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!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tana Toraja - The Sights

Coming Tana Toraja there are two main things people do: visit the sights and visit the ceremonies. There is also rafting, hiking and village homestays, but I think the majority of tourists just go to sights and ceremonies. Many of the sights in the region are based around death and the Torajans unique brand of burial practices. The sights are spread out in the villages outside of the large towns, Rantepao and Mekale, and can be reached by erratic public transportation. Most people seem to hire guides and drivers to see as much as possible in one or two days, while less will rent motorbikes, use the shared taxis or hike on foot.

We do not have a desire to see every burial ground in the region. Plus Mika and I have currently developed an unhealthy disdain for Indonesian guides, so we pick a few of the sights which sound interesting and figure out how to get there on our own.

Ke'te Kesu'
One late afternoon I go to Ke'te Kesu' myself. They have traditional style homes and rice barns still using a thatched roof instead of the corrugated tin now used everywhere. They also have old hanging graves which have been used for aristocrats. The boxes are rotted and filled with piles of bones and skulls.
Cliff burial site with hanging graves

The traditional village

A photo shoot for the Garuda Airlines 2011 calendar using Ke'te Kesu' as its backdrop
We arrive to the village Kambira by motorbike. It has baby graves inside a living Banyan tree. These are for infants who died under six months old. The white sap of the Banyan tree is supposed to be like milk to nourish the babies.
To get to Londa we take a shared taxi (which is a SUV with up to 10 passengers) to a junction and walk the remaining 1.8 km in the rain. Londa has a grave in a limestone cave. Locals hang around the entrance and for a fee will guide you through the cave with a gas light. Not wanting to shell out more cash, we opt out of this option and realize too late that caves are really dark without light. Luckily, a soccer team visiting from another part of Sulawesi takes a liking to us foreigners and coaxes us to join them and their lamp guide through the cave. Afterwards we pose for team photos.
"Tau-tau" are wooden life-like effigies that sit high on the cliff to guard the graves
Mika, cave, lamp guide and soccer team
Torajan star-crossed lovers whose love was shunned by their parents. They both committed suicide
Some other sights to see are stone monolith graves and gravestones in boulders. Being a bit "graved-out" we do not pay to see any of these. We do, however, see some examples by just passing them on the road without the 10,000 Rp fee.
Stone Monoliths
A stone grave
If all this death has you feeling a bit macabre then there are a few other activities to choose from. My favorite is the buffalo market in Bolu. It happens every six days. Mika decides not to pay the ubiquitous 10,000 Rp ticket and watches the buffalo from afar while I go in and slop around for a while bonding with livestock sellers and walking through mud and buffalo urine and excrement. I love markets.

Key Coffee Plantation
We also decide to go to a coffee plantation. We have a motorbike, but the road is tortuous. A steep uphill climb on a rocky road more suited for a four-wheeler or, better yet, a Humvee not our scooter. Mika has to walk up some of the worst hills and then ditches me to ride with the plantation security guard who easily passes us. I am left on my own and cursing the idea to come here. I finally arrive to Toraca Jaya Coffee plantation. The security guard is probably wondering what took me so long. This plantation was started by a Japanese man and is now producing coffee solely for Key Coffee - a Japanese company. My Japanese readers may be familiar with Key Coffee's Toraja label. All the coffee produced here goes to Japan. We are charged 10,000 Rp (US$1.10) here too. I only have about $3 and need gas money so he gives us 2-for-1 tour with free coffee included. We have a cup of Arabica. Mika says it tastes exactly like the Key coffee in Japan

Sorting beans

Headed for Yokohama
Just Rambling Around
In Tana Toraja there is also a village with a natural swimming pool and another with a bat cave. Because of time and poor planning we missed these. But to be honest, some of the best parts of the area is not running around trying to see everything marked on the tourist info brochure or some guide's "must see" list. Always plopping down 10,000 Rp to see dead people in a tree or rock or cave is interesting but gets redundant. We end up really enjoying just to ride around on our motorbike and becoming part of the scenery. The sky is so blue. The rice fields and mountain jungles are shimmering green. The unmistakable Torajan roofs, buffaloes, chickens, dogs and children saying "hello Mister" are at every turn. It is so full of life.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

KL to Rantepao in 21 Hrs.

It is September 13, and we are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the third time. We are only here again for the sole purpose of getting a 60 day visa to Indonesia, where we are flying to on the 17th. We want to spend our final two months in Asia in Indonesia. Indonesia only gives 30 days on arrival and leaving the country again or trying to extend would be a real hassle.

The embassy opens again tomorrow after the long holiday weekend. We arrive at the embassy at 10:45 AM and get our numbers, 7072 and 7073 to just turn in our application materials. They are on 7015. I do not bring anything to read so I pass the time by eavesdropping on people‘s visa issues. 1:00 PM is lunch time. They are at number 7048 at the break. The three workers are each averaging less than four visa applications per hour. I have plenty of time to figure this out. We return precisely at 2:00 PM to resume our waiting. At 3:30 PM our numbers are finally called. We give them the application and pay the fee. Lately, we have been hearing and reading that getting a 60 day tourist visa to Indonesia is a bit iffy, so we ask the people at the window what are our chances. They tell us that they do not know. It is up to their boss, and it changes from day to day. It depends on his mood. So essentially the government of Indonesia’s visa granting process boils down to the personal feelings of the guy with his hand on the stamp. I hope he is having a good day. Our moment in the spotlight is just six minutes. I feel jilted and want to spend more time at the window.

Kuala Lumpur
I return the next afternoon to pick up our passports. With only a short 45 minute wait, I get the news. Either the boss’ favorite badminton player won a big match, or he is just happy to be eating lunch again now that Ramadan is finished, but whatever the reason we got our visas and are ready to go. We spend the next day and a half not really doing anything in KL and on the 17th at 10 AM we board an airport bound bus to the the plane bound for Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Ronald McDonald is happy Ramadan is over and to get his lunch crowd back.
We arrive at the airport and it is early evening. We are soon reminded that we are in Indonesia by the flooded waiting area outside the airport and the tourist touts providing us with misinformation so that we will hire their services. We make a game time decision and elect to go to the bus station to take the eleven hour trip to Rentapao. This is obviously not a bad choice because we see other tourists who were on our flight. Our bus leaves at 10 PM. The air-conditioned ride is cold of course, and long. Southern Sulawesi passes by seen only from our buses headlights.

View Larger Map

We arrive in Tana Toraja - the Highlands of Southern Sulawesi around 7 AM. The majority of Torajans are Christians, but they have traditional architecture and extremely unique burial rituals and ceremonies that predate the arrival of missionaries and continue today. Also, (and what is important for us) everything is open for foreigners to visit.

A church

Traditional Tongkonan style

Tana Toraja is a very lush region. Rice fields and green vegetation abound. While on the bus dozing in and out I noticed that we are going up and up very windy small roads. There is quite some significant elevation here too. The early morning air is noticeably more cooler and fresher, Though having just come from the cement jungle that is Kuala Lumpur almost anywhere the air would be cooler and fresher.

A rice field

Piong Ikan (Fish in bamboo). A Torajan dish that is fish, (koi, carp) chicken or pork wrapped in a banana leaf with a spinach like vegetable and then inserted into a bamboo tube and roasted on a fire.
People make their base around the large town of Rantepao and spend the days in Tana Toraja exploring the numerous villages and visiting the funeral ceremonies. And like other tourist locals in Indonesia there is a plethora of guides who will gladly show you the sites and take you to ceremonies for a tidy sum. In Rentapao the guides hang around the lobbies of  hotels. The first guide we speak with, before even checking in, says, "you cannot visit the ceremonies by yourself", with shifty eyes, we know he is full of crap and the first thing we will try to do is visit places by ourselves.

Stay Tuned...

A little girl that should be in class and not posing for photos

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Malacca Old and New

On Thursday, Sep 9th, we leave Kuala Lumpur for Malacca hoping our luck will change. It is a very busy time in the Malaysia. The Hari Raya holiday signifies the end of Ramadan and the new year. It is a four day weekend. We do not have a hotel and get a bad tip from an Italian guy about a good hotel which took us out of the town center. We check several places, but they are expensive or full or both. Prices are more than doubled because of the holiday weekend. We split up. By chance Mika runs into a Swiss couple we met a few weeks ago on the opposite end of Malaysia. They tell Mika about a cheap guesthouse by the river where we get a room for four nights.

It is customary at the end of Ramadan to have an open house and offer food to strangers. Around midnight of our first night our hotel owner's family came with some traditional food for the guests.  
Malacca has a very long, rich history. It was founded in the late 14th century by a wayward Sumatran prince. It flourished as a trading center attracting Chinese merchants. Then came the Europeans. First the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641 and finally ceded to the British - each leaving their own imprint on the town before Malaysian independence. Two years ago it was named a UNESCO world heritage site.
Malaysia's fourth oldest mosque. Notice the Chinese pagoda influence of the minaret.
Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple in continual use.
 Apart from the old mosques and temples the history of the old buildings is pretty much... "The Portuguese or Dutch built      . It was then used by the Dutch or British as      . Now Malacca uses it for     .

Last remaining piece of a Portuguese fort almost completely dismantled by the British.

Church built by Portuguese, then a tomb with very large headstones for fancy Dutch people. Now a tourist attraction. So much for R.I.P.
Dutch Square
In case a visitor to Malacca feels that the buffet of historical buildings is not enough, the city has provided a dessert tray of reconstructions:

A reconstruction of a Portuguese ship

A reconstructed palace

with a replica princess' tomb

A replica 16th Century waterwheel

Here I am desecrating a reconstructed cart pulled by replica buffaloes
Jonker Walk
With so much history and it's proximity to the capital, Malacca is a big tourist destination. There are many attractions, museums, riverboat rides, markets and restaurants all geared towards visitors. Jonker Walk is a weekend market pedestrian street. On Friday night it is teeming with people browsing nick knacks and what nots. On one end of the street is a massive BYO CD karaoke stage. At the other end of Jonker Walk for one performance a night is Master Ho, a 55 year old Kung-fu expert and The Guinness Book world record holder for piercing four coconuts in just over 30 seconds with only his index finger. For this show he will break three coconuts with his finger. Master Ho is also a medicine salesman which I assume is why he does this performance. Most of the sales pitch is in Chinese (Malaysian?), but we learn his product is a remedy for arthritis, aches and index fingers that are jabbed through coconuts. We arrive right before the show begins and have a front seat on the curb. I am selected as his first assistant where he has me choose three paper playing cards and then makes jokes -mostly not in English- about threatening to throw one at me like a ninja star and dislodge my left eyeball. In the end with my eyes still intact he tosses the playing cards four stories in the air.  

Me and Master Ho
He then gives his spiel and actually sells a lot of bottles of his elixir. Master Ho then prepares for his signature coconut trick. One of three coconuts which he will break through tonight. With much concentration and focused force he breaks through the coconut as he has probably done hundreds of times, but it really looks like he hurt his finger. It is completely swollen. He is furiously rubbing his snake oil on it. Master Ho does one more round of successful selling and jokes, breaks a second coconut with his elbow (not finger) and then calls it quits without touching the third coconut. I think that he really is in pain and quit the show early. Mika thinks that he made a good haul selling and does not want to waste a perfectly good coconut.

My video below of Master Ho in action:

An obnoxiously large outdoor karaoke stage
To add to the atmosphere and the traffic are the colorful trishaw riders. They will give tourists rides around town for 40 RM ( US $13.33) an hour or you can use them as taxis. Many trishaws are decorated with colorful plastic flowers and lights. Some also are playing music which I am not sure adds or detracts from a ride around town. The music selection ranges from Malay rock songs and Indian pop to Euro Techno and American Hip Hop. Come to think of it, Ludacris probably does not add anything to the atmosphere.

Trishaw by day
and by night
Hundreds of years ago Chinese merchants in Malacca married local Malay women. The blend created a unique Baba Nyonya community. Malacca of today has many restaurants selling Nyonya food, but it is very hard for us to pin down which is good and which are standard tourist fare. The food is spiceyand uses a lot of coconut milk.

Nyonya Laksa

For some unexplicable reason tourists wait in line all weekend to eat rice balls with chicken

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Malaysia Malaise

In Hat Yai, Thailand I saw the bullfight, so we finally make a plan. Since our ultimate goal now is to get to Indonesia with a 60 day visa to finish our South East Asia trip (you only get 30 days at the airport). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia should be the best location to sort everything out. There is a night train from South Thailand to KL. Unfortunatly no beds are available, so we take a seat for the 14 hr trip. Mika says it will be like sitting on an airplane.

A 2hr trip gets us to the Malaysian border. We pass customs and need to wait an hour for the 6:00 PM train. We then get a message that there is a two hour delay. Two hours later we are told that there are problems and the train will be ready at 1:00 AM. The restaurants at the station are closed. Mika goes to see about upgrading to a bed. The station manager who sits comfortably smoking in his air-conditioned office under the no smoking sign wants to charge a much larger fee than required to upgrade to a bed. We are not carrying any Malaysian Ringgit anyway. By now the station restaurants are closed. We could demand a refund but are stuck in a border town. Everyone is left to sit here without food or water (just what we have with us) or any updated information from the station manager or his incompetent staff. I guess this is what happens when the government run train line has a monopoly.
Train delay refugees
Finally at 2:00 AM - eight hours late - we board the train. Figuring that many people have cancelled their trip. Mika asks the train guy for a bed. He says he'll check. I fall asleep before he comes back. Like in an airplane sleep is of course terrible. And like everywhere in South East Asia the air-conditioning is on full blast. Around 8:00 AM and five hours of much interrupted sleep I give up and just stay awake.
Mika's self-mummification  
We get to Kuala Lumpur tired, unwashed and seven hours later than originally planned. We are still without Malaysian money and need to wait 40 minutes for someone to fix the one working ATM that will accept my card. We get to our Chinatown hotel and take much needed showers and naps. We drag ourselves out of bed and wander around Chinatown like zombies. Today is a wash and no chance of getting anything done. It is also Mika's birthday. Luckily she decided a while back to forgo celebration in KL and will have a "birthday week" at a yet to be determined beach location in Indonesia.
Selecting birthday cake at our favorite Malaysian chain
That night, still jet lagged from our train journey and siesta, we go to bed very late and so get a late start the next morning. We decide to take the monorail two stations to get close to the Indonesian Embassy. After the first stop Mika realizes that her bag is open and wallet is missing. She immediately suspects some fishy guy who was standing too close to her a few seconds ago and is now long gone. The good news is that Mika never carries credit cards or much cash. She loses 30 Malaysian Ringgit (US $10), passport size photos and a photocopy of her passport. Apart from feeling violated and thinking about how many meals in Thailand we can buy with the stolen 30 RM, we are also concerned about the copy of Mika's passport which right now must be in the hands of the Chinese Mafia.

We go to a police station and the officer informs us that we have to go to the tourist police office to report the theft. We eventually make our way to the tourist police station which is housed in the complex with the official Malaysian Tourism office. Mika makes the report, and they say that they have never heard of anyone doing anything with just a copy of somebody's passport. Sitting next to Mika is an Arab man who lost a load of cash and his passport to a pickpocket. Mika also calls the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and they do not worry about a stolen photocopy of a passport either. They obviously fear the resourcefulness of the Chinese Mafia far less than we do. Running around all day to sort out the snatched wallet, the Indonesian Embassy is closed by the time I get there. Mika is too tired to go to the airline office. This is all the rail company's fault.
On the Monorail
and on the street
We wake up late again the next morning (Wed, Sep 8) and call today a do over. The malaise of the first two days in Malaysia never happened. We finally make it to the Indonesia Embassy and get some information about obtaining a 60 day visa. No one at the window can tell us for sure if we will be able to obtain one or not. Apparently our traveling fate is to be decided by the unseen boss who may or may not grant us our desired 60 days. We also find out that they are going on holiday tomorrow and will not open again until Sep 14 for the celebration of Hari Raya - the end of Ramadan and new year. Our next errand is to buy our airline tickets. We get off the train to a monsoon and wait a half hour in the station just to cross the street. Tickets are a little more we want, but do manage to buy our passage to Indonesia for Sep 17.
During the storm
and after the storm

Since we cannot do anything about our visa until after the holiday we make the move to Malacca two hours south of Kuala Lumpur. This is a national holiday and many people are moving around the country. We look forward to a new city and leaving this bad spell behind us.
Waiting for the bus to Malacca