A Travellerspoint blog

Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara

Hello from a place called Ende tho frankly it feels like they should drop the 2nd 'e'. I really wish I wasn't here...

This month began in 'The Big Durian' that is Jakarta. Durians are the very smelly fruit that are also very delicious but that's definitely not a fair description of the city. During Dutch colonial times the city had a population of half a million and the Dutch were very worried that if it grew much more serious problems could arise as its built on a floodplain. They devised a flood management plan based on dykes etc that would hopefully be an end to the problem but unfortunately they then got kicked out and the plans were never built. The population of Jakarta is now a whopping 14million and large parts of it gets flooded almost every single yr. When you add its location on a tectonic fault (as seen by the earthquake a few weeks ago) it's not exactly the best place to live, but it is very much the place where this vast nation comes together. The business and political centre of the country much to my surprise it's also got one of the best clubbing scenes in the world (no, really!). I've always found that Muslims can be quite hypocritical when talking about the evils of alcohol, simply because in most parts of the world they simply substitute it for another stimulant. In North Africa they smoke hashish, in East Africa and the Gulf they chew qat but in Indonesia very much the drug of choice is ecstasy (far and away the worlds biggest producer and consumer). Regardless of your views on it, it does mean the clubs are just awesome with very good DJs playng to huge crowds. One club I went to called Stadium is normally open from Thursday night to Monday morning but unfortunately they shut at 4 when I was there, it was Ramadan so they had to close early to make sure everyone ate before the sun came up (I'm not making this up!). It had a capacity of 5,000 and that many people on the drug mentioned = a pretty memorable night.

But Jakarta really isn't somewhere you want to stay too long and so I left to climb a volcano. There are few things I enjoy more than getting to the top of mountains and with more active volcanoes than anywhere else in the world (over 130) I've been pretty happy in Indonesia as you get the view 'in' as well as 'out'. I've been fighting an ongoing battle with the Indonesian park service which stands at 10 nil to me over the enforced guiding they make you take for many of them. In the more isolated areas you can generally just rock up and do them yourself but in the more touristy areas they try and make you pay upwards of $50 just for someone to walk a path with you so have had some early mornings trying to slip past the guards. They're generally really easy as they're all under 4,000m and below the snow line and they've varied quite nicely from the very active Rinjani which recently erupted (so you could see lava) to the kinda scary Inerie (no path so quite dangerous). One of the strangest sights was at Bromo where Indonesian tourists would throw things like vegetables or money into the crater which is belching out sulfur and some of the locals would risk their lives having to try and scramble down the ridiculously dangerous and steep crater walls and nab them before they vanished. God knows what their life expectancy is but it looked like one of the worst ways to make a living I've ever seen. Just crazy.

One of my overriding memories of Java will be the night buses, not only the red eyed chain smoking with the locals of the awesome local fruit scented tabs (like smoking a Wrigley's juicy fruit gum) but the fantastic buskers that would serenade you 24hrs a day. On the tube in London the Gypsy accordion players are so bad that half the time they get menacing stares all the way up to racial abuse from their fellow passengers, but here they're great. Indonesia has a surprisingly strong Indie/grunge scene and there's just hundreds of these buskers groups (normally 2 or 3 young guys) who can play the guitar and sing and who get on board to entertain you 10 minutes. Definitely improves the journey, although maybe less so at 5am.

