Today, after breakfast, I will become Hindu again and visit the renowned Tirta Empul Holy Water Spring Temple with Ketut and Kadek. It’s sort of a Hindu baptism. They visit the temple a couple of times a year to pray and make offerings, but also to bathe in, drink, collect, and bless the holy water that comes from this sacred spring. They then take the blessed water home with them and share it with their family members so they may also be purified.
The temple was built around a clear spring in 962 AD during the time when the Balinese king reigned. People came from the entire island to worship here. Some call this the Balinese Ganges, and I get that, seeing the line of people patiently waiting to get to the sacred fountains. Nowadays, people come from all over the world. It’s especially nice to go with Ketut and Kadek, because they are not just taking me there, they are allowing me to participate in this ceremony with them. Actually, it turned out that Ketut was the one who led me through the process.
First, you pay your approx $1 to get in. Balinese get in for free. I noticed a group of Asians wearing Harley Davidson t-shirts pass by us. Then K&K took me to the side of the temple, where Kadek produced a not-so-fancy sarong and sash for me to wear. T-shirt was ok. That gets us into the temple area. We went up to see the place where the underground spring gushes out, took some pics, then off to the lockers. I take my shirt off and tie the sarong around my neck, making sort of a dress. Bra stays on. We’re ready to take the waters.
Kadek stays out to take pictures, so I hop in the water, following Ketut. The line is long, mostly Balinese with the assorted western or Japanese person thrown in. The temperature of the water is cool, but after the first moment, it feels nice. It’s a little cloudy today, though, not as warm as usual, and soon Ketut is freezing. There are 13 fountains altogether, and there is a certain order of visitation. Ketut has brought a huge jug, and I am persuaded to buy a small jug of my own to take home. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the first fountain. There are large fish, koi, I hope, swimming around my legs. I think I felt him take a nibble of my leg. Eeek.
When you finally get to the first fountain, here’s the drill: face the fountain and say a prayer. Each of these fountains is good for something different – there is a Sanskrit word written on each of the fountains and the water passes over it as it gushes out. I’m sure the Balinese say a different prayer at each one, but me, I’m just thankful, and happy, and want to continue to be so. After prayer, cup your hands, right over left, and drink 3 times. Then dunk your head underneath. Then, take your jug and put it under the fountain, getting a little water inside, but not filling it all in one spot. You want water from each of the 13 fountains, so be sure and leave room. Repeat this process, skipping the two fountains that are only for funerary purposes only. Ketut follows me. Out we go to another pool where there are 2 fountains. At this one, we do the same process, but Ketut tells me the last one is for Om Shanti. I sing/say out loud, Om, Shanti, Om, and receive smiles from the Balinese around me.
But we’re not done. We get out of our wet clothes, change into some dry ones, and go to the inner temple where Ketut prepares the offerings. We bring our jugs to the altar, stuffing the offerings through the jug handles. Then we find the right place to sit, make prayers (the bowing, drinking, sprinkling, and rice on the forehead), then grab our jugs and go. Kadek says I should share this water with everyone in my family; it’s extremely special and healing.
I’m pretty hungry now, and ask K&K if they want to stop for some grub, my treat. Their favorite restaurant serves Babi Guling, suckling pig, and rice. They order and for less than $6 we all get a plate of rice with different parts of pig: meat, skin, sausage, and a couple of chewy things that uh, I really don’t want to know what part of the pig it came from. Spicy soup sauce is on the side. And there’s orange soda. It’s really good.
They drop me off at the Nest and head home to their kids. I like to think that my spirit is a little more cleansed after this experience. What I know for sure is that I am extremely thankful and happy. Thankful for K&K and all the people I’ve met here so far, thankful for my friends and family back in the US, and grateful for the opportunity to be here, alive, and happy.
Just another Saturday…
It’s just another Saturday in Bali. Begin with the fruit of the day, mangosteen (squeeze the red ball of the fruit until it cracks, peel the thick skin off, eat the white part, spit out the big seed in some of the sections) and a Bali coffee before Kadek comes to make her yummy rice/milk breakfast.
Today, Gus and Krista head for the surfer’s town of Canggu and I enjoy another heavenly massage from Kadek. When she’s gone, I have the place to myself and it looks like no other guests are expected. Since I was out and about all day yesterday, I am taking a break today and just hanging out, doing some writing, photo editing, and reading my smutty novel (thanks, Michelle!) This is a fantastic place to just be. I walked to Mama’s for a solo dinner, visiting with my friend Manik, then back to the quiet (well, except for the roosters, bugs, and frogs) house. I thought, though, that I would just post some photos of other random stuff going on this week.
One of the things we did earlier this week was attend the kecak dance. This is another telling of the Ramayana story but with no music, just 100 bare-chested men chanting “chak chak chak chak chak” at various volumes and speeds. Not sure exactly what happens in the story here, but at the end, they clear the floor, pile a bunch of coconut husks in the center of the room, throw some lighter fluid on them, making a huge bonfire, then a guy comes out as a horse rider and gallops around it then stomps through it. Impressive.
Enjoy the photos!
The Bird Walk of Bali
You know, normally this time of year I travel with my friend Susie. We’ve been to Italy, Alaska, Costa Rica, Spain, Switzerland, and a number of other places. This is the first May vacation where we are not together. Susie is a Master Naturalist, birder extraordinaire, and all around nature gal. We’re always on the lookout for local flora, fauna, and partiularly the birds a-flying (or nesting, or tweeting, or whatever birds do).
So in honor of my friend, I have signed up for the Bird Walk of Bali, a guided walking/birding tour through the rice paddies around Ubud. Besides going out with Ketut and Kadek to some temples and walking around town, I really haven’t seen much of the area surrounding Ubud, so I’m excited to get out and see some stuff.
Our guide is Sumadi (Su – can’t go birding with Susie, so I’ll go with Su), a lifelong resident of Ubud. There’s 5 of us total, and she makes sure we each have a pair of binoculars, essential for the day. We also get a list of over 100 birds that we may or may not see, depending on our luck and the season. The restaurant (warung) overlooks a deep gorge lined with tropical foliage. I want to keep the list handy to check the birds off as we see them, but she says she will remember each sighting and we will see how we did after the tour.
The birding begins from the balcony of the warung. A spotted dove sits in the tree right in front of us, swiftlets (white-bellied and edible-nest types) dive and dart above. Su says they fly all day, even napping on the wing. She sees some other birds in the distance, but says we’ll get a better look at them later. Up the hill, through a neighborhood, we points out snails, butterflies, and other insects. This woman knows her nature!
Overlooking an empty field we see the gorgeous java kingfisher (there’s one that visits the Nest – I’ve seen him in some mornings) and a brief flash of the java sparrow, this one only found here in Indonesia. Then we head up into the rice fields. Su is one of the best birding guides I’ve seen, finding birds from just a speck of movement and not explaining what it is until she makes sure everyone can see it.
The rice paddies are a great spot for, duh, finding the birds who like to eat rice. Su’s family owned some rice fields, and it was her job to go out there each day and shoo them away. That’s what all the colorful flags are for in the middle of the fields; they look like decoration, but they are actually makeshift scarecrows. But they don’t do the job well enough, we see kids and older women walking through the fields waving big red plastic bags to scare the birds and save the rice.
But it’s not just birds that we are learning about today, we talk about the community rice culture, harvesting, and irrigation systems as we see a team harvesting the rice. She points out cinnamon trees and wild lemongrass, turmeric plants and huge ficuses. We got a great look at the design of the St. Andrew’s Cross spider and saw some iridescent butterful chrysalis’ as well. We talked about elder care and retirement, foreigners buying up the rice fields for luxury condos, and the fact that most of the rice fields we walked by are for home consumption only. Balinese have rice three times a day, and we saw both white rice (unprocessed) and black rice. People pass us transporting different types of materials, sometimes, Su says, from 2 hours walk away.
We picked up a snack of sweet rice cake from an old man on the trail, then at midpoint stopped at a small food stand for some fresh coconut and taro chips. As we wound back into town along a canal, we could see the new construction she was talking about. No low-walled Balinese family compounds here – villas and western-style houses try to blend in, but really look out of place.
Eventually we get back to the main road and hop a taxi back to the warung where we started. The $37 tour included the snacks, taxi, and a fabulous lunch with lemongrass tea. We pulled out our list and checked off about 20 different types of birds. Pretty good, she said, for this time of year.
After lunch I walked back up the hill to meet Gus at Starbuck’s (yes, there’s a Starbucks here, filled with Japanese and American tourists). We were going to go to the monkey forest temple, but he has some other errands to run and I’m still looking for bigger balls. Turns out by the time we get to the monkey forest temple, we don’t have enough time to explore it because the Yoga Barn offers karma (free to the community) yoga tonight and you’ve got to get there early. I snap a couple of pics of the college students feeding the monkeys in the street and we head to yoga, which we do not want to miss because the fabulous Violeta, healer and pathfinder extraordinaire, is teaching. Gus has been seeing her and has been raving about her all week. The insights! The cleansing! I’ve got to check this out.
The class, a yummy yin class (few poses held longer), was fantastic. We found fellow nester Krista there and all went to our favorite Mama’s for a last meal together before Gus an Krista head out to Canggu, the surf beach town, tomorrow.
When we get back to the Nest (appropriate after the bird walk, no?) we call it a night. Susie, you would have really loved this!
Looking for Bigger Balls
My friend Peggy wants me to find some Balinese Balls for her. They’re special balls, Harmony Balls, which are shiny brass and have little fairies inside of them (or something) that sounds magical. When these balls are shaken, they emit a tinkling that sounds like you have captured some stars in that ball and they are happily colliding. Supposedly the balls that come from Bali are the best.
Now, I haven’t had much time for shopping, or more truthfully, the energy or desire. But I’ve been here a week now and it’s time to see what’s out there. I’ve been to the Gianyar market, the K-Mart of the area, so now it’s time to look at the Ubud market, which has not really been high on my list because it’s so touristy. Finding some balls for Peggy is at the top of my list.
First, I find a jewelry store on the street. Silver is the precious metal of choice here, and there are many stores. In the store, I ask the woman, do you have any balls? She does have ballls, but they are small, the size of big marbles. Peggy needs big balls, the size of a small orange. The size that you can comfortably cup in your open palm. Where can I find big balls, I ask? Check the market. OK, will do.
In the market, I see a woman selling silver earrings, bracelets, etc. from a cart. Does she have balls? Yes, but they are also too small. How big do they have to be, she asks? I show her using my hands, cupping the air. Oh, she says. You be here tomorrow? I’ll have them then. Hmmm, I say. Thanks.
I stop at every silver seller looking for big balls. Finally I find a store that has the right size balls, but the woman there only has one ball. I need two, maybe three if I get one for myself. One ball is not enough. Maybe she’ll have some more later this week. Another store has two balls, but they are not shiny brass, they are inlaid silver, a little rough. I don’t think these balls are the quality of balls that Peggy needs. She wants balls of superior quality, I’m sure.
Of all the places in Bali, I would have bet that Ubud, yoga/new age/spiritual healing center of Bali would have amazing balls on every corner, or at least in every nice store, but no. Big balls are surprisingly hard to find.
Finally, near the Monkey Forest, I find a store (the first store run by a man, no joke) that has big balls, made here in Bali. Big balls of brass as well as silver. Whoa. He says he always has these balls in stock. Always. I’m not ready to buy these balls yet, because I have another place to search for them. My friend Kadek says she’ll take me shopping to the place outside of town where her friend makes jewelry. She’s never heard of these balls, but you never know.
I emailed Peggy, informing her about my search. The website she sent me that sells these balls has them packed in a silk-lined box with a special ball stand. The Monkey Forest Road man’s balls do not come in a box, but in a plastic bag. Will balls in a bag do? Do they have to be brass balls or would she like silver balls? She emails me back with some sound files of how the balls should and shouldn’t sound. Balls in a bag are ok, as long as they tinkle with the right amount of magic. Ok, now that I’ve got that straight, I’ve got to go back to that store and give a good listen to that man’s balls. Haven’t done that yet, I’ll keep you posted.
Stopped at the satay stand for some grilled fish on a stick, met Gus at the Yoga Barn for a nice yin class, and back to the Nest, where Gus is cooking cleansing soup with rice again. Yum!
Today we see the famous Chokorda Rai, Balinese healer. Not that I have any particular physical malady that needs to be cured, but with all of the stress since the first of the year, I just want to cover my bases, you know? Maybe he can see something that I might need to address. And really, I haven’t been sleeping very well.
I persuaded Gus to go with me. He’s also interested in all types of health care and such, so this is right up his alley. Ketut picks us up; he hasn’t been to see this healer, ever, but is always up for learning something new.
Chokorda Rai, age 86, is a traditional Balinese healer. He has learned his craft through a set of books that have been in his family for generations. This ancient knowledge is written in Sanskrit, Old Javanese, and Balinese. He has taken these writings and has created his own way of diagnosing and healing as a channel of divine knowledge. You can read dozens of testimonials in the blogosphere; people have been radically changed after seeing him.
So I’ve got to check this out.
We get to his home compound and drive through the gate and around the yard until we get to his garage. It’s early, maybe 1030am, and we wander around his yard trying to figure out where to go. He has some lovely art and architecture. We stop and wait at what looks like the fanciest platform, but then Ketut calls us over to another platform nearer the house. Out comes a really old guy, all dressed in white. He doesn’t have the wide smile that most Balinese greet us with. I wonder if we woke him up?
Nevertheless, he’s ready to go. Ladies first! He sits in a chair and I sit on the floor at his feet, facing away. He starts with my temples, then pokes at different places around my head and ears, working the energy meridians, I’m guessing. When he pokes my lymph nodes just under my jaw, I yelp. Ow! Much anxiety, he says. How old are you, he asks. Fifty-five, I say. He asks me more questions, pointing just below my belly, I think regarding menopause, and I say I’m done with that. A little more head poking, then I’m instructed to lie down.
He then goes to my feet, pulls out a little stick, and starts to poke me between the toes. Doesn’t tickle, doesn’t hurt… until Ow! That hurt, he asks, as he pokes that sensitive spot once again. OW! I say. Ok then, he has a diagnosis. Seems that my ovaries are blocked, and he will try to unblock them. He will try.
He then stands up at my feet, facing me, and begins to chant and wave his stick around. Am I supposed to get up? No, stay down. I feel like I should close my eyes but I can’t not watch him. Will he poke something else that hurts? He finishes and then goes back to my toes. Poking, poking, poking, but no Ow. Success! My ovaries are unblocked. He pats me on the leg and says I can get up now.
I ask him if he has some sort of prescription of behavior or diet. “Don’t worry, be happy.” Yeah, he really said that. Lol.
He then did the same sort of procedure with Gus. So interesting. Gus yelped at a different poking place. Too much thinking, that’s the problem. Then to the toes, then the standing incantations, then back to the toes. All better now. And all for $25.
While I was being seen, a Russian guy came with his Indonesian guide. Since this is really not a private procedure, we hung out to see what C.R. would say to him. I would have like to stay longer to see what he says and does to each person, but Ketut is ready to roll. When I ask Ketut his opinion, he said C.R. seemed angry. Huh.
Do I feel different? Ehhh, no, but perhaps (and I’m sticking to this story) it’s not a thunderbolt treatment but a slow-acting over time type of treatment.
Back at the Nest, Gus is off and I’m writing and editing photos when Kevin comes in. I put all that aside to get some tea and just hang out with him, sharing stories and trading insights. A great way to spend the afternoon.
Gus is back and I accompany him to the Yoga Barn free lecure on Shamanic Astrology. Cool. Then back to the Nest, where Gus, who is on a cleanse-type diet, makes us Balinese Pumpkin soup with black rice. Yum. New to the Nest is Krista, fresh from her Annapurna Trek in Nepal (she was not near the earthquake the week before). I learned from her that this walk around one of the greatest peaks of Asia can be done solo, like the Camino. That’s what she did. Walked at her own pace, met some amazing people. We are now Facebook friends so when I am ready to go, she will help me prepare.Yay!
I love this place.
Hindu Ceremony at Pura Samuan Tiga
Yep, I’m paying for yesterday’s adventure! I can barely walk, I’m so sore. After sleeping in, a good breakfast, and another marvelous massage (no chicken fighting this time!), I’m just hanging out. I’ve somehow lost my glasses, so I go to the optician and order some readers. I spend a fair amount of time editing photos from yesterday. Gus wants to go to the Yoga Barn once again (they have a free lecture every evening from 5:30pm – 6:30pm) so I arrange to meet him there. He doesn’t show, but that’s ok, it’s Indonesian yoga, with some english thrown in. It’s easy to follow and it feels really good to stretch.
I get back to the Nest just in time to dress for tonight’s festivities. My kebaya is ready and I am going with Kadek and Ketut and their children to the thousand year old Samuan Tiga Temple for the Full Moon Ceremony Festivities. I tug the corset tight, wrap the s
arong like Mitsuyo taught me, buttoned up the hundred buttons up the front of my jacket, and brought my belt. Oops, belt has no velcro. I Facebook messaged Kadek, can she bring a pin? No problem. I love technology.
I shuffled (no big steps with this narrow skirt) to the top of the ramp where Ketut and family will pick me up. Traffic is bad by the temple, but not impossible. We are directed to a special parking area and pull in. There are hundreds of motorbikes and parking lots full of cars. Everybody’s here! As we get out of the car, I can see what the rest of the crowd is wearing. Kadek, not in her usual t-shirt and leggings, is a Hindu Princess with her white kebaya. Ketut, who just yesterday was hauling himself up the mountain in sweats, was splendid in his white shirt, headband/hat, and sarong. The kids were dressed in mini versions of their parents. I felt like I was among royalty!
Kadek retrieved the offering from the trunk, a huge basket full of smaller woven baskets of flowers, food, and shredded pandanus leaves to offer to the gods. She carries it on her head while holding her 5-year old daughter’s hand. We make quite a procession in the parking lot.
We join the throng of people heading into the temple. It’s like Saturday night at the state fair, but better. Everyone is dressed up, ladies in kebayas, men in their white shirts and hats, so many white shirts with bursts of color from the women.
There are bands of gamelan playing, and the temple is decorated with colorful umbrellas, fabric over the statues, and other decorations. We pass an area with over a hundred people praying. That’s where we’re headed.
The crowd surges up a small hill and around the corner. We press toward the gate to the praying area. I’m holding on to Kadek’s kebaya, hoping not to get lost. Ketut and the kids are behind me. When the current group finishes their prayers, the gates open up and we crowd in. Ketut finds a place to sit while Kadek brings the offerings up to the stage. She sits with us and gets some incense and flowers out. Once everyone is settled, a voice over the loudspeaker begins the prayers. I got this! I kneel and do the prayers: no flowers, flowers, flowers, flowers, no flowers. There are many panditas to serve this huge group and ours comes by with the water: sprinkle sprinkle, drink, drink, drink, hair, rice. Even the kids, age 5 and 6, participate. I am the only westerner that I see.
We file out after I get some photos and go up to praying station #2 and do the same praying, water, rice ritual. We take pictures of each other. I admire the decorations and the gods of the temple. I feel so energized! There is a small group of westerners with cobbled-together kebayas. They look uncomfortable.
Like the fair, there are all kinds of booths with folks selling food, toys, and all kinds of other things. We go up the hill again to find a huge stage in front of a large area with no chairs. Everybody is just sitting on the floor, sometimes indian-style, some kneeling, waiting for the show to begin. Ketut says wait, it’s a great show. Kadek is getting snacks for the kids and buys me a bag of chips. Yum, Bali barbecue flavor. The show begins, gamelan music, ladies dancing, men dancing, then the Mahabharata again. Dang! Still haven’t read the Cliff Notes, but it’s beautiful.
It’s also getting late. I’m pretty tired and making hints about going home. Kadek is on her phone, her daughter fascinated with the play. Ketut says stay, it’s a great show, but their 6 year old son, who has been sick last week, has fallen asleep. Ketut was going to take him home and then come back, but it seemed better to call it a night. I was still pretty tired and somewhat sore from the day before. We file out and back to the car.
Kadek and Ketut were planning to have dinner when they got home and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t starve either, so I left with some kind of puffy chips, an orange, some grapes, and some sweet puffed rice crackers. Even though it’s almost 11pm, it tastes good.
When they drop me off, I shuffle down the ramp to the Nest. I feel like Cinderella after her pumpkin coach disappeared, just regular Julie again. Sigh. I go straight to bed, tired but thankful that I got to be part of the Hindu royal family tonight!
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
The alarm goes off at 215am. Strangely, 5 minutes later, I hear the alarm go off in Gus’s room next to mine. I chuckle a little because it is the same ringtone my son Morgan uses. Sounds like the most obnoxious car horn: Honk! Honk! Honk! Soon I’m ready and Ketut, our driver, is at the door. Here comes Marsha, also ready. And here comes Gus, joining us after a late night invite from Marsha. Great! The more the merrier!
The drive should be about an hour, so we all try to get some shut-eye. It’s hard to sleep, though, with the bright lights of oncoming trucks and roadside ATM stations coming through my eyelids. We get there in record time, 320am, and pile out of the car. We persuade Ketut to join us on this trek; normally he stays in the car and sleeps. Ketut connects us to Nyoman, our guide, an extremely sturdy woman. We agree on the price and begin our trek up the mountain, fast-walking to get ahead of the groups still milling around in the parking lot. Everyone has a flashlight.
I get a chance to chat with Gus on the way up. He’s been working from his computer in Thailand and other places in Southeast Asia for money, but his passion is fitness and health. He’s in amazing shape and this trek should be a piece of cake for him. Hey, I’m in good shape, too, and I’ve climbed volcanoes in Guatemala and Nicaragua before, this should be fun! Even though the almost-full moon is out, it’s hard to see the top of the mountain, our destination, but soon we gain some height and can see the moon’s reflection on the lake below. Seems like we’re making good time. Why did we have to leave so early?
Then we really start to climb. After about an hour, the flat trail through the fields turns into rocky stairsteps. Not actual stairs, though, just climbing up the trail, over rocks, big and small. Ok, no problem. How hard can this be? We climb some, then rest, climb some, then rest. We leapfrog past other groups resting, then they pass us. Each resting spot under this full moon is more lovely as we can see more of the lake appearing below. Now we can see, pretty much straight up, a line of lights, some even at the top, of those ahead of us. Each time we stop, finding a “moon watching rock” we see the trail of lights lengthen below us. The stops are getting more frequent. My thighs start to burn. Some of the rocky stairsteps are so big that Nyoman has to reach down and haul me up. Geez, she’s strong! Sometimes she hauls Marsha up. When she’s not hauling me up, she asks, “Marsha, you ok?” When she’s not hauling Marsha up, she says, “Julie, you ok?” Ketut is bringing up the rear, also huffing and puffing. It’s his first time doing this, and I think, like me, he didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself into.
After a little over 2 hours of climing now, we reach a spot where there is a platform and they are selling coffee and tea. I’m thinking, “We made it! Thank God!” My breath was ragged and my legs were a bit wobbly. Small rest, says Nyoman. Half hour more. Sure enough, I look up and around to see the trail of lights above us. Really? I had heard stories of some people not making it all the way to the top, but thought it would be just the out of shape and elderly. No, they are not here. I consider for a nano second just to stay here; the view is actually quite nice. But it’s not the top and my companions are ready to go. Besides, it’s just about half an hour. No time at alll, right?
The trail is different now. No rocky stairsteps. Phew! Now it’s sand. Sand is easier, right? But this is deep lava sand. The kind of sand that, when you take a step up, you slide back halfway. The kind of sand that gets in your shoes, under your socks, and between your toes with each step. The only way to make headway is to snowplow your feet and take it slow. This is truly torture, but I keep going. “You ok, Julie?” Yep, I’m ok. Finally, thankfully, we are back to a rocky climb (never thought I’d be thankful for more stairstep climing!) Ten more minutes! Climb, rest, climb, rest. Finally, with one big step that once again, I need to be hauled over, we make it to the top! The jackets and scarf that came off during the hike come back on.
The sunrise comes up over the clouds in front of us. Bali’s biggest mountain (we’re on the second biggest, Mt. Batur) rises up in front of us. The tops of the mountains of the island of Lombok float above the clouds. Behind us, the moon is making a descent. We try to take photos but the light is bad. Some things, though, are maybe better left just in memory. We are at the top edge of a huge crater and can see 360 degrees.
Once the light gets better, we begin taking photos: tree pose on the mountain, mountain pose on the mountain (not so interesting), group pics. We order coffee and hot cocoa and congratulate ourselves and profusely thank Nyoman for her strength and encouragement. She does this every day. Amazing.
Then the monkeys come. They live in the valley below but know that when the sun is up, it’s breakfast time. They are fun to watch, as long as they stay far enough away. Gus wants to take home the puppy that is wandering through the now crowded mountain top. Ketut brought some snacks for breakfast. We are a little too worn out to eat, but have some fruit.
We stay as long as we possibly can, almost the last group left at the summit. Then we head down. As I learned on Camino, climbing down can be just as hard, if not harder, than climbing up. So we gingerly take our time, protecting our knees. When we get to the lava sand, Nyoman starts running down, so we do too, lava sand surfing, laughing with abandon. Farther down, we stop at a cave where the steam is coming out of the rock. We breathe in air from the center of the earth. There are some monks there who trek up every day to leave offerings to the mountain gods. They let us take their picture.
We are all very good friends by now. You don’t share an experience like that with strangers. At the bottom of the hill, farmers are growing tomatoes. Nyoman encourages us to poach some for snacks. They taste real good, even the green ones. We look up to see the mountain we just climbed. We are proud. At 1030am, we are back at the car. The parking lot is mostly empty. We finish the snack that Kadek packed for us, got in the car, stopped a couple of times for photos, and make it back to the Nest by noon.
I hang out, write a bit, run a couple of errands, take a nap. Gus wants to go to the Yoga Barn for a lecture on fasting and I join him. We grab at bite at Mama’s and it becomes his new favorite restaurant. Mine, too!
You had better believe that I slept well that night!
Becoming Balinese, Part 3
Mitsuyo is leaving today. She’s been my Bali companion for the last 3 days and has introduced me to this place, the food, and we’ve been Hindu together. But before she heads out, there’s one more ceremony to be had.
The morning starts out with a lovely massage after breakfast. Did I tell you that Kadek the wonder woman is also a trained masseuse? Yeah. Is there nothing this woman can’t do? And she’s only 25! My massage happens in the 2nd floor open-air loft of the Nest. Quite private from below, but the perfect temperature. I’ve made peace with the chickens and consider them part of the atmosphere. It’s daytime and they are mostly clucking, anyway. Somewhere behind us there is a group practicing the gamelan, the traditional Indonesian instruments. Beautiful. It’s Sunday and I hear some chanting. Is that some kind of ceremony, I ask Kadek. No, she says. Chickens fighting. Oh. I’d rather like to think they are chanting, so I think I’ll go with that. Nevertheless after a hour and a half massage and scrub, I’m feeling lovely.
Now it’s time to go back to Manik’s for one more ceremony. Mitsuyo dons her lovely kebaya and I throw on my beach blanket sarong and change my shirt from yesterday. We find Manik at the restaurant, she has some offerings prepared for us, and we are back to see our friend the pandit. This time he is wearing a sash across his bare chest, a special hat, and colorful pants. We see him and he smiles at us. When it’s our turn, we go through the same drill as yesterday, headband and all. This time, we are offered special yellow rice to eat (actually Kadek made us some and left it this morning), which is what you do on this particular day.
We then hung out with her family, waiting for a special blessing to someone who is pregnant. In the meantime, I’m having a great chat with one of Manik’s nieces who lives in Dublin and works in IT, but is also trying to start a family Bali Chai business. The men are watching boxing on a tv placed on the front porch of one of the homes. Can’t stay too long, though, because Mitsuyo needs to get back to go. Balinese are all about the family, and it was more than wonderful to be welcomed so warmly.
Before Mitsuyo goes, however, we have a couple of new arrivals. Marsha, a school teacher from Canada, and Christopher and Kim (I think it’s Kim, apologies if not!) from Atlanta and Chicago. Marsha is returning to the Nest, so to speak, from her travels around the island. She’d been here last week and now she’s got a couple of days before she continues on to Hong Kong. Christopher and Kim are here because they found the same $537 deal I did and are doing a two week Southeast Asia blitz. Marsha says we need to go to the Balinese dance performance at the Ubud Palace. I suggest we go for sushi happy hour, since Toro Sushi is right across the street from there. After a bit of a stroll around town, I meet the gang and we head to sushi. More mojitos, more sushi, no complaints. Marsha bows out as she has already seen the show. She had mentioned earlier that she was going to climb a volcano the next day and would I be interested in joining her. Sure! Why not? Oh, and the point is to get there at sunrise. Lovely! Which means we have to leave at 230am. Uh, ok. Not sure what this all entails, but I’m just going with the flow on this trip, so hey, I’m in.
We arrived at the Palace just a bit late and had a second row seat. But the music was mesmerizing, the dancing intricate, and the costumes beautifully detailed. I wish I would have prepared a bit more and read the Mahabharata (Google it to find the Cliff Notes version), but it wasn’t hard to get lost in the beauty of the show. Back at the nest, there is another newbie, Gus. We share just a hello before I head off to bed. It’s going to be an early day tomorrow!
