A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about events

Bali, Indonesia

Happy Nyepi

View Burma, Indonesia and Laos on jonshapiro's travel map.

Ahh Bali. The very word conjures up exotic images of swaying palms, friendly people, frangipani, and the hypnotic sounds of gongs and gamelons. Yes, some of this is true, but after many years of tourism it feels more like a cross between the surfing culture of Southern California and the new age characteristics of Sidona, with a touch of the third world.

We decided to skip the crowded beaches of Kuta and Seminyak, full of drunk Aussies, or so we were told, and head directly for Ubud, at the foot of the mountains. We were extremely lucky to land at Raka House, a small family run guest house in an alley not far from the main drag. Complete with a small swimming pool, koi pond and views of the terra cotta roofs of the town, it was exactly what we needed.

Interior of Raka Compound

View from the Terrace

It was run by, you guessed it, Raka, a man around our age who spoke a little English. He used to be a cab driver, until he got a micro-loan to open his guest house in the family compoun. He was in the habit of referring to himself in the third person. "Raka think you like some tea?" "Raka tell you how to walk town." It was all part of his charm.


Unbeknownst to us, we happened to arrive the afternoon before Nyepi, Balinese New Year. This is a very holy day in Bali, and no one is allowed to roam the streets, travel, etc. However Nyepi is preceded by a big parade, especially in Ubud, of wicked spirits.


Ogoh Ogoh, as the spirits are called, must be cleansed from the earth before the New Year begins. What happens is that elaborate paper mache figures, 20-40 feet tall, are paraded about to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, and then burned at sunset. Many are somewhat androgynous, often with huge breasts and penis' They are made anew each year in a time consuming process by the men of the village.

How serendipitous to arrive just as this parade was about to take place.




After several hours the figures are brought to a field in the center of town where beer and food is consumed, speeches are made, and the images burned.


P1020148.jpg P1020146.jpg


The next day, Nyepi proper, we were more or less cloistered within the walls of the compound. It seems that Raka was personally held responsible for our behavior, and would have been fined had we gone out on the streets. We spent our time reading, swimming, and chatting with the other guests, including a young American couple who had been teaching for two years in Korea, as well as another two American guys, both single, in their 50's. They had each been coming to Ubud for the winter for several years. In the summer Tom was a boat and tour guide on the inside passage of Alaska, based in Juneau, and wrote children's books. Chris was a contractor. They were very much interested in women, but not marriage, though Chris was in long distance and relatively long term relationship. During Nyepi, they had arranged a feast which was catered by a local French restaurant, in a nearby guest house. This was just down the alley from us which was why it wasn't a problem for them to "sneak" out. Chances are the Nyepi "police" wouldn't notice. The rest of us had to make due with considerably simpler fare supplied gratis by Raka. All in all, it was a relaxing day after the rigors of travel and parade watching the day before.

Posted by jonshapiro 15:24 Archived in Indonesia Tagged events Comments (5)

Quito and Vulcan Pichincha

We arrived in Quito in the evening, and were picked up by the folks at our hotel, L'Auberge Inn. Owned by a couple of French expats, it is located midway between the old and new parts of the city, and is a good, quiet, and inexpensive option. We had previously been in the city 28 years earlier, and were eager to see how it had changed. Then it seemed exotic, with a large indigenous population, provincial, and somewhat isolated. Our first impressions now, was that it was much larger, and up to date, similar to other Latin capitals.


Quito is high, about 9000 feet, and surrounded by even higher mountains, such as Vulcan Pichincha at nearly16,000. The urban sprawl has spread further down the valley and up into the steep hills nearby, which is not surprising, given the number of years and the large population increase.


Initially, we walked to Mariscal, a tourist area in the new city, full of hotels and restaurants catering to foreigners, as well as tour agencies. Our hope was to get a deal on a trip to the Galapagos. We stopped at the Hotel Colon, which was one of the few upscale options during our previous trip to Ecuador. Though we never stayed there, it seemed to be located in the same place and had an updated look. Then, as now, it was the center of action for business people, and others willing to shell out the bucks to stay there. Most of the main avenues in Mariscal were wide, heavily trafficked, and appeared relatively prosperous. The side streets, less so, but there were many foreign restaurants, Indian, Thai, etc., espresso and juice bars, along with mountaineering shops selling the latest high tech gear. There were also hundreds of tour agencies, all offering trips to the Galapagos. How to choose? We checked out a few that were listed in our guidebook, but they didn't seem to have quite the bargains we had been hoping for. After a few hours, we decided to give it another day.

