On the rocks. On the beach. Not drinks, but a CrazyTravelers Uruguay and Argentina Adventure – Part 1: A Family Affair

CrazyTravelers write this post from Patagonia. Not the store at the mall, but the mountainous region in Argentina. We’ve committed major fashion faux-paus here all decked out in our North Face brand fleece to keep warm in the cold mountain air, but have been inspired enough by the beauty of the snow capped mountains and majesty of the eons-old glaciers to switch outdoor gear brands when we get home. (Side note of interest, North Face is named after a famed summit of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland. Patagonia brand is names for, well, exactly where we were standing!)

So how did we four CrazyTravelers make our way here to southwestern Argentina, just a few hundred kilometers from the southern tip of the Americas – where boat trips to Antarctica depart from (bucket list, take note.) We continue our quest to plant our feet in 100 different countries, but with kids in tow our intrepid destinations must now include access to beaches/pools to keep the kids happy. So Argentina, coupled with a side trip/passport stamp run to the nearby beaches of Uruguay got CrazyTraveler parents the outdoor adventure they wanted, and CrazyTraveler kids the beach they wanted.

South America on a Sunday: After a grueling 30+ hours of travel (including 12 hours in the San Paulo airport, in which all of Adam’s many business travels over the year were forgiven upon his status getting all 4 of us access to the VIP airport lounge, it’s buffet, and open bar) started in Montevideo, Uruguay…where after few hours poking around the city in the rain, we promptly jumped in our rental car to head to the beach. (Advice to other travelers: arriving in a South American city on a Sunday was just like landing in a European city on a Sunday. Everything is closed. We were relieved when we finally found a place to buy a water. Our first hot meal in-country – for the girls anyway – was McDonalds, because it was the only place we found that was open!).

Exotic beaches: Uruguay is known for its famed Punto del Este beaches, where South America’s rich and famous go to vacation. Which means we passed it right by, continued another few hours up the coast to the hippier surfer enclaves of La Paloma, La Padrera and Punto del Diablo. If we had managed to grow dreadlocks on that drive we would have fit right in! We took some long walks on the windy beaches, got the girls in surf lessons, and excitedly found lots of recently-hatched turtle eggs. We must have missed the hatching by just a few days, from the number of hatched eggs littering the beach. We were at the Uruguay beachs for nights 5-8 of Chanukah, which means that the girls had fun combing through the shops for presents. Suffice it to say, beachside vendors sell basically the same t-shirt, sunglasses, shell-jewelry crap worldwide. The girls just now have some of that same crap from a more exotic destination!

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Young love and delicious steak: As always, we found other families with kids, and Vivi basically got adopted by a Brazilian family with a 5 yr old son. Young Otto’s bilingual mother brokered the love affair he had with Vivi, leaving Shelley, Adam and Zara to explore the sand dunes and ice cream shops. The highlight was when the Brazilian family decided to use the outdoor asado (Uruguayian style grill) at the hotel. We had Uruguayian beef cooked in an asado, but prepared and served in the Brazilian churascuria style. Suffice it to say, it was delicious.

 

From sea to shining mountain of ice: It may have taken Bruce Chatwin many months to cross this dramatic landscape hitchhiking in his famous In Patagonia accounting, but via two plane rides, we were able to get ourselves from Uruguays’s beach sand dunes to snow-capped mountains and glaciers in Argentine Patagonia in a day. And glacier visit we did. The town of El Calafate is the tourist base to visit the Perito Moreno glacier, a veritable mountain of moving ice that is thousands of years in the making. Its part of a large chain of 300+ glaciers that span Argentina and Chile. They’ve built a 7km boardwalk along the glacier edge for an up close view of the towers of ice, and excitingly, the “calving” of glaciers – when huge chunks break off and make a thunderous splash into the water, forming floating icebergs. You never know where and when the glacier will calve, but when it does, it is truly amazing. We saw three. Each time, the crowds on the walkways burst in to spontaneous applause. It was like routing for your favorite team to score, the anticipation of waiting for a piece of the wall to lean, moan, shed a small piece or two, the break off in a loud crash. This was nature in action. Then, we got to see it even closer from the boat ride we took right up to the glacier edge. Even the girls liked it, and they are not ones with much appreciation of the natural world at the tender ages of 6 & 9.

