Homeward Bound Reflections

June 4. Breakfast in the room at 3:30 AM. Short trip to airport and check in go smoothly, and Carol and I are escorted into the comfortable business class lounge (the Lewises had been unable to upgrade on this leg) to await our 6:15 flight of almost seven hours from Jakarta to Tokyo.

 We spend an hour in the business class lounge in Tokyo. Carol favors the sushi, and I the edamame.

Lewises have upgraded to business class for the eleven hour flight to Chicago, but it turns out that Carol and I are in first class. 

I tell the Lewises that, if there’s another leg, Carol and I will be flying in the cockpit.

And now there’s time for some reflections on the trip.

Seems that every time I do one of these reflections, I’m struck by the fact that I’m not as young as I was in my last reflection. Alas, that’s true again. I don’t want to overstate that, because we’re still managing pretty well. Not as well as we would have ten (or five) years ago, but not too shabbily. The realization that we are not bionic makes me want to continue these trips as long as we can. As Carol and I have three more major trips planned within the next 12 months, I guess we’re not doing too badly on that score.

This was not an easy trip. The long flights and the heat and humidity were trying. There were many very early morning starts.  The walks through the mud and leeches of Borneo and the ups and downs on many days (particularly difficult, for me, were the downs) are challenging. And one just plain gets a bit tired, you know.  I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated air conditioning quite so much.  And with Valerie’s bike accident and my fall in the forest, which could have proved a lot more serious than they turned out to be, we had a bit more excitement than we needed.  Still, it’s not at all a close call as to whether the travails are worth it. Decidedly, they are.

The Lewises were excellent and game companions. Sharing experiences with them provided more perspectives on what we were seeing and doing, which is always valuable. And we laughed a lot together. We all four are experienced travelers and were ready to deal/roll with the blips one inevitably encounters on a trip like this.

In planning the trip, we struck a good balance, I think, between nature, in Borneo, and culture, in Indonesia. Both were fun, and interesting. For me, the nature portion was a complete shift from normal and so, in that sense, more engaging. Still, I would not have wanted more of it, largely because of the heat and humidity, but also because I found my frequent inability to spot birds frustrating. I needed larger, slower birds, I guess. That’s not to say that I did not see many beautiful birds. I did, because of some excellent guides, especially Azmil at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, who was truly outstanding.

I did not feel as immersed in the culture in Indonesia as I have on some of our other trips. In part, that’s because we spent a relatively short time there and in part because much of that time was spent visiting monuments, rather than seeing people and the way they live. The latter is more interesting to me (and is reflected in the highlights of the trip, discussed below).  In general there were fewer people out and about, because we were visiting in the month-long Ramadan fast period.  (This also meant that we were unable to see puppet performances, because there are none during this period.)

Photography is a significant element of travel for me, and this was not a great photography trip for several reasons. First, I like to photograph people, rather than animals or structures. There were only a few days in Indonesia that afforded the opportunity to photograph people, and those were certainly the best photography days for me. Second, I did not have the right equipment–long lenses and tripods–necessary to photograph birds and animals. Michael had the right equipment and his bird and animal photographs are far superior to mine. Unfortunately, I can’t attribute the entire difference to equipment, because his people photos are better than mine, too. While I won’t know what I captured until after I get home and look at them (I pick the blog photos in a rather random fashion from viewing tiny images), I think I may well like the abstract photos from our night drive the best.

I have made a conscious decision as to photographic equipment and photography, though, and I remain very comfortable with that decision. Michael probably had fifty pounds of equipment (without exaggeration). For me, carrying anything like that is simply not worth the better photos I might be able to take and would detract materially from my enjoyment of the experience. So I’m content with the level I can achieve with the equipment I can easily carry. I’m not as into the technique or technology or detail as Michael.  

Now that I think of it, something similar may apply to my approach to birding. I am not as into the identification and detailed knowledge as the Lewises, or Carol. One might say I’m consistently lazy. So birding may not be the best type of activity for a “big picture” guy.

Whenever Carol and I travel, we make separate lists of our ten best/favorite aspects of the trip. Generally, we have a high level of agreement on those items. We let the Lewises in on our game this time.

Here are my ten (not necessarily in exact order), with a bit of commentary.

1. The canopy walk. Being among the trees and birds (even if I had difficulty finding them) was magical. A true immersion in nature on its own level and terms.

2. Seeing orangutans in the wild. This experience was closest to the African safari experiences that Carol and I have loved so much. Finding and observing orangutans swinging high up in the trees was thrilling.

3. Having meals in our private open pavilion by the river served by our charming butler, Jariah. I’m cheating a bit here, combining two elements in one. First the perfect serenity of sitting by the river with the forest looming on the opposite bank. And, second, Jariah, who was completely delightful and enhanced our overall experience at the lodge greatly.

