Chapter 32: “This-is-why-we-travel…”

3 06 2013

Sarah will claim that her birthday on a Brazilian ferry was a disaster and that Christmas and New Years in Ethiopia were worse.  Holiday celebrations improved with Ryan’s birthday as well Mother’s Day when Donna got the latest Oprah Magazine.  I cringed at the cost knowing that for the same $9, I could walk down Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road and in 9 minutes get 9 offers for 90 minute massages.  Perhaps Father’s Day needs to come early.

Sarah and Allison, on the back of a pickup - our transport to Aas.

href=””>Sarah and Allison, on the back of a pickup – our transport to Aas.[/

May 30:  If Donna’s 51st birthday was unmemorable, number 52 may be the polar opposite.  We have replaced our missing son, Ryan, with our new traveling best friend, Allison; a family upgrade, according to Sarah.   We find rooms at Meditasi, where the owner, Smiling Buddha, greets you as you walk through the stone gate passing the sign that says:  ‘open til’ we close’.  It’s a no-Internet allowed, quirky backpacker place with a meditation cave, a restaurant with floor pillows rather than chairs, and all bungalows are numbered 7.  We are at the end of a road on Bali’s east coast, in Aas, a tiny unassuming fishing village, which is probably why there are only two other guests; a French woman enjoying the peacefulness as she completes a book, and a Dutch guy who removed his watch last week and insists that we never tell him the time.


A surprise visitor for Donna's birthday...”>A surprise visitor for Donna’s birthday…[/captio

The birthday begins as, after traveling via ferry, bus and motorbike for 2 days, Ryan finds his way to Aas to surprise his Mom.  An hour later, Donna is getting one of those in-budget Balinese massages; 2 hours later she is meditating in the cave; 3 hours later we are chillin’ on those restaurant cushions; 4 hours later we are finishing the birthday cake just baked by Smiling Buddha’s wife; 5 hours later we are dancing under the stars on the black sand beach with Yoman, a local with a guitar, a great voice and an ‘I’ll play-til’-sunrise’ attitude.  And some point later on, as that sun was rising, Donna and I find ourselves awakening on a mattress on our bungalow porch; nice when you consider Sarah had been sharing our room for a few weeks and the only intimacy I have had with Donna since mid-May has been a few sneak peaks as she changes clothes.

It was one of those magical this-is-why-we-travel days where nothing was planned but everything was perfect.

Yet the highlight was dinner.  We laughed as Ryan shared two weeks of without-the-family travel stories; Sarah was equally talkative, feeling carefree as she just finished her last 9th grade exam; Donna was either happy listening to the kids talk or was saving her voice for the late-night beach singing; and for the first time since my birthday, I pulled out the mangled traveler’s cheque, shared the story with Allison, then, with a handy pen, we brought it to conclusion.  For those unfamiliar, read the Prologue.    For Donna and I, it was priceless though somewhat bittersweet.”>To be spent with kids, 10/92.
Done, 5/30/13.[/caption]
June 3:  If you believe Kenny Chesney – “Don’t blink.  100 years goes by faster than you think”, imagine 10 months with your family in 15 countries visiting dozens of villages, towns and cities, and meeting hundreds of travelers and locals.  It’s impractical, perhaps impossible, to share everything, but committed blog readers will now have an appreciation of about 10% of our experiences.  But, at a minimum, you won’t need to ask: ‘how was your trip?’, ‘where did you go?’, and ‘how much is a Balinese massage?’”>Aug. 10, 2012 – Day 1.

[/caption]Our only failure was not finding anyone that would accept that traveler’s cheque.  So while we relax on a few planes as we journey from Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia to Cleveland, Ohio, Donna and I will have plenty of time to prioritize the other places in which we will try to spend that traveler’s cheque.”>May 31, 2013 – Day 294.

[/caption]That’s because the concept that ‘all good things must come to an end’ is nonsense.  Many good things never end and, as for the others, a break is sometimes necessary to remind you how good those things are… So while this is the last chapter, perhaps it’s only the end of Part 1.

It’s the traveler’s irony – the longer one travels, the more one realizes how little they have seen.  So, contrary to popular belief, we have not been everywhere.

But it’s on the list.


Chapter 31: Health

24 05 2013
with a few north Balinese kids...

with a few north Balinese kids…

April 22:  I travel with a personal nurse.  Our medical kit is well stocked.  We have a supply of tapes, gauze pads and bandages though Donna likes to keep things compact so the Band-Aids tend to fit the finger not the foot.  To further save space, she likes to consolidate, so we have an unmarked container filled with Aspirin, Tylenol, Panadol, and Advil.  Thinking about the options is what gives me the headache.  But never understanding the difference between them, I suppose it doesn’t matter which I take.  They all seem to cure the hangover caused by Arak, the Indonesian alcoholic poison.  Another container has a mixture of round blue pills, white oval pills and other tablets with various unreadable numbers.  I made need a laxative but pop a Lomotil, the only anecdote of which is a glass of tap water from India.  But we are now in Indonesia, the land of three rice meals a day.  Perhaps things can be cleared up with that spicy bat.

A trusting father gets a shave in Yogyakarta.  Sarah only charged $2..

A trusting father gets a shave in Yogyakarta. Sarah only charged $2..

At $3 for a box of over-the-counter antibiotics, Donna has a shopper’s oath to never pass up a bargain.  So some of the medicines remain in their original containers.  Though this is far from helpful unless you can read Portuguese, Malay, Hindu, Indonesian or Arabic.  But no matter as my medical expertise says that all antibiotics are the same, and the expiration date is nothing more than a marketing ploy to increase sales – like “rinse and repeat” on shampoo bottles.

We've yet to enter the 'zone'...

We’ve yet to enter the ‘zone’…

We have had little need for that kit but others have benefited from our bag of mystery medicines.   From loud screams, we were awakened early one morning while on the small island of Bunaken.  For the next hour, Donna nursed a British traveler through a miscarriage.  Donna claims otherwise but I’m not convinced she knows whether she administered aspirin from America or antibiotics from Africa, but a few hours later the patient seemed better as she joined us for the communal breakfast.  As I have said, it doesn’t take long to get personal with new friends.

Not that he doesn't like his sister (or temples), but Ryan has a bigger smile in the photo below

Not that he doesn’t like his sister (or temples), but Ryan has a bigger smile in the photo below

Ryan is responsible for carrying the medical kit.  Which means you must be truly desperate to reach into that biohazard area he calls a backpack.  Fortunately, this has rarely been necessary. Other than periodic scrapes from motorbike falls and a few mysterious insect bites, we have had no intestinal issues, no flues, not even a basic cold; in fact, we have remained far healthier on the road than we typically are back home.  And while I needed an MRI in Malawi, Sarah had an EKG in Dubai and Ryan saw two dentists in India, none of us ever needed that Lomotil, which could be far more unpleasant.  We eat raw vegetables and unpeeled fruit; we brush our teeth with tap water; our fresh juices are made with ice. Even hardcore travelers admit we have beaten the odds.  Then again, as a statistics guy I can tell you with 90% certainty that staying healthy is 80% mental.  It’s Mike’s Medical Mantra.  Don’t worry and you will remain healthy; stress over every meal and be doomed to days of dysentery. We have eaten well; we are very active; we feel great; Donna and the kids look terrific.  Physically, we couldn’t be better. Mentally, well…

“Traveling is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life”.

