This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Left My Heart in Yogyakarta

Three hours in a bus and an hour on a westbound ferry, we get to Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. Just eleven more hours on the bus, and we are in Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is the launching pad for visiting Borobudur, the largest Buddhist structure in the world. It is also famous for batiks, traditional Javanese textiles.

Landing in a strange town in a relatively strange country after traveling for fifteen hours can be disorientating. Without a hotel we ask the shuttle driver to drop us off in the tourist ghetto. It is 6 AM so we should have plenty of time to find something. Though so many places are full - bloody high season. We find out that it is also holiday for Indonesians, so there are also many local tourists as well. We are now worried that like Bali, Yogyakarta, will be another place for price gouging foreigners.

After a quick stroll around town we see this is not the case at all. People are very kind without the feeling they want something from us. No one gives us inflated prices (or if they do it is a negligible tourist tax). Malioboro Road, the main shopping drag, is lined block after block with shops and sidewalk stands selling tourist items. However, they almost all seem to be geared for the Indonesian customer. Many shops have fixed prices or just start at a decent price and may bargain down a little.

We spend the day just walking around. We pop into the large central market. Three floors of fruits, vegetables, spices and house wares. One huge area is dedicated just to onions. There are no nick knacks here. At first we are a little apprehensive to speak with people because we really are not buying anything right now (no extra weight). But after a few minutes we see that they are very genuine. No one expects us to purchase anything. One man, who used to work for an American, explains his assortment of goods from his spice shop. We have a coffee at a little booth while behind us men unload a truck carrying ridiculously heavy baskets on their back.

The most interesting thing at the museum is these Indonesian students dressed in "Cos Play" as characters from a Korean video game.

Next we go to a terribly boring independence museum (see above photo)at an old Dutch army base. There are lots of dioramas of historical figures having meetings and zero information in English, which is probably why he let us in 2-for-1 when we were waffling at the ticket counter. We then go see some batik shops - a famous craft of Yogyakarta. In the back of some stores you can see the batik making process.

Tired and far from the hotel we decide to hire our first becak. A becak is public transportation in the form of a three-wheeled bicycle with a two person seat in the front pushed by the becak driver behind. They are still used somewhat by locals, but I think that personal scooters are so prevalent now in Indonesian society that it must really hurt this more traditional form of transportation. The becak drivers are all over Yogyakarta. Usually just sitting or sleeping in their becak. You cannot go anywhere on foot without a becak driver bothering you. They really want foreign tourists because A: We usually pay more not knowing real fare rates or location distances, and B: If they take you to a batik shop or gallery or silver shop or t-shirt shop and you purchase something they will get a commission. We let our driver take us to some shops, but still nothing catches our eye. After the fourth store we insist on getting back to the hotel. The next day, Monday July 26th, we go to the biggest site in Yogyakarta. The Kraton, Sultan’s palace. itself is fine for a quick walk through. There old portraits of sultans, photographs from the sultan’s life today and, of course, many batiks on display. The highlight though is the live rehearsal concert of Gamelan music. This is a traditional form of music with about twenty musicians all playing some type of percussion instrument with six singers.. All of the musicians sit on the floor playing gongs, bowls with lids or mini xylophones. If you concentrate and follow just one musician it sounds just like, “dong“…”bong“…. However, when you add up all of the individual bings and bongs together it creates a complete melody and very suitable background music for checking out a Javanese Sultan’s crib.

This guy is easily distracted

However, this guy is unflappable

We then head to the bird market. From what we have seen thus far, many homes in Indonesia have songbirds in cages. My fanciful vision is that this market will be something like Baghdad of 150 years ago, a colorful market teeming with people buying all sorts of feathered creatures. In reality, there are several rows of vendors selling various songbirds and parakeets, large, well-groomed roosters and many pigeons. The soft drink Sprite had a booth giving out free samples. The few serious buyers I do notice are in the market for pigeons. They inspect every inch of the bird checking the feathers, wing strength, beak and other things that maybe only pigeon aficionados can understand. A pigeon sells for around Rp 70,000 (US $7.77).

In the back of the market is a single row of sellers with more exotic creatures: Long-haired cats and rabbits that look terribly hot and hopeful a nice Northern European tourist will take them home, an owl, an enormous snake in a cabinet, squirrels, bats*, two North American turkeys, a pair of monkeys, and a small otter who is absolutely miserable with life in captivity. Many of these exotic animals are plucked from the jungles of Sumatra. And I guess, like everywhere, only when people stop buying these animals will people stop selling them.

Me giving our becak driver a ride down the block.

*According to the Javanese bat seller, eating bats will help cure asthma. And they thought it strange when I explained that yes, people in other countries actually do eat rabbit. They are not just pets.

This can be yours for a mere US $28. Cage not included.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Images of Bali

Bali is famous for it's unique brand of Hinduism, rich artisan culture and dancing. I did not delve deeply into the culture and hardly did almost any shopping to look at crafts and such, so I will not pretend to know anything. Maybe next time around we'll have more time to inspect the fine details. Regardless, I will share some images anyway.

Practicing a traditional Balinese dance for an upcoming ceremony:

Dancers backstage at a free festival performance in a park:

In Ubud there are performances of traditional dances at several venues every night. This is a Kecak performance chanted only by men:
Editor's note: I tried uploading a video so that you could hear the "cak," but was having problems with blogger. Sorry.

At the end of the performance a trance dancer walks through fire in a bird costume:

Offerings are placed daily all over the place - on shrines, in entrance ways, etc. These are sold in the market, but many people make there own. The girl working/living at one of our homestays made 25 every night to use the next day:

A stone carving made-to-order for a home in Bali:

An entrance to a small temple:

And then there is the tourist culture...

There are many markets and stores for Bali crafts. With a little time and effort time you can start seeing the difference between good quality items and tourist shlock:

Foreigners notice board with ads for housing, spas, and all the yoga, tarot, healing and other "spiritual" endeavors one could ask for:

*We are leaving Bali today but will be back in September or October (especially since we are leaving Mika's suitcase here with all of our non-essential items). Our Indonesian visa is running out, and it is a costly, bureaucratic pain to extend it. So it is not "goodbye Bali", just "see you later." And "hello Java."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bali Road Trip Part IV

There are very few reasons that I can think of why I would set my alarm for 3:30 in the morning. Waking up to hike and watch the sunrise from the rim of a volcano crater is one. We arrive at the base and meet our guide. We thought that we would be meeting the man who sold the package, but this area is fraught with misinformation. In many parts of the world (not just Bali) people at a big tourist activity are dispersed, transported and traded like livestock at an auction.

We head out with our guide. The sky is very clear and full of stars. There is a trail of flashlights leading up the 1700m Gunung Batur. Early on Mika is already laboring. About a third of the way up I have to carry her bag. We let several small groups pass us. The climb starts getting very steep and rocky. I am very tired, but stopping to rest and starting again is worse for me than just chugging on. We finally arrive at the end. Get some congratulatory handshakes from our guide and find our place on the stone bench to watch the sunrise. There is guy who asks if I want to buy a Coca-Cola. After sitting our guide informs us that this is only the first station. We can stop or keep going.

The next part to the peak is more tricky. The ground is thick sand at like a 60 degree angle. Mika’s shoes have no grip, so the guide pulls her hand while I push her butt up the sand. We finally arrive at the real top, where other hikers are already relaxing and enjoying beautiful silhouetted views of the surrounding volcanoes. Our guide shows us the spot where he will make steamed eggs from the volcanic gases. There is a woman, who hikes up the volcano everyday, selling tea and coffee. We get a cup of instant coffee, eat our volcano-steamed egg and banana sandwich and wait for the sunrise.

A Balinese guide praying at the peak of Gunung Batur

Hello Sunrise! Say "cheese"
The return down is around the rim of the crater. We find small pockets of warm steam emitting from the rocks. It is very cloudy now which has entirely killed the panoramic vistas. Our guide is a dud who does not really know anything and who lacks the English skills to have a sense of humor. But we are literally walking through a cloud on the crater of a living volcano that exploded sometime during the last century, so I won’t complain.

