Sunday, July 24, 2011

Goodbye, Indonesia

Day 56: Travel day

We woke up at our leisure this morning, with nothing left to do but catch a flight this afternoon. We had some lunch and then took a taxi through traffic (again!) back to the airport for our flight to Singapore. We’re not exactly sure why we came to Jakarta, but since we did it, I guess it’s just another city to cross off the list! Our flight was delayed so we just sat around at the airport until it was ready to go.

We arrived in Singapore at night and took a taxi to Gaurav’s friend’s place in the city. Singapore is a beautiful and noticeably clean city, and the architecture we saw on the drive was completely modern and just fantastic. We’re happy to be here. It’s also nice to meet up with friends and just be “home” again for a bit. 

Tomorrow, we plan our time here and our next steps (nothing of which we have booked yet)!

Quick stopover

Day 55: Jakarta

We woke up very early for our flight to Jakarta this morning, caught our flight, and arrived in a very nice airport in Jakarta. We were told there was only one safe taxi company we should take so we grabbed a cab to the city, and got stuck in a crazy amount of traffic on the way: welcome to city life! Before we arrived, we had booked a hotel and checked forums that told us how to get there, and we were very thankful we did because it was hidden on a back street that we would never have found otherwise!  We were surprised when we saw the hotel because it was very big and like hotels back home, and we had become used to staying in bungalows everywhere! We checked into our room and then asked about what there was to see in Jakarta, but got no recommendations!

The receptionist recommended we go to a mall to eat lunch (!) so we walked over, ate there (since communication was next to impossible), and walked back! We decided we couldn’t just be here one day and not see anything, so we got a taxi and went to see Istiqlal Mosque in town. We arrived at the mosque and a security guard escorted us inside and told us about the mosque, which had actually been built by a Catholic architect and was the largest mosque in Southeast Asia. It was nice, and as we left, we stopped and listened to the melodic call to prayer. Then, we went to see a nice church across the street, and listened to some of the hymns there, before grabbing a cab back to our hotel.

We ate at our hotel and then relaxed in our room. We leave Jakarta tomorrow, which is fine because there is nothing much to do here!

Istiqlal Mosque

 Church across the street from the mosque

Palaces and puppets

Day 54: Around town

This morning we took it easy. After seeing what we wanted to see here, we figured we would just go around town at our leisure. So we hired a becha (pronounced bay-cha, and kind of like a rickshaw in India, where the driver rides a bike with a carriage we sit in), and he took us around town. We stopped at the Sultan Palace, which was unimpressive – it was mainly just portraits of generations of sultans and their children, and it felt as if the palace had been stripped of all its items – and the Tamansari (the water palace), which was equally unimpressive.

Then, we went to see a few shops where they sell batik paintings and unique handmade shadow puppets, which are a big thing here. The shadow puppets are made of buffalo skin that has been dried, after which intricate designs are carved into them with a variety of instruments. Then, they are painted in bright colours made from all natural ingredients (like turmeric for yellow, and betel nut for red), all of which have a meaning. We ended up buying a few puppets, and although we bargained a lot, we still know we got completely ripped off! They’re beautiful though, and a nice addition to our now-growing art collection! 

Just dinner and sleep tonight. Nothing much to report. Tomorrow we fly again! 

 Shadow puppets

More temples!

Day 53: Jogjakarta

Last night’s sleep was horrible! There were so many mosquitoes in the room, we got eaten alive. Plus, we got up so early for our flight to Jogjakarta (a.k.a. Yogyakarta), we were exhausted! We got our taxi to the airport (which wasn’t open when we arrived!), checked in, and got on our flight.

When we arrived, we decided to just rent a car and get all the things we wanted to do done today! So after a lot of haggling over a reasonable price – in broken English since no one speaks English too well here! – we headed over to Prambanan, a beautiful Hindu temple complex built in the ninth century. The temple had been in complete ruins, but with major reconstruction efforts since the 1930s, they have managed to restore a lot of it to its original beauty. A lot of restoration work is still going on so some parts of the temples are inaccessible, but what can be seen was still so beautiful. The temples are made of stone, and all along the outside and inside walls are intricate stone carvings depicting various Hindu religious stories, with figures resembling the characters we’re used to from India. We saw the main complex and then three other temples under reconstruction, one of which was a Buddhist temple.

After this, we drove out to Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. In the late 18th century, the temple was discovered buried under forest bush, and in complete ruins. Reconstruction efforts since then have resulted in the temple being almost completely restored. The temple is sectioned into North, East, South, and West, and has 8 or 9 levels, each of which has hundreds of Buddha statues lined along it.  We followed the traditional way of proceeding through the temple by entering from the East side, walking clockwise on each level up to the top, and exiting from anything but the East side. Interestingly enough, although it is a Buddhist temple, a lot of Hindu carvings are also depicted on its walls. While we were walking through, we also heard the melodic Muslim call to prayer – it’s so wonderful that the people here respect each other and their religious choices.

After Borobudur, we were exhausted and running out of steam, so we had lunch at a restaurant on the way back to town, and then drove around looking for a hotel for the next two nights. We found a place and checked in for the night. After such a long day and barely any sleep, we grabbed a quick dinner and called it a night fairly early.

The language barrier has been extremely difficult in Indonesia, and sometimes impossible to breach, but we’ve tried our best! Hopefully we haven’t insulted anyone along the way!

Prambanan Temple

Carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayan

Borobudur Temple

Carvings depicting various stages of human and saintly life

 Buddhas overlooking the landscape

Getting back and getting out

Day 52: Tourist mecca

This morning, we bid farewell to our relaxing island life (for now). We said our goodbyes to our bungalow family and got a horse and carriage (a different one this time) to take us to the harbour. No mishaps with this one – thankfully! We hopped on our boat and went back to Amed to catch our ride to our hotel near the airport. Unfortunately, a little communication mishap caused us not to have a ride, so we had to go hunting for another one, which we eventually found, and made our way to Kuta – the tourist mecca of Bali. 

On the way, our driver took us to a small local restaurant (a road stop for the locals), where we had a truly authentic meal experience with amazing food, and then continued on to Kuta. When we arrived, we were SO thankful we hadn’t stayed there at any point during our trip. It was so touristy (much worse than Ubud) and didn’t even feel like we were in Bali. Disaster averted! We walked around, grabbed a quick dinner, and went back to our hotel to sleep. Very early flight tomorrow!

A bit of planning (it has to happen sometimes!)

Day 51: Gili Family

This morning, our official last day here (we don’t have any more days to spare!), we started off the morning with breakfast and then some snorkeling in front of our bungalows. We made it out really far with the current, and saw some cool creatures, but the coolest was a huge spotted stingray just gliding through the water like a butterfly. It was so gracious and elegant, we felt so lucky to have been able to catch a glimpse of it in the open waters.

Unfortunately, the current took us quite far out into the water, and we had a really (really) hard time getting back. Gaurav did not have fins so it was especially hard to fight the current. When we finally got back to shore, completely and utterly exhausted, we hung up our snorkel gear for good (for now)!

We walked over to the South of the island to grab a bite to eat and book some things for the next few days. Afterwards, we headed back to our bungalows and hung out with the staff (our new little family). We showed them an Indian movie on our computer (they love Indian films) and they knew the lyrics to all the songs! Around midnight, we went back out to the beach to see if the turtles would come, but alas, no such luck. Tonight, we’ll dream of them instead! 


Day 50: Gili Air

We got up this morning, had some breakfast, and walked over to the East side of the island to snorkel in another area. The snorkeling was great there as well, and we saw so many fish out in the water!

Then we walked over to the North side and had some lunch before going back to our place. We relaxed on the beach by our bungalows, and watched while they prepared for a “sunset party”. We had dinner on the beach and then after the sunset, they lit a bonfire and we all sat around and enjoyed the evening together, chatting with people who stopped by, and just relaxed.

The whole day was so relaxing that we decided to stay here yet another night! It’s great not to have a schedule! This is the life! 

Around midnight, we headed out to a spot on the beach where turtles usually come on full moon nights to lay their eggs. It was a beautiful walk, and we didn’t even need flashlights because the moon lit up the beach so brightly. We didn’t see any turtles, but it may be because the moon was not exactly full yet (we were a bit unsure). Maybe tomorrow! 

Water slowly receding

 Playing with fire after sunset

Island life, and a few mishaps along the way

Day 49: Gili Air

We woke up really early this morning to figure out what we wanted to do, and managed to arrange tickets on a boat to go to our next destination: Gili Air. The one hour boat ride was really rocky and Rachna felt a bit sick along the way, but we made it there in one piece!

Gili Air is the smallest of three islands off the island of Lombok, Indonesia. You can walk the perimeter of the island in about an hour and a half – it’s that small! When we reached the island, we took the only transport available – horse and carriage (no gas or electric transport) – around to look for a room. Unfortunately, the poor horse we got had had about enough of his job and the ride was like a little nightmare, with him freaking out regularly, kicking his back legs up (and hitting the carriage), and sometimes running off, even when the driver was trying to stop him. When we finally chose a place (after having seen many, many places), we started unloading from the carriage when the horse pulled forward right when Rachna had one leg in and one leg out of the carriage. Needless to say, she fell flat on her back on the sand path. Then, as we grabbed the last of the luggage, the horse shifted backwards and would have run over Gaurav if Rachna’s suitcase hadn’t acted as a buffer. Not much fun!

We checked into our bungalow, which was on the quieter and more non-touristy side of the island (thank goodness!), and headed right to the beach to go snorkeling. The snorkeling was pretty good. We saw quite a few different kinds of fish and sea creatures, but the highlight was seeing a turtle just hanging out underneath us in the water! Amazing!

After our snorkeling expedition, the tides receded so that the entire coral was exposed! Apparently, every morning, the tide is high, and then it slowly recedes until the evening, when the water almost completely disappears, exposing all of the coral along the shore. That’s when some of the locals come out to walk on the coral to collect fish and other sea creatures that got stuck in the shallow coral. It was a pretty amazing sight to see that the water we had just snorkeled in was all gone!

We walked along the beach and went to “town” on the South side to have some dinner, and then walked back to our bungalow and hung out on our side of the beach with our bungalow staff (mainly kids our age who live the island life) before heading off to bed. We also decided to stay here another night because we really like it here!


Evening search for fish on the exposed coral

 Boats at sunset

Change of plans

Day 48: Getting outta here!

This morning we decided we were done with Ubud. With the crazy number of tourists here, it just isn’t our cup of tea. The Ubud that we have heard so much about is no more – or maybe we just haven’t looked in the right place. But regardless, it’s time for us to move on to something new. We had heard about some great snorkeling places around the island, so after much negotiating, we finally managed to rent a car and driver this morning and headed out to Amed to get some nature in our system again!

The drive was quite beautiful, with rolling hills and rice paddy valleys surrounded by palm tree forests. Ah, back to the stuff we love! We arrived in Amed and looked around for a hotel, found one, dropped off our bags, and grabbed some snorkeling equipment. We were determined to get into nature as soon as possible! And we did!

The snorkeling right off the island is beautiful. The coral reaches right up to the beach, and there were so many fish all around, it was great! We spent a couple of hours in the water just in awe at the entire world that exists down there. We saw some cool new fish that we hadn’t seen before, like cuttlefish! We were so happy!

In the evening, we had a nice dinner at a small restaurant on the beach, and watched the sun set over the water. Then we grabbed a drink at another place right on the beach, and just relaxed and enjoyed the fresh air!

When we got back to our bungalow, two German girls were sitting on the porch next to ours so we joined them and started talking about our travels. They had just come from another island (which we had opted not to go to), but they were so convincing, we decided to change our plans and head there instead of following through on our original plan!

Tomorrow we have to work the plan out, so it’s going to be an early morning!


 Dinner and a sunset

Where are all the idols?

Day 47: Temple-mania!

Although Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country, Bali is predominantly Hindu, and is known as the island of 1000 temples. So today, we rented a car and driver for a long day of temple visits!

We started off with a nice breakfast and then headed out to the first of many temples on our itinerary. When we arrived at the first place, we were fitted with sarongs and a sash on our waist – worn as a sign of respect in Bali (not a practice in India) – and entered the holy grounds. We walked around and then noticed that there were no idol statues anywhere. Having been into many Hindu temples and worshipping areas, we were expecting to see idols, but there were none to be found. We let this one slide, and went out to the next temple.

Same deal. No idols.

We were extremely confused. Bali, the island of 1000 temples, had no idols. We’re Hindu, so we know that Hindus use idols in their temples, so this was all a bit new to us. But there we were, visiting temple after temple, continually wondering what exactly was going on. After much confusion, we finally asked and found out that there are no statues! The idols that do exist are closed up and only opened once a year (but we have a sneaking suspicion there’s nothing behind those closed doors either because one priest opened a door for us to do a private offering and there was nothing there)!

After seeing umpteen temples and paying hefty entry fees at each one, we finished our temple tour a bit disappointed. I guess we had expected to see some beautiful statues and architecture from the island that is known for its stunning stone carvings! But unfortunately for us, we had no such luck. The one cool thing we noticed in every temple, however, is that there are guides available in every language! It was so cool to see people speaking fluently in all kinds of different languages to tourists.

Right before we were about to call it a day, our driver suggested we go see a “Kecak” (pronounced kay-chuck) show. After the day we had, we would take any sort of culture or art! So we agreed, and thankfully so, because the show was pretty awesome! Basically, about 40 men provide background music, singing “chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck” while dancers perform snippets of the Ramayan – an epic Hindu mythological poem. It was so beautifully done! Then, at the end of the performance, they had a trance and fire dance, where a man meditates himself into a trance and then dances on fire and even eats it! It was crazy! A great end to our day.

We grabbed dinner after the show and then went back to our room to ponder the idea of Hinduism without idols.

Besakih Temple

Kechak Dance

Trance and Fire Dance

Monkeys and Rice Paddies

Day 46: Ubud

Our breakfast this morning was so good! We had a simple Balinese dish of fried rice with chicken, topped with pieces of egg, and fresh fruit juice. If this is how it’s going to be throughout Southeast Asia, we may come back with big bellies!

Since our hotel had no vacancy for tonight, we walked around looking for another place to stay and found a nice place down the path for a lot cheaper. (Bargaining is customary here, and we are slowly sharpening our bargaining skills!) So we shifted our stuff over and then went to town to walk around.

We made our way to the Monkey Forest, where we walked through – you guessed it – a forest full of monkeys! They were pretty cute, and had a lot of character, and it was funny to watch people feed them bananas or the monkeys just grabbing them. Gaurav managed to convince one of the monkeys to climb on his head and he then tried to grab our camera bag! But we scolded him like a little child and he put it down. The funniest moment was when one of the monkeys tried to grab a girl’s dress (after he pooped on it) and her boyfriend yelled at the monkey to let go, but the monkey slapped the guy’s foot instead!

After our time with the monkeys, we had some lunch, walked around town for a bit, and then walked through the rice paddy fields around evening. It got dark pretty fast and we got a bit lost in the rice paddies (a little stressful), but thankfully we made it out (without killing any frogs)!

Then we had a quick bite to eat and headed back to our hotel. Not a big day, but a nice, slow introduction into Southeast Asia!

Best friends

 Rice paddies

Goodbye, Australia

Day 45: Travel day

Today, we bid farewell to Australia. We packed up, had a quick bite, and then decided to run around doing a couple of last-minute things (like buying more art!) before going to the airport to catch our flight to Bali via Darwin. We landed at Darwin with about 4 hours to pass and luckily the airport had free internet so we could get some stuff done (like post some really old blogs)!

Then we got our flight to Bali and got a cab to Ubud, our base camp for the next few days. When we arrived in Ubud, it was bustling with tourists – I mean bustling. And this is supposed to be the “quieter” area away from the real tourist spots! Ack!

It was fairly late, and when we checked in to our room, they upgraded us to a deluxe because they had no more standard rooms left. Our room was amazing! It was a little bungalow with a balcony facing a massive statue of Ganesh, and a private gazebo overlooking a rice paddy! The architecture and all of the furniture and art were so beautiful! 

We walked into town to grab a bite to eat but everything was closed, so we opted for an ice cream bar and a bottle of water. It was night when we arrived, so our flashlights came in handy, however Gaurav stepped on a poor little frog (whoops!), as the rice paddies are full of them at night. It was a little traumatic for Rachna, but the frog was still alive… kinda. Now, sleep! Tomorrow, we explore the area and plan our stay here! 

Our bungalow (we saw it in the daylight the next day) 

Getting things done

Day 44: Our last night in Australia

Today was a “get things done” day. We had a long list of things we had to get done before leaving Australia, so we started on our list by first heading to the post office to send back all our winter clothing, since the rest of our trip will be in Southeast Asia, and we won’t be needing them anymore! Afterwards, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, rested a bit, walked around town, and then found a place with an internet connection and booked a couple of things.

Our next destination is Bali, Indonesia, and one of the requirements for entry is proof of departure. After our experience trying to get into New Zealand, we didn’t want to get caught in that trap again, so we booked our outgoing flight from Indonesia! We also looked up some things we wanted to do, but figured we would arrive in Bali and look for a hotel on our own instead of pre-booking one online – wish us luck! Once our computer battery gave up, we grabbed some dinner and then went back to our room and prepared for the next half of our trip. Nothing much to report today!

Art collection!

Day 43: Leaving PNG

This morning, we got up and sadly shuttled off to the airport to leave PNG. We had such a beautiful time here, but it was so very short. There’s a sort of melancholy leaving a place you love. There’s always that hope that you will come back, but there’s also that tiny little voice that says “what if we don’t?”, and you wonder if you will ever have the chance again. But on the other side, it’s so wonderful leaving a place with sadness because it means you really had a great experience there.

Thankfully, when we arrived at the airport, our tickets were still unsuspended (phew!), so we got onto our flight, and bid farewell to Kokopo, Mount Tavurvur, and all the beautiful people we had befriended in the last few days. We will truly miss them.

We arrived in Port Moresby with 8 hours to pass, but having heard about the high crime rate in the city, were unsure whether we should venture out of the airport at all. We finally decided to grab a hotel shuttle and spend a few hours at the Holiday Inn to grab a bite to eat. At the hotel, we called up a family friend who lives in Port Moresby and luckily, aunty was at home and free to come meet us, so she came and picked us up with her driver and second security vehicle!

She took us around Port Moresby to various art centres, where we had a look at the beautiful tribal and traditional works. Then she took us to their home and we spent a wonderful few hours getting to know aunty, as she told us all about her life, her family, and her two sons in Toronto. Around lunchtime, uncle came home and we all ate together and had great conversation! It was so natural and we felt as if this wasn’t just the first time we were meeting, but that we had known each other forever. They were so warm, helpful, and accommodating, and it was great to spend some time at “home”!

After lunch, aunty’s driver took us to an art store where we made our first major art purchase for our collection! We won’t tell you what it is but it is awe-inspiring! You’ll have to come visit us at home to see it in person! With very little time to spare until our flight, we rushed to ship the item back to the US (a cost that was more than the purchase itself!) and crossed our fingers that it would arrive in one piece!

Then we hurried over to the airport to check in and, seeing we had a couple of extra minutes to spare, asked the driver to take us to one more area where we bought another piece of art to bring home with us! In a matter of about one hour, we made two major art purchases, and were very excited to be starting our art collection in this way! 

We made it back to the airport in time for our flight, and headed back to Cairns, still wishing we could stay back in PNG for longer. We arrived in Cairns and grabbed a cab to where we had left our luggage, hoping they would have a room available, since we didn’t book anything for our next two nights here! Unfortunately, they were fully booked, but they sent us over to another hotel that had two rooms left! The first room went to a guy who arrived with us, and we bargained with the guy to give us the room at a better rate (which he did, phew!), so we checked in, dropped our stuff off, and went out to grab a bite to eat. We went out to a local lounge, listened to some live musicians, had a few drinks, and made our way back to the hotel to sleep. 

What is our first piece of art?!

Tribe friends!

Day 42: Our last day

This morning, we got up very sad that this was going to be our last day here. We really wish we had booked at least a few weeks in PNG because we haven’t even scratched the surface of all there is to see here. There is so much beauty and so many things to do that we are really regretting having such a small amount of time here. Sigh.

So we had breakfast at our hotel and then shuttled over to the festival grounds to see more of the performances. We saw some pretty amazing tribal groups perform, including the Goroka Mud Men, the West New Britain tribe, and the East Sepik tribe. The Goroka Mud Men came creeping out of their area, bows and arrows in hand, and large scary clay-mud masks on their head. These Mud Men are known to be extremely stealth as they hunt for their prey! When they had all come out, they showed us how they could make a fire with elements from nature in under 45 seconds!

When they crept out, the West New Britain tribe came out chanting and singing loudly, while the performers did their warrior dance. Apparently, the tribe used to invade nearby villages, kill the rival tribe, and bring them back to their village to feast on – yes, that’s right, the tribes here used to (and some still do) practice cannibalism! They were so coordinated, it was amazing!

Once they had performed a few dances, they left, chanting, and the East Sepik tribe came in singing their traditional songs in colourful outfits with their faces brightly painted in yellow, pink, and orange. This was the first tribe that had men and women performing, and it was beautiful!

The whole event was exactly what we had been waiting to see. It was so spectacular and beautiful and coordinated and intense – we loved every second of it. We had been hoping to sneak in some snorkeling time this morning, but when we saw the tribes beginning to perform, we opted against it.

