Friday, 14 November 2008

Darwin, Australia

Yay here I am in a really English speaking country- you would not believe how good that feels!!!

I arrive here at about 3am and as usual I have not made any bookings for my accommodation! Customs is a nightmare here- they even want to know where you have been walking in your shoes in case you are bringing any dodgy soil into the country, it all seems a little extreme especially as I cannot remember the last time I walked through customs in the UK and it was manned!!!

they have a fantastic little airport shuttle that drops you to the door of your hostel, so I pick one and head there. unfortunately it does not have an all night reception, there is though a nice sign telling me to feel free to take a seat till it opens at 6am. I like this the chairs are comfy and there is a TV, and it saves me having to pay for a bed I wouldn't be getting into till nearly morning.

I really enjoyed my time at this backpackers, there are a group of long term residents here that do work around the place in return for their board and occasionally go out to do seasonal work to get a bit of drink money and to keep on top of their visa requirements. There is a kitchen for cooking your own food, a BBQ to use if you wish, and a swimming pool to cool off in. It has a really friendly party atmosphere.

Darwin is a really small as state capitals go, it it the capital of the Northern Territory. There are four or five main streets crossed by four or five smaller streets, there is one supermarket (Woolworths- how mads that- its like tescos over here!) and a small pedestrianised area for a shopping area. It also has sixteen backpackers and they are nearly all full during the dry season!

It was bombed during World War II by the Japanese and a few year later Cyclone Tracy leveled what was left- about 4 buildings remained standing.

The first place to go out and explore is the town, the harbour and the esplanade which runs right from one side of the town to the other, there is also a beach but it is not used, there is always a danger of a croc having made his way round the coast- they do that you know!!

Its in one of the parks that i came across my first crazy big bird with a big beak- it was just pecking about on the grass- i later learn this is an Ibis!

The main town has a mix of offices, bars and shops, many selling tourist paraphernalia, and plenty that are geared towards the great out doors- these shops look like they have been plucked right out of Americas wild west.

In the middle of the town is Crocasaurous Cove, this is a newly opened reptile house with the biggest residents being the aggressive saltwater crocodile (salties), obviously!! the most famous of these is Burt, who starred alongside Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee!! They also have the largest collection of Australian reptiles in the world. Each reptile has a little card on the tank explaining where they live and what they eat- most read 'Deadly to Humans'.

The crocs are obviously the main attraction, they have a section where you can swim with them. This is not as crazy as it first sounds, the beast will have his own area where he lives and swims, and behind a very tough clear partition is the area for us to swim. The idea is to get in and splash about enough to attract his attention so he comes to investigate. Already he seems bored of this game as no matter how much I splashed about he was not going to waste the energy. And didn't I look stupid, the swim area can also be seen by the people in the centre! Pay a bit extra and you can go in the cage of doom (or some such name) and be lowered into the water of one of the other crocs in a glass tank- its similar to a shark cage and i assume they do it at feeding time else its just a smaller version of the swim area.

Darwin is really a nice place to chill out and no nothing- there is not really a great deal of things to do here, it is more of a jumping point for the great national parks like Kakadu. I did find myself a little worse for wear for drink on a couple of occasions, especially when the backpackers run fancy dress competitions at the local pub and provide free beer!! (Thank you to Chelsea for the loan of a costume)

So my first few days in Darwin are spent chilling out (cause Bali was such a chore!) and waiting for Mark to arrive.

Depensar, Bali

Depensar is the crazy, noisy capital city! I had planned a two night stop over here but I am getting out of here tomorrow it is far too frantic for me!! Not many people who visit the island come here, it is a purely working city and doesn't really accommodate tourists, that is the good thing about being here!

I have had a really good mooch around today and have seen some interesting things. The first thing i stumbled upon was a procession down the main street lots of people and musicians walking in front of or following a huge tower structure, this is a funeral procession. perched in the top of the tower is a coffin, there is a picture of the deceased on the back and hanging off the side is a priest, he is throwing things (rice or holy water i cant see) down onto the crowd. As we approach a cross roads suddenly the men carrying the tower start to move around erratically, they are spinning the tower and running in circles with it and the priest is going frantic with his chanting and throwing, though actually i think he is trying to stay up there! This is apparently done to confuse the spirit of the dead person- from reclaiming the body??
Then as if on cue the musicians and the mourners start up again and the tower makes the rest of its way down the the cremation ground. I did not follow the procession any further than the gates.

On the way back into the main town i passed another two processions heading to the cremation grounds- one was very similar to the one i followed but the other was much simpler, the coffin is carried by pall bearers and there are few mourners. I don't know if today is a special day for the funeral ceremony or if this sort of thing happens every day.

Back in the main are where i am staying there is a huge market on, again i don't know if this is a daily occurrence. Outside the stalls are all set up selling flowers, flower heads and petals for offerings- it looks fantastic, so colourful. Most of the vendors have spread there wares right out into the road and the combination of the heat and dust, the blaring cars, bikes and vendors, and the women moving between the traffic and the stalls with huge parcels balanced on their heads is chaotic and crowded its amazing, really makes you feel like you are in another world.

Inside the market hall its quieter though no less cramped- the entire ground floor is for food, there are barrels filled to the brim with little dried fish and other crazy looking food stuffs i cannot name. Upstairs its clothing and household goods, the vendors in these stalls are quick to spot you and drag you to see what they have.

Away from the markets there is a huge open park, there are many families here with young lads flying kites which is an important pass time here. Along on side of the park is the museum and a temple, as with the other buildings round the rest of the island these are beautifully carved with guardians and decorations.

At the top of the park is a statue of the last three Raj of Badung. Rather than submit to the Dutch in 1906 they set fire to their palaces and made a suicidal Puputan (fight to the death). Dressed in all their fine ceremonial clothes and jewels, leading the other royals, the priests and courtiers, and armed with only their ceremonial swords, they march to meet the dutch guns.

There is more to see here, the other side of the city is where all the big shopping malls are but trying to get over there will be totally suicidal the drivers here are crazy, and the idea of wandering around a shopping mall is not exciting me. I am going to head back to Kuta for a few days tomorrow, get a bit of beach time before my flight to Australia.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Sanur, Bali

I didn't realise there was a festival on when i arrived in Sanur. I managed to catch the last day. It did mean that it took me forever to find somewhere to stay. I ended up booking myself into an expensive homestay with a king size bed, air con, a fridge, hot water (oh joy!) and a bath to put that hot water in. This is sheer luxury and it is costing me about 7 pounds a night!!!

The first thing i did is run myself a hot hot bath (i am not as tanned as i thought!) and set the air conditioning to about 16 degrees (bbrrr)- Fabulous!

When i eventually got myself outside to see whats what a carnival had just started its procession down the main street. There were dancers and musicians in traditional clothing along with floats with giant characters, it was all really noisy and fun. Much like the carnivals we used to have at home the floats were sponsored by local businesses- mostly hotels in this case and some had even got their guests to participate, dressing them up in local costume.

Sanur is another beach resort, but where Kuta is full of loud and drunk surfers and Lovina is quiet and laid back this place is the more expensive end. Lots of big hotels backing onto the white sands.

I only stayed here a couple of nights, and once i had seen the carnival and had some food it was quite late. i had seen most of the beach front are whilst looking for somewhere to stay, so the next day i set out in search of Bali's oldest artifact.

This artifact was very difficult to find, especially as most of the locals seem to be unaware of it. Situated behind a temple, Pura Belanjong, it is a stone column covered with Sanskrit and dated 913 AD. The column stands in a pit of earth and has a glass cabinet on the top so you cannot see the full length of it. It has also been draped with a sarong so only a small portion of the delicate script can be seen.

Lovina, Bali

Lovina is on the opposite side of Bali to Kuta and even Kalibukbuk, the main tourist area is a much much quieter town. Its beaches are a mixture of black and white sand so they look a dirty grey colour and the water is clouded by seaweed but it is still a nice place.

The top attraction here is dolphin watching, so 6am one morning i found myself heading out to sea on a small boat to go find some, and there were loads it was fantastic. Quite a lot of people do the dolphin runs each day so there are lots of boats on the sea. Once a dolphin is spotted the boats jump to life and they are off chasing it down so the passengers can get a better look, horrid as it sounds this does not seem to faze the dolphins as the do leaps by the side of the boats. Once they have finished feeding they all seem en mass to head back out to deeper waters and this is when you realise just how many there were in the water here.

As side from the dolphins seeing the sun rise over Lovina was beautiful and i was quite taken with the glowing blue plankton in the water, it was really pretty.

Going to the Hot Springs up in the hills involves using the public transport (Bemo) for the first time. As i am only going about 8k down a straight road this should be fairly simple, and it does seem to work fine except i was charged double what it would normally cost.

Everyone in Bali is out to relieve you of as much of your money as they can. It is really poor here but even so it does start to grate on you when you are constantly asked to pay more than you would even at home. Everyone has a trick or a scam, even in the 7eleven they will try to skim money- which means telling you the goods come to an amount more than the till reads.

Anyway back to the hot springs. Once dropped at the side of the road it is a motorbike taxi up to the springs them selves. Its pretty here and nicely laid out. The water falls down two tiers through water spouts into pools for swimming. The water is slightly green in colour and smells slightly sulphurous but is not overpowering. There is a third pool where the water falls so heavily that it is like getting a massage.

