Friday, March 8, 2013

Almost One Year In (Part Two): Things We Miss

People by nature are creatures of habit. My piles of print media in any abode I've ever lived in can attest to this. After being gone so long (11 months and counting now) from our normal, everyday lives they're quite a few things Alli and I pine for that we can't find here. Or if they can be found, it's rare or just not the same.

The following is quite food heavy and, yes, obviously we miss family and friends, duh. This is actually the hardest part of being gone, missing people. This list is in addition to everyone we miss. I ranted on in my post from yesterday (found here) about a hodge podge of things Alli and I are glad to be done with in Asia, but below it's exactly the opposite. This list is comprised of things we would have loved to have on many occasions. For example, if Mexican food could stand up to international shipping conditions we would have asked for that care package many months ago.

It might not be a burrito but Kenny and I were pretty pumped for our Sonoran hot dogs in Cozumel, Mexico in Dec. 2011. Fry everything up! * All photos can be enlarged by clicking on 'em.
I didn't think these Mexican staples would be so hard to say goodbye to. Southern Arizona, and obviously our neighbor Sonora, has some impeccable food: sweet pork tacos, greasy lard-filled tortillas, carne asada, tortas, the list goes on and on. But the standard burrito is sorely missed. This was Alli and I's go-to food: before the lab for her, on the way to track Gila monsters for me, and a cure-all hangover grease bomb for the both of us. Not to mention many a cheap dinner date. Yes, we've both separately had food fantasies about scarfing burros.

Live Music
I've always had a weakness for blowing money I didn't have on concerts. And I'll never regret that. Whether it was for bigger names like George Clinton or the Fleet Foxes, or one of the plentiful kick-ass local shows Tucson had on the regular it was well worth it (shout out to Scrilla Gorilla!), especially now that our live music attendance has ceased. I'd give anything to get on down and have the opportunity to throw my back out again. But I don't think Yo La Tengo or Big Boi will be playing Sulawesi anytime soon.

Sometimes it's hard for Alli and I to look at this photo cause there's just too much tasty cheese on it. If only it was simple to make homemade pizza with goat cheese, mozzarella and pancetta on it when traveling.
Self-explanatory. You just can't find it here often. Processed American cheese slices don't count. That's like saying you miss hearing rock 'n' roll and then someone says "Hey, listen to this!" while handing you a Nickelback CD.

If you can't tell Alli (and myself) were quite excited for this bag 'o' pizza "topping" we found in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo. We even made an elaborate pasta since the cabin we were staying at had a kitchen. Unfortunately after checking the ingredients docket, we found out 49% or so of this "topping" was filler, and what was in that filler, we do not know. Probably sheep's grease or something else utterly appetizing.
I pedaled Blue Boogie all over Tucson. When I got my sweet bike trailer I was then able to cart around caged snakes, small pieces of furniture, cases of beer, even our cat Polly. While we had motorbikes at the turtle project on Tioman it just ain't the same. Juara's the perfect size for a couple of bitchin' road bikes and hopefully when we return this spring Alli and I will be rocking 'em. And if we're lucky the salty sea air won' t turn them into creaky piles of rust too soon (see entry below).

Noah and I looking fresh to def before the last Urban Assault Ride Alli and I participated in before we left for SE Asia. Team Tie Die! Tornado tore it up. And Noah, we all still know you should have won that mustache contest.
A daily newspaper? Nope, but that's also because I'm way too American and don't know any other languages beside English. Magazines? A slightly overpriced National Geographic here and there, but I wasn't desperate enough yet to fork over $20 USD for a New Yorker. Time will tell.

Moments like this for me are unfortunately few and far between.
Refried and Black Beans
Slathered in a chimichanga, topped with cheese or straight out the tin in the field, I don't hate. Every time Alli and I wander into a supermarket we always check the appropriate isle, thinking, maybe this one place will smile down on us. I'm not one for dreaming of canned food, but Amy's Refried Black Beans have caused this. I think we're both going to ask our parents to ship some out. No joke.

