The Wild(er) Side of Sumatra

Wild, rugged and adventurous are the words often used in the same breath with Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. It is the place touted as the last sanctuary for wild orangutans. 
We found that the Northern half of Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) was certainly much less populated than Bali or Java, but not really that wild. Our first foray into wilderness was Bukit Lawang on Bohorok River. After a very long ride from the airport in Medan on very bumpy roads and a short walk through the village we got to our aptly named Hotel Orangutan’s beautiful room high up, overlooking the river and green trees. Wow, fantastic, but wait, where is the air con? Sorry, this was the best joint of all for $35! It does cool down in the night, they say. 
Waiting for the relief of the evening, sweating profusely, we decided to cross the river by one of the pedestrian suspension bridges. Something wild was awaiting us on the other side – no, not this monkey, but a wild human party, that ended in the wee hours of the morning. Turns out that the wilderness of Bukit Lawang is a popular party spot for the city rats from Medan. Or should I say lady rats? Hordes of women immediately descended upon us, wanting selfies and photos with us, but mostly with my delightfully obliging husband! Soon they dragged him onto the improvised dance area next to the picnic site where live music was playing. Wild dancing and hooting ensued, occasionally paused, so more ladies could take selfies with Mirek. 
I had a hard time extricating him from the crowd of adoring fans. Walking down the river we came to another bridge and crossed over for our return back to the guest house. 
“Don’t leave the door to the balcony open,” the staff warned us, “or our resident monkeys will steal whatever they can.” True, every morning and evening the cheeky monkeys came over, cavorting on our roof, climbing onto our balcony and looking in through our windows.

But it wasn’t those monkeys we were after. It was the big fuzzy orange orangutans. We were told in order to see them in the Gunung Leuser National Park one had to book an expensive hike with a guide. You could choose a camping overnight, a day hike or an early morning encounter. Lazy old farts that we are, we choose the easy way out.

We had two guides waiting for us at 7 am. They admitted to being a bit tired as they partied the whole night, but their enthusiasm was unabated.

“We will do our best to track down some orangutans for you,” they assured us. We crossed the river over the same bridge as the day before, but everything was blessedly quiet. We were the only people on the jungle trail going up into the National Park. It was green and steamy. We were sweaty and tried to keep up our enthusiasm, though our expectations were down around our ankles. Our guides kept reminding us that, of course, this was wildlife and we had to be lucky to find it. But they were the best in finding it. They took us up and down and around, stopping now and again, making orangutan sounds. At the highest point we took a break and had a variety of fruits: bananas, watermelons, mandarins cut up for a snack. We could only eat a few, so the rest were packed up and then one of them took us on a side track while the other went scouting. Soon we found ourselves back on the path we came up on.

Well, I guess we are going back, I thought to myself, and we found nothing.

Just then our guide said, “Hurry up, I think my friend found one!”

We scrambled up the slope and there in a small clearing was a young mama orangutan with a little baby, hanging off the tree. She looked us straight in the eye with her little one hanging on tightly. The baby orangutan was just the cutest little thing ever. Despite anticipating and looking forward to this encounter we were totally overtaken by surprise, intense feelings and joy!

She climbed down and tried to get close to the scout, but he jumped behind a bush. Then she slowly ambled back to her tree and climbed up, looking back at us. We could not tear our eyes from her. When she settled in the crook of a branch, we craned our necks to see the pair up in the canopy. The little one was practicing how to climb on his own, and we watched with batted breath, worrying he would slip. I could have stayed the whole day and watch them, but the guides suggested we go look for some more. As we walked down towards the river we started encountering the other people coming in with their guides. In an area close to the path there was a crowd of foreign tourists gathered with a few orangutans in the low branches. I could see a big bunch of banana skins on the ground by the tree. Officially there was no orangutan feeding in the park, but I realized it was our leftover fruit offered to our mama orangutan by the scout, that brought her down from the tree. After all, these were not really wild orangutans, they were the released orangutans from the former, now closed, rescue and rehabilitation center, and their offspring.

Still relishing our special personal encounter, we left the group and bypassed the local Indonesian tourists that were now waking up after their partying and heading in droves into the park. They had no guides and there was no one collecting park fees.

I have to give our guides credit for taking us in a different direction, where we were lucky to encounter some interesting primates. The funny black and white Thomas monkeys immediately got a nickname Punky Monkey because of their hairstyle. They also had babies and those are always fun to watch.It was the endangered white handed gibbons whose territory protecting calls we were hearing the whole morning that were even more exciting. When we finally saw them, we were suitably impressed. They are quick, nimble swingers and it is quite strange to see their white furry hands grasping the vines. Returning to our jungle outpost we agreed that after all, it was worth spending the money and generously supporting the local economy. We left the river to drive to the Karo villages of Berastagi through vegetable and coffee plantations on the Highlands, fed by the ashes of volcano Sinabung. It was very easy to see the proof of the devastating 2014 eruption down its sides. We enjoyed the sunset view, “enhanced” by numerous flower and wooden Instagram frames, popular with avid selfie takers. We skipped the sunrise volcano climb, pressing on to the Sipisopiso waterfall. One does get a bit jaded after seeing a lot of waterfalls traveling the world, many endowed with superlatives. But 120 m (400 feet) tall Sipisopiso (translated: Like a Knife) did not fail to impress. Unfortunately the effect was marred by the really badly maintained trail with huge amount of trash lying everywhere, despite the abundance of trashcans provided. As usual there were many, more or less dilapidated shacks selling bottled water and junky snacks and souvenirs, whose owners did not care to pick up the rubbish. As usual there was also a bunch of guys lolling about and demanding an entrance fee. I got so riled up that in my head I started writing letters to the Ministry of tourism. Little did I know that I will soon get to meet the honchos from the ministry in person.

But first let us visit the enormous and very deep Lake Toba. It is fitted by a few green islands, but Samosir is the inhabited one. To get to and from Samosir one has to contend with local ferries, running on unpredictable schedules and engines. The mesmerizing ever changing views and the play of light, water and clouds help you forget their unsafe track record. We lucked out with the choice of a wonderful, intelligent local driver with a wicked sense of humor, that we hired for the day. He quickly understood our interest in traditional villages and the roads less travelled and took us all over the island, showing us some special hidden treasures. This might not have been the tallest waterfall, but it was beautiful, for our eyes only and immaculately clean.If anything I am besotted with Asian rice fields and here we could see both, just recently harvested and newly planted, tended to by beautiful, friendly, hard working women. We also lucked out at our third Sumatra destination – Nias Island. David, the driver/guide/owner of our little Oseda Nias Surfhouse was originally from Lake Toba, but married a local Nianese woman. We quickly became friends and together explored the island. It always gives us a special pleasure to get the locals to take us to some places they haven’t been to and we so smartly managed to discover in some travel article or blog.

Nias has a specialized claim to fame amongst Australian surfers as one of the better locations to surf. While we are certainly no surfing experts we didn’t find the Sorake surf particularly exciting, especially compared with Australian beaches and their enormous waves. We figured it must be the extreme affordability of guest houses and the constant warm weather.

We were really taken aback with the lack of sand on Sorake beach. We were told the latest earthquake with tsunami pushed up the coral. But there is another reason sand is disappearing from many Nias beaches. It is indiscriminate digging and bagging of beach sand for construction purposes. Mirek was quite horrified, not only by the disappearance of beaches, but also by the fact that sea salt infused sand is unsafe for construction. Our David and his other guest houses owning friends were very upset about all this and even more so with the the lack of concern and action from the government.

Well, here I got my chance to step in and shoot off my big mouth. Knowing my keen interest in all things traditional one early morning David told me he heard there would be a special dance performance for some visiting dignitaries at a small hotel nearby. Of course we headed right over and after taking some wonderful pictures of the dancing students (shared in the previous blog) and listening to some long boring speeches and watching the photo op for all the big shots (the regional assembly rep and his wife, plus Indonesia Tourism ministry rep from Jakarta) I asked for an introduction. Seeing that I was the only western person far and wide I was granted an audience. After expressing my undying admiration and love for the beautiful Indonesia I then gave them my list of grievances. I brought to their attention in particular the sand stealing and the safety issues in construction and suggested they constitute large financial penalties for the act and make beach restoration their priority and legacy, if they want to see any foreign tourism. With the elections right around the corner, my words might or might not have had any impact. Nevertheless I was treated to an official portrait with the big wigs, but more importantly earned undying admiration of David and his island friends.

To show us what a truly beautiful Nias beach looks like he drove us over an hour away for a sunset on Moale Beach. Why has nobody developed such a spectacular sandy beach? Ah, an investor did buy the beach front property, but failed to investigate the sea conditions. There was such dangerous undertows that plans for development had to be abandoned, so the beach remains pristine. Unfortunately even here we encountered some local boys digging the sand and stuffing it onto sandbags and transporting it away on motorbikes. How sad! We bid a fond goodbye to the wild Sumatra, knowing that we only saw a small part. Indonesia as a whole is inexhaustible source of travel discoveries and the list of places we want to see keeps on growing.

Sumatra – Just how I Like it

This is just how I like it…

We are the only farangs/bule/foreigners on the plane and when we touch down there are no pushy taxi drivers looking to scalp the next confused and jet lagged tourist, just a friendly face, sometimes even this exceptionally endearing: We have been picked up by the the little son and the owner of our small guesthouse that we have communicated with by email, setting up some great plans on learning about the local culture and customs.

And there is a lot of old tribal culture to learn about in Sumatra. While some of the closely related Austronesian tribes like Batak Karo have lost all but a few examples of their traditional dwellings, others, like Batak Toba on and around the island of Samosir on Lake Toba continue to build and live in traditional houses in large numbers. Some are relativel simple and unadorned and some are very detailed and colorful but all are made without a single nail or screw. Especially impressive are their cousins’, the Nianese king houses, built with huge supportive wooden beams, imbedded into hard rock stones, a very effective protection against the destructive earthquake forces. We are in the land of volcanos, after all, and some are still active.  I never tire of visiting the different villages, because it is just how I like it… we are the only white people. After bellowing the respective greetings of “Horas!” and “Ya’Ahowu!” we are always greeted by friendly faces some with big, toothy smilesand some with toothless ones. Sometimes we even get invited inside the houses and are offered much needed refreshment in the heat of the day. We really enjoy the experience of the daily life of the village: the rice being set out to dry on the main square or the laundry draped over any available surface, king’s chair or not.Sometime we even get to help! We meet locals who continue practicing age old crafts like this man, chiseling a canoe out of a single piece of woodor this big sister helping the younger one learn how to weave. We crash a wedding and congratulate the beautiful bride and handsome groom. It is good to see the younger generation interested in their traditional culture. We meet local junior high dance troop dancing and singing in new versions of colorful traditional outfits.In the biggest village, Bowomatalu, we see two athletic boys perform the traditional stone wall jump. Successful clearing of the tall wall was a rite of passage for boys, and also a training technique for war raids on enemy villages surrounded by defensive walls.We get more insights in small museums with beautiful artifacts and old B&W photographs. They are just how I like them – all ours, as we are the only visitors. The treasures were mostly collected by Christian missionaries and to me speak tantalizingly of dark magic, powerful slave owning kings and queens, and beautiful priestesses. 

To bring (and keep) their culture alive some villagers will perform their traditional dances and even kindly let us participate and make fools of ourselves. We are fascinated to find so many similarities between some far flung tribes that we have visited from Toraja Land to Sumba, Papua and even, what the heck? – Hawaii! In particular we are interested in the buffalos and pigs and their role in death ceremonies. 

These so called “primitive” tribal societies all have a special affinity with their ancestors. I think we somewhat mistakenly call this “ancestor worship”, in my humble view, it should be called “ancestor connection”.

The body of the deceased, beloved grandma or grandpa is often kept at home (embalmed) for a long time, their spirit not ready to leave the family and the descendants not ready to let it go. When the right time comes and enough money is saved for a big sendoff a huge ceremony is prepared with relatives and neighbors descending from close and far. Pigs and buffalos are slaughtered in order to feed the crowd, but in places where old traditions have not been totally replaced by Christianity also to serve as a vehicle for the soul to leave the community and this plane. The graves of ancestors are not tucked away out of sight at a cemetery, but big tombs are erected right next to the homes, so the presence of loved ones is seen and still felt every day. If I was a dead ancestor, I think that is just how I would like it!

Spicing up Travel and History

It happens to me again and again. I stop on the road in the middle of nowhere, actually somewhere in Asia, seriously hungry after a quick and rather forgettable breakfast, if any at all. The local restaurant vendor presents me with that sort of menu: items written in unreadable script or unrecognizable language. In my struggle I find solace and possibly even advice in photos of at least some of the items, artistically arranged on the plate and in very vivid colors. As I browse diligently through photos of dishes while consulting the prices in the right column, occasionally salivating, my mind is completely overrun with ideas of what (and when) I am gonna get after finger pointing repeatedly to a line on the menu:

“This is what I want!”

When you convince yourself that even a dead stump would understand by now what your wishes are, the waiter finally scribbles something down, nods, and slips into the kitchen.

I cannot wait to burry my fork, spoon, or chopsticks into a pile of food I ordered. When it finally lands in front of me, it reminds me only remotely of the photo on the “menu”. I point to the picture and to the food and ask, “What happened, it is not the same as the picture on the menu?”

“Oh, we took the photo from the Internet!” answers the waiter with a big smile, feeling quite proud and accomplished. Then I take the first bite and swallow… geee!! “What the hell did the chef put in it?”

Everything from my mouth to my lips, even my teeth, is burning! Honestly, this dish should have been delivered on a fire truck, with a gallon of cold beer. Can somebody help me?!?

Well, we happen to travel along the one of the major historical trade routes between the East and West where most of the spices, no doubt quite few in the recipe for my dish, were grown, harvested, some processed and all loaded on the ships under auspices and protection of old trade powers like Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese, just to name a few. They were then transported to its final destination, the spice hungry European markets, making or breaking the traders, who risked all. If the ship went down in a storm or pirates attacked, one could loose everything. If you were lucky your spice cargo was sold with hefty profit to the investors in Lisbon, Amsterdam or London.

And what spices did they trade in? As we tend to bunch together herbs&spices let’s look at the differences first.

A spice is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish.

How many herbs and spices can you name? Looking in your cupboard will help, and while you are doing this, do yourself a favor and toss those that have been gathering dust. Dried herbs loose their flavor and potency quite quickly.

You probably have herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, cilantro, parsley, dill, sage. What about spices? Pepper, peppercorn,

chili, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, paprika, turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and cloves. Some of these, like black pepper, we use everyday, but others we only use for holiday baking. Recently I had a surprisingly wonderful clear pumpkin soup full of ginger and cinnamon sticks . I love creamy pumpkin soup but this was a totally different and exciting new soup experience.

Some of the spices are still quite expensive, for example saffron, because it is so difficult to produce. Historically the rare spices were so expensive because they were hard to get, but also because many were considered medicinal. If you were afraid of the plague, you would pay the weight of nutmeg in gold.

Most, if not all of this precious cargo, sailed through a narrow passage of 550 mi/890 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra, the corridor called Straits of Malacca. As the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans it was, and still is, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It is named after the Malacca Sultanate ruling this area in that important time when Europeans looked to wrest the control of the crucial spice trade from the Arabs and secretive Venetians (remember Marco Polo and the Silk Road?), the profit cutting middlemen in this business. As Europe finally walked out of the Dark Ages and its navigators, shipbuilders and sailors were able to set their own independent transportation routes between East and West, Mediterranean ceased to be the one and only Mare Nostrum and Europe went global for the spices sake for the first time in its modern history.

While the members of the many sultanates’ courts ate Michelin star worthy, well spiced delicacies, Europe was struggling to find enough salt to preserve its food supplies for the long winter (pickled vegetables and salted and dried meat and fish). For millennia from the beginning of ancient civilizations salt was one of the most important trading commodities. With so many salty oceans all around you would think most salt would come from the sea, but it is the rock salt, mined from underground salt deposits, that had been the staple of human life.

I do remember as a teenager walking one of the historical trails of the salt trade connecting Austrian salt mines in northern slopes of the Alps with Bohemia, my birth country, which has no salt. If you ever find yourself in Austria do stop in Salzburg (=Salt City) and visit besides Mozart House and the Sound of Music Castle also the impressive salt mines nearby.

Being myself one of those privileged humans who can afford to live to eat – to the contrary of the majority of people who have to eat to live, paying only limited attention to what they are being served – I am very excited about coming to Malacca. Here I can see and experience first hand where the monumental change in human behavior, regarding our eating habits, the way we finance international trade, establishment of the international banking system and where obscene wealth for some and unspeakable misery for others were triggered on amazing scale.

Malacca as a town was established by a rather obscure Hindu prince Parameswara who was kicked out of Sumatra with a small band of his followers sometime in the twelve century. First he established himself in a place we today call Singapore. The prince might have had more problems with competition than he was willing to admit, as he was shortly and rather unceremoniously discarded by Siamese invaders and ended up in a place further north on the west coast of Malay Peninsula at an estuary of a small river where only a small group, of not more than twenty villagers lived. Not much competition for the Prince there! The story goes like this:

While resting under a “melaka” tree he watched a fleeing mouse deer that had turned back and kicked his hunting dog into the river. That sight impressed him so much, that he decided to start a settlement here. Curiously, he believed it was a good omen! With his decision making process regarding to where to settle so seriously flawed, no wonder this guy was kicked around from place to place. Nevertheless he is remembered as a founder of Malacca. (Melaka).

Now, move the wheels of history by some eight, nine hundred years, and you can see a couple of modern day travelers arriving at the very same spot where our Hindu Prince was killing his time, watching his dogs hunt, while leaning against the tree. Instead of the melaka tree on the river bank, we found a cozy spot called Sid’s Bar serving good pints of cold beer. Sitting at the open window with a view of the small river estuary and the remnants of a fort, perusing the hefty menu, we could feel the culinary and historic importance of this place.

