17 Dec

The Dominican equivalent to a mariachi band greeted us at the airport with a lively rendition of Jingle Bells. What a welcome!

Bag Checking Foolishness

17 Dec

As you learned in the post about Travel Karma, I hate checking bags. So this time, per usual (except sometimes when traveling with business clothes), I tried to squeeze everything into my carry-ons. However, I’m a little rusty now, and I was deliriously tired from being a perennial, irresponsible, last-minute packer, and somehow forgot how to count. I forgot I had a separate bag for my SLR camera, which put me over the top, but I wasn’t about to check that, and I didn’t want to check the bag with all my clothes (defeats the whole point!).

Anyway, this was a solvable problem and not all that unique, so let me show you where the ridiculousness comes in– I went to all that trouble to avoid checking a bag, and still somehow decided to check one, not for my clothes, but for my liquids (TSA!). I checked a teeny tiny bag, not much bigger than a bag-lunch, with a big bottle of sun tan lotion and some books I might not even get to. Not my finest hour in problem solving, but again, I was very tired, and very much in need of the vacation. At least I wouldn’t care too much if it got misplaced.

Travel Karma

17 Dec

If even remotely possible, I always try to avoid checking a bag. Sometimes I can get a little ridiculous about it, but I feel like it’s well-founded ridiculousness. Checked baggage SNAFU’s* have caused me varying degrees of headache for Jamaica, Israel, and New Zealand, to name a few. I’m far from the only one. It’s just one of the very easy ways to mess with your travel bliss.

To combat this phenomenon, I’ve taken two steps. One superstitious and actually completely unrelated, the other very obvious and rational. First, I never miss an opportunity to build up my travel karma. What’s that you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. Up until five seconds ago, I assumed it was something I coined. Google once again shatters my dreams. I haven’t looked to see what others say, and it’s actually really self-explanatory, so I won’t define it, except to say that it’s important. You see, when you travel, luck plays a huge role in how your trip goes.

With good travel karma, every light on the way to the airport is green, check-in is a breeze, TSA treats you like a VIP, the plane is half empty, the weather at your destination is perfect, and at every turn you’re making new friends and having the adventure of your life. Even when things aren’t as utopian, someone will cut you a break when you need it the most.

With bad travel karma, there’s construction on the way to the airport, the lines are wrapped around the building, the staff rearranges the ropes on the line switching from front to back (I hate you Spirit Airlines) and threatens to have you arrested when you politely complain, your take-off is delayed..after you board, you sit between two sumo wrestlers with colicky babies, immigration takes forever, you have to sprint to the next terminal, they make you check a bag that you carried onto the previous 9 flights, you miss your connection, pay twice for the same flight, and your bag is lost, but don’t worry, they’ll make it up to you with a voucher for airport fast food that doesn’t open until after your new flight takes off, the hotel can’t find your reservation… you get the idea. Pretty much all these things have happened to me… and there’s plenty I left out for brevity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of travel, but sometimes things just don’t go your way and there’s nothing you can do about it. Hence, travel karma.

Therefore, I never miss an opportunity to put some points on the board in my favor. My favorite way is to help NYC tourists (though I admit I probably lost most of those points by mocking them with my halloween costume this year.   I think I'll stop in the middle of a crowded sidewalk and look up at the buildings. Can you direct me to the worst places to visit in NYC?

The second thing I do is avoid the bag check as if my life depends on it. It’s just an easy catastrophe-in-the-making to skip. Very rarely do I look back on a trip and say, “Man, I wish I brought a lot more stuff!” Maybe once in a while I wish I brought one extra thing, but almost every other time I would say, “Wow, I really didn’t need all those extra socks if I was going to wear sandals every day.” Pack light, skip the bag check, and save your time, money, and potential fun-extinguishing headaches.

*Fun Fact: SNAFU is a WWII era acronym the troops used to describe the state of things – Situation Normal: All Fucked Up

The Plan

16 Dec

So here’s the plan:

This week, it’s the D.R.

Next week, The World Costa Rica sandwiched between Christmas & New Years in Miami.

It’s going to be a rough couple weeks.

One more thing

15 Dec

Another thing that happened since I returned from Asia is that exactly one year later, my brother took off on a similar trip, hitting many of the same countries I did, plus I few I didn’t. He also traveled for more than twice the time I was gone. He didn’t repeat my mistake of foolishly setting an arbitrary mental deadline denoting when the travel should end and the return to the “real world” should begin. (And in case you’re wondering, it’s not the brother that just became a father)

He also started a travel site of his own, the very excellent Visit50.com. As you can see, he learned from my mistake and kept the posts bite sized right from the start. Visit 50 refers to a fun goal we each set a while back, to visit 50 countries and all 50 states by 50 years old (what counts?). After his long trek around Asia and the Middle East, which included lots of SCUBA, lots of camels, and lots of Chinese people, he’s taken a small lead. It’s really not a race, but if it were, he’d need a few more trips like this because he’s a lot closer to 50 than me!

