Big Question Marks

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!