TokyoTwenty four hours is hardly enough time to experience any city for the first time, but that is all Richelle and I had in Tokyo. It was a planned layover en route to Bali and our foray into the Asian continent. The jet lag aside, we were equally overwhelmed and impressed.
The city might as well be on another planet, because it is nothing like any other place I have visited. The strangeness greets you the moment you walk out of the plane, with the electronic sensors that monitor every traveler's body temperature and flag the feverish for quarantine, the passport control staff who say nothing and simply point you to a thumbprint and iris scanner, and the trailblazing toilets that are decades ahead of their time.
The JR train out of Narita airport is quiet, comfortable, and precisely on-time. There is a lunch cart service whose operator bows in respect before entering and leaving the train car, and at some point the train simply splits in two with half the cars proceeding to downtown Tokyo and the others destined for somewhere else.
Google Maps wrongly places the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel in Shibuya and not in Shinjuku, a neighboring district a few miles away. This was an error that necessitated a taxi ride to Shinjuku that cost as much as two round trip train tickets from Narita. On the plus side, we did get to ride in a Tokyo taxi, which made me feel like I was in a James Bond movie from the 60s. On the outside, the taxis look just like in the movies. Inside, they are immaculate. The seats are draped in pure white, embroidered cloth, and the drivers are rightly proud of their carriages.
Jet lagged, hungry, and exhausted, all we could manage was a walk to the Metropolitan Government Building, which features a free observatory with good views of the city. It was raining (sadly a common occurrence in Japan over the summer) so we grabbed two clear umbrellas from the hotel lobby, identical to the ones carried by every other local. They look odd, but they really extend your peripheral vision in inclement weather.
The view from the observation deck is good, though hard to capture as it is behind glass. There is also a peculiar Roman-themed restaurant whose plastic pillars and togas turned us away. Besides, when in Tokyo, one should eat as the Japanese do, no?
We tried hard to find a good sushi restaurant in Shinjuku as we walked back towards the hotel but failed miserably. What we thought might be a shortcut led us into a red light district, and as we slowly realized that the naked women behind the pink curtains were well beyond the background level of Tokyo oddness, a pack of Nigerian pimps tried to grab our attention. We pushed our way through using our clear umbrellas as shields and made it back to the hotel, hungry and more exhausted than ever.
Unable to muster any more courage or energy, we settled for a French-Italian restaurant in the Shinjuku Granbell, which was neither French nor Italian. And at Haneda Airport the next morning we came to the realization that the Japanese do not seem to make a distinction between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try as we did to find our expectation of breakfast, we ended up with beef stew and toast.
These meals left us yearning to come back, if for nothing else, for true Japanese food. In the meantime, we formed a deep and newfound appreciation for the movie, Lost in Translation.
Garuda IndonesiaWhen we told friends and family we were headed to Bali this summer, the two most common responses were: “isn't that where that woman from Eat, Pray, Love went?” and “is Bali part of Indonesia?” I was not sure about the first, but the answer to both is – yes.
Our flight from Tokyo to Denpasar was on Garuda Indonesia, which we were abit squeamish about given its safety history. The service, however, was great. The food, amenities, and attention to detail were far better than one would expect in economy class.
The Garuda flight attendants are a mysterious bunch. Their uniform varies based on the class they service, and the ultra-long skirts worried me about their freedom of movement in case of emergency.
They also seem to speak little English. After serving our lunch, our flight attendant made a second pass down the isle and asked:
“Perhaps clear soup?”
Richelle and I exchanged confused looks. “Excuse me?”
She repeated, “perhaps clear soup?”
“Sorry, what is clear soup?”
Again, this time a little more annoyed: “Perhaps clear soup?”
We just shrugged in surrender and gave the affirmative. We got exactly what you would expect clear soup to be: basically, broth. It tasted perfectly fine but felt completely bizarre.
JimbaranWe chose Bali because it is a tropical paradise close to Australia, which is where A9 graciously sent me to attend SIGIR 2014. Plus, May through August marks Bali's dry season, and the weather was, indeed, mostly nice with only the occasional gusty bursts.
We stayed at the RIMBA hotel in Jimbaran, which is a sister hotel to AYANA, a much pricier accommodation, right on the water with its own stunning, private beaches. The hotel provides a shuttle that runs frequently between RIMBA, AYANA, the spa, and Kubu Beach. The AYANA has better swimming pools and a dizzying variety of flowers on the property, as you can see from the photo gallery below.
With free access to better amenities at the AYANA, the RIMBA seems like a good deal. That is, until there is a wedding at the AYANA. On our last day, an Australian couple tied the knot there, which meant that (the better) half of the hotel was simply shut down. (thank you, Riley and Courtney!)
