Archive for January, 2013

Unfamiliar Produce and the Joy Thereof

January 28th, 2013 No comments

Last week we had a Balinese cooking class and, as is par for that sort of thing, it included a tour around the local market.  This is such a good thing to get in early during a stint spent in a foreign culture, as it trains your eyes (at least partly) to recognize food as actually delicious and edible.

This seems like an odd thing that shouldn’t really be necessary, but hear me out.  Yep, food is food, and if someone’s selling it in a food market, logically one should be able to perceive it as such and take on faith that “yeah, I could buy this, take it home, make something with it and put the result in my tummy”.  But at least in our experience, that leap of rational understanding seldom happens on its own.

What happens instead is that our eyes lock immediately onto (or desperately seek) food that we already know and can recognize.  And that’s what we buy.  Everything else is reduced (by our all-too-quickly discerning brains) to visual clutter which must be sifted through, obstacles as it were to get to the [apparently little] actual food is present.  It’s a trick of perception, and an insidious one at that.  In a sufficiently foreign place one might think “Ugh, there’s nothing to eat in this country!”1

Luckily we’ve never yet been that disoriented, but we do have countless instances of having delightful treats right under our noses for weeks, before some gentle soul turns us onto the fact and thereby takes one or more items out of the “visual clutter” realm and into the happier land of “hey cool, they’ve got these here and I’m gonna buy some!”

This month our gentle soul was the most jovial Chef Ketut Budi of Payuk Bali, and our easy-to-miss delightful treats included jack fruit2, durian fruit, three types of ginger (two more than I knew to appreciate before), turmeric root, snake beans3, and snake fruit4.

This cooking class felt completely in line with the rest of Bali (as we understand it), which is to say it had an air of charm, beauty and general awesome which permeated every aspect.  The visit to the market was nice, yes, but so was the stop by the gorgeous rice fields, the time spent making the little offerings, the break time for enjoying tea and fried jack fruit dipped in honey, and of course the very hands-on main cooking event.

What was most striking for me about the cooking we did was the never-clearer experience of transforming raw ingredients into elaborate and lavish foods.  Raw IngredientsKetut began by showing off a platter containing no fewer than 16 distinct ingredients, each of which, aside from some which had been dried, could’ve been pulled or picked from around the island and gotten to their ready state with nothing more than a knife.  Nothing imported, nothing requiring elaborate mechanical processing.  To loosely quote Chris Tucker from Friday, “This shit’s from the earth, yo.”

Our main task in the first segment was to chop these ingredients all down to small bits.  We did so using these cool circular cutting boards that were essentially 4-inch thick cuts of tree trunk (to accommodate my height I was given 3 stacked atop one another, leaving me thankfully much less hunched over for the task than I would have otherwise been).

Once our constituent raw ingredients were chopped, we were shown these big ol’ mortar and pestle sets, perhaps 16 inches across and carved from indigenous volcanic rock.  Our chef went down the line and dropped the right combination of ingredients into each of three mortars to make our three sauces, and invited us each to take up a pestle and start grinding things together.

Like magic, grinding up our respective sets of freshly chopped ingredients started to turn things into our respective sauces.  Our essentially dry set of finely chopped veggies turned a thick but unmistakably saucy consistency.  The result was bursting with fresh flavors of the constituent elements, and more than fit for bottling up, slapping on a label, and selling at about a buck an ounce to internationally-curious yuppy types in a fancy suburban grocery store.  (“Oooh, honey, do you think we should try this new Balinese peanut sauce?  It say here it’s made by real tourists, in the outskirts of rural Ubud!”)  Seriously though, if you do see this in your local Whole Foods or wherever, you should totally pick some up.

I wish I could tell you that all 3 of us valiantly managed to grind all our well-chopped bounty of the earth into salable sauce, but the truth is the resident chef’s aides were on hand to relieve our quickly fatiguing selves, politely offering to take over with a clear sub-text that “Look, you’re new here and kinda suck at using a mortar and pestle.  I could leave you to finish the job but you’d take 2 hours, about 60 minutes of which would be you nursing and resting your cramping wrist.”

I gratefully deferred to their technique and musculature, both of which were much better honed than mine for the task.

These three magic sauces served, as is ubiquitously the case in Balinese cuisine, as the basis of flavor for staples like steamed rice, tofu, tempeh, and boiled vegetables, transforming the boring and bland into exquisite and varied.  Our resulting smorgasbord of all vegetarian dishes was tremendously satisfying.