Granola & Yogurt
This entry was a surprise to me. When Alli and I had one of our first conservations about what we missed, this popped out my mouth. Obviously the headiest, most crunchy hippie entry on the list, but tasty granola was always one of my favorite snacks. They have yogurt out here, but it's mostly a cup of sugar with a splash of yogurt. I might as well eat a doughnut instead. 
Not only am I raising the roof cause I dig living in the desert, but also because all the clothes I'm wearing in this photo are mold and rust free. Full journalistic disclosure: this desert here is Joshua Tree National Park. I never actually lived there. I did live in a city called Tucson, about five hours to the east though.
Mold & Rust Free Stuff
Living in the desert has its perks: ample sunshine, sexy sunsets, Tiger rattlesnakes, Sonoran hot dogs, and never having your possessions fall victim to mold or rust. To say it can be quite humid out here is an understatement. Almost all of my shirts, a few boxers and my favorite shorts already have accumulated an impressive abstract art display of mold. A few of the shirts look like a demonic kid sat down with a ballpoint pen, setting up the perfect game of connect the dots. Even my miniature medical kit and Alli's copy of David Quammen's Song of the Dodo are gathering mold. Being constantly sweaty doesn't help the cause. Rust is a steady creeper too, brandishing its image on my fingernail clippers, and book bag and fanny pack zippers.

Living on the ocean and up against the steamy, humid jungle (throw in some tropical rain too) does a number on your belongings. As I'm going to press the latest casualty of mine to bite it is the bathing suit I'm wearing in this photo. Mold is running rampant everywhere inside 'em. And it's too bad you can't zoom in better to the water pump I'm lugging out here, there was so much rust on this thing it was just one colossal tetanus infection waiting to happen. FYI: We're changing Jo's tank, the blind Green sea turtle that resides at JTP, in this photo. That's Alli up ahead with the hose.
Fresh Mushrooms
Too often it's the can variety out here, especially on Tioman. They don't even compare. I never knew it before I left the states but I'm a big fresh fungi fan. When you do find it in SE Asia it's yummy, especially the white fungi they sauté up in oyster sauce. But those canned shrooms are always lurking in the shadows, ready to jump into my fried rice or noodles, or even worse, trying to front like they're okay to be in fresh pasta.
Canned mushrooms all up in my spaghetts.
My Own Personal Coffee Maker
Sometimes I just wanna do it all by myself. One of my favorite morning rituals was grinding beans and brewing 'em up. I just can't get in the zone like I used to. Once in awhile I can do it when we're traveling, but it's not the same. I don't think any other guests want to see a grown man making coffee while singing Prince's "Take Me With U" in the kitchen commons. Some people just don't appreciate Prince's funky jams enough in the A.M.
While I take my afternoon Milo making very seriously, it just doesn't compare to making a strong cup of black coffee in the morning.
I figured I'd end another blog with a jolly Alli and her afternoon tea. This cup was enjoyed on the deck of our homestay, right outside Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Almost One Year In (Part One): Things We Don't Miss

The Lady and I have been gone from the U.S.A. going on one year now, almost 11 months. We’ve spent the majority of our time (six months) in SE Asia in one Malaysian village: Juara, located on the east coast of Pulau Tioman. The rest of our time has been in various Indonesian states (Sumatra, Komodo and Flores, Bali, Maluku and Sulawesi), other Malaysian areas (most notably the state of Sarawak on Borneo) and a few days here and there in Singapore.

Living in Malaysia, and traveling through Indonesia, makes you realize aspects of American culture you don’t mind being done with. The list below comprises a variety of things I’m not getting nostalgic about here. Good riddance one could say. The next post will be a list of all the things we are pining for back in America, but to learn what we aren’t sad to leave behind take a gander below.

Living in Tucson you are privy to scenery like this, but also all the problems that goes along with  the locale. See the first entry below. In this photo the sunset is over the Santa Catalinas from Saguaro National Park (RMD). *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.
Petty Tucson Theft & Crime
Tucson was by far the most frustrating, and incredible, locale I’ve ever lived in. The crime there had a way of slapping you in the face and sobering you up to the reality that the Old Pueblo has got gigantic problems. Over the course of my four years there our house was broken into, my bike was stolen, Alli’s car was broken into numerous times (I’m still fuming over the bozos who stole a half empty box of Franzia and most of my Parliament/Funkadelic CD collection, leaving everything else), her tires were slashed and a guy who stole a cop car and shot at numerous police died in a police chase at our intersection. It’s sad, but if you live in Tucson, it’s just part of the package.

