Saturday, April 25, 2009


I was really happy that our plans had changed so that we actually flew into Changi airport in Singapore. It's sort of like a pilgrimage for a traveller like me as it is considered by most people to be the nicest airport in the world. I was impressed and actually wish I could've spent more time there. That might sound strange but it is nice and has free internet, free showers and all sorts of other nice aspects that you wouldn't normally get at home.
We were expecting Paul to pick us up at the airport and he did not disappoint us. At the same time, we left Jake behind. Paul's aunt and uncle were going to host us in Singapore for a few days and simply didn't have space for another person. Jake was planning on taking off on his own side adventures as well so with plans for a future reunion we separated at the airport and ran off with Paul. (As it has since turned out, Jake will be going home in a couple days due to an emergency so we will not be meeting up with him again unfortunately).
Paul's aunt and uncle were really kind and had a great little apartment in the northeast corner of the island nation. It was so strange to get on the metro and see all the development everywhere. There are so many apartment blocks and colour codes for them. It is crazy how organized and nice this city is. I must admit that I was always a little scared because there are lots of signs for various fines (you can't spit, jaywalk, eat or drink on public transport, chew gum and a bunch of other things that I do on a regular basis) and the cops are all plain clothes so you never know who is going to bust you.
It was good to see Paul again and he quickly took over as our Singapore guide, making sure we didn't suffer any cultural mishaps in a new country :) I don't know what to say or where to start. Singapore really does seem like one of the nicest places to live anywhere in the world and dad and I were ready to go out begging for jobs so we could stay indefinitely. Ya, I'd put it on the list of places I could actually settle in for a while. Not many cities have scored that high. The public transit is amazing, the food is great (if a little too high compared to neighbouring countries) and it is very multicultural. If I had a complaint it would be that in a country with incredibly high fines for littering they don't have enough garbage cans. They don't have enough benches to rest on either but then, I can't really imagine anyone there actually taking time to sit down. The pace of life there is so fast that I imagine it could be pretty lonely there. Nobody has time to talk to you on the street :(
We spent a whole day wandering around the colonial area and the old riverfront area. Land reclamation projects have pushed the old waterfront far inland, and city cleanup projects have developed everything into tourist cafes now so it's a bit hard to imagine the seedy port days of a few decades ago. Now it just seems to be skyscraper after skyscraper followed by huge apartment blocks.
We spent another day walking down Orchard road where shopping mall follows shopping mall, in a not too subtle hint to spend money, to the botanical gardens which were really beautiful and definitely worth a visit. I don't know what all to say other than it was really good to have something so organized and reliable for a change and to meet various relatives of Paul. Paul is with us for only a month so unfortunately we need to move a little faster than we wanted and left Singapore after only 3 days.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Darwin and Kakadu, Australia

Yes, Australia. A very spontaneous and last-minute decision really, as we had no intention of going before. Why would a bunch of broke travellers go there? Well, we thought we had it all figured out. From East Timor our goal was to get back to Singapore and the mainland but without backtracking through Indonesia. Brainstorming options in Kuching (back on Borneo) with Jake we found the cheap flight to Darwin and a cheap one from there to Singapore. Why transit when you could stop a few days? Especially since the Aussie dollar had been hit hard by the economic crisis?
So we gave ourselves a week, figuring to rent (and then sleep in) a car and go visit the free Kakadu National Park nearby. Sounds great on paper but if even the best laid plans go astray, this one, built on enthusiasm rather than research, was doomed from the start. Even before the got there things went downhill for us. In the month before we arrived the Aussie dollar gained 10% and I couldn't find a good deal on a rental car like we'd had in Ireland or South Africa. One interesting way of travelling Australia is to rent a camper van already decked out and just sleep in it but there were none available. Even the car I eventually got (a Hyundai Elantra) had limited Km on it (we'd've gone nuts with one week and unlimited mileage). And then we arrived.....
Somehow we overlooked the minor detail of arriving on the morning of Good Friday, one of only 4 days a year when EVERYTHING is closed. We got our rental car and had intended to hit a supermarket and go straight to the park. Not to be as there were no stores open anywhere. We'd have to stop for the night somewhere but a quick look in town at the price of a dorm (ouch) and after getting attacked by a psychotic bird, we made a demoralized retreat to the outskirts in search of a caravan park. They wouldn't even let us in the cabins for a single night and since we didn't have camping gear (we sent it home after Africa) we kept moving out further until we found a tackle shop with some basic gear and advice on where we could bushcamp. Are we in Australia or back in Africa now? Actually so many features of this trip reminded us of Africa that we constantly accidentally referred to it as such. With that developed yet remote feel, a rental car and white people, it felt like we'd been transported back to Namibia or South Africa again.