The Hiatus Ends

14 Dec

After a nearly 13 month hiatus from international travel, this Saturday my passport gets another stamp. Dominican Republic here I come!

So it’s not just my travel that’s been on a break, but this blog. The Asia trip was amazing and I really enjoyed sharing my experiences, but I kind of dropped the ball for a while. It’s hard to believe that I left on that trip two years ago this month. I’m sure many of you never saw this in the first place, since I made virtually no effort to promote it, so go catch up! Seriously, go ahead, I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back. So what’ve I been up to since then? Well, not too much. I got a job. Went to Austin. Started taking Krav Maga. Went to Barbados. Became an uncle. Went to San Francisco. Posted lots of photos.

Now that I’m finally taking another trip, I’ve got the bug again–the writing bug, that is. But it’s going to be different this time.* And I don’t just mean I’ll stay with it (because I do actually have a job that keeps me in one place most of the time), but the posts may be a little different than before. I’m going to keep them bite sized, more like a snack, rather than the four course meal you were gorging on before. My earlier soup-to-nuts approach to covering the full experience of each country in a single post was super detailed, but it was not only a lot to chew at once for you, but very time-consuming and ultimately impractical and unsustainable for me.

You still with me? Good, here’s your reward — isn’t my nephew adorable?

Okay, I better get back to it. I’ve got some traveling to do.

*not intended to be a factual statement

Jakarta – Jan 23/24, 2010

25 Jan I see this in every country but it still shocks me

In This Post, I…

  • Get Stared At By Locals
  • Am Advised To Say I’m From Canada
  • Feel Less Safe After Seeing More Security
  • Have A Run in with Embassy Guards

Key Facts


Currency:  Indonesian Rupiah (Rp / IDR)

Exchange Rate:  $1 USD = ~9300 IDR

Local Beer:  Bintang


Jakarta is cleaner than I expected, but I haven’t seen that much of it.  The traffic is pretty bad, but it’s probably better than LA.  There aren’t as many motorbikes as in Vietnam.

Jakarta Traffic

I see this in every country but it still shocks me

One of the first things I noticed was the security at the hotel, or rather the illusion of security.  There are guards at the entrance to the parking lot that are supposed to be checking the vehicle for bombs, they have the mirror on a stick to look under the car, but I don’t think I saw them use it in the time I was there.  When you walk in, there’s a magnetometer for you to pass through and a guard with a wand, but I didn’t take my belt off or anything out of my pockets and there were no beeps.  It seems that in Indonesia the wands are what they use to check bags, instead of x-rays or actual searches.  They generally take the wand, tap it against my bag once or twice, and then I move on.  It’s all quite scientific.  I’m pretty sure I’m benefiting from some racial profiling, but I still think they should be checking everyone.  And I haven’t really seen them check anyone thoroughly.

Even before becoming convinced that the hotel’s security was a joke, the presence of the security measures actually made me feel more apprehensive.  Of all the places I was traveling, Jakarta was the first one that gave me pause.  Americans aren’t their favorite people here and I’ve heard of more than a few bombings here (including at hotels where westerners stay).  I tried to put it out of my mind, the odds of me being involved in an attack are slim and I don’t like to let unlikely fears control my actions, but seeing the security there was a reminder of the state of things here and caused some mild anxiety.

View from my Hotel at Sunset

Everyone I encountered was completely friendly and courteous, I had no direct reason to feel unwelcome.  However, I would later ask a new friend from Jakarta what they think of Americans there, and she estimated that around thirty or forty percent of them hate or strongly dislike Americans.  This doesn’t mean they’re dangerous or radical, but they might be friendly to your face and then talk about how much they hate you later.  But again, I saw no evidence of this and everyone treated me with kindness.

With that said, there were times where I’d be making idle conversation with random people I’d meet, the same type of basic questions that everyone starts with, (where are you from, how long are you here, etc.) and I would sometimes hesitate or have second thoughts after answering the questions.  Should I be saying I’m from Canada?  I chose not to, but the thought occurred.  I later mentioned this to someone else and their response was immediate and unequivocal, “yes, Canada would be better…”  I thought about it but kept giving truthful answers.

In one case, I spoke briefly to someone in the elevator who was Indonesian but staying in the hotel.  We covered the two questions above, but he also asked if I was traveling alone.  This was as we got off on the same floor.  I answered but I immediately regretted it and felt I was too forthcoming.  The thought of being kidnapped as an easy American target crossed my mind.  Oh well, I wasn’t going to be paralyzed by the prospect of getting attacked so I continued about my  business, perhaps with a little more vigilance than usual (though I’m already pretty vigilant, those that know me would probably agree).

