A little bit of Jurassic world

Robert and I have made our way to the island of Flores and the town of Labuan Bajo.  The town is pretty sleepy — one main road lined with dive shops and a few restaurants.  We came here with two goals:  Robert really wanted to dive, and I really, really wanted to see the Komodo dragons.  (These are most likely the goals of 99.99% of the tourists who come here.)  Well, check and check.


Prior to arriving in Flores, we had booked a trip with a local dive shop.  Robert would get to dive twice, I would snorkel while he dove, and then we would visit Rinca island together to see the dragons.  A perfect plan for a perfect first day in town.

Bright and early, we jumped on a boat and headed to sea.  The water was all different shades of blue, the clouds were beautiful, and we were surrounded by islands.  Plus, the boat served really good bread as part of the breakfast offerings.  (Sure, laugh about my need for good bread.  Then spend some time in Asia.  You will understand….)  It was looking to be an amazing day.


And, in fact, Robert had one spectacular dive (and one pretty good dive).  Check out this amazing video of a manta ray.  Robert was hanging onto a rope when we he took this because the current was so strong it would have flung him away otherwise.  The manta ray, on the other hand, was basically standing in place without any effort whatsoever.

Robert also saw a turtle, six reef sharks, starfish, and tons of other fish.


My snorkeling experience?  Well, let’s just say it has put me off snorkeling a little bit.  I’m not a confident swimmer in the first place.  Add in a guide that laughed when I asked for a life jacket, didn’t even notice when I had a full-on panic attack and started hyper-ventilating in the water, failed to point out half the sea life, and nearly kicked me multiple times when he dove to take pictures of things.  And, then add in currents so strong at the second stop that I nearly got swept under the boat.  Let’s just say I didn’t care how expensive wine was in Flores, I was downing some after that experience!  I did at least get to see a manta ray and two turtles, plus a variety of other fish, although the water was pretty murky so the view wasn’t great.  (For those of you who have heard the snorkeling is amazing here in Labuan Bajo, based on my limited experience, I would disagree.  I’ve snorkeled in far better locations, with better coral and more fish, including Thailand and Belize.  Perhaps I’m jaded, as others seemed to have had a great experience.)

After the water activities, it was back on the boat to the island of Rinca.  There are two main islands here to see the dragons:  Rinca and Komodo.  Rinca is the closer of the two.  As we pulled in, there were a couple of monkeys playing on the pier.  And, as we walked towards the welcome center on the island, we got our first glimpse of a Komodo dragon as it ambled right across our path.  Cool!

As we waited for our ranger (provided by the park, not by the dive shop), a mud-covered water buffalo strolled by.


We also saw several deer hanging out in the yard and under a deck.  Sadly, one of them (not this one) was dying from a dragon bite.


Then, it was off to look for more dragons.  Our ranger said there were two rules:  stay together and don’t talk.  The ranger talked nearly the entire walk.  And, the group got separated almost immediately.  (I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not.)  So much for safety.  But, we did get to see dragons. This guy is downright adorable.


There were several hanging out by the ranger camp.  Our ranger said they hang there because they smell food.   Look at the claws!


After passing by the ranger camp, we went to an area they call the nest.  Guess what these two had just finished doing?  No, thankfully, we didn’t witness the act itself.


Yes, that wet noodle in front is the female dragon.  The mating process can last several days and involve multiple “sessions”  — she looked completely spent so I’m hoping these two were completely done.  She will lay about 30 eggs in a couple of months.  When the babies hatch, they will run up a tree so mom doesn’t eat them.


This looks like a very self-satisfied smirk to me.  But, perhaps he has reason to be satisfied — we were told the males outnumber the females two-to-one on Rinca so they have to fight for the opportunity to mate.  Apparently, the fighting looks a bit like sumo wrestling but gets pretty violent.