Numerous people jacked into this car while in Tucson. For real for real, who steals cases of burned CDs these days?
Toilet Paper
God bless the wet toilet. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. A squat toilet with an ass blaster (it’s a hose that shoots water out if you don’t get the comedy) can’t be topped. No more clumps of TP necessary. No cultural subject aroused more ire and hysteria at the turtle project than asking Westerners to give the hose a whirl. Most we’re not amused. * Not all thoughts expressed here represent Alli’s opinion.

Gimme that butt hose!
Knowing What Day of the Week It Is
We keep up with the date, but that’s about it. On Tioman we worked everyday so keeping track was trivial. Time was way more vital, especially when it came to patrolling beaches for nesting females and knowing when to expect those spastic hatchlings to rise up out the sand.

Using Debit Cards
It’s all Juvenile’s record label in this region, cash money. I rarely ever spent cash in the U.S. I think Tucson’s food truck scene accounted for most of my dollars, the rest got spent when I went to Bisbee and Sonoita. ATMs are prevalent, especially in cities, but everywhere you go wants that paper. Your money goes straight to the source; no bloated financial companies take any percentage.

Indonesian Rupiah, the smaller bills. For reference: roughly $10,000 Rp. is $1 USD. Check out Pattimura on the 1,000 note brandishing that machete! I think we've used a credit/debit card once the entire time we've been in that county.
Arizona Politics
Like missing cheese, this one is also self-explanatory. Every year it seemed the statehouse grew more wack: decreased environmental regulation; a toxic, allergic reaction to reforming tax revenues; a giddy, deranged enthusiasm to escalating tuition for higher education; circulating the idea to let people bring guns everywhere, including college campuses; demonizing Mexicans or anyone with brown skin, to name just a few. The Arizona legislature is a paranoid microcosm of post-Tea Party America, pushing the doctrine that government is an evil, rights devouring wolf, while privatized corporations are altruistic work-horses. It’ll be hard to dive back into this farce.

This is a completely selfish entry, but it’s not in the cultural cards to tip out here. It’s looked upon as peculiar and unnecessary. Tipping at a restaurant is something you don’t do, but it is appropriate for things such as scuba diving, when you have a solid guide (to go trekking, etc.), or a deft boat captain and versatile crew.

View of Bandaneira's harbor at sunset from our homestay's outdoor porch. We stayed in a room above a lady's house.
Impersonal Accommodation
A lot of the time here you’re staying at someone’s home or sharing their space (common area, kitchen, backyard, etc.) with them. This isn’t checking into a Motel 6, where the only interaction you might have with the front desk is when the non-dairy creamer runs out. In the Banda Islands, we stayed on the second floor of a lady’s house. We used the same kitchen and laundry machine she did. We see each other in the morning and she graciously brings us coffee and yummy bread with nutmeg jam on the side. She offered to go, and did, pick us up dinner when Alli was sick. We’ve done homestays in Sumatra, ate fried noodles for breakfast in Bali as the owner’s daughter did her homework and been woken up constantly by one persistent crying child in Flores. It’s incredibly refreshing and fun.
And she brought us homemade nutmeg jam from the nutmeg tree in the yard. Tasty stuff in the morning. The Banda Islands were once the most sought after islands in the world because they could grow sackloads of nutmeg. People went nutty for nutmeg back in the day. Now in the U.S. it just complements eggnog and rum very well.
Miracle Whip
Haven’t seen this monstrosity in this hemisphere yet. I hope it stays that way.

American Car Culture
Alli and I have been lucky enough to visit copious national parks, nature reserves, out-of-the-way locales, museums and more. We’ve done all this without a car. Buses are simple to use in Malaysia, but are everywhere, pulsing vibrantly in Indonesia. Sometimes with Celine Dion or T-Pain cranked up way too loud. You can get almost anywhere on a bus or the back of a motorcycle. It may take forever, you might have salt stains when you reach your destination, you might have to wait out the rain, but you’ll get there. Can you take a public bus to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge or Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona? No way.
Can't get to the places above (Saguaro National Park, RMD) or below (Aravaipa Canyon, Brandenberg Ranger Station) by reliable public transport in the U.S.

