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We Can Only Wish


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THE JAPANESE WRECK NEAR AMED

The carcass lies barely two meters below


And very close to shore, rusty since the war


Six swaying yellow angels guard the bridge


While the trumpet fish sounds its silent call


There are no bones left around here


Gone is the sweat and stench of fear



The dead have long since gone away,


To haunt their killers another day


Left is the bluegreen water, coral and fish


Let us not destroy them, we can only wish




From Amed we took an hour long speedboat ride, bumpy and expensive to Gilliair. Unfortunately most of the coral there had apparently been dynamited in years past, in a facile attempt to catch fish. Although much ballyhooed in The Lonely Planet and by many travelers, it did not live up to billing.


We stayed at Bernard's place, run by a gay expat Frenchmen, also recommended, and deservedly so. Unfortunately with the pool construction and located well off the beach, there was no breeze. Air and fans went off in the middle of the night, supposedly because one of Bernard's men got stoned, and forgot to put on the generator when the power failed, seemingly a daily occurrence. To his credit, Bernard did not charge us for that evening and the 2nd night things were okay. However there were many guest houses and restaurants scattered along the beach, and the place was crowded with tourists and touts.




Main Street in Gilliair
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Except for one small stretch, the beach was rocky and not good for swimming. I will say that the open air restaurants were nice, with small bamboo sun shelters and comfortable pillows. A good place to lounge, which we did for most of the time.





Cassie and Nanette
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The view towards Lombok and the mountains was impressive, especially at sunset, but after a couple of days we had enough and headed on.






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Posted by jonshapiro 11:23 Archived in Indonesia Tagged postcards Comments (6)

Amed


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Eventually we left the charms and the crowds of Ubud, and headed for the southeast coast of Bali. Previously undeveloped, it is now home to many small hotels and guest houses with more on the way, especially near the water. The rocky beaches are not the best, but the diving and snorkeling is superb. To get there, we hired an aircon taxi from the hotel where we planned to stay. We shared the expenses with Cassie and Ryan, the young American couple who I mentioned had come off a two year stint teaching English in Korea. It was a relaxing ride that with stops, took the better part of a day. The vibrant green fields were such an intense color that they looked almost fake. What a contrast to the dry, dusty landscape of Burma.





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In the afternoon, we stopped at some spring fed pools for a dip and to admire the gardens.





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Instead of the original hotel, we decided to stay at Sunshine, just as nice and considerably cheaper. For $25 we got the best in the house, a large ocean-front room with ac, including our own private terrace. The manager at Double One wasn't particularly happy with our decision of course, but he stubbornly refused to bargain with the price even though his place was practically empty.




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That's our room on the upper left. Okay, it wasn't perfect. After a day or so the bathroom began to smell a bit like a sewer. I guess they had issues with their septic. It was hot, hot, hot, even more so than in Ubud, and here, in the doldrums so close to the equator, they didn't have the trade winds that I associate with the tropics in the Carribbean. The pool was more like a hot-tub in the height of the day, but cooled off somewhat as the sun went down. As advertised, the dark sand beach right in front was indeed rocky and the water bathtub warm, but the coral gardens 20 feet or so offshore were incredible. I've never seen colors like that, and such variety. Fan and brain coral, red, purple and white, stag and elkhorn coral, lettuce, mushroom and star coral, green, brown and white. Unfortunately I didn't have an underwater camera so I don't have pictures, but it was mesmerizing. And the fish, with their indigo blue and yellow strips....


On the surface, even the boats looked like fish...... or waterbugs.



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Other days we checked out more snorkeling spots, including one 5 miles up the road with an old wreck, also right offshore.

SNORKELING IN AMED

Here, I swim with thousands of small fishes,

Green or iridescent blue as the light strikes them.

I reach out my hand and they scatter,

Instantly moving forward in unison.

Bigger black fish appear with blue around the edges,

And those with orange stripes, speckled with gold.

They come near, and are very bold.

And the yellow fish with black bands,

Yellow-black, yellowblack, yellowblack.

