Category Archives: Travel Essays

A Gentle Encounter with an Alligator at Wakulla Springs State Park Trail

So if you get eaten, you'll also get fined!

So if you get eaten, you’ll also get fined!

Alligators are a common Florida attraction.

Growing up near the Everglades my friends and I could ride our bikes westward on Wiles Road until it abruptly terminated into a watery ditch dividing our civilization from their 1.5 million acre wet-wonderland of mangroves, sawgrass, stalking panthers, and the occasional 18 foot Boa that was once a pet to an owner unknowledgeable that baby snakes too grow up. At the apex of midday, they would lazily sunbathe on the distant bank totally unimpressed and disinterested in our human presence.

Short of doing something objectively stupid–say diving in blindly splashing vaguely toward their young while screaming Marco Polo–we were never on their diet.

Driving from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Meyers on Alligator Alley there are stops in the desolate nowhere of the 137 mile segment of highway where you can  stretch your legs and snap a photo of a malicious-enough looking hyper-predator as it also eyes you immobile from just a thirty-feet gulf of canal and indifference.

Every Florida Zoo has one as do many gas stations near Orlando. Florida is home of Gatorland and several Native American reservations where you watch non-Native American actors practice the decidedly non-Native American tradition of alligator wrestling. (Alligator wrestling was touted to Native American tribes as an exciting, albeit, inauthentic, way of generating revenue–prior to the more lucrative, but equally inauthentic, tradition of gaming.)

As my friend and I had toured Wakulla Springs by boat, we had just that morning viewed a half dozen alligators separated from us by the hull of our boat, twenty feet of water, and their severe disinterest in humans not actively teasing them.

A view from a Wakulla Springs State Park riverboat.

A view from a Wakulla Springs State Park riverboat.

Learn about how to spot your own personal alligator here:

Other alligator sightings:

But despite having seen dozens of alligators in my time, there had always been some protective barrier–a fence, a canal, a boat, or even just simply a large gathering of people.

I had abandoned my unenergetic friend at the Wakulla Springs Lodge to hike part of the linear six mile Wakulla Springs Trail as I wanted to see the forested confluence of the Wakulla River with the Sally Ward Spring. Upon my desolate arrival there was the obligatory “Warning Alligators” sign. I slowly crossed the bridge looking toward the banks and upriver. Nothing. I allowed my body to serve as a mosquito and fly buffet for a few minutes longer–still nothing.

Nuts.

I hiked another couple of miles before turning around. When I reappeared at the river crossing I saw a distant floating log. I paused on the shallow bridge now devoid of bugs and other annoyances and fantasized that I was being offered a lonely alligator encounter all my own in the middle of the north Florida woods.

Then I noticed the log had quite sharp teeth and a thrashing tail. Either the arborous victims of the logging industry had evolved into shape shifters and were seeking revenge on humankind, or I was being offered a lonely alligator encounter all my own in the middle of the north Florida woods.

The alligator then noticed me, and turned toward me at an accelerated rate of speed.

I did what anyone would have done–I retrieved my Samsung and proceeded to record a two-minute YouTube video to be followed by several pictures where I leaned into the lethal creature as if attempting to offer notes and stage direction.

Quickly it identified me as either being too big or too stupid to attack and tried to hide underwater.

The alligator tried to hide underwater in one of the cleanest springs in the world. It didn't work.

The alligator tried to hide underwater in one of the cleanest springs in the world. It didn’t work.

Eventually it needed air and allowed it’s head and front legs to float buoyantly to the surface.

A fresh breath of air.

A fresh breath of air.

I interpreted this series of movements–minding it’s own business, noticing me staring and wading over to investigate, strategically estimating my size, hiding, and now remaining still in the hopes that my sight was based upon movement like his Jurassic cousin–as this: “You scare me. Please go away.”

I smiled into it’s dark eyes, whispered “thank you,” and walked calmly away with the totally irrational   feeling of having communed with nature.

Ready to attack--Wakulla Springs State Park Trail

Ready to attack–Wakulla Springs State Park Trail

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A Picture of a Bench from My First Trip to a Conflict Zone

Latin Bridge in Sarajevo

Latin Bridge in Sarajevo

My first trip to a conflict zone was to Serbia and Bosnia in 1999. This bench, located on the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, commemorates the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, the immediate cause of World War I. The historical plaque that had been attached to the bench to explain its significance had been recently stolen because it was written in Cyrillic and also because, as the gunman was considered a hero at the time of the assassination, the plaque was rather laudatory in nature.  Today the plaque has been replaced with something more neutral and reads, in English, “From this place on June 18, 1914 Gavirlo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia.”

Vegas Day Trips: Because, You Know, Vegas is Boring.

I briefly lived in Vegas back in 2000 to try a summer as a bellhop (it had been rumored that they can earn upwards of $2000 a week). Anyway, it didn't work out and I took no photos. So here is me standing in another desert which according to Googlemaps is a mere 6,947 Kilometers away. (It is taken a few miles east of the oasis village of Huacachina, Peru.)

I briefly lived in Vegas back in 2000 to try a summer as a bellhop (it had been rumored that they can earn upwards of $2000 a week). Anyway, it didn’t work out and I took no photos. So here is me standing in another desert which according to Googlemaps is a mere 6,947 Kilometers away. (It is taken a few miles east of the oasis village of Huacachina, Peru.)

Why be bored in the neon bathed glitz and glamor of Las Vegas, which merely offers circus and travel themed casinos, about a million restaurants, tower-rooftop nightclubs, hotel lobbies decorated with roller coasters, and storefronts selling expensive jewelry unaffordable to all but the rich (who get it for free in an award show gift bag anyway) when you can instead drive into the empty desert and explore abandoned towns, search for rational explanations for claimed paranormal activity, and, with a heroically oblivious confidence, wander into a disused mine in disrepair that managed to kill hundreds of experienced people even back when it was regularly maintained by engineers?

Whew! That was a long sentence. I should have never taken that creative writing course on James Joyce.

