Island Hopping in Indonesia

There are more than 17,000 islands in the country of Indonesia.  In total, we were able to visit just 9 of them, but each provided us with new adventure.  From the architecture on Java, to the volcanoes of Sumatra, each area of the country was different and interesting in its own way.

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One of my favourite Sumatran moments

Though many people travel to Indonesia for a particularly beautiful island called Bali, our last 10 days in Indonesia were split up between 3 lesser known islands:  Flores, Gili Trawangan and Lombok.   Here’s a little about each.

Flores

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Flores is a beautiful island south of the equator.

Our time in Flores was short, but it served a very important purpose:  it where we flew in to see Komodo National Park.  Although there is more to see on the island than just Labuan Bajo, it’s all we had time for.  We spent the day before and the day after our trip cruising around LB and the surrounding area, enjoying the scenery and sunsets.

We rented a motorbike while we were there so we could make the most of the short time we had.  There are several great places to see sunsets, so we definitely did our best to check them out.  I’m glad we did.

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We also spent Valentines day cruising around the countryside.  I can’t say the day was particularly eventful, but we met some very nice people and ate some beautiful and fresh avocados while we waited for a monsoon to pass.

Lombok

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Lombok is only a short boatride away from Bali.  It isn’t quite as touristy as Bali, but it’s quickly rising in popularity.

Our next stop was Lombok, though the first time we were on this island, it was just to transfer to Gili.  Unlike Flores, which was primarily Christian (we actually saw people leaving church on Ash Wednesday while we were there), Lombok is predominantly Muslim.  When we took a daytrip onto the island, we drove out to see this beautiful mosque in Mataram city.

Other than our trip to the mosque, we spent the day driving around, picking up final souvenirs for people back home and then had back to Gili island, where we were actually staying.  It was a nice day trip to break up the week of relaxation we were enjoying on Gili T.

Of course, we did have to go back one more time, because we flew back to Shanghai (via Malaysia) from Lombok airport.  Our final moments in Indonesia were spent on that pretty little island.

Gili Trawangan

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There are 3 Gili Islands in total, and they’re all off the coast of Lombok.  They’re very small islands, without any cars or transportation aside from bicycles and horses.

Of the 3 Gili Islands, Gili T is the most popular and busy.  We chose this island because we thought there would be more to do there, and although our goal for Gili T was to relax….we knew we’d get stir crazy before long.

We did a few things on Gili T, like silver making, and our trip to Lombok, but mostly, we just relaxed.  We stayed at a beautiful little hotel called Marigio, which is owned by an Italian woman named Alessandra.  Her hotel was impecably clean and each day we ate an incredible Italian breakfast.  I spent a lot of time by that pool, working on my tan, finishing several books, and catching up on my journal.

Of course, sunsets on the Gili Islands are world famous.  There are a series of swings set up around the island where tourists can get pictures.  Dave and I aren’t big into selfies, but I loved the way the swings looked in the fading light.

The night market was also a pretty cool experience.  It was packed with people (a good sign) and all the vendors seemed to make a lot of the same stuff, but we could have probably eaten there every night we stayed on the island and tried something new each day.  The selection was great, and from what we saw, it was pretty clean!

My favourite experience on Gili T however, was not the sunsets or the food.  My favourite moments spent on Gili were spent in the ocean, ‘stalking’ sea turtles.  There is a sanctuary on Gili T and the turtles are protected in this part of the country.  So, if you are patient, you can often find these giant creatures chewing on seagrass near the beach of Gili T.

Sea turtles are very endangered at the moment, so sanctuaries and protected zones like this are extremely important to the ocean’s health.  After all, sea turtles keep reefs healthy and are an important part of the ocean eco system!

Dave even got this really cool video where you can see how close we were and how big this guy was!  We watched him for close to an hour.  What amazed me most was how he could stay underwater for so long without air!

 

So, this is how we spent our last 10 days in Indonesia.  We saw some beautiful sunsets, enjoyed some great food and had fun with local wild life.  I can’t think of a better way to finish a holiday!

I’ll be back soon with an overview of our experience in Indonesia, as well as tips for anyone looking to travel there soon!

Komodo National Park

After leaving Jogjakarta, we flew to the city of Labuan Bajo.  We already knew we wanted to see Manta Rays in Indonesia, if possible, but when we learned that they can be found in Komodo National Park, there was no doubt we were going to visit this area of the country.

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For those of you who have been following along, we started in the north of Sumatra, then down to Java.  Our 3rd stop was Komodo National Park

About Komodo National Park

Komodo National Park is more than 1,700km square and consists of 3 major islands as well as many smaller ones.  It was founded in 1980 to help protect the very rare Komodo Dragon, but since then has become a protected zone for many other animals as well.  Roughly 4,000 people live in the park, and many of them work in the tourism industry.

