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I’ve been more introspective and reminiscent than usual these past few weeks. Maybe it’s the change of seasons. Maybe it’s because I need a change….

At this moment a year ago today (forgetting about the time difference) I was bouncing on a rackety seat on a minibus bound for the Bali coast, just me and a Finnish girl, staring out at the Bali countryside; the mountain, the rice fields, at the perfectly exotic tropical landscape that is Bali. There’s a reason it’s so damn touristy, and there’s a reason the people all seem so darn happy. It might also be because of all the Hindu Gods. I was leaving Ubud and heading back to Padang Bai, the town where I stayed my first night in Bali. Ubud wasn’t for me…after an afternoon of exploring the town and its many yoga studios and health food restaurants I was exhausted. While Ubud is said to be the center of Balinese culture, and the endless rows of temples and extravagant gardens and nights of Balinese dance truly are something to experience, its hard to shake the overwhelming Western hippie population and homemade organic squash soup. My best bet was spending my last day and a half I had left in Bali in a place that I knew and a town I hadn’t finished exploring: Padang Bai, home of the “secret beach” and its own theme song.

Before I left for the tropics, I was sitting in a cafe in Busan, South Korea, playing on my laptop in an attempt to plan the last leg of my Asian invasion in Malaysia and Indonesia. It was 35 degrees and kimchi-style humid in Korea. The 6 weeks I spent there in July and August were the typical Korean sweaty and sunny for summertime. But I was ecstatic at the thought of going down south again. And to the southern hemisphere even! The last hot and balmy place I’d been to, where coconuts fall from the trees and sea turtles roam by the moonlight, was Costa Rica, Panama and Belize on my first backpacking/volunteering/Central American adventure. On that trip, due to the awesome eco-tourism program in Costa Rica and Steph, my fabulous marine biologist friend from home who was living in Punta Gorda, Belize at the time, I was given the opportunity every wanderer longs for. I got to bond with the locals, live like them, and get to know these countries on an organic level. So for my follow-up tropical excursion, Asian style, I wanted to replicate my Central American way as much as possible. I wasn’t going with an organization or meeting any friends, but I wanted to keep my wandering to the less popular destinations and do my best to meet random locals. And see more turtles. I succeeded in doing all three of these things. On the trip I did indulge in some “touristy” elements, yes, but I also got to lounge around in the more off-beat parts of the country and meet some fantastic people.

Which is why I didn’t plan on going to Bali. We’ve all heard of Bali. I wanted Lombok (the beautiful little but lesser-traveled island to the east of Bali), Sumatra, and Java. I felt rather proud of how I’d been traveling up to that point, and I wanted to top it off by roughing it in the canyon in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, and exploring the wonders of Indonesian culture in the heart of Java. I planned to have Lombok satisfy my palm-tree-snorkelling-on-the beach craving. I didn’t need Bali, I thought.

From Korea I flew to Kuala Lumpur, and after an unforgettable week and a half in Malaysia, followed by a few days stuck in the equator city of Pontianak in Borneo (travel tip: book your flights in advance), I flew to Lombok.

Lombok was beautiful. I stumbled upon one of the most beautiful guesthouses on the island, had my own little tree hut for three nights, and while getting a pedicure on the beach the lady told me the story of her broken marriage and her strong Muslim faith and was brought to tears. But during the rest of my day, as I wandered around the town of Senggigi and the empty spots between resorts and spas, I felt unwelcome. The Lombok people in general are still wary of foreign tourists, but accept it for the money and big resort opportunities. Needless to say the happy beach feeling wasn’t happening for me, and I had a few days to spare. When I discovered that there was a slow boat to Bali every afternoon for 30, 000 Ringgit (30 bucks) complete with a shuttle bus from my guesthouse, I bought a ticket.

