Monthly Archives: January 2008

Go Pack Go!

Posted by on January 20, 2008

I’m often asked if there are things I miss from home. Outside the obvious friends and family there is one thing I miss.

Watching the Green Bay Packers.

Today they are playing in what will be one of the coldest games in NFL history for the NFC Championship at Lambeau Field. It doesn’t get much better than that. The tundra will be frozen. (well not really. they have heaters now)

I grew up about 20 minutes from Green Bay. The Packers are something you have in your DNA if you are from that part of the country. In fact, I’m part owner in the franchise (1 share of stock thank you very much).

So tomorrow morning, I’ll be waking up early to watch a live text feed of a football game on my laptop in Indonesia.

*EDIT* Temperatures are expected to be 1° F to -8° F (-17° C to -22° C ). Winds are gusting at 11.0 mph / 17 km/h.


Posted by on January 19, 2008

The following question is for my non-Asian readers:

Name something about Indonesia which does not involve a natural disaster.

When do you think of Indonesia, what image comes to mind? Can you name an Indonesian movie? Any Indonesian outside of politics? Can you name any Indonesian food dish?

I asked similar questions when I first entered the Philippines. Both the Philippines and Indonesia are large Asain archipelago nations. Both before I arrived and after I left the Philippines, I met Filipinos everywhere I went. Every country seemed to have some population of Filipino workers.

I have met zero Indonesians.

Indonesia has three times the population of the Philippines. In fact, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world by population (almost 234 million people) and the 16th largest by area. Look at a map and you can see just how far the country spans. It is huge. The distance from the tip of Sumatra to the border of Papua New Guinea is 3,200 miles (5,200km). That is longer than any distance within the continental US. It is the approximate distance from New York to Anchorage.

Despite the significance of the numbers, consider the following:

  • Indonesia won its first Olympic medal in 1988. Since then it has won a handful in badminton and women’s weightlifting.
  • No Indonesian has ever won a Nobel Prize in anything. (Technically, two Indonesians won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, but they won it for trying to gain independence from Indonesia, which East Timor eventually did, so they stopped being technically Indonesian.)

Despite their many differences, I cannot help see similarities between Indonesia and the Philippines.

  • Both are SE Asian nations which are made of thousands of islands. Indonesia has 17,508 islands, the Philippines has 7,107.
  • Both became independent within a year of each other. Indonesia from the Dutch in 1945, the Philippines from the US in 1946.
  • Both suffered at the hands of long sitting corrupt, dictators after independence. The Philippines had Marcos, Indonesia had Suharto.
  • Both people are of a malay origin.
  • They have similar per capita GDP’s: Philippines – $5,365, Indonesia – $4,356

(While sandwiched between them, the history and recent development of Malaysia seems to put it in a different category.)

I really have no explanations or even much in the way of observations at this point as I haven’t been here 24 hours yet. All I know is that Indonesia is a significant country which doesn’t have a corresponding large impact on the world. Why? I hope I’ll get some insight in the next week or two.

As for my first 24 hours in Jakarta, the city it most reminds me of is Manila. I had read about it being a dirty city, but so far I haven’t seen it. Air quality seems better than Manila. It could be cleaner, or it could be a function of the weather when I was in each respective city. It doesn’t seem nearly as dense as Manila. The area around the airport was very nice. The airport seemed like it would have been one of the best airports in the world in 1975. It is not dirty or falling apart. I get harassed by street vendors when I walk down the street, just like in Manila.

While Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia, unlike Malaysia it is not the official religion. I’ve seen some women with covered heads in Jakarta today, but I’d say only 10-20%. The national mosque is across the street from the national cathedral.

Unlike the countries I’ve been which were British Colonies, I don’t see as much Dutch influence here as I’ve seen British influence elsewhere. (maybe I do, but I just don’t recognize it as such.) I can see less use of English here than in almost any country I’ve been to so far, including Japan and Korea. There you would see an occasional word or phrase in an advertisement. Here, not so much. Most people I’ve met have spoken some English, but I’ve only been around a hotel and the airport, so that really doesn’t say much.

I’m staying at a hotel in Jakarta, not a hostel. I couldn’t find one within reasonable distance of the city center with rooms available. The place I’m at is cheap and nice. I haven’t been in a real hotel in several months. Food here seems very cheap.

If anyone has any suggestions of what to do or see in Jakarta, let me know. I’m going to try and pull off an internet stunt in the next few days. That is my primary plan. Assuming I can pull that off, I’ll be off to Yogyakarta after that. (which is actually a sultanate still believe it or not).

I hope to have some Jakarta photos starting tomorrow.

KL Quickie

Posted by on January 18, 2008

I’m in the cheap-o airport in Kuala Lumpur waiting for them to start check-in for my flight to Jakarta.

I can tell that I’m in SE Asia. The airport is full of the gap year English backpackers. I last ran into this crowd in Fiji and probably wont have to really deal with them again until I get to Australia.

They’ve had free wifi at most of the Asian airports I’ve been to, which is more than I can say about American airports (except for Las Vegas, where they put the internet in the airport, but not in your hotel room).

I also came down with a helluva runny nose on the flight from Kota Kinabalu. It is still dripping like a fawcet.

Technically I you need a flight out of Indonesia before you enter. I’m going to leave via the border with East Timor, so I hope it isn’t an issue.

*EDIT* For the first time on my trip, I’ve encountered a 15kg weight limit for check on bags. The flight from KK had a 20kg limit, like every other flight I’ve had. So I take my tripod and boots out attack them to my carry on and suddenly I’m good. Net change in weight on the airplane: zero.

The exchange rate for the Indonesian Rupiah is about one dollar for every 10,000 rupiah.

Bye Bye Borneo

Posted by on January 17, 2008

Tomorrow I’m off to Jakarta. I hope to be in Indonesia for two weeks going through Java, Bali, and then a few days in East Timor.

I came to Borneo not really knowing anything about the island. Next to nothing about the political divisions on the island, the history, the people, and very little about the natural features of the island.

Most of the people I meet on the road are usually on vacation. They are usually traveling for 2-3 weeks have put a lot of thought into their itinerary. They’ve surfed the web, purchased the guidebooks, and know down to the day exactly what they are going to be doing and where they will be. This is usually their “big” trip and so they take it seriously.

I, however, don’t travel that way. I really can’t. When I came to Borneo I knew there were three countries on the island, two World Heritage sites, and that was about it. So when I go to a new place, it is really a learning experience. What can I say I know about Indonesia? I know a fair amount of their post WWII history, I know vaguely about their colonization by the Dutch, I know in a general sense of the big things I want to visit while I’m there and I know that the most popular tourist destination by a wide margin in Bali.

I don’t use guidebooks. I have used one guidebook since I’ve started my trip, and that was Moon’s South Pacific Handbook. I purchased that back in the US and carried that around for the first several months of my trip. It was heavy, it was expensive, and the information was often out of date. (especially flight information). Given the cost of guidebook and their weight, I just decided not to buy them anymore. I’ve done fine without them. You can get all the information you need online, and all the travel tips and knowledge you need you can get from local tourism groups and other travelers. Once you get the skill of traveling down (and it is a skill), guidebooks are superfluous.

I also don’t like Lonely Planet.

The flip side to not knowing much when you arrive somewhere is leaving somewhere wanting to do more. Almost every country I’ve been to I’ve left with a list of things I’d like to do if I ever returned. Example:

  • Japan: Visit Hokkido, see a Japanese baseball game, visit Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
  • Marshall Islands: Visit Bikini
  • Micronesia: Dive in Chuuk lagoon and visit Yap
  • Vanuatu: visit Tanna Island and visit the John Frum cults and watch mount erupt.
  • South Korea: almost everything I didn’t get to do because of weather
  • Palau: dive more, sea kayak
  • Hawaii: visit the islands I haven’t been to
  • Philippines: visit islands that are not Luzon

You get the idea. (The only places I don’t have a list of things undone is Guam and Samoa, and even then I’d go back to Samoa to visit Tokelau and just because it is a nice place)

The biggest list of things left undone, by far, is going to be in Borneo.

I was really blown away by Borneo. The amount of ….stuff… here is amazing. There are quotes on many of the tourism banners here citing Borneo as the “World’s Greatest Tourist Attraction”. I’m not in a position judge if that is right or wrong, but Borneo would certainly be on the list.

I did not see any orangutans. I did not see any probiscus monkeys. I did not see any hornbills.
I did not see any wild pitcher plants. I did not get to see a blooming rafflesia. Most orchids were not in bloom. I only saw giant insects in a museum (save for a moth I saw last night that was the size of a small bird). I didn’t get to Kuching. I didn’t get to Kalamantan…..which makes up most of Borneo. I didn’t get to climb Mt. Kinabalu.

