Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mt Bromo and the bus ride from Hell

Amber:  Tim and I decided to book a bus tour to get us from Jokjakarta to Bali, with an evening at Mt Bromo, as the local train was fully booked until after the holidays.  We woke up early and scarfed down some street food before boarding our mini van at 8am.  The first stages of travelers tummy were starting to show, and I was not looking forward to the two days of travel we had ahead of us.  Thankfully, the first leg of our trip was fairly painless.  It is never fun to spend a day in a bus, but at least the mini van was empty enough for me to lay out on the bench seat, using Tim's lap as a pillow, make myself somewhat comfortable, and the air con worked.  I wouldn't have been  having much fun with the way my insides felt no matter where I was.  It was dark when we unloaded from our mini van into a little, cramped bus and made our way up the mountain to our hotel for the evening.  It was nine pm before we were settled into our room for the night, making it an eleven hour travel day.

The next morning we woke up at three am and were taken up the mountain even further by jeep.  Our driver had to wrestle with the steering wheel the whole drive, constantly correcting to make sure we drove in a straight line.  Not that fun in the dark as we wound up the steep, narrow path.  We drove up a rutted out single lane road, four wheel drive doing its job, and our driver let us out and told us to make our way up the mountain by foot from there.  It was dark out, and both Tim and I had neglected to get our head lamp from our bags in the morning, but there were probably eighty to a hundred people hiking up the path with us, lighting our way.  There were also a bunch of locals, providing horses for people not wanting to make the trek.  I considered it, but basically, you get thrown onto a pony, and Tim's legs very well may have drug.  We would have felt bad for the animal.  That, and they just walk in front of you, leading your horse.  We made it to the viewing point well before sunset, so climbed up onto a little cement structures roof and enjoyed the view as the locals crowed around and... took our picture.

Sunrise finally came, and the view down into the crater was beautiful.  Mt Bromo is actually a tiny blip in the middle of a huge, ancient volcanic crater.  One that was so huge it probably put the Earth into an ice age when it went off, we hypothesized.  We were sitting right on it's edge.  After getting several photos, we made our way back to our jeep and then drove down into the ash field that surrounded Mt Bromo.  The line to go up Mt Bromo was ridiculously long.  We hiked up the path, doing our best to avoid the horses that galloped past, their riders in search of more tourists to haul up the trail.

Once we made it to the top of Mt Bromo's crater, it was awesome.  Neither of us have ever been on the top of a volcano, let alone one that is still spewing ash.  It was scary, amazing and beautiful!  We hiked along the rim away from the crowd.  Tim is very brave.  I hate heights, even when falling off into a giant, vapor spewing pit isn't a possibility.  Tim compared it to the pit in Star Wars where Java the Hut throws his victoms.  I inched my way along the rim after Tim, assuring myself that I wouldln't just trip and fall normally, so why would I start, just because I was going to die if I did?