–Paul Theroux

I suppose we crossed the line about six weeks into the journey.  Repacking every other day, arranging transport, getting a place to stay – it was just part of the daily commute. Learning about a new town, meeting new people, finding food – it was part of daily life.  And some of us would gladly continue this lifestyle while others, perhaps, are eager to return.  Though as June 7 quickly approaches, I see that eagerness beginning to fade and a genuine sense of appreciation for the life we now lead.  I think it will be missed though it’s unlikely the kids will provide us with the satisfaction by admitting so.  But I’m good with that.


Java transport.

Java transport.

May 10:  Our time on the predominantly Muslim island of Java was nice but hardly idyllic as it’s not your Southeast Asia tropical paradise. It may be an island, but it’s an island with 100 million people, each of whom owns a vehicle. During a 10-hour Sulawesi bus ride we would hardy see other vehicles.  A 10-hour Java bus ride means 10 hours of traffic. But it gives you an opportunity to see family life as the Dad drives the motorbike while smoking, mom is in the back texting, and their toddler is in the middle holding the market purchased vegetables.  No wonder that, despite the traffic, you rarely hear a horn – all hands are preoccupied.

Gift potential for Donna's birthday...

Gift potential for Donna’s birthday…

Mornings in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of Java, come early.  Regardless of accommodation, roosters awoke us at 4am, which prepared us for the Muslims as their 5am call to Allah insured we never returned to sleep.  So we get a good start on most days and we see the guidebook-recommended sites, most of which are rather dull. But sometimes guidebooks give bad guidance.  Better to stroll along the Malioboro thoroughfare and watch the bicycle rickshaw touts get their fares, or enjoy some harmless banter bargaining at one of the markets.  Then head to the nightly food stalls, find an empty mat and simply point to what all the Indonesians are eating.  Later on, find the pubs where the locals are enjoying the live music.  Beers are cheap; food cheaper; conversation free – yet most rewarding.

Successfully getting lost in Borubodur

Successfully getting lost in Borubodur

And there were other highlights.  In Borobudur, we motor biked through villages and terraced rice paddies, where it took us 30 minutes to get lost and 3 hours to find our way back, which, ironically, was exactly what we were looking for.  Borobudur has the largest Buddhist temple in the world and we enjoyed our time there from 6-7am.  After which, hundreds of local children arrive in their school uniforms with their laminated instructions on how to practice their English with the tourists but no guidance on how to handle Donna, who by now was surrounded and had been awake for almost two hours without any coffee.

Jamal and our ride to the bus station

Jamal and our ride to the bus station

We spent hours as the only customers having lunch and dinner at the Meli Warung while chatting with the owner, Nadia, a beautiful Indonesian from the Moluccan Islands.  Throughout Java, whether eating the veggie gado-gado or chicken satays, they all come with a tangy peanut sauce as, apparently, the American peanut allergy fad has yet to catch on.  At Nadia’s suggestion, we tracked down Jamal; quite a character with his big smile, hearty laugh, permanently affixed wool cap and his hand-built Mad Max 3-wheeled vehicle, which was our only ride to the bus station.

With Simon. Donna wants this to be her new Facebook profile photo.

With Simon. Donna wants this to be her new Facebook profile photo.

While staying in Cemara Lawang, we took motorcycles to the base of Mt. Bromo and hiked to the rim of an active volcano.  At 3am the next morning I awake to see Donna heading out to find a ride to the top of a nearby mountain for the 6am sunrise.  Not sure if her favorite photo was of her and that sunrise or of her and Simon, another traveler and, clearly, Donna’s 26-year-old Swiss crush.  I found it humorous the following day as Donna and Sarah tried to subtlety organize bus seats such that they could each sit next to him.  It’s like I’m traveling with two teenager daughters.



On the rim of active Mt. Bromo.  A bit warm down there...

On the rim of active Mt. Bromo. A bit warm down there…

But what I am not traveling with is a teenage son.  Ryan left us 7 days ago for a few weeks of solo travel, though he is hardly traveling solo.  Before parting ways at the end of a 12-hour marathon bus journey, he had already connected with Lisa, a friendly and cute 24-year-old from France who, other than French and English, speaks German and Spanish.  But I doubt foreign language studies was on the agenda as they were ultimately heading to the Gili Islands for some fun the in the sun with the 20 and 30-something backpacker crowd.  Ryan and I spoke the other night and he made no promises as to when we would reconnect.  Like I said, some are going to miss this lifestyle…

One of the joys of Indonesia is that you can spend weeks in Catholic towns on Sulawesi, visit Buddhist temples on Java, then travel to the Hindu island of Bali, all in the largest Muslim country in the world.  It’s like a mini religious United Nation.  And that’s where Donna, Sarah and I are now – beautiful Bali.

Not sure if the smile is because Ryan is on the ferry to Bali with a group of local hipsters or because he is an hour away from traveling without the family.

Not sure if the smile is because Ryan is on the ferry to Bali with a group of local hipsters or because he is an hour away from traveling without the family.

After various stops along the way, we have based ourselves in central Ubud where Sarah can complete her paper on the sinking of the Titanic, finish her project on African health issues and take final exams Geometry, Spanish and World History as she finishes her Freshman year with excellent grades; a monumental result given the challenges along the way.  It has also given us time to really explore a town without focusing on how we are getting out of town.  We negotiate with various shop owners; we bike ride through neighboring villages; we battle hundreds of aggressive monkeys that populate the many Hindu temples; we chat with the owner of our guesthouse as he delivers banana pancake breakfasts to our porch.  And, the three of us have committed to daily yoga/meditation at Ubud’s Yoga Barn.

Harvesting rice pays just a bit more than nothing, but this is a common sight

Harvesting rice pays just a bit more than nothing, but this is a common sight

Yoga – it really doesn’t matter if it’s Hatha, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Iyengar, Vinyasa, or Ying Yang Yoga, it’s a great physical and mental workout.  And that’s not the only commonality.  Instructors insist that you ‘listen to your body’ which is difficult when instructors talk nonstop for 90 minutes.  But as far as I am concerned, Malika can talk as long as she wants…  And students in Ubud take Yoga quite seriously – no Lululemon wearing, latte Starbucks sippers gossiping before class.   Never thought this would happen but I think I’m hooked as I’ve gone four straight days; Sarah went twice yesterday and says she is better focused with schoolwork afterwards; Donna attended the Tibetan Bowl Meditation despite my recommendation that she participate in Ecstatic Dance or Tantric Sexuality.  Clearly we need to stay longer.


 The reward for an uphill 2 hour climb.  Stumbling upon a waterfall with no one else there.

The reward for an uphill 2 hour climb. Stumbling upon a waterfall and not having to share with others.

While mentally and physically, we could not be better, our gear has not faired so well as everything takes quite a beating.  My electric shaver is down to one working head; our camera is being held together with one of Sarah’s hair bands; Donna’s left Keen has completely lost it’s sole; Sarah’s super-glued Haviannas have finally succumbed; we have broken three Kindles; thread-bare pockets on my Lucky Brand shorts are filled with holes – either from dozens of riverside washings or from the kids reaching into those pockets for more money; and many of Ryan’s clothes should be burned though I am not sure how to dispose of toxic waste.

Perhaps it’s time we visit home.


Click for more photos of Sulawesi and Java/Bali.

