Bali – 10 Years Later

Eat Pray Love

The book that made Bali famous...again

After a fabulous few weeks in Thailand and Laos, it was time to head south for the last leg of our journey. We had a quick overnight layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before we arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali. Bali is truly a special place. Where Indonesia is the most populated Muslim country on the planet, the Balinese are Hindus with their own unique set of beliefs, food, and culture. I had literally just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love as we were landing and it got me excited about where we were headed. The book also does a pretty good job of explaining some cultural aspects of Bali that we would have easily missed or not noticed going on around us.

I traveled to Bali in 2001 when I was down under studying abroad in Australia and I was excited to be going back after 10 years. It was the first place we had been on our trip that I had been before (Ted’s being Thailand).

After a few weeks of very laid-back travel in northern Thailand and Laos, Bali was a bit of a slap in the face – we felt as though we were stepping into a tourist trap, with too much going on, not enough real character, and too many people haggling. It’s a busy place, not only thriving as a tourist destination, but as a pretty heavily populated island with a lot of domestic commerce. Before arriving, we imagined a serene and peaceful oasis, but what we quickly encountered was hectic traffic and bustling streets. But after a good night’s rest, it didn’t take long to realize the beauty and depth of this place – the landscapes are lush and green, and there is wonderful serenity to be found – it’s just not the norm everywhere on the island. We went right from the airport to Ubud, the island’s artistic and cultural center (and where our pal in Eat, Pray, Love hung out). Ubud is not on the water, but it’s a well-known spot that draws its own tourist crowd. I don’t know how Ted talked me into staying inland when we were on a beautiful, tropical island but I’m happy he did as we had plenty of beach time in our future.

Monkey Forest Road - Downtown Ubud

Monkey Forest Road - Downtown Ubud

Ubud is super trendy, full of culture, very ornate and well decorated, with lots of artistic presentation, lots of delicious food, and quite a bit of up-market options. Interesting, but not exactly the vibe we were going for at this point in our journey. I liked all the cute shops and nice restaurants but the place lacked authenticity. Everyone you met was out to sell you something and I was having flashbacks to India about how regularly we had to turn down offers for transport and tour bookings (“You need a taxi? Ok, how about later? How about tomorrow? How about a massage?”). You would literally have to say ‘no, thank you’ to or ignore a dozen people on a short walk from our hotel to a restaurant – it was the first time since India that we have been haggled to the point of antagonism.

Amazing Indonesian Tapas Platter

Amazing Indonesian Tapas Platter

And where Thailand and Laos were filled with hundreds of other long-term travelers, the visitors to Bali and Ubud were primarily just folks on a short vacation – usually from Australia. That resulted in a non-traditional vibe that permeated the whole city and drove up prices. As a short-term visitor from the U.S. or Australia, lodging, food, and activity prices may have seemed like a good deal. However, coming from Laos to Bali, our money didn’t go nearly as far. The money we were spending was top-of-mind as we neared the end of our trip and the end of our bank accounts. The fantastic news is that we scored a pretty great room that had a sweet swimming pool on-site. Escaping the urban hustle for some quiet time by the pool each day was the perfect way to unwind and get into the Balinese vibe.

Great pool in Ubud

Sarah enjoying the pool at our Ubud guesthouse

Stone Town

After our three nights of luxury on the eastern side of the island, we headed back towards Zanzibar’s main city, Stone Town, to get more of a feel for the “real” Zanzibar. Historically, Zanzibar was a main hub in the slave trade in and out of Africa. Due to its past, it has long been a mixing ground of different people, cultures, and traditions. Today it is a predominantly Muslim population (~90%), however there is an undeniable Indian influence and the local East African culture is prevalent as well.

Stone Town

Waterfront Park

Though we were back to roughing it backpacker style, and though our place was kind of a dump, we were centrally located in the middle of the old city. There are hundreds of different winding alleyways and narrow streets to wander around. Sometimes you would turn a corner and see Muslim women in their burqas or kids walking to school in their school uniforms. Other times you’d find men sitting in their shops gathered around a TV smoking cigarettes, while others would play soccer in the street. Meanwhile there are people zipping around corners on mopeds and bicycles navigating these same obstacles. It was a magical place for people watching and though we normally had no idea where we were going, you eventually end up back at the water so it is impossible to get lost.

