On to Malaysia and Singapore

It is just a short flight from Java to Kuala Lumpur and an even shorter hop on to Singapore.  Again, I lucked into a situation.  The hotel I had blindly selected thru Hotels.com turned out to be directly across the street from the World-Famous Petronas Twin Towers and upscale shopping mall (one of KL’s biggest tourist attractions).

 

Kuan Ti Temple

My KL to do list in KL was pretty short, consisting of only the Sri Mahamaimman, Chan See Shu, and Kuan Ti Temples, the Central Market, Merdeka Square, the Chinese Night Market, and the Batu Cave. I managed to see it all in a short 24 hours then back to the airport for the quick hop to Singapore. I will let the photos of the KL temples speak for themselves.  But two stops were interesting enough to point out.

First the Batu cave is one of the stranger religious shrines I have ever visited.  To reach the entrance to the cave you must make your way thru a gauntlet of stalls of all sorts of food, drink and trinkets you would never give a second look back home.  But somehow out here people just can’t seem to live without.  Once you have made it thru the gauntlet you then must march up over two hundred brightly colored steps to reach the cave’s entrance.  And once at the top the cave has been turned into a surreal hodgepodge of Hindu Shrines and statues.  The cave is enormous and offers the Hindu faithful multiple alters from which to worship and nonbelievers plenty of eye candy to ponder its purpose.

The second interesting highlight of KL was a busy Halal Café next to the Central Market.  This huge complex offers the Muslim faithful a dining experience with food prepared to Muslim religious standards.  I ordered a house specialty of a non-breaded fried chicken that had been rubbed with the most incredible tasting concoction.  The chicken was served with briyani rice, nan (bread) and a curry soup.  And after lunch I enjoyed a delicious desert I had bought on the street called kue putu. This tasty desert consists of rice flour, color and flavor from the pandan leaf, coconut water, the middle is filled with brown sugar. All of this is put into a bamboo shaft and steamed in the bamboo and once cooked covered in shredded coconut.  Best eaten warm and I would dare anyone to try to stop at just one.

Singapore is a first world city surrounded by third world countries.  It is the financial hub of Southeast Asia and is a melting pot of transplanted Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Pakistani, Brits and French nationalities.  The official language is English and they drive on the wrong side of the road.

The city has a ton of modern landmarks like the Marina Bay Sky Park, Gardens by the Bay, Cloud Forest, Sands Hotel and Casino, Orchard Street Mall, Ion Mall, Takashimaya Mall, Lucky Plaza Clarke’s Quay, and Boat Quay.  Sadly, two of the city’s historical landmarks I was looking forward to visiting were closed for renovation.  Raffles Hotel, home of the original Singapore Sling cocktail and the famous Singapore Lion Statue were both out of commission.

Also, a jazz bar that I had looked forward to visiting on Boat Quay has discontinued live jazz performances which was a bummer.  On the bright side – The Crazy Elephant on Clarke Quay was alive and well.  I spent a great night in the Elephant enjoying Tiger Beer, great Blues Music, and hanging out with a couple from Perth.

I also made time to explore Chinatown, the Sri Mariamman Temple and the Singapore Buddhist Lodge and Temple.  One bad thing about visiting temples across southeast Asia in May is removing your shoes and walking on hot pavement. Since I had seen everything I wanted to see in Singapore it was time to move on to Thailand.

Sri Mariamman Temple

Singapore Buddhist Lodge

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Java in One Short Stop – Yogyakarta (pronounced Jukja)

I only scheduled the one stop on Java and wished I had spent more time visiting some of the other sites on the island. But the good news, it gives me an excuse to come back! My purpose for visiting Jukja was to visit two very old temple complexes – one Buddhist for a sunrise visit and the other Hindu for a sunset visit and dinner/cultural show. I filled my time in between with a visit to another regional king’s ancient palace, another street market, and what turned into a bazaar float trip down a river thru a huge cave with every kid in Asia.

I arrived at the airport in the mid-afternoon so my guide and new friend Fitri Suryo (Fitz for short) had a car waiting to take me directly to the Prambanon Temple Complex for a tour of the complex followed by a buffet dinner and cultural show (same Dudely Do Right Theme as the two shows in Bali but at sunset and night with the Prambanon Temple Complex as the backdrop.

I had the good fortune to be accosted by two lovely and very sweet young ladies as I entered the Prambanon Temple Complex. The two girls, Witri (16-yr old Muslim girl) and her friend Gusti (16-yr old Hindu girl), were in the city for a two-month English Emersion Class. Their assignment for the day was to approach an English-speaking tourist and offer to be their tour guide for the day to practice their English.

How could I refuse – two cute charming young ladies giving me a free tour. Their English was excellent and they were very knowledgeable about the Temples and the Hindu Religion. I spent two delightful hours with the girls and had a ton of fun as well as receiving a first-class tour.

Sadly, the girls island had been hit by a major earthquake late in 2018. And both their homes and Witri’s Mosque was completely destroyed. They had been living in tents at a refugee center before coming to Java to study English. But their loss and suffering has done nothing to dampen their spirit and good humor.

The girls kept giggling and talking in their native tongue every time I said something. Finally, I had to ask what was so funny. That is when I learned that I sound funny. It seems they agreed I sound like a cartoon figure. It turns out that I sound like Grandpapa Smurf to them. First time anyone has ever told me that!

The other amusing and very sweet moment was when they were showing me the temple devoted to Ganesh. Ganesh is the deity in the form of a sitting elephant. According to Gusti, Ganesh is a deity devoted to wisdom. She explained this as she patted Ganesh’s huge elephant belly. She then turned to me with all the innocence that only a 16 year old -girl could have rubbed my belly and very seriously declared that I must possess much wisdom because of the size of my great belly.

So, there you have it – I’m a wise big bellied grand papa Smurf. The perfect ambassador for America. I was having so much fun with the girls I didn’t want the tour to end. But I had tickets to the dance performance and we went our separate ways.

I will spare you the repeating of the theme and acts of the dance since it is exactly the same story as the two shows in Bali. I will say that the caliber of the dancers and set design was much better with this show. As I mentioned before, this show came with a Javanese Buffet dinner that was excellent. One funny moment was when we were shown to our table and my guide, Fitz, through a fit.

The table was in the back under a canopy and off to the side. After several minutes of heated conversation several members of the staff picked up the table and chairs and moved them to the very front to the prime location. I asked her what had just happened and she said, “you just witnessed the power of Fitz!”

Next morning Fitz and the driver picked me up at my hotel at 3am for the 45 minute drive to the Borobudur Buddhist Temple Complex. The early start was to catch the sunrise from the top tier of the Temple and to beat the crowds. And the early start was worth the short night. The Temple was beautiful and the sunrise was spectacular.

The temple was built in the shape of a traditional Buddhist mandala. A mandala is a square with four entry points, and a circular center point. Working from the exterior to the interior, three zones of consciousness are represented, with the central sphere representing unconsciousness of Nirvana. The Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and should be on anyone’s bucket list visiting southeast Asia.

The breakfast that followed not so beautiful or spectacular. There was very little western food so I had a chicken curry surprise and rice for breakfast. And with the chicken curry came more chicken intestines (not my favorite).

After breakfast, we visited two smaller Buddhist Temples before returning to Yogyakarta to visit the Pagelaran Karaton Palace Complex. This Complex is the main seat of the current Sultan. The Palace was nice but a little underwhelming after visiting the Borobudur Temple. From the Palace, we visited Tamansari (one of the historical buildings of the Sultan’s Palace). Tamansari meaning “a beautiful garden” was built by Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono I in 1758 and was designed as a royal bathing place and became known as the Water Castle.

The complex is quite large and would take too long to describe the entire set up so I will just mention the small area and story I enjoyed the most as a dirty old man lol.

It seems the Sultan would allow the local commoners daughters to come use one of the bathing pools and observe them from above scouting for new talent for his harem. Long story short, many fresh new concubines were first spotted bathing in this pool. The Royal Bathing Pool – just another version of the infamous casting couch.

