Posted BY FRANCES MAY ON April 17th, 2009

My little sister Taylor has become quite the world traveler having lived in Tibet, India, and Malawi. She’s probably the coolest person I know. Every time she returns from a new adventure, I listen to her stories with envy, pride, and amazement. In between working for her PHD in History (well I exaggerate she is still waiting to hear from the applied school) she travels the world.
Here is her most recent e-mail (it is pretty lengthy so feel free to take a break)

Hey all,

So I’ve been really bad about writing emails since I’ve been here, obviously, but we’ve been super busy and moving around a lot. Some of you may not even know that I’m out of the country, but I came to visit Jane and her friend Marisa who are in Bangkok teaching English at a university in the city. They have 3 months paid summer vacation right now, so we met up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and from there traveled through Java, Indonesia, ending in Bali, and then flew to Bangkok where I am currently residing in the university staff lounge with the first wireless I’ve used yet. I sometimes can be long winded when writing emails so feel free to read in segments, taking breaks to hydrate and eat some food and whatnot.

So I flew into Singapore from LAX, which is a really modern, international city, a lot like any western city aka really expensive compared to the rest of Asia, but also really nice. I stayed in Chinatown which is a little more colorful and cultural than the rest of the island/city/nation state. I only had time to go out and get dinner because I was leaving early the next day to take a train to Kuala Lumpur, but I had time to explore a little bit. It’s a really good city to go out and get some delicious street food because everything is so clean that even street vendors have regulated health inspections, again very much unlike the rest of Asia (excluding China and Japan I’m guessing, I’ve never been there). All in all it was a good experience, and it’s a place to visit if you’re into a modern city with good food and good shopping, just be prepared to shell out the same amount of cash as if you were vacationing in NYC or SF.

The train to Kuala Lumpur was nice, I got to see a little bit of Malaysian countryside which was really lush and jungly. On the way a cow somehow meandered onto the train tracks where we proceeded to run it over, and those animals are pretty big so we had to stop for a while to get the bones that had lodged between the tracks and train. There were also quite a few Hindus on the train, and seeing a cow massacred is a pretty big deal. You could also see the crushed body from my car, which was quite bloody. From the train the cab driver dropped me off in the middle of a pretty big neighborhood in the city where I had to wander around for a couple hours trying to find the guesthouse where Jane and Marisa were waiting for me. It’s also hot as balls there so I had completely sweated through all my clothes and backpack. But I finally made it and we had a nice reunion, it turns out I haven’t seen Jane for 2 years; at some point in life years just start passing by without you noticing (“so are the days of our lives”…) Kuala Lupur is kind of a wierd place. There’s lots of different cultures and ethnicities, predominately Muslim but also a lot of Chinese and Indians. But it’s also quickly becoming a really generic and sterile international city that’s pretty Westernized. My favorite part of the trip (besides shopping at ‘Top Shop’ which has really cute dresses) was when we went out of the city and visited a small fishing town and saw one the nature’s great phenomenons that only happens a couple times a year and only in Malaysia and Brazil. THey have these huge fireflys that during mating season for just a couple hours each night for a couple weeks synchronize all their flashing which creates a really beautiful sight when boating down the river. We preceded the event with a huge Chinese seafood feast at a local restaurant which was really tasty. Also, we got that spa treatment done where you put your feet in big tanks with these small flesh-eating fish that eat all the dead skin off your feet. It’s all the rage in like NYC and it costs like $300, but we got it done for like $10. It was quite an experience. Kuala Lumpur is also famous for the Patronas Towers, which at one point were the tallest buildings in the world, higher than the WTC. They were as cool as any big building, but for some reason they don’t ever do much for me. Overall, I wasn’t too impressed with Kuala Lumpur; it’s a cool place but could be passed over if on a S.E. Asian tour.

From there we flew into Jakarta, which is the capital of Indonesia, and on the island of Java (fun fact: the nation of Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands, some more well-known than others). Obviously Java has been made famous not only by its capital city but because of the coffee they grow all over the island. Jakarta itself is supposed to be sort of a shit-hole, so we immediately took a bus from the airport to a small town about an hour away called Bogor. Just to give a little backstory of Indonesia, there have been a few large attacks on Westerners (namely Americans) in the past few years, in Jakarta and Bali, mostly because of Bush and US foreign policy against Muslim countries (of which Indonesia is one). Also because of the mass influx of tourism especially in Bali, where people construct these huge mansions and hotels for westerners and have no regard for locals or the community. So basically tourism has been majorly down the past few years and a lot of locals have lost their jobs, especially Batik artists and local puppet masters and other cultural jobs. So people were really excited to see us in Java, especially in small villages across the island, it was as if they hadn’t ever seen a westerner before, and we didn’t see any other whiteys they whole way across except for one city. But also, now that Bush is out of office and our foreign policy is changing, Indonesians hate us less. In fact, they really like us now because of Obama. Obama’s mom had a Indonesian love child with an Indonesian man, aka Obama has an Indonesian half sister. Also, Obama spent a few years of his childhood in Jakarta, so Indonesians see him as one of them. We saw a kid who was a spitting image of young Obama and we took pictures with him. So spread the word, it’s safe to travel through Indonesia, in fact, they really need our support (I promised a local indonesian that I would start telling people to come back). Also, those were terrorists attacks and not at all symbolic of all Indonesian sentiment. Indonesians are some of the nicest, open-minded, and genuine people I have ever met, and we met many locals who were really happy to take us around on tours on their motor bikes, free of charge. Unlike other Asian countries I’ve been to, you see a lot of men watching babies while the women are working. It’s really cute to see a group of grown men gushing over the movements of a 3 year old. With all that said, I’ll get back to our adventures.

After Bogor we traveled on local busses and trains throughout the countryside to a few small villages and towns. Local travel is an adventure unto itself, and we took what are called ‘mini busses’ around places where big busses don’t go. Mini busses are basically 12-passenger vans, but they squeeze in as many people as possible. During a couple of lengths of travel we found ourselves stuffed into these vans with a total of 22 people, excluding our huge backpacks which are the size of a chubby 7-year old and had to fit on our laps. At one point Jane got pushed continually back so that she was sitting on some guy’s lap, and then another guy got in who was sitting on her lap, thus creating a Jane sandwich; it was really funny for us, but not as much for her. After about a week of inland travel we decided to head for the coast and found ourselves in a small fishing village with minimal tourists. Luckily we weren’t in Indonesia during tourist season (we caught the tail end of rainy season, but it only rained for a few days off and on), but during peak season this little village has about 200,000 extra people who come mostly from China, Australia, and Great Britain. We met some local boos who took us around on their motor bikes to some really cool local swimming holes where the water was emerald green and we swam through caves and under waterfalls and through canyons. It was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to, like a mix of Indiana Jones and the Goonies. Definitely the coolest place I’ve ever swum. We also had the most amazing seafood feast of my life; you go to a local fish market where all the food was caught that same day, and you get to handle all the food and pick out the best-looking of the bunch. Then you tell them how much you want and how you want it cooked (grilled, pan fryed, deep fryed, bbq, etc) and they bring it out to you. We weren’t really sure how much to order, so we got a 1/2 kilo of grilled squid, a kilo of some kind of fish, a kilo of prawns and a kilo of crab. Jane was sick so it was really only me a Marisa eating. There was waaay too much food but of course we ate it all. And the total cost: About $15 total.

After that, we traveled to a couple other towns and finally got to Yogyakarta, which is the cultural center of Indonesia. It’s where the Sultan of old Javanese culture still resides, and there’s a big enclosed area around the palace where artists of all kinds live for free. We spent most of our time in there, exploring ruins of a huge water palace where a king back in the day used to play with his 40 concubines, and meeting local artists who would invite us into their homes and show us their batik, puppets, music, dancing, etc. It was probably my favorite part of the trip. The rest of the city is really cool, too, and there’s some of the coolest street art aka graffiti I’ve ever seen; I took a lot of pictures of it. The one drawback was that our guesthouse was right next to a mosque, which blasts Muslim prayer about 7 times a day, one of which falls at 3am outside our window, thus waking us up. Outside of the city is a place called Borobudur which is an ancient Mahayana Buddhist temple from around 800 A.D. They say to go at sunrise because you get really cool views from atop the pyramid-type structure of the surrounding countryside and it’s really misty. So we woke ourselves up at about 4am to go, but when we got there, there were about 10 different Indonesian school trips there as well, and they swarmed us and took lots of pictures and asked for our addresses and autographs, no joke. I think I gave my mom’s address out to about 40 different school children, so we’ll see how many letters start flowing in. It sort of ruined the trip, it was really overwhelming and the teachers and partents were really persistent and pushy and we couldn’t even get to the top of the structure. Then we spent all day on a 12-hour bus to go to a national park with a few different volcanoes. It was very exhausting, but we managed to get up the next morning at 3am to drive to the tip of a crater to watch the sunrise (which was really cold and really breathakingly beautiful). After that we climbed up a volcano which also really cool since it was still really early in the morning and really misty. Then once again we spent all day on an 8-hour bus to the east coast of Java where we took a ferry into Bali.

We decided to completely surpass the south coast of Bali, where it’s a touristy hell, with huge resorts and inflated prices and drinking and partying everywhere you turn. We opted for Lovina which is on the north shore and can get touristy but we weren’t there in peak season so it was really quiet and relaxing. We pretty much spent the next 4 days recuperating from our all-day travels and getting up really early and what not. We didn’t do much but swim and relax and meet locals who took us around on their motor bikes to a waterfall and hotsprings. We did go snorkeling at one point which was fun and we saw some beautiful fish and coral. Jane and Marisa’s friend that they teach with met up with us and we all traveled to the interior of Bali to Ubud, which is a cool part of Bali, lots of local art and cultural Balinese events. Balinese culture is a bit different from Javanese culture, and it seemed to be less Muslim and more local beliefs which is a mix of Hinduism and local rituals. Ubud was really cool and we went out to some local dance shows and ate some really good food and did some shopping. We went to a really famous ‘suckling pig’ feast where this one family has been preparing pig in a certain way for generations. They stuff them with lots of good herbs and spices and cover them in rich coconut butter and cook them over a rotisserie. You sit in their courtyard on communal tables while they serve you huge portions of different parts of the pig, some of which I couldn’t tell where they came from, but it was damn good and ridiculously spicy. I got sort of sick because I rarely eat pork, but it was worth it for the experience. I also met up with a friend of mine from my study abroad trip who teaches at an experimental, environmental school outside Ubud. It’s called the ‘Green School’ which is sort of famous and has been written up in NYTimes and Time Magazine and other big publications. Basically this rich western couple came up with an idea to give back to the community and do something good with their money so they decided to build a completely sustainable school built 100% out of bamboo, and is powered by a hydroelectric vortex (which looked like something from LOST) where they would teach farming and how to live sustainably and what not. Basically they got a whole bunch of really experienced teachers on board and they quit their jobs and moved their families out to Bali to find a school that was half built and they had to live in tents. My friend is not an experienced teacher but they wanted some young, recent grads to help teach. But she gave us a tour of the school which was really cool. I had no idea the structures that could be built out of bamboo. There were huge mansion-style houses and classrooms, and bathrooms, and a huge bridge made out bamboo without nails or anything. The one shady part of the story is that the week after this couple signed the deal with some other people, they started their own bamboo construction company, which got hired to build everything, so they’re really making bank off the whole thing. Also, most teachers quit after one semester because there was no curriculum or anything. So my friend is teaching a 6th grade class with two other people who have never taught. Right now, they’re following a sort of Waldorf structure, and have yet to come up with their own thing. But I think it will eventually be a really cool school and live up to the reputation its made for itself in the media. I would like to work there for a year if they get their stuff together.

So now I am in Bangkok, where we flew to after Bali, and it is the start of the rainy season. It’s also the first day of Songkran, which is a huge week-long festival where everyone comes out in the streets for a huge week-long waterfight because it’s so damn hot. Tomorrow we’re going to go downtown and experience it in all it’s glory. Jane and Marisa live in the dorms on the eastside of the city, sort of by the national stadium. We’ve just been sort of relaxing and eating the best food of my life. Yesterday we took a vegetarian Thai cooking class where we went to the market early in the morning and picked out some local produce and then went back and made 10 Thai dishes. It was so fun and we got to eat it all afterwards. But the highlight was when Charlie from LOST, aka Maryweather from Lord of the Rings, came into our class with his body double from LOTR who’s this little Thai woman. He was pretty shy and trying not to make eye contact with him, but at one point he was sitting next to me and I taught him how to make spring rolls. I was so nervous that I spent the whole time trying to come up with something funny and witty to say, but instead remained mostly silent and muttered something about being really full. It was awesome nonetheless, and since then I’ve come up with lots of funny and creative things I could of said to him instead. With that, I am going to sign off, we’re going to go eat some lunch, probably some Som Tom (papaya salad) and Tom Yum (sweet and sour coconut soup), and wait till it stops raining. we’ve done a lot more stuff on this trip, but I already can’t remember most of it, also a side effect of getting old? I’ve taken some really cool pictures of the trip, so I’ll try to get those out to you if you want to see them. I love you all and will talk to you soon!

Love, Taylor

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Posted by / Filed under art / fall / summer / updates


  1. K @ Blog Goggles said...

    Sounds like an awesome time. I’m living in Hong Kong, but have friends experiencing Songkran right now, and I’m extremely jealous.

    You can tell her that I plan on making my way to Bali as soon as monetarily possible :)

    And that cow incident sounds awful. Regardless, I’m glad she’s having a great time!

    April 20, 2009 at 8:41 am, said: