A Travellerspoint blog

Valley of Mexico

Mexico photos

Mexico City dominates the Valley of Mexico in the central region of the country, but numerous other intriguing sites are located within two hours’ drive of the megalopolis. The Valley is dotted with the archaeological remains of pre-Hispanic cities, as it was one of the constituent areas where Mesoamerican civilisations flourished. The Valley of Mexico became one of the most densely populated regions in the world two thousand years ago and has remained so ever since. From Mexico City, Nactus and I visited the extraordinary ruins of Teotihuacan and the colonial-era city of Puebla.

Tetihuacan was the greatest city of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, analogous particularly with ancient Rome. Teotihuacan was contemporaneous with the eternal city, although its apogee was truly reached in the centuries subsequent to the fall of Rome. Teotihuacan supported a remarkably large population at its zenith of up to 250,000, ranking it among the largest cities of the ancient world. It established a vast empire and dominated Mesoamerica politically and culturally. Teotihuacan civilisation mysteriously collapsed in the ninth century AD, which effectively ushered in a “dark age” in Central Mexico. Teotihuacan continued to influence Mesoamerica long after its downfall, as its religion, legacy and the ruins of its glorious edifices were venerated by societies such as the Aztecs. The layout of the city was defined by the Avenue of the Dead and a litany of religious structures, which are the remaining vestiges of Teotihuacan. The avenue cuts directly through the centre of the city and is flanked by ceremonial platforms of varying degrees in size along its entire length. The avenue is imposingly broad and sub-divided into large plazas. Teotihuacan boasts two of the largest pyramids in the world: the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. We were able to ascend to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and enjoy panoramic views of Teotihuacan and its hundreds of temple structures. The pyramids are not too dissimilar to the pyramids of Giza (which is quite extraordinary really), although the notable difference is the presence of steps. The pyramids were thus intended to be scaled, for religious purposes (presumably to be closer to the celestial beings?). Most of the other temples at Teotihuacan consist of multiple platforms that gradually become smaller, thus giving the structures pyramidal appearances. The most impressive of these temples was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the rain god (I think…), as it still features huge sculptures of feathered serpents on its structure.

Although Puebla is Mexico’s fourth largest city with 1.5 million residents, it feels more like a provincial town in comparison to Mexico City. At one-fifteenth of the size, Puebla is to Mexico City what Geelong is to Melbourne. Puebla boasts one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial-era historic cores and a proud culinary tradition. The layout of the historic core is a highly navigable grid with a huge Zocalo (main plaza) at its epicentre. The Zocalo is, in my esteemed opinion, the most impressive plaza in all of Mexico (and there are millions of them!). The Zocalo is heavily vegetated and features trees of broad and manicured canopies. This delivers a burst of greenery to the centre of town and therefore contrasts with the drabness and sterility of Mexico City’s Zocalo. Puebla’s imposing Renaissance –style cathedral dominates one side of the Zocalo. The facades, towers and lower walls are composed of grey stone, while the upper portions of the structure are painted strikingly in maroon. Nactus contemptuously opted to disregard the rule of no photographs inside the church, as if she was a VIP with special privileges. The other three sides of the plaza consist of splendid colonnades with expansive café terraced seating. Throughout the historic core, every colour imaginable is vividly exhibited by the colonial- era buildings. Puebla’s myriad of baroque churches most evocatively depicts this motif, as they are usually painted with two bold contrasting colours (one for the walls, the other for the trimmings). Quaint plazas of fountains, trees and old, characterful people seemingly exist around every bend. While Puebla lacks major attractions, it is an ideal city to wander around aimlessly for an afternoon or two.

After scaling the Pyramid of the Sun and entering the Great Pyramids of Giza, one might be forgiven for thinking they had “ticked off” the world’s largest pyramids. But such an assumption would be grossly inaccurate. The largest pyramid ever constructed is actually located in a nondescript satellite town of Puebla, so we were obviously compelled to visit. The volume of the Great Pyramid of Cholula is almost twice that of the Great Pyramid of Giza with dimensions of 400m by 400m by 55m, which also makes it the largest monument of any formation ever constructed. And yet, diabolically, a Catholic church resides upon its apex. The presence of this colonial era church has stunted excavation works at Cholula, and thus little is exposed or known about the site. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a pyramid at all. Instead, it appears to be an abnormally positioned but entirely average hill covered in grass. If the pyramid was properly excavated and its glory restored in a similar manner to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the structural integrity of the heritage listed church would be compromised. The church is essentially a wart on one of the world’s most extraordinary edifices, so the patently obvious solution to this quagmire is to simply blow the church up. There’s no reasonable justification for not obliterating the church, since there’s dozens of virtually identical churches within walking distance of the pyramid. The Catholic Church ought to be punished for its practice of building churches on pre-Hispanic religious sites, so the Vatican should be charged the demolition and excavation bill. The few discernible vestiges of a pre-Hispanic culture at Cholula include 800m of tunnels that visitors can wander through (interesting, but lacking the spooky ambiance of passages through Egyptian pyramids) and terraced steps on one side of the hill.

The Australian obsession with Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons pale in comparison with the Mexican love affair with the greatest auto invention in history: the humble buggy. Other than cacti, the buggy is perhaps the only thing more ubiquitous and characteristic of Mexico than Catholic churches, mariachi bands and totally random fiestas (Mexican stereotypes are quite accurate- stayed tuned for further entries on that matter!). Rarely does more than two minutes pass between spotting buggies on Mexican roads. Of course, many readers would be aware of my phenomenal buggy spotting abilities and have been victims of my talent in the “punch buggy [insert colour]” game. While Nactus has enthusiastically embraced the game (there is a Danish version), she is really quite pathetic at spotting a buggy and quickly delivering the corresponding punch. To Mexanise the game, we are required to call out the buggy colour in Spanish, which has increased my Spanish vocabulary tenfold.