Chapter 30: Makassar to Manado, 1100 Miles by Land and Sea

6 05 2013
sarah toraja homes

Traditional Tana Toraja homes

April 25:  I don’t think I could be confined to living on an island but I could spend a lifetime traveling on them.  So Indonesia, with 14,000 of them – or is it 17,000? – is my idea of heaven.  Its 250 million people make it the 4th most populated country, just behind the USA.  It stretches 4000 miles along the Indian Ocean, which makes it difficult to cover with a 60-day tourist visa; perhaps we need a resident card…

It is far different than Malaysian Borneo – an island covered with

With Alex, in Bira

With Alex, in Bira

palm trees that, on the surface, seem beautiful, but in reality is the result of multinational corporations destroying primary rainforests so the world can have enough palm oil to produce a forever supply of Oreos and Pringles. Indonesia, however, is a stunning country of natural beauty; windy, switchback/potholed roads with views of the blue ocean on one side and mega, dense rain forests on the other.  If you can envision lush, mountainous Asia, this is it.  And no leeches.

On an ojek...

On an ojek…

We are currently in Sulawesi, a large and remote, rugged, mountainous, funky shaped island with wonderful people, mediocre food and a unique blend of cultures and religions.  But first one must master transportation options.  Frist there is the ojek – stand by the side of the road and look lost, which is easy.  Within minutes a guy with a motorcycle will offer a ride on the back.  Then there is the bemo – a decrepit public minibus without doors or windows but with metal seats down the sides – also good for short runs.  The Kijang is a 7-person minivan that miraculously fits 10 – a bit tight for

then a becek...

then a becek…

longer distance travel but good for getting to know locals and learning a few key Bahasa Indonesian words.  The becek is a 2-person motorized tuk-tuk with the seat in front of the driver, which makes it very safe – for the driver.  The long distance bus is rare but they do have fully reclining seats which makes it unpleasant given the rows are no further apart than airplane seats and the person in front always wants to sleep.  We have taken all.  It’s debatable which is most uncomfortable.  All are memorable

now a bemo.

now a bemo.

though some we’d prefer to forget.

Indonesia is the home to 700 languages; English apparently not one of them.  But that’s part of the joy.  Bargaining must be a religion – we’ve been here three weeks and every mode of transportation and hotel room has been negotiated; the language barrier overcome by the always handy calculator.  Everything is cheap so haggling is more a cultural experience rather than an economic necessity. And spending money here is rather unique.  Beyond the pleasure of supporting a local family by eating in their kitchen or staying in their guest house, at 10,000 Rupiah per dollar, we have already spent millions which gives Sarah all sorts of joy but still pains me.

Kids everywhere

Kids everywhere

The food is not nearly as varied as the people.  If you like rice, you will eat well.  If you don’t like rice, you will learn to like it, then you will eat well.  Noodles are another staple but it’s typically a package of ramen with, if you are lucky, a pinch of cumin.  When near the coast, we order ikan bakar and pick our just caught fish from the cooler when it is then cooked on the open grill.  In the towns we eat at the warungs – street stalls – where the sometimes available ayam goring – fried chicken – can be very good if it’s more chicken than fried.  Lately, we have had a long stretch of fresh fish and veggies, which has been great for Sarah, Donna and I, while Ryan has lived on white rice mixed with lots of hot sauce.  His choice, not my worry.  Though we all shared food challenges last week during a late night visit to a warung in Tentena.  She only had stewed dog and spicy bat. Indonesians are a bit surreptitious about their canine consumption but I will forever know that anjing means dog while Donna and Sarah are now serious vegetarian contenders.

With Yohannis, our guide for a few days.

With Yohannis, our guide for a few days.

So we tapped the food supply and enjoyed a family dinner of crackers and peanut butter as we huddled around the 13” MacBook on the guesthouse porch watching a torrented episode of Modern Family.  Donna keeps our emergency food properly stocked; Ryan insures we have something to watch when in nothing-to-do, transit towns; and Sarah is responsible for keeping the Mac charged.  These stellar evenings don’t just happen…

Always eager to interrupt my run to practice their English

Always eager to interrupt my run to practice their English

Of the 250 million people, approximately everyone smokes; they smoke in guesthouses, in restaurants, in bemos, in bathrooms.  I wouldn’t be surprised if caskets contain a few cartons of Camels.  And speaking of caskets, that brings us to Rantepao, in the central Toraja region of Sulawesi.  Rantepao is the cultural center of the island, situated at the base of beautiful rice-paddy covered mountains.  It is predominantly Catholic which is rather rare in the largest Muslim country in the world.  Walk down the street on a Sunday morning and kids will be strolling with bibles in hand to one of the many churches where people are singing to the sound of tambourines.  Indonesians are small but their smiles are large.  They shout “hello mister” even if you are a misses.  They will ask, “what is your name?” and have a group giggle when you respond.  And despite the language barrier, adults are equally friendly, as being photographed with westerners seems to be a national obsession that rivals smoking.  Good thing tagging requires permission otherwise Sarah’s photo would appear on hundreds of Indonesian Facebook pages.  My photograph seemed to be less in demand.

notice the bulls in the background.  Not so pleasant.

At a funeral.  Notice the bulls in the background. Not so pleasant.

Life for Torajans seems to revolve around death as funerals are, ironically, a major event in a person’s life.  The deceased remains at home for a few months; they are referred to as “ill”.  During this time, preparations are made for the funeral, which will last 2-3 days, and attended by children in traditional attire as well as hundreds of adults, where there will be

Ryan makin' bacon.

Ryan makin’ bacon.

all sorts of dancing, singing and eating.  And there is plenty to eat because, as a sign of respect, pigs and bulls are gifted to the family of the deceased, and all are publicly slaughtered.  It’s a nasty site and during our visit during a raining morning, we had to navigate the pools of mud and blood.  As the only westerners, we were invited to stay for lunch but Sarah was, understandably, feeling a bit queasy.  It didn’t affect Ryan as he bonded with the guy blow torching the skin off a pig.  Amazing those two came from the same parents.

Beyond the funeral, there were many memorable moments.  Whether hiking through rice-paddies to other towns; impromptu yoga sessions with other travelers and a handful of curious 10-year-olds; enjoying the company and spending four nights in a room above Santi and Eriq’s home in rarely visited Bira; hanging in Batuputih with Katarzyna, a Polish travel writer; sharing travel tales from Robert, an Aussie, who has been traveling for most of the last 30 years; being thankful for the English/Indonesian translation spoken by Elie, Sophie, Leia and a handful of other semi bi-lingual locals when our English was useless; going for morning runs in Gorontalo only to be stopped by a group of children in their white and burgundy school uniforms eager to speak their few English words; or the late night at Ares Cafe watching a local play the guitar as Donna joined the singing – funny that most Indonesians hardly speak English but know the words to hundreds of American songs; even the words to those hard-to-remember verses that Donna hums when faking it.

With Aussie, Robert, a fellow 50-year-old. who has backpacked around the world 9 times.  A true role model :)

With Aussie, Robert, a fellow 50-year-old. who has backpacked around the world 9 times. A true role model 🙂

Then there was the evening when Ryan and Sarah organized a night away for Donna and I at Rantepao’s beautiful riverside Luta hotel, at their expense.   Not sure if the kids are maturing, simply wanted access to a hotel pool, or have become so sick of us they were willing to buy a night of freedom.  Actually, I’m not sure I care…

Heading to the Togean Islands aboard the Unsinkable 2.

Heading to the Togean Islands aboard the Unsinkable 2.

But paradise is possible, for those that like a do-it-yourself adventure. Getting to the Togean Islands was simply a matter of hoping aboard a 4-hour ferry with 300 Indonesians. Lots of loud music and, of course, lots of smoking. And another peanut butter and cracker meal.  The ferry’s name was Puspita, which, given its apparent condition, must translate to The Unsinkable 2.