It was easy to see how it became a favorite for Chinese, Hindu and Moslem traders. A place to stop, relax, exchange their goods and then, move on. Moslem traders brought along with their goods also their Islamic religion and they moonshined by proselytizing their religious beliefs far and wide. The painting above shows the arrival of Sheikh Shamsuddin to Brunei where he successfully converted the King of Brunei to Islam. The Malacca settlement’s influence and Islam religion as well grew fast and by 1450’s Malacca was recognized as a capital of Malacca Sultanate, with a sultan’s Palace built on one side of the river, the vendor stalls on the other and trader ships moored at the river estuary.

Meanwhile the light of Malacca’s fame reached the overseas Portuguese trading post of Goa on the Indian west coast. Hoping to reap the benefits of controlling the trade, the Portuguese on their second attempt in 1511 managed to conquer Malacca, slaughtering many Muslims in the process. Quickly they “coopted” some remaining Muslim pilots and sent three ships to find the mysterious Bandas Spice Islands from where the most precious nutmeg was coming to the west. This small group of 10 islands in a remote location was only place on Earth were nutmeg grew, should be easy to control, and establish a monopoly. They packed all three ships with nutmeg, mace, and sweet smelling cloves


They failed to secure the Bandas as their possession and establish a trading post.

Within a century Dutch not only established their monopoly in trade with nutmeg, by all means necessary, decimating the population of Bandas. Their dominance in lucrative nutmeg trade lasted until the WWII. There was an attempt by the British who convinced the locals on one of the smallest Banda Islands called Run, to accept the protection of British Sovereign in exchange for their nutmegs. It did not last too long as Dutch overran the British fort and did not treat the loosing British kindly. In the subsequent negotiations the Dutch traded the swampy Island of Manhattan (with New Amsterdam) – where today you pay about $1,000 for square foot of land – for British commitment to abandon the Run island barely 2 miles long and half a mile wide. Art of the deal?!

Back in Malacca we are surprised to find the church of Saint Francis Xavier. Like Muslim traders the Portuguese, too, brought their (Catholic) religious beliefs and with the help of Spanish Jesuit Missionary Saint Francis Xavier, tried to convert the local population. Francis built a church and a hospital, and he even stayed there with his sick patients. But to no avail. Combined with rather high taxes imposed on goods passing through and their very harsh treatment of other religions, specially violence against Moslems, the place was not very popular with traders. They voted with their feet, moving their business to other more favorable places like Aceh in Sumatra and Brunei in Borneo, while traders from the south picked Batavia in Java or Johor(Singapore) on the tip of Malay Peninsula.

It was the beginning of the end of Malacca Sultanate’ glorious days and by mid seventeenth century new comers, the Dutch conquered Malacca. But they did not do so with intentions of developing it into a regional business center, preferring instead to solidify Batavia (Jakarta) as Dutch administrative and business capital in the Southeast Asia.

In Malacca they left behind a red brick Stadthuys = City Hall, now a very interesting history museum, and a Dutch Graveyard just below the St. Paul’s Hill on the other side of historical center.

More than one hundred years later Malacca was ceded to the British in exchange for their holdings in Sumatra. This was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of Malacca’s importance. British incorporated Malacca into the fabric of Straits Settlements crown colonies in which Malacca played a rather subdued role to other two on both ends of Malacca Straits – Penang in the north and Singapore in the south.

It is interesting to see how those three British colonies fared in the recent history of de-colonization and Malaysian independence after WWII. The very complicated fabric of human tribes living on Malay Peninsula had not made for very smooth sailing. The new country’s Malay Muslim majority had a very difficult time finding balance and accommodating the Chinese majority of Singapore. Rather than compromising, they kicked Singapore out of Malaysia only a year after Malaysia was created in 1963. In spite of strong resistance that Singaporeans put up for staying in the union, the Malayan members of Parliament in Kuala Lumpur unanimously voted Singapore out. Nevertheless, you would have a hard time finding anybody in Singapore crying over it today. Good for them!

We did not plan this time to visit Singapore, a very modern and successful city state everybody reading this blog probably visited already. Instead, we followed the history of spice trade in the Malay Peninsula further north along the coast to another former British possession. First in the East India Company’s hands and later as a British Crown Colony – Penang Island and its City of Georgetown is, compared to Malacca, vibrant and projecting energy and growths of its multicultural fabric. Five Chinatowns, Little India, Armenian Quarter, Jewish Cemetery, lovely historical port and banking center. And where are the spices here? In our short stay the peak of our visit was for sure our dinner in its top notch fusion cuisine Ferringhi Garden Restaurant on the Penang’s north shore. It left us with no doubts that spices are still live and well, be it either in the East or in the West modern cuisine.

Through history the Malacca Strait itself may have experienced a decline in its share of spice trade but its importance is still visible here and even more in Singapore. Because the depth of the channel is conducive to big shipping it would probably remain one of the most important shipping lane on Earth, as its traffic is expected to rise by fifty (50!) percent in the next decade.

And the fate of Malacca fortress, the remains of which can be still seen through open windows of the Sid’s Bar? It is nothing more than a dot behind the already distinguished flame of its old glory.


Rounding the bend or peeking down a narrow alley or even just driving past a large house wall, chances are that some kind of whimsical graffiti will greet you. No ugly tagging that mars the buildings, only funny or sweet or artistic renderings that enhance them and actually bring tourists to admire them and of course take selfies in front of them. If anything, I really, really liked the street art in Malaya, also known as Peninsular Malaysia, to distinguish it from the Eastern half with much wilder Sabah and Sarawak on the Malaysian half of Borneo. We were there years back looking for the last descendants of headhunting Dayaks and stinky giant Rafflesia flowers and cute orange jungle orangutans. That was exciting!

The more sedate Peninsular Malaysia was not on my bucket list, so I kinda left it to my co-director to take the lead on what to do and see there. He bought the flight to Kuala Lumpur and booked the rental car and then said, “I think we will just wing it.”

I am not good at winging it. I like to have a plan. I like to have done my homework. If I don’t have a guidebook or two, at least I do the research on the internet, reading some blogs, finding top sights recommendations, driving itineraries and hotel possibilities. I get quite nervous if at 5 pm I don’t know where I will sleep that night. So instead of embracing the unknown, hurtling down the wrong side of the road I am oblivious to the sights outside the car window, browsing on my iPhone, alternating between driving directions and I am sorting through the maps and pamphlets I picked up at the airport’s tourist information center. There are too many hotels and too many reviews for each. And I am not even looking at Airbnbs, the hotels are so affordable and so nice, I just stick to those. Any bigger city will have on average 300. I am inputting filters and saving the favorites. The first reservation I make in this state of mind in Malacca turns out to be for the whole month ahead in a hotel that is fully booked when we arrive to check in. They kindly send us down the road to a hotel that is half the price and still really nice. As the days pass I become a little more relaxed. I bookmark a few 3* hotels with 8.0 and up rating the night before or on a long empty stretch of the road (thank goodness for T Mobile free unlimited international roaming) and then towards the evening decide which one we will drive to. The prices often get slashed further as the day progresses with last minute deals and the Genius (frequent booker) discount often giving us an additional 10% off. When we get to the reception we ask for a walk in rate, and if it is not cheaper than on we book online on the spot. I learn it is perfectly fine to save a few bucks for a room without a window, as we will only sleep there anyways, but it is better to pay a few extra bucks for a room that includes breakfast, so we don’t have to leave on an empty stomach, immediately having to look for food.

We find that the range of $25-$45 gives us incredibly good, modern and clean accommodations. The most we pay is $50 at Abdul’s Chalets for a beach cottage on Perhentian island. Originally there was no plan to go to Perhentian Islands, but winging it comes with aa great flexibility. After a quick exploration of historic Melaka with the colonial Portuguese and Dutch mark, very popular with Asian tourists

we crossed the peninsula to the East coast to the largely forgotten beaches. We are supposed to discover sleepy fishing campungs, but we find more of the new of developments and if there are fishing villages, their beaches are terribly dirty. True, it is not their garbage, it is plastic and trash that washes ashore from elsewhere. Still, it is right there, marring long golden sandy beaches for miles and miles. It is inconceivable for a country that is otherwise spotlessly clean, with a huge daily army of cleaners on the streets and along freeways, to not also clean the beaches regularly. The weirdest thing is that even the fancy 5* beach resorts with immaculate grounds and pools, do not maintain their beaches. I am at a loss.

