Sunday, April 28, 2013

Partway through our time in Bali, while expressing our disappointment in its beaches, some Americans we met suggested we head to the Gili Islands, an hour and a half by speed boat from the east coast. After a quick Google search, we were sold and started planning our 4-day adventure.

An archipelago of three small islands, the Gilis are home to only 3500 permanent residents. One of the world's deepest ocean trenches lies far below the surface of the Lombok Strait, where the Gilis are, so it's a fascinating region: Sumatra, Java, and Bali were once connected to the Asian mainland, but the Gilis, Lombok and islands to the east were kept separate due to the water's depth. Therefore the fauna to the west of the trench are largely Indo-Malaysian, while the east is inhabited by Australasian species. The biomes are so vastly different because birds and animals will not cross water of a certain depth. Neat!

Tourists have only been visiting The Gilis, in large numbers, since 2008 though a few backpackers have been going since the 1980s. It's known for its party culture, beautiful beaches, and epic snorkelling and diving locations. Magic mushrooms are legal here, so draw people to the islands en masse as Indonesia's drug laws are extremely (ie. death penalty) strict.

The islands have no motorized transport, only horse and buggy (cidomos) or bicycles. While charming, I did have a few issues with the wellbeing of the horses - Their condition varied from prized and seemingly well-cared-for, to quite the opposite. The main tourist strip in Gili Trawangan is in similar condition. Our initial reaction upon landing on the, albeit beautiful, beach was, "Oh dear." Between the ear-piercing Eurobeats and endless strip of tacky clubs, we were worried we'd made a mistake coming here.

While there are many hotels on Gili T (as it's known, and the largest and most-visited of the three) there are also "homestays" which tend to be private rooms or small bungalows on a private property. They are typically less organized than a hotel with fewer amenities and limited infrastructure. But they are cheap. We booked one night at a homestay, and then planned to roam around and find something more suitable. 

It should be said, we do not consider ourselves to be fussy travellers -- We typically understand what we're in for at any given place. Jeff is a master at reading between the lines in tourist reviews, quickly discrediting the opinions of misguided travellers and tempering the overly-enthused. That said, we have come to learn that air conditioning and a functioning bathroom are essential to our survival. And so the homestay on this wild island would not suffice and for just $10 more we found a proper hotel on a quiet road, far from the congestion and craziness of hallucinating Australians.

But the best part of the Gili Islands has got to be the pair of brassy English girls we met there. Lucy and Rebecca were straight out of a British sitcom and we hit it off instantly. We hadn't really spent much time with strangers since leaving home, so their company was refreshing. We shared a few meals, spent way too much time (and money) at a hilarious Rasta bar, and vowed to see them again; I can't go the rest of my life without hearing Lucy's dramatic rendition of, well, any song, really. (It turns out we'd see Rebecca sooner than expected; she lives in Singapore and showed us a great time on our stop there.)

While our initial impression of the Gilis was pretty dire, we actually kind of loved it and would recommend a few days to anyone who happened by. It was a good reminder that every place we visit can offer what we're looking for - but only if we dig ourselves out of a mood and make it so.

(A few highlights, like snorkelling in the Lombok Strait, which contains some of the deepest ocean trenches in the world.)



1) Unlike Bali, the majority of the permanent population of the Gili Islands is Muslim. There are several mosques on the small islands.

2) It rained a few times on this leg of the trip and the streets flood almost instantly, filling the dirt roads with smelly, awful water. It's extremely unpleasant. You might consider water socks to traipse through this sort of mess, though it's unavoidable.

3) Don't purchase things like speedboat tickets in advance. Roadside tour operators will try to convince you to pre-buy transport and it's much cheaper to simply walk to the dock and haggle for a ticket. Again, we're travelling in low-season in this part of the world, so benefit from fewer tourists and greater availability over all. See also: hotel stays. You can literally walk in, request a room-viewing, decide on-spec if you want to stay and then negotiate a price. When it's not busy, all businesses are anxious to have your money. It's a buyer's market.