But the location makes all the challenges worth it.  Upon arrival, there were only three places to stay so, as you sit around an evening beachside fire with a cold Bingtang while the full moon peaks through the overhead coconut trees, you get to know everyone, which seems impressive but on a busy night all three

But worth the journey.  Sarah being a bit lazy with the camera...

But worth the journey. Sarah being a bit lazy with the camera…

“lodges” housed, perhaps, 25 people.  When not trading travel tips with others or chatting with the locals, days were spent diving and snorkeling in the crystal clear, 88-degree waters, reading in a hammock on the bungalow porch, playing billiards on a titled table with the one cue stick, throwing rusty darts and eating fresh fish, lemon pancakes and perfectly ripe papayas.  No Internet and no cell service.  Like I said, paradise.  Electricity from 5-9 was sufficient to charge the Kindles for tomorrow’s hammock session; water from 6-8 was sufficient to fill the bucket for tomorrow’s shower.   Paradise requires some planning.

Among others, we became quite friendly with Fabian from Switzerland, Suzanna from Germany and ‘spirited’ Katy from the UK and our latest traveling BFF, all of whom we had met a week earlier on a marathon 13-hour bus journey.  And we were about to get to know them better as the ferry off the island was no longer

6 hours later, after crossing the equator.  Eager to get off...

6 hours later, after crossing the equator. Eager to get off…

working, a known fact on the backpacker circuit yet not sufficient discouragement for the committed or, perhaps, those that should be committed.  We hired a local guy and threw the backpacks under the floorboards, which was wise as the seas soon got a bit choppy and the first wave hit within 20 minutes. It was a very long and wet 6-hour journey with the only laughs during the mid-journey rocky bathroom break; guys in the back while girls were in front with their butts off the bow.   Sorry but a blood oath prevents those photos from ever appearing on the Internet.  Like I said, we became quite close.

Enjoying Katy's company for 2 weeks.

Enjoying Katy’s company for 2 weeks.

Traveling in Indonesia, with so much to see and distances to travel, is a race against the 60-day visa.  In fact, this is our last country before our return so an extra day in one town means one less in another.  So it has become a juggling act as we balance moving on to experience more, and staying longer to better know a place.  At some point we will look into flights back home, but at this point I’m not yet sure how we are getting off this island.  So for a bit longer, we will continue to enjoy the charms and challenges of Sulawesi.  Next week, I’ll worry about next week.

Actually, I doubt I’ll worry at all.

Even the black macaque monkeys talk to Donna

Donna making friends, even with wild Black Macaques in the jungle

Chapter 29: Borneo

15 04 2013

April 8:  It’s not a country but an island – the world’s third largest and about the size of Texas.  It contains parts of Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and the tiny but vastly wealthy sultanate of Brunei.  We stayed in Malaysia – can’t do it all, at least not in one year.

Finding food in a Kuala Lumpur Hawker stall

Finding food in a Kuala Lumpur Hawker stall

Borneo has that exotic sound that makes one thing of ancient rainforests, dense jungles and cannibal tribes.  But our initial impression was of an organized airport, paved/lined roads with working stop lights, tree-lined medians and the dullness when no one honks their horns.  Buses are air conditioned and actually have toilets.  Many taxis – no tuks tuks.  Most prices are fixed – beers are more than a buck.  Cokes are served in cans not bottles.  Massage parlors actually provide massages.  Cows are in the fields not roads.  People are dressed in rather drab western attire – no naked Sadus.  The town of Kota Kinabalu has a Pizza Hut and two Starbucks – already desperate for a good veggie masala and spiced chai.  Not sure this is Borneo – seems more like Boca.  Missing Calcutta chaos.  Furthermore, after 8 months with the family, a cannibal tribe had some appeal.

But that changed when we welcomed my sister, Amy, and the Shuman clan.  Like the Ludwigs, they have their travel idiosyncrasies:

  • Ken:  Easy going and great traveler as long as the bus or boat isn’t traveling.  Ken always got the front seat.  Would have preferred to scale Mt. Kinabalu or do the 5-day headhunters trek, but not happening on this adventure.
  • Amy:  Can’t bathe in the river because it is too cold and can’t sleep in a non-A/C room because it is too hot.  Still trying to dial-in to her ideal temperature preference.
  • Lilly:  A real traveler.  Overcame her fear of dorm rooms, public buses, and bustling evening markets with strange foods.  Most impressively, she mastered the squatter toilet.  I’m a proud uncle.
  • Alex:  Noticed that self-confidence of a young teenager who has no fears of a late-night jungle walk, scuba diving in the open waters, and hiking in bat-infested caves.  Still not exactly sure what Alex and Lilly did in the evenings after they put Ken and Amy to bed.
Looking fashionable in leech socks

Looking fashionable in leech socks

Only two hours away from the modern jungle of Kota Kinabalu was the dense jungle of Porings where we were introduced to two interesting species.  First there was Mike, a rather unique Brit with more tattoos that teeth, which made his English difficult to understand.  It’s unclear when he last showered. A nice enough chap and passionate about the jungle, yet despite being our guide, his people skills were somewhat lacking which became evident when, despite Lilly’s obvious concern about jungle critters, Mike shared “even with the leech socks, they’ll still get ya.”

The redheads, Alex and Ryan, hanging in the jungle

The redheads, Alex and Ryan, hanging in the jungle

Which brings us to the second species.  Leeches.  Unavoidable unless you avoid Borneo.  Leech socks are great – never had any on my feet.  Too bad the socks didn’t reach above my head as leeches do not have body part preferences. And those suckers are smart.  They will attach themselves to your clothes and wait until you undress.  One found a home by Donna’s belly button.  Two were on my upper thigh – would have been much worse if they travelled any more upper.  Nice to know we supported the rainforest ecosystem. Leeches are ant-sized at first but can swell to over an inch if they spend the night sucking blood.  Pre-sleep full body searches were necessary but hardly mood setting.  At least the leeches take your mind off the heat and humidity; and the snakes and the scorpions,…

But none of this takes away from the beauty of a primary rainforest and the jungle here is far superior, far denser, far wilder and far more spectacular than the Amazon.  Bamboo taller than buildings, orchids and other plants so large it makes parts of the jungle impenetrable , loud waterfalls with water clean enough to drink, centipedes that appear to have 1000 legs, and proboscis monkeys swinging overhead – though be mindful of a monkey shower.

He may be screaming, but I doubt he's angry...

He may be screaming, but I doubt he’s angry…

There are all sorts of birds though I find birds boring.  With good wildlife karma, we saw a wild orangutan, not to mention two monkeys acting wild, which, given the hysterical laughter from Lilly and Alex, was far more interesting than those boring birds.  Crocs are in the rivers so we bathe in the streams; those cold streams that are too cold for Amy – but she washes with wipes.  Oops – family secret.  The tree canopy is so dense that even during an afternoon thunderstorm, you will stay dry.  Unless, of course, you find yourself walking beneath a family of monkeys.

Amy washing with wipes; Lilly prepping the 'jungle suite'

Amy washing with wipes; Lilly prepping the ‘jungle suite’

Accommodations varied.  There was Lupa Masa, a 30-minute trek from the nearest road into the jungle.  No electricity – but we each have headlights and regardless, not sure you want to see those nighttime critters.  For beds, we had mattresses on the floor of a covered platform above the river.  Mosquito nets were equally successful at keeping out spiders.  At night you could see the moon peeking through the few rainforest openings while you heard nothing other than the nearby waterfalls and chirpings of thousands of cicadas.

