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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

G'Day from Aussie Land

I have completely fallen in love. It has been 7 days now and I am in a full blown love affair with this city. I realize that may seem a bit precipitant, but sometime you just know. The vibe here is great. Sydney is a combination of things that I love about all my favorite U.S. cities. The city and greater Sydney is massive with tons of cool neighborhoods surrounded by either bay or ocean - which is a bit like San Francisco. In the central city, or CBD, you get a real big city vibe like being in Manhattan and people are dressed to the nines all the time. It is a very fashionable and chic place! But then, to top it off and best of all - the beaches. OH the beaches! How I cannot wait for summer. July is Sydney's coldest month (yes, my I am used to 100 degree heat and 90% humidity body has been freeeezing since I arrived. I need my SF uniform of boots and leather jacket STAT!!) But even in the cold the trip out to Bondi beach and the ferry over to Manly beach were both spectacular. The water is turquoise blue in the sun and the beaches stretch on forever. I am afraid once summer comes I will have to be dragged out of this country kicking and screaming by immigration because there is no way I will want to leave.
This week I was fortunate to land on a futon in the apartment of a friend of friends in the hip hood of Paddington while I pound the pavement on the hunt for a flat (yes, I am picking up the lingo) I have been to a a few apartments both in the city and at the beach but I am leaning toward beach life here. Some of my favorites are the beaches just south of Bondi, called Clovelly and Coogee beach. Woolloomooloo (don't you just love the Aussie words? I still can't get that one out right) is a nice bay side beach where I am headed this afternoon to see a furnished room in a flat share. The great thing is I am under no pressure to move out of the futon room so I can take my time getting my feel for the city and where I'd like to live. Plus, all the flatmates here are big surfers and I have already been forced onto a board twice this week at 6am. Not that I am complaining, of course!
On top of that, one of the roommates in the Paddington house is pretty high up in the photography world. This week has been doing fashion photography shoots for Vogue Australia, Rush and other big name magazines. On my second night here I was whisked off to a photo gallery opening at which I was invited to a magazine launch party a few nights later. In Vietnam I took advantage of the tailor-made clothing and had a to-die for Balmain skirt replicated from a photo I tore out of Vanity Fair which I have not been able to wear until now. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I actually made the "society pages" for best dressed at the party! Me! It was pretty cool, my 4th day here and my flatmate comes home and plops down the daily tabloid page of the paper and says for a girl that been here less than a week and with no more than a backpack I'd have to say I'm impressed! And if only they knew that skirt cost me a whopping $6.
There is more to add, but I'll stop here for now. I can't wait for friends and family to come visit so I can share the love. Start saving for those plane tickets y'all!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

3 months, 20 days, 7 countries and one nasty looking backpack!

I am sitting in the Singapore airport waiting for my 8 hour red-eye to Sydney. I feel like I am in this strage moment at the conclusion of one big adventure and the beginning of a totally different kind of adventure. I feel extremely excited and nervous all at once.

Leaving San Francisco to go backapacking in South East Asia never seemed so daunting to me. That was the easy part. Just hit the trail. But Sydney will be setting up a "real life" Which in some ways is so much more daunting but ALSO so much more exciting. I am so looking forward to having a place to call home. And in a totally new city! For at least a whole year! I don't actually know anyone there but already through various friends of friends I've got a network of people I've been in contact with who have all been so incredibly responsive in helping me get settled in and whom I can't wait to meet when I get there! Already have such good vibes about the city and the people.

Looking back over the three months there is a lot from the trip that didn't really surprise me and a lot that was totally unexpected. The first 2 months loop was almost SO easy looking back that, while it was fun and beautiful and still quite eye-opening it wasn't as personally rewarding as the last month and half. The Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam backbacker loop is so cemeted into the culture there that you kind of just feel like another toursit being hearded along and you have to work hard to experience life outside of that. I exclude Laos from that because it didn't have the same vibe. Laos was quiet and beautiful and you could strike such a nice balance there of doing your own thing, travel to smaller local villages etc but you can also have a lot (maybe too much) fun doing the backpacker thing (Vang Vieng anyone?)

