Monthly Archives: November 2011

Bali Hai

I have neglected my responsibility to show you some of the beauty and cool stuff about Bali. Sorry. We have been planning our next jaunt and it has consumed my time, imagination and dreams.  But I must finish posting about Bali before I move on, so here goes.

Bali Hai beer. A good way to start your vacation.

Bali has beautiful countryside to look at. These rice terraces are all over the hills. Bali also has long stretches of white sand beaches. I am trying to stay positive with this post, but behind me when I took this picture is a long line of traffic and hundreds of hawkers and junk stores. Plus the beaches are covered with sunburned Russians. Our tour guide described Russians as "loud, vodka drinking louts who do not tip."

Bali's highest point is this volcano called Gunung Batur. The drive up to it, while crowded with people like us (damn tourists), is quite beautiful.

Bali has always had crafts people. They have beautiful weavings. They carve wood for you to buy. But my favorite, and probably the most evocative art craft in Bali is Batik. They make all types of clothing, including unfortunately shirts. I bought more than I will ever need. Anyone want a 2X sized batik shirt? This photo os of a woman applying wax to the design already drawn on the silk. Then they dye it, and do it over again for every color. This is time consuming and labor intensive. Yet, at least in Bali, the shirts are not that expensive.

The food in Bali is really quite wonderful. The seafood in particular (duh, it IS an island). I loved the way they served this rice side dish with the banana leaf dunce cap.

The best place we visited in Bali was this producer of Kopi Luwak. If you ever go to Bali, go here.

This is why you should visit this place. This is Kopi Luwak, which crudely translates into coffee from the shit of the Luwak. The luwak is a cat like animal that feasts on ripe coffee beans. The digestive process of the cat leaves the beans intact, yet secretes any hint of acidity in the coffee. The locals find the cat shit, then they remove the beans and roast them like any other coffee bean. The result is the best coffee this reporter has ever drank, and I have had Costa Rican Terra Zu, Jamaican Blue Mountain, you name it. I love good coffee. This tradition came from colonial edicts that prohibited the locals from harvesting beans for their own use, so they started harvesting the cat shit. When the Dutch ruling class tasted what the locals were drinking, it became a craze. Now it sells for US$1000 a pound in New York. Restaurants charge US$90 a cup for it.

Keeping with weird tradition of showing you what the restroom signs look like...I am glad they used the words or I could not have figured it out.

Could you?

The very weirdest thing I found in Bali was in the men's room of the lobby in our hotel. Take a good look. Too weird anywhere, especially in the men's room.

Well folks, that is it for our trip to Bali. Overall we enjoyed it, but like I said in the previous post, it is not worth the effort or cost to get there. (It took us 26 hours to get home,from the hotel lobby to our living room and cost way too much money). Bali never considered sustainable tourism in their plans, and it is too late now.

Thanks for reading. Tell a friend. Make a comment. Share with your FB people. Please.

Next post…London!

Bali: Paradise Buried.

If Bali is on your bucket list, scratch it off. I’ll save you the long plane ride and the money to get there by telling you that the romantic, idyllic paradise you have in your mind about Bali has been buried under tourists, traffic and trash.

Our introduction to Bali might have jaded us. I know it jaded my wife.

The line at immigration was not long, but the clerks were very slow. Directly in front of us were two grungy euro looking trekkers with dreads. I fully expected them to get seriously scrutinized and delay our entry even longer, but they sailed through like dignitaries to the upcoming ASEAN conference.

Then it was Mary Ann’s turn. Well dressed, polite, and the most honest looking face on either side of the coconut, I expected her to just pass through like a wind across the plains. However, the immigration man started seriously looking at her passport, page after page after page. We have residency permits from the UAE and Panama in our passports, along with stamps and visas from more countries than I can count.

The immigration clerk took her passport and handed it to a supervisor. He took his time scrutinizing it. Then he called over a guard, and they whisked my wife off behind a grey metal windowless and closed door.

This is the reception you get at immigration in Bali. Well, at least it seemed like it to us.

I figured I was heading for the same fate, I just had no idea why. Bali is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim country, so I doubted the UAE residency permit was the problem. Neither of us has been to Israel, so what could it be? The first thing I did of course was politely demand to know where they had taken my wife.

“To office” was all the clerk said.

“Why” was my logical response.

“No full page” he answered.

“May I go back there and see her?” I asked, fully expecting a negative response.

He finished putting my visa in my passport and just waved me away. So I walked over to the door they had taken her through not knowing if it was going to be full of hungry tigers, hot oils, dragons or what. I found her sitting on an industrial couch which was indented with the impressions of too many posteriors that had sat there for too long. I asked her what they told her. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “hell if I know”. I told her what the clerk had told me “no full page”.