Not Having Afternoon Tea Time
I don’t get, or ever plan to be a fan of, various facets of British culture. I could care less about the royal family. I’ll never read about their world-renowned soccer teams on the sports page. I never got the appeal of the Streets, what type of rapping was that? But this whole tea time business in the afternoon, why yes, Alli and I will gladly bring that back across the pond with us. Who can argue with a delicious warm beverage, coupled with a snack, preferably fried and filled with fruit? I’m already at the end of my second cup as this blog comes to a close.  
Myself getting all kinds of awkward with a tray of tea and plate of pisang goreng (fried bananas). Also at Bandaneira.
Alli showing how it's done! Looking quite proper with her afternoon cup on Pulau Ai, another island  in the Bandas.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Allure of the 'Local Price'

One thing that most travelers seem hell bent on getting is this: the ‘local price.’ People are obsessed about it. Fellow travelers always want to discuss it. It’s hard to have a conversation with other tourists without this figuring into the conversation. They just can’t help themselves. It’s like talking to a fellow American about where you’re from. When I say Tucson or Arizona I can bet money that sooner or later there’s going ask if it actually is that hot down there amongst the cactus and rattlesnakes. Or even better: “is it really a dry heat?”
Taking the daily 'local' boat from Bandaneira to Pulau Ai in the Banda  Islands. So much stuff in the boat, including Alli's out of place bag. Gunung Api, the volcano, looms in the background. I think they charged us $0.10 cent more than the local price, so what? Side note: it's also nap time. *** All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.
In discussing the ‘local price,’ I’m not talking about getting ripped off or scammed here. I’m talking about fellow tourists always wanting to make sure 100% that they’re paying the same fare as the Sumatran sitting next to them on a bus; forked over the identical amount to enter a regional park; even got the standard rate for a ride on a Malukan becak, an Indonesian three-wheeled bicycle-rickshaw. It’s the allure of the local price and if you make it your goal to always try and get it, you’ll probably drive yourself bonkers. Or at least turn into some bitter, paranoid tourist who’s always worried about getting swindled. And the worst part is, you pulled all your hair out and had a hissy fit over a couple of bucks.

Now, Alli and I are no expert travelers, we’ve been to a few places in Malaysia and a few more in Indonesia. We’ve also been to Singapore, but the local price there doesn’t matter cause everything’s expensive compared to their two neighbors I mentioned above. For this post I’m discussing Indonesia where to keep things simple, mostly everything can be negotiated and is not fixed, while in Malaysia it’s much different. Talk to travelers in Indonesia and they always want to know how much you paid for the bus to get here, for your room, to get into the national park, for a kilo or two of mangoes or rambutans, or god knows what else. A few times on Pulau Flores, the main gateway to Komodo, I was asked if we had gone to see the dragons. “Why yes we have” I’d enthusiastically reply. “How much was it” was usually their next question? I’d immediately think: are you serious? I was just on an island containing the largest lizard on earth, which can kill prey 10 times its size and easily ambush and digest myself, and you’re inquiring about the cost? I should have answered: “Priceless.”

A becak driver in Kota Ambon. It's a bicycle with a seat for two in front. Quite a jolly ride! He's surrounded by motorbikes. There's always an ojek who can take you somewhere on one of these. Hold on to your hat though!
The mystical, alluring local price mostly revolves around transportation and accommodation, especially the former. Fares for all kinds of transpo: long distance and regional buses, bemos (minivans that zip around cities, you can hop on or off wherever, usually at set prices), taxis, ojeks (motorbikes that one or two people can hop on), the aforementioned becaks, and any kind of boat under the sun when you need to get from point A to point B. The problem with getting the local price is in the description, we ain’t locals. We aren’t Indonesian, we aren’t Malaysian, or Asian. We’re foreigners and considering Alli and I are white Americans we also stick out pretty easily. This present hairdo of mine isn’t helping.

