14 August 2010

Honeymoon, Part 4

Before we had left the resort in Bali, we killed an hour and the last of our rupiah messing around on the interweb. We noticed a little article about a volcano erupting in Iceland and potential delays to European flights, but didn’t bother getting too concerned. Fast-forward 5 hours to Kuala Lumpur International Airport: “It is an act of god. There is nothing we can do about it and don’t know when the situation will change,” the tiny Malaysia Airline representative shouted. “All flights into Heathrow are cancelled until further notice. We will be putting you in a hotel for one night and one night only.” A collective groan erupted from the few hundred people jostling for hearing position around. “Please follow the man in the green coat and do not lose track of him.” We surged ahead with the crowd and began our 10 day ‘bonus’ honeymoon.
After 60 minutes of sitting on a bus bursting at its seams (listening to an obnoxious Australian woman in a low-cut black dress complain about the delays and say repeatedly ‘How hard can it be to drive a bus?!’), and another 60 minutes travelling, we turned into a Marriott resort complex outside of Kuala Lumpur. Most people were in downright terrible moods, but we were all grins as we checked into the 5-star hotel. As it was already 2AM, we collapsed into bed but resolved to travel into the city the following day, as we knew the eruption wouldn’t be a single day disruption. In the morning, we dashed to the hotel’s business center to go online and secure the next night’s lodging. We quickly decided we should make the most of the situation and booked a room in downtown KL - I lucked out and found an amazing deal at a 5-star business hotel called The Traders. As we secured spots on the one free shuttle into the city, Mark quickly checked emails he had sent out to people who might be familiar with KL. Sure enough, his brother Bill had written back multiple suggestions and had included a link to a New York Times article on the city. As it turned out, the hotel we had booked was featured in the article and contained the best rooftop bar in the city complete with swimming pool. We looked at each other and beamed with excitement.
The hotel lived up to its reputation; we checked into our immaculate, modern-designed room after sipping freshly squeezed orange juice in the lobby. The hotel sits right on the corner of KLCC Park and has amazing views of the iconic Petronas Towers on the other side. From our room, Mark looked down at the mile long running track the snaked its way through the park, and anticipated the next morning’s run. After a quick freshening up, we went out to the aquarium and spent the afternoon ogling the exotic species, and feeling like we had cut school.
Mark in KLCC Park. The Petronas towers are behind him.
Mark, relaxing on the faux-beach at the Aquaria.
That evening we explored the city’s shameless modern obsession: indoor malls. We quickly found out there were (air-conditioned) malls strewn throughout the city and served as excellent escapes from the heat. The malls were meticulously designed and all served the middle to upper classes. We entered one where it was quite obvious that we literally could not afford one thing and got plenty of stares until we made our way out the other end.
The next morning we settled into our routine – we woke up, watched CNN or BBC news for updates on the volcano and both tried desperately to reach our airline to determine whether we needed to arrange another night’s lodging. Inevitably, we would be kept on hold for over twenty minutes at a time, be disconnected and forced to make another call (all, we should note, roaming on our work Blackberries). Then, there would be another mad dash to the Business Center of the hotel to arrange lodging. We were able to score a second night at the Traders Hotel, but eventually moved to another 5 star resort, the Royal Chulan for the next three nights.
One of the best places Mark’s brother directed us to was the National Museum of Islamic art. After getting incredibly helpful advice from a ticket agent, we negotiated a train and then a cab ride across the city. This gave us a view of a less modern city and brought us through the Islamic heart of KL. The museum contained various collections of Islamic art through the ages from textiles to inlaid furniture to paintings to an entire room showing models of the most important mosques of the Islamic world. It was incredibly interesting to compare and contrast the different styles and regions interpretations of a house of worship. Additionally the architecture of the museum itself was amazing to explore.
Each day, we tried to do something new in the city, but we also explored a lot on foot – the city was hot but it was bustling, and each neighborhood had hidden jewels of modern and old architecture, food stalls and markets. It was everything that we had hoped Ubud would be but wasn’t, and we sampled amazing food everywhere we went. One of our favorites was a tiny Indian restaurant with amazing briyani and dosas, and we came back several times. We wanted to get some pictures of the food, but sadly couldn’t wait to inhale it:
Near the train station.
Downtown, near the Suria mall.
Merdeka Square
Merdeka Square
KL Tower
The entrance to the Batu Caves (and most ridiculous taxi ride ever - so we took the bus home)
The Batu Caves. Home to very aggressive monkeys who like to stalk you with their teeth bared (I didn't like them any better in Malaysia than I did in the Sacred Monkey Forest of Ubud).
A pretty tasty Chinese meal.
Jalan Alor, a street that shuts down after 5pm for street food.
Delicious (and cheap) street food.
The best Indian I've ever had... Especially the dosas.
As our stay grew to a close at the Chulan, we started to get more and more nervous about the length and expense of our stay in Kuala Lumpur. The news stations were still talking about the eruption going on for months, and we knew we needed a more long-term solution. I did some more online sleuthing and ended up finding an apartment available in downtown Kuala Lumpur at a vacation rental website. I sent a panicked email, telling the owners we were stranded, and we got an immediate email back. Ana, the owner, was incredibly concerned for us and moved quickly to arrange keys for us – she was living in Chester, not far from our home in the UK, but her brother lived close by the hotel where we were staying. It turned out that the apartment was only a few blocks away and after her brother dropped off the keys, we raced over.
Not too bad, indeed! For 50 GBP a night, we were pretty psyched.
(The rooftop pool didn’t hurt, either)
Finally, on April 22, we received word that UK airspace was reopening and after a few additional last-minute dramas (we were booked on a flight, then we were removed; Malaysian Airlines lost our confirmation number; we had to rush to the central train station and wait with other stranded passengers and were tentatively booked on an unconfirmed flight; the flight was confirmed but diverted to Gatwick from Heathrow…) we were finally ready to go home.
But not before one last stop, at the indoor rollercoaster/theme park in another mall near our apartment. I hate rides like this, especially ones that go upside down, but I also knew Mark had been dying to go and within moments, I found myself upside down, eyes shut and tears streaming down my face. After the rollercoaster, an Indian family convinced us to go on another ride, the DNA Mixer, which flipped us upside down and shook us like a Heinz ketchup bottle. It hurt a lot, and we felt sick for hours afterwards.
The next morning, we packed our bags a final time and said good-bye to the apartment. We took a train to the airport and laughed about our adventures. At the check-in desk, however, there was one more wrench: we weren’t seated together, and the plane had been re-diverted to Heathrow, meaning our connection in Gatwick had to be changed. The front desk was singularly un-helpful on both counts, but after a lot of back and forth, told us they had found a connection, but couldn’t confirm before we boarded our long-haul flight. They gave us the flight number, promised it would be confirmed while we were in flight, and we resigned ourselves to our fates and dragged ourselves to our gate, which was absolutely mobbed with over-stressed UK travelers.
A few minutes before our flight was called, however, our names were called over the loudspeaker. Mark scurried up to the desk, shrugging as he returned and saying that our seats had changed. Then, in a quiet whisper, he said we had been upgraded to business class.
Can I just point out that if you are going to go on a 13 hour flight, business class is most definitely the way to go? OK, there, we said it: fully reclinable seats, ample legroom, complimentary (and unlimited) drinks, real silverware, 4 course meals, 2 (two!) desserts? Pretty awesome, and we appreciated it all the more after the drama at the front desk.
This would normally be the part where we would add a few final notes about the amazing an unexpected end to our honeymoon, and how Kuala Lumpur ended up being one of our favorite parts… but sadly, however, our adventures didn’t end there.
When we arrived at Heathrow, we were handed ‘Priority’ passes for Customs. We dashed by all the sorry saps waiting in the plebeian line and went to a special line for business class customers. Which was manned by a single Customs official, and he wasn’t moving quickly. Fast-forward 70 minutes and we raced down to baggage claim, found our bags amid the chaos and dashed out of Terminal 4. Except to get to Terminal 5, for our BA connection, involved a train to Terminal 3 and another to Terminal 5; each ran every 15 mins, and we missed both.
Of course we missed our connection, and went to the BA desk to figure out if there was a later flight. There wasn’t, and there was no record of us having been booked on the one we missed (thanks, Malaysian Airlines!). They could get us on one from Gatwick the following morning, but that would cost us over 40 pounds to travel on the airport shuttle. We looked at eachother and just wanted to get home – and we walked away from the desk to the car rental phones. At 1AM, we booked a rental car and Mark, the champion husband he is, drove us the four hours home to Liverpool.
Moral of this (admittedly long, and long-overdue) story: when planning your honeymoon to an exotic tropical locale, do your best to 'coincidentally' find yourself stranded there for an extra week or so due to a natural disaster. It's totally worth it.