From Java I left for Bali and with lush volcano lined scenery, beautiful beaches and people it's not hard to see why it's been regarded as a paradise island for so long; however, perhaps it's biggest asset is it's unique culture. Bali is famously Hindu in this mainly Muslim country but in the Indonesian constitution you can only worship a monotheistic religion (mainly to try and stop animism from surviving in remote parts) so the Hinduism practiced here is a bit different from that in India. Instead of many Gods they tenuously claim that Shiva, Brahma et al are just one God in different forms, either way the people are fiercely passionate and all over the island you see the beautiful bright oranges and purples from their offerings, seemingly a temple on every corner and of course all the men wearing skirts (sarongs).
It really is a beautiful place and I have many happy memories of it from cycling down through crater lakes into the coffee plantations to seeing the huge religious ceremonies it packs an awful lot to do for a place it's size. Probably my best memory however was when I went to climb the highest volcano there called Agung, I slept in the temple on the slopes of the mountain and my journal entry for the day ends: "I had no food but the nightwatchman gave me some rice and so I ended up in my sleeping bag in the courtyard of the highest Hindu temple in Bali watching the stars above me. Magic"- which sums it up quite nicely.
Unfortunately too much tourism has meant it's not quite as perfect as the brochures make out however; the touristy areas in and around Bali is one of the worst places I've ever been for people trying to rip you off. Most people have an image of haggling as something done quite good naturedly over souvenirs in North Africa or Turkey but when you have to do it several times a day literally down to the price of an orange it becomes both tedious and actually mentally draining. Indonesians are actually quite 'bad' at it in the sense that they don't start at 'twice the price' which you expect but 4, 5 or even 10 times the price of something, at which point as one Irishman I met put it quite nicely "you don't want to negotiate, you just want to tell them to p*ss off".
Bali also has a seedy underbelly which has given me a slightly new perspective on the bombings that took place there earlier this decade. I'd been warned by fellow travelers that parts of it resemble an 'Australian Magaluf' (ie lots of drunken debauchery) and its also become a popular meeting point for gay Asians to hook up with western men. Whilst Bali has a long tradition of being a very tolerant place it is literally a small island surrounded by a much more conservative culture; to see the very public drunken excesses of the Aussies on holiday and the visually disgusting sight of older western men with gunsels of very indeterminate ages definitely makes you think who's in the wrong exactly. At the time of the bombings all the headlines were of the 'Is Indonesia a hotbed of fundamentalism?' or 'A new front on the war on terror!' brand of sensationalism but if Western tourists are gonna do these kind of things which aren't so much alien but actively wrong in Islamic culture then we can't really be too surprised when some people get quite upset and being quite pessimistic I can see it happening again.

All the volcanoes in Java and Bali have made the land very fertile and covered in people but as you start moving East to the islands known as Nusa Tenggara the landscape becomes much drier and far emptier.
By the time you get to Komodo national park it's hard to picture a more unforgiving environment, scorching hot with hardly any vegetation not much can survive but I did fulfill an ambition of mine by getting to see the dragons in the wild. The biggest lizards in the world, they can reach up to 3m in length and survive on the few deer and water buffalo that can survive on the island. Not really dangerous to humans you can go as close as you like but as one Jap famously found out 2 yrs ago- too close and you lose an arm (their saliva is acidic and causes your flesh to slowly rot). I also did a bit of snorkeling there and from swimming with turtles, climbing a few more volcanoes and taking umpteen motorcycle hitches in beautiful Flores I thought things were going very well until I got here.

My visa runs out today (and you can't renew it) but have been stuck here since the 22nd with no prospect of leaving Indonesia til at least the 27th. Despite being the 4th biggest country in the world and generally reasonably developed in most ways the transport infrastructure here is truly appalling. It's airlines are banned from virtually everywhere and it's impossible to get information on ferry schedules as none of the websites work. You can also only buy airline tickets from the place you depart from and when I arrived I was told all the flights are full for another week. There are no boats leaving til the 26th so am effectively stuck here before I can get to East Timor, you can get up to 5 yrs in prison for overstaying your visa and whilst I don't think that will happen I think the projected fine of $60 is one I won't really take kindly to as there's literally nothing I can do about the situation.
Hopefully I'll get to East Timor and then it will be back to Indonesia for another month.
Keep well,
From Ende,

Posted by carlswall 12:33 Archived in Indonesia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains parties animals night Comments (0)


Greetings from the lovely city of Kuching in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, in the town centre there is a fort, a palace, a parliament, 2 mosques, a Hindu temple, 2 Buddhist temples, an Anglican and Catholic cathedral and even a Gurdwara. One street starts off as Chinatown before becoming little Lebanon and finishes as Little India and the areas are connected by two 'harmony arches'; so I think it's fair to say it's a slightly more interesting and pleasanter place than Angeles where I wrote the previous email. It's Ramadan at the moment so every night they have 'eating parties' just after sunset and so have found myself eating around 4 plates of roti a night for about $1, so yeah I like it here!
Which is perhaps a nice summary of Borneo, it's been a cracking few weeks and after some of the difficulties of traveling in The Philippines it's been great being somewhere so relaxed yet with so much to do.

