About this blog

My photo
I am a TV and video producer. I have upped sticks from London with my girlfriend Jess, and gone travelling through Asia. We are then moving to Sydney to live and work. This blog charts our thoughts and experiences. Oh, by the way, I am also a MASSIVE Arsenal fan. I gave up my season ticket for this trip, a big call I know. I have decided to meet Arsenal fans and fan clubs around Asia and Australasia and post about them. Jess loves that. Ha.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

You'd better Bali-ve it

Traditional Balinese Music
Bali – 16-23 September 2011 (approx. – yes I know I’m a long way behind)

Things we learnt about Bali:
  • Kuta (the main tourist town) is busy, loud and tacky. Very tacky.
  • There are a LOT of Australians in Kuta.
  • An astonishing proportion of the Australians in Kuta choose to dress in exactly the same attire as each other. It’s amusing and a little worrying.
  • Monkeys are little bastards.  They are also surprisingly adept at business.
Traditional Balinese Dance and Costumes
 After several days of hard travelling, trekking up volcanoes and picking volcano ash out of places volcano ash was never meant to see, we were understandably excited about arriving in Bali.  While struggling up the seemingly endless inclines, I had pictured stepping off the boat and immediately running down a white sand beach into the crystal clear sea.  I would emerge and Jess would be sitting on the beach, suddenly in her bikini, holding an ice cold beer for me.  It would be the perfect reward for all our hard work.

Unfortunately, as is increasingly becoming the case, things didn’t quite work out as we planned.  After an hour on the ferry from Java we arrived in the dusty, desolate port town on the west coast of Bali.  There was nothing resembling a beach or blue sea, or much else for that matter. No problem, you’re thinking, Bali’s small.  A short hop on the bus will do it and they’ll be sipping cold beer in the tropical sea.  We walked in the searing heat, lugging our heavy bags to the bus station where we were shepherded on to a “bemo” to Kuta, the main tourist resort.  A bemo is the bastard son of a shit coach and a crappy mini-bus.  I suppose it’s either an oversized mini-bus or a midget coach, depending on which way you look at it.  It’s cramped, the seats are tiny and anyone topping 5 feet can’t fit their legs in front of their body.  Of course there’s no air conditioning and the tiny slats masquerading as windows are little more than a token gesture.  After surviving an attempted rip off by the ticket man (he tried to charge us double despite there being a huge sign in English clearly stating the price for our journey), our bags were stuffed under our feet and on our laps.  The bemo was so full that there were 3 people to 2 of the tiny seats, people on those people’s laps, people in between those people’s legs and stools down the aisle for piles of people to sit on. Oh, and more people between those people’s legs.  I’m not remotely exaggerating when I say that I could not move a single part of my body so much as an inch.  Not even my toes.  I couldn’t even scratch my knee if I wanted to.  The body heat combined with the scorching temperatures outside and the lack of ventilation inside made it unbearably hot. That’s when everyone on the bemo starting smoking.  A little later the child behind us started vomiting.  It was nothing short of hell of on earth.  For 5 hours.  When we got to Kuta it was dark.  No beach, no clear blue sea, no beer.  Just sweat, cramp, hunger and fatigue.  Living the dream.

Things did pick up somewhat.  It’s amazing what relaxing by a pool in the sun with a beer does for the morale.  Kuta, however, was not the idyllic beach paradise we had imagined, not by a long shot.  The beach was packed, covered in litter and the sea had a brownish hue that when combined with the deep aroma of sewage in the air, caused us grave concern. 

Now before I go on, a disclaimer.  I have several Australian friends.  I am very fond of Australians. Nothing written here on this blog affects my affection for my Australian friends and all those Australians I may meet in the future.  I mean, I’m moving to Australia.  I wouldn’t be doing that if I had a problem with Australians, right?  Now, Kuta has a LOT of Australians in it.  And while, of course, many of them are very nice people, there really are a large number of a certain kind of Australian.  Most of them are male and they tend to wear a strict uniform consisting of board shorts, a sleeveless vest (invariably with the logo of Indonesia’s most popular beer, Bintang), trucker hat and flip flops.  You can hear them coming through the loud vulgarities being emitted from their mouths.  They are in Bali to drink as much as they possibly can in the large number of clubs and bars playing horrifically loud and horrifically bad pop music. There is something deeply unsettling about watching a dance floor of shoulder to shoulder, sweaty, topless Australian men dancing to Lady Gaga.  The overriding image I have is of watching a pack of 5 of them literally all dressed in the same uniform, beers in hand, strutting down the street swearing loudly when the pack leader suddenly and inexplicably takes his Bintang vest off, swings it around his head and starts roaring like some kind of gorilla.  The rest of the pack showed their approval by also roaring in unison.   Attenborough eat your heart out.