If I had to put it into scale I would say Laos was my favorite of mainland South East Asia, then Cambodia, then Northern Thailand and laslty Vietnam. I found the Islands and Indonesia to be the most rewarding. I think there are a couple reasons for this but one was the decision to extend my time in each place rather than the 3/4days schedule I was doing in the beginning to see as much as possible - and because I never found a place i really was dying to stay in longer than that. That is, until the extended stay on Perentian Islands, working a bit, teaching swimming lessons to Chinese tourists, and just getting more of a taste of what everyday life in a place like that would be like. It was great. AND i got to see a familiar face from home when Fatima came to visit me there from where she has been living and working in Karachi, Pakistan! A very brave girl, you rock lady. And then of course indonesia makes the top of my list for just what a great ADVENTURE it was. Funny too that it is the one place that I never researched, it was totally a last minute decision. Sumatra was the hardest travel and you had so much less peace of mind than anywhere else; but man, it was so freeing. Danua Toba Sumatra without a doubt is on my top 5 places I've ever been in the world list. And in the end, I think its the people you end up meeting and traveling with that make all the difference on the impression you take away from a certain leg of travel and I was fortuante to make some great friends along the way. There is something to be said for traveling alone because you are forced to meet more people and you forge these really intesen friendships quickly because you are thrown into this unknown adventure 24/7 even if its just for a few days. In the future though, I would also like travel with old best friends. When I met girls traveling with their best friends it looks like so muich fun. Harder in some ways I'm sure and a very different experience than doing it alone but great too I am sure. Fatima and I discussed a girls trip to India and Nepal for sometime in the next 3 years and I'm determined to make it happen!

Singapore has been a good last stop. It was actually a bit of culture shock being thrust back into the first world after the grit of 3 1/2 months in the 3rd world. But Singapore is a really interesting place. I think I was fortuante to be here in July where the cities meuseums and universities have all kinds of great things going on. Spent two nights at the Sing Art Museums and Art University night festival watching some amazing dance performances, street art and music. And people watching! Fashion in Singapore is a big, BIG deal with something like 500 malls and it's really fun to see.

Until next time...AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On a Bali High

I have been neglecting my blogging since my split second decision to follow three friends I made in Lake Toba to Bali. I had not planned on cruising down to Bali at all but on July 5th Diego, from Argentina and Virginie and Fernando from Spain said I should forget my South Sumatra plans and go with them the next morning to Bali. I must say it feels so great to have the freedom to think for about 5 minutes over a plate of curry: Hmm, Bali tomorrow? Yeah sure, what the hell, why not?!
And so after a hellish day and a half by ferry-bus-plane-bus-ferry (complete with 3 breakdowns and a lovely 7 hours seated on the aisle floor of a top-notch Sumatran local bus)we landed in Kuta, Bali with dreams of paradise beaches and instead found the equivalent of Miami Beach. After a few much needed and I promise you well deserved beers I was starting to wonder if I was going to regret leaving Toba's tranquility for Vegas on the beach complete with Starbucks on every corner, hoardes of tourists and inflated prices.
But don't give up on Bali so easily! The next morning, as difficult as it was to imagine yet ANOTHER bus we made it about an hour north of Kuta to Padang Bai, a lovely little dive-oriented town with down to earth travelers and crystal clear water. After a day of much needed rest on the beach the four of decided to have a Motorcycle Diaries moment and rented 2 motorbikes for 5 days, left our big bags behind, grabbed a map and headed up the coast for probably the greatest 5 days I can ever imagine having. I can say with 100 percent certainty that we did Bali proud.
It's been five incredible days of zipping around the island, sleeping wherever we happened to be when it got dark in all kinds of places. One night in an AWESOME hotel after driving in total darkness longer than I was comfortable with and on some pretty precarious roads. We were able to bargain down to a ridiculously cheap price because it was so late and I think the lady took pity on us and just asked that we not share with other guests the price we were given.
After a morning lounging in the pool that flowed right into the ocean we continued on into the center of the island up to the spectacular rice terraces and a taste of more traditional Balinese culture. I don't know what it is about Bali, but the emerald green colors of the farms and rice paddies here are incredible. There aren't enough words to describe the shades of green. Same goes for my feelings riding on the back of a bike through the roads in central Bali. All I can say is, you know that feeling you get in the top of your chest when you are REALLY happy and just can't help but have a massive smile plastered across your face that you couldn't wipe off if you tried? Well, that was me. And on top of it, I was with friends that I know I will keep in touch with for a lifetime. I've never laughed so much as the last few days.
Everyone talks about how crowded and touristy Bali is but that was not our experience at all. Most people I think stick to their resort on the beach and the few places you can get a tourist shuttle to. All I can say is don't write Bali off - just do it on your own and have an adventure. Yes, you might end up with a sweet deal at a secluded hotel on the beach for a night or you might end up in a roach infested room with mental-institution lighting and a bathroom I won't even begin to describe because I'm still trying to mentally block it. But you will see it all and with the wind in your hair and 24/7 smile on your face.
The sunrise photos here were taken at the top of Batur Volcano looking across a lake to Mount Agung. We hiked up at 3am, made it to the top for 6:30am sunrise and back down to the bikes by 9am. By Noon we were the only 4 people swimming in the pools of a spectacular waterfall a local pointed us toward after feeding us the best meal ever that he somehow whipped up on his little portable kitchen attached to his bike. Yeah, that basically sums up my week :)
Yesterday we returned the bikes and turned a sleepy bar back in Padang Bai into a Spanish discotheque thanks to Virginie's ipod before the four of us parted ways this morning. Tomorrow I'll ferry to Singapore and in 5 days I will be in home sweet home Sydney! And I can't believe it. It has been the fasted 3 and a half months and I really don't know how I feel about rejoining "real life." least it will be real life in AUSTRALIA! I have never felt so grateful for the life I have right now. I miss my family more than ever before and the friends I love back home but I'm having the time of my life and feel pretty content not knowing what my life is going to be like a month from now.
Ok, I'll have to save the reflections for next time cuz I hear a grilled tuna calling my name for dinner.

Friday, July 2, 2010

In love with Danua Toba, Sumatra

Lake Toba in the center of Sumatra has to hands-down be one of the most amazing places on earth and totally not what I has expected to find in Indonesia. I think it may be my personal favorite destination of them all - or at least it is running in a close tie with the Perentians, but for totally different reasons. (I had to post 2 Perentian sunsets at the top here as I haven't had the chance yet - the rest of the photos are from lake toba and Samosir Island)
Samosir Island is where I am staying right now. It's a fairly big island in the middle of Danua (lake) Toba which is in Northern-Central Sumatra high up on the mountains. The Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. I caught my first glimpse of the lake on an extremely precarious but beautiful road winding down to the lake (on the 3rd public bus of the day from Berestagi - still quite the experience :) - and I was actually shocked that I was still in Indonesia. I feel like i should be in the Swiss Alps, only the dizzying peaks surrounding the lake are tropical jungle instead.
The local people that live on the Island are the Batak people who call Samosir their spiritual or "healing" homeland. I have so many things I want to say all at once about why I love this place so much and am so SO glad I made it here. First of all it's kind of bizarre - because there is a small stretch of the island that seems to be set up for the backpacker crowd - there are many guesthouses (hostels) and even hotels with pools that looked like they were once pretty happening, but most of them are closed and have been for a while. Apparently, its kind of a has-been place. Older locals tell me that it used to be the home of the full moon parties before Thailand stole it away. Locals my age don't remember these times and outside the one stretch of guesthouses and the one resort that is still open people stare wide-eyed at the site of tourists.
Because of this, it is actually the perfect balance: I have a great room for $3 at a place with internet, motorbikes, bicycles, hammocks attached to each balcony, great food and the once place with a tv to catch the World Cup at night (Go Ghana!!) All the comforts of a proper holiday, but without the hoards of other people. There are just enough travelers to eat and chat and watch thegame with. But during the day you can cruise around the island and feel like you are the only one here.
The first day I got a tour from a really cool local that works at my guesthouse around the entire island by motorbike. The photos I have here don't even come close to showing the amazing views at every turn. There is a road at the very top of the island that is, somehow, impeccably paved (have not seen that since Malaysia) and it winds high above the shores of the lake in big wide turns that on the back of the motorbike just felt like I was flying. It was a pretty spectacular afternoon. I think I had a smile plastered to my face for the entire 5 hours.
Yesterday I decided to retrace a leg of the journey on my own by bicycle and ended up riding 80km on probably the most uncomfortable bike ever which might be the most ambitious physical day of my life! No joke.
But it was great. Passing through the little Batak villages, most people would stop and just stare. A few of the people that spoke some English would stop me and motion for me to come take a rest and have some tea or fried rice. There was one lady in particular whose English was great, she was about 55 and when tourism was bigger here she ran a western food restaurant, now closed. I think I talked to her for about 2 and a half hours. In the meantime, attracting kids and other ladies to come sit and ask her to translate their questions to me. It was especially funny when they heard I was American they would light up and say "Ohhh Obama!" an repeat 5 times that they loved Obama. I'm not sure what news they get in those little farming villages and I haven't really heard that anywhere else. It was so fun! Its the kind of day I had sort of pictured having when I was planning this trip. Of course, the circuit around south east asia was so heavily visited that you don't really get to see what life would be like if the economy didn't thrive on tourism. I am usually on guard now when a local strikes up a conversation with me because I assume that they are just trying to swindle me into something. But totally not so here. It has been so great to just talk to people. I had to insist that Saba (my friend with the motorbike) let me at least pay for the fuel and no, he never tried to take me to his uncle's jewelry shop or his cousin's restaurant etc. etc. He was happy to just have someone to practice some English with and ask questions about California.
I really had no expectations coming here at all. I hadn't originally planned to come to Indonesia and didn't really know what it would be like. I met a girl, Sophia, from the Netherlands on the Perentians and she had just come from here and she told me that it was quiet and I wouldn't see many tourists and that its hard to travel around but that for her Sumatra was the trip of a lifetime. I wish I had her contact info because I would send her a massive thank you. I was toying with where I would go in Indonesia with the time I had and my conversation with her solidified my plan. Having totally unexpected adventures and in such a serene and gorgeous place makes for a great place to explore, relax and just think. I can see why the Batak people say this is their 'healing island." I can't figure out why Sumatra kind of went of the backpacker radar, but I for one am pretty glad they are all in Bali and I am here :)