Anyway, here is a handy resource for when you want to abandon the strip for adventuring in abandoned towns. If you find any gold I want 10% and if you find any ghouls I want unfuzzy photographic evidence!

http://www.lvlg.com/lasvegas/attracts/ghstwns.htm

My Condolences to Singapore on the Passing of Founder Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, founder and former Prime Minister of Singapore, 1923-2015

Lee Kuan Yew, founder and former Prime Minister of Singapore, 1923-2015

Dear Singapore:

The world has lost a giant today. A political strategist of the highest intellectual caliber, he is survived by three children, including current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (who I have had the honor to meet), seven grandchildren, and the proud and prosperous island nation he founded, cultivated, and governed.

To all my Singaporean friends, colleagues, teachers, and leaders whom I have had the privilege to serve, learn, teach, research, organize, and bond over a meal or drink with, I offer my deepest heartfelt grief, sadness, and respects on the passing of your nation’s founder, Minster Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

Minister Lee was an iconoclast with a vision to turn a small, poor, vulnerable and recently occupied island into an economic powerhouse with respect for the rule of law, gender equality, religious tolerance, and ethnic harmony.

While there will always be debate about his means–he used both carrot and stick to bring and retain power, authority, and order–there can be little reasonable debate about the ends. While there is a wealth gap (as there is in the country where I write this and almost everywhere else in the world), and an odd clause in our countries’ bilateral free trade agreement requiring Singapore to legalize chewing gum for “medicinal” purposes, where once were a collection of sleepy undeveloped villages–like the ones that remain today in nearby countries which are presently embroiled in political and religious conflict and with even more pervasive economic troubles–today is a multi-cultured cosmopolitan metropolis where CEOs of banks pick up their chicken rice from the same stall as the migrant workers who built your city-state at a wage (albeit with unequal bargaining power) they negotiated. Literacy is high (in multiple languages) and distributed without discrimination. The government is transparent and is quickly responsive to its citizens (though they encourage them to voice their grievances in a rather controlled and courteous manner suspicious to those in some other wealthy, stable nations).

Though he has left this world, he has left Singapore with a hugely gifted, talented, and potentially more liberal son in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Under his stewardship, I am certain investors, nations, foreign talent, and all of Singaporeans can look forward to continued stability, prosperity, and the always achingly slow, but inevitable evolution toward liberalization of civil and political human rights.

As the only lawyer (that I know of) practicing in Florida with a law degree from the National University of Singapore (LL.M. in International and Comparative Law) I will continue to advocate Floridians to invest in a Singapore that invested in me.

It is Singapore that allied with the United States during the cold war, is our partner in free trade, uses much of its huge Sovereign Wealth Fund to invest in the United States and its partner countries and in return encourages U.S. foreign investment by offering low (sometimes no) tax rates on income earned in Singapore.

Very importantly, Singapore kindly provides a safe harbor and home to the U.S. Navy’s sailors and ships of the 7th Naval Fleet.

With love, friendship, and respect,

Richard Junnier, Esq. (NUS Alumni, 2009 cohort)

Richard Junnier's 2009 gradation ceremony at the National University of Singapore College of Law with an LL.M. (a legal post-doctorial masters' degree) in International and Comparative Law.

Richard Junnier’s 2009 gradation ceremony at the National University of Singapore College of Law with an LL.M. (a legal post-doctorial masters’ degree) in International and Comparative Law.

Richard Junnier with Simon Chesterman at the reception celebrating the graduation of the 2009 NYU@NUS cohort. Mr. Chesterman is currently Dean of the National University of Singapore and is considered one of the world's foremost experts on International Law. Richard was his research assistant.

Richard Junnier with Simon Chesterman at the reception celebrating the graduation of the 2009 NYU@NUS cohort. Mr. Chesterman is currently Dean of the National University of Singapore and is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on International Law. Richard was his research assistant.

The Dakar Rally: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.”

In 20012 and 2013, the new Dakar rally was  routed through this Peruvian desert near Ica.

In 2012 and 2013, the new Dakar rally was routed through this Peruvian desert near Ica.

Adventure Lawyer’s cocktail party factoid of the day:

The Paris-Dakar Rally hasn’t originated in Paris since 2001 (and even before then the route often avoided France entirely) and hasn’t ended in the Senegalese capital since 2007 (at which point it originated in Lisbon). Political instability in Mauritania caused the 2008 rally to be canceled, and ever since, this amateur-everyman adventure connecting old Europe to colonial Africa has bypassed both continents altogether.

Beginning in 2009, the renamed Dakar Rally (which, in a celebration of irony, is also technically not a “rally” race) takes place exclusively in South America.

Nevertheless, I still want to try it out.

The geography may have changed, but the spirit of Thierry Sabine, who founded the Rally after getting lost in the Libyan desert in 1977, lives on: “A challenge for those who go. A dream for those who stay behind.”

Who wants to live this dream with me?

You can visit the official Dakar Rally website here.

Richard Junnier: Making a legal analysis of Fangate

After watching Charlie Crist accept the Democratic nomination for Florida Governor at his election night party, my friends and I fled the ruckus to a nearby hotel to enjoy a drink in privacy. Apparently we were not alone in this idea.

After watching Charlie Crist accept the Democratic nomination for Florida Governor at his election night party, my friends and I fled the ruckus to a nearby hotel to enjoy a drink in privacy. Apparently we were not alone in this idea.

This My View was originally published with the Tallahassee Democrat.

The organizers of the Oct. 15 gubernatorial debate have accused Charlie Crist of breaking the rules. From a legal standpoint, that simply isn’t true.

A contract is an agreement courts will enforce. To be enforceable, the agreement must be made for a legal purpose (no drug deals), must be mutually agreed to by people (yes, this includes corporations) with capacity (incorporated or 18, sober, and sane) and must include “adequate” consideration (you can’t sell your Ferrari for $1, but you can for $1 and a rug, for reasons better left to a future article). Though not ideal, some contracts can be made orally, while others, like the sale of property, must be written.

