Monday, June 20, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 8: Balinese Massage

March 8, 2011
It rained 5 out of 5 days we stayed in Bali, sometimes even twice a day, to constantly reminding us that we are having a tropical climate. Karachi - my home city - also enjoys the tropical pattern, however, it mostly remains arid here. And when it rains in the metropolis, Karachites starts pondering whether it is a blessing or a nuisance!

Clouds; business as usual
The Natural Laundary
On the other hand, showers are a part of the local life in Bali, as are Gods and monkeys; however, unlike the other two it meddles little into daily routines! Bikers put on silver colored plastic coveralls, whenever it starts drizzling, which are always there in the little store under their seats while pedestrians quickly open up their mini umbrellas. Likewise, the infrastructure is adequately planned; Stormwater system is in place to drain the water quickly into the surrounding sea. Weather also gets better after a downpour with fresh breeze and cooler temperature. Overall, rain acts like a natural laundry after which the island comes out rejuvenated and more magical!

Cure to the Backache
It was the backache, an obvious consequence of biking around the island, which brought us back from the heaven to the earth! That also gave us another reason to try out the generations old cure for physical ailments: the Balinese massage. Our bodies also required an overhaul before we would have started the Malaysian expedition which had to be strenuous, if nothing else!

The Way to Ubud

Journey continues

Going up the hill
Heading to Ubud
Finding an authentic massage based on the ancient techniques of pacifying both the body and the soul, rather than those sprawling rip-offs some of which do more than just the massage, was the main challenge. In our quest for the genuine, we headed to Ubud, island’s cultural center, and a more genuine reflection of the Balinese way of life. The word “Ubud” itself had been derived from the Balinese word “Ubad” which means “medicine” signifying the city’s role in providing with herbal plants and medicines to surrounding regions from centuries.

Easy Excuse
As soon as we joined the road to Ubud, we realized that the half a day trip, and that too including the treatment, is an injustice to this culturally active town. Urooba had been tempted by the enroute jewelry showrooms which specialize in the handcrafted silver ornaments; another reason to spend more time in the town. However, we could not take a sojourn as we had to reach back early to pack our luggage for the early morning flight the next day. Pitiless me!

Gua Gajah
It was a long ride, of more than one hour, during which we had to consult every now and then from locals whether we are going in the right direction. Even then we lost our way and only realized when the road sign told us that we were heading to Gua Gajah, the elephant cave! Luckily, we were not that off track and made it to our destination, i.e. Zen Spa off Hanoman Street, where we had taken a prior appointment.
Asking the right path

Whiffing Like a Botonical Garden
The ambiance was relaxing and cozy; a slow fountain besides the reception was adding to the serenity of the place, rooms were subtle yet clean with windows opening towards fragrant gardens, and above all the staff was humble and all local. The menu listed a host of tempting combinations but as a naïve audience we let the staff chose their favorites. After we finished, Misha also got a complimentary hot water floral bath as a prize for her patience and for making friends with one of the staff! The pleasure ended with a cup of herbal tea after we which we started the return journey whiffing like a botanical garden!

Finally we reached there

Outside of the spa

The Menue; all traditional

I love floral bath!
Something for the Aunt Brigade
That also gave Urooba a clue about the souvenir to take back for the platoon of Misha’s Aunts; Khalaas and Phoppos! So we stopped by at a famous store and the crazy shopping continued until we were left with few pennies of the local currency, just enough for our last dinner in Bali!

50 Means 50,000
Loaded with herbal scrubs, coconut soaps, and the related stuff, we were on our way back to the guesthouse when Urooba spotted a night market displaying local clothes. She made a quick peek and came back really excited that her favorite trouser is going cheap for 50 local bucks. That eventually turned out funny as the shopkeeper refused to sell the trouser for the quoted amount! Actually, in Indonesia vendors usually omit “thousand” to cut it short which created the hilarious situation. Actual price of the trouser was 50,000! And that was still reasonable!!