As a consumer of heavily processed and/or imported foods to at least some degree for virtually all of my life, it is remarkable to understand and participate in the process of going from what grows in the ground to a delectable meal in mere hours, with no help from the good people, impressive machinery, or lengthy supply chain of the industrialized food complex.  Heck, drop me on an island of similar climate and natural abundance as Bali with a knife and a few matches in my pocket and I might not starve to death.  If I can find an suitably shaped volcanic rock I might even be eating pretty well after a few days, and have well-toned hands and forearms by the end of the week.

For full on visual coverage of each segment of our well-above par cooking class, Tracy’s got you covered.

Another lovely takeaway from our cooking class was the friendship of Cassie, the other participant joining us for the day.  Cassie is from the US but was vacationing from South Korea, where she’s been teaching English for now three years.  Hanging out with her for drinks one night afforded us the opportunity to learn about life in South Korea, for it has been in our “maybe” pile for the World Tour path for a while now.

“Yeah, all those beautiful, culturally rich things that you see in the tourism promotional material, I’m not sure they exist because I still haven’t found anything like it.  They do a really good job of putting forth a good front.”  Umm… you guys have google and Trip Adviser there to find stuff like that, right?  Yes, given her presence in Bali and upcoming itinerary she’s clearly no slouch about finding things worth seeing in the world, they just have to exist.

Wow, good to know.  Our hypothetical itinerary just got simpler.

Even more interesting is what Cassie could tell us about North Korea.  She’d never been, of course, but living living in such (relatively) close proximity to the troubled nation reveals a steady stream of anecdotes pertaining to the bizzaro situation in which its [essentially] imprisoned people live under.  We learned that a pair of socks is a coveted commodity, a single pair trading for some twenty pounds corn.  A local hero in South Korea came up with a way to float a box full of socks over the boarder using a large balloon, a clever way to send aide when doing so is otherwise basically impossible, thanks to the military standoff.  We learned of the business of mules who will try to smuggle you out of North Korea and on into South Korea, taking the roundabout way of going through China and into Thailand.  If you manage to make it, you walk into the Korean embassy there and they deport you on back–mercifully to South Korea, because you are automatically classified as a refugee.  This service costs something like $10,000 US and comes with no guarantee.

There is no internet, no outside literature or culture5.  For most people the only evidence or reminder that there’s an outside world that’s not as shit-tastic comes from things like flyers raining down alongside air-dropped socks.

The sum of these sketches of life made me wonder how the heck can such a place and situation possibly exist in this day & age.

On a lighter note (and zooming back out to broader first-hand accounts of Korea), it bears mention that Cassie is utterly tired of “Gangnam Style”, which, in South Korea, is endlessly touted as it’s proudest and greatest cultural export since spicy pickled sour kraut.   For the record I’m still enamored with the video, but can appreciate how endlessly in-your-face it must be when you’re living within a 100 mile radius of PSY’s hometown6.

Last night, to further celebrate the independence afforded to us by our motorbike transportation, we made a date night out to the Jazz Cafe, Bali’s first ever live Jazz venue (opened back in 1996, don’cha know).  After having lived 8 years in St. Louis I have a deep and abiding fondness for sitting back and nodding along to the rhythms of top-shelf jazz performances.  This being a small town inland of a small island in the South Pacific Ocean we didn’t go in with any unfairly high hopes, so my goodness we were delighted by what we found.

It was Sunday night, acoustic jazz night.  On stage was just a guy strumming an acoustic guitar and a native looking woman holding a mic, the resident vocalist Nancy Ponto.  They were incredible.  Granted, my reaction may have been because I haven’t been to a good live Jazz show since leaving St. Louis back in 2009.  Nonetheless I immediately thought this woman could stand in for Norah Jones at anytime with minimal ticket holders demanding their money back, and Tracy agreed.  It was one of those “What are you doing here?” moments, as in “Why aren’t you in some fancy recording studio cutting an album?”

The night was pure bliss to my ears, to my soul.  I was designated driver for the night, so while having a glass of Malbec wine like Tracy had would’ve been lovely7 I was more than contented to sip my froufrou tropical fruit cooler out of a tall glass, eyes closes while my ears devoured the brilliantly rendered jazz standards and my body reclined on the swanky and always comfortable lesehan style seating8.  We topped it all off by sharing a chocolate mousse, and agreed that our roughly $20 night out was a most worthy way to pass an evening.

As we continue to rack up experiences outside of our paradisaical situation at home, Bali’s stock just keeps rising.