The look of recognition crossed her face like a sunrise on the beach. “I told you I should have gone to the consulate and gotten the extra pages put in. But I have two blank pages. What is wrong?”

Then they called her into the inner sanctum, just her. 15 minutes passed while I watched a 15 year old tourism highlight video.    I began to think this was all I was ever going to see of Bali. It wasn’t even in English.

She came out alone with a look of bewilderment and the attitude you see before surrender. She explained to me that the last two pages of the passport are for “Amendments and Endorsements” and that they could not put the Visa sticker on one of these pages, and all the other pages were full. Well, this is one of those problems that you feel lucky to have, but stupid to have to suffer through. A full passport is a beautiful thing, unless you are using it.  I asked her what we could do, and she said we could “get on a flight to somewhere else Anywhere else.”  She was saying just loud enough that the officials in the back bowels of the immigration bureaucracy enclave could hear it. These guys were all dressed like traffic cops, cheap white uniforms with tin badges. I expected to see a whistle. One of them came out to ask her to go to yet another cage full of dragons. He did not close the door behind them this time. I could hear Mary Ann saying “OK, OK, we’ll just leave.” I had no idea where we would go. Thailand was underwater, we’ve done Hong Kong. Australia is too damn far. Besides all that, if there is no space in her passport, we’d probably end up in another colorless office with even less colorful mignons.

Then she walked out of the office and told me to follow her. She said something I never thought I would hear my Jesuit schooled wife say. “We are going to have to bribe the guy.”

So I went into this little office. The calendar on the wall was from the wrong month, and two years old. That calendar was probably the most modern thing in the office. If I remember correctly the phone on the desk actually had a dial on it. I was welcomed in like a sheep to slaughter. Little did he know that I was not exactly new to this. I lived in Latin America for too many years and dealt with too many petty  men in uniforms of too many corrupt governments to let him bother me. This had never happened to me in Asia, but I knew it was just human nature.

He started off by asking what I did for a living. I could have told him I was a writer for Conde’ Nast and that this story was going to go a long way to stopping the almighty tourist dollar.  My mind which has read a thousand spy/adventure novels was telling me to say “Yeah, buddy, I’m a major in the USAF and if you don’t quit messing with my wife I’ll call in an airstrike on your grandfather’s fishing boat.”

But I realized that he was in the right. He was being an asshole about it, BUT, Mary Ann DID have a full passport.

So it came to the transaction.

“What is your policy?” I asked.

He was at least honest enough to say, “This is only my policy, not the government’s.”

OK, OK, the negotiation was on. This was his way of increasing his take home pay. In these situations, the objective is for neither party to lose face. I waited for him to make the first offer. When he did, I turned to Mary Ann and said simply, “Shall we go to Chiang Mai?”

He showed a bit of vulnerability. I could tell he was counting on this American cash cow to make his day. I could have gotten rougher with him than I did, but he DID have us over a barrel.

I then offered him ½ what he asked for. This was no different than buying a knock-off watch from a street vendor. He came back with half between that and his asking price. Knowing that all I had in my pocket was half that again, I agreed. He was a very happy little crook, until I emptied my pockets and said “oops, that is all I have.” The top bill was a US$100 bill, which works like gold nuggets in the modern world.

Then this slimeball opened up Mary Ann’s passport and found a very suitable little place for the visa, quite easily. The bastard.

So now we were off to our pre-booked and pre-paid 5 star beach resort. (By the way, we would have lost that payment if we had not paid off the immigration man and he knew it.) We had to wait in a log line with dozens of other tourists to get an authorized taxi. I had to ignore, ignore, and ignore again a gypsy cab driver. We finally got to the front of the line after being pushed back in line by a group of Russians and bought our trip. Bali, being just one of the thousand islands that make up Indonesia, uses the Indonesian Rupea, which is one of those mostly worthless currencies. At the time of our trip it was about 8600 to $1. So the cab ride was like a 1,000,000, or something with a lot of zeroes.

After 36 hours in Singapore, the first thing I noticed was the litter. As we drove out of the airport the next thing I noticed was the traffic. We were back in the land of motor scooters, but even that concession to the congestion did nothing to ease the pain. Nothing moved. It took us an hour to go the short distance to our resort.

Thisis just an example of the traffic in Bali. Traffic jams are everywhere, day and night. It takes hours to go miles.

