Big Question Marks

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

There's something about the routine of family holidays that make us feel like we weren't off on the other side of the world for two Christmases. Big dinners, plenty of drinks, chitchat with family members, lots of cookies... somehow Xmas this year was the same as always.

Breaking with routine wasn't terrible: celebrating Xmas while hiding from the Australian heat in an air-conditioned cabin-style hotel room (and in the pool) last year was quite the experience. Sharing big dinners with an international crowd (while avoiding the heat again in the a/c) in Melbourne the year before that was another memorable way to spend the holiday. It's was always a bit weird to spend Christmas in summertime, but it was nice to not have to wear sweaters and slippers! It was fun to call home on Christmas while on the road... but now the funerary jokes about us "being in a better place" and "it's too bad they can't be with us this Christmas" will have to stop. :)

There were some new additions to our families since we left-- a few tiny nieces (Adrian's family), a wiener dog 'nephew' (who dressed up festively as a reindeer for Dayle's family) who made things a little more interesting. The snow has mostly kept away (great, in our opinions!). Sadly, Dayle's favourite holiday ice cream-- PC Candy Cane Fudge Crackle, yum!-- seems to be missing from all of the Zehrs & No Frills stores she's been hunting for it at. Yarrr! And after years of daydreaming about it too...

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas... it was great catching up with everyone, and thanks for all the great loot! All the best to you guys in the new year. xoxo, d&a

Thursday, November 26, 2009


This week we looked at the calendar and realized we've been back in Canada for three months-- it seems time flies as quickly in the old familiar north as it does on Thai beaches.

Lately we've been exploring our neighbourhood a little more, and spending our free time soaking up the last of the balmy fall days in the fabulously huge and peaceful Trinity Bellwoods Park, just down the street from our apartment. Along with the thrill of seeing the trees change to orange and yellow (something we haven't witnessed in three years), we've discovered a love of Frisbee. We've also become acquainted with a certain cute and furry local: a cheeky white squirrel who also enjoys hanging out in the park.

We've seen him frolicking about a few times now, making a spectacle of himself and posing for photographs. One afternoon, we watched quite the exchange between the squirrel and a woman who we gather lives next to the park, and decided his name is Joey. We stifled giggles from our park bench as she called to "Joey" as if he was a trained dog, and then obediently fetched him a snack as soon as he hopped down the tree. "Joey! It's lunchtime! Hey Joey! Come here!" etc., etc. In between feeding Joey his peanut 'lunch', she then went on to have an irritated conversation with a cat that followed her to the park, perhaps for peanuts as well: "Puss Puss, I thought I told you to stay inside! Go back home!" Insert cat staring blankly at her and definitely not going back to its home. Squirrel Whisperer Lady stomps over to Puss Puss, shoos him in the direction of his home, and goes back to her conversation with Joey as the jealous cat glares on. It all reminded us a bit of this lady we encountered on the Australian west coast who fed, petted, and chit-chatted with these big stingrays that circled her feet by the shore. Only difference is she hadn't named them (not to our knowledge, at least).

But anyway, "Joey" is pretty photogenic and we're pretty sure he's excited for the first snowfall, when he'll be camouflaged and all of those snickering black and brown squirrels in Bellwoods can stop razzing him for his eccentric fashion sense. Can't say we share his excitement for that dreaded white stuff ourselves though!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Halloween in Canada- finally.

This weekend marked our first Halloween back in Canada, and it was definitely a good one. After passing two very anticlimactic October 31sts in Australia-- 2007 spent camping near Brisbane, sans costumes, and 2008 spent eating candy and dressed in togas at our very own tiny, only moderately successful Halloween costume party in Melbourne-- we have to say we're happy to be back in North America, truly the land of Halloween!

Though there were parties galore we wished we could have attended, we opted for nostalgia, and joined the masses dressed up and roaming the gated-off blocks of Church Street in the Village. This year didn't disappoint; there were many fabulous costumes in the crowd. Some of our favourites included: a gang of cereal box mascots which included Count Chocula, Frankenberry, Captain Crunch, and that pesky leprechaun from Lucky Charms (what is his name, anyway?); Bill and Hillary; Queen Elizabeth and a bearskin hatted guard; Jon and Kate plus 8 [sewn-on doll babies]; Sonic the Hedgehog; and a giant jellyfish. We recycled some old favourites and went as a Top Gun pilot and a geisha, finding about five other geishas along Church Street (making for some good photo ops at least) and a fellow Top Gunner at a great party later on. Talk to me, Goose!

And a few more...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

20 Australian-isms we miss (and a few we don't)

The other day, I was flipping through my thesaurus-- not that I flip through my thesaurus as a pastime or anything, that would be nerdy!-- for another word for "grow" and, well, I stumbled upon "grouse". "Growwwwwse!" A little voice in my head chimes, with an Aussie accent. Unfortunately, my thesaurus didn't list the Aussie slang meaning of "grouse", which we only ever heard in Melbourne and was a favourite word of ours while living over there. While "grouse" here in Canada refers to a funny-looking bird, or can mean 'to complain'; in Melbourne, it meant "excellent". Here are some other Aussie-isms we're sad to have left behind (but still secretly use at home):

Heaps: Meaning 'lots', or 'very'. As in, "There were heaps of people at the game." Or "Yeah, it's heaps good."