The port town of Padang Bai, Bali is where all the boats from surrounding islands dock. I’d read that the place was worth a stay. I looked up a few guesthouse names and figured I’d find a place when I got there. So when we docked and the few other backpacking buddies on the boat all stood waiting on the street corner for a bus to Kuta (surfer/tourist haven), I knew I was making the right decision. I was gonna get to know this port town of Padang Bai.

In Bali you don’t really stay in guesthouses or hostels, you stay in losmens. They are basically homestays. You get your own room but the courtyard and kitchen are filled with kids doing Balinese dance and Aunties cooking and selling various items at the front entrance. My first night at the losmen I met a group of traveling friends (French, Dutch, Australian…the usual) and we ate together at one of the town’s three restaurants and drank at one of the town’s two bars. Our bartender requested that we address him by his prefered name “Africa” instead of his birth name (Ketut). His bar played reggae and posters of Bob Marley adorned the walls. He had big hair and a big smile and was dating a wandering Aussie girl with dreds in her hair, who’d taken shelter in the Balinese hospitality instead of University in Melbourne. They told me about the two quaint, beautiful and unknown beaches on either side of the town and how they didn’t like Kuta at all. I told them everything I knew about China and the cities I’d visited. I can talk about China for days.

The next morning after breakfast in the courtyard of our losmen, we parted ways. They were traveling the island on motorbike and had more of Bali to explore. I hopped on a bus to Ubud. It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to return to Padang Bai. But I stuck it out for the day in Ubud. I went to the Monkey Forrest and treated myself to an evening of Balinese dance. I sat in the sun and had an avocado smoothie for breakfast my morning in Ubud, but that was it. I was on the first bus west back to the coast. I checked into the same losmen and the mother greeted me with a warm smile. “You come back?!” She exclaimed. “Yes, I just couldn’t stay away!” I responded. She gave me the key to my room and I set out for the beaches.

I snorkelled in clear coral filled waters all day, stuffed myself with Nasi Goreng (rice and vegetables) in between and was at the bar by night. My last night in Padang Bai I went to the main bar on the strip where it looked like a band was setting up. I walked in alone and took a seat on a stool at the bar and ordered a Bintang (Bali beer). Not even a few sips into my beer and a Aussie girl swiveled around to face me and introduced herself. She was visiting Bali for a  month and spending most of her time in Padang Bai, staying in a losmen where she knew the owners well. She knew everyone at the bar, mostly local Padang Bai boys, and she introduced me to them as well as her visiting Aussie boyfriend. After a few rounds we got up to dance and the band began to play.

That’s where I heard the town’s theme song. It’s Australia’s unofficial national anthem “Down Under” but the chorus changed from “I come from a land down under” to “I come from a Padang Bali” followed by other Padang Bai related lyrics instead of Aussie ones. They sang their hearts out, jamming  on tam tams as we danced like the world was coming to an end, and it was only a random Tuesday in September. I wondered if all of Bali was like this, or if it was just Padang Bai. I figured it was probably the latter.

We retreated to the back porch and the owner brought us another round of Bintangs. I had realized earlier that day on the beach that it was September 11th. I brought this up to Wayan, one of the bar owners. “Yes, we know about that. But that terrorism happens everywhere. It happened here in 2002. There have been many threats since. Balinese people are scared everyday that it will happen again.” He reminded me of the bombing that occured in Bali over ten years ago and killed over 200 people. That moment, like so many others that happen when you travel, made me realize just how small my world is.

“It is because Balinese people practice a different religion than the people of Java, which is the main governing island in Indonesia.” He said.

“Yes, Bali seems to be its own country, so different from the rest of Indonesia.”

“Can you tell me what island in Indonesia isn’t like its own country? All of them are special.” Once again, I was humbled. From the zealous people of rustic Sumatra to the tribes in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia is one diverse nation. While Islam is the main religion and home to the second largest Muslim population in the world, tribal traditions still exist in Papua and there’s the Christian island of Sulawesi just east of Lombok. Then there’s Hinduism in Bali, and still an unknown amount of undiscovered islands with an infinite number of unique cultures, practices and people. Wayan was definitely right, each island in his Indonesia very well could be its own country. You can say that about the U.S. and its 50 united States, about every tiny European country, the countries in the United Kingdom, even about Canada and each of our provinces.