Our bushcamp was successful and yet miserable because I slept in the car (the others outside) and it doesn't cool down at night at all. You could literally wring the sweat out of my shirt that night. It is so hot and humid in the area and with no breeze, day and night that all you do is sweat and sweat and stink and stink. On paper Darwin is only in the low 30's and the same as most of the rest of southeast Asia but it feels like the hottest place I've ever been. Seriously. 50C in Peshawar has nothing on this. My body had completely lost the ability to not sweat. The signs around the park (yes, we eventually did get there) tell you to drink 1L of water per hour! I guess they've run into tourists with this problem before...
As if all this wasn't bad enough we ran into the real torture of the area, mosquitoes. We woke to the biggest and most vicious swarms of mosquitoes I've ever seen or even heard of. Thousands waited outside the tents every morning and attacked anything that smelled like us. All my exposed flesh (and a lot of the covered flesh too because they bite right through shirts and socks) quickly became a mass of bumps, while my clothes, the tents and the inside of the car were covered with the mutilated remains of the victims of my anti-mosquito wrath. And I had a lot of wrath... Jake became my best weapon because he always woke to the underside of his tent fly completely covered with dead ones :) Still, it was to be the all consuming but ultimately hopeless battle that would end up defining my Australian experience.
The first morning's trip to the supermarket to stock up also kind of freaked me out. Food is so expensive (worse than home) and after telling myself for the last few years that anywhere with lots of white people is overpriced and touristy and best avoided, it was all I could do to not run out of there screaming. Home culture shock is not going to be pretty for me. It seemed like everyone else was also buying baked beans and tuna because it's fishing season now with even the immigration guy at the airport telling us we'd picked a great time to come because the fish were big and biting. Yeah, right. So were the mosquitoes.... After a quick look at the locals I'd have to say that the guys all seemed to be big and tattooed, with 4x4's and vicious-looking dogs all walking around with their shirts off and a beer in hand. Stereotyping is sometimes quite accurate. All but the tattoos (quite common in Asia) were a shock. The women, well, let's just say their not even close to being my type.
Having equipped ourselves we entered Kakadu NP. Kakadu is one of the major natural attractions of Australia and is about the size of Israel. Crocodiles are its most famous residents and it was the place they filmed Crocodile Dundee. Around Darwin there are tons of Croc parks all with regular feeding schedules for the gory scene if you want it and actually it seemed like that and WWII history locations were the only attraction signs pointing off the road.
Although there are lots of vegetative zones in the park, most is savanna woodland and it felt like we were on African safari again but without any hope of seeing the Big 5. We didn't come all this way for animals though. Kakadu is beside some traditional (and self-governing) Aboriginal land (Arnhemland) and so it is most famous for its prehistoric rock art and other Aboriginal culture. Aborigines have been in the area here for 40,000 years so this is some of the oldest (and youngest) rock art in the world with work being dated from around 20,000 years ago up until the 1960's or so. I think this just ended up adding to an even more African element to everything because those guys are totally black too. More so than some Africans I have seen.
So the plan was to enter a free park, stay at the free campsite and drive around for the week going on hikes and looking at rock art. Little did we realize that the days would be so hot we'd spend most of our time hiding in the car for A/C and half the trails were still closed because it was the end of the wet season and they were still flooded or unsafe. The free campsites had no water and only pit toilets, there was no breeze so the air was incredibly hot all night long and the mosquitoes had reached "biblical plague" proportions. We had found hell and all of us were openly counting down the days when we'd be sent back to the comforts of the 3rd world.
Lacking a tent, I used two mosquito nets, one on the ground and one from a tree, to make something resembling a tent that I could hide in in the evenings. Repellent just did not work at all so we more or less were held hostage in our tents as soon as we arrived at camp in the evening shortly before sunset until we were roasted out of our tents in the morning sun. One time Jake got out of his tent, zipped it up, grabbed something from the car and jumped back in his tent and then had to spend the next half hour killing the 101 mosquitoes that got in with him.
It wasn't all bad though and we did develop a system for our days. In the morning and early afternoon we'd visit the sites or go on short hikes and then spend the late afternoon in the small A/C library at the visitor centre until it closed before going back to camp. We also snuck into one of the resorts a couple times to use their showers and pool. As for our "safari" we didn't see any crocs, but did see a handful of wallabies beside the road on our way back to Darwin. Go figure, they were outside the park.
So it was with great relief (and a sense of dread, the way things had been going) that we got on the plane to fly to Singapore where we were to meet up with Paul for a month.