On the top of the hills not far from the springs in Bali's only Buddhist monastery. The views from here are lovely, the hills on one side and the sea in the distance on the other. This is a strange Buddhist temple as it has many of the same carved guardians as would be found round the Hindu temples.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Ubud, Bali

Eventually i managed to get myself out of Kuta and travelled inland to Ubud, this is the cultural centre of Bali.

Here you can wonder around the old palace. It is laid out more like a compound with open pavilions, one with a large bed in it, another with a throne. Everything is on one level (its not done for the princes to have common people walking above their heads), there are few decorations but the whole thing is still quite pretty and feels calm. Down the road from the palace area the Royal Temple (Pura Marajan Agung) is not open to the public but you can peer through the gates to have a look. Pura Taman Saraswati is the Water Palace, quite a large place with two pools filled with lotus flowers in front of the main temple area.

Public transport in Bali is a bit of a nightmare unless you are travelling out from the capital Depensar to another fair sized town. So to get to see some of the sights outside of Ubud a tour was needed.

Goa Gaja is the Elephant Temple (no elephants) It used to be a hanging temple which meant that it was literally hanging on the side of a steep hill. When the Volcano Batur erupted in 1962 it caused an earthquake which in turn started a mudslide and the temple (along with a Buddhist Temple) was washed down the hill. Lots of the smaller more ornate rubble has been collected and is on display.

There are two large pool here with water features involving ladies with urns. Splashing this water on your face aids fertility. Actually this whole temple is dedicated to fertility and lots of couples come here to pray and meditate. It has to be a joint effort, as making babies is a joint effort! There is a cave at this temple too with a huge carved image of Kata, he it there to ward off evil spirits and is always pictured with his hand ready to catch them! After another couple of temples we went to view Lake Batur at the base of Mount Batur. You can still see the lava paths down the sides of the volcano from when it last erupted.

The last place we took a look at was the rice terraces, these stick out the side of the hills like large ledges and they are constantly in use. There is some story of a farmer offering to sacrifice a pig at the end of the harvest if it was a good one. The harvest was good and he didn't have a pig to sacrifice so he planted some more rice meaning he hadn't yet finished with the harvesting!

Ubud is famous for its traditional dances, there are various performances every night. I went to see the Kacak Fire and Trance Dance Pura Batu Karu. It was brilliant. In the Kacak there are a hundred or more men sat round in a circle chanting, singing, swaying, in the middle of the circle, the stage, is an enormous candelabra which provides the only light. The costumes were amazing, the story told was part of the Hindu story Ramayana so we have demon kings and monkey gods and magic weapons!

The Sanghyang is a god-inspired trance dance that protects the society from evil. A man wearing a costume of a grass horse repeatedly dances through a bed of burning coconut shells with bare feet while the rest of the men chant.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Kuta, Bali

I had planned to spent the afternoon on the beach after my surf lesson, but instead i sat outside my room at the losmen waiting for my teeth to set!!

OK with the disasters out the way its time to see stuff. I found the Hard Rock Cafe, Bali and had a drink there for Greg, and visited the memorial to the Bali bombings of 2002 which i found quite beautiful.

There are two nice temples to visit not far from Kuta. I went to Tanah Lot first, this is a sea temple on a rock which is inaccessible at high tide. To get into the temple complex all visitors and locals must be wearing a sarong, including the men. You can rent these at the entrance. The temple itself is on top of the rock and not open to foreigners but if it is low tide you can walk across to the base, where i had a blessing from the priests.

First you have to wash your face in a small stream that flows out of the rock there, then one priest will dab water into your hands from a bowl held by another. You have to pretend to drink this, this is done three times and on the third time you rub the water onto your face and hair. A third priest then stick a few grains of rice to your forehead and the blessing is complete.

Back on the main land you can sit on the cliff top with a beer and watch the sun set behind the temple. this is what most people come to see and its one of the most photographed scenes of Bali and it is gorgeous.

It is believed that if you visit the temple with your partner before your marriage then the marriage will fail, i don't know the reason for this though. The temple itself has mostly been reconstructed as the constant pounding of the waves against the rock inevitably wore it away. It is still an important site for the Balinese though.

The second of the two temples i visited was Uluwatu, another sea temple though this time on a cliff top. Again foreigners are not allowed into the temple itself but can walk around the grounds which a full of statues of gods and mythical beings, so long as they are careful of the monkeys!

The monkeys here are crafty they often steal things and only return them when they are exchanged for food. Some have even been known to dangle their stolen items over the side of the cliff until the food is produced.

I got punched in the nose by a monkey trying to steal my glasses right off my face. The little critter came from out of nowhere and with a flying leap made a grab, fortunately he missed but his little fist slammed into my nose instead- it was quite a shock, it didn't hurt but my nose is still a little sore after the surfing incident. I spent the rest of my time at Uluwatu half blind. This is another good place for sunset.

Just down from the main temple is a naturally formed arch way of rock that juts out into the sea its very pretty and today they had ceremony out there, the walkway was decked out with fronds and woven grasses and millions of offerings. It kind of looks like our harvest festival with corn dollies.

Offerings can be found everywhere over Bali, it is made up of a little packet made from banana leaf and holds a bit of rice and other food stuffs, some flowers and a joss stick. They quite small they fit into the palm of your hand and they are left outside shops and houses, at bends in the road, at junctions, in family and communal temples. As soon as the parcel touches the floor the essence of the offering is absorbed by the gods so the dogs eating them, people treading on them and cars driving over them is not a problem.

Each family will have its own temple compound withing the family compound this is an enclosed area with a few or more decorated columns that honour the gods and their ancestors.

Dogs roam all over the place mostly wild and either ignored or mistreated, as it is believed that they fraternise with evil spirits and this is why they bark all night. Though some people do now keep them as pets.

I spent quite a bit of time down on Kuta beach too, i never did get back on a surfboard but i did get a bit of a tan. I also got so see them filming a couple of episodes of the Australian TV programme Bondi Rescue: Bali, which was interesting.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Kuta, Bali - Surf Lesson

Hey hey I'm in Bali- how fantastic i have been looking forward to arriving here. Not really got any expectations other than its paradise!!!

So keeping true to form i arrive about 12am at Depensar airport which is not actually in Depensar!! It is though only a 15 min taxi ride into Kuta which according to the bible (Lonely Planet) is the place to be as a backpacker. Unfortunately i have arrived during the high season and with nowhere booked to stay, where is the fun in that, it is about 3am before i find anywhere! So that was a good couple of hours wondering from Losmen to Losmen (guesthouses) before i found one with vacancies. I managed to get myself totally lost down the various Gangs (side streets) that run between Poppies I and Poppies II, the main areas for budget accommodation.

Even though it is very early in the morning there are plenty of people about. Kuta is a party town it is to the Australians what the south of Spain is to the British (and i feel i must add they are no better behaved than the Brits!!)

It turns out i have booked myself into a place on Poppies II which as it turns out is the busier of the two streets and requires ear plugs.

The streets are very narrow, just about the width of a car and lined right the way down to the beach with market stalls. It is a friendly place and very quickly the locals get to know your name and where you are from though they will try and herd you into their shop each time they see you. This is of course if you don't get hustled into a side street to have your nails painted or your hair braided!

The beach here in Kuta is lovely, a long stretch of white sands and clear sea, you can walk out into the sea for quite a way and it doesn't get past your knees, but beware the surfers they are everywhere!

So if this is the main pass time i best get myself some lessons. This is really easy to do there are plenty of surf shops dotted amongst the market stalls. I follow the first sign i come to which leads me to Jason and Made, its not actually their sign they have just moved their tour business to this location and are not yet open for business but Jason is quite happy to provide info on the different surf companies. Eventually we decide it would be best if he just took me out himself and make arrangements for the following day.

So with my new board shorts and feeling the part i start my lesson. First off is learning the positioning for paddling a few rules like not placing yourself between the board and the beach (this one is important!) and how to jump up on the board- i am more comfortable with my left foot forward which means the strap will go round my right ankle, this apparently makes me goofy (ha ha yes thank you!!) if i was to have the strap around my left foot i would be normal.

Time to get into the sea. After about half an hour i am getting to grips with the sea and balancing and do actually manage to stand up, no hands- this is great fun!! Time for a quick break and its back in the water my first attempt is not good am unbalanced and fall off, as i wipe the sea from my eyes i am totally unaware i have broken an important rule here, until the surf board smacks me in the face, and i spit my teeth out into my hand.

In case anyone is unaware my front teeth are false i have a bridge which means they are held in place with strips of metal at the back and its these odd looking teeth i am now looking at, actually i am very lucky a wave didn't wash them straight out of my hand stood there like i was, lisping to my surf teacher that i need a dentist!

Jason was very good as soon as he got over his own shock he got me to his dentist which charged only slightly more than the local rates (a lot less than the tourist dentist) and insisted on paying for the repairs. As it wasn't his fault we settled on half each. In a couple of hours my teeth were glued back in place as good as new. Thank god they were false would have been in a right mess had they been real!

No i do not have pics of this incident!