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We visited both Komodo and Rinca Island, but Padar Island took the cake

The park itself is pretty undeveloped and Dave and I were both pretty disappointed that more of the very high entrance fees weren’t used to keep the parks looking a bit nicer, but I wouldn’t say our visit was a waste of money…and it definitely was worth the trip to this area of Indonesia.

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This display was effective enough to show what the Komodo Dragons eat, but I feel like some write ups about the Dragons in a learning center would have been nice. All of the information we learned about the park came directly from the employees, which was a problem if you couldn’t hear them because you fell behind getting photos etc.

The Dragons

The dragons are what bring most people to Komodo, and they’re quite the sight to see!  I can’t say I have a lot of love for them, but definitely respected them enough to keep a safe distance.

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Yeah….that’s blood on his face…

They’re clearly fed by locals because as soon as you arrive on Komodo Island, you see them all huddled around the restaurant where locals eat.

We saw plenty of other dragons along the way, and we learned about some of their rather nasty habits.  Did you know Komodo Dragons spend their first few years living up in trees?  They need to hide from other Dragons because these giant lizards are cannibalistic.  They’re also terrible mothers, and do nothing to care for their young after they hatch.

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Perhaps their poor manners have to do with their non-existent upbringing!

As I’ve been researching for this blog, I’ve  been learning more about these animals and sadly, I’m seeing that at least some of the information provided at the park was false.  We were told multiple times that what kills animals from Komodo bites is the various types of bacteria in their mouths.  Scientists recently discovered though, that a dragon’s mouth is no dirtier than any other animal’s.  What kills their prey is a venom that they release when they bite.

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It’s a very slow acting venom that can take a week to fully kick in. It’s not good to be a deer or buffalo on this island…

This is actually why I enjoy when there is posted information available at parks and animal reserves.  We had the same thing happen in India, and I’ve learned to fact check things before posting them in my blog.  Apparently, you can’t trust everything local guides tell you about the animals native to their countries!

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The guides did point out this Komodo egg den for us.  That information seems legit 🙂

Rinca and Komodo were virtually identical in most ways.  Both islands had dragons…and both islands were incredibly hot.  We were marched around by guides who told us about the flora and fauna in the area (sorta…).  We saw 1 massive buffalo, but the guide chased it away before most of our group even knew it was there.  We also saw deer, birds and even some monkeys.  I was already suffering from some heat exhaustion, so I only took 2 or 3 photos on Rinca, which is pretty regrettable.  It was definitely the nicer of the two islands.

Padar Island

Padar Island was actually our second stop (Komodo Island was #1 and Rinca was #3).  We arrived on the island shortly before sunset.  Now, I should add that nothing was really explained beforehand on this tour…we would just arrive and do things.  Any time I asked what was next, our guide would tease me for ‘worrying too much’.  So, when we arrived on the beach of this little island, I figured we’d be spending some time watching the sun set from the pink sand.  As it turns out, we were climbing a small mountain…

Now, I should also explain why this small hill was a big deal for me.  I mean…I did a much harder climb than this in Kuala Lumpur and our Jungle Trek was WAY more intense.  The problem was, at this point, I was suffering from pretty bad heat exhaustion.  I was having a hard time catching my breath and I was completely and totally exhausted.  If our guide had told us we’d be climbing, I probably would have stayed in the boat.  So, I guess it’s lucky I didn’t know what to expect because….

When we arrived at the peak, we sat around, sipping beer and cold water, and chatting about life in Indonesia.  Before we knew it, the sun had set and we had to climb down the ‘mountain’ in the dark.  We all used our cell phones to light the way and it was probably pretty dangerous, as the path wasn’t really much of a path.  But…at least it wasn’t all done in the sun!

Time In The Water

Dave and I were both really excited about snorkeling in Komodo National Park because we’d heard that it’s home to so many sea animals and beautiful coral reefs.  The rumours were true, and it was a beautiful place to both dive and snorkel, but what I didn’t know was that about 30% of the sea life in Komodo National Park seem to be jelly fish!! If I didn’t get stung 50 times, I didn’t get stung at all!!!

The snorkeling was good, but as my heat exhaustion worsened, my tolerance for jellyfish lessened.  Soon, I made the decision to stay out of the water until there was something REALLY interesting to see.

Of course, the real reason we were in the area wasn’t for the dragons, or even for Padar Island (we had no idea it was going to be that beautiful!).  The real pull for us was the chance to see Manta Rays.

Manta Rays are intelligent and curious and we heard from many people that swimming with them is quite the experience!  They’re huge, gentle and majestic and I was very  much looking forward to seeing the giants in person.  This was actually at the top of Dave’s bucket list too, so it was important to me because it was important to him.