We had a family of four Indonesians in our jeep with us as well, so we went back after about forty five minutes on top of the rim so they wouldn't have to wait for us.  They weren't back yet, so we went and had some tea.  It was amazing.  The little street vendor we bought it from took some tea leaves in a strainer, poured boiling water over them, and it made the best tea.  It was very soothing for my stomach, so I was happy.  We enjoyed our tea, then wandered back to our jeep.  Still no family.  It was getting hot out, so we sat on the front bumper and waited for them, watching all the horses tied up.  They are all stallions, we had no idea where all the mares were.   It wasn't long before a group of local college students found us and asked if they could interview us for a project.  Tim was happy to oblige, so we spoke with them for about ten minutes, answering questions about how the US differed from Indonesia, what we liked, what we didn't like, etc.  They concluded with a group picture with us.  Finally, the Indonesian family got back from Mt Bromo, and we were on our way back to our hotel to grab our things and head on towards Bali. 
The rest of our trip from Mt Bromo to Bali was horrible.  Tim and I both may had our travel bug die just a little bit from how horrible it was.  The mini van we had payed for was gone.  We were herded onto a local bus that was so full that there wasn't enough seats for all of us to sit.  The pursur made a man get up so I could sit down, and Tim was put in the back of the bus somewhere.  Tim was starting to get some stomach pains as well.  It wasn't long before we switched busses.  Our driver was crazy.  He drove through the traffic, swerving the huge bus recklessly around corners.  He smashed his drivers side mirror off on another large bus passing by us and didn't even slow down.  He cut so close to a motor scooter that he actually did stop, fearing he had hit the driver. Thankfully, he had missed.  Tim's legs didn't even fit in the seat.  The air con was not working.  They played Indonesian music really loud.  They stopped constantly to drop off or cram on more people.  Or just to take a smoke break and give random men alongside the road money.  It was horrible. 
We finally arrived to the little port town we would take the ferry to Bali on.  The Indonesian family we had gone in the jeep with up Mt Bromo had adopted us and the other four Westerners on the trip with us and bought us fruit.  They let us know what was going on.  We probably won't arrive in Bali until three am.   They lead us to a little restaurant for a quick bite before we crossed to Bali.  The same bus would be going onto the ferry and our driver would be taking us all the way.  Lucky us.  We contemplated switching busses, but at that point we decided it wasn't worth it.
When we were done with our dinner, we hurried back to the bus.  We were met by two of the Western travelers in our 'group'.  They were almost to the point of tears.  The bus had left us.  What should we do?  Knowing that it took forever for anything to happen as far as loading a ferry in the States and ten times longer in Indonesia, apparently, we just went in search of the bus while they returned to the restaurant, panicked, to ask the family what they should do.  We found the bus, three slots further forwards than where it was.  I climbed back onto the bus while Tim went back to tell the girls it was all ok. 
The ferry ride was short.  It was nice to be on the ocean, and out of the bus.  Sadly, it was soon time to get back on the bus.  At that point, we were too tired and miserable to sleep so watched a movie on our computer.  The air con stopped working, completely. The bus got hotter.  I tried to sleep, but it was too awful.  Tim's stomach was worse.  Finally, we came to a stop.  The Indonesian family told us it was time to get out of the bus.  We were still 17km out of Dempasar. 
We  had no other option but to take a taxi.  The Indonesian lady that had been helping us got us a cab for $12.  We split it with a young couple we had shared the horrible bus ride with.  They were staying in Kuta, while we were staying in Nusa Dua.  Kuta was on the way, so we would drop them off, then carry on to our luxury hotel.  We couldn't wait for a hot shower and bed. 
The taxi driver must have been as tiered as we were.  We all saw the motor scooter with the two lady's on the road.  He didn't.  It was horrible as we crashed into the motor scooter, sending the two women and the bike flying.  The driver of the bike was fine, holding on and skidding away from the impact.  The passenger, however, was flung backwards, and hit her head very hard.  She wasn't wearing a helmet.  A crowd gathered around as we jumped out of the cab.  We were horrified that no one seemed to think she needed to go to the hospital.  She was moaning and clutching her head.  It was clear she had suffered a very hard blow to her scull.  We took all of our bags out of the cab and pointed at the driver.  "You need to take her to the hospital!"  He finally understood, and we helped put her in the back of the cab.  Her friend went with her, and they drove away.  We felt helpless.  Poor woman.  We have no way of knowing if she is ok.
We were again in need of a cab, but now we were in the middle of no where.  The four of us hiked to the nearest intersection and tried to flag down vehicles as they drove past.  We asked a restaurant if they could call us a cab.  They told us it was not possible.  Finally, a cab drove by.  He offered to take us to Kuta for $40.  We were able to talk him back down to $12, and got into his cab.  He dropped Kyle and Mel, the Canadian couple, off in Kuta, and then drove us out to our Marriott Hotel for an extra $10.  We were so happy to crawl into bed in our beautiful hotel room.  We had been up for 26 hours, with travelers stomach.  The worst part was, it took 26 hours to travel 225km. 

Yogyakarta and Borobudur: Java, Indonesia

Tim:  We opted for the business class train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. This business class train does not have AC and was less than half the cost of the Express Class train with AC. The time for both trains was about the same at eight hours. The train was hot, but not very full. We were able to each have a two person bench to recline on. We arrived in Yogyakarta at around 3:30 PM. After looking at five different guest houses we settled on a fan only room for 12 USD per night.
Later in the evening we met up with Toby who we met along with other couchsurfers in Jakarta. Toby is from Germany. We ate street food together, and enjoyed a Bintang beer while playing domino games. Bintang is the biggest beer brand in Indonesia.
The next morning we joined a tour that provided transportation to Borobudur some 25 km away. Our tour left at 5:00 am trying to arrive before the large tour buses showed up. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. It was an impressive sight with many levels for walking and viewing the amazing stone carved reliefs that surrounded the exterior. The admission price for Borobudur is really expensive by Indonesian standards, 20 USD. I was able to use my old student ID and got myself in for half price. I am still officially a student.

