Oh, right, that just happened. I, Laura Fox, AKA She Who Is Afraid of Everything, AKA She Who Refuses To Live Without Her Flat Iron, AKA She Who Gross-Get-That-Baby-Spider-Out-Of-My-Shower, recently returned from three weeks in Indonesia – two in Bali and one in Borneo, followed by two days in urban Jakarta recovering from aforementioned week in Borneo. By my own choice, I rarely take significant time off from work, so when my boyfriend and I became a little more serious and he let me in on his plans to change careers and celebrate with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the country where his mom was born (she’s from the island of Sumatra), the wheels started turning. When he invited me to join him, that was all the gas I needed to put the car in drive and go.
From there, I took over most of the planning as I tend to do. I researched places to stay in Bali – we decided on a beautiful four-bedroom villa in the sleepy town of Sanur – and looked into possible adventures on which we could spend the remainder of our trip without having to travel much further. After all, Bali is a grueling 20-hour flight from Los Angeles. Ten hours to Tokyo, seven more to Singapore, and a few more split between flights to Jakarta and finally Denpasar, Bali. Have I mentioned I’m terrified to fly? I digress.
There was the island of Komodo (surely you are familiar with the dragons), which would afford us a day or so of fun with the scaly creatures. Not nearly enough to do as we had four days to fill. But then, we happened to hear of these orangutan boat trips through the Borneo jungle that are moderately popular among tourists in that part of the world and some, but very few, Americans. And by a stroke of luck, it so happened that a woman who had previously stayed at our Bali villa had gone on such a trip and told me everything I needed to know via emails we sent back and forth. We decided on a tour company, run by the wonderful and very reliable Isy Iskandar, and were told we would need to pay in Indonesian rupiah upon arrival. But what about a deposit? How do we know we’re confirmed? I’m so used to guarantees and having answers to everything that learning to let go was a great lesson for me. We would also need to arrange flights into Borneo; just two flights a day go between Jakarta and Pangkalan Bun, a tiny city just outside of another tiny city called Kumai, which is where we would board our klotok (boat). Minimal English was spoken, PayPal payments for everything were sent attached to a prayer, and after months of planning, we had just one more hour-long flight left into Bali before our adventure would truly begin.
Bali, as you’ve probably heard from Julia Roberts, is a phenomenal place. We didn’t go in search of white beaches or crystal-clear water, although we still found that.
We went in search of culture. Something to enrich our minds, open our eyes and maybe even change us a little. We didn’t want to stay somewhere like the Bali Hyatt, although we went one night for drinks and it was very nice. We wanted to experience the real Bali and we did just that with our home base in Sanur and day trips all over the island. We went to the culture-rich town of Ubud, where we delighted in visits with macaque monkeys in the Monkey Forest, a rigorous hike through spectacular rice terraces, and a traditional Balinese kecak and fire trance dance in the evening.
We were treated to a day of snorkeling in the most perfect turquoise water on a beautiful island called Nusa Lembongan.
We cradled baby sea turtles at a conservation center on Turtle Island, near Surf City. That was our second day on the island and my first time eating nasi goreng for breakfast, a heavenly experience in itself.
We were surprised by beautiful fireworks directly overhead one night out in Uluwatu, a surfer party town built into steep cliffs.
We visited the night markets in Sanur and ate feasts for all of $2 a person.
We took an Indonesian cooking class and learned how to make marvelous dishes like ikan pepes, beef rendang and others.
We read books, ate until we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, lounged by the beach, indulged in massages for bargain prices, and made new friends. Bali was, in a word that doesn’t come close to doing it justice, incredible. Two weeks was the perfect amount of time to spend there, Sanur was the perfect place to call home, and Ness and Marc were the perfect hosts. Bali is part of a third-world country to be sure, so things there are very different from here (here being California). The people are different, grasping the language is an exercise in patience, the food is a world away (my boyfriend developed yellow skin spots from an allergic reaction to spices used during cooking class), and the poverty is difficult to stomach at times. But the people of Bali are delightful and their island is truly something at which to marvel, so it’s absolutely and unequivocally worth a visit.
But Borneo, Borneo was something really special. Borneo is magical. You think there is nothing sacred left in this world, nothing left untouched, unruffled, as it should be, but then, if you’re lucky like I was, you visit Borneo and see the rainforest not as it’s described in some textbook, but as it really is: proboscis monkeys, native only to Borneo, swinging from trees above, millions of glowing fireflies providing the night’s only light, eager crocodiles occasionally poking their heads above water, butterflies the size of your hand flitting about your head, plants and bugs you couldn’t dream up even if you tried, and the veritable jungle celebrity, endangered orangutans, in their very own backyard.
By one more stroke of luck, we were on a hike through the jungle – yes, I was on a hike through the jungle – when we came upon a wild orangutan mom and her one-week-old baby. To get an understanding of how remarkable this was, most of the orangutans we saw were semi-wild, meaning they live in the jungle but are accustomed to humans because they’re fed by them at daily feedings of bananas and other treats. That, plus orangutans give birth just once every eight years and here we were, witnessing a birth that had just happened. I wanted to cry. I think I did cry. The baby looked astoundingly human – naturally, as we share 97 percent of the same DNA – and the mom was extremely protective. My boyfriend later told me he was nervous by how close I had come to the pair, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to be respectful of my surroundings, and I think I was, but when you’re there, you want to feel everything. The hot rain drenching you, the sound of whooping gibbons in the morning, the smell of fresh coffee being prepared below your boat deck, the look in a gentle orangutan’s eyes. Our three nights and four days floating along the Sekonyer River toward the famous Camp Leakey in Borneo was an experience that will never, ever leave me.
When we disembarked from our klotok, which I failed to mention wasn’t any sort of luxurious boat but a modest wooden vessel with a top deck upon which we slept and one non-flushing, outdoor toilet, something was different. I can’t explain it, but I’ve felt it ever since I returned home. Maybe it’s that I finally have the travel bug and now want to see as much as the world as I possibly can. Maybe it’s that I’m finding things I used to give such importance insignificant now that I better understand the world. Maybe it’s that my trip is over but I can’t get rid of this silly excitement that I, She Who Is Afraid of Everything, did it – I really did it – and now I’m Afraid of Nothing and have stories to tell for the rest of my life. My only hope is that more people will visit these spectacular places so I’m not left telling all of them.
Ah, Mexico. Baja California to be exact. I was born and raised not more than an hour away and have many good memories of time spent there. But let’s be honest, I have plenty of not-so-good memories, too – cough Tijuana cough. We didn’t go many times, but I have the fondest memories of hopping in the car with Mom and Dad and heading down south for nothing more than tacos for lunch. The flavorful, smoky way the meat tasted grilled on freshly-cut wood, I’ll never forget. Sitting and laughing with my parents, a country away from our cares, I can’t forget either.
But Baja now is not the Baja of then. Mexico has been plagued by violence, corruption, murder, drugs and human trafficking. It’s been sad to witness and even sadder that neither my friends nor my family nor even I travel south any longer for fear of what could happen. I don’t know what came over me, though. Maybe it was my brand-new passport that had just arrived, maybe it was our thinking that “Hey, if Anthony Bourdain can do it, so can we!” or maybe it was naivete, but we woke up one recent Saturday morning and for the first time in nearly 10 years, we went.
We took the toll road – at about $6 each way, I say it’s a must – and I quickly remembered the Baja I used to know as we curved around enormous mountain hillsides cradling the crashing Pacific Ocean below. Baja is beautiful. The beaches resemble those of their northern counterparts, sure, but I’ve always been able to see something different, something special. The water just looks darker, more peaceful, less interrupted. We kept looking around at the few cars that passed us. A couple of California plates, but not many. It’s clear that tourism continues to struggle.
We went in search of La Guerrerense, the seafood stand Bourdain claimed to be the best food truck in the world. Whoa. We worship at the altar of Bourdain, so where he goes, we follow. We drove through Ensenada, got out, looked around, and then headed to a gas station and asked for directions in broken Spanish.
“La Guerrerense? No se…”
Then, a gas pumper perked up.
“Conozco La Guerrerense! Esta a dos cuadras de aqui – a la derecha.”
So two blocks and to the right we went and there it was. You can’t miss the swarm of people crowding it. We made our way through the herd (locals only) and ordered: one fish, one shrimp, one fish pate and one cod with black olives. Just like in the episode, there must have been two dozen squirt bottles and jars of various salsas and other flavorful additions. I picked a mango concoction and drenched my first tostada, promptly setting my stomach on fire. Whew, sorry guys, obviously new here. Nowhere to sit, we joined the crowd in scarfing while standing. The seafood was fresh – I saw a large, wet net that looked like it had just been hauled in as we were paying – and the flavors were incredible. Mr. Bourdain did not steer us wrong.
After we finished, we walked around, getting stopped just about every step of the way by this street vendor and that one. We made our way to the ocean, took in the view of the dock lined with fishing boats, and poked around an outdoor seafood market, also featured in Bourdain’s episode. The seafood was so fresh it was barely dead, some not even yet. We bought a touristy trinket and asked the little boy to write “Chris y Laura Ensenada 2012” on it. Gringos. We were still hungry, so we decided to make our way back north and stop in Puerto Nuevo on the way.
Oh, Puerto Nuevo. What San Diegan doesn’t know and love Puerto’s cheap lobster and margaritas? We walked down the dirt hill toward the restaurants with ocean views – the memories of eating and drinking with my sister flooded my mind – and picked the one that seemed to have the best deal and an even better view. We ate, we drank, we relaxed and we enjoyed. It was just us on the rooftop for most of our meal, so my boyfriend indulged me in a cancion, which was really quite beautiful.
We showed our gringo side again with this cheesy picture we had to have.
By then it was about 6 and a long, painful border wait lay ahead, so we bid farewell to Mexico and promised we’d be back. We began driving out, but not without being pulled over first (no ticket!), and some three hours later, we were back on American soil. It was a special day replete with quiet beauty, phenomenal food, and a renewed sense of adventure. We knew what could have happened to us, but what good is life without living? And, for the record, we didn’t do anything stupid and remained alert throughout the trip. Good strategy for any vacation, I suppose. I’ll be back, Baja.