Friday, February 22, 2008

In Case You Thought I was Exaggerating

This video was shot last evening around 8pm outside one of Beijing's fanciest shopping centers.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fireworks Overload

Today marks Lantern Festival here in China, the 15th day of the lunar year, and the date after which you are generally no longer allowed to light fireworks here in Beijing. We noticed a gradual reduction in the number and size of the fireworks lit in our neighborhood over the past several days, and signs on the fireworks-selling kiosks advertising big discounts on the remaining stockpiles, so we knew that the end must be approaching. However, we also knew that Lantern Festival is also celebrated with big fusillades of fireworks (in addition to the more traditional--but in many Chinese cities, banned--practice of sending aloft paper lanterns).

This morning, at the unreasonable hour of 4:45am, we were startled by the sound of fireworks being set off in the vicinity of our apartment. This was not just a few isolated little 'pops', but rather volley after volley of large BOOMS that went on until a bit after 5am. Fortunately, we were able to get back to sleep after it ended (and the dogs were completely unperturbed by it), but honestly, is it really necessary to set off fireworks before dawn??

A friend of mine here in town (also an expat) has ventured the opinion that one or two days of fireworks is perfectly reasonable, but anything beyond that ventures into something beyond. We're not sure what the fascination is between the Chinese and the fireworks--surely no one believes any longer that you need to make as big a noise as possible in order to scare away the demons and ghosts that come to the earth in the early hours of the new year--so it must just be a fondness for making big noises, something that most people outgrow in childhood...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

State Department Shocker

Nation Of Andorra Not In Africa, Shocked U.S. State Dept. Reports

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Birthday Boy

I read somewhere recently that an amazing number of Americans celebrate their pets' birthdays. What was amazing about the number to me was the the number was only around 45% or so; I would have thought it would be much, much higher.

Today is the fourth birthday of our beloved Labradoodle, Leo. Leo was born in Frederick, Maryland, on February 19, 2003, and entered our household in June of that year. As a result, we did not know him during his true puppyhood, which might explain why by the time we came to know him he was already so well acclimated to human society. He has never once had an 'accident' in the house, and he has been very quick to learn everything we have ever tried to teach him.

Our ayi here in Beijing was initially unsure about whether she wanted to clean a house with such a big dog in it, but she has come to be one of his biggest fans, often petting him and laughing at his antics. He is a very fun dog, always wants to play, and makes us feel extremely loved. Though he's definitely J2's dog, nevertheless, when I come home from a trip, even of only one night's duration, he acts as though he has not seen me in weeks, and jumps up very joyously, licking my face to welcome me back. At night, he often scrunches up against me, which is great in the winter when his warmth is very welcome, though in the summer it's perhaps not so welcome, though I hate to push him away.

To celebrate Leo's birthday we gave him a "lambradoodle" squeaky toy (it's shaped like Lamb Chop, the old puppet from TV, and that's what the tag says it's called) to replace his old one, which he has torn up beyond use. (That's the only toy he's really destroyed; the other ones he treats much more respectfully.)

Leo has been a great addition to our household, and we think he's what's keeping Genghis, our 16 1/2-year old Laika mix, alive. We hope you'll join us in wishing him a happy birthday!

Funny Video

My boss sent me the link to this clip, saying I had to watch it. Can't imagine why...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bali Trip Photos

The photos have made their way onto the web, and can now be viewed if you click here. I have broken them into several galleries to facilitate viewing (there are around 300 pictures in all).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Singapore--Day Two

Our last day on vacation began with another forage of the hotel's breakfast buffet, which today included my beloved nasi lemak (made the way I like it!) before we hopped in a cab for the lengthy ride to our last attraction of the trip, Singapore's well-renowned Jurong Bird Park. As you might guess, this is basically a zoo of nothing but birds, with some very interesting species and exhibits. Among our favorites were the penguins (I'm a sucker for penguins, with the notable exception of those in the horrible movie "Happy Feet", which I hate more passionately than even "Forrest Gump"), the lory pavilion (where you enter their aviary and can buy little cups of nectar for them, prompting great shots of them eating while perched on your friend's hand), the hornbills and the flamingos. They also have a row of talking birds that have learned phrases in English, Mandarin, and Malay, though we had a very hard time getting them to say anything more than 'Hello' and 'Ni Hao'.

