Friday, November 6, 2009

Ventured beyond downtown: Brunswick St in Fitzroy has lots of little offbeat shops, restaurants, galleries, and bookstores, and is not at all glossy like the central business district. It's fun to walk and browse here. If they could only lose a couple of lanes of the busy Brunswick St, and maybe add a few head shops, and it would look like Haight St in San Francisco.

St. Kilda is one of Melbourne's beach suburbs. It's fairly low-key - there are some restaurants, a couple of ugly hotels, a narrow beach, a long pier to a boat harbor with Melbourne's skyline as a backdrop, and a quiet residential neighborhood. No souvenir shops or other annoyances. The place is quiet and pleasant. When looking out on the ocean, I had to think for a second to remember which ocean it is this week.

The Sofitel hotel downtown has the most scenic toilet I have ever seen. It's on the 35th floor, and one wall is a huge picture window with a great view of Melbourne. Melbourne's shops close down at 18:00, as if Melbourne was some small-time village. They need to work on that.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

At the travel agency they told me that the spire at the Fed Square looks just like the Eiffel Tower. Boys and girls, if you think that this thing looks anything like the Eiffel Tower, you need to get out more! Fed Square is a somewhat sterile cluster of museums, boring boxy buildings with funky facades. A group of boys with clipboards interviewed me about my opinion of it. I tried to be polite, but the real heart of Melbourne is not here (that was one of their questions) but in the numerous little alleys where people go and cars do not, where little shops and cafes attract an easygoing crowd, even on a Thursday afternoon.

The southern side of the Yarra River is all developed with a riverwalk, many pretty much interchangeable restaurants, and the Crown Towers that house a casino with a few smallish roulette tables and acres of slot machines. These are just LCD screens with stop buttons and a coin slot, running DOS software. The Eureka Tower nearby has great city panoramas from its 88th floor.

The Queen Victoria Market is a large covered market selling clothes, fruit and vegetables, and some souvenirs. What a difference to an Asian market - it's clean, modern, orderly, no hustlers, wide aisles, airy and bright. In other words, boring. I bought a power adapter; Australia has the second-weirdest power sockets on the planet. (Top honors go to the UK, of course.) I also spent a few pleasant hours in Melbourne's botanical garden.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Editorial intermission:

If you want to be really pedantic about geography, you might wonder what Melbourne is doing in a blog about Asia. Melbourne is not, in fact, in Asia but on a former penal colony off the coast of Papua New Guinea. At least, when you look my way from Europe, you'll have to see through Asia's exhaust fumes. I figured that if Indonesia wants me out, I might as well use the opportunity to visit a place whose distance to home has previously always outweighed my interest in it. I'll blithely continue to post to the hereinasia blog. Even if I had known that I'd spend some time here, I probably wouldn't have found a blog name like hereinasiaandmaybeaustraliatoo sufficiently catchy. Bear with me on this for a couple of weeks or so... No worries mate.

Never had so much opportunity to chat with customs officials as today, arriving in Melbourne. They wanted to know what I do, what's in my backpack, and how I can afford to visit so many places. They browsed through my pictures to verify my statements. Apparently Bali is a major source of illegal drugs.

That, and figuring out Melbourne's metro system which is very good at keeping salient information secret, such as what lines exist and how to find the right train and which train stops at which stations, took most of the morning. The afternoon I spent walking in Melbourne's rather compact downtown.

At first sight, Melbourne feels like a large Canadian city - a clone of a large US city, but with a soul. There are highrises, a regular grid of wide busy streets, the usual faceless modern chain stores, and malls; but also grand old facades in the mix, little alleys with cool restaurants and little shops, and trees. There is a small Chinatown and an even smaller Greek town. Nobody here carries a basket with pineapples on their heads though. I miss Indonesia already...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Ulu Watu temple is at the southern end of Bali. It's small but very scenically perched at the edge of a huge cliff that falls down vertically to a foaming ocean. Admission includes a rental sarong. As before, the temple can't be visited but the real attraction are the views of the ocean anyway. There are signs everywhere warning not to wear sunglasses or necklaces because the monkeys living here will steal them.

Further west, there is a little village nestled on the hillside overlooking the rocky Suluban Beach. This is a surfer mecca, and there are lots of surfers out in the waves, waiting for a big wave that never seems to arrive. It looks very peaceful and a little futile but I am told this place is too dangerous for any but the most experienced surfers.

Today is my 30th day in Indonesia, and the day my visa expires. Extensions are not possible so I'll flee the country tonight.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tanah Lot is a pair of Hindu temples built on large rocks in the sea. The larger one is reached by wading out through shallow water on the lee side of the rock, while the surf crashes on the rock at the other sides. They have a holy spring in a cave at the bottom, where everybody gets sprinkled with holy water and gets some rice stuck to the forehead. That's your ticket to walk up the stairs to the temple, except that stair doesn't go very far because the temple at the top is closed to visitors.

The other rock is similar but much smaller, and instead of wading there is a rock bridge. It's closed too. They also have a cave with a big holy snake, but the cave but the roof is very low, maybe 80cm, and there is lots of garbage. Several local tourists wanted their picture taken with me. My driver says I look like a movie actor, maybe he is looking for a bigger tip? Julia Roberts is currently filming just east of here, at Ubud.

Had a great Indonesian lunch, with bakwan dumplings and "sicko juice". That's spirulina, banana, apple, and papaya; deep green. The other meaning of the word is not known here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

After hurrying about hectic Bali for a few days, I decided to conclude my visit to Indonesia on the quiet little Gili Air island just off the coast of Lombok, the next major island past Bali. Perama runs a boat there from Perambai in Bali. There are no piers in Perambai, Lombok, or any of the three Gili islands; the tour begins by wading out to a small boat, which transfers passengers to the larger Perama boat that runs between Bali and Lombok, and calls on the Gilis as well. In China, they would call this kind of boat a junk - not very large, all wood, with a lower enclosed deck and a sun deck on top. It's a very relaxing four-hour trip. Then a dinghi transfer to Gili Air, wading onto the beach, and I am in a tropical paradise.

Gili air is the opposite of Kuta. It's very small, one can walk all around it in an hour and a half. There are many trees, little scattered villages, and a string of restaurants and hotels right at the southeast beach. They have little bamboo platforms, some with thatched roofs, seating (or should I say reclining) four, directly on the beach with a great view. Most of the buildings are made from bamboo and straw. Bricks, mortar, and metal are rarely used. There are no cars or motorcycles on the Gilis, and no asphalt; everything is done by bicycles and horse carts. The only sounds are the surf, cicadas, geckos (how can such a small creature make such loud calls?), roosters, and other animals.

It's all exceedingly pastoral and unspoiled, and meets the stereotype of an ultra-relaxed tropical island exactly. Not much happens here, ever. There is an Internet cafe but it was closed because the family was preparing for a wedding. I was staying in the wonderful Coconut Cottages, generally agreed to be the best hotel on Gili Air.

I went on a snorkeling trip by boat that stops at various coral reefs around all three Gili islands. The boats here are narrow with two outriggers held by curved struts. Just sitting on the boat and watching the outriggers slice through the water is incredibly relaxing. The corals are good, but not as good as on Pulau Weh in Sumatra; large swaths have died and look like boneyards. But there is an incredible variety of fish, and we saw turtles swimming as well.

Snorkeling was best on Gili Air. The next day I went out with Lee, another backpacker I met on the way to Lombok. He was planning to continue to Komodo to see the dragons, but got into a really bad head-on truck collision so he - wisely - decided to recuperate on Gili Air. We just walked out into the water where the beach restaurants cluster, and the snorkeling was just fantastic. The corals are better there than any of the others I had seen, although still not as good as on Pulau Weh. But the number and variety of fish was much greater. I found myself in the middle of huge shoals of glittering silver and blue little fish, sometimes swimming randomly but then, as if on a signal, aligning in one direction and racing away. Others have white, black, and yellow tiger stripes, or a rainbow of hues. And we saw several turtles. They don't mind if you dive down to watch them, but turtles can move very swiftly underwater. A few dolphins were playing at some distance from the beach.

Vendors walk down the beach with big baskets of fruit and souvenirs on their heads. We bought pineapples from one lady, who slowly set down her load, pulled out a big curved knife, and started to artfully carve the pineapples in the spiral fashion they use everywhere here to remove the skin.

The fish on the island is fantastic. They catch the fish right there and put them on display in the evening. You pick one and they'll barbecue it for you. Delicious.
But most of the time I was busy doing nothing, sitting on the beach or in a hammock reading a book. The days blended into each other and the little attention I had been paying to things like the day of the week was fading entirely.

Eventually I had to return to Bali because the 30 days my visa allowed me to stay were expiring. I was wading out to my boat for the last time to get to Lombok, where a horse cart and then a minibus took me to Senggigi. The road winds up and down the hills at the shore, with many scenic views of sandy beaches. The west coast of Lombok is not unlike California's Big Sur, but much nicer - much denser vegetation, large palm tree forests, curving sandy beaches, and occasional thatched bamboo huts. The road is narrow and carries very little traffic. Near Senggigi, there are a number of beach resorts. I was the only passenger on the Perama boat to Bali. (I won't ever use Perama again though. They do a big slow loop to touch all their offices, stretching what should have been four hours to nine. It's very easy to get onward travel on the Gilis with other outfits.)