The next day we booked a trip on the Legend, one of the larger and more upscale boats. At $1200 US a piece for a five day cruise with air, it was not exactly a bargain, but seemed to be about 25% less than it would have been had we booked in advance. Paying for the cruise was an interesting process. There was steep credit card surcharge and our ATM daily limit was $400. We went to the bank to try and get the remainder of the cash we needed, but after waiting on line for a long time, were told that our debit card wouldn't work. They didn't tell us that there was a system problem. This put us in a bit of a panic and we trudged back to the agency to ask for help. Luckily Felix, one of the guides, spoke English fairly well, and said, most likely, it was a computer or connection issue, not to worry. When we got upset, it seemed our Spanish skills deteriorated. We went back later and the card still wouldn't work, but then I remembered I had a couple of thousand in travelers checks as an emergency stash. I didn't want to use them all, but perhaps we could pay half, and then use our ATM card to get more cash on the days before we sailed. This was acceptable to the agency, although we had to go to several ATM machines, all on different streets, before we found one that liked our card. All in all, a frustrating day, but just one of the hassles you have to put up with when traveling. It seems no matter how many fail safe methods you take with you to obtain additional funds, none is foolproof.

We had five days to explore the city before leaving for the Galapagos.

Hilly Side Streets of Old-Town

It looked less indigenous then it had in the past. Most people were dressed in western clothes, and looked mestizo.


Although there were some women with bowler hats and big packages on their backs.


The buildings and churches were as magnificent as I remembered, and in fact the whole area seemed spiffy, with new signs and clean squares and parks. Plazas Independencia, Grande and San Francisco with their cobblestones, cathedrals and government palacios all looked in really good shape. We were later told that the place had been listed as a World Heritage Site, just in time for the Miss Universe contest, held two years earlier. This was the reason for the face lift.



On a Sunday, it seemed as though most of the city was out walking the streets. There was an outdoor street theater, music and mimes, and everything was very lively.



We went to an art museum, with an exhibit of surrealistic oils, that were obviously a commentary about the social and ethnic divisions of the country. There had been several large Indian demonstrations over the past 10 to 15 years, so they were now a political force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, social and class differences remain extreme, and many areas of the city are quite dangerous, much more so than when we had last been here. The poverty was, if anything, worse then, so perhaps it is because the signs of wealth are more obvious to those who have nothing. We were told to take cabs everywhere at night, and not to walk up to nearby Cerro Panecillo to see the statue of the Virgen overlooking the city.



Asleep Under the Virgen


I wanted to do some climbing before we left Quito, and so I spoke to the French mountaineers who had a shop at our hotel. Although they were still doing Cotopaxi and some of the others, the weather was far from ideal at this time of year. This was already apparent in Quito, as we had rain and a couple of days that were cloudy and chilly. Technically easy, the big volcanoes of Ecuador are over 20,000 feet, and I was concerned about whether I had enough time to acclimatize. In the end, I decided on Pichincha, which was lower and closer, and could be done in under a day. That would be a good test of the limits of my acclimatization. Nanette decided that this was one she wanted to do as well, and although possible to do without a guide, we hired Felix and Roberto, from the same travel agency where we booked our cruise.

We left early on an overcast day. It took about an hour to drive through the city to get to the mountain, visible from most everywhere.

As We Approach

We gained another 3 or 4,000 feet of elevation by the time we got to the base, and there were a couple of inches of fresh snow on the rocks. Our plan was to take the harder of two routes to the summit, most of which is a class 4 scramble. The snow made things much more difficult, and we felt the lack of oxygen. At times it was difficult to find adequate hand and foot holds that were within reach, but Roberto was always there to help, which was a good thing given the slippery conditions. There were a few, well let's call them interesting sections, where we had to jump or lunge forward over exposed areas. Despite my interest in hiking and climbing I have a fear of heights, so this was pretty scary. I have to have a conversation with myself to keep calm, and wondered as I have before under similar circumstances, what possessed me to do this. However there was really no turning around, as it is always more difficult to go down steep rock without a rope, than up. After roughly two hours, we got to the top and, as always, it was rush.


