countin' the days

Friday, August 24, 2007

Time Keeps on Slippin'

I'm back in Thailand, for my third go-round, and somehow it's the end of August. How did that happen? I've got two months left in Southeast Asia, and have clocked over three as of now. Time just keeps on moving faster... In any case, here's what I've been up to since Indo:

I hopped a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and found myself once again pleased to be back in lovely Malaysia. It was a little eerie coming from Indonesia to the 6-lane highways of Malaysia, where as we drove down the road in a huge air-conditioned bus I could have sworn I was glancing out at the high-rises and strip malls of Orange County. But, KL itself was not so bad. Fortunately, there was a great place to go climbing right outside of town at a tourist area called the Batu Caves. We skipped the sightseeing and headed for the rock, and spent 2 days climbing some great routes, escaping the heat, and continuing to meet fabulous locals. But a week in KL was more than enough.

Next stop was the Cameron Highlands, a beautiful outpost of jungled hills, vibrant tea plantations, fruit and vegetable farms, flower gardens, and supremely cool weather. I skipped out on the package tours and did one myself, taking local transport to the next town up, and walking all day through tea plantations, strawberry farms, and browsing colorful veggie stands. Though the Highlands are famous for their strawberries, I found they didn't hold a candle to California's... but still I enjoyed my fair share of strawberry ice cream and organic ripe ones. Afterwards, I took a 3-hour hike through beautiful jungle, and made it back just in time for a giant meal of incredible Indian food. I found the Highlands a little too touristy but beautiful nonetheless, and it was easy to overlook the giant tourbuses in favor of the gorgeous rolling hills. In any case, after careful consideration of my options and finances, I decided it was time to get back to Thailand.

Once again, I got into Thailand and headed straight for the rocks in Ton Sai. I was stoked to find I've improved a lot as a climber, and had fun trying things I couldn't dream of doing 3 months ago. Sweet! It was also the very, very LOW season, so we found a bungalow for about $3 a night and plenty of quiet time. I missed some of my old Ton Sai buddies, but found a new crew of great kids to chill and climb with. The weather was insanely rainy, but was strangely a blessing -- no more days of brutal humidity and ruthless mosquitos. I AM still covered in mosquito bites, and bruises on my knees, but things definitely improved for the better.

And now, I'm back to Koh Phangan, one of my favorite islands in the world, to do a little howling at the full moon and lots of yoga.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Highlights from the High Life

Of all the places I've been on this whirlwind journey, nearly every day of my two months in Indonesia were a highlight. The delightful people, delicious and creative (and oh-so-veggie-friendly) cuisine, mindblowing landscapes and wonderfully laid-back atmosphere just provided the pleasant backdrop for my individual destinations, each of which dealt a whole new set of things to marvel at. One of my favorite discoveries was that each island in Indonesia feels almost like a whole new country. Each one is a vibrant expression of its own unique culture, dialect, cuisine, and energy; they are at once undeniably unique, yet share a distinctly Indonesian core.

My last two weeks in Indonesia were, of course, no exception to the pattern. I reluctantly left my cozy little setup in Ubud for a taste of the next island over, Lombok. I was greeted with black sand beaches, pony-drawn carts as the primary means of transportation (the ponies were decked out in rainbow-colored garb, no less; had I taken a wrong turn straight for the circus?), a landscape of towering mountains, loads of palm trees, and quite aggressive touts. For the first few days, I kept wondering where all the temples had gone, who was hiding all those offerings, and where they'd managed to stash the gamelan.

The first order of business was to climb Indonesia's second-highest peak, Mount Rinjani. After negotiating a fantastic price (sometimes it really does pay to be a world-wise backpacker), I set off on a 4-day adventure for my very first volcano. Sure, I've seen plenty of 'em before, but never strapped on the old hiking boots to go and stomp around on one (actually the old hiking boots cashed out on me in South Africa; I was doing this one in running shoes). The first two days were mostly intense uphill, first through misty tropical rainforest and then through bright and breezy grasslands. Eventually, we reached the top of the crater rim, a sight I was unprepared for. It was an almost psychedelic landscape of steep cliffs, the towering summit, and weird blues, greens, and yellows of the lake. We hiked down into the lake, and spent the next few hours lounging around a hot springs and eating yet another lunch of mie goreng before heading to the summit base camp.

At 3am the next morning, under a sky absolutely jam-packed with stars, we headed for the summit. It was, at least for me, a very intense few hours. The wind was blowing, the ridge was skinny, and it wasn't quite light out. The sun did come up, providing some much-needed light, but I was still only about halfway there. I found myself at the bottom of the final "push" -- a basically vertical stretch of ash, sand, and rock leading to the pile of orange rocks that marked the 3,726m top of Rinjani -- and didn't think I was gonna make it. But... I did. I slipped, slided, stumbled, fell, crawled, yelled, panted, huffed and puffed my way up, and suddenly, in that strange state of delusion only the very top of a mountain can bring, there I was. On my first real mountain summit. After the debacle that was the Mt Kenya trek, I was wary of going on another organized trek up a mountain, but this one proved all my worries wrong. The weather was perfect, the mountain was inspiring and rewarding, and the trip itself was well-organized, the guide lovely, and it was excellent value for the Rupiah.

Next stop after Rinjani was the Gili Islands, a little slice of heaven just west of Lombok. It was the perfect place to rest my weary muscles, as the Gilis are designed for nothing but serious rest & relaxation. I stayed on Gili Air, and spent the next week taking it very nice and easy. Most days I spent doing yoga, drinking banana milkshakes, swimming in the crystal blue water, puffing down countless spliffs, walking through the charming village, meeting new friends, watching the sun set over Bali, and trying to decide on an appropriate time to start drinking beer. I let my vegetarian diet a little off the hook for a taste of what the crystal seas had to offer, and spent just about every night feasting on the most incredible fish I have ever eaten. For around US$4, I dined on snapper, barracuda, tuna, or squid caught just 30 minutes before, complemented with a baked potato, vegetables, fruit, and even chocolate cake.

For my final two nights, I returned to my breezy third floor pad in Ubud, for a last minute soak-up of the view, the exceptional food, and the Balinese culture I have so grown to love. Melancholy as it may be, it's a rather beautiful feeling to leave a place with a pang of sadness in your heart and the resulting vow of prompt return that manifests itself. As always, the journey continues.