  1. And then from that assessment you might erroneously conclude that everyone there should already be long dead from starvation, which would be just plain embarrassing.
  2. I originally dubbed these “tree balls” when I first saw them growing back in Nicaragua, ‘cuz again, I’m kinda juvenile.
  3. These are just like regular green beans, just longer and winding.  So you’d think we’d have noticed ’em on our own, but no.  Ugh!
  4. Actually I bought a bag of these just the day before and had already discovered their tastiness.  Same principle, though: someone at a tiny store just up the street from our house in the boonies pointed to it and said (in so many Indonesian words) “Hey, you buy this, they’re good.”  I’m happy to be so highly suggestible in this domain.
  5. Notable exception: Kim Jong Il’s DVD collection.  I hear that guy was just nuts for Hollywood films.  Still, it is presumably hard for average citizenry to get an invite over for movie night.
  6. I wonder how many North Koreans have seen it?  I’m guessing it’s about 100% or 0%, depending on whether it’s celebrated or censored by the regime.  My money’s on 0%, ‘cuz like, if you’re a government official in North Korea, “Fuck South Korea” is probably one of the affirmations you read out loud to yourself in the mirror each morning.
  7. Wine here goes for 90,000 rupiah a glass, or about $9 US.  A pricey indulgence by Bali standards but still a most reasonable one considering we’re on a tropical island hundreds of miles away from the nearest vineyard.
  8. Lesehan style seating is the setup in which a platform about 2 feet off the floor is adorned with small tables that rise maybe 18 inches off the platform, and you sit on cushions that are positioned around the cute little table.  So it’s kinda like you’re sitting Indian style on cushions on the floor, but it’s not because the whole thing is raised, making the whole thing seem more grownup friendly.  Commonly in setups you’ve got part of the platform perimeter against a wall, and thus still more cushions which you can lean back against.  I think they are way more fun than conventional tables, and I dream of someday having a breakfast nook or something with this style of seating.
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On the Left Side of the Road

January 24th, 2013 No comments

Sure enough, as soon as I felt well again it was a very happy living situation.

The nearby Bintang grocery store has a number of items that we’ve taken to be the emblematic staples of Balinese cuisine.  We bought a 5-kilo bag of rice and make daily progress on it (amazingly, it cost less than $4), and Tracy has quickly become masterful at fixing up many variations on the theme of rice (or noodles) plus vegetables plus tofu (or tempeh) plus a base of flavorful elements like garlic, ginger, soy sauce & apple vinegar, and finally topped with freshly chopped cilantro and/or spring onions.

I add my carnitarian twist to this mix by way of the fish fillets that Bintang offers, the tuna and red snapper being my favorite.  Available for under $2 US and perfectly cut like a single serving steak, these easily sear to perfection with a little butter, squeezed-on lime juice, and a few shakes of salt and pepper, completing the meals which feel light, filling, healthy, and very nutritious.

I could get used to this, which is good.  During one of our state-of-the-union pool meetings I began to lobby for two months in Bali, which met with little resistance.  “The way I see it, this place is good enough to merit two months, plus staying a while will give me time to work and replenish the well of travel funds.”

Once back again on my feet the first order of business in adjusting to life in the outskirts of Ubud was to learn to ride the motorbike.  Our landlord Nyoman had me all set up with a motorbike parked right outside our door, and left us helmets and a pancho on the table in our living room.  When I stepped out one day to give riding a try he was right there to give me a little lesson.

Nyoman doesn’t speak much English (Indonesian is much more his forté, really), but he’s got enough to give me a lesson on operation of the motorbike.  I believe the sequence of words uttered were, interlaced between demonstrations, “blinker”, “horn”, “break”, “gas”.  The information-rich (and words-lean) demonstration was capped off with “Don’t panic”, accompanied by a bright smile and thumbs up.

It is with no sarcasm that I say it was a rather confidence inducing lesson.  Seriously: just the basics, none of the over thinking.  Pure presence.

I was ready.

I slowly made my way down the alley walkway and onto our quaint, outskirts street.  I went to the right, so as to enjoy a larger radius for my first motorbike turn.  We’re in a country that drives on the left side of the road here, don’cha know.

To recap: in this moment I’ve never driven a motorbike, I’ve never driven on the left side of the road, and I haven’t driven any sort of vehicle in about 6 months.

Everything seemed to go by so fast, for in this situation my brain was going quite slow.  Everything needed to be run through conscious awareness, so much of what I was experiencing and doing was not yet automated.  So I went super slow, taking it all at my own pace, but then of course having to contend with getting passed a lot more.  I went north a ways, did an about face and then went south a ways.

All I really wanted was to get a little experience without incident.  Have an accident on the first day and I was apt to deem it a bad idea overall, if not for my own lack of faith then perhaps for a most reasonable concern from my beloved over my well being.  Thankfully my 15 or so minutes of riding passed without incident, and I pulled back into our place with an air of triumph.  Not because my riding was particularly studly, but because I’d survived the first experience unscathed.  It was all downhill from here.