Bogan: Another one we heard lots (heaps) of times in Melbourne, describing an 'unsophisticated person', sort of the Aussie equivalent to 'trailer trash'. "That style is really bogan."

Top shelf: The best. Like, "Megan is top shelf."

Fair dinkum: This was once defined to us by a teenage girl working at the IGA, home of 'Fair Dinkum Prices' as, "It's like saying, 'bloody oath'." [insert blank looks from grocery-shopping Canadians.] "Or like, 'True', or 'For real'. Uhhh, only old people say this." Maybe that's why it's so much fun to say.

Stickybeak: Nosy person. "My, that Bessie is a stickybeak!"

Good on ya!: A great way to say "Well done!" We still use this one a lot.

Champers: Champagne (though not the true-blue French kind, more like sparkling wine). As in, "I can't wait to have champers at the Melbourne Cup!"

On the piss: Drunk. As in, "I got on the piss last night."

Belly full of piss: Hung over. While we first worked in Port Douglas as housekeepers, we were appalled to learn this was a perfectly good excuse not to come into work on a Saturday. "Where's Amy?" the boss asked. "Oh, she's got a belly full of piss," said Amy's partner-in-crime, Anneliese. "Ahhhh," said the boss. "So hopefully she'll be in tomorrow then?"

Taking the piss: Making fun of someone (or 'ripping on someone'). i.e . 'Andy fell down the stairs on the way into the pub last night, and everyone spent the entire night taking the piss out of him.'

Bottle shop: The place where you buy booze. Also sometimes just called 'the Bottle-O', though this is the name of one of the many bottle shop chains around. It's so confusing to get back to the highly specific--and separate-- Beer Store and LCBO. Not that we ever really grasped the drive-thru bottle shop concept (what's so wrong with just shutting off the car and walking into a shop?).

Furphy: A rumour. As in, "That bloke's telling a furphy!" Here's a funny little bit of history on the furphy.

The Bush: The countryside, or anywhere outside the city. As in, "He had a house in the bush."

Dunny: Outhouse, outdoor toilet. We were privileged to have one of our own for a few weeks-- complete with gargantuan spiders inside-- while living "in the bush".

Bunyip: 'Mythical bush spirit' is how our Lonely Planet defines it. We were always hoping to meet one.

Flat out: Very busy or fast. To quote one of our managers at the bank: "I was flat out like a lizard drinking!" Hint: It has absolutely nothing to do with lizards being kind of low to the ground.

Hoon: A hooligan, a punk; or more specifically, someone who makes a sport out of street racing. I was tickled pink whenever one of my news stories received a headline like "Local hoons out in full force Saturday night" when writing for the Port Douglas newspaper. Also can be used as a verb to describe cruising in a vehicle: "I'm bored. Let's go for a hoon." Street racing is actually getting to be a huge problem in Oz, and governments are implementing 'Anti-hoon legislation' as we speak. Too bad the word is so much fun!

Ute: A vehicle that's half pick-up truck, half car. Short for 'utility vehicle', the ute is everywhere in rural Australia (including in the hands of hoons), unfortunately minus the kitsch factor its American cousin, the El Camino, has.

Knackered: Tired. As in, "What a long list. I sure am knackered from writing this blog."


And then there's a few words we don't miss:

Bundy: Short for Bundaberg rum, a specialty of Bundaberg, Queensland. Its polar bear logo (come on, polar bears? In Australia?) was everywhere in Oz, including on numerous men who felt the need to wear Bundy gear from head to toe, and on bumper stickers. As in, "Get me a Bundy and Coke!"

Vego: Short for vegetarian. Even more annoying is "vegie" for vegetable (where did the other "g" go?)

Tomato sauce: What the Aussies call ketchup. Talk about a confusing first grocery store experience!

Rubbish bin, or 'bin': We call it a garbage can. It made for plenty of hilariously confusing "Who's on first?" kind of moments in the offices we worked in when we would ask if we should just file this or that document into one of plastic bins on someone's desk. "Trays, these are trays!" we would get. ¡Ay ay ay!

Thongs: The Kiwis (New Zealanders) call them 'jandals'; us North Americans call them flip-flops. No matter how long we had stayed in Oz, we could never, ever get used to calling our poor shoes by this name!

If you're craving a bit more Aussie, be sure to watch Australia (the movie with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman). We just watched it again for nostalgia's sake-- the first time we watched it was in an open-air cinema in tropical Broome, WA, right near where the movie took place-- and it was just as awesome as our first viewing, though without any planes flying overhead or geckoes on the screen this time around. -D.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Introducing... our fridge

Today we thought it would be fun to feature the most-decorated part of our new apartment: the refrigerator!

The fridge itself isn't anything special-- in fact, it's missing a shelf and it's only now beginning to collect some vegetables and a few necessary condiments. But in this case, it's what's on the outside that counts.

Somewhere along the way in Australia, we began collecting a fridge magnet or two from our temporary hometowns and some of the more memorable stops along the way. We accumulated a few more during our jaunt over to Hong Kong and Taiwan. And once we hit the road with Daisy (our van), our magnet collection just grew and grew. Luckily the inside of Daisy had a lot of metal panels above the doors-- plenty of room to display our budding collection.

Turned out there was no shortage of souvenir magnets in Oz-- even the tiniest towns, like Hawker, at the base of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, with a population of 300 people was selling fridge magnets. So was William Creek, SA-- population 6. Any town with the slightest claim to fame sold magnets-- like Wycliffe Well, NT, home to many UFO sightings, or Goulburn, NSW, which had a giant merino sheep to lure in tourists. We bought a boomerang magnet from Broome, WA, a large plastic banana from The Big Banana in Coffs Harbour, NSW, and more still. Kitsch is alive and well on the highways of Australia and we're not at all embarrassed to have bought into it. We even continued collecting during our journey through Southeast Asia, though we had to be a bit more choosy when lugging our souvenirs around in our backpacks. Still, we found ourselves a tin boat from Vietnam, ceremonial dance masks from Bali, a tuk-tuk from Thailand. It was only Burma that didn't have a souvenir magnet industry... yet.

And while we may or may not have spent a small fortune shipping all of our magnetic goodies home, it was worth it. We consider it a form of visual diary to our adventures-- one that we get to review every time we go for the milk.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Little Freecycling Never Hurts

A very wise man once said to us: "If it's free, it's for me!" As long-term travellers who were constantly in flux of settling in and packing up, it's not a bad philosophy to live by-- and also not bad for two people returning to Toronto with minimal furnishings for their new and snazzy (and empty) apartment, either.

We moved into our new place near Trinity-Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Friday, taking as much of our old gear as we could find in our families' houses, as well as whatever discarded/left behind items we could scrounge from siblings, etc. After a weekend of crazy wedding fun (congrats, Paula and Sean!) we returned to our lovely apartment to begin the unpacking, the cleaning, and the organizing. And that's when we realized -- whoa-- that while we were well suited up with clothing, appliances, and kitchen supplies, we were almost completely furnitureless. And after checking out what was on offer in places like Sears, Ikea, and even Canadian Tire, we realized how much setting up a one-bedroom apartment might actually cost.

So we started searching a bit on Craigslist, a fantastic free classifieds website we're sure you all know about. It's the same site where we found our apartment; the same site where we've bought other people's old patio furniture, a couch, and random other things; it's also the same site on which we've subletted our apartments and sold our old stuff on as well. It's absolutely great, as was the Aussie/UK equivalent site Gumtree for us along the way. (Though these free classifieds sites aren't so great for the plight of the newspaper! But that's another story.)

But since we're all for recycling and don't really care all that much about having matching furniture, we found lots of goodies to be bought for great prices. And then we checked the "free" section on a whim (usually it's just "clean fill" and kittens on offer there) and found an ad titled "Free Furniture." Too good to be true?? Well, maybe. But definitely worth an email, we thought. Turned out the place with the free furniture was a short walk from our apartment-- and thanks to a lovely landlord, who was cleaning out the contents of one of his rental properties, we returned home with a great desk, bookshelf, table, and the perfect cupboard for the microwave. All for free. Hooray!

We're definitely not the only people into free stuff either. There's the Freecycle network, where people exchange used goods for free, keeping more useful items out of landfills. USA Today did a story on the culture of getting things for free; Freebie-Man (aka. Mike Essex) wrote a book on how to get anything for free after the success of his Blagman blog, in which companies would send him free items in return for him reviewing them online. Not to mention his book is downloadable for free as well! And we just stumbled upon, a handy website where you can learn about free stuff in the city, as well as post listings for free things to help out others. Not a bad idea at all! Now back to unpacking... and possibly a little more perusing too.
Bonus! We found this in our free desk's drawer today...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New Homestead

It was a grueling 6 or so days, but we've finally come out with a great apartment in Little Portugal - Toronto. The weird thing is how we actually got the place.

We were both running around all over the city, Yonge/Eglinton (North), Cabbagetown (East), and Ossington/College (West). The problem for us was that we'd lived in central Toronto before, and though we loved it, we were looking for a new adventure -- as a way of extending our old adventure. Unfortunately the area that was supplying us with the most leads was the downtown core.

Before coming back, we'd heard about all the new trendy and up-and-coming places out in the west end. The problem was that anywhere in Toronto can turn from 'trendy' to 'sketchy' in a matter of a block -- plus we forgot all the major intersections of Toronto, so it was a geography/neighbourhood location lesson all together.

Anyways, back to the story:
"The place" was the first viewing we had on Thursday, and when we saw it we knew it was "The Place"; big rooms, new wood floors, big park down the street, quiet block, central to all trendy hotspots. Unfortunately, the landlord Louis told us that we were the second people to see it, and that the first viewer had put in a bid and was currently off to the ATM to withdraw money as a deposit.
We mentioned that we'd call back later, just in case the deal fell through.
Well the deal did fall through, and the jerk landlord for our second viewing of the day (around Davisville) never showed up! So we quickly slapped down a deposit and now the place is ours!
Oct 1st is the big day! More to come -- like a Google map or something.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Viva la Kevolution!

Today we were reminded of just how entertaining Australia is-- check out this news story about the prime minister:

"Rudd not sorry for F-bomb tirade". Viva la Kevolution!

And then there was yesterday's dust storm, which blacked out the town of Broken Hill for 40 seconds. Amazing! We have fond memories of Broken Hill and its searing-hot Outback sun (no crazy dust storms for us though). And then we found a contest celebrating the worst art around. The longer we're away from Oz, it seems the more we miss it. Though there are a few things better on this side of the pond: the spiders here are nowhere close to as terrifying Aussie breeds, and when it hasn't rained in weeks, there's no panic-- hooray for the Great Lakes! Too bad Canadian politicians are so dull.

Since plunging into the Toronto apartment search full-on last week, it's sort of started to sink in: the trip is truly over. We probably won't make it back to Oz, or Asia for that matter, for a really long time. The honeymoon period of meeting friends and family for dinner is winding down too-- it's reality check time. We've looked at a lot of apartments and have found everything from slumlord basements to overpriced bachelors being passed off as one-bedrooms, to a few places with old-world charm and some squeaky-clean high-rise apartments. We know that when we find "the one", it'll jump out at us. We've decided however, that to fully appreciate the Toronto experience, we're going to try living in a totally new area from where we usually lived-- ie. west of Yonge!! While hunting in Little Portugal (Dundas/Ossington area) on Sunday, we stumbled upon Dalat Cafe, little nondescript cafe with Vietnamese singers playing on TV and heavenly cafe sua da (iced coffee with milk) and were brought right back to our fun days in Vietnam. Today we hunted around the LCBO for a little nostalgia and came across some Coopers beer (from South Australia). Awesome! So it's these little discoveries that should keep things new and exciting as we settle back into our old stomping ground.

But so far, the most entertaining part of apartment hunting off Craigslist (a very popular free classifieds listing site) is when we stumble upon the ever-popular Nigerian money scams. Today we encountered our third scam listing in our week of searching! Our first before that was while apartment hunting in Melbourne and we come across an ad for a remarkably reasonably-priced condo apartment in a gorgeous high-rise in the CBD of Melbourne. Of course, we inquired. The response we received? Same old one we always receive, something along the lines of: "Thank you for your email. I am Rev. Tom Bowman and I would like to rent my apartment to a responsible person. Unfortunately I had to leave the country for work/missionary/family reasons and I am currently in Africa/West Africa/Nigeria. My wife has the keys and she is in New Jersey. Send $200/$500/$700 as a deposit and we will mail you the keys to see the place. Please note I am a very kind and honest man..."

Adrian's made a sport of emailing them a nasty email and flagging the listing on Craigslist to be removed. Turns out he's one of a whole community of 'scambaiters' who have a little fun with the scammers, having them take pictures posing with bread on their heads or silly signs... all in the name of seeing how far they'll go to get someone's cash.

Check out 419 Eater for some of the funniest email exchanges and photos; or try Scamorama or 419 Baiter for more laughs. And wish us luck on the apartment hunt while you're at it!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Back to Weirdness

So it's been nearly a week since our English jet popped us back into what is now our bizarro world: Canada. And holy crap, is it ever hard to describe the feeling. It's been great to catch up with our families after so long-- my parents were surprised that I "haven't changed a bit" and I have to say I was a bit surprised to find everyone the same as how I left them (aside from my mother's nose stud!). But why should we be surprised at this? August was a month of reunions and they were all great-- it was just like picking up where we'd left off, like we'd seen Andrew, Krissy, Juan, and Laura a week or two ago, not years ago! Definitely a great feeling.

Aside from the people being pretty much same same (that's quasi-Thai, folks), I have to say many other things are the same as how we left them. Radio stations are still playing the same crappy songs they were repeating to death 3 years ago (have we not had enough Verve or Coldplay or Tragically Hip yet??); there's still nothing on TV at noon, or any other time of day really; lineups at the OHIP office still as long as ever... the usual. I was surprised to learn yesterday that yes indeed, I do still remember how to drive, and after years of living on the left-hand side of the road, trying to learn manual transmission, switching to an automatic car on the right lane feels natural all over again. I'm still reaching for the turn signal on the wrong side of the steering column though!

Maybe all this sameness is making our trip memories feel like it was just a movie we watched last week. It's amazing how quickly memories flit away. I always love the first few days in a new country, when everyone's accent sounds a bit funny (try going into a Timmy's after speaking 'Australian' for a couple of years) and the architecture is still new to me. I wasn't planning to readjust so quickly-- in fact, I was planning to be weepy and culture shocked for ages-- but I think it just kind of happened. Perhaps Britain was an excellent buffer to help transition between Asia and North America. Or maybe in the back of my head, I'm telling myself it's just another leg of the trip: my brain's way of dealing with the return.

It's also weird for us to be apart after more than two and a half years of hanging out every day-- now with all the catching up with families, there's some distance between Adrian and I. But we're in agreement that while things here might be the same, we're a little different inside. Like when I arrived to my old bedroom, and was astounded at how many clothes I have. (Who needs this much stuff?? Good god!) The average food portions in restaurants are way too much for us-- six months of eating teeny portions of rice for each meal has changed our stomachs, it seems. Neither of us has any desire to watch television: perhaps after having so much real-life entertainment for so long, a moving picture on a screen is hardly fulfilling. Some of these changes aren't a bad thing to hold onto, really-- but I guess after a long trip like ours we're bound to come back a wee bit altered.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and we'll keep you posted on what's happening. That travel bug doesn't just cure itself after all! To look at things on the bright side, at least now we have time for some much-needed reflection on our many experiences-- something we never really had time for while constantly on the go. We'll be sure to share often! Keep in touch.
xoxox, D.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Another month gone, another year older....

Hello from jolly old England, where we've been hanging out for the last little while. It's a bit colder, quieter, and a whole lot calmer than Asia, but the sun sets really late and people are pretty nice, and it's not a bad spot at all for a little exploration and some long-overdue reunions!