The word Borneo conjures up images of distant plantations from a Somerset Maugham story and miles upon miles of untouched wilderness, but that image has now long since passed. The coastal part is in places heavily populated, there's simply too many resources in the interior to be left alone and it's also surprisingly touristy. But it is touristy for very good reasons, it's got a fantastic array of things to see and do and plenty of traditional culture left too.
Borneo is a somewhat unusual tourism destination in that it has both visitors on a budget but also upper mid range to top end too with the golf courses and spa resorts that come with it, even the Blairs were here on holiday much to the delight of the local tabs. Indeed it's been so successful at marketing itself that at this time of year it has arguably too many visitors. I noticed that in the cities and smaller attractions there were few people around but at the bigger attractions suddenly lots of air conditioned minivans would turn up and you'd be swarmed with middle aged Europeans and Australians on holiday. In conversations with some of them (somewhat amusingly) they often seemed to be quite hacked off as they were promised a 'untouched Borneo experience' with the images that conjures up. In reality they seemed to be paying often hundreds of dollars a day to find they were also seeing the orangutans with about 300 other people. But like somewhere like Venice you've got to look past the crowds and really appreciate quite how great a place it is.

The first major thing I did was to climb Mt Kinabalu which at 4100m is the highest mountain between Papua and the Himalayas. It's either a very easy 2 day climb or a pretty tough 1 day climb. Luckily I was fit enough to make it in 1 day but only 4 out of 8 people that tried made it when I was there, The huge influx of high end tourists (apparently it only really started about 10 yrs ago) has also unfortunately also led to terrible price inflation. the problem is that if you want to stay the night the mountain hut costs $100 for a dormitory bed! My guide said that it used to cost $10 and was very popular with Malaysians, when they realized how much money they could make they put the price up and now locals crazily simply can't afford to do it. Nonetheless it has a great summit shaped like a granite crown of thorns and you can see for miles and miles at the top. But expectations that it would be forest were wrong as it's now mainly palm oil plantations you can see. Borneo is one of the earths great lungs but along with the Mato Grosso in Brazil is perhaps the foremost area in the fight to conserve the world's forests. In Brazil it's been the razing of the forests for grazing land that's done the damage but here it's the hugely profitable palm plantations which are extremely impressive in their size (sometimes hundreds to thousands of acres) but are perhaps a bit dull to look at. The other major issue is deforestation for timber which is an acute problem. Borneo has some of the worlds best hardwoods and the money being generated is quite incredible, in the outskirts of cities like Miri and Sibu at the mouths of the regions rivers there are plenty of unbelievably opulent houses owned (costing $30-50m) by the timber barons and whilst much of it is legal and a vital source of income its going at an estimated 5 times above a sustainable rate so its fair to say the illegal sources are at least as numerous as the legal ones.

And then it was on to wonderful Brunei. I knew as soon as I got there that this tiny absolute monarchy would be my kind of place. Borneo used to be called Brunei and the entire island (as well as bits of The Philippines) used to be under the command of the sultan, over time the British (under the command of the adventurer Rajah James Brooke and his descendents) whittled its size down to less than 1% of Borneos land area that exists now. But in the '30's they discovered oil and it has since become one of the strangest societies in the world. There's no income or corporation tax, healthcare and education are completely free, newly married couples are given interest free loans to build a house and every once in a while the Sultan gives a gift to the nation in the form of something like a washing machine or dishwasher for every household. Who needs Harriet Harman and democracy eh?
Whilst he's lost his title as the worlds richest man in recent years his brother Jefri has managed to keep the family in the international media spotlight. The oil is due to run out in some 20-30yrs and so sensibly the Sultan decided to set up a ministry to look at ways of ensuring the high standard of living currently enjoyed for the future. Jefri 'The Playboy Prince' became the minister in charge and basically he wasn't very good at it. He managed to lose an estimated $30billion in ways which almost defy belief; entire books could be written on it but amongst my favorite anecdotes are: sending his private plane home from the UK to pick up his polo boots so he could play with Prince Charles the next day, losing $30million in one sitting at a casino in Macau and commissioning a megayacht called 'Tits' with the 2 support boats called 'Nipple 1' and 'Nipple 2'. Unsurprisingly when the sultan found out he wasn't too happy but after a long legal case mysteriously decided to drop all charges (probably because the money was irretrievable).
One of the ways he envisaged Brunei could make money in the future was by tourism and the most visible relic of this is the Empire Hotel. It's one of the most amazing hotels in the world and amongst other things has a cinema, a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, 16 swimming pools and a beautiful white and gold interior. The problem was that he demanded that everything be made using 24 carat gold (even rugs and curtains) and the price tag eventually came to $1.1billion. Even at 90% full it would still take 65 yrs to break even and they've been reduced to offering rooms for around $100 a person as maybe a couple of hundred guests are outnumbered by staff in the huge complex. They let you walk around freely however and one of the things we did was to take afternoon tea there.
You may think this doesn't sound like me and you'd be right because Brunei is one of the few countries in the world to be completely 'dry'. When entering the country your bag gets searched for alcohol and it's not even available at the Western hotels like it is in other Muslim countries. There isn't even the hookah pipe and tea drinking culture that exists further West however, so by about 9pm the entire country shuts down and its catchily named capital Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghosttown. It does mean you hardly spend any money and along with the free museums and mosques it turned out to be a really surprisingly cheap place to visit. My best memory however of this brilliantly eccentric place is the water village which makes up half of the population of BSB. You can walk around it on these precarious walkways about 15ft above the water and at sunset all the kids come out and start flying their kites- it's not a bad spot to be.