A motorbike is a perfect example of the brain’s ability to rapidly learn and condition itself to something very new as an adult.  One round of geriatric-style driving was all it needed to go to work during sleep, and be ready to go the next day.  My second ride was a different experience: it was like time had slowed down considerably from the day before.  By the fruits of offline learning work done in the night, my brain this time had plenty more bandwidth to deal with the (now) somewhat familiar happenings.  Throw in that increased comfort meant going faster meant less getting passed, and you’ve got a nice upward spiral of confidence and ability.

It was like magic.  Brains are awesome.

In the days that followed I took on progressively more difficult situations as I grew into comfort with our new means of transportation.  Open ended cruising around.  Taking the narrow path into town.  Navigating traffic on the main drag.  Going up and down steep, winding hills.  Schlepping groceries over my shoulder.

On about day six I was ready to take the most precious wife cargo.

One of our first field trips together on the bike (aside from groceries, of course) was to the Sacred Monkey Forest.  I think we can all agree that monkeys are, ostensibly, cool and a worthwhile attraction1.  Every country I’ve been in that has indigenous monkeys has some sort of attraction or tour promising to show monkeys.  The thing is, though, most of the time your guide will point to some indiscriminate figure up high in a distant tree and say “Look at the monkey!  Do you see it?”  Umm…. yeah, I guess that’s a monkey.  Alright, cool.

In my experience, best case scenario you’ve got like 3 monkeys whose figures can be made out clearly, at least two of which are taking a nap.

So against this backdrop of mild monkey frustration2, it is hard to overstate my jubilant delight over the literally hundreds of Macaque monkeys milling about and playing throughout the tidy and beautiful Sacred Monkey Forest.  Spanning little more than an acre or two, the forest has enormous ancient trees, beautiful stonework temples and bridges, and a river running through a deep ravine with vine works and stone steps that collectively constitute a platinum-class monkey playground.

And play they do.  All around the forest are piles of yams, yucca root, coconuts and corn to serve as veritable buffets for the inhabitants, and just watching a pudgy Macaque gnaw on a coconut is enough to keep me entertained for 10 minutes, minimum.  They climb, they swing, little ones cling to the underside of mothers, and they all think of you as a more or less interesting distraction from whatever little tedium they experience in their monkey days.

The advice ’round these parts is to not carry any food on your person, for they will take to it in a very forward manner, as if to say “Aw, you brought me a treat!  Here, let me get that for you, no need to make you carry food all the way into my den AND have to get it out from within that zipped compartment, that would be asking too much!  I’ll just be a minute.”  Even without the lure of food, stay stationary enough and they’ll take to your sitting presence as an invitation to use your body as a newly installed climbing fixture.

You bet that I sat idly long enough to take in the experience.

After our jaunt through the Monkey Forest we took lunch at the Pu Nani Warung3 and then tried our hand at negotiating for some Balinese fashion to wear about our swanky villa.  We stopped in one of the many many clothes shops lined upon along the major streets in town, preferring it for the prominence of dresses that were apt to fit both Tracy’s style and (apparently) enormous ribcage (when compared to the cuts of cloth more suited for the locals’ frames).

By now I was fixing to have some traditional garb of my own, and a silk sarong looked mighty comfy.

So Tracy and I went about our parallel tasks of shopping, her picking a dress and me a sarong.  I quickly converged on a royal blue silk one with golden patterns.  Before long Tracy found a nice flowing dress of auburn red patterns on a very light creme color.  When it came to talk price we realized our mistake: because we were shopping in tandem and had both found items we liked, it was harder to negotiate.  There’s a dampened ability to make like you’re going to walk out on the sale when you have concerns of depriving your spouse of the purchase they want to make, so without better-than-average married people ESP that day our tandem negotiation only got us a few bucks off: my $25 sarong came down to $23, and Tracy’s $30 dress came down to $25.

Pricey prices by Bali standards, but still not bad for what we’re used to in the US.

Back at home, the sarong with nothing else has quickly become a preferred outfit.  Cool breezes wafting off the rice terraces, and me rockin’ a 3×6 foot piece of silk wrapped around my waist.  Delightful!

It’s funny how things come full circle.  Back in Madison during college, one of the regulars of the ballroom dance club scene used to wear a sarong all the time.  Between long hair, big nerdy glasses4, and what my 20-year-old self took for a woman’s skirt I thought him rather eccentric.  I was “polite” enough to not say anything, but the thoughts “you’re dressed like a girl”, “you’re a weirdo”, and “don’t stand so close to me” all totally crossed my mind.  (I was a charming example of a human being back then, I know.)