4) The Gilis have experienced a lot of controversy in recent years due to incidents of methanol poisoning. Because liquor is so expensive in this part of the world, a few bars have been caught topping-up their stock with the extremely poisonous substance. It is extremely dangerous and certainly something to consider when traveling to this part of the world. Visit reputable (though this can be hard to determine) bars, stick to beer, or purchase sealed bottles of booze at the various shops and enjoy cocktail hour in your hotel room.

5) Gili Air and Gili Meno are much quieter and more remote than Gili T. Prices may be a bit higher as there are fewer hotels to choose from. If we could re-do this portion, we'd probably stay on one of the other islands instead of the tourist-heavy Trawangan. 

LOCATION: Koh Samui, Krabi, Thailand
DATE AND TIME: Monday, April 29, 2013 10:00AM Thailand Standard Time/Monday, April 29, 2013 12:00AM EST

Location: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
Accommodation: The Gili Palms Resort 
After one night in a janky homestay smack in the middle of the rowdiest part of the island, we wandered to the northern end where things calm down. We were able to find a great spot, tucked away, with a beautiful pool and great service. A large room with a neat outdoor bathroom and very good A/C was only $45 a night. Feel free to walk around to various hotels, ask to see the rooms, and negotiate a price. It's fairly easy, especially in the off-season.
Food: Food on the Gili's is fairly lacklustre, though we did have an excellent chicken curry on Gili Air at a place called Tami's Neverland
Tips: As you know from reading, we've not been participating in many "excursions", as those sorts of things cut deep into the budget. But it turns out snorkelling around the Gili's is cheap, a seat on a large boat with 40 others only $10USD. But along with Lucy, Rebecca and a sweet pair of Swedish girls, we were able to score a better deal. Jeff and Lucy wrangled a private boat for just the six of us, with a guide (who we called G-Money), for $16USD each. The ability to tailor-make our excursion (stay longer in certain areas, eat when we wanted, and take our time) was well-worth the additional few dollars each. If you're traveling in low season, this sort of finagling is highly recommended. This day will rank high on our Eat, Gay, Love list - Snorkelling in some of the finest water in the world, and then getting trapped by a storm on Gili Air, it was a real adventure.

A note on cross-sea transfers: There are several speed boat companies that cross from Bali to the Gilis. We bought our ticket going either way on the same day and were able to finagle a cheap price from the hawkers in the street. If you buy your tickets from a tour agency, you are bound to pay 30% more. 


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

While gratitude had been coming up constantly from the moment we left North America, it was especially hard to forget about it in a place like Bali. And I don't mean that in a flakey, neo-spiritual way. It's literally hard to forget it.

In Balinese Hinduism, tiny trays made of banana leaves are filled with flowers and incense, little mounds of sticky rice or bits of chicken. To thank good spirits and appease bad, these toast-sized baskets, an inch deep, are placed in and around homes and businesses. Hindus are expected to share of their good fortune in this way, a portion of their meals, or a few blossoms, at least three times a day.

The preparation of these offerings is a common business enterprise; expertly-woven baskets filled with flowers pre-trimmed from their stems or stacked with shredded greenery and sticks of incense. When there's no time to make your own, these fully-completed offerings are available for purchase by busy locals: The conveniences of modern life in Bali. It became quite common to see little smoking heaps of frangipani at each entranceway or at the mouth of a stream, or to return to our rented villa to find a neighbour had laid these blessings at our doorstep, taking up the slack of a couple of bulés. As you skip over the physical examples all day long, it's impossible to avoid thinking about gratitude.

*    *    *

On our very first day in Bali we headed to a local warung for a bite to eat. The place was empty and we walked the long pathway from the street to the covered area at the back of the lot. We noticed a young man flitting about, clearly gay, and he noticed us too. The other employees scattered and let him take care of us. 