It takes a lot of turning of blind eyes and angling the camera just so to find some Instagramable shots. Yes, Instagram is not to be trusted. Disappointed with the state of the peninsular beaches, we decide to go on an island. But which one? According to the Malaysia Travel guide published by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture they are each and every one “one of the world’s most beautiful islands with pristine beaches and world famous scuba diving paradise”. A few German travelers we meet at a restaurant (serving German sausages) help us make the decision, as they have just returned from the week long stay at Abdul’s Chalets on Perhentian Besar and loved it. In return we give them a tip for the cleanest beach on the mainland. We spend a few pleasant days on the island, the white flour beaches are clean where the active resorts are, but the corals and the visibility is greatly diminished. Snorkeling, we manage to see only one small turtle. Having visited one of the Turtle breeding grounds and knowing they release hundreds of thousands of baby turtles every year, it was surprising. I guess there is just too many boats, people and garbage for them to make it. Will we soon only be able to see turtles painted on the city walls? Let’s hope not. While Mirek was in search of places with important historic past, especially as it pertained to spice trade, I was interested in another plant – tea. So after the island we headed to the famed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. On the way we stopped at the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia in a village outside Musang Gua. The presence of Chinese in Malaya is quite strong and ads nice flavor and color. The temple itself was not that special, but it was set in an interesting limestone karst landscape, reminiscent of beautiful Guilin in China and traditional Chinese paintings. And it was dedicated to one of my favorite goddesses – Goddess of Mercy Quan Yin (Guanjin). Her giant statue was looking upon the temple and the green landscape from a cave across the river. Taking this route brought us to Cameron Highlands from the wrong, back side. As we were climbing up to the cooler Highlands we got caught in a sudden rainstorm. Out of the rain we saw giant alien structures emerging on all steep sides, huge constructs of plastic, glass, and steel. At first we thought it was some kind of mining operation, but then we got close enough to realize that they were giant green houses growing strawberries, vegetables and flowers. The second shock came when we started encountering countless tall apartment developments. All the many heat baked Kuala Lumpur city slickers escaping to the cooler highlands have to have a place to stay! So out the window went my romantic idea of the tea plantations. By the time we managed to fight our way to the other side of the valley for the iconic views ,the biggest one, BOH Plantation was already closed. We drank a cup of tea and disappointed on all fronts decided to scrap the plan of overnighting there and press on to Ipoh. The very windy and narrow road down was going through green jungle, blessedly still untouched by the very popular and devastating palm oil plantations. We ended up in the nicest new boutique hotel in the small town of Ipoh, that was not on our agenda, but turned out to be just great. We took the advice of the friendly hotel manager and in the morning went for an enjoyable stroll through the three Concubine Lanes with nostalgic antique stores, coffee shops and lots of street art. From there we drove to the much bigger, but still manageable George Town on Penang island. Two bridges lead to it, and of course we had to cross both. One was, according to Wikipedia, (but in total disagreement by my bridge engineer husband) inspired by the Golden Gate Bridge and the other… wasn’t. In the morning we decided to join a walking tour through the historic British and ethnic Indian and Chinese parts. The guide was excellent and funny and self deprecating and to our surprise spoke very positively about the British colonization. They brought in a lot of progress, and power, banking and institutions, he said, without them Penang would have been an insignificant village. They also brought in workforce: the Chinese and the Indians. Guess what, he was Chinese. He talked a lot about racial and religious harmony and made fun of the internal strife of Christian denominations and Chinese clans. With Muslim religion being practiced by over 60% of population, there did not seem a predominance of mosques or ostentatious displays. If there were any ostentatious displays of any kind they were in multitude tall apartment and office and hotel buildings.

Even more so, of course, in KL – Kuala Lumpur. What do you think of first when you hear Kuala Lumpur? I bet Petronas Twin Towers! We planned to skip KL and drive straight to the airport, but at the end the towers won. One can not be in Malaysia or KL and not see the towers. So very stupidly we drove into a trap on a Friday night no less. And we got stuck and lost and running out of gas. Took us three hours to find our way out of the traffic mess and to the airport. Well, we glimpsed the towers and we don’t need to go back. Not with a car, for sure!

It is not surprising to me that there are not that many Western tourist in peninsular Malaysia. While we found it quite easy to travel for the excellent roads, modern cities, affordable hotels and food, we found it hard to fall in love with. Malaya is like a nice girl next door, that your mother would like you to date. She is sweet and cute, but you are really dreaming of the exotic beauty of Miss Thailand or India.

A Damn Nice Andaman Sea Diving Adventure

Why do you travel?

Perhaps to chase wild animals, spot rare birds, or admire old castles? Quite a few of us travel to explore the well hidden, but colorful underwater world. Personally, I fell for it a long time ago after seeing my first Jacques Cousteau movie. While I can hardly be called a diving fanatic, whenever and wherever I can, I do it.

After receiving a gift of a GoPro mini camera from one of our diving daughters some three years ago, I am better able to share my diving experience. Like this video, my first ever, shot in the Lintah Strait off the coast of Komodo, the famous dragon island. Just playing that video, makes me feel very proud of myself, as I bang my chest in disbelief “Was it really me who shot THIS?”

Yes, I am a simple man…

Unfortunately, my favorite mini GoPro was later borrowed by aforementioned daughter, who went chasing after orcas and ended up lost in 500m/1,650ft depth of Norwegian Sea. (The GoPro, not the daughter). It was miraculously retrieved many months later in the net of a Norwegian fisherman, who also moonlights as a detective, because he managed to trace us down and send the retrieved intact memory card from the damaged hardware back to us. Quite a wonderful story of the kindness of strangers that was written up nicely in the fishing town’s local newspaper.

Without my Go Pro the gorgeous underwater photos gracing this post are on borrow from Franck Fogarolo, our chief dive master and underwater photographer. Our current travel style does not allow for bulky under or above water cameras. Neither, as many hard core divers, do we drag any diving equipment with us, except for a pair of swimming suites and our personal masks with prescription lenses, so we can see under water. While you can rent everything else from a dive suit to flippers and diving tanks, you would not find a place where you could rent two masks addressing the vision deficiencies this mature couple has. With our best diving years quickly receding in the past, I stubbornly still keep a bucket list of places to dive before I die. One quite close to the top has always been a place with a magical sound to my ear – Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar, a place populated by Sea Gypsies, a tribe living on their boats. We heard about it for the first time during our first trip to Burma almost fifteen years ago. A special permit then was impossible to get, but now things have started opening up.

As our diving daughter was close by finishing a business trip to Hong Kong, we made a quick decision: “It is either Now or Never!” Let us meet in Thailand close to Myanmar’s maritime border and enjoy a few days of diving family style. Unfortunately with all scheduled diving trips to Mergui Islands completely sold out, we had to settle for a trip to a group of the islands immediately south of the Mergui with a stop for a day in the famous dive site called Richelieu Rock.After endless internet research we chose a French owned outfit “The Smiling Seahorse”, this had everything we could hope for, with a brand new boat, qualified experienced crew and air-conditioned cabins! In our age we need both, comfort and good sleep.

Not knowing exactly how many of the followers of this blog can be considered divers or even diving fanatics I would like to, for the benefit of all others, share with you how a typical day on the boat like ours looked like. Only then you, our reader, can make an informed decision if this type of activity is really for you and any pain (physical and financial) related to this sport is actually bearable.

There were 13 diving customers on our boat. 2 British couples, 1 German and 1 French single guys, 1 Swiss and 1 French ladies, a father/daughter pair from Singapore, and our family of 3 – husband/wife/daughter. There were 2 French instructors (Sophie and Bertrand) and one Dane (Tom) who has been living in Thailand since he was five and never wanted to return to Copenhagen. “Crazy cold and damp”, he told me after finishing his second après- nightdive drink. The glue holding it all together was Franck, company owner/dive master/photographer/father of 2 and natural leader all in one, originally a horseman living and training in the Persian Gulf. A lean machine, he had an incredible capability to do anything expertly, be it with people, machines, fish and before horses.

Let’s not forget the seven Thai guys from the local crew, all quick on their feet, and absolutely dedicated to their customers, be it cooking or taking care of the diving equipment, all spiced up with much joking and laughter.

Out of those thirteen divers, we were divided into four smaller groups, each led under water by a diving instructor. During the regular diving day there were 4 dives. At 7am, 11am, 3pm and a night dive at 7pm. Does it sound like vacation? For some, maybe not. For those magnificent seven, oops thirteen, certainly!Frequently for some of them not enough and with too much energy to spare they happily join the extra so called sunset dive at about 5pm.After the last night dive at seven, any reasonable person under 25 should be tired. Those in the senior category of 50+ should be expected to suffer from serious bodily exposure. Me and others in 70+ box should be dead by dinner bell!

Before each dive there is a detailed briefing on the site location/expected maximum depth/direction and speed of currents/sea creatures to be seen. Then each group goes down to lower deck to get properly equipped with diving gear and the diving buddies mutually safety check each other’s gear. Hand signals are used for clear communication. On the diving platform the divers wait for the captain’s all clear horn signal, while silently praying, before jumping into the clear water of the Andaman Sea. And after all groups are finally in the water our local crew can relax and enjoy a few minutes of peace before the first divers show up on the surface again in dire need of help to get back to the boat!

If you dive as infrequently as I do the first few dives come with a little bit of anxiety and plenty of butterflies in your stomach. As you go under you forget the butterflies, as other more important issues prevail, such as what the hell happened to my ears! You better take care of this pain pretty fast by equalizing external air pressure with pressure in your inner ears to prevent your head from exploding. And as you are slowly submerging into the magic world of Big Blue Silence you better clear your mask if it gets foggy or remove the water if there is a leak.

