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Category Archives: Indonesia

Indonesia’s capital was unlike any other place I’d been in the country. For starters, it actually resembled a proper city, most notably when it comes to transportation. Like any other major city, traffic is a huge problem, but it’s still possible to get around Jakarta very affordably in a reasonable amount of time. There are bus only lanes that connect most of the major points in the city that are free from the shackles of rush hour traffic. The bus costs just 3500 IDR ($0.35) one way! Taxis are pricy, but bajaj and ojek are very cheap and convenient.

My CouchSurfing experience in Jakarta was definitely a first. I received an invitation to Surf at a guy from Singapore’s place and accepted. It wasn’t until after I arrived that I found out that my host was gay and had a big bed in his small studio for us to share. I’m a pretty open and tolerant guy and went with it. Herman was a gentleman and the sleeping situation was not an issue. He does dress rather….festive…and we received a lot of attention when he would show me around. Indonesia is a Muslim country and although Jakarta is a large city, it still has a somewhat conservative culture.

It was not a situation I would have sought out, but I’m glad I experienced it. Herman was a great host and, although he was extremely busy with work, still found time to show me around the city. We visited the National Monument at night, where I had some durian ice cream. He also showed me Jalan Jaksa, a bar street whose patrons are ex-pats, travelers, and locals looking to meet foreign friends. Herman likes to have a get loose on the weekend, but, unfortunately, I was only there Monday to Wednesday and didn’t get to experience club Stadium.

Herman isn’t as food driven as I am and, not being a local, wasn’t too aware of food from the area. He took me for some nasi padang, an assault of a couple dozen dishes, which is actually Sumatran. It was quite tasty and my favorites were rendang and calf brain. I had some really good chicken sate and mie ayam, noodles with chicken offal and water spinach. The best thing I had in Jakarta was chicken foot soup. Tragically, I got food poisoning on my last night in town. We went to an Indonesian place not far from Herman’s place and I ended up getting sick for the first time this trip. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t flying to Singapore – to eat – the next morning.

While Herman was working, I decided to skip the touristy stuff and get lost in the outskirts of town. It was eye opening. Jakarta has big buildings, sports cars and every other form of first world opulence, but the outskirts were a different story. I spent hours weaving my way through winding alleyways of the shantytowns on the city’s northern limits. The sights, sounds, and smells were those of abject poverty. I feel incredibly awkward taking pictures in those situations and didn’t take my camera out. Other than of a couple kids asking for money, the people were really friendly and welcoming. They did look very confused as to what I was doing there; I could tell they don’t get many foreign visitors. It’s never fun to see people with so little, but I always appreciate the opportunity to gain the perspective one only can by visiting such a place. I returned to the city center and they went about their business as usual.

Jakarta was quite a place for me. There were a range of situations that put me out of my comfort zone – in very different ways – and I’m grateful to have experienced them. The city is huge and possibilities are endless. It was nice coming to Jakarta after spending some time in the rest of Indonesia to see the contrast between the nation and its capital city.

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Bologna was my first CouchSurfing experience and still stands out as one of the best. This was due in no small part to my incredible host Valentina. She ended up moving to Mojokerto, Indonesia to teach English for six months. Vale has since left, but let me know to drop by and visit the little city while I was in Java. I did.

I didn’t have internet access in Probolinggo and wasn’t able to get in touch with Valentina’s friends prior to my arrival. When I got into town at 5pm on a Tuesday, I called Valentina’s friend Susi, mentioned her name and the rest was history.

Susi is an administrator/teacher at one of Mojokerto’s junior high schools and an incredibly gracious, kind, and funny host. With no advanced noticed, she picked me up, found me a place to stay, then took me to dinner. Susi let me know that if I wanted to visit her school and teach, I was welcome to. I really, really enjoy teaching and jumped on the opportunity. I was in the classroom at 8am the next day!

I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t get many foreign visitors or if the people of Mojokerto are just that awesome, but I was treated as nicely as I’ve ever been, anywhere. The faculty, support staff, and students treated me like a VIP. I have to admit, I liked it. A lot.

Class was fairly straightforward and similar to what I had done in France the year before. The kids were polite, involved, and an absolute pleasure to work with. After my second day of school, I was accompanied by two teachers and five students for a private tour of the area. We visited a place where they make batik, traditional Indonesian fabric as well as a museum, a temple, and a reclining Buddha.

Susi’s hospitality didn’t end with the school day. After the first day of class, she invited me to have dinner with her family at their home. Her husband, son, and daughter were just as friendly and nice as she. The next night they invited me to have the best nasi goreng in Indonesia from a street vendor near their home. It was so good I ended up getting a second bowl. In addition to making amazingly delicious rice, Mr. Benny, the man that runs the cart, is also quite a character and had us laughing so hard our very full stomachs hurt.

Other food highlights from Mojokerto were the goody boxes that greeted me upon arrival at school each morning and plenty of bakso. I had spicy duck a couple times and it was quite tasty, but not as spicy as in Bali. Mojokerto is known for its sweets, most notably onde-onde, which is a medium sized dessert ball.

The nature of this trip prevents me from spending more than a few days in any given place, but I could have easily spent weeks or months in Mojokerto. Out of all of the places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had, Mojokerto has a special place in my heart. The people and place appealed to me on so many different levels and everything just felt right there. If you are interested in paying Mojokerto a visit and teaching at the school, just let me know and I’ll put you in contact with Susi.

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While Bali isn’t anywhere near the size of Java, it’s not a tiny island either and there is much more to it than just Denpasar. I rented a motorbike for 50,000 IDR per day (about $5) and my CouchSurfing host, Nina drove us to spend a couple days on Bali’s north shore. The drive took about 5 hours, with stops to check out Pura Ulun Danu Batur Temple and Gitgit Falls.

Built on a lake, the temple is a huge draw for visitors, but didn’t do anything for me. The loads of tourists took away from the pristine serenity of the temple on the lake. Gitgit, on the other hand, was totally worth a stop. There were a couple pretty big waterfalls and pools for swimming.

Singaraja’s main draw is morning dolphin watching at Lovina Beach. A 2 hour boat ride costs 60,000 IDR (about $6) and departs before dawn. You aren’t guaranteed to see any dolphins, but we managed to see a few. What we mostly saw were hundreds of tourists on dozens of boats that blanketed the water. Like the Monkey Forest in Ubud, the best part of dolphin watching at Lovina was marveling at the massive number of tourists. Irawati dolphin watching near Don Khon was a much, much better experience.

Banjar Hot Springs is a short drive from Lovina and a great option after taking in the dolphins. At just 5000 IDR (about 50 cents) it was ridiculously cheap to enter and not a bad way to spend an hour or two. We alternated between soaking in the baths, which weren’t terribly hot, and standing under falling water spouts that gave a nice massage.

Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali is mostly Hindu. In addition to a relaxed approach towards alcohol and pork, this also means there are opportunities to take in some Hindu culture. I was lucky to catch a sunset ash scattering ceremony at a beach in Lovina. The ceremony involved singing, chanting, a naked boy, and 2 birds.

I love it when a place has a signature dish. Singajara is known for its siobak, which is actually Chinese. Siobak Singajara consists of pork, pork offal, and chicharones covered in a pork-soy sauce. It was very Chinese, pretty good, and not-so-spicy. I definitely prefer BABI GULING.

It was nice to take in a part of Bali outside of the greater Denpasar area. I didn’t fall in love with Singaraja, but had a decent time there. The dolphins alone are not worth the trip, but the journey getting there is quite scenic and it’s a pleasant place to spend a few days away from the congestion of the island’s south.

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“You want see Bromo?”

From the moment I arrived in Probolinggo until I boarded the bus to leave, I was constantly bombarded with offers to see Bromo. Mount Bromo is one of Indonesia’s top tourist destinations and the nearby town of Probolinggo is the staging area for most visitors. Locals know what draws people to their town and do everything they possibly can to cash in on it.

My ten hour journey from Denpasar ended up taking 15 hours and I didn’t get into town until 2am (buses in Indonesia are notoriously late). Despite arriving in the middle of the night, my CouchSurfing host Indrah and his parents woke up and warmly greeted me with tea and cookies. His family doesn’t speak much English, but they have really embraced CS and seem to truly enjoy it.

Indrah wasted no time and quickly briefed me on the options for viewing Bromo. It seems that the best way to go is via motorbike. In true Probolinggo fashion, the going rate for a bike is 250,000 ($25) per day. The standard for the rest of Indonesia is 50,000/day.

Indrah’s cousin, Budi, was kind enough to wake up ridiculously early in the morning to drive me up the mountain for sunrise. The lookout is about a 2 hour drive from Probolinggo and should only be attempted by people who know what they’re doing. You must go up a mountain on narrow, ash covered roads dotted with scores of giant crevices in total darkness. I was very thankful to have Budi!

The breathtaking sunrise from high above the clouds and volcanic terrain were reminiscent of Maui’s Haleakala National Park. Once the sun was up, we crossed the Sea of Sand and climbed the volcano. The climb itself isn’t very demanding and there are horses for hire if you don’t want to walk. From the top you can see the crater in the volcano’s center, which has a bubbling pool of hot volcano juice.

Bromo is also home to a very old and storied Hindu temple, Pura Luhur Poten. Indrah filled me in on the background and it’s quite fascinating, but I won’t bore you with the details. He helps out at a big annual festival where the people of the temple throw offerings into the volcano. It’s easy to forget that Bromo is still an active volcano; it’s most recent eruption was last January.

After our time on the mountain, Budi took me to his home in a nearby village. His family’s kitchen was very traditional and even included 2 cows and a sheep! Indrah often has CouchSurfers spend the night at his grandmother’s house, located next door to Budi’s, but it didn’t work out for my logistically. It was still really nice to spend a few hours in the village. Budi showed me all of the various fruit trees in his backyard and even got me a fresh coconut to drink.

The food highlight of Probolinggo was corn rice. As the name suggests, corn is mixed with rice. It is then topped with a variety of vegetables and fish. This was my first encounter with such a combination and it was really good. Luckily, I got to eat all of mine, some of Indrah’s and most of his sister’s!

Mount Bromo was magnificent and is definitely worth checking out. It’s unfortunate that rather than using the visitor traffic generated from Bromo to build a diversified and robust hospitality industry, Probolinggo just tries to suck every penny out of people coming to see the mountain. Groups of people from local tour agencies have already visited Indrah’s home and asked him to stop helping visitors see Bromo for free!

Probolinggo certainly has more to offer and the way it goes about handling visitors is not beneficial in the long run. Siem Reap is an excellent example of a community handling traffic from a major tourist attraction (Angkor Wat) in a smart, sustainable manner. Probolinggo needs to adopt a “Come for Bromo, stay for Probolinggo” strategy.

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Eat, Pray, Love features this little Balinese town located about 45 minutes north of Denpasar. I haven’t seen the film, but I’m thinking at least a few of the hundreds of foreigners occupying the town have. The Jetstar in-flight preview for Bali highlighted Ubud as a small, quiet, peaceful place of beauty that features terraced rice paddies.

Over the course of my travels I’ve witnessed something I like to call the Lonely Planet Effect, where a place or an establishment is featured in the publication, then changes drastically. The ‘hidden gem’ where ‘only the locals go’ and is ‘off the tourist radar’ goes directly to the center of the map once it makes LP. Ubud definitely has that kind of vibe.

I’m not sure how long Ubud has been the way it is, but what I witnessed there didn’t remotely resemble what I’m looking for in a destination. The influx of tourist traffic has Ubud priced significantly higher than other places in Bali. The cheapest rooms in town are 150,000-200,000/night (about $15-20). This compares with 50-80k elsewhere. Laundry service is done on a per piece basis rather than by weight as it is in the rest of Indonesia. Food is also overpriced and – even worse – geared towards Western palates.

What does paying the price to stay in Ubud get you? Not too much. The monkey forest is the number one attraction in town. It is far more zoo than forest. Tourists outnumbered the monkeys by about 10-1 and were more entertaining to watch than the animals. There are also dozens and dozens of galleries and artists’ workshops. Art isn’t really my thing, but the stuff in Ubud is supposed to be really good.

The food highlight of Ubud is Iba Oka. When Anthony Bourdain declared their babi guling to be the best pork he’s ever had, it spoke volumes. Of course I had to try and it was really, really good. The meat itself was the best I’ve had in Indonesia, extremely flavorful and tender. By Western standards, it’s cheap at 30,000 a pop, but you can get great babi guling nearby for half the price.

I only spent a couple days and a couple nights in Ubud. My short stay may have kept me from seeing what makes so many people come to the place, but what I did see certainly did not ‘wow’ me. If you have money to spend and love art, white people, and Western food, then Ubud is the place for you in Bali.

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Bali has a bad rap. The Indonesian island is known as a bastian for bogans (Australian for redneck), with an Australian dying in Bali every 9 days. While Kuta is the epicenter of the madness, the tourist imprint definitely extends to the rest of the island. The capital, Denpassar, has significantly less foreign visitors and proved to be an amazing place.

Like anywhere else, the people make the place. My two CouchSurfing hosts for Denpasar, Nina and Lina, made Denpasar a special place for me. The food they introduced me to was so good it warranted its own post. When I wasn’t eating, I managed to see a few things around town.

Nina took me to see nearby Uluwatu, a temple located on a beautiful cliff and home to monkeys. One of the monkeys stole Nina’s glasses and held them captive up in a tree! She also took me to beautiful Padang Padang Beach for sunset.

After one of our many meals, Lina took me for a walk around a track that surrounds a national monument. The track features a stretch of stones imbedded in the pavement. If you feel pain while walking across the stones barefoot, it means you’re sick. After about a hundred meters, I appeared to become ill. That evening we hit up a night market and had some goat. The market was a decent size and I was the only non-Indonesian person there!

Lina’s brother is a Bali beach boy and took me to spend an afternoon with him and his friends at Double Six Beach. They surf, rent boards to tourists, and chill on the beach playing chess all day. It’s a lifestyle I envy and respect. That evening we all went to Kuta to experience the insanity. It was what it was and I had a great time.

My favorite part of Denpasar was visiting the little warungs and food places that my hosts frequent. Hanging out with locals and eating what they eat, where they eat it is one of my favorite things to do. They took me to so many awesome little places that I never would have went to on my own and knew exactly what to order.

I really enjoyed my time in Denpasar and it was all made possible by Nina and Lina. I highly recommend finding some locals and truly experiencing Bali’s capital city. It’s a great place!

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I like pork. A lot. I’m also a huge fan of spicy food; the spicier, the better. I avoid superlatives and cannot tell you my favorite cuisine, nor can I name my favorite dish, BUT Balinese food (and Babi Guling) is definitely up there. My 8 days in Bali were a pork fueled spice fest made possible by two wonderful hosts I met through CouchSurfing.

Nina, my first host, picked me up from the airport. As soon as I checked into a hotel and dropped my bag off, she introduced me to babi guling. It was love – or lust – at first bite. Babi guling was the alpha and it was also the omega. My last meal before boarding the bus to pork-less Muslim Java was babi guling, with an extra plate of skin.

In addition to roast suckling pig, Nina also introduced me to several other Balinese and Indonesian dishes. We tried the Balinese staple, ayam betutu at the iconic Gilimanuk. We also had sate a few times. At only about a dollar a pop, it’s tough to resist!

While in Singoraja, we tried their signature dish: syobak singaraja. It was pork with plenty of offal coated in a very Chinese tasting sauce. Nina also took me for some Indonese/Chinese food and Balinese rice.

My second host, Lina, has a one track mind. Two if you include napping. In my first 12 hours with Lina, we had 10 different, spicy, delicious things to eat and took 3 naps. We started with the spiciest salad I’ve ever had in my life, rujak kuah pindang. I told Lina I liked very spicy food and I thought her leading off with the rujak was a test. At the same place, we also had es campur (an ice salad), and bulung (a spicy seaweed salad with crunchy little peanuts).

After a nap, we hit up the market and had goat sate and a curried goat soup. Then we had nasi jingo, a popular little snack of rice, noodles, and beef wrapped in a banana leaf. The nasi place also had a soft boiled egg with salt and pepper.

I’ve had some spicy food in my time, but I must say that the sambal we had with nasi tempong lele was the spiciest thing that’s touched these lucky lips. When I opened my mouth, it felt like fire was coming out. I was very happy! This was also my first time trying pete, which is known for being stinky and making your pee the same.

My best food experience in Bali, and one of the best in my life, was our pre-dawn trip to the secret babi guling restaurant. Lina’s mom also cooked us some delicious meals and picked us up some dog and wild boar from a restaurant near their home.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from the food in Bali. I was just going there because it seemed like a good starting point for Indonesia and didn’t have lofty expectations as far as eating was concerned. I was blown away by the food and it’s worth going to Bali just to eat.

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Lina, “Do you want to wake up at 3 am for babi guling?”

Me, “YES!!!”

When we arrived just before 4:30 am, most of the other patrons were already finishing their meals. Tucked away in an alleyway off of a side street about a 40 minute drive from Denpasar, this tiny little purveyor of pork opens at 4 am daily (3 on Sundays) and serves just one thing: babi guling.

Prior to coming to Indonesia, the only Balinese dish I knew I had to try was their special roasted pork. There are hundreds of babi guling joints on the island and, if I had the time or stomach space, I’d love to try them all. When presented with the opportunity to check out a secret underground babi guling restaurant, I jumped all over it. I’m glad I did.

Lina, my wonderful CouchSurfing host/Balinese food expert, had just heard about the place a week prior and had yet to try herself. We were joined by her brother, Agung and the friend that discovered the place, Yater. The fact that these people were not just willing, but wanting to wake up at 3am to drive nearly an hour for pork spoke volumes about their character; they were my kind of people. It was interesting that all three of them are active on twitter as well.

The restaurant itself was fairly small, but featured a spit roast – that had a suckling pig spinning on it, hypnotizing us as we dined – and an open kitchen in addition to the dining area. There was a butcher who was working a hog that had already been roasted to perfection and a couple ladies who handled the rest of the work. They were very pleasant but did seem a little concerned at my intense interest in what they were doing and omnipresent ear-to-ear smile. The staff was rounded out by the man who, in my unbiased opinion, has the most important job in Bali.

The spit was operated by someone who has become my hero, mentor, savior, and role model. This little old man worked the pork with a passion, focus, discipline, dedication, and love that brought a tear to my eye (I blamed it on the smoke). In addition to keeping the pig rotating, he would either add more wood or coconut husk to stoke the fire or douse it with water to keep the flames down. He would occasionally toss a handful of salt on the sensuous swine. This really got me going! His wearing a baseball cap adorned with cannabis leaves earned him additional points for style – not that he needed it.

And the food? I’ve yet to have bad babi guling and this was no exception. The skin was like glass, glass that has one side covered in pork fatty deliciousness. The meat itself was not the most tender and flavorful I’ve had (that distinction goes to iba oka in Ubud), but was respectable. The crispy coagulated blood bits were on point and the sambal had an adequate level of heat and was flavorful. The unexpected star of the show was the blood sausage. Everywhere else I’ve tried it, it’s been a tad on the dry side, but here it was rich, creamy perfection.

The overall experience was surreal. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or just the pork, but it all seemed like a (very, very pleasant) dream. This is what every traveling lover of food fantasizes about. The location, the people, the place, and, of course, the food were the stuff of legend. It was easily the best 18000 IDR (just under $2) I’ve ever spent.

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Photos courtesy of Lina Pw