Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Indonesia - Paradise lost

The hustle and bustle of Vietnam's cities behind us we bid a sad farewell to our favorite foodie destination yet. Our palates had matured and grown accustomed to the incredible cuisine and we vowed to continue the rich culinary traditions back home. Our next stop was Bali, Indonesia.

Indonesia was on the map for our trip, then it was removed from the map, then we learned that Drew and Alicia would be there at the end of August so we re-added it to the map. Alicia and Drew have their wedding planned in Bali for the following year and had some wedding planning tasks to take care of so the plan was to join them for a weekend and then head off to the Gili Islands off the coast of Bali.

Alicia did a great job arranging a villa for the 5 of us (Mike, a new expat arrival to Singapore and friend of Drew and Alicia joined us). The villa was a beautiful 3 bedroom place with a pristine pool in the center courtyard. If it wasn't for the incredibly awkward and rigid French people who owned it, it would have been perfect. We actually didn't notice how strange they were until they charged us the equivalent of $20 per day each for 2 eggs and bad bacon. It also is worth mentioning that the villa was adjacent an Indonesian maximum security prison.

We spent most of our time in Bali in the Seminyak area, where our villa and most of the beach resorts and higher end hotels are located, and Kuta, where most of the crazier bars and clubs were. Both areas had their highlights, in Seminyak it was the beach bar scene at Potato Head with high end drinks and pool bars, and in Kuta, specifically the Legian area, it was the live music, magic mushrooms, and overabundance of raging drunk Aussies.

Drew, Hannah and I definitely made the most of our time the first night as we waited for Alicia and Mike to arrive. We were hanging out on the beach, smoking hookahs, and wandering around the streets of Seminyak.  We spent the night wandering in and out of bars, taking shots, crashing hotel pools by jumping into them like maniacs, swimming around, and running away.  It felt like we were in college.  We bought wooden helicopters with lights and shot them in the air at each other.  It was a great start to our Bali trip.

We had a preconception of beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, and pig roasts on the beach in Bali. For the most part none of these were a reality. The beaches in Seminyak weren't clean enough by our standards to swim in. Every 50 yards a steam of raw sewage ran down the sand into the ocean water, which we had to carefully navigate to avoid. We found it both ironic and troubling that at each place where this river of shit entered the ocean there were signs telling us not swim there, yet not even ten feet away there were signs permitting swimming. We needed no help with that decision, and we stuck with that at all other places on the beach as we're pretty sure the shit migrates up and down the coast.

Drew and Alicia continued to show us a great time over the weekend, taking us to some of the places that their guests will be enjoying during their wedding weekend. We spent a great afternoon drinking and eating at a beautiful beach resort about an hour from Seminyak. The water here was crystal clear, and the coastline was lined with lush forests and cliffs.

We also had an awesome day at Potato Head Beach Club, a pool bar on the beach in Seminyak. The vibe reminded us of Miami Beach minus the typical Miami Beach crowd (our family not included). We drank some of the best and most inventive cocktails imaginable as we lounged by the pool all day.


The next morning Hannah and I headed for the Gili Islands. The 3 islands, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno, and a Gili Air, make up the small cluster of the Gilis. We had heard and read about these secluded places, only accessible by 2 hour speedboat ferry from Bali, and the hippy, relaxed vibe. We planned to spend about 8 days in total on the islands with the bulk of time at Gili Trawangan (Gili T). This 8 days turned out to be 9 days too many.

We arrived Gili T and were taken by horse drawn cart to our hotel. There aren't any cars on the Gilis, everyone travels by bicycle or horse cart. So far this sounds like a pristine beach paradise. Our hotel, the Luce D'Alma, wasn't right in the heart of the Gili T beach which initially appealed to us as the reputation for partying and late nights on Gili T made us want a bit of serenity. On our horse ride to Luce our attention was immediately drawn to the state of completely disgusting lack of sanitation on the island. There were large barren fields with trash everywhere. Goats, chickens, and cows munched on the garbage, probably trying to find a piece of grass to eat and eating trash inadvertently. The animals looked starved, frail, and unhealthy.