29 May 2010

Honeymoon, Part 3

As was becoming the trend on this trip when moving from place to place, we were both filled with a bit of sadness for what we were leaving behind, but also with excitement for the unknown of what was to come. We made it back to Bali by boat (thankfully sans the bongo playing Australian family), and met our driver. We planned on heading to Ubud next to explore a bit more of an urban center and some more of the Balinese Hindu heritage. I was super excited about getting back into some Hindu temples as I had not been in any since time I spent in India in 1997. I was curious to see how different this form of island Hinduism was compared to what I had seen in the past. We also planned on staying in a much nicer guesthouse. As this was our last real destination, we wanted to treat ourselves. However before we left, our good friends Spencer and Courtney informed us that they had already paid for our 4 night stay at the place we had chosen! Definitely an unexpected and amazing wedding gift.
The place was super nice and we had an entire wing of it to ourselves. It included a master bedroom, large bathroom, outdoor shower, huge veranda, and a little canopy hut sitting in a pond of lotus blossoms. To top it all off, as we approached we had heard the sweet, sweet whir of an air conditioner. After spending 9 extremely hot nights living in bamboo bungalows, sleeping in bug nets that did not necessarily allow any breeze, we were pretty giddy to get in the AC. However, there was one slight concern that we both had about the place. When we decided to stay there, we were excited to read about the views of the rice paddies from our veranda. However, what we did not realize was the there would be people working in the rice paddies from sun-up to sun-down, and only a very low wall separating things. We would both feel a bit guilty (and kinda colonial to be honest) as we sat out playing cards and drinking beers, while the villagers worked their asses off feet from where we were.

The next morning, we arranged a car to take us into Ubud. I had a list of temples I wanted to see, but first wanted to get into the Monkey Forest. Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god who rolls around with Lord Rama and swings a huge-ass club around at his enemies.

He is not my favourite (he is Ray’s though) and I was excited to get into this monkey preserve that both honors him and is home to a rather large band of Balianese macaques. Kathleen was as nervous as I was excited. Mere feet into the park and meeting some of its inhabitants, she began to mutter “I don’t like monkeys. Don’t like the monkeys” again and again. She loosened up after awhile, but they must have heard because one of them peed on her. Unfortunately the temple in the middle of the park was closed, but we got some pictures.
After the forest, we wandered through the city a bit and were thoroughly underwhelmed. Now Ubud is the setting for the awful (in my mind) book and forthcoming movie, Eat, Pray, Love. I never finished it but supposedly Ubud is where her final awakening occurs and she goes on and on about how amazing and spiritual it was. I am not sure if our perspective was tainted by Balian and Gili, but the place was just filled with tourists and people harassing tourists. This place seemed pretty much overrun and overdone. We did manage to check out a few super cool temples and a market, but ended up taking a very leisurely lunch.
After our exploration, we quickly realized there was no way we could spend 4 days here and began to seek out a new destination. But where should we spend the last 3 days of our once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon? Should we go back to Balian? Should we go back to one of the Gilis? We both decided we wanted to go to a beach, but were apprehensive about going somewhere that we had not researched. We also wanted to continue to pamper ourselves a bit (we talked to Mandala Desa and they amazingly agreed to refund the remainder of our stay so we could put it to our next destination). After discussing it a bit, we decided to go all out. It was our honeymoon after all and what couple does not deserve a 5-star resort stay for at least part of their trip? After a bit of on-line action, we booked a 3 night package at Ayodya Resort.
The Ayodya is located at the end of the island on the Nusa Dua peninsula. Our guidebook described it as ‘a gilded (gated) ghetto of enormous hotels. There are no independent developments, no hawkers, no warung, no traffic, no pollution, and no noise.’ We had prepared ourselves for the fact that we were essentially leaving Indonesia for this nation of upper-class conveniences, but we were OK with it. Apparently as we arrived and checked out everything the place had, I kept repeating excitedly “there’s no shame in my game.” The place had pretty much everything: pristine beaches, amazing bedroom, beautiful outdoor verandas and fountains, a humungous swimming pool, a big lake filled with 2 foot long aquatic lizards, and a great selection of bars and restaurants. We spent the next few days just taking it easy and enjoying things. We read, played a lot of cards, had some amazing games of poolysthide, and drank a fair amount.

We hit happy hour a few times and were even embarrassingly serenaded by a group of musicians whom we could not figure out if they were Indonesian or Mexican.
As the last day of our honeymoon unfolded, we reflected a lot on our trip. We had found an off the beaten path beach to stay and surf at. We learned how to scuba dive. We biked. We ate amazing food. Kathleen read 78 books (at least). I saw the sun rise over Indonesian mountainous islands repeatedly on during my morning runs. We explored temples and markets. Generally we laughed the entire time. And now we had pampered ourselves to the limit. It was super nice to be waited on and to live in this bubble of exclusivity, but we really could have been anywhere in the world. Kathleen and I both loved all the adventures we got into in Bali and Gili Trawangan, and they were by far the richer parts of our trip. I am absolutely positive all couples say this, but as we waited at the airport to board our flight, we agreed it had been the perfect honeymoon. Coupling this trip with our mini-honeymoon to Paris, we couldn’t think of anything that would have made it better. But by now I think you all know we were wrong and had some more surprises waiting for us…