While packing for the morning flight to Kuala Lumpur we were fancying if we could have a couple of extra nights to enjoy the island up to the Northern coast without knowing that a devastating earthquake and tsunami had to hit the island in the coming days!
Our last dinner in Bali

Thursday, June 16, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 7: Water Sports in Bali

March 7, 2011
By now, Urooba had been enough of those rich cultural experiences! So was I, to be frank! For the change of taste we could not have a better option than to chill-out at Nusa Dua, an East coast beach famous for resorts and water sports.

Water Sports
A trip to the distant atoll is in fact incomplete without having aquatic adventures! So many activities to do; from the sumptuous watercraft to the daring ocean diving. Though these activities may not be as expensive as they would be in other developed parts of the world, however, we could have easily gone bankrupted should we have not observed restraint to the intriguing variety; Parasailing, Jet Ski, Flying Fish, Banana Boat, Glass Bottom, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, so on and so forth!

In Bali, Haggling is a Must
Good for us that Urooba picked up brochures from the airport arrival hall announcing attractive deals for a combination of water activities and sightseeing. That helped us in comparing what Putu, the guesthouse guy, was quoting for the leisure. He tried to throw various combinations to justify the high cost! After all, tourism is the main source of earning for otherwise rustic islanders. However, one of the packaged tours was half the cost of the best of Putu’s offer; what else we needed!

After the breakfast, while Urooba was busy in baby rituals I called up the xxx to book one of the packages. By the time the coupé would have arrived, I made a quick visit to the laundry to collect the refurbished ward robe.

Nusa Dua
Soon we were on our way to Nusa Dua, located on the opposite side of the island. This part of Bali is popular with luxury tourists for a relaxing and sumptuous break. As expected, the prime beach is mostly encroached by multiple star resorts while the remaining patches are demarcated by package operators leaving little space for free waves!

Whats the plan for today?

Driving through Bali roads

An artisitic traffic signal
The car stopped at one of such spots where Rayan welcomed excited us and gave a short briefing. In the meantime, his helper striped us with orange life jackets reassuring that those worn out coats will be our saviors should something go wrong! He looked at us with dire disbelief when we asked one for our little angel! “No! Babies are not allowed and we will be banned by local authorities if we don’t comply”, he yelled in a grim tone. We tried to explain him the self promulgated principle to keep Misha with us wherever we go, but for no use.

Reaching Nusa Dua

The menu
Fun Starts
“This cannot stop us from having fun”, announced the better half, “we will take turns; you go first and I will take care of Misha”, came the orders. “But you are on a package and we cannot give you individual turns”, replied the perplexed guide. “If we are a package than Misha is also a part of it”, was the argument! “I have a wife too”, whispered the poor fellow in my ears; “fine, you start off with Jet Ski individually and then we will see”, the guy started agreeing.

The good omen had yet to come; Misha – otherwise not comfortable with strangers – started making friends with the pleasant Rayan. “I am a father of two kids and know how to make children happy”, he said in an assuring pitch.

Would this really work!?

I want to do Jetski too, please!

Having some fun

Wow!! Thats fast!
Balinese Hospitality
Among four countries we visited, we found Indonesian people the most friendly and hospitable, be it the airport or a roadside vendor. And Rayan was one ready example in support of our observation; easygoing and harmless. The other day when we landed at Ngurah airport, I asked the immigration officer about the telephone facility, he took out his own cell phone and talked to the guesthouse himself to ensure that the guy is waiting for us outside!

Similarly, when we were on our way to Ubud and lost the direction, we took the help from a roadside vendor, who went extra miles and stopped the traffic so that we can take the U-turn! Rayan was also one of those king soles. Taking advantage of this gesture, we decided to drop Misha in his custody to enjoy the remaining games together.

After we came from the exhilarating Banana Boat ride, we noticed both Misha and Rayan were not there! Before all the excitement would have washed away, Rayan emerged trying to pacify furious Misha who got aware of the trick and started crying. “I should charge you for this tough babysitting”, demanded the Rayan with naughty expressions. “We will think about it but at the moment we are hungry”, said Urooba while passifying the young traveler.

Meeting Hassan
Today we had to meet the newlywed Hassan Hazzey, one of the most favorites Couchsurfers of the island who generously helped us planning the Bali part of our trip. I called him around the sunset, after we returned to the guesthouse, and he suggested meeting at the McDonalds of Kuta town.

Party Hard + Pay Less = Kuta
Kuta is the so-called bad part of Bali, the party central of the island; narrow streets flooded with bars and nightclubs. A place equally suited to noisy and drunken Aussies who often got obnoxious and those suicide bombers who got more obnoxious, fortunately less often! The Bali Bombing memorial installed at Paddy’s club still reminded two notorious attacks which took place in 2002 and 2005 by the extremist groups on what they think a place too voluptuous to deserve the wrath of the hell whilst they themselves enjoy whores in the heavens in almost the same setting.

The overcrowded streets of Kuta were just an example what damage tourism can do especially to an underdeveloped destination if inundated by irresponsible travelers who travel so many miles just to party hard and pay less. Not respecting the local culture is not a traveler spirit, in my opinion, while giving importance to values always brings pleasant surprises. That just reminded me an experience from a fellow traveler who encountered “a group of teenagers in skimpy dresses and t-shirts with slogans like – I'm big on a p*g – complaining how unfriendly Zanzibarians are!”

Newly Weds
It started raining again, making difficult for me to make our way through the crammed full roads while Hassan and his wife were waiting for us at the meeting spot where we parked our scooter and shifted to their car. Although it was a long and eventful day already, however, the company of the generous couple was worth the effort. While both the wives were busy in sharing their post nuptial notes, Hassan and I had a prolonged chat about the local life and difference in Pakistani and Indonesian cultures.

The couple belonged to the second generation of Arab descendants which has been assimilated to most of the extent. However, for marriages their families still prefer to stick to Arab progeny, analogous to what Indian migrants practice here in Pakistan. Nuptials are performed with the traditional oomph with conventional Islamic celebrations but not as wasteful as we do over here. Cost of life and average salaries look similar while housing seems to be on the higher side in Pakistan.

The conversation then diverted to Couchsurfing, the bee in Hassan’s bonnet! Like a typical oriental guy, he had to put some restraint to the otherwise causal lifestyle. “We attend CS events, however, less often than I used to attend before we got married” said Hassan. “He used to host strangers but the party is over now!” uttered his wife in a skeptical tone. We share more notes on how to keep CSing while considering our new prerogatives. Hassan is an avid traveler too and together they made it to Hong Kong and Macau for their honeymoon.

It was around midnight that we decided to pause the long chat for another meeting sometime in the near future Inshallah. The long day ended with aan addition of a new friend whom we can trust our lives!
Hassan took us to his favourite restaurant

Art on the display

Having some rice

Monday, June 13, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 6: Kecak-Kecak at Uluwatu Temple and Jimbaran Beach

March 6, 2011
Today, we planned to explore the west coast of the island all the way to its Southern tip till Uluwatu temple. To make most of the sunlight hours, we started the day early.

View Larger Map
World's Cheapest Laundary!
Day before yesterday, while going for Ogoh-Ogoh, we noticed a laundry around the guesthouse. So, after the breakfast, while Urooba was busy in getting Misha ready, I took the bundle to the shop. First thing that surprised me was the price. It was incredibly cheap especially when it involved human labour: < 1 USD for 10 pieces, including the press!
10 pieces in 7,000 rupiyah
This speaks a lot about the disparity; the much talked about gap between rich and poor, and between locals and foreigners. As they say: currency is a store of value, true, but why the size of the store differs from place to place? Imagine a foot scale measuring differently in various places. That will result in a chaos, wouldn’t it?

