Sunday, April 29, 2007

Going Glutton

Singapore is for Foodies. I’m no a professional, but I know what tastes good. And for me, Asian food is at the top of the heap. If naturally follows that Singapore would give me culinary opportunities I could not pass up.

I’ve already written about my chili crab experience, a night of fine dining that delivered a great introduction to local cuisine. But the real deal, the tried and true, the nitty and the gritty, is the street food. Scattered across Singapore are food courts called hawker centers, where stall after stall delivers fresh flavors from around the world. I’m staying in Little India, where the Tekka Centre serves up a hectic mix of Indian and Muslim dishes. The Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown is the place for Chicken Rice (not Chicken and Rice, just Chicken Rice). There’s also the Adam Road Food Centre, Chomp Chomp and Lau Pa Sat. This doesn’t even take into account food courts in the basement of every shopping mall and the restaurants tucked into residential neighborhoods and lining the ground floors of housing complexes.

How am I, a stranger to this country, supposed to navigate this cornucopia of cuisine? That’s where Makansutra comes in. Think Zagat, same basic shape and size, but instead of restaurants, Makansutra points diners toward street food. At less than $10 U.S., the guide is a worthy investment even for a short stay in Singapore. The book contain an alphabetical list of dishes, from Abacus Seeds (“yam flour cakes”) to Yong Tau Foo (“a Hakka meal of tofu stuffed with mixed meat or fish patties”), with short descriptions of each dish followed by the best places to consume them. Each eatery is graded on a chopstick scale: one pair is “Good,” three pairs “Die, die must try!” The book even tags local specialties with a blue dot and the text “Popular Local Favorite.”

I’m a slave to guidebooks. I like orderly sources of information, anything that can send me in the right direction, and in the past few days Makansutra has become a vital tool, almost a trusted friend.

But let me back up a step. After gorging on Chili Crab, and still undecided on the Makansutra guide, I did a little online research and decided my next meal had to be Chicken Rice, considered to be Singapore’s national dish. From Makansutra: “Rice grains are fried in garlic, sesame and chicken oils before boiling in chicken stock. The fowl is boiled, then dunked in cold water or ice to smoothen out the skin and gelatinize the oils. The sliced chicken is served with a plate of tasty rice with cucumbers and a tangy chili dip, ginger sauce and dark soy sauce.” Sounds delicious, no?

Two more trusted sources, Anthony Bourdain and Michael Y. Park, agreed that the best place for Chicken Rice is in the Maxwell Road Food Centre, stall number 10, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. To my astonishment, the stall was closed when I arrived, a note tacked to the shutter announcing that Tian Tian was in New York City to serve Chicken Rice at Singapore Day. The irony was not lost on me. (They are open again for business and I will try Tian Tian Chicken Rice before I leave.) I ended up the dish at another stall and found the cold chicken refreshing given Singapore’s hot and humid climate. The tangy ginger and the spicy chilies complemented the plain strips of boiled fowl.

Chicken Rice was my last meal without a guide. Armed with Makansutra, I set out the next day determined to try as many local favorites as possible.

My first stop, on Friday, was Chap Chye Rice at Loo’s Hainanese Curry Rice. There’s not much to curry rice. You slop some rice on plate, choose from an assortment of meat and vegetable dishes and slather it all with starchy curry gravy.

I quickly discovered that while English is the official language of Singapore, my culinary travels were going to take me into neighborhoods where English is the second, even third or fourth, language. I would have to rely on pointing and nodding. At Loo’s, I waited in line (if there’s a line at a food stall, eat there, say the locals) and when my turn came I pieced together meal of steamed rice, fried tofu, stringy greens and a breaded pork cutlet, all topped with a tangy curry gravy. The plate contained more grease than I wanted, but the gravy was spicy and thick, the pork juicy on the inside with a flaky crust. I don’t think I’d rate it three chopsticks. Still, I’m an amateur and accepted my meal with grace.

The Counter at Loo's

Next, I decided next to branch out, to take a risk, to face a dish that in most circumstances would elicit a long, drawn out “eewwwwww” at the mention of its name: Fish Head Curry. Makansutra: “A whole huge snapper head, complete with lips, eyes and cheeks is cooked in a spicy, tangy, tamarind curry with okra and tomatoes. Some say it is a uniquely Singaporean creation, when Gomez, an Indian cook decided to cook the fishheads which were thrown away.” Apart from the tortured punctuation, this is an accurate description of the dish.

Most street food in Singapore will set you back no more than five bucks (current exchange rate is about U.S$1 to S$1.50). Fish Head Curry is another matter – at the Banana Leaf Apollo in Little India I paid S$18 for a small fish head. Nevertheless, I was served a massive snapper head drowning in a sea of delicious curry, with steamed rice, a pile of steamed cabbage, chutney and papadum on the side. The dish should be called Fish Head and Neck Curry because the majority of the edible white flesh comes from what would be the neck and shoulders if fish had necks and shoulders. I was surprised by the amount of meat in the dish. And hidden in the curry sauce were tender stalks of okra and sweet chunks of pineapple.

Fish Head Curry

Remember my description of eating Chili Crab? Repeat, substituting Fish Head Curry for Chili Crab. The Banana Leaf is an Indian restaurant, so I ate with my right hand, shoveling morsel after morsel of fish into my mouth until there was nothing left but a carcass, one eyeball falling out of the socket. I’m sure some people eat the eyes; I’ll climb that mountain another day.

Saturday dawned and with an empty stomach I wanted to eat through the weekend. But I had made plans with Margie, an eclectic Australian (and self-proclaimed dreamer and visualization acrobat), to spend the afternoon at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. We had fun with the flowers, especially those at the National Orchid Garden, but you can’t eat orchids and I didn’t get back on the Makansutra trail until dinner.

I chose a South Chinese Teochoew dish called Bak Chor Mee: “Minced pork, sliced mushrooms, fishcakes and meat dumplings sit on top of noodles tossed in a special chili sauce with a hint of vinegar. You can order it ‘dry,’ with the noodles and soup segregated, or get the all-in-one meaty soup version.”

At this point you are saying, “Matt doesn’t know a thing about South Chinese Teochow cuisine.” Guilty as charged. I’m an ignoramus. I chose Bak Chor Mee because it is a local favorite and would take me into a part of town where I would see no other tourists. One of the joys of travel for me is nosing around where the locals live. Loo’s, where I ate Curry Rice, is in a residential neighborhood of modest apartment buildings (80 percent of Singaporeans live in government subsidizes housing) outside of the area covered by my tourist map. Bak Chow Mee would take me into a real neighborhood once again.