On my side, a bottlenose fish,

Or is it a small barricuda?

Below are huge plate coral,

Yellow and black, purple and white.

Coral that looks like corrugated petals,

Fish nibbling on its tiny protuberances.

And darting in,

And darting out.

All of it swaying with the tide,

Slowly, gently, pulsating.

Opening and closing,

Opening and closing.

Effortlessly, I float above,

Wide eyed through toothpaste smeared lenses.

Five minutes, an hour, a lifetime passes.

Slowly, gently, pulsating,

All of it, teeming with life.



The vibe in Amed was, as you might guess, very relaxed, and there were blessedly few people. When we weren't snorkeling, we were mostly hanging by the pool, or rather in the soporific shade near the pool, trying to stay cool. There was a good restaurant right up the street, and we ran into another couple who we met at Raka's. A somewhat unlikely pair, he was a boisterous, slightly paunchy, beer drinking, Aussie scuba diver, and she, a slim, soft spoken, northern Italian, was a snorkeler like us. It was fun for the six of us to have dinner together.


Sunsets were spent drinking beer on our terrace, gazing at the sea. Clouds sometimes gathered force as they moved towards the high volcano on Lombok, and the occasional freighter moved slowly by on the curved edge of the world.



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Posted by jonshapiro 10:20 Archived in Indonesia Tagged postcards Comments (4)

In and Around Ubud


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Ubud is a very new age, shop til you drop town, with an assortment of foreign restaurants, health food stores, yoga centers and spas. There are many small boutiques, art galleries, fabric stores, and even chain outlets such as Ralph Lauren. We saw more Americans here than in any other part of our travels, and there seem to be a significant number of folks who spend the winter. For me it would be too touristy and too hot, but at the same time, there is a vibrant cultural life , with dance and music performances almost every night, several good museums, and opportunities to take arts and craft courses.

The main streets are jammed with motorbikes and people, though nearby Monkey Forest is calm and serene, especially in the morning. This is true unless you happen to be carrying a bunch of bananas, in which case the monkeys consider you fair game.



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There is a stream running through the park, and many stone sculptures.



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On one day, while Nanette took a batik class, I went on a bicycle tour. After we were dropped off by the van, it was blissfully all downhill. I was the only customer as Dewa had recently started his own company. We began with breakfast at a restaurant over looking two very green volcanoes. The lower one had a major eruption in 1975 killing thousands, and I could just about make out the lava track.

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The higher of the two, Gunung Agung, was mostly in the clouds.



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It was partially overcast for most of the ride, helping to shield us from the hot, tropical sun. The narrow road was bumpy, though mostly paved with little traffic, and led through rice fields and villages. Each village had three temples, Dewa explained, one for Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.



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Ganesh
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We had a couple of intentional detours through narrow dirt tracks in the jungle, as an added thrill, and wound up back in Ubud for a Balinese lunch at the family compound, prepared by Dewa's wife. Just now I am sitting on my terrace back at Raka's place, overlooking the gardens and koi pond, surrounded by banana palms and other broad leafed vegetation. I gaze out at sea of rust colored terra cotta roofs as a cool, moisture laden breeze blows, and the first shower since the beginning of our trip in Burma, falls gently from the sky.


That evening we attended a dance performance. The first part was a retelling of the Ramayana.


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The second and very spectacular Trance Dance was next, with one dancer scampering and jumping amidst burning coconut shells for what seemed like 20 minutes.




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Posted by jonshapiro 12:23 Archived in Indonesia Tagged postcards Comments (0)

Ngwe Saung Beach: Burma

The Highs and Lows of Travel


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We arrived after a bumpy six hour bus ride from Yangon. The beach on the Bay of Bengal is wonderful. Warm clear water, smooth bottom, and enough waves to be fun without being scary.



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There is some development , though surprisingly the primarily upscale hotels are tastefully set back beyond the swaying palms. This is not a beach for locals, except perhaps for the generals and their ilk. Luckily, at this time of year the beach is practically deserted and the hotels are empty, except for ours, Shwe Hin Tha, one of the cheapest at $20-$30 US. Though not full, it had a good crowd, primarily Europeans of various ages. There is a restaurant nearby where the food is reasonable, if not especially good. Better food is to be had in some of the places closer to town, a rather longish walk of 45 minutes. If you get lucky someone may offer you a scooter ride for free if you eat in their restaurant. Otherwise they want to charge an exorbitant $2 a person.

Our bungalow, right on the beach, was a good place to stay, despite the rather lumpy beds. Our immediate neighbors were a delightful couple from Frankfurt, on a year long round the world trip.

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There is absolutely nothing to do here except sunning, reading, and swimming. It is perfectly suited for unwinding from the rigors of traveling in other parts of Burma.

A walk to Lover's Island, at low tide, provides a nice diversion.


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On the bus ride over we met Hugo from Portugal, who had just been at a silent meditation center for a week. We spent much of our time at the beach with him, as he happened to be staying in the same hotel. Over the course of several days, he told us most of his life story. His parents divorced when he was quite young, and he was raised by his mother and his abusive stepfather, until Hugo kicked him out when he was 15. His father is a simple, poor man with left wing politics living in the Algarve, and mother is now a successful businesswoman, married to a wealthy attorney from an old, conservative Portuguese family. Hugo has had a lot of responsibility for many years, and seems to be a natural at running his guest house in Lisbon. Having a business partner gives him the freedom to travel half the year.

One entire afternoon was spent talking, as well as listening to Fado on his tiny, but pretty damn good, Ipod speaker. After a while I put on some of my own music, Otis Redding.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,

Watching the Tide Roll in and Away.

Indeed, we did just that, while taking swigs of a bottle of Mandalay Rum. The music was accompanied by the ever present sound of the surf, as well as the occasional oxcart, huge wooden wheels, laden with bamboo from the nearby forest. What a juxtaposition of sights and sounds, East and West. Modern technology and stone age transportation. I burst out laughing at the thought of it all happening simultaneously.


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Other days there were fishermen.


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A Good Segue into THE LOWS:


Around 3 PM a local woman came by selling barbecued fish. Delicious, or so we thought until a few hours later. Nanette was the first to get sick. I thought I had escaped, but it was not to be. In my fantasy, the indomitable, spy, Dr. Myint had struck again, this time going for broke by poisoning our intrepid travelers. GOTCHA. We should have known better. While the fish was cooked, we didn't see it cooked, and who knows how long it was baking in the hot sun. Or perhaps it was the sauce?

THE UGLY:

Shitting and vomiting all night long. Nanette especially, was weak as a kitten for almost a week. Both of us had aches, pains, and then extreme lassitude for a good part of our stay at Ngwe Saung. Yes I suppose it was a good place to be if we were going to be sick, but it was BADDD for several days and then on and off after that. (More on than off). Hard to keep anything down, we each lost weight in a hurry. It was mostly tea, the occasional piece of toast, and half a banana.

So the rather melancholy Fado music was an appropriate prelude.


AND BACK TO THE HIGHS: (Slowly)

At one point, slightly recovered from our near death experience, we took a long walk along the beach with Hugo. We were trying to find the only internet in town. By the time we got there, we were both exhausted, but we wanted to book our hotel back in Bangkok, where we would return in a few days. There was a rather bizarre email from our ethnobiologist, Dr. Myint, asking where we were. It seems there was no escape. We paid the price the next day, once again being laid low by our stomachs. Gradually, we improved with papaya and ginger tea, and the warm sun and perfect waves were just what the doctor, and I don't mean Dr. Myint, ordered, or would have ordered had their been one.


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One afternoon we got to chatting with Anna, a Paraguayan born Korean, who grew up in Vancouver and now teaches English in Seoul. She seemed excited to hear about our own Korean adopted daughter and was full of travel stories to places like Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc. I was again reminded of the special quality of "travel friends."No past, no future, only NOW. Each moment has an intensity to it, as does so much of the travel experience. It feels unique to be in Ngwe Saung with Hugo, and to have met and talked to Anna, Lisa and Oliver, our Frankfurt couple. Yes, this place is a bubble, mostly populated by adventurous Europeans. And yet, last night, still somewhat sick, we were at a restaurant in town being serenaded by the owner, strumming his guitar while singing Myanmar love songs. So the bubble is far from complete.