We had time for one last lunch before we left, so we headed to the most touristy of the hawker centers, Newton Circus, for a final hurrah. J2 had another portion of Singapore Chicken Rice, as well as an order of Bone Steak (lamb bones in a fluorescent red sauce that vies with Chilli Crab as Singapore's messiest dish to eat), while I had an order of Laksa (coconut-based spicy noodle soup). For drinks, J2 had his newly-discovered favorite, Bandung (a rose-flavored bright pink drink), while I decided to be bold and try durian juice. For those of you unfamiliar with durian, it's the "king" of Asian fruits, a huge spiky thing that looks like it'd kill you if you happened to be under it when it falls off the branch (and indeed it would), but that's a mercy killing, since the smell once it's open is so foul as to beggar belief. It's so bad, that it's forbidden to bring them onto public transport in several SE Asian countries, but the flavor is supposed to be sublime. I have tried it before, but could not get past the smell, so I thought a drink, with a lid, would solve the problem. It did make matters a bit more tolerable, though it was had a noticeable funkiness that I could not quite get past (but I have to admit, it tasted good).

Thus having fulfilled all of our dining objectives of the trip, we were able to face the prospect of our return journey with no regrets, and before too terribly long we had left the sunny, warm equator for the frigid north and a chance to sleep in our own beds again.

Singapore--Day One

Friday, February 8.

We arrived at the airport in Bali in plenty of time for our flight to Singapore, and were pleased to have access again to the premier lounge, owing to my soon-to-expire elite status on United Airlines. Though the breakfast offerings there were OK, I still had the nasi campur that I had bought the previous morning, and since I now had a fork to eat it with, I tucked into it, though decided it was not as good as I had hoped, leaving 2/3 of it untouched. As expected, the Singapore Airlines flight left precisely on time, and arrived in Singapore a bit early; arrivals procedures were smooth as silk, and before long we were in a cab heading to our hotel.

The streets of Singapore are normally spotless, but this morning they were also virtually devoid of people, as Singapore was celebrating Chinese New Year and most everyone was off from work. With no traffic, we were in our hotel, the Royal Plaza on Scotts (owned by the Sultan of Brunei, and offering amazingly good value for the money), right off of the main shopping street of Orchard Road. As soon as we got ourselves settled into our room, we headed out to visit the Little India neighborhood, which we reckoned would not be as shuttered as the more Chinese parts of town. Our cab dropped us off right in front of the Tekka Center, which is part wet market and part hawker center, where we decided to get lunch.

Since J2 had not been to Singapore before, we did the rounds of the hawker center before deciding what to have, so that he could see what his options were (we had also watched a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain's show, "No Reservations" that had the chef visit Singapore and get a taste of the city's amazing food offerings, so J2 was aware of what some of the things on offer would be). In the end, he opted for a non-Indian dish, Singapore Chicken Rice (steamed chicken over rice with a chili-ginger sauce) along with an order from another stall of Roti Prata (Indian style crepe-like roasted bread, this one cooked with egg inside. Both were very good, though as we were eating it I started to feel a bit unwell, though I was not sure if it was just the heat (Singapore felt a lot hotter and more humid than Bali) or if it was that leftover Balinese breakfast from earlier in the morning. In the end, after a brief walk through Little India, where still a lot of things were closed for the holiday, we opted to return to the hotel, where before long I came to the realization that the Balinese food had done me in... We spent the rest of the day in the hotel...

Bali Bye!--Day Six

Thursday, February 7.

This being our last day in Bali, we devoted it to shopping in the greater Ubud area. Having finally tired of the boring breakfasts in the hotel, we opted instead to eat at a market in the first town we stopped in, Sukawati, which was also supposed to be home to a good arts market. The produce market was a real find, with great colorful vendors with all sorts of fruits, household goods, etc, affording loads of photographic opportunities. We stopped at one vendor to buy a breakfast nasi campur, rice mixed with a range of vegetables and sauces, which she put in a big paper cone and handed us to eat with our hands. Not wanting to do that, we put it aside for later, and instead got a couple of portions of excellent chicken sate (skewers) with compressed steamed rice and a phenomenal peanuty sauce as our main meal, with a side of (under-ripe) jackfruit and some fruit juices. After our breakfast, eaten on the steps of the market, we went to the art market but found nothing of any interest to us there, so we started wandering around a bit instead.