We also found that the entrepreneurs of Bali are sharp enough to play to the tastes of their clientele.  We were eating our breakfast when we couldn’t help but overhear the two very loud Australian girls nearby, with the broadest accents we’d ever heard.  One was apparently on the phone to her boyfriend back in Oz.  “I got you a souvenir! Yeah it’s fucking awesome! It’s a t-shirt but instead of iPod, it says iPood!”  I nearly choked on my omelette.  She also eagerly described to him how she was “so fucking tanned I look like I’m black”.  There was also an absolutely roaring trade in bumper stickers, which the Australians were snapping up.  Some of our favourite ones were – “Brendan (or any other name you can think of) is a fucking queer” and “Two in the pink, one in the stink”, accompanied by a silhouette of a hand with the index, middle and little fingers extended.  Classy.  Finally, to our horror, when we picked up a cocktail menu in a bar we found that one of the specials was named “Black Bastard”.  Crass, misogynistic, homophobic and racist; we absolutely loved Kuta.  Not really of course, it was pretty horrific.  We soon found it unbearable and quickly moved on to pastures new.

"Umm, I'll have... umm... one of those please."
Luckily the rest of Bali turned out to be beautiful.  We ate great seafood in Jimbaran and sunbathed on stunning beaches in Balangan.  We went to a crumbling temple in Ulu Watu that had a large group of long tailed macaques (monkeys to you and me) in residence.  We had been warned not to wear hats or sunglasses and to ensure bags were closed and tightly gripped at all times.  We soon saw why as the tidy little racket the monkeys had going on with the locals was revealed.  The scam was thus: the monkeys jump around all cute, attracting (mostly Japanese) tourists.  Said tourists gawp and gaze like mindless fools until a monkey swings down and steals the hat, or sunglasses, off the head of some poor unsuspecting person.  Tourist screams, monkey runs away beyond the fence and out of reach.  Along comes a lovely Indonesian person who is conveniently carrying a banana or an egg.  The monkey approaches our hero and happily exchanges the cherished fashion item for the tasty morsel.  Tourist is delighted, can’t thank Mr. Indonesian enough and tips him handsomely.  Tourist’s head or eyes are again shielded from the sun, Indonesian man has made a good few Rupiah and the cheeky monkey is enjoying a free dinner. Everyone’s happy.  We walked around and saw the identical routine play out 4 or 5 times in 15 minutes before we decided we had seen enough of these very capitalist and very Asian monkeys.

Relaxing after a hard day's work
 As it turned out, the business savvy macaques of Ulu Watu were not the only simian encounter we had on Bali.  We headed inland to the hill town of Ubud.  While it’s a place that is very well geared to tourists, it has managed to steer clear of the crass tackiness of Kuta.  Aside from the wide variety of good food available, the main past times are trekking around the local hills and visiting the town’s Monkey Forest Sanctuary.  The sanctuary is basically a crumbling temple surrounded by a small forest which is home to a sizable, and not very likable, troop of macaques.  The sanctuary’s brochure is fronted by a cute looking, doe eyed monkey.  It turns out the actual residents are nothing like their sad faced representative.  The sanctuary’s ticket booth was selling bunches of bananas to feed the monkeys and Jess, being Jess, was desperate to feed them. Once bitten twice shy clearly is not a saying prominent in her vocabulary.  I made clear that I would have NOTHING to do with this endeavour and in we strolled, bananas in Jess’ bag.  There were immediately quite a few monkeys around and the American chap in front of us pulled a banana out of his bag.  He hadn’t even so much as extended his arm when 5 or 6 monkeys attacked him.  They were biting his arms and head and going straight for the bananas in the bag.  In sheer terror, he managed to throw the bananas away from him and get the monkeys off.  I turned to Jess to witness the predictable look of fear growing on her face.  She waited until no monkeys were looking and quickly discarded the entire bunch.