“While the capital city of Jakarta and the rest of Java want to make all the islands the same, us Balinese just want to keep our Hinduism and our traditions. Even our language is a little different. You can’t make all of Indonesia the same. But they are trying.”

In this globalized world everything is mushing into one big ball of sameness. But people are resisting. This is especially true of the archipelago of Indonesia, and from what I got to see every province and island remain distinctive. I hope it stays that way. The immense popularity and faith of its people make me optimistic that at least the island of Bali can escape the inevitable cultural gentrification.

At about 2 a.m. I said goodbye to my newfound friends. We danced to one last song and hugged goodbye, wishing each other well.

I walked the block and a half back to my losmen, in the quiet calm that only a nighttime beach town can provide. I gazed up at the night sky. I was in the southern hemisphere for the first time, and tried to make out the southern cross in the stars. I couldn’t, obviously, and it didn’t make my evening and my momentary spell of the island of Bali any less special.

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Take me home, country roads, take me home.

 

I met a friendly University student named Dawn when I was in China in 2009. Well, Dawn was her English name. She was one of my first Chinese friends outside of my co-workers. She studied at Donghai University and I met her and her BFF Monica at my German friend Harry’s apartment one Friday night. She was the most outspoken young Chinese person I’ve ever met. She was full of questions about Canada, she taught herself English despite her parents protests, and she criticized almost everything about the Chinese system. Just talking to her about politics made me nervous that I’d get deported.

When Dawn told me her favourite English songs were John Denver’s, I was impressed. From what I’d learnt from my first month in China was that for the average citizen their knowledge of non-Chinese music didn’t go any farther back than Celine Dion. Actually, Michael Jackson. But then at the end of the year I went to Beijing and discovered that John Denver is adored. I heard him in bathrooms, shopping malls, bathrooms in shopping malls…places like that. John Denver and China are synonymous for me now. When I hear “Take me Home, Country Roads” (which is usually when I’m in China, but not always), instead of cringing I am uplifted. Similar to when I eat greasy food, wait an hour in the rain for a bus, or perhaps see some poop on the street, I think of China and I’m happy again. I don’t know if that means the Mainland is my home, but it’s certainly something to question. Isn’t home a feeling you get when everything around you is a disaster but you still don’t get depressed? When everything looks terrible but you can’t keep your eyes off it? That’s kind of like love. I don’t know. I’ll have to pray to John Denver.

In March of 2012 I returned to China. I had been on the road for just over a week and I was staying in a great hostel in Nanjing when I heard a piano bar rendition of “Take me Home, Country Roads”. I sitting in the back of the hostel bar and it was part of their “Jazz Fridays”. If you aren’t a fan of that song to start with, then you must go to Nanjing to hear her version because you will most certainly…hang yourself. But the city boasts a great museum, and some juicy dumplings, so the trip won’t be a total loss.

I smiled the whole time while listening to that song. I knew I’d come back to a special place. It was the first time I’d heard a John Denver song since coming back to China, and being there over a week without that song made me sad. “Where were you John Denver! I’ve missed you!” It was pouring rain outside. I was stuck in a hostel with a great bar and beautiful terrace, but I was the sole patron. It was March and the backpackers hadn’t arrived yet. And Nanjing wasn’t exactly the most travelled place. I was totally alone, my bank account was already dwindling and I had no job prospects and no inspiration to write. But I couldn’t have been happier.

Take me home, country roads, take me home.