Within a few minutes of our arrival the tour busses arrived with mostly Indonesian high school children. It seemed like they all wanted to have their picture taken with us. We posed for pictures at least fifteen different times with scores of Indonesian highschoolers crowding around us with many cameras and cellphones.  The first few times we were flattered and happy to oblige, but the task got daunting after the first 10 or so. There were surprisingly very few foreigners. Only about 10 other foreigners in what seemed like thousands of Indonesians. We survived the picture taking and almost had to run away to avoid getting more pictures taken of us.

On our last night in Yogyakarta we met up with Aneda who we had met in Jakarta. We ate dinner together then did a very local thing. This brings street dining to a whole new level. One of the streets is set up with food vendors on one side, and then matts are laid out on the opposite side of the street on the sidewalk for people to sit. The main attraction here is the Javanese coffee that is served with a burning piece of coal dropped in it. The coffee was very good. The charcoal effect was very subtle. Not sure I would have been able to recognize the difference if there wasn’t a big lump of coal in my coffee. The locals drank the coffee with the piece coal left in the whole time. They would usually drink the coffee with a spoon to avoid have a black nose.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jakarta, Indonesia

Amber:  We landed in Jakarta, Indonesia after an eight hour flight from Dubai on Yemenia Air.  Aside from unruly, screaming children, (there seemed to be a lot on this flight) and people not adhering to common flight safety (children not buckled in and standing in their seats while landing, seat backs fully reclined during landing, not even done taxing before crowding to get up and unload the over head bin), the flight for Tim and I was uncomfortable, but uneventful.  We hit a tiny surge of turbulence during landing, and the whole plane screamed.  Tim and I exchanged smirks   They would not like an average day in an Alaskan bush plane.

Passing through the Indonesian customs was a little confusing.  It was a three step process, which was easy once we figured out where each step was, and which one we needed to do first.  You can officially get a sixty day visa on arrival in Jakarta, but we weren't sure until we arrived, so we are leaving after thirty.  We got our Indo visa and passports stamped and both Tim and I heaved a sigh of relief.  We still had room for one more visa!  I feel like we have almost joined the big kids club for travelers, as both of our passports are dangerously close to not having a single page left.  Tim has exactly one page, I have two.  We can go one more place before needing to go to the American Embassy and get more.  Myanmar, after our thirty days in Indonesia are up, here we come!

Our first two nights in Jakarta we stayed at the five star Marriott.  Which was awesome.  Actually, it was a little unnerving.  Five star treatment is not what we are accustomed to, at all, in our budget backpacker experience.  It was a little overwhelming.  We were greeted, ushered in, sweaty and wrinkled from our flight, bus ride and cab ride, and lead to our beautiful room, on the twenty fifth floor.  Tim had earned us two free night stays at the hotel by signing up for the Marriott credit card, and then forcing me to do so, as well.  The fifteen minutes I spent signing up, after much coaxing from my very savoy boyfriend, was totally worth it!  The room was huge, there was a shower and a Jacuzzi,  it was cool and clean and had the most comfortable bed ever, a soft fuzzy robe... I felt like a spoiled princess.

We spent a lot of time in Jakarta trying to get our visa to Myanmar worked out, but the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta is a little less than helpful.  We went to the embassy, and found we didn't have all the necessary things for our application.  After spending hours on trying to get everything in order; passport photos, a letter of sponsorship(?), hotel reservations when we arrived, writing up a loose itinerary, we rushed back to the embassy.  It had closed thirty minutes prior, which meant that we would now have to wait until Monday, and even then, we would still have to wait the three days to get the application processed (where it may or may not be approved).  More than a little frustrated by our lack of progress on achieving an actual letter of sponsorship (Tim booked us a hotel in Yangon for the night we arrived and hoped that would suffice) and not wanting to risk it, we finally just utilized an online website that did not require the letter to get our visas processed.

I was a little grumpy (yes, I'll admit it) after the finally getting the whole Myanmar visa process somewhat taken care of, so when Tim wanted to go to a Couch Surfers meeting, I suggested he go alone and I stayed in our new, not so new, very modest "fan" room and sat on our hard, lumpy bed and researched our future destinations on Java.  It was nice to feel productive about the rest of our thirty days in Indonesia, instead of just going in circles for the Myanmar visa!  Tim had a great time at his meeting, he even had to stand up and talk in front of a bunch of people with a microphone about his traveling experiences.

