Author Archive

12th April
written by Ilana

We just left India two days ago.  While I was in India I kept thinking of how I would start my first blog post about the country.  I imagined the first sentence would say the following:  India has been, shockingly, underwhelming.

Now that I have arrived in Nepal, after not getting on our train out due to Bloom’s possible e. coli, waiting 24 hours, booking another train, arriving at the train station to discover it was cancelled, and then ending up in two very expensive taxi rides, and finally arriving in Nepal 17 hours after leaving India, I have realized how overwhelming India actually was.

In Nepal I can hear birds, without hearing people yelling or the constant honk of horns.  I am not constantly trying to step out of the way of cows, or their excrement, and, my favorite thing so far, there are sidewalks in this small town of Pokhara, Nepal!  My least favorite thing about India, and about much of the developing world actually, is the constant fear of being hit by a speeding, honking rickshaw/motorbike/car/jeep/truck.  This is not an irrational fear, since I have been tapped by a few rickshaws, and, due to the lack of pedestrian space, there have been many times when I have stared a driver in the face as he drove straight at me, finally coming to a screeching halt while, obviously, honking.

Anyway, Nepal, after two days, seems pretty peaceful and a world away from India.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself.


We flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Cochin, India on our favorite budget airline AirAsia, which we used for almost all of our Asian flights, due to the fact that it is ridiculously cheap.  Our flights to India were $80 each, and this was only because we couldn’t commit to a date for the flight.  Originally, when we first looked at flights to India the flight was $40 each.  We missed out.

Before we left the Cochin airport I braced myself for the madness that was soon to come.  I gathered my bags, held them tight, preparing to be jumped by dirty beggars and street children who would grab my bags and run away laughing and yelling, and walked out of the airport.  It was hot and sunny.  There were some cars.  People were picking up their families, and loading their luggage into their cars.  No one even looked at us.  No one approached us.  Where the hell were we?  Laos?  We had been accosted and harassed in many airports, but not in Cochin.  We didn’t know where to go.  We had assumed someone would bully us into getting in a taxi, but we saw no taxis.  I actually had to ask where the taxis were, and I was given no reply.  Weird.  We finally found a bus and got in.  It took more than two hours to get to the touristy area of Fort Cochin, and the bus was very crowded, but I was imagining insane poverty, horrible crowds, chickens on the bus, etc.  That did not happen.

When we arrived in Cochin we had no idea how to get to our pre-booked hostel, and we saw no one on the streets to ask directions from.  This was shocking, and yes, underwhelming.  Eventually we found the hostel, only to discover that they did not honor our booking and so we were put in the hostel next door.  It was more than $20/night.  Where was this cheap India I had heard all about it?? Where were we?

We were exhausted and hungry, so we went to the center of town to find some food.  Everywhere we looked served meat.  Where was the glorious bounty of vegetarian food everyone had raved about?  We finally found a veg place, only to discover that it was both overpriced and bland.  Bland Indian food!  Whaat!?

I was depressed.  This India sucked.  We should’ve stayed in Southeast Asia, at least there we knew what to expect, rooms were cheap, and told us about all the good veg restaurants, and although people harassed us, at least they helped us get to where we needed to go.

The next day we looked for a new hostel, only to discover that they were all overpriced.   Although, we did find a cheap vegetarian restaurant, so that was a positive aspect of the day.  The hostel situation was a mess, and we ended up overpaying for an absolute hole, where they were doing construction on the room below us.  The owner had promised us there would be no construction, and I was such a mess about India being lame and overpriced, that I stormed out of the hostel, found a new one, went to get Bloom and our bags to move to the new one, only to discover that the savvy businessman/owner of the new hostel had given away our room to some Europeans willing to pay even more for it.  At that point I broke down and sobbed.  Literally.

The family living below the new hostel looked very worried about me and my sanity, and brought me into their home and made me drink tea.  They then scolded the businessman who shrugged.  I thanked them for their kindness and we left to find somewhere else.  Never fear, eventually we found a not too overpriced place, filled with an ant nest nevertheless, which I didn’t mind actually, since I was too busy being completely amazed that so many ants had made their way into our room.  I had never seen anything like it.  “Their queen must be here!”  Bloom kept saying frantically while blowing on the castle of ants, “we just need to find her and get her out, and they’ll follow her.”  I found this whole idea of Bloom searching through millions of ants for an ant queen hilarious, and I was cheered up.