Tai Hwa Eating House

I was not only the only white guy at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles off North Bridge Road, it seemed like I was the only white guy in town. Tai Haw is one stall in a tiny “Eating House” in a housing complex. Finding the address, “Block 466, #01-12,” was a challenge. But I’m persistent and once I arrived I knew I was in the right place because of the line snaking from the counter. Again, trust the locals.

I queued up, waited for an eternity, and was offered translation services by a nice elderly woman at the front of the line. I wanted the “dry” version of Bak Chor Mee, but ended up with the soup. Think ramen, with flat noodles and a stock made from vinegar and soy. Sprinkled throughout were bits of meat: minced pork, liver slices, a meatball from an unknown animal and fingernail-sized bits of dried fish, each ingredient added raw to the bowl and cooked by the boiling broth. There was also a mass of fungus I assumed to be the sliced mushrooms. An earthy odor arose from the bowl, the fungus and liver most prominent, but with a hint of the sweet vinegar and chilies.

The Bak Chor Mee was exquisite. And I had the realization while slurping the noodles and gingerly testing a fish bit, that often the difference between good food and excellent food is often nothing more than a clean feeling while I’m eating. This dish could have been oily, it could have been overpowered by the meat, the flavor of the tender noodles pummeled by the stronger ingredients, but the flavors were in perfect harmony, each nugget delivering a unique taste while the subtle broth unified the dish into something whole.

Bak Chor Mee, the Wet Version

I am not a food writer. I would prefer to write about the experience of eating than the flavors I encounter. How do I explain what’s it like to taste a new mushroom? Are there words to describe a fishball (spongy and delicious don’t cut it)? As I continue to eat my way through Singapore, I’ll share my impressions. I hope you’ll enjoy this food for thought (bad pun, I’m sorry), but recommend you get your empty stomach to Singapore and try it yourself.

Labels: ,

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Photo School

I have an interest in photography that's been simmering for most of my life. A short experimental phase in high school died a quick death when I realized the cost of film and lab time. Snapshots were taken over the years, but when I look back I've lived a fairly undocumented existence. But this is the digital era, and I'm a digital guy, so now on most days I can be found with either camera strapped around my neck or tucked safely inside my day pack. My interest has come to a boil.

It's one thing to take photos and another to know how to take photos. There have been some lucky shots in the past few weeks (here, here and here), but generally I've been frustrated with my lack of knowledge and ability in photography.

Soon after buying my Canon digital SLR, I emailed my friend Brent Murray, formerly a photo editor for, for advice. He said he thought my photos were pretty good (thanks Brent!) and that one of the best things I could do was to find a professional photographer and start asking questions.

Most hotels in Singapore offer free Internet. This not only makes web addicts like myself very happy, it offers the chance to interact with other travelers glued to their laptops. On my first full day in Singapore, I shared a electrical outlet with a guy who I overheard mention that he was a photographer. A short conversation later, I had learned that Giovanni Del Brenna was in Singapore working on a personal project that he hoped to sell to an Italian magazine. As a graduate of a program at the International Center for Photography in New York, and a former assistant the photojournalist James Nachtwey, Giovanni is now supporting himself with a camera (three, actually). He showed me his work, and I was genuinely impressed. He's not only got an eye for his subjects, he takes the kind of photos that I'm attracted to. Check out his work here.

I showed him some of my photos on Flickr and he was supportive (work more with light, do more in Photoshop). He then agreed to let me tag along while he took photos the next morning. His plan was to go to Singapore's central business district and see what happens.

Giovanni and a Singapore Coffee

We met at 7:30 the next morning and traveled downtown. I felt a bit like a schoolboy tackling a real-world assignment, but Giovanni was nice about the whole thing and it soon became nothing more than a couple of guys with cameras on the streets of Singapore. The difference being he was shooting with film using an old Leica with a fixed lens and I was the new kid on the block, shooting digital with a zoom lens.

There's not a lot of activity during rush hour here. Nothing like other major cities, with the hustle and bustle of people hurrying to work. At 8 am, the streets were dead and we killed time drinking Singapore coffee and eating kaya toast (thick coffee with condensed milk and toast slathered in a jelly made from coconut, egg and sugar).

By 9 am, there wasn't much more activity. Still, we walked a few miles, heading north to Clarke Quay and finally down to Chinatown for an early lunch. We snapped photos along the way, and Giovanni was kind enough to not only answer all my questions, but to conduct a mini-tutorial in light, shutter speed, aperture and composition. I learned more in a few hours than I'd learned trolling the web in a a few weeks. Hands on instruction beats book learning any day.

Giovanni at Work

My thanks go out to Giovanni for the lesson and the friendship.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Singapore Spree, Burger Time and a Chili Crab

I arrived in Singapore with a shopping list and the knowledge that this may be my last chance to choose among a variety of goods and services for a few months. At the top of the list was a new backpack. My 50-liter Kelty was fine for ten days in Ireland and held up for the first two months of Australia. But the zippers started acting up and it just wasn’t big enough to carry everything. Despite my best intentions to travel light, I needed more space.

Also on the list were a pair of shorts, swimming trunks, new books and a few small items like a padlock and a tube of toothpaste.

Singapore is a shopper's paradise, especially a long stretch called Orchard Road. Orchard road is comprised of mall after mall after mall. You don’t just walk down the street and enter one mall after another. The area is a complex collection of escalators, underground passageways, staircases, elevators and elevated walkways. One mall leads to another, or to a movie theater, or a food court or an outdoor café. You could spend an eternity on Orchard Road and never see daylight.

Orchard Road Shopping Mall

As I was walking from one mall to another, with food on my mind, I was stopped in my tracks by the site of a Japanese fast food chain called MOS Burger (Mountain Ocean Sun Burger, very Japanese).

Before I explain the significance of this discovery, I have to admit that I made a promise to a friend in New York that I had to break. On one of my last nights in Brooklyn, I was eating dinner with my upstairs neighbors, Michael and Carmiya, and discussing the food in Asia. The conversation somehow turned to the fact that there are McDonald’s and KFCs everywhere. I promised Carmiya that I would abstain from eating any fast food while on the road.

I’ve been good to my word, using fast food restaurants only for their restrooms. But a MOS Burger turned me into a liar.

When I lived in Japan in the early 1990s, my girlfriend Rachel and I would make regular trip to MOS Burger for generous helpings of MOS Spicy Burgers and fries. The burgers are topped with a watery chili, diced onion and a thick slice of tomato. There's also a mysterious white sauce that binds it all together into a sticky goo. They provided a taste of the west while preserving our Asian lifestyle. We loved MOS Burger, and when I left Japan I thought I’d never have another for as long as I live.

Who knew Singapore had MOS Burger too? So I apologized to Carmiya, stepped up to the counter and placed an order. My burger arrived soon after I chose a seat. How was it after all these years? The Coke was syrupy sweet, the fries undercooked and the burger as void of nutrition as it was full of tasty goodness. Empty calories never tasted so good.

MOS Burger Menu

My belly full of crap, I returned to shopping. If everything under the sun is available on Orchard Road, why did I have to look high and low for a new backpack? After a frustrating search, I found an Osprey Atmos 65 at a store on the fifth floor of Lucky Plaza. Or was it Golden Plaza? Lucky Village? Golden Lucky Village Plaza?

Obtaining a new pair of shorts was just as difficult. I brought a pair of cargo shorts from the U.S., a beloved olive green number from J. Crew. The pants started to fray at the end of my trip through Outback Australia. In Indonesia, I twice resorted to needle and thread to keep the seams from ripping. By the time I arrived in Singapore, they were soft and ultra-comfy, but on the verge of showing more than the Singaporean government allows in public.

I’ve want to believe I’ve never been choosy about my clothing (not true at all, so I’m delusional). Since hitting the road, however, I’ve become a huge fan of cargo pants. The more pockets the better. And I found a winner. My new pair sports not the usual four pockets, nor six, but a total of ten pockets for all the assorted items I carry on a daily basis. From lens cap and notepad to extra cash, a pen and complimentary city map, I’ve got it covered.

Where did I buy this magical pair of pantaloons? I’m almost embarrassed to say. Ok, I traveled halfway around the world to buy a pair of shorts at The Gap. Sue me.

Singapore is also known for it’s food, which I’m happy to report is of a much higher quality and offers more variation than MOS Burger. While buying a polarized filter for my camera, I was told that for a real Singapore delicacy I should go to a place called Jumbo Seafood for the chili crab. I also had to make sure to get some little buns on the side to dip into the sauce.

I assumed Jumbo Seafood was a ramshackle outfit on the waterside where I would sit at a creaky table with a paper napkin stuffed into my shirt. Well, Jumbo Seafood is a proper restaurant across from one of the main tourist areas of the city. My cheapo crab dinner was going to cost me considerably more than I had assumed. But I’m here for experience and a few extra Singapore dollars weren’t going to keep me from digging into some crab.

The extra cash was worth it. A two-pound crab arrived at my table, steaming in a read chili sauce. I looked around at the well-dressed crowd, down at the crab, back and the crowd, and said “whatever.” There was no way to eat this bad boy but with my hands. The crab was cooked just right, not one bit chewy, retaining all it’s flavor without tasting fishy. The chili sauce packed the perfect amount of heat, never overpowering the crab or overwhelming the palate.

Jumbo Seafood

I spent the next thirty minutes cracking, sucking, picking and slurping, my fingers as pruned as if I'd spent an hour at the local swimming pool. That poor little crab never had a chance. I left nothing but splinters of empty shell amid broken legs and shattered claws. The buns were the finishing touch, small nuggets of dough deep-fried to a golden perfection and suitable for eating on their own, but even better when dipped in the chili sauce. I washed it all down with a Tiger beer (unremarkable but local and cold). It was the best meal I’ve had in a while. And it was easily the best crab I’ve had in my life.

When traveling, listen to the locals. Rachael Ray says it all the time.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Singapore Swing (With Contact Info)

After two weeks of highs and lows in Indonesia, I've crossed back into the northern hemisphere. I'm in Singapore: island, state, nation. I landed this afternoon, checked into a hostel (in Little India) and then hit the town. It's great to be back in the first world. I now know I have an affinity for orderly traffic patterns and consumer goods.

My first stop in Singapore? The cinema. That may seem an odd choice, but I wanted comfort food, and for me that means two hours in the dark. And during those two hours I discovered that while Singapore imposes heavy fines for smoking in public or eating on the subway, not to mention the death penalty for drug offenses, people still talk incessantly and check their cell phones in movie theaters. I'm still waiting for global legislation to block cell phones in movie theaters and public stoning for talkers.

The movie was Danny Boyle's sci-fi spectacular "Sunshine." I thought the film was visually splendid (Kubrick would be proud), but a plot twist in the third act made me wince and the film never really recaptured my attention. "Sunshine" opens in September in America so I'll hold all comments until then.

By sheer coincidence, the Singapore film festival is happening this week. I want to see Hal Hartley's sequel to "Henry Fool," but it's sold out. Hopefully, I can get into a screening or three.

I also dropped S$8 for a SIM card and have a local number for as long as I'm here. It will be helpful for the food tour I plan to take, the date I have tomorrow night with a friend of a friend and for business I need to conduct here (nothing comes to mind, really).

To call me from the U.S., dial 011 65 90371092. 011 is the prefix to dial outside the U.S. 65 is Singapore's country code. And 9037 1092 is my number.

I plan to spend the next few days eating my way around Singapore. As I understand it, there are really only two things to do here: eat and shop. I have a pretty short shopping list (new shorts, swimming trunks, backpack) and a ravenous appetite. I'll keep you posted.

Until then, I spent the morning yesterday taking photos of Yogyakarta. I think I got some good shots. I know I got a lot of stares from locals. You just don't see a lot of westerners on the streets of Yogya, especially ones carrying cameras.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Borobudur by Bus

There’s a certain amount of celebrity in being a traveler in some parts of the world. In India, it’s common for groups to gather to watch foreigners. In the public baths in Japan, my chest hair and privates were the focus of intense scrutiny. And from my visit yesterday to the Buddhist temple at Borobudur, where I was one of a handful of Western visitors, there will be pictures of me scattered across Asia, posing with people who don’t know my name.

The main reason I came to Yogyakarta in central Java is to visit Borobudur. Built in the 9th century, the origins of this massive Buddhist temple are somewhat of a mystery. How it was built, why it was built and by whom is not really known. What is known is that the temple was abandoned with the decline of Buddhism in the 14th century, reclaimed by the jungle and deserted for centuries, then rediscovered in 1814 by Sir Thomas Raffles, the British ruler of Indonesia. (More on Raffles later when I visit the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore.)


The temple was in bad shape when it was discovered, as natural forces eroded the carvings and warped the structure itself. Between 1972 and 1985, several countries joined forces to restore the temple. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction.

I decided to make my personal pilgrimage to Borobudur on local transportation. Hotels and travel agencies offer package tours, and the touts outside my Yogya hotel were more than willing to take me there for about $20. Public transportation is about $2 for the round trip. But it’s not about the money; it’s experience I was after.

I set out from my hotel for Giwangang Bus Station in the southern corner of the city. A taxi driver at the information desk told me I didn’t want to take a bus because a taxi is cheaper. This was another in the long line of exaggerations, perhaps outright lies, I’ve been fed by locals since arriving in Indonesia. While looking for a hotel in Yogya with a hot shower, I was told three times that I don’t want a hot shower because the weather is too hot here. I was also told I should take a tour to Borobudur because the temple is too far from the bus station. I've also been told not to order certain foods because it will be too spicy for my delicate American palette. Or, as was the case in Probolinggo, I should get scammed because the bus station is too dangerous for me. Whatever line I’m sold, I’m suspicious of all information and have learned to trust my instincts.

But I digress. The bus to Borobudur was a broken-down affair, with hard seats and the distinct smell of motor oil and cigarettes. The hour-long ride was a heart-stopping race through city and country, the driving weaving through traffic while passengers were given little time to hop on and off. A complex series of shouts and knocks from the driver’s assistant, who was leaning out the open door, somehow conveyed when to slow down or speed up. The bus never seemed to stop for passengers, just slow down so they could hop on or off at a quick trot.

This is the way it works here. There are lines on the streets, but directions are arbitrary. If a driver can make use of a few centimeters of road, he will. Two lanes become three, with kids on bicycles or becaks taking up the space on the shoulders. The death rate on the roads must be astronomical. I assume it's similar in other parts of SE Asia.

Upon arrival at the Borobodur, it's a quick becak ride from the bus station to the temple. The becak driver tells me it’s two kilometers to the temple and we agree on 5000 Rupiah (55 cents) for the ride. The distance is more like half a kilometer and should have been 2000 Rp. Again, what’s with the disinformation? Is everyone on the take in this country?

When I go to buy a ticket into Borobudur, my suspicions are reinforced. Indonesians pay 10,000 Rp to enter while foreigners pay 100,000. They are also happy to accept $11 U.S.

I suck it up and enter the grounds, ignoring the guides offering their services (“to know the right story”) and the hawkers selling pens, shirts, kites, snacks, carvings and fans.

On one level Borobudur is just a big pile of carved rocks. Or it’s an interesting religious site and a to admire ancient art. And I am intrigued by the story of loss, discovery and restoration. Borobudur works on many levels (no pub intended).

The temple itself is as spectacular as a pile of rocks can be. I slowly make my way around each of the temples levels, six square ones with carved reliefs and seated Buddha statues, and three circular ones at the top featuring stupas. My camera gets a work out as I admire the carvings for their aesthetic value rather than their specific meanings. The photos suffer from a lack of sunlight; perhaps the darkness adds to the mystery of the location.

When I arrive at the top, I take time to sit and enjoy the scene. There are clouds rolling in and I know it won’t be long before the rain starts.

Remember how I said travel involves a degree of celebrity? While sitting at the top of Borobudur I’m approached by other tourists and asked to pose for pictures. A family wants a picture. Some members of a military outfit want a picture. Others seem to want a picture but are too shy to ask.


As I make my way down, I again take time to admire some of the carvings. I’m then approached by a group of high school girls who want to interview me. They are from a school about 40 kilometers away and are at Borobudur to practice their English. I’m more than happy to oblige and enjoy the conversation and the attention. They are delighted to find out I’m American (“We thought you were from India”) and fascinated by my past experience as a journalist. They are all smiles when we pose for photos and want me to come visit them at their school. I should have agreed immediately and regret later that I did not arrange a visit.

Students Posing

When the rain arrives I scurry for cover. After 30 minutes it lets up and I make my way outside the complex and into a large area devoted to selling souvenirs and food. Famished from my long bus ride and climbing on the temple, I find a stall and order Bakso Mie, noodle soup with meatballs. The woman at the next stall tries to sell me some ugly batik t-shirts with a terrible Borobudur stencil design. I deflect all the hawkers inquiries and engage the women in teaching me Indonesian, mostly words for food but a few pleasantries as well. The batik woman doesn’t let up though, and periodically exclaims “Oh Allah” as I keep refusing her lower and lower offers. They are a friendly bunch and the women who served me lunch says “Goodbye, my love” with a big smile when I leave. I guess you can learn English from television and movies.

The ride back to Yogya is just as harrowing, if not more so because of the driving rain. If there are speed limits on Indonesian roads, they are not observed. The bus driver must have been in a hurry because he refused to slow down if not necessary. At one point an old man gets on the bus and starts singing for spare change. He’s got a creaky old voice and the song sounds out of tune, but I give him a 500 Rp coin anyways, probably because of nostalgia for the New York City subway.

The day complete, I eat dinner at a padang in Yogya and settle in for my first night of good sleep in about five days.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From Bali to Worse

I left Lovina on an overnight bus to Probolinggo in East Java with the intention of catching a ride to the volcanoes at Mount Bromo. An afternoon spent trawling the Internet for information about Java turned up an interesting thread on the Lonely Planet discussion board about the most popular scams in Indonesia. The most popular scam is shortchanging tourist when they change money. But what caught my attention was a devious little trick carried out on passengers arriving in Probolinggo. A number of posters warned travelers to make sure they are deposited at the bus station in Probolinggo rather than at a travel agency, where nasty nasty people will them extort exorbitant fees for onward travel.

Armed with this information I boarded the 7 pm bus and settled in for the ride. The movie was terrible, a rather garish and, frankly, racist, cops and kung-fu movie from the late 1980's. I was served a snack and there was a stop at a restaurant after crossing to Java on the ferry.

All was going well until we reached Probolinggo, at about 1 am. I don't like to arrive in a new town at night, but in this case I really wanted to get out of Bali and the only transport from Lovina was the night bus. I was told I'd arrive at 4 am, a reasonable time for a traveler willing to sit back in the bus station for a few hours until the workday starts. This, like so many other things I've been told here, was not true.

We pulled up in front of a travel agency and the bus driver and his three (yes, three) assistants told me we were at the Probolinggo bus station. They grabbed my bag and hustled me outside the bus. I knew the scam was in progress and told one of the bus employees that I wanted to go to the bus station. His reply was that the bus station was too dangerous for me. The other bus employees all swore up and down that this was the bus station and that I should go inside a place called Mahabarata Travel and talk to the man behind the desk.

After making it clear that I didn't believe them, that this was definitely not my destination, I realized they had formed a barrier between me and the bus and I was now snared in their web.

Before I go any further, I have to make clear that I never for an instant felt like I was in any danger. These people have practiced and perfected this scam on countless travelers and wanted nothing more than my money. The hour I spent in their presence was more a game than anything else.

I paid the tourist premium for the ride up the mountain to Bromo. This morning I paid about an eighth of that price for the ride back down.