Puebla is one of the culinary epicentres of Mexican cuisine and the birthplace of the country’s most celebrated single dish, mole poblano. Moles are sauces composed of a huge number of ingredients (which can sometimes exceed 100) and are usually served over meats. While numerous varieties and colours of mole exist, they all generally consist of chillies, spices, thickeners (nuts and tortillas), sweet ingredients (dried fruits and sugar) and sour ingredients (tomatillos). The ingredients are combined, roasted and grounded into a fine paste, which takes at least a day to accomplish by hand. The paste is then simmered in water until it is very thick. It is then served over meat, which is essentially the secondary component of a mole dish. Mole poblano is individually famous because of its distinctive dark brown colour, which is attributed to the addition of dried ancho chillies and, most prominently, chocolate. By sheer luck, our visit to Puebla coincided with the city’s annual festival celebrating mole poblano. A huge street market had materialised for the occasion, with thousands of patrons enjoying the countless regional specialties served by the vendors. Nactus, a self-described “market fanatic”, was almost maniacal in her enthusiasm for the event and contended that the mole poblano festival was the busiest and best market she had ever attended. Personally I’m not one for superlatives or comparisons, so I refrained from premature judgements. We ordered a tortilla dish to whet our appetite, the name of which has been lost to memory. Half a dozen small tortillas were fried in lard and topped with stringy cheese and either green (tomatillo) or red (tomato) sauce. The tortillas were then stacked to create a sloppy, calorific and ultimately delectable snack. Nactus and I then sampled two moles at the market, which were served over rolled tortillas. One of them was obviously mole poblano. I found the mole to be very rich and quite unusual with the flavours of fruit, nuts and chocolate. We also tried a creamy and supposedly spicy mole, but found the sauce to be on the bland side. Surprisingly, Mexicans are rather weak when it comes to chillies: they make a concerted effort in warning tourists about even the subtlest hints of spice. Another of Puebla’s classic dishes is actually a fusion of Mexican and Middle Eastern influences. Taco arabes were created by Lebanese migrants in the early twentieth century, with spit-roasted pork (al pastor) served in pita bread (which I much preferred to corn tortillas).

Overall, Nactus and I spent a week in the Valley of Mexico (including Mexico City), although we certainly skipped a number of sites of notoriety. However, we departed content in the knowledge that we experienced the region’s biggest draw-cards: Teotihuacan, the Templo Mayor in Mexico City and mole poblano.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Mexico photos

Posted by Liamps 18:06 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Mexico City

Photos of Mexico

Greetings all! After exhibiting admirable restraint by anchoring myself in Victoria for the past ten months, I have now departed the realms of home to explore our planet on yet another rather lengthy journey. The constituent impetus (or excuse) for this trip is to study for one semester on exchange in Stockholm, Sweden. Prior to commencing this program in September, I will be travelling through Mexico, Guatemala, New York City and Iceland. I intend to circumnavigate the globe by trip’s end in March, which I failed to achieve in 2013.

I have somewhat reluctantly decided to resurrect Globo Trip to bombard you with exhaustive recollections of my travel adventures. However, I’m not terribly confident in the sustainability of this endeavour because I’m suffering an extreme lack of motivation to write! Some shrewd members of the readership have noted the absence of blog entries covering Bali, Komodo and Flores from my Indonesia trip last July. Regrettably, these entries have failed to manifest in the past ten months, so I have decided to start afresh with diatribes about my current journey. I will attempt the extreme challenge of keeping moderately up-to-date and recommence the blog with an entry about the first destination of this trip, Mexico City. Recurring Globo Trip character Danish Nadia will feature in the Mexico and New York City entries and be referred to as “Nactus”, one of her Mexican nicknames.

With a gargantuan population (more than 20 million) and a perilous reputation, I was expecting to encounter rampant chaos, clutter and criminality in Mexico City. Actually that’s not entirely truthful, because unlike Mum I avoid being spooked nonsensically by stereotypical viewpoints fuelled by our perpetually negative news cycle. Nevertheless, I was apprehensive about the pleasantness of Mexico City. I was scheduled to arrive in the mid-afternoon, but a flight delay postponed my eventual arrival disconcertingly to the late evening. After disembarking the airport bus in central Mexico City, I scurried quickly to my hostel amid concerns about my vulnerability. In subsequent evenings I concluded that this initial paranoia, likely induced by 35 hours without sleep and a lingering cold, was (probably) baseless. Mexico City has evidently been cleaned up in recent years. Legions of police officers patrol the streets throughout the day, which creates a sense of security in the central areas. Squads of police are deployed to guard the Zocalo (world’s third largest square) at night. Of course, their mere presence indicates potential issues continue to threaten. But the advice I have received suggests that pickpocketing is the primary issue that tourists face, consistent with other major cities. More sinister threats are predominantly reserved to the cities on the US border and rural areas in Guerrero and Michoacan (which I just recently departed from actually… more on that later!). Nactus and I felt completely safe and comfortable in Mexico City, although we did witness one rather unusual incident of “voluntary kidnapping”. On one the evening, we walked past a group of men congregated around the bonnet of a car. They appeared to be an ordinary bunch, casually chatting and… stuffing someone into the bonnet. Since the subject exhibited minimal resistance, Nactus and I decided to mind our own business and walk away rather hastily.

Overall, Mexico City feels very much like a typical Southern European city. The expansive historic centre is impressively well preserved and festooned with animated plazas and grandiose baroque churches. The historic centre’s thoroughfares feature cobblestone pavements, 16th-19th centuries edifices, manicured trees, street art and terraced cafes and bars; characteristics reminiscent of Southern Europe. Its epicentre is the humungous Zocalo, which also serves as the symbolic heart of the Mexican state. Seldom does a day pass without a demonstration manifesting in the Zocalo, as Mexicans reflect the Southern European obsession with protesting. The Zocalo is dominated on the northern side by the colossal Catedral Metropolitana, which was completed over the course of three centuries. The cathedral is a monolithic and gnarled structure entirely absent of aesthetical refinement or proportionality. Its monumental character clearly expresses the excessive wealth and hegemonic power of the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Palacio Nacional on the eastern side of the Zocalo, formerly the residence of New Spain’s viceroys and now the presidential palace, similarly conveys power in the form of the Mexican head of government. Despite its enormity in occupying an entire city block, the palatial compound is considerably more appealing with its pleasant symmetrical facades and magnificent internal courtyards. Grand avenues sprout from the Zocalo and bisect other thoroughfares perpendicularly to form the historic centre’s grid-layout. Navigation through the central areas of Mexico City is therefore surprisingly rather easy (unless, of course, you’re Danish).

Perhaps the only obvious difference between Mexico City and Southern European conurbations is the ethnic composition of the populace. The vast majority of Mexicans (especially in urban areas) are mestizos, or mixed raced ancestors of indigenous Amerindians and European colonisers. Consequently, I expected Mexicans would generally resemble Southern Europeans, but with darker skin. What a naïve assumption. I was surprised to discover that most Mexicans look quite distinct to their European counterparts and realised that Latinos are very much an independent racial group. This reality simplified our “Westerner alert” game of identifying tourists in the Mexico City crowds (occasionally altered to “Asian alert”). Disappointingly, relatively few tourists seem to visit this fantastic metropolis.

Mexico City ranks among the eight largest cities in the world, and yet its immensity is very difficult to conceptualise. The streets, shops and markets are not overwhelmingly crowded. The economic significance of the city has not translated to skyscrapers and exclusive hotels dominating the urban landscape. The constituent attractions are not sprawled throughout the metropolis but conveniently centralised. Waste generation is managed effectively, at least from a visual perspective. Despite Mexico City’s reputation as a traffic-choked metropolis, I encountered minimal congestion or stressful street-crossings. Mexican motorists are very respectful and considerate of pedestrians, probably more so than anywhere else I have been to (Australia included). I expected Mexico City would be similar to the other mega-cities of the developing world I have travelled to (Beijing, Chengdu, Cairo and Istanbul), but it was entirely different in all of the above mentioned categories.

The foundation of Mexico City pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors to the Americas. In the early 14th century, the nomadic Aztec tribe wandered the shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. They sighted a prophetic vision of an eagle devouring a snake while perched atop a cactus and interpreted this as signifying the centre of the universe. The depiction of this sighting has since become a ubiquitous symbol of Mexico and features at the centre of the national flag. The Aztecs resolved to construct their capital, called Tenochtitlan, around the site, despite the existence of the lake. They instituted an agricultural technique common in the Valley of Mexico to grow crops on small, artificially created rectangular areas on shallow lake beds. The centre of Tenochtitlan was constructed on a natural island, but this was continuously enlarged as the city’s population expanded. The Aztecs were a militaristic civilisation that came to dominate most of Mesoamerica. As the capital of the Aztec (or Mexica) Empire, Tenochtitlan’s splendour consequently grew manifold. The city was connected to the mainland with barges, while canals were the primary thoroughfares between the districts. Scholars estimate that when the Spanish arrived, the city’s population ranged from 200,000-350,000; making it one of the largest cities on Earth. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs with relative ease, partly due to the superstition of the Aztec emperor (he initially believed the Spanish leader Herman Cortes was the mythical god-king Quetzalcoatl). The Spanish adhered to the traditional Catholic practices of degrading indigenous religious beliefs, vandalising monuments and constructing churches atop exquisite temples. Has any institution or empire systematically destroyed humanity’s cultural heritage more so than the Roman Catholic Church? I think not. The Spanish established the capital of their new colony on the ruins of Tenochtitlan with European architectural styles; thereby consigning one of the most fascinating and unique urban agglomerations to history. Over the subsequent centuries, Mexico City expanded dramatically to cover shallow Lake Texcoco. Since buildings were constructed on swampy grounds, many buildings in the historic centre appear to be sinking or leaning.

Unfortunately, very few vestiges of the mighty Aztec Empire remain. However, the religious epicentre of Aztec culture can be visited directly beside the Catedral Metropolitana. In 1979, electricity workers uncovered an 8-ton stone carving of an Aztec goddess, which eventually led archaeologists to discover the Templo Mayor. The temple was a 40m high double-pyramid dedicated to the gods of war and rain. The excavated ruins of the temple and the corresponding museum are surprisingly impressive, with the extensive foundations, parts of the steep stairways, intricately carved sculptures of mythical beings and even coloured frescos depicting Aztec life surviving. The last traces of Lake Texcoco endures in the far south of Mexico City at Xochimilco, where the “floating gardens” (not a literal description) used by the Aztecs for intense agricultural production can be viewed. Visitors are required to hire a gaudily decorated boat to cruise along some of the canals. The experience is more carnival than historical; because other gaudily decorated boats with lame names like “Brenda” ply the waters with Mariachi bands, souvenir stalls and snack bars on-board.

Mexico City boasts more museums than any other city in the world, so I felt obliged to visit at least one. Nactus and I chose to attend the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which is probably the world’s most important museum about pre-Hispanic cultures in the western hemisphere. The museum includes exhibits detailing all of Mexico’s historical cultures, but particularly focuses on the civilisations of Mesoamerica. The most advanced societies of Central America were concentrated to the southern half of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras; a region that scholars have labelled as “Mesoamerica” (one of the six regions of the world where civilisation arose independently). The Olmecs were the first advanced society to develop in the region (contemporaneous with Archaic and Classical Greece) and are considered to be the “mother civilisation” of Mesoamerica. They became established on Mexico’s Caribbean coast in modern-day Veracruz state and sculpted monolithic stone heads that are not too dissimilar to the Easter Island statues (well, at least to me). In the first millennium AD, the Maya proliferated in the southern corner of Mesoamerica, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the great city of Teotihuacan was established in the Valley of Mexico. After the fall of Teotihuacan, the militaristic Toltecs dominated the Valley of Mexico. Zapotec hegemony in Oaxaca declined as the Mixtecs migrated into Oaxaca. The great city-state kingdoms of the Maya deteriorated and ultimately disappeared by the arrival of the Spanish. The Aztecs revered the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan and were inspired by the legendary militarism of the Toltecs. They came to dominate Mesomerica exluding Mayan regions and may have established trade and communication links with the Inca Empire.

Beyond the historic centre, Nactus and I explored several other districts of Mexico City. We ambled along the city’s foremost boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, which is touted as a tourist attraction with its domineering monuments. The monuments however are not momentous and the traffic-heavy boulevard dully resembles major thoroughfares found in any big city. The boulevard leads to Mexico City’s gargantuan metropolitan park, which features a castle, botanical gardens and a free admission zoo. Never one to pass a free offer, I explored the zoo while Nactus attended the Danish embassy to vote for a non-racist party in Denmark’s recent election (a futile endeavour). Unfortunately, the zoo visit failed to galvanise the same excitement such excursions would have achieved in my childhood years; I think once someone witnesses mega-fauna on the African savannah, viewing animals in captivity can never be a pleasant experience again. Nactus and I also ventured into the “Bohemian” districts of Condensa and Roma. These neighbourhoods consisted of boulevards with wide canopied trees, posh residences, trendy cafes, hipster eateries and a litany of eateries. It was here that I recalled Nactus’ hatred of canines and quickly resumed the “look Nadia! A dog!” warnings I thoughtfully provide whenever a dog passes by.

Pretentious Melbournian food snobs (certainly does not describe me) will often lecture the uninterested that suburban Mexican restaurants are not authentic and instead serve Tex-Mex cuisine. The snobs flock to trendy inner-city Mexican restaurants that espouse faithfulness to the cuisine’s supposed healthiness and vibrancy. In reality, these restaurants are as far from the reality of Mexican cuisine as Tex-Mex. Mexican cuisine rivals Hungarian as the world’s unhealthiest (in my venerated opinion). Mexicans are obsessed with meat, maize, animal fat, sauces, salty salsas and sweet breads. Their diet is defined by heavy egg-based breakfasts, large mid-afternoon lunches and rather hefty snacks throughout the day. These snacks are referred to as antojitos, which are basically a collection of street-food dishes that utilise tortillas in different manners. Tacos are the ubiquitous snack in Mexico City and they come in hundreds of different guises and street-side stalls. The tortillas used are always soft and are usually made from the corn. One of the most common fillings is taco pastor, which is basically slices of spit-roasted pork (imagine doner kebab, but pork). Another common filling is braised beef (from any part of the animal- your choice!) and chorizo. The fillings are then topped by the consumer with lime juice (limes are more common than table salt in Mexico), Nactus and I also sampled some fancier tacos in restaurants, which included stewed pork, fried shrimp and pork sausage with cheese. Chilaquiles are another form of antojitos and are often eaten at breakfast. They consist of corn chips cooked in a spicy tomato sauce (so they become soggy) and are served with a light smattering of cheese. Nactus and I sampled the national dish at Mexico City’s oldest restaurant: chile en nogada. The dish consists of a huge chilli stuffed with minced beef, dried fruits and spices. After cooking, the chilli is completely covered in a creamy walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds to cut through the richness.

I didn’t have especially high expectations for Mexico City, but I came away ranking it narrowly outside my top 10 favourite cities. Mexico City boasts an impressive European-style historic centre, ample attractions, manageable crowds, lively atmosphere and sensational food. Its unwarranted reputation as a dangerous city is surely the explanation for the conspicuous and unfortunate absence of tourists.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Photos of Mexico

Posted by Liamps 23:16 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

East Java

Indonesia photos

I intended to devote a substantial portion of my trip to exploring Indonesia’s most important island, Java. This plan however was thwarted by my temporary travel companion, Australian Kayla. With limited time and zealous determination to reach Bali, she dictated that the Java component of our trip should be rushed in order to maximise time indulging in hedonistic pursuits in Ubud (the fact that I booked her return flight home from Denpasar is an irrelevant detail). I was consequently forced to skip several extraordinary cultural and natural wonders in East Java as we crammed our itinerary through the region into two days. I accepted this outcome, for the preservation of our friendship, in a dignified and selfless manner and formulated an appropriate plan for the time permitted.

Despite a preference for independent travel, the practicality and cost effectiveness of a three day tour from Yogyakarta to Denpasar persuaded me to select this option for traversing East Java. The rapid trip consisted of two key highlights of my one month in Indonesia: viewing sunrise over Mount Bromo and seeing blue fire at Ijen Crater. The tour featured excessively long road trips in cramped and stiflingly hot conditions, an experience that harkened back to our overlanding adventure in Africa. On this occasion however, we were not accompanied by an awesome group of travellers to converse and pass the arduous bus rides with.

Prior to commencing the tour, Kayla stubbornly announced that forming new friendships was not an objective of her trip and she would therefore refrain from socialising with any other tourists. I decided that this passive aggressive approach was surprisingly appropriate considering the composition of the tour group. An overabundance of French speakers, Americans of the irritating variety, a quartet of young British or Irish (warped accents) female slobs, a trio of wannabe One Direction turdcakes (what kind of people wear skinny jeans hiking up a volcano at 2:00am?) and a creepy old guy loitering around the teenyboppers constituted the omnipresent component of our riveting group (it changed frequently). Thus I soon adopted Kayla’s policy of reclusion, except when I impressively detected the utterance of the Danish language and engaged with the utterers (specifically to flaunt this astonishing ability). It was perhaps a poor decision to abide by this anti-social policy, since Kayla’s tedious penchant for sleeping at every opportunity on the first two days despite a lack of weariness made her a rather lifeless travel partner. On day three however, Kayla ironically was unable to sleep when she was comatose and developed, most uncharacteristically, a sense of humour. Kayla is one of those painful giddy types that believe their lame witticisms are exceptionally amusing. I suspect she considers herself to be quite the comic, which is consistent with her deluded nature (quite the opposite of me in all respects). Remarkably however, her grumpiness on the last day engineered an absolutely hilarious version of Kayla, as she reeled off classic lines full of cynicism and bluntness. Unfortunately since revitalisation, her inept jokes have returned.

In my previous entry, I discussed how I found Javanese society substantially more developed and ordered than expected. This level of advancement is not, however, extendable to the island’s inter-city road system. With a population larger than Japan’s occupying a landmass a quarter the size of Victoria, one assumes that routes across Java are traversed by extremely large volumes of traffic. The island therefore requires relatively straight multi-lane highways that bypass major settlements, but unfortunately these are completely absent. Cities of four million plus are connected by primary roads (“highways” is not an accurate descriptive term) that weave through traditional Javanese landscapes of vivid green paddy fields, sugarcane fields and forested mountains. The routes are thus inefficient and slow, although they do create incredibly scenic road-trips. On the rare occasions the roads were not surrounded by dense urbanisation (Java is one of those places where it seems as though you’ll never escape the city), I was reminded of the South Pacific islands. Scattered amid the opulently lush landscapes and lodged between swaying palm trees are open-air stilted houses with prominent roofs (for the rain). Horrendously, the roads that link Java’s major cities consist of just one lane in either direction, resulting in congested traffic conditions that can stretch on for the entire day of driving.

After thirteen hours in cramped buses on day one, we finally arrived at the small village of Cemoro Lawang, near the active volcano of Mount Bromo. We arose before dawn the next morning to be shuttled up Mount Penanjakan (2,770m) to view the sun rise over Mount Bromo (2,329m). The volcano is situated within a vast plain of fine ash and is referred to as the “Sea of Sand”. The plain is completely covered by a thick blanket of fog in the early morning, which enhances the ethereal spectacle at sunrise. Smoke constantly billows from the caldera of Bromo and occasionally authorities recommend against visiting due to the potential for volcanic activity. Mount Semeru, the tallest volcano on Java, can be seen from the viewpoint on Penanjakan and is situated directly behind Bromo. After photographing this impressive scene of Bromo, the fog, Semeru and the sunrise, we ventured down the mountain to the Sea of Sand in order to climb Bromo. The ascent was relatively easy and quick, and delivered us to the narrow rim of Bromo’s vast crater. Most tourists lazily viewed the crater from one position on the rim, but Kayla and I courageously dared to circumambulate it. Time prevented us from completing this challenge, but we created a trend as others followed our lead. The stark volcanic scenery was of course sublime to witness and was quite unique from my experiences. It didn’t feel particularly dangerous, although the crater slopes appear very precarious. By 9:00am, the excitement was over and we were locked in the buses for the day as we headed toward the next destination.