To ensure a tight fit of my mask I usually shave my mustache a day before the trip causing some problems with my passport presentation at police check points on the way to the pier and a significant consternation with a lot of jokes from my kids on Face Time of the sort: “What happened to your stiff upper lip, dad?” No matter how much they make fun of my “naked lip”, nothing is more annoying than spending precious time under water clearing your mask repeatedly, and still not seeing much. The amount of light drops significantly as you get deeper and you better do everything you can to see the stuff around you! Especially if it is playing peek a boo in the swaying sea anemones! Our dives lasted about 45 to 60 minutes before we got back to the mother ship. It is surprising how hungry one is after the dive, so each dive is followed by a variety of food prepared by the kitchen/mechanical/everything you can think of crew. All meals are served in the dining area on the upper deck. No alcohol is allowed until dinner meal, unless you are willing to forego diving that day. Food and soft drinks are served in quantity you like with the exception of alcohol – beer/wine/hard drinks, which you have to pay extra. After the meal and/or before next dive, people spent their time by napping, chatting, shell arranging or studying for the PADI exam to upgrade their diving resume. There is a recycling plan for the ship allowing for separate collection of plastic and metal materials, food leftovers and general waste and you are instructed all the time that toilet paper cannot be flushed into OUR ocean!

Unfortunately, not everyone is so aware and considerate, and irresponsible mass tourism has had a big negative impact on Thai beaches. Consider the fact that famous Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi Leh had to be closed for months in a bid to halt environmental damage caused by the onslaught of boats and thousands of tourists.

As we were moving away from the Burmese border south to Similan islands there were more diving and snorkeling boats we had to contend with. Some were dropping 15-25 divers en masse, making diving a very social experience and waters extremely crowded. Luckily our dedicated crew swapped schedules and drove in predawn hours to find more peaceful spots to spend our time enjoyably. Some of our close expedition members looked for the solitude kayaking to the beach shore for moments spent in privacy, rather than looking with admiration at their life time partners. Others observed what is going on around them like this hugemarlin jumping above the water a quarter mile away!

And what do you get out of this? Do not despair, it is not just pain in your ears or salt water in your eyes. First of all, on this trip I got the chance to buddy up with my youngest DAUGHTER!

I enjoyed every minute of our time spent together tremendously. She is a busy lady on the upward trajectory in her life while we, older empty-nesters, are busy in our new role of retired “professional” travelers. There are not many places where members of these two groups can cross their paths, outside of a regular family Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner or under the Christmas Tree photo op. So I was extremely grateful for those four days.

The best unforgettable shared experience came on the last day.

We were lucky to quite unexpectedly encounter a whale shark. We stared in amazement as the huge creature swam above us. My daughter turned to me and offered her hand to shake on this special encounter. While the dance of the colorful fish in the corals are a joy to behold, it is the BIG ones in the ocean that are awe inspiring and worth every effort and every penny. And if you are lucky and willing to pay the price (as my grandpa used to tell me: “Mirek, you know. No pain, no gain!”) you will meet one of those big ones flying effortlessly just next to you.

Tribe Vibe of NE India

What is it about the tribes that makes me travel the ends of the Earth? Certainly their art, their dances and their customs are endlessly fascinating, but there is more. I think it is also the understanding of the urgency to win the race against time. Here is our last chance to meet face to face the vestiges of our human ancestry, the origins of our common ancient roots. Sadly there are not many places left where ethnic displays go beyond a dance show for the tourists with cheaply made replicas of old costumes. We consider ourselves really lucky that we have still managed to catch a few cultures before they are totally “civilized”. Beliem Valley, Papua Omo River, Ethiopia

When you get to the places where people still live within their authentic culture, the pull is strong. I recently came across a remarkable British woman, a Margaret Mead of Nagaland. As a young graduate in 1930’s Ursula Graham Bower went to visit a British friend in India and upon her first foray into a Naga village fell in love with the tribe and their way of life. She spent 7 years with them, taking thousands of photographs and even films. During the Japanese invasion in WW II she trained and commanded a force of 150 Naga warriors and was dubbed the Naga Queen. Interestingly, at the airport on our way out of Nagaland we met an older Canadian couple who used to be missionaries in Kalimantan, Borneo. The wife’s parents came there first and she and her siblings were born in a grass hut. She longingly shared with me some old pictures and told me of the friendships she still maintains amongst the Dayak people from her youth. Within her and Ursula’s lifespan things have changed dramatically. When we visited the Dayaks some years back only a few still lived in their communal longhouses and the tribes of Nagaland seem “tribal” only during their celebrations. In both cases much of that can be attributed to “civilizing” influence of missionaries from North America.

While I am very attracted by the romantic notion of living with the “savages”, I must confess that I am probably way too spoiled to live in a grass hut, with only a fire to keep me warm and its smoke to keep the blood sucking mosquitos at bay. Instead of shopping at a supermarket I would have to go foraging like these two Khasi girls. Traveling to these places in the modern comfort of the car and a decent, if often very hard, bed and even hot shower on most nights, one still manages to get some wonderful insights. There are moments when it seems like a window has opened directly into the very distant past of the beginnings of our civilization.

Up in the mountains around Mon on the border with Burma we came across the steep barren blackened slopes with tall stumps of trees and simple grass huts popping up here and there. What is this lunar landscape? Was there a forrest fire?

No, it is jhum – slash and burn agriculture. In a flash I was transported back to my school classroom and the history lesson on the beginnings of agriculture with the cycles of slash and burn cultivation. I learned it in concept but I had no real understanding. Today it all became crystal clear. It is time consuming, back breaking and not very effective toil. The trees on the land are chopped down using dao, a traditional kind of machete, the precious wood used for building, but mostly heating and cooking, then the grass is burned and the land hoed by hand. Rice and taro are planted for a few years and then the soil is exhausted and has to rest. The people move to another area and start all over again. To this day a hundred tribes still depend on this method of farming, that some see as organic and sustainable and some as inefficient and deforesting.

Before and after…

The Apatanis in Aranuchal Pradesh also have an old, but better, more sustainable method of agriculture. In their valley around the town of Ziro they grow rice on terraced rice paddies that serve at the same time as fish ponds.

As we came too early in the season, we were deprived of the emerald sight of green rice paddies that so many travelers extol. But our timing was perfect to meet the Apatani grannies, the last members of the tribe that still have their sweet faces traditionally tattooed. Some continue to also wear nose plugs. By sheer luck we are in Ziro on Sunday and on Sundays the grannies meet for worship at their Donyi-Polo building.

Donyi-Polo is an indigenous animist religion, still practiced in many homes. Those homes that practice proudly fly a white flag with red flaming sun, though my understanding is that they are loosing out to Christianity. According to their religion all things originate from one source Keyum (nothingness). Donyi is Mother Sun and Polo is Father Moon, a ying-yang force. There are shamanist practices and animal sacrifice involved. Eggs are an important element and there are many bamboo altars in front of their houses and a big garden outside of the village full of them. Bamboo is essential to their life and each family has its own bamboo grove protected by a fence. It was my big concern how to get some photos of the grannies without sticking my iPhone into their faces and offending them. But the grannies were so fun and welcoming. One version of the origin of the tattoos and nose plugs is that of beautiful Apatani women being intentionally made ugly so the neighboring tribes would not kidnap them, but a number of local people we talked to strongly denied this. It is interesting that the same kidnaping reason is cited for the origin of big lip plates in Mursi tribe in Ethiopia. Well, beauty is indeed in the eye of a beholder and in the perception of the tribe. People in many cultures from around the world tattoo their bodies and faces.

Guna lady, PanamaBurmese girl with thanaka paste designs

For example American Mojave Indians and Maori have women chin tattoos. For them it was not a question of beauty, but of their tribal identity. The chin tattoo called moko kauae in Maori is considered a physical manifestation of their identity and some Maori women of today are going back to their roots and having their chins tattooed.

In the Konyak tribe it is the men who have the facial tattoos. (Women have them only on their legs). Just as with the Apatani grannies, this dozen or so grandpas are the last of their tribe. The tattooing tradition dies with them.

Once you have been to a number of tribal areas it becomes clear how much is similar, despite vast geographical distances between cultures.

