Thursday, November 22, 2007

Phi Phi

Climbing in Phi Phi: 11/22-12/10/07

Ode to the sweet luxury of the porch. I'm sitting here, on our little bamboo bungalow’s porch, chewing my breakfast Pad Thai and sipping the water out of a coconut. This morning, I did as I have done most every morning here on Phi Phi Island, Thailand. I wake up, climb out from under the mosquito netting, put my bathing suit on, walk out of the bungalow onto the beach, slip into the cool morning sea, swim out to the buoy and back looking at the fish, dry off by laying in the sun, go back to the bungalow for a shower and get dressed, eat Pad Thai breakfast with Rod on the porch (he has either Muesli or Fried Rice), and think about what we will climb today. I think i could stay here forever!

Our bungalow is at the end of a long beach. Tonsai Village is at the other end (about a 5 min walk) and on this side is the rock climbing area, Tonsai Tower. A massive overhanging chunk of lime stone, Tonsai Tower has over 20 well bolted sport climbs. The jungle behind our bungalow, between the tower and us, has a resident family of monkeys that steal our food while we are climbing, and turn over the garbage cans here on the beach. A couple of times, i have walked out in the morning to confront one scavenging up on our porch. They are quite aggressive, sneaky, and smart... a constant source of entertainment. In fact, right now, I am watching two climb up a papaya tree and trying to knock a fruit down. Oh, they got it. Now the biggest is taking bites of the fruit, while the juveniles are eager on the periphery to pick up what is left. Little fights break out with dramatized screaming and bolting.

Ahh, another regular day in Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee, and so therefore unfortunately the town Phuket is similarly said). Today, after breakfast, we will do some yoga and read on the porch until about 10:30. Earlier in the morning the Tower is in the sunshine. We try climbing in the sun, but it is so hot and humid, that we are literally dripping with sweat instantly, and our sweaty hands can't hold onto the slippery limestone. After 10:30 the rock is in the shade, and the heat and sweat are manageable. It took us about a week to discover how to manage the mosquitoes however. Finally we found that burning a mosquito incense, available in town, kept the pests in check.
Like I said, the climbing here is good fun. There are many routes that are good warm ups and great to build confidence on lead. We amuse ourselves with everything from simple satisfying leads to thrilling frightening leads to "no way will I lead that, maybe we can top rope it" climbs. And plenty to fill each day without getting bored. We will climb until about 2:30, then back to the bungalow for swimming and reading until evening.

Our bungalow is in a great location, 2 min walk from the climbing, right on the beach, and shade from Tonsai Tower covers it from about 1:00 on. It is cool and comfortable when the rest of the beach and village are sweltering. We usually walk along the beach to the village an hour or two before dinner time, so that we can go to the internet cafe or pick up anything we need in the market. Although we have tried most of the restaurants in the village, we keep returning to the Le Grand Bleu - by far the best restaurant in town. It is in a beautiful traditional wood building, decorated with plants, Thai paintings and fabrics, and staffed by nicest friendliest women. And you wouldn't believe their red curry!
Last night, on the way to the village, we passed through a big gathering of people watching something going on in the harbor, most of the village was there. A barge with a crane had been called to rescue a sinking ship. It was all kinds of chaos with men on the barge and ship yelling at each other, and swimming to put slings around the ship, and maneuvering a flat boat with a water pump, and the crane trying not to break the ship in half. In the time i was watching, the ship was sinking about one foot every 15 min. It was very exciting. When we came back after dinner they had it back afloat... it all worked out somehow.

On days we are not climbing (come on, we can't climb everyday, gotta rest too :) we have a few enjoyable reserve activities. A favorite is to head to the book store in the village. They serve great coffee, and we sit and read and pet the sweetest yellow lab who is always hanging out on the sun deck. She mostly sleeps, but sometimes she excitedly jumps up and soon we hear the bicycle coming... her owner calls her, and off she runs to the beach for a swim, which is her favorite thing.

A walk through town and up over to the other side of island is always an adventure. The path starts with the tsunami trail; which is both a planned escape-to-high-ground route should another tsunami hit, and a memorial to the devastation of the 2004 tsunami that hit much of Thailand. From the top of the island, we see the ruins of buildings and the broken vegetation of areas not yet cleaned up. One man we spoke with, who was here for the tsunami, said he was asleep in his room on the 2nd floor when it happened. With all the noise, he woke up and looked downstairs to see his house and the whole ground under churning water. He was fine, his house stayed standing, but most of the village was completely destroyed, and he lost many friends. It is amazing though how the people here bounce back, rebuild, and maintain such a cheerful attitude. After admiring the views from the top of the island, we walk down the steep slippery path through the noisy jungle and onto the beaches on the other side. One of these has some beautiful bungalows and a tasty restaurant. We stay for dinner, but then have the scary walk back through the jungle at night; homicidal psycho jungle roots grabbing our feet.

On calm afternoons, when the sea is flat, we hire a flatboat to take us out to one of the small rock islands surrounding Phi Phi. In the shallow bay on the south side of the rock, is the Best Snorkeling Ever! Wow! I am truly amazed by the abundant life, the staggering diversity, the electric colors, and the warm crystal clear water. And we are the only people as far as we can see. We snorkel and swim around, we dive off the bow, we stop to snack on bananas and grilled squid with chili sauce, we snorkel some more... then the sun gets low and it's time to head back. Watching the sunset over the strange jungle topped rock formations, tired and relaxed from swimming, while bouncing along the waves may be my fondest memory of all our time here.

Now it is just a few more days of this paradise. From here, we fly back to the U.S., to climb Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and then back to California. The trip is coming to an end, our circumnavigation is almost complete. Ahh, but it will be so hard to leave here! In fact, Rod just suggested that we don't. We could just stay awhile. It is certainly hard to leave Phi Phi, I hope to get back here someday... and the adventure continues on.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mt Agung

Mt Agung (Gunung Agung): 11/9-17/2007
Bali, Indonesia

An aside:
On our way to Bali, in one series of flights, we discovered the polar opposites of airports: Worst airport ever - Delhi, India, and best airport visited - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We flew from Katmandu, on Cosmic Air (not recommended), to Delhi, where we had to stay in the transit area for 6 hours. There was a restaurant and a book shop, but no ATMs or money exchange in the area, and we were not allowed to go into the rest of the airport without a visa to India, everyone there was coming from another country (so didn’t have local currency)! And that cluster was just the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg. From there we flew overnight to Kuala Lumpur, and into the ultimate juxtaposition. A very well organized, beautiful, clean airport, many coffee shops, restaurants, and shops (several well placed ATMs), and with a nice hotel inside the terminal, so transiting travelers did not have to go through customs or anything. We got a room, slept until 1:00pm, and caught our flight into Denpasar, Bali, without leaving the airport.

OK, now in Bali:
From the Denpasar we get a taxi to the quiet beach town of Sanur. What a pleasure! Our hotel is beautiful; fresh flowers, clean white linen, geckos on the wall, the sweet fragrances of Plumeria and ocean, the staff is very friendly and welcoming. What a pleasant shock after our time in China, Tibet and Nepal! We get settled in and walk out into the humid heat looking for dinner.

Oh my, the Bali food! Raw chilies, shrimp paste, palm sugar and tamarind. Turmeric, ginger, roasted coconut, peanuts, musk limes. Anchovies, fresh sambal (spicy chopped chili in sweet soy sauce), goat meat and pounded fish. Yum!!! And some local arak (alcohol from fermented palm fruits) to top it all off! Yippee!

We decide to give ourselves a beach-lounging day before heading up to Mt. Agung. After a sweaty morning run, then a sweaty breakfast, we get into our bathing suits and plop our white asses under an umbrella on the beach. We spend the day reading, napping, having banana milks,

getting pedicures, swimming… basking, basically. It was excellent.

We do not head up into the interior of the island the next morning because our run and strenuous basking the day before have given rod a pulled calf muscle. We happily stay in Sanur at our great hotel and bask some more. In the afternoon, we take a boat out to the reef for some snorkeling. On the way home from dinner that night, we pass a temple with the strangest melodic jangly sounds of bells and drums bursting through its gates. We stop and listen to the traditional music played by an all women gamelan (orchestra of 35 to 40 musicians) sitting on the floor. It is an odd, clangy, mystic, and sometimes haunting sound.

The next morning, after breakfast, internet, and hair cuts for both of us (it was so hot, I cut most of my hair off), we rent a car to drive to Agung. It is a little heap of junk, but we think it will be OK… time will tell. Driving is scary! It is hard to explain the chaos of narrow roads, no agreed upon driving rules or etiquette, and getting used to being on the left side instead of the right. On top of that, so many things to look at! Wood workshops building furniture and doors, rock sculptures, temples everywhere. And every business, home, or building had a high place where offerings are made daily. Most people also put little palm woven bowls with rice and flowers and such, as offerings, on the doorstep or entry way. We drive to the town of Candidasa, and find a beautiful hotel to stay in. We play drums on our porch overlooking the sea while watching the sun set.

We spend the next morning swimming and drinking tea on the porch, then set out to see the Temple (Pura) Besakih on the South West side of Gunung Agung. This temple complex is Bali’s most important. It is really 23 separate but related temples, built at various times, but thought to have originated about 2000 years ago. Usually each temple is devoted to a specific God or group of Gods. Balinese religion is an interesting combination of Hinduism, Buddhism, Malay ancestor cults, and animistic and magical beliefs and practices. The island is the only remaining stronghold of Hinduism in the Indonesia archipelago (which is mostly Muslim). The crater edge of Agung’s summit looms over the complex when the clouds decide to reveal it, and many annual festivals are devoted to the Gods descending from the mountain. Gunung Agung is the abode of Batara Gunung Agung, also known as Mahadewa, the supreme manifestation of Shiva. We walk through the temples and are stunned by the unique rock work, strange lines of split gates, and grass roofed meru towers. The afternoon light fades as we decide to return to the car. As we walk down we turn, look up, and get a rare and lucky view of the mountain through the clouds.
We decide to drive to the town of Sideman to stay that night and arrange a guide to climb the mountain. It is now dark and we get lost on the wrong road. We attempt asking directions periodically, do a lot of U-turns, get cranky, but finally get onto a road that should take us into the town. The little heap of junk we rented is smoking. We follow the steep road down into a valley full of rice paddies, and then up the windy other side. Just when we see the soft lights of Sideman, the car dies. So here we are, on a steep windy road, in the middle of rice paddies, alone, in the dark with a smoking heap. Should we sleep here? How far is the town exactly? Can we fix the car and get there? Pretty soon a motorcyclist turns the corner and stops, and then his friend comes by and stops. One of the guys works at a hotel up the road and calls the owner to come and get us in his car. But before the owner can get there, we get the car started again, and drive it the short distance to the hotel, which turns out to be another great place. We have dinner served to us on our porch, and eat overlooking the river valley.

The next day we hang out at the hotel, do yoga, and arrange for a guide and driver to pick us up at 3 am the next morning (11/15/07). He is on time, and we drive an hour to another temple complex on the south side of Agung, Pura Sambu. There, we climb the steep stairs up to the first level of the temple, then around (clockwise) to the trail up the mountain in the back. The path up is slippery, with vines and roots winding through the slick earth. Our guide, a nice 34 year old father and high school student (very proud of going to school), stops two times to make offerings to the mountain. We emerge above tree line as the sun rises, and make it to the rocky, very windy summit (3142m) before the usual clouds form. We make offerings of bananas and arak by throwing them over the steep edge of the summit crater (during some festivals, they also throw goats and flowers in as offerings). It is beautiful up there, and surprisingly cold for being at latitude 8. We eat a snack and enjoy the cloudless view before heading back down. We visit the temple at the bottom, then drive back to the hotel, arriving after dark.

After one last breakfast overlooking the brilliant green valley, and getting a special morning view of the mountain, we get back into our car hoping to make it back to Sanur without breaking down. Of course we don’t. The first time the car dies, a policeman helps us push it off the road and get it started again, the second time we are fed up and walk to a roadside café to call the guy we rented from to bring us a new car. After much mixed English and Bahasa Balinese on both sides, we manage to borrow a cell phone and get a hold of another car. Back in Sanur that afternoon, free of car responsibilities, we swim and bask until sunset.

That night, our last night in Bali, we walk past the temple where we saw/heard the music before, and luck out again! This time there is a smaller orchestra, a gong kebyar, playing the strange music. We sit down on the edge of the raised floor to listen. After a song or two, a woman gets up and begins to dance. The dance is amazing; the woman has such precise control over everything from her finger tips to her neck to the arches of her feet. The next song, two more women get up and join her. What a treat to come across this! The best part is that this is a local, informal, gathering at the temple, not a show for tourists, they are just practicing and laughing, the whole family is there… we just luck out to be walking by.

For me, the meaningful part is to see the young girls, maybe 8 or 9 years old, watching the women dance and trying to emulate them, trying to remember all the moves in admiration. This is a culture that, despite the influence of extensive tourism, religious tension with its government, and exposure to modern global culture, holds its traditions and beliefs out in celebration. The young are eager to learn and be a part of their history and customs, enabling its enduring richness.

Bali is a true gem.

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Kathmandu: 11/3-8/07

We stopped in Kathmandu for a few days on our way from Tibet to Bali... didn't do much there except eat and sleep and eat and morning yoga and eat and shop and eat. After the basic and bland food of Tibet, and the MSG loaded food of China, the complex tastes and fresh ingredients of Nepali food were heavenly. Here are some photos of our daily walks through this incense smelling, crowded, eye catching, and very interesting town:
Afternoon skies over the Durbar Square in the central city

The crowded streets of the old town. Wonderful smells of food and shops selling all sorts of interesting things. Midday. A man selling birds walking around the Durbar square.

Women selling flowers, given as offerings at the many shrines, on the street corner.
Many places along the streets are small doorways that lead into large open squares. These places are filled with stupas, sculptures, and shrines. Walking through town is like walking through an unorganized dispersed museum... with pieces dating from thousands of year ago up to the present.
It all seems to work somehow... the open and chaotic ways of the city and people are everywhere, but it all flows in peaceful energy.
In a large square between two narrow streets ladies dry and sift their basmati rice.
Men playing chess on the street.Stupas are everywhere, often squished between buildings. Kids use these areas as parks and play areas (even some cricket games).Pigeons rule the streets! It doesn't help that these ladies love to feed them!

Blogging Resumes!

Hallo! We are out of China's ability to censor. Yah, that was super annoying, but at the same time,... a bit flattering. I will be adding photos slowly, so check starting with Mt Belukha. Peace.