Our next stop was another mask-making town, Puaya, where we found several ateliers where craftsmen make the masks for the Barong dance (which we had yet to see). We had thought that the masks we bought yesterday at Mas and the market were Barongs, but here we learned that they were in fact Rangdas. Both are part of the Barong dance, but whereas the Barong himself is a fun-loving (but often mischievous) spirit who represents the forces of good, Rangda is purely evil who contends with Barong (but neither is every wholly victorious over the other, since the world should have a mix of good and evil to remain in balance, according to the Balinese). The barongs at one of the shops were head and shoulders above the others, and though we already had three masks to schlepp home we could not pass them up, even though they were a bit more expensive than our other masks. None of the Barongs were ready to be sold, though, so the artist asked us to return in the afternoon, by which time he'd have the one we wanted ready, adding the headdress, ears, and beard to our mask.

We went back to Junjungan to see if we could find the garuda makers by wandering through the side streets. We did manage to find them, but we did not like what we found there as much as what we had seen the previous day at the market, so we decided to return to the market and pick that one up. We had an outstanding lunch at Bumbu Bali 2 on Monkey Forest Road, of an amazing grilled chicken with vibrant sauce for J2, and smoked duck for me (typically, I ordered duck but found it not as good as the chicken). We were seated near where they were giving a cooking class, so we also gleaned some tips, and caused me to regret not having signed up for such a class during our time in Ubud, not that we had a lot of free time to kill. We did some more shopping afterwards, buying a cookbook, some CDs of gamelan music and loads of batik shirts and material, again having to resort to our China-honed bargaining skills to get the prices down from their opening Rp. 185,000 ($20) to the more reasonable--and correct--Rp. 25,000 ($3).

In the evening we finally saw the Barong Dance at the Pura Dalem, a temple on the western outskirts of town. The performance had several components: the gamelan music, a few Legong-type dances, some comedic interludes where Barong vies with a monkey-faced dancer over a banana, and finally the main story, in which Rangda attempts to kill a princess, only to be thwarted by Barong, even as Rangda changes into ever more menacing avatars. Hard to follow without the program, but very fun to watch.

For our last dinner in Bali we had made reservations at Warung Enak, not too far from our hotel (since by now we had turned in our car, and would have to be picked up by the hotel driver), where they had a special Chinese New Year set meal modeled on the rijsttafel concept where you get small portions of a large number of dishes. One of our favorite parts of the meal was the tastiest chicken soup I think I have ever had, cram cam, which I was determined to learn how to make (fortunately, the Balinese cookbook I had bought earlier in the day had a recipe).

Back in the hotel room, we struggled to get our loot into our bags (luckily, we had brought an extra suitcase along, which would serve as carry-on for two of our masks) and faced the prospect of a 5:30am wake up call for our drive to the airport and our flight to Singapore.

Bali--Day Five

Wednesday, February 6.

After driving around the West of Bali the previous day, you might have thought we'd decide to spend today lazing around Ubud, but you'd be wrong! We woke up to a beautiful morning, and figured we'd be better off visiting some scenery, since we kept seeing that the weather was predicting thunderstorms everyday. So after our breakfast we headed out toward the central mountains of the island.

By the way, the Balinese are very mountain-centric people, owing perhaps to the traditional belief that the gods hold sway only on the land while demons hold sway under the water. For this reason the Balinese diet has very little fish or seafood in it (and what there is of these things on Balinese menus mostly came to be as a result of foreign influence on the island since the 1930s).

We stopped first at the town of Kintamani, which has a number of temples in the vicinity of the crater lakes of the area, including Pura Batur and Penulisan, which is the highest temple in Bali,
which of course we climbed to the top to visit. Overall, these temples were not that impressive to us, so we did not linger for very long. Instead, we opted to vie the warnings in our guidebook about the nasty things awaiting visitors to Bali's holiest, largest, and most important temple, Pura Besakih, and go for a visit.