According to a press release on AYANA's web site, this is only the beginning. Apparently, the construction we had seen on the site was an attempt to place an even bigger focus on weddings at the resort.
After a couple of idle days we grew restless and began to wonder what lies outside the property fence. We called a taxi and ventured out onto the town of Jimbaran, which is famous for rows of seafood restaurants right on the beach. The driver dropped us off at his friend's restaurant, and the moment we got out of the car, throngs of locals encircled us, aggressively trying to sell us anything they could.
The beach looked apocalyptic. A rusty shipwreck jutted out of the water, just feet from the restaurant tables, and packs of stray dogs chased each other on the dirty sand. Even the sunset looked ominous, which was probably just as well for we did not have much time to admire it in trying to avoid the dogs and restaurant hosts, who made tireless attempts to flag us down for dinner. Yet, there were plenty of tourists, who somehow seemed to be having a good time, laughing and taking pictures.
Jimbaran exhibited poignantly the stark contrast between the five-star utopias that are the resorts and the quotidian squalor in which most locals live.
Balinese CultureAlthough part of Indonesia, Bali is quite different from the rest of the country — nearly nine out of ten Balinese are Hindu in contrast to the Muslim majority of their archipelagic compatriots. In discussing the socioeconomic problems with others, it seems the Balinese religious customs are a major obstacle to modernization. Every year for Nyepi, a “Day of Silence,” the airport is closed down for an entire day. No one is allowed on the streets, and no one is allowed to use fire, light, or electricity, including hotel guests. Why these extreme measures? To help drive evil spirits away.
The only positive to these customs would be the beautiful silence. Our visit to Bali being safely outside of Nyepi featured daily (morning and evening) sessions of gamelan, the most obnoxious and unpleasant sounds ever played. Ask any random kid on the street to play the bamboo xylophones, and I am willing to bet you will hear something better than the discordant cacophony the so called musicians produce.
The Balinese also follow two calendars: a solar calendar having 365 days, similar to our own, and another having 210 days arranged in 37-day weeks with a variety of odd-length weeks. Both are followed concurrently, and the intersection of cycles indicates to the expert interpreter whether a day is a favorable, unfavorable, or somewhere in between.
As Hildred Geertz, an anthropologist specializing in Balinese art forms, says, “the cycles and supercycles are endless, unanchored, and uncountable and, as their internal order has no significance, without climax. They do not accumulate, they do not build, and they are not consumed. They don't tell you what time it is, they tell you what kind of time it is.” A tourist arriving on an unfavorable day can find shops closed and streets deserted.
The Balinese are deeply superstitious and make daily offerings in the form of flower petals, seeds, and sometimes incense. These are placed outside their houses and business establishments, often right on the sidewalk. It is unclear whether the gods appreciate the offerings, but the birds certainly do, and after an hour or so in the sun, the contents of the banana leaf boxes are rotting and a major eye sore.
The other oddity one sees everywhere is Saput Poleng, which are checkerboard style blankets draped over trees, statues, and even worn by people.
UbudOn the day we transferred from the AYANA to the Regent Bali in Sanur, we hired a driver to take us up to Ubud, a mountain town known for rice fields and yoga. It turns out hiring a driver costs about the same as renting a car, around $40 USD plus tip. Driving is not recommended unless you have driven in some place like India. And even if you are a daredevil, it is just not worth it. Police set up random road blocks specifically targeting tourist drivers.
The Bali traffic yield diagram is not what one might expect, either. The larger object in motion has the right of way. SUVs yield to trucks, cars yield to SUVs, motorcycles yield to cars, and no one yields to pedestrians, except maybe the stray dogs who are just ever so slightly lower on the totem pole. For two vehicles in the same category, the one in front has the right of way, even if a bumper is just an inch in front of the other. There is no concept of “cutting someone off.” Turning or merging into traffic is achieved by means of a honk, which is viewed as more of a courtesy than anything else. This turns traffic circles on their head, and pedestrian crosswalks are nothing more than a decoration.
We reached Ubud around lunchtime, and our driver dropped us off near a highly rated restaurant called Sari Organik. The restaurant is on an organic farm that is a 700m (0.4 mi) walk from the road on what looks like a foot path but is treated like a motorcycle lane. The motorbikes notwithstanding, it is a peaceful walk through pretty paddy fields. The food at Sari is good and cheap. A filling lunch with beverages was less than $20 for two people. The view is lovely, and it being a farm, the landscape is ever-changing. While waiting for our food, we were enthralled by a house cat on the hunt for a field mouse.