Alex and a nighttime jungle walk with his favorite uncle

Alex and a nighttime jungle walk with his favorite uncle

That night, Alex braved an evening trek into the dark jungle while Lilly braved an evening trek to the squatter toilet.  The jungle is far safer; the toilet far scarier.  Dinner is served communally with the other handful of travelers.  Food was surprisingly good, though even with the headlight, I wasn’t sure what it was and wasn’t sure I should ask.

Our home for a few days

Our riverfront home for a few days

Then there was Zul, an enterprising Malay who coordinated a homestay program with families, in the river village of Bilit, that share rooms in their homes with travelers willing to sacrifice comfort for culture; culture among locals speaking a river language that differs from Malay – not that we would notice the difference.

Sarah and family.  Where's the great-grandma...?

Sarah and family. Where’s the great-grandma…?

So after three hours of buses and boats, we found ourselves in neighboring stilted houses on the Kinabantagan riverbank.  The Shumans had Nina, a wonderful cook that could not speak English, while we had Cici who clearly spent more time learning English than cooking.  We spent three days eating fried bananas, fried noodles, fried fish and anything else that could be thrown into the oil-filled wok.  Between meals served Between meals served family style on the living room floor, river trips down the croc-infested Kinabantagan and evening jungle jaunts, Lilly and Alex played ball with the kids, Sarah manicured 4-year-old Wuwu, Ryan gave computer assistance to those that were fortunate to receive government issued laptops, and we all spent quality time in the kitchen getting a Malay cooking lesson by dumping spoonful’s of dough into that wok.  With family constantly coming and going, it’s unclear exactly how many lived in our home yet it did house four generations including the 102-year-old great-grandma.  Though despite seeing her in bed, I cannot confirm she was actually alive.

Lilly and one of the many kids in the house

Lilly and one of the many kids in the house

But we did have our moments of luxury such as the few days we spent on the island of Mabul, off Borneo’s northeast coast.  Though we considered this luxury because the dorms were clean, bunk mattresses were comfortable and there were enough clean bathrooms such that waiting wasn’t necessary when waiting wasn’t an option.  My bunkmate was Wei, from China.  He arrives wearing a bright blue Cleveland Indians t-shirt – tells me he got it cheap at a knock-off Shanghai market.  I tell him, given the Indians’ historical performance, it may be cheaper in Cleveland.  He doesn’t get my humor.

Sarah, my new dive buddy

Sarah, my new dive buddy

To divers, Mabul, and in particular the nearby island of Sipidan, is what St. Andrews is to golfers, or Mecca to Muslims.  It’s a once in a lifetime experience.  Untouched walls of coral, schools of huge amberjacks, 9-foot moray eels, sharks or manta rays on every dive and a country that cares as a permitting system strictly limits the number of divers per day.  But it wasn’t just Ryan and I that enjoyed the underwater scenery. Alex was a natural on his three dives and I really enjoyed my two dives with Sarah as we swam with cuttlefish, huge sea turtles, stingrays and much more.

Donna and one of the  kids

Donna and a few of the Bajua kids

But topside, the small island of Mabul is rather interesting as our neighbor was a ramshackled, impoverished village of stilted homes of the Bajau people.  The Bajau are an ethnic group of sea gypsies, indigenous to Southeast Asia. They are true nomads, typically moving every few years.  They landed on Mabul 15 years ago and have never left.  Not being Muslim, they are not recognized by the Malaysian government, so they are forbidden from working.  Fishing doesn’t pay since local dive resorts are fish-friendly and refuse to serve seafood.  The government tolerates their existence but provides no support, so the children never go to school.  They play in the blue waters and throw dice on the sandy streets.  Smiling children seem to comprise 80% of the population – they are everywhere, which is no surprise since the adults don’t work and what else is there to do while the kids are swimming and gambling?  They seem to be passing the time rather than living for a purpose.  Odd but fascinating.

Alex during a primary school visit

Alex during a primary school visit

Beyond tiny Mabul, Malaysia does provide an interesting mix of people.  Despite the population being 65% Malay, the Chinese have economic dominance.  Communities are split along ethnic lines; they mingle rather than coexist; intermarriage is rare.  Malays are typically Muslim though on Borneo many of the indigenous have converted to Christianity; Chinese tend to be Buddhist or Tao; Indians are Hindu; no Jews – Israeli passport holders are forbidden from entering.  Why can’t everyone get along?  It’s a knowingly corrupt government and elections are scheduled for later this year with rumors that the incumbents orchestrated a recent insurgency to prove they can keep control by killing a few terrorists; which I suppose is better than a few terrorists killing a few tourists.

Lovin the Laksa soup in Kota Kibabalu, Sabah, Borneo

Lovin the Laksa soup in Kota Kibabalu, Sabah, Borneo

Rather than religion or politics, best to focus on food.  Depending on your preference for noodles or rice, you can get mee goreng or nasi goreng everywhere.  It’s typically served spicy with eggs, veggies, chicken, seafood and other meat-type ingredients, the more mysterious of which they become the farther you get from a town.  You eat at hawker stalls, which are roadside or market stands where the air is dense with smoke from dozens of women cooking the same thing.  Then there is Alex’s favorite, southern Borneo Laksa soup – same ingredients as above, cooked in a coconut-spiced broth, served piping hot.  Which is a good thing because, when eating, Alex does not like to be rushed.

Worth every Malaysian RInggit

Worth every Malaysian RInggit

But perhaps the most memorable meal was on out final night.  Ignoring all heath concerns and economic logic, I agreed to pay for food at the Kuala Lumpur airport.  Perhaps it was the 14 weeks in Asia, but the Filet-O-Fish, large fries, cold coke and the chocolate McFlurry never tasted so good.  I should have super-sized.

It’s unclear if seven weeks in India makes a traveler more hardened, demanding, tolerant or discerning.  But despite the jungle, diving, decent food, nice people and a rather unique blend of religion and ethnicities, as well as great times and many laughs with the Shuman clan, Malaysia did not hold our interests.  Though, we may be in the minority as Malaysia, the 9th most visited country in the world, gets far more tourists than any of the other countries we have traveled to on this journey.

April 10:  So we are off to Indonesia and a few of its 14,000 islands.  We will start in Sulawesi, a long-time member of the LBL – Ludwig Bucket List, though not exactly sure where this will lead.  But just as the beauty of not having definitive plans gives us flexibility, the beauty of not knowing where we are going means we can’t get lost.


For more photos of Borneo and the Ludwig/Shuman adventure, check back in a few days and click here.

A great family adventure

A great family adventure

Chapter 28: Calcutta

25 03 2013
And this was light traffic for Kolkata.  Not the safest activity...

And this was light traffic for Kolkata. Not the safest activity…

March 15:  It’s now Kolkata.  Not sure when or why they changed the name.  But that’s so India – not sure why or how so many things happen in this country.  I suppose that’s the charm, though many use other adjectives.  And while Kolkata has its share of temples and sites, this is not a city you come to visit, but a city you come to experience.  Ask the 4 of us about our experiences and you may get 6 different opinions.

One of the cleaner retaurants

Easier to judge cleanliness at street-side restaurants

Kolkata is one of the most densely populated cities on earth with 71,000 people every square mile, each of whom will want to talk to you, sell you spices, take your photograph, cook you lunch or drive you somewhere.  There are people, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes and animals everywhere and at all times.  Crossing a Kolkata road seems suicidal but a necessary and frequent endeavor – just walk at a steady pace and the vehicles usually swerve around.  The city has a reputation for being dirty, squalid and desperately poor and, I suppose, some of that is true.  In the cool season, it is hot; in the hot season it is stifling.  Rain would be welcome but we never saw a cloud.  And despite the heat, Bengali food is always spicy, with some nonsense about how the sweating helps cool you down when the only way to cool down is to take a cold shower.  Air conditioning is a luxury the kids are eager to have but rarely eager to pay for.  Funny how priorities change when it’s their money…

Just your typical flower market...

One of the many colorful flower markets

Poverty is in your face though somewhat organized.  Homeless people have a system; they have their small bag of possessions and sleep in the same spot each night.  Begging can be persistent to the point where, in some neighborhoods, it is understood to be controlled by the mafia that determines who begs in which location.   Children beggars are bused in from the countryside and ‘loaned’ to adult females who then masquerade themselves as starving ‘famiies.’  Apparently, professional beggars in front of Mother Teresa’s home, a prime location, live a middle class lifestyle when not begging.


Even more difficult to see at night when most pullers sleep under their rickshaws.  

Auto rickshaws can be found throughout India and most major cities have bicycle rickshaws.  But Kolkata is the only city that still has rickshaw-wallahs; men that struggle and sweat as they pull the rickshaw when running you to your destination for $.50.  While I will try most anything, I refuse to be carried by another person.  But my attitude does not affect their livelihood as they carry plenty of business people, school children, poultry, sick people, and prostitutes, as well as some of India’s heaviest, in their flowing saris.

We each have our highlights.  For Ryan, it was probably arriving by train without his parents.  Because tickets were limited and even with the appropriate ‘contributions’, Ryan and Sarah were in separate train cars.  And if it wasn’t for Sarah, Ryan may still be sleeping in his bunk.  Upon arrival, in the midst of the Kolkata train station morning chaos, It was nice to see them walking towards us with the no-worried, self-confidence that one gets after traveling for 7 months.  More valuable than straight As.

Just another day at the office...

Just another day at the office…

Despite the incessant blaring of horns, Sarah enjoyed the Kolkata tour on the back of an Enfield motorcycle, dodging all sorts of buses, taxis, rickshaws and people.  There are no traffic lanes; vehicles are everywhere including on the sidewalks.  With 16 million people, if you don’t fight to the front of the line, you will forever be in the queue.

We spent a day volunteering at Daya Dan, one of Mother Teresa’s missions that care for mentally and physically handicapped children.  We washed dirty sheets and made the cribs; we peeled the papaya and pureed it until it was mush; we fed kids lunch and put them down for naps.  Amazing what Mother Teresa accomplished though not sure all Hindu Indians appreciate her focus on Christianity and the attention she placed on Calcultta’s destitute and dying.  It’s not easy appeasing a billion people.

Based on the results, Sarah said the $3 cost was too much

Based on the results, Sarah said the $3 shave/cut was too much, but the conversation was worth way more.

I was happy to get lost in the city’s back alleys of Barabazar.  Nothing in particular is amazing.  Just thousands of merchants trading their wares, baggage boys balancing huge packs of goods on their heads, vendors cooking veggie samosas and spicy noodles, kids playing in the streets while dodging cows and the poorest of the poor sifting through street garbage for remnants of something that may be of value.  A street-corner straight-edge shave and haircut cost me $3; the local buses are great if you don’t mind sweat boxes; and the subway is easy to navigate but with millions of people and only one line, you need to be comfortable in confined spaces.  I snapped all sorts of photos.  No one paid me any attention.  Just like at home.

March 15:  The final three hours of our 21-hour journey was in a shared jeep bouncing up a harrowing road with more switchbacks than guardrails.  We stopped at 7000 feet, in Darjeeling, a little bit of mountain heaven on a sliver of Indian territory wedged between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.  Most mornings, snow-capped mountains are visible behind the prayer flags that seem to be swaying everywhere; on a perfectly clear day, you can see Everest.  Drivers don’t lean on their horns and the air is crisp and refreshingly clean.  It just feels healthy.

Street-side dumpings and noodles.  If it's cooked, it must be safe...

Street-side dumpings and noodles. If it’s cooked, it must be safe…

Indians in Darjeeling look Nepalese; locals are Buddhist; the food mostly Tibetan.  People are extremely friendly; kids can’t get any cuter.  It’s cold here and spicy food is for hot climates so we have porridge for breakfast, street-side dumplings for lunch and Tibetan Thukpa soup for dinner.  Then head down the cobble-stoned streets to Glenary’s or Joeys, the only places in town that serve beer, which means it is easier to get alcohol here compared to anywhere else in India.   But this is not typical India, though nothing in India seems typical.  Some say that’s the challenge; we think that’s the charm.

We met all sorts of interesting people. There was Brandt, that rare traveling American – 22 years old and studying in Germany for a year.  Smart kid and Ryan and Sarah enjoyed the company of someone closer to their age for a few days.  Tyrone, a Brit and traveling alone, shared stories about having his chai being drugged and then sold a 3-week package of pre-paid hotels only to arrive in

With Tyronne, who easily laughs at his ravel challenges.

With Tyrone, who easily laughs at his travel challenges.

Darjeeling to learn his hotel was neither booked nor paid.  Prior to his arrival in Varanasi, another shop owner convinced him to buy special clothes so that he would be comfortable and fit in, only to realize it made him itch and stand out.  As a first time backpacker, Tyrone’s street-smarts’ learning curve is rather steep.  Nice guy – he’ll learn.

But the most important person was Asish, our guide for a 13-mile, 2-day trek into the Indian Himalayas and across the border into Nepal.  Our plan for a pleasant walk under sunny skies changed, as plans tend to do, and we got caught in an intense hailstorm.  We spent the evening in a Nepalese tea hut, huddled in front of a tiny fireplace with 8 other travelers,

Nepal not part of the initial plan.  But plans ofter change...

Nepal not part of the initial plan. But plans often change…

all trying to get the blood flowing while watching the water evaporate from every piece of clothing. A local family cooked a wonderful dinner, and evening conversations with Michael from Germany, Marcus from Israel, an Irish/Italian couple, a Japanese guy and three Romanians living in Quebec made one forget about the weather.

Thawing out in wet clothes

Thawing out in wet clothes was far less enjoyable than…

But that didn’t last as temperatures dropped below freezing and the heat in the rooms consisted of four blankets and a hot water bottle.  Sarah cuddled in bed with Donna and stayed warm.  I cuddled with the water bottle and froze.  Ryan slept just fine.  Many memories, though not all highlights.

Dinner at the tea hut.  People form 7 countries were considerate enough to speak English.  We are so spoiled.

…dinner at the tea hut. People from 7 countries were considerate enough to speak English. We have it so easy.

Two months ago I bought at bootlegged copy of Django assuming, at some point, I would have a few free hours to enjoy a good Quentin Tarrantino movie.  In seven weeks in India, I have yet to find the time.  With so much to experience and so many friendly people to chat with, my concerns about “been there, done that, seen everything” are gone.  We spend very little time in the rooms – not because some of the hotels are, as Sarah likes to say, “sketchy”, but because there is so much to see.  And when there is any hint of boredom and that movie becomes possible, we are packing our bags and moving on.  There is no down time.  It’s been the same since we left in August.  No surprise that the seven months have gone by so fast and I imagine I will return in June with that movie still un-watched.