To get there we had once again to follow some very small roads, and wind our way through the mountains, and when we finally got to the area we started to see a bit about what the book was talking about--just to drive up to the parking area we had to pay a 'fee' of Rp. 25,000 ($3), for which we got no receipt or anything. Then, after parking, we were stopped by another guy who wanted us to show him our ticket. When I protested (as the book instructed us to) that we did not need a ticket, since we had already paid at the road, the guy asked what I paid and then let us pass when I told him. I don't know whether he was looking to see whether I quoted the right figure, or he was looking to see if I had been sufficiently fleeced already.

Anyway, we made our way to the main temple area, where we were accosted by loads of people offering guide services very subtly (what they do is start to point out features of the temple and follow you around, so that eventually you feel pressured into paying them something). To get them to go away I only responded to them in Russian, figuring they'd be uninterested in me and would be unable to understand, but I managed to 'luck into' finding a Russian-speaking Balinese guide. I tried to tell him that I did not need his services, but he kept following us, and finally offered to show us around for the equivalent of $2. Since he also offered to take us to some spots for good views of the temple, we agreed, though as a result I had to keep translating from Russian into Chinese for J2 to follow the story.

The temple really is impressive, and there was a lot going on, so we enjoyed the visit, and since we had our guide, no one else bothered us for the duration of our visit, though the guide kept telling other locals that we were Russians, leading some of them to bring old rouble notes for us to change for them, figuring we'd be able to use them when we went 'home'....

We were hungry by the time we finished with the temple, so we stopped at a small market a bit south of the market for delicious skewers of barbecued meat (sate) on rice before heading back to the Ubud metro area to do some of our shopping. Along the way we were hit with a huge rainstorm but as we arrived in Mas to find our preferred mask vendor, the rain miraculously stopped, clearly showing divine approval of our plans to spend money. We wound up buying two masks from the guy, a non-traditional "demon" made of two-toned wood, and a more traditional non-painted "Rangda" mask.

Back in Ubud, we went back to the central market to do some more shopping, picking up a range of things, before heading to the ARMA arts center for a performance of a more modern Balinese dance modeled on the traditional Kecak dance. Unfortunately, this was not a particularly compelling show, and we were distracted by the vast numbers of mosquitoes nibbling at our ankles throughout.

The show ended around 8:30, so we headed back to the car to drive in search of dinner, but found that the streets were virtually deserted. It only gradually dawned on us that there were no lights on anywhere, and that the restaurants that were open were lit by candlelight and were all full. With no other options, we returned to our hotel for dinner at the restaurant, along with a ridiculously noisy Taiwanese group, whose kids were running amok throughout the place, to the consternation of the staff (and being completely ignored by their own parents). It was then that we realized that it was Chinese New Year and that we learned that the power was knocked out by work being done on the lines in town (the hotel was on a generator).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bali--Day Four

Tuesday, February 5.

After treating yesterday as a "driving rest day", we decided that we could get back in the car today for a drive out to Western Bali. The roads in Bali tend to be oriented to get you easily from the shore to the mountains in the center, but not quite so easily around the island, so you have to be good as 'stair-stepping' your way on small roads to get to where you want to be if you're trying to traverse the island. But J2 proved to be an adept navigator, and we quickly found ourself in the town of Sangeh, which, according to our map, was home to a monkey forest. J2, being a big fan of monkeys, wanted to stop, but I, being familiar with the nasty monkeys at Ubud's monkey forest, was reluctant but knew I had no choice but to give in.

We were the only visitors when we showed up, and immediately we saw dozens of monkeys from the parking area. After paying our way in, we were accompanied into the visitors' area (which is actually the precinct of a medium-size Hindu temple) by two guides, one of whom carried a pouch of food, and the other of whom carried a big stick. As we approached the gate to the temple, clicking away at the playful monkeys around us, we heard a commotion as two monkeys started to fight very aggressively. According to the guides, there are three families of monkeys at the temple, and they don't get along with each other at all and are very territorial. As we walked through the gate we were greeted by family #2, who are supposedly the friendliest of the three families. One of the guides (the one with the food) had J2 sit on a ledge next to a monkey so that he could give him some food; soon the monkey stood on J2's lap, eating out of his hand, and then peeing on his leg. Before long I had a monkey jumping on my back and climbing onto my shoulders to have a better view of the guide with the food. Sensing my anxiety, the guide assured me that these monkeys were not aggressive and that I had nothing to worry about (only upon my return to Beijing did I find this article about the connection between these monkeys and Herpesvirus B). But the monkeys were very cute, especially the Mohawk-headed babies, and J2 was in heaven.

