So I live in Ecuador now, about that…

Warning: Mom and other people prone to worrying, please take a deep breath and remember that I am alive and well before reading this post. And then maybe repeat that process when you finish.

It has been almost two months now since I moved to Ecuador, and I’m not going to lie to you, I’m feeling pretty impressed with myself for not having gotten myself killed yet. Ok, maybe “killed” is a bit extreme, but Quito is not exactly the safest place.

Quito, Ecuador

I have friends who have been kidnapped, attacked with beer bottles, mugged, strangled, tied up in their houses and robbed by men with machetes, held at gunpoint, had human feces thrown on them as a distraction while they were robbed, and the list goes on and on. These are not friends of friends or sister’s cousins ex-boyfriend’s, these are the stories of my close friends. These are the stories of blonde females in Ecuador.

The danger factor was the biggest adjustment for me in moving here. In Asia, my appearance made me stand out from the locals, but I always felt that they found me intriguing, sort of like Drew Barrymore and ET in ET (I’m ET in this metaphor, not Drew Barrymore, just to clarify). Here it’s not quite the same, my appearance makes me a target for thieves and a waste receptacle for nauseating amounts of machismo.

But you know what? It took a few weeks, but I am finding my happy place now, but it’s been quite a journey the last 2 months to get here.

Enjoying the Quito skyline from a hammock on my roof

With all the thugs and the danger, I have also been humbled by some of the kindest, most generous people. And that is what I want to focus on.

In one of my first hostels, I met my adoptive family in Ecuador; Gabi and Rudy and their daughter Chanti. All three of them are completely off their rockers and I could not love them more for it. They run a hotel on the beach about 6 hours from Quito in a place called Same, and were visiting Quito on business. I had only been in Quito for a few days when I met them, and I think they could smell my lost puppy dog vibe from a mile away. It was perfect timing in the way I met them, as they were debating something when I walked past them one night, and they stopped me to ask if I knew what the capital of Switzerland was. I mean seriously, what are the odds that two people are debating the capital of Switzerland and the person that happens to be walking by at just that moment has the last name Berner? Bern is the capital of Switzerland. So as fate would have it I found my crazy Ecuadorian family.

Mis Padres

They invited me to come stay with them for Carnival, so I went to Same on my first trip in Ecuador outside of Quito. I moved to Quito as I had scored a job here as a University professor. (I could have just said “teacher” but I really wanted to say University professor. I wear corduroy pants and cardigans with elbow patches and thick black-framed reading glasses and the best part is I’m not kidding!)  I had started an intensive course at the University about two days after arriving to prepare me to teach, and as it was kicking my ass I was looking forward to relaxing on a chilled out beach.

The beach at Same (sah-may)

I was greeted by one of the coolest things I have ever seen–a double rainbow forming a circle around the sun. There had been no rain. No clouds. Only a rainbow, appearing out of nowhere as if it just felt like saying hello. (At first I wrote “as if the sky had just fallen in love.” But then I felt nauseous and deleted it. You’re welcome.)

This picture doesn't even begin to do it justice as it was taken from a phone.

From the moment I arrived here, I had been hearing about how crazy Ecuadorian men can be, and Same introduced me to my first Ecuadorian stalkers. But I don’t blame Same. I blame the men. For being insane. (Not all men, calm down. Just…a lot of them.) But just as every girl I talk to has a story about a time they were robbed etc., they also have a story about some guy (or 20) who they thought was cool until the next day when he snapped and decided he owned her and couldn’t breath without her and everything turned crazy.  And yes I realize I am making light of a potentially dangerous situation, but I realized that if I was going to stay here, I was going to have to release some of my fears and try to find humor in the things I can’t control.

But the main reason I mentioned the stalkers is to mention  how I met my first male Ecuadorian friends (which is like trying to find a pot of gold here, as culturally guys and girls are very rarely “just friends”).

Giant margs for Edgars bday

So here is the abbreviated story of my stalker…

And by “here” I mean in my next post. I’m tired and this bad boy’s getting lengthy…

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Ecuablog

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics. – Albert Einstein

I’m going to listen to ‘ole Berty boy here and say that I am going to write a blog on Ecuador tomorrow. I have been living here for two months now, it’s about time I wrote something hey? So this is me. Putting it out into the universe. Hoping this will help make it come true…

A song for my friends and family. Even vagabonds get homesick sometimes

I taught a class on “culture shock” today and realized how much I miss my family and friends. I turned to my guitar for some comfort, and then thought maybe if I share this song it might make me feel just that tiny bit closer to all of you who are so very far away. Loving you from Quito.
Are We There Yet– Ingrid Michaelson Cover – YouTube.

Playing Forest Gump in Laos

Up to this point on my Southeast Asian Adventure, I had been sick on a motorbike, on a cliff, and on a speedboat. Thanks to the adverse side effects of malaria pills, I soon added a longboat and a bus to the list after I crossed over the Mekong into Laos. This time it was a normal bus, no tranny bus stewardess or “Best Friend Companion” snack boxes or bathrooms for me. Just 8 painful, winding, bumpy hours before I arrived in Luang Namtha, where I expected nothing more than a place to stretch my legs and rest my head.

Stopping off at a Roadside Market on the Long Journey

I was making my way to Luang Prabang to do some trekking, so despite my uneasy stomach I decided I needed to get out and get some exercise before another full day of travel. Some friends were renting bikes to go check out a nearby waterfall, so I decided I would run and meet them there. (I got hoes in different area codes. Except, well, our relationships are purely platonic. And they are not hoes. I’m sorry I said that. That’s offensive.)

Now, I don’t know what you know about Asian cultures, but I can tell you this much: people don’t often run, casually, just for the hell of it. Me being tall, fair-skinned and blonde running through this village was a bit like me heralding my own parade. Despite the fact that this casual run turned out to be 6 miles, I was loving every minute of it, exchanging “Sabadei!”s with various villagers as I struggled up hills on rocky terrain on my way to the waterfall.

I don't normally smile when I run. Then again I don't normally run.

On my way back, I passed a group of girls who just couldn’t contain their giggles at the sight of me running past them. Now I’m not sure if they were mocking me or just trying to see where I was off to in such a hurry, but after I passed them they started running after me, gathering more and more kids as we made our way down the dusty village road. It was the Laos version of the scene in Forest Gump where he runs across the country with hundreds of hippies following him just to figure out why he was running. I might not have noticed they were behind me for a while, but luckily a friend was biking back from the waterfall and was able to capture this shot.

Just like Tom Hanks

It wasn’t long before I could tell the kids were getting tired, so I stopped to smile and laugh with them, as our words were meaningless to each other. I tried to motion to “high five” one of them, but not understanding she adorably clapped her own hands together. Once I showed them what I meant, you would have thought I had just given them the best present ever as they squealed in delight, repeatedly high-fiving each other and me until they were shaking the sting from their hands. I had not expected much to happen in Luang Namtha, but more than all the big adventures, it’s the tiny, unexpected moments like these that keep me on the road.

Thailand Part 2: Elephant Treks, Whitewater Rafting, and More Ladyboys

Riding an elephant is one of those iconic activities for most visitors to Southeast Asia, and while I really wanted to do it, it was important to me to make sure my money did not end up in abusive hands. In the past, most elephants were used for transportation of people and goods as well as for logging. With the government ban on rainforest logging in 1990, thousands of elephants in Thailand were left unemployed.

Elephant Logging

Needing new ways to feed their elephants, many owners saw the continuous increase in Western tourism as a perfect opportunity to make some money. Unfortunately, this has led to many elephants being overworked and exploited. I do not need to see an elephant paint me a picture or dance in a stupid costume, chained at the ankles and addicted to drugs. There are companies out there that fight against this however, taking great pains to ensure the well-being of the endangered species while still providing tourists the opportunity to spend time with the majestic beasts.

After doing some research, I found a place I was comfortable with and figured what better way to celebrate the birthday of the King of Thailand than to ride his elephants and white water raft his rivers? He’s in the hospital so I’m sure he appreciated the thought, yanno, since he obviously couldn’t do it. Now, as exciting as riding an elephant may sound, I have to admit, the novelty wore off about 10 minutes into the ride, at which point I sort of just thought, “Wow, this thing moves reeeaaally slowly.” Seriously, who gets bored riding an elephant?

Elephant Ride along the Water

I thought maybe I was just too comfortable sitting on the chair up on my elephant’s back, so with the encouragement of the mahout (elephant master) I decided to crawl off my chair and climb down to ride bareback. As the chair was taking up all the space on its back, I essentially had to ride on its neck, holding onto its ears for stability. With every step he took I thought I might slide down onto his trunk (at which point I’d suddenly be wearing a leotard and someone would cue the circus music…or at least that’s how it played out in my head). Maybe not the most comfortable way to ride an elephant, it certainly kicked up the excitement level. We first mounted the elephants from a platform, so it wasn’t until I actually stood on the ground and looked up into those giant marble eyes that I really appreciated the beauty of these gentle giants.

Showing my Elephant Some Love

After the elephants took us to the water, we began the rafting adventure. I was doing the trip with the Australian boys I had zip lined with as well as a few girls I had met along the way. For one reason or another the chubby Thai guide in our raft took a disliking to babyfaced Jason (perhaps because he kept “forgetting” to paddle), and mocked him relentlessly throughout the trip, calling him a “ladyboy” and constantly trying to get him to fall out of the boat. When we finished rafting, our guide must have mentioned something to his coworkers because they all swarmed our raft, pointing at Jason saying “which one ladyboy?? you ladyboy? ahahaha ladyboy ladyboy!!” Poor Jason is probably scarred for life.

Because it was the King’s birthday, the markets that night were even busier than usual, swarming with vendors selling everything from mystery foods to tortoise shell guitars.

Night Market Stall

Chiang Mai Night Market

Handmade Soaps

In celebration, people were lighting giant paper lanterns which created trails of golden orbs as they floated off into the sky. The lanterns are meant to bring good luck to whoever releases them, or at least that’s what they tell the tourists.

30 Bhat for a Wish

After another day browsing the markets of Chiang Mai, I headed towards the border to Laos, passing through Chiang Rai to visit Wat at Rong Khun, or White Temple as it’s more commonly referred to. This stunning Buddhist temple is the work of a man named Chalermchai Kositpipat, who funded the temple himself so that he could take creative liberties where he pleased. I was a bit surprised to be standing inside a Buddhist temple and find that in the eyes of the giant devil painted on the main wall were none other than Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush.  <<cue Team America puppets>> “America..f*ck yeah…”

Wat at Rong Khun

Aside from visiting temples and riding elephants, I ate as many (authentic!) Thai curries as I could stomach before I hopped on a longboat in Chiang Khong, waved goodbye to Thailand, and headed for Laos.

Where I arrived two minutes later…

Adventures in Chiang Mai Part 1: “Ladyboys” and Rainforest Ziplines

With only 3 weeks left in my trip, I decided to bypass the beaches of southern Thailand and head straight for Chiang Mai in the north. I was afraid if I went south that I would encounter the oh-so-troublesome “I’ve seen better” syndrome that is an unfortunate side effect of regular travel. I had just recently visited some hard-to-top beaches around Australia and Indonesia and figured I’d see what else Thailand has to offer.

Whitehaven Beach of The Whitsunday Islands

Bali's Bingin Beach

I flew into Bangkok, the massive, hectic capital city famous with backpackers for the mental, non-stop parties found on Khao San Road.

Massive and Manic Bangkok

My flight arrived late at night, and I got to the airport and realized I hadn’t really thought about where I was going to stay or how I was going to get there. After about two hours spent wandering the airport investigating different transportation options, I finally got on the newly built Skytrain and reluctantly headed towards Khao San because I knew I’d have no trouble finding a place to stay.