The intensity of the sense of being ALIVE was very strong, and it has a way of focusing my mind so that I was fully, totally, present.

With Felix and Roberto

Although there were clouds and volcanic fumes, we still got some distant views of the valleys and mountains beyond.



It was hard to believe we were just outside of a city of 3 million, here in this wild, high country. We stayed for a 1/2 hour, and then took the easy hour walk back down to the refugio. The climbing high lasted the rest of that day and into the next, after which we headed to the Galapagos.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:47 Archived in Ecuador Tagged events Comments (2)

Politics and People

The political situation in Guatemala is far more stable now than during the 35+ years of the Dirty War, in which death squads roamed the country and killed thousands. This remains one of the more horrific examples of US foreign policy and covert involvement in the internal affairs of another state.

In 1950 Jacobo Arbenz, an army officer, was elected president and initiated many reforms, especially redistributing land back to the Mayan peasants. In doing so, he had no choice other than to take on the United Fruit Company,which owned a huge percentage of the country and was virtually exempt from its laws. This was, within a few short years, to be his undoing. In 1953 and 54 several hundred thousand acres of uncultivated land near the coast was seized, and although the Company was compensated, it claimed the amount was insufficient. Meetings were held between the Guatemalan and US governments to try and resolve this and other disputes, but the Company was not happy with the direction the country was headed, and began to have its own meetings with US government officials to convince them that Arbenz was a communist, and needed to be eliminated. United Fruit also hired a high powered lawyer, who engaged in a massive public relations effort against Arbenz and his predecessor, much of which involved a campaign of disinformation to the NY Times and other leading newspapers.

By the time the government meetings occurred, many US officials, as well as the American public, was convinced that Arbenz was a threat to national security. The Dulles brothers, John, who was Secretary of State, and Allen, CIA Director, both of whom had direct connections to the United Fruit Company, soon cooked up a plot to overthrow him. Providing money, weapons, and "advisors" to Castillo Armas, another army officer then living in Honduras, Arbenz was forced to resign in June of 1954. Castillo took over, and within a short time compiled a list of more than 70,000 people active in unions and aligned with Arbenz, many of whom were killed or exiled by the army. Ironically,many of the operations of United Fruit in Guatemala were later broken up by the Justice Department as a result of an antitrust suit. The Eisenhower government however, continued its support of Armas and his successors, to the point of providing Green Berets to help defeat a group of rebel officers.

Slowly a guerrilla organization, EGP, started by students and encouraged by Liberation Theology, grew in strength. It attracted Indian support in the highlands, and began to fight against the corrupt military governments and landed oligarchy.

In 1977, following a massive earthquake which killed more than 22,000 people, a large anti-government rally took place in the capital. General Romeo Garcias responded with death squads targeting students, union leaders, priests, and later, massacred highland Indians in town such as Alta Verapaz. Although this initially increased the ranks of the guerrillas, the army crushed them through a strategy of mass murder, forced resettlement into highly controlled villages, reeducation, and forced militia duty. General Rios Montt, an evangelical christian, took over and continued these tactics, aided and abetted by the evangelical churches, who taught the Indians that rebellion was against the will of God, and Liberation Theology was the work of the Devil.

Although the Carter administration initiated an army embargo because of the human rights abuses, this was later overturned by Reagan. By 1985 the army realized that they had essentially won the war, and so elections were held. Cerezo, a Christian Democrat, took over, but not before he agreed to a blanket amnesty for the army. Sporadic violence continued, and Indians who lived in Santiago Atitlan and other towns, who had previously supported the guerrillas, continued to be "disappeared" by the hundreds. A formal peace accord was not signed until 1966, and although calling for accountability on the part of the army, this was slow to be carried out. Amnesty International has reported that criminals, as well as police, military officers, and multinationals, were often in collusion.