I will say, Rinca was a bit of a disappointment.  We got to see about 7 different dragons and that was really, really cool.  But the whole thing felt a bit zoo-like and it seemed odd to me how many animals were hanging out at the camp.  One has to wonder if the animals are fed to keep them close to keep the tourists happy.  The ranger said no, but ….  And, given how lax the ranger was with security, it makes me wonder even more.


As our day trip wound down, Robert booked a second dive and we made plans to go see Komodo Island and some of the other islands around Labuan Bajo.  And, then, disaster struck.  The dreaded Bali Belly!  So we spent the rest of our trip hanging out at our hotel pool and cafe, which ultimately turned into a very relaxing couple of days (at least when we weren’t reading about and getting stressed out about the insanity going on back home).  Now that we are both feeling better, I think we would both like to return and do a short live-aboard trip to see more of the area.

(And, I just have to say before the match tonight, Go Iceland!)

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My kind of biking….


Cheesy jungle viewing platform at one of the plantations

Lots of tour operators offer downhill bike rides of the countryside around Ubud.  We booked one such tour early in our stay.  We both liked it so much, we booked another at the end of our stay!  (Robert was happily shocked that I was willing to go on not one but two bike rides in our week in Ubud.)  Both tours were fantastic, although surprisingly different.

Both tours stopped at the ubiquitous coffee plantation before the biking began.  It is pretty much impossible to avoid going to coffee plantations around here if you book a tour.  It seems like every single tour stops at a plantation.  And, all of the coffee plantations have civits in cages and want you to buy civit coffee.  Urgh….!  I wish they would all just get rid of the civits.  Because, other than the fact that the civits are in cages, the plantations themselves are somewhat interesting (at least the first time — the third time, not so much).


We got to see the different types of coffee that grow in Bali, along with a variety of fruits, herbs, and spices (how many of you have seen a pineapple growing?).  And, check out all the different flavors of coffee (not pooped out by civits) and tea that we got to try.  The ginger tea was amazing.  So was the mangosteen tea.  And the pandanus tea was just like drinking caramel.  So good (until we learned that the purpose of pandanus tea is to increase your appetite — something neither one of us needs!).

One of the tours also involved a stop to see Mount Batur and the largest lake in Bali.  Mount Batur is an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted since 2000.


The last large eruption was in the 1960’s, and you can still see where the lava flowed.  It was quite a pretty view, and shockingly cold up that high.  If we had really been ambitious, we could have booked a sunrise tour to hike Mount Batur.  Those tours leave Ubud at approximately 2 in the morning.  I don’t think I need to say anything more about why we didn’t take a sunrise tour…

After the coffee stop, it was time to get on the bikes and — for the most part — coast downhill.  Coasting downhill is definitely my kind of biking!  I could coast downhill for hours and hours and hours.  Thankfully, both sets of bikes had good brakes or we would have been in serious trouble.



The two tours took completely different routes, which was a pleasant surprise, but both used mainly small roads.

One of the two tours did involve a bit of riding in the jungle and the rice fields, which Robert loved.  I felt lucky to get out of the rice field alive, as we had to keep skirting irrigation systems (basically big cement holes in the middle of the path).  One more than one occasion I hoped off my bike and walked it around an obstacle rather than risk breaking an arm or leg.  A better biker (ahem, someone like Robert), would have been just fine.

One of the tours stopped at a public school.  Believe it or not, the kids were all cleaning the school when we arrived — they had just returned from a two week vacation and the place needed to be swept up.  It was unlike any school in the U.S.  First, the kids were cleaning with no need for teacher supervision.   They weren’t doing the best job, and they certainly weren’t working efficiently, but they were cleaning on their own.


Doesn’t she look thrilled to be cleaning?

And, there is no cafeteria or the like for lunch.  There was a “canteen” at the back of the school where the kids could buy snacks, but it was dirty and full of flies.  That said, the kids were friendly and several wanted to practice their English with us.