Khao San Road at Night

The next morning I made my way past the Zombies still wandering the streets at 6 am on my way to catch my train to Chiang Mai. Due to the flooding, they had to re-route transportation and my train ride turned into a bus ride. I had heard horror stories of friends traveling Asia and getting stuck on long, hot, crowded bus rides with upset stomachs. I was dreading this 10 hour trip, expecting it to be smelly and run-down, and picturing myself getting a sick stomach again and being trapped.

I could not have been more wrong. What I got was the flashest bus ride of my life. I had a super comfortable seat that reclined almost 45 degrees with more leg room than an exit row. It had all the amenities of an over-seas flight, with built in adjustable head-rests, a pillow and blanket waiting on my seat, and in-drive entertainment. Already impressed, I was shocked when a transvestite bus stewardess started her rounds, bringing snack boxes, iced coffee, and cold cloths for our faces throughout the journey. To be clear, I was not shocked about the tranny (“ladyboys”, as they call them, are infamous in Thailand), I was shocked by the fact that my bus had a stewardess. And he/she was bringing me snack boxes labeled “Your Best Friend Companion”  with sugary treats and buns filled with a confusing yet delicious green or purple paste/jelly hybrid substance. Then about ten minutes into the ride I was wondering how the person behind could be kneeing my seat with all the legroom we had, at which point I realized oh, that’s just my massage chair. Casually.

But then it got better. I’m not sure if I was more excited about the massage chair or the fact that there was a toilet. A real toilet, with a seat, and a flush, and, oh it was almost too wonderful for words…toilet paper!!! I almost didn’t want the ride to end, but I arrived in Chiang Mai ready to have some adventures.

Night Markets of Chiang Mai

The next day I headed out with a group of Australian boys from my guesthouse to do something called “Flight of the Gibbon.” It’s 2km of zip lines broken up by 18 treetop platforms through the rainforest. Quite a change from the overly cautious safety regulations you’d find on trips like this in the West, we were quickly strapped into harnesses upon arrival, received a safety briefing that went something like “lots of safety, lots of funny” and then ran after our guides to the start point where they literally grabbed our carabiners and pushed us off the first platform before we could say “Sawatdee kaa” (hello in Thai).

Flight of the Gibbon

Chiang Mai was off to a flying start (I couldn’t help myself). I had so much zen time in Indonesia I was craving some adrenaline, so after spending the day being thrown off treetops 1300 m above sea level, I was still just getting started on the adventures…

Channeling Elizabeth Gilbert in Ubud

As soon as I was feeling a little bit better after getting food poisoning in Bingin, I headed straight back to Ubud. I met up with Jennifer, and despite our 25 year age difference, we fell into an easy friendship. She knew she should probably be spending her time reflecting in solitude and trying to sort out this whole “finding herself” business, but that’s a scary mission, and as it certainly wasn’t going to happen overnight I think she preferred my company (which is delightful, by the way). She had booked herself into a place called Honeymoon Guesthouse, so I ended up staying with her for a few nights to help take up some of the massive space for two.

 

Not too shabby

That’s just the kind of generous, kindhearted person I am, going out of my way to stay in a flash marble guesthouse with aircon, swimming pool, and wifi when I could be staying in the taxi man’s spare room with his uncle and wife. She did make me earn my keep though, demanding live music while she played chess with her new Balinese friend Ambara. I just pawned the responsibility off on the Australian guy I met in the pool earlier who made the mistake of telling me he played music. Obviously he had no chance of doing anything he wanted to do from that point forward as I was going to force him to play me sweet sweet music. And that he did. Keep an ear out for him, his name is David Cheney and with music as impressive as his is, just getting started, I can only imagine what he will be creating in a few years time.

As I always have plenty of my own reflecting to do, I eventually retreated back to my own accommodation with cold showers, broken ceiling fans, and lizards for roommates, leaving Jennifer to her solo honeymoon. Despite the downgrade, my place is still comfortable and clean with a great view.

View from my porch at Dena Sari

 

Aside from wandering aimlessly and looking at artwork, I wanted to branch out and try to open myself up to some “Eat, Pray, Love Moments” as my dad calls them. (Sidenote: I am obsessed with the book, not the movie. If you havn’t read it you should do so immediately. The movie is artistically shot, but nowhere near as insightful). Ubud is where Elizabeth Gilbert comes when she is in Bali, and being here it is easy to see why. I discovered a place called Yoga Barn (www.theyogabarn.com) and decided to take a chakra meditation class there. It is a beautiful, two-story open-air studio over looking terraced rice paddies, dedicated to “yoga, movement, and healing”.

Yoga is easy when that is your view

Chakras are meant to be the different areas of your body that transmit and receive energy, each relating to a specific type of energy and associated with a color. In Hindu and Buddhist Yogic traditions, the energies spin like a fan, and the practice of chakra meditation is meant to help you sync your body’s chakras, harmonizing them and getting in tune with which energies are being blocked and which energies are strongest.

The typical 7 chakras

I very much believe in positive and negative energy in the universe, and the power the mind has to impact the things around you, but I generally stray away from trying too hard to label it or quantify it. I nonetheless came to the class with an open mind and a clear and calm head. After about 20 minutes of various forms of meditation, we were all standing in the class, eyes closed, as the teacher had us swaying our arms around each chakra, focusing on what was happening in each area of our body as we “oh-ah-mmm”ed in unison. The air was still but for the vibration from our voices until a loud “WHACK!” pulled us from our meditative state. We looked up to find a woman, about 40 or 50 years of age, on the ground after fainting. Instead of going limp before falling, she had gone down like a wooden plank, taking the brunt of the fall on her chin as she hit the timber floorboards beneath her. Strangely, one of the guys in class, Andy, said for some reason the second before she fell he had opened his eyes from meditation and looked straight at her. Though she could hardly move her jaw, she mentioned before the ambulance took her away that before she went down all she could see was the color purple. Purple represents Sahasrara; the Crown chakra. Located at the top of the head, this is generally thought of as the chakra of pure consciousness. Whether or not there is some deeper meaning hidden here is not really for me to say, but it is interesting nonetheless.

After the drama, those of us who remained resumed the class and we were soon separated into groups of three to do an exercise. We sat holding hands with our eyes closed, and one person had to choose a color to represent and then send that color to the other two members of the group through the vibrations in their “oh-ah-mmmm”. After a few minutes, the other two group members had to share what color they received. I was with Andy, a middle-aged Englishman, and Clint, a 25 year old Australian. After each round, the whole class shared what had just happened, and it was pretty impressive how many people had guessed correctly, or at least guessed the color just above or below the intended chakra. When I went, I decided I would be a bit tricky, and went for two colors. I wanted to be yellow and orange so I focused on sunlight, which kept conjuring images of the beach in my mind. Andy guessed first and said immediately that he got two colors from me, but I just looked at him blankly waiting for him to finish his guess, and he said he wasn’t sure why but he definitely got two colors and they were yellow and orange. Exactly right. Then Clint guessed and said he got blue, but then kept getting yellow as well. Though not completely right, it was still a pretty accurate guess as I was using the beach, with blue water and golden sunlight, as the image in my head to channel my colors. But it gets weirder.

Later in class, no longer in small groups, the teacher told us to send a simple wish or desire out into the universe and channel our energy into making it happen. I had been struggling to meet other young, solo travelers like myself, and had noticed that while a lot of people seemed to have come to the class with someone else, Clint had come on his own. So I made my statement simple, “that guy is going to come over to talk to me after class, and we’re probably going to go get some food together.”

What do you know, after class I’m rolling up my yoga mat and who wanders over? Clint, asking if I would like to go get dinner. Oh well, gee, I hadn’t thought about it, I’m not sure I may have to YES OF COURSE I WOULD! So me Clint and Andy end up going to a place in town called Bali Buddah. Over Bintangs and dinner I learned that Andy had just got back from an Ashram and practices NRP; neurological response programming. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Clint works as an engineer in the mines in Australia. Loving every moment of the fascinating company I found myself in as the result of a simple decision to take a meditation class, the three of us carried on sharing and exploring our life perspectives, continually moving our conversation as place after place closed and kicked us out. The night ended in me playing a few songs at a reggae bar (wtf?! And in smelly yoga clothes as well!) before we went and “danced the chakras” at the only late-night club in Ubud. Now before you think I’ve gone completely new-age and mental, we were fully aware how ridiculous we were being. And it was awesome.

After struggling my way through a full day bike trip up an active volcano and through the Balinese countryside the next day (I had booked before I knew I’d be out all night!), I met up with Andy and Clint again, and this time brought Jennifer along to see what she could gain from the experience.

Surprisingly good shot of Mt Batur considering the state I was in when I took it

Balinese Woman Hard at Work in the Fields

One of the most beautiful things I love about travel is the way in which strangers can come together and share something meaningful that each will carry with them, even though they will most often float out of each other’s lives as fast as they came. You can learn about the deepest crevasses of a persons mind after only knowing them a day because in this environment, people cut the bullshit of day to day life and come together in the simple acknowledgment that we are all just people, trying to figure it out.

Not sure if J is going to be stoked with this pic or not

After another night of amazing conversation and insight, we all decided to exchange emails as Clint and Andy were both heading out of Ubud the next day. Now if you didn’t think guessing the correct chakra colors or telling the universe to make Clint talk to me was enough to make you think twice about the power of the mind, listen to this. For fun, Clint and I decided to try to guess each other’s last names before exchanging emails. We closed our eyes and held hands, and I tried my best to send him “Berner,” focusing on really hot things and thinking this was definitely not going to work. His guess? Burns. Out of all the last names in the world, he freaking guesses Burns. Then it’s my turn to guess. Loads of last names are floating in my head but I tell him I’m not getting anything. He says to scratch that idea then, and just guess an animal. I close my eyes and after a few minutes just say sorry, I didn’t get it. All I can think is rabbit, and that’s obviously not a last name.

Or it is?

His last name is Hare. He sent me “rabbit.”

I don’t care how skeptical you may be about any of this meditation/personal energy business, you have to admit that is pretty damn weird. He guessed Burns, I guessed rabbit. Weird.

Now, I’m not going around thinking I have special powers and can read minds and control the universe, but this experience was enough to reinforce a simple idea that I have believed for some time, but am not always diligent in practicing; the energy that I put out into the universe is more than fleeting thoughts, but it is something tangible that has an effect on the area around me. The more in tune I am with myself, the more opportunity I have to control the energy that I emit. At dinner that second night, Clint told me that he had watched me walk across the street to where he was and that I was glowing. He said I just had an energy about me that was radiating. It was one of the best compliments I have gotten in a really long time, maybe ever. It’s not easy to maintain that positivity all the time, and doing so would mean living in ignorant bliss as the world is far from a perfect place, but I was happy, even for just one night, to have gotten my glow back.

Indonesian Solitude and Ecstatic Dance

So, after coming up with a million different overzealous itineraries for the 6 weeks I had allotted myself in Southeast Asia, I got to Indonesia and decided instead to just relax and see what experiences might come my way (as opposed to chasing after them like a chicken with my head cut off). I used up my allotted one month for the initial visitor visa, and now I’m en-route to Thailand where I will headless chicken my way around northern Thailand and northern Laos before making my way home in time for Christmas.

I want you to feel like you’re right there with me when I tell my stories though, so firstly I need to feel like I’m still there too and not trapped in this glass cage of emotion (read: airport).

<<Exaggerated knuckle crack>>

Ok, close your eyes.

Um, no wait that’s not going to work. I may have been able to channel my last name to Clint (previous post: Channeling Elizabeth Gilbert in Ubud) but I’m pretty sure I can’t read this to you with my mind so you are probably going to need your eyes.

Let’s try this: No, that’s not carpet patterned with various sized blobs of primary colors, it’s the golden glow of a seemingly endless field of rice as it sways in harmony with an early morning breeze. That’s not the white fluorescence of artificial lighting making people’s skin look like corpses, it’s the soft warmth of 4pm sun playing hide and seek with shadows as it disappears and remerges between temples, trees, and terraces. And no, that is most certainly not Christmas muzac playing incessantly over the loudspeakers between announcements of boarding gates and delays, it’s the soothing sound of water trickling down into a koi pond through the mouth of a stone frog as you make your way into the spa for a Balinese massage.

Mastapa Garden

Ok, are we all there?

For me, Indonesia was a good place to relax and enjoy some time alone.  Most people travel on vacation or holiday, but when you make a lifestyle of it things can get pretty chaotic. I need space to retreat into my own head, reflect and regroup every once in a while. In the same way a camel stores up on water before trips through the desert, it was as though I had stocked up on enough social interaction through three weeks of constant (and awesome, don’t get me wrong) company in my camper van trip in Australia and therefore didn’t mind the solitude I found in Ubud. It’s all about balance though, so I’d supplement my days of mind and trail wandering with various classes at Yoga Barn, as otherwise I would often go entire days uttering hardly more words than a handful of “no, thank you“s to the constant solicitations for transport (“Motorbike? Yes? Vroom vroom! Miss! You need transport? Yes? Where you stay?“).

Ubud is a great place to spend some time learning new skills, be it cooking, weaving, or even Thai boxing. I kept myself entertained with various yoga classes, chakra meditation, and even tried an African dance class (I learned that I am white. Oh so very white). Then one Friday night I decided hell, why not go ecstatic dancing??

You may be thinking “What exactly is ecstatic dance?” or “How does one dance ecstatically?” Well, I am certainly no expert, but I will try to explain. Essentially, you just dance. But not well, you dance hard. This happens to be my favorite variety of dance. I had asked a friend who had been to the class before what it was all about, and she explained that everybody just lets go of all their inhibitions and dances as freely and wildly as they feel in an environment free from judgment. People jump off the walls and crawl on the floor and do whatever the hell the music moves them to do. My natural response was “So is everyone just tripping out on drugs?” She laughed and assured me it is a completely sober environment, so I decided this was something I needed to see for myself.

At first I was a bit surprised by the turn-out. There were probably 50 people of all varieties. You had the people you’d expect to be there (like the long-haired shirtless guy from South America with the flowy linen pants, or the 70 year old woman with silver hair in a transparent white pants/shirt combo sans undergarments whose body was immortalized at 25, presumably due to strict yogic practice), and all the people you wouldn’t (like a 35 yr old couple that clearly live in the suburbs and desperately want to prove that they are not as boring as they know they have become, and the 60 year old man in khakis who most likely left his New Balance orthopedic trainers out front with everyone else’s sandals).

Next I was concerned about the lighting. I had assumed this would be a dark environment. If I were to spontaneously start “popping and locking” as I have been known to do it would be best if the lights were off. Unfortunately, the music started and the lights remained on. There was no instruction, and everyone just began moving, some more freely than others. Some people got into it straight away, jumping around and contorting their bodies to music that appeared to be different than that that was being played to the rest of us. After a few minutes, a woman began instructing us to “let go of your judgments, let go of your pride, forget about your concerns of how you look and release yourself in the music.”

I immediately had to get myself in check as I realized it wasn’t so much worrying about being judged that I needed to focus on releasing, but it was my own judgments that I needed to stop. I didn’t want to judge, and I certainly didn’t want to laugh, but it was hard. One guy was spinning himself in circles on the floor while someone else  kept screaming out animal noises. I tried at first to keep my eyes closed to avoid distraction, but then I kept bumping into (or tripping over) people so I decided to face out and stare at the rice paddies instead. After a little while I noticed everyone in the class had started to loosen up, myself included. Dance is a beautiful form of expression, and I had to keep reminding myself of that as I watched people squirm and spasm, jump jive and wail, roll, crawl, karate chop, ninja kick, and mambo # 5 their way around the room, encouraging myself to follow suit.

I had started the class tired and hungry as I had come straight from a long yoga class and hadn’t had a chance to eat dinner. Next thing I knew I was jumping higher in the air than I thought myself capable as though it were the only way to release the explosion of energy surging through me. All of the sudden I became aware of my body and realized I had no idea how long it had been since I last paid attention to what it was up to. The music began to slow, the lights dimmed, and people took to the floor as the energy continued to dance in air long after our bodies had stopped.

I no longer felt it but remembered my hunger and took myself to dinner in a daze after class, where I first looked at a clock and saw that I had been “ecstatic dancing” for over two hours. I stared out at the view in a bit of a daze as I started to eat my curry (no matter how many times I got sick I always made sure to reiterate in my order that I did indeed want my spicy such and such dish to be spicy) .

View from my post-Ecstatic Dance dinner

I knew I might be eating slowly, but I was getting a bit annoyed by the fifth time someone came over to clear my plate when I had hardly taken a few bites. When I finally did finish, I looked at my watch again and realized why; the 5 or 10 minutes I thought I had been sitting there was actually an hour and a half. Well look at you Ecstatic Dance, you dance-tranced me you sneaky little rascal.

Aside from a peasant skirt phase somewhere around my freshman year of college, I never fancied myself as much of a hippie, but here I was meditating and trance dancing like it’s 1964. That’s the power of a place like Ubud I guess, I wouldn’t recommend it to people who don’t like to, yanno, feel things, and, think and stuff.

Now, a camel can’t survive in the desert without water forever, so after another week or so I decided I was getting bored of my own company and headed to an Indonesian Island near Lombok called Gili Trawangan.

Longboat on Gili Trawangan Shore

It’s so small you can walk around the whole thing in just over two hours (I didn’t actually test this myself I just took Lonely Planet‘s word for it). It is one of three islands commonly referred to as The Gili’s, with Trawangan being the most social of the bunch. They don’t have any cars or motorbikes on the island, so people use the old school horse-drawn cart to get around.

Horse Cart in Gili, or “Cidomo”

Knowing it would be a while before I was near a beach again, I used these last few days in Indonesia to sit in the sand

Tough Life

Enjoy the crystal clear water that defies logic

As Clear and Warm as Bath Water

and drink to the sunset with new friends

Gili Specialty “Vodka Jus”

You don’t know what a hangover feels like until you spend a night drinking petrol (or, “lokal liquor” as they called it) then have to spend the next day on boats and buses in 100 degree heat en route to the airport. As always, I survived to tell the tale. No rest for the wicked, so I’m off to Thailand and Laos!

Bali Buddah

I arrived in Bali November 6th, exhausted and disoriented with no plans for what I was going to do for the next six weeks in Southeast Asia. I followed advice from friends in Australia, and headed straight for Kuta as it is the main place people seem to go when they are in Bali. My flight got in late and it was raining as my taxi from the airport dropped me outside  my guesthouse. (There are no hostels in Bali, just homestays, mid-range guesthouses, and the occasional hotel. I had decided to splash out and go flashpacking in a guesthouse for my first few nights there, but at $30 a night it hardly seemed like a splurge). As I wandered around I felt like Leonardo Dicaprio in The Beach when he travels back to Bangkok to get supplies from the hidden paradise he’s been living in off the shores of Ko Samui, finding himself overwhelmed by all the lights, traffic, people, touts, and loud noises swirling about him. I find that every city and town has a personality, and I knew Kuta was not one I was going to be friends with.

Trying to give it a chance, I wandered about the area for a few days, checking out nearby Legian and Seminyak, and found myself more confused at how so many of my friends said they loved this place. The streets were crowded, the touts were obnoxious, the beaches were dirty, and the shops and restaurants all looked like a drunk Australian had thrown up on them (I mean that both figuratively and literally).

The Kuta your guide book doesn't mention

Now to be fair, I now know that people go to the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area to surf and party, but when I was there the weather was crap and I was ready for a detox so I didn’t see the allure. The upside of my time in Kuta was meeting an Australian surfer named Dwayne who has been coming to Bali for over 20 years. It was fortunate for me the swells were not good (ya I totally know all about surfing don’t worry about it) which left him with a lot of downtime to serve as my personal tour guide. Dwayne took me around on his motorbike to all the best places to eat, showed me the night markets, helped me barter, and answered my endless stream of “I’m a foreigner and didn’t bother to learn a damn thing before coming here” questions. Bless him.

Best Smoothie of my life for $.60 at the night market

When I said I needed to get out of Kuta and was heading to Ubud, he offered to take me on his motorbike as he needed to go there to pick up a cat statue (I tried to figure this one out but I’m still very confused on the whole situation. It’s a wooden cat and it says “Welcome”. My campervan told me to never trust a smiling cat…) Wanting to save money on the taxi fare, I agreed to the ride, despite obvious logistical issues. How were two people, my guitar, and my giant backpack going to fit on this tiny little motorbike? We ended up with the backpack on my back, hanging off the back of the bike, and my guitar between Dwayne’s legs in the front. I couldn’t feel my feet for most of the 2 hour trip and thought at every bump in road that I was about to fly off the back of the bike. But what a way to see the country!

Cat in hand, Dwayne headed back to Kuta that night, leaving me all smiles as I soaked in the artistic and spiritual hub that is the mountain village of Ubud. Many people think of Bali as one place; a specific destination, when in actuality it functions almost like it’s own country. While it is an island in Indonesia, it has it’s own language and culture, as well as many diverse towns and landscapes. There are touristy seaside areas, active volcanoes, black sand arid beaches, mountain villages, cliff side surf breaks, and areas with miles of temples and rice paddocks. Where Kuta is for drinking and surfing, Ubud is for relaxation, healing, and meditation. There is an amazing energy in this place and in the type of person that it attracts. I initially stayed in a place called Jati homestay, where I walked off a central road in town through a narrow alleyway to find myself wandering past a yoga studio and the family compound, complete with multiple art galleries, to get to my bamboo bungalow overlooking a rice paddock.

Jati Homestay

View from my bungalow

Just a two minute walk from a busy street, the only sounds from my room  were that of the often heavy rains, the water trickling through the irrigation canal in front of the rice paddock, and the roosters running about through the palms. Now, just in case that sounds a bit too perfect, I will admit these were like owl roosters; nocturnal little shits. (Reminds me of the episode of Family Guy where they make an offensive yet hilariously left field reference to disabled roosters, then show 5 all lined up cock-a-doodle-dooing to the sunrise until they span to the last one who says in a drunk voice ‘goodnight everybody!’ Jamie, at least I know you’re laughing).

I spent my days wandering the streets (oh how I love a good wander!), getting lost in road after road of shops with little Balinese artists displaying their work while actively creating more. I try to avoid the places that have too much on display, as I don’t like the stuff that is mass produced for tourists, which is how I stumbled upon Komang.

My new friend Komang

Through very broken English I learned that Komang had been working on the piece in front of him for 6 months, and it would take about a year to finish. He showed me an impressive variety of paintings throughout his gallery and, to my initial hesitation, his bedroom attached out the back. I felt awful leaving him without buying a painting, but I forgot to factor into my Asia budget money to buy and import massive art pieces to the States. Rookie mistake.

One day I decided to explore more of the the village on the outskirts of town, setting out to follow a long road that supposedly would loop around and get me back to town in about 1.5 hours. I started walking, getting lost in my thoughts amongst the quiet countryside and vast rice fields, but eventually began to wonder when exactly I was going to start looping back to town as the hand drawn map I was given had directed.

I have no phone or watch and therefore on an overcast day I also have no concept of time, but felt I had been walking a while. The further I walked, I began to notice the reaction to my presence changing, both from the villagers I passed as well as the stray dogs that roam the streets in abundance. More and more people stopped what they were doing to point me out to their children, who would in turn laugh and wave, making it clear to me I must be lost as these people obviously didn’t see many tourists their way. One group of kids adorably begged me to take their picture, and thanked me profusely for doing so, even though I obviously had no way of giving it to them.

Posing for the Camera

It was the dogs that became more of an issue. In town, the strays are used to loads of people walking about and therefore keep to themselves, but suddenly I would have one dog barking, who would therefore alert the next 7 dogs down the road, and if they were feeling extra territorial, they would all gang up on me and follow at my feet barking. Bali has had a lot of issues with Rabies, and I’m pretty sure all of my shots, for almost everything, are out of date. Feeling calm despite my situation, I managed to channel my alpha dog and keep the strays at bay, finally finding my way back to town almost six hours later. But this is why getting lost is awesome (there has to be some upside to being directionally retarded), look at some of the amazing countryside I never would have seen had I been able to read a map!

Rural Simplicity

Geese Love Rice

During my few days in Ubud, I had been in touch with Dwayne who had told me about his friend Sticky. Sticky is a Balinese guy Dwayne met when he first started coming to Bali who was now running a homestay in a place called Bingin. As Dwayne was leaving Bali for Taipei in a few days, I decided I’d have to leave Ubud before I was ready to check out Bingin with him so he could introduce me to Sticky and show me around. I knew that I was not yet done with Ubud, or rather, it was not done with me, so I would have to return.

Bingin is a place I never would have known to go to if Dwayne had not told me about it. It’s a tiny little strip of beach with Bungalows and Warungs built into the cliffside. People come here to surf, talk about surfing, look at other surfers, and surf some more. The surf is based on a reef break, which is too dangerous for beginners, so I just took part in the third option: looking at surfers. This is the type of beach I had expected from Bali but Kuta had not delivered to me, with clear waters crashing into the whites of the cliff face, gently lulling back at low tide to reveal colorful reef and the hollowed rock platforms that will one day be sand.

View from my Balcony at Sticky's Place

Bingin Beach

Attempting to explore beyond my cliffside bungalow one day, a  friendly Californian named Willie saw me walking and offered me a ride on his motorbike. After chatting, he invited me to dinner with two of his friends. We went to a place about  20 minutes away by motorbike called Jimbaran. Famous for its seafood warungs, we got there just in time to stroll along the water as the sun was setting before settling in to our meal in the sand. It was here that I met Jennifer, a 51 year old divorcee from California. Fresh out of her marriage, recently retired, and having just sent her youngest off to college, Jennifer came to Bali hoping to figure out what the hell she wants to be doing with her life. I ended up meeting back up with her when I returned to Ubud, but I’ll save that for the next post.

The next day I wanted to check out the temple at Uluwatu, and rather than get a taxi I decided to have a go at driving my own motorbike. At this point I had been on the back with a few different drivers, and despite the seemingly chaotic whirlwind that is motorbiking in Bali, I never found myself the least bit concerned for my safety, finding it easy to space out and enjoy the scenery whizzing past. Driving one turned out to be an entirely different story. I was white knuckled and sweating as I made my way to the temple, slowing to almost complete stops at every bend on the winding, mountain roads that made up the journey. As I started wandering around the temple, I began to feel a little bit off, but assumed it was just the stress of the ride and the overabundance of tourists encroaching upon my personal space. Between the prominence of the temple itself, the monkeys playing about, and the view looking over the water as it crashed into the cliffs, you can see why so many tourists flock to Uluwatu, but unfortunately this has now become its greatest drawback.

Uluwatu Temple

The Money Shot

At sunset I went to see the Kecak dance, which is performed nightly at the temple. The dance tells a story in Balinese folklore, set the music of the voices of 70 men, no instruments. Again, I spent most the time feeling more and more ill, blaming it on the heat and kicking myself for being overly hungry and unable to enjoy what should have been an impressive performance with an incredible backdrop.

Kecak Dance

I bolted as the performance ended, thinking I just needed some food in my stomach. Terrified, I biked in the dark to the nearest warung, and one hour later found myself only two bites in to my Nasi Goreng (essentially it’s fried rice). I gave up on solid food and ordered a banana smoothie, drank it down and waited to feel the wave of relief as my blood sugars restored.

Burp.

Uh-oh.

I ran to the bathroom as casually as one can in such a situation and made it just in time before chucking my brains out. I knew everyone in the restaurant must have heard me, but I knew I had to cover my embarrassment, walk out front, politely ask for my bill and get the hell out of there. I had been hit by the infamous Bali Belly, and now I had to get on a freaking motorbike and drive myself back to Bingin, where I would then have to make it down the cliffside in the dark to get to my room by the water. Climbing down the giant cliff steps, I kept feeling like I might faint, a feeling immediately followed by terror as fainting would mean imminent death. Death via head cracking on ragged rock followed by body falling down the side of the cliff. Luckily, I made it back to my bungalow successfully, where I then spent the next two days in misery as my body ejected life and shook with fever.

The morning of the second day, I desperately needed water and knew I should try to drink a smoothie or something as there was nothing left in my stomach. I felt more alone than ever as I realized I was going to have to go back up the cliff and get it myself.

Cliffside Bungalows in Bingin

I couldn’t even sit up straight, how the hell was I supposed to get up the cliff? Never in my years of travel have I wanted my mommy more. Not my mom, but my mommy, as this was a basic, child’s desire to be nourished and protected.

Food poisoning kept me in Bingin a few extra days, but as soon as I recuperated I headed back to Ubud, where I knew exciting things were about to happen…

This is my Bali Buddah

The New-Age “Moving On Up”–From Campervan to Private Island Resort

After Lanie  and I ditched the campervan in Airlie beach, we left the next morning for a three day/two night sailing trip in the Whitsunday Islands. Off the central coast of Queensland, this is where people come from all over the world to dive the Great Barrier Reef. When we went to the marina in the morning, we wondered whether or not we had accidentally booked ourselves on a lesbians getaway, as our boat was comprised almost entirely of females. We resigned ourselves to the lack of man candy and figured we could use this opportunity to work on our personalities and bust out some friend-making skills. Throughout the course of our camper van journey and the many meaningful and meaningless discussions that come along with such ventures, we came to the conclusion that in terms of self improvement, our time would be best spent honing some super sweet personalities, as trying to out-babe all the babes on the market is far too tiresome and futile a mission. It involves things like hair straighteners and, yanno, showering regularly.

We spent our days at sea, stopping at various islands to snorkel the clear blue waters, scuba dive, and bask in the sun (or at least the hot Swedish babes did, my freckles and I spent a lot of time cowering in caves and other peoples shadows in search of respite from the relentlessly harsh Australian rays).

Loving the underwater camera

Lucky for me, I was the only one who opted to go for another scuba dive on the second day, so I got an extra long dive with just me and the instructor. Bargain! The first time I went diving in New Zealand I went with some stoner dude running a sham of a company. My ears killed on the dive and I couldn’t hear properly for over a week afterward. I thought I would give diving one more shot, especially as I was in the Great Barrier Reef, and if I couldn’t do it then I’d have to accept that I was just one of those people who can’t equalize . I’m so happy I gave it another shot because with proper instruction this time I was able to see some beautiful sights. Ahem.

Spot the Babe?

Oh right, and there were some cool fish and stuff too…

Fishies!

A few different points along the trip, the crew would point out different islands we were going past, and when they pointed out Hayman Island, Lanie and I mentioned that we were going there after the sailing trip to meet up with our friend Ash as she works there. The response was, “Are you sure you’re going to Hayman Island, not Hamilton?”

Not actually sure, we let it go. Then when we arrived back in Airlie beach after the trip, we went to collect our bags from the travel agency and in chatting told the receptionist we were heading to Hayman Island the next day. Again,

“Are you sure you’re going to Hayman island?”

This time Lanie checked her messages from Ash to confirm it was indeed Hayman Island we were supposed to be going to, at which point we were met with shock and disbelief as the girl told us as far as she knew the cheapest room on Hayman Island was 600 a night, and it costs something like 200 just to step foot on the island if you are not a resort guest. We immediately contacted Ash to see what the situation was, and were assured that she had sorted a deal for us and that our names were already on the manifest for the boat to the island. Next moment of panic: what the hell are we supposed to wear? Our bags were full of a typical backpacker wardrobe; all ratty, wrinkled, and readily disposable. How were we supposed to blend in with the other private island resort goers? Answer: we weren’t. Instead of worrying we went to meet up with some people from the sailing trip in town that night. Lanie went home a bit ahead of me so I gave her the room key, but soon after she went in the hostel shut its gates for the night, leaving me locked out of the whole building. Not having a phone, I had no way to contact Lanie to have her come let me in, so being the classy, resourceful lady that I am, I found the nearest park bench and went to sleep.

I woke up early to a group of guys chatting nearby but pretended to keep sleeping until they had passed to avoid any awkward “good morning, yes I was just sleeping on that park bench, meant to be great weather today” conversation. Seeing that the hostel gates were open, I ran inside to our room, not having any idea what time it was, to find that Lanie’s alarm had not gone off and we had 30 minutes to get all of our stuff together and get to the marina before our boat departed. We were meant to be checking in at the marina right then, meaning we had missed the bus that we needed to catch to take us there. No time to do anything with ourselves other than grab our bags, we ran out of the hostel and just started running down the road. Soon realizing we had no chance of getting a bus, we were frantically hoping a taxi might magically drive past, but soon gave up and stuck out our thumbs. Two minutes later a black car stopped and we threw our stuff inside and told him where we thought we were supposed to be going. He drives us to Abel Point Marina, and it only takes a minute before Lanie, at this point on the phone to Ash, realizes it’s actually the marina on the complete other side of town that we need to be at. In three minutes. The angel of a man who picked us up was nice enough to turn around out of his way and take us to the other marina. We pull up just as giant yacht is pulling out of the harbor, so Lanie bolts out of the car and runs down the dock, arms flailing over her head, yelling “Hayman Island!!” Surprisingly, this tactic worked. It’s not just in movies, the boat actually came back to get us. I grab our bags from the car and run towards the boat. Two deckhands are waiting there to take my baggage, at which point the skipper actually yells down from the top deck

“Are you sure you’re going to Hayman Island?”

What, this isn’t how most of your resort guests arrive? Carrying backpacks with sleeping bags, wearing last nights clothes and makeup, making you turn around your boat to come retrieve us? What gave us away?

“Yes (asshole), I know we look like backpackers, but yes we are sure we are going to Hayman Island.”

So they take our bags and guide us up to the top deck where we soon realize this entire yacht is for just us and one other couple. Finally having a chance to calm down and be thankful we made it after yet another ridiculously close call, we are met with salmon sandwiches, chocolates, and champagne. We accept, trying to pretend that this is obviously what happens to us all the time when we travel, then we wait until the deckhands go back downstairs before bursting out laughing. What the hell was happening? I just slept on a park bench and now I’m on a private yacht taking me to an exclusive private island resort.

Thank god for sunglasses

We arrive at the island and are driven in a resort cart up to where we meet Ash. After taking us on a tour of the island, where Lanie and I did our best to be the biggest embarrassments to Ash possible, we checked into our room. Our glorious room.

View from the Balcony

Just in case anyone wanted to question if we were actually staying there, we decided to wear the slippers and bathrobes we found in the closet everywhere we went. To the pool, to the beach, to the restaurant, to the bar. All in bathrobes and slippers.

Robes are the Swiss Army Knife of clothing

After parading ourselves around the island all afternoon, we went back to the room to get cleaned up for dinner. But three of us have to shower. And there’s only one bathroom. Well that’s inconvenient isn’t it? I leave Lanie in the bathroom to go hang up my beach towel, and I walk back in to find her sitting on her knees in the bathtub vigorously shaking a bottle of hotel “bath essence” into the water as she fills up the tub. Problem solved! We’re all taking a bubble bath!

Making use of the hotel's amenities

Honestly you’d think we had been living in a cave for the past 20 years, not just living out of a camper van for three weeks.

After living the high life for a few days, the three of us headed up the coast to Cairnes where we went white water rafting through the rainforest on the Tully River, then sadly said our goodbyes before flying off to different destinations. Unfortunately for them, they were going back to work, while I was lucky enough to be flying to Bali, just getting my trip started. Magical Bali. Oh how excited I am to write about what’s been happening to me here!