Yeah, you'll sit near them after getting rid of your bananas

"You looking at me?"
This warning was not enough, however.  We watched several tourists get mobbed by the little bastards but at one stage Jess spotted a couple of very cute young monkeys.  She found half a banana on the floor so went over to feed them.  One of them was very friendly and came and sat on her lap to eat the banana.  He tried to have a cheeky look in her bag but nothing too aggressive.  This scene clearly upset his companion, who decided to jump up and bite Jess on the arm.  She ran off quickly and this little monkey actually chased her, clearly determined to rob her of the contents of her bag.  It took me confronting this little fellow, growling, with my teeth showing to finally be rid of him.  Overall, I hope this experience proves to be the one that finally teaches Jess that monkeys are arseholes and best avoided.

False sense of security
The other story of note happened during a trek in a river valley near Ubud.  It was a stunning setting but it was hard work on a PRETTY humid day.  I did not actually realise it was possible for a human being to sweat so profusely.   It got to the point where I looked as though I had just been for a swim fully clothed.  That would be fine, except for the fact that I began to smell so bad that Jess could no longer walk behind me.  She described it as the “worst anyone has ever smelt”.  It even made ME feel sick.  Why I’m sharing this with you I don’t know; it just feels like a story worthy of historical note.  In 28 years that was the smelliest I, or perhaps anyone, has ever been.

It's a shame that photographs don't accurately portray smell
I looked like I had been swimming in this

It was worth the sweat though

Finally, as I mentioned in previous blogs, I have been trying to track down Arsenal supporters groups as we travel around.  It turned out that a new Arsenal Fan Club had started in Bali just a month earlier.  So we arranged to meet them in another town to watch the Blackburn v Arsenal game.  Much like the Jogja Gooners, it was wonderful to see the genuine passion the Bali Gooners have for the club.  They knew all the songs and sung their hearts out all game, even when we were losing.  It was actually a horrible game and best forgotten but the Bali Gooners’ insatiable support, enthusiasm and hospitality more than made up for the terrible result.  Here’s to the Bali Gooners!

I know it’s been a long while since my previous blog and I will endeavour to speed up the posts and catch up.  Although the blogs are still about Indonesia, we have just arrived in Philippines.  I am about 5 bogs behind right now so have my work cut out.  My excuse is that we have been having a frigging nightmare with the travelling lately – flights being cancelled, resulting in missed international flights, resulting in overstaying visas resulting in hefty fines.  Also as we get further off the beaten track a decent internet connection becomes an increasingly rare thing.  I’ll try and get a few more out over the next couple of weeks.  Until next time… 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Climbing Volcanoes

Gunung Bromo

Things we learnt about Gunung Bromo and Gunung Ijen:
  •             Gunung means volcano.  OK, we already knew that but it serves well to mention it again here.  
  •      It can be cold on top of volcanoes, even in Indonesia.  
  •             The sulphur miners of Ijen are bloody hard bastards.
  •      When an Indonesian driver is trying to persuade you to go with him, DOUBLE how long he tells you the journey will take.
In Yogyakarta we decided pretty quickly that we would want to travel to Java’s east coast by land before getting the ferry to Bali, not least because there are some stunning volcanoes to see on the way.  It’s a long old journey, a couple of days driving, but we thought we could break it up by staying near and climbing a couple of volcanoes on the way.  That was the easy bit.  The tough bit was working out how we would get there.  Mount Bromo would be our first stop and we were in the process of working out a route via train and bus when a piece of luck came our way. Or so we thought. 

We were in a becak when at a crossroads our panting and apparently asthmatic driver strangely decided to engage us in conversation.  You can feel pretty guilty when trying to have a conversation with a man while he is grunting away trying to cycle you up a hill, but he was quite persistent.  He established that we wanted to go to Bromo and offered to drive us there.  No, not in his becak – that would have amounted to manslaughter – but in his lovely air conditioned car.  It was dramatically more expensive than the public transport method but we weren’t yet fully into backpacker mode so after some deliberation we decided to go with convenience and speed.  Great decision.  Except that it took 12 hours – 2 hours longer than public transport and 6 hours longer than he told us it would take.