Of course, things didn’t turn out the way I’d wanted.  I woke up the day of our trip to Manta Point and ended up fainting in the shower….twice.  I was so sick from the heat that if the sun touched my skin for even a moment, I became too dizzy to stand.  So, while Dave and everyone else went swimming with the mantas…I sipped Sprite under the comfort of my over-sized hat, and tried not to throw up….

I was lucky enough to see 1 Manta right near the front of the boat.  It came up to the surface and I was able to watch it from the safety of shade.  Mostly, I’m just happy Dave got to see them, because it is truly an incredible experience.

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Dave loves diving as much as I love the jungle!

So, I didn’t quite have the experience I’d hoped for in Komodo National Park.  I hope to go back some day, to see the sea life and maybe do that discovery dive.  Until then, I’ll just have to hang onto the memory of that 1 kind Manta who swam along the surface so that I could admire it’s graceful beauty.

Check back soon!  This won’t be my last post of the week!

Weekends Away

One of the best things about living in China is the high speed train. Dave and I have no interest in buying a car in China, so the high speed train is how we get from city to city, when we need a break from Suzhou.

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Gee…I wonder why I don’t want to be a part of this wonderful driving experience?

This year, we’ve taken a record number of weekend trips that I thought might be worth writing about.

Cirque du Soleil

My hatred of Shanghai city has never been a secret, but I’ve recently grown to appreciate this metropolis, regardless of its overpopulation and pollution…

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I mean…I guess it’s a pretty enough city…

The event that began this new understanding of Shanghai was none other than a Cirque Du Soleil show.  Dave and I have seen 6 shows total now, so when we found out that Kooza would be playing in old Pudong…we booked tickets with our friends Kim and CJ.

 

Shanghai doesn’t get as many big shows as I wish it did (mainly because a lot of bands and musicians are banned in China), but now and then, they get a good one.  Linkin Park played Shanghai a few years ago, before Chester Bennington’s death.  Unfortunately, the concert took place while I was visiting family in Canada, which meant I missed my last opportunity to see one of my favourite bands perform.

Christmas with Friends

We’ve taken a couple of trips to Hangzhou this year as well.  Located about 2 hours away by high speed train, Hangzhou is a beautiful city.  It was recently the location of a G20 Summit, and is home to West Lake, which is both scenic and huge.  Hangzhou is the capital of Zhezhang province, Jiangsu’s neighbour to the south.

More importantly, Hangzhou is home to two of my favourite people in the world!  So, Dave and I, along with our friend Kevin, made our way down to Hangzhou for Christmas this year.   We enjoyed some excellent meals, a nice walk around West Lake, and time with good friends.  It was well worth the weekend trip!

Weddings in Hangzhou

A few months later, we found ourselves back in Hangzhou for Deb and Dedrick’s wedding!  We had another lovely trip in, and this time, we got to spend the weekend with our good friends Mark and Deb.  Mark and I play in The Sundaze together, and it was good to get out and cut loose in a new city with them.  And of course, my dear Kevin was there as well!

The longer you stay in China, the more people you meet.  Deb and Dedrick’s wedding was a really cool experience because there were people from everywhere there.  It was a beautiful mixture of North American and Argentinian culture, with guests from all over the world.

Moroccan food in Tianzefang

Finally, Shanghai itself can be an awesome little getaway.  When Dave and I went to Taiwan in April, we opted to spend the night in Shanghai before flying out the next morning to Taipei (Suzhou doesn’t have an airport).  We asked around for food recommendation, and my friend Andy told me of a good Moroccan place in an area of Shanghai called Tianzefang.

Tianzifang is lovely!  It’s a vibrant and interesting area that doesn’t feel at all like the Pudong I grew to hate.  It’s full of bars, unique shops and great international food options.

A month or so later, Dave and I actually made a special trip to Shanghai just to have another meal at Andelus, the Moroccan restaurant Andy recommended.  The following morning, we visited the very famous ” Lao Wai Park“.

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Shanghai’s Lao Wai (foreigner) Park, is an are of restaurants and bars that are very popular among expats.  The comedy group Mamahuhu did a series of videos there.  Dave and I had an amazing lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant.  I can’t wait til we can visit again!

We also wandered around Shanghai for a bit during our last trip in.  We saw the largest Starbucks in the world while we were there.  There was a massive lineup, so we didn’t go in, but I did take some pictures.

There are so many more nearby places we want to visit before we leave China.  We have friends in Nanjing that we really want to go visit.  We also want to see Yellow Mountain, and of course we’d love to see more of Shanghai and Hangzhou.  The high speed train gives us so many opportunities for travel.  Now, to make the time!

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Here’s a photo of a dinosaur made completely of smoked meat….it was part of an art exhibition we saw while walking around the Starbucks.  Because….China!?