The headline on this post, From Bali to Worse, isn't entirely accurate. Once I arrived in Bromo (actually a small village called Cemoro Lewang, but Bromo sounds cooler), I immediately ran into a Swedish couple who had also been scammed in Probolinggo. We joined forces at one of the town's hotels and decided to rent a jeep together for a ride to the top of the tallest peak to watch the sunrise. If it were not for Joel and Lena, I think I might have gone insane with the rising sun. The hotel's facilities were beyond spartan and I was in no mood to walk around to look for something better.

We haggled with a jeep driver, settled on another exorbitant price, spent 20 minutes looking for fuel and missed the sunrise. Still, being on top of that mountain, looking down on two active volcanoes and a handful of dead ones, made up for the sorrow of the previous 24 hours. Once the sun was well into the sky, we hopped back into the jeep and headed to Mt. Bromo itself, one of the active volcanoes. A grueling hike up to the crater's rim for a view into the abyss rounded out the morning.

Matt and Gunung Semeru

Gunung Semeru, rear, and Gunung Batok

The Steps to the Crater Rim at Gunung Bromo

The ride down the mountain delivered my first taste of local, Asian travel. The minibus was crammed to the gills with travelers and locals, everything but chickens. I met a few more travelers and enjoyed being on the road.

I was dropped off at the bus station (the real one this time!) and encountered a genuine travel agent who treated me with respect and seems to be completely on the level. I've booked another overnight bus, this time to Yogyakarta, with drop off at the hotel of my choice. And I've come out of my shell a bit, exploring an unknown town, Probolinggo, while waiting for my bus to Yogya.

Travel has its ups and downs, sometimes hour to hour. The last 24 hours have shown me that pushing through the hard times to find the good is the only way to go. Hopefully I've gained some more confidence and a little trust. If nothing else, I had fun today. That counts for a lot.


Monday, April 16, 2007

If You Don't Have Something Nice to Say...

I know I've been harping on Bali for the past week. While I feel justified in my frustration, I think it's only fair that I write a post explaining why Bali may be the way it is.

There was once a booming tourist economy in Bali. Then, in October 2002, terrorists set off bombs in a nightclub in Kuta, killing more than 200 tourists. Three years later, twin bombs went off on the beach in Kuta, again causing loss of life. There was also the tsumani, which killed hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in northern Sumatra (very far from where I am now). Add to this, at least for Americans, State Department warnings of political unrest, and you've got myriad reasons for travelers to skip Bali and head elsewhere.

Where does this leave the thousands, perhaps millions, of people who depend on tourism for a living? It leaves them with few options. I'm sure many have turned to other businesses, or adapted in ways that still service tourism but in other ways. But there are still those who depend on tourists for a living. And with fewer tourists there is more competition for tourist dollars (Euros, Yen, etc.).

In my week in Bali, I've spent my dollars on hotels, food and clothing. I haven't purchased everything available to me, but neither have I cut corners to save a buck here or there. I would spend more but for the hassle I've detailed in my past few posts.

There have been bright spots: good food, friendly people and some pictaresque locations. Just today, I went to Warung Aria, a small outdoor restaurant, for a plate of stir-fried vegetables and rice, and discovered the spicy food I'd heard about, exquisite little red chilis (cabe rawit - bird's eye chili) that packed a perfect punch. Yesterday, I topped off the credit on my mobile phone and had a good conversation with the woman behind the counter, her pudgy baby sleeping peacefully behind her on a carpet. Two nights ago I sat at a cart next to the beach, drinking Bintang beer and munching on peanuts while chatting with a local musician while the owner smiled at everything I said. At the impecably clean Internet cafe Bits 'n' Bytes (where wireless acrcess actually costs less than using their desktops!), ex-pats exhange friendly greetings with the staff while taking care of business.

There is a genuine culture to be discovered here. It's too bad terrorism has turned the world off Bali. Everybody, locals and tourists, would be better off if things were different.


The Joy of a Hotel Pool

On my first day in Bali, I decided to escape the hellish streets of Kuta by taking a stroll though one of the bigger resorts on the main street. As a foreigner it was easy to walk by the security checkpoint and into the five-star facility. I walked through the grand lobby, all carved wood and fresh flowers, passed a few people eating snacks in a small café, down some stairs and into the gardens. I walked further, finding the surrounding both peaceful and manufactured.

After a minute I found myself in the pool area. Ranks of deck chairs held sleeping, sunbathing and reading tourists. People splashed around in each of the many pools, including a shallow one just for young kids. There was even a bar in the middle of the pool, with drinkers arranged on stools submerged in the chlorinated water.

Why on earth would anyone spend his or her time here when there’s a whole country outside waiting to be discovered, I asked myself. I would never take a vacation just to sit by the pool drinking pina coladas.

I walked clear on through to the beach, where it was high tide and I was forced to return the way I came. Once back on the public streets I was again harassed by calls of “transport,” “massage,” etc. It seemed I could not walk more than a few seconds without another touts yelling in my direction.

I left Kuta for Ubud a few days later, where I found the same treatment. It wasn’t as bad as in Kuta, but bad enough to make walking around unpleasant.

After a few days I left Ubud for a small beach town on the north coast called Lovina. Lovina is a sad little place. I’m told in July and August it is packed with Australians on holiday. Today it’s a dirty beach, rows of empty hotels and restaurants and hundreds of desperate Balinese trying to make a buck off he meager tourist trade. When I arrived in town, a pack of touts on motor scooters followed the bus in order to intercept passengers when they disembarked.

I checked into a rather nice hotel by the beach, air conditioning, swimming pool, hot water, the works. It is centrally located and just steps away from the rather dirty beach. What I didn’t know when I checked in is that touts hang out on the street outside the entrance and badger anyone who walks by. In addition to the repeated cry of ”transport, transport,” I’ve been offered massages, shell and beaded jewelry, Balinese calendars, fresh fruit, dolphin and snorkeling cruises, haircuts, hot springs and waterfalls, sarongs and t-shirts, wooden statuettes, polished sea shells, motor bikes, push bikes, prostitutes and drugs.

That hotel pool was starting to look pretty inviting. Who would ever spend their time sitting by the pool when there’s a country to explore? Me, that’s who.

I spent yesterday relaxing in the water, swimming a few laps, lounging poolside with a novel and book of Sudoku puzzles (addictive!!!) and eating a bag of mangosteens that a wonderful young woman from the hotel picked up for me at the local market.

And last night, I had some fun. I met a Dutch couple, Rene and Margriet, who are here for two weeks and we had dinner at a nice Thai restaurant in town. We ended up chatting for hours about travel in Asia, the role of tourists in local economies, the usefulness of a sarong, and, of course, the pleasures of a hotel pool. I ordered to my heart's delight and the total coast was less than one beer at home. Also, Indonesians will often tell me that food will be too spicy, but I've yet to taste anything that has made me sweat.

