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To the Equator! Singapore and Indonesia

Our trip began in Singapore, the city-state with the well-deserved reputation for being peaceful, safe, beautiful, green, and tyrannical. Everywhere we looked, there was a sign telling us what we couldn't do: no smoking, no chewing gum, no possession of chewing gum, no littering, spitting, eating on the bus, drinking on the bus, playing loud music, and no, absolutely no, making fun of Lee Kwan Yew. But for all the prohibitions, it really was a fabulously nice place to be, with very little second-hand smoke, gum stuck to my shoes, discarded candy wrappers, etc. I suppose the fine of 1,000 Singapore dollars (about US$600) would deter me from smoking, too.

We greeted the sunrise (OK, we greeted 10 am) by visiting Singapore's famed Botanical Gardens, which is sort of like Central Park in New York, just without as many crackheads. (Penalty for importing hard drugs: death.) The Gardens are not as famous as Singapore's National Zoo, which is supposed to be the best zoo in Asia, but far more peaceful. After visiting a few "Asian capitals" like Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, it was good to see that at least one nation hasn't forgotten the importance of quiet green spaces in the midst of their steel and concrete monuments to development. The early morning is the best time to see the exquisite gardens, because the sun heats up quickly, and brutally, making it difficult to stay for very long in this verdant paradise.

Parts of Singapore are incredibly westernized, but there are some decidedly non-Western components. The population is about 76% Chinese, 15% Malay, and 6% Indian, and most of the Indian community is centered in what was our next stop, Little India. The neighborhood, the largest Indian community outside India, prompted giggles of revenge from Sailaja. She has been, on many occasions, the lone Indian face in a room full of white folks (and more recently, the lone Indian face in a room full of Japanese). In Little India, though, I found myself the lone pasty-faced dude in a giant, bustling, network of Indian grocery stores, restaurants, art galleries, and magazine stands where the latest gossip-filled exposes on Hindi film stars were being purchased with great vigor.

Next we traveled to Clarke Quay, near the primary center of government and business in Singapore. Many of the office buildings and banks in the area bore plaques commemorating their date of dedication, and a homily to how big a role Lee Kwan Yew played in their development. We were able to see a "history show," which felt very much like Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, boats and all, just with exhibits detailing a timeline of Singapore's development instead of showing drunken pirates. (Although there were a few of those featured prominently in Singapore's history.) Oddly, the history stopped right after the liberation of Singapore in 1945. In the one place where it was appropriate, the exhibit said nothing about the role that Lee played in the island's postwar development.

We capped off our busy day in Singapore by watching the latest James Bond flick. Catching a movie wasn't particularly exotic, but it only cost $3 a ticket in Singapore, and we would have to wait six months for the privilege of paying $15 to see it in Tokyo. And the movie was excellent. Michelle Yeoh should be in every movie. Sling Blade II should star her.

We awoke the next morning (far too early) to catch our flight to Denpasar, the capital of the island of Bali. Indonesia is a nation comprised of thousands of islands, unified by President Sukarno in the wake of World War II. (Warning: boring political stuff ahead.) After the Japanese were driven out of (what was then) the Dutch East Indies, Sukarno, a high-ranking army officer, declared Indonesia an independent nation, and himself President. Since nobody had the energy to contradict him, it came to pass, and he ruled until deposed in a violent coup in the 1960s. His overthrower, Suharto (who also only goes by one name), still remains as President today, and has ruled Indonesia with virtually absolute power since his ascension.

As you have probably been hearing, Suharto and his nation are undergoing a full-scale currency crisis, with all its concomitant features: a dearth of actual hard currency, soaring inflation and the social unrest that understandably accompanies the fear of being unable to buy rice tomorrow. On January 22, the exchange rate hit 14,550 to the dollar, a loss of over 83 percent of its value in the last seven months alone, and the domestic market is having extreme difficulty adapting to the devaluation. Bills of 10,000 rupiah (less than US$1) are common, bills of 20,000 ($2) are rare, and bills of 50,000 ($5) exist, but they might as well not, since hardly anybody ever sees one. Changing a US$100 bill in Indonesia gets you a six-inch-thick stack of 10,000 and 5,000 rupiah bills, underscoring the seriousness of the recent inflation. The government is (wisely) not printing larger bills, for fear of sparking hyperinflation.

Okay, enough politics for now. Back to nice things. Like the luxuriously decadent pool at our hotel. Sailaja specifically chose this hotel for its mammoth pool, complete with a stage in the middle (more on that later) and a fully stocked wet bar at one end. At this bar, we discovered that the specialty of Bali was catering to the South Pacific Island fantasies of sunburned tourists by offering them giant tropical drinks served in whole pineapples, complete with fruits impaled on a stirring rod. These drinks usually cost the equivalent of US$1.25. Indonesia's currency crisis was our gain.

Indonesia is a Muslim nation, with over 90% of Indonesians belonging to the Islamic faith. (Most, however, are not too orthodox compared with the stricter Islam of, say, Iran. Women generally do not dress in full-length black veils, and many conspicuously fail to pray five times a day.) Over 90% of the Balinese, however, are Hindu, and the Hinduism transplanted from India over a thousand years ago has grown side by side with local mythologies, to form a unique blend of Hinduism. So, after a couple of days of lounging around (our laziness deserves no further narrative), we decided to take advantage of Bali's rich culture, and check out some of the Hindu temples.

We hired a driver for the day, who asked us right away if we wanted to see some shops first. One of us said yes (you guess which one), so we visited a store where they made and sold batik, a jewelry store, and an art house where they sold their finished products. After these not-brief-enough visits to the cream of Bali's many tourist traps, we finally set off for Besakih, the "mother temple." (See some cool pictures here.) Besakih is the oldest and largest temple in Bali, and it is located high atop Mount Agung, one of the tallest mountains on the island. A guide met us at the bottom of the kilometer-long road leading up to the temple, and walked us around the magnificent temple. A long flight of steps ascends through Balinese-style split gates to a courtyard housing the Trinity shrines, dedicated to the three Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Our guide explained its history and significance in copious detail, and only asked for a semi-large tip for his services, which he actually deserved.

The night culminated in watching a traditional Balinese dance, which told part of the story of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. Set to live music played by a 15-piece drum and xylophone group, this part of the story features Rama and a band of monkeys rescuing the beautiful and elegant Dewi Sinta from the evil Rahwana, who has kidnapped her for his own lascivious desires. The dance took place on the stage in the middle of the pool at the hotel, a measure of the size of the pool.

The next day was reserved for adventure. We first did something I thought I would never have the courage to do -- parasailing. Although it was a bit nerve-wracking to be clipped into a harness on the beach with a giant parachute behind me and a revving speedboat in front, the actual experience was far less scary than I would have imagined. After the initial breathtaking ascent, it was quite peaceful, really, and would have afforded an excellent view of the island if I were allowed to wear my glasses. (It was still an excellent, if slightly blurry, view.)

Then we went jetskiing, and really annoyed some fish with the noise. The whole experience, including transport to and from our hotel, cost US$35 each, which was pretty cheap given the size of the team assisting us -- the driver, the owner of the business, his two assistants, and the team of five beach bums who fit us in our harnesses. These tough-looking guys, with long hair, and muscular, ornately tattooed bodies, were quite helpful and professional with us, and didn't once start signing Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes like they appeared they would.

After the adrenaline wore off (but apparently before we decided to stop being adventurous), Sailaja accepted an offer from some local women to braid her hair like Bo Derek. They said that it would come out easily when she wanted to take the braids out. They were just kidding.

The next day, we had planned to go horseback riding early in the morning, but heavy rains put a stop to that (and gave us a chance to sleep more -- after sleeping on the floor on our futons in Tokyo, the hotel's king-size bed was elysical). In the afternoon, though, the rains cleared up, and we called up our driver from the previous day to take us to some more temples. The first one we saw was called Tanah Lot, which sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, and lives up to its name. The castle-like temple, built in the 16th century and located atop a rock on the west coast of Bali, was closed to tourists, but the outside of the temple, and the impressive view of the ocean behind it, was well worth the journey. The sunset from Tanah Lot is widely reputed to be nothing short of fantastic, so around 6:30 the area gets rather crowded. We, however, were there around 3pm, so it was rather peaceful, giving me the chance to take a picture of my shoes on the beach in peace. (As usual, this fact is relevant to very few people.)

We went to two more temples that day. The first, located at Mengwi and named Taman Ayun, was rather ancient, dating from the 12th century, and unfortunately showing its age. The other was Ulun Danu, which was the most quiet and peaceful temple I had ever seen. It was located in the village of Bedugul on an inland lake, with part of the temple being about 20 meters offshore into the lake, accessible only during the low tides which revealed a land bridge. Both of these sites are very beautiful, and off the tourist-beaten path, so I highly recommend them both.

Although the previous day's rain washed out a chance to go horseback riding, we were able to, on the last day of our trip, take a two hour ride through some rice fields, and along the beach. Before riding for two hours, you should always check that you are two things: 1. An experienced rider, and 2. Not a guy. I don't know how those cowboys did it. Two hours in the saddle was a painful experience for me. But anyway, the scenery of the rice fields, and along the beach, was absolutely beautiful.

I did, however, feel rather awkward atop my horse in the rice fields. This was partially because I am a lousy rider and constantly felt like I was two seconds away from falling off. But mostly, it was because all around us were field hands, some young and strong, and some quite old, stooped over, toiling in the 100 degree heat, while I rode by enjoying the "scenery" of their farms. I can justify it by saying that the amount we paid for the right to ride on the paths through their fields was probably a small fortune in local terms. But this justification couldn't stop the guilty feelings I had; during a horrendous financial crisis, I was leisurely riding through their fields, watching them sweat over backbreaking work in the fields.

This last experience, both incredibly fun and incredibly guilt provoking, was perhaps emblematic of our travels through many of the nations we have visited recently. Whether South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia, traveling in developing nations (and developing regions of developed nations) can be simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking. Some of the scenery, especially in areas that development has left behind, is incredible. But the people are often in difficult straits. One Indonesian I interviewed told me that even with his steady job, he didn't know if he could feed his family from month to month. One taxi driver said that although sometimes he made "OK" money driving his cab, some weeks would go by without earning a dime. The people along the beach offering to sell us a sarong, or a baseball cap, or some fake perfume, or any number of other trinkets, are all just trying to make a living. But the aggressiveness with which they bargain for a difference of a few cents underscores their desperate situation.

What can be done? I don't know. Perhaps the new IMF rules will help put East Asia's financial house in order, and get Indonesia on the road to being a more economically healthy nation. Or, perhaps, more money pouring in is the answer, lots more tourists like us giving money to hotels, restaurants, and folks in the street selling sarongs and hair-braidings. Or, maybe it will just take decades more to develop. After all, it took the USA over a hundred years to be a world power, and Indonesia has only been around for fifty. Whatever the solution, I was glad I got the chance to visit Indonesia in what I think will be recorded as the last days of the Suharto regime, when the future of Indonesia is cloudier than it has been since the nation's birth.

See some pictures from our trip here.

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