East Timor

After 3 days of forced rest in Larantuka, the ferry to Kupang, Timor finally left. It was a 17hr overnighter so we ended up sleeping on the hard metal floor with the karaoke and movies going all night just above our heads. We were supposed to meet Jake in Kupang (as it turned out he had gone on ahead of us) but when he didn't show up we immediately jumped on a 7hr bus to Atambua. The following day, despite our best efforts, we were completely undermined by the hassle and stupidity of the touts and transporters and could not get the last 30km to the border and had to stay another night in Atambua. By that point I must say I was very ready to leave Indonesia.
The following day we gave in and took motorbikes to the border. It was a memorable crossing in that it was right on the water and had a beautiful coastline, the Indonesian border immigration officer had a mohawk and the East Timor immigration post was a little portable and so ghetto looking that we didn't even notice it at first and walked right by until guards in an overhead machine-gun nest sent us back. First time in ages we've had customs lift a finger and touch our bags too. They were friendly though and even on the bus to Dili we found the locals to be more polite and mature. Yeah, the bus driver still tried to overcharge us but the locals weren't all laughing about it.
We got to Dili, the capital, in the afternoon and at the only (overpriced) hostel in the city learned that Jake had left that morning heading east. As we were totally exhausted, in a country with limited transport, and had only a couple days until our flight out, we opted to just stay in Dili the whole time.
East Timor's recent history is a bit chaotic to say the least. It was colonized by the Portuguese until 1974 (Indonesia had been Dutch) when a coup in Portugal led to the dumping of almost all its colonies. Just like those other colonies, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique, East Timor went into civil war. The winner was a left-leaning party and as soon as it looked like things might settle down there, Indonesia invaded with US, UK and Australian backing. It was the cold war after all... It became just another region of Indonesia, albeit one with a constant guerrilla war going on and the local populace frequently getting severely mistreated by the military. In 1999 East Timor voted for full independence in a referendum and immediately after, pro-Indonesian militias trashed the country until the UN stepped in. In 2002 the UN handed over power to the first president (the first lady was actually an Aussie) and they've tried to make do since.
There were major riots as late as 2006 and there are still lots of UN trucks driving around in Dili. You already know my general opinion of the UN and NGO's so I won't go into it again other than to say that a lot of locals have had some severe criticism of their two-faced "saviours", especially the Australians, who are the most involved here and who's government recently tried to scam all of East Timor's newly discovered oil reserves for next to nothing.
Tourism is still almost non-existent and like all countries in similar situations, the prices are much higher than they should be. Actually, transport wasn't bad and since food prices had been steadily increasing as we travelled east, the local food was as expected, but any accommodation or western targeted thing was priced for the UN staff, not us. So, with 3 days I went out to see what I could discover in a new land.
Being ex-Portuguese, the population is Roman Catholic but we saw no signs of celebration for Holy Week. They do have a giant Jesus statue overlooking the beach and town and one side of the city. There are still lots of building shells left over from the riots and generally things are quite run down, but it looks more like a poor African country than a recent war zone. This image was only enhanced by the fact that as we'd been travelling east people were getting darker so that by the time we got here, some of the people even looked African black.
I've also found that my Portuguese colony trend has held up. I've noticed that the women in ex-Portuguese colonies look significantly more attractive than the immediately neighbouring countries (this is a relative, not absolute, beauty). The question is, did the Portuguese, who had first pick and ended up with a limited number of colonies chose them based on the beauty of the local populace or is there something about a Portuguese cross-breed that really increases beauty? I think I need to go to Portugal to look into this, lol. In the case of Dili, it doesn't really matter because the girls (and most of the guys) wouldn't even look at me. I felt completely ignored walking around town. It's obviously because of all the peacekeepers here so they aren't all that excited by the presence of foreigners, but it was a sharp contrast to the laughing hassle we constantly got just across the border.
The population and development here are really low and I've heard that the beaches are amazing (the coast we did see was really beautiful) and the scuba diving is supposed to be world-class too. With calmer waters ahead of them, hopefully things will continue to improve but realistically their size and isolation will doom them to becoming just another forgotten country dependent upon foreign aid for its survival.
When Jake finally came back to Dili the day before our flight he recounted for us the most horrifying and heartbreaking story of the whole trip. He had gone east, bushcamping on the beach, and one day while sitting alone out there a 10 year old local boy came up and offered himself for sexual services. This kind of thing doesn't just randomly happen, so the question is how and from whom did this kid learn that foreign men in East Timor are potential customers for this type of thing? I'll leave you to your own conclusions.....
I mentioned isolation, well, you know how hard it was for us to get here overland and the Dili airport itself is tiny and has only two routes to the rest of the world, to Bali and Darwin, though I hear an expensive Singapore flight will be running soon. We opted for Darwin, Australia because we found a good deal on what, not long ago, was considered the most expensive scheduled flight route in the world per km (or something like that).