Both tours involved a stop at the home of a local family.  Both families were very, very poor.  It was a bit shocking to see how they lived.  For example, the “kitchen” is a separate building with an area to cook over a fire.  That is it.  No sink, no electricity, no stove or oven.  The housewife cooks the daily meal over the fire, with no exhaust hole or anything for the smoke.  So, everything in the room gets black.  And, the elders often sleep in the kitchen — we were told that is because it is the warmest building. (We understand that wealthier families have electricity, but both guides indicated they don’t like the taste of rice cooked in an electric cooker — the fire adds flavor to the rice).


Cutting bamboo to make baskets

We were also told that the housewife would make a single meal for the day and then family members would just eat whenever they got hungry — all three meals would be exactly the same food. There is no dining room or the like, so people just eat where they want.

We also learned that, when children are born, the placenta is buried in front of one of the buildings and often covered with a rock to mark the spot.

And, we learned a bit more about the offerings.  A “good housewife” can make 100 offerings in an hour and will likely go through 40-60 per day, depending on the size of the family.  I can only imagine what all of these offerings cost.

We also heard a bit more about the tooth filing ceremony.  One of our guides had not yet undergone the ceremony, as he was waiting for his younger siblings so they could all undergo the ceremony at the same time.  Why, you might ask?  Because it costs IDR 20-40 million (roughly $1400-2800) to hold the celebration.  The 2018 monthly minimum wage here in Bali is about IDR 2 million (roughly $140), so this is a significant expense.


Yep, that is my butt coasting through a village

Finally, we learned it is next to impossible to buy a house in Bali.  The houses are passed down from generation to generation.  The houses cannot be sold because the family temple is believed to contain the spirits of the ancestors.  Query what that means for any chance of upward mobility?  I wonder how many sons go to the city to make their fortune and then return to the village?


Both rides also involved quite a bit of dodging of chickens and dogs and scooters and even rice.  The dogs and chickens just run loose here, and the dogs seem to really like sleeping on the side of the road.  And, rice is sometimes dried right in the middle of the road.  Apparently, it is not considered rude to dry your rice in the road or to run right over the drying rice.  (At least that is what our guide told us right before we all biked over a pile of drying rice….)

Both rides ended with a pretty good buffet lunch (and both included excellent peanut sauce, which is key around here).

If you are interested in doing a similar tour, we used Bali Bikes (http://www.balibike.com/) and Green Bike Tours (https://www.greenbiketour.com/).  Both were excellent, but have their pros and cons.  Green Bike involved more off road riding and was the longer ride.  Bali Bike let us go a bit faster and had the better food by far (home cooked and served at the family compound instead of in a restaurant).  The Bali Bike tour route includes two big hills, one of which everyone ended up walking up (Robert says he wouldn’t have needed to walk if people like me hadn’t stopped in front of him….), whereas Green Bike had no significant hills but more flat areas which involved only a minimal amount of pedaling.


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I ate tempeh!!

P1160102And, I liked it.  I really, really liked it.  I’m a little bit afraid….  (For those of you that don’t know, tempeh is made from fermented soybeans.  The fermentation process binds the soybeans into a cake-like form.  Robert tells me the tempeh we had today is both significantly different and significantly better than anything he has had in the U.S.).

Let me start at the beginning.  Those of you who know us well know that Robert loves to cook.  As a corollary, he loves to go to cooking classes when we travel to new countries.  I tend to go along for the ride — sometimes I enjoy them and sometimes I get a bit bored.  But today was a good day.

We booked a cooking class with Jambangan Cooking School.  This is a family run operation and they did an absolutely fantastic job.  (We found the cooking class on a website called Cookly — we are going to have to remember this website when we visit new countries).

The day started with a trip to the local market.  It was a really small market, but we saw lots of fruits and vegetables and even got to try a few, including snake fruit and lychee (neither of which are favorites of mine, but Robert really likes lychee).

But, more importantly, we got to try an amazing rice cake with freshly grated coconut and palm sugar that had been boiled until it tasted like caramel.  I can’t remember the name of these cakes, but they were delicious.  I want more….

Then, it was off to a quick visit to the family rice field.  I was a little bit surprised at how far the field was from the family home.