We've just realized we're now on our 3rd continent of the trip, which has turned into a makeshift round-the-world tour (who would've thought?). As soon as we crossed the equator for the last time (actually in Malaysia this dawned on us), we noticed the crescent moon flipped into a frown, rather than the smile we knew so well from Australia. Weird! It was a loooong plane ride from Kuala Lumpur to London-- 14 or 16 hours we think-- but as soon as we emerged in the far, far north, we realized it truly was goodbye to the warm temperatures our bodies had acclimatized to. At London Stansted Airport, it was a "pleasant" (to use the captain's words) 17 degrees, but it felt like -17 to us. We're still adjusting, in our wool socks and 'jumpers'. It's all a lot more pricey than what we've been used to, and we're missing our daily rice intake a bit, but at least we felt at home again when we ended up in Manchester's Chinatown, surrounded by red neon signs and flashing twinkle lights...

But yes-- first stop on the itinerary was Shoreham-by-Sea, a cute little town on the southern coast of England, not too far from Brighton, where our friend Laura has ended up--with her lovely English hubby Adam and their adorable baby Ella. We had a great few days there in "the south", touring Shoreham, Brighton, and London, and got to experience the 99 Flake on Brighton Pier and some Marmite (which we pretended to eat and then fed to the baby). We spotted our first real Banksy graffiti in Brighton, and got to hop in the back on one of those cliche-but-so-cool London black taxicabs when our sunny day in London turned into a downpour (they're very spacious). In Shoreham, everything was very cute-- even the graveyard-- and chock full of little old white-haired ladies and secondhand shops, and fet a bit like the town in Hot Fuzz. We learned that houseboats are the hot real estate in Shoreham, and there were some pretty crazy ones made out of old buses and general junk.... cool if you like living in the mud that is!

We left Laura and the family to head north-- completely on the wrong train, as we still have no idea how to read the tickets here... got a bit of a scolding from the train conductor but we played the dumb tourist part well!-- and found our old friends Andrew and Krissy in Macclesfield, a cute town a bit south of Manchester. Not long ago they scored a fantastically huge house with many floors and views of the green rolling hills outside town. The local pub (about four doors down) is full of characters and the men's toilet gets a great review on, and the lady behind the bar already knows us by name. Only problem with Macclesfield is whenever we go for a walk, we always end up in another random cemetery...

Between all of that, there was a day climbing the rugged, impossibly green grassy hills around Castleton (below) in the Peaks District National Park, a day roaming the picturesque streets and free museums in Manchester (left), and a weekend of Gaudi, sangria, and beach in Barcelona (visiting another old friend, Juan). Yesterday we spent Dayle's birthday touring Liverpool, soaking up all the Beatlemania and atmosphere of the old buildings that were everywhere. We're getting a good dose of English pop culture (Little Britain, Top Gear, Fonejacker, Big Brother...) but we're still a long way from understanding the accents. It's hard to believe we have one week left here and that's it!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Oh, Indonesia: How to Bribe a Cop and Island Hopping

Yes, we have a bit of catching up to do... we have said our sad goodbyes to Indonesia, but there were definitely a few surprises waiting for us in our last few weeks in that crazy country.

And yes, as the title implies, we had to bribe our first cop.

We thought we'd take in a bit of the Balinese countryside and rented a motorbike from our guesthouse in Ubud. And since whizzing past the rice paddies and up and down volcanoes on the eastern side of Bali was so much fun, we opted for a second day on our motorbike.

There was no real plan, just a general direction (this is the more interesting way to travel), so that day, our direction was 'North'. We were riding for a little while when suddenly the air got really cold - this was an omen! Because not five minutes afterward we came upon a 'checkpoint' where 3 cops stopped us.
Out came the registration, and it was all going good and they were quite friendly until he asked for our international drivers license.
"Oh, this is problem," was the cop's observation when we couldn't produce one, but we knew what was coming - so why not have some fun with it?
"Oh well, I guess you'll have to write a report." Adrian said.
"No, no, you know-- I want to help you."
"Great, so you're giving us a warning - thanks!" Then we start to mount the bike.
"Wait, no!"
"You're not helping us now, why?" We asked.
"Um, you have big problem, big fine, 200,000 rupiahs (20 dollars)."
"Okay, I guess you have to write a report."

Adrian managed to continue this circular dialogue until it became quite painful to watch and continue with the conversation. Dayle on the other hand was not amused and would put veiled stabs in where ever she could.

All in all we had bartered him down to 50,000RP (5 bucks), and went on our merry way. After some fuss from the corrupt cops, we even managed to get change for our bribe, as we only had a 100,000 Rp note-- something we thought had to do with our bargaining skills.
"What about when we come back, more problems?" Dayle asked.
"Don't worry, I remember you!" Was the officers surly reply.

At first we thought it was cool, but then later we felt dirty, and soon after that we were just ticked off. Returning the bike to the shop, we related the story to the owner, who chuckled a bit.
"50,000 rupiah? This is normal price." At least we got away without paying the "tourist price"... or did we?