Hail was not part of the plan either

Hail was not part of the plan either

Speaking of returning, while we won’t be back to Kolkata, we will definitely return to India.  Between the friendly people, terrific food, colorful clothing, street-side markets and varieties of religions, languages and cultures, and of course the joy of overnight public transportation, everyday is different and there is always something more to learn.  Quite an amazing place.

But what I find most amazing, is that with never-ending change and the constant moving among hotels, buses, trains, rickshaws, motorbikes and ferries; the never-ending interactions between locals and fellow travelers; the constant asking for directions and non-stop bargaining, daily food surprises, and the not knowing of where we will sleep, eat, get money, or pee – among all the unknowns, Sarah continues to excel in school.  With unlimited attractions and distractions, I have no clue how she stays focused.  Truly impressive.

Beach 7, Havelock, Andaman Islands.  A welcome change form the chaos of Kolkata and the chill of Darjeeling.  And a nice way to end our India journey.

Beach 7, Havelock, Andaman Islands. A welcome change from the chaos of Kolkata and the chill of Darjeeling. And a nice way to end our India journey.

But it’s not chaos.  It’s a lifestyle that can be tiring but never boring.  Which is good because why settle for a boring lifestyle?  And that will not change as Tuesday we will connect with my sister, Amy, and her family so that we can travel for a 10-dayMalaysia adventure through Borneo.  So while backpacking is our current lifestyle, it will be nice to see family.

For more photos from India as well as 4 days in paradise, click here.

Chapter 27: Varanasi and the Indian Rail

8 03 2013
A new friend...

A new friend…

Note:  Some content may not be appropriate for kids. But that’s how India can be.

February 25:  African border crossings may be great for people watching but it pails to Indian trains. Of the 20 million Indians ride the rail every day, 50 die from crossing the tracks, while another 9 die because they fall from the open doors or get electrocuted from the third rail while riding on top.  The others want to talk which is frequently comical as the national language, English, is only spoken by some of the 1.2 billion people.  21 other languages are recognized in the constitution yet there are more than 1600 minor languages.  It is a Hindu country yet still has 150 million Muslims, not to mention many Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians.  The only Jews are the Israeli backpackers.  And us.

Donna getting a henna tattoo from two sisters while on a train

Donna getting a henna tattoo from two sisters while on a train to Nasik

We avoid planes in lieu of trains.  Traveling on an Indian train is a reason itself to come to India.  But the days of showing up are gone so now you must master reservation chaos.  There is first class, second class, third class, sleeper class, chair class and a half dozen other mystery classes.  There are quotas for women, foreigners and “emergencies.”  ‘RAC’ class is half a seat, which means the railway admits to selling at least double the capacity.  The online system rarely works; booking offices are rarely convenient; ticket agents know only enough English to explain their premium.  And you better have cash.  Getting front row seats to Lady Gaga is easier.  But Ryan seems to have found his way through the maze and gets us what we need.  For the record, we are a third class traveling family as it provides the right balance of comfort and Indian interaction.  Sarah says we are a third class family because I am cheap.

Typical train station chaos...

Typical train station chaos…

Our 17-hour journey from Nasik to Katni left at 1:30am yet the station was buzzing with hundreds of people chatting on mats or praying to one of their many gods, while others were selling tea, biscuits, sweets, samosas and other fried snacks that you really don’t need at 1:30 in the morning.  The dogs were barking at nothing in particular and kids were running across the tracks, not only to avoid the trains, but to outrun the rats. Train stations may not be so pleasant for the nose but they a feast for the eyes.  Good thing, because there was not that much to see in either Nasik or Katni.

Rather easy to meet people....

Rather easy to meet people….

But the real joy is on the train.  You quickly make friends with the Indians sharing your 8-person compartment, which really is not a compartment but a closet-sized section where cooperation is key.  Seats become beds when everyone decides it is time to sleep; you all need to agree to turn off the lights and turn on the fans.  Be mindful at night when climbing down from your third-tier bunk such that you don’t wake the sleeping.  Squatter bathroom visits are not so bad especially if it’s dark and you are half asleep.   Then again, after seven months our standards may be suspect.

Trains that depart in the evening are packed with Indians eating thali dinners such that the smell of curry never leaves.  Actually, trains that depart in the morning also smell of curry. Good thing we like curry.

The kid needs to eat

17 hours on a train, the kid needs to know where his food will come from

We have our train routine.  Bunks are assigned which gives you the right, upon embarking, to awake the sleeping local who is in your bed.  Get your blanket, pillow and surprising clean sheets.  Climb into your bunk and have water and toilet paper handy, with valuables such as Kindles and computers under the pillow.  Indians are modest and everyone sleeps in clothes.  Sarah gets top bunk as this reduces the likelihood that she finds the local back in her bunk the following morning.  Speaking of which, you want to be certain you are awake prior to arrival, as the train does not stop long.  But this is typically not a problem.     Mornings come early as Indians rise way before the sun, the lights go on and despite their many customs, whispering is not one them; they have no inside voice.  Vendors are shouting when walking down the narrow isle selling chai and egg biryani.  A crippled guy sweeps the garbage down the isle to one end of the train, when another sweeps the same garbage back.  Beyond being sympathetic, I admire their efforts and give each a few rupees.  I avoid using my Kindle for fear of missing something much more interesting.

Indians could not be any nicer and befriending compartment-mates is part of the experience.  Yet be cautious when asking questions as their sincere attempt to be helpful with the infamous Indian head nod means “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, or “yes, but I have no clue”.  Beyond time and patience, the secret to enjoying India is having a sense of humor.  We laugh a lot.  Which is a good thing because we were about to arrive in Varanasi…

Ryan with a few Sadus

Ryan with a few Sadus in Varansai

March 3, Varanasi.  India is like no other country, and Varanasi is like no other Indian city.  It is where the Ganges River, the holiest of the holiest, is located and everyone here is dying, praying to someone that has died or burning someone that has died.  There are 300 cremations every day, all public, and the ashes are sprinkled in the river.  Spend some time at the burning ghat and your clothes will wreak from the smoke. Those that cannot afford the 200 kilos of wood to burn the body for three hours, simply tie a few rocks to the deceased then place in the river.  Take a sunrise rowboat down the river and see floating bodies and animals.  People bathe in the river; my laundry is now being washed in the river.  No doubt the water from my chai came from the river.  I wonder if my shower is from the river.  Yesterday they were hosing down a street with water pumped from the river.

And he is the most religious...

And he is the most religious…

The narrow streets are equally fascinating but no cleaner.  After a few days here, it becomes second nature and you no longer need to look down to avoid stepping in the piles of cow dung or garbage piles.  And anyways, you want to keep your head up so that you don’t get hit by a motorcycle, rickshaw, or roaming bull in heat.  But more importantly, you want to watch the people.  Whether it’s the hoards of locals visiting Varanasi temples prior to their dip in the Ganges, religious Sadus in their bright orange saris, or the more religious and highly respected that have foregone all possessions and walk around fully naked, with the exception of a ring around their penis and a body coated with ash from a cremated body.  My efforts to chat with them are comical more than educational – in their typically stoned state, I am not sure if they are speaking Hindi or chanting Sanskrit mantras.  Beggars have their palms out – and frequently it is only their palms, as leprosy has taken their fingers.  It’s not a town for the timid.

Donna praying...