From Sangeh we continued north, eventually reaching the mountain lake of Danau Bratan and its temple (Pura Ulun Danau Bratan). As soon as we parked the car we were thronged by vendors trying to sell us sarongs, post cards, fake Rolexes, and other stuff. We knew we would need a sarong, but they were asking for ridiculous prices that we knew were out of the realm of reasonableness so we got to bargaining big time. We eventually got down to a manageable price, though we were then told that the sarong was not going to be enough, since it was a festival day (just about every day is a festival day) and we'd have to wear an additional thing on top of the sarong that looked to me like a silk ribbon that we also had to buy for Rp. 10,000 a piece (a bit more than $1, but that's a lot in Bali). The temple was worth the visit, though the "festival" turned out just to be a group from the main town of Denpasar coming up for a prayer session or something, nothing major at all. And then it turned out that we had only "rented" those silk ribbon things, and had to turn them back in. What a rip!

We continued to drive around the lake for a bit, and passed through the town of Candikuning to have lunch at the market at a typical Balinese warung or roadside stall for a typical meal of nasi campur, or mixed rice. The things that come with the rice are usually cold dishes that are prepared in the morning and left out for members of a family to help themselves to during the course of the day (being a rural community, people come and go through the house all day, and eat when they have a free moment, rather than at fixed times as a group). The food at the market was pretty tasty, and quite cheap, and gave us an opportunity to wander around the market afterwards, picking up some very nice (and aromatic) cinnamon wood bowls, some Balinese cinnamon sticks, and other assorted knick-knacks.

Our next destination was the waterfall at Munduk, a bit further to the northwest from Candikuning. We nearly missed the sign for the waterfall, and were surprised that the parking area only accommodated two cars (and it was apparent that the other car there belonged to the family that runs the parking area). We were also surprised by how far we had to walk down a rather precarious trail from the road to get to the waterfall, and at several points were convinced we were lost, but eventually we found the waterfall, took the requisite photo, and one minute later headed back up the trail (and I do mean up--it was downhill all the way from the road, and uphill all the way back, but it made for a good alternative to the treadmill). It was not a particularly impressive waterfall.

From Munduk we started to follow the smallest roads on our map to try to find the village of Jatiluwih, which means "marvelous place" in the local language. The scenery here is truly stunning, with emerald green rice terraces juxtaposed against the mountains and the palm trees, with picturesque farmers' shacks sprinkled here and there. The fact that it took us many wrong turns and back-tracks to find the place only heightened the sense of joy at finding the place, especially since it meant that we got there at a time of day when the sun was a bit lower in the sky, enhancing the photos we took (we hope).

We had time to kill before heading back to Ubud so we headed to one more temple, the temple of Tanah Lot on the southwest coast of the island. Supposedly the "most photographed" temple on Bali, we suspect that this has more to do with its proximity to the beach towns of Kuta and Sanur (where most tourists spend their time) than with the temple's beauty, since to us it was pretty blah, and not improved by the fact that a) foreigners are charged a different price to enter than locals; b) you have to walk through a phalanx of kiosks to get from the parking lot to the temple; c) the place was packed; d) the rock that that temple sits on offshore is mostly artificial.

We returned to Ubud just a bit before 7pm, and headed straight for Ketut's Place, where we had made a reservation for their occasional Balinese feast dinner. (This may be a good place to point out a curious feature of Bali--there are only four names that all true Balinese use, and they indicate your birth order within the family. The eldest is named Wayan, the second Made, the third Nyoman, and the fourth Ketut. If there are more than four children in the family, then the cycle repeats itself. Boys and girls both use these names, though for boys they are preceded by "I", and for girls by "Ni". We wondered how they do roll call in Balinese schools.) Ketut is the owner of the place, an inn and restaurant located in his family's home, which has been around for eight generations or so. He gives you a little tour of the house (which is in traditional Balinese style, with pavilions for living, cooking, sleeping, etc) and then you sit at communal tables for the buffet-style dinner. As it turned out, four of the other people at our our table of eight were China-based expatriates! What's the likelihood of that?? We really freaked out the other couple (a Sydney-based Brazilian-Australian couple) with that, and perhaps made them feel a bit left out... The food was excellent, and included a broad swath of Balinese treats, such as bebek betutu (smoked duck), which I had wanted to try since reading a recipe for it some time ago, and Balinese rice wine. The food and company were great, and we did not leave until close to 10pm.

