Thursday, January 30, 2014


Tokyo was everything I never expected it to be, and nothing short of amazing.

Streets are clean enough to eat off of.

Second story walkways in the sky connect individuals from one building to the next, allowing them to avoid crosswalks all together. And that high up in the air, weaving around giant building after giant building the city looks like an iconic concrete jungle.

The homeless cherish cleanliness and organization as much as the next guy. Building walls of cardboard, they create themselves a nice shelter fully equipped with a bed, functioning kitchen, and desktop to write letters on.

Malls are multiple stories high. Some exceeding 15 floors. The basement houses a mecca of all things food. From Dean & DeLuca and The City Bakery cafes to market styled counters. It is everything you never knew you wanted.

And there are enough parks sprawled around the city that greenery is never left wanting.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

perks of going against the grain

"Hi Claire," Bryan started out in his message to me, "I will be in Tokyo from the 15th through the 21st! If you're interested in coming up it would be great to see you and check out some sights around the city and I'd extend my stay so we could explore other parts of the country as well."

Would you like to join me in Japan, the note read. 

Not really, I thought.

I was all for meeting up with Bryan, mind you. It's just, Japan just never crossed my list of places to visit. The list it was on, actually, was the one written Places To Go If You Have No Other Option

So I debated. And debated. For a solid 24 hours, since a decision was needed quickly. I hesitantly consented. But the days following up to my arrival in Japan brought a swelling of excitement within me to see a country I never cared to step foot upon.

I googled the essential in order to ensure a great travel experience: the best food joints. I let Bryan do the rest. And an outline of the trip was starting to come together.

He was staying in a 5 star luxury hotel during the time he was there working. The rest of the stay would be on par with my low budget options. A low budget option I was going to take from the onset had I not thought I'd be stuck overnighting it in the Tokyo airport at my arrival.

After my dorm mate confirmed otherwise, quick communication exchanges were sent back and forth between Tokyo and Jakarta. I'd be making my grand entrance into the city in style. At a 5 star hotel stay.

My dorm mate and I traveled side by side up until the last train I needed to take in order to reach Bryan's hotel. At that point we parted ways, never to see each other again. He has reached sainthood in my eyes, though. And I would deem him as such, if only I could remember his name...

On that last train ride, I was greeted by two Japanese men commenting on how they loved my suitcase. It's flowery and tacky. I wouldn't expect anything less than love for it from the locals.

I hopped off the train and traded it for my final leg of the journey via taxi. A black luxury car with a little Japanese man dressed to the nines, donned in white gloves, drove me through the lit up streets of Tokyo. The roads were still busy, despite the middle of the night hour on a Thursday.

He led me to the front entrance of a towering hotel, I walked through the grand lobby including marble flooring, giant chandeliers and a two story water feature.

I buzzed the doorbell to Bryan's room, waking him up from his slumber. He welcomed me in, explaining he had another bed brought up, which he had taken; leaving me an entire king sized bed for myself fitted with plush pillows and a down-feather comforter.

I walked into the bathroom to shower pressure so strong I felt guilty using it, and toilets with heated seats.

Tokyo was a far cry from thin mattresses, low pressure cold showers, and squat toilets I had grown accustomed to. And I couldn't have been happier my response to Bryan's initial invitation to me was, "Sure! I'll head up to Japan, so go ahead and book the extension on your stay."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

the difference between fate and divine providence

Jakarta was a necessity more than a desire. A needed stop over for our perspective flights out of the country.

Esther left the night of our arrival, but armed me with a restaurant name as a parting gift. Taco Local, a hipster Mexican restaurant serving the most delicious Mexican food that's ever passed my lips - made by Indonesians who have never even left the country, was primarily what took up my filler day in the city.

The other part (aside from visiting the obligatory touristic spots) was spent wracking my brain, trying to figure out a way to avoid having to sleep in Tokyo's airport terminal after my late arrival the next day since the trains shut down after a certain hour. All the brain wracking proved futile, however, and I ended up resigning myself to an unfortunate fate.