But now?  Holy smokes, sarong guy, you were on to something.  Here in Bali that sort of traditional garb is worn all over the place by the men folk, and there’s nothing effeminate about it.  It’s cool and light, positively agrees with a tropical climate, and these fabric rectangles have no shortage of style in the myriad colors and patterns.  You’d be an oddball to condemn anyone for wearing one in these parts, and I bet on a crowded ballroom dance floor the sarong scores serious points for both thermal comfort and movement freedom.

I find it instructive indeed to see how relative tastes truly are, particularly as they pertain to fashion, and even deeper issues like masculinity and femininity.  It’s freeing to realize the degree to which it’s all made up.

Bali bliss continues to run high.  We should probably begin tending to the visa renewal process soon to up our welcome for another 30 days.


  1. The barrel-full thereof does constitute a standard metric of fun, after all.
  2. Which I presume to be essentially universal among your average, North American monkey-going tourist.
  3. Giggle.  Ahem, “warung” is the word that designates a small shop that serves food.  If you’re hungry in Bali the word to look for on street signage is warung.  Through sheer coincidences in language, some are named more humorously than others.
  4. For the benefit of those who didn’t know me back then, let me lovingly sound the insecure hypocrite alert.
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You Might Say We’re Ballin’ in Bali

January 19th, 2013 No comments

To my mom and anyone else who might not be familiar with colloquial ‘hood: ballin’ is urban speak for “doing really well, specifically pertaining to a certain lavish affluence”.  It derives from the notion of being a baller, which refers to one who transcends urban poverty by making it as a well-payed athlete, say, playing basketball.

The night we got into Bali there was what we perceived to be magic in the air.  In fairness to observable reality, that was probably just the cool breezes wafting over the nearby greenery and the soothing symphony of the insects within, easily audible above the very sparse hum of traffic.

When we awoke to a thermos of rice tea set out on the table of our second floor porch, we saw the beauty of our rural settings more clearly: rice paddies extending in all directions, set against a backdrop of wafting palm trees and buildings adorned by surprisingly ornate carvings and statuary.  As tropical architecture goes it was a beautiful upgrade from the cinder block and corrugated metal rooftop construction seen so prominently around Central America.

This felt like a whole new world, one of mindful attention to detail and beauty woven into all aspects of life, an attention that showed from the temples & compounds spanning decades (centuries?) to the ubiquitous offerings of flowers &  incense laid out several times a day as a devotional practice.  And there are more statues of Buddha, Ganesh, and other spiritual figures and figurines than you can shake a banana leaf at.

Our potentially premature bleary-eyed fascination with Bali turned out to be well justified indeed.  This was a rare instance of neither of us doing really any prep research about a country, and for it I think we were rewarded by the heightened attention to and appreciation of what actually is, rather than a cursory comparison to pre-cultivated expectations of what should be1.  That first morning we decided we should be delighted to spend a month in Bali.

With the aid of the internet and a friendly cab driver named Kadek we set about our quest to find a suitable home for the month.  When you’re white and stepping out of a guest house, drivers know there’s like a 20% chance that yes, you actually do need a taxi, thank you, so the offers in that setup come quickly and regularly.  Grateful am I that Kadek called out to me that second morning when we were about 4 steps out of the guest house, for, left to our own devices, Tracy and I will stubbornly walk everywhere (this is in defiance of the fare dance which usually leaves us feeling screwed).  From the prior day’s research we had a few places in town to go look at, and Kadek explained he was available for hire for 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah per hour, minimum two hours, to take us around town and help us in our quest.

For those not savvy to the conversion rates in Southeast Asia, that’s about $5 an hour for a knowledgeable ally and ride around town.  Sold.  Hey, can you take us some place to get a cell phone?  You can?  And the phone plus SIM card will only cost us $20?  Let’s go!

Three hours later we were spent but had 2 viable places in the winner’s circle.  Our barrage of inquiries about other promising properties found online was much less fruitful, but we did get one thoughtful note back to the tune of “Sorry, my place isn’t available but you might contact my friend Jared, a broker in town who might have something for you.”  We decided to give him a call.

“Ah, I’m just on my way to Denpasar.  But, okay, you’re looking to make a decision today… if you can meet me in 10 minutes there’s a place I can show you before I head out.”  Whether or not Jared was really on his way out of town or if that was just consummate showmanship to create a sense of urgency and excitement, we may never know.  Either way, we went for it.  We left our guest house once more and I handed the phone to the first cab driver who detected our Caucasian, ride-needing presence.  We rendezvoused with Jared at the location hashed out with the driver, and he on his scooter led us out of the city and towards the property.

In Bali there’s a culture of getting around on motorbikes and scooters.  What you mostly see on the road are motorbikes and minivans (all suitable for toting around 4-6 tourists), and the ratio is easily ten to one.  Yes, cars are permitted, but motorbikes rule the road and the automobile drivers are well trained to be aware of their presence.  Tracy and I observed this on day one and, being safety conscious and head-splitting accident averse, resolved that we’d need to get a place close enough to things so that we would be generally set as pedestrians.

But now Jared was taking us far out of the city center, more like the middle of no where, it felt, as the 7 minutes of following him down the rural road ticked on.  “I’m not sure this place is going to work” I said to Tracy, concerned that perhaps we’d wasted the man’s time.

When he finally stopped we got out of our cab, followed him on foot down the narrow alleyway between two family compounds, and through the gates into the house he had to show us.

We’d seen some nice places in our two day quest.  This villa blew them all away.

Bedroom & bath on the first and second floor, very new and modern fixtures, wide open space with vaulted ceiling on the second floor, upstairs terrace overlooking rice paddies, well appointed kitchen, and a pool right in the living room, all enclosed into a private little paradise with lush tropical vegetation serving as a garden for ambiance.  Only photos do it justice.

Perhaps we might reconsider our self-imposed motorbike ban, after all.  To business then, I said to Jared  “Like we mentioned on the phone, $1100 a month is pretty much our splurge price point… what does this go for?”

“$1500 a month, but in Bali everything’s negotiable.  I’ll let the owner know you’re interested, and I won’t show it off for the next 24 hours to give you guys a little time to think about it.  I’ve got one more property to show you, but she’s not picking up right now.  How about we meet tomorrow morning and you can have a look at that one as well?”

On the cab ride back Tracy and I considered Jared’s words about motorbikes: they’re easy to learn, the conditions are safe because people ride slow and cars know to look out, you can rent one for $50 for a month, that we’ll be much happier and more autonomous with our own transportation.

The next day we met at the other property, this one a sprawling estate that had four bedrooms and three (three!) pools, located on different levels fitting the slope of the land down to the river upon which the property was perched.  Jared explained “Here if you guys wanted it I’d only rent you whichever one room you liked, and just not rent the other 3, so you’d have it to yourself.”

Wow.  This castle would’ve felt much too sparse and deserted for just Tracy and I, but darned if I didn’t have a few lovely visions about taking it over for a week or two with some family and/or friends.

“We like the other one, and if $1100 can be done we’ll take it.”  Jared phoned Nyoman, the local who lived right next door and owned the house.  $1200 plus electricity is the offer that came back.  Electricity was apt to be between $50 and $150, depending on how much we ran the AC.  Not too bad, because we’re pretty good about keeping our usage low.  We told Jared we’d think about it, and he zoomed off on his motorbike to go to his next meeting.

We walked along the street from the castle towards our guest house, and perhaps 2 minutes later Jared zoomed back in our direction to say “Just talked to Nyoman again, $1150 plus electric and it’s yours.”  Tracy and I exchanged glances briefly, and then to Jared I nodded “done deal.”

And that was that.  In real estate there’s this concept of moving in (to a place you’ve been shown and like) in your head.  It’s when you start to let excitement grow and attachment build before you’ve actually made a deal.  From a negotiation standpoint, this is a dangerous thing to do, for it makes you less free to walk away and woe is your position if the party you’re negotiating with knows you’re already attached.  We were careful not to mentally move into the villa with a pool in the living room before we we had actually secured it at a workable price2, and so in that moment it was very sweet indeed to finally let ourselves get excited for where we would spend the next month3.

Two hours later we called Kadek to take us to our shiny new digs, dropped off our bags, got the keys, and let ourselves be chaperoned for a proper grocery run by which to stock our fridge and pantry.  After the 2 and a half days of house hunting, we were elated to kick back with confidence that we’d made a perfect landing.

After all that running around on top of our 22 hour day of travel from Australia, things caught up with me and I pretty much immediately came down with a nasty cold which lasted a week.  If I had to be sick, this was a space in which to do it and keep in good spirits.  I was so happy to be where I was I just patiently waited it out.  Every day at some point I would just look around, be struck by the fact that in this moment this is my home, and giggled to myself that we should find (and be allowed to live in) such a place.

I felt like a baller.


  1. Our only real intel on Bali going in was from reading Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago, which was surely our hint to seek out Ubud.  If you haven’t read it already, go ahead, I’ll wait.  Skip the movie with Julia Roberts, though, that’s garbage.  On a plane we stopped watching well before she got to Indonesia, so yeah, we had fresh eyes going in.
  2. It became tricky once thoughts of skinny dipping in the moonlight crossed my mind, but manageable.
  3. I was now free to embrace thoughts of skinny dipping in the moonlight.
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Enchantment Lay Beyond the Pricey Countries

January 9th, 2013 No comments

Evey year on New Year’s Eve, the city of Sydney in its harbor puts on arguably one of the most spectacular fireworks shows that the world has to offer.  Being in Sydney for the occasion presented us with an opportunity.  How could we miss it?