After Brunei I flew to the awesome Gunung Mulu national park in Sarawak. It's situated in the middle of the jungle and is either a very long boat ride or a 30min flight above the unending canopy to one of the worlds most spectacular national parks. Ignoring the spectacular pinnacles rock formation, and incredible caves (2nd largest chamber, 10th longest and biggest system by air volume) my favourite bit was the bats. About 5pm every night between 2-3m leave in a constant flight for about 30 mins in a strange sort of corkscrew formation. I'd never seen anything quite like it and the sheer volume and noise of the bats flying above you was something I won't forget anytime soon.
The wildlife experiences have been fantastic, from snorkeling in reefs of perfect islands off the coast to seeing the bizarre bearded pigs in the wild there's been a lot to see. Far and away though the biggest attractions are the monkeys. You see the annoyingly naughty macaques a lot and in a couple of places the extremely ugly proboscis monkeys but everyones faves are the Orangutans or jungle men as they're known here. There are a couple of rehabilitation centres for ones that have been rescued from zoos or been kept as pets and they really do let you get surprisingly close. Thought to be amongst the 2 or 3 most intelligent animals they can also be very aggressive and you're given stern warnings about what to do if they attack before you can see them but after seeing them twice there were no Rue Morgue like incidents and I could only see them as kindred as with not having cut my hair or shaved for a while I am starting to look like them.

Malaysia is made up of an interesting mix of ethnicities, whilst the Peninsula is dominated by Malays Borneo is mainly made up of Chinese (who tend to control the resources) and also by its world famous indigenous tribes. They've cashed in on their fame and history as headhunters and masters of the jungle and have set up various tourist friendly longhouses to stay in but in reality they now drive cars, watch satellite TV and have converted to Christianity. I thought I'd try and find a modern community and after taking a boat 3hrs upriver and via some pretty patchy information from local people I walked/hitched to a longhouse community in the jungle that was off the beaten track somewhat. I got there at 9.30am and was pretty shocked to find all the men and any boys above about 14 absolutely smashed, as in falling over themselves drunk. Whenever they start to build a new longhouse (literally a long building with apartments for several families but with a shared common area along its length) they have a big party. They'd been drinking since 6 that morning and were (literally) falling over themselves to get me to down the horrid arak (local rice wine) with them. I couldn't really get all that much out of them but a couple of them were wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts and drunkenly started a singalong when I said I liked them too.
Perhaps not the stereotypical image the tourist board likes to promote but an enjoyably realistic one!

So it has been a great couple of weeks in this fantastic island, it has become so popular with tourists because of the variety of its attractions but that hasn't really diminished anything for me. And now I found myself in the lovely capital of Kuching from where tonight I'll take a fairly scary flight to Jakarta as I arrive at about 11pm for a month in Java and onwards.
From Kuching,

Posted by carlswall 12:28 Archived in Brunei Comments (0)

The Philippines

Greetings from my final days in the Philippines, to travel in it's been a country of extremes; from the ease of the beaches to the toughness of the jungle, the unpleasantness of the cities to the beautiful countryside and the ovewhelming friendliness and positivity of the people in the face of mounting problems facing the nation. v rarely it seems to have been in the middle and it's not somewhere that I've ever felt completely at ease in.

After finally leaving sprawling Manila I got as far away as I could and went into the jungle for for a few days. I walked across the island of Palawan with a machete in hand and a local tribal chief for company. We passed through a couple of remote villages in the middle of nowhere that were enjoyably 'oldschool'- the men were covered in homemade tats, the women all went topless once they'd had kids and the kids would simply stare at me for minutes at a time. And absolutely no-one could speak a word of English which made for some terrible/amusing conversations. It was actually very tough just eating rice and bananas and we had to cross the rivers (at a minimum of thigh height cos it's rainy season) about 30 times with the last 3 having to be swam. This was particularly scary as I had to put my bag in a plastic sheet, start swimming and hope I'd hit the bank I was aiming for rather than the rapids another 50m downstream. We did make it OK however, and gloriously came out on the other shore at the worlds largest subterranean river; it is as it sounds and you can go for some 8KM in pitch darkness along the cave with nothing but a paddle boat and bats to keep you company.