After lunch, we walked back to the main street, enduring a few more harrowing encounters with the zippy motorbikes. A fine coffee house provided a great escape from the street chaos and cover from a sudden rain shower. Although this was the dry season in most of Bali, Ubud is rainy year-round, which is probably essential for the rice crop.
Our driver seemed more cranky on the way back, and we learned after an unexpected stop at a convenience store that he was Muslim, and it being Ramadan, he had been fasting. We felt guilty that we made it back to our hotel 30 minutes after sunset, keeping our poor driver hungry.
SanurThe Regent Bali in Sanur is a true 5-star hotel, almost too nice. It made me feel like we were staying in a Colombian drug lord's villa. The rooms are the size of what would probably pass as a four-bedroom apartment in Tokyo.
Unlike the RIMBA, the Regent is on the east coast, which meant no sunsets, but the sun rose every morning over the ocean through our luxury balcony-patio and into the bedroom. The east coast also happens to be quite windy, and at times, especially when overcast, it felt like we were weathering a hurricane. The strong winds are evidently a frequent occurrence as most palm trees and other trees in the resorts are propped up with three our four stakes in the ground.
Here too, the traditional sounds of Bali were in full swing. The hotel suites are built around a courtyard with a lily pond and a temple of sorts in the middle. In the mornings and evenings, a duo would bang the instruments for hours on end at various speeds and intensities, sounding like wind chimes in a tornado. And the practice would not only take place in our hotel but even further down the street, so there was really no way to escape the cacophony.
Compared to Jimbaran, Sanur is a much calmer town with nice cafés and restaurants. Just around the corner from the Regent is a pub that featured live World Cup matches as well as replays all throughout the day, which made catching up on the games easier since the quarter finals aired at midnight and 4am local time.
Every restaurant in Sanur is inexpensive, but some are practically free. One pitiful establishment served “a pizza margherita” for $2 that was worth every penny. We called it the three Cs – the crust was a giant cracker, the sauce was made of chutney, and the topping was cheese. There was no basil. Unsurprisingly, there were no other customers besides a French family with two obstreperous kids.
Just across the street from the three Cs pizza is a quaint, Australian-owned restaurant serving traditional Balinese / Italian food. The staff is friendly but extremely timid. We stopped here twice for dinner, and both times our waitress wrote down our every word as we placed our order. Every question or comment left her quite confused. On our first night, she asked:
“Just two wine glasses?”
“Yes, unless you would like to join us,” I replied jokingly, and she just stared back awaiting additional clarification.
An interpretation I heard later for the detailed note taking during the ordering process is that some of the servers' command of English is so inadequate that they write down the instructions phonetically in their own alphabet, taking it over to the kitchen for transcription and translation. If this is true, it is a miracle we got what we wanted.
The Regent also has an affordable restaurant on-site with fantastic breakfast that is included with the room rate, and nice lunch and dinner options; that is unless there is a wedding, in which case the traditional banging of the xylophones will chase away anyone but the deaf and members of the wedding party.
Lake BaturOn our last full day in Bali we hired another driver to take us up to the Lake Batur region. We were hoping to hike up the volcano, but the TripAdvisor reviews provided such scary accounts of treacherous trail conditions and aggressive locals that we figured just snapping a few pictures of the volcano would be good enough for us.
On the way to Batur, the driver made an unexpected stop at a coffee farm. Later, we learned the government requires drivers to meet a certain quota of business referrals, so it probably was not for personal gain. And although we felt obligated to buy really bad tea and coffee, the experience was quite educational. I, for instance, am ashamed to admit I did not know pineapple is a bushy plant that grows barely two or three feet tall.
The Lake Batur region is just as others described it on TripAdvisor. The moment you exit the car, you are encircled by locals fighting for your dollars. The only way to even take a picture of the paysage is to have lunch at one of the restaurants on the edge of the mountain. Needless to say, they rely on the scenic backdrop and not their menu selection to stay in business.
Closing remarksBali is a beautiful island with wonderful people. It could be paradise on earth if it weren't also chaotic, dirty, and poor. Outside the artificial comforts of the resorts, tourists are haggled relentlessly, and it is hard not to feel pity for them and want to help. But there is also a shady expect: police checkpoints are set up to target tourists specifically. Real life trolls set up posts on the sides of roads demanding tolls. Even a “bridge donation” to cross a shoddy bamboo bridge at the rice paddies is actually more than a suggestion.
These surprise toll collections exist throughout the island and even into the departure terminal of the airport. Our guidebooks made no mention of it, but for the privilege of leaving the country, one is required to pay 200,000 rupiah per person, or $22 USD as determined by a horribly ad hoc exchange rate.
Rather than force tourists to spend money on things that make them unhappy and irritated, I suggest to the people of Bali to charge for things tourists actually like and want.