After breakfast, I decide that I am ready to return to Ubud and want to drive as little as possible. We do have one final destination, Pura Besakih, the largest temple in Bali. Unfortunately, like the volcano trek, this place is full of unscrupulous guides and misinformation. It is a shame that whoever is in charge of this place (that is supposed to be a revered temple) lets it be spoiled by the dishonest pursuit of tourist money - even for non-believers. So after running the guantlet of deception, Mika and I have a walk through the temple area.

On the final leg of our journey, our valiant Suzuki steed is severely tested. There are many dump trucks in this area transporting volcanic rock and sand to other parts of Bali. Getting stuck behind them and attempting to pass them one after the other on these hills is a nightmare. In Gianyar, the last town before Ubud, we see some stalls selling food. Gianyar is famous for Babi Guling, split-roasted pig, a Bali specialty. Mika digs on swine. All of stalls only have pork or chicken, so I get my lunch at a pastry shop.
We finally arrive to Ubud, exhausted. As of now, we have no travel plans for the immediate future. We will stay here until we figure out what we are doing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bali Road Trip Part III

Day 5 - Thursday, June 15

In Bali, where there are countless Hindu temples and shrines, it is easy to forget that Indonesia is mainly a Muslim country. As we drove west yesterday I saw for the first time many school girls wearing headscarves and some local warungs (eatery) with Halal signs. However, the 5 AM wake up call to prayer from the mosque near our hotel this morning is the ultimate reminder. The roosters here live without purpose. After a leisurely breakfast we hit the road again. Our Suzuki is now making a worrisome whistling noise. We hope that it will survive the rest of the trip.

Outside of town are several Hindu temples. Our first visit is just a zigzag staircase leading up to statue and a cool cavern that leads through the mountain to the main temple. We are not allowed through the cavern. The temple guardian seems pleased to have visitors, escorts us to the top and has Mika take a photo we do not really want. From the guest/donation book their last visitor was on the 11th.

Leading to the main temple there are several monkeys on the sidewalk. They do not seem to bothered by us or expecting any food. One scared baby scrambles into the safety of his mother’s bosom. The information sign at the entrance tells us that the temple and surrounding hills are “overrun” with monkeys, but they are well fed by the attendants which is good because I do not really like the tourist-monkey culture in Bali. We walk up the steps to the temple area. This temple is still in use, though it feels abandoned. Walls are crumbling a bit. Apart from us and a few monkeys it is empty. The temple smells like a zoo. We wonder if we are in the monkey scene from Disney’s Jungle Book. But these simians apparently are not familiar with the tune. The temple does have lovely views overlooking the ocean.

In Bali, some places have entrance fees and others (usually smaller) accept donations. They ask guests to write their name, country and donation amount in a book. Then they freely change the donation amount so it looks like people are giving more money in the hopes that future guests will follow suit. For example: add a zero to make Rp 10,000 look like Rp 100,000. In this book some one has done a laughable job of changing a 2 to a 5. Maybe it was a monkey.

We head inland into the central mountainous region. As we go up, the air is getting noticeably cooler and fresher. In a village just outside of our destination, there are plastic tarps outside home after home holding something small and brown. There is also a very familiar, pleasant smell - cloves. The whole village smells like cloves. I buy a drink at a local kiosk from an old woman who seems quite delighted to see an American-Japanese married couple. She goes on and on not seeming to mind that we do not understand what she is saying. We arrive in Munduk in the late afternoon. Our first step, as always, is the dreaded task of finding lodging. For a tiny one-street village there are enough foreign tourists milling about. Some also looking for a room. The first few places we ask are full or over our budget. We split up. Mika heads uphill, I go down. The cheapest we find is an over-priced, windowless cubicle with a cold shower. We do, however, get a comfortable, new bed with a cheesy, counterfeit Louis Vuitton bed cover. We leave the hotel to take a short hike past rural homes, clove orchards and forest. After some up and down trekking we reach an unmarked pathway and are not sure if we go right or left. There is also a mangy dog barking and heading our way. I pick up a rock.** He scrams, but soon returns with two of his canine buddies.

Usually I would stick around a little and wait for a local to yell at the dog and save the day However, about a week ago we met this woman from Montrose, CO and current Bali resident who told us that rabies has recently been introduced here. Two Balinese have died. If you get bit by a dog you have to go to Bangkok or Singapore for treatment because there is none here. So understandably, Mika wants to have nothing to do with unfriendly dogs (also mosquitoes after travelers’ tales of malaria and dengue fever). We head back without seeing the waterfall. We watch the sunset from the roof of our car and go to bed early.

