Monday, December 27, 2010

Travelogue Bali: Bali Rides

"In an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser - the medium through which senior diplomats and top Western relief officials often encounter Africa - suspended high above the road and looking out through closed windows, your forehead and underarms comfortably dry, you may learn something about Africa. Traveling in crowded public bus, flesh pressed upon wet, sour flesh, you learn more; and in a 'bush taxi', or 'mammy wagon', where there are not even windows, you learn more still. But it is on the foot that you learn most. You are on the ground, on the same level with Africans rather than looking down at them. You are no longer protected by speed or air-conditioning or thick glass. The sweat pours from you, and you shirt sticks to your body. This is how you learn."
The Ends of The Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy, Robert D. Kaplan


“Apa mbak pernah ke Belitong?”
Belitong... hmm, why does the name sound so familiar? Wait…
“Laskar Pelangi!”, I exclaimed giddily, as if I just answered a question in a quiz show.

She smiled. The person asking was a fifty-something Ibu Kartini, a Javanese settled in Bali, who was wearing a flowery top much like a baju kurung Kedah and kain batik. Besides her was her shy six-years-old granddaughter who barely spoke through our thirty-minute ride together. The three of us were sitting on the rear seat of a bemos; I was on my way back to the airport on the last day of my vacation, and they were off to Kuta beach for some school-holiday fun. It was quite a sight when I looked around at the other passengers: one lady was carrying pots and pans, another was holding a basket full of undergarments (brand new, thank god), and another with fresh vegetables and groceries. From what I read, you can also bring on board a clucking, alive chicken, and no one will question you.

The humble interior of a bemos.

Traveling alone means that you get all the ‘me’ time in the world. It was what I was looking for in the trip, but truth be told, it does get a bit lonely when all you can talk to is your own inner voice. Thus I savored my time on the public transport, especially on a bemos, that rickety old van the locals use to get around. The old ladies especially seemed very fascinated to converse with me when they know that I was traveling alone. I was at first shy, but all it took was one smile, and you’ll discover hospitality like no others. The conversation ranges from family (Ibu Kartini’s just returned from a family wedding at Belitong, hence the conversation), marriage, food and the idea of serumpun between Malaysia-Indonesia, to Siti Nurhaliza, Kris Dayanti, Ashraff and Bunga Cinta Lestari.

There are so many transportation options in Bali. Renting your own car is the best option if you are traveling with family or a group of friends, because after splitting the cost, it is the cheapest and most convenient option. Otherwise, to get to the popular tourist regions like Kuta, Ubud, Lovina and the Nusa Islands, you can depend on the reliable service of the tourist shuttle company, Perama. It is a few times more expensive than taking the bemos, but when you consider the inefficiency of a bemos and how many times you might have to change to get to your destination because there is no direct service, you might as well take the tourist bus.




Take for example my attempt to get to Tanah Lot from the airport. I decided to shoot straight for the famous seaside temple upon arriving in Bali, and I was determined to ride the bemos for the first time (when I first visited Bali two years ago, I only used taxi and Perama bus). The bemos has a fixed route, but you can hop on and hop off anywhere along the way – there is no such thing as a bemos stop. At the end of each loop, the bemos will stop at a bemos terminal, from where they will start the journey all over again. The bemos are also painted according to their route: as example, the Nusa Dua-Kuta-Denpasar bemos are dark blue, and Sanur-Denpasar is dark green. They do not move in a fixed schedule, and sometime the waiting time is a lot longer than the traveling time as the driver wants to have as many passengers as possible.


(Note: The moment you entered with a backpack, or ask the driver “How much…?”, your fee will shoot up. I observed that the locals paid much less than the price quoted to me. It seemed that the drives will inflate the tourist price. You definitely can bargain the price down – I suspect they were trying their luck to get some extra money from a clueless tourist, and there is no reason why a tourist has to pay more - or ask the other passengers how much they are paying, and then pay the same amount)

After changing the bemos three times (Airport- Tegal, Tegal-Ubung, Ubung-Kediri) and two-hours later, I found myself at a roundabout of a small town of Kediri. I was supposed to catch the final bemos from here to get to Tanah Lot, but after waiting for twenty minutes, I decided to start walking. My first bemos lesson: the further you are from the densely populated town, and the later it is in the evening, the less frequent your bemos will be. In this case, it was almost non-existent. What a luck that I arrived in Bali in the midst of Hari Raya Galungan, a festival during which the spirit of the dead ancestors came back to visit their family. The roads were lined with penjors, a curving bamboo and coconut leaves construction, with a small niche for offerings. The temples were busy with prayers, and the procession of beautiful Balinese ladies resplendent in their kebaya carrying offerings on their heads was an attractive sight. But unlucky for me, it also meant that most bemos drivers were on holiday.