Stone Town's alleys

Life in Stone Town

Our most memorable meal was down at a waterfront park where dozens of food stalls serve up fresh catches from the day, Zanzibari pizzas and desserts. As you might imagine, the salesmen are quite good at their pitch and everyone wants you to eat at their stall. We finally picked a couple winners and squished in amongst the locals to eat our delicious seafood dinner.

Seafood Market

Zanzibar pizza prep

As we were finishing up, two young men sat down on either side of us and started chatting. After 6+ months of travel, we were welcoming but apprehensive because a ‘friendly’ conversation often turns into a sales pitch (for a taxi ride, a guided tour, etc.). However, this was not the case at all. They were simply talking to us just to practice and improve their English. The guy I was talking to was just about to finish up school and ultimately wanted to be in the tourism industry as a guide. He knew he would need to improve upon his English so he often visited the nightly market in hopes of finding people to talk to. How cool is that? Though I definitely didn’t catch everything he said, we did have a great conversation. He played me some Rihanna from his cell phone and I introduced him to YouTube and we talked about our families. All in all a great night and a wonderful way to wrap-up a visit to the fabulous island of Zanzibar.

Stone Town sunset

Traditional dhow boat at sunset

East Side

After an amazingly fast couple months in Southern Africa, our trip is taking us north to East Africa. Tanzania has a reputation of being a rockstar destination on the continent and we are looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

After a quick night in the busy, hot and humid, dirty, traffic-filled, over-crowded capital of Dar es Salaam, we took a ferry boat over to the island of Zanzibar. Zanzibar has always been one of those magical, exotic, far-away places that I wasn’t sure really existed. I can now confirm that it is indeed real, and we indeed loved it.

Dar Es Salaam from the ferry to Zanzibar

Arrival to Zanzibar's coastline - we're gonna like this place...

In connection with Adventures Within Reach (AWR), Ted and I headed over to the east side of Zanzibar Island to do some site research on the various hotels that they send guests to, which resulted in extravagant (and deeply discounted) stays for us! The east side is known for its quiet pace of life, nearly empty white-sand beaches, and high-end resorts. We got to stay a total of 3 nights at three different neighboring properties and have never felt so spoiled and pampered in our lives. Going from a cement block of a room in Dar to gorgeous sea-side bungalows, with manicured grounds, sapphire blue swimming pools, freshly prepared seafood, and the Indian Ocean at our doorstep was quite a treat. Two of the three places we stayed even had private plunge pools adjoining our rooms, and one had complimentary everything – ‘Why yes, we’d love the cocktail-of-the-day served to us while relaxing in our plunge pool overlooking the property gardens and a massage tomorrow by the Thai masseurs.’ :) Ted did some windsurfing, I did some oceanside reading and we both took runs on the beach (last minute training for Kili!)

Enjoying the coastal breeze

Best seafood of the trip (so far)

Private plunge pool, complete with complimentary champagne!

Ted's first ocean windsurfing

Unbelievable. I’m not sure what we did to deserve this good fortune, but Zanzibar is forever etched in our minds as a little slice of heaven.  Thanks AWR!!

A Backpacker’s Cruise Ship

Except it’s not a cruise and it’s not just for backpackers. The Navimag Ferry is a converted cargo ship that takes passengers (and cargo) from Puerto Montt, Chile (in the Lake District) all the way down to “Extremo Sur” – Puerto Natales, Chile. The journey takes 3 days and 3 nights and is quite a unique way to travel the long distance between the two places – with the alternative being a 36+ hour bus ride. Rooms range from ‘dorm’ beds in a public hallway to private rooms with private bathrooms. However, the Navimag Ferry is far from economical so the private rooms are not an option for most.

