Southeast Asia

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Facing fears

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On a recent abseiling course, there was a moment of awkwardness when we were all asked to introduce ourselves and why we wanted to learn how to abseil. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t even plead insanity, only that I was interested in adventure and that I was tentatively taking baby steps to wade into doing things that I’d only recently begun to crave.

Then people started talking, and it amazed me how many of them actually signed up to abseil to conquer their fear of heights. In essence, it was to do the very thing they were afraid of, in a controlled environment where there was a smaller chance of screwing up. And then I realised I was, in effect, doing the same thing, if not for abseiling, at least for the impulsively-planned scuba dive trip to Thailand at the end of next month.

I hadn’t forgotten the first instance of utter panic that overwhelmed me when the water enveloped my head during a Bali dive trip in the last quarter of last year. Momentary loss of self-control, coupled with a fear of sinking and drowning even with the regulator bitten down hard between my teeth–they’re all nasty feelings I’d rather not experience again, except I think I must, just so that this particular demon gets exorcised by its very own watery sword.

In the meantime, I’ve surreptitiously googled ‘panic attacks’ a few times as soon as I’d confirmed my flights and hotel, even though cerebral knowledge helps little when push comes to shove under water. This time, I’ve signed up to do the Nitrox course and pray that I’ll get a patient, hand-holding instructor.

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The Cu Chi Stronghold

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Scratch lightly beneath the slick veneer of modernity here and the old way of life that clings to the dusty side streets in the form of weathered women still wearing the Non La (the leaf hat) and hawking her wares emerges. Yet as much as Saigon powers towards the future, being in the heart of District 1 can be a harrowing time and a last-minute booking on Viator to the Cu Chi tunnels made sure that we had a day away from the madness here.

As far as it typically goes with many of my travel plans, the day was off to an inauspicious start when a sweating and harried-looking Les Rives Experience representative arrived at the hotel a half-hour late by Vinasun taxi. The official (or made-up?) story he gave was that the tour-guide had met in an accident, though I suspected it was simply a story he concocted, because to admit that he forgot about our reservation was just unthinkable. Arriving late at Saigon’s pier while the rest of the tour group shot accusing glares at us took an inch of thickened skin and a nonchalance developed after a few days of blithely crossing the roads here.

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Nhu was the guide for the day, an egregious man who calls the whole tour group ‘team’ and herds everyone around with a friendly but firm hand. 16 years of taking groups through the tunnels and he still hasn’t lost his passion for telling stories. Even the most unschooled in Vietnamese history would get the basic gist of what he is saying: the Cu Chi tunnels are a complex network of underground tunnels started by the Communist forces in the 1940s, which became a major feature in the war between the American forces and the Viet Cong soldiers in the 1960s-70s.

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At the height of the war, tens of thousands lived underground in incredibly claustrophobic spaces, setting brutal but inventive traps for those who dared to trespass on hallowed Viet Cong ground.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at an organic vegetable farm, a small rice-paper making hut, a rubber plantation and a cricket farm (why do the damn crickets look like cockroaches?!). Bugs, after all, as one of the guys in the group said, are the food of the future, as he put fried cricket after cricket into his mouth. The Travel Companion (TC) even enthusiastically remarked that they tasted like fried chicken skin.

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Was it any wonder then, that only the men ate them while the women tried not to cringe?

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Food, glorious food

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It’s hard to get over what Ho Chi Minh is really today; I use its old name as much as as I do its ‘modern’ one and maybe that encapsulates what this place is really about. Crossing the road is the experience that I’d go as far as to say metaphorises Ho Chi Minh – hesitate and get caught in an interminable flow of traffic that will not stop; go slowly but surely forward and you’ll get to your destination much sooner than you think.

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The obsession with Vietnamese food continued well into the third day and searching out Cục Gạch Quán was an inspired decision, which, to my horror, proved that we would do quite a lot in search of unusual but good food. We cabbed to a charming house off the beaten track in rush hour and what was meant to be a 20-minute journey was doubled when the driver frustratingly decided that slow and indecisive driving gave more joy than grief to the world at large.

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Thankfully, the food more than made up for it, though that would meant eating street food in rather unsanitary conditions and getting exactly what the locals eat. We tried it anyway, and paid a little later with stomachaches.

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The Saigon Miracle

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The heat is on in Saigon.

After a confusing and unintelligible one-sided conversation with a taxi driver who stopped abruptly at the side of the road to exchange vehicles with another taxi driver, we made it (relatively safely) to the hotel. But I think the true miracle lies in not merely observing the chaotic traffic but walking in it. In a city of 10 million people and 7 motorbikes, crossing the road and coming out alive seemed to be a miracle each time. A short day and a half later, I’m truly thankful – as 2014 comes to a close and as far as ‘self-reflection’ is supposed to go – for limbs that are still intact and a nose that hasn’t yet bled dry from the pollution on the busy streets of Saigon.

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Choosing to do a food tour thus, with Back of the bike tours at Ho Chi Minh is possibly one of the smallest but best decisions I’ve ever made while travelling. Riding pillion on a scooter while a local guide whisks me from district to district to eat for an entire afternoon is an amazing idea that surprisingly hadn’t taken off that well in the countries that I’ve visited.

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Despite a late and panicked email confirmation on my part, Sin, Ai and several others with one-syllable names walked into the Pullman Saigon Centre at 1pm, briskly shook our hands and packed us efficiently onto their motorcycles/scooters as we headed for the first stop at Le Van Tam Park for the Green Papaya Salad. On the way, I learned that HCMC was in the midst of a ‘mild’ summer at 32 degrees Celsius while sweating my arse off on Ai’s scooter seat and that the owner of the Salad store sold 100 kilos of papaya a day – and with that, sent her son to study in America with those earnings.

My dirty dreams of owning a Ducati (obviously a license must come first) while we zoomed along the streets of HCMC came to an abrupt halt when Ai pulled onto the curb, dumping me in front of a roadside stall that served the most incredible Bun Thit Nuong (Rice noodles with grilled pork, spring rolls and pork sausage, 3-5 Trung Thien Voung street, District 8) I’ve ever had. The chatty, friendly owner has been doing this since she was 15 with her mother and at the ripe, golden age of 52, is now trying to matchmake her single female customers with her son.

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After some suspicious stammering, we were off again to Banh Canh Ghe’s Ocean Crab Soup with Tapioca Noodles (Nguyen Tro Phoung street, District 10). The shop’s name is a literal translation of the very sauce it is famous for: the light green chilli sauce that mysteriously disappears as quickly as the steamy, milky broth of crab, friend soybean curd and udon-like noodles after they appear on the table.

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Nearly full to bursting, there was still the fantastic Banh Khot (7 Dong Nai street, District 10) – mini, deep fried pancakes wrapped in a large lettuce leaf with a large amount of herbs and shredded green papaya. And there was still dessert at Trop 8 (306/4 Nguyen Thu Minh Khai, District 3) that included a variety of stuff: xôi kem (coconut ice cream and mulberry-flavoured sticky rice), a cold fruit platter, mango and vanilla ice-cream on sticky rice and blueberry homemade yoghurt.

Food bliss meter reached for the day.

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Manta Point

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Along with 2 partying Aussie women, a Belgian who sounds vaguely Russian, a Swede who sounds too much like American TV and an unnamed European who loves Taiwan and Hong Kong, I made a quick trip down Sanur’s Jln Kesumasari and then we were trudging down the beach at low tide to get to the speed boat aptly named ‘Halloween’ given the time of the year.

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An hour later, we found ourselves at Nusa Penida’s Manta Point under the care of Ethel and Imam and gearing up awkwardly in the cramped space of a speedboat. And then it was a backward-roll and straight into bloody cold waters.

“Great idea. Diving in a shorty!” The Big Belgian proclaimed loudly and sarcastically to himself when it became apparent that the water was too cold for anything that ended at knee level.

I only managed a choked chuckle while shivering with the cold. Of all the people in the group, he was the most boisterous and the most entertaining.

In short, Manta Point was a disappointment lasting 45 minutes. Visibility wasn’t too good and the state of the reef could not compare to the one at Tulamben or even at Padang Bay and nary a Manta in sight.

We all ascended except for the Big Belgian who, in his own words, said later, “I have 100 bars left, so I thought ‘Fuck it’, I’m going to stay down. I must see a Manta.”

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In all his 500 dives around the world, he’d apparently never seen one and the desperation was showing, having already promised a few beers for everyone for every Manta that he spots. The only conditions were that he had to see it with his own eyes and that the Manta had to be bigger than him.

