Birthdays in the Bahamas

One of the best perks of living in Florida is, of course, cruises leaving from your backyard (with state resident discounts)! Mom and Devon actually both have the same birthday, and would be celebrating milestones this year: she turned 65 and he turned 40. We decided to celebrate with my dad and brother on a family cruise, sailing out of Jacksonville on the Carnival Elation for 4 days. This was my first visit to the Bahamas.

Day 1: Thursday, June 9

We left Jacksonville at 4pm to sail to Freeport. I’m not even going to show you a picture of the Jaxport cruise terminal. It’s the most depressing place I’ve ever sailed from. Once on board, you’ve got a lovely “scenic” view of undeveloped marsh land, a gravel parking lot, and nuclear plant smoke stacks.

The Elation is one of Carnival’s oldest ships, so the cabins were legitimate relics of the late 90’s, right down to the ancient CRT television crammed into a corner of the room. Our cabin was “ocean view,” which apparently translates to “view the ocean… from a porthole window that doesn’t open.” The king bed was big enough to sleep two people without a problem, and the bathroom was a decent size, though if you’re over 6 feet, you’ll probably have to duck a little to use the shower. It was a comfortable enough place to sleep and shower, but not much else. The rooms were bereft of amenities… Not even a refrigerator. The on-board wifi started at $5 a day and that only included access to social media apps; everything else was blocked, including email (gotta pay extra).

After putting our bags in the room, guests were encouraged to go to the lido deck and enjoy the pool and buffet. Devon and I went right to the pool bar for our first drinks of the trip. We spent the remainder of the day walking around and exploring the ship. At dinner, they brought Mom and Devon each a birthday cupcake and sang to us. I went to bed shortly afterward, but that’s normal for me on a cruise. Alas, the rocking motion of the boat is sometimes a little too relaxing.

Day 2: Friday, June 10

I went for a morning run in the gym, then had an early lunch while waiting for the Elation to dock in Freeport. At noon, we debarked and met up for our excursion. Mom and dad booked the family for the “beach and open bar,” which was just taking a bus to Carnival’s private beach for the day. There did not seem to be much else to do in Freeport other than go to a beach, or pull up a barstool at Señor Frog’s.

At the beach, there were umbrellas and chairs provided for us to use as well as public bathrooms and picnic tables by the bar. If you felt so inclined, there were folks walking up and down the beach selling jet ski rides and parasail trips. There was also a giant water trampoline to play on. The “open bar” bit included local beer (Sands Brewery) and a few rum-based mixed drinks (piña coladas, mai tais, etc). There was a gentleman on the beach selling fresh coconut water (straight from the fruit), so Devon bought me one — and got one for himself with rum and condensed milk added. The vendor said it was called a “gully wash,” the unofficial drink of the Bahamas, and usually made with gin.

Y’all know I’m happy as long as I have an umbrella, a tube of SPF 100, and a book — so I was good for the whole afternoon. Toward the end of the afternoon, some storms started rolling in so we decided to pack it up and get back to the ship. The Elation left Freeport at 7pm.

Day 3: Saturday, June 11

At 8:00am on Saturday we were allowed to debark in Nassau. When you leave the port and enter the city, people will jump in front of you and aggressively try to sell you things, give you a ride somewhere, or braid your hair. (Joke’s on y’all, I just got back from Asia… Come at me bro. I’m immune to your hustle.)

For the afternoon, we’d booked the Rum Runner’s Passage Tour (via Islandz Tours) for the five of us. Our whole group was only 7 people, which to me is highly preferable over enormous tours. It was a walking tour so thankfully the weather was great. We began with rum punch at the Pirate’s Pub. I knew I was going to love our guide, Lindsay, when she opened the tour with, “So, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Christopher Columbus. Well, he was a giant asshole and we hate him here.” She led us through a Bahamas history lesson while we tasted 6 different rums in order from light to dark.

Protip: The Bahamas don’t have open container laws, so you can stroll around with your beverage! (So no need to do what I did and chug a rum punch before leaving the bar… Pace yourself; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.)

The second location on the tour was Hillside House, a 200+ year old building that’s currently in use as the gallery of local artist Antonius Roberts. We were given a snack of fresh rum cupcakes and conch fritters, then more boozy punch to sip while Lindsay regaled us with stories of the Bahamas’ role during prohibition and adventures of famous rum runners like William McCoy (a.k.a. “the real McCoy”) and the “Bahama Queen,” Gertrude Lythgoe (a genuine BAMF; seriously, Google this woman).

Afterward, we strolled to the Graycliff estate, home of a restaurant, hotel, cigar factory, wine cellar, and chocolatier by the same name. We took a short stroll around the hotel and grounds — it is gorgeous. I’m really inclined to stay there next time I want to visit Nassau. Lindsay was a fountain of information; I should have written more of it down. At the chocolate shop, we sampled a white chocolate truffle and a milk chocolate truffle infused with a shot of rum.

