 hours of traveling. Here we go.
No we dont. We missed the last bus out so we had to go the next morning at 9am. No biggie. We arrive in Malacca in Malaysia at 1:30. Catch the 3pm ferry to Dumai. Arrive at 5pm with the time difference to catch the 7pm bus. We buy our tickets at 6pm before anyone else has arrived, along with an Australian couple we met on the ferry.
Traveling with someone with opposite tastes has its benefits. You can steal the food off their plate which you know they dont like. You let them take the hard bed, you get the soft one. Opposite with the pillows, and everyone is happy. You can walk in to a bar and say "You talk to the brunette, I'll talk to the blonde", and you both agree on this arrangement. This is why, when I pulled the bus ticket out of my pocket and read aloud "Seats 41 and 42", I immediately followed it by, "you take the window, I take the aisle." Dave likes to rest his head, I like to stretch my long legs in to the aisle. We get in to the bus and scout around for 41 and 42. OH NO YOU DONT. Theres 41 and 42, middle seats, back row. No window, no aisle. You know, those seats in the back that dont recline. And to make matters worse, the seats are 6-across in the back. This means that each person has about 4/5ths of a seat. (I did the math during this marathon bus ride, trust me). These had to be the 2 worst seats on the whole bus. Well, its possible our Aussie friends got the two worst, and ours were second. Theirs were by the rear exit row, which means that there was NO floor to rest their feet on, and anyone entering or exiting the bus bumped their legs.
So after 12 hours of traveling, I am set in for another 12 in a seat I cant recline, with the seat infront of me reclined, knees tightly together and jammed in the seat in front, people pressed firmly against me on both sides. 12 more hours!! Nooooooo!!
As this awful nature of this predicament is becoming more and more clear, we notice the windows are open. Oh yeah, this isnt an air conditioned bus. Great. Then someone gets on with a cigarette. Coming from a country where you cant smoke near a bus, this is odd to see. Then Bruce, one of the Aussies, turns around and says "Didnt you know, all busses in Indonesia are smoking busses". This trip is only getting better. And the Indonesians take full advantage of the fact you're allowed to smoke on the bus.
We stopped for a 15 minute break 4 hours in to the ride. I've had a lot of time to contemplate and stew about this. The Aussies bought their tickets right before us. They got seats 36 and 37. Dave and I bought ours next. Logically, that would give us 38 and 39. But they didnt. Furthermore, we were the first ones in the bus station, so we should have had 1,2,3 and 4. But we didnt. Furthermore, we paid 75,000R and we asked a local who said he paid 15,000R. Guess it was a case of screw-the-tourist with a 5-fold price and the worst seats on the bus. I wasnt big on Indonesia at this point.
We arrived in Padang at 7am to the chaotic scene thats customary to bus stations in this part of the world. Everybody wants to know where you're going and everybody can take you there. Our solution is to find a shop and have a drink and let the drivers adrenalin subside a little. Then casually find out how to get to where we were going. We took a bemo (a "bemo" is a little van with a door cut our of the side to allow people to jump in and out at will) to a hotel in Padang, I slept for 10 hours, then we formulated a plan to find a nice beach to go to. Padang is a travel hub - all busses will go in and out of here, but other than that, theres not much to see or do. However, Padang is famous throughout Asia for Padang-style food. Padang-style food is simply a variety of different foods cooked in chili sauces and curries, and when you sit down at the resturant, they bring you one of everything, and you just eat what you want. The region around Padang is also famous for its unusual archeticture, in which the roofs of most buildings look like bull horns.
The plan we formulated was to head to a beach called Air Manis. Air Manis is a quiet little beach about an hour from Padang. Sounded like just what I was looking for.
Getting to Air Manis was a bit interesting. Its not a major desintation, so you have to take a bemo to the turnoff, then find a way down there. As luck would have it, the bemo driver found an Indonesian couple heading there for the day, so they said we could follow them. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Indonesian. We arrived at the turn-off to the beach to find that there were 12 guys on mopeds who happen to make their living running people back and forth to the beach. They saw us and about 8 of them raced over ready to give us a ride. We were surrounded by an Indonesian moped gang. If they all had leather jackets that said "T-Birds" on them, it would have been picturesque. Not wanting a repeat of a rip-off scam like the last bus ride, we stuck by our Indonesian friend and said we were going with him. Only, it appeared he wasnt too sure what he was going to do. His girlfriend didnt want to take as moped. We didnt want to take one with all our baggage. We just wanted to follow our guy. Unfortunately, this got him all the wrath of the moped gang for ruining the would-be business of the tourists. Eventually we found a truck and got to Air Manis.
We got to the Papa Chilis Homestay, which is the only place to stay in Air Manis- there are no hotels or other homestays. Its a real nice homey place run by a awesome lady whos name we could never remember. Shes there with her 8 year old nephew and all manner of ducks, dogs, frogs, cats, bats, geese, chickens, geckos, goats and cows. And Amhed. Ahmed is an Algerian guy who has based himself out of Papa Chilis for 6 months and is so good at everything you just have to dislike him, yet like him at the same time. The homestay always has fresh water on the table and hot rice in the cooker. Yep, I can get used to this place.
Anyway, after dropping off our bags we headed out to check out the beach. There was water, waves and some trees, but in all actuality, a bit of a dismal place. The sand was brown and was more like mud, and the tide was out so far that there was a lot of it. Normally, I might not be so critical, but I was really looking forward to a really nice beach to chill out on. To be honest, I have been getting a bit burnt out lately on the travel thing again. I know it might be hard to comprehend for some, so let me try to explain.
I think having the couch in the homestay in Singapore triggered something. I've never been much of a couch potato, but to at least have a couch to plop on that you can call your own is kind of nice. I miss that. I miss having my couch that I know what its going to feel like when I slump in to it. I miss my couch. I miss my family. I miss hanging out with my brother and my friends. I miss having a relationship. I miss my car projects. I miss being able to buy things and not worry if they will fit in my backpack. I miss having a gang that I can go out with on the weekends. I miss having my fridge with my food in it. I miss driving. I miss work. No I dont. Yes, maybe I do. I some sick, twisted way I miss work. Being a productive member of society, that sort of thing. And the regular schedule that comes with it. Dont get me wrong, I still love this traveling. I am still in love with this life and the adventure of it all, but it doesnt make me miss those things any less.
And somehow I thought sitting on a nice relaxed beach for a week or two might solve all of that. A beach like Sabang in the Philippines. You've got a little hut at the edge of the sand. Sit there and read, listen to music and the waves, or do nothing. Theres enough tourists to be able to meet people, but not so many that its crowded. Theres laid back bars to go to, or hikes to be made. Air Manis, while beautiful in its own ways, didnt fit that bill.
But the fact that we liked Papa Chilis Homestay so much made us want to stay for a few days all the same. We spent our days practicing Bahasa Indonesian with our host lady and Amhed, for whom English and Indonesian are 2 of the 9 languages he speaks fluently. We've acutally built up somewhat of a vocabulary, and are learning more each day. We made a couple treks out to an island just off the beach just to check it out. We even made it surfing one day as Amhed was able to point us to a guy that could rent us surfboards. Short board + inexperienced rider (me) + small waves = not too good. :)
As I was leaving the beach after surfing, a kid in his 20s came up to me and asked in rapid succession, "Hello, how are you, where are you from, can I have my picture taken with you?" This has become a bit of a common thing that you sort of get used to. As a westerner, people like to have their picture taken with you. It seems strange at first, as we'd never think to ask a stranger if we could be photographed with them, but here and in the Philippines, it seems to be a natural thing. Its a bit flattering in a way, although I'm never sure how to pose when this happens. I am also unsure as to where the pictures are eventually displayed or what things are said as they're shown to friends, "Hey check this out, its this white guy I saw on the beach and got my picture taken with him".
The village of Air Manis was small and friendly, and kind of reminded us of the Philippines. Everyone said hello to us, as it appeared as though not many tourists pass through there. Papa Chilis had 2 guest books, each with about 100 pages, one entry per page. First entry was from '83. That means approxamately 2 visitors per month. Dave and I are the page for April '04. But it was nice to be back in a town where you could interact with the locals. We'd walk around trying out our new Indonesian phrases. We stopped at a store for an iced tea and ended up talking to a man sitting inside, and after snapping a few photos, got the usual amazement and bewliderment that comes from someone seeing a digital camera for the first time when they never knew such things existed.
Another interesting thing about Papa Chilis is the bathroomkitchen. There is a room out back attached to the house that has a large well in it. This room has a small hole in the corner used as the bathroom. When finished, get a bucket of water from the well. Next to that, is an area for the shower. Again, you shower by pulling up buckets from the well. The wall is only 4 feet tall, and there is no roof, so you're showering in open air, in a setting that looks like a jungle. Well, it is a jungle. It just happens to be a jungle that borders a beach - hence the brown sand. On the other side of the well, is the kitchen. Well, an area with a camping stove and a place to wash dishes. But if you're showering at mealtime, you're sharing the room with the cook. I did this once. A bit odd, but you get used to it.
Anyway, we left Air Manis yesterday for Bukit Tinggi. Its up in the mountains. We went from 90-100 degree sweat-all-day weather, to nice cool weather. Its actually a welcome change. Our plan is to do a 3-day jungle hike which will lead us to lake Mananjau, where I might chill out for a week or so. We'll have to see.
Sorry if this journal has been a bit bland. I'm feeling a bit bland at the moment, and dont feel that this paticular journal has much life to it. A bit of "went here, did that", and not much more. Sorry for that. If you've read this far,....wow. :)