Nanette, Hugo, Yours Truely
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On this evening the sun is going down and the pink sky contrasts with the low clouds that seem to form every night. At this time of year, they bring no rain. The waves are quieter now, though the sound soothes as always, as the cooling breeze blows off the water. Only a short time left. Despite the stomach problems, it will be hard to leave.



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Posted by jonshapiro 11:45 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (3)

Inle Lake


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Nyaungshwe is a tourist town on the end of a canal leading to Inle Lake. Strolling or biking along the bustling canal is quite enjoyable. It is a laid back place full of international backpacking types, but this is Burma after all, so their presence is not overpowering. There are good restaurants, including an Italian place that serves homemade pasta. When we first went there, the owner, perhaps sensing our skepticism about the "homemade" part, showed us the kitchen and the piece de resistance, the pasta machine.

"How did you learn how to make Italian food?" we asked.

As it turns out, several years earlier an Italian visitor came to their restaurant and showed them how to make it. She later sent them a pasta machine directly from Italy. It has changed their lives. Now there are three different restaurants all run by the same Burmese family, and they appear, understandably, to be doing well. Needless to say, there are not many places in this country where you can get real gnocci, ravioli and thin crust pizza.



The Canal
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It takes work to keep it free of weeds.



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The water buffalo, however, don't seem to mind.


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Day two was spent touring around the lake by motorboat, like many tourists. Hiring our own was cheap enough, and that gave us the freedom to stop where and when we liked. The fishermen often paddle their boats in a unique way, with their feet. Or rather with one foot.



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But not always.



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Unfortunately several of the villages and small factories seem to cater primarily to the tourist trade, and there were tacky souvenir shops and pushy sales people in a few of them. We escaped by climbing up to a pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the lake and valley beyond. However after we gave a small donation to an old monk, a few of the younger ones harassed us for money. Very un-monk like behavior.


We went on to another village, and told our boatman that we wanted to walk around places without tourists.



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He arranged for a local man to take us further into his village. While we walked, we talked to him as he had a bit of English. He said he used to be a silversmith, but was too sick now to do it. All he could do now was run a betel nut stand.

"What made you sick?" I asked.

"I went swimming too many times in the lake, and it was cold."

"So what kind of problems are you having?"

"I have nightmares every night."

"Oh really," I said. "What kind of nightmares?"

"I dream that my girlfriend doesn't love me. That she is going off with another man."

Hmmm. This man needs a therapist, I thought. "Have you been to see a fortune teller?"

"No. Not yet, but I don't seem to be getting better.Perhaps it was a nat (spirit)."

I nodded.

Believing in nats is not at all unusual here, but I didn't quite know what to say after this. We continued on our walk as he pointed out other shops and the headman's house.

From there, we headed off to yet a different village for lunch,


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Our favorite place was the floating village of Nampan, where everyone lives on stilt houses in the lake. Quite charming, it felt like the Venice of Burma. We slowly motored up and down the narrow channels and waved to friendly and not so tourist jaded locals.



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We got out at one spot to witness the boat building and carpentry.




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On the way back we stopped at a weaving workshop where thread is made from lotus root as well as cotton and silk. The scarves were beautiful, and Nanette could not resist. We spoke to the owner, who told us the business was started almost 100 years ago by his great grandfather, who traveled to Cambodia and Laos to learn about their complex weaving patterns. The teak house where we stood was also the same age. A total of ten villagers are employed in the factory. In the past they sold their goods to other villagers, but now it is mostly tourists.

Part of the weaving village was also built on stilts, though incongruously, a few houses had satellite dishes despite the fact that there is electricity only two hours a day.