A person enters into a contract when he has “accepted” an “offer.” If a person is sent a contract but sends back a signed altered version of it, it is a “counteroffer” and thereby necessarily rejects the original contract. The second person may reject the counteroffer, accept it, or respond with another counteroffer. Under certain circumstances, the second person may accept the counteroffer through omission or inaction.

That is likely the case here:

The organizers sent both the Crist and Rick Scott campaigns an identical debate agreement, which stated that no electronic devices could be used, “including fans.” This was the organizers’ “offer.” Scott’s campaign accepted the offer and the Crist campaign signed the agreement but added the statement “With the understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”

Florida law would treat the Crist’s altered contract as a “counteroffer” and therefore a rejection of the organizers’ offer. Assuming that the Scott campaign knew about the counteroffer, and the various parties, including the Crist campaign and the debate’s sponsors and organizers began to rely on the agreement by expending money and resources toward promoting and preparing for the debate, the Scott campaign effectively “ratified” the Crist campaign’s “Fan Amendment” through its inaction to object.

(If the organizers failed to notify the Scott campaign of the counteroffer, than the Crist campaign was still entitled to the fan and the Scott campaign’s attorney is also likely entitled to an animated conversation with the debate organizers.)

This new agreement allowed for Crist to have his fan if he felt the temperature warranted it, and created a duty for both Crist and Scott to appear for the debate. When only Crist appeared, Gov. Scott (in my opinion) was in breach of contract.

Moreover, had he not finally changed his mind after a fun but uncomfortable seven minutes, Scott may have even been liable for the damages caused to the debate sponsors, organizers and the media outlets that spent good money traveling to an event promising two candidates.

Finally, the obligatory caveat. I have seen and read what appear to be the relevant documents, but there may be other applicable documents I am unaware of, so please don’t confuse this My View for a proper legal memorandum.

Richard Junnier is the immediate past chair of the Leon County Democratic Executive Committee and also has served as its special counsel for campaign finance and election law. He practices both election law and contract law throughout Florida. Contact him at rjunnier@junnierlaw.com.

Perez Art Museum Miami

Richard at Perez Art Museum Miami

If I were to indulge in a criticism of south Florida’s status as a major world tourist destination it would be its lacking of a major world art museum.  

Intellectually, I understand that Boston has been around for a very long time and that early European colonists brought their Rembrandts and their Hieronymus Boschs with them. Therefore, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is able to rival most anything Europe has to offer, and the art scene of Miami does not.

But what the Treasure Coast lacks in history, it compensates for with huge sums of money, so I was positively enamored when I heard of plans to move the disastrously located Miami Art Museum into a $131 million dollar building designed by the legendary Swiss architecture powerhouse Herzog & de Meuron. I have been salivating for years during its controversial construction, and for months since its opening, for an opportunity to visit.

The day did not start off well.

My friend was three hours late because he had run a marathon the night before and was understandably more sleepy than his alarm clock was wakeful.

When we got there, we were bamboozled into parking about a half mile away from the building on the south side of the vast and empty Museum Park. 

This really could be "South Florida's front porch" if there were people here.

This really could be “south Florida’s front porch,” if there were people here.

Since we were late we scuttled plans to have lunch at the very nearby and wondrously international Bayside Marketplace food court, instead opting for what we knew was going to be an ambitiously priced museum cafe. Indeed, the proletariat must never find out how much a sandwich costs here as they may respond by burning down the building.

At any art museum cafe there is a certain level of pretension to be expected from the menu, and in this respect, the menu at “Verde” does not disappoint.

(Actually, since the cafe is encased with glass and concrete and offers views of an overpass and the half-demolished Miami Herald building, each obscuring a view of Biscayne Bay, the only association with “green” I could make with the cafe is the vast amounts of it disappearing from patrons’ wallets.)

The view outside "Verde."  It is, I must say, an appropriate artistic expression for Miami politics.  When the new owner of the iconic Miami Herald Building was refused permission to build a casino, he spontaneously exploded half his building to treat tourists with a  perpetual view of what he thought about the government's decision.

The view outside “Verde.” It is, I must say, an appropriate artistic expression for Miami politics. When the new owner of the iconic Miami Herald Building was refused permission to build a casino, he spontaneously exploded half his building to treat tourists with a perennial view of what he thought about the government’s decision.

If you are committed to eating at the restaurant I have two key pieces of advice.

One, make sure someone else, preferably a government or evil international consortium, is paying the bill.

Two, and I cannot be too clear on this point–buy the bottled water.

When they ask you if you want bottled water, treat it with the respect you’d give a mobster asking if your bar wants to participate in their anti-violence campaign. If you say, “no,” all manner of hijinks may occur.

After waiting 15 minutes for a table (there were several free, but they asked if they could “text” us when they were more conceptually prepared to host customers)  we were seated and asked the fateful question:

“Would you gentleman care to buy a bottled water?”

“No, thank you, we’ll drink what you have from the tap.”

He gave me the look of a kidnapper asking me if I wanted to see my son alive again, then promptly disappeared for forty-five minutes–presumably looking for our car so he could cut the breaks. Suddenly, we felt fortunate that we had been tricked into parking in an adjacent county.

This gave us plenty of time to download French dictionaries to try to translate the menu and file the needed paperwork to take out the loans necessary to cover the meal.  After traipsing around outside in the 100 degree humid south Florida weather (and this has apparently never happened there before) I had the audacity to be thirsty. My entreaties for non-bottled water went ignored through three service staff before I finally brought my glass to the Maitre d’. Within a few days a half-cup of water was presented garnished with a lonely single ice-cube.

We were not alone in feeling neglected, others resorted to flash-bangs and flare guns to get their servers’ attention. When unaccountably posh servers did reluctantly present themselves, questions about menu items were greeted with a vacillation of exasperated anger, sarcasm, and outright condescending disdain:

I asked about the serving size of the ceviche listed in the “lighter fare” section.