The final stop on the tour was the John Watling’s rum distillery, named for a somewhat famous pirate (although I’d never heard of him). We walked through one of the warehouse buildings to see some of the production line. Afterward, we tasted the three rums currently on the market (Pale, Amber, and Buena Vista). At the tour’s conclusion, the bartender gave us each a “rum dum,” John Watling’s signature cocktail — Pale rum, egg white, lemon juice, and sugar with an Amber rum floater.

I cannot recommend this tour enough! It was reasonably priced and a great way to see a few points of interest (and get your drink on) in an afternoon. If you book the tour, ask for Lindsay!

Afterward, my parents and brother went back to the ship. Devon and I met up with two of the local hashers, and got a brief drive-by tour of a few other points of interest (things to hopefully explore on our next visit!) before winding up at a pub to meet up with more hashers and have a few beers while they watched soccer. Nassau has quickly worked its way onto my list of favorite cities — it’s like if Key West and New Orleans had a baby. We returned to the ship quite buzzed, and left at 5pm.

Day 4: Sunday, June 12

This was a full day at sea on the way back to Jacksonville. Devon and I enjoyed “sea day brunch” in the main dining room, which was a welcome change from the breakfast buffet. It was a fairly lazy day. I went to the gym for a run, and then sat by the pool all afternoon. Following dinner, Devon and I watched the sunset from the bow of the ship. It was a wonderful long weekend and a great way to celebrate his 40th!

Atmosphere: I’ve previously sailed with Norwegian and Celebrity, and this was my first time sailing with Carnival. I’ve seen Carnival cruises described as a “floating Motel 6.” At this price point, I’m not expecting luxury. I can appreciate a budget vacation, since I mostly entertain myself, and just want to be left alone to relax. As I mentioned, the Elation is old (for a cruise ship), but was overall very clean and well-kept despite being horribly dated in appearance and desperately needing modernization. Unlike previous cruises, I felt that everyone at Carnival was always trying to sell you something, get you to upgrade, or force you to interact with other guests. It seems like this would be a great vacation if you want Disney style entertainment but can’t afford an actual Disney cruise. The cruise director was constantly making announcements about this or that activity. Unfortunately, most of what Carnival Elation had to offer did not appeal to me. I don’t have kids. I don’t gamble. I’m not interested in scams like “foot reflexology” or buying overpriced watches and costume jewelry. I’m not “single and ready to mingle.” I just wanted to sit quietly in the shade with a book, and occasionally dunk myself in the pool. Much to my dismay, the pool area had a DJ who played every horrible country song, one-hit wonder, and tired 90’s jock jam at max volume. I’m pretty sure the CIA uses his playlist to torture people in Guantanamo. Conga lines, the “Cupid Shuffle,” and “Wobble” are kind of amusing but the novelty wears off quickly the second or third time. Elation’s pool was also far too small for the number of guests on board. It didn’t bother me on the on the first day, but by the end of the trip, it was basically a human stew pot. But there was a water slide, so that was cool.

Staff: Everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly and did their jobs gracefully. They sneak into your cabin like towel-folding, bed-making ninjas! Staff members are always one of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising.

Drinks: The “Cheers!” open bar package was $50 a day with a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks per day. Non-alcoholic beverages such as bottled water, soda, smoothies, milkshakes, and specialty coffee/tea beverages were also included, with no daily limit. I didn’t feel like I really drank $50 worth of anything each day, but the beverage package makes it nearly impossible to overspend on booze, so that’s a plus.

Food: Carnival offers to accommodate folks with allergies or religion-based dietary restrictions, but I’m neither of those. Since I was on vacation I’d be happy just being able to choose vegetarian options without having to interrogate the servers and chefs about ingredients or ask for “special” meals. Overall I was pretty satisfied with the food quality and variety. My complaint is that the buffet and poolside restaurants could not accommodate enough guests, resulting in huge lines at peak times and on days at sea. The poolside Mongolian Grill was the most herbivore-friendly spot on the ship. I could load a plate with veggies/noodles, then give it to the chef to cook and add sauce (choices of black bean, Szechuan, or Thai barbecue). Buffet breakfasts were standard American continental fare; about what I expected — mostly meat. I ate a lot of fruit, plain grits, toast & jam, and home fries. (Not even a dairy alternative for coffee! I thought soy milk was pretty mainstream by now?) Buffet lunches/dinners had a few more choices, but were also mostly meat (including a deli sandwich station and pizza). There was always a salad bar, and usually something else plant-based available, but it often wasn’t exciting. One meal for me at the buffet ended up being a salad accompanied by a plain baked potato and steamed rice. We ate 3 of 4 dinners in the main dining room. They always had two menus; one remained static for the whole trip and the other was new each night. There was least one vegetarian appetizer and entree on both menus, so there were usually 4 or 5 choices I could pick from each night. A few appeared to be “accidentally vegan” but there was nothing on the menu intentionally free of animal products.

The best and worst of Carnival Elation’s vegetarian food — Best: Indian vegetarian entree. Absolutely delicious! Worst: Baked Alaska dessert. Arrived at the table half melted, and instead of meringue, they used whipped cream. (If you remember my Celebrity cruise, I’m now 0 for 2 on baked Alaskas. LOL)

Final Thoughts

Based on this experience, I would not be inclined to do a longer Carnival cruise — at least not on the Elation or any of their older vessels. However, this was an enjoyable low-cost vacation and a great long weekend getaway. I would love to visit Nassau again as well as explore some of the other islands.

A Whirlwind Trip to Asia, Part 2: Taipei, Taiwan

Okay, so I’m not Anthony Bourdain… But I did have a long layover in Taipei, which was actually a lot of fun, and not very expensive!

Let me get real with y’all for a second here… World travel on a budget is not glamorous. One of the obvious downsides is sitting for 10+ hours in economy class. It’s not my idea of a good time, but it’s not completely intolerable. However, one of the other disadvantages is not having the luxury of being picky with your flight times. If you live in a major airline hub city (I miss the cheap, last-minute Delta flights to anywhere from ATL!) then you may have more options. But for the rest of us, choices are limited. In order to get a round-trip from Jacksonville to Bali for less than $1000 per person, we were stuck with a 20-hour layover on the way home. Rather than grump about it, we decided to use it as an opportunity to get out and explore a bit, since neither of us had been to Taiwan before.


If you’d like to read about my trip to Bali, it’s here. Our flight from Denpasar to Taipei was on EVA Airlines, in an amazing HELLO KITTY PLANE.

Yes, there was Hello Kitty toilet paper in the bathroom.

May 23 @ 21:30 (Arrival)

I thought about booking a hotel for the night, but then found out that Taoyuan International Airport has free wifi, bathrooms, and showers! This airport also has sleeping lounges where you can pay by the hour, but while looking for food we lucked upon a group of reclining lounge chairs. The cushion on top of each chair happened to be detachable — so I pulled mine off and laid it down on the floor. It was actually pretty comfortable.

I’d brought a blanket and travel pillow along with my blackout mask and earplugs (I sleep best in total sensory deprivation), so I was good to go. The area also had a charging station, so we plugged in our phones and Kindles, then settled in for the night. The only downside was all the restaurants in the terminal appeared to be closed by the time we arrived. If you’re flying in late, bring food. I had a bag of dried jackfruit chips from Denpasar, so that was my “dinner.” The airport felt kind of cold and clammy with no people in it, and I did wake up once because my blanket had shifted and I was shivering, but overall it was the best airport sleep I’ve experienced. Devon did not have such an easy time with it, but the chaise was unfortunately not designed with a 6’5″ person in mind.

May 24 @ 6:00

I was awoken by Devon, who had gone to find breakfast and returned with a hot tea for me. We packed up our stuff and headed for customs. Taiwan offers (depending on your country of residence) a “visa on arrival” for a stay of 30 days or less. The best time to go through immigration is apparently at 6am. The only people around us were a janitor and the guy at who stamped our passports. After we were out of the terminal, we took some time to freshen up, brush teeth, etc. Next we paid to store our bags for the afternoon (about $15) and bought bus tickets to downtown Taipei (about $6 for the one-way trip). We chose the #1960 route which would drop us off at Taipei City Hall. From there the plan was to walk to Taipei 101 for some sightseeing. We didn’t bother buying new sim cards since it seemed like a lot of places in Taipei had free wifi.

8:30

The buses ran every few minutes, so we didn’t have to wait long. We were the only people on the bus along with a Taiwanese woman who spoke English (she and her husband seemed to split their time between Taiwan and the US). She explained to us that China’s president recently put restrictions on travel to Taiwan, because Taiwan’s president would not acknowledge the island as part of China… or something like that. Anyway, that explained why immigration was a ghost town this morning. Usually tons of mainland Chinese tourists flood Taiwan on a daily basis. The bus ride to City Hall was an hour, even taking an express lane the whole way. Taoyuan airport is waaaaay outside Taipei.

9:45

French cruller with matcha glaze.
French cruller with matcha glaze.

We got off at the City Hall bus station and Devon wanted to grab a snack before we started walking around. We grabbed a couple of pastries at Mister Donut, then stopped by 7-11. They had a whole counter full of hot food, similar to 7-11s in the US, but instead of yucky hot dogs and stale nachos, there was a big pot of eggs (pickled, or maybe century eggs?) and racks with steamed buns… to which I sighed wistfully since I couldn’t read Chinese to determine what any of the fillings were. There was a plethora of drinks and snacks; all manner of jellies, puddings, biscuits, chips, noodles, baked goods, and candies to be had in addition to water, milk, aloe drinks, and coffee.

10:15

Taipei 101 doesn’t open until 11am, so we walked around to kill some time. Across the street from Taipei 101 is ATT 4 Fun shopping mall, where a few stores and restaurants were beginning to open for the day. One of my silly traditions is trying McDonald’s in other countries — the “Egg McMuffin with Vegetables” turned out to be just a standard McDonald’s egg with lettuce and tomato.

Taipei 101 looking a little creepy in the morning mist.
Taipei 101 looking a little creepy in the morning mist.

11:00

We strolled into Taipei 101 and hit the counter to purchase tickets for the observation deck. Since it had just opened, there was no line to get tickets or wait to get in the building. The entrance fee was $15 for adults. Around the ticket counter is a gift shop with tons of souvenirs and merchandise, if you don’t have time to visit the top and want to just buy something to say you were there.

Taipei 101 used to be the tallest building in the world at 1671 feet, but has sadly been demoted to 8th tallest (5th tallest in Asia). However, it does still boast a Guinness record for world’s fastest elevator, at 37.7 miles per hour / 55.22 feet per second. As you wait to board the elevator, someone will take your photo, which is available to purchase. Unfortunately, I didn’t want the souvenir because we both looked in need of a shower and change of clothes. (Hmm, almost like we’d spent the night on the floor. Ha ha!) Sadly, there are no windows in the elevator (likely to keep squeamish guests from vomiting), but during the ride, it goes dark and the ceiling illuminates with multicolored lights that undulate in patterns to mimic a starry sky, while some cheerful music plays. If you’re sensitive to rapid pressure changes, like I am, your ears may pop!

The elevator let us off at floor 88 for the enclosed observation area, where you can buy snacks and souvenirs while enjoying the view. From this vantage point, clouds look like wisps of floating cotton candy surrounding the tower; buildings and cars on the ground look like toys. The sky was kind of gray and appeared to be threatening rain, so the view was sporadically obstructed by opaque curtains of vapor.

The observation area had English translations for most of the informative signs and videos. Every detail of Taipei 101 is intentionally symbolic: the tower is built in the style of a traditional Chinese pagoda and evokes a stalk of bamboo (symbol of growth). The 8 stacked segments of the tower are split into 8 floors (the number 8 symbolizes good fortune). Various other design elements adorn the building’s exterior, including stylized dragons and ruyi (power symbols), Chinese coins (for prosperity), and circles/squares (for a balance of yin/yang).

The tower is designed to withstand winds of up to 134 mph. Suspended from the 92nd to the 87th floor is a giant steel ball which serves as a damper to counterbalance the tower under strong gusts. Apparently the damper was so popular with tourists that the city had Sanrio turn it into a mascot called “Damper Baby,” fashioning the ball into a Hello Kitty-style character. Large “Baby” figures are placed throughout the observation deck for photo ops, and plenty of merchandise is available for purchase.

Taipei_06

Cool Black clearly has swag.

We were allowed to take the stairs to the exterior observation deck on the 91st floor; however most of the area had been closed off, and we were basically standing inside a cloud, so I couldn’t see much at all.

In Disney fashion, we were forced to exit through another gift shop before we could leave the tower. This was a serious gift shop… We walked past shelves filled with giant, elaborately carved dragons and Buddhas made from coral, jade, or amethyst; rows of glass cases filled with every kind of jewelry you could imagine; globes of varying sizes covered in a mosaic of iridescent shell pieces… really expensive stuff.

The only thing I purchased at Taipei 101.
The only thing I purchased at Taipei 101.

13:30

Below the Taipei 101 tower is an entire shopping mall, so we decided to explore a while. Sadly, the majority of stores were luxury establishments like Tiffany’s, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, etc. Even if I was in the market for high-end shopping, with the currency exchange I wouldn’t save any significant amount of money compared to buying back home — although if you are a foreign traveler, you can bring your sales receipt to a “tax refund” counter to have the 5% value added tax returned to you. Hey, at least wifi was free.

While Devon went outside to have a cigarette, I decided to shop a bit by myself. Oh, bad idea. Apparently the aggressive sales technique I experienced in Bali is common all over Asia. As soon as you enter a store, a salesperson (or multiples!) will begin orbiting you and repeatedly asking you if you need help. Although, maybe they just don’t like tattoos, and thought I looked shady and was going to steal something. At this point I really wished I’d bothered to learn some Chinese phrases — “no thanks, just looking!” would’ve been helpful. It seems like stores don’t want you to touch the merchandise; the salespeople will shadow you and immediately snatch anything you pick up so they can hold it “for” you while you shop. I guess it might have been a different experience had I been able to communicate with them. Y’all know I love Asian skincare products, and I was super excited to find a L’Herboflore kiosk!… But the salesgirls were insanely aggressive and a little overwhelming (seriously, half a dozen people working one kiosk), so I didn’t buy anything.

Be not deceived; the counter girls employ used-car-salesman levels of aggressiveness.
Be not deceived; the counter girls employ used-car-salesman levels of aggressiveness.

14:00

We walked back across the street to ATT 4 Fun. On the ground floor we found a Watson’s drugstore, which was blissfully free of obnoxious salespeople! I was able to shop alone and ended up purchasing some more of my beloved Biore Watery Essence sunscreen, a couple of foot peels (Baby Foot cannot be described, only experienced), and a box of My Beauty Diary sheet masks. On the first 3 floors we meandered through some interesting stores with all manner of amusing trinkets and souvenirs, in addition to clothing and home goods.

The 4th floor seemed to be focused on sweets and desserts, with an over-the-top “Alice in Wonderland” theme, which included acid-trippy holograms, gigantic white rabbits wearing waistcoats, and plenty of playing cards, clocks, and tea cups floating around.

Cute details from the Alice floor.
Cute details from the Alice floor.

On the 5th floor was the “Food Bazaar” with more restaurants. Devon wanted to stop for another snack, and we briefly considered eating at “Nola Kitchen” because I was both scared and intrigued to find out what a Taiwanese interpretation of beignets and crawfish étouffée would taste like. (They also had chicken & waffles, which isn’t even from New Orleans.)

We ended up being lured away from Nola Kitchen by other enticing edibles, and found a seat at a Japanese okonomiyaki (translates to “grilled as you like it”) restaurant. We were given an English menu that was just 2 pages, as opposed to the Chinese menu that was about 12 pages. (I’ve really got to learn some Chinese before I come back.) The English menu had pictures so we could at least point at what we wanted to order. Devon got some meat and noodles with an egg; I had a small plate of takoyaki (octopus fritters).

There were 5 more floors above the food bazaar, including a night club and a rooftop bar! However, at this point we were getting ready to head back to the airport. This mall is definitely a great place to occupy yourself for a few hours. There is also a 4D movie theater next door, which would be a great place to spend an afternoon. It would be easy to occupy yourself for a whole day in this one city block alone.

16:00

We grabbed one of the cabs parked outside Taipei 101, which was quicker than trying to figure out a bus. Devon managed to communicate to the driver where we were going, and the fare was about $30.

17:00

Back at the airport, we picked up our luggage and checked into our flight to NYC. Before going through security, we stopped at the food court to grab a few more snacks “for the road” (just in case I slept through all the meals again), and I got a gigantic boba tea. I couldn’t read most of the menu, but I saw “black tea with milk” so I ordered that. Taiwan is the birthplace of boba tea, so I really would have liked to explore the city and find some cool places to drink it, but that can be another thing I can do the next time I visit.

And I manage to look pissed off while drinking boba tea?? I was super tired, y'all.
And I manage to look pissed off while drinking boba tea?? I was super tired, y’all.

Getting through security didn’t take too long. I think we probably could have spent another hour messing around town before coming back to Taoyuan, but we didn’t want to end up running late and missing the plane. We had some time to chill out before the flight, so I decided to walk laps around the terminal since I knew I’d soon be sitting for 15 hours. Taoyuan airport is great for last-minute duty-free shopping. I thought maybe here I could be left alone to browse some shops at my own speed, but no such luck. If you aren’t bothered by aggressive salespeople then you’ll probably enjoy it… there’s tons of expensive skincare products and cosmetics, all the fragrances anybody could want, handbags galore, crap loads of whiskey (much love for American bourbons and Scotch single malts on this side of the world), toys and electronics, and some of the cheapest cigarettes I’ve ever seen. (Taoyuan airport also has a smoking lounge.)

19:10 (Departure)

I loved my short visit to Taipei and would definitely welcome another long layover there! It would be nice to visit the night markets or see another part of town next time, but even the airport alone is a comfortable enough place to while away a few hours.

A Whirlwind Trip to Asia, Part 1: Bali, Indonesia

The immediate question most people had upon telling them I was going to Indonesia was, “Why?”  Of course, my first answer is always “Why not?” and my second answer is usually “Hashing!” See the world, meet new people, go for a run, sing silly songs, and drink copious amounts of beer. The great thing about hashing is it allows travelers to get off the beaten path, which sometimes means literally getting lost in the woods, but it’s always guaranteed to be a good story nonetheless.

Every other year, a country hosts World Interhash, an intimate gathering of just a few thousand hashers from around the globe. As with InterAmericas Hash (why I went to the Pacific Northwest last year), the location rotates based on votes, and this time it would be in Bali, Indonesia. This would be my first trip to Interhash and first trip to anywhere in Asia. My only prior knowledge of Bali had come from (don’t judge me…) reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” book about a decade ago. Don’t worry, I’m not going to Bali to pretend like I’m on some kind of “spiritual journey.” (Bali seems like a magnet for these people. I went too far down the YouTube rabbit hole and ended up on a video by some girl who was in Bali to do a juice fast and get colonics… I could not click away fast enough.)

Since I’m a regular person with a 40-hour a week job, my vacation hours are precious! Because I have other trips to take this year, we’d have to cram as much as possible into four days in Bali. Ready? Go!


Day 1, May 19, 2016

The trip actually started on Tuesday night (5/17), with an inauspicious omen — we received notice that our plane had been struck by lightning in Fort Lauderdale, and therefore would not be arriving in Jacksonville to shuttle us off to New York in time for our connecting flight to the other side of the planet.

Almost nothing will send a traveler into panic mode faster than knowing you’re going to miss a plane (only thing worse is losing your passport… or maybe your hotel room catching on fire, like what happened to me in Italy). JetBlue was incredibly accommodating; after putting us on all new flights, they gave us both a meal voucher as well as a credit for a free one-way flight somewhere. Devon used his bard skills (+3 charisma) to score us upgraded seats on the ride to NYC and then an exit row on the 15-hour trip to Guangzhou. The secret to sleeping on a long-haul flight seems to be a dose of ZzzQuil. I fell asleep shortly after takeoff and woke up feeling so fresh and so clean~clean with only an hour left to go until landing.

During the layover in Guangzhou, I discovered that disposable face wipes can also be used to clean your entire body if you’re desperate (and grimy) enough. Food in the airport was sparse, and I was immediately intimidated by a Starbucks menu entirely in Mandarin. Devon managed to navigate the language barrier (+2 intelligence) and get me a veggie club sandwich from a food kiosk. The flight to Bali was pretty uneventful. We arrived at 1:00am local time — about 10 hours later than we’d originally planned — so we missed all of Thursday’s festivities.

The great thing about Indonesia is if you’re staying for less than 30 days they issue you a “visa on arrival” which doesn’t cost anything. Currency exchange is amusing, since US $100 is equal to about 1,000,000 (yes, one million) Indonesian rupiah. I’ve never been a millionaire before! We bought sim cards for our phones and grabbed a taxi to Sanur beach.

As soon as the cab pulled away from the airport, the first thing to greet us was a human body sprawled out in the middle of the road by a wrecked scooter. The most disturbing thing about it wasn’t the fact that it was a potentially/probably dead person, it was the body just… there… with cars passing by as if it was normal road debris. The cab driver said these kinds of accidents happen all the time, since owning a car is prohibitively expensive for the average Balinese person. (It wasn’t surprising to see an entire family of four riding together on a single scooter… in sandals or barefoot, without helmets.) Traffic in Indonesia goes on the left-hand side of the road, but much like in Europe, scooter drivers seem to go wherever they want, and lanes/speed limits are only suggestions.

When we arrived at the Sanur Paradise Plaza Hotel, we thought our travel woes were finished — but wait, there’s more! Even though Devon called the hotel from NYC to confirm our reservation and let them know we’d be arriving late, our reservation could not be found… it appeared that they gave our room away. At this point we were both tired to the point of delirium, so I was about to just sleep on the couch in the lobby. The manager said that despite what our confirmation email was showing, there was nothing he could do about it tonight, because they were fully booked. About the best we could do was spend the night at their other hotel (2km away, but fortunately, they provided a shuttle for us) and come back the following morning to check in at the beach hotel. As compensation, they upgraded us to a 3 bedroom suite for the night.

It was a bit overkill since the suite was bigger than most of the apartments I’ve had, with upstairs and downstairs common areas, plus 3 full bathrooms and a full kitchen. It seemed like a waste since it was just Devon and me and we wouldn’t even be there a full night, as it was now approaching 3:00am. We showered, slept for the remainder of the night, then watched the sun rise from the balcony.