We went to Chabad for shabbos.  This was to be our first of many shabbatot with Chabad in India, which we discovered is mashichist (they believe the Rebbe is (was?) the messiah).  The rabbi and his wife were a nice, friendly young couple, but the constant yechi adoneninu’s really threw me off, and made it difficult for me to focus on anything else.  The rabbi wore a pin of the yellow mashiach flag on the lapel of his long black jacket.  He said yechi adoneinu before saying brachas, before and during bentching, before making a l’chaim, etc.  I was more fascinated than disturbed by all of this, and I wished that it would have been socially acceptable for me to ask the rabbi about it.  I wanted to ask, “If the mashiach already came, then how is he dead?”  “If the mashiach already came, then why are you following halacha?”  “If the rebbe is mashiach, then where is he???”  I thought this would be rude.  They had graciously invited us into their home, and it felt…well…inappropriate to start making accusations about their mashiach.  But don’t worry, eventually I found ways to ask these questions to other chabadnikkim, who had some awesome answers.

The main street in Jew Town

One of the highlights of Cochin was the neighborhood called Jew Town.  Yes.  JEW TOWN.  Amazing.  This is where all of the Jews lived.  Cochin used to be a hopping town filled with Indian Jews.  There are not many left, since most of them moved to Israel, which is a shame for the community.  There is not even close to a minyan of Indian Jews at the shul, and it is actually used for the chabad minyan on shabbos, and a museum during the week.

Another highlight was the backwaters tour, which was taking a small canoe through the Keralan backwaters.  It was pretty, and we met some good people.


Our next stop would be Mumbai.  We attempted to book a train to Mumbai only to discover that they were all full.  This was another terrible Indian letdown.  Everyone had raved about Indian trains.  They’re so easy, they’re so fun.  This was not easy.  All of the trains were booked, and on our next leg, leaving Mumbai to head to Rajastan, all of the trains were booked as well, and we never made it off the waitlist.  So much for ease!  In every other country we had booked a day or so in advance and almost never had a problem getting seats on buses or trains, so this was very frustrating.  Again, I was surprised that I was not frustrated by crowds, or public displays of defecation, but by aggravating Israeli-style bureaucracy.  And so, we booked a flight to Mumbai, and we were off to what became one of my Indian highlights.


9th March
written by Ilana

When our meditation session finished at night, and we were sent off to sleep, all my thoughts came rushing back to me.  I wanted to talk about the experience with someone.  It was weird not to talk to Bloom, and it was even weirder not to talk to my roommate Ebony, someone I had only met briefly.  We had spoken before the silence began, and I really liked her, and I felt strange coming into our room and not even acknowledging her.  We just went to the bathroom and went into our beds.  I even felt like it was a bit rude not to talk to her, but I went along with the silence.

The next morning we had another round of meditation, and then silent breakfast.  I found our silent meals to be the most difficult part of the retreat.  This is the part that many people love, because they actually focus on their food instead of conversation, and they say how they were able to really savor their food.  Don’t get me wrong, I love savoring my food, but we were sitting at very small tables and I found it distracting that there were so many people around me.  I constantly watched what other people were doing.  How much food were they taking?  Did I take too much?  Did I take too little?  Am I supposed to get toast before we say the Buddhist brachas, or after?  Yes, there was Buddhist chanting before the meal, which reminded me of benching, but in Sanskrit.  I think silent eating would have been good if it wouldn’t have been so crowded, but in the end, it didn’t really work out so well for me, but I am definitely willing to try it again.

After breakfast we had our debriefing session.  We all went around the room and spoke about our experiences and then we asked the monk questions about meditation and Buddhism in general.  It was interesting to finally hear the voices and opinions of all our fellow meditators after just staring at them.  I spoke about my experience of trying not to imprison my thoughts, and I asked a question that was bothering me throughout the retreat, which the monk never really answered:    The monk repeatedly told us that Buddhism is all about mindfulness—the ultimate goal is to control your mind—but does controlling your mind really make you a better person?

The idea of right action leading to right thought is so ingrained in my Jewish self that I just could not reverse it.  Sure, I can see that meditating, and being mindful of your movements, your thoughts, and even your actions can make you a better person overall.  But what about the little things?  Does being mindful make you a more charitable person, for example?  In Judaism, you are supposed to give 10% of your earnings to charity, it doesn’t matter if you are mindful about it, you just do it, and then maybe eventually the act of giving will ultimately make you more mindful toward others perhaps.  Maybe I just don’t trust people to act in the world when it is not imposed upon them.  I just get the feeling that it’s too idealistic to assume that once someone is mindful s/he will act justly in the world in every way.

Don’t get me wrong, Jews do not act justly in the world in every way, ha, nowhere near that, BUT, Jewish law, I think ideally, is meant to create a system where Jews live their lives mindfully by acting in a specific way, not just by thinking in a specific way.

The problem with the Jewish way, is that often we are not mindful at all, we just do all these actions by rote.  Give charity, observe the Sabbath, bless God, observe kashrut laws, all without being mindful in the slightest.  This reminds me of what Heschel writes about Halacha and Agaddah (on a side note—everyone must read Heschel.  You must.)  It’s difficult to explain what this means in a travel blog post, but basically Halacha being the law itself, and agaddah being the meaning behind the law.

Actually, I must quote Heschel here, it’s just too awesome, he says:

By inwardness alone we do not come close to God. The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action.

But he also says:

To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit…

…There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is inner devotion, spon­taneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an in­spiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.

Yes, I went there, I just googled Heschel and found this excerpt from “Between God and Man” and quoted it in this blog.  It was too relevant, I had to do it.  Now, let me explain why I felt this utter need to quote Heschel.  The thing that was bothering me about Buddhism was that there was not enough action, halacha, as Heschel would put it, and the thing that has bothered me about Judaism is that it seems so mechanical sometimes, it seems that no one actually cares about what they’re doing, that it’s all meaningless, which is probably one of the reasons why I felt the need to go on a meditation retreat in the first place.  What Heschel is saying is that Judaism needs to have both—the meaning and the action, and the language he uses to describe this need is beautiful and inspiring to me, and I hope it has been to you as well.  If all Jews were like Heschel, or if we read Heschel every day, maybe we could be as mindful as the Buddhists.

But, the sad thing about us Jews is that most of us are not like Heschel.  I know that I am definitely nowhere near Heschel, and I often don’t fuse halacha and agaddah, leaving me with existential angst and general religious frustration.  For example, I rarely pray, because I often find it frustrating.  I end up questioning the words, questioning the theological implications of the texts, of prayer itself, etc.  Rationally I know, as with meditation, that if you want to reach mindfulness, or ever experience meaningful prayer, you need to leave the frustrations and the angst aside and just practice.  Meditate every day, and your mind will not be such a feisty monkey.  Pray every day and maybe one of those days you will find meaning and comfort in the liturgy.

The problem for me, with Jewish prayer, is that unlike meditation, it does not quiet my mind, it only makes it louder.  My whole Jewish life has been about having a loud, tortured soul, and I’ve always felt that that was what it meant to be Jewish—being an angst ridden lunatic.  I had J.B Soloveichick backing me up.  If you want to know what I’m talking about find the book Halakhic Man, and read footnote 4.  I think I highlighted  that entire long footnote and felt that it validated my tortured religious identity, since he talks about religion as filled with tension and turmoil.  I think what this meditation retreat helped me realize (along with many years of studying Jewish texts outside of the traditional Modern Orthodox establishment) is that I can integrate some of the lessons of meditation and mindfulness into my Jewish practice, especially into prayer.

Throughout the retreat I felt uncomfortable with the Buddhist chanting segments of the schedule.  Other than my grandmother’s scorn, I kept thinking about the fact that I have my own religious tradition, so why am I practicing someone else’s?  My tradition is rich, and I should embrace it, but at the same time, I appreciated learning different Buddhist practices that can enrich my own Jewish rituals, and I hope that eventually I can finally get my act together, and discipline myself to start putting these new concepts into practice in my daily life.

8th March
written by Ilana

I’ve always thought that meditation would be a good idea for me.  My mind is all over the place.  I’m one of those people who can’t sleep at night because I can’t quiet my thoughts.  I have read numerous books about meditation, and it always sounds good when I’m reading the book, but then I try a class and I freak out and leave beyond frustrated.  I want to be Zen, I really do, but I am such an emotional person that it’s difficult for me to just chill out and be at peace with the world.

We were in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand in January, and we weren’t really doing much other than eating and loitering, so we decided to give this meditation thing a try.  The retreat was only 24 hours, and I figured that maybe this time, when it was a 24 hour retreat instead of a one hour class here and there, that maybe it would finally work for me, maybe something would click.

Additionally, since we’ve been in Asia I have actually felt more Zen, and less like my usual American, anxiety-ridden self.  It’s strange.  I was so worried about this trip.  How would I manage living out of a backpack?  Not having a daily routine?  Not having friends and family around?  Moving every few days?  Dealing with terrible transport and dirty hostels?  Not having a real plan??  Well, as it turns out, the queen of planning, calendaring and lists (me), adores not having a plan.  I am thriving in this environment.  Yes, I do freak out every so often, but I am loving the freedom, and the adventure of this lifestyle.  Every day I feel that I am learning new things about the world, and different cultures and ways of life.  I have slept in unbearably dirty, bug-filled rooms, and I have bore it.  I have ridden on buses with holes in the roof,  while the juices of fish poured onto my clothes, and I have dealt with it all, and I have found it worthwhile…well, at least I have found it worthwhile when it ended…

So, with my new attitude, Bloom and I set off on our meditation retreat.