Then, we visited the family’s house. We saw the family temple and learned about how houses are built in Bali.  Who knew that all honeymooners from one family stayed in the same building until a child was born?  Apparently, then the couple moves to a different building and the elders move back into the honeymooners building.  (Side note:  We learned on our bike trip that Balinese undergo a tooth filing ceremony either at puberty or no later than when they get married.  Apparently, from what we understand, it is largely the canine teeth that get filed.  Apparently, smoothing the teeth smooths the soul.  All I can say is, ouch!).


After all of that, the cooking started.  We made so much food!  First, we made curry sauce and peanut sauce.  Thankfully, they didn’t let me anywhere near this knife.  Robert, on the other hand, handled it beautifully.


Then, we prepared our mis-en-place for all the other dishes.


Then, we made a vegetable soup (with too much onion for my taste).  Then, Balinese chicken sate.  It is grilled over burning coconut husks.  Yum!  Robert is definitely going to have to learn how to make this when/if we settle down.


We also made ground chicken steamed in banana leaves, chicken in a yellow curry sauce, stir fried tempeh with sweet soy sauce, and two different vegetable salads (one with a peanut sauce and one with a curry sauce).  (For anyone who is wondering, that brown stuff in the bottom right in the mis-en-place photo is the tempeh after it has been fried but before the sauce has been added.)  I even carved a tomato into a flower.


And, dessert was bananas and potatoes (yes, really, potatoes) in a caramel sauce.  We left absolutely stuffed!

But, I am left with one question:  What is for dinner????


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More walking in Ubud

P1150763So, after our experience on the ridge walk, we were looking for something more our style.  And, we found it!  The Kajeng Rice Fields walk is a thing of beauty.  In fact, we’ve already done the walk twice and will no doubt do it at least once more before we leave Ubud.

The walk starts right in the middle of town.  Just find the Starbucks.  I can’t believe in Bali I’m telling people to look for the Starbucks.  How utterly disappointing that Starbucks has moved in when there are non-chain coffee shops everywhere (and Robert tells me the local places make good coffee).  Anyway….turn up the side street (Jalan Kajeng) and keep walking.  First you will be on a regular street with lots of shops and cafes, and then the street will get narrower and narrower.  Eventually, it turns into a narrow path just big enough for scooters, you climb up a hill and, viola, beautiful rice fields.  Aren’t they stunning!

Eventually, after walking through the fields for awhile, the paved path turns into a dirt path.  Don’t worry — you aren’t lost quite yet.


Then, the dirt path turns into a life and death experience — you walk on a cement strip with water on one side and a steep drop on the other.  Don’t worry — you still aren’t lost.  (But, by now, you will be hot and sweaty!)


I wish that drop looked scarier than it was, but it really was that scary, especially for someone like me who can trip anywhere and everywhere, even on completely smooth surfaces.  Thankfully, the scary bit is over quickly.  Then, it is back to a dirt path through a bit of jungle.  Watch for skinks!  We saw quite a few but they are quick and nervous little things so couldn’t get a photo.

Eventually, you see the backside of a huge resort.  The path continues behind the resort, where it turns left and crosses some water.  You just might see somebody washing clothes here — we did on one of our walks.  Then it is another quick left, up some very tall and steep steps, and back out to more rice fields.  Take a left and follow the trail right back to Ubud.

Along the way, you are likely to see people working in the fields.

And fun scarecrows.


You will have to dodge some scooters.


You might see farmers carrying scythes and hatchets.


If you get lucky, you might spot someone shimmy up a tree to knock down coconuts.


You will probably see some herons.  (In writing this, I learned that egrets are a type of heron, so I’m not diving down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether this is an egret or a heron.  Feel free to tell us in the comments if you know.).


And you will see ducks.  Lots and lots of ducks.  Which means lots and lots of duck poop.  Which means lots and lots of fertilizer for the fields.  We were told by one person that the ducks eat bugs and by another person that the ducks eat the leftover rice after harvesting.  Don’t know which is correct — or if both are — but we can tell you that they eat loudly!  Clack, clack, clack!