From the Water Castle, we walked over to the street market where I dined on an assortment of grilled meats sate (sate means grilled on a stick). I enjoyed chicken organ sate, lamb sate, and shrimp sate. All washed down by iced tea served in a plastic baggy. The market also provided me an opportunity to purchase a traditional Indonesian shirt – a Batik. This purchase was a little harder than you might think. I wear a 2X in America. But people here are quite small so I wear a 7X in Indonesian sizing. Not a very common size here at all. Lol

My final excursion on Java was to tube thru Pindul Cave. Fitz had been promising me this would be a nice cool way to spend an afternoon floating thru this cave in quiet solitude. Not a chance, It seems I scheduled my visit during a school holiday so my solitary float trip turned into a tube to tube traffic jam with over 4,000 Indonesian kids and teens whooping, laughing, giggling and splashing their way thru the mass of tubes inching along the river at a snail’s pace.

And while this may sound like a complete disaster it was actually fun. The kids loved the fact that there was an old fat Bule amongst them and treated me like a local dignitary. Reaching out to touch me and asking for photos with me. I even had a couple of teenage sisters comparing my nose to theirs and telling me we are the same.

I probably shouldn’t have told them I had been here 16 years ago and met their mother and that I was proud to have such pretty daughters but they enjoyed the lie and were telling all that would listen that I was their “Bule” father. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was old enough to be their grandpapa Smurf.

While returning to the city from Pindul Cave Fitz suddenly demanded we stop the car at a roadside stand. The sign for the stand read Walang by the kilo. She assured me Walang was a great snack and I had to try it. I expected the snack to be some kind of boiled peanuts like in North Florida or Georgia but boy was I wrong! Walang is actually the Java word for grasshopper. So I tried my first deep fried grasshopper. And guess what? They are quite tasty. You basically grab the crispy critters by the two back legs, insert the head and body into your mouth and crunch down. The legs snap off and are discarded and the head and body with just a hint of chili and smoke are pretty good. And like the old commercial – you can’t just eat one! Before we reached the city I had finished the entire bag of Walangs.

And before I move on I would like to say a word about my guide Ms Fitri Suryo (Fitz). She is a very good guide who speaks English well because she has lived and worked in both Canada and Australia. She holds an undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology and a Masters degree in Marketing. She knows both Bali and Java like the back of her hand and I know she saved me far more than she cost with her relationships and bargaining skills. She is an excellent photographer. And most important Fitz protected me from the many panhandlers and aggressive street sellers that accost tourists.

Should you be planning a trip to Bali, Java, or even Singapore or Malaysia I suggest you contact her on Whats App for rates. +6281311085776

Well that is all for Java so on to Malaysia.

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A Bulu’s Tour Through the Temples, Palaces, Street Markets and Cultural Dance Performance of Bali

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Bali is predominately Hindu and there is a temple of some sort on nearly every street. But I visited only the four most famous and beautiful. Uluwatu Temple sitting far above the sea on a high bluff, Tanah Lot Temple perched on a high Rock about 50 yards off shore and can only be reached on foot during low tide, the Ulun Danu Temple located on Lake Beratan in central Bali, and the Besakih Temple also known as Bali’s Mother Temple, over 1,000 years old and sits 1,000 meters up the shoulder of Mount Agung. The biggest and holiest of Bali’s temples, Besakih offers breathtaking vistas of rice paddies, rolling hills, and meandering streams.

Uluwatu Temple

Uluwatu Temple was the first on my schedule. I scheduled my visit toward late afternoon/early evening to both capture the sunset and attend a cultural dance performance that is held on the temple grounds at sunset every night. As you will see in the accompanying photos Uluwatu sits way up high on the point of a cliff overlooking the sea crashing the coast from two different directions.

The temple complex is also the home of a large kleptomaniac monkey troop. There are signs posted everywhere warning visitors to protect their jewelry, eye glasses and wallets/purses. And despite the many signs, I watched as monkeys swiped sunglasses off unsuspecting tourists’ heads then ran off never to be seen again. The monkeys are quite used to people and have no fear of us. They will pester visitors for food and water and when the visitor drops his/her guard they snatch whatever is not secured.

But the highlight of the visit to Uluwatu was the Kecak Ramayana & Fire Dance. This performance of ancient ritual, dance, drama, a sunset and cliff backdrop that combine to make this a spectacular dance performance. The most unusual aspect of this show is that there are no accompanying musical instruments. A choir of 35 bare chested men chanting, grunting and singing provide the beat and rhythm to accompany the dancers.

A quick word about the storyline for this performance and it would seem every cultural performance in Southeast Asia. It is basically the Asian story of Dudley Do Right of the Mounties and Nell. Except Dudley is replaced by a mythical prince and Nell by his princess girlfriend. As they walk in the woods they hear a cry for help so prince Rama leaves his princess protected by a magic circle while he runs off to save the day. While he is away an evil rival for the Princess’ affections tries to kidnap her but can’t break thru the magic circle. This ancient version of Snidely Whip Lash returns dressed as an old man in need of help and lures the princess out of the circle and kidnaps her.

The prince then enlists the aide of the Red Monkey King to win her back and with the help of the Red Monkey King and the White Monkey King they prevail. And I’m pretty sure the evil suiter says something like “Curses Foiled Again” in the appropriate Asian tongue.

Just goes to show that there are no new stories just more reruns and remakes of time tested themes.

Photos of the temple complex, views of the sea from the bluffs, monkeys, and the Kecak Ramayana and Fire dance accompany this blog

My next temple visit was to Tanah Lot Temple in the mid-morning. Though I would like to report my visit was well timed by careful research and attention to detail – I can not. I arrived at the perfect time entirely by blind luck. The temple is on a huge rock about 50 yards from shore. I arrived at the perfect low tide so that I could wade across in just 3-inch water. The second part of my well executed plan was to accidentally arrive on an important Hindu holiday.

Tanah Lot Temple

So, I had the good fortune to observe the Hindu Holy Men preparing the Temple for the ceremony and then watch as the faithful entered the open air shrine to be blessed. One of the Holy Men noticed me and motioned for me to join them at the sacred spring and offered to bless me.

So as they say, When in Rome…, I followed the procedure I had watched the faithful enact and washed my face from the cool water of the fresh water spring. The Holy Man then used a hollow stick to shake some incense and a liquid on my head and shoulders, dipped his thumb into a bowl of uncooked wet rice and placed his rice covered thumb to the center of my forehead and said some magic Hindu words like “Another Jack Ass Bulu corrupting our sacred sites forgive him Lord Shiva”. Then his assistant placed a flower over my ear and asked for a donation. And I felt blessed!

And while all this was occurring the tide was coming back in and the 3-inch crossing had turned into a knee-deep crossing on the return trip. I’ve included a lot of photos from this Temple because the setting and the people’s dress were so beautiful and interesting.

Ulun Danu

Next on my schedule was the Ulun Danu Temple on the shore of the picturesque Lake Batetan in the Bali Highlands. I should probably mention that when I refer to a Temple this isn’t exactly correct. These are all huge Temple complexes with multiple temples and shrines.

What makes Ulun Danu so interesting is the combination of the temple’s (built on the water’s edge) reflection on the clear calm lake surface that gives the Temple an almost floating appearance. And the scenic backdrop of the surrounding mountains.

BTW I had my first taste of Duck Betutu in the Temple Restaurant. Simply incredible edibles!!!

Besakih Temple Complex

My final Bali Temple visit was to the Besakih Temple Complex high up on the Shoulder of Mount Agung. As I mentioned before, Besakih is considered the Mother Temple. The temple complex has 23 separate but related temples but the largest and most important is Pura Penataran Agung. This temple is built on six levels up the terraced slope and overlooks miles upon miles of rice terraces, rolling hills and fast flowing streams.

If you look closely at the temple photos you will notice that in at least one temple I am decked out in a sarong and official Balinese Hat. Visitors to Hindu temples are required to wear long pants and shirts that cover the shoulders. And I had worn shorts that day so I bought a sarong to cover up.