As a result we arrived at the mountain village of Cemaro Lewang in the dead of night.  Owing to the altitude, it was frigging freezing and we were unsuitably attired in regulation shorts and t-shirt.  The village was a ghost town but luckily we had pre-booked a hostel.  Our friendly driver helped us with our bags and we headed off to our quarters.  To make sunrise we would have to set off for the view point at 4am so while Jess settled into the very chilly room, I went to the reception to try and charter a 4x4 and driver. 

Now, what happened at the reception many of you would call stupid.  You might say I was na├»ve, you might say I was over-trusting.  I prefer to think of it as friendly.  While I was mulling over the options to get to the viewpoint, a Dutch couple were conversing in their mother tongue near the reception desk.  I took little notice until they apologised and interrupted my deliberations. (I should mention at this point that they spoke to me in fluent English, I don’t have a secret ability to speak Dutch), “We’re so sorry to ask you this but we only just arrived in the village.  We are staying near here and have just realised that we have almost no money left.  We don’t even have enough to get transport to the viewpoint and to Bromo tomorrow morning. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could lend us any?  It’s just that this is a volcano and the closest ATM is 45 minutes away and there are no taxis at this time.”
I’d like to say that I eyed them carefully and paused for serious thought before saying “Sure, how much do you need?” But I didn’t.  I said it without a moment’s hesitation.  To this day I’m still not sure why.

After thanking me profusely they calculated that they needed 300,000 Rupiah (£25 – a fair amount in this part of the world). I handed them the cash. They looked a little surprised and asked me if I maybe wanted to arrange how they could pay it back, find out where they were staying or even what their names were.  “Oh yeah, good idea” I said, offering what must have seemed a rather gormless smile.

Luc and Nina introduced themselves and told me they were from Eindhoven and that they were staying in a hotel with no name. Strangely this wasn’t a problem for me and I still laugh when I look at the note they wrote me confirming their names, the amount they owed me and their current address – “Homestay up the road”.  Quite the ‘I O U’.

It turned out they were going the same way us which gave me a brainwave. If the 4 of us chartered a car, we could get from Bromo to Bali via a stopover at Gunung Ijen for just 1.6 million Rupiah.  Of course I would have to lend them all the money for it.  This, again, I did with no hesitation.  Having now lent these strangers from Eindhoven over £80 we said our goodbyes. I had actually now given away almost all of our money. That’s when I saw our driver from Yogyakarta sitting behind me.  “Excuse me sir, can you pay me now? I have long way to drive back.”  
“Ah.” I said.

After some very awkward begging of the receptionist to give me some money back to pay our driver, and, in turn, let me pay their driver the next day, I returned to our room. Jess was looking confused and, dare I say, a little annoyed as we had an early start, “What on earth took you so long!?”
“Don’t worry”, I replied, “I just gave all our money to some Dutch people.”
“No you didn’t you liar”.
“Yes I did actually” I showed her my almost empty wallet, smiling (again gormlessly).  Jess wasn’t smiling.
“What?! Why?!”
“They wanted to borrow it. It’s fine, they’re Dutch.  Dutch people are very trustworthy.”

Needless to say Jess was a little less optimistic than I.  But fortunately Luc and Nina turned out to be wonderful people and excellent hiking and travel companions.

We made our way to the viewpoint at 4am the next day.  To say that the sight of Gunung Bromo is spectacular at dawn is an understatement.  With the clouds sitting below us and reflecting the sun as it rose, it was the kind of beautiful that just makes you sit back and shut up.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Bromo's crater - our next stop to have a look inside
There was something surreal about all the clouds beneath us
Bromo began erupting earlier in the year and had been erupting for 6 months until July. As a result the entire local area was covered in a layer of volcanic ash which, by the way, we were finding in ALL KINDS of places for several days.   Over thousands of years the numerous eruptions have created a volcanic ash desert on the plains around the volcano which is known as the ‘Sea of Sands’.  We trundled over the Sea of Sands in a 4x4 and then climbed up to rim of Bromo’s steaming crater to have a peer inside.