The narrow streets were not ready for the current population or tourism, and they are still building resorts. Apparently there is nowhere to take the refuse other than the swamps along the road. This is Bali? This is the Bali of my paradise fantasies? It was my wife’s vacation so I stayed quiet. But I could see her, still affected by the rude official introduction to the country, having the same reaction I was. THIS is Bali?

When we finally arrived at this 5 star joint we looked around for the normal reception party we have come to expect…a cool cloth to wipe off the tropical sweat and a cool drink to make you forget that you just spent 5 times as long in a cab as you should have, We barely got a hello, and our room was not ready. (It was already 2 p.m.)

This was just day one. My next post will be a bit more positive and show you some of the natural beauty of this island. Please excuse this rough introduction. Thanks for reading, tell a friend, ESPECIALLY someone who wants to go to Bali.

Upgrade to a Singapore Sling!

Occupy Business Class!

After more hours than I care to count sitting in the cookie cutter seats in economy class, I was pleasantly surprised today when Qatar airlines upgraded my wife and me to Business Class. I have not flown Business Class since I stopped working and an employer was buying my ticket. I had forgotten how much better it is to spend 7 hours in a fully reclining seat with incredibly good food and service beyond the pale.

The seat not only spread out to a flat bed, it vibrated.

The flight from Doha to Singapore was absolutely full. Today was the start of the second Eid of the year. Eid

is a week long holiday where the faithful head for the Haj in Mecca or Medina. Many choose to go the other way, to, well, go the other way. Because I am now a gold tier member of the Qatar FF society, we were upgraded without asking.

I only wish the flight was 14 hours instead of a mere 7!

In fact I have so many miles they let me fly the plane!

It almost made me feel like I was in the 1%!  Nahh, they have their own jets!

So we are now in Singapore for a 36 hour layover on our way to Bali.

Singapore is a very pretty town. It is the cleanest big city I have ever seen.  We stayed at the Traders Hotel which is part of the Shangri-la family. It richly deserves it 4 stars.

Singapore is unlike other Asian cities we have visited this year.   The first thing I noticed was an almost complete lack of motorcycles.  I would therefore expect terrible traffic. However, Singapore has a very effective and inexpensive mass transit system. The busses are full as are I imagine the subway system cars.  Singapore has a very elitist way of limiting automobile traffic. In order to purchase a car you must buy a permit from the government for about US$70,000. Just for the permit to own a car. On top of that they have about a %100 import tax on automobiles. So yeah, people take the bus.

Maybe the best way to see this city as a tourist is to use one of the many hop on / hop off double decker busses. As like anywhere else, they have no driver on the top. They follow a must see route and come around every half hour or so, so it is easy to get to the museums and such, then keep going later in the day.

You can see how clean this city is and that the traffic is quite light.

The city is a fine city. Litter? $1000 fine. Spit? $1000 fine. Possession of narcotics? Death. Fart in church? I did not ask.  But it is consequently a very clean city. It is really a city state. Singapore is in the country of Singapore, which is the city of Singapore. It is quite expensive, with apartments beyond the cost of anyone not making a lot of money. 70% of the people live in government subsidized high rises. Even these look quite livable, these are not like “the projects”.

Singapore is of course the home of the Singapore Sling. This might be there real reason we stayed here for 36 hours.

Raffles Hotel is very expensive. But the Long Bar is a happening place with a great atmosphere. They give you peanuts and you throw the shells on the floor. Birds fly in and look for treats.

The Singapore sling was created as a ladies drink, hence the pink color. It goes down smooth and leaves you wanting another. Ladies drink? I think it was the original date rape drug! After two or three of these it is hard to say no to anything. However, when we went shopping in the Raffles stores, I was able to say no to a US$500 Hawaiian shirt.

This is Singapore's version of the Lond on Eye. The locals call it the Singapore Eyesore.It is 5 feet wider then the London Eye. It takes a half hour to go all the way around. You get fabulous views of the city.

This is the skyline of the banking district from the Eyesore

The Eyesore also gives you a good look at the intense international commerce of this city.

Singapore has kept many of the original buildings from the British colonial days. They are intermixed with the modern buildings in a pleasing way.

Mary Ann let me eat lunch at Hooters. Yes, the Hooters girls are very pretty, but none of them would get a job at Hooters in Las Vegas, for obvious reasons! I nicknamed the place Hootertitos.

The most interesting piece of architecture in Singapore is this set of three buildings with a large boat structure over them. It is a restaurant and bar with the ultimate horizon pool. In the forrground is the oldest bridge in Singapore.

Now we were off to Bali. We almost did not get into Bali, because Mary Ann was denied entry! You’ll have to read the next post to find out why.

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