What the hell did I do, you ask? Quite a lot actually. Explored caves, climbed in the rainforest canopy, bathed in hot springs, saw a million bats go out for a night of hunting. It isn’t as if I was doing nothing.

Looking at the map, I’m sure I’ll end up saying the same thing about Indonesia.

Borneo does get a fair amount of tourism, but nothing like other places. It is still sort of secret. If you want to see the rainforest, most people would go to Costa Rica or Brazil. If you want megafauna, you go to Africa.

The tourism industry here is pretty well developed. Mulu and Kinabalu are very well run and professional national parks. The facilities were good and staff seemed to know their stuff. The infrastructure I found in Malaysia was surprisingly good. Communication was not a problem and for the most part, things are cheap. My room in Kota Kinabalu was US$17.25 a night for a single. I could have had a dorm for about $6.50 a night. The BBQ place just outside as great grilled squid for about $1.

I hope that I can one day return to Borneo.

Still in Kota Kinabalu

Posted by on January 14, 2008

I was supposed to go to the park today, but the guide I was going to go with canceled on me. I’ll be here another day I guess.

I have made good use of my time in KK.

I’m working on a really interesting project for when I’m in Jakarta. It is something I can really only do when I’m in Jakarta so I hope I can pull it off. I will probably need the help of someone local and I’m currently working on that.

I think I’m ready to hit Indonesia and start moving on.

I’m going to spend my extra day going to the beach I think and testing out web video platforms.

Japan: Mecca for Sushi Lovers

Posted by on January 13, 2008

Sushi is far and away my favorite food. I’m not alone in that assessment. All around the world sushi restaurants have been springing up like weeds as sushi has gained in popularity. It is easily the biggest Japanese contribution to global culture (yes, bigger than Anime).

So I couldn’t really go to Japan and not indulge in sushi. There were several things I had to know: is sushi better in Japan? how do they eat sushi in Japan? (fingers or chopstick?)

So throughout my time in Japan was investigating sushi. I got one blowout meal at a sushi restaurant in Ginza, I ate at several low end conveyor belt restaurants, and I went to what is Mecca for sushi lovers: The Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced Skee-gee, and the last syllable is pronounced like how the French say “Guy” not like the letter “G”)

How do the Japanese eat sushi?

I have had this discussion with several people back in the US and have even gone to web sites to get an answer. The big debate is between using chopsticks and using your hands. I’m talking about nigiri sushi (with rice), not raw sashimi.

All the knowledgeable people I’ve spoken to in the US said you are supposed to pick it up with your hands. This is confirmed by the internet, which is never wrong. So a few years ago, I began eating sushi with my hands. Honestly, it is much easier than using chopsticks, which I only use for sashimi.

I get to Japan and everyone I see is eating with god damn chopsticks….

I’m not saying its right or its wrong, just that it was what I observed. I saw it at both the low end and high end sushi restaurants. That being said, no one ever looked funny at me or corrected me.

Is sushi better in Japan?

The short answer is, No. Sushi is not better in Japan. It isn’t worse, but I don’t think its is better. In fact, several Japanese I spoke with said they thought the best sushi restaurants were in New York. Personally, the best sushi I’ve ever had prior to Japan was in LA and Vegas, and the meal I had in Ginza was on a par with those.

The meal I had in Ginza was definitely different from sushi I’ve had elsewhere. As I’ve noticed with most food I’ve eaten on my trip, the difference with what you might find in an ethnic restaurant in foreign country vs what you’d find in a restaurant its native country is more a matter of what is missing from the menu. My meal in Ginza had many small dishes that I’ve never had before including some small fried fish and some non-fish items like small strips of beef. There were also many more sauces used on some of the dishes than I assumed would be used. I had been under the impression that “keepin-it-real” sushi was just fish and rice. All the sauces and crap were American inventions. The California roll is definitely American, but there are many sauces and deviations from basic fish and sushi rice which were served. (I should have written this a lot earlier. I’m having some trouble remembering everything that I ate that night)

I also ate at a rather nice place in Kobe where the fish served on each piece of nigiri was the size of a filet. It was enormous.

When I had my big meal in Ginza, the chef (who was just working on serving me) and some ladies next to me (one was an elderly woman wearing a kimono) both were happy to offer me tips on what items should go in soy sauce and what shouldn’t. At no point with their tips did they ever correct me for eating with my hands, even though the ladies were using chopsticks.

While many restaurants in Japan really focus on freshness in their fish, many of the items have to be flown into Japan so they aren’t necessarily that much more fresh than what you’d find elsewhere. At all but the highest end places, you will probably be getting fish that has been in a deep freeze.