Follow the bamboo ladder to the light blue spot in the tree. That is a guy collecting cloves.

Day 6

Our next stop is to go see a temple in Bedugul that I saw on a postcard and wanted to visit. We leave Munduk early before other tourists with drivers and tour buses (the worst!) get going, A few Km out of town we see a sign for a waterfall. For just US $.33 we get a clean trail through a coffee plantation, a loaner walking stick and, most importantly, no (maybe rabid) barking dogs. We keep going further up. The hills are getting steeper with many sharp S-turns. I get stuck once halfway up a hill and roll backwards to a landing with the help of a laughing gardener. Luckily there is not much traffic. I go up the hill slowly in 1st gear. Oh well, it’s not my car!

We have lunch at a little place with lake views. I eat Nasi Goreng (fried rice with egg) again. We always try to eat at local places, not restaurants created just for tourists. The problem has been that at most small establishments there is just one vegetarian dish served - Nasi Goreng. Two days ago I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The road winds around, and we arrive in Bedugul.
Our plan is to arrive early, find a hotel with plenty of time to see the sites. It ends up that there really are not too many places to stay here. We check one. It is scary. Norman Bates would not sleep here. Not satisfied with a couple other options we decide to just go to the temple. Pura Ulun Danu Batur is a lovely place on the edge of a lake. The tallest pagoda is on an island about 20’ from the shore. There are many worshippers. Some areas are off-limits to tourists, but we can peek inside to see what they are doing.

Without a hotel or desire to go hiking, we decide to leave the area. Though we are not quite sure where we will stay. Our plan for tomorrow is to see Bali’s largest temple. We head in that general direction, back downhill. The drive is windy and torturous. Now the brakes are squeaking also. And a problem we find is that besides tourist centers, there are really not many places to stay in Bali. We pass through Singaraja, Bali’s second largest city, and find one skanky place. We pass another town that the guide book lists as having one hotel, but this one is also not up to even our low standards.

We do know though that we are getting near to a tourist place because men on motorbikes start asking us if we need a hotel. It is now late afternoon, and the last thing I want to do is try to find a hotel in the dark. We arrive at the base of the volcano, and there are many places. A guy on a motorbike offers us a great deal and we follow him to the hotel. Our original plan was to just pass by here and quietly enjoy the panoramic views of the volcanoes. I never thought about hiking up the volcano, Gunung Batur.

There are two main activities here. Independent travelers and small groups come, get a guide and go up the volcano to watch the sunrise. Tour buses stop on the main road for views and lunch. The guidebook mentions that this place is notorious for annoying guides selling treks. The motorbikes following us from hotel to hotel is a good indication. Our hotel offers us US $60 - in our opinion, an obscene amount for a few hours of work when you consider that millions of people in Indonesia are barely surviving on $1 a day.

We settle in the room, and another guide comes to our patio. We give him the opportunity to make his presentation. The trip sounds really fun, a great activity that was not on our agenda. We tell him US $30 pp is too much. He then makes his biggest mistake, asking us what we want to pay. Mika tells him US $10 pp. I tell Mika that US $15 is my max (Spanish and Japanese are our secret languages when bargaining with locals in any country). He quickly wilts down to Rp 400,000 for both of us. We stand firm at Rp 300,000. We go to dinner refusing his middle offer of Rp 350,000.

At dinner, Mika goes to the back to the room to get something and meets the guide. He whispers to her that he will accept our price of Rp 150,000 (US $ 15.55) per person, but we are not allowed to tell anyone else what we paid. So if anyone reading this is in or going to be in Bali...WE PAID Rp 150,000 TO HIKE GUNUNG BATUR AT SUNRISE!!!!! We go to bed wondering if we paid too much.