I visited two Palaces and have included photos from the Water Palace up near the Besakih Temple. The Taman Tirtagangga Water Palace must have been quite the engineering and construction marvel of its day. And all for the private enjoyment of one man. Beautiful ponds were strategically constructed to offer fantastic views of the rolling hills and valleys below while offering plenty of eye candy within the water palace. Intricately designed fountains, lush gardens, statues, and most interesting – stones placed in wandering patterns throughout the pond allowing the king to stroll over the water and ponder the problems of the day or maybe decide which of his many wives and concubines he would later invite to join him for his evening’s entertainment.

I’ve already talked about the first cultural dance I watched at the Uluwatu Temple. I attended a second dance performance in Puri Saren Royal Palace courtyard in Ubud. Exact same storyline (Dudley Do Right (Prince Rami saves the day) but this time the dance is to actual musical instruments. No piano or guitars though – all drums, metal kettle looking things played with little golden hammers, flutes, and strange stringed instruments.

This dance seemed to be a little smoother and appealing to the eye. The first performance accompanied by chanting men seemed choppy and less fluid. Most of the movement seemed to be with the fingers and eyes. In this performance accompanied by musical instruments allowed the dancers to use their entire bodies and looked much more interesting. (photos attached)

Finally, a word about street markets. These uniquely Asian markets are a riot of colors, sounds, smells and tastes. Amongst the hundreds of stalls, you can find everything imaginable from toilet seats to authentic hand-made Bali souvenirs made in a factory somewhere in China. Most interesting are the food stalls. You can walk from stall to stall grazing on all sorts of meats cooked over small charcoal grills on spits, fresh fruits of all sorts to be eaten or pressed into a juice or a smoothie, veggies both raw and cooked, and of course rice and noodles galore.

I think to get the most out of the experience you need to throw caution to the wind and try things you would never try at home. Fried grasshopper – sure why not? Chicken guts – taste like chicken and a bit like chicken sh_t!, deep fried scorpion – breakfast of champions. But as I tried all this crap I couldn’t help remembering what a Chinese guide told me in 2017. He said, “Yuk we don’t eat that crap – we just sell it to the western tourists”.

That is all from Beautiful and Exotic Bali – Next stop Java! See you there.

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The Bulu Arrives in Bali

Bulu

And the first thing you should know is Bulu is what Javanese call White People – the literal translation is albino. It took a few days for me to understand why everyone kept saying bulu as I passed but my driver finally explained what was happening. And all though it may sound like a derogatory term it was generally used with affection. Everyone I met on both Bali and Java seemed to really like Americans or at least our tourism dollars. And while on the subject of words and phrases you hear a lot – sip sip is another.

Sip Sip has nothing to do with drinking it simply means okay in Javanese. And is used practically with every sentence. And you will notice Javanese never seem to raise their voice to denote the importance of what they are saying rather they repeat the word. If you are being warned to slow down – you will hear “slooowly slooowly”, Or if you need to get the lead out – “hurry hurry”.

The second thing you should know – do not drive yourself on Bali or Java! It is far too dangerous. These people drive like they are insane. There are absolutely no rules of the road. People ignore lanes, traffic signals, pedestrians, motor bikes and other cars but somehow manage to never collide. Plus, the sites are so beautiful you will not want to miss a single thing by concentrating on the demolition derby around you.

In fact, if you ever find yourself in Bali I recommend you contact my friend and driver Babak Made. Made only charged me $45 per day and was always on time and in a good mood. And he not only drove me around he suggested things to see and do that I had not found in my research as well as fantastic restaurant recommendations. Plus, he is a pretty good photographer and interpreter.

\The third thing you should know about Bali and Java is that you should at least try to eat all kinds of things you have never heard of or thought about. Fruits of every kind (Star Fruit, Milky Banana, Dragon Fruit, Hairy Fruit, Snake Skin Fruit, Durien-which I do not recommend), Walang (deep fried grasshopper and quite tasty), shrimp crackers, fried tempe and herb chips, tea in a bag, Rambak (skin of a cow with chili paste), Gudeg (Jack Fruit cooked for 6 hours with coconut water and spices then eaten with Rambak), Chicken Intestines Sate, Quail Eggs Sate, Chicken Organs Sate, Fried Tahu (Tofu), Kikil Sate (Cow Hoof Cubes on a stick), or Duck Betutu (Ballanese duck dish cooked for 6 hours with coconut milk, shallots, and herbs in a bamboo steamer then served with Gudeg and rice – and it is wonderful).

And, why go to Bali or Java in the first place? Because there is no place on earth like it! There are beautiful beaches, forests, waterfalls, rice terraces, secluded lagoons, majestic mountains/volcanoes, and sea cliffs. There are 1000 year old Hindu and Buddhist Temples and palaces from long forgotten kingdoms. You will find colorful and bustling street markets and food vendors willing to bargain for all the things you are sure you just can’t live without. But mostly, go to meet the people.

Indonesia is primarily a Muslim Country although there are sizable Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minority populations. Interestingly, the island of Bali is primarily Hindu with a Muslim minority. But no matter the religion everyone seems to get along and everyone seems to generally like Americans. And very strange – everyone wants their photos taken with Americanos.

I was asked to pose for photos with the locals at every stop. Mostly with young people but also a few middle-aged adults. There are now photos floating around Bali and Yogyakarta of me with hundreds of giggling teenage girls and boys. And one photo is never enough. Each photo shoot requires a standard smiling photo, followed by a crazy face photo (contorted faces and Metallica Finger Wave) and if the photo is with a girl or group of girls “cute face”. In this photo they always tilt their heads and cradle their face in the backs of their hands. Very odd but somehow quite endearing.

In the remainder of this blog I will talk about the beaches, waterfalls, rice terraces, and the hike up Mt Batur. In my final Bali blog, I will talk about my incredible experiences visiting four Hindu Temples, a water palace, street markets and two cultural shows/dances performances.

In Bali you will find a beach for any sort of activity you can imagine. Surfing, Parasailing, Snorkeling, Diving, Jet Skiing, Beachcombing for shells, tanning or just people watching – there is something for everyone. During my brief stay on Bali I only had time to visit three beaches but there are many more that need exploring.

I visited Kuta Beach, Sanur Beach, and Pandawa Beach all located in the Southeast corner of the Island. But, let’s face it, this is an island so there are hundreds of additional beaches that can be explored. All three of the beaches I visited are in cities and offer beach side hotels, restaurants, bars, toilets and art markets within meters of your rented lounge chair/beach umbrella. The beaches are covered in a fine clean sand with plenty of room to stretch out and bake in the sun or kilometers of surf to walk along.

The most interesting of the beaches to me was Pandawa. To reach Pandawa you must drive thru the hills and down a winding road descending the high bluffs above the beach. All along the descent of the bluff there are sculptures of Hindu deities carved into the rockface of the bluff every so many meters. And there are plenty of places to pull over and take photos of the beach below or the sculptures in the rock face.

The highlights of my time at this beach were: bought my official Bail traditional hat, tried my first chilled coconut water from the coconut, tasted my first snake skin fruit, star fruit, milky banana, and hairy fruit. The accompanying photos will speak to the beauty of all three beaches and the weirdness of these fruits.

Thanks to a suggestion from Mr. Made we made a detour from my scheduled itinerary to visit a little known river that flows thru a deep ravine and into and thru a huge cave. The hike down to the river from the road above was steep and long but when I arrived at the river bottom it was all well worth it. Little did I know that the hike down was the easy part. Once at the river, I had to remove my shoes and socks and wade to the waterfall barefoot over sharp painful rocks for several hundred meters.

But again, the pain was certainly worth the gain! Take a look at the photos and I think you will agree – this place is special! BTW that is Babak Made in the photo in front of the waterfall standing with me.

Once the photos were all taken we once again picked our way over the sharp rocks and waded back to our shoes then trudged up several hundred vertical feet of steep track to reach our car. Then we were off to see Jatiluwih Rice Terraces.

Rather than try to explain how vivid the greens were or how beautiful the vista as far as the eye could see – I will simply let the photos speak for themselves. But please understand it was a rainy overcast day and a photo simply can’t do justice to such natural beauty.