The penjors.

I referred to the guide book. It said that I was still 25 minutes away by car to Tanah Lot. Hmm... how long will it take to walk? One hour? Two hours or more, especially with my backpack which heaviness was already digging into my shoulder? It was 3pm and I was convinced that I will make it there by sunset, no matter what!

But suddenly, it started to drizzle. The cloud had turned a threatening grey. Oh oooo.. Dear god, I know I asked for an adventure, but can at least it involved being stranded with a hunky Australian surfer on some isolated beach, under a sunny tropical weather?

I’d walked for two kilometers when a motorcycle stopped besides me. “Ojek, mbak?”, the old uncle asked. So ladies and gentlemen, let me now introduce you to another unique way of traveling in Indonesia – the ojek. When I returned to Kuala Lumpur, I asked my Indonesian colleague to explain the idea of ojek. She basically said wherever you want to go, when the bus or a taxi can’t take you there, an ojek will. It is the last bastion of vehicles that will ensure that you will arrive at your destination, via motorcycle. Motorcyclist will offer you a ride and you pay them. Simple. It is an informal system – almost every time I was walking, there will be a bike slowing down and offering a ride – but one that can also had it’s own station (you can bet a group of men relaxing under the trees are waiting for customers, but I did saw in passing a small warung with a sign ‘ojek station’).

So I asked the uncle how far off is the temple. When he said 12 km, I was all no-way-I-am-going-to-walk-that-far-under-this-weather-and-carrying-this-much-weight. After bargaining the price (I managed to get it down from Rp30,000 to Rp 10,000), I hopped on his bike, and off we went towards Tanah Lot, zipping through the village and some of the most beautiful terraced paddy fields – take that, Julia Roberts and Eat, Pray, Love! It was he who regaled me with stories of Galungan and Kuningan celebrations.



These personal experiences won’t be gained if you did not go out there and mix with the locals. The tourists riding the Perama bus, once onboard, usually kept to themselves. It seemed like the bemos had a power to connect people, even among the rare tourists who are adventurous enough to unravel the intricacy of riding the bemos. I made friends with the only tourist I encountered on a bemos - three daring Spanish girls on a mission to travel around South East Asia. We shared stories of travel experiences to kill time, and at the end, they were comfortable enough to ask my help to bargain for a bemos for their onward journey that they want to exclusively chartered (you can totally do this, chartering a bemo to a specific destination outside of its usual route, provided that the driver is willing to send you there. You will pay higher than the usual fee, but if you were traveling in a group, this is another very cheap option). They spoke to me in English, and I helped to translate into Indonesian for the driver.

But to me the validation of traveling like a local came when another lady, upon hearing my conversation with Ibu Kartini on my final bemos ride to the airport, chirped in, expressing her surprise that the bemos actually passed by the airport: “Waduh, saya yang tinggal di sini pun ngakk tahu yang bisa ke airport dengan bemos. Ambil teksi aja kalau mahu kesana. Bagaimana nih, orang luar pun lebih tahu, malu dehh…”.
Ho yeahhh…


Thursday, December 23, 2010

The One When We Race All Night Long


“Dude, do you think we are on the right track? Macam pelik je jalan ni”

The road that stretched ahead of us was pitched black. We’ve been racing in a night race for the last five hours, but our route thus far had been under the open sky criss-crossing the city, village, palm oil plantation and rice field where we can still see stars and the half-moon shining so brightly above us, assuring us that we were somewhere we should be.

We had passed the last village house ten minutes ago, and the road suddenly got darker as we walked into a jungle-like route. The trees that lined the road were so closely spaced that they hugged each other, and the long branches provided a thick canopy above us that I could no longer see the stars above. When we started, there were a couple of teams behind us, and we could hear their voices, so it was rather comforting. Suddenly, there were none. It was 4 am.

Do you realize that we were practically in the perfect setup of so many horror movies? Pure darkness. Check. Middle of the night. Check. Jungle. Check. Clueless and lost friends with only tiny torchlights to guide them. Check. Hantu Kak Limah? Eh, nasib baik tak de. We even saw a pair of eyes staring back at us (pheww, thank god those were eyes of a cat) and a ‘cow’ darted out of the bush and crossed the road really, really, really fast. I said ‘cow’ because I saw a huge brown body, but Aiman said he thought it was white, then we later realized that whatever it was it had moved quite fast for a cow… oh well, let’s say that we stopped discussing it just like that.