Tonight I board a bus for East Java and a change of scenery. Stay tuned.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bali Blues

I've tried not to be negative on this blog. But there's no time like the present, so here goes...

No trip, especially a long trip like this one, is without setbacks. I've been told that travelers hit a wall around two or three months, when questions like "What the hell am I doing" are answered with "I have no idea." I think I've hit that wall. Perhaps it's the culture shock. Perhaps it's me. Either way, I'm not having fun. I find Bali oppressive and depressing. What should be a paradise strikes me as a pain in the ass.

I can deal with the heat. I can deal with the beggars. I can even deal with a little food poisoning. What gets me is the constant pestering by taxi drivers, merchants and touts. I understand tourism is down. I understand people need to make a living. But I also think that if I wanted a taxi, a painting, some jewelry, a massage or that thing that looks like a box of poison-tipped skewers, I would ask for one. Has anyone ever said yes to the offer of "transport" or actually bought that cheap statue of Buddha? I'm not disparaging the country or its people. I'm fed up with the way tourism presents itself here.

How about letting tourists just look at the goods in your store, or sit in your restaurant, without hovering and making them nervous? I know they need to make a living and I'm a source of income. But the hard sell doesn't work here. It actually makes me turn inward and shut off to the country I'm supposed to be opening up to. Like I said, maybe it's me.

Here's a good example. Today I paid a visit to the fastest Internet connection in Ubud. A few emails later, I logged off and paid the bill. The owner of the business asked me what I thought of his service. I said it was fast and thanked him. He then tried to sell me on a package deal for 10, 25 or 50 hours, at a discount of course. I told him I was leaving town soon and he assured me I could transfer the hours to a friend or use them when I return to Ubud. I have no friends here and no plans to return. What happened next convinced me I'm in some kind of alternate universe. He then picked up a brochure from his desk and tried to convince me to buy life insurance. Life insurance? All I wanted to do was check my email!

I know travel is a way to learn firsthand about other cultures. I know there is a vibrant and interesting culture to explore here in Bali. And I know there are Balinese who could teach me a thing or two. Unfortunately, as a foreigner I'm treated as an other and I've so far been unable to see what's so special about this place. Sure, the people are willing to ask me where I'm from and how long I will be here. But they are also rather circumspect with information and hard to trust. I don't feel like I'm being outright lied to, but I don't feel like I'm being told the truth either.

That's enough whining for now. I have three more weeks in Indonesia and will plow on, continuing north to a beach called Lovina and then west to Java to see the Buddhist temple at Borobudur and perhaps on to Jakarta. Getting away from tourist centers and seeing some of the real country will be challenging. I accept the challenge.

By the way, if I were in the mood to post something positive and upbeat, I would write about the food. It's the best thing about Bali so far. Have you ever tried a mangosteen? They are delicious.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Down and Out in Bali

It's my third day in Indonesia and I'm happy to say day three has been much better than days one and two. I arrived in the country suffering from a mild flu, not bad enough to knock me off my feet but enough to make every waking hour uncomfortable. I had the easy life in Australia for two months and arriving in Kuta, Bali's tourist mecca, knocked the wind out of my sails.

I feel like a neophyte traveler all over again, unsure of myself at every turn. New sights, smells, tastes and sounds assaulted me during my first 24 hours. The sensory overload was so much that I hired a guide to show me some of the island yesterday. It was nice to get out of Kuta but the guide spoke only fractured English and was unable to answer my most basic questions (e.g., when was this temple built?). The saving grace was satellite television in my hotel room. A few solid hours of The Amazing Race, Seinfeld, MTV, ESPN and CNN did wonders for my state of mind.

I'm now in Ubud, a town in central Bali known as a center for the arts. The pace here is much less hectic than in Kuta, with only a fraction of the touts and tourists. I am staying on Monkey Forest Road (how could I resist?), about 50 meters from Monkey Forest. I've booked myself a bungalow overlooking some rice fields and hope that some of the aforementioned monkeys make an appearance in the morning. I think if I leave food out on my balcony they will sniff it out.

The bungalow is very cheap by American and Australian standards but a bit steep for Bali. I've never been much of a haggler, and while I was able to get the price down from the initial offer, I could have taken it even lower. Three days in country is not long enough to hone these essential traveler's skill, so I'm not going to kick myself too much. However, any suggestions on the art of bargaining would be appreciated.


Monday, April 09, 2007

So Long Australia, Hello Asia

I'm sitting in the international departures lounge at the Darwin airport. The sun has not yet broken the horizon and I'm not quite awake yet. My last day in Oz was spent sick in bed, my first bout with illness on the trip. At least I booked myself a swanky room with a television and air conditioning.

I am on my way to Bali. What awaits me in Asia is a mystery. Nevertheless, I'm excited about starting a new chapter in this adventure. I'll post again, and send along some new photos, when I've sussed out the situation. For now, thanks to everyone in Australia who made this visit memorable, and everyone at home who's been following along and lending support. You make it all worthwhile.


A few hours later and I've arrived in Bali. The heat and humidity are more oppresive then in Darwin, a fact I find unbelievable but true. What's more, there's a sense that I have truly arrived in Asia.

The sedate streets of Darwin, where I could walk undisturbed with anonymity, have been replaced by the hectic narrow lanes of Kuta, the tourist mecca of Bali. The taxi driver from the airport took me to the wrong hotel, a sister operation owned by the same company as the place I'm staying. This snafu was fixed in short time, but was not a pleasant way to start the day.

My defenses raised, I checked in at the Green Garden Hotel and set out on the streets. In addition to the taxis and scooters, a thousand touts, though it seems like a million, are there to assault all tourists with offers of "transport" and discounts. A stroll down the main strip of backpacker hotels (out of curiosity) led to offers of "massage" from young women who would grab my arm or shoulder. The touts who managed to get close enough to whisper to me once I'd turned down the offer of transport were there with an offer of a "young lady."

I will not judge Bali, or Indonesia, by this morning's adventure in Kuta. I understand this is the worst of the worst, where a million tourists have come and gone. This is why it's the site of terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005. What it does give me is a reminder that I'm an outsider in this country and there are customs and procedures that I need to pick up before I go wandering around this beautiful island.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Aboriginal Art

While traveling around Australia I generally avoided buying souvenirs, preferring instead to take a lot of photos and write a detailed blog. I picked up a few things along the way, a couple of maps, an Australian flag sticker, a few plastic thorny devils, but nothing that I would consider a true memento from the trip. Among the trinkets I passed up: boomerangs, carved statuettes, didgeridoos, the usual assortment of shot glasses, mouse pads and t-shirts, and a lot of Aboriginal art that all looked the same to me.