There’s not a lot in the way of sightseeing in Jakarta.  The guide book warned that the museums are generally poorly done, organized poorly, crowded, and many lack English translations.  Nevertheless, I needed to do something so I took a cab to that area of town and walked around a bit.  They have “one of the largest town squares in the world,” called Liberty Square.  It’s 1 square km.  The center of the square has the National Monument, a lingga (Indonesian for phallus.  Really.) that stands 137m high and is supposed to symbolize fertility and independence.  Their infamous President Sukarno commissioned it in 1961 to celebrate Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch.  According to my book, “it’s known among residents of the city, rather irreverently, as Sukarno’s Last Erection.”  It has a museum at the base and an elevator you can take to the top that gives a nice view.  You can’t drive all the way up to it so I hopped out of the cab, snapped some photos, and walked over.  If I had a block of ice in my hand it would surely be a puddle before I got there.  It’s not that it was that far of a walk, it was just scorching hot.  When I got there the line was wrapped around the base of the monument and my interest in the museum and city view evaporated as quickly as that hypothetical block of ice.  Instead I took a walk to see what kind of trouble I could get into.

Walking around the monument, two things caught my notice.  First, unlike the tourist sights in other countries, everyone here seemed to be local.  There were no Japanese tourists taking pictures, no Australians, no other SE Asians, every one was local.  They may not have been from Jakarta, but most people seemed to be Indonesian.

The second thing that struck me is that the locals camped out near the attractions selling stuff (mostly water, plus one or two trinkets), weren’t at all pushy.  They would try to sell you water if you walked by, but if you said no or even just nodded no, they gave up right away and left you alone.  This is uncommon.  In Cambodia they’ll swarm around you and won’t give up.  In Thailand and Vietnam they won’t stop trying to sell you something until you are out of sight.

It doesn’t take much time walking in 90 degree heat before you tire of sightseeing (plus I’ve been sightseeing for a month), but I only had the one day in Jakarta so I didn’t want to call it quits just yet.  I spotted a high end hotel and walked in like I belonged there so I could cool off.

While cooling off I consulted the map and decided to head toward The Isqial, the principal mosque in Jakarta and possibly the largest in SE Asia.  On the way, I was to pass the American Embassy.  I’ve never seen an American Embassy and it’s been a while since I saw the old stars and stripes or any Americans, so I figured I’d stop by.  I wasn’t sure if I’d go in or just walk by and see what it looked like but I was curious what I’d see there.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of walking I thought I ought to be getting close but I still didn’t see it.  At that point I hit a cement barricade, the sort that’s used as a highway divider.  I looked up and saw a fifteen foot metal fence, with barbed-wire,  easily taller than any other fences I’d seen in the area.  Raise your head even higher and you can see the American Flag flapping in the wind, but that’s all you can see.  The walls are so high that you can’t see anything else; no part of the building or embassy compound is visible.  Just concrete barricades, steel walls and a flag.

I stepped over the cement barricade so I could continue walking on the sidewalk rather than out in the middle of traffic.  At this point, I realized that it was unlikely I’d be able to go near the embassy or even glimpse a Marine so I figured I’d just get a shot of the flag and move on.  I took my pic and continued on my walk.  At this point, an Indonesian guard started heading in my direction.  As we walked toward each other, him with a serious look on his face and me with a smile on mine, I started to wave hello, still smiling and generally not looking like a terrorist.

Then he drew his weapon and started yelling at me to get down on the ground.  Okay, no, that didn’t actually happen.  We reached each other and shook hands, said hello.  It was very cordial and respectful, but serious.  He asked what I was doing and I said I was a tourist sightseeing.  We talked for another minute and I could see he was still a little concerned so I volunteered that I was an American.  Immediately his posture and facial expression relaxed.  He asked for ID and I produced a photocopy of my passport.  We walked together toward the entrance and met up with two or three other guards.  He handed my ID page (the real one was safe in my hotel) to his supervisor and explained who I was.  They asked me to wait a moment and copied down the info.  They then asked to see my camera, which I had already put away.  They wanted to see the picture I took and I showed it to them as I explained that it was just the flag.  Once they realized that it was just the flag everything got even lighter and they started chuckling to each other, “ah, bandera.”  Apparently their word for flag is the same as the Spanish.

At this point it was all friendly chit chat and we just hung out and shot the shit for five minutes.  He’s the one that confirmed that it is better to say you’re from Canada.   I asked about other sights to see and they agreed that there wasn’t much of interest.  All of the exterior guards are local Indonesians employed by the embassy, they look like police but are strictly private security.   Still, they did their jobs well.  I  could see one or two of them had rifles but I don’t remember the others being armed.  If I had wanted to go in I probably could have since I’d proven my citizenship, but it seemed like it was an unnecessary hassle and I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time so I decided to move on and continue toward the mosque.

Once I reached the mosque, it wasn’t too impressive looking.  I didn’t go in but it’s supposed to hold up to 10,000 people, so it is probably pretty grand, but I kept moving.  At this point, my attention span for sights like this was pretty limited.

I may not have visited many sights but throughout my brief stay in Jakarta I did see some nice statues and fountains.  I couldn’t get pictures of all of them but did snap a few.

There were three different malls near my hotel.  I went into a couple out of curiosity and because this was where many restaurants were located.  There were security checks at each entrance, it reminded me of Israel.  Once again, I feel like I was benefiting from some discrimination because my check was pretty cursory.

I was surprised to see such a thriving middle class.  They had every mid to high end store you’d see any where else and the shoppers were clearly living comfortably.  No one looked wealthy, just middle class, the same as you’d see in Anytown, USA.   The employees of the stores stand at the entrances to greet you as you walk in, but otherwise it was pretty much the same.

They had a McDonalds, which isn’t unusual at all, of course, but I like to look at the menu to see if anything is different.  They were selling a “Beef Prosperity.”

I didn’t expect to see a Coldstone Creamery but I saw a couple, plus Starbucks, of course.  Also a KFC, which I saw all over Malaysia.

One thing about Jakarta is that this was the first place where I felt like I stood out. I mean I really stood out, I was noticeably turning heads (even more than my usual handsome self is accustomed). I’ve been to quite a few countries in Asia, but this is the first time I really felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. In Taiwan, people did come up to my friends and I so they could shake hands or pose with a white person, but I still never felt like I was getting stared at. Here in the mall people were looking at me and turning their heads as I passed.

Also, at this point I had a naked white face — I shaved my beard. The story on that is that my electric razor that keeps my beard from growing to Rip Van Winkle length stopped taking a charge. I decided to take it as a sign from above that I should get rid of the beard.

…And then I saw a good electric razor in a duty free electronics store at the Singapore airport, so I bought that. But it works differently than mine and when I used it the first time I screwed up and decided to get rid of the whole thing.

So, you may not know this, but when you shave off a beard that you’ve had for a long time, you get the closest shave you’ve ever had in your life. You’ve never seen such a baby face. So Jakarta probably wasn’t the best place to get rid of the beard, but that was fate I guess. Maybe they were turning their heads to admire my silky smooth baby face.

My First Burger in a Month and it has Egg on it!

It was a Sunday night and I wasn’t sure there was much going on (most places have been dead on Sundays), plus I wasn’t as open to venturing out into uncharted territory alone at night when there might not be anything happening anyway.  I had an early flight the next morning and thought I might have to start teaching right away, so I decided not to go out.  It was at this point that I came across their movie theater, or cinema as they refer to it.  I saw Avatar was playing there in 3D and wanted to catch it before it left theaters.  I also thought it’d be interesting to see how their movie experience compares.

Looks comfy, right?

I have to say, it was much better.  First, it isn’t general seating.  When you buy your ticket, you can choose your seat.  Second, the seats themselves are much more lavish.  They’re really very comfortable.  The 3D glasses they give you are actually hard plastic, not the flimsy things I’d used in the past.  I haven’t been to a 3D movie in a while (maybe ever?) so maybe that’s how ours are now too, but their glasses were sturdy.  The last thing that was different was that the 6:15 movie (or 18:15, basically everyone in Asia uses a 24 hour clock) started exactly at 6:15.  I wasn’t there for any previews and arrived exactly on time, since I had the peace of mind in knowing I already had a good seat reserved.  The movie started the moment I arrived.

Avatar was great, by the way.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  My friend Jay aptly described it as a “mix of Cowboys vs. Indians meets the Matrix meets Star Wars.”  There were a couple scenes that unsubtly used language from the Iraq War debate, but aside from that, it was a fully immersive experience.  Despite its similarities to other stories, it was original and very creative.  The similarities arise from the constant themes of human history.  I was particularly reminded, and I’m sure I’m alone in this, of the history of how the Belgians exploited the Congo for their rubber trees and some of the tragic similarities to how they achieved that end (If anyone is interested in that story, it’s well told in the book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, of NPR.)

After the movie I scoped out some WiFi to catch up on the world and ended up at a Starbucks.  Shortly after I sat down a college aged kid and his girlfriend sat down and said hello.  He saw the brand of my little backpack and recognized that it probably contained a nice camera.   Being a fellow photography enthusiast, we got along well discussing the craft (I never actually call it that and I’m pretty new to it and not that good yet).

This was basically the end of my time in Jakarta.  I was finally going to get to Bali to start my long awaited volunteer teaching experience.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect but I was excited.

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