After the West New Britain tribe performed, we went over to talk to them (we figured we’re not meaty enough to be meal-worthy, haha!) and they were all so excited to befriend us that they dressed us up in some of their traditional pieces and wanted to take pictures with us! They even gave us their phone number and told us to keep in touch! It was so cool – we just made friends with a PNG tribe!

Unfortunately, of the nine tribes that were supposed to perform, those three were the only ones that showed up! So we went back for lunch, and walked over to the market, where sellers sat with their fruits, veggies, and tobacco lined up beautifully along the path. When we went back to the festival grounds, it started raining again! Thankfully, though, the rain subsided a bit, and the same three tribes performed again, along with one more tribe that had arrived during the break. The funniest thing was while our new friends from the West New Britain tribe performed the second time, their tribe leader started waving at us during their performance and pointed to us telling the other tribe members that we were there! After their performance, we went to say bye to them and they wanted to take pictures with us again! They were so nice! We will definitely call them at least once to keep in touch!

Since no other tribes had shown up, the festival wrapped up for the day. So we went back to the resort and had a drink and early dinner with a couple from Los Angeles that we had met and gotten to know in the last few days. Then, the shuttle picked us up to take us to the final event of our trip: the Bainings Fire Dance.

The bus ride took us on a remote road up into the middle of the forest in the pouring rain where one tribe performed the traditional Baining Fire Dance – a sort of coming of age ritual. A large group of men sang and drummed while men dressed in huge masks ran through a huge fire lit in the middle of a small field. It was haunting and mystical to see only what was lit up by the fire, and to watch these masked men run through it with their bare feet. They even carried two huge pythons, which they would then cook and feast on the next day at the festival grounds (we won’t be there for that)!

Once the ritual had almost come to an end, we shuttled back to our hotel, where we were told we had been shifted back to a basic room (not our original room, oddly enough). Boo. We were somewhat disappointed, but we packed our stuff up and went to bed. Early flight out tomorrow. It’s all ending too soon, but we really feel like we created a little family here and we know we will definitely try to come back here as soon as we have the opportunity – and next time, we’ll spend a lot more time! 

Boyna Tuna (thank you), Kokopo! Yaoura (see you)! 

Goroka Mud Med

West New Britain Warrior Dance

Colourful East Sepik performance

Betel nut and mineral lime

West New Britain with the tambuans

 Bainings Fire Dance

Tribes and rain...

Day 41: National Mask Festival

This morning, we woke up around 3:30am, got ready (still no working shower) and took the shuttle to Ranguna Beach where the National Mask Festival kicked off with the traditional Kinavai event. We arrived at the beach and set up our seats under a blanket of darkness, and waited for the dawn to come. All the people from the surrounding villages were out with us, too! The little kids were excited, and everyone surrounded us, waiting in anticipation. Before dawn began to break, we heard them: the two tribes chanting and drumming as they sailed from Matupit Island and approached the shore. In the boat were many men and a tambuan or dukduk – a man dressed in tree-like-looking garb and mask. The two tribes reached ashore at two different spots on the beach and basically competed in their chants. Finally, they approached each other and competed in chanting and dancing on the beach for a short period of time. We were told that the significance of this ritual was to celebrate the arrival of the tribal Micronesian people on these islands.

After the ritual, we shuttled over to the resort for breakfast, and then headed to the festival grounds in the intense heat. There, each tribe came out and sang traditional songs while they danced with their masks on. The masks were pretty cool, and we really enjoyed seeing the different tribes and their variety of masks. At the break, we found out that the second half of the Kinavai ritual was happening in a remote area in the mountains so we asked Valerie, our hotel guide, if the shuttle could take us there (only three of us went). When we finally found the location, it was pouring rain and we had basically missed most of the ritual. We did catch the end of it, though, where the tambuans and dukduks all lined up and shell money (considered equivalent to the Kina – the local currency) was thrown at them. We couldn’t quite get an answer as to the significance of this ritual, but I did find out that women were supposed to keep a fair distance, as this was a ritual for men.

Since we had missed lunchtime, we went straight to the festival grounds and waited for the rain to stop. While we waited, someone in one of the stalls turned up some music and all the kids (and some adults) started up an impromptu dance party in the field! It was so nice to see everyone having so much fun! Life can be so simple and they showed us how to be carefree and happy, just having a great time dancing in the rain! Next time it rains, turn up the music and start dancing.

Sadly, the rain didn’t stop, and the rest of the day’s events were cancelled due to the downpour. So instead, we went back to our hotel to find out that the shower still wasn’t working and that we were being shifted to a (much much nicer) room at no charge. Yay! We finally showered and then went over to the resort for dinner and drinks. Afterwards, we spent some time relaxing in our nice new room before going to sleep.

Earlier in the day, on the ride back from the second Kinavai ritual, we saw a man walking on the street get soaked by a car driving by through a huge puddle… and the man just laughed! Back home, that man would probably have been cursing the driver of the car. That one little event really made us think about our automatic reactions to things. We have so much compared to most people in the world, so why are we so easily angered? Today, before you react to something, just stop and think for a minute, and see if it’s serious enough that you will remember it tomorrow. Because the words you say in anger are like nails in a fence: you can remove them but they will always leave a mark. Remember: we are better off than 80% of the world’s population – that’s something to be thankful for every day.

Kinavai ritual at dawn


Tribal mask

Performance of traditional dance

 Dancing in the rain!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

First day in Papua New Guinea

Day 40: Harbour "Cruise"

This morning we woke up, got ready (our shower isn’t working), and shuttled over to the resort to grab our morning boat tour around the area. We had breakfast and then went down to the water to meet our guide, Kiapen, and boat driver, Albas, for our "cruise". The boat was a little fisherman-like motorboat, and since we were the only ones who booked for today, we climbed in for our private tour!

The boat took us out onto the water, and we were introduced to Mount Tavurvur, with smoke bellowing from its open crater. Kiapen told us a lot of history about the area, the villages, and the peoples’ experiences with past volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. We passed by small fishing boats and waved at the fishermen, and also saw remains of shipwrecks and caves from when the Japanese invaded Papua New Guinea and were attacked by the Australians. The boats from that era still remain sunk here, so we could see wrecked and drowned ships all around, as well as some old, rusted cannons.

We found out so much interesting history about the area, which was really amazing to learn. For example, one of the now-dormant volcanoes used to be an island on its own, but it erupted some years ago and basically connected itself to the mainland with a 150-metre new piece of land! We also sailed over an area where there used to be an island but due to a massive earthquake, the island collapsed and sunk leaving behind two tall pillars (known as the “Beehives”). When we looked into the water, there it was, the island underneath our boat… I mean, who knew an island could collapse and sink? Just nuts.

Then we sailed by what was left of the town of Rabaul. Very few things survived the eruption, and Kiapen showed us where things used to be – it was a tragic site to see black ash where there used to be a thriving community.

We made our way along the black coast and reached natural hot springs that were so hot (because of the nearby volcanoes) that the water was actually boiling beneath us. We got off the boat and walked on the black ash sand there, being very careful to try to avoid the ever-moving boiling spots. It was really amazing to be walking in hot springs caused by volcanic activity! Then, a man came walking by out of nowhere selling Megapod eggs (more on that in a minute) and we bought one and he boiled it for us in the boiling volcanic waters!

After spending a while there, we went over to the base of the volcano, where the ash-sand was so soft, our feet just sunk into it when we stepped off the boat. We walked around there for a bit and then went over to our next stop: a place where Megapod birds lay their eggs and bury them in the volcanic ash (which is warm so it serves as an incubator). Knowing this, men come from nearby villages and dig out these eggs – their bodies entirely covered in ash – in order to sell them at the market in town.

Finally, we hopped back into the boat and went over to Pidgin Island, where we snorkeled the coral reef there right off the shore of the island. This was probably the biggest highlight of the cruise. The coral there was like nothing we had ever seen, better than the Caribbean. The millions of fish and water creatures in millions of colours blew our mind away. The Great Barrier Reef had nothing on this. This was what we had been wanting to see! It was so utterly amazing to see all of these colourful creatures just swimming around us, watching us as we watched them. We found lots of “Nemos” who were absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, our camera died soon into our snorkeling expedition, so we had to memorize the beauty of it (not that we would ever forget it)!

Our snorkeling time came to an end too soon, and our cruise time was over, so we had to go back to the hotel. We were so sad to be leaving the coral reef and vowed to try and come back before we left PNG. On our way back, a manatee (we think) came up and dove in the water right next to us in the middle of the ocean! So cool!

We had lunch at the resort and then asked our hotel to drop us off at the Warwagira festival – a traditional song and dance festival – happening close by. Sadly, we arrived just as they went on a several-hour break, so we went back to the hotel and passed some time before going back to the resort for dinner.

So far, we’ve made quite a few friends here, and it’s only been a day. The staff here are so nice and so friendly, and we have already been getting to know them and a bit of the language. We only have such a short time here, but we already feel like we are creating a little family! Tomorrow, the National Mask Festival begins!

Fisherman next to the active volcano

Volcanic hot springs (where we cooked our megapod egg!)

 Black ash where the men dig up megapod eggs

 We found Nemo!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A little glitch in paradise

Day 39: Papua New Guinea

We got up around 2:30am this morning for our very early flight to Papua New Guinea, packed up a little carry-on bag each, and left our luggage at the hotel in Cairns. It’s so great travelling with next to nothing – you really don’t need very much! When we arrived at the airport, it was empty! We were the only dorks who arrived at the suggested time before our flight! When the check-in counter finally opened, we checked in, had some breakfast, and got on our flight.

We arrived in Port Moresby, and went to check in for our next flight, which is when we hit a little glitch in our plan: our onward tickets had been suspended by the airline! Basically, when Rachna had purchased the tickets online, the airline had double-charged her credit card, so she had called the credit card company to cancel the second charge, but this resulted in the airline suspending the valid tickets as well. Rachna finally got someone to unsuspend the tickets on the promise that we would tell the credit card company that it was not a fraudulent charge! Phew – who said a little stress didn’t make you stronger! We spent what remained of our 8-hour layover in a café, waiting for our next flight, thankful we had a next flight to wait for.

Flying over and landing into Kokopo was spectacular – the view of mountains, the ocean, the palm tree forests, the islands – it felt like we were landing in a dream. Kokopo is a little town in the East New Britain island of Papua New Guinea (PNG). The island is surrounded by volcanoes, one of which (Mount Tavurvur) is active. The town of Kokopo actually flourished after a volcanic eruption in 1994 devastated most of nearby Rabaul, which used to be the main town in the area.

We were picked up at the airport by the hotel shuttle, and we met a nice 75-year old man on the shuttle, who had moved to PNG and lived there for 40 years with his wife. He had so many stories to tell us about his life and experiences – it was so interesting! When we got to the hotel, we checked in and got to our room, which was pretty basic at an exorbitant cost, but that was the cheapest one in the town, considering we were here for the National Mask Festival. Luckily, our cheapo hotel was the sister hotel of a resort hotel 5 minutes away, so we took the shuttle and went over there for dinner.

The resort was beautiful, with fabulous amenities, a lounge, bar, and restaurant, and huge traditional masks everywhere. Dinner was great, and we spent some time there and talked to the manager, who helped us plan out and book things for our short stay here. We took the shuttle back to our hotel to sleep, and decided we would only sleep at our hotel, but do everything else at the resort, and get the best of both worlds!

 Flying into Papua New Guinea


Day 38: The Great Barrier Reef

After the 10-hour overnight bus ride, we arrived in Cairns at around 6am, walked to our hotel, dropped off our luggage, and headed over to the marina to catch our cruise to the Great Barrier Reef.

The cruise took us out into the open ocean, where we suited up in our snorkeling gear and jumped into the water to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. The waves were quite strong, making the water fairly cloudy and also making it difficult for us to see much, but we did see some of the coral and some cool fish, and Gaurav saw a turtle! Rachna had a bit of a hard time with the strong waves, but we did manage to snorkel for some time. We swam back to the boat, and Rachna felt a little nauseous because of the rough waves, but we had some lunch and she felt better after some time.

The cruise operators told us that when the tides begin to subside, sand islands called cays begin to appear throughout the ocean! So basically there are these sand “dunes” that breach the water when it gets low enough. The cruise then took us out to another area on the reef, where we were taken to two cays and we basically “walked on the ocean”! It was so cool to walk from sand dune to sand dune in the middle of the ocean and to be surrounded by water everywhere with no land in sight! It was like we had discovered an island and were the first to set foot on it! Then we snorkeled some more, and saw some interesting creatures and huge corals.

The ride back to the mainland was quite rough and wet, but we made it! We didn’t see as much as we had hoped to see on the reef, but it was still a cool experience!

We walked around town a bit in the evening, had a bite to eat, prepared for our early flight tomorrow morning, and passed out!

Fish on the coral reef

Cays in the middle of the ocean (can you spot the two of them?)

 Gaurav carrying Rachna over the threshold (on the cay)