First time I'd looked into an active volcano
Jess stares out over the 'Sea of Sands'
We then set off for our next destination Gunung Ijen.  We spent a night in a coffee plantation (think Java coffee…) and had another very early start to hike up Ijen.  It was a steep 3km climb to the crater lake and sulphur mines, which when carrying nothing more than a camera bag was tough enough.  But we were astonished to see dozens of local men climbing up the crater and trundling down the steep  slope carrying two baskets of sulphur across their shoulders. Those of you familiar with my strength will know this is no great measure, but I was unable to even lift these baskets an inch off the ground.  Each basket weighs around 45kg, 90kg in total.  They get paid about 4.5p per kg.  So one 3 hour back breaking trip nets them the princely sum of £4.05   We climbed down into the crater and back out again and it was completely shattering – we could only imagine what it’s like doing it with a 90kg load on your shoulders. 

It was a long hike.
But it was a damned sight longer for him
The miners make their way back up for round 2
On reaching the summit, we peered down into the sulphur mines in the crater
It was a beautiful setting up above the clouds peering into the crater lake and sulphur mines, except for the truly horrific sulphurous stench being pumped out of the volcano’s gut.  It was not only a nasty smell, it actually burnt the back of your throat and lungs when the wind blew the wrong way.  And yes, you guessed it, the local miners were standing right in the middle of the fumes working away. You don’t need to be a doctor to work out that isn’t good for you.

These guys seriously earn their (very little) money
It didn't just smell a bit - it made your eyes water and lungs burn - and we weren't that close.
"We just climbed down that!" - Yes, but now we've got to climb back up...
But it was a bit easier for us than it was for these guys.
So on making our way back down to the waiting car, the 4 of us set off to catch our ferry to Bali.  We said farewell to Luc and Nina when we arrived and commemorated it with possibly the best meal we’d had in days – the Indonesian version of a Pot Noodle – a Pop Mie.  It was a moment we’ll cherish and set us up well for our time in Bali.

Pop Mie with Luc and Nina

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A Warm Welcome to Indonesia

Traditional Javanese dance in the Sultan of Yogyakarta's Palace

Things we learnt about Yogyakarta, Indonesia:

  • It's pronounced 'Jogjakarta', or Jogja for short.
  • It's not to be confused with Jakarta, Indonesia's traffic ridden capital city.
  • The people are incredibly polite and friendly.
  • The city has an exceptionally passionate and sizeable Arsenal supporters club
  • The locals really like birds (of the winged variety, I'm not describing a city of womanisers) 
  • Oh, it's hot.  But I think that's proving to be a running theme.
If we thought that KL was another planet to Singapore, arriving in Indonesia and Jogja was the equivalent of landing in another galaxy.  The skyscrapers were gone, replaced by hundreds of street sellers, mosques, batik markets and becak (tricycle or horse drawn rikshaws). For the first time the billboards were no longer in English and we saw our first motorcyclist (of many) carrying a load that by all rights should only ever be transported in a van.  And the prices, thankfully, plummeted after the more expensive cities we'd visited so far.

The principle method of transport is the becak where you basically sit in a cramped seat pinned to the front of some bloke's tricycle.  It's a fun, if uncomfortable journey.  The problem is, us Westerners are a bit bigger than your average Indonesian.  It was at the end of a 5km, mostly uphill journey than I suddenly realised we were in danger of killing one of these becak drivers.  The poor fellow disembarked his bike, and when we turned to him, he was sweating more than I've ever seen anyone sweat and looked like he was actually going to keel over.  Woops.

Making the becak driver work hard

I should move on to the most striking thing about our 4 days in Jogja - the people.  As a backpacker arriving in Indonesia, armed with the Lonely Planet and dozens of different tips on avoiding scams and rip off merchants, we could be forgiven for being on our guard somewhat.  On our first day we ventured to the city's main market, Pesar Beringharo.  To say it's huge is a serious understatement.  It's very huge.  Maybe I need to work on my adjectives but you take my point.  We were the only tourists and only white faces in the place which served only to add to our guardedness.  It came as no surprise when  as soon as we started strolling an old man decided to start walking with us telling us all the amazing things we could buy at the market.  "Come see, many many spices, very good" he said.  "Happen to own a spice stall mate?" I thought. 

As it happened we fancied eyeing up a few spices so we cautiously followed him, primed for the inevitable hard sell. To my surprise he took us to an impressive spice stall that he did not appear to own and proceeded, with the owner of the stall, to show us the myriad spices explaining their uses and lets us touch and smell them, never once making any attempt to sell them to us. "Mmm", I thought, "He didn't seem to even TRY to con or rob us. Weird."  