Tash recounted her time of attending the fireworks 2 years ago.  Something like 1.6 million people congregate along the harbor for the show each year.  To get a good view of the show, she and her friends set up on a sidewalk in a neighborhood at 10am, spent the day in the sun drinking from flasks, knocked on a neighborhood house door or two to use the bathroom, and after the show hung out at a bar until about 3am, waiting for the crowds to disperse so they could catch a bus home.

That sounded like a LOT of work just to see a 20 minute fireworks show, even if it was liable to be the greatest display of fireworks we’d ever seen and were ever likely to see.  But then again, we were here, and when would this opportunity ever going to come up again?  And what else were we going to do to make our time in Sydney quite as memorable?  Were we just going to sit sadly at home that night in the suburbs, watching the show on TV even though it was happening just one bus ride away?  How could we call ourselves world travelers if we squander such peak experiences?

So we were on the fence a lot about this one.  What largely settled it for me was when my friend Anne gently paraphrased my own lowbrow profanity right back to me, saying plainly “Well yeah, so stop being such a great big pussy and go see the amazing fireworks show, already.”

Touché.  At about the same time Tracy had similarly come around to the idea, that we should pack a lovely cooler of food to last, get to one of the harbor-side parks at around 11am, while away our time with e-readers, conversation and cards, avoid the sun under cover of umbrellas, and just have a nice picnic day with the bonus of a fireworks show at the end.

So we did just that.  Out the door at 10:10am, we took the 309 downtown, walked 5 minutes, and queued up to enter the park.  It was a winding queue that took about 2 hours to get through, putting us in the park around 1pm.  All the spots with good views of the harbor were taken, but it didn’t really matter: everyone would be standing and crowded into the good vantage points for the actual show anyway1.  We whiled away the day just as planned, and by our training of enjoying idle times with things like layovers and other transit events, it was a well-shaded cinch: hardly the suffering we’d imagined from Tash’s account.

The nine o’clock fireworks were very nice, and indeed the location of our blankets had no bearing upon where we would actually watch the show from.  Afterwards we realized we had two and a half hours to pass before the midnight show, and we were feeling already a bit sleepy.  So we simply napped, spooning all cute-like on our blanket.  Now, I’m not saying that this is a lifestyle habit that I’m looking to cultivate, but man, sleeping in a city park was quite comfortable.

Firework warning shots served as our wake up call.  Refreshed from the nap, we again huddled close into a group of revelers with a passable view through the trees and enjoyed the show.  It was satisfying to think that we had indeed bucked up and gotten ourselves out for the event.  The day was pleasant, it was not hard to pass all that time, and it was neat to think at that moment that I may indeed be watching the greatest fireworks show in all the world this year.

The night finished well.  After the show we packed up and walked on back the way we came, right to the park-side street at which we were dropped off, and what did we find?  A barely loaded 309 bus, just waiting to fill up and take us right back home.  Five minutes later we pulled out, and we were back home by 1am.  The process of getting home after our long day was smooth as silk: no camping out at a bar until 3am required.

My computer surgery ended up a long winded affair.  For one reason or another, I couldn’t overcome the technical hurdles of cloning over the old drive to the new, and so eventually bit the bullet and resigned myself to reinstalling/rebuilding everything on my new hard drive, and copying over the important data piecemeal from the old.  Though it broke my heart to lose those few good productive days, there was simply to manage the situation as it presented itself.

In the interest of good karma and fulfilling on our promise to be Grade-A house sitters, we made certain to leave Tash and Simon with their house in as good a condition as possible.  We stripped & laundered our sheets, tidied the spaces, stocked the fridge with a case of Victoria Bitters, and greeted our hosts’ noontime arrival with a prepared lunch of quiche, salad, and fresh fruit2.  When it was time for us to leave we exchanged fond goodbyes, I let Mustard jump on me and lay doggie slobber on my hands and arms one last time for good measure, and we were off.

Tash had welcomed us to stay with her & Simon for those last two days in Australia, but in the interest of experiencing a speck more than just Sydney during our visit to the continent we declined and opted instead to head for Katoomba, a small town nestled in the Blue Mountains just a pleasant train ride away.  Our time there was pleasant but largely unremarkable, another chance to hike about some great outdoors and spend more than we ever thought possible on mere hostel accommodations.  Given our sparse gear it was better than sleeping out in the bush.

