Beach Life Redefined

I can still close my eyes and just see touristed beaches elsewhere. It’s summertime and the briskness of morning can still be felt in the air. These early hours are dominated by beach-blond surfers hitting the water; some are zen-like cool, others are territorial assholes. The occasional jogger becomes the first of the day to imprint the sand with carefree, confident steps. As the sun heats the sands, colorful board shorts and bikinis begin to paint the landscape. Most arrive in groups of two to four, and in these small groups find areas on the beach to lay claim to (spread out equidistantly of course). The occasional boat might pass on the horizon, silhouetting a sandcastle a boy has made, complimentary with the help from his happy meal sand toys. It’s quiet except for some small chatter and the break of the shoreline, only the occasional whiff of something SPF-40 or higher touches your senses. This is what I recall it is like, but just barely. At the moment “elsewhere” cannot be further from our experience.
We’re in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Beaches line the town on 3 sides of the peninsula. We’ve checked out Otres Beach and Ochheuteal Beach here, and they, for the most part, support my image of a beach. Sunny. Calm. Relaxing. But today we decided to venture to Serendipity Beach, the popular beach of the area. Here, they’ve taken elements of what we’ve seen around other touristy beaches in Asia and crammed it into a 1 kilometer stretch of sand. We arrived via a dirt path, women in asian-style pajamas and kramas (Cambodian scarves) immediately asked if we wanted massages, pedicures or our toenails cut. We declined and hurriedly turned to our left to walk the beach, or more accurately the 1-2 meters of beach between where the water hit the shore and where the edge of the restaurants was. Yes, the beach itself had been swallowed up by about 50 beach shack restaurants with enough lounge chairs and beach umbrellas to block out the sun and the sand. Every few meters a restaurant gave us their pitch. “Cheap food! Free lounge chair! Happy shake!” Each pitch we tossed back to them politely, but firmly and kept walking. We passed a monkey leashed to a tree. And after we walked enough of the beach to not be able to distinguish one area from another, we settled down and tried to take it all in. Women continuously walked past us offering plates of fruit, cooked lobsters (and at $4 for 10 lobsters, we indulged), drinks, souvenirs and of all things…nursery plants. Small Cambodian children played in the water and came from 1 of 2 camps. Either they splashed around completely naked and for the most part only with other kids of their age, or they came to the beach in shorts, long-sleeved shirts and neon bright life-vests. These children waddled into the surf, with watchful parents arm’s lengths away. For some reason the word for “fear of the water” escapes me.
Western tourists laid out on the lounge chairs, ordered beer and read novels. They (and we) soaked in the sun, and occasionally went into the water to cool off before reapplying our sunblock to minimize the actual sun we soaked in, in order to do it again for as long a period of time as possible. It is clear that Asians view the beach differently. Groups of Cambodian young adults played beach games together. Soccer games spontaneously sprang up and just as quickly dissolved on different parts of the beach. Groups of women played Monkey-in-the-Middle in waist length surf, fully dressed and just as often in full hysterics. Men buried their friends in sand and gave them sand-boobs. And speedboats pulled groups of 7 on huge inflatable water toys, only to dislodge the laughing riders into the water at the end of their trip.
It was busy, chaotic and loud at the beach today. There’s so much going on that an image of a serene, isolated stretch of beach blips into my head but has no staying power. But tomorrow we’ll go back to Otres Beach and see again the blue of the ocean, the white of the sand. We’ll escape the crowds, the vendors, the stimulation and just relax. We’ll soak in the sun (as minimally as possible), swim in the ocean and repeat the process. I’ll get through the rest of the mystery I’m reading, maybe treat myself to a Happy Shake. And part of me will recall the groups of Cambodians playing like it’s their first time at the beach, or like they are once again six years old, maybe as if it’s both. And for some reason the word for “fear of jealousy” escapes me.

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

goL yliaD

5:48 pm Friday—I touch foot to sand and yell over my shoulder, “Crack open the strawberry oreos!”

5:32 pm Friday—I’ve just overpaid the boat captain by 50,000 rupiah. He knows it and I know it. We both knew I would pay it the moment Mari and I dragged our sweaty, worn selves out of the van in the middle of nowhere as the sun was beginning to set.

5:30 pm Friday—After the 2 hour drive, we finally pull into Tanjung Batu. I smile out at the villagers who are returning home from work and all of the people on their porches. Blank stares or outright sneers are their responses. I turn to Mari and say, “Whatever it takes, we’re getting a speedboat and getting there today. I don’t think we’re welcome to stay here tonight.”

4:12 pm Friday—We just went over a huge pothole in the road. The driver had no choice but to swerve to avoid going into a part of the road that had previously collapsed. The pothole though, makes my backpack jump in my lap and it comes down on me heavy. The baby is jarred and stops breast feeding in the front seat. Why is it immodest for this Muslim woman to show her hair in public, but able to let her boob hang loose? I’m just asking.

3:27 pm Friday—I’m in the middle of the street in Berau and staring at the driver as he’s staring back at me. In front of us is the boot of the van, and it’s filled with eggs. At least 90 dozen eggs, stacked from floor to ceiling. I laugh because he seems to think I can put our backpacks on top of them. What the hell?

3:15 pm Friday—We just passed a turnoff to Tanjung Batu. Looks like we’re doublebacking.

1:46 pm Friday—My car buddy says something to me in Indonesian, which I assume means move. I oblige and we all exit the car that’s pulled over to the side of the road. And then we all take a few steps into the rainforest and pee. I find some plants whose leaves, as a defense mechanism, instantly close up when you touch them and aim my stream at them in attack mode.

12:53 pm Friday—Road trip! That’s what this feels like. I don’t know the driver or the other three men in the car that exists somewhere between a taxi and a carhire, but there’s some feeling of companionship in listening to the same music and having a shared destination. They’re my car buddies; they just don’t know it yet.

11:40 am Friday—Are we there yet? Are we there yet? I’m 55 minutes in to this boat ferry and starting to feel sick. Maybe it’s being cramped in a small boat with 29 other people, maybe it’s the low roof that’s making me feel like I can’t breathe, maybe it’s the small dirty windows that don’t allow me to see the horizon, except between the bounces of the boat.

10:38 am Friday—I repeat the Indonesian word for “head.” Then, “mouth, nose, and eyes.” The man that sold us our boat tickets has taken a liking to me as evidenced by this impromptu language tutorial and by the fact that his hand is on my thigh. My upper thigh. It’s a nice moment except for his hand.

9:59 am Friday—I’m still holding out hope there’s another way…a shorter way. But our hostel receptionist and the taxi driver both confirm that if we want to get to Derawan, our route is as follows: 1 ½ hour ferry from Tarakan to Tanjung Selor-3 hour taxi to Berau—2 hour taxi to Tanjung Batu—30 minute speedboat to Derawan. Damn you Lonely Planet!

7:30 pm Thursday—Mari and I think it’s best to eat someplace simple and quick as it looks like we might be in for a long day of travel tomorrow and need a good night’s sleep. So, we’re eating at a mall foodcourt, which turns out to be more interesting than expected as it has a karaoke performance going full blast. Funny Asians.

4:07 pm Thursday—“How can you not know how to get to Derawan but your travel agency advertises itself as ‘Derawan Travel?'” I ask the woman across from me. She mutters something to us and returns to her paperwork. Mari says, “Thanks…for nothing” as we turn to leave.

2:00 pm Thursday—“To Derawan? No, not from here. I think you have to go to Berau.” answered our taxi driver, giving us the first inkling that I’ve read the signs wrong.

12:21 pm Thursday—Our plane just landed in Tarakan. Hopefully we’ll be in Derawan by the end of the day!

11:44 am Thursday—We checked in, paid our airport service tax and got through security in eight minutes. Record time. And with a minute to spare, I buy some strawberry oreos and jokingly tell Mari, “We’ll save these as our reward for getting to Derawan.”

11:36 am Thursday—I’m in front of the ticket office of Sriwijaya Airlines and they’ve just assured me that if we buy now we can still catch the flight that is scheduled to leave in exactly nine minutes. I take it as a good sign, since we’re supposed to be able to get to Derawan from either Tarakan or Berau and this flight leaves forty minutes earlier than the Berau ones. Could it be any easier?

Posted: August 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Intro to Indonesia