We continued, with our old Indonesian man in tow, still jabbering away about every stall we passed. 
"He's just lulling us into a false sense of security", I thought.  Any moment now he would lead us to his stall and force us to buy something. He suddenly turned to us in revelation and shouted, 
"Come see many many fruits upstairs!"
"No." we said, "We don't want to see fruits."  
We did really, we just thought he was trying to stitch us up in some way.  So we wandered around for a while pretending we didn't want to see the fruits and then went to see the fruits.  To be fair, the fruits were pretty amazing, although anyone who has ever smelt a durian will have no trouble understanding what I mean when I say it was a bit stinky.  Our old man, took us around describing each fruit, telling us the Indonesian name for it.  I didn't know what kind of scam this was but it was so subtle and elaborate that I was certain I would at some stage find myself completely naked holding nothing but an inadequately sized sarong.   But I was wrong. It was at the stage when our old man told us of his love of Tom Jones and then started singing us some songs that I realised that he was walking and showing us around purely for the pleasure of practising his English and helping out some (overly paranoid) tourists. So we left happy and with a new found trust in the human race, scoffing at the silly Lonely Planet.

Look at all the lovely fruit and veg

And the stinky dried fish

We decided to go and see the Water Kasteel, which was once the bathing pools of Yogyakarta's Sultans and their playboy habits.   Let me explain what I mean by that last comment.  The Sultan, in days gone by, would have 12, or so, wives.  Each day he would have them frolic together in one of the pools as he watched from his viewing tower.  After a while they would line up in the courtyard, with him looking on from above.  He would select 3 of them to go through to his private pools for a personal frolicking session, for which he would join them.  Then each day of the week he would choose another 3 wives for that day's frolicking, so as to keep it fair and all.  Fair dos mate, I say.  Being a Sultan's not as bad as it's cracked up to be I suppose.

The "Frolicking Pools". Being a Sultan ain't so bad.

We also discovered the Javanese obsession with birds (again, of the winged variety).  They all seem to keep birds as pets so we decided to see the local bird market where, once again, a local adopted us and showed us all around for nothing more than his own pleasure.  Turns out he's studying English and loves English football.  I nearly fell off my chair when he told me he supports.... wait for it... Norwich City.  Wonders will never cease.

The bird market

The locals really like birds

Our Norwich City supporting new friend.

We went to see Borobodur, a massive (should have used this world earlier) 1200 year old Buddhist monument.  Its stunning architecture and colossal size makes it a work of engineering genius when you take in to account it's age.  Here we met another amazing person, our guide.  He did a cracking Jackie Chan impersonation which he named "Friend of Jackie Chan".  He would alternately pretend he was trapped on the other side of an invisible pane of glass or, when finished explaining something, use an invisible length of rope to pull himself along to the next point of interest.  Legend.

Borobudur. 1200 year old Buddhist temple. It's big.

Prambanan. The Hindu answer to Borobudur.

On a slightly darker note we also went to see Gunung Merapi, an extremely active and destructive volcano.  It has erupted twice in the last 5 years, most recently in October when it killed 700 people.   The lava flowed suddenly at 4am when most people were sleeping.  Whole communties had been destroyed, but already they are rebuilding on the same land.  It's a scary thought for them to come straight back to such a dangerous place, but that land is all these families have.  The valley through which the lava flowed is astonishingly large, and the dried up rivers of lava carving up the land were frightening and  awe inspiring in equal measure.

Merapi's valley of lava. This valley was filled with lava. You can see the scorched trees near the camera.

This used to be farmers' fields and trees. Now it is a desolate, dried river of lava.

Let me move on to a happier story.  As I mentioned in the first blog, I have decided to try and meet Arsenal fans throughout our travels in Asia.  Where they exist I'll try and meet the official supporters' clubs, and where they don't and I'll try and meet smaller groups or individuals through the national supporters clubs.  The first group was the Jogja Gooners, with whom Jess and I watched the Arsenal v Swansea match.  The game was not on Indonesian TV, so through Twitter a the local Gooners let me know details of a cafe where they would be gathering to watch a stream of the match.  We were even picked up from our hotel by a lovely guy called Agung and his girlfriend Anggi.  The Jogja Gooners were incredible.  There were around 50 of them, singing all the songs in full voice, everyone of them in an Arsenal shirt.  Some of them were in extremely impressive vintage shirts.  Their voice, passion and devotion to the Arsenal cause was really something to behold and when they refused to let us pay for our drinks or food I knew we had made some amazing new friends.  I commit here and now, that if any of the Jogja Gooners ever find themselves in London, I will get them tickets for an Arsenal game.  

The Jogja Gooners!

Arsenal score against Swansea City

Good signage.  And yes, a canon up my arse.
So, with Yogyakarta taken care of, we headed east to do some dawn hiking up some volcanoes.  More on that next time.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Fuc-KL it's hot!

Things we learned about Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KL)
  • ·        It’s HOT. We thought Singapore was hot, and it was.  But KL is “sweat running down your crack 30 seconds after you leave the hotel” hot.  Something I think was linked to the next point. 
  • ·         It’s polluted.  It wasn’t cloudy at all, in fact it was a “clear” day, but the sun was a faint, dull orb in the sky through all the smog.
  • ·         Malaysians like to eat.  And so do we.  So we got on well.  Food stalls, food courts, food markets.  Just a lot of good food everywhere.

Arriving in KL was like actually arriving in Asia.  Where Singapore was shiny and clean, KL has that little edge to it.  It’s still a city of huge air conditioned malls and shiny skyscrapers, but in amongst all of that is a healthy dose of bedlam. The public transport is great (we loved the monorail), there are classy bars and restaurants and a huge number of expats and tourists but we found the heart of the city wandering through China Town and Little India.  As we stepped through the alleys and streets, the shiny skyscrapers and malls full of Starbucks seemed to be a world away from the bustling markets, saris and dingy food markets, rather than 2 stops on the LRT.

As fascinating and juxtaposed a city as KL is, in all honesty it’s hard to forget for too long about the oppressive heat and pollution.  The temperature, like everywhere in this part of the world, hovers around the 32-33 degrees mark (Celsius - it’s not freezing, Americans) but the intense humidity makes it feel more like 40, according to weather.com.  I assume it’s linked to the genuinely astonishing amount of smog sitting above the City.  The sky is permanently grey.  You can look directly at the sun with ease as its light barely fights its way through the pollution.   I did find out, however, that most of the smog is not actually due to KL pollution but instead caused by huge slash and burn fires in neighbouring Sumatra.  Sumatrans are illegally destroying and burning mind blowing amounts of rain forest.  At this time of year, every year, the vast amounts of smoke from that burning travels north east on the monsoon winds, obliterating the sun for millions of Malaysians, until those winds turn again in October.  We went to the viewing point of the KL Tower which is among the world’s tallest structures and took some pictures which show the thickness of the smog.

Somewhat bizarrely, along with our KL Tower ticket, we were given a free pass to what can only be described as a very, very small zoo.  Literally one fairly large room.  In it were a variety of snakes, spiders, lizards and monkeys, all in cramped little cages.  After looking genuinely scared holding a snake, Jess got a little bit emotional at the site of all the monkeys in their tiny cages.  Until she saw that you could buy food to feed them.  “Please Ciaran, please can I feed the monkeys?!”  I was not keen on the idea at all, and wanted no part of it but how could I possibly refuse such an eager request?  We bought a large bowl of fruit, and I stood back to observe, rather than take part.  Jess offered an excited looking monkey a piece of apple through the cage.  The monkey reached out, but his little arm went straight past the apple and instead grabbed her bracelet.  A bracelet held together by elastic. He wasn’t letting go and neither was Jess.  Jess looked at me with a look of fear and helplessness on her face, perhaps expecting me to do something to help.  “He’s going to have that.” I said.  Once the bracelet was stretched to 3 times its normal size, and the monkey keeper realised that I certainly wasn’t going to help, he stepped in and rescued the now rather overstretched bracelet.  I laughed, as did the crowd who had gathered behind us.  Jess turned to me with a very sad face, put the bowl of fruit in my hand and said, “I don’t like it”, leaving me to feed the monkeys on my own (something I had earlier specifically refused to do), until she plucked up more courage. Jess has now developed a healthy respect for monkeys.  We’re going to watch Rise of Planet of the Apes soon, as an educational session on what can happen when you fool around with monkeys.

Malaysia also provided us with our first experience of the squat toilet.  Anyone who has been to Asia knows what I’m talking about and for those who haven’t, it’s basically a toilet bowl in the ground.  No seat, just a foot pad on either side of the bowl allowing you to squat down and do what needs to be done.  While we didn’t actually have to use one in Malaysia (there is always a western toilet option as well), the squat toilets did have an interesting knock on effect for us.  Whenever going to use a public, western toilet, we discovered big dirty footprints on the seat.  Apparently some local folk opt to squat ON the toilet seat rather than sit on it. I suppose technically the Asian method IS more hygienic than ours but, I would argue, far less relaxing.  Come on now, are you really going to tackle the Times crossword while perching in a squat position atop the loo? Sometimes it’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.

 I would have placed a picture of said footprints here, but unfortunately I never found myself with a camera while in the loo.  And if I had, others may have legitimately wondered what on earth I was up to. So instead here is a photo of Jess looking cool.

On this rather crude subject, after working in Bangkok some years ago, my Dad told me that while out there, he daren’t fart due to the potentially dangerous repercussions of doing so.  It was sage advice.  I’m glad to report that I have had no such problems thus far.  I’ll keep you posted Dad.

I am a few posts behind at the moment due to patchy internet connection.  We’re in Bali now so there should be some more posts over the next few days about our time in Indonesia so far. ‘Til then suckas.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Singapore Slinging

Things we learnt about Singapore in our 4 days there:

  • It's hot.  Really bloody hot.
  • It's clean.  So clean, I felt like I should wipe my feet before going OUT.
  • It's expensive. A beer (the bar by which affordability is always judged) costs £10.  That's not a typo, TEN POUNDS.
  • It's rich. The beer costs a lot, but the ex-pats can definitely afford it what with 10% income tax and higher pay rates than back home. A good place to live and work it appears.
  • If you go out on a Friday night with a bunch of Joel's mates, you are not going to be doing an awful lot the next day.
In addition to this we learnt that Joel (the Yorkshire lad turned Singapore ex-pat who kindly put us up) is a great host. Thank you Joel for a great few days.  And for those of you reading who know Joel, I can report that he has done very well indeed, with his lovely girlfriend Misato and her incredibly cute kids, 6 year old Jimi and 2 year old Tai.  We had a fun evening out with them at the Singapore Night Safari and for a slap up curry in Little India.  Verdict: cracking curry, thumbs up.  Fun night safari, bat enclosure where they are literally flying around and, almost, into your head was a highlight. But too many deer and cows.  As Joel rightly put it, "One cow, one deer, that's all you need.  If any."
Joel, Misato, Tai and Jess. Asian pose!
Jess and Jimi - possibly the sharpest (and cheekiest) 6 year old we've ever met

Fruit bat. No no, no cage. Just flying around your head.
Look how far the boy has come... Joel not Tai.
Tai, who celebrated his 2nd birthday while we were in Singapore, alerted me to just how far the world has come since I was 2.  At the two full sit down meals we all ate together he would sit in absolute silence watching videos on the iPhone. Literally not a peep from a 2 year old for a whole hour.  Though, apparently, it only works if it's Toy Story or Cars. No other animated heroes will cut it for Tai.
The bit where Woody gets lost. Probably.
Thanks to Joel and his flat mate, Chris, I have also decided to take up a new hobby. Wake boarding.  Had a great time, although from the photos below you can make an accurate guess as to how good I was at it.  I did actually "officially" get up once, but Jess decided not to take a photo of that bit.  Nice one.

Joel and Chris both getting some good "air"
Me. Really not getting a lot of "air" at all.
So a severe hangover, very sore arms and some heavy curry breath later, we packed our bags and jumped on the 5 hour luxury bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a few days.  

One final note I should add.  I had arranged to meet the Arsenal Singapore fans club for the Arsenal - Man U game.  It turned out the game was the weekend before we arrived. Oops.   It also turned out that the Arsenal - Man U game would have been the most depressing imaginable scenario in which to meet new people.  So probably for the best.  But then meeting them for a pint over the weekend failed to materialise due to an unbelievable hangover and sleeping all day. I commit, here and now, to putting that right when we get back to Singapore.

Will be back in a few days with reports from KL.