Saturday, February 27, 2010

Danny, Our Charming Rent-a-Friend

This is Danny. He is as charming as he looks. We met Danny one day as we were trying to find our way to the public market in Yogyakarta (or Jogya, as it is affectionately called by the locals), in eastern Java. We were just leisurely walking down the street, not too concerned about finding the market, when I looked next to me and was greeted by his huge smile. I said to him, "We're looking for the market," because he seemed to be the kind of guy who would be interested in knowing.

He laughed. "I am heading there right now. My mother sells spices there and I am going to help her. You can come with me."

So Danny ended up walking us through the huge market for about an hour. We met his grandmother at the spice section (his mother had already left) and asked him all kinds of questions about Java. Even though he was a transplant from Sumatra about ten years earlier, he knew his stuff. Little did he know, we were actually interviewing him as a potential "rent-a-friend" for the day. This is a technique that Sue employs on all of her trips: she seeks out a local and pays him/her to show her around. This practice has resulted in some of her best overseas experiences.

After an hour with Danny, I turned to Sue and said, "Is Danny our Rent-a-Friend?"

"I think so," she said.

When we brought up the idea to Danny, he laughed. "Yes, I would be happy to take you around. To be honest, I am a tour guide in my spare time..."

One of the things Sue and I wanted to do was to climb Mt. Merapi - an active volcano about a two-hour drive from Jogya - but we had heard what a strenuous hike it was, and that most booked tours began at one a.m. in order to make it to the top by sunrise. Danny told us he knew of an alternative route where we could drive most of the way, walk a few miles (leisurely), camp at the crater, and just wake up to the sunrise. He told us he would take care of all of the food, too. Perfect.

So we met him at his place of work at 8 p.m. - he is a musician at a nightly museum performance of a shadow puppet play depicting the Hindu epic story of The Ramayana - and left for the mountain after the show, at 10 pm, in his friend, Andy's, car. They drove us the magic back way. We set up camp, cooked over an open fire, set up tents under the stars, and woke up to a magnificent sunrise with a view of the entire island of Java. We got this amazing experience for the SAME price as the guided tours we had read about...

OK, well, that is not exactly how it happened. Actually, it happend considerbly different than that. It is a little embarrassing to actually read over what I just wrote down...the promise of a "special back way" - "no strenuous hiking involved" -"sleeping next to the crater" and "for the same price as the tour..." I mean, really... if this was all actually possible, why didn't every tour package offer this same thing?

No, what happened was that when we arrived at the puppet performance, Danny told us that he had made some phone calls and that the road he spoke of had been closed. We couldn't go the back way.

But he could take us the other way.

"You mean, the way with the difficult hike?" I asked.

"No, it's not difficult," he answered.

"What about sleeping at the crater?"

Well, that wasn't possible, either, since we couldn't go "the back way."

"If we leave at 10 and get there at 1, when will we sleep?" I asked.

Danny just looked at me, a bit sheepishly.

"We won't sleep? I clarified.

Danny nodded.

Sue and I pulled away for a private meeting. We should cancel, we said. We couldn't pull an all-nighter, especially if it required us to hike for a good eight hours in the middle of the night. I knew that I, for one, would turn into a monster the next day. And now we were wary of our charming rent-a-friend. But the thing was, we had booked a flight to Bali for that next night, so if we didn't go that night, we would miss out on Mt. Merapi altogether.

We had read that what many people do is stay in the village below Mt. Merapi and sleep in a room in a house, wake up early and hike from there. We asked Danny about this, and he said, "Sure, we can do that. We don't have to start hiking until 3 am anyway, we can get to a good lookout by sunrise."

So we decided to go anyway. We could sleep in the car on the way up, we thought.

When Danny's friend came with his car, they had set up pillows n the back seat for us, and it was actually almost comfortable. A few hours later, we were somewhat aware of making many hairpin, steep turns with a lot of stopping and then hushed yet stressed conversations that, of course, we could not understand.

"Danny has no idea what he is doing. He is making this all up as he goes," Sue said.

And all I could think was, "Crap."

Finally, Danny was waking us up. "OK, you're going to stay in this house and sleep for a few hours." He had found a villager on the road and had secured a room for us. We dragged ourselves out of the car and up into a little room where Sue and I would share a pretty small bed. Sue laid out her rain coat over the sheets, in response to a very bad experience with bed bugs somewhere in Central America a year ago.

Our host showed us to the toilet. We had to take our flashlights and walk over what seemed to be a concrete balance beam to a very rustic squat toilet. Back in bed preparing for three hours of sleep, we were just settling into sleep when a bright light went on outside the door, followed by much loud conversation.

"I can't believe this," I said to Sue. The talking continued for about ten precious minutes that were eating into our three hours of pre-hike sleep. Finally, it stopped. About one minute later, a muted cell phone began to play Celine Dion's "Titanic" song. "I am drawing the line at Celine Dion," I declared, and I was up and out the door. The cell phone music was Andy's, our driver's, who was just wasting time out on the couch in the living area. I guess he wasn't sleepy or something. But when he saw the look on my face, off went his cell phone, and I motioned for him to turn off the bright lights.

Finally, we went to sleep. But I swear it was only ten minutes later that Danny knocked on the door to get us up. Back across the concrete balance beam we went to perform the morning squat exercise. And then we finally started up the mountain - Sue, Me, Danny, and the guide that we were required to hire from the village, Mauri. Straight up. Straight. Up.

"Danny, this is pretty straight up," I said. "Is it like this all the way?"

"No," he said.

But we continued to go: Straight. Up.

About 45 minutes into the hike, Danny let out a little yelp. He was behind (and below) us, and it seemed he had hurt his foot. He continued on for ten more minutes and then said, "I am sorry, I cannot finish. I think I twisted my foot."

So he headed back down, to where we presume he took those comfortable pillows in the car and had himself a nice, long sleep. And we... well, we headed up and up and up behind our gentle mountain guide. We got to the first lookout at about 6 am, after hiking straight up for three hours. It was stunning, and did allow us a view of a string of volcanoes. To get to the crater would take about two more hours. We were pretty sure that Katherine and Alyssa were on the mountain this morning (through email correspondence), and I knew Katherine well enough to know that she would reach the top. So we wanted to see the crater and we wanted to see them, but I was done. Sue talked about going on, but after the stop and some extremely weak coffee made by Mauri, she decided it wasn't in her, either. So we headed back down Mt. Merapi.

Danny and Andy were waiting for us at the bottom. I must admit, I was pretty disgusted by Danny at this point. He was walking with a limp, but it wasn't a consistent limp. And he did not meet us with food at the bottom, either. I asked him about it and he said, "Oh, I thought Mauri had food for you in his backpack." He promised us food and did not deliver; in my book, that is extremely disgusting behavior.

So we ordered the best fried rice on the trip from the woman at a stand at the bottom of the mountain - it had a garlicky fried egg on top - and then asked Danny what was next. He had, after all, told us he would show us around all day (part of how "his trip was better than the booked tours"). But he stammered and made lame suggestions, and didn't come up with anything good. Finally, Mauri suggested that we come to his house in the village. This turned out to be a highlight for us. His wife fixed us ginger lemon tea and we sat in his sparsely furnished house - with only two pictures on the wall, one of his older son and one of his younger son - and then got a tour of his little farm out back. Sue gave him her Seattle Firefighter hat when we left him. He was a true, gentle mountain soul.

But then we were back in the car with Danny and Andy, tired as anything. I'm going to shorten this part of the story and say that, in the end, Sue and I can truly say that we ended up liking Danny. He took us to a local fire department so that Sue could have a look around, took us to eat an amazing lunch at a place where you catch your own fish and they grill it to perfection, and then took us to a hotel near the airport where we could shower and sleep for four hours before heading to Bali.

And we got to hear his story over lunch: Danny had grown up in Sumatra in a very strict Muslim family. At sixteen, he decided to head out on his own to escape the harsh requirements of his father, and he came to Java. He got himself schooled and learned English. He met a down and out traveler from Spain who had all of his money stolen, and since Danny helped him in his time of need, this friend made good on a promise to buy him a ticket to Spain. Danny went to Spain and stayed for six months in order to learn Spanish, and had come back to Java with the intention of becoming a tour guide. He was a natural at it, and earned money quickly. He earned enough money to buy a house.

One May morning in 2006, Danny woke up early. He got up, made breakfast and went outside. That is when the earthquake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale, struck. Danny's house crumbled, along with every other house in his neighborhood. Almost 6,000 died, and an estimated 1.5 people were homeless.

Of course, the government promised to pay 75% of the damage, but Danny has yet to see the money. He still owns the property, and is slowly buying bricks to rebuild his house, so that he and his girlfriend of four years can get married and live there. When we suggested that he was welcome in Seattle any time, he said, "A plane ticket equals many bricks!"