And finally, my hike up Mt. Batur to catch the sunrise – at least that was the plan. I woke up at 1am for a two hour drive to the base area of Mt. Batur to meet my guide. We arrived at the base area at 3:30am and began a very grueling scramble straight up the side of Mt. Batur. And after two and half hours of climbing over an uneven track using sharp and jagged volcanic rock for hand holds and foot placement we reached the summit in a very thick cloud.

And there I sat with several hundred new friends waiting in the cold damp cloud patiently for another hour for the cloud to go away and the sun to come up. LOL the cloud never drifted away and the sun barely penetrated through the thick mist. But we enjoyed and cheered the little rays of orange that did peak thru, drank freshly brewed hot tea, watched the monkeys that live at the summit, and even got a few travel tips about my visit to Lebanon from a Lebanese couple on their honeymoon.

Once I gave up on ever seeing the sun again my guide took me on a walk along the crater rim to show me some steam vents just inside and below the cater rim (did I mention this is still an active volcano that last erupted in the 1970s). After a couple of quick photos in the steam it was time to trudge back down the track for our descent. And guess what – half way down the cloud finally moved off and a perfect blue bird day.

Once off the mountain it was time for a quick breakfast and then a long soak in some natural thermal pools at a nearby outdoor spa. And the hours in the hot mineral water did wonders for my tired old muscles.

The accompanying photos are from the summit of Mt. Batur, the descent, and from the Thermal Spa.

One final note of caution – do not try the Durien Fruit! You may have heard about this fruit that smells so bad that you can not open it in doors but supposedly taste good. Bull Shit – it tastes just as nasty as it smells. Durien Fruit is the Asian’s big practical joke on white people! It is simply the nastiest thing you will ever put in your mouth.

I was telling a nice Taiwanese woman I met in Sydney via Whats App about trying durien and how terrible it was. And her simple reply back was – “White people don’t eat Durien – what is wrong with you?” Wish someone had told me that before I ate it. Photos attached.

Street Food 

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Coober Pedy – Last Stop in Australia and Could be on Another Planet

My final-destination in Australia was the Opal mining town of Coober Pedy. This small hamlet of only about 1,600 hard scrabble folks might as well be on Mars (Mars the Red Planet was filmed here). Surrounded my hundreds of kilometers of dry red desert and a day’s drive from the nearest neighboring town, Coober Pedy is as isolated a place as you can imagine.

With day time temps. Reaching 140 degrees in the summer, night time temps. dropping to freezing, and only 5 inches of rain a year, little wonder why there are no trees, plants or grass to be seen. In fact, 80% of the residents live underground and the locals play their golf on an entire course of sand and clay.

My first glimpse of what was to come, was as I stepped off the plane onto the roll up stairs and was immediately blasted by the oppressive heat and engulfed in a swarm of flies. As I looked around all I could see was a small cinder block building and a couple of smaller support structures. Turns out the cinderblock building (smaller than the cinderblock house I grew up in) turned out to be the airport terminal.

I left most of my gear in a locker in Adelaide so I only had my small day pack that I carry on so I immediately crossed the terminal in 5 quick steps and headed out the front door to find a taxi. Surprise!!! Coober Pedy has no taxi service. Fortunately, there is a one car transfer service with a phone number posted on the front door of the terminal.

I reached a very nice lady who said Pete could be there in 30 minutes. Pete came rambling up in a beat-up SUV in 20 minutes. As he pulled up beside me motioning me to get in I’m sure my shock was obvious. Pete had long gray hair, a gray beard to his belly, ear rings, a face spider webbed with deep lines like old dried cracked plaster, wearing week old clothes. As he skidded to a stop a dozen flies flew out the passenger window and began buzzing about my head. The interior of his SUV was covered in a red layer of desert dust. Dash, seats, floor dust everywhere. All I could think about was how was I ever going to get that red crap out of my nice black sport coat.

I asked Pete how much to go to my underground motel (have I mentioned that most everyone in town lives underground in dugouts?). Twenty bucks and off we went with red dust and flies circulating in and out of the SUV as we bumped along down the uneven track.

Pete proudly informed me that it was his birthday and that he was 64. I would have guessed his age at 164 but who’s counting. Pete also gave me his version of the history of Coober Pedy on the drive into town. According to Pete Coober Pedy which he says is Aborigine for “White Man Living in Hole” was founded when the first Opal was found in 1915 by the teenage son of a gold prospector whose party was lost and looking for water.

The discovery of that first opal turned out to be the beginning of the most significant opal field in the world. When Australian soldiers returned from the Trenches of World War I looking to get rich some made their way to the Opal Fields. Upon arrival, they faced a very harsh environment of a barren land devoid of trees for building materials, extreme heat, the world’s most venomous snakes and swarms of insects.

Since they had just spent their last several years living in underground dugouts and in ten foot deep trenches the solution was obvious. They would tunnel into the hillsides and dig their own homes as the dug for opals. I’ve included several photos of what the original dug outs looked like as well as photos of a dugout from the 1960s and my underground cave hotel room.

During my short time in Coober Pedy I visited two underground mines/museums, one underground church, an underground café for breakfast, and the weird underground dug out of one the weirdest sites in Coober Pedy – Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest & Dugout.

I’ve included photos from both mine/museum tours, the church and my hotel. I’ve also included photos from above ground that I took during my first afternoon of wandering around as well as my predawn climb to the top of the hill for photos of the sunrise. You might notice a bunch of round vent/chimney looking things sticking out of the ground.

These are actually vents for the various dugouts and provide fresh air and ventilation. The dugouts require no heating or cooling and maintain a comfortable temp. of between 21 and 25 cel. You may also see one of the many signs warning the unwary to watch where they are stepping to avoid a serious fall down a vent from an abandoned mine or dugout.

But I want to spend a little time talking about Crocodile Harry who stands out as the most bizarre of all the eclectic residents past and present of this remote outpost. Crocodile Harry claims to have been a Latvian baron who had fought for the Germans and been in hiding since World War II. Before taking up residence in Coober Pedy Harry was a crocodile hunter.

Harry, it seems, had two hobbies which he pursued with an insane passion – primitive art and bedding women! His entire dugout is covered with graffiti, sculptures and wall paintings of naked women and photographs of many of his female guests baring their breast for the camera. But his most interesting artifact is his large collection of women’s bras and panties.

The story goes that many a female backpacker would find a nice warm spot in Harry’s bed and then repay him with their trophies. Later it is said that he would require all female visitors to pay for their tour of his Lair with their bra. BTW Harry passed away in 2006 but the current owner has left everything as it was the day he died. Photos of this weird place are also included.

One final note about my get away from Mad Max’s Thunderdome (Actually was filmed here). Turns out the same ride to the airport cost $50 instead of the $20 into town. Same distance just different circumstances. Pete knows you have a plane to catch and no other way to reach the airport. And upon arrival at the airport at 10am the standard two hours before my flight, I found it locked up tight. Pete informed me that someone would be along in an hour or so to let me inside. So, I spent my last hour in Coober Pedy sitting on a rock outside the locked up airport entertaining a swarm of flies.

All in all, just a damn weird place but interesting to see and experience at least once in a lifetime.

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Melbourne to Adelaide along the Great Ocean Road

The third leg of my Australian Walk About took me from the Docklands of Melbourne thru the central city sites of Parliament House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Flinders Street Rail Station, the Old Customs House, Immigration Museum, Federation Square, Cook’s Cottage, Fitzroy Garden, the Old Treasury Building, the Princess Theater, the Old Melbourne Gaol (Prison) followed by a nice crispy duck dinner in Chinatown.

Then, next, a very pleasant three-day drive along the coastal highway for more spectacular examples of Australia’s scenic wonders.  And finally reaching Adelaide and the relief of turning in my VW Pissant Rental Car (Passat) to leave the driving to someone else.

I didn’t find Melbourne as interesting as Sydney but certainly the historic district was worth a day of wandering around the museums and parks.  The Old Melbourne Gaol is certainly worth a few hours exploration.  The old jail cells are the center point of the museum and each cell tells the story of one of its more interesting inmates complete with a description of their crimes, sentences, life in the prison and death mask if applicable.