A Billionaire in Bali!
Till todate, we had been running on Ron's finances, which was obviosuly not part of the deal.  Actually, exchange shops were closed since we arrived in Bali owing to Nyepi. And we avoided those kiosks at the airport arrival lounge which are notorious for their overcharging.

In order to pay back the debt I then visited the nearby franchise of Bali Money Changer, or BMC. Like in any other tourist spot, getting ripped off while exchanging the currency is common; at times due to unfair rates and at other worst times due to frauds. So, a little bit research on this proves quite useful to avoid the bad taste.

Indonesian currency can make you feel like a billionaire! For USD 300, I got more than two and a half million rupiyah! On the flip side, keeping track of all the zeros in your pocket is always a challenge!

Let's Go
Misha and Urooba were ready when I returned rich. Putu had also brought the motorbike back after some maintenance so we hit the road again.
Go as Balinese Go
Fuel Station
The island of Bali is gifted with long stretches of versatile beaches; some suit to wave crashers while others are subtle and secluded. West coast is popular among surfers and swimmers, east coast is a water sports hub, and the North is for people who are more into nature and less into luxuries.

Jimbaran Beach
Hassan, a local Couch Surfer, recommended us Jimbaran beach, a popular spot among surfers and local families! Since the beach was on the way to Uluwatu we clubbed both together and took the Sunset road. With the help of road signs and a simple map we reached our destination easily.
Jimbaran Beach
The clean beach was located in a serene setting; green hills around, a long stretch of white sand seashore, West open for a romantic sunset, and a row of seaside restaurants selling live seafood. Other facilities such as surf boards, beach chairs, and life guards were also adding to the ambiance.
Go green

To Uluwatu
After having enough solar energy we headed further South and took the road up the hill towards the temple. Soon the road left the neighborhood and entered in the pastoral countryside with jungles around. Driving through this long stretch was itself an experience; narrow spiraling track, cool ocean breeze filtering through tall trees, scenic landscape, and the feeling that as if we were going back into time.

Monkey Tricks
To catch Kecak Kecak dance, a folklore tableau, we had to reach Uuwatu before the twilight. The temple is located in extended vicinity with an organized setup. Parking lot was big enough to accommodate the tourist influx, mostly on packaged tours. Although that supposed to be a religious routine, the hefty 140,000 per person (~ USD 20) ticket, on top of the temple entrance fee and parking fee, reflected the commercial aspect behind the ritual.

We made our way to the arena through a patch of a monkey forest, with the help of a guide. Had the guide not been there, I could not escape the shock attempt on my glasses from a naughty mimic! Those creatures were smart enough to surprise visitors by snatching their valuables and then hang their catch high on surrounding trees!!

The overhung stadium was aesthetically situated; facing the Indian Ocean from a height of a few hundred feet! The skyline was changing its colour as it was getting closer to dusk; from sky blue to purple to magenta!
A view of Indian Ocean from Kecak-Kecak stadium

Lights on!!
The drama starts

Low Tone

Among the audience

Why are they making so much noise, Mama?!
In the meantime, the big torch in the middle of the stage had been lit up signifying the start of the show. Subsequently, a group of around 50 men wearing antique Tarzan-like attire entered in the field chanting Kecak-Keack Kecak-Kecak and then settled around the torch continuing their echoic mantra. For the whole hour long tableau the troupe kept on hymning with varying tones as per the demand of the scene until the legendary Prince Rama managed to unshackle his wife with the help of Hanoman (monkey-like Vanara) from the wicked King Ravana!

Growing momentum

The wicked King in green

The drama continues

The abducted Princess

Who is this in yellow?

Catch me if you can!
The Dinner
On our way back, we stopped at Madania Moslem restaurant for dinner, during which heavy rains started, again without warning! However, we managed to reach back home safe and sound.
Madania Moslem Restaurant

The Menu

Tom Yam
Finally, the food is here!