Sue and I had decided that we needed to be really honest with Danny, so near the end of the conversation, we told him that we had really enjoyed meeting him. That he was very charming and gracious, and that he had a lot to offer as a guide. However, we said, he needed to present things acurately to people, not sugarcoat things... no one likes that, we said. People need to know that they will be hiking straight up, then straight down (my leg muscles hurt for three days).

When Danny dropped us off at our napping hotel, he gave us both a hug. "I'm sorry for any mistake I made," he said. And this charmed us...'cuz we're easy.

And, as a post-script, when we met up with Katherine and Alyssa in Bali our last night and were trading a hundred stories between us, we told them about our day and night with Danny.

Katherine got a funny look on her face. "Does he work as a musician for a museum puppet show every night?" she asked.

They had met him, too. He had walked through the market with them as well, and had told them he was heading to Mt. Merapi that night with two foreigners. Of course, that was me and Sue. And he had charmed them. Actually, Danny had confessed to me that the day I asked him where the market was, he was not in the mood to "meet" tourists. "I saw you, but decided it wasn't a good day for me. Then you talked to me!"

So, yeah, we fell for something. But, sometimes, it's not all bad to fall for something. We were looking for a different experience, and we surely got one.

p.s. I turned into a monster the next day, anyway.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bali: The Magical Mystery (Motorbike) Tour

As Sue and I walked down the path in the middle of a procession to make an offering to the manifestation of the Lake Batur God - behind an ornate lion and in front of beating drummers and bell clangers - I asked her if she happened to know anything about Balinese ceremonies concerning manifestations of Lake Gods. "For example," I specified, "if they don't have a hen or a goat to offer, would the manifestation of the Lake God be satisfied with the sacrifice of two American tourists?"

How did we find ourselves in the middle of this procession? The short answer: we were on Day One of our three day motorbike trip through the middle of Bali, up through the Mt. Batur region from Ubud (where Elizabeth Gilbert stays in Eat, Pray Love), and we just stumbled upon it.

The long answer will be explained by backtracking a bit. The reason we saw the preparations for the ceremony at the temple before the procession began was because the temple was right next to a crucial food stop. It had been five hours since breakfast, and Marjie was about to enter into her food coma state. They had ridden for three of those hours, had gotten sidetracked into a meditation ranch for an hour (where, because of lack of guests, they were practically begged to stay for half the price - free yoga and meditation included), had been stopped by Bali police, gotten a tour of a $3,000/per night hotel where the rich and famous would, upon opening day March 1, be helicoptered into this spa hotel by the shores of Lake
Batur, with a striking view of the active volcano steaming beside it. And Sue was not tired nor hungry. In fact, she had just mentioned that she "sure would like to find a road down to the lake, just to touch it and see what it feels like." This suggestion received an eye roll from Marjie and a punchy response, something like, "I would be much more interested in touching the lake if I could eat something first..."

Sue offered Marjie peanuts or a Luna Bar. Not good enough, Marjie replied. "I need something real." Sue, who really wanted to touch that lake, did a scan of the area. "There's a cart over there," she said, and pointed back down the narrow road.

They rode back to the cart and found a little piece of what Marjie considers heaven. It was a gado gado cart...sticky rice that had been steamed in a bamboo package was opened and sliced. Fried tofu and tempe, steamed greens and bamboo sprouts went on top and a peanut sauce was ground right in front of their eyes.

While Marjie calmed her stomach demons, Sue disappeared up the street. Eventually, Marjie followed her, and suddenly they found themselves inside the temple, being invited to put on sarongs and to follow the few hundred villagers to the lake after having grains of rice stuck between their eyes.

After the noisy ten-minute walk down the path, passing rows of corn and red pepper plants and with the steamy lake mixing with the late afternoon sunrays, part of the procession

went up to a platform and part of the procession went down to the lake. We followed our self-appointed guide up; looking down, we saw the villagers circling around a man in a row boat. He wore a long, white robe and his hair was tied in a tidy bun on the top of his head, fastened by a pearl scrunchy.

"Is it their holy man?" I asked Sue.

"It is the holy man," replied our somewhat disturbing, constantly interfering guide, who had just asked to have his picture taken with me, and who had placed his hand firmly on my butt for the shot.

So there the holy man stood in the center of the rowboat, with the hen offering next to him in an airy bamboo cage, when suddenly his hand went up next to his ear. Sue and I gave each other the look you give your traveling partner when you witness the ancient juxtaposed with the modern; the holy man was talking on his cell phone.