Their website had mentioned that the students should wear all white outfits.  I thought this could mean white-ish, and wore khaki pants and a gray t-shirt.  When I arrived at registration, everyone was wearing real white, and I felt pretty lame.  There was a man selling white fisherman pants and awkward, large, white men’s t-shirts to the losers who didn’t wear all white.  I asked him if I could just buy the pants, and wear my light gray t-shirt.  “white would be better,” he said.  “Right…it would be better…but is it needed?”  I asked.  I was already off to a not so Zen, more like a Talmudic, start.  “It would be better,” he said again and smiled.

I didn’t appreciate this vague language.  What does it mean “it would be better”?  Do I need to buy that awkward t-shirt, or not?  I’m Jewish, not Buddhist, I need some rules here!  I decided to let my inner Buddhist win this one, and decided to go with the crowd and buy the whole outfit.

I put on the outfit.  I looked like a white oompa-loompa.  It was quite possibly the most unflattering outfit I have ever worn, and the all-white wasn’t really working with my pale, Eastern European skin tone.  Everyone else had already been shopping at all the hip Thai markets and had proper flowing, white hippy shirts and pants, while I looked like a child attending her first karate class.

I turned to Bloom.  He beamed at me.  “What are you smiling about??”  I demanded to know.  “I just love it,” he said.  “Are you out of your head??” I yelled at him, “This is actually the ugliest I have ever looked!”  He continued smiling.  “I need to get a picture,” he said.  I groaned.  For some reason Bloom thought this was an awesome outfit, probably since he loves dirty hippies and their attire.

Yes, that's the outfit.

At this point we had already heard a lecture on “An Introduction to Buddhism,” and were now preparing for our first meditation session.  But before the session, our monk/teacher dropped two bombshells:  1. Men and women were not allowed to share rooms, and 2. This would be a silent retreat.

Ummm…WHAT?!  Maybe, just maybe, meditation could potentially be my thing, but silence, silence is definitely not my thing.  I looked at Bloom anxiously.  He smiled again, maybe a bit triumphantly.  “Finally some quiet,” he said, and laughed.  “It’s not funny!”  I whined.  He laughed again, saying, “It’s not even a full 24 hours, come on, it’s not a big deal.”

Ah, but there was no time to be concerned about the silence, I had to deal with the bigger issue of finding a roommate.  For a split second I felt like I was frantically looking for a place to eat in the cafeteria, but luckily it was only a split second, since I turned to my left and saw Ben and Ebony, a couple we had actually met weeks earlier in a restaurant in Bangkok.  We all gave each other a look, asked “yeah?” and it was settled.  Phew.  I avoided the shame of being the kid without a roommate who has to go around asking “umm…do you have a roommate yet?”  That is totally the worst, and since that didn’t happen, I was feeling that I was off to a good start, despite the outfit.

We had three formal meditation sessions during the retreat.  One before dinner, one after dinner, and one at 5 am the following morning.  Each of these sessions began with sitting on our knees, chanting, and bowing to the Buddha three times.  Once for the Buddha, once for dharma (which, from what I understand is like Buddhist halacha), and once for the community (I don’t remember what word this was).

The monk began by explaining to all of us how to sit on our knees, how to prostrate ourselves at the appropriate moments in the chanting, and how to hold our hands together at our hearts in the praying position.  Everyone sat on their knees.  I hesitated.  All of a sudden a vivid memory came to me.  I was around five years old.  I was at some holiday meal at my grandparents house in Skokie and I sat up on my knees, maybe to reach some food, maybe to see all the grown-ups and feel big, I’m not sure, but I remember my grandmother looking at me, appalled, and saying “Jews do not sit on their knees!!”  I quickly got off my knees and sat properly again.  “We don’t bow!  That’s what the non-Jews do!”

I snapped back to attention and remembered that I was supposed to be sitting on my knees and chanting to the Buddha.  I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t.  I leaned my legs to the side, so I wasn’t really on my knees, and tried to give Bloom a look.  He was busy chanting.  I went back to the chanting.  It sounded like the modeh ani I used to say in pre-school; that sort of tuneless chanting they teach small children in Orthodox schools.  I thought in my head, “modeh ani lifanecha melech chai vkayam.”  I don’t know why I did this.  I just felt the need to think Jewish prayers in my head.

Then came the moment of full body bowing.  I looked at Bloom wide-eyed, and shook my head.  It’s one thing to sit on your knees, but it is quite another to bow down to the Buddha!  That, I could not even pretend to do.  As luck (karma?) would have it, Bloom and I had arrived a minute late to the session and had mats in the last row.  Neither of us bowed, and I looked as everyone else prostrated their entire bodies to the floor three times.

