Monday, January 24, 2011

24 Hours and 14 Traffic Jams in Jakarta.

Sister city to Indianapolis; not much more can be said.

Traffic jams even on the sidewalks.

Sama Sama, All the Time-a

Weeks before my departure from LA, my lunch buddy Seth and I decided to try a new Indonesian restaurant in West LA. Curries, rice dishes, banana leaf wrapped meats, the options were endless and I found myself even more excited for my trip to Indonesia in the coming months.
Flash forward 2 months…  I’m sitting at a restaurant in Bali, unenthusiastically eating my sixth meal of mashed potatoes in five days.  I haven’t been to the bathroom in almost a week. Once a favorite pastime, eating is now merely a chore to fill my stomach. I'm becoming increasingly sure that the Indonesian restaurant in LA was serving food from another country. Every time I ask to see the local menu or what the local dishes are, I’m met with the same answer:
Nasi Goreng, Nasi Campur. Fried Noodles, Fried Rice.  
I’ve come to realize Bali is where morbidly obese tourists and 19 year old hooligans with no taste buds come to get trashed on cheap booze and eat from the likes of Burger King, McDonald’s and other artery clogging North American chains. If you want good authentic South East Asian cuisine go somewhere else, it’s slim pickings here.
That being said, I realize we did only visit two out of Indonesia's 14,000 islands, and there were a few good meals during the trip. The first being a steamed vegetable dish called Gado Gado dressed in a peanut sauce, served not in a restaurant, but at our cab driver's home in Senaru, Lombok. The second was a delicious Babi Guling, a slow roasted suckling in Ubud where we met a wonderful Malaysian woman who assured us that there would be many more edible delights in her home country. And the third, well that was Sushi, clearly not an Indonesian dish. Needless to say, after one month in Indonesia and only 3 poops in 4 weeks, we were ready to enter Malaysia and experience what the country had to offer our taste buds.

Our host/cab driver and some of the local kids in Senaru.

Warung Ibu Oka's Special Meat Platter
Counter clockwise from top: Pig Ear Chips, Spicy Pork Salad,
 Blood Sausage,  Shredded Pork with Spicy Chili Sauce.

mama malaysia
She started our love for Malaysia and we don't even remember her name.
We fondly recall our lunch with Mama Malaysia months later.
Photo courtesy of the Michael Slatkin Bali Archives. © 2010

Mt. Rinjani, Piece of Cake

After five days of extremely low-key sun bathing and book reading in Gili Trawajan we found ourselves getting a bit antsy and wanting to do something. "How about a trek," I suggested, "it'll be a tons of fun. Great views, some new faces - a little bit of adventure!" It took a bit of coaxing but finally Yasi agreed to a three day/two night trek up Mt. Rinjani, on Gili's mother island, Lombok.  

Enjoying the warm Gili waters.

I was pumped, and to make sure that we had a day to prepare we decided to head to Senur, a town a few minutes away from the base camp. This avoided having to hike and travel on the same day. After switching rooms because of a curious spider's nest, that's right, spiders nest (who knew?) on the wall by the bed we took a lovely little hike with one of the local guides. He told us a bit about the area and showed us two stunning waterfalls. We had dinner with a Dutch girl named Regula that wished us good luck and then said, "Rinjani was one of the most difficult treks I've ever done... but I'm sure you guys will be fine. Enjoy. Goodnight."

Looking down into the rice fields of Senaru.

What was known as Waterfall #2 in Senaru.

Day One
Waking up with Regula's puzzling comment still ringing in our heads, we laced up the boots (or Keens in Yasi's case) and headed to the trail, excited but a little anxious. I silently prayed that I hadn't put my strong-willed yet rather under-experienced girlfriend in a precarious situation. The weather was beautiful to start but by the first checkpoint, deep in the rain forest, it started to turn. This was about the time that we met the first member of our trekking team. Jose, a good looking, strong-chinned, mid-thirties Spaniard, well experienced in the woods and strongly opinionate when discussing topics such as trail navigation,  politics, food, and whatever else was on your mind. We hiked together for the next four hours until we hit checkpoint three and the rain had turned torrential. Our guide thought it best to make camp because there was good shelter since it appeared like it was going to be a wet night. It was.
Right around dusk was when we met the rest of Mt. Rinjani entourage. Nicola and Slyvian were a late twenties couple from the French side of Belgium on a three week Indonesian holiday. I'd describe them as fit and outdoorsy with a metropolitan sensibility. I suppose our guide didn't know they were going to make it that night because he only packed two two-man tents. As Jose climbed into our tent that night he stated, quite seriously, "I have two rules. No..." and he motioned to his butt and fanned it as he looked for the English word.
"Farting." we yelled in unison, as if playing a game of charades.
"Yes! And no..." this time he squished his face up and snorted like a pig.
"Ahh, yes. None of this!"

