Having a picnic on the banks of the Siene and watching tour boats float by just north of Pont Neuf on the tip of the Île de la Cité
It was a grey, sober morning at the end of July when we landed in Berlin. The day perfectly matched our feelings after the excitement the night before boarding our flight at JFK. The reality had started to settle in – We really just left the states without any return tickets, knowing that it would be next year before we’d be back home.
Our first morning abroad wasn’t exactly an easy one either. We quickly got lost trying to find the S-Bahn from the airport to the city, and got yelled at by an old German man when we asked for directions. I’m sure he was just trying to help us, but there is a harsh abruptness to the German language I’ve never understood. After finding the apartment and checking in we set out to Mitte, Central Berlin in search of coffee. About halfway through the first sip of my affogato (fresh espresso over salted caramel gelato) I realized that some of the things from the states that I thought we’d miss were actually much better abroad.
The many steps and winding streets that in Malá Strana (lesser town) make this part of Prague the most interesting to explore.
Throughout our travels in Southeast Asia we encountered all types of tuk tuks, many with elaborate paint jobs and decorations. Unlike anywhere else, Superheroes are the theme of choice in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In fact, these drivers seem to be at the top of the pecking order as far as tuk tuks go. In the evenings they all hang out together at the same part of Pub street, separate from the others drivers waiting for fares. It’s like they’re the cool kids of the bunch. One night we took a ride in the batman tuk tuk and on the way our driver waved and started honking at the Spiderman tuk tuk across the street. We asked if he knew the other driver and he turned and smiled and said “yeah, that’s my friend. His name is the Spider”
One of the best ways to see Bali is to hire a car and driver to explore the island. Most of the roads that criss-cross the northern highlands of Bali are extremely steep, potholed, and about the width of narrow American driveways, so a local driver is key. This being Southeast Asia, the entire experience is about $40 USD for a 12 hour day, including fuel and lunch for our driver.
One day we took a drive far north from our hotel in the seaside town of Sanur to the Jatiluwih rice terraces and village. The village is nothing special and really setup as a tourist trap, but the fields and landscape are absolutely stunning. Layers of rice terraces stretch smoothly over and around the rolling hillside. Streams carry fresh, cold water from the mountains above and run down through the terraces and pool in valleys far below. The air is cool, quiet and much less humid than on the coast in the south of Bali. Looking back, I feel like views like this only scratch the surface of what Bali has to offer.
The drive north to Ubud, Bali from the airport is barely 30 miles, but with the traffic going through Denpasar and the insanely narrow roads the journey take close to 2 hours. The experience of arriving in Ubud is a unique mixture of utter enchantment and complete chaos.
Less than a mile outside of town the narrow road winds through the village of Penestanan, past a few Warungs (Balinese restaurants), down a hill and takes a sharp turn right towards a bridge crossing a river that runs along the bottom of the Campuan ridge. Lush jungle surrounds the weathered suspension bridge, which sits high above the gorge and flexes up and down with traffic. Its creeks and groans under the weight of larger trucks and buses are drowned out by the sound of rushing water from the river far below.
The road turns steeply upwards and is lined by stone walls on either side holding back the hillside and shaded by trees overhanging the road that provide protection from the oppressive equatorial sun. Vines hang down from the trees so low that we hear them brushing against the roof of our van and so dense that it’s noticeably darker. The scenery is incredible and exotic, but it’s just after this point that things change.
The sound of the river is abruptly replaced by a jackhammer at the side of the road where sidewalks and drainage tunnels are still being constructed. The beautiful walls and vegetation that lined and canopied the road end and are taken over by shops. A few nice ones, but most are convenience stores, currency exchange and tour providers. The nice places are on the back roads anyways. Parked motorbikes line every free inch of space at the side of the road and the ones in motion speed through the streets making obnoxious, high-pitched exhaust noises.
Almost immediately after leaving the car we are approached and propositioned by basically everyone we pass for taxi rides, souvenirs, meals at touristy restaurants, massages – Anything and everything. Stepping around litter and through what feels like an open and continuous construction site, we make our way to the town of Ubud, the cultural, spiritual and artistic center of the island. At this point things start to change again.
The view of the Pura Saraswati temple from the road is modest and with all the activity in town we almost missed it entirely. On our way in a local tried to scam a few tourists by charging for “admission,” but we walked past avoiding eye contact. In front of us was one of the most incredible scenes from our travels through Bali – A group of smiling kids fishing in the ponds out front, casting their lines in the reflection of this staggeringly beautiful temple. The sounds from the street faded away and everything seemed to fall back into place.