Friday, June 3, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 5: Silence in Bali

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Comparing Singapore and Bali
Though it was our second day in Bali but we can feel the contrast between the modern Singapore and the primitive Bali. A dream combination from a traveler’s perspective; one is as structured as arithmetic while the other is as abstract as an art piece.

Life in Singapore goes with the clock while in Bali people are laid back and easy; the city state is about apartment complexes, skyscrapers, and vivid shopping malls while the isle province consists of traditional houses, peaceful neighborhoods, and green paddy fields; MRT connects the posh atoll while motorbike joins the east coast quickly to the west of the bucolic island; Singaporeans are open minded while Balinese are open hearted; salons are in vogue there and aged old massage is in fashion here; and most importantly, for our pockets, one Singapore dollar worth 67 Pakistani rupees as compared to 100 Indonesian bucks in on one Pakistani rupiah!

The Nyepi Day
Today we decided to stay at home because of the local New Year, i.e. Nyepi. Not that we wanted to keep away from celebrations but, to be frank, we did not have a choice. Balinese New Year is a different ballgame! Nyepi means no sound, no light, and no going out. As per local myths, Balinese would go into hiding on Nyepi to decieve evil spirits, which they had invited themselves through crazy Ogoh Ogoh last evening, so that the island would be spared for the year to come.

This is not just another custom but the law of the land. Break it and you will be in jail! Even the airport closes down for 24 hours!! Balinese are humble unless it comes to keeping their permittivity alive!
 Nyepi Spirit
The "Day of Silence" provides dwellers with an opportunity for the spritual rehabilitation through keeping away from worldly desires for 24 hours. Those who observe strict adherence to the ritual do not even talk during this period in addition to fasting for a day. TV stations and radio channels remain closed while lights are either kept low or turned off. Non-Hindu residents also respect these pacifying mores to show solidarity with their fellow citizens. 

Empty streets amid Nyepi

Raining as usual
No lights, please!

The Guesthouse
It was a total shutdown, more silent than what it would have been in an MQM strike in Karachi! For us, it was a welcome break after four crazy days. So we availed the chance to relax and to have some chat with other travelers. “You were fluky to recover your forgotten luggage so easily”, suggested the frank British Airways airhostess who was sharing the same guesthouse with us. She was referring to our other night gaffe when we came out of the airport without picking our stuff from the luggage belt.

The stewardess further revealed that she had been to Karachi but surprisingly she did not know the country metropolitan belongs to! Smelling our doubt, she clarified that this malfunction is common among in-flight staff as they keep hopping among cities too fast to map them with the corresponding countries! On the other couch, her husband, a big time fan of Ian Botham, was finding it hard to defend England’s recent World Cup defeat against Ireland in front of an Irish guest!

To make up for the Nyepi, Ron – the Australian owner of Dana Guesthouse – not only arranged for a bunch of movies but also offered a complimentary lunch, which he had to cook himself as the staff was off due to Nyepi. The guesthouse is run by a bunch of friendly guys and gals, living in the surrounding neighborhood, including Putu and Krisna. The place is located in a peaceful vicinity with paddy fields around to add to the serenity.  
Ron playing Chef!

Lunch is ready!!
Inviting the Agony of Gods!
In the evening, it turned out to be a full blackout as people were not allowed to make any lighting. We took exception, due to Misha, and energized the tube-light of our room. That was like inviting the agony of Gods! A sin! And within a couple of minutes we could see evil forces knocking at guesthouse’s main gate! It was actually a squad of Pecalang, the community police, who caught us red-handed defying the law! Second time in 2 days when were in a situation.
This picture won "The best photograph of Nyepi" Award :P
Luckily, they were only interested in reprimanding us with a promise not to repeat that. For the rest of the night, we had to take recourse on the dwindling beam of the battery torch!