Why was this so upsetting to me?  Why did I care?  A line from a song that I used to sing in pre-school kept running through my head, “Haman told everyone bow down to me…Esther became the new queen.”  I doubt that is the actual line from the song, because it seems to be skipping some of the plot, like the whole Mordechai refusing to bow part, but anyway, those are the words I remember, and those are the words I kept thinking about.

What kind of a loser am I, thinking about Mordechai not bowing to Haman!?  This is not a big deal.  I don’t even know what I make of God, and now I’m so strict about not respectfully bowing to the Buddha?  It’s weird.  I have these entirely emotional, irrational moments when I just feel  this strong connection to being Jewish.  Rationally, I’m all over the place.  I feel like I doubt my religious observance and lifestyle all the time.  I read books, I question, I doubt, I get angry, but then I have these purely emotional moments of attachment and even defensiveness about my Jewishness.  It is very strange for me.

The chanting part ended.

We were now moving on to walking meditation.  Walking meditation consisted of us walking slower than ants.  The goal was for us to think about every tiny movement of our bodies as we walked.  We would lift our right foot and say “right,” then move it forward a tiny bit and say, “goes,” and then step it down and say “thus.”  And then again with the left foot.  We were not just saying “Right goes thus,” it was more like “riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.   Gooooooooooooes.    Thuuuuuuuuuuus.”  It would take at least ten seconds to say these words and move our feet in line with the words.  When we grew more advanced we no longer said “right goes thus,” but instead we commented on each movement, “lifting, moving, lowering, pressing, etc.”  This made us focus even more on each tiny movement of the foot.

I was pretty into the walking meditation.  It was good to focus on something, and even the weird chanting of “right goes thus,” was actually helpful in focusing my mind on the movement of my body.

Next came sitting meditation.  This is the meditation that most people imagine when they hear the word “meditation.”  The monk told us to feel our breath and our lungs rising and falling.  We sat, legs crossed, and tried to focus on our breathing.  Rising.  Falling.  Rising.  Falling.  We were told that the goal was to note any thoughts and distractions, yet not to focus on them, not to fall into them.  We were told that we had “monkey minds,” and that in order to tame these wild beasts, we could not let our minds jump from one thought to the next, instead we had to objectively note the thought and move on.

In the past in both my reading about meditation and my failed meditation attempts, this whole noting thing has been the part that has thrown me off.   What does it mean to note something and not to think about it?  What does it mean to be objective about a thought or a feeling?  In the past when I’ve meditated, it’s been sort of like this:  I sit.  I cross my legs.  I think about my breathing.  30 seconds later I think about some song that’s in my head.  Then I think about how my leg hurts.  Then I get mad.  Why am I so bad at this??  Why is everyone else so much better than I am?  Is there something wrong with me?  I then continue to think about all the things that are wrong with me and why I am inferior to the serene meditators of the universe.  I go back to thinking about my breathing, but I’m too frustrated with myself to focus clearly for more than 10 seconds.  I focus on one thought which leads to another and then another until it’s spiraled out of control.  This is why meditation always sucked for me.

And so, back at the Thai meditation retreat, I crossed my legs and focused on my breath.  Rising.  Falling.  Rising.  Falling.  I wondered if Bloom was successfully meditating, and then something miraculous happened.  In my head, I thought “thought about Bloom’s  meditation—noted.”  And then I moved on.  Rising.  Falling.  I did not think anymore about Bloom’s meditation.  Rising.  Falling.  Rising.  Falling.  My leg itches.  I didn’t scratch it.  I thought “thought about leg itching—noted.”  Rising.  Falling.  Rising.  Falling.

At one brief moment I imagined that my thoughts were like people trying to escape from a prison cell, grasping at the bars, and I was the prison guard shoving them away aggressively, and then I realized that I was not a prison guard.  I had to allow my thoughts to roam free in my mind.  I had to let them wander in and then wander out.  That’s where I had been wrong in the past.  I had aggressively fought against my wandering thoughts, viewing it as a war of my thoughts VS me, I had to stop the thoughts!  But no, I did not need to stop the thoughts; I just had to make sure they didn’t control my mind.  I had to note a thought when it wandered into my head, but then I had to move on, I had to allow the thought to wander out, instead of trying to forcefully fight it out.  I pictured my mind as a giant open hallway instead of a prison.  My thoughts wandered in, I noted them, like a scientist noting a specific behavior, and then they wandered out.  Rising.  Falling.  Rising.  Falling.  Don Draper wandered into the open hallway.  I started to think about the plot of Mad Men for a second, and then I thought “Don Draper—noted,” and I imagined Don Draper casually walking out of the hallway of my mind.  Rising.  Falling.