It's easy to smile when you've walked a quarter of a kilometer.

The third man in our two person tent. Meet Jose.


Day Two
We awoke to the sound of bananas sautéing, jungle monkeys screeching and the loudest pair of Russian's on this planet. (Side note: The women sounded like a man and the man sounded like he left his testicles at checkpoint two.) That, and a muscle-searing 30 minute ascent to the first ridge aside, our morning was capped with one of the most impressive postcard views I've ever had the privilege of laying my eyes on - the kind of view that constitutes a religious experience.
And then, we descended, and ascended, and descended again. Finally, with our calves on fire, we stopped for a fried rice lunch but not before a quick dip in the mountain's natural hot spring. Our muscles were in serious pain by this point and I began to understand why Regula had left us those parting words. The steamy hot waterfall and bubbling bath did much to lift our spirits and energy. The day was not even half way over and we had already done five hard miles.
Up we went. In came the fog. Down poured the rain. And we climbed, sometimes scrambling on our hands and feet because it was so steep. I would occasionally turn back to check on Yasi and would gaze out into a wall of pure white, like staring at a gallery wall sans the exhibit. At times, I found myself squeezing my eyes closed and then opening them expecting to see a horizon but there was nothing, just a blank canvas.
About three quarters of the way to the next checkpoint we heard crying up ahead. A young French girl was sitting on a rock by her boyfriend balling, her will broke by Rinjani. As we passed by we all encouraged her, quietly knowing she had no other option than up. When we finally reached checkpoint six, the intermediary summit, our group was exhausted and the conversation had stopped hours ago. We set up camp, put on a set of dry clothes and took dinner in the tent. It was around eight p.m. and we were advised to head to bed so that, weather permitting, we could do the final ascent to the summit to catch the sunrise. Physically exhausted, I still couldn't sleep. I kept listening, hoping the rain would subside.

A view into the valley of one of  Indonesia's most active volcanoes.

Feel the burn & lack of oxygen.

Natural hot springs, a hiker's best friend.

The intermediary summit with about 2% visibility.

Day Three
The three a.m. wakeup call was no problem, the sound of rain still hitting the tent was. Our guide said we'd give it another hour and a half but we knew the wait would be in vein. We had a tight timeline and a long climb down, plus there was no way we'd make to the top for sunrise, even if it was a cloudless day. I was bummed. Yasi was actually a bit relieved, and rightfully so. As a first time trekker she had taken a very challenging climb by the balls. Even though she wasn't sure if she'd make the final ascent, apparently, made of a challenging loose volcanic rock, I knew she'd be standing next to me 3726 meters high, breathing in some very fresh air.
Someone upstairs must have been feeling sorry for us because right as we finished breaking down camp the sky opened up and revealed another jaw-dropping view of the landscape, as well as the summit. We snapped some pictures, felt the warm morning sun, and started the hike down. The day remained beautiful and as the pictures show we felt as if we were hobbits romping through a land much larger than us.
We finished our climb with a couple beers and a group picture before hopping on the bus back to the guesthouse. Looking around I could see everyone seemed content and accomplished. Ten minutes and several furious turns later I looked around to see different facial expressions - one, that said, "I think I'm gonna puke!" and she did. There was Yasi, hanging out the window spewing nasi goreng and Coca-Cola out the side of the bus. We stopped the bus and reset. After plowing through an intense three day trek it was the suspension-less Indonesian bus (that looked identical to Scooby's Mystery Machine) that had her begging for mercy. The boat ride back to the beaches of Gili Trawagan was much less eventful. The shower that night however, was epic, exactly like our trek up Mt. Rinjani.