From Ubud it took us an entire day of bus-ferry-minibus-refugee boat rides to cross to the next island of Lombok, where we made way to some smaller islands called the Gili(s), just off the northwest coast. As soon as we arrived-- at dusk-- on Gili Air, we encountered our oh-so-familiar problem of no accommodation. This time we somehow lucked out, and met a local girl, Susie, who worked at one of the bars and graciously offered us (and some friends from the bus) rooms with breakfast at her mom's house. We heard many people end up sleeping on the beach for a night or two! Instead, we woke up to chickens running around the house, and a lovely banana-pancake brekkie cooked by Susie's mom. We weren't huge fans of the squat toilet though.... and eventually moved out to a beachside bungalow entirely made of the squeakiest bamboo. The porch had a hammock and the ocean was right in front of us, as was the main road-- barely one lane made completely of sand. It was incredibly peaceful, with the wave noises interrupted only by clucking chickens, electronic Christmas tunes (the ice cream man's songs), and the jingling of horse carriages that served as the "Gili Taxis"-- there were no vehicles on the island at all.

We'd chosen Gili Air for its reputation as the quiet yet civilized one of the three islands (Gili Trawangan was party central; Gili Meno was all but totally asleep) and did some fantastic snorkeling just off the beach. There were fish of every colour and shape a quick swim from shore; snorkels cost about $2.50 to rent for the full day and there was no end to the underwater discoveries: silly-looking mantis shrimp, clownfish, squid, angelfish, technicolor coral, and a sheer drop where the shallow reef became deep ocean (a bit scary to swim alongside!). Not to mention the beach was lovely and lined with just enough restaurants with laid-back bamboo huts to dine and drink in. At nighttime, green fluorescent dots appeared in the waves: some sort of glowing algae. You look up and there's about a billion stars to see. And the few days we woke up early enough in the morning-- visible on the mainland was a massive volcanic peak, Rinjani, which sat in front of the sunrise and towered over Lombok. The island was stunning. The food was some of the best we'd had in the country, and the island was so small we were soon greeting everyone by name along the main sand street. Unfortunately for our relaxation plans, we met some fabulous companions-- both travellers and locals-- and found the nightlife laid-back yet quite excellent on Gili Air.

Too many Bintangs later, somehow 7 days slid by and we topped off our stay with the best dive ever experienced. As soon as we descended to the ocean floor, a huge Manta Ray flapped its way past us; 4 Reef Sharks (one of which was 'asleep') circled us as we prayed we wouldn't be lunch; giant round Green Turtles cruised by us; and a Banded Sea Snake completely freaked us out as it wiggled out of some coral and started heading towards our dive group (which Adrian hated - he doesn't like snakes... and this one was actually a poisonous one!). We could've gone out for the afternoon dive, but chose to go for a quick snorkel instead -- because there's no way we can top that one last (fabulous) dive.

Leaving Gili Air was torture: as Lombok is well on its way to having an international airport, we fear the next time we're back the island will have utterly lost its rustic beauty and laid-back attitude. It was back to Bali for a little souvenir shopping and to catch our onward flight to Kuala Lumpur for 4 days of sights and sounds--it was a crazy yet somewhat unrewarding city to explore after all the great places we'd encountered over our six months-- and a killer 14 hour flight to England. No pain, no gain!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bali and the Planet of the Apes

We've made it to Bali and it's certainly quite full of adventure. It's been a busy week since we left Yogyakarta and started the island hop east: first, a sunrise climb of Gunung Bromo to celebrate Adrian's big 30th birthday (he was writing a blog about it but since he's really old now, he's just a bit lazy!). It was a spectacular sight once the sulphur gas clouds parted and we stopped choking from behind our scarves. And we're proud to say we did it without succumbing to pony-ride offers up the slope!

But the area around Bromo was freezing though (4 degrees at night), and our tropically-acclimatized bodies didn't like it so much, so we hightailed it east to the island of Bali, known for sun, surf, and heaps of vacationing Aussies. We got a day of surfing in (and a few bruises!) at Kuta, plenty of people-watching, and headed inland to Ubud to soak up a little Balinese culture. We did the tourist thing and watched a traditional dance performance with scary masked dancers and a wild story to match. And to top off that Balinese cultural experience, we couldn't resist a visit to the the sacred monkey forest, or Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana, where we took innumerable photos and videos of cuddly Balinese macaques.... until they realized they outnumber us 4-1! Monkey attack!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

High season fun in Java

We're a week into our Indonesia trip now and so far it's been a pretty interesting place to visit. Time to catch you up on our adventure!

After our flight fiasco from KL, the fun didn't stop yet-- our new flight left hours late too, and we landed in Jakarta around midnight. We caught a cab into town to the small budget-accommodation area and trudged down steamy Jalan Jaksa with our off-balance baggage only to find guesthouse after guesthouse with "full" signs. We yelled to each other over the loud live bands playing at the bars, got befriended by an odd (and possibly sketchy) Frenchman, Patrick, who kept urging us to drop off our bags at a nearby bar and he'd help us hunt for a place to stay. A few people-- including a wily prostitute and another tough looking dude yelled to us to stay away from "that man" and so we lost Patrick as soon as we could. Actually, the locals hanging out alongside the street were very helpful, pointing us to places that might have rooms and then when we found they were full, offering to call people for us and suggesting new spots. Finally we ditched Jaksa street and ended up on Jalan Johar, which was a LOT nicer looking that sleazy Jaksa but probably had price tags to match. We tried four or five fancier hotels and even they were full. Were we going to have to pull an all-nighter, drinking next to our packs til people checked out? Indonesian school holidays had just begun that day (our luck!) and people explained that it wasn't just European summer that was filling the rooms, it was the locals too!