Much of this has not changed. We would often talk politics with our Spanish teachers, and they made no secret of their distrust of the government, and the police, who they said were frequently in league with the crooks. Interestingly, despite many years of CIA involvement on the side of the army and its brutal regimes, they seemed to harbor no ill feelings towards the people of the United States. They made a distinction between the people and the government. This was true throughout our travels. Our teachers were also very open about discussing their own lives and circumstances. Despite their meager existence, they did not seem resentful of us, although they did express some anger over how little of the tuition money the school gave to them. Certainly one of the more interesting things about studying Spanish intensively, is that you learn about the culture through these kinds of discussions. I felt a strong personal connection to my teachers during the brief time that I knew them, and this was repeated while I studied in other countries as well.

(Note: Although several sources were used for this material, the following were especially helpful:
Bitter Fruit, Schlesinger,Steven & Kinzer, Stephen; Central America on a Shoestring, Lonely Planet, 2004; Inside Central America, Krauss, Clifford).

Posted by jonshapiro 07:30 Archived in Guatemala Tagged events Comments (0)

An Inauspicious Beginning

A tragedy occurred during the evening of our third day. A U.S. woman in her mid-20's, who was staying near us with her boyfriend from New Zealand, suffered a fatal asthma attack. Susan had been out drinking and apparently died before anyone could get her to a hospital. Her boyfriend, Colin, was not with her, and didn't find out until several hours later. We had only just met and talked with her briefly the day before.

The next morning, the "duena" of our house spoke to Nanette(whose Spanish was better than mine), to ask if she could talk to Colin, and do some translating, as decisions would have to be made about the body almost immediately. Colin was distraught and completely shocked, as his friend's asthma had never been particularly severe. He too, had only gotten the story second hand, and so the details were vague. We both talked to him at some length, and then Nanette spent time on the phone with the Guatemalan authorities. Eventually, the American embassy got involved, but the whole situation was complicated by the fact that it was difficult to find Susan's parents or anyone else from her family. Eventually, her body was shipped back to the states and Colin followed shortly thereafter so that he could attend the funeral. The experience was, needless to say, deeply distressing, and almost surreal. We never imagined we would use our therapy/ crisis management skills as soon as we left home.

Another unfortunate event, though of a very different magnitude and not at all tragic, occurred a few days later.
We went on a short excursion with a our school to a park, about 20 minutes outside of town. To get there, we had to take the chicken bus going to Guatemala City, and as is often the case, the bus was packed with people standing in the aisles and often pushing three or four into a seat meant for two. On the way back, when it was less crowded, there was a somewhat elderly( late 60's), Indian woman, who was sitting next to me. The strange thing was she kept bumping into me, even though there wasn't anyone else in the seat. She was a bit fat and smiled as she said a few things in Spanish, so I didn't really think anything of it. Two hours later, while working out at the gym we had joined for the month, I noticed that my pants had a tear on the outside pocket. I soon discovered that my debit card was missing, and it was only then that I realized it must have been her. She had actually sliced my pants with a razor blade or small knife, while bumping up against me to feel for the card and make the cuts. As unlikely as this seemed at first, I had gone straight to the gym after the park, and there really hadn't been anywhere else where it could have happened. I wasn't that alarmed, because I figured that without the password the card would be of no use. Wrong. By the time I got back to the house to call my bank, $700 had already been charged. Eventually, the credit card company made good on the money, and other than the hassle of spending several hours on the phone trying to straighten things out, no real harm was done. On one hand, this was clearly a professional job, and in a way, I had to respect her skill at slicing my pants without cutting my leg, all in a bouncing bus. At the same time, it alerted us as to how easy it was to be ripped off, and put us on guard for the future.

Safety is an issue in Guatemala, as it is in many Central and South American countries. In parts of Antigua, there were men with machine guns guarding bodegas and hotels. Usually the issue is money, however caution is needed, especially in the larger cities. Stories abound about people being held up at gunpoint and even raped or killed, though pickpocketing and simple thievery are more common. We were of course, instantly identifiable as gringos, and as such, obvious targets for "banditos and ladrones." This is somewhat understandable when you consider that maybe 20 families control 95% of the wealth of the country. However even our teachers were fearful of taking the bus to Guatemala City. One of them had been given a scholarship to go to the university in "Guate,"
but after being threatened at gunpoint on a city bus, she stopped going to school. This should not be a reason to avoid going, but certain places are probably best avoided, and any kind of wealth should not be displayed in an obvious fashion, ie, jewelry.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:28 Archived in Guatemala Tagged events Comments (1)

(Entries 1 - 4 of 4) Page [1]