Until a few days ago. While walking down the mall in Darwin, I spied an unfinished painting in front of the used bookstore. The artist was nowhere to be seen. I told myself I would return later and talk to the artist and see how much the painting would go for. The next day, Good Friday, I returned to find the painting was complete, hanging in a place of prominence on the end of one of the bookstore shelves. The store was closed but the painting was still there.

As I walked around downtown Darwin that night I came upon a woman painting in front of another shop. I looked at her work and immediately recognized the style. I introduced myself and asked about the painting of the goanna. She told me to come back the next day and speak to the owner of the gallery above the bookstore. I could buy the painting then.

Sonda Turner Nampijinpa is an Aboriginal artist whose work has been exhibited internationally. The gallery owner described Sonda as the most famous Aboriginal artist in Darwin and the first woman to paint using traditional methods. I can’t attest to the last item, but I believe the first two.

Whatever her credentials, her work struck me like none of the other Aboriginal art I had seen in Australia. There was a clarity and preciseness that attracted me. The colors are balanced and the subject is at the forefront. That I’ve developed a miniature obsession with goannas and other large lizards doesn’t hurt either. Also, the painting depicts a food-related scene, with women seated around a campfire, the goanna that will soon be dinner, witchetty grubs, a strand of native cherry, spinifex, and grass blown into the shape of a whirly-whirly. The colored dots also are representative of elements that would exist in such a scene. What appears to be just a painting of a big lizard is actually much deeper.

I paid a pretty penny for my painting. But I’m pleased with the purchase and happy to have one solid reminder of my time in Australia. I hope everyone will get a chance to see it up close one day in the future.

Me with Sonda Turner Nampijinpa and the painting.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Photos: Best of Australia

I've posted more than 900 photos from the nine weeks I spent in Australia. To make the job of digesting them a little easier, I've culled 100 favorites and created a photoset.

Flickr: Best of Australia

Anyone who wants to chart my progression from pale and pudgy to tan and lean-ish, here's the set for you: Me Me Me.

I head to Bali, Indonesia, on Monday. I'm preparing to switch gears for Southeast Asia. Expect more pictures and more Packmonkey in the weeks to come.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Hat Story

About a month ago in Adelaide, as I was about the set off across the Nullarbor Plain, I decided my New York Times Digital baseball cap wasn’t going to protect me from the harsh Australia sun. Every tour brochure advises that you bring a wide-brimmed hat to protect your ears and neck. I didn’t want a Crocodile Dundee leather hat, or something made of straw. What I was looking for is something an old man would take on a fishing trip – cotton, floppy and easy to wash and wear.

I found the perfect hat in a camping store off the Rundle Mall. Made by an Australian company, Colin Usher & Co., and named after one of Australia’s deadly spiders, the Funnel Web, I quickly fell in love with my new chapeau. An added bonus was an embroidered patch of a funnel web affixed to side that I would position above my left temple. More than once on tour someone would jump, do a double take and tell me they thought there was a spider on my head. Good fun.

The hat was my constant companion on the Nullarbor, in Perth, up the coast of Western Australia, through the gorges of Karijini National Park and across the empty Outback.

We pulled into the campground at Ayers Rock Resort after three long days in the desert without showers or clean clothes. Though we were still camping, everyone on tour was relieved to have hot showers and flush toilets again. I also too the time to hand wash my clothes, including my beloved hat. I threw the clothes in a drier, and hung the hat on the back of our orange trailer to air dry.

We had a free afternoon and were scheduled to drive to the culture center at Uluru in the afternoon. I took the opportunity to walk across the campground (stopping along the way to admire another view of Uluru – always breathtaking – and the five-star hotel Sails in the Desert – I’ve seen better) to do a little shopping in the resort’s dinky shopping center. I met Simon, our guide there, and he told me he could pick me up on the way to the cultural center, which he ended up doing.

After the cultural center, we returned to the campground, where I was horrified to discover my hat was missing. I looked high and low, in every corner of the campground, on top of the trailer, in the back of the truck, everywhere. I asked everyone if they’d seen my hat and made all manner of inappropriate faces showing my disappointment at losing my funnel web. No luck. I assumed it had been left on the trailer and was now laying somewhere in the desert, perhaps being trampled on by perenties and thorny devils.

The next day we hiked the 10-kilometer perimeter of Uluru, my face shaded by my NYTD baseball cap and neck protected by a long sleeve shirt. But it wasn’t the same. We returned to the campground, where I again looked for my hat. No dice, mister.

In the late afternoon we gathered again for the drive back to Uluru to watch the sunset. As we drove into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Simon suddenly slowed down, made a U-Turn, jumped out of the truck and picked something off the pavement. I was sitting in the back and couldn’t see what was going on, but heard the words “Matt” and “hat” and couldn’t believe it. Simon jumped back into the truck and tossed my hat back at me.

There was much joy in the back of the truck. I jammed the hat on my head and Annick grabbed my camera from my lap and took a few pictures in quick succession. I think the pictures convey the joy of the moment more than anything I could write.

Sonja looks pretty pleased as well.

I initially assumed the hat had flown off the trailer the day before and had been sitting in the middle of the road for 24 hours. I told everyone this and they believed it too, despite the lack of tire marks or dirt (it had been cleaned one day before).

I commented that I had thanked Uluru for allowing me to walk around its base and Simon said the return of the hat was the work of Kuniya, a serpent integral to an Aboriginal dreamtime legend. Could be, who knows? (For more on strange events surrounding sacred Aboriginal sites, see the Cocklebiddy Cave story)

Simon told me later that he saw something fly off the trailer, so he turned around and fetched the hat. I think it became jammed in the wheel well of the spare tire on the roof of the trailer. Whatever happened, I’m happy to have it back.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Heading Bush

No journey Down Under would be complete without a visit to Uluru, the giant rock in the center of the country. I saved Uluru for the end of my trip because to go in February or early March would have meant facing temperatures over 100 degrees in the shade. Despite everything I’ve done in Oz, it turns out I saved the best for last.

I have been taking a lot of photos on this trip, and getting back to photography has been an unexpected delight. I studied a bit in high school, but dropped it as a hobby for many years. However, the advent of digital photography has changed everything. No film, no fuss, no muss. I can now take as many photos as a memory card will hold, then later use my computer and Photoshop as a digital darkroom.