We hardly believed it when a smiling man behind the desk of the very swank-looking Hotel Bumi Johar said he had a room available. But the TV wasn't working, he said, and bargained down his original price for us. Oh, and neither is the air-con, is that a problem? (Haha, we don't even like a/c!) We look at each other and he bargains his own price down further still, to 250,000 rupiah (about $25 USD). Well, it was quite a bit over the budget (we were hoping more like 70,000-100,000 Rp) but what can you do at 1am? Turned out the room was so nice-- fluffy bed, marble floors, hot water, free buffet breakfast, and housekeepers to pick up after us!-- we stayed for five nights!

Jakarta itself was pretty crazy, with no real city centre, heaps of traffic and pollution, really noticeable gaps between the super-rich and very poor. On our first day we braved a city train to head to the original Dutch port of Kuta (formerly Batavia). We clutched our bags from leering eyes and jumped on the old monorail-style train to head north. It was something out of a movie: dim, grungy, and packed, people hanging out the sides of the train as it veered above the city (there were certainly no closing doors to keep one from falling out!), and performers and vendors constantly pushed their way through the crowds to peddle their talents/goods. Kota was full of old Dutch colonial buildings and had a really quaint atmosphere. Crossing the streets was a bit of a nightmare-- constant speeding traffic!-- but we clung to locals as they crossed and dashed across as fast as we could. We checked out a history museum (right), got asked to be in many peoples' photos, and cooled ourselves off in the lovely Cafe Batavia, a grand old dame still stuck in the 1930s-- a great spot to sip an ice coffee, or if you can afford it, one of their cocktails. To complete the atmosphere, there was a live singer performing Sinatra hits and such to the handful of people inside-- Adrian couldn't resist the urge to karaoke a few songs with him, and others became braver after that. We left giggling at our first afternoon in Jakarta and decided to brave another form of public transit to head south within the city to meet Adrian's old college classmate, Diena. The "Busway" is a fairly new public transit system, with a few routes on nice a/c buses, with dedicated lanes to beat the insane traffic of the city core. What the Busway planners did not work on was creating some sort of order at the stops-- it was elbows-out as we became part of the swarming mass fighting to get on the next bus. Brought us back to our mosh-pit days. [I'm pretty sure I had my butt groped as well- D] Finally we pushed onto a bus... repeating our favourite analogy about "the journey being the most exciting part of the adventure". There was a great happy reunion with Diena (who was slightly weirded out at how much we enjoy public transit), and we met her husband and little son, and got to hang out at the family's (absolutely gorgeous) Balinese-style house for a fantastic evening.

The next day we checked out what was designed to be the city centre by the country's first (ambitious) president Soekarno in the 1950s. Being a Sunday as well as school holidays, it was packed with people visiting the Washington-Monument-style Monas. (The previous night we whizzed past what's been named "The Pizza Man", another of Soekarno's creations). Again, we were asked to pose in a bunch of strangers' photos, and even led an impromptu English lesson to a group of 15-year-old girls in hijabs. We didn't get much sightseeing done (as usual) but the charming Indonesians we meet along the way have been making up for it anyway. We met Diena and a friend of hers for some beers back at Batavia Cafe (we learned it used to be home to many raves back in the day) and to a beer garden down south in affluent Kemang. We learned that a love of Guns N Roses is apparently universal, that big (and mullet) hair is huge among Jakarta kids.

We spent the next few days running errands and enjoying the faint wifi signal we could steal from the comforts of our awesome hotel room. We said hello to everyone who greeted us on the street (a lot of hellos!). Michael Jackson continues to blare on speakers everywhere (thank god we don't have a TV). We tried some local food, and indulged in a little Pizza Hut too. We even came across the informal Jakarta press club: the hang-out spot of all the news photographers/ photojournalists in the city-- they were a fun bunch who were pretty excited about politics (the national election was coming that next day, July 8-- and as a country that's just emerging from dictatorships and hoping to shake its corruption, the election's big! Apparently the official results won't be officially counted for a week-- HUGE COUNTRY!-- but it appears "SBY", the current prez, has got the office again).

Finally we decided we should get seeing some more of the country, and took a train east to Yogyakarta (pronounced "Jogjakarta"), Java's cultural hub. The train travelled past some awesome scenery, including a few pointy volcanoes, and we ended up in Jogja a few days ago. It's got a better vibe than Jakarta, as it's a bit smaller and not so overwhelming, though as it's a real touristy place, we spent today dodging "invitations" to visit batik galleries and dance performances (tourist traps/scams rampant in the city). In between all of the hassles, we visited plenty of cool places: a bird market (lots of tweeting and cock-a-doodling), climbed old walls of the ancient city, and snapped photos of the nearby volcanoes looming above Jogja; visited the kraton (walled city), and the sultan's palace-- we gather Jogja still has a sultan, though we weren't lucky enough to meet him. And even though we're not morning people, we dragged our sorry butts out of bed to do THE thing to do in Central Java-- visit the ancient temples of Borobudur at sunrise, an absolutely magical sight as the mist fades from the surrounding hills and palms and the surrounding volcanoes materialize, while the temple itself glows a pretty yellow. Was definitely worth the extra coffee!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Running on Malaysian Time

We're on the go again! A few days ago-- night of July 3rd-- we made it to Indonesia, but not without a bit of trouble first. Although we consider ourselves pretty good planners, careful travellers, and things usually work out along the way. Our quick jaunt through Malaysia proved us otherwise...