The Navimag Ferry

Ted and I shared a window-less four bed bunk room with a lovely couple from the U.K. Our only criteria was that our roommates were normal and trustworthy and preferably non-snorers. We lucked out on all accounts.

Oli and Jo, our roomies

The boat travels all day and all night with only one stop on the whole trip. During the day there would be various presentations about the flora and fauna of Patagonia but mostly you entertained yourself by reading, talking with people or taking in the views from the outdoor decks.

Though we had good weather every day, we also had rain every day and lots of wind. One minute it would be lovely (though cold!) and everyone would be outside and the next you knew, it was a torrential down pour. But regardless, the views from the ship as you wove in and out of the islands, channels, and fjords heading south was pretty unbeatable.

Cruisin the Fjords

Cruisin the Fjords

Passing the time onboard

There was one night on the boat that we were not protected from any nearby land and we were exposed to the Pacific Ocean and its waves. We were all advised to take sea sickness medication and avoid drinking alcohol that night. Neither Ted nor I get seasick normally, but we thought we’d take the pills on this occasion – and I’m glad we did. The giant boat was dipping and diving in the 6m waves. You could barely walk straight without holding onto anything and in fact, Ted and I were eating dinner and through no fault of our own, the whole table with our trays of food (and us) just tipped over from one of the swells! It was quite hilarious though slightly embarrassing at the same time. We looked around, and other tables lost trays of food, but we were the only ones that managed to tip all the way over!

Rough Seas!

One of our favorite sights from the boat was a little detour we did to see a gigantic glacier coming into the sea. It’s called the Perito XI Glacier and it measures 6 km across and 80 meters tall. You can only access it by boat and it was breath-taking.

Perito XI Glacier

Another great thing about the ship was that passengers were allowed to visit the captain’s bridge which is the ship’s control room. It was a great view and very interesting to be in there when they were steering through narrow passages.

The Bridge

The last night on the boat is one big party. We met and talked with more people on the last night than we had on the rest of the voyage. We continued to run into our new friends for the next week around Puerto Natales as we all disembarked into the small town together.

Overall, the ferry was quite an experience and we’re happy we did it. It didn’t do great things for our budget but we were learning that Chile and Argentina were gonna to make that difficult for us all around.

Industry Bloggin’

The latest from my contribution to World Nomad’s Responsible Tourism Blog can be found at the link below.   The post is my criticism of tourism to the Uros floating islands in Peru and Bolivia.  Check it out:

Floating Islands Would Be Better Off Sinking


Floating islands are a big draw around these parts. The Uros islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca were interesting, though not exactly authentic. But, when our return boat from the Isla del Sol stopped at these floating “islands” on the Bolivian side for a paid visit, I just felt sorry for the locals. These “islands” are no more than a wood dock floating on plastic bottles, with reeds laid over the top. It was the most pathetic attempt to make a quick tourist buck that I have ever seen. But hey, at least they were reusing plastic bottles!

Her Name Was Lola, She Was a Show Girl

Similar to Lake Titicaca, Copacabana is one of those place names that just sounds fun and that you look forward to visiting. Not to be confused with the famous Brazilian city with the same name, Bolivia’s Copacabana is a small little tourist town just across the border from Peru and also on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Just as it is popular to visit the lake’s islands from the Peru side, it is equally popular from the Bolivia side as well. As we had already spent a good amount of time on and around the lake, we opted for a day trip out to the much talked about Isla del Sol.

After a hilariously slow ride out to the island, we were free to explore. There are several impressive intact ruins from the Incas that were cool to check out, however we were most blown away with the impressive scenery. We were dropped at the north end of the island and chose to walk the length of it to the south end where our boat picked us up later in the day before returning back to Copacabana.

Beyond on our day trip to the island, the highlight of the Copacabana area included amazingly delicious fresh-caught trucha (trout) served in lakeside fish stands with salad and potatoes for less than $3, where we ate several times.

Many folks cross the border from Peru and bypass Copacabana completely, opting to head straight for La Paz. However, it’s a neat little stop and we were happy to have a few more days on the water before moving on.

Isla Suasi

Through a connection that we made on the Mountain Lodges of Peru trip to Machu Picchu, Ted was able to arrange a fabulous 3 day/2 night stay on the private island of Isla Suasi.

Isla Suasi is an incredibly small, yet spectacularly beautiful island on the northeast end of Lake Titicaca. The hotel is the only building on the island besides the island owner’s private residence. It is exclusive, it is luxurious, and it was a treat!

Upon arriving by boat, we were served an amazing Andean barbeque lunch overlooking the beautiful blue water. That afternoon, and in fact throughout the stay, you could do as much or as little as you wanted. Activities options included: walking to the highest point of the island to watch the sunset, visiting the eucalyptus steam room, drinking wine and reading a book, kayaking around the island, taking a tour of the island’s owner’s home/museum, star-gazing, etc.

Ted and I took the opportunity to kayak around the island and we had such a great time doing it that we decided to do it again the next day! In general we relaxed, enjoyed the incredibly delicious food and the wonderfully helpful staff, and slept well in a our fantastic room.

The contrast between our homestay on the island of Amantani(where Ted had to show me how to “flush” a toilet with a bucket of water), and the five-star treatment and facilities that we experienced on Isla Suasi was certainly striking. However, as both types experiences are exceptions to our normal way of traveling, it reminds us to be thankful for what we normally may take for granted as well as to appreciate good fortune when we have the opportunity!

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca (like Timbuktu and Kathmandu) is one of those names you hear in your life but are never quite sure if it is an actual place. We were pleasantly pleased to confirm that it is and we enjoyed spending nearly 10 days in and around the lake both on the Peruvian and Bolivian side.

The access city to the lake from Peru is called Puno. Puno is an intense and busy place for its smaller size, but we quite liked the buzz and as it is a popular tourist town, there were many great restaurants (our favorite being Machu Pizza!) and affordable hostels.

The most popular thing to do out of Puno is visit a few of the nearby islands, either on a day-trip or by doing an overnight homestay. We opted for the 2 day/1 night option which allowed us to stay on one of the islands with a family.

Upon departing Puno, nearly all the tourist boats first stop at the Uros floating islands. These islands are both fascinating and sad. Fascinating because they are literally floating through a combination of reeds and reed beds and sad because they are sustained only through mass tourism at this point. In the 1500s, people built and moved to these islands to avoid hostel neighbors and the Spanish invasion that was occurring throughout the region. At one point, these were living and breathing cultures that supported themselves by fishing and trading. However, now the society is a shadow of its former self, with only a small percentage of “islanders” actually living on the islands in huts made of reeds. Their only source of income is through the tourists that are dropped off each day for 30 minutes, and pressure to purchase their handicrafts or take a ride in one of their traditional boats is overt, and somewhat uncomfortable.

After Uros, the boat continued for another couple hours to the island of Amantani. Upon arriving, Ted and I were assigned to a family (based on a community-organized rotation system). Families look forward to hosting tourists for homestays because it is a significant source of income for small amount of work. Our family was quite lovely, however, our host mother was noticeably offended that Ted and I didn’t wish to purchase any of her homemade hats or scarves that she showed us over lunch. Though I understand that her hope is to sell her items on the few occasions a month that she has the opportunity to host visitors, Ted and I couldn’t help but notice how her attitude towards us after that point changed for the worse. Kinda a bummer.

We managed to entertain ourselves by exploring the small island by foot and visiting the highest sections of the island and capturing some amazing views and the sunset.

The next day we traveled to the island of Taquile which is quite close to Amantani. The people of Taquile are known nationwide for their incredible weavings – everything from hats and belts to bracelets and vests. They have a community-organized coop that pools all the work from various artists around the island and the whole island benefits from the tourism and the purchases. Quite impressive indeed!

After a half-day on Taquile, we headed back to dry land for another night in Puno. Though the islands are just a couple hours away by boat, the contrast between the modernity of Puno and the traditional agricultural and artisanal economies of Amantani and Taquile make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

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