But the highlight of the museum is the Watchtower experience.  Basically, they conduct a tour every two hours and on this tour you are given a real 19th century criminal’s identity and walked thru the intake process as a convicted criminal. BTW I was Sean Tann and a thief.  Our tour guide was a butch looking woman in a guard’s uniform and in full kick ass and take names character.  Every word she spat out was at full drill sergeant bellow complete with bodily threats.

She lined us up, read us the rules, searched our hair, hands, mouth and shoes for counter band.  Then made us face the wall, place our hands high on the wall and spread our feet for a body search.  She seemed to enjoy this part way too much.  And I am pretty sure she does this same role playing routine at home for fun with some poor soul.

After the body search she put us in our cells and turned off the lights.  And that was the moment I was glad I had gone into politics instead of a life of crime (and, yes, I know – some of you believe politics is just legalized crime).  There is no way I could do the time.  The cell was just rough stone with no window and a steel door with only a covered slot.  When the lights went out it was pitch black and totally disorienting.  Five minutes and I was feeling the effects.  I have no idea how Senator McCain and his fellow POWs survived so many years in the Hanoi Hilton (I will be visiting his cell in May to pay homage to the great man).  Just shows the incredible strength of these heroes of our age.

The Immigration Museum was a major disappointment.  To begin with, they had a strange temporary exhibit on love that they were particularly proud of and required everyone to waste time walking thru.  The exhibit had 5 different sections on the various themes surrounding “love” and had photos, letters and oral histories representing different couples.  Everything seemed to have a political spin – a lesbian couple, a gay guy couple, a white female convict and aboriginal man couple, mother daughter, and a bizarre older man – younger woman couple where he as a cuckold endured his wife falling in love and multiple affairs with both men and women.

And, again, I can’t imagine how this exhibit has anything to do with Australian Immigration.  The rest of the museum was just as political.  The first floor was an indictment against white Australians for mistreating both their native peoples and Chinese immigrants.  The remaining floor was devoted to exhibits of “We are the World.”  Extolling the beauty of all races and ethnic groups and promoting the blending of all groups into one singular race.  Again, WTF!

The Old Treasury Building was very interesting.  The beautiful old building was built to house all the gold flowing in from the gold fields during the mid to late 18th century gold rush.  And these exhibits were actually – historical and interesting.  Exhibits focused on the original gold strikes, the subsequent gold rushes, the lives of prospectors, the danger of the Bush Rangers like Ned Kelly and the growth of Melbourne based upon gold.

And a walk by or walk thru Flinders Station (Beautiful Victorian Train Station), the Princess Theater, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Parliament House are all worth the time.  But honestly this can all be done in one long day and be done in time for a nice crispy duck dinner in Chinatown.

The best part of this portion of my trip though was the drive along the Great Pacific Coastal Highway.  First stop was to Bells Beach to watch the surfers ride the big waves.  Blindly, I stumbled onto the Rip Curl sponsored International Pro-Am Surfing Competition and spent a couple of hours watching the surfers from the bluffs above the beach.

The problem with a sport dependent upon a natural setting is you can’t build a spectator area for the convenience of the spectators.  The topography of the area dictates how close to the action spectators can sit/stand.  In the case of Bell’s Beach – we were a long way from the action.  But no one seemed to mind and there was standing room only and everyone snapped photos with their iPhones from a mile away. Except this one guy who had the mother of all cameras.  This thing was two feet long with a lens that was at least 10 inches across.  The guy was quite popular with the ladies.  They were all asking for a closer look at his big instrument.  And, the guys – just a lot of camera envy.

Next up after Bells Beach was Apollo Bay to walk the beach and snap some photos before continuing to Cape Otway to visit Australia’s oldest Lightstation.  The lighthouse built in 1848 stands at 90 meters tall.  This station was manned by a lighthouse manager and three assistants who worked in 4 hour shifts to keep the light fueled and windows clean seven days a week 52 weeks per year.

Cape Otway was such a remote location in 1848 that the four families that manned it only received provisions twice a year by ship.  The rest of their time they were totally on their own and had to make supplies last until the next supply ship.

Next stop on my drive down the coastal highway was the big prize – The Twelve Apostles Rock Formations along the coast.  I scheduled my visit for sunrise and enjoyed a spectacular morning with hundreds of other camera clicking tourists.  This part of the coast is as beautiful and unspoiled a beach as you will find anywhere.

Interesting historical tid bit – the Rock Formations were originally called the Sow and her Piglets early in the last century but apparently some public relations type decided that the 12 Apostles would make a much better advertising pitch.  I think he was quite right – who wants to go home and tell everyone they visited a sow and 11 piglets!

After my early morning with the Apostles and later stops along the highway to visit the Arch, London Bridge (now missing its middle span), and the sea cave – I made my way to Cape Nelson’s Light Station.  This picturesque station was built in 1882 at a height of 32 meters and with a light range of 21 nautical miles.

London Bridge after the collapse

Cape Nelson’s Light Station

And after a long day of driving and gawking at seascapes and lighthouses I arrived at my final stop for the night – the Old Mount Gambier Gaol.  That’s right I spent my night in an old 19th century prison by choice.

After my short stay in the Melbourne Gaol I was having some second thoughts about my decision though.  My apprehension turned out to be baseless, the experience was actually fun.  Photos of my night in the pokey as well as all of many of the incredible sites along the drive are included.

My six-hour drive from Mount Gambier to Adelaide was pretty much uneventful accept for the wildlife along the road.  My next blog will feature my short visit to Coober Pedy one of the strangest places on earth.

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Sydney to Melbourne: Exploring the Pristine Beaches and Virgin Forrest along the Princes Scenic Highway

This drive down the coastal highway is simply spectacular. The drive has it all. There are miles and miles of Old Growth forests with trees that reach the sky and lush green ferns covering the forest floor. The highway in places hugs the edges of cliffs and bluffs high above the Ocean providing incredible vistas of blue seas, white sand beaches and sandstone sea cliffs. Then with a series of twists, curves and hairpin turns you are back at sea level as a river has cut its way thru the bluffs to reach the sea and a town has built up around the natural harbor.

The route meanders thru several national parks and past numerous pristine beaches and picturesque light stations. I will let the photos speak for themselves but would like to remark on a couple of special moments. First is Pebbly Beach in the Murramarang National Park, this beach is simply beautiful. The lush green vegetation grows right up to meet the sandy beach. The beach itself is in a small cove and on both sides of the U shape are sheer sandstone cliffs rising to the bluffs above. There is a large shelf of rock extending out from the base of the cliff that offers a wide pathway to the point on the left side of the U-shaped cove during low tide.

 

Photos of Cape Schanck Light Station

I walked the uneven rock slabs to the point thinking there would be more beach around the corner. Instead I found a tumbled mess of bus and house size boulders to scramble over as the oceans waves crashed against the rocks cooling me with the spray. Again, hoping to see more beach on the other side of the rocks – only to find a half dozen Japanese tourists with huge seven-foot heavy duty fishing rods and reels casting into the raging surf from the rocks. I watched in amusement as they caught tiny 3-inch goldfish on these giant rods and reels designed to fight huge tarpon or sharks.

On my return trip back to the beach I looked more carefully in the pools left by the departing tide and could see all manner of sea life just hanging out waiting for the tide to come back in and offer escape. The best part was finding the blow hole I had missed on my hike out to the point though.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Pebbly Beach though is the sunbathers. Seems kangaroos enjoy a day at the beach as much as women. There is a resident mob (what Aussies call a group of Roos) that hang out at this beach. Watching the kangaroos laying around sunning themselves was like being back in Florida watching all the snowbirds flocking to our beaches. And as I was paying for my parking a beautiful red parrot landed on the pay box with absolutely no fear of me. Just a fantastic way to spend a solitary morning.

Lunch, then Wilson’s Promontory National Park

The second moment I would like to describe is my afternoon in Wilsons Promontory National Park. This Park is on a peninsular just north of Melbourne offering a number of interesting hikes, beaches, bluffs and coastal hills to explore. The hike I chose took me to Sparkes Lookout high above the ocean. The rocky crag offered incredible views in all directions. The view was spectacular but even more interesting to me was the 3.5km walk in thru a grove of large old trees twisted and contorted by decades of strong sea winds as they grew (photos attached).