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Conquering the Trans-Canada Trail

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Plane tickets are expensive. And by September of 2012 I had bought my fair share for that year, or perhaps a lifetime?? Regardless of all that time and money spent on elong.net or travelocity.com I was out of cash and needed to get to Montreal. I checked for prices on Greyhound.ca. Advance bus tickets were pretty cheap, and for economic reasons, I had no other choice. Also, how could I live with myself, having spent so much time traveling around China and other parts of Asia without even giving my own country a chance? I’d seen all kinds of Chinese, Korean, Malaysian and Indonesian countryside through the window of a train or bus. Canada at least deserved similar treatment. As a traveler it wouldn’t have been moral of me to hop a plane on one side of a country and land on the other a mere five hours later, stuffed with a Quiznos sub and being none the wiser about the beautiful country that issues me a passport every five years. We travellers have a code, you know. It’s like a religion. And being religious myself, I couldn’t pass up the challenge of taking the road less traveled.
“Thou shalt take the longest, most gruelling route possible. Thou shalt speaketh to strangers, meet new mates of the soul and eateth the grubbiest grub thy terrain provides for you. And thou shalt be inspired.”

So, bus it was. Three days long and honestly, I could have kept going all the way to Newfoundland, but maybe next time. Best $127 dollars I’ve ever spent.

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A long and teary-eyed goodbye from my best friend at the Vancouver bus terminal I boarded the sleepy bus to Calgary. That was my first big stop. We were scheduled to arrive in Harper’s Canada around 10 a.m. It was six at night by the time we left Vancouver and most passengers were already passed out, equipped and huddled in their sleeping bags, taking up two seats. Lucky for me there was a pair of seats left at the back, and I didn’t have to wake up a groggy student traveler and let them know our long night wasn’t gonna be as comfortable as we hoped. The sun had set by the time we were out of the city and I started to nap, taking one last look out the window and said goodbye to B.C, sad that I’d be missing the view of bountiful western Canada. Next time.

I was going “home” for a visit. This made the long haul back “home” not so long…I saw it merely as a part of the adventure I was still in the middle of. It wasn’t a last gasp type thing, one last grope before settling in to the get a job, get a man, get a marriage, get some kids thing that apparently must be part of every one’s reality.
I’m not saying I don’t want to eventually “settle down”, just not now, and don’t tell me what to do, loser.
That was the biggest question when I returned home. “Was that your last trip?” “Are you done for now?” I don’t even know what “done” means. I shouldn’t vent though. I have lovely friends and co-workers who support whatever adventure I choose to go on. So what I’m saying is if I thought the Trans-Canada bus trip was the “end” for me, I would have grown increasingly nauseous and crazy with every mile (sorry, kilometre) and probably would have gotten off and never looked back somewhere in Saskatchewan.

I thought I was gonna be the only crazy for my three days on the road. The Trans-Canada road, to be exact. This was the only thing that made me nervous when I was in Vancouver munching on gluten-free organic whatever, and my thoughts drifted to my upcoming cross-country trip. People would be hopping on and off and I’d be alone. I was getting tired of alone. But thank you Canada, you’re filled with many crazies. You’re filled with gentle, yet eclectic creatures and I’ve never been more proud to carry around your passport. (No, I don’t put a Canadian flag on my backpack. Who does that?)
When I boarded the second bus from Calgary, Alberta, most passengers were headed to Toronto, and a few to Montreal or Ottawa. I’d never been to that part of Canada. I’d just seen the Rockies. We drove by them and I wanted more, but we were headed east, and I guess I’ll return one day. Serge, my seat buddy for day number two was headed to my city of Montreal. We shared our stories and Lays potato chips. I was often distracted by the blue sky and yellow ground before my eyes. Serge had seen it a few times, he said. Lots of people who work out west do the bus trip a few times a year. And most of the time it isn’t just the economic factor. “Why would I just fly across and not see anything?” Asked my seat buddy for day number three, Chris. He’d just come from four months picking fruit in B.C. We talked as the sun rose over western Ontario and passing one of the great lakes. “Look around, how could I miss this?”

He was right. Sigh. I was home.

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