The blue fire at Ijen Crater was always a “must-see” attraction for my travels in Indonesia; and it did not disappoint. We began ascending the crater at 2:00am after just four hours sleep, hiking in the cold and pitch black conditions. We were supposed to stay with our designated group and leader, but Kayla and I had no intentions of dawdling with a bunch of slow-pokes and powered past them with the aid of the torch on Kayla’s iPhone. We reached the crater rim by 3:30am and could see flecks of blue from the black abyss before us. Kayla was already impressed by the blue fire, but I was struggling to see anything with my poor eyesight. We soon realised that our hike continued down the steep inside slopes of the crater to the base. Within thirty minutes, Kayla and I were standing within perhaps the most otherworldly environment I ever experienced. We claimed a comfortable rock away from the other tourists to sit and observe the phenomenal scene: 5m high flames of an electric blue colour flickering peacefully across a 50m plane just 20m away from us. Despite our proximity to the flames, it did not feel particularly hot. The blue fire is caused by the ignition of sulphuric gas, which escapes from cracks in the crater’s base. Consequently, the area reeks of sulphur, necessitating the application of makeshift masks in order to breathe. Elemental sulphur, in the form of bright yellow rock, is mined and transported out of the crater by hardened miners. They carry loads of 75kg up 300m on a 45 degrees gradient to the crater rim and them 3km down the mountain. They complete this debilitating task twice a day for $US15. We returned to the crater rim by 6:00am to watch the sun rise over Ijen. This granted us a panoramic view of the crater’s vast aqua blue lake, the largest highly acidic crater-lake on Earth. The pH of the water in the lake is mind-bogglingly low at 0.5 (compared with pure water (neutral) at 7 and lemon juice at approximately 2). After enjoying another brilliant sunrise, we descended Ijen and watched a large copper brown gibbon swinging in the branches along the way.

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With such an infinitesimal landmass and gargantuan population, I expected Java to lack impressive natural landscapes. But despite the island’s incessant urban development, most vistas are permeated or dominated by nature; exuding a sense of tropical tranquillity. Java boasts incredible natural wonders including the blue fire at Ijen Crater, which ranks among my top ten travel experiences of all time. The proximity of East Java to Australia and accessibility from Bali makes this region ripe for exploration.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Indonesia photos

Posted by Liamps 07:41 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Central Java

Indonesia photos
Before leaving, someone asked me incredulously, “You’re spending one WHOLE month in Indonesia?” as if they thought I would run out of things to do. That was a totally nonsensical idea when you analyse the reality of this extraordinary country. As an archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands straddling both sides of the equator for 5000km, Indonesia possesses surely the most complex geography of any nation on Earth. When you consider how tremendously fragmented Indonesia’s huge landmass is, you begin to appreciate how ethnically and culturally diverse the population is; how extensive the coastline is (with warm tropical waters); and how difficult travelling between regions is likely to be. One month is barely sufficient to explore just a small portion of Indonesia and deciding which islands to visit is quite challenging (should I travel to the second largest island in the world, or perhaps the third or fourth largest? Or do I want to visit the most populous island in the world, or the historic “Spice Islands”, or visit a cluster of isolated islands to see dragons, or a group of islands boasting the best dive sites in the world…).

Indonesia as a sovereign entity is a relatively recent concept and a colonial construct, formed under the hegemonic rule of the Dutch. Prior to European interest in the region, the archipelago was politically separated by its natural borders, with each island or cluster of small islands forming independent identities. Historically, even the larger islands like Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi were usually divided into rival kingdoms. The Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit state was the only empire that established brief control over most of the archipelago, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Islam gradually spread throughout the archipelago in the 13th to 15th centuries, destroying the Majapahits and isolating Hindu-Buddhists to the small island of Bali. The Portuguese (as usual) were the first Europeans to arrive in the region, enticed by the lucrative trade in spices (specifically clove, nutmeg and mace) grown on a small group of islands near New Guinea. In 1595, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was established at Banten (Jakarta) on Java to conduct all Dutch business in the East Indies (the corporation is often evaluated as the wealthiest corporation to have existed in Western history). The VOC ambitiously attempted to monopolise the spice trade by forcing European rivals out of the region. They seized control of the Spice Islands and numerous ports throughout the archipelago. The corporation was bankrupt and corrupt by 1800, and consequently its territories passed to the Crown of the Netherlands. The archipelago was thus transformed from a trading empire into the colonial Dutch East Indies, with the Netherlands claiming and conquering everything between Australia and British-controlled Malaya and northern Borneo over the next century, excluding Portuguese East Timor. The Japanese “liberated” the archipelago from European colonial rule in World War II and the Dutch failed to reconquer the islands thereafter. The fourth most populous independent nation on Earth was thus born. Nearly half a century of virtual dictatorships ended in 1998, when Suharto resigned and the first democratic presidential election was held. Indonesia is now a fully democratised republic with a predominantly moderate Muslim population, and is home to 250 million residents.

While Kayla would have happily spent her entire Indonesian vacation on Bali as basically every Australian does, I unilaterally decided that we needed to be slightly more adventurous. I selected Java as our target island for exploration, and what an outstanding choice I made. Java, with its evocative name, has always fascinated me. How can a landmass that is less than a third the size of Victoria support 145 million people?! How can Australians (including myself) know so little about such an improbable island, since it is located so close to our continent? Java represented an exotic destination awaiting discovery, the perfect place to visit for this trip. We spent one action-packed week travelling in Central and East Java.

Most foreigners enter Indonesia through the capital Jakarta or the tourist mecca Bali, but Kayla and I dared to be different and initiated our Javanese adventure in the “small” city of Solo (Surakarta). On our bus journey from the airport to the central area, I was immediately struck by how clean, organised and affluent the city appeared relative to Asia. The city’s streets are uniformly paved, decorated with orderly rows of trees and absent of any rubbish. While the traffic is incessant, road rules exist and are obeyed, creating an unusually pleasant and safe urban experience (for Asia). The city’s infrastructure seems modern or adequately preserved (for Asia), while the people themselves appear to live a “comfortable” existence (for Asia). This description may sound rather mundane, but it came as a real surprise to me. I expected Java’s extreme population density would condemn the island to the horrendous traffic, overcrowding and noticeable poverty that are synonymous with other countries in Asia. But Solo exhibited none of these characteristics, which challenged my preconceived understanding of Indonesia’s fortunes.