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


With our limited time in Indonesia, I'd pretty much decided that the island of Flores would be our main destination. Komodo NP is reached from Flores and having completed that, it was off to the other major attraction, Mt. Kelimutu. Time wise it was roughly 2/3 of the island away from us and would require 2 full days of journey.
The trans-Flores highway from Labuanbajo to Larantuka is only about 700km long but takes 3 days to cover (and we ended up doing the whole thing) because Flores is very mountainous and for most of the way it is impossible to find even 50m of straight road. It is the windiest 700km of road I've ever been on and if you are even slightly prone to getting car sickness don't even think about it. The western half is the worst and that's where we started, with a 10hr day to get to Bajawa where we had to stay a night. We were lucky in finding a good guesthouse (Nusantara) with an honest and helpful lady in charge. Unlike everywhere else, she helped us to get bus tickets approaching the right price. Indonesians seem to overcharge tourists for all transport, even in non-touristy places so it's really bad where tourism actually exists. The drivers want to charge ~25% more than the local price for long rides (well over double for inner city bemo rides) and a hotel or travel agent will charge another 20% or so on top of that so quickly you are paying 50-100% above the real price. The bad news is that it seems like everyone is in on it and even the locals who in another country would tell you the correct price will quote the high price to you. It's frustrating trying to figure out what we are supposed to be paying. The good news is that it's like Ethiopia (very tempting to hate because of the hassle, but so beautiful and everything bargainable so it's still cheaper than all the neighbouring countries so still worth visiting). We also figured out that for some reason the buses will give tourists a better deal going west rather than east.
I did not enjoy that first ride at all. Departure before dawn so all you want to do is sleep but can't because you keep getting thrown around in your cramped seat. All I can say is that it's a good thing it wasn't a packed bus because I was on the verge of going insane. The 2nd day was much the same but for only 7 hours. Still up and over mountains with their dense mass of greenery. Rice and bananas where any attempt at cultivation has been made, palms and bamboo and 1000 other plant types where it has not. At times the road would descend to a coastal city and you'd look down on a rugged, undeveloped coast of clear, blue water. Not much sand though. To complete the perfect wild beauty picture we even passed a smoking volcano. Dad got a little excited and I think we have 50 photos of it now, haha.
With the help of a recommendation from some other backpackers we found a nice place to stay just outside Moni, the village base for Mt. Kelimutu. Again, the ladies running Palm Bungalows were very nice and charging a lot less than elsewhere for extra services like food and motorbikes up the mountain. Kelimutu is a sacred active volcano (though it hasn't blown in over 100 years) famous for its 3 coloured crater lakes. The lakes are currently dark green, turquoise and black but have been known to randomly change colours and have been red and yellow in the past. Each lake is quite different, with different mineral concentration and colour histories. The locals consider the 3 lakes to be the resting places of souls, separated into 3 groups, bad, young and old. Most people go up for sunrise so we went up at late morning just as the clouds were sitting in and had the whole place to ourselves, with the exception of a group of Indonesian tourists who took just as many photos of us as the lakes! It took us about 3 hours to walk back down, through a few villages and fields along the way. The views would've been more impressive without the clouds but we did make it back just before it started pouring.
We needed to get from Flores to Timor to reunite with Jake but couldn't get reliable info on the ferry schedules. Everyone had a different idea and after getting someone to call the ferry office in Kupang (Timor) it was decided to continue the final 7 hours to Larantuka at the eastern end of the island rather than backtrack 2 hours to Ende. So we had another long day on the bus, only to learn on arrival of yet another different departure day! This is why we had to rush through the other islands, so we could hurry up and wait. With the help of a local girl we got into a cheap guesthouse beside the dead port 5km out of town. And we waited...... It would've been nice if I hadn't already finished all of my books.
I guess I should also address the religious situation here. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world and the 4th most overall. With a few bombings in Bali and Jakarta, it's often portrayed as another hotbed of extremism. That couldn't be further from the truth. With 250+ million people in a poor and politically turbulent country like this, you are bound to get a few nuts, but really it all seems quite tolerant. Bali is Hindu and Flores seems to be mostly Christian but even in Muslim Java it felt very moderate. Headscarves are the norm but everything feels pretty relaxed. This is not even close to the Middle East. But I have to admit that I haven't been overwhelmingly impressed with the people here. I think I am often reminded more of obnoxious and immature Indians than respectful and hospitable Muslims and I really didn't expect that. I also suspect that being constantly laughed at is getting to me more than it should because I'm so tired, so you can probably ignore what I've just said. At the same time we have met the odd very friendly person here and there, but in general you can't say that they are like the Filipinos or quiet and straight forward like on Borneo....