Becoming Balinese, Part 2
Today my Balinese transformation begins with a cooking class, by Kadek, of course. Yesterday as we were finishing our omelets, we noticed that Kadek brought something different for breakfast for herself. Rice and some kind of greens and tofu. The omelets are great, but why don’t we have that for breakfast? Hm, after she got the go-ahead from Kevin, she said she would get the ingredients and make it today. Yum! Balinese cooking class!
She starts with cooking the rice. Balinese rice is white, but not processed, a little sticky but not much. There’s a rice cooker here, so that’s easy. Then she puts a couple of cups of coconut oil in a pan and gets it boiling. When it’s good and rolling, she adds some tofu, a special kind made by her neighbor. When that is fried, she removes the tofu and adds some peanuts, a few cloves of garlic, and some chilis, tops on to the boiling oil. This boils for about maybe 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, in another pan she boils water for the greens. This is water spinach, a relative of the morning glory. She cuts the hard parts of the stem off and slices them before dropping them in the water. They boil for just a few minutes. While everything is still boiling, she puts some shrimp paste on a fork and sticks it in the fire under the pan. When the peanut/garlic/chili mixture is good and ready, she drains the oil and puts it in the blender with some coconut water and regular water, blending until it forms a paste, adding more liquid to make a sauce. Putting the rice in a mold and topping it with fried onions in the middle of the plate, she puts the tofu in a bowl, places greens on top, then covers it all with the spicy peanut sauce. YUM. Best breakfast ever.
It’s pretty rainy today, so we just hang out around here, talking and sharing stories. It’s nap time again. Soon we’re getting ready to go to Manik’s for the Hindu ceremony. However, it’s just pouring outside, that tropical rain that just drowns everything. Mitsuyo has her kebaya all ready made from last week, so she is beautiful. My kebaya won’t be ready til Monday, so I have to cobble together a sarong, belt, and shirt that covers my shoulders (no corset required!), which is not cool for temple but is ok for a home visit.
We walk to Mama’s (Manik’s), see her there, and go across the street to get blessed and offer prayers. There are a bunch of people kneeling and praying in one area and a man in a white shirt and pants sitting up on a platform loaded with flowers and food. He’s the priest, or pandit. We go up to the platform, one step down, and wait for the family ahead of us to finish their blessing. Now it’s our turn.
We step in front of him and he gives us a big smile before he puts on his serious face and begins to speak. I don’t know exactly what he is saying, being in Balinese and all, but he’s got the prayer voice of a good preacher. First the prayer. Palms together, up between the eyes. Break. Palms together, this time with flowers. Break. Put one flower behind ear. Palms together again, with different flowers. Break. Put flower behind other ear. Palms together more flowers. Break. Find an ear that has room for another flower. Last time, palms together with smoke from incense. First part done.
Second part begins as we hold our hands open in front of us. The pandit continues speaking. Then he gets a little brush of sticks, dips it in water, and sprinkles it over us several times. We then are instructed (Manik is there, walking us through this) to cup our hands, right over left. The pandit now has a sort of teapot with a long spout and he pours water into our hands. We bring our hands to our mouths and drink. It’s smoky-tasting. Two more times we receive and drink, dribbling a bit in the process. The third time we take the water from our palms and put the water on our heads. The pandit continues his invocation. Hands out again, this time for rice. Grab some rice with your right hand and put it in your left. It’s sticky and a bit wet. Stick some on your forehead, right between your eyebrows. Stick some on the hollow at the base of your neck. Eat some. For the finale, he then takes some long leaves and flowers and makes us each a little headband. That’s it. Big smiles all around.
Then we go down to the second platform and kneel, repeating the ceremony all over again without the pandit. Thank goodness for Manik, or we would be totally lost. Then it’s done. We are wet, but have communicated with the gods, thanking the good and trying to appease the more mischievous. It feels good.
It’s Mitsuyo’s last night so we go to her favorite sushi place for happy hour. Two for one mojitos and $5 huge sushi rolls. We’ve shared so much, and I’m really going to miss her! Joining us is her friend from Singapore who also stayed at the Nest for a while before doing a bit of traveling. She is interested in visiting a Balinese healer, as am I. We compare notes and want to see the same guy. She introduces me to WhatsApp and we connect. We’ll see what happens later this week.
You might be thinking, where are the pictures of beautiful scenery and the awesome temples? That’s for Tourist Julie, and right now that’s not where I’m at. Tomorrow, the Hindu ceremony continues as we are invited to return to Manik’s.
Becoming Balinese, Part 1
Usually, when I travel, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do each day, where I want to do it, and when it will be done. I’ve done tons of research and know just about all of the options. I create and follow a loose, but busy itinerary that will cover every sightseeing opportunity and eating experience to get the maximum “benefit” of each place.
This trip is different.
I have almost three weeks in one place. And not one thing planned. With all of the stuff I had going on these last few months, I have had precious little time to devote to travel planning. I wasn’t even sure until two weeks before departure that I was going to be able to go here at all. I know that there are many things to do, but heck, some people do Ubud in one day, so I figured I’d have lots of time to rest and see what comes up.
The one thing I most wanted to do was to try to be Balinese. I wanted to immediately transport my experience from tourist mode to “I live here” mode. I wasn’t sure exactly how that was going to be done, except to begin in a guesthouse, rather than a hotel or hostel. A guesthouse where my host was someone who actually lived here and knew their way around.
Staying at The Nest was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And it’s funny, although I’ve learned a bunch from my expat host Kevin, my first real Balinese teacher/friend/tour guide has been the lovely Kadek, who makes our breakfasts, cleans our rooms, and sets out the offerings. We had a talk yesterday and made some plans to go to some of the Hindu temples during the upcoming 2-week full moon ceremony period. Most Balinese are Hindu, so that’s where I’m going to start as I become Balinese. I really know very little about the Hindu religion, except that it’s extremely colorful and they have many gods and great stories for every one of them.
But first, to go to the temple during the ceremony, you need special clothes. Kadek brought some of her mother’s clothes for me to borrow, but alas, they were too small. What to do? Have one specially made, of course! When she was done with her work around the Nest, we hopped on her motorbike and made our way to the market. Not the touristy Ubud market, but the local Gianyar market, about 20 minutes away.
The motorbike ride was a thrill in itself. There are more motorbikes than cars here, and almost everybody has one. Before I left Virginia, I had thought I might rent one just to zip around on, even procuring the required International Driver’s license from AAA. However, after careening down the road on the left side, sometimes almost knee to knee with the motorbike riders next to us, cutting in front of trucks or going around practically on the sidewalk, I think I’ll take a pass. I’m holding on to Kadek for dear life!
We park the motorbike at the market and it is a burst of vendors, colors, and smells. Not rotten or sewery smells, though, Bali smells sweet and full. We wind past the fruit vendors to the stalls inside until we get to her friend’s fabric shop.
The kebaya (what women wear) is made up of 4 main pieces. We begin with the lacy fabric for the jacket, the one thing that has to be custom made. What color do I like? Blue. Ok, which blue? So many choices!! Finally we find a color that suits. Now we need a sarong, a big piece of fabric wrapped around like a long skirt. Searching through piles and piles of possibilities we find a gorgeous match. Now the belt, which pulls the whole outfit together. Kadek’s friend finds the perfect one. Last but not least is the underwear. Since the top is lacy and see-through, they use a corset, black, to make sure the shape over the skin-tight jacket is, uh, womanly. Sort of a Balinese spanx, there’s a band around my midsection that must be pulled tight and hooked up, then zip up the middle, flattening the belly while enhancing the bosom. Wow, all this for less than $50.
From here, we buy some mangosteens (yummy fruit, I get a lesson on how to choose the best ones) and back on the motorbike, out of the market, back to Ubud, and out to the rice fields where the tailor’s shop is located. It starts to rain, no biggie, just pull out the poncho and we’re good. My grip on Kadek’s hips has relaxed to the point I’m not even really holding on anymore. Just lean into it, yeah.
No one at the tailor’s speaks much english, but they are all smiles and we exchange names. I get properly measured as Kedak gives her directions. The sewing machines are old Chinese models that are operated by treadle. Soon we are finished and with a flurry of thank you’s and goodbyes we are back on the motorbike heading back to the Nest.
Mitsuyo is waiting and we chat a bit then head off to early dinner. This time, it’s a different Mama’s, same street, but a few doors to the right. Mitsuyo is sort of a regular here and knows the owner, Manik. Manik is the 6th Mama sister, the other Mama sister is the 2nd. We eat another incredibly delicious Balinese meal and share stories. A rainbow appears. Wow. We find out that this full moon ceremony begins this weekend with people going to pray at a home temple. If you live in a Balinese family compound, there are 4 or 5 homes surrounding a courtyard where there are various small temples and at least one large one. Manik lives just across the street and we are invited to her home tomorrow for our first ceremony. We’re on!
Back to the room for an early night. I’m starting to feel less western already.
Kadek, Kevin, Mitsuyo, and Mama
Sleep does come, eventually, and I wake up early to the sound of those infernal chickens. I check my email and finish the very entertaining and informative Balilicious by Becky Wicks, meditate a bit, and then Mitsuyo is up. We chat as she shows me how to make the Bali coffee, rather like instant but super powdery. Two teaspoonfuls in a cup and fill with boiling water. Wait until the sludge settles, add some sugar and milk if you want. It’s quite good.
Kadek is the wife of my driver Ketut, and she’s the one who is the house cleaner, cook, and god appeaser at The Nest. When she arrives, she makes us a breakfast omlette, then makes the Hindu offerings that are placed in the kitchen, at each entrance to a public space, and in the road. She’s sweet and we chat about going to the temples when they are having one of the many Hindu ceremonies. Kevin arrives and is welcoming. We chat a bit, share our stories, and as he goes, Mitsuyo takes over. After three days of relative silence on airplanes, conversation is welcome.
I want to walk into town but I’m sooo tired. I’d been burning the candle at both ends in Virginia to prepare for this trip and my upcoming move to Oregon, so I am wiped. Back to the room for a nap.
When I wake, it’s early dinnertime. Mitsuyo wants to take me to Mama’s Warung (Cafe/Restaurant), the closest place to eat from Kevin’s. It’s less than a 10 minute walk. This is how you get there: out the door, turn right, go past the jungle river (a small stream, really, where people bathe and wash clothes and fish), pass the water temple, then see chicken coop left and chicken coop right, and the Gauntlet of Dogs. Mama welcomes Mitsuyo and I with open arms. Since the internet is sporadic for her at Kevin’s she brings her iPad. I am too busy breathing in Bali. Our lunch overlooks her family’s compound, an assortment of small cottages, temples, and gardens. The rain rolls in and we can see lightning in the distance. Orchids hang off the balcony. Magic.
Dinner (mixed plate) is $1.39. Add an avocado salad for another $1.39 and a mango lassi for another $1 and you’ve got yourself a meal, complete with rainstorm. After our early dinner, there’s time to take a walk down the main drag and check out the action before dark.
It’s an assault to the senses. Just watch your step. Back to Kevin’s and more chatting with Mitsuyo before bed. Earplugs tonight!!!
Arrival in Bali
After a lovely 7 hour flight from Seoul, I arrive in Denpasar, Bali. Greeted by the Balinese Gamelan orchestra entering immigration, I only wait a few minutes in line to pay my $35 visa fee (no need to get one in advance), pass through customs, and exit into the airport. There are hundreds of people holding signs with hotel names, company names, and people names. At first I wonder how in the world will I find the driver who is sent to pick me up? If I don’t find him, then what? There’s no real address to my Airbnb house and I really don’t know where it is. I search the crowd.
I see my name. Julie. It’s just Julie. Could I be the only Julie with a driver today? I wave, he waves, I exit though the gift shop (can’t get out without passing through the airport shopping), and we head out toward the parking lot. With a stop to exchange money ($100 makes me an Indonesian millionaire!), I wait for Ketut to get his car. About a couple hours later, we reach Kevin’s house, otherwise known as The Nest.
It’s dark. We park and walk down a road past pigs, chickens, and ducks. On one side is the jungle. On the other side is my Bali home, The Nest. We unlock the door. Nobody’s here. I’m shown to my room and told the kitchen is available. Then Ketut is gone and I find a note from Kevin, my host, welcoming me and telling me to make myself at home. Well, ok then. I rummage through the fridge to find some vegetables near the end of their life and make a salad. I boil some corn. Then the front door opens and I meet the lovely Mitsuyo, who is the only other guest here at the time.
As glad to see me as I am to see her, she tells me about her adventures in Bali during the last three weeks she’s been here. Pulling her iPad out, she shows me marvelous pictures of temples and food and the two little cats that live here at Kevin’s. Before I know it, it’s midnight. I go off to my room and unpack. So tired. It’s hot, but not uncomfortable hot. But noisy. Chickens, frogs, cicadas, CHICKENS. At 1AM?? The chickens sound like the tortured souls of hell chanting and calling back. The room is open at the ceiling, so there’s no relief. How will I ever sleep?????
The Crazy Cat of South Korea and other impressions
I've made it across the Pacific and to Gemini's (pronounced jay-mee-nee) house, a quick 15 minute taxi ride from the airport. He's tall, over 6 feet, and is an artist. I admire the pieces he's crafted from driftwood, animal skulls, and pieces of metal.
He tells me the good news is, I have my own bathroom and do not need to share with him and his girlfriend. However, I do have to share it with his cat. Oh, I said, for one night I can have a litterbox in the bathroom, no problem. Don't worry, he said, there's no litterbox. You'll share the toilet. Huh??
This cat, who I will call Alu because I can't remember his name, is quite precocious. He can use the toilet as long as his special seat is down. He can open doors, too, so if I want privacy, I need to lock mine. And he generally causes mischief all about the house.
Since I have two cats at home (one with issues that we won't get into right now), I figured this would be a non-issue. Interesting, really, how Gemini took months using a special litter box for the toilet and then a special seat to train this cat to poo and pee in a place that never needs to be scooped. In fact, while I was writing my last blog entry in his kitchen, he called me to come look as Alu was doing his business (apparently, Alu can only open doors, not close them.) Looking into the bathroom, I could just see the front edge of the toilet and the cat's head above it, seemingly saying, “Whaaat? Can't a guy get a little privacy here?” Too funny.
So off to bed I went.
Morning came early, 4am. (Thank you, jet lag!) After about half and hour of staring at the ceiling, I decided to get up and take my computer to the living room, the only place with good internet. I put my socks on (no shoes allowed in the house) and padded out to the deserted room. I'm trying to be as quiet as can be, since everyone else was asleep. Well, almost everybody. Here comes Alu, probably fresh from his 4am poo, alive and well. He meows a hello, but I shush him, trying to keep the noise down. I do so want to be a good guest.
As I'm checking my email, he moves on. Good, I thought. Then I hear the rattle of a doorknob. Gemini's doors have the long-handled doorknob, not the bulbous kind. It's easy for Alu to get up on his hind legs, place both paws on the handle, and pull down. Cute, kind of, but maybe not at 4am. If it was only one rattle, then maybe it would be ok, but then, it begins again, this time, more insistent. After the third rattle, the intensity ramps up and it sounds like a crazed convict is trying to get into Gemini's room. Omg, what if he thinks it's me?? This goes on for an excruciatingly long 30 seconds. Then silence.
Alu comes back into the living room with a “what do you think of me now?” attitude. I'm mortified that my landlord is thinking that I'm totally off my rocker and ignore that bad cat. Well, he's not having any of that. Whoosh! Down goes the guitar from it's stand to the floor! Down goes a glass left on the coffee table! Not wanting to be caught at the scene of the crime, I scurry back to my room, leaving my internet behind
I try to sleep just a bit more (yawn, oh yes, I've been in my room the whole time!), I got up to take a shower. There are in fact a couple of turds in the toilet, so I flush them (apparently Alu is not THAT clever), and put his seat up. I showered, dressed, packed up and once again took my iPad back into the living room. Alu is laying on the floor, stretched out, eyes half closed, still resting from his 4am adventures.
Gemini is up and offers to fix breakfast. Eggs, sausage, beans, tomatoes, and toast made in a pan. Yum. He shows me his modern Korean kitchen appliance, the rice storage bin. Looks like a trash compactor, but when you pull it out, it holds about 20 pounds of rice at just the right temperature and humidity. Press a button and you get a serving delivered to a cup at the bottom. Cool!
I hesitate to do it, but I just can't leave without making sure he knows the 4am commotion wasn't from me. Did you hear?… I ask. What? No, he answers. I sleep with earplugs. This door rattling happens almost every night and I don't even notice it anymore. I am relieved and amazed.
The taxi comes and I am whisked back to the airport, leaving that crazy cat and my new friend Gemini behind. Bali, here I come!
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!
I’m going to Bali. Solo.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I thought it was about time to start up the blog again and revive my (only in my mind, I’m afraid) illustrious travel writing career. Actually, I’m hoping that at least this will be a place of amazing photos and then, on the side, maybe some stuff about Bali and traveling in general that you might find useful. So here goes!
It started on a Sunday. I’m extremely hung over from a fabulous yogini party the night (and early morning before – thank you Lisa for the wine, shrimp, singing bowls and friendship!) and am operating on 4 hours of sleep. But I’m on the train, nonetheless. No, the train does not go all the way to Asia, but will bring me cheaply to Philadelphia, where my flights begin. Last October, I found a flight from Philly to Denpasar (Bali’s airport) for $537 and could not resist. I was in yoga teacher training and Bali is an amazing healing yoga spot. So I tried to get some fellow yoginis to go, and some said maybe, but in the end, it’s just me. Which is fine. I haven’t had a solo pleasure trip in 30 years. It’s time.
Sitting on the train, listening to an audio book and looking out the window, I try to see what’s wrong with my phone. It wouldn’t swipe and kept magnifying without my permission. It had been having problems off and on the past few months, but this was bad. I was really looking forward to going straight from the downtown station to my Philadelphia airport hotel and just crawl into bed, but I had to get this fixed. There was an Apple store within walking distance, so I left my big bag at the station and made the 20 minute walk downtown.
Thank goodness It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!
Of course there were no appointments available at the Genius Bar, but I pledged to wait until they had an Apple pro available. Turns out my phone was broken from the inside and because it was a Verizon phone they could not replace it. Oh well, looks like I have to buy a new one. The staff were extremely helpful and I left sporting a brand new iPhone6. Hooray! They even gave me a discount for my mostly broken phone. Yay.
A quick stop at Hip City Veg for a portobello buffalo sandwich and I’m back to the train station, on the local to the airport, on the shuttle to the Four Points, checked in, got my phone ready for action, printed my boarding passes, and I’m out. It will take 3 days and 22 hours to get to Bali, I have a new fabulous phone that works, and adventures ahead!
So why does it take me 3 days to get from Hampton to Bali?? As mentioned before, I found this fantastic deal, only $537 from Philadelphia to Bali while I was perusing the daily emails at http://www.theflightdeal.com. Usually the fare is around $1300, so I had to jump on it. For this price, I had to get from Virginia to Philadelphia (most economical and quite pleasant by 6 ½ hour train ride), spend the night in Philadelphia, then the next day fly from Philly to Detroit (2 hour flight with a 4 hour layover), then Detroit to Seoul (13 hours), stay the night in Seoul (got here at 6pm) and then fly tomorrow at 11am for my last 7 hour flight.
So right now, it’s 7am East Coast time and 8pm Seoul time, but it seems like the same day, even though it’s tomorrow.
From the hotel this morning (yesterday?) I shuttled to the Philadelphia airport, had a nice breakfast at the lounge, then hopped the flight to Detroit. Usually I get to board first (even get first class), but that’s only when I fly USAir or American. This is Delta today, but I don’t really miss my status because it’s a regional jet where my bag is checked at the gate, no need to get there early for an overhead spot. This is important for all of you who are new to my blog, because I NEVER check my bags. Never. So it’s important to get on quick and early to make sure there’s a space above close to where I’m sitting.
Arriving in Detroit, I am amazed to see how nice it is! Last time I was here (uh, 20-30 years ago) it was pretty much the armpit of airports. But now it’s nice and new and even has a train running inside! Had some time to kill, so found a cover for my new phone, had lunch at PF Chang’s (yum) and re-familiarized myself with the updates on this blogging app. Bad news is, now the camera has broken. There are no camera stores in the airport, so maybe I’ll get lucky in Seoul. Good thing my new phone takes nice pictures!
The 13 hour flight was a piece of cake. Boarded, watched a movie while they served dinner, slept for a couple of hours, watched another movie while they served a snack, slept for another couple of hours, watched another movie while they served breakfast. Just for fun a couple of months ago I ordered a special meal, Asian Vegetarian, in honor of my 14 day Vegan Cleanse that happened in January. This turned out nice because they bring me my meal first, and it seems somewhat fresher than the meal of my seatmate. No charge for this, by the way, and it was good!
When I landed in Seoul, I made my way through customs and immigration, found the train station, bought a ticket (machines have English) and met my new Korean friend Gemini at the station. Since T-Mobile has free texts without changing the SIM card, we were able to communicate in real time.
It’s just getting dark, the lights are coming on, and we drive to the apartment Gemini shares with his girlfriend and talented cat. I have to share the toilet with the cat, who has a special seat that I just flip up when it’s my turn to go.
With the great wifi here, I can catch up on emails and do a little writing. Tomorrow – Bali!!
We’re in Liverpool, home of the Beatles. Later today we have a tour of Beatles sights, but first, I’m seeing what else this city has going for it.
On my own, I visit Liverpool’s two cathedrals, first the Catholic and then the Anglican. The modern Catholic Cathedral looks like a circular spaceship, the altar in the center and chapels lining the outer edge. The Anglican is huge – the largest cathedral in Great Britain – and has a cafe inside. Both were begun around 1900 and both completed in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Each has a different vibe, but I can’t stay long because I don’t want to be late for the walking tour.
The walking tour is free, like the walking tour we took in Dublin. It’s a different company, but the same idea, offer free city tours to sell pub crawls and tours farther afield. However, this company has just started in Liverpool a week or so ago, so there are no other tours yet. In fact, the guide for this tour is the manager of the Liverpool and Dublin tour company, getting to know this area. I feel like I’ve come full circle, ending with a Dublin guy in Liverpool.
The tour is good, though, as we wind our way through the city. Like Dublin, it’s not a stunningly beautiful town, especially today in the blowing rain and 50degree weather. However, the stories are fantastic, like the descriptions of the memorial of the soccer stadium stampede and the “war buddy” memorial. The local paper suggested that in WWII volunteers from the same neighborhood sign up together and guys can fight side by side with their childhood mates. As you might imagine, that was all well and good until they started seeing their friends and neighbors die right in front of them. Today the military deliberately places people together from different parts of the country. It was interesting to chat with the guide and hear his plans to expand the business.
We also learned about the Liverpool Cultural Mascot, the Superlambanana. I don’t know what you call this phenomena – a city adopts an animal or some type of representational figure and places life-size sculptures of this figure, each painted or decorated differently depending on the artist or the location, all over the city. Norfolk has mermaids and I can’t remember the city that has cows. Anyway, Liverpool had a contest and ended up with Superlambanana – a tribute to the imports and exports that have crossed the harbor. Personally, I think it’s weird. A Japanese guy designed it, but the ones around town are decorated by local artists. Still weird.
I grab a bite to eat and head back to the hostel, where our Fab Four Beatles Tour guide will pick us up. We’re ready to go at 2:50pm, but at 3:10pm, no one has come. I ask the hostel staff to call (they made the reservation for me yesterday) and they said someone was on their way. I was really nervous, as we were leaving tomorrow and there was no time to reschedule or find another tour.
Finally, the big black cab of Fab Four rolls up, 20 minutes late. We meet Terry, who is actually the owner of the company, and who is a little peeved at the driver who did not show up. He’s going to make it right with us, though, and oh my goodness, did he ever! First we went to Ringo’s mom’s house (currently condemned), then the Empress Pub at the end of the street, which was on his first album cover. Then down Penny Lane, stopping to take photos (actually Terry commandeered my camera and took most of the photos on the tour) of the barbershop (a barber showing photograhs) and the shelter in the roundabout. During the drive, the appropriate songs are playing in the cab, which adds a lot to the experience.
We move on to the house where Paul McCartney grew up, then Strawberry Field (the s added just for the song – a former orphanage that John used to sneak into – his aunt told him they would hang him if he got caught… nothing to get hung about), then the childhood home of John Lennon. Terry fills us in on everything about their lives that has bled into their music. On to George’s house, and then to the church and meeting hall where John first met Paul. In the church’s graveyard is a headstone for Eleanor Rigby, although when John wrote that song it was years later and he claimed not to have remembered that name from there. He gave us a cd of the BBC interview where John talks about meeting Paul. Fabulous! But before we’re done, he throws in a visit to the hospital where John was born and showed us where they went to school. Wow. I thought I knew my Beatles trivia, but no.
After our return to the hostel, we go to the fancy pub at the Philharmonic next door for dinner. Anna and I get a look at the fancy men’s loo before we enjoy our last dinner out. After dinner, Morgan and I visit, but are mostly too late for an art gallery opening, then come back to the room to pack. We have to leave at 6am tomorrow morning.
However, the day is not done. During my city tour, I saw that there was a Beatles cover band playing at the Cavern Club, the pub where the Fab Four got their start. We leave a bit before 10pm to get down there. The place is packed when the band starts – the energy is high – they really sound like the Beatles! We start sitting, but not for long. After the first set, a bunch of the older folks leave and we get a better view. Admittedly, there are more older folks than younger, but everyone is getting into it. Jon is in filming heaven. After the second set, when even more people drift away and it is more apparent what he is doing, Jon becomes very, very popular. People are dancing right up to the camera and everyone is having a blast. We close the place down at midnight and don’t get back to the room until almost 1am. Yep, it was a Hard Day’s Night! (sorry, I had to say it!)
Chats, Castles, Contemporary Art, and Cuisine
We’re off to Liverpool today, but since it’s only an hour and a half drive from here and we can’t check in until 2pm, we get to hang out in Conwy for a bit.
The first order of business is breakfast. Alan is there, of course, and his friend Ray. We chat and I enjoy their jocular banter (yes, jocular banter). Ray is President of British International Rescue & Search Dogs and tells us amazing tales of adventure and life-saving. Alan tells stories of his National Champion ski coach days, and before I know it, over an hour is past. Jon, Anna, and Morgan come down and Jon wants to film the guys as part of his documentary. I settle up with Alan and leave them to it. I’ve got a castle to tour!
I can see Castle Conwy from my bedroom window and I would like to learn more about it. Construction began in 1283 as part of King Edward I’s plan of surrounding Wales with “an iron ring of castles” filled with English to subdue the rebellious Welsh population. Beaumaris castle, which we visited yesterday, was the last one built. It was never finished. There are only a few explanatory signs, but I admit that I did get chills standing in the King’s chambers. Even though the place is in ruins, there is still a strong sense of history here.
I hike slowly back up the street to Llys Llwellen, find the kids, load the car, and it’s off to Liverpool (and my last day of driving on the left – hooray!!) Mrs. GPS takes us into town under the Mersey River and I drop luggage and kids at the hostel. We have a nice room (4 lower beds) with a bathroom, and the hostel is centrally located. Leaving the kids to their own devices, I head to the John Lennon International Airport to drop the car off and take the number 86 bus back. I know I’m in the right place when I see the yellow submarine. On the way back to the hostel, I’m checking out things to do. I look up, and there’s Penny Lane. Yep, it’s Liverpool.
I text Morgan and tell him that I’m not stopping back at the hostel but continuing down to the waterfront to catch the last hour of the Liverpool Museum, then, after that closes, the last hour of the Liverpool Tate Modern, right next door. We decide to meet for a nice dinner. Jon and Anna found some pork chops at the store and will be cooking in the hostel’s kitchen.
We make it to the restaurant just in time to get the early-bird menu: 25 pounds for three courses and a half carafe of wine. The food is organic, locally sourced, and there’s not a french fry in sight. Heavenly!
Back at the hostel, we make plans for tomorrow. There is a free 3-hour city tour at 11am, but I’m the only one who is interested in this. I want to take the kids on a Beatle-specific tour, and the hostel recommends the Fab Four Tour – 45pounds for all 4 of us for two hours in a private cab. Can’t beat that! We book that one for 3pm tomorrow, our last full day in Europe.
We have one full day in northern Wales to see all of the sights. What do we do? Woolen mills, botanical gardens, a mine, a national park, walks along the mountain stream, castles? So many choices!
Breakfast was with our host Alan, a former ski coach and fascinating fellow. After a bit, his buddy Ray joins the fray and, after chatting about the various options, there is a plan. To the mountains and end with a castle!
We’re heading to Mount Snowden, the highest point in the British Isles outside Scotland. It’s cloudy today, though, so it’s not clear that we will actually see the mountain. No worries, we go anyway. The drive up through green forest opens up to glacier-sculpted rocky valleys. First stop is the picturesque village of Betws-y-Coed for a short walk along a mountain stream. The smell of the pines and the blooming rhododendrons remind me of the forests in the Oregon coastal mountains. We get some chips to go on the way out.
Next stop is Beddgelert, translated as Gelert’s Grave. Gellert was a dog who belonged to Llywelyn the Great, a Prince of Wales. The story goes, Llywelyn, a new father, returns from hunting to find his infant son’s cradle turned over, the baby missing, and his dog, Gellert, greeting him anxiously. The dog’s mouth is smeared with blood. Llywelyn, jumping to conclusions, believes that the dog killed his son, so he draws his sword and kills the dog. As the dog is dying, Llywelyn hears the cries of his son, who is unharmed and safe under the cradle. Next to the boy is a dead wolf who had attacked the child but was killed by Gellert. Llywelyn is extremely remorseful and buries the dog with great ceremony. From that day forward, Llywelyn never smiled again. Sad story, but the setting is pretty. We continue walking down the stream and turn back after the steam train rumbles by.
Back on the road again, we do a quick drive-by of Caernarfon Castle and continue on to Beaumaris. We’re running a little late, so we only have 45 minutes to explore this 13th century castle, which is a shame, because it is so beautiful. Perfectly proportioned, complete with swans in the moat and a chapel with acoustics that make even my voice sound great.
Back to Conwy, we find Alan’s recommended pub and have an early dinner. Tomorrow, on to our last stop, Liverpool. We don’t have to leave until noon, so we can take it easy.
Today we go to Wales. I’m rather excited, because it’s my first visit there. We have a couple of rooms at a nice bed and breakfast in Conwy, a castle town in the north. My GPS says it will take about 4 hours if we barrel straight through, which means we should allow about 6 hours total. The plan is to leave at 9am so we can get to Conwy before dinner.
At breakfast, I ask the kids, “So, what do you know about Wales?”
Anna says, “Dr. Who!”
I ask, “Dr. Who?” And then she tells me Dr. Who, a BBC television show that features time travel and alien evasion which originally aired in 1963. After a run of 26 years, it went off the air, was a feature-length movie in 1996 and restarted again in 2005 to present. I had no idea. I also find out that there’s a particular city – Cardiff – where the show is set and turns out it is only 20 minutes off the GPS route. We must go there.
In about an hour, we roll into Cardiff. Anna doesn’t know exactly where the place she wants to go is, but she looks it up on my phone and gets directions. We end up at Mermaid Quay, a revitalized waterfront area overlooking Cardiff Bay. We park the car and walk past restaurants and shops to get to the square from the tv show. Unfortunately, there’s something blocking up the square, so we can’t really get the full effect. However, there’s a sign pointing to The Dr. Who Experience. We must check this out.
The Dr. Who Experience is part museum and part interactive adventure. Morgan and I are not fans, but Jon and Anna are extremely excited to be here. This is definitely a thing to do. Anna, wearing her Dr. Who t-shirt, got a nod from the woman taking us through. I learned quite a lot about the series, enjoyed the walk-through adventure (like the beginning of some of the rides at Busch Gardens – a movie screen and various moving parts to involve you in the story of flying in the time machine and encountering and escaping from the bad guys), as well as the museum. I’ve got to watch this when I get caught up back home.
On the way back, it occurred to me that I did not pay the parking in advance (I forget and want to pay when we leave, plus the sign is so small), so we hurry back to be sure we don’t have a parking ticket and then decide to head out of town while the traffic is light. Up the road a bit we find a small village and have a nice pub lunch. Then back on the road, we travel through the small towns of western England and eastern Wales, following Mrs. GPS through an innumerable number of roundabouts. Eventually we find Conwy (you recognize it by the castle!) and the Llys Llewellyn Bed and Breakfast. After a quick check-in, we head out to find some dinner. The pubs have stopped serving food, so we end up at the Indian restaurant. Jon and Anna have meat and chips, Morgan and I have curry and vindaloo. After dinner, Jon and Anna go back to the room while Morgan and I walk the walls of the town, enjoying the sunset.
Tomorrow, we explore Wales.
After a fantastic breakfast of sausages and doughnuts made by Jon and Anna, we head east today to see some ancient stones.
It’s a gorgeous day, and we drive through some very cute towns (too busy driving left and passing bicycles on these narrow roads to even instruct the Navigator to take a photo) toward Stonehenge and Avebury.
On the way, we stop at Wilton House, a 17th century mansion where Pride and Prejudice was filmed. It’s expensive to go in, however, and so we content ourselves with peering though the gate to the fine exterior.
When we get to Stonehenge, there is a traffic jam of busses, cars, and all sorts of people in the street. It’s easily seen right off the road, so we do a drive-by and Anna doesn’t even want to stop and take a picture through the fence. Even when you pay the admission fee, you can’t get close to the stones. We’ve all seen photos of Stonehenge and you know, the actual thing looks just like those photos through the fence. Onward!
Avebury is the Stonehenge that you can touch. A circle of huge stones 16 times the size of Stonehenge and built in 2800 BC, hundreds of years earlier line a 30 foot ditch (henge). There were once 600 stones in this huge circle, including a couple of temples in the middle. In the 14th century, the religiously paranoid locals buried these Pagan stones. In the 18th century some were dug up and used as building material. In modern times, more have been dug up and realigned to their believed original position. It takes about 45 minutes to walk all the way around, pausing to embrace these ancient sentinels and dodge the sheep on the trail.
After a nice lunch in the haunted Red Lion Pub, we head back to Axbridge. At Chedway, there is no internet, so I make my way down to The Lamb, have a nice drink, catch up on email and skype George, plot tomorrow’s route, and have a chat with Ray, the local character and the bartender who lives next door.
Tomorrow we go to Wales.
In Search of Childe’s Tomb
We are staying in Axbridge, this little town, because it is centrally located to two of the sights Jon and Anna want to see: Childe’s Tomb in Dartmoor to the west and the ancient stones of Stonehenge and Avebury to the east. According to Google Maps, it’s about an hour to an hour and a half ride each way to each destination. It also, as it turns out, is close to the home of my random Words With Friends opponent (and a worthy one she is, too!) Nicky.
Yes, I’m an addict to Words With Friends (Anybody want to play?? Look me up!! I’ll warn you, I’m pretty good – or very lucky!). A couple of months ago, tired of waiting for my current Friends to make a move (love you guys!), I opted to try a game with a random player. I got Nicky. After a bit of chatting, I found out that she lives near Glastonbury, which is near Axbridge. After more chatting (to make sure she wasn’t some, I don’t know, weirdo), I decided to reach out and see if she wanted to get together when I was there. (ref: Julie’s rules of travel) We made a plan to meet on the way home from Dartmoor. How cool is that?
So, I thought that we would go to see this Childe’s Tomb place, then have time to drive to Wells Cathedral for Evensong, then meet Nicky at the local watering hole, The Sheppey. Yeah, we can do that.
However, Childe’s Tomb was not on any map. We get to the edge of Dartmoor, hoping someone can tell us how to find the trail that leads to it. The ladies at the tourist office have never heard of it, but they send us to a place that can help us, about a half-hour drive away through the 356 square mile park. It’s really a nice drive, though (although the roads are a little narrow for my taste) and we stop for ice cream on the edge of the moors. The tourist office near the Dartmoor Prison says that there’s no marked trail leading to this Childe’s Tomb and it’s a couple of miles walk through the wilderness from where you can park.
We stop for a quick lunch, then go out to see if we can find it. We park and it’s just wilderness – weeds, rocks, and sheep – for miles in every direction. I’m not sure where to go to find this tomb, but we head off down a trail. After about 15 minutes, I personally have had enough, but the kids seem to be reveling in the starkness of this place. I readjust my sightseeing schedule and we head off across the moors. We found canals, cows, overprotective live sheep and a couple of dead ones. Ancient stone circles and a line of stones leading to it that I later found out date from the Bronze Age, maybe 3000 BC. Ancient crosses marking some ancient graves and a pile of rocks that made an excellent viewpoint. Over the hill there’s an abandoned farm on a stream. It’s been 4 hours with several miles under our feet and still no Childe’s Tomb. We’ve looped back closer to the car and decide to call it a day. Childe’s Tomb is still out there waiting, but I think in the search we made some even greater discoveries.
It’s almost 8pm when we reach The Sheppey and meet Nicky. She finds us a place to park along the narrow lane and we go in to meet her husband and some of the guys in her theater group. We hit it off right away. Unfortunately, the kids are starving (well, we all are) and the pub is closed for food. Nicky’s husband rustles up some potato chips and bread and olives, with some soda for Jon, juice for Anna, beer for Morgan and cider for me. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture! I was pretty tired by that time, though, we all were, and when it started to get dark, we had to go. Such a shame! Next time (because now I must attend the Glastonbury Festival – the Rolling Stones are performing this year!) I’ll stay longer.
Back to Chedway, the grocery is still open and we can get food. All is well.
Bed, Bath, and Beyond
Since our train isn’t until noon today, I give the kids the option of sleeping in and leaving at 11am or getting up early and visiting the British Library. The British Library has never been on my list of top ten things to do in London, but hey, it’s just down the street. We can there when it opens and spend about an hour there checking things out before going back to the Mansions, collecting our luggage, and walking the 15 minutes it takes to get to Paddington Station. I’m more than a little surprised when they take me up on the Library excursion and so all bags are packed and ready to go when we leave at 8am.
Who knew a bunch of books and papers could be so exciting? In one room you can find the original Magna Carta and a Gutenberg Bible, sheet music inked by Handel and the lyrics to “Strawberry Fields” handwritten by John Lennon, the wrong words crossed out to make room for the right words. There’s Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks in his backward mirror writing and the earliest versions of some of the greatest works of English literature, including Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Persuasion by Jane Austen, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. I can feel the presence of every person who created these works here and it’s magical. Wow. Upstairs there is a glass room housing many more valuable books. I love the juxtaposition of the “readers” sitting in front of it studying their laptops.
A quick taxi back to the apartment, and we grab our bags and roll on down to Paddington Station. A couple of months ago, I bought tickets for this train online – now I just have to transform my booking number into actual tickets. We each get two tickets for the one way journey. One to get from the station to the platform through the turnstile, and the other to show onboard. It takes us a bit to figure out which one is which, but we do, and we’re on the train. At the station, I suggest everyone get a bite to eat and a drink for the ride.
I would love to say I enjoyed the English countryside, but I can’t. Instead, I was using my iPhone (glad to have that data) to figure out what to do in Bath in about an hour. I knew there was a free tour, but when? iPhone says 2pm. How far is it from the car rental and when to they close? Gotta take a taxi. Where do we stow our bags? Youth hostel 3 blocks from train station for 3euros/bag. How long to drive to Axbridge where we are staying? About 1 hour. If we have time to eat, where can we eat gluten-free? Jamie Oliver has a restaurant there!
So when we got to Bath, I was set to go. We had about half an hour to drop our bags, find the tour beginning, and grab Anna a gluten-free snack before enjoying a marvelous walking tour through Bath given by the Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides. Here’s a little bit about what we learned: the Romans were here and took advantage of the thermal waters and microclimate in this valley to create a prosperous town. Fast forward to the 900’s and the area is Anglo-Saxon. Kings are crowned in the Abbey and a wall is built. Fast forward to the 1700’s, a queen gets pregnant here, and Bath is rejuvenated by Georgian architects John Wood Sr. and Jr. Now it is the place to be for London society. The architecture reflects the times – the front of the buildings are lined with Bath Stone – a unique limestone found only in this area, but the rear of the buildings are made with the cheapest materials. Only the facades are important. We see the Bath Crescent homes and walk down the garden path from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Architecturally, at least, very little in this city has changed since Jane was here.
However, Bath is expensive, so we head back to the hostel, grab our bags and taxi out to the National Car Rental (city center – right!) location on the edge of town. This time, we get a small station wagon with a little bit more room. Morgan Navigator fires up the GPS and we’re on our way to Axbridge.
The tiny town of Axbridge is meant to be a respite after busy London and Bath. It has one square, one pub that serves food, one restaurant in a small inn, one grocery store, one pharmacy, one post office, one butcher, one church, and one graveyard. We meet Boss and Janet, the owners of the 18th century 3 bedroom cottage named Chedway (no number, or street address, just Chedway), and they give us instructions, tell us some stories, and leave the key.
We’re starving, so we head over to The Lamb and have a really nice dinner before stopping at the grocery (open til 10pm!) to get some breakfast supplies. Tomorrow we head out to Dartmoor in search of Childe’s Tomb.
Kings, Jewels, and Shakespeare
Today we have a date with Will. Shakespeare, that is. In his theater, the Globe. The Tempest. At 2pm. And we are no groundlings, nay, we sit in the balcony. For that is the nature of the day.
But first, a little history. One of the best ways to get a feel for London is through it’s past, and there’s no greater concentration of British history than in the Tower of London. A palace, a prison, a repository for jewels and armor, a church and burial ground, so much has happened here in the past thousand years. Much of this is brought to life by the Yeoman Warders, the “Beefeaters”, the kings bodyguard. Only those with 22 unblemished years of British armed forces experience need apply. They tell the stories and lead you through the center of the Tower complex with grisly tales of beheadings and intrigue. But first, a visit to the crown jewels before the line gets too long. Yes, the jewels are impressive – the largest flawless cut diamond in the world is here – The Star of Africa – but it’s not just the big rocks. It’s imagining the rooms, the events, the ceremonies that these objects have participated in. Oh, if only they could talk!
We can’t stay long at the Tower, though. Shakespeare calls and we need to get some sustainment before the play. We reunite with Morgan (what did we do before cell phones?) who has been exploring on his own, cross the Tower Bridge and walk along the Embankment toward the theater. We stop for a nice lunch and now we’re ready for the play. I was lucky to find four seats – but not together – two and two, but that’s ok. The boys sit on one side and we girls on the other. Before we enter the theater, we go across the street to Starbucks (!) to get some water and a gluten free brownie to enjoy during the show.
And what a show it is! OK, I confess that this would not be my first choice of theater in London. And I really knew nothing about the play and was a little afraid I’d get lost in the Shakespearian dialect. But boy, was I pleasantly surprised! There are no mics in the open air theater, but we could hear the actors just fine. The story was clear – a humorous tale of magic and forgiveness. It was fun to see the actors mess with the people standing near the stage and how they incorporated the roar of a jet overhead or the two pigeons mating on the roof into the show. These are not second-rate actors, either. Anna recognized an actor from the BBC show Merlin and the male lead played Illirio in season 1 of Game of Thrones. What an amazing experience!
Afterward, in the glow of an excellent show, we walked next door to see some art at the Tate Modern. I leave the kids for a bit to find a room full of my favorite modern, Mark Rothko. Something about his blocks of color really move me. After 15 minutes here, all is right with the world. Hungry, we walk across the pedestrian bridge (the one the death eaters destroyed in the last Harry Potter), past St. Paul’s Cathedral (very expensive to get in) to Covent Garden. Here they have many food stalls and stores and I let the kids free for a bit to find their own dinner and do some last minute London shopping. Morgan wants to walk back to the Mansions, but Anna, Jon, and I hail a taxi and get to the apartment in time to relax a bit and pack for our departure tomorrow.
What a great day! As my friend Will would say, “All’s Well that Ends Well.
The Car, the Plane, the Mansions, the Eye, and the Lord
Because our flight from Kerry airport, about an hour and a half drive away, is at 930am, we need to leave at 6:15am at the latest. The gas tank is 3/4 full, but I figure I’ll just get gas by the airport. We’re a little late with no time to stop for coffee, and I fly over the roads, still cringing a little bit every time a huge truck comes screaming toward me on the right (because it’s so wrong!)
We pass a gas station about half way there, but I want the tank to be full, so we carry on. When we reach Kerry, however, there is one gas station in town and it doesn’t open until 9am. Gah! I return the car, gas tank still 3/4 full, scrapes on the passenger side of the tires and hubcaps and down the side of the car that I hope aren’t all from me (there were some there when I picked up the car), and minus the luggage cover, which I seemed to have left in the parking spot where I picked up the car in Dublin. But they said don’t worry and took the car back. To this day I have not received any extra billings regarding that rental. Thank you, Hertz!
At the airport, the Ryanair flight is the only thing operating at this time. Ryanair is one of the budget airlines that have sprouted all over Europe in the last 10 years or so. The fare for the one way, 2 hour flight to London is cheap, about $50, plus about $7 for the privilege of booking online (as opposed to $20 if you call). If you have just a small carry on (what US airlines call a “personal item”), don’t need assigned seats ($20), and can print your boarding passes out in advance ($30 per person to print them at check-in), you’re good to go. We choose to pay around $35 for our bags up to 20kg (cheaper for lighter bags), print the boarding passes out in advance, and forego advanced seat assignments. All told, it’s an $87 flight. The other hidden cost is the transportation into the city, as Ryanair flights generally fly into the least convenient airport possible, so we add another $22 to get into town. Still, it beats an 11 hour driving/ferry/driving excursion.
We arrive at Baker Street station and I drop the kids at a cafe while I go fetch the key to the apartment. Once I get it, I grab the kids and we go to our room at The Mansions, which, believe me, sounds fancier than it really is. I am dismayed that my Telestial SIM card (with a British number!), which worked just fine in Germany last December, is not working at all in London. I know this because I am trying to book some standing places at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and can’t get through. So, first order of business, go to Vodaphone and proper SIM cards and a phone for Anna. It’s only about $30 each and includes data for me and Morgan. When that is finished, I collect the kids from our Mansions room in the basement (one small table, a set of double bunk beds, bathroom and kitchen down the hall, but great wi-fi, $120/night – can’t beat the price!) and off we go to Abbey Road.
It takes us about 45 minutes to walk to the site of the Beatles’ recording studio and the famous crosswalk on the Abbey Road album cover. We rename ourselves Paul (Jon), John (Morgan), George (Anna), and Ringo (me), and I try to get them in order so we four can all walk across together, like on the album. They will not be photographed doing this, however, and will not take their shoes off. It’s still cool, though.
It’s Anna’s birthday and we’re riding the London Eye in celebration. We want to do it in the evening to see the lights, but it’s too early in the season for late hours. We get a great sunset, though, and try to pick out landmarks. We’re done and it’s still early, 9pm.
The Book of Rick tells us that we can visit the House of Lords or the House of Commons in the houses of Parliament and watch the goings on until 10pm, so we cross the bridge and check it out. Sure enough, we breeze right in. The House of Commons has quit for the night, but the House of Lords is going strong. We get badges at security and follow the signs through the main hall of what used to be the king’s residence and get to the House of Lords foyer. We sign a paper promising to behave and be quiet, and are escorted to the top gallery to see the proceedings.There are only about eight Lords present, debating a law regarding what to do with prisoners. It’s fascinating – there’s a butler (think Downton Abbey) in tails who brings them glasses of water and guards the doors. They finish at 10pm and file out in a line with a flourish, the guy in front leading with a huge mace. We drop back into the foyer, grab our coats and try to peek into the room at ground level. We’re caught by the head Lord, Lord Tommy McAvoy from Scotland, who asks us if we enjoyed the proceedings. Very much, we said. Well, he said, would you like to walk inside to see where the queen sits at the beginning of every Parliamentary year? YES! How about a visit to the House of Commons, the private dining room, the private terrace on the Thames and the best view of Big Ben ever? Yes, Yes, Yes! We get a private tour of Parliament by the Head Lord complete with stories and photo taking. We can’t believe our luck.
Sometimes the days that don’t start so good end up pretty fine! More London tomorrow.