Solo was the perfect destination to commence our travels in Indonesia from. The city does not feature on the mass tourist trail and consequently we encountered relatively few Westerners. Solo therefore provides an authentic insight into the reality of Javanese cities, free from the commercialisation and exploitative characters that plague tourist hotspots. The central area of Solo exhibits two aspects that are also fundamental to inner Melbourne’s layout: the grid-like division of space by arterial roads and the presence of atmospheric lanes between them. Kayla and I revelled in ambling through these peaceful havens of tropical colour, decay and manicured vegetation, where we met many local families. The friendliness of the local residents overwhelmed us, as people were eager to hail the Great White Bearded Gentleman and his secretary bird. It was quite a profound experience to be welcomed with genuine enthusiasm and warmth. We visited Solo’s kraton (Javanese name for royal residence), which is still the abode of the city’s Sultan. The complex is dominated by a vast, teal-coloured pavilion that exhibits traditional Javanese architecture with its open-air design and pointed-roof composition. Solo is apparently a “city that never sleeps”, so Kayla and I opted to sample the nightlife by attending a traditional gamelan performance. While Kayla demonstrated her lack of cultural appreciation by sleeping through the entire show, I watched a most unusual dance routine that was characterised by slow and excessive hand movements.

Borobudur is among the most iconic sites on Earth and was therefore a “must-see” for our journey through Indonesia. We decided to stay locally in Borobudur village to visit the temple, rather than join a lengthy tour from a nearby city. Our friendly English-speaking tuk-tuk driver directed us to an excellent homestay with a very hospitable family. They live in a moderately sized modern house with a central courtyard and two spacious guestrooms. They provided us with delicious snacks (crisp savoury biscuits with anchovies) and refreshing drinks (sweet jasmine tea) every time we walked through the door. Unfortunately on one occasion, the father enthusiastically offered us repulsively sweet drinks of coconut water and red (?) syrup. I graciously sculled my drink, while my rude companion, Ms Walker, poured the contents of her glass down the toilet (potentially clogging it with coconut shavings). The homestay was located among a cluster of dwellings surrounded by palm trees, thick vegetation and pockets of agriculture. In the early evening, we ventured to a tranquil landscape of vivid green rice-fields to watch the sun set gloriously over the tip of Borobudur temple in the distance. We also climbed a hill to observe the sun rise over Borobudur, but the scene was less spectacular and the atmosphere tainted by the presence of other tourists. Nonchalant toward the foggy view, we entertained ourselves with a most enthralling game of guessing the nationalities of our fellow foreigners based on appearances only. After submitting our answers, we would casually gravitate toward the target foreigners to hear their accent or first language. Needless to say, I was the champion of this riveting activity.

Borobudur Temple is the world’s largest Buddhist structure. Completed approximately 1,200 years ago, Borobudur consists of more than two million stone blocks formed into a colossal and symmetrical stupa. The 118m by 118m base supports six square terraces and three circular terraces, which are connected by four staircases that lead to the apex of the structure. The temple is intended to portray the everyday world spiralling up to the Buddhist heaven, nirvana. Visitors are supposed to walk around each terrace (although Kayla lazily skipped a few) in a clockwise manner. Circumambulation subsequently became a defining theme of our trip, as we circumambulated anything worth circumambulating. I participated in this routine to pay respect to the Buddhist faith, while Kayla was merely mocking it. I found it difficult to appreciate the immensity and thus uniqueness of Borobudur, probably because the temple is best viewed from the air. The terraces are decorated with exquisite sculptural works that depict Buddhist doctrine and Javanese culture from more than millennia ago. Small stupas resembling giant bells are planted on the upper levels. Somewhat ironically, this extraordinary edifice to Buddhism, the most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, generates substantial income for the predominately Islamic local community.

The city often touted as the epicentre of traditional Javanese culture and history is not the national capital and megalopolis Jakarta, but another city with a reputation for many names. Yogyakarta, Jogjakarta, Yogjakarta, Yogya, Jogja, Djogdja… they all apparently refer to the same place. Yogyakarta is my personal favourite, so I’ll be sticking with that name. We stayed in a relatively pleasant tourist zone in the city, which featured traffic-free lanes decorated with tropical motifs. This area branches off Yogyakarta’s primary thoroughfare, Jalan Malioboro, which is lined with a seemingly endless sequence of shops selling trashy merchandise and rip-off batik. While not particularly interesting to intrepid travels like myself and Kayla, Jalan Malioboro was nevertheless rather charming with its decaying and multi-coloured edifices and designated lanes for the exclusive use of tuk-tuks and horse-drawn carriages. We walked the two kilometre length of Jalan Malioboro to a vast and dusty square, which we assumed to mark the edge of the central area and our tour of the city. We were thus somewhat underwhelmed by Yogyakarta.

That was until a 63 year old pocket-rocket named Dibio jumped out of a bush and suddenly became our very excitable guide for the next couple of hours. I’m naturally suspicious when locals show excessive enthusiasm toward foreigners, but Dibio quickly won me over when he started joking about the “Batik mafia” that plague Jalan Malioboro. To our surprise, Dibio revealed that we had yet to even reach the heart of Yogyakarta, the city’s immense kraton. The kraton is more than just the home of Yogyakarta’s sultan; it is a vast fortified palatial city with nearly 25,000 residents. The area is divided into orthogonal streets with relatively placid traffic, low-rise buildings and tropical landscaping. The kraton thus exudes the ambiance of a typical suburban neighbourhood, which is unusual for the centre of a large city. The kraton predominately consists of solid stone buildings and walls with white colouration or vernacular wooden structures with terracotta roofs. Dibio led us through untouristed lanes that were reminiscent of Solo’s. He passionately explained the customs of the kraton’s residents, including a neighbourhood-watch system. The local men of the kraton rotate duty to patrol the streets of their respective zones each night. Wooden instruments are hung beside gates that divide the zones, and the men bang on them to indicate that all is safe. At least I think that’s what Dibio was saying, he was rather difficult to follow. Kayla didn’t make much effort to understand and tuned out completely when the conversation turned to the apparently “boring” topic of politics. I surprisingly took some interest in the paraphernalia that draped virtually every building promoting the two contenders in the Presidential election, the third biggest exercise in democracy on Earth. Dibio identified that the eventual winner Jokowi was strongly preferred in Yogyakarta.

While ambling through the kraton the subsequent morning, Kayla and I stumbled across a “nifty” café operated by friendly locals (this event has since been referred to as the “coffee encounter”). The café specialised in serving coffee luwak, a luxury drink produced in Sumatra. A small arboreal creature named the civet digests coffee beans plucked directly from coffee trees. The beans are recovered from the creature’s excrement and processed into fine coffee without the usual bitterness. The inefficiency of this process logically results in high prices for coffee luwak, so Kayla stingily ordered a regular brew. We had a pleasant conversation with the café owners about coffee, food and lifestyle in Java; an experience that Kayla cited as one of the highlights of her trip. As a Melbournian however, chatting over coffee was not exactly an exotic ritual for me. I therefore find it somewhat perplexing why Kayla remains so enthralled by this event, but perhaps her origins from the lesser half of Melbourne (south side of the Yarra of course) partly explains it.

We made a half-day trip to the World Heritage listed Hindu temples at Prambanan, near Yogyakarta. The complex was constructed in the same century as Borobudur, but its architecture and dedication is completely different. This represents the duopoly in power in ninth century Java, the Buddhist Sailendras and Hindu Old Mataram. The main temple compound originally consisted of 240 temples arranged in a square plan, but most of these structures have since been destroyed by earthquakes. The six largest and most important temples in the central part of the precinct still exist after reconstructions. The architecture is characterised by tall and pointed design, which give the temples the appearance of giant bulky spires. The constituent temple, dedicated to Shiva, stands at 47m high and features the most impressive carvings of Hindu iconography.

For those not interested in food, look away now! Java boasts perhaps the most vibrant street-food culture of any place I have travelled to. Small carts and vast market stalls cater particularly to the fervent obsession Indonesians have with deep-fried offerings. Health conscience Kayla usually goaded me into purchasing outrageously cheap bags of fried goodies, so she could try everything discreetly while foregoing the appearance of a glutinous person eating food from every cart passed. Fried banana (not sweet enough- better in Bali), fried cassava (too dry), fried vegetable fritters (sensational- by far my favourite), fried giant spring rolls (vegetarian and delicious), fried dough (too plain), fried tofu stuffed with vegetables (moist and delectable), fried parcels of clear noodles enclosed in a bean curd skin, fried chicken (slightly better than KFC) and fried sesame balls with a peanut filling (Kayla’s favourite) were all sampled. Sate, grilled over hot coals, is another ubiquitous street-food option in Indonesia and every region is renowned for a specific variety. Kayla and I perhaps irresponsibly tried Sate Padang from Sumatra, rather than the local speciality, but it was delicious nonetheless. Skewers of bite-sized pieces of beef were served in a pool of spicy and thick peanut sauce. In Solo we ate a delicious local street-food favourite called serabi, which are thin pancakes filled with coconut milk custard and topped with tropical fruit or chocolate. As a fruit fanatic, Kayla made liberal use of our presence in the tropics by stuffing her gob (in a most uncouth manner) with unusual fruits that are rarely, if ever, sighted at home. Sirsak, or “snakeskin” fruit, was the most commonly available fruit and became a particular favourite for both of us. A Sirsak is the size of a small apple and features an unappealing dark brown outer layer that resembles snakeskin. The skin is peeled off to reveal a crunchy and relatively dry white flesh, which tastes quite similar to pineapple. For sit-down meals, Indonesians often eat at a small “warungs” that specialise in specific dishes. In Solo, Kayla and I wandered into a very local warung (and had many strange looks directed our way) and ordered nasi liwet, a delicious meal of coconut rice, unripe papaya, tofu and curry chicken. Arguably the dish of the trip was a sensational soup we slurped up in Yogyakarta. Soto consists of a rich beef and vegetable broth with rice and slices of beef or chicken. Soto is found throughout Indonesia and is usually quite insipid, but this particular edition was a corker. We tried Yogyakarta’s famed jackfruit curry (cooked slowly for hours and is very dry) known as gudeg and determined that although the flavour is reasonably nice, its reputation and work required are unjustified.

I didn’t know what to expect from Java, mainly because I heard so few anecdotal stories. The world’s most populated island sits right on our continent’s doorstep, yet Australians seem to totally lack any curiousity whatsoever for this extraordinary sliver of volcano-strewn land. After spending an enthralling four days in Central Java, I became increasingly puzzled as to why Australian tourists generally ignore visiting this region. Australians hardly lack adventurism when it comes to international travel, since few touristic places exist where the Australian accent is seldom heard. Likewise, Central Java hardly lacks tourists, as we were swamped by French and Dutch travellers. Yet for whatever reason, Java remains a blind spot on Australia’s travel radar. Hopefully this entry will inspire a wave of Australians to visit Java!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 06:27 Archived in Indonesia Comments (1)

Northeast Malaysia

With effectively five weeks between university semesters (due to some shrewd timetabling), I decided to exploit cheap AirAsia deals to travel to Indonesia in June and July. I vacationed in Bali in 1999 for Mum’s 40th birthday, yet I have always been reluctant to “count” Indonesia as a country visited. Bali’s microscopic size and culture contrast with the vastness of the predominantly Muslim but ethnically diverse Indonesian archipelago. Consequently, Indonesia and specifically the world’s most populous island of Java were key travel targets of mine (plus Indonesia represented the cheapest overseas destination that was unlikely to be under martial law during my stay). This (comparatively) short journey has provoked a deluge of memories from that vacation in Bali, most notably the fascination locals had with Peter’s facial hair. “Like father, like son” is probably an apt saying for this trip, because the locals now are equally mesmerised/repulsed by my glorious/grotesque beard.

Flight arrangements and visa restrictions compelled me to spend six days in Malaysia prior to entering Indonesia (hardly an inconvenience). Malaysia felt like an appropriate destination to recommence my travels, since I ended “Globo Trip” in Kuala Lumpur. The monsoon season quashed my previous efforts in December to visit the East Coast of Malaysia, so this was the obvious region to travel to this time around. Immediately after arriving in downtown Kuala Lumpur, I caught an overnight bus to the Perhentian Islands in the far northeast of the country. I subsequently visited the Malay city of Kota Bharu and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to meet Australian Kayla.