“‘Lighter fare’ means appetizer; so it’s the size of an appetizer,” one eye expressed concern that I might have a developmental cognitive disability while the other promised that he was still looking for our car.

“Are the pizzas big enough to share?”

“The pizzas are appropriately sized for personal consumption to the individual ordering it,” he bellowed cryptically with an enigmatic arrogance.

Even by Miami’s apathetic to antagonistic customer service standards–this was a very special place.

We both ordered a pizza involving prosciutto and arugula.  Each turned out to be the size of Texas, and were objectively very good–they don’t skimp on the fancy ingredients and the food is presented with a fulgent exuberance. It was ironically salty, however, and there was no more water forthcoming absent a trip to the bathroom sink.

The patrons surrounding us got steaks and fresh fish and in every case the portions appeared generous and gorgeously exhibited.

We were way to angry to enjoy it. I am usually as docile as a Hindu cow content to block traffic in Agra, and my friend successfully offered to pay the bill to quell my rather noticeable frustration.

Attitude reset, we toured the museum’s collection.

Dangling garden

The building is one of the finest in the world.

100,000,000 building

The collection, meanwhile, is underwhelming.

It’s not bad, it’s not mediocre, it’s just underwhelming.

Previous perceptions of the universe are not shattered. Personal philosophy is not challenged. There are no emotional experiences to be had. One’s life struggles are not prompted to be rethought by canvas, photograph, video, or sound.

Being billed as a contemporary art museum, I had been hoping for a pitch black room where audio of a woman screaming would be replayed until an abrupt lighting scheme transformed the room alight with pink–as a reminder of breast cancer awareness–but the strange and the uncomfortable were not even available.

But there was some fun and idiosyncratic displays and the admission charge ($16) is well earned by simply entering the building itself.

The first exhibit that engaged me was appropriate to the curator’s decision to  relate most of the collection to the uniqueness of Miami–it is called “cocaine paraphernalia.”

What could be more Miami than this exhibit: "cocaine paraphernalia."

What could be more Miami than this exhibit: “cocaine paraphernalia.”

My favorite piece was a photograph of a lone man standing in an abandoned suburb of  post-Katrina New Orleans holding a sign with the words “A Country Road – a Tree – Evening” which are the opening austere stage directions from Act One of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In the play, Godot, who represents God, keeps sending a messenger to a pessimistic pair who keep waiting for him day after day while they vaguely know he will never come because he does not exist.   Presumably, the photographer was giving his opinion of when FEMA aid would come to this particular New Orleans neighborhood.  Creative, brilliant, funny.

Waiting for FEMA in New Orleans

Waiting for FEMA funds in New Orleans

I also enjoyed several Thai-protest sketches from Rirkrit Tiravanija which mostly reminded me of my time in Thailand during the recent political instability.

Mr. Thaksin is not popular among many of the Bangkok middle class and elites.

Mr. Thaksin is not popular among many of the Bangkok middle class and elite.

The World tents to perceive the Thais as polite and peaceful with their protests.

The World tends to perceive the Thais as polite and peaceful with their protests.

I threw this one in as a shout out to my Singapore friends!

I threw this one in as a shout-out to my Singapore friends!

Less intrinsically personal, but curiously engaging works, also abound.

I don't know what it means but I like it. I think I'd call it "purple" to add an enigmatically ambiguous layer of meaning to the work.

I don’t know what it means but I like it. I think I’d call it “purple” to add an enigmatically ambiguous dimension to the work.

I also liked, but failed to understand, other pieces.

painting 2

Something about transportation and art? Questioning the decadence of modern culture borne out of genocide and an ignored collective suffering? Why are the windows of the building with the “do not enter” symbol painted different colors and what does it have to do with a wagon wheel? I don’t know, but I paid attention and took a picture of it.

Longboat houses in Malaysia haphazardly expanding under increasing hardship?

Longboat houses in Malaysia haphazardly expanding under increasing hardship?

Sarah Morris, Le Meridien [Rio], 2012. Collection of Pérez

Sarah Morris, Le Meridien [Rio], 2012. Collection of Pérez

The one artist displayed anyone in the developed world would immediately be able to identify--but there's not much to do after staring at it for thirty seconds, nodding, and moving on to the next work.

The one artist displayed anyone in the developed world would immediately be able to identify–but there’s not much to do after staring at it for thirty seconds, nodding, and moving on to the next work.

Then there were some sculpture installations. I think everyone who toured the museum took special interest in this space module shaped backyard shed.

Exterior of repurposed aluminum space module.

Exterior of repurposed aluminum space module.

Interior of repurposed aluminum space module.

Interior of repurposed aluminum space module.

This more critical piece seemed largely ignored.

A brief, and unpleasent, history of colonialism

A brief, and unpleasent, history of colonialism

Equally subtle was this artist/sculptor’s opinion of Miami politics:

hmmm. . . not a pleased voter.

hmmm. . . not a pleased voter.

The museum’s premiere exhibit was Leonor Antunes’ “a [sic] secluded and pleasant land. in [sic] this land I wish to dwell.”

I haven't read it yet, but I did take one of the two-thousand word brochures explaining the exhibit.

I haven’t read it yet, but I did take one of the two-thousand word brochures explaining the exhibit.

I will try to return to The Perez when they schedule some  performance art in its uniquely designed two-tiered stage theater which separates the first and second floor galleries.

The  seating is as aesthetically amazing as it is pragmatically uncomfortable.

The seating is as aesthetically amazing as it is pragmatically uncomfortable.

But I may wait a while.

In 2016 the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science will open adjacent to the Perez and promises to be one of the great and elaborate science museums of the world. It is intended to rival the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

When that opens the adjacent-bayside should fulfill its promised epithet of “Front Porch of south Florida.”

If only there were people. . .

If only there were more people. . .

Let’s also maybe get some food trucks and street performers out there.