He was frantic. Anyone who's ever been a gay guy near another gay guy who wasn't often near gay guys knows the energy he was exhibiting: He was excited to see us, to share in our space. It was immediately very, very sweet. He had a bit of schmutz on his face, so I grabbed a tissue and plucked it from his cheek, eliciting a squeal from both him and the girls nearby, "Oh my goodness! You make me so blushing!" This was Danny*, 23, and he would describe us as his new best friends within the hour.

We ordered food and he asked to join us at our table. He fired off questions, barely waiting for answers. Where we're from, our ages, if we wanted to party. He asked if we were a couple and, eyes wide, marvelled at the fact that we've been together nearly 10 years. He launched into a story of his ex who was an older Australian bulé he'd worked for, and over time had fallen in love with. He told us (with a cartoonish level of despair flashing across his face) that Mark had gone back to Sydney where he was in a terrible accident, suffering amnesia. Mark no longer remembered Danny, the sweet-faced Javanese boy who'd cleaned his pool. We wordlessly went along with his story, understanding the occasional importance of denial and self-preservation. We simply told him how sorry we were that such a thing had happened and asked him to tell us more about himself. 

Danny left his native island of Java in 2011, heading to the gay-friendly Bali to work and to party. He broke up with his girlfriend and left without telling anyone much of anything. This is not to say he isn't close with his family; with an identical twin brother and some sisters, his is as tightly-knit as most Indonesian families. But kids in Java do not come out to their parents. In Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, LGBT citizens are labeled as cacat, their homosexuality considered a mental disability; they are not protected under the law. Here in Bali Danny is living the high life, visiting bars and flirting with boys, both at the clubs and at this restaurant at this very moment. He sings Nicki Minaj and Kelly Clarkson songs at the top of his lungs; American pop culture is his lifeline. 

We asked about his options. Danny could go home and come out to his parents but he'd surely be turned away, or at the very least misunderstood and thrust into religious therapy. Or he could continue to skim the surface of this long-distance relationship, leaving them to wonder about him, and perhaps return home every once in a while, disappointingly unmarried. His third and most-viable option was to marry a woman, like most gay people did. Danny shrugged and buoyantly sang a barely-perceptible verse of an ancient Mariah Carey song. 

*    *    *

It was a stark reminder: How grateful I am to be Canadian. Even in America, where gay rights are not quite where they should be, most people I know aren't forced to make these tough choices. For a great number of us, our decisions revolve around which designer suit to wear or the density of our butter cream frosting. Familial abandonment is more and more rare, and lots of us will, instead, spend hours helping our very-supportive grandmother decide between the classic boat neck or the rather-daring V. Although the American government lags behind, many of us have the great privilege of living our lives without fear of persecution. I'm not suggesting that any of that is enough, but it's something to think about.


1) Locals are brusque with each other often mumbling and forgoing pleasantries completely. But not in a mean way, just sort of no-nonsense.

2) Streets and ditches are filled with trash and burned weekly. 

3) All along the roadways, small shops sell Absolut Vodka or large water bottles filled with gasoline. 50¢ per litre. Often children under the age of 10 are operating these "gas stations".

4) Fact: Chantal Kreviazuk's cover of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" is playing at all times in a bar or restaurant on this island. 

5) Parking near beaches or on busy social streets costs 2000 Rupiah, or 20¢ and is often charged by a random entrepreneur who has set up a barrier. 

6) Infrastructure cannot keep up with traffic, so there are often jams. Roads are a disaster, pot-holed and treacherous. But there is no road rage, no honking. Just patient, resigned, sweaty waiting. 

7) Infants who are riding with their parents on mopeds are usually bedecked in a toque or  bonnet instead of a helmet.

8) While 87% of Indonesians at-large are Muslim, a staggering 93% of Balinese people are Hindu. As Islam began to overpower Hinduism in 16th century Java, Bali became a refuge for Hindus and gets its moniker, Island of the Gods, for this reason.

9) There are over 20 000 temples on the island of Bali. Bali is roughly the size of Prince Edward Island, or the state of Delaware.

10) Bali reminds me of Cuba or Mexico, feeling more Latin than Asian. The native languages have a lot of rolled R's and soft vowels. The food is also vaguely Caribbean with lots of cloves and nutmeg.