If you are wondering why there are so many pictures from the Outback, it’s because I decided to treat myself to a new camera. My Canon Powershot 400 was fine for snapshots but didn’t give me the control I wanted. If you notice any improvement, give some credit to the equipment: a Canon Eos 400D Digital SLR with an 18-200mm Sigma lens. I ended up taking over 1000 photos on the ten-day trip through the Outback, and more when I arrived in Alice Springs. I’ve posted 341 on Flickr for all to see. Comments are encouraged.

After three bus tours, I decided to splash out on a 4WD camping expedition with a company called Heading Bush. The brochure describes the trip as an “Outback Experience.” The journey would cover about 3,000 kilometers between Adelaide in South Australia and Alice Springs in the Northern, mostly over dirt tracks. Every night would be spent camping in swags. We were forced to take shelter for two nights in tents –at a campground infested with mosquitoes and during a desert rainstorm – but most nights were spent under the stars. Chalk it up as another “Outback Experience.”

Armed with a new camera, and a fresh haircut (take note, Michael Park), I was ready for the Outback. I was picked up at my Adelaide hostel well before sunrise on March 22 by Simon, veteran guide, Outback mechanic, bush chef, ice coffee devotee, and endearingly eccentric character. Imagine Bruce Dern in crazy mode and you’ve got the picture. Simon was the best guide I had in Australia. He was professional, friendly and knowledgeable. In ten days he was never unable to answer a question I threw at him, and I threw him some pretty obscure questions about flora and fauna, Australian history and the minutiae of geology. His only fault is his cigarette addiction, but even that didn’t get in the way of a good time.

Because we were traveling in a truck, space was limited to ten passengers – two in the front with Simon and eight in the back arranged on two benches facing each other. With the possibility of a cramped and uncomfortable journey, I was relieved to find my fellow passengers were normal sized Europeans, not large and in charge Americans.

Joining me at the hostel was Marcella, a depressive Italian in her mid-40’s with limited English and even more limited interest in life. She checked out mentally and physically after the first day and spent most of the time moping behind black Ray Bans, either in the back of the truck or asleep in the campground. We found out that she didn’t know the tour was a camping expedition before it started. Who signs up for a ten-day trip without reading the brochure? But that was Marcella’s trip and I was determined to enjoy myself regardless of her precarious mental state.

The company improved immediately with Annick and Juliette, friends from Holland who I’d traveled with in Western Australia. By the time we got to Alice Springs on March 31, we’d spent nearly three weeks, 24 hours a day together with only brief moments of annoyance. More twenty-somethings arrived in a Swiss contingent: Sonja and Marion, who met while studying English in Sydney and were a few weeks into a three-month tour of the country. Three lone travelers from Germany, all women, Kirstin, Verena and Antje, joined next. Strangers to each other when they began the trip, they were kind enough to avoid speaking German most of the time. At this point I was getting nervous that I’d be the only man on the trip. But then we picked up another bloke, Dean, a fine fellow from Dublin who, like me, had quit his job (with ExxonMobile – boo!) to travel. I’d love to be surrounded by women for ten days but a guy needs a pal to drink with after long days in the desert.

I will spare you another blow-by-blow account and concentrate instead on a couple of highlights.

To give you a sense of the breadth of the journey, however, here is the itinerary (links point to photos on Flickr):

Day 1

Pick up in Adelaide
Lunch in Port Augusta
Southern Flinders Ranges – Aboriginal Art at the Yourambulla Caves
Bush Camp at a Sheep Station at Arkaba

Day 2

Bushwalk at Wilpena Pound
Overnight at Iga Warta (“Home of the Native Orange”), an Aboriginal Community

Day 3

Morning at Iga Warta – visit to an Ocher Pit
Crazy Desert Artist Outside Lyndehurst
Lunch at Marree on the Old Ghan Line
Mutonia Sculpture Park
Lake Eyre South
Oodnadatta Track
William Creek Hotel
Bush Camp outside William Creek

Day 4

Lake Cadibarrawarricanna (“stars twinkling on the surface of the water”) – the longest place name in Australia
Dog Fence
Opal Mines at Coober Pedy
Bushcamp in the Painted Desert

Day 5

Painted Desert morning walk
Hookeys Waterhole and the Coolabah tree
Oodnadatta – Pink Roadhouse and an Aboriginal School
Fogarty’s Claypan
Pedrika – Old Ghan Station in ruins
Dalhousie Ruins
Camping at Dalhousie Spring

Day 6

Sunrise at Dalhousie Spring

Milkshakes at the Mt. Dare Hotel
Finke River Road – oldest river in the world
Bloodwood tree
Lambert Centre – the geographical center of Australia
Kulgera Roadhouse
Bushcamp in the rain outside of Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park

Day 7

Curtin Springs – breakfast with a scowl
Camp at Ayers Rock Resort

Day 8

Uluru Base Walk
Uluru Sunset

Day 9

Uluru Sunrise
Bushwalk through the Olgas
Bushcamp outside Kings Canyon

Day 10

Bushwalk through Kings Canyon
Drive to Alice Springs

The star of the tour was Uluru, and Uluru did not disappoint. Anyone who flies to the rock then flies out again is missing half the experience. Here is a giant rock in the center of a vast, empty desert. To add to the strangeness, Uluru is like an iceberg, with only about a sixth of its mass above ground. It is a spectacle no matter how you get there. For me, the jouirney was part of the experience, and without the days spent crossing the desert I wouldn’t appreciate how special this mass of stone really is. It shouldn’t be there, but it is. Also, I took many pictures (too many, you will say once you check out Flickr), and they are pretty, but nothing can compare to standing next to Uluru. Like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Grand Canyon, you have to see it for yourself.

While Uluru is famous and gets all the attention, it was the days we spent far from civilization and the quiet, lonely night under the desert sky that I will remember most. As I mentioned, we were traveling, for most of the trip, on dirt tracks. There is very little traffic and sometimes we would rarely see other vehicles. When camping in the Flinders Ranges and the Painted Desert, there was no around for miles. When we slept in the Painted Desert, we spent the whole evening, all night and all of the next morning without seeing anyone else – just us, the kangaroos, snakes and a million stars in the sky. It was the best night of sleep I’ve had in years.

There are more stories to tell about the Outback and Australia. I’m spending this week in Darwin, on the north coast of Australia, preparing for Bali and Southeast Asia and looking back on the wonderful two months I’ve spent in Oz. I’m not ready to leave.

I bought unlimited Internet access for the week (and paid too much, again), so I’ll be writing short posts about the Outback and my time in Australia, like the story of Dean’s Ear, the Tale of Matt’s Hat, and the battle for the best Potato Chip (crisp, if you must), in Oz.

If there’s anything you want to know, drop me a line. For now, enjoy the pictures (especially you folks who are in them – you made great subjects!). I know there are a lot, but sometimes too much of something is just enough.

Labels: , , ,