In the meantime, if you are a foreign tourist only visiting for three days, your time might be more enjoyably spent strolling and swimming on South Beach, shopping at the nearby Bayside Marketplace, partying in Coral Gables, treating yourself to high tea at the Biltmore, vaporizing into Collins Avenue, or looking at lawfully naked beautiful people at Haulover Park.

Miami will eventually be one of the world’s cultural epicenters, but it isn’t there yet.  It is still, however, one of the most agreeable travel destinations in the Americas.

Logistics

Perez Art Museum Miami
Museum Park at 1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

Closed Mondays, 10AM – 6PM Tuesday-Sunday; open until 9PM on Thursday.

Adults $16
Discounted admission $12
Active duty military and children under 6 are admitted free.

The museum can be easily reached by public transport, take the metromover to “Museum Park” station. Have lunch one stop further at Bayside Marketplace. If the food court doesn’t appeal to you, consider the spectacular Argentine steakhouse buffet at the provocatively titled “The Knife.”

Allow two hours for a thorough viewing of the collection, or six hours, if you wish to eat at the museum.

In either case, bring money.

 

Your Next Adventure: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia (Just Getting There)

trees on kuta beachGili Trawangan is one of the most remote and isolated atolls in the world.

If you want to die creatively, it’s vaguely situated near the two islands where you can get eaten by a komodo dragon.

In a 1924 New York Times interview, George Mallory was asked why he wanted to summit Mount Everest and he famously answered “because it’s there.” When people ask me why I seek out the most distant and lonely places to travel, I say “Because if nobody goes there, it must really be a place worth visiting.”

Specifically, more than its distant hipster obscurity, I wanted to visit Gili Trawangan because it has one of the most accessible, vibrant, and unique coral reefs in the world. From the shore, it is a ten foot walk on a shallow sandbar that abruptly tumbles into a narrow, mile-long, wonder-world trench of eight-foot wide stingless Rays (which, if you’re crass, you can ride), ancient 700 lb sea turtles (which may casually bump you into the reef inviting a coral-worm infection), kaleidoscope colored fish camouflaging among neon-bright shoals, and about ten million tiny violet attacking jellyfish to lightly sting you as you float twenty minutes down a riptide that forcefully transports you from one edge of the island to the other. The scrapes and bruises are well worth it. For a $1 children will be waiting where the riptide ceases with your belongings so you don’t have to hike the mile back to where you began your swim. There is even a return kiosk for your rented snorkeling gear.

I was also lured by rumors of $5 hour-long beach-side back massages, and two-for-one forty cent whiskey happy hour specials. With basic hammock inside a beach hut accommodation, Gili Trawangan is a remote Utopian paradise on a budget.

Getting there proved difficult.

Easy journeys rarely begin with “First, fly to Jakarta.”

I had allotted three weeks for this adventure. I had planned on taking a train for ten hours to Surabaya (which is a place people normally do not want to be), then switch to another train for a further ten hours, ultimately having crossed the Island of Java, to the port city of Ketapang (which is definitely a place people do not want to be).

In an effort to discourage lingering, a ferry operates 24 hours a day to help sleep-deprived foreigners make the thirty minute crossing to the port of Gilimanuk, in Bali. From there, the plan was to jump on any willing four-by-four or bus making the six hour journey toward the Balinese capital of Denpasar. I would have concluded my trip by taking a twenty minute Bluebird Taxi (never use any other company–they will rip you off–it will only be by a dollar but you will feel exploited and, like an ironic cartoon character, start screaming about “fairness” to a guy who lives off $3 a day) to postcard-famous Kuta Beach. Then, obviously still being in a condition to negotiate hotel prices in Balinese, I would find a wonderfully exotic and inexpensive room for a brief forty-hour slumber.

Yes, it was all a very sensible idea.      

I became discouraged when I looked out the window as my flight into Jakarta made its final descent. It looked like the whole city was underwater, which it was, due to flash flooding.

I had wondered why my roundtrip plane ticket from Singapore had only cost $100.

After a very brief wait at customs (lesser tourists having apparently been deterred from visiting the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country during a humanitarian crisis) I began my vacation outside the airport pickup area which overlooks the city.

I thought I had walked onto a George A. Romero set during filming. Through windy torrents of rain and thunderclaps, there was a hysterical cacophony of screaming, crying, and the unintelligible noises and sirens commonly associated with mass-human suffering.   I stood silently, unable to process it.

“What would pragmatically be the most helpful thing I could do?” I asked myself.

I walked back to the ticket counter. “How much for a plane ticket to Bali?”

Very cheap it turned out–and so I just got out of everyone’s way and left.

Three hours later I was on Kuta Beach.

Kuta Beach Daqauri

I was slurping an overproof $1 strawberry daiquiri in a no-cover nightclub involving swimming pools, multi-tiered suspended glass dance floors, a whole pig rotating on a spit, and naked lesbian contortionists juggling fire whilst lighting customers’ cigarettes. (Well, not exactly, but my situation was in stark contrast from suffocating under a mosquito net while floating down railroad tracks in a Malaria-infested jungle.)

Pig on a spit, Bali, Indonesia.

Pig on a spit, Bali, Indonesia.

What happened that night will one day be subject to the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation hearing, but for now, I’ll just explain that after three days my fast-fading instincts toward self-preservation prodded me onward.

My impossibly cheap Bali accommodation.

My impossibly cheap Bali accommodation.

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach

The impossibly ornate interior of TJ's, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate interior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate exterior of TJ's, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

The impossibly ornate exterior of TJ’s, a Balinese Mexican restaurant.

From Kuta Beach it is a several hour transit to the village of Ubud, where you can buy indigenous crafts and antiquities that your children will be disappointed to discover are fakes when they attempt to sell them on a History Channel pawn show. Most people will spend a night here so they can get up at 3AM and preposterously scramble the perilous edge of the magma-smoldering volcano Mount Batur near the village of Kintamani or get pickpocketed by a Macaque at the Ubud Monkey Village.

Ubud

Ubud

I instead continued to Padangbai which runs the 24 hour Bali-Lombok ferry service.

Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia

Padangbai, Bali, Indonesia

Whenever you hear a news report involving a ferry crowded with five hundred passengers and three crew sinking in the middle of nowhere, there is a fifty-fifty chance it happened here in the Lombok Strait. The Lombok Tourism Bureau even warns travelers about the vessels’ “poor condition” and suggests visitors not use them–which really says something since at the time the island lacked an operational airport and this was the only way to get there.

Perhaps visitors were supposed to pirate a local’s fishing boat?

If you didn’t drown on the way to the Lombok nightmare-port of Lembar, you were likely to be killed when you got there.

Today, they have sufficiently cleaned the place up that cruise ships occasionally dock there allowing passengers to experience new and shiny Polynesian fire shows, but when I went guidebooks cryptically advised to have onward transport waiting for you on the pier and proffered suicide as a reasonable alterative to spending the night. Crime in Somalia is noted as “high.” At the time, crime in Lembar was noted as “very high.”

I decided to extend my life expectancy by a day with an overnight in Padangbai. The shoreline village is out of a Daniel Defoe novel. A hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex is a two hour hike up mountainside paths. Dinner is fish and so fresh that you basically explain what you want and they send a local ten-year-old out into the sea to catch it for you. My hotel room was a thatched roof two story bungalow furnished elegantly with indigenous artifacts–$6 per night (including a banana pancake breakfast accompanied by two liters of steaming Balinese tea and a cartoonishly steep and narrow staircase I dubbed the “tort-maker”).

$6 a night for a two-story thatched roof bungalow at the Kembar Inn.

$6 a night for a two-story thatched roof bungalow at the Kembar Inn.

Stairway to Heaven: This is the perilous obstacle course separating a patron who has enjoyed the night from his bathroom below.

Stairway to Heaven: This is the perilous obstacle course separating a patron who has enjoyed the night from his bathroom below.

It is a two-hour hike uphill to  a hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

It is a two-hour hike uphill to a hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

Stairs from the temple complex plunge into the water.

Stairs from the temple complex plunge into the water.

Stone gargoyles guard the hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

Stone gargoyles guard the hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex.

The hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex

The hauntingly empty and sprawling labyrinthine temple complex

Dine on the freshest seafood possible.

Dine on the freshest seafood possible.

There is one bar in Padangbai. It is Rastafarian themed and the employees seem to be devout practitioners even while at work. Every purchased drink (which were priced at something-like ten cents for a shot of liquor or a quarter for a local beer) was accompanied by a huge complementary cup of hooch that they lovingly distill from home.

It was a long night and I am not allowed back at the Kembar Inn.

That’s not really true, but they weren’t overjoyed with me.

Upon my late night return my key would not unlock my hut’s door and so I violently kept stabbing the lock with the key while cursing and banging on the door. The lights suddenly went on inside.

Oops.

When I finally located my assigned bungalow, during my energetic sleep I utterly destroyed the bed’s mosquito net. Management, the mother of the family which owned the hotel, asked that I pay thirty cents in damages. Feeling bad, I also arranged my ferry travel and for immediate onward transport from Lembar through the hotel. The whole package set me back $4. (Sure you might be killed; but at these prices. . .)

I was looking forward to the ferry crossing in the way a teenage skateboarder secretly looks forward to cracking his skull–at least there will be adventuresome stories to tell.

The ride certainly seemed fine at a distance.

The ride certainly seemed fine at a distance.

I had read and heard so much hyperbole about the dangerousness of this mariner misadventure that I was siked to differentiate the reality from the hype. The waves were to be twenty feet high, the vessel as seaworthy as a dense stone, and it was told that bloody-toothed sharks would be at the ready for their fleshy American twenty-something chum.

As it turns out none of the gossip or admonishments were hyperbole–actually, the gloomy reports were rather euphemistic.

They hand each passenger a small plastic bag as they board.

“For when you vomit,” they explain with vexus calm.

As soon as we crossed the bay into the ocean our almost mini-cruise ship sized craft rocked back and forth at 75 degree angles causing even the toilet water to spill out onto the deck. In the below deck seating area, the windows smashed into the ocean at such precipitous angles that seafarers could see excited tropical fish pressed against the glass.

The fish were resplendent throughout the spectrum of rainbow colors. It was so enchanting that it would have enthralled the screaming passengers if they hadn’t been preoccupied by drafting wills, making amends with estranged relatives over mobile phones, and second guessing a life of confident atheism.

Twice we had dropped anchor because a lifeboat became untangled with the ship in the tumultuous sea. The first time required a twenty minute effort to rescue it and reattach it to our ship. The second time–I’m not joking–the lifeboat immediately sank.

We just stared blankly for a beat. Then, without comment, the crew drew up the anchor and we progressed with an unspoken pact to not think about what we had just witnessed.

After many more hours than planned, and to the apparent befuddlement of the Captain, we made it safely to the Zombie Apocalypse that was then-Lembar.

Despite being very late, I found my driver waiting asleep atop the roof of his van parked at the absolute point where the dilapidated pier turned into dirt. I therefore didn’t enter Lembar, but from a distance, it appeared to be in more need of humanitarian aid than certain refugee camps I had toured.

The driver was a cousin of the hotel matron. “Better luck with the misquote net here.” Gosh, word travels fast anywhere in the world rural. For the hours journey to Senggigi I stared out vacantly at a world of flooded paddy fields and the occasional lonely kiosk sized vegetable stand. As we approached the impossibly long shoreline of Senggigi the driver started recommending hotels at impossibly high prices–$15.

Lombok Rice Patty fields

Lombok Rice Patty fields

I ended up getting a $6 room on the beach (though it turned out you had to walk a quarter mile down the road to actually access it) which I shared with thirty-five mosquitoes the size of tarantulas.

Here is perhaps the most important travel trip I can ever give you: bring mosquito repellant when visiting Indonesia.