One night for dinner we went to an Indian restaurant.  I ordered a $16 lamb korma and Tracy a $12 daal dish, and I requested rice for our meals, thinking nothing of it.  After a delicious meal we both had a bit left over, and asked for a little rice to go so as to make a great snack for later.  When we were awaiting the bill I said to Tracy “I wonder if the rice is gonna be extra?  What do you think, one or two bucks?  That’d be fine, I guess.  Four bucks and I’m making a scene.”

The universe sometimes, it seems, has a delightful way of calling me out to see me follow through on things I’ve brazenly declared3.  Our bill cost $12 more than I calculated it should.  The reason?  $4 for my rice, $4 for Tracy’s rice, and $4 for our takeout rice.

“Excuse me, but, $4 seems a bit excessive for rice, and why is it not included with our meals?  I don’t recall seeing it as a surcharge listed anywhere on the menu.”  I was told it was on the menu, that people usually don’t ask for rice, or if they do they just ask for a little bit and he charges one or two dollars.  “So wait, you’re telling me that you expect people to order a $16 dish of lamb in a bowl with lots of very flavorful and spicy sauce (it was delicious, by the way), but not order rice?”

“Well, they just order a little, or have naan with it.”

Our waiter, who might have been the owner as well, went off to tend to something else for a minute, mentioning that they had just opened last night and were still ironing out some of the kinks.

“Excuse me,” I called to some guys who had been recently seated at a nearby table, “do you might if I have a look at one of your menus?  Thanks, mate.”  A quick scan revealed no line item for rice, let alone $4 rice.

When our waiter returned I continued about the objectionable state of our check.  “So there is no mention of rice in the menu, and I swear you said it was no problem to get a side of rice with our meals.”

By this point, I’m told, I had the full attention of the dozen or so other patrons in the small dining area.

I continued, “I’m a bit taken aback that our $40 meal has jumped to a $52 meal with something that I can’t imagine you not including with the meals you serve.  Does everyone else here know that their meal will probably run them $4 more than the menu price, or do a lot of people in Australia just eat Indian mains not on a bed or rice?  This feels like a nasty tack on, and had I known you charged $4 for a scoop of rice it would have been a different story, we simply would have not eaten here4.”

While I was oblivious to the attention of the fellow patrons, I reckon our host was not.  Before long I recall the words “I just want to you to happy” being said as precursor to an offer to remove the offending rice charges from our bill, presumably an urgent gesture to rush me out and end the mealtime show.

It felt good to take a stand.  Charging for rice is a pardonable sin, but doing so without getting informed consent is not.  Because I’m either kind or stupid, I effectively nulled out a large chunk of the protest savings by tipping generously.  After dinner we went to the store to get some picnic fodder, and with the adrenaline fading the humor of our dinner bill situation started to creep in.  “Hey, this loaf of bread is kinda pricey, but at least it’s cheaper than rice!”  Everything in the store was either cheaper than rice, more expensive as rice, or about the same price as rice.

So Australia was expensive, and the next phase of World Tour beckoned.  With our strategic reserves of English-speaking white people more than replenished, we were ready to move on to less familiar cultural surroundings.

Our second morning in Katoomba we awoke to a 4am alarm, did our solitary walk in the brisk moonlight back to the train station, and watched the sun rise as we headed back to Sydney.  Our travel day was long: 2 hours to the city, a 4 hour flight to Perth, a 5 hour layover, and then a 3.5 hour flight to Bali.  Bleary eyed, we arrived at around 9:30pm in the Bali airport, did the dance through customs and getting a visa-on-arrival, and grabbed a cab.

We were so very tired when we arrived in Ubud at about 11:20pm (or about 2:20am as far as our bodies were concerned, thanks to timezone traversal).  And yet, Bali had something magical about it that was immediately palpable.  We got settled into a room in a guest house, and I forget who said it to whom but the conversation was something like “Hey I know we just got here and it’s dark and there’s nothing happening, but, I think I love this place.” to which the other quickly agreed, with just as sparse an understanding of why.


  1. We heard banter of folks who arrived at 7am to find all the spots with good views already taken, so no sense beating ourselves up over that one.
  2. Tash was a dear and kept her weekly farmer produce delivery service in tact during our stay.  We honored that thoughtful gesture as best we knew how by letting very little of it go to waste.
  3. This one time I told everyone we’d totally get rid of our stuff and travel the world for, like, a year.
  4. Did I mention I was feeling a bit price sensitive after nearly a month in Australia/New Zealand?  To say nothing of how the unexpected surcharge plus their lack of credit card acceptance would necessitate another visit to an ATM–ugh!
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