Of course when one only has natural materials such as straw and wood or bamboo, one makes similar implements and structures. We chanced upon a number of re-roofing projects in the Konyak villages. The smoke and soot filled palm leaf bunches are replaced with a fresh batch and the male populations of the whole village turns out to help. Seemingly without any directions they all do what they do best and within a day the roof is spanking brand new. But it is also the social aspect of the society that draws parallels. The rituals of life and death, and the celebrations of weddings have similar details. The music and singing is a strong element in all of these cultures and often hauntingly beautiful universal language of humanity. Circle of Toraja funeral singers, island of Sulawesi, Indonesia Circle of Angami singers in Nagaland

Another area of tribal parallels was the prevalence of pigs and buffalos. Pigs and piglets were seen everywhere and pork dishes were numerous on every menu. Seeing the bull horns on some of the morungs –young men’s village dormitories, we immediately thought of the island of Sumba in far away Indonesia and their horn bedecked homes. Of even bigger importance to the Nagas (and their neighbors) is mithun, a semi wild sacred animal, similar to buffalo. It roams freely in the forest and comes to its owner every now and then for a lick of salt. Mithun are not used for consumption but as proof of wealth at weddings and for ritual slaughter at funerals. Morungs usually shelter a large drum, fashioned from a big tree and hollowed out. It used to be a means of communication for the clan or tribe. Different sounds were pounded out according to the message: birth or death or enemy at the gate. Wars with the neighboring tribes were frequent and raids on villages happened often. Nagas are infamous for having been one of the last headhunters. The most impressive drum we found was an enormous and beautifully decorated drum in Aliba village. It took 8000 people to create this piece of art. They had to drag and roll the log by hand far from the forrest. We felt quite little next to it and were reminded of giant totems of the Canadian Pacific North West tribes.

Textiles are of course my biggest tribal love. Even though we are running out of empty wall space in our dwellings I can’t help but get some straight from the hands of skillful weavers. This one was made on Majuli island in Assam, where red and white reign supreme.And this one was made by this weaver’s grandmother. Only later at a museum I found out it was a special piece worn in the olden days only by rich men – clan leaders. To imbue it with some feminine power I wore it to the Sekrenyi Festival of the Angami tribe. We planned our trip so that we would end it at this festival, but we had no clue that the one contact we had in the area was the wife of the Angami chief’s son. Hekani is a University of San Francisco educated lawyer and runs a youth non profit in the capital Kohima. Well, how lucky can two travelers be?! We were treated to a special dinner of local delicacies at their home and were guests of honor at their village celebrations. We were even loaned two lovely young interns who further gave us invaluable insights and answered truthfully our myriad of questions. They regaled us with the stories of their ancestors, including slave owning grandpas with numerous wives from different tribes. The roads through North East India were arduous at best and tortuous at worst. But when you looked out the window you nearly forgot about the bumpy ride. I especially fell in love with the beautiful, green, ever present Naga hills. In the overpopulated world of Asia I will miss them very much.

P.S. In case you are planing a trip to the tribes we highly recommend hiring a driver and guide through Couldn’t have done it without them!

Not Quite India – North East Tribal Areas

The trip to North East India is not for soft cookies. As you are kicking over the few fellow travelers (some of them singles) some of whom have been spending more than a year braving bad roads of South Asia moving exclusively by PUBLIC transportation through jungle, crazy overpopulated cities, public strikes, humid heat or even a surprising spell of cold and rain we have just encountered you start wondering how much we have softened in our motto “Too old to backpack, too young to cruise!”. We have hired an English speaking guide, a safe driver, both local, but of Nepali Gurkha descent, and a pretty comfortable Toyota Inova! But then we planned on only a 16 day circuit, covering an area where distances are not measured in kilometers or miles but in hours. Here on a good day 30km/18miles can take 2 or 3 hours of bumps over sharp rocks, sways in and out of big potholes and slides in the fresh, squishy mud.

To give you some idea about the area we visited here is the map showing the NE “appendix” of India, squeezed between Bhutan, Tibet and China in the north, Myanmar (Burma) in the east and Bangladesh in the south, with only a narrow strip of land connecting it with the rest of the “motherland” in the west.

We started our adventure by flying as the only white faces on the plane into Guwahati, the capital of Assam, the economic heart of this region. With great relief we spotted easily the only man with a white piece of paper (bearing our name) and without hesitation, we jumped into our hired car traveling south. Quite soon we encountered the first vast green Assam tea plantations. Our first overnight was in the mountains at the old British hill station of Shillong. The vestiges of colonial villas were few and far between but to our great delight we discovered an absolutely wonderful abomination in the land of tea – the tiniest 2 table only coffee shop in the world Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee with a fantastic cappuccino made from tribally grown coffee. After the overnight haul it was just what the doctor ordered!

The next morning we pressed on into the heart of the State of Meghalaya and before noon we stood on the Bangladeshi border. Don’t get misled by our smiles and the blatant lie on the border-marking arch saying something about FRIENDSHIP. Frequent checkpoints and plenty of soldiers armed with Kalashnikoffs, especially on the Indian side, indicated otherwise.

Our Expedition Leader did not hesitate a second to educate the immigration and custom officers on plenty of possible improvements in their work and time management, so that otherwise messy process of border crossing would become smooth beyond recognition in matter of minutes.

In the meantime the local populations enhanced their cross border friendship by sharing the river and the riverbank with a tiny stripe of no man’s land in between controlled by border guards with whistles. The washing ladies in this case are Indian and the crowds behind them are Bangladeshi tourists. No kidding! Our third State, the northernmost sparsely populated Arunachal Pradesh, brought us close to China. Here no breath is wasted on friendly words, as China considers the northern tribes their “brothers” (like they do Tibetans so locals have something to look forward to!) and already made a military incursion into India here once. Our own movement was rather limited by rain and atrocious roads made more atrocious by said rain. The conditions of local bridges were of big concern to our resident engineer, and were on occasion personally inspected. All in all it was abundantly clear that we were quite safely stuck behind the main range of Himalayas. Truth be told we did have a feeling on entering this State with nary a sari in sight that the members of the local Apa Tani and Nyishi tribes did look a lot more like Tibetans than typical Indian citizen we know. Even from reading some history of trade relations, we learned both tribes have had quite extensive contacts with their northern neighbors but….we can hardly be called experts on this issue and certainly do not want to start another war between those two giants of the global market, when plenty of money and national pride is involved on both sides.

And hospitality industry standards in Aranuchal? It is hard to say. What hotels? We even spent one night in this tented Nameri Ecco camp. Otherwise all hotels have running hot water… there is always someone available to run in with a bucket of hot water!

And culinary delights? See this local kitchen. In spite of the primitive conditions, we found the food in Arunachal quite good, as everywhere else in India and I was more than happy to even find excellent pork dishes. The grilled pork in the ABC Restaurant in the city of Itanagar can be highly recommended, just in case anyone would dare to follow in our footsteps. Just don’t loose your wallet down the toilet, like I did!!

On the positive side our digestive tracts were intact for the duration of the Indian trip, which is considered as rare a miracle as Immaculate conception. It must have been for the prudent avoidance of more delectable local specialties like these wriggly grubs. The lack of suitable hotels was compensated by the lucky strike in finding a home stay in the village of Ziro with a sweet tribal couple called Punyo and Kaka. In their cozy home stay you can truly feel like at home away from home!

It was not just clean, simple, comfortable accommodation, tasty breakfasts and dinners but the company of this wonderful couple and discussion we had around the fireplace over their own produced local wine!!! I even forgot to open a reserve bottle of my favorite Indian lager, the famous Kingfisher beer, as my mental capacity and speaking capability were unquestionably affected by their “moonshine nectar”.

Heading back south to Nagaland (green State on the map above) we had to cross back into Assam and over the mighty Brahmaputra River. On the photo you can see our first ferry to Majuli Island. Some say it is the largest riverine island in Asia or even, according to industry’s more aggressive marketing people, in the world. The process of boarding a huge crowd of people, motorcycles, bicycles, and our car onto the rather small boat brought uneasy memories of all those news of Asian ferries capsizing while invariably overloaded by goods and people. We might have hoped the crew will not allow all of them to board this ship. Fortunately or not, our hopes were not heard by whatever Gods may have been involved in this transportation “miracle” as the crew after a lot of rearranging made it happen and squeezed everybody and everything onto this “ferry”. To our surprise we disembarked on Majuli Island with a loud sigh of relief, just to enjoy the rest of the day searching in the rain for the reserved accommodation on the riverbank. As we found it in the dark only, the morning brought that much more of a sweet surprise. Starting the second half of our adventure, we finally reached the easternmost point of our trip by walking across the Burmese border! No matter how many check points we had to pass on our way to the last Indian village of Lungwa located on the map at the point shared by Myanmar and two Indian States, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, the locals enjoyed a booming international trade in whatever trade items could be found in demand on the other side of the border! Be it a shared photo with locals taken by tourists orjust a few sticks of firewood or some opium, here prepared for the local tribal Angh (Leader), who seems to be continually under the influence of this strong substance. (Btw introduced by Britishers… but that is a story for another time).

Not exactly being interested in this kind of trade, we still contributed to local cash flow in spite of the limited space in our luggage. The prices for local tribal art were way too attractive, so the deal was sealed by a hand shake and a photo between both parties involved. We might need to discard some pieces of underwear to fit it in!

Some of you reading this report may feel a little bit uneasy about travel through such remote locations being safe. But you do not have to be overly concerned about our safety. There is always someone from the local tribesmen who will kindly take you under his wings!

P.S. In case you are planing a trip to the tribes we highly recommend hiring a driver and guide through Couldn’t have done it without them!

WOW=Western Australia Wonders

I do not remember a trip, no matter how extensive, at the conclusion of which we did not feel that something special still might have been missed. Our last year’s grand sweep of Australia left us missing Aussie Open finals by just a few days, so as you know, I had to return. At the same time my South African dive master in East Timor mentioned that his last job in Western Australia was in a diving paradise called Ningaloo Reef, so the add on for this year’s plan was hatched!