Appendix: It must be noted that while the "trekkers" did carry weight on this trip, we had porters. These men were super-human, carrying roughly 60 pounds of supplies distributed evenly over both shoulders using two woven baskets and a piece of rock-hard bamboo working as the support beam. Ascending and descending a massive mountain like long-horned sheep. They did it all, get this, with freaking flip-flops on. It was a rather humbling site and anytime we were feeling exhausted we'd simply looked over at one of the porters smoking a cigarette as he scrambled up the trail with our dinner on his shoulders and we'd snap out of it quite quickly. Oh, and it would be unfair of me not to mention that these men were also fine backwoods cooks, making us three proper squares a day - a true marvel to bestow.

Not the top, but damn close.

The Shire. Where's Frodo?

Our crew.

Gnarly ass feet. Provided by Yasmine Molavi.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Naz & Mike: Fall Off a Bike

Okay, let's back track a little, to October 8th, 2010. Justin gave you the highlights, but there was one highlight he quite purposefully skipped over. The story of one Nazak Nowtash and Michael Slatkin and their fateful day of Indo scootering, so here goes...

We arrived in Nusa Lembongan, a tiny carless island off the southeast coast of Bali via long tail boat. Our mission: to find Dream Beach. A pristine white sand beach tucked away on the island's southwest coast. We arrived in the early afternoon and rented two scooters from a local man who continuously referred to himself as a "professional". When we asked him to teach us a little about the workings of his rentals he exclaimed, "For me to teach you it would cost extra," because after all he was a "professional".

After a few short spins around the dirt-packed block, Naz and I hopped on the back of Mike and Justin's scooters and we were off. Wind blowing in our hair, feeling like we were straight out of the Motorcycle Diaries when...


Justin and I, who were 20 meters ahead and just out of eyeshot, quickly pulled to a stop when we heard a screeching sound accompanied by honking and more screeching. We followed a few of the local children who were running to the scene of the accident. Apparently, Mike had turned the sandy, pothole-laden corner to come face-to-face with none other than a mini-van, filled to the brim with western tourists whose golden tans had suddenly escaped their faces. Who knew the car-free island had cars!

A pharmacy was located, wounds were dressed and Naz was driven home by a local man whose driving she feared much less. We had some Bintangs and food and discussed how we were going to return the now musical scooter back to the "professional". Luckily, we were able to take the bike back without too much questioning and spent the next hours praying he would not come find us. After all, the island could be circumnavigated in under two hours and there was really no where to hide from him.

I'm glad to say we made it out of Nusa Lembongan alive. The damage minimum, Naz and Mike sporting a few battle wounds that would be excellent for storytelling in the months to come - yet another story, of a group of westerners who came, rented, and wrecked.


Michael Slatkin, bravely dressing his gashes and wounds.
We pray his beautiful ankles did not receive life long damage;
and he'll be back modeling them in no time.

mike nazz
The duo and their battle wounds.

Two Persians, a Jew and an Italian-American walk into a Bar

Or... Highlight Reel: Bali, Week One

I attempted to act like a seasoned traveler; unphased by the bombarding locals as we waited for our longtail boat and drank ice cold Bintangs (The Indo Beer) and ate silly-hot chili corn right off the cob. They used the stalk as a handle – brilliant.

We watched as Naz all but crapped herself as she realized that she would have to brave a walk through extremely rough surf to get onto the angulating public boat.

We enjoyed Nusa Lembongan’s laid back surf beach and I cried from the torment of not riding because of my stupid stinkin’ ankle.

The Americans taught the Persians how to play their own card game. Hokm will never be the same!

We said, “Hello Seminyak’. Hello to a three bedroom luxury villa. Hello to the fully equipped open-air kitchen with adjoining outdoor pool. We said, “Hello and where have you been all our lives?” Mike and Naz said, “Hello? Do we haaaave to leave?”

We went down to the Jimbaran fish market and purchased an ungodly amount of fresh seafood and vegetables, returned to our villa and got our cook on.