I then had to rush to catch a 30 hr ferry off the remote island- if I'd have missed it I would've been stuck for 3 days, and this highlights one of the main problems of traveling here. A quick glance at a map will show quite how spread out the islands are and forming an effective let alone logical itinerary is nigh on impossible. Several times I was stuck for a day or two whilst you waited for another boat or flight off the island you were on and it meant that even with a 6wk time budget I was having to constantly plan ahead. The boat landed on one of the central islands which are called the Visayas and it's here that the pace of life is almost Caribbean like with gorgeous beaches, vast sugar plantations and very much a 'no worries' attitude amongst the locals. I spent a couple of weeks getting burnt and then decided to change things up a bit by going to the large southern island of Mindanao. It's way off any tourist route (and insurance coverage) as it's due to here that the Philippines tends to get in the news due to the Muslim insurgency in the West of the island. There were 2 separate bombing incidents whilst I was there but it only affects a relatively small part of the island and 100km away from the bombings the people were certainly not too worried by it. Whilst there I climbed the Philippines highest mountain the brilliantly named 'Grandfather' but it was actually quite easy taking just a few hrs to get to the summit. Much harder was the journey back to town, try and picture 4 fully grown men plus 30kg of luggage going on a steep unpaved downhill road for an hr, on a motorcycle. It was the only way back and the first 10 minutes in particular were truly scary.
Unfortunately at the top of the mountain there was plenty of rubbish just dumped by locals and was more evidence of the lack of concern for the environment that I realised Filipinos have. The government have launched a huge 'green' campaign with slogans and ads everywhere but the people haven't really adopted it yet. A Swiss beach resort owner told me he had to spend 2 days after every national holiday cleaning up the beach as the locals leave it in such a state and time and again you'd see areas of natural beauty ruined by litter in the most inappropriate of places. Along with the rats that always seemed to come with it.
As you might expect in a country that has one of the meatiest diets in the world, they've a terrible record on animal cruelty too, with cockfighting (tragically along with karaoke) basically being the national pastime. In Mindanao they even get stallions to fight by parading a mare on heat in front of them to get them worked up and the winner 'gets her'. Not pleasant.

But there are many great things about the country too; I think if there's one thing that I'll remember the Philippines by it will be the contrast between the cities and the countryside. Without exception any settlement of any size that I visited was just horrible. All the cities were just polluted, chaotic messes that sprawled for dozens of kilometers along seriously ugly roads. But once you got out into the countryside it was just awesome. Aside from the beautiful coastlines and beaches, the jungle covered interiors were lush and relaxing and amongs other natural wonders I got to see the chocolate hills of Bohol and even got to see some tarsiers in the wild. The Philippines also has the cheapest beer in the world (about 25p a bottle) and at that price I found I could even forgive the fact that every single night out seemed to end up with the locals covering truly terrible tracks from long forgotten American soft rock groups like Journey and Air Supply. I refused to sing anything other than Westlife or Metallica and it's testament to Pinoys good natures that rather than become violent they actually seemed to find it quite funny.

I've found Filipinos a curious bunch to be around. They remind me of Brazilians in their perennially happy, party loving outlook and you could not hope to meet a chirpier, more positive race of people. Wherever I went I was always met by 'Hey Joe!' (a nickname they had for USAF men) in their almost Caribbean sounding English, they have a wonderful sense of humour and the music, films and the seemingly ubiquitous presence of all round entertainment legend Willie Revellame was a brilliantly enjoyable culture to be around.
But so much to frustrate too! I found the position of women in society utterly contradictory; The Philippines has had 2 female presidents (inc one who's just died) and many other high ranking politicians but its on a day to day level that you really see their elevated position in society, seemingly 70-80% of lower and middle management jobs are filled by women and it was unusual to be in a post office or a travel agents for example that didn't have a female manager. It's a country where women for the most part 'hold the purse strings'... but at the same time it has one of the biggest 'accepted' sex trades in the world. Every year 10s of thousands of its young women leave for Japan or possibly Korea to be little more than legally 'sex trafficked'. In Manila and a couple of other cities too in particular there is a roaring 'nightclub trade' where (again predominantly Japanese and Korean) 'tourists' come in on chartered flights to be 'entertained'. This is a seemingly seen as a legitimate borderline career choice and whilst prostitution is technically illegal, it's fair to say the police/politicians make little effort to enforce that law.
Whilst I'm obviously well aware they are driven to this by poverty, I found their acceptance (and even pride) in essentially being a subservient race I found frustrating to the point of being almost shameful. 1 in 10 of the population lives and works abroad and slave wage cleaners in (for example) Singapore and construction workers in the KSA are heavily celebrated here (special tax rates, special offers aplenty etc.) but most insidiously the effective 'sale' of vast numbers of their young women to Japan and to a lesser extent South Korea on (in Japan they are literally called) 'entertainment visas' I found almost unforgivable. When even the street drug dealers greet you with 'Good morning sir, would you like...' you know they're too polite.

One of the key themes that glues Pinoy society together is that of the family; they're extremely close (and big as it's a Catholic country) and this has mixed results. Whilst on a visual level it's nice to see families enjoying themselves together as a large group in ways you don't often see in the West (going on day trips to the beach, taking over Karaoke bars etc) it's also given rise to negative side effects too. It's a very much 'protect your own (and damn everyone else)' culture and this has produced terrible levels of nepotism and one of the highest corruption rates in the world at seemingly all levels of government. I think this attitude also helps to explain issues like littering in public (rather than in private) and why economic growth has been so hard to come by unlike almost all of its neighbours and is dubbed 'the sick man of Asia'. In recent years they've been seduced and ruled by glamorous leaders (actors, former models etc) who've had little to no political experience and proved to be some of the worst, most corrupt leaders in the world outside of Africa; if you speak to the people about this however there seems to be a almost universal indifference to past crimes and is just shaken off and seemingly forgotten.
Neatly amplifying this point was an article in a local tabloid I read the other day which described Imelda Marcos as 'the Philippines most valuable national treasure'. If you look past all the nonsense about the jewellery and the shoes then this is a woman who, with her husband (this is a country where 80% of the time the women hold the purse strings) effectively stole/wasted over $10bn whilst literally 10s of millions of her fellow countrymen live in abject poverty. She's never served any sentence however, in her 80s still lives an extraordinarily glamorous/opulent lifestyle and in the media at least is treated more positively than the British Queen is in the UK. This is I found staggering and there were just aspects of Filipino society I found difficult to deal with; certainly my long term plan of buying a bride here has at the very least been put on hold.

My last week has been very enjoyable in an area called Bicol, I visited a volcano called Mt Mayon which literally translates as 'the beautiful'. And that it is, widely agreed by vulcanologists to be the single most perfect conical volcano in the world (a giant perfect triangle to look at) unfortunately you can't climb it as it's too dangerous at the minute. The area is experiencing 10 minor earthquakes a day at the moment and is on the 2nd highest warning level so I had to make do with the volcanic black sand beach nearby. I then carried onto a place called Pagsanjan which is where the jungle scenes in Apocalypse Now were shot, truly stunning scenery going from there to Angeles where I am now sums up much of the extremes I've experienced in the Philippines. By a former USAF base (which is where my flight leaves from) it's a truly horrible city that sums up much of the negative sides to the Philippines outlined above. Dangerous, polluted and the centre of the sex industry here and it's fair to say that I'm looking fwd to the Orangutans and jungle that Borneo promises on my flight tomorrow. That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my time here but just not the easiest place to travel in.

From Angeles,

Posted by carlswall 12:23 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Taiwan and Luzon

sunny 38 °C
View Swapping Orients on carlswall's travel map.

Greetings from a seemingly perma grey Manila from where I hope to catch a boat to the slightly greener island of Palawan on Thursday. It's a city few could love including its inhabitants; being a sprawling, dirty, dangerous hulking port that supports a horrible amount of poverty. Unfortunately I've been stuck here a few days now for reasons I'll hint at later...