Day 2, May 20, 2016

Friday morning’s breakfast was a welcome break after 2 days in transit (I missed all the food on our long flight because I was sleeping, and the previous night’s “dinner” was a can of Pringles from the Denpasar airport). Afterward, we schlepped our luggage back to the other hotel, where the manager was super apologetic about the whole mess up, and upgraded us to a poolside room with a king bed. It turned out to be a much better accommodation than the original room I’d reserved, so I reckon it was worth the minor inconvenience. When he said “poolside,” he was not kidding! You could stumble out the door and into the pool. The bed was comfortable, the air conditioning was frosty, and the bathroom was completely outdoors (surrounded by a high privacy wall). So fancy!

After getting settled in, we strolled around the corner to the Inna Grand Bali Beach Resort, which was the main venue for all of the Interhash festivities. After picking up our registration packets, grabbing a beer, and socializing for a while, we had to go back to our hotel and change into our swimsuits because our clothes were soaked through with sweat. We spent the rest of Friday at the beach, sitting in the shade, drinking some cold adult beverages (Bintang beer) and goofing off with other hashers.

The heat was an uncomfortable, sweat dripping-in-unmentionable-places experience that I’d never had before — and that was just mostly standing around in the shade! I saw so many YouTube videos of people in Bali doing things like yoga… outdoors…! And not looking like they’re going to pass out?! The humidity was so intense that I set my bathing suit outside to dry overnight, and it was still wet the next morning. If your hair behaves a certain way in humid weather, just let it happen; resistance (and hair product) is futile. It was so hot I felt like peeling off my own skin, so I wouldn’t suggest wearing make-up either. I would also highly recommend only packing the lightest, most breathable fabrics you own, or just wear your bathing suit as much as possible (and don’t forget sunscreen). I’m saying all this, and I’m from Florida. Trust me.

Day 3, May 21, 3016

Saturday is a hashing day! The group had about a dozen run sites to choose from, so a few of us picked the Sangeh monkey forest.

We had to meet around 9am to select a run site and get on the appropriate bus. The ride to Sangeh took about an hour, during which one of the locals gave us a brief Bali history lesson. Fun fact: instead of submitting to Dutch colonial rule, the Balinese royal family offed themselves in ceremonial fashion via ritual suicide (puputan). Really set a, uh, jovial mood for the day.

It was nice to observe some of the countryside beyond the tourist enclave of Sanur. It soon became very apparent how remote some parts of Bali are, since modern infrastructure seems to just disappear a few kilometers out of town. My phone lost its signal and it never came back after we left the Denpasar metro area.

Not to be outdone, the weather in the mountains somehow felt even hotter than the beach.

Actual video of the weather in Sangeh.
Actual video of the weather in Sangeh.

The run was split into short/medium/long trails, and I picked the short one. We followed shreds of colored paper which led us into the monkey forest, through rice fields, across a bridge spanning a wide gorge, along hedgerows between cow pastures, down some very steep stairs carved into a hillside, across a shallow river (SO cold and refreshing!), up some more steep stairs, through local streets, and back to the start; about 5k altogether.

After the run, we were given lunch and copious amounts of Bintang. I watched some hashers feed monkeys their leftovers, but I was mostly keeping my distance after I’d been told they will bite and steal things from you (the monkeys, not the hashers — although they do share many other behaviors, poo throwing aside). I had some great conversations with a few Aussie and Kiwi hashers, discussing travel and tattoos. (My two favorite topics!) They asked me to explain how the tipping system works in the States, but I was mostly not any help at all, because it honestly makes no sense to me, either.

It was a fun day, but being out in the sun and drinking beer had me falling asleep at dinner, so I ended up crawling into bed pretty early.

Day 4, May 22, 2016

On Sunday, we decided to skip the group trail. I wanted to find some birthday presents and souvenirs for people back home, and it seemed like Denpasar’s jewelry and fabric markets were the place to go. Since Bali does not seem to have public transportation, a few travel bloggers suggested renting a scooter or bicycle, but after the dead body incident and seeing the traffic patterns, I could not have “noped” any harder.

A friend’s Balinese wife suggested we take a cab to Pasar Badung. Immediately after we stepped out of the cab, a group of people descended on us like buzzards to fresh carrion. Amid people waving trinkets or perfume in my face and shouts of “Miss, you want to buy? Miiiiiiiisssss, you buy?” it was very difficult to get my bearings. Even after we repeatedly said, “No thank you” and walked away, one woman refused to leave us alone. I was paranoid that she was trying to have us scammed somehow. She mostly just pointed at things and asked us if we wanted to buy them. She probably thought she was doing us a favor. Eventually, we were able to lose her.