That night as I packed up my bags, I apologized to the people in the dorm in advance for the noise I'd be making so early in the morning.

"Ah, taking the flight to KL and then to somewhere else, huh?" the guy in the bed next to mine asked.

"Yeah. You too?"

"Yup. Headed to Tokyo," he said.

My eyes widened. What were the odds. I mentioned that we'd most likely be sleeping in the airport from what I had read due to our arrival time, unless we wanted to spend an astronomical amount for a taxi. Then he looked at me a bit confused.

"We should be fine," he said. He's lived north of Tokyo for about ten years. "But... now you have me questioning myself. Give me a second while I check."

He looked up a few Japanese websites online. Ones I'd have never found or navigated on my own.

"Okay, yeah. We're good. We'll definitely make the last train of the night out of the airport. Then the other trains around Tokyo run a bit longer."

No sleeping on terminal benches.

That's when I knew: this guy was heaven sent. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

without a paddle.

Half way between Yogyakarta and Jakarta is a tiny beachside vacation spot for locals called Pangandaran. They come in droves for weekend retreats. We went for something else entirely. A green canyon.

Called such because of the moss covered rock walls, the green canyon is an adventure seekers heart and soul.

Hopping from rock to rock, pushing your way across strong currents from one edge of the canyon to the other, trying to make your way upstream was only part of the fun. Body rafting back down was the other part.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the batik mafia

Aside from the mouth watering Italian restaurant, AgliOo, where we spent the majority of our time, we couldn't find much to do and wondered what activities other tourists were doing throughout the day to illicit comments on how much they enjoyed Yogyakarta.

"A puppet show at the Royal Palace could be nice," Esther offered.

"Why not," I told her.

The Lonely Planet guidebook she had provided the production times, so we planned on showing up for a portion of one before lunch. It was a bit of a hike to reach the palace, and we were having difficulties finding the entrance.

"It's not so safe to walk on the road with all the traffic, maybe you should come up on this sidewalk," a man next to me suggested.

We made small talk and I asked where the palace entrance was located.

"It's about a half-kilometer straight ahead," he explained. "But right now it's closed for lunch."

Esther and I looked at each other. From what the guidebook stated, we were well within the hours of its being open.

"You can go if you want, but I've worked there for the past four years." He showed us his ID card. "It will open back up at one-thirty this afternoon. That's why I'm not on the palace grounds. Going home for lunch. It's my wife's birthday today. It's mine tomorrow, want to see?"

He pulled out his identification again, showing his date of birth.  We congratulated him. The conversation continued on to activities we could do to fill our time. He was a plethora of knowledge.

"While waiting for the palace to open, you could always go see the indoor market. It's really cheap. Better price than at the shops. And you can also go to the batik school."

Batik, we learned, is wax-resistant dyed fabric. A traditional Indonesian form of art.

We liked the guy, trusted his judgement, so when he offered to hail us a becak for a cheap price to take us to the batik school, we consented.

An hour was spent at the school, learning the techniques used to create the batik. Another hour or more was spent meandering through the city on our way back to the palace.

When we neared the palace gates, becak drivers offered to drive us around. We declined, telling them we were going to the palace.

"Palace closed," they each said.

A man nearby overheard one such interaction, and confirmed their statements.

"It closed at two-thirty," he said. It was nearing three o'clock.

Not knowing who to believe anymore, them or the man we met earlier, we said we'd check it out anyway.

"That's fine, you can check it out. Just watch out for the batik mafia," he warned.

"The batik mafia?"

"Yeah, guys who say the palace is closed, when it's clearly open, and con you into visiting a batik school instead," he explained.

All it took was for him to look at our expressions.

"I take it someone has done that to you already," he asked.

"But he was so nice," we said in disbelief in how well we would have been conned if what he was saying was true.

And he was, we discovered fifteen minutes later while looking at the opening hours on closed palace doors, the nicest mafia conman we had ever met. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014


It was an early wake up call, the morning we went to the Borobodur temple. But it was the main reason we flew into Yogyakarta on Java Island, so we took the darkness in stride. Seeing the sun rise over the temple would be worth every minute we lost out on sleep, we reasoned. And it... was. Slightly. After we could point it out in the valley below, about 10 miles from the mountain we stood upon. It wasn't necessarily what we had envisioned, but the sunrise was spectacular either way.

We were permitted three hours to explore Borobodur once reaching the temple gates, said our driver. He led us towards the ticketing office and let us free once swaths of fabric were wrapped around our waists to elongate our dresses.

In most situations, Esther and I explore locations together. But my trigger happy camera finger kept me lagging behind, trying to capture a shot of each (504) Buddha statue, as she bound her way up the multitude of stairs to the top platform. And there, we lost track of each other in the maze of 72 Buddha enshrined stupas.

I wandered around, snapping one photo after another in search of her before making my way over to an edge of the temple that was relatively void of people, overlooking lush green mountains to absorb a moment of peace. And I achieved that. I was in the midst of a completely zen moment when a local woman on the other side of the stupa I was standing near and I made eye contact.

Her eyes lit up, and she ran around the stupa with her two young children, pushing them in front of me at the same instant she held up her camera. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled, offering the OK. Her daughter verbally sighed, and I thought I caught the roll of her eyes.

But it was then, in the midst of what should have been a 10 second photo-op, that I became the object of a 10 minute photo shoot.

A group of young teenage girls walking past us squealed in delight, attracting an onslaught of locals that came rushing in their direction, cameras in hand. It was my turn to verbally sigh, while smiling to the lot of them.

It was in that moment of chaos, atop a place of tranquility, that I spotted Esther above me, taking photos of Indonesians, taking photos of me.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

easing Indonesian policies

After a weekend of deliberation, an East Timor visa run was no more. I would renew my visa at the local consulate and we'd head to Java for a few days before separating ways.

But Esther had horror stories of her renewal in Bali. And after searching online, I realized she wasn't the only one. Passports had to be brought in 5-7 days before visa expiry, she explained. Then, the renewed visa could take nearly as long before it could be picked up. Hers took ten days in the end to renew.

"You need xerox copies of your passport and a printout itinerary of your flight out," she went on. "I just made a fake flight itinerary with an old one."

Following her lead, I did the same. But I was nervous. Unlike her, I was entering the consulate the day before my visa was to expire... a consulate that took multiple attempts to find.

"Can I help you?" a lady asked behind one of the counters scattered across the room as I spun around trying to figure out which one to approach.

I was the only tourist in the entire building, and wondered if I were in the right spot.

Explaining that I need to renew my visa, I started making excuses as to why I hadn't done so sooner. I was spewing out apologies so quickly I barely heard her say it was okay.

"Fill out these forms, then go to that counter over there," she pointed to the other side of the room, "to pay and come back at three o'clock to pick up your passport."

That was that. No hassle, no days of waiting, no headaches. I left in disbelief, with my fingers crossed from the moment I left until the moment I picked my passport back up in the afternoon, that it was as simple as that.

And then we took the earliest flight out the next day.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

saying cheese

We stayed in Kupang five nights.

Aside from us, few expats and locals passed their days at the bar, and the occasional visa run tourist would make an overnight stop. Whenever we asked for something, Edwin would yell towards the kitchen: "Emory!", his hired young helper who would fulfill our (and everyone else's) wishes.  One local joked that if Edwin was seated at the table with pen in hand and so much as dropped it on the ground, he'd scream for Emory to come from wherever he was to pick it up. We became so familiar with the place that we too were walking in and out of the kitchen as if it were our own... partly because we didn't want Emory to come running from whatever task he had at hand.

In general, few tourists pass through town, and instead of being accosted by locals asking if we need a taxi or motorbike, they'd greet us with shouts of "HI MISTER".  Clearly they hadn't been taught how to address both genders.