I have always thought of Australia as an arid semi desert. But From the Blue Mountains west of Sydney to the Coastal Highway between Sydney and Melbourne to the drive from Melbourne to Mount Gambier I found incredibly lush forests and woodlots.

Attached are my photos of the three day journey from Sydney to Melbourne.

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Greetings from the Land Down Under

Well my time in Australia is nearly up – just one more night in a cave hotel in Coober Pedy then I’m off to Bali and hopefully warmer beaches. I’ve enjoyed my time in Australia, seen a lot of interesting sights, met some strange animals (and I’m not just talking about the people), and sampled the local food, wine and beer. My Australian Walk About has taken me from Sydney to Melbourne along the Princes Scenic Coastal Highway. And then from Melbourne to Adelaide along the Great Ocean Scenic Highway. And finally, inland to the Opal Mining town of Coober Pedy and back to Adelaide before I fly on to Bali.

Safety Harbor

In total I have driven over 3,000km on the wrong side of the road without scaring the hell out of the locals by entering a roundabout in the wrong direction or trying to drive down the wrong side of the road. I have mastered the tram system in Melbourne, tried Vegemite spread (hated it), and busted my diet on kangaroo and emu pizza. I have a ton of photos to share and will break the Australia blog into several parts: Sydney and the Blue Mountains, Princes Scenic Highway Drive, Melbourne, the Great Ocean Drive, and finally Coober Pedy.

First though, a short history of Australia – Because of its location separate and apart from the rest of the world Australia has developed in isolation. Wildlife seen throughout the rest of the world is not found in Australia, instead this country is home to its own unique animal species. Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emus, and dingoes can be found in abundance but no deer, bear, rabbits, turkeys or other species we are used to seeing at home or across Europe or Asia.

Bondi Beach

The native population (aborigines) also developed in isolation and were still living as they had for tens of thousands of years as stone age nomads when the first Dutch explorer arrived in the 17th century. These small bands of hunter gatherer aborigines roamed from one end of Australia to the other in a constant search for food and water with only stone and wooden tools for survival.

The English Sea Captain and Explorer Captain Cook mapped the east coast of Australia in the 1770 before he was eventually clubbed to death and eaten by a bunch of Hawaiian cannibals. When the American Colonies kicked King George’s royal butt out of his holdings in the New World, Captain Cook suggested the uninhabited land mass of Australia as a fine replacement for a dumping ground for criminals, paupers and other misfits clogging England’s cities.

The first convict ships arrived in Sydney Harbor’s Botany Bay in 1788 and as they say the rest is history. From that first armada of 11 ships carrying 788 prisoners and 300 soldiers modern Australia was born. I was surprised to find the criminals shipped to Sydney were not hardened or violent murderers and rapists but instead petty thieves, fraudsters, drunks, vagrants and debtors. I was also surprised to learn not all were men. One hundred ninety two were women and a few were children.

The first settlement built was in Sydney’s Botany Bay in an area known as the Rocks. The Rocks most obvious feature as you might guess is sandstone rock. The convicts were immediately put to work cutting the sandstone cliffs into large blocks for the building of shelter. And it is in the Rocks area I spent most of my quality time visiting historic pubs imbibing and learning about Sydney’s past.

Before I arrived, I booked a couple of tours to get my bearings and develop a feel for the city. I booked a joint two-day tour that included a full day city tour by bus, Rocks walking tour and Sydney/Darling harbor by boat tour with a lunch buffet. The second day of the two-day tour included a bus excursion to the Blue Mountains, Aboriginal Cultural Show, and ferry ride back into Darling Harbor.

In addition, to the two-day tour I also booked an evening historic pub tour (my favorite kind of tour). So, in all I had the opportunity to learn the same history from four different tour guides.

The tour guide can make or break a tour for you. The poor lady who walked us around the Historic Rocks District had the personality of Joe Friday from the old Dragnet TV Series. She presented just the facts in a monotone with zero personality. Fortunately, the exact same ground was covered by John on the bus tour and Garth of the Pub Tour.

John, the Bus Driver for our Sydney Day Tour was much more interesting than Josie Friday though a little too animated and enthusiastic. He confessed toward the end of the tour that his evening job is as a stand-up comedian on the city’s comedy club circuit which explained his over the top and forced delivery. But all in all a nice effort.

Between John and his bus, the 2-hour lunch cruise and Josie Friday’s sleep walking tour we visited the Rocks Historic District, St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hyde Park, the iconic Sydney Opera House, Darling Harbor, Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, Double Bay, Blondi Beach, Fort Denison, Shark Island and the Circlular Cique. I then toured the Sydney Maritime Museum on my own before heading to the highlight of all my tours – the Historic Pub Tour.

The first of Sydney’s three most important landmarks is the world renown Sydney Opera House designed by a Danish architect to either look like a series of sails or a discarded orange peel (check out the photos and you decide). The structure sits on a point of land extending into the harbor beneath the second major landmark the Sydney Harbor Bridge

The Harbor Bridge which was constructed in England in 1923, brought by ship in pieces, and assembled during the Great Depression is also known by two more common names – the Coat Hanger (photos will make sense of this for you) and the Iron Lung. The bridge was dubbed the Iron Lung because it supplied over 13,000 workers with much needed direct employment plus many other jobs supporting the construction. Making the bridge the iron lung that breathed economic life into Sydney during the hard times of the depression.

And the third landmark best known in all of Sydney is the Rocks Historic District. This is the place it all began in 1788 and where most of the action occurred during the early years. All thru the 19th century the Rocks was where the unwanted, unwashed and untoward all resided. The area was populated by the very poor, pubs, prostitutes, opium dens, and gambling houses.

The alleys of the Rocks were notorious for its gangs that preyed on unsuspecting sailors just into port looking for strong drink, hearty food and willing female companionship for the evening. The poor sailor would come ashore with a year’s worth of wages and be immediately set upon by shady ladies offering Sydney’s best Three Shilling Knee Trimbler. No sooner than the sailor’s knees be in full Trimble than he would be whacked over the head by several of the male gang members with a sock full of wet sand. And wake up a day later penniless and shoeless in the hold of a ship far out to sea with a pretend pissed off ship’s captain demanding the stowaway work for his passage to Shanghai for free. At least this is what Garth the Historic Pub Tour Leader swears happened.

The Historic Pub Tour was super fun and not just because it was a good excuse to drink 7 pints of Sydney’s finest local beers. Garth the Goth was both knowledgeable and entertaining. He covered much of the same ground as Josie Friday but with a much more interesting flare and sense of humor. For example, Garth shared with us that the alley called the Suez Canal was where sailors would be taken for their three-shilling knee trembler only to end up with a concussion from a sock full of wet sand. And he also let us in on the original street name for the Suez Canal – Sewer Street.

Seems Sewer Street which runs from the top of the hill down to the harbor was used as a drain by slaughter house at the top of the hill. And as the city fathers began to gentrify the Rocks they had to change the Alley name to something a little more dignified.

Interesting little fact about the historic pubs in the Rocks – five of them all claim to be the oldest pub in Australia. It’s hard to say which is the oldest but all have pretty tasty beer and fantastic ambiance. And all have their own stories of how they helped Shanghai unsuspecting sailors.

Seems the barkeep would slip a little something extra in the sailor’s drink. Once out cold from the mickey the unconscious sailor would be dumped into the basement thru a trap door, robbed of his money and boots, then taken by wheel barrel thru the tunnels to a waiting ship for forced slave labor.

Sydney is a great city today with a diverse and lively population. There is something for every sort of traveler to enjoy and well worth a visit. And when you run out of things to do in Sydney or it is just too hot – travel a few hours up to the Blue Mountains for spectacular views of the Three Sisters and the valley below (photos attached).

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Fiji, A Paradise with a Very Dark Past

Fiji is one of the those places you hear about but are never quite sure where in the Pacific Ocean it is or much about it beyond Fiji is supposed to be an island paradise. Well Fiji is about 3 and half hours north of Auckland, New Zealand and about 4 and half hours Northeast of Sydney, Australia. And misconception 1, Fiji is not just one island. Fiji is actually-300 separate islands. Some of the islands are populated by citizens of Fiji, some are owned privately by resorts and populated by tourists and service workers, others are uninhabited, and some are just barren volcanic rocks.