11) Local business seems to lack uniqueness. Four huts schilling the same fruit, three meters apart are common, or shop after shop selling the same chintzy Bintang t-shirts.

12)  Jeff's blue eyes were very interesting to people. They would often stop and stare.

13) You can rent a 1500sqft house in Bali for $1400 a year

14) Seminyak, about 20 minutes from Sanur, has a really terrific gay scene. A strip with four clubs all vying for your attention gets going around 11pm each night, offering some truly outstanding drag queens (get Rupaul on the phone!) and generous cocktails. It's easy to spend a night bouncing between the clubs.

15) We rented a scooter the entire time we were in Bali. As far as we're concerned, it's the only way to do it. You can see so much more and venture off the tourist track with ease. Bikes cost between $3 and $5 per day, which is ridiculously cheap. Of course, be wary of road conditions, wear helmets, and watch for Balinese police corruption. We were pulled over on our first day in Sanur and extorted for 300000Rp ($30US). This is classic Bali, but jarring nonetheless. He told us we made a turn when we shouldn't have or didn't when we needed to (it's still unclear) and then pointed at words like "jail" and "Indonesian tribunal" in his little notebook. He then told us he "could help" if we placed $30 in his book (not in his hand! He was no amateur!) and we would be on our way. A shitty moment in an otherwise wonderful time.

LOCATION: Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, Thailand
DATE AND TIME: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 5:00PM Thailand Standard Time/Monday, April 22, 2013 6:00AM EST

Please keep up with my Instagram feed for daily bits and bobs.

Location: Sanur, Bali, Indonesia
Accommodation: Villa Sanur 
We stayed in a private villa in the heart of a very traditional neighbourhood. We were definitely the only bulés in the area and liked that very much. While there were many, many crowing roosters at all hours of the day and night, this annoyance was off-set by being tucked into and immersed by the local culture.The property is exceptionally private and we were hard-pressed to leave the quiet relaxation of the pool (or to put on pants.) It was quite luxurious with two beds and a bathroom, but we managed to negotiate a great deal with the owner as it is the low season in Bali. 
Food: We ate many meals at a local restaurant down the street where we made a few friends. They specialize in Manadonese food (Manado is the capital city of North Sulawesi, another Indonesian island) and served great dishes for under $5, sometimes less than $2. We also ate from food carts that set up shop at dusk, acting like drive-thru restaurants for locals. For $1, you get 10 small chicken skewers with peanut sauce. A ridiculous value.

Location: Lovina, Bali, Indonesia
Accommodation: Villa Shanti 
Another private villa off the beaten path, Villa Shanti was similar to the first in Sanur, though with the added benefit of a house staff and the convenience of its owner living next door. Breakfast and daily tidying were provided by Kadek, which was weird at first, but we got used to having someone at our beck and call. (Make sure to tip like Rockefellers on your way out!) Joseph, an American expat, and his Javanese wife Shanti were super friendly and took us to many places we wouldn't have otherwise visited. They generously schlepped us up into the mountains, off to the hot springs and to many great spots for food. It was a really great way to immerse ourselves and stay off the tourist track.
Food: Because this portion of the trip was so much cheaper than NZ and Australia, we ate all meals out. In fact, it's cheaper and easier to eat at restaurants than it is to buy groceries and cook. Some notable return-visits in Lovina: JB's Warung (a terrifyingly shabby place that served great - of all things - pizza) as well as Cosy Restaurant near the beach. 