Had I reached meditative nirvana?  Obviously not.  I had many thoughts while I sat there meditating, but I felt at peace with them, and that was brand new for me.  I didn’t judge them.  I didn’t let them spiral into a whole train of thought.  I noted them, without judgment, and moved back to the breathing.  I didn’t try to stop the thoughts from entering my mind.  I know that meditation takes practice and work, and I am a beginner, so I did not get angry at myself for having so many thoughts, I just let them be.  And for me, this is nothing short of a revelation.  I was calm with my thoughts.  For once in my life I felt at peace in my own head.


10th January
written by Ilana

I know that a few months ago I wrote this whole thing about feeling bad about not writing, and how we were about to change that, etc.  Obviously, we did not hold to our end of the bargain, since you can see that we have not written in quite some time.

The thing is, I think I’m a decent storyteller.  I’m good when it comes to an entertaining/ridiculous tale of the madness that is the life of the backpacker.  What I’m not as good at is describing how I feel about the state of the world as I see it, or discussing all the questions that I am constantly asking on this trip.

At some point in Asia I reached a turning point when travel became less about the crazy stories and more about the difficult questions, and honestly, I found those issues difficult to write about.  Even more than the difficulty of the subject matter, I find that I am scared to write something stupid, since I do not have a degree in public policy and as a matter of fact I know little about global politics in general, so I feel like I am an inappropriate speaker on such issues.

Bloom looks over my shoulder.  “Why are you writing about excuses?” He asks me.  “Just write!”

Ugh, fine.  So here it goes, a disorganized, stream of consciousness post:

I will start by saying that we are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos in a “fancy” guesthouse.  We decided to splurge ($23/night) for Bloom’s birthday, and it’s totally worth it.  Clean sheets, a balcony overlooking the Mekong river, a clean bathroom.  Luxury for us.

We discovered yesterday that this place also came with a middle aged, large-ish American man and his much younger, svelte, Asian female companion.  We have seen many of these mis-matched couples here in Laos and also in Bangkok.  Are they just an inter-racial couple, or is she a prostitute?  Is it rude of me to think that she probably is his prostitute?  Possibly.  The couple spends their time sitting on the balcony while the man drinks beer after beer and blasts loud American classic rock from speakers.  He is basically declaring to the world that he owns this place.  He will play music that blasts throughout the guesthouse and the streets, and he doesn’t give a shit about people who might not want to listen to it.  Something about this man, his “his relationship,” and his music is driving me nuts.  This is what people think of America.  An occupying force.  A few minutes ago, to prove some sort of ridiculous point, I went out to our balcony and started blasting “Jump Around,” which seemed to be an appropriate fight song to his classic rock.  I only have a computer, so my music was not nearly as loud.  I looked down to the street and saw a bunch of locals staring up at the balcony toward the American man and his loud music, and I realized that it was not worth a music war, I was not stooping to his level, so I came back inside, turned off Jump Around, gave in to listening to “Free Ride” from the other room, and started to write.

In terms of Laos in general—it’s a great place to be.  I would advise everyone I know to come on a vacation to Luang Prabang.  It has everything.  It’s beautiful, and it’s cheap, and people are friendly.  On the other hand, it has fancy places for the more upscale, and it’s not completely “rustic” like the places in Sumatra.  So what are you waiting for?  Get over here!

For weeks, and much to the chagrin of anyone we hung out with in Burma and was forced to listen, Bloom and I debated back and forth about if we should even come to Laos at all, since we don’t have so much time in southeast Asia.  Finally, the day we arrived in Bangkok, last Friday, we decided, screw it, let’s just go to Laos, and we’ll work it out from there.   On Sunday night we got on a train to the Thai-Lao border, and Monday morning we were in Vientiane.  My brother and Bloom both said that Vientiane was lame and we should not spend much time there, but in the end we spent 2 and a half days there, and loved it.  We had just been in Burma days before, and then had a rushed weekend in Bangkok, and we needed time to just breathe for a bit.  Vientiane was perfect for breathing.  We spent our time drinking lattes (or tea for Bloom), eating baguettes, and talking to people at the local French cafes, and in the evening we would watch the sunset over the Mekong and wander the night market.

Over the past month or so we have been much more social with other travelers.  It seems that in Southeast Asia the travelers are just really friendly, which is nice for us.  In South America, we rarely met friendly people (we were instead snubbed by hordes of Israelis), and in Indonesia and China we rarely ever saw other backpackers.