As for Western Australia I barely knew more than its capital Perth. One big town surrounded by vast emptiness with a few mines sprinkled about. A few thousand miles of nothing before you get to any decent sized town in Eastern Australia!

Looking on the Google map we found the distance to the Northernmost tip reefs daunting and the Weather app predicted record high temperatures. Worst of all, our time frame showed no migratory movement of well known varieties of sea mammals that ply the coast of WA. All kind of whales, orcas and whale sharks seemed determined to ignore our plans to see them. So we set our sights on the bottom part of the state south of Perth and what an auspicious decision that was. Sometimes the best laid plans… become better plans.

Our first day on arrival was shocking in the best sense of the word. Instead of sweating our way to the North where temperatures were hovering above 40C/100F we drove in our little blue car straight to the 800km/500miles distant town of Esperance on the south coast in pleasant 25C/75C temperature. We encountered a surprising variety of greenery filling Australian bush with, to us yet unknown creatures like this cross between grass and palm and tree called, as we later found out, politically very incorrectly – Black Boy.

When we finally reached the vast emptiness of this continent, we marveled at the large plains occasionally inhabited by lone old trees and not much else. This is called “the wheat belt” as it is populated by farmers, which on a few thousand acres sized farms, make a decent living from grains of all kinds. They move between their farms, bars, general stores and bank ATMs on perfect roads, sometimes even below speed limit. In their isolation and solitude they forge close relationships with their pets, which are actually working farm dogs and love them beyond their useful lives.

People of the small town of Corrigin expressed their devotion in the special cemetery where touching tributes were paid to their “best mates.”

Sometime, between those farms we passed by strange lithium ore mines, an element needed badly by all of us who cannot live without lithium battery powered devices like iPhones, computers, Tesla cars, or Boeing Dreamliners. The by-product of the mining boom is good paying jobs for those willing to move into barren mining places from the rest of Australia and beyond. They eat forty bucks steaks for dinner flushing it down with ten bucks bottles of beer

in addition to filling vaults of banks in Perth or Sydney and coffers of Australian governments with cool cash. All that lithium goes straight to hungry Chinese production lines with the help of gargantuan road trains moving in short intervals to the newly upgraded ports on the southern coast. In our Mini Suzuki we feel like Gulliver hopelessly lost among giants. When we get scared off the road, we take a break to see places where Australia may still look like before the European settlers (or prisoners) showed up on its shores. Here, in the Mulka’s cave we got a cherished opportunity to snap a shot or two of the hundreds of Aboriginal hand imprints. We don’t particularly care for caves of any kind, except for those bearing the artistic presence of our human ancestors. Those we love and look for all over the world.

Just a few miles from the cave is a fitting reminder of what Western Australia may offer on its far away shores. This huge Rock Wave, almost 15m/50ft high, leaves no doubt in your mind of what you should expect further down the road. The surfing/wind-surfing/kite-surfing paradise at its best!

And when we reach those shores, Bay after Bay, they are better than we could have imagined. But nothing prepares you for Lucky Bay, the beach with the whitest sand in all of Australia. (Scientifically measured and proven.)

What would you prefer?

Having fun on your own jumping in the air over azure waves or enjoying some friendly competition with your mates? Kite-surfing … … or petting those friendly beach kangaroos? Hand feeding? Just seaweed?! You can’t be serious, Madam! Better just observe them in their own environment and leave them in peace!

The natural beauty of the pristine southern coast of WA is beyond description. It has to be seen and enjoyed in person. There are surprises around every corner: the yellow-orange blooming Christmas Trees (way past Christmas time) with the background of Rock Mountain sporting an interesting “needle hole” shaped top … … pretty strong Southern Ocean breeze on the Thistle Beach in the Cape La Grand National Park… … and more beautiful coves with spectacular colors (no filter needed) and attractive names like the Twilight Beach west of the town of Esperance.

The famous Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne has nothing on these phenomenal views! Driving around is not enough for you? Why don’t you get on the plane and fly over to see all those beautiful colors of the pink Lake Hiller on the Middle Island in the Cape Arid National Park.

Back on the coastal road you can find proud Norfolk Pines with funny, peculiar needles. Growing easily 40m/130ft high, they were planted on the shores to replace incoming sail ships masts frequently snapped in the brute “roaring forties” winds.

Inland you find remains of eucalyptus forests as they might have looked with some really tall tingle trees before they were rather mercilessly cut down (as reflected in this aboriginal painting – open to interpretation, of course) only to pave(!) the streets of London in 1900s.

The other tall presence here is wind turbines on wind farms. They are a sight, and a beautiful one, to behold. It is rare one can get up close and personal to these modern giants. There are actually tourist informational trails leading through the forest of wind turbines, no security concerns whatsoever. Talk about security levels here! As a matter of fact, on the Australian domestic flights we never even had to present an ID with our boarding pass!

After we turned the corner of the south-western tip of Australia, called Cape Leeuwin, we still had some interesting stuff to do. After climbing the steps to the top the thirst brought us quickly to the Margaret River wineries. As always, when opportunity arises, some of us never hesitate to stop by and DRINK!

Famous wines of Western Australia were tasted by our expedition tester-in-charge. After consultation with her pink Lake Hiller personal pilot named Will, otherwise part of one of the few sets of Australian quadruplets, it has been decided to visit Leeuwin, Voyager and Knottinghill wineries (the last having a distinction of being owned by Will’s cousin and also featuring as Will’s recent wedding venue). At the Voyager vinery the meticulously maintained and lovingly tended rose garden was one of the most beautiful we had ever seen. To our surprise each differently colored variety of perfect rose bushes actually smelled intoxicatingly differently. Such a rarity to find roses these days that really smell like roses. In the rarified environment and architecturally spectacular interiors of their taste rooms highly intellectual exchange ensued between our tester and Adam-the-Sommelier focusing on bouquet, flavor, terroir, and other subjects unknown to the writer of this blog also known as Driver, who was silently sipping from his glass of lukewarm water to avoid a possible DUI, while dully trying to record this sophisticated conversation electronically. Tasting was highly successful, conversation entertaining and exchange of business cards mutual. Future visit in the winery guaranteed!

At Knottinghill the architecture was more modern and the cousin happy to share her wine and Will’s wedding photos. Looks like more are in the offing as his three quad siblings have been getting engaged one after the other.

As we were heading towards the Perth airport enjoying the last rays of the sun setting over the modest cattle farms endangered by spreading developments from future Perth-Fremantle megalopolis, our regular end of the trip discussion moved slowly on.

But its conclusion was clear. We may not have seen the whales, orcas, whale sharks, giant calamari, manta rays or any others this time. As it happened in the past after each of our LAST visits to Australia, we decided, as expected, unanimously:


The Real Cambodia

You can’t say Cambodia without also uttering in the same breath: Angkor Wat. Yes, it is the symbol of Cambodia, but it is really the symbol of some other Cambodia – a glorious kingdom eclipsed long ago and also a symbol of foreign tourists enjoying their awe filled, colorful, delicious, and inexpensive vacation. Most Cambodians have never seen those magnificent temples up close, even if they live right around the corner in the very same villages their long ago ancestors, had inhabited a thousand years ago. They have no tuning water, sewers or electricity. They are too busy eking out their living, working long hard hours as rice farmers, fishermen, or construction workers to visit ancient temples.

Most tourists will never meet these hard working men and women, the backbone of Cambodia. You would this last week, if you travelled with our small all–woman group of donors/volunteers on a mission to make a difference – traveling with purpose.

While we did manage to marvel at the colossal architecture, admire the magnificent sculpture and savor the taste of the best Khmer cuisine, we spent the majority of our time out in the countryside visiting the villages where the organisation I have been volunteering for nearly a decade, works.

Through the years some changes have come to the villages closest to the city, most notably electricity reaching nearly all the way to the schools where we have been introducing English and computer classes. Well, those have been working on solar panels and still do. But take a few steps further into the countryside on bumpy dusty roads that turn to mud when monsoon rains arrive and you will find life as it was in the old kingdom. People living in houses with thatched roofs, climbing up the palm trees barefoot to collect sap and cook it down into palm sugar or spending hours and days weaving baskets at $1.50 each.To bring more protein into the local diet and business opportunity to local women we recently introduced a new program, Piggy Heaven, initiated by a 12 year old girl from California. Tabi, who came on the trip with her mom, raises and shows pigs for her 4H club. Last year she sold her first pig and donated all the proceeds ($1500) to buy the first piglets for the program. Many of her friends joined her and we now have 160 pigs and growing. The first piglet litters are on their way and from each of those two piglets will be given forward to new families. Most of the people are rice farmers and they have no technology to help. Buffalos plow the fields and rice is planted and tended to all by hand – backbreaking labor.