The stores really don’t sell it; the hotel managers really don’t understand what you are complaining about; you will simply be moved to different rooms each with the same problem. By the time I returned to Singapore my body was so consumed with mosquito bites that, after enduring my partner’s attempts at applying odious ancient oriental balms, I finally had to check myself into the hospital.

“Why you no bring repellant to Indonesia, la” the Sumantran doctor inquired shrilly, “you  so stupid?”

Bring your own repellant with you. If you fail to do so, your only reasonable alternative is to execute another tourist and take his.

While visiting the spartan town–there were maybe ten other foreigners–I quickly discovered that the local street vendors were decidedly more aggressive–threatening actually, than the mellow ones on Bali.

There is a material fact universally omitted from the guidebooks about Bali–the overambitious entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens.

A very rare picture of an empty main street Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.

A very rare picture of a near-empty main street Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia.

Every two feet the tourist will be confronted by business people hawking fake jewelry, novelty t-shirts evidencing your journey to Indonesia, and suspiciously low priced “Prada” bags and “Gucci” sunglasses. They are so zealous in beginning their careers in fraudulent retail that many have dispatched with the need to credibly own or rent a brick-and-mortar store, or even a clean blanket splayed on the pavement or sand, and will abruptly jump in front of you screaming as if they are blocking a bullet. If you assert disinterest by not making eye contact, about half of your assaulters will whisper into your ear: “heroin? cocaine? prostitute?”

In my experience, “no, thank you” translates into Indonesian as roughly, “I’m terribly interested in hearing more about what you have on offer and I’m secretly hoping to pay far too much for it!”

Try “Tidak, Terima Kasih” (exactly translates into “No, thank you”); it is interpreted as “I live here. Go away.” And they usually do.

They are then immediately replaced by someone else who has been refused twenty times in the last twenty seconds, has bore witness to you refusing the exact same items at the exact same prices with the exact same pitches also twenty times, but with that uncanny Balinese optimism, is certain that twenty-one will be a very lucky number indeed.

They are doing this because they are very poor and it is objectively the only way to fill their families’ bellies with rice.

They reason that if a foreigner clearly has enough money to travel to a remote island, they therefore can spare a dollar for a bone-knife or a scrap of coined pyrite masquerading as gold from a “Dutch sunken treasure.” If there weren’t ten thousand of them it would be an emotionally compelling argument.

They (very understandably) fail to differentiate the $1,000-a-night guest in a secured and heavily fortified resort and the decidedly disheveled thirty-year-old backpacker from Surrey who slept in a hammock at his $4 beach thatched-roof hut accommodation and who would have holidayed in Ibiza if he had any actual money.

Reactions to street-vendor solicitation range the spectrum from kindness to frustration to homicidal rage simply because he’s the tenth dude who wants to know if you’ll look at his t-shirts.

Nevertheless, the Balinese, sufficiently relaxed as Buddhists in what is otherwise an entirely secular Muslim county (there is a separation between Mosque and state), are resigned to rejection and just happily harass the next potential customer.

They cannot control the rude attitudes of vacationers, but they can control their own.

In Lombok, they are not Buddhist.

Solicitors on Lombok have a unique approach to customer service–they do not require your purchase to be made voluntarily. The Lombok, not-exactly typical, but frequent enough, sales pitch is aimed at impregnating the targeted patron with duress.

“You Westerners are so damned lazy you can’t even be bothered to stand up while taking a dump. You all have to over-complicate it by requiring a porcelain bowl so you can perch upon it like Colonial overlords. Even that’s not enough, you are unwilling to simply sit on the porcelain, you insist upon a plastic lid, sandwiched under, yet another, plastic lid. Sometimes you even pad the lid with some cushion-like lining–allahu akbar! You’re asses must be so fragile!

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” But what would we Muslims know about engineering–we only invented mathematics.

Don’t even get me started on the Japanese. Their toilet seats must have warmers and include a spouting water feature because they can’t even be bothered to wipe themselves.

Westerners create huge complexes of elaborate piping and wastes Allah knows how much water flushing your decadent excrement into your kleptocratic-governed cities to be cleansed by hugely polluting treatment facilities. Here’s a green tip for you–just dig a small hole and squat like every other living creature, have a bucket of water nearby and use your left hand–it’ll biodegrade in a year without contaminating your water supply.

Now are you going to buy this five dollar Rolex or what!?”

During the whole encounter he has been trying to stab you in the neck with the Indonesian kris he has also been trying to sell you, but is fortunately physically held back by five members of the local tourism board–“Now, Farouk, if you kill this young man it will reflect poorly on all of us.”

While the Balinese seem contented to cheerfully hock wares to ensure basic survival on an idyllic tropical beach to insensitive vacationing inebriants, the Lombok vendor manages to be worldly and irate as an islander who will begin his pleas for sustenance with “hey, dickhead.”

After a few ugly unsolicited confrontations at the beach and then with angry people approaching me while I ate dinner, I retired to the best (and only) lounge. The bartender was unspeakably polite as I asked, which were in hindsight, invasively disrespectful questions like “how do you live on a dollar a day?”

“Carefully,” he nodded while toweling dry a glass. “I have to decide whether to buy my family a protein or a vegetable to accompany our bowl or rice each night. When there is a big problem, like a storm comes and collapses our roof, we depend on our neighbors combining what little they have to our rescue. And when it happens to one of them, we must do the same.”

I yearend for him to ask me how the Western world could sleep at night. He didn’t, of course. He didn’t seem to begrudge the more fortunate for their luckier lot in life. Had he asked I would have probably replied with deep sadness: “comfortably.”

I had about $200 to last me for the next week and a half. I tipped him $20 on a $4 tab and left to sleep and have approximately three pints of my blood harvested by mosquitoes.

I woke up at 5AM feeling anemic.

A three mile walk down the village’s only road introduced me to Senggigi’s postcard stand-sized bamboo-built tourist office. In exchange for about $2, they sell tickets for the 7AM daily departure to Gili Trawangan. This final two hour push first pauses at Gili Air and Gili Meno, each offering their own unique tourist delights. But I wanted Gili Trawangan, the very last and very smallest of the remote islands of the remote itself Lombok.