Donna praying…

The alleys are abuzz with commerce.  Sarah and Donna spent an afternoon at a local fabric market then found a tailor to make clothes. I managed to find black market beers.  Vishnu sold us chai tea.  Ryan went to the railway station for tickets to Darjeeling.  And there are plenty of local restaurants if the train has not sickened you from the smell of curry.  Korean Kimchi and Tibetan Momos were a nice change from Indian spices.

...while Mike consults with the astrologer.

…while I consult with the palm reader.

There is no need to go on any tours or visit temples or mosques or museums. Just sit on the ghat steps leading down to the Ganges and watch, listen and learn.  Locals will soon be sitting by your side.  They will stare at Sarah; they will pick at the hair on my arms; they will take Donna’s photo; they will practice their English with Ryan. A Sadu prayed with Donna while a palm reader envisioned a wedding in my future – which makes me wonder what Donna prayed for.

Varanasi is the definition of chaos; Indians can be indiscreet; the sights and smells can be overwhelming.  It is perhaps the most fascinating Indian city, which says alot, but can be challenging for those that value quiet, privacy or hygiene.  We stayed five days.  Apparently, the Ludwigs have different values.



Photos uploaded for those interested:  — Hampi and Goa.  Mumbai and Varanasi

A few of the 60,000 per day that wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges.

A few of the 60,000 per day that wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges.

Chapter 26: Packing

18 02 2013
Sarah meeting the locals

Sarah meeting a local

February 16:  The longer you travel, the less you want to carry.  My 6 days of clothes can last two weeks before laundry is critical; three weeks before it actually gets washed.  Each piece of clothing is valuable – not because it cost so much but because I carry my entire wardrobe and that favorite t-shirt or most comfortable pair of shorts are very difficult to replace.  Sarah has gone through 2 tubes of super glue fixing her favorite Haviannas.  You become attached though Donna will not commit to her favorite which is probably a ploy such that she have yet another excuse to shop.  And Ryan knows not to get too attached as he has left a trail of lost clothes from Africa to  Asia.

Meanwhile, we are now in Anjuna India, in the state of Goa, staying at Poonam Guest House which after 4 local buses, we found yesterday afternoon after looking for three hours at 10 others that were already full.  Long day but we found something and have continued to avoid the necessity of sleeping on that park bench – though the bench would be more comfortable than these beds.  It is our 84th hotel which means we have packed our packs 84 times, though this is a bit of a misnomer as we have yet to truly unpack.

Donna getting blessed by a local

Donna getting blessed by a local

To avoid losing those beloved Haviannas, you need to have a system.  My 5 t-shirts are rolled into one ziplock bag (the zip of which broke long ago), shorts/bathing suit in another, 3 long sleeve shirts in another, two pair of pants in another, fleece/rain jacket in another, then the final two bags of clean and dirty underwear.  Definitely separate the dirty underwear.  I can tell in a matter of seconds if something is missing.  Not sure how Sarah knows.  While she, too, uses the ziplock bag system, she has managed to pack 70 liters of clothes into her 50 liter pack.  I think she is still pulling out clothes I have yet to see.  Ryan throws clean and dirty clothes, unfolded and in no order, into his pack, which is an absolute disaster.  He claims this, too, is a system – a system which he has used and perfected in his bedroom for the past 18 years.

The temples of Hampi

The temples of Hampi

To avoid the necessity of being involved in every purchase decision, Ryan and Sarah have their own funds, which were earned prior to departure and must last the full 10 months.  They tell me what something costs, and it is subtracted from their accounts. I am truly indifferent to what they purchase, as long as it is legal, which in this part of India, is a legitimate concern.  Within 10 minutes of getting off the bus yesterday, Sarah was asked twice if she needed more marijuana.  I suppose, upon sizing up the family, locals assumed Donna and I, given the presence of the kids, would not be buying, and assumed Ryan, given his age and 7 months of uncut hair, already had plenty.  Which left Sarah as the likely customer.

If you don't roll out out of your bunk, the overnight bus...

If you don’t roll out out of your bunk, the overnight bus…

Beyond the clothes, it’s all the other things that can’t get lost.  I carry the camera, passports and snack bag; Ryan the outlet adapters and peanut butter; Sarah carries Nutella, bug spray and her Mac and all school stuff; Donna keeps the Lonely Planet guide book and peanuts.  Note the food theme – we have learned that the Ludwigs are in a better mental state when fed.  Donna is also responsible for caring the toilet paper.  Passports are replaceable but when you need the toilet paper, it is irreplaceable.  We always know where the toilet paper is stashed.  After all, when needed, you don’t always have much time to waste searching for that toilet paper.

Meanwhile, for the past two weeks, we have been in the states of Goa and Karnataka.  We have enjoyed the help of Indians when taking the local buses; we have experienced the old world charm of 3rd class overnight trains, and the challenges of not getting thrown from your upper berth as the overnight bus speeds around the corners on partially paved roads.  Tuk tuks are now rickshaws and the drivers range from better than the day bus

…is better than the day bus

wonderful to unhelpful, though sometimes you think they are wonderful until you realize they are unhelpful.

We loved our few days in Hampi, riding motorbikes around 15th century Hindu temples only to return to town in the evening when Ryan and Sarah stayed in one guest house while Donna and I were in another.  To Hindus, cows are sacred and they take this seriously in Hampi.  It’s a rather religious town where alcohol is not served and restaurants, by law, must be vegetarian.    Then there was 5 days with Raj and his wife as we stayed in their guesthouse about 100 meters behind Pollolem beach, a beautiful 1 mile stretch of sand where, by some


Saying goodbye to Raj in Pollelem

Saying goodbye to Raj in Pollelem

reak of nature, only palm trees can grow.  100 meters in the other direction is Samir and his Dutch wife who recently opened Little World and serves the world’s best cup of chai.  He would not share the secret recipe despite Donna’s flirting.  Sarah said she would have had more success.  Great.

Awaiting the night bus with one of those sacred Hampi cows

Awaiting the night bus with one of those sacred Hampi cows

The food here is terrific.  Masala Dosas for breakfast, northern Indian thallis for lunch, vegetable tikka massala for dinner, somasas for snacks, bang lassis for a memorable beverage.  Even Ryan has found little need to tap that snack bag and Sarah no longer dreams about Chipotle.  Though, if you spread a little Nutella and peanut butter on some tandoori naan, you can make an Indian version of a Recees.  Of all the countries in the world, I have said that India has the second best food.  Which has the best???

Sarah lovin the thali

Sarah lovin’ the thali in Bangalore

For the moment, we are in Anjuna, which got on the map in the 1960s as a hippie hideaway.  And from the look of some of the current travelers, some were Anjuna pioneers and never left.  To them, holistic means hash not laced with henna.  But there are all sorts of activities such as Brahamani Yoga, Doula training, midnight meditations, multi-detox, dreadlocks extensions, gong lessons, Reiki sessions, and “intense colon cleanses” – though the later seems rather redundant as all colon cleanses, I would imagine, are intense.  And there is certainly no need to pay for a cleanse in India.  Simply drink from the tap.

Apparently my vote did not count and we are not leaving today.  At last night’s psy-trance rave, whatever that means, Ryan became friendly with a woman from Siberia, a guy from Taiwan and a group from Holland and they all want to reconnect tonight.  So while Anjuna is a bit of a backpacker ghetto mixed with Russian tourists, I have always said you can learn as much from others travelers as you can from the locals.  So our journey to the more challenging and populated north can wait a day.

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