4. Birding by boat on the river at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Birds were easier to spot from the boat, and cruising down the river added great interest to the experience.

5. Eka. She was a delightful, knowledgeable guide who gave our experiences in Indonesia a face. Eka is a great example of how important a guide is to a travel experience. And we especially appreciated her because we were unable to understand the guide she replaced and had to request that he be dismissed.

6. The horse and buggy ride through the villages near the Amanjiwo. The scenery, the mode of transportation and the opportunity to see local people at work combined for a memorable morning.

7. Borobudur. This is an extremely impressive architectural and archeological monument, and the chance to see it at sunset (even though there was no sunset) when very few people were permitted to be there was especially excellent.

8. Meditating at Mendut Monastery. Spending an hour in near darkness in silence, except for the chanting of the three monks who were with us, was a unique and special experience.

9. Going to the OHD Museum to see the collection of modern art amassed by Dr. Lei Hong Djien. The collection itself, the way it was curated to show artists’ development over a 25-year period and meeting and talking with Dr. Djien all contributed to an unusual art experience.

10. Frogs. Clearly, what made this special and the reason it made my top ten list, was our meeting with Bob Inger, the 95-year old Bornean frog expert and Curator Emeritus at The Field Museum in Chicago.

There were certainly other experiences that could have made this list, as well.

Travel arrangements, on the whole, went quite smoothly. The only notable exception was an unsatisfactory guide for our first day in Indonesia. To balance that out, we had two outstanding guides, Azmil and EKA. Our accommodations ranged from places with great character–the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and the Phoenix–to luxurious–the Amanjiwo. And the other accommodations were quite acceptable. Meals at the Amanjiwo were outstanding and those at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge were very good.

Once again, the opportunity to have this type of experience is amazing. One needs to have the time, the interest, the financial wherewithal and the health to enjoy it. We are so fortunate and grateful to have all four.

Thanks for following the blog, and for all your comments. Hope you can join us in Vietnam in October.

I’ll close with some photos taken from the plane that, for me, evoke something of the dream quality of the photos I took on our night game drive in Borneo.

Winding Down

June 3. This morning I enjoy a leisurely breakfast on our patio and, after a quick breakfast, Carol goes off for a yoga class.  
Eka picks us up at 9AM and we swing by the temple at Mendut, so the Lewises can see it. Meanwhile, Carol bargains for some purchases at the nearby market and, as usual, is pursued by multiple sellers seeking to make a deal.

We drive on to visit a combined Hindu/Buddhist Temple at Plaosan
then move on to an interesting Hindu temple discovered underground at Sambisari
Carol and Valerie walk through flagged streets to get to the site

We see some young nuns engrossed in their cell phones

Eka shows us a map to help us to situate where we’ve been.

After lunch, we drive on to the Jogy airport for our flight to Jakarta.

Arriving in Jakarta, our guide takes us to our nearby hotel, the Sheraton Bandara, a very nice modern (but unexceptional) place.  We decline his suggestion that we ride some 35 minutes in to see Old Jakarta.  It’s hot, and we’ve about had it.  We have drinks with the Lewises in the hotel bar, go up to our room briefly and then meet for dinner.

We’ve left a 3:20 wake up-call, have breakfast scheduled in the room for 3:30 and will be driven to the airport at 4:00.  Long haul tomorrow will provide some time for reflection.

Villages, Art and Dancing

June 2. Carol and I have breakfast outside on our patio, overlooking rice fields and with Borobrodur as a backdrop. Not an easy life, but we are learning to cope.
This morning we are scheduled to do a bicycle tour through beautiful rural countryside and villages. Carol and Valerie decide to do the mountain bikes, but Mike and I opt to do the same tour via horse-drawn carriage. This makes it easier for us to photograph (and avoids the bikes, which seems to me to be tempting fate, as I have not ridden for some twenty years, when we took a bike trip to New Zealand).  
The trip was terrific, interesting scenery (rice, tobacco, chilies, and spinach) and villages. Very friendly people, and some cute kids. We stopped to see noodle making, tofu making and pottery. Only downside was that towards the very end, Valerie fell off of her bike. She does not appear to be hurt seriously, though.

Eka takes Carol and me to see the Mendut Monastery that Michael and I visited to meditate last night. We also see the interesting Mendut Temple right beside it, which is older than Borobudur and features very unusual sculptures of Buddha sitting on a chair.
 Carol and I go with Eka to the wonderful OHD Museum to see the collection of modern art amassed by Dr. Lei Hong Djien. The current exhibit celebrates 20 years since opening and features works acquired by Dr. Djien 25 years ago and, along side them, new works by each artist commissioned by Dr. Djien on the occasion of this 20th anniversary. Fascinating to see the evolution in the artists’ work. The visit is made more interesting because Dr. Djien happens to be near the museum and he comes over to greet and talk with us. He has been to Chicago several times and has a son who graduated from the University of Wisconsin medical school. Dr. Djien is a true patron, in the mode of wealthy families back in Renaissance times.  His enthusiasm for the work is totally infectious, making this a most memorable event for us. I have written to Dr. Djien, thanking him and inviting him to visit us in Chicago.