Tsukiji Fish Market

The Mecca for sushi is Tsukiji. It is seafood ground zero. If you frequently eaten sushi, or even seafood, there is a very good chance you have eaten something which has passed through the Tsukiji Fish Market. While other regional fish markets have lessened the relative importance of Tsukiji globally, it is still the largest and most important fish market in the world.

Getting to Tsukiji isn’t difficult. It is only a few blocks from a subway station. However, you have to get up very early to view the fish market in action. Very early. Before sunrise early. I really don’t do early very well. You wont see any sunrise photos on my website. One night I was going to go with a group to Tsukiji by just staying up all night and leaving at 5am. That never happened. When you are near a vending machine that serves beer, you aren’t going to be able to stay up all night.

The fish market is a very busy place. The day I was there was the day after Japanese Thanksgiving, so the buyers were making up for the day it was closed. Most of the buyers are from Tokyo area sushi bars, restaurants and grocery stores who will be buying for that day. As a result, most of the inventory turns over very fast, as it sort of has to because fresh fish doesn’t stay fresh for long.

When I was there, there were some other tourists walking around along with me. We were all just obstructions and served no purpose whatsoever. If I worked at the fish market, I’d get really pissed off at tourists. Unlike visiting a normal market that sells nick-nacks, most people don’t purchase fresh seafood as souvenirs. As such, we were nothing but walking obstacles. Me and my huge camera bag kept getting in the way of guys rushing back and forth with product. About every few minutes I had to jump out of the way of an on coming gas powered cart.

The turnover and freshness means there is very little fishy smell at the fish market. I was rather surprised. Everything is either on ice or in running water. Most of the workers at the fish market wear rubber boots because of the water. I knew how to get to the fish market from the subway station by just following the men in rubber boots. I also saw more styrofoam boxes there than I’ve seen in my life.

The sheer variety of seafood at the fish market is amazing. I saw octopus (several varieties), eels, squid, crabs, lobster, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snapper, prawns, enormous mussels, pretty fish, ugly fish, live fish, dried fish, one fish, two fish, red fish, and blue fish.

The star of the fish market, however, is tuna. Both fresh and frozen tuna can be seen all over and every day there are auctions for tuna at the fish market. Every so often an exceptionally high-quality tuna will come in that sets off a bidding frenzy in the auction. The record price for a single tuna is US$55,000. There is a very particular system used to judge quality of tuna. At each tuna stand, they slice a very thin section of the tail and put it on display. That slice is what is used by buyers to determine the quality of the tuna.

There are Japanese buyers at fish markets around the world. They buy tuna and other seafoods to bring to Tsukiji. From what I understand, Japanese buyers around the world all use the tail slice to determine tuna quality. Tuna purchased overseas is set to Tsukiji frozen. You can see men cutting up frozen tuna with band saws in many places in the fish market.

There is actually a sushi restaurant at the fish market. From what I’ve read it is supposed to be one of the best in the world. It isn’t fancy either. It looks like a cheap diner. I wasn’t able to eat there however because the line to get in went around the building. From what I was told, it is like that almost every day and the line starts at about 5am.

I did decide to eat at a place that was only a few blocks away. I figure it was probably just as good, but without the long wait. As I walked to the restaurant, I found a sort of secondary market around the main fish market. Here you could find vendors of high-quality sushi knives (they are expensive and good), ceramic place settings, vegetables, and anything else you’d ever need to run a restaurant.

I suppose my sushi breakfast was probably the freshest I’ve ever eaten. I can only assume the fish came from down the block at the fish market. It was a bit pricey for what I got, but it was an experience.

In summary, if you like seafood and are in Tokyo, make the effort to wake up early one morning to visit Tsukiji. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

Borneo Burnout

Posted by on January 11, 2008

I’ve been really tired since I’ve gotten back from Mulu. I’ve also had rashes on my arms and legs. I don’t know if they are related. I have a bunch of photos I still have to upload that I haven’t been able to because of poor bandwidth. I also have several long posts ready to go up that I haven’t been able to finish due to lethargy. I think I’ll be in Kinabalu National Park on Monday now. It will give me a chance to finish up some web projects here and clean my camera gear. It isn’t visible yet, but I do have a lot I’m working on, including a total revamp of this website.

I hope to be in Jakarta by next Wednesday or Thursday. I still have to book a flight.

