My last days in Bali were perhaps the highlight of the trip so far. The day following my previous post I decided to get up early and book a ferry ticket to take me back to Bali from Nusa Lembongan. Upon landing, I marched through taxi stands and shuttle offers (only good for a minimum of four people) with no direction other than forward.
It was not long before a blue bemo caught my attention. The driver was a smiling man and the passenger in the front seat had a warm look about her. “Downtown Denpesar?” She asked. Sure, why not. We agreed on a price and I climbed in. The side door of the minibus is perpetually open, but the doorway is small and it is a rather comical sight to see a person encumbered in such a fashion as a backpacker clambering in. On my hands and knees I crawled to the back of the vehicle to sit on a spare tire with my pack resting on the bench.
At the Bali Museum, a central location, I paid my fare and wriggled out. The folks at the museum were kind enough to allow me to leave my big pack behind the desk while I wandered the museum (adequately informative but reeking of mothballs) and the city. And I do mean wandered. The streets are terrifying to cross as traffic lights are few and far between and even when they are present they are not always heeded. I turned around a few times, going up this street and down another, with no clear direction. After a few inquiries of “informasi too-ris?” I was able to find the tourist information center for Denpasar. Lovely people! Free map, free info booklet, free postcards, and a free local call to the friend of a friend in Seminyak. The grumpy mood of my hot, hungry, and lost self was lifted somewhat.
Armed with a map and a plan for the evening, lunch was the next priority. Lonely Planet Bali and my new map recommended the central market, which I found without much difficulty. A lady sitting outside her shop, after it was determined that I was not interested in buying anything other than food, taught me how to cross the street in the local style to reach the market. Since openings are few and far between, one must simply walk out into the street with one’s arm raised and walk determinedly forward. Motorbikes and cars will supposedly slow down. Miraculously, it worked! Twice: to get there and back. I don’t think I’ll press my luck for a third time.
This meal was certainly the most authentic meal yet. My traffic teacher told me that food could be found on the top floor of the market. Weaving my way through narrow aisles bursting with colorful fabrics and Hindu articles for worship, I came to a dark end. Of the aisles, I mean. There, I found a) that I was the only boolay (foreigner) and b) where the local people go to eat. I stood around the edge, hesitant and observing, when a woman invited me in English to sit down. “Vegetarian?” “Oh yes yes” she replied and said something incomprehensible to the mama manning the food stall. “Sit, sit!” And so I did and waited, grabbing a sweet drink next door while I waited.
When the sweet drink was more than half gone, a plate of true gado-gado was put in front of me. Veggies, real peanuts (not the sauce like the tourist places use), and a spicy sauce. Yum.
Fed and sweetened, I returned to the museum to collect my bags in much better humor than before. Upon leaving I was plied with offers of “Taksi! Taksi!” I accepted a ride from a motorbike and off we were to Seminyak. Motorbikes are cheaper and faster than cars (because of the way they weave through traffic) but are none too comfortable for persons wearing a large pack to the rear and a regular bag in front. Must remember for next time.
In any case, I made it, safe and sound, to the jungle house of Charles. Charles is a friend of my MIA travel partner, and I have been in touch with him since landing on the island. Finally we meet! He has a lovely open-air house near the beach. Ten years ago, there was a clear view of the beach and nothing but rice fields around. But the area is developing rapidly and Charles has a mind to move somewhere more isolated. In any case, it is a beautiful house filled with beautiful company. People come and go, just as I did in my less than twenty-four hour stint there, but what a lovely time it was.
After talking with such soulful company, I took time to reflect while en route to Kuala Lumpur. Mostly about the life lessons that can be learned while traveling solo. At first I was frightened of the uncertainty and of traveling alone, but I have come to embrace it. Bali was where Jim and I were intending to spend the summer, but now that I am alone I am free to make my own itinerary and fly along by the seat of my pants (or salwar, depending on the outfit at the time) to whatever port calls. It feels good to make and execute plans and feel confident that I can navigate my own way around this great world of ours, learning and seeing and eating and doing whatever pleases me.
Getting out of the bug at KL Sentral, the transportation hub, a flagpole stood bearing what appeared to be a limp American flag. Red and white stripes, blue in the corner. Could it be…? A puff of wind inflated her slightly and I saw that it was not the stars and stripes. Rather is was the star, moon and stripes. The resemblance to the U.S. flag with the Islamic influence is somewhat striking. Was it intended? Perhaps I will be able to find out in the next day. In any case, it will be a clever addition to the flag collection I keep of each country I visit.
So here I am in Kuala Lumpur. I got in on Friday (it is Sunday night now) and would have booked a ticket out today if there was one available at a reasonable time and price. The people are quite friendly, willing to talk, give directions, and administer reminders to be safe and drink water. Master Chee, a martial arts master and photographer who printed my passport photos, gave me tea while talking about China, exercise, and the safety precautions that he is hired to give to the Malaysian police. AJ, a curator at the cultural center, talked at length about the joys of traveling alone, how things happen for a reason, and gave more safety advice. Namely, don’t go out alone at night. He had a scar on each arm from separate mugging incidents. Careful, Kelly. I’m listening to these people and ignoring those few who make kissing noises at me when I walk by after dark. Damn blonde hair can attract undue attention.
Now is an interesting time to be in Kuala Lumpur, for the experience of international pollution if nothing else. Political and geographic borders mean nothing to the clouds of haze that has drifted northward from Sumatra (a large island in Indonesia) and engulfed Singapore and much of the Malaysian peninsula. I was hoping to get down to Malacca and maybe up to Penang, but am quite satisfied to be leaving for Hanoi, Vietnam on Tuesday. Here there is a proper haze indeed! I noticed it upon landing and thought that Malaysia was just a little smoggy by nature, but such is not usually the case. Today was the worst yet, and I am wearing a mask à la swine flu epidemic. The 7-Elevens are sold out. Police are handing mask rations out in the streets. It’s the latest fashion.
My eagerness to leave Kuala Lumpur stems not just from the unsightly haze but from the toll it is taking on my health. Runny nose, chest cough, headache, tired body. Check check check check. Do I have a fever or is it just the trapped heat of the city? Yes. I am, in short, slightly ill.
Happily, however, I relocated to a nice hostel in Chinatown (Raizzy’s Guesthouse) which is clean, full of people, and is a good place to chill. And so I am. Good progress is being made in the reading department (Jitterbug Perfume may be left here along with my Lonely Planet Pocket Singapore and Bali) and I took the first nap I have had since the journey began. My nature is inclined to squeeze as much as I can out of every place by wandering the streets, but today I was more content to stay in. At least I still made it to Batu Caves (a Hindu temple inside caves that is swarming with tourists and is easily accessible by train) and the National Museum (which was less easy to reach, allowing me only ten minutes of browsing in each of the four galleries. The exhibit about the Malay empires was the most sumptuous and therefore my favorite.) as well as dinner at a food court in Chinatown.
Tomorrow hopefully the smog will clear a bit and the walking tour I have booked to see Merdeka (Independence) Square will be more pleasant.
Well the cups of tea that I drank while typing and reading are getting to me, and it is probably time to allow someone else a turn on the hostel computer. Much love from Malaysia to all!