It was a fairly low key opening couple of weeks of traveling on 'beautiful' Taiwan. Formosa, its original Portuguese name means beautiful but it's perhaps not the adjective many would use to describe it as now. Probably the most memorable thing about it was the sheer density of population. If you ignore the tiny/city states of Singapore, Monaco etc only Bangladesh has more people per sq km but Taiwans geography makes the sense of crowds unlike anywhere I've ever been. Effectively only 65% of the country is really habitable to any extent as a huge mountain chain runs as a central Eastern spine down the country with a thin sliver of habitation on the East coast. People often describe the North East coast of the States or the Ruhr valley as essentially one super-conurbation broken down into different names but the Western coastal plains in Taiwan I would describe as a true 400km+ long megalopolis. I traveled completely up the West coast by (the brilliant) trains and don't think I could never see 3 storey building of some sort. Whilst places had different names it was only the ingeniously well cultivated small pockets of land that could offer any sort of differentiation from the urban environment.
What land that is used for cultivation is extremely fertile and it is this (along with huge industrial investment by the US/Japan) that has seen Taiwan become rich but quite an interesting mix of cultures.
It's an island that has essentially been colonised by both Japan then China for 50 yrs (there are still some v poor aboriginal communities left) and there are strong elements of both cultures. The Han Chinese started moving across from the mainland in the 19th century and the food, language etc are very Chinese; but along with the twin national obsessions of baseball ad hot springs, the 'super hi tech' society is definitely more Japanese in feeling. Everyone seems to have their own laptop constantly on the go and the fact that professional computer games playing can take up primetime TV was just silly. As in China I found the people fantastically friendly. Despite its highly urbanised population I would def pick Taiwan as the easiest place to hitch I've ever been, in about 5 days of it I counted 3 cars that didn't pick me up. Much of the reason I was doing it in the first place is due to the almost complete lack of any tourists there, and of those I'd say literally 90% are (somewhat amusingly) American men with Chinese heritage girlfriends. There is actually some gt stuff to do there in the Taipei 101 building, Taroko Gorge and the SunMoon Lake but the Taiwanese have no interest in doing things independently. They all choose to travel in group bus tours so there's actually an incredible lack of tourist infrastructure in places as people are simply bussed back out of the interesting areas at the end of the day. This meant I got to camp and stay in some damn cool places but this also highlighted just how bad the weather was, when I arrived it was 35 degrees on the tarmac and the temp hit 40 whilst I was there. It's rainy season but the huge daily storms didn't disguise just how disgusting the humidity of the climate made you feel- in 2 weeks I had to wash my clothes twice.
I did really like Taiwan but I always felt there was a sense of unreality about it. When fervently capitalist Taiwan split from the mainland after the civil war in '48, the dictator Chiang Kai-Shek wasted no time in erecting all kinds of visual propaganda which I remember as being remarkably similar to the stuff in China- the only difference being the emphasis on where "..will be reclaimed". But as in Korea it definitely feels like 'one people' separated by an ideology and the Taiwanese willingly cheer on Chinese sports teams, music acts etc.
Whilst the politicians give a lot of rhetoric about the identity of 'the (Formosan) Straights', if and when China decides to adopt democracy then I think they probably will rejoin sooner rather than later.

From Taipei a took a flight to the main Northern Philippine island of Luzon. The Philippines is a vast archipelago of 7000 islands and some 90 million people but have seen some gt stuff already on just this one island. The Philippines were colonised by the Spanish (and indeed are named after the 2nd King) and it's the only Christian country in Asia. The church is still a huge presence here and the ecclesiastical architecture that survived the bombing in the 2nd world war is still glorious to look at in some unusual places (barns attached to churches, 18th century stained glass windows etc). The people tend to have mainly Spanish names and the local lingo (Tagalog) is a hilarious mixture of local words, Spanish and modern English words. This is a legacy of the American colonisation in the 20th century and this has been def less visually pleasing on the eye than the Spanish influences. Manila in particular is full of chain stores in horrible sanitised malls that feel completely out of place; not only with the often jaw dropping poverty around you but also when compared to the glories of the countryside.
In a place called Batad I saw the original '8th wonder of the world' rice terraces and few places have made me feel more humble. Whilst most people I know do fairly soulless work in front of computer screens what has been achieved there over thousands of years made me feel like we have wasted much of our working lives in turn of the millennium Britain. Through an incredibly intricate and fascinating irrigation system they've managed to maintain rice cultivation in a landscape which most people would think is gd for little more than climbing. The workers in the fields were so friendly and chatty but this really belied quite how back-breakingly difficult their jobs were, wielding scythes for 12 hrs a day in searing heat up the side of a mountain. They've created terraces with a combined length longer than the Gt Wall of China and as I said it was a truly humbling landscape to behold from both near and far.
Aside from that I've seen the amazing Taal volcano which hosts a lake within an island within a lake and slightly tipsily galloping on horseback down to the 2nd lake was a definitely surreal memory. Unfortunately, this was due to a story I've chosen not to explain but as I enter my 7th nite in Manila, I'll just say: 'Don't use drugs'....

From Manila,

Posted by carlswall 12:13 Archived in Taiwan Tagged me lakes churches Comments (0)


Greetings for the final time from JFK airport in New York as after 15 months I'm returning home this evening.
My German friend and I have spent the last month or so on the West Coast and have just finished a final week in New York to do a bit of Xmas shopping before having to return to Blighty.

The notion that Americans don't know much about the world is just a misconception. On our first night in LA we went out to a Thai restaurant, having no idea who or what Thailand was it was a real relief when we opened the menu to find a note saying "Thailand is a country in South East Asia, it's people have their own language, customs and cuisine".
I found it really helpful the way they educated us like that.
After 5 days in LA we both agreed that it really is an awful place. I hated it when I went there as a kid but hated even more as an adult. How an area with such beautiful coastline, desert, mountains and forest so close by could be turned into 70 miles of some of the least attractive urban sprawl in the Western world is just sad.
With no public transport of any real note, incredibly racially segregated communities and a huge rich-poor gap it's some sort of a hell for most of its unhappy residents. 5 days was too much and as we left sat in 12 lane gridlock populated by armies of single occupant cars my German friend correctly remarked
that "Seeing this makes you wonder why anyone bothers to recycle bottles, cut emissions or care about the planet at all".

Depressing place. Which unfortunately is a description that could be applied to the urban landscape of most of the West coast. Unlike Boston, New York or even Miami on the East coast which have individual neighborhoods and interesting streets, with the exception of San Francisco everything just looks the same in the West.
It's like you're stuck in a constant merry-go-round of McDonalds-Starbucks-Wendy's followed by Mcdonalds-Starbucks-Dominos ad nauseum.
Chain stores are virtually the only type of store and we found as we drove through small and medium sized towns in particular we were seeing virtually the same things over and again right up the coast.

Thankfully however the natural landscape is much, much better. From LA we rented a Mustang convertible and drove up the beautiful rugged Big Sur coast with the hood down and reggaeton (or s*i* music as my German friend called it) blaring out.
Inland California is also just beautiful where aside from the Redwood forests and Napa valley, Yosemite national park stands out for being a particular highlight with giant waterfalls competing with awesome sheer rockfaces for the most spectacular sight there.
Further North the unending forests of the Pacific NorthWest are also spectacularly beautiful and whilst hiking in the snow and visiting some great lakes and volcanoes it definitely made the urban parts of the trip bearable, although camping at this time of year was a bit of a challenge.
In San Francisco we got to stay with a couple of Swedish friends of ours and got a pleasant reminder of just what a great place 'America's favorite city' is.
The spectacularly beautiful bay plays host to load of great things to do and things to see including Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge of course but I think it's greatest asset is definitely its open, diverse population making each neighborhood unique and a world away from the endless sprawl of LA.
It was great being back amongst old friends again in a very happy week spent mainly drinking, although our hosts insistence we eat at Hooters every night did become quite tiresome.
Rather proudly we managed to drink every single night of the 6 weeks or so we were together (even when I was ill) and this proved particularly helpful the times when it was too cold to camp outside as we resorted to literally going into bars and trying to convince people to put us up for a night,
we ended up in some strange situations with dogs' called The Darkness and sitting in hot tubs of complete strangers in the middle of the night. But it was always worth it to avoid the cold.

Despite some of its downsides I do genuinely love so many aspects of America, from the inspiring national pride they have to the really friendly people and of course the unbridled capitalism which means you have loads of choice in the supermarket :)
I think this is shown most amusingly in the medication section where you really can get just about anything you may want or (don't) need. Hours and hours of commercials on the subject never seemed to get boring but I think my favorite products I saw advertised were tablets to suppress 'fits of rage' and the always handy 'stool softening tablets'.
As to what sort of person would even think that they would need said tablets I don't know but seemingly they exist here.
Speaking of fits of rage, whilst I love it here New York has given me in a couple of those. 9/11 was over 6 years ago and yet the security to do anything resembling a tourist attraction is at times worse than the airport.
I've lost all kinds of harmless objects going through security, (bottles of water, lunch etc) but when it takes an hour and a half simply to get through the security for the Statue of Liberty I just found myself getting pissed off at quite how seriously they take themselves.
Overall my time in America has just confirmed my previous views on the schizophrenic nature of the country. World leaders in so many fields, in other areas they're just so far behind Europe; whilst you have some of the most down to earth people you could hope to meet you also have the most arrogant pretentious people too. But still for me a fantastic place.

It just remains for me to first thank you all for reading (or not). I appreciate I'm unlikely to list writer as my occupation at any point but I just hope that my excitement and enthusiasm for what I've been doing and where I've been going has come through.
I'll be around from New Year onwards so get in touch if you'd like to see me.
And finally I wish you all a very Happy Xmas and New Year.

Thanks for reading.
For the final time,
From New York City,

Posted by carlswall 05:59 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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