The Menu:
• Spicy Baby Squid in Lime Sauce
• Mango Chili Tiger Prawns
• Garlic Sautéed Jack Fruit
• Banana Leaf wrapped Coconut Cream Tuna

Naz got Iced. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about click here)
The setup: Upon returning from the market Mike and I went and got a gift bag and tissue paper from a boutique clothing store and then came back to our villa and explained how we got her a little something but that it was no big deal. Just open it, you’ll see... Naz got Iced.

We cooked for nearly 5 hours. When we finally sat down to eat Naz stood up, went to our outdoor bathroom and threw up. Bali belly, Smirnoff Ice, or the combination – you be the judge?

We took an absolutely bizarre taxi ride to Yeh Gangga, located on the southwest coast of Bali. I couldn’t tell you what makes a better story: the fact our taxi driver was certifiably insane, plus, thought we wanted a ride to India, or; while Lonely Planet described Yeh Gangga as ‘a must see beach in Bali’, it more closely resembles what one might call, an absolute shithole.


We discovered the jaw-dropping beauty of Purah Tanah Lot, a Hindu temple overlooking the ocean.


We all got blessed with holy water by the temple monks. Naz refused.

By this point, we all had fairly extreme cases of Bali Belly. (Even if you’ve never heard of it, you know what it is!) Oh, except for Mike, who later learned that his antibiotic treatment provided a cloak of invisibility against most stomach issues and undesired bowel movements.

As we pulled into Ubud, cultural mecca of Bali, some tight-lipped, silver-haired woman with a Macy’s bag strapped to her shoulder bellowed into our cab, “You should really get out and walk!” I believe the common sentiment in the van was who the HELL are you! We all wanted to Eat her for breakfast, Prayed we would see her again, and would've Loved to inform her that reading a book does not mean you’re a character in one.

We stayed in Nirvana Pension & Gallery, a lovely guesthouse with even lovelier owners and we consequently loved our time spent in Ubud.

We all got the dead skin sucked off our feet by fish. And holy crap did it tickle for the first five minutes.


We adopted a kitten in Ubud and named him Young Jeezy.
Interesting Fact: many of the cats in Southeast Asia have nubby, Pug-like tails. In local culture it is believed that long straight tails are unlucky so cats are preferred when they have short curled tails. It’s also rumored that if they don’t possess this quality they are given it.

While at the Monkey Forest I made great friends with one of the locals. On the contrary, Yas found out that monkeys do not like when you step on their tails. And their mothers hate it even more. Yikes.

We learned that none of us could refuse a good, cheap massage. Mike learned what it was like to get his mammies rubbed by a local man with lady-boy tendancies.

We learned that just because a company calls their sea-barring vessel a fast boat and their advertising grossly over uses the word fast in any and all marketing materials, it still does NOT imply they are required to be prompt. Screw you Sea Marlin.


We discovered that Naz was secretly in love with Mike’s new straw hat and was trying to find a state that would legally let her wed the brimmed beauty.

We learned that Gili Trawangan should really be called Kitty Island and that there were no cars, motors, or dogs allowed on the premises.

Apparently, in the self-governed Gili Islands, the locals enjoy experimenting with not just your garden variety mushroom.

We were delighted to find out that Gili T had a delicious, authentic Italian and Japanese restaurant, wonderful jaffles and phenomenal pastries (most notably their donut balls).

We learned that the island had spectacular snorkeling (and diving) only 15 meters from shore and that if you cruise around at the right time you can swim with sea turtles.


We learned that if you want the best price for your rupiahs you let one Yasmine Molavi negotiate the deal. It must be that Persian blood because she is TOUGH.

We learned that at some point you just have to take the leap and drink the water (ice) or you’ll never have a local cold beverage again. It was well worth the risk.

We now understood that the Indonesians have basically adapted Caribbean culture; they’ve taken dreadlocks, reggae music, and icon Bob Marley as their own.

We know that we had a kick-ass time that first week and decided to extend our Gili Trawagan stay for another 5 days.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Insert coins here.