He met some locals that were going to go sing Karaoke later in the evening.  He came back to our room, bearing a chocolate ice-cream bar, my favorite.  Did I want to go?  The Karaoke was fun.  We met some really nice people and they all, of course, could sing.  Tim can sing.  I was the only one that hid in the corner as long as possible, then croaked into the microphone when politely forced by our new friends.  My attempts were as bad as I was afraid as it would be, but it was all good fun.  Tim chose Ozzy's "Dreamer", and the theme song from the Twilight series... how sweet!  I'm always impressed how musically inclined he is. He is in charge of singing from here on out!

Afterwards, we joined Ivy, Raja, Tobey, and Lukey for some street food.  While there were many options, Tim and I shared tuna and rice, grilled in a banana leaf and then slathered in curry.  We also had a dessert made of coconut, bananas, a locally made jello, all served on shaved ice in coconut milk. It was delicious.  We have found that when we travel and then meet up with people, we eat way too much, but it is the best way to try all the local favorites!

The next day, Ivy met us at a restaurant near our hostel and we tried a soup filled with cow lung and liver, served with lime and spicy chili over rice.  It was interesting.  Ivy took us to the old Dutch part of town.  We rented bicycles and went down to the docks and watched men working hard at loading cement bags from heavily loaded trucks onto ships.  The whole harbor was loading up.  It looked like back breaking work!  From there, we peddled back to the Dutch part of town, admiring the big cement balls that lie around that used to be shackled to prisoners feet.  We were right in the middle of traffic, on our brightly colored one speed bikes.  It was crazy, casually biking along as motor scooters and trucks zoomed past!

We took an hour bus ride in rush hour traffic to go see where Obama went to elementary school.  It was funny, we squeezed onto the public bus and rode smooched on board.  Tim towers over everyone in Indonesia, he felt like he should have to pay double fair! We switched buses to make the final leg to Obama's school.  The second bus we got onto was so full I hung onto a handle at the top of the steps, just barely all the way into the bus, as we drove on down the road, door open and the driver stopping to pick up more passengers   Three more people squeezed in, we all perched on the steps while we made our way through the crowded Jakarta traffic.

We had some street dim sum sitting on the steps of a bank while waiting for the rain to clear, then met Raja for dinner at Block M, a place known for its street food.  We ended our meal by trying some ridiculously good fluffy, fat pancakes, stuffed with oil, peanuts and chocolate.  It was almost one am by the time we went our seperate ways from Ivy, our fabulous host for the day.  Our five am wake up for our train to Jogjakarta was going to come way too early!

Tim: When we arrived at the Marriott there was alot of security with steel barriers to keep cars and motor bikes out as well as metal detectors, xray, and 8 or so security personnel. The security was so tight, that they opened the doors to the cab and looked inside the cab as well as the trunk. On our walk in, I asked one of the staff why all they security. They mentioned a bombing in 2004, but assured we were very safe. It was until doing some research later, that I realized that there were also bombings in Jakarta in 2009 and they had occurred at the JW Marriott and the Ritz Carlton across the street. We didn't feel any less safe and enjoyed are stay in the 5-star resort. It was just an interesting coincidence. 

During our first day wondering around trying to get our Myanmar visa in order, there was a huge thunder and lighting storm with torrential rain. We found some cheap umbrellas for 2 USD each and were moving around the streets. The thunder and lighting kept getting closer. There were lighting strikes within a few hundred meters of us. The cracking lighting and thunder was so loud it hurt, and your whole body shook as the sound bounced of the skyscrapers. We were near a mall at the base of a sky scraper. We walked out from under the ledge with our umbrellas when a bolt of lighting lit up the sky and stuck the radio tower on top of the building immediately next to us. The noise was deafening. We were startled to say the least and quickly lowered our lighting rod metal umbrellas and ran back under the covered ledge. This was probably the closest I have seen lighting strikes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Dubai, UAE

Tim: Our flight into Dubai arrived at about 5:00 AM. It took a while to get through passport control. All of the immigration officers were dressed in traditional white robes with white turbans. After loosing 12 USD to an automated ticketing machine that was out of tickets we found a ticket office in the metro and got tickets to the nearest metro to our hotel. We also found out that there was not much recourse for our lost $12.