**The International Rambler Travel Tip
If you are in a developing country and find yourself face to face with a raggedy, unfriendly dog you should pick up the nearest rock. If they do not immediately back down throw it in their direction, and they should go away. This trick transcends international borders. It has worked for me in Argentina, Morocco, Indonesia, Palestine and Guatemala.
A homeless dog waiting for Mika to throw him a bone.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bali Road Trip Part II

Day 4

At 5:30 we wake up for our 6 AM departure date to go dolphin watching. The hotel is on the beach and the boat is right next door. It is still dark. We are greeted by Ahmed, our young captain. Our vessel hardly looks what you would call “seaworthy“. It is more or less a wood canoe about 24“ wide, a motor, and two long bamboo poles attached on each side for extra support. Our seat is a wood plank across the width of the boat. There are no flotation devices under the seat.
Our hotel is around 2 Km west of the main tourist area. Which luckily put us closer to the dolphin area. When we arrive there are no other boats. Ahmed soon points out some black shapes popping in and out of the waves. Our first glimpse of them is very brief, but it is exciting anyway. The sun is quickly rising now. In the distance we can see a fleet of tourist boats from Lovina heading in our direction.

The dolphin watching is actually a bit silly in Bali. It should actually be called Dolphin Chasing. Groups of boats are in some general areas of the sea known for having dolphins at that time in the morning. Where they will be exactly is obviously unpredictable. So some dolphins are spotted, and all the captains race their boats and tourist passengers to that place. By then, of course, the dolphins have moved on only to be spotted again, and the mad dash ensues. Mika has done dolphin watching in Japan and says that there they actually turned off the engines. The dolphins were happy just playing around the boat. But try telling that to the thirty-two boat captains on the water this morning.
It is really difficult to photograph dolphins.
 Noone is blowing a whistle to tell us when or where they are going to jump.
Apart from the crowds, this is a great outing. Ahmed tells us we are lucky today to see so many dolphins. Or is it the same dolphins many times? The reason there are so many tourist boats here is because dolphins are beautiful creatures and to see them in the wild, even for just seconds at a time, is truly exhilarating. By 7:30 AM the dolphins have moved farther out to sea while we return safely ashore. We have breakfast with a 180 degree view of the Bali Sea, pack and go west towards our next destination.

The short drive to Pemuteran is uneventful. It is another beach town. Our plan here is to do more snorkeling. Hotels are spread out along the main road. We go from place to place and cannot find any hotels within the price range of what we would like to spend. Places are either too high, or full. Then we see a bus unload a handful of backpackers. So we take the cheapest we can find which is a room for 300,000 RP (US $33.33). It is a big room with a lovely garden, nice Balinese wood furniture and an outdoor shower.
We have a great lunch at a little shack on the main road and walk down to the beach. It ends up that the only snorkeling here is to see coral that is on man-made life support from an electric current by a non-profit organization. The visibility is very poor, and the water is not so clean. The good snorkeling is at an island around two hours from Pemuteran. Boat trips are expensive, and they are not interested in bargaining. High tourist season in Bali is kind of a drag for budget minded travelers. We will return to Ubud in a couple days where we can live very reasonably until we formulate our exit plan. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the rest of our road trip.
Outdoor shower

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bali Road Trip Part I

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Day 1
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While spending five days in Ubud, we have been trying to figure out what should be our immediate travel plan. We talked about renting a car, but as we get closer to our departure date I start having second thoughts about driving a left-sided manual car on the left side of these crazy, narrow, motorbike-filled roads. There is also our budget to consider and worrisome travel reports about having to pay off police during unwarranted stops. However, today, July 11, is our fifth year wedding anniversary, so a perfect time to throw good common sense aside and go for it. Last month I had some left-side driving experience in Japan. Even more incentive is that our jalopy of a Suzuki jeep is only 80,000 RPH (US $8.88) per day. We leave around 9:30 AM to make sure that we will arrive at our destination with plenty of daylight left to find a hotel.

Our transport
Most of the roads in Bali are just two lanes, if that. There is very little shoulder space and cars will stop anywhere sticking out into the road. So every car must then drive into the other lane and oncoming traffic to go around them. The majority of vehicles are motorbikes which buzz in and out and all around the cars. Some motorbikes will go on the limited shoulder in the wrong direction. And I must be the only driver on the island that slows down for dogs and chickens in the road. With so much going on ahead the mirrors, for me, have become and afterthought. But here people beep the horn when passing, so I guess I do not really need to know what is happening behind me.

