We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.
I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.
Most tourists don’t visit or stay long in Makassar and that’s what makes it interesting to us. We hired a rickshaw to visit a fish market and “traditional harbor” in Makassar and got dropped off by the harbor. We slowly picked our way around puddles and trucks and came upon a tiled area covered in blue tarp with a god-awful stench emanating from it.
There were boys and men everywhere, and as soon as we started walking around, the attention was on us. It was a reminder that once again, we are in an area in this country that sees few tourists, which means we are a fun spectacle for the locals. Hawkers beckoned us over to take photos of them and their fish, and guys jostled each other as they approached us in turns and asked us where we were from before turning around to their buddies and letting them know very loudly where we hailed from.
We felt perfectly safe but we don’t like to be the center of attention for too long in unfamiliar places (just in case), so we didn’t stay long. It was still an unexpectedly cool experience. The harbor wasn’t as interesting but we got to see some pretty big old school wooden boats being loaded and unloaded.
Makassar is the biggest city in Sulawesi, situated on the southwest coast of the octopus-shaped island. Biggest is relative though, because while it might be a big port city, there really isn’t much going on. We flew in to recharge before taking on Tana Toraja and Bunaken.
While there isn’t much happening yet in Makassar, there is a growing number of enterprising young people who are making Makassar their own, opening the kind of places where they can hang out with their friends.
We got to know the son of the owner of the Hotel Agung, a clean, new and budget-friendly hotel near Fort Rotterdam. A graphic designer, Christian designed the interior and exterior of the hotel, which has a simple, modern look. We ended up using this hotel as our base and recovery place (after we got stomach troubles), staying there for a total of ten days.
Christian took us to a nearby cafe opened two years ago by a young local who loves coffee. It was the sort of place you might see in a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn. For a little over a dollar, we had a tasty cappuccino and an Americano, with delicious homemade peanut cookies to nibble on (two for 3000 rupiah, or about 25 cents). It was busy when we got there in the late afternoon, and groups of young people sat chatting and smoking.
I’m not a huge coffee fanatic like what seems like the majority of the world nowadays, but I do know how to enjoy a good cup and N certainly loves the stuff. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I became hooked on the stuff at Seniman Coffee Studio, one of our best finds in Ubud. What we expected to be a one-time visit turned into two, three, four, then five because once we had this coffee, we really couldn’t have it anywhere else. It was mindblowing, even for someone like me who doesn’t know shit about coffee. A bonus was meeting one of the owners, Rodney Glick, a contemporary artist and coffee enthusiast who taught us about Ubud, coffee, and the art world.
We stopped into this place after we met the owner of another cute coffee shop in Denpasar who recommended Seniman and also recommended the coffee I ended up falling in love with: the Papua cold-drip on ice (five cups made per day). I didn’t know that coffee could have such complex flavors, or that it could taste completely different when made the same way by two different people. The young Indonesian boys and girls working there take their coffee very very seriously, and watching them diligently learning from Rodney and making a cup sort of reminds me of the kind of concentration and meticulousness seen during a Japanese tea ceremony.
We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.
Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.
The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.
We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.
Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.
Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.
Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.
As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.
Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.
On a day we had originally designated to being a lazy one, a solo Dutch traveler we met at our guest house convinced us to go inner tubing with her. We didn’t have anything better to do so we changed into our swimsuits and met up with Marijn in the restaurant lounge area, where the young local guys lazed about in the downtime when the tourists were all out hiking the jungles.
When Putra — one of the intrepid jungle guides — came into the lounge with a guitar cradled in his arms, Marijn asked him to come along. He shrugged and agreed, put down his guitar and led us across the river to a small restaurant/inner tube rental shop where we rented two large inner tubes. There were no helmets or life jackets offered or even for rent, nor were there waivers to sign. But that was expected. We carried the inner tubes to the river below, and after we clumsily clambered on and situated ourselves inside, we pushed off.
We immediately got wedged on some rocks in the river while Marijn and Putra drifted ahead of us. Putra noticed, jumped out of his inner tube and came to our rescue to pull us off and back onto the current. This was the first of many times he had to save us from something; there would be spiders, brambles hanging in the water, heavy machinery and more rocks coming up. We didn’t have any string to tie the inner tubes together so we wouldn’t go drifting off again, so Putra held us together with his arms, all 90lbs of him. This was a guy who wrestled Mina — an aggressive female orangutan feared by all jungle guides for attacking humans — off of a tourist, and bears the scars from her bite marks on his arms.
It was a sunny afternoon, and the cool water felt amazing on our hot skin. We bounced along the shallow and light rapids and twirled around in the calmer waters, and got to a gravelly sandbar where we got out to take a rest. Well, more like to let poor Putra rest since he was doing all of the work. We sat on the tubes and talked with Marijn about her five-week travel plans in Indonesia while Putra smoked nearby, most likely regretting having agreed to come along with these useless tourists.
We’re not jungle people, but we hadn’t done much naturing lately so we decided to immerse ourselves in it by going to the jungles of Sumatra in search of orangutans and other wild animals. As mentally prepared for malarial mosquitoes and lunging leeches as we could be, N and I decided to visit Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra.
We arrived in Medan and spent a few days hanging out in a mall there, recovering from stomach issues we got on our way out of Penang. Medan proved to be a pretty crappy city (to put it nicely), with nothing interesting to see or do. The traffic and pollution are horrible there, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere anyway. So we spent too much time at Centre Point, a new mall near our hotel, and ate at the mediocre restaurants and wandered around it. To say the least, it wasn’t a good first impression of Indonesia.
Because we heard horror stories about minibuses in Indonesia (and driving in general), we took a private car to Bukit Lawang for $45 instead of the minibus fare of about $6 per person. A bit of a splurge, but we’re fancy like that, and we had promised ourselves to spend a little bit more on safer modes of transportations while in Indonesia.
We passed Malaysian palm oil plantations and arrived three and a half hours later in a small town split in half by a river. This would be our home for the next five days, complete with a cold shower and no AC.
I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
My parents have been worrying sick over my well-being for the past few months. While they were mostly fine with us traveling through Europe (except for a brief conversation I had with my father about Russia), they were secretly alarmed when we told them Southeast Asia was next. In true Japanese fashion, they tried to hide their concerns from me.
The Taiwanese student demonstrations were on the news every night and they silently beared it until we were a few days away from leaving. My mother asked why we felt the need to go to Taiwan, right now, in the midst of these demonstrations. They got annoyed with me when I responded that I wasn’t planning on participating in the protests.
Two weeks into my gastric issues in Vietnam, China started stirring shit in the South China Sea and bullying Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters. My parents were terrified. When I told them that we were watching the developments and we would be careful, they responded with a barrage of angry questions. “Why haven’t you left already? Why do you want to stay in Vietnam so much? Do you understand that Japanese factories were torched? Do you even watch the news? Why aren’t you leaving when the Chinese are escaping through the closest border available?!” I imagined a horde of middle-aged Chinese women with curly perms, colorfully patterned clothes and Louis Vuitton bags on their arms screaming and running along a dusty road towards the Cambodian border while deeply-tanned tuk-tuk drivers waited on the other side to whisk them away to Nowheresville, Cambodia.