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Gauchos and Gringos: With two young girls in tow, there are not too many mountain peaks to be summitted, or hikes much longer than 3-4km to be traversed. So we saw scenery the way kids enjoy too. From the rental car. Or twice, on horseback for the “gaucho” experience. Argentina is for the most part a developed western nation, but we knew we were in the true back country of Patagonia for our second ride, when the Rio Mitre estancia (ranch) put the two girls on horses, handed Shelley and Adam ropes to guide the horses, and let us take our own walk around the ranch – no map, no conversation about our comfort with horses, no specific instructions, nada. We took a path through purple and yellow wildflowers with mountain peaks and a glacier lake in the distance. Much like the mirage of an oasis in the desert, we walked towards the lake in the distance but after an hour of walking realized we weren’t much closer than when we started, and turned back around to the ranch – pleased that we grownups got a leisurely nature walk in, that the girls enjoyed the horses. Later in the day we stumbled upon some real gauchos, herding a flock of thousands of sheep across the road. The highlight was when the one gaucho bent down to pick up a small baby sheep straggler, placed him on his saddle, and continued on to catch up with the herd with the little sheepie bleating away. Shelley caught it on camera, Adam from the drivers seat of the car, and as typical, the girls barely looked up from their iPads in the back seat to see the sheep spectacle. Oh well.

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Life is Sweet…as dulce de leche and vino tinto: It is not a complete travel blog about Argentina without a mention of dulce de leche, which they serve on bread, on pastry, between cookies, on just about everything. Think of Nutella, but in spreadable carmel form. The girls loved the helado (ice cream), which is similar – in fact, dare we say better – than Italian gelato. We couldn’t understand half of the names of the flavors in Spanish, so had fun sampling lots of flavors, including an unusual “sambuyan” (wine/eggnog like) flavor that was the grownup favorite. And speaking of wine, needless to say plenty of vino tinto (red wine) was drunk. Bottles were dirt cheap, and delish. And for those in the know, yes we drank some Fernet Branca, but no we did not enjoy it. Not even mixed with coca-cola the way the locals down it in mass quantities.

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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough to Keep Me from You: Well, except that there is. Adam and the girls hopped on a plane back to Buenos Aires, then home to Washington DC – while Shelley stayed on for some Patagonia trekking in the Andes for an extra 10 days, taking advantage of the new flexibility of working for herself as a freelancer. With a backpack, hiking shoes, computer, iPhone and pesos in her pocket, Shelley bid adios to Adam and the girls from Calafate, and started making her way north by local bus through the mountain towns of El Chalten, El Bolson, Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes along the famed Ruta 40 (Argentina’s equivalent to Route 66, but with a lot more potholes and less paving).

Stay tuned for installment #2 for more reports from the road…

 

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Trekking to Triund: it’s all uphill in the Himalayas

I remember walking uphill uphill uphill on the Anapurna Circuit in the Himalayas of Nepal many many moons ago. 1997 to be exact. I remember the constant out of breath. The huffing and puffing. I remember asking people who were on the way down how far it was to the next village or the next tea house. They inevitably said “oh not so far, about one hour.” But then I would trek – uphill, of course – another one hour, two hours, more, huffing and puffing. And would run into other trekkers on their way down and ask them the same question, how far to the next village or next tea house and they would inevitably say, “not so far, maybe one hour.” So I was clearly slow slow slow making slow progress up the mountain, on nobody’s time estimates but my own.

It was quite miserable in reality, the constant uphill. And yet, quite a wonderful hiking experience. Something I’ve romanticized for all these years. Making it to Annapurna base camp back then, camping above the snow line for the night, remains one of my proudest travel memories and greatest travel accomplishments. I’ve long thought about another camping trek…and on this most recent trip to the lower Himalayas in India, I finally squeezed it in!

For sure there were plenty of travel agencies in town (Dharmasala, India) offering group treks. Tempting, in that windy paths up a steep mountain seem a lot more palatable with a professional guide. But I was nervous to sign up with a group. The company would be great, yes. And the surety of the correct path, comforting. But I was worried I’d be the oldest, fattest and for sure, the slowest. I didn’t really want to be on anyone’s hiking time schedule but my own, or feel like I had to chase a guide or group up the mountain.

One upside of solo backpacking is the opportunity to tackle adventures alone, on your own terms. And sometimes you can even do this with other like-minded travelers, together! At the end of my drop-in meditation class I was chatting about the trek to Triund, the base camp on one of the peaks overlooking Dharmasala, and quickly found two other solo backpackers to trek up with together. So, early the next morning, I set out uphill with a German jewelry maker who was hanging out in Dharm for a few weeks waiting for the Dalai Lama’s November arrival, and a British former punk girl with lots of tattoos and even a brand on her arm. Both were great company for the full-day trek up, no one in a particular hurry, willing to wait when I had to stop to catch my breath at the more egregious rock-hewn steep parts, and willing to stop at the rustic tea stalls for warm chai masalas and snacks. Half-way up we met another solo hiker, and she joined the gang and kept us entertained with her stories about the 10 days of total silence meditation retreat she had just finished that morning! I think she was happy for the conversation!

Despite my worries, my intimidation of the uphill, my out-of-shapeness and my age, I trekked uphill uphill uphill to Triund. Pine trees and peaks towered above. Hawks and magpies soared in the sky. Ankles trembled on gravel and loose rocks. The wind woo’d in my ears and blew my hair to vertical. Jagged breath spilled from my lungs, and meditative self pep-talks spilled from my mind as I talked myself up the mountain. While many people opt to hike up and down in a day, I spent the night at the base camp at the top, cacooned within a pile of questionably clean by no-doubt warmth providing blankets.

I watched the mountain top midsts role in and then, suprisingly, clear up – leaving us all a perfect view of the surrounding mountains that for hours before had been only silhouetted against dense clouds and fog. I feared that I wouldn’t see stars because of the cloud cover, but then around 8pm, the midsts blew over and cleared up again and the stars from the mountain top became practically touchable, the Milky Way glowing overhead and the lights of Dharmasala sparkling below. I ate dal (lentils) and rice with my fingers – the local way – at the tea stall, where food was cooked and tea was heated over a single bunsen burner. I paid a fortune for a Snickers bar, whose price increases the higher and higher you get up the mountain. I played cards and drank Old Monk local rum with two other campers at the top – chefs from Delhi – who kept me entertained with their stories and energy. I crashed at a dingy top of the world guest house with an old Australian man in north India for a six week walk-about who was nice enough to decide to impulsively spend a night at the top when we looked around and realized that I was not only probably the only westerner planning to camp at base camp that night, but quite also the only woman, and having someone else around might make things more comfortable and safe. (Turns out I probably would have been fine, but he was entertaining company to have around too).

Before bedtime (around 8:30pm), we star gazers were treated to a shooting star. We had chatted about wanting to see one. We were staring at the sky together, cold and wrapped in blankets and jumping up and down outside the tents to keep warm. But there one was, in a split second, in the blink of an eye, low across the horizon. We all saw it. And sort of shrieked and hugged. Then off to bed, knowing that the downhill hike – with its accompanying vistas of peaks and the Dharmasala valleys – as well as achy knees and ankles – lay ahead in the morning.

Was the uphill journey sweaty and a bit miserable? Yes. Did I bitch and moan (mostly in my own head, rather than aloud) the whole way? Yes. But the views and vistas were amazing, the company entertaining, and the experience at the top quite magical. By the time I reached bottom the next day, treated myself to a hot shower and hot oil Tibetan massage, I once again started to forget the pain of the uphill, the huffing and puffing. And like my Annapurna trek in Nepal way back when, I know in a few weeks time the magic of the mind will have romanticized the entire experience into another mystical magical Himalayan trek, with the pain and the puffing fading in to the misty background of memory as the mountain peaks faded into midsts of when the fog rolled in.

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Quieting the “monkey mind,” with monkeys: my (failed?) attempt at meditating

Dharmasala, India in the foothills of the Himalayas is a place of spiritual seekers. Healers. Yoga instructors and yoga teachers in training. Buddhism classes. Tibetan politics classes. Tibetan Buddhist massage and healing classes. And meditators meditators everywhere. You can take a 6am class, a 5pm class, a guided class, a totally silent class, join 3 day retreat or a 10 days total silence fully immersive meditative experience.

Meditation and me have never gone hand in hand. I’m a never sit-stiller. I get ants in my pants if I don’t have 10 things lined up to see and do each day. A vacation for me is rarely relaxing, as for me new places mean new things to see/do/explore.

I had only four days to explore Dharmasala, so while a retreat was out of the question, I opted to try my hand at a few funky local flavors of the region:

QUIETING THE MONKEY BRAIN, WITH MONKEYS

“In meditation circles you’ll often hear the term ‘monkey mind.’ The ‘monkey’ refers to how our primate relatives are able to swing from one branch to another with awe-inspiring skill. Similarly, our minds bounce from one idea to another, but rather than inspire awe, the activity often fills us with anxiety. Meditation quiets the monkey mind.” – article from Psychology Today

Tushita is an ashram/retreat center that runs Buddhist learning and meditation retreats that I stumbled in to on a day hike around Dharmasala and the surrounding pine forests, windy mountain paths and villages of McLeodGanj, Bhagsu and Dharmakot. Chores are communally done, food communally cooked, meditation sessions take place in a second floor room full of pads and pillows. My first meditation class ever was their drop in morning guided meditation class.