Driving along, traffic begins to lessen as we get away from Ubud. I just try to keep pace with the other vehicles and not hit anything. Mika is navigating well from our map and the street signs are in roman letters. We pass a big temple with many cars and some tourist buses in the parking lot. We should probably stop and see it, but the difficulty of turning around outweighs the joy of sightseeing.

While in the jeep, Mika plots out some stops for us. We make a few stops along the side of the road to get vistas of the terraced rice fields. The bright green of the fields is stunning, and we can see the sea in the distance. Our next stop is impromptu at what we thought was a festival. It ends up being some Scouts event. A quick walk through gets a lot of “Helloooo Meester” from smiling teens. Our third stop is at Taman Tirta Gangga, a palace built in 1948 for the last king of Karangasem, whoever he was.

We finally arrive to Amed, our destination recommended by two separate people in Ubud.. We get the last bamboo and straw bungalow available right on the beach. Everything is very spread out in this area, so we just decide to eat at our hotel. The owner is Japanese, and we have a delicious, lightly grilled bonito sashimi. The taste is so different from everything that we have eaten lately that it seems hard to believe that we have only been out of Japan for exactly one week.

My Self-Made Sushi
We go to bed under a mosquito net with the sound of waves crashing. We wake up all through the night with the sound of waves crashing. Waves are really noisy.
Day 2

We take the car out to go hit some snorkeling sites. The first place is not so great. Most of the coral is dead. We have seen this in other parts of S.E. Asia also.. Net trawling and dynamite fishing seems to have that effect on ocean life. There are just a few sprouts of color among the grey and brown mass of dead coral. There are a few tropical fish swimming around. The highlight here for me are these very large blue starfish. I have never seen a blue starfish before. Our second site is at an old sunken Japanese fishing boat about 75 feet from the shore. Here the coral is still quite dead, but much more alive than the other place. There are many more species of fish - none of which I can name. Even some large schools of small fish and small groups of larger fish. The boat itself is almost completely eroded, but the fish and tourists like to congregate here. Briefly being a part of this other ecosystem is very exciting and beautiful. It has us seriously considering making the journey to more remote parts of Indonesia to explore protected marine areas.

Late this afternoon, we change to a standard bungalow next door from our previous one. For Mika, unfortunately, the next morning this means lots of bedbug bites. I sleep over the covers and have no problem. Our standard bungalow also means that in the morning there is a family of cats and a dead mouse on our front porch. A certain grey kitten finds the dead rodent much more enjoyable at 6:30 in the morning than we do. At breakfast the Japanese ladies talk it out in their ever-so-polite manner of speaking, and we get comped our second night.
The fishing boats return just as we are waking up
Day 3

We spend the day driving from Amed to Lovina. Our one stop is to take a short trek up to Bali’s highest waterfall which you can stand under. The cool water is refreshing, but at times it hurts, like someone is throwing small pebbles at my head. One other quick stop is at a large, air-conditioned, western style grocery store. Aaaah the comforts of civilization! We finally arrive in Lovina. I am exhausted from the concentration and harrowing passes around dreadfully slow trucks needed for the drive. We thought that Lovina would be another bustling beach tourist town. The main attraction here is early morning boat trips to see wild dolphins. We see many hotels, but nowhere seems busy. We check a few places and settle on a clean room with air-conditioning , breakfast and a TV - our first one since Singapore. There is also a nice garden with tables over looking the ocean. The beach, however, is dirty. There are no other guests and the owner easily drops the price 40% with little bargaining. For dinner we go back to the main drag. There are a few other tourists walking around checking menus, but the restaurants are almost all empty. It feels pretty sad in Lovina. An Indonesian woman points us in the direction of five street stalls where locals are lining up to get take out food. Our dinner plus a bottle of beer costs US $4.40. I hope Lovina is not banking on us to revive their tourism industry.

We have dinner back at the hotel with the sound of the ocean and lights from fishing boats seen in the near distance. Mika crashes before nine. I flick on the tube, but the tv only gets one channel. Correction: it gets around fifteen channels, but they all show the same program. I have the feeling that even if I spoke Indonesian, this sitcom would not be very funny. I go to bed around 9:30 PM because I have to wake up early to see the dolphins.