This portion of the Lombok Strait is tackled with an eardrum-piercing oversized motor haphazardly attached to the back of a wooden canoe. The views compensate for this through their surreal, nearly tear-educing beauty. Cones of verdant granite stab up through the ocean hundreds of feet into the air. Our canoe expertly zigzagged through this oceanic mountain-forest for forty-five minutes before departing for the Lombok sea-proper.

Gili Air comes almost immediately into view and two of our six passengers hop off and disappear into its lush hospitable jungle. The same occurs at the most popular island, Gili Meno.

Finally, there is no pier at Gili Trawangan, and so the canoe just stops a hundred feet off shore, and the four remaining of us jump into the shallow water with our packs raised above our heads.

There are no roads on Gili Trawangan, just one partially paved outer ring and one dirt lane that transverses the island. The only form of transport are wooden carts pulled by donkeys. I eschewed such modern decadence and kept walking eastward until “town”–a collection of a dozen or so bars, shops, restaurants, and hotels spread over a thousand foot-strip–disappeared into a jungle filled with wild goats, and then back into an desolate beach.

The first hotel I came to on the largely undeveloped side of the island was apparently not open, or such is how I interpreted the greeting I received at the threshold–twin kindergarten-aged girls just chillingly laughed at me while giving me creepy steady stares. It was as if they were advertising a telepathic ability to warn me that I was to die that night.

I moved on next door where I plunked down $40 for two nights in my own palatial-furnished bungalow on the beach.

The shower only produced cold salt-water but such was easily forgivable as it was a part of my bungalow’s roofless “outdoor” bathroom-terrarium which came with a rock garden perimetered by lush bonsai trees and other greenery. There was a stone path from the glass sliding door that opened into it to the most agreeably situated toilet in the world.

The street vendor in Lombak would have had a heart attack.

There was no toilet paper but you can’t have everything.

After dropping my back-aching heavy pack I stomped outside for a $1 Nasi Goreng and Bir Bintang. The only other guest in the beach bungalows was a Dutch surfer who seemed more or less asleep with his suspiciously rouge-dilated eyes transfixed at the incoming tide.

“It was arduous getting here, but it sure seems worth it,” I thought aloud.

I started recounting my harrowing tale expecting to hear his own daring adventure in return. From his catatonic appearance, it seemed he was content to live on Gili Trawangan rather than brave it back to the mainland.

Instead he turned to me very slowly: “You do know that there is a cheap forty-five minute speedboat service direct from Bali?”

I swallowed a violent urge to punch the World in its face. Such desires wash over me from time to time.

“I’ll, I’ll, have to look into that for my return trip,” I mumbled stammering.

Logistics:

Fly directly to Bali. Spend some time there scuba diving, snorkeling, trekking, and allowing yourself to vaporize into the raging night-life.

There are now many direct transport services from Bali to Gili Trawangan, which can be researched here.

It is no longer the same idyllic footnote in the National Geographic that it once was, so go now before it becomes even more popular.

Water Balloons and Silly String in the Square: How to Miss Carnival in Cusco While Experiencing It All

My friends and I managed to spend a week in Cusco and its surrounding environs without quite figuring out we were there during their annual Carnival celebrations.

We thought it was odd that they seemed to throw a parade in the Plaza De Armas every single day. 

“It’s just like Disney World!  A parade for the tourists each noon!” 

We had no idea why children thought it totally appropriate to shoot water pistols and silly string at us despite our protests of confusion. There was a woman who intentionally dumped a bucket of what we assumed to be waste from her third floor window onto my friend’s head–how unspeakably rude! 

Then there were the pigs slowly roasting on spits, sumptuously decorating each colonial cobblestoned square. A Peruvian brass band or flutist was never far off. DJs and raised platforms seemed spontaneously erected among spirited crowds of midday merrymakers. Walking down any central artery risked confrontation with dancers resplendent in Inca period regalia. 

“Christ! These people seriously know how to get the most out of each day!”

View of Cusco Plaza De Armas from  Sacsaywaman lookout as it cleans up after a parade in preparation for yet another parade.

View of Cusco Plaza De Armas from Sacsaywaman lookout as it cleans up after a parade in preparation for yet another parade.

Henry David Thoreau must be the Mayor. 

Inspired to find our own Walden Pond, we hiked and climbed four days in the Andes mountains on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We returned by train and bus to find that the festivities continued. Scrambling to the lookout at Sacsaywaman, we stared down at yet another cavalcade spectacle galloping the city’s ancient streets.  

At dusk it could get grim–robe adorned masked marchers chanted Latin epithets. The skies smelt of incense as the cortege paced by carrying coffin-sized cathedral artifacts. (Actually, this one thing that we vaguely understood to be some religious or funerary ritual, turned out to be a provocatively morbid protest against utility rate hikes.)  

Then, abruptly, more parties.

We stayed just off the Square of the Church of San Blas and each midnight was punctuated with celebratory fireworks (which we mistook for violent gunfire) and every morning we awoke to what we assumed was some sort of daily religious market.

Everybody seemed to have money while nobody seemed to have a job. They all wept clasping crucifixes while taking a shot of Pisco or downing a third Cusqueña at half past noon. It didn’t make sense but we just went with the notion that the Cusco population was entirely comprised of very religious afternoon binge drinkers. 

Dressed as decidedly lavender Dr. Seuss characters, five representatives from the Cusco Chamber of Commerce toddled passed on stilts.   

I kind of wanted to live there. 

On the last day, after both my friends abandoned this procession of pleasures for the bleakness of reality, I finally asked someone what was going on.

“Why these are the last minutes of the last day of our Carnival!”

I nodded in resignation.  I had once again narrowly dodged an authentic cultural experience while abroad.

Sacsaywaman Sleepytime

Sacsaywaman Sleepytime