20 minutes into the second dive at Manta Bay, 4 of those graceful creatures glided in like thieves in the night and frolicked on the surface where our exhalation bubbles were. I floated (or tried to) enraptured as they swished and turned and flapped along with shoals of fish, and developed an equalisation problem at the worst possible time.

The Big Belgian was so satisfied with the Manta spotting that he couldn’t care less about the rest of his dives the next day and looked puzzled when no one seemed as excited as he was. Truthfully, I stopped caring once the ear started giving problems.

And just like that, our 50 minutes were up. Back to Joe’s gone diving for lunch (Big Belgian said that he was hungry enough to eat a manta, god forbid) with Buttons the Beagle, with loads of time to spare to collect the laundry I sent in yesterday.

We never got our promised beer.

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Sanur Beach walk

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I’m bad with free days on vacation. Without something planned on the agenda, I’m as lost as a pigeon without feed. Waking up late is a side luxury when I’ve been getting up at the arse crack of dawn the past few days and wandering down to the hotel’s bakery, I decided that the 4km-length of the Sanur beach walk might do some good.

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Under the scorching heat, I lasted merely a kilometre or so before hailing a taxi back to languish in the pool for a bit, while wondering how people manage to do this all day.

But here, in Sanur, there are things to do still: shopkeepers to bargain with, spas to visit, day trips to other parts of Bali to do, tons of Balinese food to try. Apart from diving – which is a relatively recent rediscovery of mine – Bali’s rightfully known for its innumerable spas of which I’m unashamedly taking advantage. The array of services is bewildering but cheap and mouthwateringly good, as is the smell of the herbal concoctions that practiced hands rub onto skin.

I’ll miss it loads when my run in Sanur ends.

 

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Diving Deep into Hot Waters

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The weeks leading up to an impulsively booked trip to Bali for Advanced and Rescue/Recovery Diving passed in an anxious blur of respiratory specialist visits, spirometry testing, frights over difficulty breathing and a steady stream of decongestant medication.

And all of that for a doctor’s signature on the PADI diving medical form.

I packed my bags with trepidation a few days ago and headed off after several sleepless nights and was pleasantly surprised to be the first at a sleepy immigration corner upon arrival. Even the hastily-arranged driver from Putu’s gang of merry men actually turned up a few minutes late – his arrival finally caused the rest of the taxi hustlers to drop away like salt on leeches.

Monday arrived too quickly and those cold feet returned when Joe’s Gone Diving’s driver whisked me off to the office to meet my instructor Ezra, who said that he would be supervising the entire course for two days. Joe’s Gone Diving is run by 2 Dutch expats and attracts people from all over the world, meaning, a motley crew of hedonistic expats, serious Indons and everyone else in between seeking some sort of deep-sea gratification can be found here.

I was made to study in the van on the way to Padang Bay and to Tulamben, covering topics like Wreck diving, Deep Diving, Peak Performance Buoyancy and Navigation (not my favourite at all). So far out of my comfort zone, I’ve managed to: Tumble head first into the water after some weak protesting, doing a forward somersault with the damned BCD and tank, stabbed my toe hard against the rocks on Tulamben beach, hit the knee even hard and get quite sunburned.

Not too bad for someone who hasn’t dived in years.

Buoyed by the high of actually completing the course, I ditched the rescue one and chose to do a fun dive instead at Manta Point in 2 days.

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The Art of Marinating

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Perhaps I have read too many spa reviews/experiences written in the female voice that typically crows over the stress-relieving touch of the masseurs, the potent ambience of the location, and the overall sense of peace they come out with.

TC presents a rare but entertaining read of his own experience at the spa after I cajoled, begged, forced persuaded him to try a rub-down at least once in a lifetime.

Finally, a male voice describing all.

*****

The row of shops the driver stopped us at seemed normal enough. What did not make sense was that the driver was now gesticulating at what looked like an attached garage telling us that this was Bali Botanica. The trouble was, there was no door and no sign.

Where, I thought, is this spa?

It was then that I realised he was not talking about the small garage like building but the narrow grassy path to the left of it. So, I turned and walked down the path TB (the babe, for those of you who have forgotten) following behind, only to find that the end of it appeared to be a patch of forest. The path wound right, which seemed to end in more jungle.

Fine, I thought, let’s just see where this thing leads to.

The path took another sharp right and there, strangely, enough was the reception room of the spa, built at the back of a house, next to forested land. We were given a brief explanation of what our requested treatments involved, then assigned our masseurs. Our masseurs led us to an adjacent building, then down a flight of steps, where in a white tiled passageway, our massage rooms beckoned. In mine, in one corner of the room, was a large, modern bathtub adjoining the wall. In another corner was a shower area, built into the corner itself. Oddly enough, there was no door or shower cubicle, just the two tiled walls of the corner. In the centre of the room, was what appeared to be a doctors examination couch, decked out in faux leather with a hole at one end. Directly under the hole was a small bowl of water, with some flowers floating on the surface. Softly played mood music was piped into the room by some unseen speakers.

I was instructed to change out of my clothes into disposable underwear, after which the masseur left the room for a while.  The trouble was, no matter how I adjusted it, the underwear seemed unbalanced. After attempting to wear it back to front and even inside out with no relief, I took the underwear off and examined it. That was when I realised that the silly thing was poorly made, with the waist band on the left side thicker than the one on the right. By this time, the masseur was knocking on the door wanting to know if I was done. I asked her for a minute, hurriedly jammed on the underwear and adjusted it as best I could, then jumped on the table, face down. For some reason, I thought that the best thing to do was to rest my chin on the edge of the hole in the table. Possibly I did not fancy staring into a bowl of water for half an hour. Side note: I still do not understand why staring into a bowl of water with floating flowers is supposed to be relaxing.

The masseur started the massage working from my feet upwards. I found myself trying hard not to laugh as the action of the masseurs fingers on my feet was ticklish. As the masseur worked on my thighs, I was impressed with the amount of strength she exerted. She was after all, of fairly slight build. The problem was, that same strength of her pounding hands on me was now pounding my chin into the table. It was then that I realised how the hole in the table was really supposed to be used. In between the pounding, I crawled forward and dumped my head face down into the hole, grateful for the relief against the pounding it brought me.

By the time the masseur had worked her way up to my neck and finished working with on that, I was nearly asleep. So I was slightly shocked when I felt something sticky being thrown on the back of my legs. The substance had a grainy, pasty texture with an oily run-off. It had a spicy odour which reminded me of a sweet version of rendang gravy with a strong eucalyptus background. After being applied to my skin for a few seconds, I felt a hot sensation similar to that of the medicated sports massage cream. The masseur continued and applied the substance to my arms and back. She then left me to lie for a while, as I spent time reflecting on how on earth I had agreed to pay to have myself marinated like the meat in a curry dish.

So, they have come to rub the marinate into the meat. Not bad, quite thorough. The dabbing process had the effect of removing most of the oil that the spicy paste contained.

The masseur then asked me to turn over and placed a blindfold over my eyes. She then repeated the massage on the front of my body. I was again treated to the same tickling of the feet, then lulled near sleep. The burning feeling of the spice on my back was by now, reduced to a slight warmth, which was somehow assuring and comforting. When she finished the massage, she again applied the same spice to the front of my body.

After a slight pause where nothing seemed to be happening, the masseur came over and removed the blind fold. She quietly informed me that the massage was over but I was to finish the process by relaxing in the bath.

Heavily marinated and feeling rather foolish in my ill-fitting underwear, I thanked her, then climbed off the bed and walked towards the bath. It seemed to be filled with some brownish water, with leaves floating on top. Upon climbing in, I found that the water exuded a sweetish aroma with a eucalyptus tinge. Digging around in the water, I discovered large sticks of cloves in addition to the leaves, which seemed to be the source of the eucalyptus like odour.

I finally decided that I had better wash up and get out, before TB started wondering what had happened to me. I got rid of the ill fitting disposable underwear, then proceeded to wash off. I had quite a lot of problems getting rid of the oil on my skin as the soap provided by the spa seemed rather insipid. After soaping and resoaping my body several times, I was finally able to get rid of most of the oil. The sweetish, spicy odour however, remained on my skin.

How did I find the massage? It was curiously relaxing. The spice actually felt quite good on the skin. I suspect most men might actually enjoy that massage. I was certainly glad my whim of trying the spice massage paid off.
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A returning nightmare

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Lunch on the last day consisted of pizzas made with eggplant, spinach and ricotta, and tasted like raw plant. Then it was back to Bali Botanica for a rather strange rub-down that involved twisting of joints, and more alarmingly combined with some sort of prayer on the masseur’s part. The weather was unkind that day, and with much sweat pouring off my back despite having thoroughly showered off earlier, my top was pretty much soaked through.

The “son” – which we later learnt was the nephew of the first driver – was already waiting for us in the parking area and spent the first part of the journey over-enthusiastically thanking us for our business, lauding the achievements of his own son, and how hard he needed to work to support the children’s education. I think I’ve never been more pleased to see that blue taxi, called by guides as the most reliable and trustworthy in Bali. For 190,000 IDR (the same price that we paid for going to Ubud), the fare was still marginally cheaper than what the hotel and all the various transport touts offered.

I counted the number of vehicles we had sat in for the past couple of days, and they came up to a whopping 9 of them in a short 3 days. Taxi touts clawed for your business everywhere, while some moonlighted as drivers when they could; the transportation system is chaotic, only exorbitantly reliable and based on the cut-throat law of natural selection.

“Bluebird taxi the best!” The driver exclaimed frantically while simultaneously attempting to accomplish the mean feat of overtaking multiple vehicles and avoiding a motorcade.

I kept a wary eye on the road, terrified of being driven onto the kerb at high speed as the taxi meandered its way out of Ubud slowly. We got to the airport early, thankful for the relatively fuss-free traffic, only to find out that the plane had been delayed. Screaming children dominated the entire journey back, which made it doubly arduous after the flight delay and the chaotic boarding process in Ngurah-Rai. The over-obliging flight attendant’s (misplaced) anxiety to please those who travelled in large groups, and the pilot’s insipid, excuse-filled address 45 minutes from landing needlessly contributed to the pervasive imbecilic atmosphere.

We dealt with it differently.

I think that was the time my mind became the most wonderfully inventive as it conjured up new ways of inflicting pain that all lead to death. Mentally applying them to the noisy things were satisfying…almost. TC threw a hissy fit worthy of Paris Hilton suffering chipped nail paint, made things difficult, proclaimed it the “worst flight I’d ever been on” and then departed unhappily to do – what I presume as – some soul-searching.

I returned from Bali without the eye-opening wonder that accompanies most Westerners, but not without some interesting insights into a place that is still so foreign from what I knew. Bali is after all, both all and not that the guides (I refer both to the books and the actual folk on the island) purport it to be.

Perhaps the rest of Southeast Asia can wait a little bit more.

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Noodles, rice fields and a side trip

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Long before we left for Bali, I had a (stupid) dream. It was to buy Super-mi (a type of instant noodles produced in Indonesia) ever since I last ate them while visiting a friend in Melbourne in 2003. It was a silvery packet with a road-duck flavour, and since tasting them, I was completely lost and raged against the dying light and the dawning day when I simply couldn’t find them anywhere else. Weeks before we departed, I dreamt again that TC had already bought his box, while I struggled to buy my own. I related this very earnestly to TC, explained that I really needed the noodles after those years of deprivation, and after laughing his head off, he agreed that this request wasn’t actually too frivolous after all.

It was just that we needed to slot some time in trying to source for those noodles and that time never seemed better than when we decided to do a half-day tour around eastern Bali. After all, we were satisfied that we looked quite carefully in Ubud only to come back disappointed.

It seems like I did not have to think so hard about hiring a decent driver after all. The criteria I had initially mentally listed and stored were: trustworthy, owns an equally trustworthy vehicle, peaks a smattering of English, knowledgeable enough to tailor a suitable itinerary, preferably non-smoking, looks “un-seedy”.

Maybe the last part was asking a bit too much. It took me a long time after all, to get over the fact that many people smoke.

On the way to town in the resort shuttle service, I asked the driver if he knew anyone who was good with side-trips, and rambled about needing to find a driver who most importantly, had an air-conditioned van.

Wayan was thus first introduced to us not as a person, but through his vehicle, a nondescript white jeep parked halfway on the pavement.

I fired off just 2 places – Kintamani and Sidemen road – that we were both interested in seeing. After thinking for a moment, Wayan suggested we try Tegallalang (where the rice terraces were), Tampak Siring (a small eco-plantation to have a look at native plants), Kintamani (the mountainous area with a view of the volcano Gunung Batur), and finally the Sidemen regency with purportedly even more views. A bit of haggling lowered the price slightly from 500,000 IDR to 400,000 IDR for the places we wanted to visit and though it was a fair bit more pricey than I was willing to pay, we agreed, and it was off for a half-day around the eastern part of Bali.

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The rice terraces of Tegallalang was the first brief stop, and while it was an experience seeing Secondary School human geography finally coming to life many years too late, I suspect I was more horrified to see young boys riding scooters and motorbikes helmet-less by the droves for some part of the way. I recall asking TC in incredulity if I was really seeing a boy on top of one.

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For all our preparation and rush to leave the resort at 10am, we forgot the much-needed insect repellent, only beginning to regret it when we entered the eco-plantation at Tampak Siring. I was blood-sucked quite a fair bit while TC escaped completely. The rather fun activities there – sampling drinks, identifying seedlings, browsing the small shop of spices and scents – almost made me forget the itch, but not quite. On hindsight, perhaps we were foolish to think that the vanilla pods, and some instant lemongrass drink/ginseng coffee powder were worth the amount we were paying to bring back for the respective mothers.

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We zipped around the mountain road through Kintamani – thank god for the brief respite from the heat in the cooler air uphill – and I started to ask whether the Bersakih Temple Complex was worth a visit.

“The place [Besakih] nice,” Wayan replied, “But the people not nice. They offer guide, make you pay money. Follow you long.”

“Oh.”

“If you want, I take you there,” Wayan insisted, “I try help you with bad people.”

I eye-balled TC pleadingly, hoping that he would ask Wayan about our ludicrous request for instant noodles. He sighed in acknowledgement.

“Er…Do you know where we can find super-mi?” TC asked somewhat nervously. I was certain that Wayan’s eyes would have popped out of his sockets at this absurd request from the odd pair behind.

“Many kinds of noodles!” To his credit, Wayan did not sound too shell-shocked. “Mi-Sedap, Indo-mie…”

“No, no, must only be super-mi,” TC insisted.

“Ubud no find? So you no want Sidemen road?”

“Yah, we want the Sidemen road, Ubud don’t have!”It seems that our language abilities had to be adjusted accordingly.

He relented, and promised that we could make our way to KlungKlung (Semarapura) after we finished touring the Sidemen regency.

Satisfied for now, I asked if there was a Warung anywhere near so that we could stop for a quick lunch.

Wayan answered in the definite negative, and told us that in the rural areas of the region we were visiting, there was one and only one restaurant opened by Europeans. The alternative was to settle for road-side stalls whose food as he put it, had been displayed for days and probably illness-inducing.

We reluctantly agreed simply because of the lack of available choices, and had to admit that the site they chose pretty much guaranteed them a monopoly of business for miles around. Our first view of the restaurant however, was that of the queue of Western tourists waiting to pose with a blue statue of a Hindu god that took the form of an elephant whose snout was noticeably glued back. We sat in a quiet area with ridiculous views of the terraces, and snorted with amusement when I told TC that the Western tourists seemed more interested in the Balinese performance at the far side of the restaurant than in having their meals.

The Sidemen area was the last activity of the day and despite our determination not to pack activities, we seemed to move speedily from place to place, refusing to stop unnecessarily to the point that Wayan asked if we were in a rush for other things. Sidemen was gorgeous, and the mountain roads that Wayan took were obscure but picturesque, and sometime unfamiliar to the driver himself.

I got impatient, despite the surrounding greenery. Truth be told, my noodles were waiting. Waiting to buy Super-mi, as I told TC, was the fulfilment of my life’s dream up until that point. TC laughed and fretted whether 100,000 IDR was enough to spend on noodles. I think I became visibly excited as KlungKlung came into view. I scrambled out of the car just as it stopped and made a beeline for the supermarket that Wayan pointed to, feeling wondrously pleased as we cradled our packets of instant noodles as though they were precious gems to the cashier. They turned out way cheaper than we thought and the careful packing we needed to do for those fragile packets momentarily eluded me. That silvery packet still eluded us; the supermarket had the plastic packaged ones with similar flavours to the Indo-Mie – but that had to do for now.

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