I’ll be writing lots over the next week, trying to catch up on all my Indonesia posts before we head to The Philippines!

The Life of an Expat

Being an English teacher has its challenges, but one of the biggest perks I have as a language teacher is that I can teach my lessons through a variety of lenses.  If I’m teaching about conditional voice, for example, I can have the students talk about which super powers they wish they had, or about regrets they have from the past.

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The super power I always wish for is teleportation.  That way I could see these cuties any time I want!

This year, I chose to teach my grade 9 students English through a lens I think everyone should consider: “Critical Thinking in Social Media”.  I introduced them to Snopes, discussed the power (and danger) of memes and we talked about subjects ranging from  gun control in the United States to South Korean fan superstitions.  My hope was that I’d teach them how to be considerate and intelligent Netizens, but I probably learned nearly as much as they did.

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Each week, I put students into groups and gave them an outrageous news article. I asked them to guess whether or not the information was true based on some ‘fact checking’ skills I’d taught them.  Then, I handed out the Snopes articles that verified the information.  Finally, they presented their findings (along with any new words they learned through the process) to their classmates.  It was a VERY worthwhile way to spend a few classes!

Our class discussions about the dangers of Social Media really got me thinking.  We discussed the idea that people rarely write about bad things that are happening in their lives, but instead tend to focus on the positive, making their lives look more glamorous and perfect that they really are.  In of itself, this isn’t a problem, but when others see those happy posts, they start to compare their own lives with the (perfect) lives that others present to the cyber world.

I try not to do this, but, of course, it can be difficult.  I haven’t been feeling particularly positive lately, so I thought this would be a good time to write about the negative aspects of living as an expat.  *Spoiler…it’s awesome…but like everything, it has its downsides*

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For example, I rarely post about all the food poisoning I’ve had in the last 4 years!

June is a hard month for a lot of reasons.  It’s the end of the school year, which is stressful for all teachers.  Between grading, report cards and final tests, teachers across the planet are barely holding it together every June.  When you’re an expat teacher, you have to also consider the stress of booking flights home, finding cat sitters, and spending 6 weeks living out of suitcases.  It’s stressful.

That’s not to say that I’d give up my trip home to avoid these stresses…but it is something a lot of people don’t think about when they think of what it’s like teaching abroad.  Other things include…

Saying Goodbye to Students

One event was particularly emotional for me this month.  My grade 9 students have been with me since my very first day at SFLS, and in September, they will be moving onto high school. Many of them will be moving abroad as well, so it’s not as though I’ll be seeing many of them again.   Their graduation was last Friday and although I promised myself I wasn’t going to cry (I even refused to bring tissue in an attempt to not even give myself the option), I ended up red in the face and tearier than I would like to admit.  When you love teaching…it’s easy to become attached to the kids you see every day for 3 years.

Still, I wish them all the best, and although it sucks to see them go, I have new students coming in next September, and they will provide new challenges and rewards for me and all their other teachers.

Expat Friendships

The friendships you form while living abroad are also a very important part of the expat life. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and although we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, there is one thing we all have in common: we don’t really belong anywhere.

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Pictured here: 2 Canadians, a Chinese-Australian, an Argentinian and an American.  Some of my best friends in the world

When you’re away from home, having a good group of friends becomes increasingly important.  They’re who you spend Christmas with and they’re who help you through troubled times.  Most importantly, they’re the ones who understand you, because as much as people back home can try and empathize, they only really see the really good and really bad parts of being an expat…none of the ‘in-between-everday-stuff’.

Dave and I are far more outgoing and far more adventurous abroad than we ever were back home, and our social life is pretty awesome.  We spend lots of time going out for dinner, going to KTV, going to Salsa parties, and of course, I have my band.  All these things are done with friends…and 99% of my friends are currently expats, or people who were previously expats, but have moved back home to China.

Of course…when you are a nomad and surround yourself with other nomads…people enter and leave your life regularly.  It’s difficult because I understand it…but I hate it.  I also hate that soon I’ll be the one leaving people behind.  Already, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever find friends as good as the ones I have in Suzhou…

The ‘Home Dilemma’

Home becomes a really weird concept when you live abroad.  I like to say that ‘Home is where my cats are’, but in reality, I spend 3 months away from them every year.  I’d like to say that ‘Home is where you grew up’, but nobody in my family even lives in that tiny Manitoba town, so how can that really be home?  Steinbach never really felt like home for me, because I was too different from the local people.  Oddly enough, in some ways, Suzhou has been feeling more like home than anywhere I’ve ever been.  I’ve become a part of the community, through music, foodie groups and through school.

I think that living abroad changes you in that way.  Home isn’t as easily defined when you don’t ever quite fit in.  In China, I’m a minority.  I’m only one of a few thousand expats in a city of 8 million people.  Back home, it’s the same.  I’ve had such a different 4 years than most of my friends and family.  It’s difficult to explain your feelings about things when the people in your life see the world differently than you do.  It’s especially noticeable when talking about world politics or world events with people back in Canada.  It’s easy to talk about India’s poverty or an earthquake in Indonesia when you see it as some far off place, separate from you.  But when you can picture the smells and sounds of a place….when you’ve been there and it’s personal…you see those events very differently.

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This week a ferry capsized and sank in Northern Sumatra. Several people have been confirmed dead and more than 120 people are still missing. We took a ferry on that same route to Samosir Island back in February. It affects us differently than it will have affected people back home (who probably haven’t even heard about the accident)

What makes it especially hard is that we’ve never had any family or friends visit us here in China.  I know that it isn’t in everyone’s budget, and there are a thousand reasons why people can’t just hop on a plane and visit, but regardless of those reasons…it makes ‘home’ a difficult subject.  At the end of the day, China is currently our home, but the people we know and love back in Canada have no idea what our life is like in the place we call home.

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When family and friends do come visit, everyone gets excited. When Kim’s parents visited last year, we all went out for dinner together.

And that’s why I hound my family save up and come visit us…it’s not because I want to show them the sites or because I think China is the most beautiful place on earth….it’s because I want them to understand me.  I people back home to understand what life is like in the city I currently call home.

Always Missing Somewhere or Someone

And of course there’s the obvious reason it’s hard being an expat is all the stuff you leave behind at the end of the summer.  It’s great having stories to tell your family and friends…but I really do wish I had the power of teleportation.  Then, I wouldn’t need to miss everyone so much.

It isn’t All Bad

Of course, it isn’t nearly all bad.  June is probably my least favourite month of the year.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to students.  It’s difficult saying goodbye to friends.  Add that to the fact that it’s exam season and end of term…and I can’t believe it’s taken me 4 years to write this post.

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I can barely complain about my own stresslevels in June. Students in China write the Gaokao, which is the test that will get them into a good (or less than good) university. When the tests are done, kids choose a classroom, tear up their books and dump them all in a pile. This was this year’s classroom….

Still, there are a thousand things that being an expat allows us to do.  It sucks saying goodbye to friends…but it’s great meeting so many new people all the time.  It sucks only seeing our family and Canadian friends once a year, but we always have so many stories to tell them!  And being an Expat gives us so many opportunities that we’d never have back in Canada.  My band wouldn’t get nearly as many gigs if we weren’t ‘interesting foreigners’.  Of course, we could never afford to travel this much if we didn’t live in China.  And with Dave working from home, we were able to foster little Oscar.  Here are some pictures of Oscar to remind you of all the reasons I love being an expat!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got half a dozen more posts coming in the next month or so!!

Jolly Jogja

After an incredible week in Sumatra, we carried onto the next leg of our journey; Java Island. Many people choose to visit the capital, but we’d heard that there wasn’t much to do in Jakarta, and that it was crowded and polluted, so we opted to stay away. Instead, we zipped over to Yogyakarta (which is mostly referred to as ‘Jogja’ in Indonesia).

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We arrived late at night, and although the airport was crawling with cab drivers trying to take foreigners for a ride (in the figurative sense), we quickly found a company who was giving legit pricing, and we were on our way to our tiny little Bed and Breakfast in downtown Jogja.

 

There were 2 reasons we wanted to visit this Yogyakarta: Borobudur and Prambanan. These two beautiful temples are very different from one another. One is Buddhist and the other is Hindu. They don’t really share much in terms of architecture, but they are both located about an hour outside of Jogja (in different directions), making this small city a popular destination for tourists going through Java.

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Gudeg is Jogja’s most traditional and famous food. Cooks take chicken, eggs and goat skin and stew them in a special jackfruit stew for hours. It’s served cold. I had a hard time with the idea of eating cold chicken, but it was a really neat blend of spicy and sweet!

Prambanan

We decided to hit Prambanan first, as it was a little closer to Jogja, and we had begun our day a little later than we’d intended. It was a nice hour-long drive to the temple, that gave us a chance to see a bit of this lovely little city.

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Apparently, I forgot to take pictures in Jogja….but I did find this one online. It gives you a feel for what the city looks like.

We were a bit taken aback by the entrance fees to the temple, but we figured it would probably be the only chance we’d ever have to see Prambanan and Borobudur, so we bit the bullet, as they say, and forked over the $80 it cost to get us both into both temples. Of course, once we were inside, I ceased to worry about the pricing, because the money is clearly being put to good use.

 

Before even entering temple grounds, we saw an incredible photo opportunity.  There was a section of rubble in front of one area of the temple, where tourists were able to take photos.  It took us a few tries, but we finally got a couple of good shots ourselves (we were using a timer…10 seconds is not enough time for me to scramble on top of rocks!)

 

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Once entering the temple, we were impressed by the level of detail on the walls, and were very quickly reminded of our time at Ankor National Park in Cambodia. There were clear similarities between Prambanan’s and Ankor Wat’s architecture, so it didn’t surprise me to learn that Prambanan, like Ankor Wat, is a Hindu temple.

 

 

We spent a few hours walking around, admiring the temple.  There were many other tourists there, but they were mostly from Indonesia, as we visited during the off season (something I highly recommend…as long as you aren’t too afraid of a bit of rain).

 

The park was quite big, and we wandered around to check out some of the smaller and less glamorous buildings.  The park’s general upkeep really impressed us both.

 

The stone carvings at Prambanan were really something to admire.  If it hadn’t been so hot out, we probably could have spent an hour or two longer walking around, just admiring the architecture.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the heat became too much and we were forced to hop on our rented motorcycle and head back to Jogja.

 

Borobudur

Borobudur was my main reason for wanting to go to Jogjakarta.  Built at around the same time as Prambanan, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.  The architecture there is very different from the many Hindu and Chinese Buddhist temples we’ve seen over the last few years.

 

Borobudur was built in the shape of a  Mandala, which represents Nirvana, or Heaven in both Buddhism and Hinduism.  There are 9 levels in total, which include more than 2500 relief panels (art depicting Buddhist stories) and 72 Buddhas.

 

Every inch of every wall at Borobodur is covered in carvings that depict a mixture of Buddhist and Indonesian stories and myths.  We walked around a good portion of it, but it would have taken hours to study really examine all of the carvings.

 

A lot of Borobudur’s history is unknown, but what we do know is that it took about 75 years to build, and at some time around the turn of the 1st millenium, it was abandoned.  There could have been several reasons for this, but the two most likely are that:  A.) people had to leave due to the very active volcanoes nearby or B.) Indonesia began converting to Islam, and Buddhist Temples became less important.  Either way, the temple was all but forgotten, and was slowly taken over by volcanic ash and jungle.

Until it was rediscovered in the 1800s.

 

While Borobudur’s history fascinates me, it isn’t what pulls thousands of tourists to the site each year.  The Bells and 72 Buddhas on the top levels of the site are what drive the tourism.  Each bell has a Budha within it, and several bells have been left open so the Buddhas are exposed. It’s an incredibly photogenic place and I’m glad we had some blue skies while we were there.

 

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Borobudur is one of the nicest and most interesting temples I have ever visited, but it pains me to say that its in trouble.  Between the volcanic ash that plagues the building, and tourists who insist on touching everything, officials have considered closing the site to unguided tourists.  While we were there we saw all sorts of bad behaviour.

 

The worst case of this behaviour was an elderly Chinese woman, who climbed onto a bell and reached inside to try and touch the Buddha.  This didn’t seem to be as much of an issue at Prambanan, where tourists were allowed to walk on certain areas of the walls.  I think because of the acid in the volcanic ash that routinely covers Borobodur, the site is especially at risk.

 

 

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Mount Merapi erupting in the distance

In short, if you’re stopping by Java Island, definitely take the time to stop by these incredible temples.

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One of my favourite pictures of the trip…for once it was Dave who was asked to cover up! I was fine!!!!

 

Suzhou Foodies

One of the coolest parts of being an expat is all the people you meet. They come from everywhere. I’ve met chefs from Italy, chemists from New Zealand, PhD students from Turkey and of course, musicians from Portugal, The Philippines and beyond… We all come from different backgrounds and are in China for various reasons, but we all have one thing in common… We’ve all chosen Suzhou as home away from home.

Dave and I at the “Red Dress Hash”. Everyone dressed up in red dresses and fundraised for an Orphanage here in Suzhou. We saw a bit of the city, spent the evening outside walking, and had a great time!

At the beginning of this year, I decided to put myself out there more. I joined several WeChat groups in an effort to meet more people and to become part of the expat community. I started with music groups, because it was something I knew a lot about. I’ve also joined writers’ groups, travel groups and most recently, a Foodie group.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love both cooking… And eating!!!

In the Foodie Group, we all post about our favourite restaurants.  Now, whenever Dave and I want to try something new, we check out places that have been recommended by fellow Foodies.

Our most recent recommendation: a Singaporean restaurant in Suzhou Center

A few months ago, I wrote about our friend, Lixia, and her restaurant that specializes in Guizhou food. Before I knew it, I was getting messages from the other Foodies, thanking me for the recommendation. Since then, this tiny Chinese restaurant has become quite popular amongst expats.

Lixia surprised Dave with a cake for his birthday last month

Lixia is easily one of the sweetest and most hard working people I know, so when I learned about a Food & Beverage competition, I got in touch with the organizers and nominated Zou Guizhou for the “Best View” award.

Her award winning view

Tonight, we went to the finals for this award, at The W hotel here in SIP. Lixia won in her category, and we were able to celebrate with her. It was a really fun night filled with good food, great wine and fabulous company.

Kevin joined us for the evening. He is the one who found Zou Guizhou for us 2 years ago

Several of our friends won awards. Larry (on the right) owns the best Vietnamese restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. He’s also a great guy (and Canadian!)

So happy to have Miya back in Suzhou!!!

Larry and Lixia have become friends too 🙂

Some of the fabulous food we had tonight

The best part of the night was when I realized how many people I knew at the event. A year ago, I made it my mission to become part of the expat community in Suzhou… And that mission has been accomplished.

Sumatra – Bukit Lawang – Part 2

After 2 nights in the Batu Kapal Guesthouse, it was time to set off on our over-night jungle Trek. Sardi arrived as we finished our breakfast, and before long, we were on our way.
Jungle Trek – Day 1

On this 2 day trek, we were joined by a second guide, named Jimmy. Sardi explained that Jimmy’s English was better than his, and that Jimmy knew more about the surrounding area and could better explain all the flora and fauna we’d be seeing on our hike.

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In fact, I wish Jimmy had arrived a tad earlier, so we could have asked him about this gorgeous little bird we saw while we were eating breakfast at the guesthouse!

It wasn’t long before we started seeing wild life. Before we’d even entered the park, Jimmy spotted a Silver Leaf Monkey, far up in a tree. They’re quite shy, so I was happy to have a proper camera (with zoom) along with me.

As we entered the park, Jimmy stopped to tell us how to stay safe in the Jungle, and to warn us about 2 particularly feisty orangutans who were known to behave badly around humans. Many of the great apes found in this area of the park have been rehabilitated and set free after being in captivity, so it’s natural that not all the orangutans were going to be perfectly comfortable around people. (Personally speaking, I’m BARELY comfortable around people!)

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This was taken by a visitor back when the feeding platform was still open to the public. From what I understand, they are no longer feeding the Orangutans this way, but it’s still a popular hang out for them nonetheless.

Our next animal encounter was with a pair of Hornbills, who were high up in the trees, but very difficult to miss, as they were quite clumsy moving around and squacking at each other. They were super noisy, though I didn’t actually catch that on video.

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Beautiful birds!

I did, however, get a video of one of them eating a berry!!

While we were busy admiring these beautiful birds, Sardi went off on his own to ‘find me a baby orangutan’ (something he’d promised he’d try to do). When he called us over, I don’t think I could have possibly moved more quickly than I did!

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Quite the sight!

There she was. A 3 year old juvenile, eating leaves and playfully hanging from the tree. I stood there and stared for a while, before Dave reminded me that I might want some pictures of her!

Soon, her mother came swinging by on the trees. She was much bigger than I’d thought she’d be, and she didn’t seem the least bit worried about the humans who were watching her child. In fact, she swung across a couple of trees about 6 feet from where I was standing. Sardi had to tell me to back up, because I was too close!

I would have stayed there forever if they’d let me, but after a while we had to move on. Jimmy guided us to an area where we could have some lunch, and we unpacked, pulled up some tree trunks and enjoyed some jungle food.

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Nasi Goreng (Fried Ride) a la Jungle

That’s when we started hearing rustling in the bushes….

There was never a shortage of fresh fruit on our tour, and as Sardi took out the passion fruit…and papaya….and bananas…the rustling got a little closer.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the family of Thomas Leaf Monkeys circling in on us. Now, I’ve mentioned these cute little primates several times, but I’ve waited until this moment to show you what they look like.

Because…they’re flipping adorable!!

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Who? Me????

These little ‘punk-goth’ monkeys spent the next half hour eyeing our fruit. We were on an eco-tour though, and part of being an ecotourist is knowing that you cannot feed the wild life. It’s bad for them and it can be dangerous for you. So, as much as I wanted to pass off some bananas to these funny little dudes, I refrained, for the sake and well-being of the jungle. I did take lots of pictures though!

I didn’t get much footage of them when we were eating (I actually wasn’t feeling very well at that point. More on that later…), but I did get an awesome video of them when we were at the guesthouse!

We continued on our Jungle walk, stopping now and then to admire a lizard or a tree that had been destroyed by termites.

Unfortunately, I was really struggling at this point, because, as tends to happen when I go on holidays, my stomach hadn’t really been agreeing with the local food. My fussy stomach has forced me to miss out on adventures in Cuba, India and worst of all, in Laos…but not this time! I dragged my butt through that jungle (and thankfully, Sardi picked up on the fact that I was sick, and he and Dave kept close watch over me the whole way to the camp)

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Seen here: Marie, barely holding it together. Sardi: Really hoping he wasn’t going to have to chase me down the river…like he had his flip flops…twice…as they slipped off my feet

Reaching that camp was such a relief, I nearly cried. It wasn’t that the trail was particularly hard. It was a good level of difficulty and well worth the hike. But, when your body isn’t digesting food properly, the jungle might not be the best place to go. I wouldn’t change it for anything though…not a single moment.
The Camp

As soon as we reached the camp, I got into my bathing suit and went and sat in the river to cool down. It was a lovely spot, quite sheltered and the river was very clean.

As I began to relax, Jimmy pointed out that I had a rather large friend heading my way, and I turned to see a meter long monitor lizard swimming lazily nearby. I would have bolted, but I was too tired, so I slowly wiggled my way away from the lizard. I don’t really think he cared much either way.

A 3rd guide had been waiting for us when we arrived. His job was to bring our sleeping gear and food and to cook us dinner and breakfast. Even with my upset stomach, the food was great!

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Mawan also prepared clean water for us for the hike the following day

That night is one of my favourite memories of the whole trip to Indonesia. We sat out with our 3 guides and chatted about life in Indonesia, life in China and life in Canada. We told us about the frustrations we face living in the big city of Suzhou, and they told us about their 105 year old grandfather who demands that they fetch him mangoes whenever they see him (Sardi and Jimmy are cousins and their grandfather is toothless and more than happy to send his grandsons on quests for soft fruit!)

I don’t have any pictures of that night. It was dark, and I was tired, but if I I could have held onto that peaceful moment forever, I would have. The sound of the river was hypnotic and I found myself falling asleep long before I meant to.
Jungle Trek: Day 2

Mawan prepared us a delicious breakfast of fruit and sandwiches the following morning. My stomach still wasn’t feeling too hot, but I had more energy and I wasn’t nearly as weak as I had been when I’d arrived at the camp the previous day.

We were getting ready to leave, when out of nowhere, a family of 15-20 macaques came parading through the river in front of the camp! They’d smelled the fruit and showed up, hoping for some left overs.

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I’m not particularly fond of macaques. There are hundreds of them living in Guiyang, and I’ve had them steal right from my hand! These guys weren’t as aggressive, but I wasn’t entirely trustful of them nonetheless

Most of them spooked easily and ran away when they saw us, but one particularly brave macaque hung around and nabbed some watermelon. I watched as he greedily shoved 1/4 of a melon in his mouth, all while looking over his shoulder, making sure none of his family members had returned to rob him of his trophy!

Soon, we were on our way back through the jungle. We took it a bit more slowly on our second day, with both guides now knowing that I wasn’t at 100%. Sardi found us wild cinnamon (it was disgusting) and we saw plenty more birds and even heard gibbons calling out in the distance.

Sardi disappeared again, and before long, he was calling us over because he’d found me another ‘orange friend’. This time, I got smart, and I filmed our walk to find her. I tried not to shake the camera too much, but I really wanted people back home to see how beautiful the forest was and how exciting it was to get your first glimpse of one of these jungle beauties.

Once I got a closer look, I asked Jimmy why she looked sad. I expected him to laugh at me and tell me I was projecting human emotions onto her, but he replied quite simply “Her baby got sick”.

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Jimmy continue to tell me Juni’s story, while we watched her sit, lethargically in the tree. As I write this, I wonder if she’s been reunited with her young one.

As luck would have it, I caught a video of the only time she moved in the 20 minutes we watched her.

I’ll never forget her, I’ll tell you that much.

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Eventually, we had to move on. We stopped for lunch, and our guides cut up some papaya for me (the only thing that was appetizing at that point), and before long, we were on our way to meet Mawan on the bank of another river.

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Instead of doing more hiking, our trip ended with a rafting ride down the river back into Bukit Lawang! It was a tonne of fun, and it made me VERY happy that we still have our old water proof camera!

I even kept my wits about me and got a video!!

So, in short, if you are reading this because you are considering taking a tour with Bukit Lawang Jungle-trekking, contact Janine NOW! It was the experience of a lifetime, and I would honestly go back and do it all over again tomorrow if given the chance.

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That night, after we’d had a chance to shower and rest, we head back to the clubhouse for Jungle Trivia! We were ‘Team Lao Wei’ (team foreigner), and we even won!

I’ll be back soon with a post about Jogjakarta and our stay on Java Island!
A few more notes about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking:

If you’d like to read more about Bukit Lawang-Jungle Trekking, you can go to their website here, or check out their Facebook page, here.

You can also check out all sorts of cool initiatives they have going on in Bukit Lawang for eco-tourism, environmentally friendly alternatives and the school where they hook up volunteers to teach adorable Indonesian kids!

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Dave and I with our guides and Dodi, the co owner of the business (and Janine’s husband)