Gambar masa race tak de, sebab gelap dan tak de camera. So, lukis sendiri.


On top of that, I was in pain. The waist was aching as if it had carried a tonne of weight, my hips and calf were poked by needle-like pain, my knees were throbbing. But the cherry on top was the fact that we were unsure of where we were. We might be lost, and I was the one reading the map.

****

I previously refused any invite to participate in a team’s event because I am afraid I will let my teammates down. Despite the fact that I’ve been running regularly, anytime there is a race, the thought that I may crumbled and forced to quit halfway always accompanied me to the starting line. I wouldn’t want to be a burden to the team if I got too tired. When I’m tired I might get cranky too. And you won’t like Cranky Fatma, hehe.

However, considering that my teammates were to be Pa’e and Aiman – two very relax, supportive and cool people I knew, the kind of person who you want to be around you when you are testing your physical limit - I said yes.

*****

Our team was christened “Beauty and the Beasts” (for your information, I was not responsible for the naming. I was not narcissistic enough to call myself ‘Beauty’. Hohoh… eh, wait, perhaps I was one of the Beasts, then? Hmmmm). We started the race at 11 pm on Saturday. We had twelve hours to complete the race, with 39 checkpoints to cover and four maps to be navigated. The total route was about 60 km.

Yeah, a freaking 60 km (we only found this out during the briefing – huh, nampak sangat main belasah je masuk).


All we had was a map with locations of the checkpoints marked, a compass and our torchlight. All we had to do was run and collect as many checkpoints as possible within the time limit.

Map of endless sawah padi (rice field)


Aiman, the strongest one, would run alone to some checkpoints while Pa’e and I would take a shortcut and wait for him at the next checkpoint. Pa’e was our master in strategy. He was the one who had been reading the map all night long, deciding which route to take, leading us from one check point to another. A few times he will take the points himself and let Aiman and I went straight to the next checkpoint so that I can rest while waiting for him. Puas gak nak kejar. Sekaki Pa'e melangkah - berjalan sahaja ye - aku kena berlari untuk catch up, okay. Gila power. No wonder nickname dia Raksasa.

So there we were. I was wobbling along trailing my teammates after picking up the eighteenth check points among the rice field when Pa’e realized that we had been walking far too long to arrived at the next point. Oh ooh, for the first time, we had missed a junction. It was then decided that Pa’e would continue forward, while Aiman and I would retrace our footsteps and collect the checkpoints that we missed, make a loop and enter the main road again. All three of us would meet later where our two routes converged.

As we parted, I hold the map, as Aiman, as strong as he is, is a bit (just a bit... kot. Hehe) clueless when it comes to direction. Ah, that was the first time I was holding the map that night.


Which brought us to the beginning of this post, to that point of utter darkness in the
middle of the jungle. I can’t belief that the only time I was tasked to navigate andread the map, I might have brought the team to the middle of nowhere. I was extremely confident that we did not get into a wrong turn, but how did we end up here? Map salah ke? Hehe. Sooooo embarrassing lohh… if I didn't get us out of this situation, I would have been teased to the end of time on my map-reading skill. Geologist salah baca map? Darn it.

Well, I was sure though that we were heading towards the right direction even though we might not have been on the right road, so we decided then to walk on. All these while I prayed silently that we would see some sort of civilization, or lamps, or fellow racers. Semua ayat lazim, doa makan aku dah habis baca.


After a few false 'hopes' of seeing some lights and houses only to discover that those
were only street lamps and abandoned huts, we saw a junction. And a proper house. And three teams waiting around! People... I see living people!!! They were lost too! Hahaha! See, kawasan itu memang menyesatkan. It was not me.

It turned out that we were a few hundred meters off to where we were supposed to meet Pa’e. We managed to get to the main road that we wanted to, but I still did not know how we got there through that scary jungle road. Oh well, now that the Beauty, Beast 1, and Beast 2 were reunited, we raced on, stopping by at the surau for Subuh prayer, to the finish line.

At the finish line. Senyum lebar, kaki tengah kejang.