The Perhentian Islands are two small, idyllic, tropical islands situated just off the Malayan Peninsula (opposite side to Penang). After a bumpy fast-boat ride to Perhentian Kecil, I was quickly reminded that small, idyllic, tropical islands are not really my thing. At eight o’clock in the morning I arrived at the main beach, which is lined with dozens of guesthouses and restaurants. The only sign of activity was an old German guy taking a yoga class. Since I was in Asia, I surmised that the conspicuous absence of practical or worthwhile forms of morning activity was surely indicative that either tourism had destroyed the authenticity of this destination or no local culture existed in the first place. I was hardly gobsmacked by the appearance of the main beach (I suppose Australians rarely are when overseas) and was disappointed in the management of the island’s environment, as rubbish and grey-water pollute the no-longer pristine rainforest. Within short-time, I asked myself the question I always seem to pose when I arrive on an island (and fail to remember later), “What the hell am I going to do here?” I concluded that staying on tropical islands can be enjoyable if you’re with other people, but I was all alone on Kecil and with little to do, I certainly felt the isolation! I went snorkelling in the warm waters, tried to trap a large monitor lizard and read an obscure book (recommended by an equally obscure person) about Elizabeth I attending a chess tournament in sixteenth century Constantinople as a child. I stayed in a primitive bungalow for the night, which seemed satisfactory until I was bitten hundreds of times as I attempted to sleep and arose in the morning with a puffed-up face (I still have marks around my elbows from the ordeal!). Needless to say, one night on the Perhentian Islands was more than enough for me!

Since Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown (Penang) are the three cities tourists usually visit in Malaysia, few foreigners see a traditional Malay city. These three cities feature culturally diverse and wealthy populations, which is not necessarily reflective of all cities in Malaysia. I decided to visit the ethnically homogenous and “traditional Malay” city of Kota Bharu (as described by the travel bible, Lonely Planet), located in Kelantan State near the Thai border, to deepen my understanding of Malaysian society. When I wrote about Malaysia seven months ago, I described the country as a nearly “developed” society. This seemed like an appropriate comment after visiting the clean, organised, multicultural and either ultra-modern or well-preserved urban cores of Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown. However, it has become apparent from visiting Kota Bharu how patently naïve that label was. The economic disparity between Kota Bharu and the capital is quite extreme and perhaps akin to the contrast between Naples and Northern Italian cities like Turin and Florence. The residents of Kota Bharu are hardly destitute, but the difference in opportunities the locals have and what I have was certainly palpable; as is often the case in developing countries. To me, Kota Bharu exemplifies the unevenness and complexity of Malaysian society.

While Kota Bharu lacked the aesthetics and vibrant culture I had hoped for, it did at least provide an educational experience into the reality of Malay communities. The central area of Kota Bharu is situated beside a wide river near the Pacific coastline. The city’s primary attractions are clustered into a riverside zone and include the sultan’s palace, several museums and the principal mosque. These buildings all feature characteristic Malay architecture, but are not really grandiose or noteworthy. Most of Kota Bharu’s buildings are either unassuming and slender or megalithic concrete blocks, which creates an incongruent and ultimately ugly urban landscape. Most buildings are severely dilapidated, the central area is congested and disorderly and the gutters are piled with rubbish and stink of wastewater. The traditional Malay handicrafts Kota Bharu is apparently renowned for are not easily detectable, as most shops are brimming with tacky merchandise.

Kota Bharu’s wonderful central market is the most intriguing precinct in the city. The indoor market is multi-level and designed around a large atrium space. The ground level surrounding the atrium is dominated by fishmongers and butchers, who use the same concrete benches throughout. The second and third levels stock spices, kitchen wares and other dry goods. Fruit and vegetable produce is sold in the atrium space by Muslim women that wear vibrant traditional garb. The colourful scene can be viewed from the upper levels.

Never before have I spotted so many rats – half a dozen – as I did in Kota Bharu. They were not just any rats, but very BIG rats. Now I can appreciate the oft used description of a rat being “as big as a cat”. One particular rodent was so gargantuan that it had the temerity to nip at the body of a cat. This permitted me the rare opportunity to make a direct comparison between the two creatures. I observed “that rat is literally as big as that [albeit small] cat!” In a city bereft of interesting attractions, perhaps the reason why tourists flock here is the excellent chance of spotting mega-fauna.
Prior to departing Kota Bharu, I watched a Malaysian television program parodying Australian dining norms. The Malaysians apparently find our palate hilariously bland and think our usage of knives to eat rice with is quite bizarre. Well knives may not be entirely practical, but it certainly is more sophisticated than eating rice with one’s hands! Now, I can appreciate the virtuosity of the practise in Laos, because the rice is very sticky and eaten with intentionally dry side dishes. However, the Malays eat not-so-sticky rice with curries and wet sauces and the resultant eating process is a very messy affair (proof that practice does not equal perfection if the wrong technique is employed). But as the most adventurous diner I know, I had to have a crack at eating sloppy-jalopy food with my hands. From Kota Bharu’s central market, I bought a serving of nasi kerabu wrapped in banana leaf. Nasi kerabu is Kota Bharu’s signature dish, consisting of coconut rice with a spicy fish mixture. I returned to the privacy of my empty hostel dormitory and shoved my hands into the glug. With rice and curry sauce dripping down my arm and festering in my beard, I was most embarrassed when a Japanese guest entered the room. I should clarify that Chinese Malays do not partake in this abominable practice, preferring to use chopsticks instead.

My sudden idea of travelling to Southeast Asia in the winter holidays inevitably spruiked envy in some people and perhaps exposed the exploitative nature of others. Part-bogan Australian Kayla (from the Africa tour) recognised opportunistically that if she gate-crashed my trip, she would effectively acquire the services of a tour guide and someone to take care of all travel arrangements for free. Kayla employed the skill that teachers particularly excel at, manipulation, to coerce an invitation from me. Without subtlety, she feigned surprise and gleefully signed on. Teaching commitments, however, limited Kayla’s hijacking to less than half the length of my trip, which I decided was a tolerable outcome. Indeed, as I write this entry near the warm and pristine waters of tropical Lombok with a mixed juice at hand, I imagine she’s disciplining rascals in cold and bleak Melbourne.
I spent two days in Kuala Lumpur prior to flying to Java, with Kayla arriving partway through. I visited the national mosque (renowned for its modernist and tropical inspired architecture) and the city’s museum of Islamic arts (famed for its assemblage of art and examples of architecture from throughout the Islamic world) before Kayla touched-down, in case she lacked my enthusiasm for architecture. Our itinerary in Kuala Lumpur centralised around food, as I introduced Kayla to the wonders of Malaysian cuisine. We ate roti canai at a Mamlak (Indian-Muslim) canteen, attended a somewhat disappointing Malay night-market, ate noodles and popiah from hawker stalls at a Chinese-Malay morning market and enjoyed a banana leaf meal at a South Indian restaurant for dinner. We also visited the Batu Caves north of the city, which are large caverns with whimsical Hindu temples inside.

I suspect Malaysia will be a country I continue to travel back to, because AirAsia’s connecting flights through Kuala Lumpur are so ridiculously cheap. I feel satisfied though with my exploration of the Peninsula, so Georgetown (Penang) will be my destination next time I return.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 02:45 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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