It’s never occurred to me that as a hi-fructose corn syrup consuming American I should be overtly culture-shocked when traveling in another hemisphere, more over the far-off whimsy of the eastern one. If you think about it, the states are practically a vending machine of human variety. Drop in a couple coins, pick a zip (or in this instance a letter and a number) and who knows what type of ethnically diverse goody will drop down. Nacho Cheese Doritos, Top Ramen, those wannabe french-fry potato sticks, German branded pretzels - it’s shocking really. The point, and I think there is one, is that I wasn’t surprised as much as enamored. After a few weeks in the touristy parts of Bali, I got the overwhelming sense of familiarity, something analogues to Myrtle Beach or Panama City. A large mass of single-minded visitors looking to replicate debaucheries of recent weekends past, but do it on a beach that requires a passport and call it a vacation, or holiday, if you live anywhere outside the US. Sure, step outside the larger cities and you’ll see a scantily dressed man in a sarong: Miami, a large mammal doing the work of a tractor: Amish country, Pennsylvania, or piles of burning, noxious smelling trash: New Jersey, it’s all things I’ve seen, all places I’ve been.

One could argue, with the advent of McDelivery, Indonesia is actually
 more advanced than the burger empire's homeland.

The face of a man who can't tell if this is
 Kuta, Bali or Venice Beach, California.

This was strictly for research purpose only.
We needed to examine how those double-fisting Ozzies carried on.

The Honeymooners

I arrived in Bali at 11pm, two days after my original departure. I was to spend one night in Seminyak, one of Bali’s major cities before Nazak’s arrival. She arrived the next day and we headed off to our first destination Sanur, which according to Lonely Planet, was a great beach city with a vibrant town and waterfront. Here is when I began to doubt Lonely Planet for all their seemingly  great advice. Months earlier after compiling extensive research I had booked us two rooms at Flashback’s Bungalows in Sanur. It was what Lonely Planet described as, “an eco-chic bungalow resort for the flashpacker”. They had highly recommended their rooms, failing to mention that some of them were missing a key feature found in nearly all accommodations, doors.
Naz and I arrived at Flashback’s excited for our first night. We planned to go big; drinks, dinner, maybe even a little dancing. Eager to head out on the town, we quickly dropped off our bags dismissing the oddity that our room was sans doors and headed to dinner. We soon learned Sanur was not the town for us. A bit on the sleepy side and with not many options for going out we headed back to our room to discover our safety deposit box wide open. A little panicked but more so intoxicated from dinner’s drinks we decided that we must’ve accidentally left the box open. It wasn’t until waking up at 4am to find the safety deposit box wide open again that we were quite sure that our door-less room had also been housing a thief for the night.
Luckily nothing was stolen and with our dignity and checkbooks still intact, Naz and I headed for Seminyak in search of Bali’s party island reputation. What we got instead was two grueling hours of walking around in 95% humidity and 35 degree weather in search of accommodations which were all fully booked. We finally managed to find a room, at the 5-star Grand Balisani Suites. Located just north of Seminyak in Kerobokan, the hotel sat in a small rice farming village right by the ocean.
We decided we would spend our much deserved “honeymoon night” there and go back to our backpacker budget the following morning, only this time we would demand rooms with doors. The Balisani Suites had spoiled us and for the remainder of the week Naz and I bounced back and forth between budget accommodations and some of Bali’s best resorts. I soon forgot that Justin wasn’t there to start off the trip, as I was busy working on my tan and enjoying days filled with temples, beaches, monkeys, jaffles*and what amounted to five massages in one week!
Before we knew it, it was time to welcome Mike and Justin to Bali and let the quad-adventures begin…

Still in good spirits, Naz leaving Flashback's Bungalows.

The perfectly manicured grounds of our honeymoon hotel.

The Honeymoon Suite.

Offering baskets called ‘canang sari ' that
Balinese offer to their Gods three times a day.
While most Indonesians are Muslims,
the majority of Balinese are practicing Hindus.

Uluwatu beach, one of Bali's best surfing spots.

On par with the pros, Naz tries surfing at Uluwatu.

A local monk and our tour guide at Puru Luhur Temple in Uluwatu.

One of many mischevious monkeys at Pura Luhur.
Spending their days robbing unsuspecting tourists
of their sunglasses and flip flops only to trade them
 back for snacks.

Intrigued by our browness? One of the many requests we received while in
Bali for photographs to be taken with us.

Naz and I at Dreamland beach,
hours before we scorched ourselves to a crisp.

The famous Jaffle. A tasty pressed egg sandwich/pocket ideal for any meal.