The Luce D'Alma is an Italian run resort in the middle of the island, off the beach by about 15 minutes walking or 5 by bike. The rooms were actually very nice, and we assumed this was a rarity for most places on the island. The best part was the beautiful, HUGE, salt water swimming pool. The pool was probably twice the length of an Olympic size pool. Each room had its own lounge chair area on the pool so you could step out of your door and splash directly into the water. The design of the hotel was amazing and the hotel grounds and pools are immaculate.  They also offered bikes for guests to use which became our main source of transportation getting around Gili Trawangan.

The food was the WORST part of Luce D'Alma. You'd think an Italian run resort would have this figured out but not at all. We marveled at how one meal that we had in our room or at the restaurant was worse than the one before. It became a game between us to find the worst thing possible on the menu, and it was easy. The coffee was literally like dark water, the food was horrible, we can't stress how bad it was. The place is Italian....how can coffee and food possibly be that bad? What made it worse was that because we were at least 15 minutes walking to town we ate there out of necessity and not having anything else around.

We spent the first day on the island riding bikes up the main strip along the beach, which at first glance appeared like a low key hippie haven. There were tons of beach bars playing live reggae, shops offering snorkeling trips, fishing trips, private boat charters for $50, dive shops, etc. 

We spent the next day not doing much but lounging by the pool and eating shitty Luce D'Alma food.

Our third day on Gili T is where the fun really started. We began to quickly see the frustration and painfulness in trying to have a relaxing vacation in this perceived paradise. The island itself was a strange place. The people working in the restaurants and tourist shops were all natives to this tiny place, which takes about 2 hours to walk around. Every bar employee, waiter, or shop owner wanted to sell you drugs, and the food on the island was questionable. There was also a constant smell of burning garbage and brush that eventually we could taste in the back of our throats day after day.

We were leery of every meal we ate, trying to limit ourselves to a full fish cooked on a grill to avoid anything that could have been produced from animals grazing on garbage in the fields or one of the thousands of ferrel cats that haunted us at every meal we ate or seat we took. We ate eggs every morning but even the eggs made us nervous as the chickens wandering the streets were definitely not farm fresh. By our fifth day on the Gili islands I had developed a decent case of "Bali Belly" which gave me a low grade fever one night and 5 more days of misery.

We booked 2 nights at the top resort hotel on the adjacent island, Gili Meno. In order to reach Gili Meno, which was a 10 minute boat ride away, we decided to "charter" a boat for 4 hours. We would have them take us to the local snorkeling spots, and drop us at Gili Meno after the 4 hours was over. We had our receptionist at Luce D'Alma arrange the charter for us so naturally we were confident all would be great...boy were we mistaken. When we got to the boat we realized what chartering a boat on the Gilis meant....it meant a rickety wooden boat driven by some local kids would take us out on the water and then tell us that the current was too strong and our 4 hour snorkeling trip would be one hour, oh, and by the way, we don't have fins for you, but here are a couple of masks. Hannah rightly said, "so basically we are already out on the water, you are telling us that we can only be out for an hour, and since you have no equipment we basically should swim with masks on, which is not snorkeling?" The response, in so many words was, "that's right". So, after a typical negotiation by Hannah in the middle of the bay, where we could have easily disappeared, she convinced them to take us to Gili Meno, drop us off, and not to expect any more than we already paid them. That was failed attempt #1 at an ocean excursion on the Gili Islands.

Gili Meno makes Gili Trawangan look like a bustling metropolis. It takes less than an hour to walk around it and after 8pm there are no lights to be found anywhere. The quiet was nice and the food at our resort was actually great, yet compared to Luce D'Alma on Gili T. the rooms and pool were just ok. After dinner at our sleepy hotel on Gili Meno we went for a walk around the island.  A night walk around the entire island's circumference was a great way to see it.  At times we were unsure if we were "supposed" to be passing through what appeared to be the local's property and other times we were unsure how we would be able to get by the trees and beach without swimming.  It was peaceful and strangely eery at the same time.