While exploring the town, my small camera battery died and I didn't have another.  I was left with only one option for photo taking, which I was quite keen on doing. And that was to strap a very conspicuous DSLR around my neck. I felt uncomfortable parading around town while trying to be stealth in taking pictures of locals with a clearly visible contraption. But I shouldn't have worried. Because the moment it hung down my neck, locals began throwing themselves at me to get their photo taken.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

attempted visa runs

No flights from Flores fly directly to East Timor. Our only option was a mid-afternoon arrival in Kupang, Timor and rush to the consulate before the doors closed for the weekend. With a visa that we hoped to receive by Monday afternoon, we'd be able to take a 10-13 hour bus ride across the island to reach the border of East Timor before Tuesday night, when my Indonesian visa expired.

But when you travel on a whim, things don't generally work out as smoothly as you're hoping. At least in our case it didn't.  After haggling for a decent priced taxi from the Kupang airport, we arrived at the East Timor consulate after the doors were shut. Then, with kindness in his heart, and an extra dollar from our pockets, the driver took us to the Indonesian consulate so I could at least renew my visa. Except, in recent turn of events, what once was the consulate location was no longer. It happened to be in the vicinity of the airport, and there was no kindness left in him to take us back and forth from there for free. And, in all likelihood, it too would probably have shut its doors for the weekend by the time we arrived.

Instead we squeezed out the last bit of mileage from our willing funds and went in search of accommodations. The first location, boasting a swimming pool (that was empty) and a $25 dollar "steal" of a room, was anything but. At least for Asian standards. We passed. The second location, and the current TOP PICK in Lonely Planet was unsurprisingly full by our arrival time. We ended up settling on the third location: a $5 dollar hole in the wall. A hole in the wall we settled for precisely because it was $5 dollars.

The wifi, we were informed, was at their cafe - down the road and to the left, right on the waterfront.

We grabbed our laptops and plopped ourselves at a table with first class views of the waves that  crash against the cliffside we sat upon. But the waves weren't what my eyes were focused on. No, no. They were focused on an open bedroom. One with pristine walls and bed with a mattress that looked so inviting I was willing to give my very soul in order to sleep upon.

That's when Edwin entered the picture.  Edwin, a middle aged (a bit more than, actually) Indonesian who was a former actor, now with more money than he knows what to do with, was also the owner of the joint - and the hostel we were booked into as well.  He has quirkiest of personalities to go along with it.

We chatted as he held onto an overpriced hammock, which he bought online from Mexico.

He was quick to say how much he paid for things. The mattress. The sheets upon the mattress, both made in America. The shower head that was made in Germany. And the list goes on.

I wanted in. I wanted in that moment. Looking at that room and thinking back on the one we were currently fated to had me in a slum of despair.

The room was new. Never used. The shutters were being placed on the window as we spoke. We asked how much it was, and to our astonishment, after the cost of everything he put into it, he said, "Ten dollars a night."  I looked at Esther as fast as she turned to look at me.

"Can we stay here tonight instead?" I asked.

"Well... you already paid for your room at the other building, and even though we're the same business, that money stays there," he explained. He has perfect English.

"What if we pay $5 dollars there and $5 here?" we asked.  I was even willing to lose the $5 dollars and fork out $10 more just to stay in the room by the sea.

He looked conflicted, but said it wasn't possible. Although, he added, we could move into the adjacent dorms the following night (which were new as well)- since room in question would be taken by then.

My face dropped. Sadness filled my eyes. And he stared at me once more, conflicted.

The hammock swung back and forth in his grip.

"Okay. You two can stay here tonight for free," he finally decided.

My face, and I'm sure Esther's as well, lit up. "Wait... what? We can pay the difference," we spit out.

But his mind was set. We raced back to 'the hole in the wall' to grab our things and check out.

We reveled in the joy of such an amazing room, with an even more amazing view, that we were given for free. And then realized we were hungry.

"Edwin," we asked, "where's the best place to get food around here?"

"Hmm..., what type of food do you want to eat?"

"Anything," came our response.

He said he'd order in, since he didn't feel like making anything from the kitchen.  A meal, which too, was offered for free.