In Burma we did a three day trek  from Kalaw (a small town in the hills of the Northern Shan State that looks shockingly similar to Alon Shvut…) to Inle Lake, another small town in the same state 60 km away, which, as its name suggests, is on a lake.  Our trekking group had a total of 8 people, and it was a fascinating group of characters.  There were two guys who were actually from the Chicago area!  That was very exciting for me, and led to great nostalgic talks of skiing in Wisconsin and summer weekends in Lake Geneva.  One of them currently lives in Hong Kong, and the other in NY.  There was a Canadian woman who had spent the past decade living in Europe, a New Yorker living in Singapore, a woman from Reunion Island (which I shamefully did not know of before this encounter.  It’s near Madagascar, but part of France), and an older Israeli man who spoke to us about the superiority of Israeli produce.  “The strawberries are the best in the world!  And the cucumbers!”

I really liked this group, and it was nice to spend three days with such interesting people, and when we got to Inle we continued to eat dinner with the other trekkers almost every night until they slowly left for other destinations, while we stayed in Inle, reading, biking, taking a boat trip and generally lazing around in our deluxe balcony room.

The thing I realized when hanging out with the trekkers was how JEWISH we are.  What I mean is, we don’t notice this so much on a daily basis, but our Jewishness has taken over our lives.  We decided to explain about our eating habits, and because I didn’t want the trekkers to think we’re fanatics, I felt the need to thoroughly explain our practice and our choices in great detail, and then after I would finish speaking, I would feel horribly neurotic about seeming like a religious fanatic to these people who I really liked.  When I listened to what Bloom and I were telling these people, I tried to imagine what they must think, and then I realized that we sound completely crazy, and all my religious questions, that I thought I had filed away when I was 22, came flooding back into my mind gnawing at my so-called frum self.  I explained to the trekkers—‘Judaism is a value system that helps me be mindful of everything in my life, that’s why there are all of these seemingly small details,’  but after I spoke, I silently questioned what I had said.  Does all this ritual actually do anything?  Who am I doing this for?  Other people help change the world through belief in social justice and good deeds, why isn’t that as meaningful as a religion?

On our last night in Inle, after our trekker friends had all left town, we found ourselves in an Indian restaurant in a conversation with other backpackers.  There were two Americas, a Malaysian guy and a Slovakian woman, and somehow the conversation turned to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  The American man was talking about atheism, and how it made sense, and about a quote someone said about how it really makes no sense to say that children have a religion, and that religion is generally dangerous and causes wars, etc.  For some reason this made me feel anxious and defensive.  I started wondering if he knew Bloom and I were religious Jews,  wondering if we could make it through an entire conversation without me blowing our cover and mentioning something about being Jews.  I’m probably more agnostic than anything else, but still, for some reason I felt the need to defend believers.  I went on a rant about how religion doesn’t make someone evil, an evil person if he wants to do evil, will use anything as his excuse for committing evil acts.  People can use religion for good, or they can use it for evil, people can use science for good, or they can use it for evil.  That’s how the world works.  I then referenced a South Park episode about Richard Dawkins and a future world war not about religion, but about details of evolution, to prove my point.  I didn’t stop there, and I went on to talk about how it would be wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism, it’s not Islam, it’s certain people using Islam.  I’m not a muslim, but I would be pretty pissed off right now that the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist, when really it’s just some assholes using Islam as an excuse.  You can find an excuse to kill people in anything!

The Malaysian guy beamed.  I am a Muslim, and I am angry about this!  I’m Jewish and I’m angry for you, I said.  And there it went.  I was back to putting myself in the Jewish box.  The conversation went on for a while and in the end the Malaysian guy gave his phone number so we can meet up in Kuala Lumpur when we’re there later this month.  The whole thing was interesting, and it made me re-remember that I am Jewish, because I can’t not be.  I feel it in my bones.  I feel the need to defend religion, I feel the need to defend Jews, I feel that I cannot eat that delicious looking grilled chicken on a stick, and I feel committed.  This is not compelling, but it is true.  The thing is that traveling has made me question everything.  Maybe it’s because I have the luxury of time, maybe it’s because I am seeing new things and meeting new people, but either way, I feel like everything needs to be reevaluated—be it my religious identity or my politics or how I spend my money.