The finale was the Jumping Cat Monastery, where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, though it was really the ride home that was spectacular, sun setting on one side, moon rising on the other.



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We spent other relaxing days hanging out with travelers we met at The Aquarius Inn, where we stayed. It lives up to its top billing in The Lonely Planet. Owners and staff are wonderful, bringing tea and fruit whenever you come and go. Book ahead if you want to stay here.

There was Jazz, a thirty something, cosmopolitan Indian man from London, traveling more than 2 and 1/2 years, and Simona, also thirty something, effusively Italian, sometime tour guide, who spent three years in New York. There were two young Chinese women traveling alone, very unusual for people from their country, and also a French couple with two young children, who we happened to meet on the bus to Mandalay, two weeks earlier.

On one of the days Simona and I biked to a village on the other side of the lake, while Nanette returned to a nearby winery to paint.

To get there we first had to walk across the bridge.

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Waiting on the other side, somehow knowing we would show up, was a woman with a sampan who, for 1000 Kyat a piece ($1) , was eager to take us on a tour through her floating village. It was similar to the others, also charming, but far less touristy. She pointed out her house and the tiny restaurant her family owned. We noticed a bigger boat with a motor tied to one of the nearby posts in the water and asked if she knew anyone who might be able to take us back to Nyauangshwe with our bikes. Most of this conversation was accomplished with pantomime. Yes, she indicated, and it turned out that it was her husband, who said he could take us back for 8000 Kyat. First he wanted to show us his restaurant, aka his house. We had a beer, feeling somewhat sorry for him since there were obviously no other customers.

"Have any fresh fish? I asked.

"Yes. We catch everyday."

He looked like he was going to make it right away.

"No, no. Not now. Another time."

Simona and I got to talking. How would it be if we came back here in the evening to have dinner. It seemed like a great idea to both of us

"Can you come to town at 6 and bring us back to the restaurant?"

He nodded.

"How much?"

"16,000 Kyat"

"Both ways."

"Yes."

"12,000," we said in unison.

"14," he said. "You eat my restaurant and I take you back."

"That's right."

"Hokay, hokay. 14,000.

We agreed and asked what his name was.

"Tun Naing."

"Nice to meet you."

In the end, it seemed silly to have him take us back and then have to return a few hours later, so we decided to bike home. When we returned, the Chinese girls and the French couple were nowhere to be found, but everyone else, including some people I didn't mention, seemed excited by the idea. As Nanette's birthday was only two days away, we decided to make it an early b-day celebration.


The Crew with Simona in a Party Mood and Tun Naing in Back
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The ride over was an event unto itself. We sat on the floor of the narrow boat as there were no seats, and managed to polish off that bottle of rum en route. With representatives from five different countries, we arrived as the sun was setting just below the mountains on the western side of the lake.


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The Restaurant
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It went down quickly as it always does in the tropics, and dinner was eaten by candlelight.


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The fish was delicious, and the beer relatively cold, thanks to the lake water and the nats. Our hosts were overjoyed that we were there, and introduced us to their entire family, from the grandparents to the grand kids. We sang songs in several different languages, gazed at the moon, and even discussed how they might try and get other guests out to the restaurant for dinner, as we appeared to be the first. In one somewhat inebriated moment, we all stood up and joined hands with Tun and his relatives to chant OM together. They are Intha people, or lake dwellers, as opposed to ethnic Burmese. What they thought of this I cannot say, but with smiles all around, they appeared to get a kick out of it. Eating, drinking, and chanting with our new friends was magic. Where else could you be with such welcoming people, in a house on stilts, in the middle of a dark, silent lake, in a country that was so completely screwed up?

As a postscript, I later got an email from Tun asking if I wanted to be an investor in his restaurant as he tried to expand. Perhaps, I thought, some of the other travelers I told about his restaurant actually did show up. He offered to split the profits 50-50. I declined, but made some other suggestions and offered to make a small donation. I wasn't sure a 50 seat expansion was in order I wrote to him, and suggested he not do anything until after the "election," given the possibility of more political instability.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:44 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (6)

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