We hope to help the parents ensure a better future for their children. With good education, especially with some knowledge of English and computers there are good opportunities for work in the city nearby. As children come to Khmer school in morning and afternoon shifts, they have half a day available to learn more; besides English and computers they can also play sports and read in our libraries.We know that early childhood education is important so we introduced preschools in the community. It was hard at first to persuade the parents that play can be great learning. They still expect the littlest ones to quickly learn and recite their ABCs and 1,2,3s. But we try to bring some new methods to the largely rote learning in all classes.It certainly isn’t easy when you teach 53 kids in a hot classroom. Yup, 53, you can count them! The one saving grace is that the students are the most disciplined, best behaved in the world. They love coming to school! Even more for the supplementary classes we offer. In our schools they also come on time because they get free protein rich breakfast in the morning. Everyone pitches in with the clean up.

There are no janitors so the kids clean up the campus, too. There is not much time for play for Cambodian children, they work at home, too, from an early age. They might forage for frogs or little fish in mud. The food is always scarce and many families subsist on rice and vegetables.If you have no sibling to take care of you, you fend for yourself, while your mom works the land. We tried planting some morning glory seeds and it was hard hot work. Bringing fresh water to the families is the first step towards a better, healthier life. To date we have built over 1,300 water wells, donated by our friends and supporters all around the world. Meeting the family of your sponsored water well is the highlight of any visit. Philanthropy and volunteering changes everyone’s lives!

Blessings to all who make this world a better place by sharing a smile, planting a tree, or extending a helping hand!

Cambodian Community Dream Organization

Australia Open Live – For Tennis Fans And Others

Our second year of travel started with us going separate ways – just for 10 days or so. After spending the holidays with our girls in San Francisco, we embarked on another year of adventures nearly to the day of the start of our first year. Ksenija flew to Cambodia with a group of volunteers and I to Australia to fulfill a life long dream of seeing a tennis Open, not on a TV screen, but LIVE!

I was lucky to be able to stay with amazing Aussie friends Nellie and John in their beautiful home on the outskirts of Melbourne, taking the train into the city every day.

Women’s quarterfinals 

I arrived on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning saw me already in the Rod Laver Arena, on the court of a huge fifteen thousand seats capacity. I was very happy in the full swing of my tennis mode, despite having had arrived without my luggage. My itinerary took me from San Fran through New Zealand and during the process of transferring myself and my luggage I managed to transfer myself to the Melbourne flight but Singapore Airlines could not do the same with my duffle bag. Spectacular landing over striking shores of New Zealand.

Luckily the airlines generously provided me with a male emergency kit and my lovely hosts welcomed me with an Aussie T-shirt, so I looked civilized enough on my first Major of the year. My opening salvo was watching Serena Williams The green outfit, unfortunately was not very flattering

in her post-maternity heaviness, looking like a hippopotamus (those are very dangerous and deceptively fast when attacking), delivering to her opponent many successful shots accompanied with threatening killer screams. Luck would have it that she played one of those Czech tennis players with a difficult name to pronounce. Karolína  Plíšková to me looked like a giraffe. It was difficult to believe the official statistics putting Serena’s and Plíšková’s weight at almost the same 70+/- kg (154lbs) according to AO released information. Karolína Plíšková, serving. 

Excuse the quality of the photos but hey, I cannot carry one of those huge tele-lenses on our trip around the world! The photo was taken by my minuscule iPhone from my AUS$300-seat in the row F, seat 28!!! You can even see the ball in the right upper corner without tapping and zooming in! So, please do not complain! It was a very dramatic match with the Goddess of Luck distributing evenly between both ladies. In the final set, Serena started fully in charge taking the lead 5:1. Then suddenly the Czech giraffe took over, nailing six games in a row pushing herself into the Thursday semis for which I had already secured my ticket. This time AUS$200+, a cheaper deal, but this happened only because the rest of the Arena’s more expensive seats were already sold out.

The next morning I unwisely decided to stay for the Day Session. The heat and the humidity were growing by the minute even as I took my seat in the shade, watching one of the men’s double semis. Those doubles can be interesting, but not this one. With the roof open the sun lit seats were almost empty with spectators killing time in the cavernous air conditioned corridors sipping their drinks or having snacks.

By the time the next round came up for the first women’s semis match between American Collins and Czech Kvitova it was clear that the heat like this and top level tennis cannot coexist. When the score of unforced errors reached 4:4 an official showed up on the court and announced that the heat index, a combination of temperature (42C/108F at that time) and humidity (must have been 100) crossed the limit set by Australian Open rules (some magic number I do not know) and therefore they will close the roof and start air-conditioning. I did not hear what the players’ verbal reaction was but the crowed went wild with excitement that the weather torture was over. Sitting in the frying sun and looking at the players struggling with cruel court conditions was simply too much. The rest of the afternoon, including the other semi between Osaka and Pliskova was played in decent airconditioned environment, resulting in this OPEN becoming the first INDOOR MAJOR in tennis history. Still, it was not very good tennis. A lot of unforced errors, Collins arguing with umpire in one semis, and Pliškova’s subdued performance in the other made me feel rather disappointed. Well, you cannot get everything!

Stepping outside of the Rod Laver Arena the atmosphere was great, even if it felt like getting into a pizza oven with you being a pizza. But you got a few opportunities in the park to cool down. Like this walk-through-tunnel spraying cold mist all over you from all sides. Refreshing, indeed! To make spectators feel better the organizers released information on other places in Australia where the heat was even worse! Adelaide in Southern Australia reported a temperature of 47C/117F, the highest recorded temperature in major Australian city EVER!

I decided not to stay for the Night Session (Nadal beat somebody in quick three sets) and went to a beach bar instead. 

As the forecast for Friday was 41C/105F I decided to save the money and stay on the beach with friends drinking good cold Aussie beer. I did not miss much with Djokovic beating someone quickly and everyone going home disappointed.

Women’s Final

With temperatures mercifully dropping by 15-20C/30-40F on Saturday, I jumped on the suburban commuter train shortly after breakfast taking me to the arena well before the evening’s Women’s Finals! After my tennis quality of younger years made it clear that I will not qualify for any Pro tournament I wanted to at least see it. To be there and participate. I did try to get a ticket to this Australian Open Men’s finals early, ordering it nine months ahead, only to learn from organizers in October that this event was hopelessly sold out. When they offered me a seat for Women’s finals instead I took it.

Now that Day has finally arrived and I will spend it enjoying the atmosphere. Not just in the Rod Laver Arena but in the whole Tennis Center. You do not have to necessarily pay obscene amounts of money for the ticket to watch the game in the Arena, like I and fifteen thousands other fans did. You can get to the tennis center for a modest fee, enjoy the ambience of the Major with other fans and simply BE THERE! And drink and eat, AND SHOP! In the Adidas shop you can buy the same stuff worn by those playersrepresenting the brand. Many of them were eliminated in the first week of the Major, well before my arrival to Melbourne. Other tennis stars were making big bucks in non-tennis related businesses like my hero Roger supporting Barilla pasta, his friend Rafa, proudly acting as the Global Ambassador of KIA cars (I wonder if he’s ever sat behind its wheel), or André Agassi favoring the Lavazza coffee machines promising that “each cup can change your life”! I like Lavazza, but I am afraid it did not change mine!

Caffeinated I walked past the statue of the famous Australian player Rod Laver and took my seat to see the final of the Boy’s draw, delivering the drama in the third set tie-breaker, drama so much missed in many one-sided matches in Men’s and Women’s single draws.

Then just walking around and following the crowd got me a close glimpse of some participants of the finals. On the practice court no.17  I found American Japanese finalist Naomi Osaka preparing herself hard under the hot Melbourne sun barely two hours before the women’s highly anticipated final.

I even saw Novak Djokovic hit practice balls in the Rod Laver Arena a day before his final.

But even he had to leave, the roof was closed and the entertainment show could begin. And when this artistic show of lights ended the arena roof opened again with players coming in.

When I bought my ticket sight unseen long time ago I had no clue which two women would make it to the last round. To make the final even more interesting the winner of this match would become the world number One player! Naomi Osaka, who won the last Open few months ago in New York was now facing Czech Petra Kvitova whose return to the top tennis was questionable after a serious injury she suffered in a gruesome knife attack by a robber in her own apartment two years ago, severing the nerves and tendons in her playing left hand. It was certainly an interesting game in which player’s luck shifted from one to another. Kvitova managed to survive three match points winning the second set, before Osaka prevailed in the last third set.

From my perspective I think Osaka was the better of two and her victory was much deserved. For Kvitova it must have been emotionally a very difficult match and let’s hope it signals her return to top tennis. The women’s final ceremony had not been the final closure of Australian Open for me, as the Laver Arena audience was treated with a nice dessert of mixed doubles played till wee hours of the Sunday morning. In the mixed finals the Czech-US couple Krejcikova-Ram beat their Australian opponents. It must have been disappointing for those Aussies still sitting in the arena, while giving happy Czechs at least half of the title in the first Major of this season.

And this was the end of Open for me. I ran from the Arena to the Richmond station to catch my train to my temporary home sweet home in the beach town of Mordialloc for early Sunday morning breakfast.

My first, and probably the last, tennis Major was over. This is it! Another big item on my bucket list could be checked off.