So we spent yet another night in an airport-this time in Jakarta. I dare say we are getting quite good at this. Even though contrary to prior online research, we were told that no waiting lounge existed, and therefore we would have to sleep in the baggage claim area, we settled in (or on) for the night across from a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk. The wooden benches in addition to being flat and backless also had perpendicular armrest bars cutting each slab in thirds and making it impossible to lie down. The humidity set in and the mosquito slapping began, but we took it all in stride. A mere few months ago and this would have been bad. Now we just make ourselves as comfortable as possible and plan to sleep in shifts. However, it would seem that I have become relaxed enough in our travels that about eight minutes into my watch, I caught myself and my eyes flew open to see Jeff staring at me with a mixture of exasperation and irritation. Whoops. Even though I assured him that he could get some sleep and I was perfectly capable of staying awake, Jeff was the one who kept vigil until morning.
We took the public bus into Jalan Jaksa as planned, found lodging right away, and slept through the entire rest of the morning and afternoon. We ended up staying in Jakarta for what ended up to be about a week, taking care of some travel business matters, in the form of applying for more passport pages at the American Embassy, and subsequently obtaining tourist visas at the Chinese Embassy. During our free days, we mainly explored different parts of Jakarta. The electronics mall was a highlight (more so for Jeff) with eight floors of every possible model of camera, camcorder, video game, computer, TV, DVD, with phone and iPod accessories and more imaginable. Taman Mini Indonesia (what I can only liken to an Indonesian Disneyland in the 1950’s) was underwhelming, yet interesting. Our decision to go there had not been based on much research, and I had thought it was simply some large park. I don’t recall “theme park” being written anywhere in the description. Our nights in Jakarta were spent becoming regulars at a local restaurant and wifi hotspot across from our hostel.
A couple of overnight trains got us to Yogyakarta and back, although had time permitted, we both agreed that we could have spent more time there. The Lonely Planet has not gotten much right in regards to Indonesia; however they managed to in regards to Yogya, which is described as “an uneasy truce between the old ways of life and the trappings of modernity”. We took our first bekak ride (a covered seat powered by a guy on a bicycle), bargained at the craft stalls and strolled around the bird market, which had flying foxes, komodo dragons, monkeys, rabbits, and owls for sale, and declined an offer to watch the prize cock in his next cockfight in the morning.
“Yogya” as it’s commonly called, while a major tourist destination in its own right due to its proximity to Borobudur had a certain charm. We went to see why Borobudur is the number one tourist site in Indonesia, and it did not disappoint. The temple was built from two million stone blocks and wrapped around a hill to form a stupa. There are terraces and stairways leading to the top tier where Buddhas sit inside individual latticed stupas. The walls of the corridors are covered with intricate carvings depicting Javanese life and Buddhist scriptures. And despite all the tourists, there was a feeling of calm and peace.

We took a short flight out of Jakarta and into Bali earlier this week. It feels like an entirely different place and it is. We had a hard time choosing where to stay on the island, but chose Sanur as our home base. When we first arrived in the late afternoon, we dropped our bags off in our room and headed straight for the beach, less than five minutes away on foot. When we got there it appeared we had made the wrong decision. The “beach” was a long stretch of sand with boats haphazardly moored here and there. There was no crashing of waves. There were no waves at all. Instead, there was a grayish-white film covering kelp and debris a few inches deep resting on the shore that gradually became the dark gray-blue of the ocean. Down the length of the beach was resort after resort, each marked by their signature lounge chairs and pools which were deserted. The staff were getting ready for dinner, and despite the fact that it was sunset, we saw only a couple of tourists wandering around and all the dining areas were empty. This was supposed to be high season. We each made our guesses as to what was the matter. The economic crisis. The recent bombings in Jakarta. The less recent bombings on Bali. Whatever the case, we were bummed. This was not the Bali we had envisioned.
Yesterday we took a taxi to Kuta, the next beach town over. It was as touristy-beachy as anything we’ve seen. Surf shops and flip-flop stores fought for space with designer sunglass and clothing boutiques. The restaurants with outdoor seating had their misters on and the mist floated at regular intervals over their customers and towards the crowds at Starbucks. I was tempted to stop in at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for my favorite drink, but had to remind myself that I am still supposed to be in “Travel Mari” mode, and something like an English Breakfast Tea Latte will have to wait until I’m home. We made our way to Kuta Beach and breathed a sigh of relief, wishing we had chosen to stay there. There were waves and surfers catching them, soft sand, couples snorkeling, sunbathers, and lots of people but not enough to call it “crowded”.
But on our way to catch a taxi back we had second thoughts, as the streets were just a little too packed with everything we had been trying to escape.

Today, we gave Sanur beach one more shot and were quite happy to discover that it was a perfectly pleasant little beach, now that it was high tide. It was transformed. Sanur was the calm version of Kuta. The waves were not as big, but the quiet was both relaxing and invigorating. There was enough of a breeze to pull the kite surfers and windsurfers trying out their skills, and the only noise was snippets of conversation of beach-goers and the occasional roar of a jet ski. This is more like it. And a yummy dinner at a little warung cost us a total of $1.70. I like this Bali.

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »