Finding Paradise in Bali

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I enjoy traveling on the cheap, being a dirty backpacker and grunging through local life and public systems abroad. South east Asia has the appeal of giving cheap luxury, offering massages and all sorts of spa treatments for the price of a Starbucks coffee. Then there’s Bali, a place where luxury exists in extreme excess and the prices you pay can be just as extreme.

I knew Bali was some kind of resort heaven, but it’s also the playground of teenage Australians looking for magic mushrooms and hand-painted manicures. It was a crowded, busy city, nothing like the laid back island I expected. Most of the coast and beaches are private property, so traveling around Bali leaves you winding through traffic, buildings and forests. But you won’t be denied the post-card picture of Bali if you check yourself into one of those exclusive resorts, each the size of a small city, with nearly as many employees as guests and measured by various numbers of stars and diamonds. Apparently there’s a 7 star hotel (isn’t it only a scale of 1-5?) and a 5 diamond hotel, but I couldn’t tell the difference between Mulia (5 diamond) and Grand Nikko (5 star). Both were incredibly wonderful, and the surrounding gardens and sandy beaches spacious enough to hold a zoo and multiple golf courses.

We also stayed at the chain hotel Mercure, which I’ve seen all over Europe before but never pictured it in the Bali resort light. It had a pool on the 4th floor, it’s horizon ending against the sunsetting seaside, and the continental breakfast was more like an international buffet.

Me and my mom tried 3 different types of massages, a Balinese, a Javanese, and another one whose name I can’t recall but it involved 2 hours of rubbing and scrubbing that left me one shade lighter from all the dead skin I shed. The Balinese was my favorite – a massage table sitting in a glass house with the same vantage point as the 4th floor pool, and the aromatherapy coming from a pot of colorful flowers resting below me through the face-hole. The Javanese massage started with the petite Indonesian woman walking on my back, stepping on me to snap my spine and then digging her pokey little fingers into all the sore and stiff spots on my body. It’s funny the money we pay for pain we think is pleasure.

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A Taste of Java

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Since my mom lives in Vancouver and I in Reykjavik, we decide to meet halfway in Jakarta (it kinda makes sense… if you look at flight routes). Me and my mom have never lived well together, but traveling in south east Asia another story, since we both love spicy, oriental food more than each other (an exaggeration yes, but only slightly). We also appreciate pampering manicures, and indulged in the chance to paint various pictures on our toes and fingernails (mostly cherry blossoms, batik flowers and strawberries).

We were hosted by my mothers trillionaire friends (if you count in Indonesian rupiahs), and got the kind of VIP treatment that only visiting heads-of-state deserve to get. They planned every waking hour of our 12 day visit to boast their beautiful country, an each days schedule revolved around 3 things: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Our very first meal, ordered street side on the closed parking lot of a mechanic shop, started with fermented cassava covered in cheese and chocolate, and ended with a half-boiled egg mixed with pepper and fish sauces served in a drinking glass. It was just a gooey conglomerate of yellow, white and grayish streaks.

We ate like royal queens, barely digesting (not an exaggeration) all sorts of unnameable spices covering the unmentionable parts of animals I had never tried before (feet and heads and the whole nine yards). We ate bat (yes, like batman), fried cow skin, internal organs (“tripe” is the euphemism for guts, stomachs and livers), and a whole bunch of sea food we had to crack open with our teeth and pretty little fingernails.

We visited Bandung, a city famous for outlet shopping malls, since many of the international brand name factories produce their clothes there in excess and sell off the extras at fractions of the price. Apparently people come from all over Australasia and the Middle East to get their cheap Nike and who knows what else (I don’t know my brand names very well), plus there’s the appeal of cheap imitation purses and batik cloth that every tourist (and my shopaholic mother) seemed to love. I mostly loved Kawa Puthi, the steaming volcano crater we visited and the albino horse with pink hair that I rode there. The geothermal spring below if that we bathed in was also a homey place (it was literally like being in an Icelandic pool).

We went during rainy season, which wouldn’t have been a real problem except I hadn’t seen the sun in 2 weeks (I came directly from the arctic), and the rains turned into big floods. We watched the international news coverage playing footage of our eventual demise from inside our Jakarta hotel room, and eventually decided to flee the city and fly to Yogyakarta, a few hundred km east in Java. There we visited some very old Hindu and Buddhist temples that could easily rival Angor Wat, but still it was my first time hearing about them. As elephants walked past me in the gardens around Borobudur, I wondered why we only hear about certain UNESCO world heritage sites (and concluded it’s because Borobudur and Prambanan are both impossible to spell or pronounce).

We didn’t know it then, but a few days after leaving Yogyakarta, a 6.5 Richter scale earthquake struck, so we had successfully fled yet another natural disaster in Indonesia

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Stop-over in Seoul

Have you ever noticed how places have a smell? Like on a large scale – Iceland has a smell, West Africa smell, and Indonesia smells like south east Asia. Its a kind of smell that you could bottle and market, but impossible to describe. It would be called “Rainy Season”… or maybe “Fruits and Chilis,” but maybe its just me. Korea smelled like Japan. If you’ve been to Japan, then it smells just like that – the perfectly clean trains, the unpolluted streets, and the fresh smell of four changing seasons. A sensitive nose runs in my family – my older sister always smells food before she eats it.

I’m traveling with my mother, who has an OCD tendency to relate every new place to a place she’s been before. She also thinks if she talks louder and slower, everyone should understand some english, but they just really dont. But, another gene that runs in my family is good eating, and me and my mom basically spent our time in Korea eating and sleeping. We went on a 3 am hunt for food, after her flight was delayed 7 hours, and found the most delicious 24 hour place to order Udon and kimchi and all sorts of other unrecognizable goodness. The influence of  Japanese and south-east asian cuisine comes out perfectly in their rice and noodle dishes, and even the 7-eleven has been “koreanized” with the taquitos and hot dogs replaced by stuffed rice-cake balls and instant kimchi noodle dishes.

our 3 am gold digging

our 3 am gold digging

I’ve been to Japan a few times, but never Korea. I only had Tokyo as a basis to compare Seoul with, and build my expectations from there. It was similar in many ways – the incredible organization and functioning of everything public, and the unfamiliar flashing lights, alphabet and cartoony drawings covering everything external. The Koreans were taller, but just as petite, with a fetish for the little charms and jewels that cover their cellphones and man-purses. I felt big and clumsy there, with oversized feet and an unpolished sense of fashion. I amuse myself imagining what it would be like to be a tall, blonde Viking woman on the public train, or a big black mama in colourful dress trying to walk down the street. Hahaa…

The PDA is out of control. Cute and cuddly couples stay in constant physical contact, covering their mouths while they laugh and keeping their eyes looking shyly away. I’ve never seen so many pink suitcases as I saw in Seoul international airport, and all of the Seoul shopping area is sugarcoated in this pink-ish, animated cuteness thats hard to explain. All of Seoul is clean, like even the highway seems sterile enough to eat your lunch off the ground. And, wearing face-masks is a huge fashion trend, complete with brand competition and billboard advertising, since keeping your germs to yourself and blocking out everyone elses (im not sure which is more motivating) is the “cool” thing to do.

2014 Travel Resolutions and Status update (and a rant on Russia)

My New years resolution is the same every year: travel more. And perhaps I like having the same one because I always manage to do so, or maybe I´m just too lazy to come up with a new idea. Although I also decided to be able to walk on my hands and do the splits in both directions as two other resolutions, but thats totally unrelated to everything.

I´ve taken more flights in the last couple weeks than there have been days in this year, so Im on some sort of right track… or I’m just unrighteously depleting my carbon footprint quota for this year. My 27th birthday is in a month and a half, and I’ll be just shy of 120 countries by then, so only 80 to finish in the next 3 years… that’s do-able, right? I’m kind of nervous since I tried to save some of the easiest and most accessible for last (ie. all of Eastern Europe) but also have about 10 completely unreachable countries (ie. Nauru, Tuvalu, North Korea), but then again there are more than 200 countries by some lists, so that leaves room for omissions.

My biggest failure to date is still not making it to Russia. I got close in 2009, when me and my friend Mike Reiter were in Helsinki and tried to figure out a way accross to St. Petersburg. It wasn’t possible then, but since then they’ve introduced have this 24 hr tourist visa thing that you can get in Helsinki to take the train over. Sigh.

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow in his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

behind that man (aka Mike Reiter) rubbing snow on his chest, is the river separating Norway from Russia, which we could never really see that well in the 24 hour arctic nights

The last week in Norway was also a big tease, since me and Mike Reiter met in Kirkenes to go dogsledding on the Russian border. We could see the lights of Nikel but couldn’t get over the river, a.) because it wasn’t frozen and b.) because we didnt have visas. We couldnt get visas, since you’re only allowed to get a Russian visa in your resident country, and Iceland’s Russian embassy was closed Jan 1 – Jan 8, the exact (and only) dates I’ve been home in the last 3 months. I was booking my travel to Asia over a month ago, and decided to fly through Moscow with a 16 hour layover, since I (though I) knew I’d be able to figure out a visa in the meantime, somewhere between Africa, Northern Norway, and my travel to Korea.

I flew to Norway Jan 7, and couldn’t do anything about it in Oslo. But, randomly, I met the ex-Norwegian ambassador in Russia in a bar in Tromso. He was old, very drunk, and had some secret man crush on Mike Reiter (he likes Ukrainian Jews), but refused to discuss any way that he could help me, except admitting that he definitely could and knew the “very friendly” current ambassador, but he didnt want to because he hated Russia and thought Moscow was the most dangerous city in the world.

So, long story short, I never figured out a legitimate (or illegitimate) way into Russia, so I boarded my 8 our plane from Oslo to Moscow knowing this was the closest I’d get to experiencing Russia for the next 24 hours. I’m not sure if it was psychological or not, but I was convinced the plane smelled like vodka. I spent the flight learning the phonetics of the Russian alphabet by using a map of the world with city names I could sound out.  Then I sat in the Moscow international airport for 16 hours, and although I couldn’t find any way out of it (atleast not with a way back in), somehow a bird had found its way into the completely sealed, glass-walled airport. The airport didn’t let on many Russian stereotypes, since the most notable things there were Costa Coffee, TGI Fridays, and hundreds of Asian commuters on their way back from Europe to China, Korea and Japan. Only the unfriendly faces of staff I met on the plane and at the airport supported the stereotype of that Russian coldness people always talk about.The weather was foggy, grey and cold to match, making an escape seem less appealing anyway.

I basically ended up going to Moscow to write blogs and eat lunch at TGI Fridays, which are very normal (non-Russian) things I would have rather done somewhere else in the world… But, now I can read Russian, I still have no idea what the words I’m saying outloud mean, but that will hopefully change by the time I actually make it into this god-forsaken tourist country… if I ever do!

 

Huskies and Snowhotels in Northern Norway

the Snowhotel´s restaurant, in an adjacent cabin

the Snowhotel´s restaurant, in an adjacent cabin

The Arctic is kind of this imaginary place, one that most people have fantasized about with some romantic ideas of a far-away, white, northerly place. Unlike Antarctica, its not really one place, but pieces of Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Instead of being a place in itself, you tend to dream of some icy, person-less, non-place with a few snow-covered pine trees or glacier-topped mountains. Or maybe its a sea filled with icebergs and polar bears. But you always imagine it to look like the middle of nowhere, yet somewhere bright and white that you can still visualize. However, at 70°N in Norway, there´s actually a lot of people and Norwegian places, but ones that you cant really see in January since its perpetually dark. The sun wasnt going to rise until January 15, but its a misconception that its always night, since the skies do lighten up just barely enough for you to make out the treetops and snowcovered hills around you.

Somehow I still dont feel like I really saw Tromso or Kirkenes, since it was never bright enough to take a decent photo outside or get a lasting impression of my surroundings. I never really figured out when it was brightest, because it was always pitch black again before I knew it, and I started to have sun-ray withdrawls in the -10°C winter wonderland. It was too cold to really stay out exploring for long, but I loved the feeling of walking on dry, crunchy snow… until you hit a patch covering black ice and nearly broke your tailbone. My nose was always the first to freeze, but I didn´t break my tailbone, so it was all good in the Norwegian arctic.

the guard dog of the husky compount

the guard dog of the husky compound

Me and Mike Reiter spent 3 days near the tri-border area of Norway, Finland and Russia, the only place in the world where 3 time zones meet. We went dog-sledding with some huskies along the Norwegian-Russian border, and that basically meant we were given a sled, some rope, and 6 dogs to just go at it. I felt like they didn´t prepare us well enough, or teach us how to do it, but you basically just had to hang on and stay on. The crazy thing about dog-sledding is that the dogs will always continue pulling you forward, even if they need to take a dump – they run with their front two legs and let the other dogs drag their squatted back feet while they let out some stinky little brown lumps that slide under your sled milliseconds later. Our sled followed the guide sled, so the only thing we had to learn how to do was stop the sled – there´s an anchor we could push down into the snow with one foot, causing enough resistance into the snow that the dogs couldnt keep pulling us forward. As soon as you lift your foot, you´re off again, at an alarmingly fast speed, propelled by the fast and sudden jerk of 6 dogs scrambling forward. They’ll howl if you hold them back too long, and jump up and down in their harnesses to display their impatience. We displayed our sheer happiness and overwhelming joy by singing Aladdin´s ‘A Whole New World´at the top of our lungs as the sled slid through the dark and snowy plains. Maybe Russia heard us.

cuddling a husky with two-coloured eyes

cuddling a husky with two-coloured eyes

The other dogs in the yard will also howl as we ride away, wishing they could come along for the ride. They love the work they do, and also the touchy attention they get from being chosen as a sled-dog. When we visited the others in their pens, they were so affectionate, and some would even beg for the attention by faking injuries. One dog pretended her front-right foot was sore, then we walked over to check on her, she switched the limp to her back-left foot, before giving up on her games and jumping around all happily at our arrival.

the ice bar

the ice bar

In Kirkenes, me and Mike stayed at the Snowhotel, which is made out of “snice,” a mixture of snow and ice. Its kept at a temperature of -4°C, and contains 20 private rooms, with 2-5 beds in each and a personal theme carved into the wall. The rooms are designated randomly, and we lucked out with the polar bear room. We spent most of the cold night frolicking under the polar bears, and around the ice-statues and the ice-bar, taking way too many photos and even catching a glimpse of the northern lights. By the time we checked out, we had already made plans for our next arctic-rendez-vous to be at the ice hotel in Sweden, and we´ll definitely be dog-sledding every time we find some huskies, rope and a sled.

Photo Credits (C) Mike Reiter

New Years in Oslo

Maya's Mike carves our Norwegian leg-of-lamb

Maya’s Mike carves our Norwegian leg-of-lamb

I needed to get home from West Africa through Europe, and Norway seemed like an excellent stopover place. God knows London and its airport are no place to change flights, and my photography friend Mike Reiter wanted to drag me to the end of the world in Svalbard. Instead he convinced two of our engaged friends to join us, Maya and Maya’s Mike, and they traveled around Norway before we all met up in Oslo for New years. I have a wonderful Norwegian friend, a specialist in all things viking and Old Norse, so we stayed with her for 3 days to celebrate the arrival of 2014.

frolicking down the empty streets of downtown Oslo

frolicking down the empty streets of downtown Oslo

I spent the first night with her trying to explain my new Californian friends that would be overtaking her apartment, and almost peed myself jumping up and down in excitement when I knew they’d arrived downstairs. We drank terrible Senegalese alcohol as I did my best to convince them that Africa was a wonderful place, despite my horrible tales, and ate like kings and queens with home-cooked meals while the rest of Oslo shut down for the holidays.

We took a midnight stroll on New Years eve, trying our best to avoid being hit by stray fireworks at midnight, and watched the city (literally) explode at 12 am. We were jealous of all the people around us lighting up sparklers, but still too preoccupied ducking from nearby firework launching, and popped a few bottles of carbonated something to ring in the new year. We walked home the long way, doing shimmy dances to warm up, and tried avoiding being criminalized for disorderly public behavior (we may or may not have urinated on public property a.k.a. the grave yard a a government building). Maya tried to scare Mike away from the grave yard with ghost warnings, but what can you do? You gotta go when you gotta go.

karaoke time

karaoke time

New Years day was also spent walking around, a little more sober, but just as mischievously. After we reached the Opera house, nightfall had already fallen, but it was charming to see the empty streets and Akershus fortress lit up by only street lights. We weren’t lucky enough to see any northern lights, but we were lucky enough to spend the first hours of 2014 singing karaoke in the kitchen of Liv’s Philipino neighbours.

walking ontop of the Oslo opera house

walking ontop of the Oslo opera house

Me and Mike didnt make it to Svalbard, but we did make it to the arctic circle and frolicked around Kirkenes and the Russian-Norwegian border with huskies and snow hotels. We’ll be going to Svalbard next February to stay at the Ship in the Ice hotel, but first we’ll meet in California for Maya and Maya’s Mike’s wedding. It’ll be just as merry there, but alot warmer and brighter!