Lonely Planet’s description of Pasar Badung: “Allow yourself to get lost here and revel in the range of fruits and spices on offer. The shops lining the side streets of the market are famous for textiles.” As I looked around, the only thing I was able to revel in was the smell of garbage, and the only textiles I saw were knockoff t-shirts with misspelled English words. It turned out that most of the vendors were absent, since the market had suffered a fire recently. The former market building was now an empty, burnt out shell. Shopping was next to impossible anyway, because if I even turned to look in the direction of merchandise, someone would try to flag me down to sell something, or get right up in my face, practically shoving items up my nose. Few things activate my “GTFO” response faster than a stranger in my face, running an aggressive sales pitch.

The market (what was left of it) was an instant turnoff, so we walked around the block to Jl. Hasanuddin, a street supposedly renowned for gold and silver stores. There we did indeed find a great selection of traditional Balinese jewelry as well as modern pieces. Unfortunately, everything I’d read and was told about shopping in Bali said to “barter hard.” Having to haggle in a foreign currency with a language barrier is how I imagine poor introvert souls are tormented in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. After strolling through a few shops and being told a dainty 22k gold bangle was US$1000, I threw my hands up and we left. (Sorry mom, it really was pretty.)

You might think a “public market” would have readily available public toilets, but nope. I hoped to stumble upon a bathroom while shopping, with no luck. I briefly considered public urination. (Alternate titles for this blog post included “Eat, Pray, Pee in an Alley.”) We left the city disappointed, empty-handed, and full-bladdered. Normally I like exploring on my own, but in this case it turned into a colossal waste of time. We returned to the beach to drown our sorrows in more Bintang.

For our last night in Bali, a friend got a small group of us together for a traditional rijsttafel dinner. A Dutch word that literally translates to “rice table,” rijsttafel is a meal of traditional Indonesian dishes adopted by Dutch colonists. The whole experience started with the restaurant sending a van over to the hotel to pick us up and take us to dinner!

We were given a private dining room overlooking a stage, where performances of traditional Indonesian dances went on throughout the meal. The menu included appetizers, soup, several Indonesian dishes surrounding a cone of rice (hence “rice table”), and dessert. The whole experience ended up costing a whopping US $12 per person (before tip). Apparently tipping isn’t a common thing in Indonesia, but we left one anyway; so much money in fact, that our servers thought we’d made a mistake and tried to give half of it back. When we managed to communicate that it was for them and the dancers, everyone came into the room to thank us.

I’m pretty flexible with my diet when I travel, but there are some things I always avoid. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially with a language barrier. Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems in Bali. The island has a predominantly Hindu population, so beef was not as ubiquitous as it is in the States (like, don’t come to Bali and expect to order a 12oz porterhouse). With Indonesia overall being a majority Muslim country, dishes containing pork were clearly labeled. (It sucks to order a plate of veggies and find a giant ham hock floating in it — that’s just me, though.)

Breakfast for me was usually something like pineapple fried rice or glass noodles with vegetables. Our Interhash registration fees covered lunches while out on trail, plus dinners each night. Saturday’s lunch was a plate of steamed corn, some kind of potato, and sticky rice balls with sweet chili sauce (everyone else had fried chicken). Dinners included a variety of traditional Indonesian dishes that rotated every night. It was meat-heavy overall, but easy for me to fill up on tofu, vegetables, rice, and fruit. Speaking of fruit; one of the more amusing pieces of advice I read before the trip was “Don’t make yourself sick bingeing on exotic tropical fruit”… Yes, I ate so many “exotic” fruits like… bananas and mangoes. Unless you’re one of those people who thinks ketchup is a vegetable, there is no reason I can see to worry about getting sick from fruit as long as you peel it first.

Single serving water. Sometimes they were recycled as beer cups.

However, drinking the tap water sounds like playing gastrointestinal roulette, so I avoided it. The hash organizers were constantly handing out child-sized, individually sealed cups of water — but that seemed really inefficient, not to mention wasteful (so much plastic!) when the Bintang beer was free flowing. We sometimes recycled the water cups into beer cups. Since the temperatures were sweltering, it felt like I was always chugging beer, which really could have ended poorly if it had a higher alcohol content. One drink I actually refused was a liquor called arak, after reading about some tourists going blind because they got into a batch that was cut with methanol. From what I was told about its production, arak sounds like something you’d find brewing somewhere in rural Appalachia.

I wish I’d had more time to spend in Bali, but we got to see quite a bit for the short while we were there. Denpasar was kind of exhausting, but I thought the beaches at Sanur and the countryside around Sangeh were beautiful. I think due to the high concentration of English-speaking expats, I was led to believe that the locals speak more English than they actually do. Outside of the tourist areas, most people we encountered only knew enough English to sell something — with the exception of one Balinese girl who just talked my ear off and wanted to know my entire life story. It’s pretty easy to see why the island has such a draw for westerners; everything is cheap, the terrain is lovely, and the people are super friendly.


Part 2 of my trip was a 20 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan. I’m saving that for a separate post.