Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 13, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

Woke feeling much better and lay in bed for an extra half hour watching the sun rise over the valley that cradled Alam Sari. Inspired I got up, showered, dressed, and knocked on Ann's door only to find she was still zoned and needed to sleep in a while longer. I said I'd be back at eleven and headed to the dining room. I paid an extra 63,000 rupiahs (about 7 bucks U.S.) for my upgraded breakfast. Not quite as good as a Denny’s Grand Slam but passable. Trying to pay the bill in cash was exasperating, so I finally caved in and just signed the check which is something I really don't like doing. It offends my phobia of running up a bill. I still had a couple of hours on my hands, so I stopped first in the lobby to have the staff reconfirm the plane reservations for the next leg of our journey, but found that Singapore Air was closed on Sundays both in Bali and in Jakarta, I’d have to try another day.

The pool is landscaped with a marvelous array of flowers and plant life. With a little over an hour to kill I decided to photograph the flora, but after 40 minutes I’d run out of interesting subjects so I selected a table by the pool and jotted down what I could remember of yesterday in my journal. 11 o’clock rolled around and I was back at Ann’s door. Knocked and found she was almost ready — just 10 more minutes and she’d be drinking coffee and chomping down fruit and yogurt.

We were on the road by noon. Dewa decided to give us a special treat — a visit to his village and home. A left turn landed us on a dirt track, heading in to a denser part of the island. A few minutes later he pulled over and directed us to walk up a path to his village's shrine, cemetery, and sacred tree. Awesome experience. The shrine was the size of a small house and was surrounded by a large green matted jungle, just like in The Jungle Book. Next was Dewa’s family compound. He said his family had occupied this space continually for the last 461 years and the lichen on the entrance swastika seemed to corroborate this.

On the way out of the village he pointed out a giant tree, which he said was just 3 years old. The damn thing was as big as a small redwood. It was a balsa wood tree. Balsa trees were brought to Bali from Mexico about a hundred years ago. Normally they're harvested at the 5 or 6 year point as by 10 years they rot from the inside out.

A little over half an hour and we had arrived in Kuta, Bali’s youth mecca. Parking was impossible, so Dewa became devious. We pulled up to the the Hard Rock and Dewa said that we were there to visit a guest. The plan was if the security were to ask us who, we’d pretend not to speak English. It worked fine. We pulled into the hotel's parking lot and walked inside looking for a side exit. Unfortunately there wasn’t one, and we had to retrace our footsteps and walk past the security guard who’d just let us in. Everything in this area is much more locked down since the 2002 terrorist bombings, which were just a little over 2 blocks from here. We made it through the check point and across the promenade into the sand. This is Indonesia’s hot beach, a little more conservative than Miami’s South Beach or Cancun, but this is Jakarta’s cash cow.

The waves were dangerous today — the beach was red-flagged and the tourists were lounging under shade trees drinking beer. The rental boards were stacked in pyramidal shapes and lonely. Started shooting the minute we hit the boardwalk, very interesting mix of this and that. A half a mile south, we turned east into town looking for new visual stimulation. A block in and a half a block north we found McDonald's. The place was packed with Australian and German tour groups. Ann went to grab the last table while I waited to order. Two Big Mac combos with Diet Cokes, except they didn’t have Diet, so we had to settle for regular.

Kuta has blocks and blocks of knock-off shops, offering everything from the latest DVDs, fake watches, and florescent green Buddhas to every kind of souvenir you can imagine and some you can’t. Cruised the area for a while, buying a few personal items and hunting for a special large U-boat wrist watch. Ann is a collector and is very specific about she what wants. After searching for a while and not finding it we headed back to the beach to begin our return journey to the Hard Rock. The light was gentler now. The silhouettes of people and trees against the afternoon sun were stunning. Some of the locals who make their living in the sand had come out and were beginning to ply their trade to everyone gathering for the sunset. I took advantage of their congeniality to grab a couple of portraits.