We left the bliss of the Thai islands on July 1st and took a very comfy night train across the border. By noon the next day, we'd had a seamless crossing over to Malaysia (receiving a three-month visa, free of charge-- why aren't more travellers taking advantage??) and soon ended up in a town called Butterworth. Now, although we quite enjoyed the name Butterworth, our research said there wasn't much of interest there; however, it was right on the west coast and the train station was walking distance to the ferry to Penang, an island with a lot of history that DID indeed sound interesting. For 1.20 Ringgit (about 30 cents), we scored round-trip ferry tickets and we were heading back out to sea for the night. We figured we'd do some sightseeing, absorb a bit of a new country in a scenic environment, and then the next morning we'd hop the bus to Kuala Lumpur, five hours away, as several bus companies told us. Our flight to Jakarta wasn't til 7pm so we figured we had oodles of time!

The city of Georgetown in Penang was pretty scenic-- old English colonial buildings, a fort, lots of old shophouses in Chinatown, grand mosques, and a CRAZY Little India district (chock full of flamboyant salesmen, loud music, sari shops, and even bottled cow urine in one grocery store, filed under "religious items"). Penang-- and possibly Malaysia as a whole-- had a very multicultural flavour. Our guesthouse was a bit of a slumhole: dark hallways, our walls didn't quite reach the floor, ripped-out pages of Playboy in a drawer, and the staff graciously allowed us one towel to share. But it was cheap, and we were really tired from the long haul across the border!

The next morning we hopped the ferry back to the mainland and got on an "ekspres" bus due to leave at 9:45am. Plenty of time, we thought, to get to KL. We settled back into our massive (we're talking movie-theatre-size!) reclining seats and got ready to head further south... except the bus kept sitting there until, oh, about 11am. Apparently it seems 9:45 means something else in Malaysian time! And then we hit construction on the mega-highway south. And then a traffic jam, and another. And then our driver decided to stop and wait for more passengers for what felt like an eternity at Ipoh and a few other stops along the way. We arrived in downtown Kuala Lumpur around 5pm, getting a bit panicked, as Air Asia requires customers to check in at least 60 minutes before.

We sprinted a few blocks through terrible traffic to the subway that would whisk us to KL Sentral station, where we could catch a super-fast airport "ekspres" train, that arrives in 28 minutes from the station to the airport (74km away!). Now that's efficiency! The panic dissipated a tiny bit...

We arrived at the airport at exactly 6:55pm, dashed up five floors of escalators to find a giant lobby of airline check-in counters. We just made it! we thought. Turns out we celebrated too soon. The only Air Asia desk around had two uniformed ladies sitting under a "customer service" sign. Sorry, they said, but check-in is at another terminal. OK, where is this other terminal? we asked. They ask us what time our flight is and then shake their heads. "It's 28 minutes away by taxi," they tell us. (Why is everything 28 minutes away in KL??) Check-in's nearly closed and there aren't any refunds for you either, boo hoo. Pleading did nothing.

But lucky us, we were still able to buy a plane ticket to Jakarta on the next flight out-- the last flight of the day at 8:50pm. Of course, it cost twice as much as our original one, and we couldn't transfer or buy the extra 5kg of luggage allowance that we had for our original flight (had to buy it 6 hours before, aha, more wasted money!), so somehow we had to shrink our usual 20kg each into 15kg, unless we wanted excess baggage charges. Lovely!

Pissed off with the contradictory attitudes towards transport schedules and then the bureaucratic rules where WE needed to be early, but no one else needed to run on time, we hopped in a taxi to the other terminal and asked our driver to drive extra fast. He was all too happy, and we rewarded him with a few presents-- a raincoat, drinks, books, whatever might have put us over the weight limit-- as we put on layer upon layer of clothing and our heaviest shoes, layered purses inside purses, and stuffed anything weighty into the carry-ons. We arrived in about 15 minutes, and dashed to the check-in desk like we were contenders on the Amazing Race. A smiling girl greeted us, weighed our bags-- 14.1 kg for Adrian and 15.7kg for Dayle-- and we cheered like we'd just won first place! A small victory... we treated ourselves to a leisurely McDonalds' snack and slowly made our way through security, and arrived in our departure lounge to find quite a lot of people hanging out. Later on, as we were fighting with our computer, trying to connect to the free wifi, we hear the announcement: "Flight AK392, we are now ready for boarding..." Yup, that's right, our 7pm flight, with its first boarding call just after 9pm. (pictured left) ARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The morals of this story:
1. Murphy's Law can strike anytime.
2. You too, can shave 5kg off your baggage by wearing a lot of clothing and sneaking more stuff into your carry-on bag (which they never weigh) and oversized "purse". Just try not to sweat too much and make sure to pick up the 20kg carry-on like it weighs nothing at all.
3. Don't trust Malaysian bus companies to get you anywhere on time, even though Malaysia appears to be much more organized and modern than Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma put together.
4. Despite the similarities in spelling, "Ekspres" doesn't really translate to "Express" in Malaysia. It probably actually means "Silly tourist! We'll get there whenever we feel like getting there."