At this point we had reluctantly rebooked ourselves into the Luce D'Alma in a villa. The bad food and distance from the main town wasn't ideal but the rate on the villa wasn't bad and it had it's own private pool which we took full advantage of, enjoying splashing around day and night and lounging...as roosters and goats cuckawed all day and night. We wished we could pull an audible and get out of the islands and head for a more tried and true destination like the islands off Thailand, but the 4 days we had left before we headed to Japan wasn't enough time to travel back to Bali and settle into a new place...we felt stuck, claustrophobic, and annoyed in general....and we had 4 more days.

The villa at Luce was bizarre aside from the pool. There was no door between the bedroom and living room so you had to leave the living room, go outside, and go into the bedroom...that was tolerable. There was also no phone to call the front desk, so anytime we wanted to order incredibly shitty food we had to go outside, walk to the restaurant and try to communicate to the staff what we wanted. Unfortunately for us we ate many meals of bad food that we had to go fetch ourselves...and of course we couldn't call them to pick up our dishes so we had to bring them back to the restaurant ourselves or leave them outside the door for the ferrel cats to eat.

One of the few things I wanted to get out of our time on the islands was a deep sea fishing trip. We arranged one in town through a local tourist shop. We scheduled it for 4pm the following day, a private boat which would take us out for 4 hours on the water. They also would provide us with fishing gear and a tour guide to bait our hooks, etc. They even promised to clean and cook our fish for dinner....we were, at least I was, so excited. The next afternoon we arrived at the office to catch our boat. Andy, the owner, wasn't there but his son, after much paper shuffling, found our reservation and saw that we had paid our deposit. He handed me one fishing rod, I asked where the second one was...he made a phone call to confirm we were entitled to two, and while it appeared we weren't, he relented. We waited for our boat...and we waited...and we waited. When 4:30 rolled around we asked what the deal was, we were told our boat was on the way. 20 minutes later we saw the boat anchored close to shore, and we were then told they were getting fuel. We wondered why having a fueled boat ready for their appointments would be a strange ask. By 5 we were completely fed up, our boat was meandering offshore apparently trying to dock itself to pick us up. On the boat we saw the crew and while it wasn't the same kids from the other days snorkeling adventure, it may as well have been. We got our deposit back...failed ocean excursion #2.

The following day we went against our better judgement and decided to try to scuba dive.  It is a passion of Hannah's dad, and we hadn't dove since he helped certify us over a year ago. There were a couple of reputable dive shops on the island and when we stopped by Manta, the highest rated one, to reserve a spot for the following day, we had more confidence than we had with our previous attempts at fun on Gili T. The following morning we showed up for our refresher dive course and afternoon dive. We had a blast...the crew was great and we hadn't dove in a year so the refresher course gave us confidence. We did get caught in a current that almost pulled us out to sea, but that was handled well by the well trained dive master and assistants. Excursion attempt #3 was a success, three times a charm.

Now it was time to get the hell off the island before something else went wrong. Not so fast....the following morning we had our boat booked back to Bali where we'd spend one final night before heading to Japan. Hannah and I woke up and Hannah complained of being oddly itchy and wondered if I had been bit by anything...I was fine. By the end of the day she was literally miserable. She had broken out in hives across her body, no idea what had caused it, but it was Gili T's final slap in our faces. Rather than the relaxing evening we hoped for back in Bali we spent it at the emergency room of International SOS, a great service introduced to us by my wonderful sister who works there. Through them we had purchased a policy for our trip which gives us 24/7 medical support. After several days the hives thankfully subsided, but it was a terrible end to an already painful leg of our journey.
The following morning we got one final "F You" from Bali when we got to the airport. Our flight, which was scheduled for 4:45 am, that we slept 2 hours and woke up at 2:30am for, was changed without notification to 7:30 am. So here we were, at a roach and rat infested Bali airport 4 hours early for our flight at 4am. We made it through and actually got our bags checked through all the way to Tokyo, so alls well that ends well we suppose.

We boarded our flight for Malaysia, to catch our flight to Bangkok, to catch our flight to Tokyo....Japan take us away!!!

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