Plus, there are dragon flies and butterflies everywhere.

And, the path is dotted with guys selling coconuts and little cafes with amazing views.  We couldn’t be happier when out on this walk.  If you are ever in Ubud, you should give it a try.

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Walking in Ubud

One of the allegedly top things to do in Ubud is the Campuhan Ridge Walk.  It is a nature walk that one can access right from the middle of town.


Given that we have been huge slugs since arriving in Bali, this walk was our first order of business.  In fact, we were so serious about getting some exercise that we set our alarms for 6:30 so we could get the walk in before the heat and the sun really ramped up.  Let me say that again — we set our alarms for 6:30.  A.M.  Not sure what we were thinking….

In any event, the walk was a nice way to get some exercise.  There are a couple of steep bits, but nothing we couldn’t handle in flip-flops (especially because the path is paved).  The path starts on the edge of an interesting temple (closed to the public).


Then it goes through some trees and fields. (No, the path doesn’t actually go through the middle of a tree, but you know what I mean).


Eventually, we reached a small village with a variety of shops and cafes, where we turned around and went back.

We saw a really cool bird on the walk.  It isn’t the best photo, but the colors on this bird were unreal.  And, when it flew, the wings were blue.  Amazing.  Believe it or not, this is the first pretty bird we have seen since landing in Bali — there are tons of birds, but everything we have seen before today has been brown or white.


We also stumbled across a beautiful pond full of lotus flowers.  And fish.  But it is hard to take a good photo of a fish under the water.


All-in-all, it was a nice walk, but we are both pretty surprised that this is one of the top things to do in Ubud.  And, we are each apparently turning into a fuddy-duddy, because we were both annoyed with the tourists who were screaming on the trail about stale croutons (no, I’m not making this up) instead of enjoying nature.  We would summarize the walk as good exercise in a pleasant environment, but nothing too special.

After heading back to our guesthouse for breakfast, we decided it was time for more walking.  So, we walked down to the area around the Monkey Forest.  We didn’t actually go into the forest (got to work up our nerve because the monkeys apparently are not the best behaved monkeys in the world) but we did get to see monkeys hanging out on the street near the edge of the forest.

P1150728All told, we think we walked about 9 miles today.  Whew!  And, you know what?  We plan to do it again tomorrow.  Next stop the rice field walk!  At 6:30 in the morning….we are not fast learners….

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Loving the Trash Cans in Nusa Dua

Things have been pretty quiet around here.  We have spent the last week basking in absolute luxury at the Sofitel Nusa Dua.  When this is your pool, why would you ever leave?


Especially when there is also a swim-up pool bar?  And, especially when an amazing buffet breakfast is included every day?  (Can you say noodles stir-fried to order????)  And, especially when happy hour includes enough food to be dinner?  And, especially when there are so many nice people around?  And, especially when boozy Sunday brunch is one of the best brunches we have ever had in our entire lives?  Suffice it to say our days involved breakfast, pool, happy hour, sleep, and that was pretty much it.

But, as this is our last day, we figured it was time to get out and see a bit of Nusa Dua, which is a beachfront area full of large luxury hotels.  Lots of people say Nusa Dua isn’t the “real” Bali, and I suspect they are probably correct.  That said, it is a perfect place to relax for a few days.  (My dermatologist would probably disagree…..)

There didn’t seem to be much around our hotel, but we had read that there was a blow hole nearby, so we checked for high tide and away we sent.  Well, the blow hole was — simply put — not that impressive.


Yep, that is as high as it got while we were there.  Maybe it is better when the moon is at a different stage?

Nonetheless, it was a nice walk.  We saw some cool statues.

And a paddle boarder.

P1150645But, the absolute best thing about our walk was the trash cans.  How cool are these guys?

Tomorrow, we are off to Ubud.  We plan to do much less lounging and much more sightseeing there.

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A bad time to be a pig in Bali

After doing nothing but sitting on our butts sunbathing for the last week, we decided it was time to book a tour and actually do something.  So, we booked a driver to take us on a 10 hour tour of Bali.  Drivers here are pretty cheap — we paid about $45 dollars and that included the car, gas, and all parking fees.  And, quite honestly, we may very well have been able to get a car for even cheaper if we had felt like haggling with a stranger on the street.  The tour itself largely involved us sitting on our butts in a car so we didn’t really succeed in getting much in the way of exercise.  But, we did get to see a few sights.

First up was Taman Ayun temple, originally built in 1634 and used as a royal temple.  This is a large temple located in a park about an hour drive from where we are staying.  Everyone must wear a sarong to cover their knees.  We were given bright green ones to wear over our other clothes.  It was not an attractive look!  But, the temple was beautiful.  Tourists are not allowed inside the temple itself and can only walk around a stone fence outside the temple.  The upside to that is we never had to worry about people in our photos.  The cat-like thing below is a “Barong” and represents goodness as best I can tell.  For certain ceremonies, two people get inside the Barong and dance (like you would see at Chinese New Year celebrations).

Interestingly, there is a cock fighting ring on the temple grounds.  Thankfully, it was unoccupied on our visit (and we didn’t even walk over to see it).  Our guide explained that the cock fighting was traditionally used to obtain blood to give to the Gods (but he admitted it is now all about gambling).

From there it was a long drive to the Munduk waterfall.  The waterfall is about a 15 minute walk down a steep trail from the parking area.  The waterfall was powerful and lovely, and pictures just don’t do it justice.  The real problem, however, is that what goes down, must later come up, and the slog back up to the road was brutal after doing absolutely nothing for an entire week!


Next stop was a view of twin lakes.  A man was there offering to let us take photos with a very large fruit bat (they actually call them flying foxes here).  I’m seriously regretting our decision to decline that offer (even if fruit bats do carry the nipah virus….).  How cool would it be to have a picture holding a large bat?

P1150532DSC00996From there, we went to the Ulan Danu temple, a temple built back in the 17th century.  This was high on Robert’s wish list of things to see, and it did not disappoint.  This temple is postcard perfect and, in fact, is seen on lots of advertisements for Bali.  The temple itself is in the lake and not accessible.  Oddly, no sarongs were required here.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy and foggy when we visited, so the photos are not the best.

Then, it was back in the car for a trip to the Jatiluwih rice terraces.  This was my favorite stop of the day.  The rice terraces are a UNESCO world heritage site and absolutely beautiful.  If the rice looks a bit odd to you, that is because — according to our driver — it is sticky rice.  Mmmmmm….sticky rice!

P1150592P1150603P1150608DSC01040Our last stop was a coffee plantation, where they make coffee from beans pooped out by a local cat-like animal (a civet).  We didn’t particularly want to stop here due to concerns about animal cruelty, but it was part of the tour.  We should have just said no.  This particular plantation CLAIMS they harvest the beans the old fashioned way, which means the civets are wild and they look for their poop on the grounds of the coffee plantation.  They CLAIM that the reason the coffee is so good is that the civets pick only the best berries to eat which is why the civets have to be left wild.  That said, many of these plantations use factory farming methods where the civets are kept in small cages and force fed the coffee berries.  The bottom line is that, although Robert tried the coffee, we did not purchase any because (1) he likes regular coffee better and (2) we couldn’t be assured of the source of the beans.

Now, at this point, I’m sure you are wondering where the pigs come into the story.  Well, it turns out Tuesday and Wednesday are big holidays in Bali.  (We’ve had very mixed explanations of what the holidays are about so aren’t even going to hazard a guess).  Out in the countryside, pretty much every home and temple has these sorts of decorations up.

DSC01046But, there are also pigs being slaughtered to eat during the holiday celebrations.  And the pigs get killed, gutted, and cut up right on the side of the road.  So, it is a very bad time to be a pig in Bali.  But apparently a very good time to be a Balinese person!

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