In the end, we recovered about 24 checkpoints, and ran and walked across Teluk Intan for 40 km in nine hours before we were stopped around 8 am as time was running out. It was quite disappointing not being able to continue on as I would love to find out how does it feel to run and walk for 60 km (ye lah, dah habis race, memang la cakap macam tu kan, padahal masa lari x habis2 mengomel dalam hati "Why am I doing this?!!!"). A 40 km race was enough though for me to fall asleep on the road in the middle of the kampung while waiting for the van to pick us up in the morning, hahaha. Memang koma terus, okay. By the time we completed the race, it was already more than 24-hours since we last slept, and we had just pushed ourselves to utter exhaustion. The villagers that passed by were certainly perplexed by the scene of a chubby girl sleeping soundly on the asphalt road with two guys guarding around.

It was definitely the most tiring, demanding and physical thing I’ve ever done, but it worth every single sweat and pain that accompanied it. It was astonishing to discover what you can do by pushing the limit. Fighting sleepiness, struggling against the pain, willing myself to continue on… this was so much outside of my comfort zone. But I just gritted my teeth, kept quiet (too quiet I assume. Awal-awal tu seronok giler borak dan nyanyi, tapi bila dah hujung-hujung race, diam tak cakap sepatah pun, heh) and kept the feet moving. I owed it to my teammates definitely - seriously, I could not have asked for better partners-in-crime to share this journey with. It was an honor, guys; I learnt a lot from both of you. You guys are awesomeeeeeeeee!

And we actually won third place!

(okayyyyyy, there were only three teams in our category, hahahahahaha. Whatever la kan. Korang nak kecoh, sila race 40km dulu, okay? Hoho).




Saturday, December 11, 2010

Greetings From Bali!

Hello! I am alive obviously, huhu. I got a few messages along the line 'Wooo, pergi camtu je. X cakap pun'. Sorry eh. Saje nak test, ada ke yang rindu. Ramai rupanya, sweet la :) There are only four people who know exactly when I am going - my sis, my mom, Mrs A and my carpool friend. Well, it has been an interesting trip so far. Details later, but for now enough to say that on day one, I got stranded somewhere because I could not get a transport out of the place, and on day two, I lost my pouch containing all my rupiah and dollar and credit card and bank cards and my passport! That was the most harrowing time, but they were safely returned to me a few hours later. I learn to be extra careful (sepanjang2 travel, x pernah lagi hilang apa2 ok) and I got to meet the beautiful, honest and friendly Balinese people who were so helpful during the incident. Today is day three and everything has been well so far ;p See you guys soon - I am having so much fun, but I do miss you people a lot :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Where To?

By the time you read this, I am thousands of feet in the air, on my way to the gorgeous island of Bali. But as now, my itinerary consisted of only 'Departing KL Thurs 0845, Arriving KL Tues 1745'.

Less than 4 hours before arriving, I still do not have a concrete plan. I have not booked any accomodation. I still can't decide which area to visit. All I know is that in a few hours I'll be arriving at the Denpasar Airport - I have no idea where I am going from there and how to get there.

Looks like this is not just a solo backpacking; this is 'redah jer' backpacking!

With the assessment, work and huha-ing with friends, I barely had time to plan for the trip. I am relying solely on my 'Rough Guide: Bali and Lombok' book, and the printed schedule of Perama bus - those are pretty much my only lifeline for the next six days (you can bet that I am furiously reading the guide book on the plane right now, haha). By the time I touch down, hopefully I've decided on, at least, my first destination.

This might as well be an adventure of a lifetime :)

---------

So I leave you with my current favorite Tata!-I-am-going-travelling-Don't-miss-me song (since people usually put up the song "Leaving on A Jetplane" - booooooosan. And Greg Laswell is awesome - do check out his albums). I am not roaming, but if I find free wifi or internet cafe, I'll try to update on my wellbeing once in a while.
See ya in six days!

The One I Love - Greg Laswell

I'm all packed up now early in the morning
I'll take my leave
I'll bring your words along with me
Maybe one day they will mean something

For now they buzz and crumble down
A little bit too easily
From a time that I am not quite over
What the hell is wrong with me?

I might be gone a little while
I guess we'll see
I gotta make a home outta somewhere
And you're all over this city

And it'll take a flight to figure out
Where I'm gonna finally land
And the time it takes for me get there
I'll be one to start again

And if the plane lifts off
I'll write you a letter to say goodbye
And I will make it long and maybe lie just a little
Tell you that I'm doing fine

Then I'll send it out and let things be
If not for you
For me
and for the time I've spent

Foolishly loving thee