Misconception 2, the indigenous population has always been peaceful and welcoming to strangers. Today the native population is very peaceful and you can’t pass one by without a cheerful Bula (Hello or Welcome) and a toothy grin. But this was not always the case.

The fact is, just 200 years ago the greeting would have been something like Yummy Yummy get in my Tummy. The native Fijians were cannibals and they will proudly tell you they were the fiercest cannibals in all the South Pacific. My guide for a tour thru the Fiji Cultural Village let me know that they can still taste human flesh from down thru the ages although I’m pretty sure he was speaking figuratively.

Up until the British put a stop to it all the Fijian native population were incredibly blood thirsty man eaters. Since the day they arrived in Fiji in 1500bc the native population was in a continuous state of war with a free-for-all battle royal of tribes and villages constantly making war against their neighbors. And the cost of losing was unimaginable. If the members of the losing tribe were not killed in battle and eaten right away they were enslaved for later torment and death.

Slaves had many unpleasant fates including when a new temple was built – two slaves were buried alive strapped to the two center posts. Supposedly the dead spirits of the buried alive slaves allowed the priest to commune with the gods after he drank his Kava out of some poor schmuck’s skull. Kava. By the way, is a drink made from pulverizing some-kind-of-forest root into a powder then creating a grog like drink that makes you sort of numb and dumb. They have an entire ceremony for the drinking of the nasty tasting crap.

 

Also, anytime a new dugout canoe was ready to launch a slave was placed on the ground so that the heavy canoe (basically a tree trunk with the center burned out weighing hundreds of pounds) could be rolled over his body to the river. If he died or was critically injured he simply became that night’s dinner entrée.

The brain and heart always went to the king and priest with the rest of the tribe sharing everything else from a communal earthen oven or clay pot. Apparently even cannibals have some taboos – touching man steak with your hands was unforgivable and the offending party would be sent from the feast and shunned. They ate their victims with large wooden forks.

Before the British arrived the natives of Fiji still lived in the stone age. All their tools, weapons, household goods were stone, wooden, bones or made from plants. All the weapons were carved from wood, drinking and cooking vessels were made from uncured clay or wood, sleeping mats, fans, and fly swatters made from palm fronds and coconut byproducts, and what clothing they wore was made from the bark of a gum like tree and of course the priest’s cup was made from a human skull.

The women of Fiji had it pretty rough too. Seems the King was allowed as many wives as he wanted. Only the first wife had any status the rest were simply for his sexual pleasure. But being the first wife was no picnic. Seems if the king died the first wife was given a choice – she could agree to be clubbed to death and buried with the king or could be buried alive with the king. Talk about a Hobson’s Choice!

Misconception 3, Fiji is populated by Fiji’s indigenous population. Wrong! Only 35% of the country’s population is indigenous. Indians brought over by the British in the 1860s make up over 50% of the country’s population and control most of its wealth. The remaining 15% are scattered between Chinese, Caucasian, and other Polynesians.

And you might wonder – why bring Indians to Fiji? Simple, the natives were still living in the stone age and after 3300 years of killing and eating each other there weren’t that many left. So, the British needed a more advanced populous to build and operate the railroads, roads, bridges, towns, sugar plantations and ports. And that is why the Indian ethnic group is the majority and control most of the wealth.

But despite its dark history the Fiji of today is a paradise. Beautiful beaches, warm clean blue green coves and seas, lush tropical trees, ferns, and flowers, and an incredibly warm and welcoming people. Whether Indian or native Fijian everyone is unbelievably friendly and polite. Everyone greets you with a big hearty Bula, a Moce (good bye) when you leave, and Vinake (thank you) for the simplest things.

And while the natives were a pretty nasty bunch in what they refer to as Old Fiji they also had some amusing customs. For example, only women could wear a flower in their hair. Whether it was worn on the right or left side of the head had an important significance. A flower worn on the right meant the lady was married and hands off. The flower on the left meant she was single. Their saying was “Right is Cooking Left is Looking”.

Hard pillow

Also according to my guide, everyone but the king slept in a communal house side-by-side with no privacy. When a couple decided they wanted to make a family they would go off into the woods for two months and live alone and do what couples have been doing since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. I do have a hard time believing sex was limited to those two months though.

And there were no beds. Just woven mats and a strange looking wooden pillow (photo provided)

And just to piss off all my women’s rights friends-men had an interesting way of keeping their wives in line. It was a big 30inch long 2inch diameter carved club (photo provided for any man crazy enough to carve himself one) used to whack unruly wives. I took a few practice swings and the damn thing was heavy enough to break bones or skulls. I let my guide know that the wife beater would never work in America today. I’m guessing the club would quickly become a husband beater.

There was a definite hierarchy in the tribe. The king’s bloodline always provided that the king’s eldest son would become the next king. The king, of course had his own house and it was required by custom to be built at a higher elevation than any other structure in the village. The house (called a Bure) would also be divided into thirds. Only the king was allowed in the first third. The second third with entrances to the left and right was reserved for the nobles and the final third with the entrance in the rear was

Priest house

reserved for the common folk.

By now you have figured out I was fascinated by how they lived in “Old Fiji” and I am attaching a lot of photos from my morning in the village. The photos are of the Priest’s House (The Tall House with the two thick tall center posts buried deep with live slaves), The King’s House (with wife beater and wooden pillow), communal sleeping house, the Cooking House (with Food Safer, Takona (wooden vessel for making a popular dessert of root crop and coconut milk), clay cooking pot that could cook meat in 20 minutes).

 

The Boat Builder’s Bure (with a demonstration of starting a fire to burn out the tree trunk), Clay PotMaker’s Bure, Story Telling Bure, a demonstration ofarticles made with parts of the coconut (fly swatter, rope, belt, drinking bowls, fans, and a broom)

Wood Carver’s Bure with a demonstration of weapons of stone age warfare and fork for eating your former neighbor.

Fisherman’s Bure with photos of a turtle net, crab trap, fish trap, fisherman’s raft, creel for carrying today’s catch and spears for fishing.

Fisherman’s house, turtle net, crab trap, fish trap, creel, Spears for fishing and raft

And finally, two photos of an “Old Fiji” Barb-B-Que of vanquished enemy in a ground oven.

 

Now that I’ve shared the Ugly of “Old Fiji” let me share a little of the beauty of modern day Fiji. In addition to some awesome sunrises, sunsets, and beach time I spent a few hours in the most incredible tropical version of Eden. The site is called the Garden of the Sleeping Giant and rather than explain the place with words I will just attach some photos of the jungle. Flowers of every color and size, stands of bamboo as thick as my thigh, palms reaching to the heavens and just to show you that the man eaters of Fiji have developed a sense of irony a couple of photos of tree huggers (a little creepy but still funny to look at).

 

Finally, I would like to mention Fiji Gold is a Great Beer!!! And the way I found out that Indians were the dominate ethnic group in Fiji was that I asked my server at dinner my first night to recommend a Fijian dish from the menu. She suggested Prawns Vakaviti, sautéed prawns with diced tomatoes & onions folded in fresh coconut cream with steamed rice. (photo attached) I was a little skeptical about the dish but when in Rome… So I tried it and it was delicious.

Next day, I was bragging about the dish to my driver (Ravin), an Indian. And he informed me Prawns Vakaviti is not a true Fijian dish rather it is Indian. That is when I learned three things: a true Fiji dish would have been Human Rump Roast, Vakaviti is considered a Fiji dish because Indians have been the majority population in Fiji for over a century, and three my server was probably an Indian woman not a true indigenous Fijian.

That is when I had to ask… how the hell do I tell you guys apart – you’re all dark skinned. He told me to always check the hair. A Fiji native will always have kinky hair and the Indian’s hair will always be straight. Which seemed to work well as a rule of thumb until the last afternoon while having lunch a friend of Ravin’s came over to our table with no hair. And the two of them had fun making me guess his ethnicity. Turns out he was result of a Scottish Seaman who washed up on the shore of Vita Levu island in the 18th century and instead of becoming dinner married one of the women of the tribe.

One last interesting activity to mention is the Sabeto Mud Bath, Hot Springs, and Massage. Ravin took me to a place up in the foothills where you cover yourself with mud from buckets of muck, let it dry, rinse off in the mud pool (you sink about a foot in the muck before hitting bottom) and the water coming up from the hot springs is a nice hot 101degrees.

Once most of the mud is rinsed off you proceed to three more springs the first is hot, the next is cold then the final one is hottest of all four springs. After the four soaks it is into the Bure for a massage. I had this mental image of a young very pretty but shy native girl in a grass skirt, a coconut bra and no shoes tenderly massaging and caressing my aches and pains away while singing softly to me. Man was I ever off on that image.

The only thing I got right was native and she was bare footed. But Big Bertha was probably in her 50’s, weighed as much or more than I do with huge flat feet with toes pointing in all directions, thankfully she was wearing a sarong and I don’t think they make coconuts big enough for her and she didn’t sing only grunted a lot.
But I have to admit she gave a very good massage.

One last disconcerting thing about the place. Before I left I had to visit the rest room. Turns out it was very near the mud pool and the buckets of mud. Rest room is generous it was actually a cinderblock privy and the odor inside smelled suspiciously like the mud buckets. I’m sure it was just my imagination but one has to wonder if this is “Old Fiji’s” screw you to the White Christians that made them give up their cannibal ways.

And now I’m off to Sydney to see an Opera House, the Blue Mountains, Sydney Harbor and tour the historic pubs of the Rocks’ Historical District.

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My Final Blog Post from New Zealand

Scenic Train to Picton

I’m partway through my final train trip across the northern island of NZ and then off to Fiji tomorrow. In this blog I will talk about the Alexandra Basin Wine Region, Queenstown, the drive from Queenstown to Christchurch, this two day train ride from Christchurch to Auckland and the 4 hour ferry crossing in rough seas from the South Island to the North Island.

But first I will go over some cultural idiosyncrasies I have observed in NZ. First, every Kiwi I have met has been extremely nice. Kiwis make Canadians seem rude lol. Second, Kiwis are very proud of their Maori heritage and traditions. Third, you can’t check into a hotel/motel in NZ without being offered a bottle of milk for your tea, fourth, Kiwis speak their own brand of English and sometimes it is hard to understand what they are saying.

View from Interislander Ferry

I rented a TomTom GPS with my rental cars and the person voicing the directions was a Kiwi gentleman who won the right to be the voice of New Zealand in a contest. Trouble is his directions sometimes required an American English/New Zealand English dictionary. As I would reach the end of every route he would say what I thought was “Okay mate grab your genitals, your tongs, your chilly buns and let’s get going… cheers for the ride mate!

I thought this was a rather strange thing to say to foreign tourists so I looked it up on google. What he was actually saying was “Grab your jandals(sandals), togs (bathing suit) and chilly bin (cooler) and let’s get goin… cheers for the ride, mate!

Drive to Christchurch

And any time I was to take a sharp right he would say “Sweet as!” How the hell was I supposed to know that?

And “She’ll be right” for a sharp left turn. Right for left? What kind of madness is that? And anytime I made a wrong turn he would say “let’s find us a MEAN steak and cheese pie” instead of turn around!

Crikey, if I’m having this much trouble understanding an English cousin I’m screwed when I get to Pakistan and Bangladesh!

Now back to the travel review. First stop was in Alexandra where I rented a very nice studio chalet in the middle of an apple orchard. And based upon the owner’s recommendation had a fantastic steak dinner at Pauline’s Restaurant in Clyde. This entire river basin is the furthest southern wine producing area (below the 45th southern parallel) in the world. And having sampled one of their wines at dinner and then several more selections the next day at Gibbston Vineyard’s wine cheese tasting I can recommend the areas Pinot.

There are over 25 vineyards stretched out across the Central Otago Valley and many have tasting opportunities. I read that there is a cycling tour of the basin peddling from one vineyard to another tasting wine as you go. Doesn’t sound all that safe to me but I guess drinking while bicycling is not a crime in NZ.

From the Otago Valley we continued on up the river to a pretty little town of Cromwell and spent a couple of hours visiting the Cromwell Heritage Precinct and enjoying a wonderful breakfast of eggs over toast, streaky bacon, mushrooms and baked tomato at Amando’s Kitchen.

From Cromwell, we traveled on up river to Queenstown and spent a pleasant 90 minutes aboard the 100ft TSS Earnslaw Steamship. Queenstown sits beside a huge lake and the 100-year-old steamship used to service all the towns and sheep stations around the lake. In its heyday the steam ship carried passengers, sheep, cattle, bales of wool and other cargo from one end of the lake to the other. Today the ship only carries tourists packed in and treated like sheep. But the 90 minutes were relaxing, the scenery was beautiful and the wine was excellent.

 

One of my two regrets about my time in NZ is that I didn’t spend more time in Queensland. This looks like the most interesting place I visited in the country. Lakeside there were lots of interesting looking restaurants and bars. And the town is the jumping off point for tons of outdoor pursuits from trekking the mountains, mountain biking, bungee jumping, rock climbing, skiing in the winter, and water sports of every type in the summer.

My second regret is that I did not include several days to hike on and around Mount Cook. These are the mountains that Sir Edmond Hillary, Rob Hall and my 4 new lady friends from the train launched their climbing careers from. It would have been
fun to walk in the footsteps of these personalities.

After a relaxing afternoon in Queenstown I began my race against the clock back to Christchurch. Reception at my motel closed at 10pm and my rental car was due back by 11pm. The Kiwi guy on my GPS said it was a 6 hour drive to the motel and I had exactly 6 hours to make it. Reminded me of a line from the Blues Brothers Movie with Jake and Elwood.

I made it with 20 minutes to spare and the drive was spectacular with snowcapped mountains to the west, golden rolling foothills dotted with white sheep to my east and very few signs of people along the route.

Our dinner that night consisted of cheese and a fresh baguette we had purchased during our visit to the Gibbston Vineyard. I was sorely tempted to break out one of the bottles of wine that I had purchased to compliment the cheese and fresh bread but restrained myself since I was driving on a winding two lane road at 120km per hour. So it was warm coke zero, fresh Havarti cheese, and a baguette for dinner as I drove.

After a very short night of sleep we were up at 5am to pack, taxi across town to the train station and catch the 7am Coastal Pacific Train to Picton. This train route was billed as scenic and truly was – with great views of the rugged coastline, dramatic seascapes, surfers in their wetsuits, sunning seals, Marlborough’s 30 plus vineyards and earthquake damage from the 2016 earthquake that has yet to be repaired.

Once in Picton we changed over to the Interislander Ferry and enjoyed/endured a rainy and rolling sailing across an angry sea in the Cook Strait. Four hours later arriving in Wellington (named after the Duke of Wellington) in a cold driving rain storm with whipping winds. After a short shuttle ride to the railway station and a mad 700foot dash to the hotel we had arrived for the night.

Unfortunately, my plans for a big Saturday night out in Wellington was washed away with the rain. Instead my big Saturday night was too many Knob Creeks and Water while waiting for a table then a nice steak with continued slow service before off to bed (after raiding the minibar for a Kit Kat bar for dessert).

Today, we are continuing our slow but scenic train ride to Auckland under cloudy skies. Our vistas continue to alternate between virgin bush, seascapes off desolate beaches, rolling hills of green pastures dotted with tens of thousands of sheep, and dramatic gorges/ravines with fast moving rivers at their bottoms.

We have 3 more hours of train travel then one last dinner in Auckland. If I am lucky the hotel will have a laundry and I can leave for Fiji at 9am tomorrow with freshly laundered clothes, knowing the difference between genitals and jandals, understanding that “Sweet as” means turn right dumb ass, “She’ll be right” means turn left you looser, and “Lets find us a MEAN steak and cheese pie” means you are going the wrong way – make a U turn wanker!

I’ve enjoyed New Zealand and hope to come back to spend some time in Queenstown and hiking on and around Cook Mountain. But on to Fiji for some blue skies, warm water, hot beaches, and bare skin now. Lol!

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