There is a BBQ place across the street from this hostel that has great food. The last few nights I had BBQ lamb, fish and chicken (all on one plate) with beer, salad and fries for about US$10. It was almost too much to eat. Almost.

The Pizza Hut which my hostel is over doesn’t seem to have any pork on the menu. All the lunch special pizzas are chicken or tuna.

Malaysia is officially Muslim, but it isn’t as noticeable as what I saw in Brunei. I’d say only 25% of the women in Kota Kinabalu wear a chadori. You can get pork in Chinese restaurants. Unlike Brunei, they do serve Alcohol. I think if the face of Islam was Malaysian (and I’m including Brunei in this) the western world would have a much different impression of it.

Did you know? that many of the nouns in Malay are based on English with just a different spelling and slightly different pronunciation.

Teksi = Taxi
Bas = Bus
Restauran = Restaurant
Polis = Police

I get the impression that most of the words which describe modern things have been lifted from English. Things like mother, father, water, wood, etc. would all come from Malay.

There are actually several words in English with a Malay origin: amok, paddy, orangutan, cooties, sarong, compound, and bamboo.

I have had zero difficulty getting along in Malaysia. Pretty much everyone I’ve met has spoken English (granted, its been in cities or parks) and usually quite well. The BBQ place also has a lounge act which sings every night just below my window. Think the Malaysian version of the Carpenters. They’d be right at home singing at the bar of Holiday Inn somewhere outside of Cleveland.

With that, its 2am and I’m going to bed…..


Posted by on January 8, 2008

Light Ray in Deer Cave Opening, Mulu National Park - Sarawak, Malaysia (by Everything Everywhere)
Light entering Deer Cave, Gunung Mulu National Park

I’m back from my three days in the rainforest at Gunung Mulu National Park. It was a really amazing experience. My muscles are still sore from all the walking and climbing I did. I’m spending today going through photos before I head off to Kinabalu National Park here in Sabah.

Oddly enough, even though I flew on a domestic flight within Malaysia, I still needed a separate passport stamp for both Sarawak and Sabah.

I took a ton of photos in Mulu, but as I started going through them I realized how many of them came out blurry or over/under exposed. Taking photos inside of caves and under a canopy of trees is not the best place for photography. I think in Kinabalu I’m going to use my tripod for photos with lower light. The vibration reduction on my camera just isn’t enough to take detailed photos of things like spiderwebs.

I’ll be doing a bigger post on Mulu later, but let me say the combination of spelunking, walking in the canopy, experiencing Deer Cave (the largest cave passage in the world. 100m wide x 120m tall), and watching the millions of bats leave the cave for the evening was one of the highlights of my trip so far. It was all rather affordable too. Mulu is a very well managed park.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to try and climb Mt. Kinabalu. It is an overnight trek and I’ll have to get some more information.

Welcome to the Jungle

Posted by on January 6, 2008

Greetings from the jungles of Borneo. Literally. I’m on a satellite internet connection in the Royal Mulu Resort in Mulu National Park.

This been one helluva experience so far. Today I went honest to goodness spelunking. Hard hat with a light on it and everything. Tomorrow I’m off to walk in the rainforest treetops 30 up in the canopy and watch a million bats fly past me at night.

I didn’t even know this place existed two weeks ago. So far it has been one of the highlights of the trip.

I don’t have time for much else, becuase this is an expensive internet connection and they are shutting things down here. I think I’m going to have a Yakushima type suprise for everyone when I get my photos processed from Mulu.

Sarawak 2

Posted by on January 4, 2008

I had to come into town to book my ticket to Mulu National Park. I still need to book a bed, but that shouldn’t be a problem. The New Year rush has died down and I’m willing to sleep anywhere.

The place I’m staying outside of Miri is very nice. My room is inside a Malaysian long house which sits up on stilts over a pond. We had a torrential downpour yesterday afternoon. I haven’t seen a thunderstom like that since I’ve started my trip. It ranined all night long and with the drops hitting the tin roof of the building, I slept like a log.

I have also been able to meet up with some other travelers finally. I hardly met anyone in Hong Kong given the nature of my accomodations.

Borneo really reminds me of many of the islands I visited in the Pacific….. which makes sense because it is an Island in the Pacific. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say in the next few days as I actually get into the bush and see the rainforest close up.

I have read that Mulu has a satellite internet connection, but I am not making any plans around it. I should have a good connection when I get to Kota Kinabalu. I’ll have a ton of Mulu photos I’m sure as well as everything from Brunei.