It had been 3 hours and we’d pretty well covered the place, so we figured it was time to move on. Snaking our way through the jammed street, we passed through security and up the hill to the parking lot. We discussed where to go next with Dewa. He suggested a less crowded spot up the coast a few miles and and he was right, it was un-crowded, but unfortunately it was too quiet. Nothing really to shoot, so we walked over to a beachfront establishment and ordered some limeade. There were still 3 hours till sunset; we decided that another beautiful sunset shot wasn’t worth the wait so we got back to the van and told Dewa that we were done with Kuta.

My travel clock was acting up. I thought it might be the battery. I asked the driver to stop at the Circle K store we’d passed so I could buy a replacement. After a couple of right and left turns, the van pulled over and parked. I jumped out and ran across the street. I loaded up a couple of extra bottles of water, some BBQ Pringles, and was still looking for the Double A’s. I got in line to ask the attendant when I noticed that the batteries were on the wall behind her. Had my purchases bagged up and ran back across to the van but no Ann. She'd gone over to a money changer to get some Rupiahs. Dewa tells me he is a bit worried and that she should be careful. The people in this part of the island aren’t as honest as they are in Ubud.

Entering the money changer's office, which is really just a large plywood box, I find four young men in their late teens or early twenties. They are counting money while Ann has her one hundred bill out on the counter. The changer behind the counter counts out a stack of bills and I pick up the Rupiahs and begin to recount. The minute I start all four of the young men start asking personal questions: Where are you from? What do you do? Do you have children? I tell the guy behind the counter that the count is short. He takes the money and begins to recount. Watching, I see he’s dropping bills on the floor and pretending to pick them up. Looking over at Ann, I motion her to pick up her money and together we leave. Laughing, we walk back to the van. (Travel Tip: Don’t change money in a plywood box.)

Three quarters of the way back to Alam Sari, Dewa took us on another side trip. He knew a special village where every evening 4,000 white ibis come home to roost. The white ibis were just beginning to zoom in as we walked up the village's main thoroughfare. My 24-70 mm lens was too short to get any spectacular shots of the soaring birds in the dying light. They’ve become somewhat of an attraction and there are signs posted asking for donations to help support the birds.

There were several groups of men sitting in front of their houses holding fighting cocks. They would let the roosters skirmish but not fight to the death like you’d see in Mexico.

My shoulders were killing me from carrying my camera bag and I was talked into a full-body massage as a way to remedy my condition. I’d never had one before and I should have known better. I’m sure it was as unpleasant for the masseur as it was humiliating for me.

For dinner I had chicken in tarragon sauce and mashed potatoes. I should have stuck with spaghetti.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 12, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

Woke up a little later this morning, but we finished breakfast by 9 and were in the van by 9:30 heading into the interior mountains to visit the Ulum Danu Beratan Temple located at the edge of Lake Beratan. It’s about 50 km north of Denpasar and a good hour and twenty minutes from Ubud, through some really beautiful scenery. This Hindu/Buddhist temple is dedicated to the goddess of the lake and river waters. It was just before 11 am when we purchased our entry tickets. The place was somewhat of a zoo, a zillion tourists and locals, all there to participate or watch the cremation ceremonies. It was mid-day and the light was really ugly, I only got one acceptable shot the first hour and a half we were there. In the right light the temple would be incredibly beautiful, but with the light being so harsh and the landscape being as crowded as it was, I knew it was hopeless to stick around unless we wanted to wait for sunset, but that was still four or five hours away with no guarantee that we’d have a clear sky. It was decided to shoot another 30 minutes and then leave our 4,000 foot perch and head back down to the low land. (Travel tip: The sun in Bali doesn’t seem that strong, but you need to apply sunscreen at least every three to four hours, especially on your neck and ears, otherwise you find yourself sleeping on your face.) We maneuvered our way out of the parking lot and headed south down the mountain.

I’m sure Dewa got tired of us asking him to pull over every 10 minutes, but the landscape was so lush we couldn’t resist grabbing shots of the island's interior terraced rice fields, local business fronts and even a flock of rented ducks cleaning a rice paddy of insects.

I was looking for a couple of Balinese wooden masks and asked the driver if he knew of any carvers whose shops we could stop at. He said he did and it was our first stop in Ubud. The sales staff met us at the door and told us that we could shoot pictures of the buildings and the carvers that were on display, but no pictures were allowed in the galleries where the pieces were for sale. They had a few small miniature masks, but nothing like what I was looking for. They did have a wonderful carving of Ganesha. Unfortunately it was $750, well beyond what I was willing to spend at this stage of the trip. Can never tell when you’re going to need some extra cash to get out of a bad situation.

It was now after 3:30 and my stomach was growling. Dewa found a beautiful restaurant for us to stop at, and we asked him if he’d like to eat with us, but he said that they (Balinese) always ate alone, that way their digestion and renewal weren’t disturbed by human interaction. The restaurant faire turned out to be about one tenth as inviting as our surroundings. Naturally I’d ordered Spaghetti Bolognese, but it wasn’t like any I'd had before or since. At least I was able to wash it down with a Coke. Lunch was 180,000 Rupiahs (about $20). (Observation: Eating in the tourist areas is just a little cheaper than eating in the U.S. If you want to cut your budget, you have to seek out the places where the locals eat, which in Ubud is a hard thing to do, I couldn’t find a place. I think they must all eat at home.) We shot in Ubud, around the tourist shops (no Balinese could afford to shop there), some store fronts and some tourists. I especially liked the female Japanese visitors, they were always dressed to the nines and buffed to a high sheen. They looked incredible, especially when you consider the humidity.

Ann had a spa appointment back at Alam Sari, so we left Ubud at 5:30 and arrived just a little before 6. Dewa had had a long day and I'll bet he was glad to see the last of us for a while. Ann went to get ready for her treatment and I went to my room to clean my camera equipment and myself. I grabbed some chips and a diet coke out of the fridge and sat down to clean. Digital cameras have been a godsend to my work, the only drawback is dust. Even though my Canon 1Ds Mark III (Opinion: The best camera on earth) has a self-cleaning feature, I just don’t fully trust it, so I’m ever on the lookout to prevent dust from sneaking in, especially through my zoom lens, which as I understand it is not fully sealed. As you zoom the lens in and out you suck minute particles of dust into the lens housing, and somehow they work their way down into the interior of the camera. Last year I purchased an Aquatech Sport Shield, it’s like a raincoat for your camera and also keeps out dust. It’s expensive (about $250) but was money well spent. After my experience with it in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was so pleased that now I rarely shoot without it.

Ann came back from her treatment all smiles, with tales of just how wonderful the full body massage was and how lovely the spa women were. I listened for 10 minutes then suggested that another helping of pasta was in order to help stabilize her good mood. We arrived at the dining room, which was deserted as usual. Most of the younger guests were still in Ubud just beginning to party and wouldn’t be back till late. From some of the stories I heard, Ubud has a pretty extensive club scene and it acts as a magnet for much of the tourist dollar. We sat at our usual table, ordered spaghetti and went over to the lobby's computer to check email. I did my business, then Ann took over the machine. I returned to our table to enjoy the mild night and a tree frog serenade that sounded more like green parrots than anything else I could reference. The nights here are like velvet, the air has a tangible physical quality like the caress of invisible butterflies. The Spaghetti arrived and Ann decided she’d prefer to have just noodles, so I got most of her Bolognese sauce, which combined with my own made for a fine meal. I always figure the more protein the better.

Back in the room I did a quick review of the day's take, then pulled the full CF card out of the camera and placed them all in their waterproof case face down so that I'd know which were full and which were ready to work. I changed out the camera battery and made sure to load a fresh memory card, then put the Mark III into its raincoat and zipped it into my sling bag. Knocked on Ann's door and made sure things were copacetic, and said goodnight. Checked my windows and doors to satisfy my paranoia. Lights out at 10 pm