The first metro did not leave until 6:00 AM so we had to sit around for a few minutes waiting. Once we arrived at the station we did not know exactly where our hotel was and then my cell phone died that had directions. A young man that we ran into outside the metro station said he was staying out the other Sheraton Four Points in town that was close by. We walked to the Sheraton Four Points, Bhur Dubai and they gave us directions to the Sheraton Four Points, Downtown, about 1.5 kilometers away. We decided to walk with our backpacks on. It was early in the morning and the temperature was a pleasant 70 degrees. We arrived at our hotel at about 7:00 AM. They did not have a room that we could check into because the hotel was completely full. After napping in the lobby for a while and finding some breakfast we were able to check into our room at 10:00 AM. The Sheraton Four Points is a very 5-Start Hotel. We stayed four nights for free with our Starwood points that we got for signing up for credit cards. We were exhausted from our nighttime travels and slept until 3:30 in the afternoon.
In the evening we ventured out and found dinner. We visited the Dubai Mall which is the largest in the world. The mall was near the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world which has the largest fountains in the world in front of it. The fountains were magnificent. There were shows every 30 minutes that included middle eastern music. The fountains were made by the same people that made the Belagio fountains in Las Vegas. The Dubai fountains are even more grand and spectacular. We watched three different fountain shows each with different music and design.

Our next day we spent the morning working out in the well-equipped fitness center and afterwards we visited the roof-top swimming pool. The warmest the air temperature gets right now was a pleasant 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In the afternoon we ventured down to Palm Island, the largest man-made island in the world. Apparently, you can see it in space with the naked eye. The island has the new Atlantis Hotel which is superbly designed. For the evening, we had set up an evening dinner cruise on the Dubai Creek. Our vessel was a two-story traditional Dhow. It only costs 15 USD per person after I found a discount offer online. We enjoyed the cruise very much and the buffet food was actually pretty good. This cruise included a live dance performance by a traditional male dancer who just spun around for 10 minutes strait. It was quite entertaining.

Amber:  Who knew that people from Alaska could have such a great time in a desert?  We had so much fun.  We went on a desert safari, which was ridiculous   Basically, we were picked up in a Land Cruiser and took off into the desert to go four-bying across the sand dunes.  The locals have made quite a business out of the event.  There were four wheel drive vehicles everywhere!  Among the organized chaos, our driver managed to not roll, flip or get stuck as we rallied around the desert.  We were close several times, and it was a little nerve racking to see other vehicles stuck, precariously high centered on the top of a steep dune.

Tim loves really tall buildings.  We went to Taipei 101 in Taiwan last year (what was, before the completion of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world) and he was hooked.  We've been wanting to go to the Burj Khalifa ever since.  That, and it looks really cool in MI4. It stands 824 m tall.  It's pretty awesome. So, being as we were in Dubai for a few days, we of course had to go.  We booked our viewing for one pm, giving us enough time for a little work out and pool time before heading towards the tallest building in the world. We rode up a very smooth elevator, and were able to go outside to a viewing deck.  Cool!  Tim was brave enough to actually stick his head outside of the plexi-glass, all I could manage was holding on tight and inching my goes out the bottom gap.  We didn't go to the exact tallest point of the building , but the views were amazing, and the architecture, beautiful.  It was a fun day for sure!

Afterwards, we went to a Couch Surfer meeting and met some wonderful people.  Both Tim and I had some fun conversations with some really interesting people.  Couch Surfers in general are really interested in travel, so we had a lot in common with everyone.  We became known as the "couple form Alaska"... we're kinda big deals, you know.  Ha ha.

Our last day in Dubai we had to check out of our hotel by noon.  But our flight didn't leave until midnight.  So... we checked out after a very lazy morning, and then went up to the gym and worked out for an hour.  Then we went to the roof top pool and lazed around for an hour.  We finally got hungry and mooched a shower in the hotel gym, and went in search of food (this was at four pm) and some form of adventure.  We decided to go check out the Mall of the Emirates.  This is the mall that houses the indoor ski resort in Dubai.  We figured, we were here, we mine as well go see it.  We took a very long subway ride to the mall, and, of course, once we saw the hill, Tim got the itch to go skiing.  We were in flip flops and tee's and thankfully I had opted for pants, and not a dress. It was about $50 each for gear, including lovely matching outfits, and the lift ticket, so we figured it was a must as who knows when we'll be in a desert and be able to go skiing again?  It was really fun to suit up and go boarding, even if it was in a big freezer on man made snow!  We made about ten runs before needing to head to the airport.  It was hardly Alyeska, but the closest to skiing we've been in over a year.  It was so over the top ridiculous, we loved it!