Bali--Day Three

Monday, February 4.

Having spent much of the previous day driving rather a lot (with the concomitant bouts of getting lost as we struggled to follow the sometimes confusing roads and the even more confusing map), we decided that we would stay closer to Ubud this day. Since one of the primary motivators for our trip was the promise of bringing home some art, and in particular some masks, we decided to drive to the town of Mas just south of Ubud, which is known for its mask carvers. As it turned out, this day was the culmination of the Kuningan celebration, and there is an apparently important temple in Mas, and we happened to arrive just in time to see the procession of worshipers bringing their offerings to the temple in their finery. Since we had no schedule to keep to, we joined the procession and watched the ceremony from the periphery of the temple (we did not have sarongs, so could not enter). No one seemed to mind our presence, and again we got some great people pictures.

When the ceremony appeared to be petering off, we returned to Mas's main road to venture into the mask carvers' shops to take a look at what was on offer. As the guidebook promised, the masks here were priced higher than in the market in Ubud, but they were also of far higher quality, or so it appeared to us. We made notes of a couple of places that looked promising for eventual purchases, but amazingly managed to leave town without actually parting with any of our money, preferring to keep looking and make our purchasing decisions later in our stay.

We next drove to the town of Junjungan, just north of Ubud, which is reputed to be a center for the carving of Garudas, the mythical bird that is the vehicle of Vishnu and is found in many Balinese homes as a protector. We had seen several so far and decided that "we had to have one", and thought we'd look in Junjungan for a good specimen. Unfortunately, the road in Junjungan is very small, and the map was not very detailed, and we did not manage to find any carvers during our visit, but we did stumble upon the Ubud Botanical Garden, which we decided to visit to see their orchid collection. As it turned out, though, the orchid collection at our hotel was more impressive, and we could visit them in close proximity to our aircon room, so we made this a quick stop, as the heat and humidity were becoming oppressive in the midday sun.

By this time we were getting hungry, so we headed to 'downtown' Ubud for a traditional Balinese lunch of babi guling or suckling pig. Bali of course is one of the few places in Indonesia with a non-Muslim majority, and when the Balinese want to play up their differentness they promote their preference for pork over other meats. Babi guling is their iconic dish, and the place where we chose to have it was reputed to be one of the best, a small place just across from the Old Royal Place called Ibu Oka. Here you sit on the floor at large communal tables and order from the large menus on the walls. You have only two real choices--you can get the version that has the suckling pig parts (which include a big piece of very crispy and fatty skin, fried up 'spare parts', and shreds of extremely tasty meat), already mixed into your portion of rice, or you can get the version that has all the parts still separate for you to mix up yourself--and then you add your own mix of sambals (spicy condiments) and order a drink to wash it down. Balinese sambals can be very spicy indeed, so we needed quite a bit of liquid refreshment to cool our palates, but the pig was outstanding, and amazingly cheap (I don't think the entire meal for the two of us exceeded $3).

We tried our best to walk off our lunch aftewards, but the heat soon started to get to us and we wound up retreating to the cool of our hotel, where we both soon collapsed dead asleep, not to wake up for another 3 hours, just in time to head out for our evening's entertainment.

It turned out that, in addition to being the reputed center for garuda carving, Junjungan also has a well regarded performance troupe that puts on a Kecak dance once a week at their community center. We got to the center just as a huge rainstorm began to pelt the area, which perhaps goes partly to explain why only about seven people came to see the show (though the town's relative obscurity may also be a reason). The performers are all residents of the village, and in their "real lives" are farmers or craftspeople who do this as a means of helping to support the town. As it turned out, their performance was excellent, and as promised to J2 the previous night, this particular dance has no musical accompaniment. Instead, the main group of performers--around 50 guys who sit in three concentric circles around a tall 'candelabra' of burning candles--chant the music, which consists primarily of the sound 'chak-a-chak-a-chak', meant to resemble the cackling of a group of monkeys who also tell the story of the dance that is performed by the other handful of performers. It was a great show, and by the time it ended, the rain had let up enough for us to get back to the car without getting totally drenched.

For dinner, we went to a small local place called Rumah Roda where we hoped to have, among other things, some hard-to-find Balinese desserts that this place is known for. Unfortunately, having got a late start because of the performance, by the time we got to dessert, they had run out. At least the rest of the meal was very good. We came to the conclusion that most locals in Ubud prefer to be home early, so eating out at 8:30 or 9 as we had been doing so far might not work in all venues.

As we finished dinner and started to head home, the heavens opened up once again, leading to our having to slosh through amazing rivers of water as we returned to our car, which it did not seem like I had parked so far away from the restaurant when we first arrived....

Bali--Day Two

Sunday, February 3.

We woke up to find that the promised overcast and rain had not yet materialized, and happily donned shorts and short-sleeved shirts to venture out into the day after weeks of sub-zero temps back in Beijing. Our villa was located right near the breakfast area, so we hopped on over for our first proper meal since boarding our flight from Singapore the previous afternoon. Unfortunately, the breakfast options were pretty limited--either Indonesian (consisting of nothing more than fried noodles or fried rice) or Western (eggs several ways with sausage)--and the service was glacial. But it was edible, and got us ready for our day's outing.

The hotel was actually not located in Ubud proper, but in Peliatan, a "suburb" just to the SE of the town, so it was going to be a bit of a walk to get to the sights in Ubud all the time, which prompted our decision to go and rent a car that we could also use to drive around the island. What we had not counted on was the relative scarcity of available cars, and we wound up having to walk quite a way along the town's precarious sidewalks before we finally found one. Once in the car, we then had to come to grips with driving on the "wrong" side of the car along the very busy streets while hundreds of Balinese on motorbikes and cars zoomed by us. We eventually got used to it, though, and before long were on the road heading for a drive to the East of the island.

Our first stop was in the town of Semarapura (aka Klungkung), where we visited the Kertha Gosa pavilion, listed as a "must see" in our guidebook. We parked right across the street, in a lot adjacent to the town's market, and were immediately accosted by local women trying to sell us sarongs to wear in the pavilion (Balinese dress is required by a lot of sights, including all temples). Their opening price was a whopping Rp. 150,000 each (approx. $17) and though we knew we had to bargain, we also saw that the pavilion was providing free sarongs to visitors, thus making the need to buy one less urgent. The pavilion was very pretty, with great statuary and nice paintings, but J2 was clearly uncomfortable wearing his sarong, so we did not spend a whole lot of time here. Instead we went to visit the market, though it was pretty dead (perhaps due to the continuing Kuningan holiday) and we opted instead to hop back in the car and continue our drive.

We kept heading east, eventually having lunch at a roadside place near the the water palace of Tirtagangga, which, when we visited it afterwards, was packed with holidaying Balinese families enjoying the cool of the palace's pools, which made for some good people pictures.

We headed back to Ubud via Gianyar, the district capital, and walked around Ubud's main shopping street, Monkey Forest Road, before finding ourselves a ticket vendor offering tickets for the evening's cultural performances. One of Ubud's attractions is the range of traditional Balinese performances on offer every night, and for our first such performance we opted for a Legong dance at the old royal palace in the center of town. Legong is probably one of the more iconic Balinese dances, with its hypnotic gamelan accompaniment and very exotic looking moves. I think I liked the music more than J2 did, but he liked the dancing more (I was never much of one for dance), so I promised him that the next performance would have no gamelan music at all.

For dinner, we wound up at Casa Luna, a place owned by a Dutch woman who married a Balinese guy, for an excellent dinner of Balinese dishes. Highly recommended!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hello, Bali!

During our first year in China, we ended up not making plans to leave town for the Chinese New Year holiday, partly due to J2's employment situation, and partly since I ended up having to go to the US on a work-related project during part of that time anyway. We realized what a terrible mistake that was, since the noise of the celebrations was unbearable at times, and there was really nothing that wonderful to do in town as part of the holiday to make up for it--all our Chinese friends were busy with their own families, so we were left to our own devices for the most part.

So this year we decided to be smarter and get the heck out of Dodge for as much of the holiday as possible. This decision, coupled with the realization that we needed some additional tchotchkes to hang on our walls to complement the thangkas we bought in Tibet last summer, led to our choice of Bali as this year's Chinese New Year holiday destination. As many of you will have read already, the weather in China was not at all cooperative with people's travel plans for the holiday, and many migrant workers were unable to get from where they work to their home villages because of snow, cold, and fuel shortages. I had to be in Shanghai for the latter part of the week before our scheduled departure, and was nervous that I would also get stuck and unable to get home in time for my flight, but fortunately I suffered no such problems.

We left Beijing on the morning of February 2, and were pleasantly surprised by the lack of chaos in the airport. In fact, our flight out (on the lovely Singapore Airlines--which, by the way, I suspect regrets their decision to team up with United Airline's Star Alliance, since they are far superior to UA in every way imaginable) was 100% on time, and our short layover in the superb Changi Airport went without a hitch.

Our troubles only began, in fact, when we actually arrived in Bali's airport. Our flight was one of seemingly dozens to land in the island's sole airport at around 7pm, and was adjacent to a Russian Transaero flight coming in from Moscow. If there's one group of travelers you don't want to arrive at the same time as, it's Russians, since they never know how to fill out their landing forms, and they tend to be loud, obnoxious and sometimes drunk. Sure enough, the queues at the immigration counter were endless, though part of that fault lies with the Indonesian authorities, who impose a visa requirement on just about everyone, though the visa is actually purchased by most nationalities at the airport (thus exposing the fact that the visa is nothing more than a revenue-generation scheme, not a mechanism for controlling entry into the country). The process for buying the visa is simple enough--if you're staying for 7 days or less you can buy a $10 visa, for longer periods up to a month or so it's $25. They even accept a broad range of international currencies, though roubles are not among them. But that was not the big problem.

Instead, our big problem occurred after we bought our visas and after we had waited in line for about 45 minutes to hand our visa receipt to one immigration officer, who would print out a visa sticker, affix it into our passports, and then move us to the queue for the second immigration officer, who would stamp our visas showing we had arrived (you must remember, Indonesia has a huge population and it appears that the immigration service is part of the country's full-employment scheme). As we neared the front of the queue, we noticed that J2's passport had no more completely-empty pages for them to affix his visa, since we has about five Chinese visas, which also occupy an entire page. We had hoped that they would use the "Amendments" page of the passport for his Indonesian visa, but sure enough, that is not allowed. The immigration officer had us go to the secondary inspection office to speak with his boss to determine what to do.

The boss would not allow me into his office, instead taking J2 in there on his own to discuss the situation. As I waited outside, a British family with one member facing the same problem joined me to wait for the officer to be ready for them. Then J2 came out, announcing that he had been informed that he would have to return to China to get extra pages added into his passport for them to affix his visa. At this point, I went up to the officer to suggest that there must be an alternative, since everyone knows that travel in China is bolluxed up by the weather. Well, as it turns out, there is an alternative--for a mere $50 they would be willing to use a special adhesive strip to add a one-use-only page to the passport on which they would affix the visa. Of course we were in no position to argue, or even to negotiate, since they could always revert to the "you-must-return-to-China" stance. So we paid the money, failing to get a receipt for the cost, and headed to retrieve our luggage, which of course had been waiting for us for quite some time, since by now close to two hours had elapsed since the time of our landing.

Once through customs (which also took quite some time, since the inspectors appeared to be checking just about anyone who looked remotely Russian, opening up and rummaging through suitcases, though in the end, they just waved us through) we found the driver from our hotel and proceeded to the car for the 45-minute ride to Ubud. On the way, we asked casually whether the hotel restaurant would still be serving by the time we arrived, since we had not really eaten dinner on the flight. He initially said it would be, but then he phoned ahead and found out that it would not, since it was a holiday in Bali and the staff would have already gone home to celebrate. So we stopped at a small roadside convenience store and got some peanuts and crackers to tide us over till morning.

The hotel where we were staying, the Tepi Sawah Villas, was as lovely as their website indicated, and our room, a "Taman" villa, was very comfortable, and faced the pool. It was past 10pm by the time we got to it, though, and we had been traveling all day, so after settling in and cleaning up, we headed straight to bed, planning to be rested for our first full day in Bali in the morning.