The other problem with it is that since we are tourists we are equated with having boatloads of money. It doesn’t matter if I was a brain surgeon at the University of Arizona living in the Catalina Foothills, or a field grunt tracking down Gila monsters and renting an apartment. To the casual observer I’m rich, no matter what my profession and tax bracket say back in the U.S. Whether Americans are better off besides monetarily is another socio-cultural question for another time, remember Biggie's mantra: mo' money, mo' problems. Parts of Indonesia are very economically poor: no reliable electricity or any at all, no clean drinking water, no adequate sanitation, and no waste disposal. A lot of people live on $2-3 USD per day. A friendly stranger that strikes up a conversation with me and learns that I quit my job and don’t have one to go back to so I could come out to their country to gawk at lizards, scuba dive, sweat up a volcano and stare at colorful birds might think I’m weird, on my honeymoon, or maybe even a missionary. But regardless of all that, I’ve got dough.

Indonesia bemo in Kota Ambon. These are mini-buses and are everywhere in Indonesia, always going someplace. Some are much more elaborately decorated than this one, especially in Sumatra.
The real part about the local price that pisses me off is how cheap everything is out here already.  At our hotel last month in Kota Ambon a fellow tourist was grumbling about how he paid $7,000 Indonesian Rupiah for a bus ride when he knew the local going rate was 5,000. This might sound like a lot until you realize $7,000 Rp is $0.70 US. Yup, 70 cents. He lost a total of 20 cents. I wish Justin Timberlake could have told him to cry a river. You hear it everywhere: this bus cost $5 more than it should have, or the ojek ride should have been a dollar or two less. People try to haggle costs down a lot, same goes for hotel rooms, too. I find all this exhausting and utterly boring.

We’re in a country that’s comprised of 18,000+ islands, every religion under the sun, some truly exquisite flora and fauna, the tastiest satay I’ve ever had, and you wanna jibba-jabba about price differences. Come on. Enjoy yourself. Part of the reason we’re here is to boost local economies, not strong arm people. I also have a bone to pick with folks that get a high off haggling down the ojek or bus drivers, or guilt tripping the hotel into giving them a discount because they’re staying multiple days. Ease up. Its one thing to haggle for those bootleg headphones in the market, but beating down an ojek driver to accept a dollar less is unnecessary. Every traveler needs to be aware of what certain prices are so they don’t get scammed or totally taken, but thinking every Indonesian is out to wring you of Rupiah is just sad. These people need to make a living and copping a condescending attitude cause you are some ‘important’ tourist doesn’t give you a cool story to tell or make me envious of your penny-pinching skills. I’d say it makes you an ass clown.

Taking the boat back to Bandaneira from Pulau Ai. It was a banana cargo morning.
I’ve came to this conclusion about the local price, and now I’ve gone on this rant (isn’t that what blogs are for though?), because I used to be knee-deep in the allure. I had to get the local price. I was on a mission to not get ripped off. At least that’s what I told myself. Then when Alli and I visited Sumatra last September I had a little episode. We found out after arriving in Harau Valley that our ride out should have been $20-30,000 Rp less than what it was. I was furious. I was embarrassed in front of the jolly homestay worker. I got mad at Alli because we let the driver dupe us. We got in a silly argument. I huffed and puffed sitting on our front porch, with rice paddies in the foreground and a misty, long waterfall coming off a vertical rock face behind me.

Getting worked up in this place? Now that was just silly.
Alli ignored me for awhile. I thought about it. We lost $2 or 3 USD. Two or three bucks! I’ve wasted thirty times that in Bookmans in less than an hour (one doesn’t need Stephen Still’s entire catalogue on vinyl). I was in Sumatra’s version of Yosemite Valley, surrounded by waterfalls, rice paddies and lily ponds with calling frogs. I was mad over an amount that couldn’t even get Alli and me a Sonoran hot dog each in Tucson. I calmed down. I relaxed. I let go. Later on the local fried chicken and rice with peanut sauce went splendidly well with the scenery. The late lunch for the both of us ran $4 USD. Was that the local price? I don’t know. I never asked.