We return to the Amanjiwo for lunch with the Lewises and after a very short break, we spend the afternoon and sunset hours back at the Borobudur, which typically closes to the public at sunset. But due to the resort’s special connections they can arrange special permits providing us access post closing to the public. Being at this fabulous monument all by ourselves is absolutely magical, even though the cloudy weather blocks the sunset.  It’s fun to watch everyone photograph themselves.

We return to the hotel for dinner and to see some short, Javanese dances performed to live music.
All in all, one of our best days, and that’s saying something.



June 1. At 4:30 this morning, we meet Eka and our driver, Kamto, and set off for sunrise at Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument and the largest human-made structure in the southern hemisphere. It predates Angkor Wat (in Cambodia, which Carol and I will visit next February) by 300 years and Notre Dame by 200 years. Rediscovered in 1815 by Sir Stanford Raffles, it has been excavated and returned to its original glory. The stone relief panels offer a clear glimpse into Buddhist doctrine and Javanese life 1,000 years ago. We spend the early morning hours exploring this fabulous complex with Eka. The climb to the top of the temple, nine stories high, while not a walk in the park, is not as challenging as each of the four of us had feared. 


The people watching up on the monument (including Eka) was excellent

After exploring the temple, we have a wonderful a picnic breakfast at Dagi Hill, overlooking Borobudur.

We return to our resort to rest up and have lunch (in our new hats, given to us by Amanjiwo).

After lunch, we went back to our rooms to relax.  Later, Michael played tennis, Valerie and I swam and Carol read.

Around 7PM, Michael and I were driven to Mendut Monastery, where we had a great session, meditating for an hour with some monks, and listening to them chant.  After, we chatted briefly with two of the monks.

 Carol and Valerie met for a drink, and we all reconvened for a terrific dinner at the Amanjiwo.


Eka-ing Out a Great Day

May 31. After breakfast and checking out of the lovely and charming Phoenix Hotel

 we meet our new guide, Eka. She is fabulous. Perfect, understandable english, upbeat manner, knowledgeable and fun. It’s as if a large weight has been lifted from around our necks. On the half hour drive to the Prambanan Temple complex we learn more about the history and politics of the area than we have in the prior day and a half. 
This Hindu temple city was built between the 8th and 10th centuries to honor Shiva and originally consisted of some 240 temples, all of which were buried under rubble until rediscovered by the British Governor Raffles in 1811. It has taken over two hundred years to get it to its present state, and work continues on it. Eka gives us a tour and easily comprehensible explanation of the temple complex and it’s carvings.

After this tour we are driven in a small cart to a nearby contemporaneous Buddhist temple site, Sewu. We spend a relatively short time there hearing about and photographing the site.  
On our way back to our van, Carol makes some purchases at VERY modest prices (which did not stop her from bargaining them down. We continue on about an hour, Eka explaining what we are passing by, to a good Chinese restaurant where we have lunch.
From there it’s about another twenty minutes to our award-winning hotel, the Amanjiwo. Amanjiwo, which translates to “peaceful soul,” is a beautiful, romantic hideaway in Java. This luxury resort is surrounded by extraordinary cultural, physical and spiritual beauty, and offers clear views to 9th century Borobudur (the site we will visit at sunrise tomorrow morning),drawing its design inspiration from this largest Buddhist sanctuary in the world. We have been upgraded from the luxury suite we had booked to an even more luxurious one with views of the temple. Amanjiwo was recently voted one of the best resorts in the world. These photos of our room and our views do not begin to do it justice.

After relaxing and unpacking, Carol and I go up for tea.  Carol then goes back to our villa to read and I join Valerie for a refreshing swim in the 50-meter swimming pool.

We meet the Lewises up for dinner, where there are musicians playing the gamelan and a singer.  Our tasting menu allows us to sample about ten different dishes and both the variety and quality of the offerings were excellent.  

Over dinner, we discuss our reactions to some of the great places we’ve stayed at.  Despite the sumptuous elegance of the Amanjiwo, Carol and I both say that we prefer the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and The Phoenix Hotel.  Valerie agrees.  (Michael loves everything, and can’t pick.)  We’re all content, though, to continue to suffer in the luxury of the Amanjiwo.  Tough duty, but somebody’s got to do it.