Location: Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Accommodation: Casa Ganesha 
Our first since staying in Sydney's Grace, Casa Ganesha is a fairly traditional hotel accommodation. There are 24 rooms in 12 small buildings, so it felt like bungalows with the perks and infrastructure of a hotel. Breakfast was included in the $40US/night and we stayed 7 nights. Its location is good - very close to the tourist strip, though also near the edge of town for a quick escape from the hustle. It took us a couple of days to adjust to the glut of Elizabeth Gilbert-looking SWF's, but as soon as we started driving out into the countryside every day, we were happy to balance the conveniences of a hotel with the access to actual local culture. 
Food: We had so many great, simple meals in Ubud. Because it has exploded since the release of Eat, Pray, Love (the book, then the movie) there are hundreds of boutiques, restaurants, and lifestyle centres catering to the abovementioned neo-spiritual white woman. It's a little gross, but can be avoided. While we always aim to eat simple, local (cheap) food, we had one memorable meal at a place called Nomad on the main drag. Jeff and I shared the Balinese tapas tasting and were pleasantly surprised. 

Before leaving Bali, we returned to the first property in Sanur for a few more days. It was, once again, an excellent time. Between Ubud and those few in Sanur, we spent a three days on the Gili Islands, an archipelagic trio to Bali's east. I'll post about that soon. 


Crossing My Legs (September 2008)
Milking It (March 2009)
10 Years Later (October 2010)
Brian and Chris (August 2012)

*Names have been changed.

Monday, April 15, 2013

After 30 incredible days in Bali, Eat Gay Love continued to Singapore. To say that the two places aredifferent would be an understatement; jetting from the most rural, dusty towns and villages to one of the financial capitals of the world was a study in contrasts; we found ourselves spinning as the cab flew through the clean and expertly-manicured streets of Singapore. It was like being woken from a quiet sleep, thrust into this tidy urban centre. Something like arriving home with ill-advised Mexican hair braids, we suddenly felt unprepared for a long weekend in such a glamorous place. Our brains were wired for the comforts of the beach or a motorbike ride through a rice paddy, and then forced to recalibrate in an instant. Our khaki shorts seemed dank and worn, four weeks worth of "laundry service" now exposed as kinda janky. A quick run to Uniqlo got us a fresh pile of shirts, though I was stunned to see that in this part of the world, I classify as an Extra-Large.  

But after a few swirling, culturally-shocking hours, we leaned-in and got to know this fine, fine city. It's best-compared to a large outdoor shopping centre, paved and landscaped, with fountains and shops and restaurants everywhere. Cabs are affordable, the transit system is cheap and efficient, and the melting-pot culture is familiar, reminding me of Toronto in many ways. 

Like Canada, Singapore is an extremely young country made up of many ethnic groups. There are few native Singaporeans as it's only been a nation unto itself since the 1960s when it separated from Malaysia. Historically it has been an outpost for the East India Company, then a British settlement  for a time before being occupied by the Japanese during WWII. In 1963 it aligned with other British territories to form Malaysia before gaining its independence just two years later. 

Only 63% of the 5.18 million living here are citizens, while the rest are permanent residents or foreign workers. There are four official languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) and it really feels like each is represented in a significant way. These factors make the city feel incredibly dynamic, shifting all the time in an effort to form its cultural identity. Like I said, it reminds me of home.

Now we're headed back to a quieter place where our clothes are perfectly suitable and a sweaty line down our backside doesn't feel so déclassé. We'll spend a month in Thailand, poking around its various parts, before we head to Cambodia and maybe Vietnam. We'll see where these balmy winds take us. Thanks for reading.


LOCATION: Changi Airport, Singapore
DATE AND TIME: Monday, April 15, 2013 5:00PM Singapore Standard Time/Monday, April 15, 2013 5:00AM EST

Again, please keep up with my Instagram feed for daily bits and bobs.

Location: The Republic of Singapore
Accommodation: Days Hotel 
A good location near enough to major MRT stops, but out of the CBD, therefore more affordable. The hotel is brand new, so ultra-clean with attentive service and lots of amenities. Our room was quite small, but stylish and modern. 
Food: We had some truly spectacular meals in Singapore from super-authentic dim sum (Mongok DimSum) some of the best Indian food ever (Ananda Bhavan Vegetarian) and a long-desired charcuterie board at Wine Connection, one of the few places in Singapore where you can get affordable wine. While we spent far more on food here than we did in Bali, it was all really great.