"Do you think he may be asking someone high up if perhaps they should lose the hen and replace it with a more meaningful offering?" I suggested. Which is about the time that the holy man looked up, met our eyes on the platform, and gave us a little wave with his free hand. Talk about feeling conspicuous...Sue suggested that we leave the manifestation offering ceremony to the villagers. Our annoying guide followed us up the hill, and disappointingly said that we must pay for the use of the sarong. A small price to pay, I suppose.

Sue was dead set against back-tracking, and even though she had been told a few times that we could not go up over the mountains to reach the northern beaches, she would not take "no" for an answer. She finally found someone who reluctantly told her it could be done (this person looked concerned, though), and up up up we headed -- into the most beatiful scenery we would see on our whole trip. But no beauty was to be had without treachery.

About half way up the mountain, the already narrowly-paved road began to narrow, and narrow... and narrow even more, until it was literally a strip wide enough for a motorbike tire. Soon there was no pavement at all, only huge clumps of red dirt. And then rocks. Lots and lots of rocks. We met lots of villagers coming up and over the

mountain, either on foot, or on real dirt bikes. Let's just say that we, on our 125 scooters and carrying backpacks, were a bit of a shocking sight to them. On and on, up and up, and then down, down, down we headed. Down, with no view of the ocean that we could smell, taste and feel. It was misty, and we were losing the sun. Our hands ached from gripping onto the brakes, and Sue dumped her bike once when it turned on a big rock. She laughed all the way down, but I was keeping quiet - realizing the beauty, but still hoping that we would reach the bottom during daylight. When we finally did catch a view of the Bali Sea through the mist, it was still really, really far away.

We reached sea level at about 7 pm. We had left Ubud at 9. Exhausted and dirty, we figured we would ride along the coast until we spotted a hotel. It would have cold water, only, we figured. And a really uncomfortable bed.

But within minutes of heading west, we both spotted the sign at the same time. It had the words "spa" and "resort" in the title, so we gave each other a hopeful nod and turned down the path. What we found was another slice of heaven. An "executive" room with an ocean-front view, lounges, dining on our own personal deck, and massages by the pool as the sun set. All for $60. We took it, and dove into the pool - dirt most likely rising to the top of the water (but it was dark, so no one could see...)And we enjoyed telling the staff that we had come up and over that mountain, on the road that wasn't even on the map.

"No one will believe that all of these pictures came from one day," said Sue. Nope, it was hard for us to believe, too.

Back to before the lake ceremony, before we reached Lake Batur and decided to "turn down and just see what's down there" (Sue), I want to return to the police pull-over. Before leaving, my friends Steven and Sharon had warned me that if we planned to ride motorbikes, we should take a half day to get international licenses. "If you do get stopped, it could be really bad," Sharon told me. Well, of course, we did not take this advice. And we got stopped about an hour into our trip. By the King of the Road, too.

Officer Budiawan was charming from the get-go (we weren't so sure about his sergeant and other buddy watching from the sidelines), but he let us know that we were in serious doo doo. He went from "I will have to confiscate your bikes for 30 days" to "you will have to pay a big fine" to "well, maybe you can just pay me a little something" to "I don't want your money, go and have a safe trip." I have to give all of the credit to Lieutenant Stangl of the Seattle Fire Department for this. I sat there and listened to her work him, how she complimented him from his boots to his profession, how she gave him the glory that Kings of Roads like him demand. And he loved her muscles. He wanted to know, did she arm-wrestle? Beat people in weight lifting competitions? (I had to answer for her: yes to both.)

"That was incredible," I said to her, later.

"I've worked in the fire department for over 20 years; I know how to massage an ego," she stated.

Yes, she does.

She even got him to take a picture with her, after four refusals. "If we get stopped again, we will just say that Officer Budiawan is our friend."

The next two days brought many more adventures, beauty, and a three hour deluge and lightning storm riding back down through Mt. Batukau, but fortunately, we did not have a need to show the picture of our Officer Friend to any more members of law enforcement.

So, within 10 days, we visited only two of Indonesia's 17,508 islands: Bali and Java. Stay tuned for a few more Indonesia stories - I will probably backtrack to Java for the next one...then bounce back to Bali again. I am embarrassed to admit these things:

1) I thought Bali was a country, rather than an island, up until I bought my ticket to Jakarta
2) The only reason I went to Indonesia was because Katherine found a $70 round trip ticket from HCMC to Jakarta. She and her Montreal friend, Alyssa, and Sue and I, all began and ended our adventure together.

But Indonesia: what a fascinating place...

Saturday, February 06, 2010

When Monkey Boy Grows Up...

When I visit T and T's stand this morning, Monkey Boy is jumping out of his skin. "Maggie, come!" he says, and beckons me back inside the house.

Thanh laughs. "When Monkey Boy grows up, he wants to be the Lion for Tet," she tells me as MB lifts up the heavy costume and puts it over his head. Her mother is sitting on a stool towards the back with a drum. When she begins to beat it, Monkey Boy starts writhing to the beat, making the heavy head go up and down, up and down as their father and the gathering crowd laugh at this tiny little boy controlling this great big huge head.

Monkey Boy always has a lot of energy; however, today he has twice his usual - in contrast to T and T, who are exhausted from selling almost all of their Tet candy stock.

I love this time of year; there's an energy here. People are cleaning, clearing things out, painting and placing flowers outside their homes. Gigantic pink and yellow lanterns line the major streets, along with tigers, to welcome this Chinese Lunar New Year - the Year of the Tiger. The flower markets are open and you see people on motorbikes carrying huge wrapped gift packages filled with liquors, cookies, crackers and other treats.

Today is the day that the Kitchen God is dispatched to heaven to make his report on the moral conduct of the family. I wrote about it last year here:

And since Seattle firefighter Sue is on her way to travel to Indonesia with me for our eleven-day Tet holiday starting on Wednesday, I will direct you back to last year, again, to my very special Tet day experience with Thuy and Thanh:

I am kind of sad to miss this time here, but how can one really be sad when on her way to spend five days in east Java and five days in Bali? I know, it's not right.

Hopefully I will be posting from there. So, for now, happy Year of the Tiger, everyone!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Them Without This?

The morning my dad left Saigon, he said he wished he could lift up the whole neighborhood and move it to Seattle.

That's where my mind goes when I think about leaving here, too.

Sometimes I think about suggesting to T and T that they come back to America with me, but what would they be without their family, their community? So yeah, just lift it all on up and...

When Katherine came back from spending Christmas in Montreal, she was showing Thanh pictures of her neighborhood covered with snow. She pointed out her house, the one at the end of the cul-de-sac. Thanh's only response was, "Where are all the people?"

Exactly. Where are they?


I haven't mentioned yet how much my mom and dad loved Thuy and Thanh, and how much Thuy and Thanh loved them back. Thanh is more of a "mother" person - for a year and a half she has questioned how I could live away from my mother - and she especially loved my mom. Thuy, on the other hand, especially loved my dad. Every weekend now, after asking after my parents, she will look sideways at me and ask, "Does your father remember me? (Does your father miss me?)"

"Yes," I have told her five times now, "my father remembers you." And she gets a little teary.

My mom had a dinner party for her friends last weekend and made pho like Thuy taught her. I told them about it on Saturday, and on Sunday morning, Thanh was so excited to ask me: "Maggie. Your mother. How was dinner?"

Thuy called them "Mum and Daddy." She pronounced daddy "Dad-dee." She usually walked with her arm intertwined with his. And whenever I talked to them when my parents weren't with me, she would ask if he was resting. "Yeah... Dad-dee needs rest," she would say. The way she said it seemed kind of, well, admonishing. I'm certain she disapproved of all of my planned travels and activities for my poor parents.

So despite this connection, my father - when he made this comment about picking up the neighborhood - could not even suggest that they actually move to Seattle. What would they be without THIS? So yeah...

Now you'll understand why it is an understatement to say how surprised I was when Thuy said the following to me last weekend:

"Maggie. I want to move to Seattle. I will open a restaurant."


"Yes. Two years. Then I come back."

This piggy-backed on another surprise I heard from her the last night my family was here: Thuy has been dating someone for almost a year now, and we at the castle have never met him. He is scared to meet us, she keeps telling me. So when we were all out to dinner that last night, Thuy announced that she might marry "Yom" next year. I was dumbfounded at this. So:

"But what about Yom?" I asked her. "You will move to Seattle with him?"

"No. Two years there, I come back to him."

The longer I live here, the less I understand. But, then - go to America, send money home, come back and live better here after a time. I guess. That's how it's supposed to go, right?

So I told Thuy I would check into it, and I will. However, why do I feel like I would be committing some kind of crime if it ever actually happened?

Mom and Dad, it would be a crime, wouldn't it? Them without THIS?