The scene: 25-30 westerners, some long-timers in saffron Buddhist robes, lots in gauzy flowing Indian garb aggressively hawked in the market stalls. Folks who were clearly regulars, sitting in perfect posture, thumbs lotus-positioned, minds I imagine already clear before the class began. What did I do to get ready? To prepare myself for sitting still from 9:30-10:30am, I hiked the 3 uphill kilometers from my guesthouse to Tushita to work out my shpilkis. I figured if I showed up a bit sweaty and exhausted, the more welcome an hour of stillness would be.

It turns out even my monkey-like energy is nothing compared to my monkey mind! The guided meditation was absolutely helpful, though clearing my thoughts – or observing them, detached, as we were instructed to do – is no easy feat. I breathed in, I breathed out. I exhaled my thoughts. I focused on the sensation of the air on my skin. I focused on the perfect posture of the guy in front of me. I cleared my mind. I focused on the immense discomfort of my lower back and wondered if it was okay to shift positions mid-meditation. I cleared my mind. I wondered what the food was like at the ashram and if backpackers like me could stay there even if I wasn’t doing a formal retreat. I swore at my mind. I thought about the route for my hike back. Darn it, mind!

But then the highlight happened. Our teacher leading the guided meditation (a calming long-haired Israeli dude named Eretz), talked about the challenge of the monkey mind, swinging limb to limb. As he gave advice on slowing and stopping the proverbial swinging by focusing on the breath, a real life monkey jumped from the towering trees nearby to the side roof of the meditation room. Much like my thoughts paced in the spaces between my breaths, the monkey paced the rafters. Peering in. Grooming himself. Looking rather non-plussed at our own human attempts to calm the monkey mind within us. And in between my breaths, in between the challenge of thinking and then pushing thoughts aside, between the breaths in and out, the frustration and elation, I felt appreciative that I was taking on the challenge of meditation in such an exotic locale that allowed me to start to learn how to quiet my own monkey mind while in the near presence of monkeys, monks and mountains.

CIRCUMAMBULATING: WALKING IN CIRCLES TO MY DESTINY

Meditation experience side, I was a bit stressed about how to fill my final days in India. So many class offerings in town, but not all overlapping with my limited time there. I wanted to make my time meaningful, but felt at loose ends. I wondered through one of the local gompas (Buddhist temples) and as customary, circled it in a clockwise direction, spinning the prayer wheels as I went. This corcumambulation is customary to do at most Buddhist and Hindu temples. And my last turn to complete the circle, a sign on a nearby pillar caught my eye: A two day travel writing and travel photography workshop, starting in Dharmasala the next day! It sort of felt like I had just circumambulated myself to my destiny class! So I tracked down the teacher, and while the workshop itself was canceled because of low registration, I scheduled my own one-on-one travel writing session and photography class!

And for fun, to try new spiritual experiences while in Dharmasala, I got a tarot card reading (interesting stuff. not sure if my cards exactly made sense but the experience was fun), Tibetan hot oil massage (no complaint there!), a Tibetan reiki healing session (did even less for me then the Tarot reading, but it was an interesting experience without much to lose given the $12 per session price tag).

MEDITATING FROM THE MOUNTAIN TOPS

The closest to G-d experience in Dharmasala, however, was my trek up the Himalayan foothills. Writing that up for another post in the days ahead!

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Graveyard tourism and crashing a funeral – the thing to do in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

A friend once admitted that he secretly enjoyed shiva calls, a Jewish funeral custom in which people gather…and schmooze…and eat…and oh yes, pray…to provide support for the grievers and to celebrate the deceased’s life. It’s full of its own odd rituals (covered mirrors, uncomfortable low back chairs) that somehow in context of a community all make sense. I admit to enjoying shivas too – the support (and admittedly, socializing) they provide.

But was I ready for funeral tourism?

The thing to do in Tana Toraja on Indonesia’s claw-shaped island of Sulawesi is to crash a funeral.

Mountain vistas, terraced rice fields and spectacularly unusual sloped-roof Torajan houses aside, the intrepid travelers who make it to the hills where the Toraja people live generally have one thing on their minds: “When is the next funeral and does it overlap with my visit?”

The good news is, in the right (dry) season the answer is almost always yes, as Toraja funerals go on for days on end and the whole village – including guests from near and far – are welcomed. It’s funeral and gravesite tourism, and it’s pretty awesome.

I can’t pretend to fully understand the richness and complexity Toraja rituals and beliefs, but a few key things I took in:

(1) FUNERALS COULD BE YEARS AFTER A PERSON DIES! The Toraja wait months and even years to bury their dead, in part to save all the money they need to throw the funeral extravaganza they want, and also to enable extended family members who may live overseas or at least on a different island in the Indonesia archipelago, to attend. My understanding is that the body sits in a casket in the home for the wait time, which again, could be years. Eww. But as ancestors are very much part of the family whether or not they are living or dead, the close by presence of a dead body must be much less troubling to them than to me.

(2) BODIES ARE PLACED BURIAL CAVES, CLIFFS & ROCK CARVED MAUSOLEUMS: The Toraja have ancestral mausoleums where all the bodies of all the family and ancestors are placed. These are often carved in to rocks, cliffs and caves. The outside of the mausoleums are decorated with a recently (or not so recently, see above) deceased person’s photograph, or belongings of theirs, or alcohol and cigarettes they may want to enjoy in the afterworld, and most interestingly, statues/effigies of the person. Photos, statues, smoke and booze make for some particularly colorful burial sites. The ones carved into rocks and caves on the side of mountains are particularly cool, and eerie. There were some sites where there were discarded caskets lying around (sometimes the selected fancy casket to honor the dead was too big to fit into the narrow entry of the rock mausoleum, so only the bones were put in there and the casket placed outside. Talk about a design flaw!) Sometimes big piles of bones were near the burial caves (never exactly clear why these bones never made it in to their own burial cave – but they sure made for cool photos.)

(3) BUFFALO ARE THE ENTRY KEY TO HEAVEN: There is a belief that the strong spirits of buffalo help the human spirit to successfully cross from the human world through purgatory in to the heavenly afterworld. So, on the last day of an extended multi-day funeral, buffalo are sacrificed. Just as with cars, there are many makes and models of buffalo (some of which cost as much as a small car), and for the families of the Toraja “upper caste,”it is expected to slaughter – sorry, sacrifice – at least 24 buffalo to escort the dead in to the afterworld. (I did not get a clear picture of where the poor human spirit was during the months or years of waiting to be buried.) For better or worse, I was NOT at a funeral for the buffalo part. Bummer. But, as Torajan homes are decorated with the bones and horns of the buffalos sacrificed for ancestral family members going back many generations, I did see a whole lotta buffalo skulls and bones.

(4) JUST BECAUSE I MISSED THE BUFFALO, DOESN’T MEAN I DIDN’T SEE BLOOD. PIG BLOOD. AND GUTS. Hundreds if not thousands of people attend funeral festivals, and the host family feeds everyone. As such, a customary funeral gift from extended family members is a pig – generally a live one that is hog-tied to a stick and carried to the prep area by 2 men. If seeing all these hog-tied pigs on sticks carried through fields wasn’t exotic enough (I’m hard to impress), then what happened next was a CrazyTraveler scene for all times. I will spare the details but let’s just say it included a slaughtering and blood draining, a blowtorching (to remove the hair) followed by butchering. In my wandering, I stumbled in to a group of men who were cutting up the meat, mixing in spices and peppers, adding back in pig blood to the mixture, than stuffing it in to hollow bamboo shoots which were then placed over a fire. The meat essentially steamed in the bamboo shoots. Then, in a barn nearby, it was the women’s job to open the bamboo husks, remove the meat and serve it with rice to the hundreds of funeral guests. Was I offered some to sample? Plenty of times. Did I abstain? Yes, of course, I’m kosher. But even the German guy who was walking around with me couldn’t handle it. It was a little too “real” for us in terms of what meat actually is, and this guy must have really been grossed out, because I’ve been to Germany and every other dish there is pork!

We were welcomed at the funeral. In fact, our guide arranged for us to go with his friend who was an extended family member of the deceased. So we sat with his part of the family in a bamboo and wood structure that is constructed and decorated specifically for hosting funeral guests. For all the animal action, for people there was a lot of sitting around, which with this particular family meant a lot of bettle nut chewing. I’m still not sure what a bettle nut is or what the weird mix of leaves are that it’s wrapped in. It’s a big blob that sits inside your cheek and makes you salivate like crazy. Judging from the locals, it also does a fine job turning your teeth totally black. But I did my job of entertaining the locals of trying unsuccessfully to chew it when it was offered. It lasted about 5 seconds in my mouth, but quickly bonded me with the group. We were fed snacks (non-pork), we were escorted to the casket (high on a tower that is constructed specifically for funerals), we stood in the ceremonial procession to greet the immediate family grievers, and we experienced a real cultural exchange. The funeral went on for many more days I’m told – many include a procession through town, dancing and singing, professional women grievers who wail by the casket, a bull (buffalo?) fight for the village and more. It’s quite a send off for the dead, and I saw just a sliver of it. But my few hours there gave me fodder for many a CrazyTraveler story to come…

And while of course I don’t look forward to the next shiva call I’ll need to make back home, I look forward to the more familiar rituals of smoked salmon platters, bagels, nosh, stories and prayers. And I’ll bear in mind that every send off of the dead need only make sense to the ones in mourning. The fact that I shared in a Torajan spiritual send-off traditions was an overwhelming honor. I welcome any Torajan visiting the Washington DC area to come join me for a Jewish experience so they can go home with their own “aren’t they exotic” stories!

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A fight to the death in Indonesia: The bet I should have placed at the cockfight in Indonesia

Cockfighting is a fight to the death. Among large, colorful, aggressive roosters. Who, oh by the way, have a metal dagger strapped on to their legs. Before I saw it with my own eyes, I had naively thought that feisty male roosters puffed up their plumes and pecked each other with their beaks. Turns out reality is a lot more gory.

How does a rooster (yes, its hard to write cocks repeatedly without cracking myself up) wield a knife? And how the heck did I end up there, the only Westerner – and in fact, the only woman – among a village gathering of some 200+ men high in the hills of a rural village in the Tana Toraja area of Sulawesi, Indonesia?

In the spirit of always saying “yes” to an invitation put in front of me when on the road, when my local Torajan guide – hired to show me the local villages, tribes, sights and burial caves the area are known for – said nonchalantly that he had heard about a cockfight outside the village we were visiting and did I want to go, of course I said yes. (It was a soft-sell, but I think HE really wanted to go and have a chance to watch – and gamble on the cockfights- himself.)

THE COCKS, THE FIGHT AND THE COLORFUL CROWD

So off we went, down a side road to what I assume was a “hidden” locale that may have been somewhat off the grid to local authorities (cockfighting is officially illegal in Indonesia), but well known to local villagers as a gathering place. At the time we arrive, there were about 200 men, many holding their roosters proudly in their arms and many more checking out the fighters and no doubt planning their bets. There is apparently a set of judges who eyeball the cocks and match up who will fight who. And then, the crowds gather in a makeshift circle – men handing rupiah notes to the local bet-takers, while to the side, an assumedly impartial dagger guy fastens a blade to each rooster’s leg with tight tie of thick black string.

I’m still not clear how the roosters are in fact trained to fight and stab. But the onslaught begins with the cocks in each of their owner’s arms (heehee), and the owners shove their cock’s faces up in front of eachother (hee hee again), and encourage them to aggressively peck eachother (so I was a little bit right in my assumption). Then then put the birds on the ground and let the instinctual avian aggression amid the males of a species erupt. They peck at eachother, they jump on top of eachother, they bleed from knife wounds until one inevitably stops being able to fight back. Then the winner is called, and the men all head to the bookies to collect their money if they had bet on the cock that was still standing.

THE BLOODY AFTERMATH

I wish I had left it at that. But of course, I had to follow the roosters to the corner to see what happens with them next. The daggers needed to be removed from these roosters and tied on to the next fighting set. So for the winner, the dagger guy untied the dagger and cleaned and readied it for the next fight. For the looser, it was not so kind. Whether or not the looser was dead yet, the dagger guy took a big knife and chopped off the dagger-laden leg. He took the dagger back, and handed the looser cock to the owner of the winner. The tradition is apparently that the owner of the winning rooster eats the loosing cock for dinner. Its supposedly a delicacy sort of meat, as the roosters are so muscular so the meat has an appreciated flavor (probably nothing like the tender boneless white meat chicken breast we savor at home).

Not everyone makes out great at the end, I don’t think. If you are the owner of the loosing cock, you’ve lost your money and your prize pet. If you are the winner, you get your cash and your chicken dinner, but generally even the winning gamecock was injured as well. So I don’t know if the winners go on to have long and fruitful careers, if they get a protracted recovery, or if they are sufficiently injured such that they get eaten for dinner the following night.

THE ADMITTED EXCITEMENT, DESPITE THE MORAL QUANDARY

Amid the gore, I must admit, it was sort of exciting and fun as any mano-a-mano competition is in a WWF kinda way. There was cheering. There were surprise stabs and low-blows. There were upsets and Cinderella story comebacks, all within a fight that generally lasts 3-4 minutes. There was the adrenaline of placing a bet and seeing if you would win. And there was an impressive display of roosters of all different sizes and colors and interesting plumage. (These roosters who fought so aggressively on the ground, sat peacefully in their owners arms in wait- often resting their shining feathered heads on their owners shoulders. A surprisingly intimate hold given that these were trained killers.) Aside from the fights, there were tea stands for refreshments and boiled eggs to eat and the ubiquitous Indonesian brand cup-of-noodles. I was welcomed, and in fact herded over to the front row area (basically a log to sit on rather than crouching or standing) so that I could watch and take photos without bystanders blocking the view.

It was an authentic slice of rural life in Sulawesi, Indonesia for sure. It may not fly in the face of American sensibilities when it comes to treatment of animals. But twelve hours from the nearest city, where electricity is scarce and where villagers grow their own food – including raising and slaughtering their own animals to feed their families – this was part of the fabric of the social life of the village (at least for the men, there was nary a woman to be seen). I was particularly struck by the honor system of the betting. There was no exchange of paper certifying a bet. Everyone knew eachother and the guys taking the bets simply remembered who bet what. No paper trail or betting receipt needed.

My one regret going was less about the birds (sorry), but that I didn’t place a bet myself! I just rooted for my guide’s bets. At the time, I didn’t want to support it by putting money in to the cockfighting system (though I did root loudly for the cocks my guide bet on), but how much cooler would the story have been if I could have won 100,000 rupiah on one of the fights…

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Indonesia: Cock fights, bull fights and animal sacrifice. Not for the squeamish or PETA Supporters

Over two weeks, I visited three islands in Indonesia (Java, Sulawesi, Bali), and over that time saw the same number of animals killed for sport (cockfighting), meals (an unusual mass pig roast for village funeral guests) and religion (buffalo, as part of the Eid El Adha celebration of the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story).

I’ve seen and photographed gory meat stalls before at markets around the world as part of my travels. Half a goat hanging from a hook, check. A grisly pile of discarded chicken legs and hoofs, yup. A random dismembered animal head or two, yup. But I’d never actually seen a slaughter, or a butchering. It took getting myself up to the hill villages of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi to get that on my travel dance card. Read on….

Overwhelmed in Jakarta, where crossing the street means risking your life!

Jakarta is about what you’d think a third world city would be. Unbelievably crowded. 10 mil people and about 4 traffic lights, from what I could ascertain. Streets choked with mopeds and no clear rules of the road. I entertained locals by asking help crossing the roads, as traffic comes for all directions and pedestrians for sure do not have right of way. Street corner vendors making nasi goreng (fried rice) on hot skillets. Outdoor market stalls with crap that makes the dollar store look expensive next to mega-malls with Starbucks and Ralph Lauren. Lots of mosques and churches and clusters of kids passing by in school uniforms. It was fun to experience…but funner still to leave and head for the Sulawesi hills. But first, a few Jakarta highlights:

– an eye opening tour with “Hidden Jakarta” to see the real Jakarta – how people live and work in some of the “slums” by the fish market and port, where many a tourist wander through but few get a inside glimpse at the realities of life there. I brought a duffel of kids clothes my girls had outgrown, and with the help of my guide was able to get a handful of girls some much needed new outfits. One family lived in one room adjacent to their shop, with the parents and 8 kids sleeping on mats on the floor. Some of their daughters are now giving new life to some Zara/Vivi outfits!
– a wild ride on an “ojek” (motorcycle taxi), the only way to navigate the Jakarta traffic
– the outdoor narrow lanes of a Chinese market where Lonely Planet said live frogs and skinned frogs were sold. Yup, found that stall!
– dinner with some friends of friends at their apartment in an expat area, where I was treated to a home cooked meal complete with wine (hard to get in this area of the world!) and lemoncello and learned about living in Jakarata with World Bank!

Stumbling into Eid El Adha festivities in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, just in time for the ritual sacrifice…of 4 big buffalo!

When I had been wondering frenetic Jakarta, I was suprised to stumble upon a few herds of goats and cows within the city center. I learned that they were there temporarily (literally) for the muslim holiday of Eid El Adha, when families and friends gather to commemorate the commitment of Abraham (Ibrahim) to G-d, and to communally sacrifice goats and cows as part of that commemoration. (the meat is apparently shared with friends, family and the hungry/needy in the community).

I thought I would miss the Eid altogether, as I would be in the mountainous Toraja region of Sulawesi, and the Toraja people are Christian. Or as they like to say, “Toraja Christian” — which means they accepted the preachings of European colonizers, without much diluting their own very unique/exotic/strange culture and customs. So I thought: No muslims, no mosque, to Eid, no sacrifice to witness. Maybe it was for the best and wasn’t worth delaying to flight to Sulawesi for.

But yet, when I jumped on the back of my hired Toraja guide’s motor scooter to head to the hills, we passed a local mosque on the way out of town. I wouldn’t have noticed the small nondescript mosque itself…but I sure did notice two slaughtered buffalo lying in front on the street. And when I saw another being led around the corner, I jumped off that moped and made my way over!

I was afraid I wouldn’t be welcome (or allowed to take photos). But I found a close-in location next to a mom and kids. And amid a short prayer offering up the animal, and the actual sacrificial act itself (commemorated in photos that I wont share here), I chatted surprisingly casually with the family answering the ubiquitous “what is your name / where are you from / how do you like Sulawesi” questions. While I think we all found it quite gory and me and the kids all covered our eyes both times (yes, I hung around for a second sacrifice as well), for the most part they were non-plussed, the sacrifice being an unusual but not altogether uncommon practice.

The actual post-sacrifice butchering was happening around the corner, and I opted to view only from afar (meaning I viewed, but mostly took photos via my zoom lens rather than close ups. That was “holding back” for me.) The witnessing of the throat cutting and blood collecting was enough (for my stomach) for one experience. Needless to say, I was not particularly hungry for lunch!

Tomorrow, crashing a cockfight and learning/seeing what it really means to fight to the death….

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Control-Alt-Delete my life: Travel to make lemonade out of Lemons

What the heck is a “normal” (?) wife and mom like me doing at a $7 guest house in South India, totally alone but for my backpack filled with a few changes of clothes, malaria pills and a medical kit, and several kilos of souvenirs from my trip so far? I’m on a control-alt-delete life restart. Or, as I like to think about it, making lemonade out of lemons, the CrazyTraveler way I know how.

You are not the only one curious as to why. The “HOW exactly did I end up here” question creeps up on my daily, as I fall asleep under questionably clean covers to a cacophony of exotic sounds like calls to prayer, sellers loudly hawking their wares, or village wildlife (roosters) – exhausted from my adventures and missing my family like crazy amid the CrazyTraveler experience.

The reason the trip came about…

I got let go from my job in early September. Came in the office, worked a regular day, went to a afternoon meeting with my boss which I thought was a regular update meeting. And was told I was being let go, without much explanation or lead up or forewarning or even any context. So I cleared out my desk.

What followed was a few weeks of manic depression. I was going to launch my own communications consultancy! I was going to open my own business! I was going to use this opp make a new start in my career! But mostly, I couldn’t get off the couch. For all my good intentions, all I was able to do was pull the covers over my head and feel terribly terribly lost and depressed.

The diatribe in my head I kept coming back to was that I would have happily, willingly QUIT my job if I had a planned adventure. In fact, I have quit jobs to travel in the past. And in my mind I was already thinking about moving on from the current gig. But that would have been MY choice, on my terms, with my timing. Instead, I got let go with no adventure planned…

Sick of hearing me complain and fed up with me moaning and groaning on the couch – my husband gave me an amazing gift: a chance to take advantage of the time off and have my own adventure. If I would’ve happily quit to go to India for a month in concept, why not go to India for a month in reality, he offered?

We first looked in to four tickets for a whole family adventure, but the price and logistics and realities of pulling the kids out of school got too complicated. So, I’m out for the “worst mother ever” award and taking the month for myself. Traveling. Totally alone. With a backpack. Getting around by local busses. Sleeping in travelers guest houses and home stays. Planning day by day adventures in Indonesia first, then India. Recharging – if recharging means crowded 9 hour bus rides, haggling at markets, shaking off street hawkers, a heck of a lot of walking in 100 degree heat, taking malaria pills, a daily dependence on pepto, and suffering through squattie potties. But that’s MY recharge. Thats my control-alt-delete. And in truth, I’ve been so busy each day that I’ve barely had time to blog, let alone to think about my job situation (or lack thereof), the communications consulting I should launch, the logistics I need to put in place at home, the life I need to organize for myself in the “real world” back home, etc.

Like a hard restart on my computer, I aim to come home to a unfrozen screen open to new beginnings whatever they may be.

Happy trails wherever they are leading you! Updates from Indonesia to follow!

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