When we went to China I became obsessed with learning more about global politics, about world history, about policy, about development, about everything, and I was overwhelmed by how little I knew about anything.  I read a handful of books about China and watched tons of Chinese government propaganda TV to try to bring me up to speed, obviously I am not even close to up to speed, but I am trying.  The thing about China that is so unfathomable to me is that in many ways it is a totally developed country.  The Beijing and Shanghai subway lines put the NYC subway to shame.  Both those cities seem more modern than any American city, and there are fancy expensive shops everywhere you turn.  But, at the same time, the fact that a Chinese citizen cannot openly say anything critical of the government, that websites are blocked, that news is censored, that the cultural revolution took place (!!) is totally shocking to me.  The shocking part lies in the modernity of its big cities, I think.  At least for me, I didn’t expect such a “modern” place to have such closed policies, and I felt guilty about loving China so much, although a big part of that love was out of sheer fascination for the place, and because I want to know more about the country, it’s citizens, and it’s policies.  If we could have overstayed our Chinese visas, I would have.  I would still be in China now if I knew we had more time.  I want to learn Chinese.  I want to befriend Chinese people and live in this crazy place that feels so alive and also so stifling all at once.  But, alas, we moved on to our next country, since this year is not meant for serious iyyun (in depth) on any particular place, but a b’kiyut (overview) study of the world.  For now.

7th December
written by Ilana

Yes, we know.  We are irresponsible bloggers who have not written in quite some time.  We are sorry, but we have been busy traveling around and making plans/booking flights that will cover our travels through Pesach.

This is not meant to be a very detailed post, just a preview, and to let you all know what we’ve been up to, and where we will be over the next few months.  A more detailed post including feelings and reactions to China will come soon.

We are currently in Yangshuo, China.  It is a beautiful small town in southern China.  We arrived in Beijing on November 10th and have been slowly making our way south since then.  Here is our route:

Nov.10:  Landed in Tianjin.  Took a high speed train (334 km/hr!) to Beijing.  Planned to leave after a few days, but we loved it and stayed almost a week.

Nov. 17-18:  We then took an 11 hour sleeper train to Xian to see the terracotta warriors.  I was really into them, but Xian itself was an absolute hole.  We stayed there only one night.  It was fun, because we finally hung out with other backpackers and met an Australian couple who we liked and who supports (Australian way of saying ‘roots for’) Collingwood, Bloom’s grand-final winning Aussie Rules Football team.  There was much talk of ‘footy’ and Seinfeld.  Good times all around.

Nov. 19-22:  At the last minute we decided we would go to Shanghai for Shabbat, since according to their website, Shabbat davening and meals were being held at the old shul, so this seemed exciting.  We knew we would arrive somewhere on a Friday and figured it would be best to arrive somewhere with a Chabad to take care of us.  We signed up for meals online and booked a hostel near the shul.  We took another overnight train from Xian, this time 16 hours, and arrived in Shanghai Friday morning only to receive an email from Chabad telling us the shul was closed.  After writing an angry, possibly passive-aggressive email to the rabbi we were invited to a “small gathering” at the rabbis house, which was thankfully close to the hostel.   This “small gathering” was at least 25 French ex-pats.  I had one of those moments where I was beyond ashamed of my outfit–dress over pants and hiking boots–and wanted to hide under the table away from all the well dressed, diamond wearing French ladies.  Ok, I exaggerate, it was really only one fancy lady who gave me a blatant dirty look, but still, the others were also dressed well, but they were not ALL in diamonds.  On Saturday the rebbetzin’s sister approached me and said “I heard you speaking English, are you not Israeli?  I was SURE you were Israeli!”  “That’s because I look like a dirty backpacker, usually I look a bit more put together and American,” I responded, and immediately felt guilty for saying that out loud to a stranger.

Anyway, Shanghai was amazing.  I love big cities.  It felt like NY covered in haze and pollution.  We stayed longer in Shanghai than planned, but we had a great time wandering the streets, eating amazing vegetarian food, and generally appreciating city life.  All the ex-pats told me they “love” living in Shanghai, and, since I am easily swayed, I decided I too wanted to live in Shanghai, so I guess we have a back-up plan if we are still jobless at the end of the year.  Move to Shanghai and hang out with Jewish French ex-pats while eating and possibly teaching English or something.  But I digress…

Nov. 23-26:  Zhangjiajie Village and Wulingyuan.  We said goodbye to the cities and took off for the next leg of our China trip in rural villages.  We took a 21 hour overnight train to reach our next destination, a national park that we had randomly come across in the Lonely Planet book that sounded like a nice place.  This was much more than a nice place, and was probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen, or at least it would definitely be in the top 2 with Iguazu Falls.  They re-named one of the mountains in the park “Avatar mountain” because allegedly James Cameron Pandora was based on the mountains in this park.  The park was all about putting up posters of Avatar next to posters of the park to show how similar they look, and they’re right, they do look very similar, other than the fact that the mountains in China don’t float.  All in all, it was amazing, and totally worth the horrific train ride.

Nov. 26-29: Fenghuang.  This is a small minority village that we decided to go to for Shabbos hoping to find food.  In Zhangjiajie there was definitely no food for us other than Snickers and instant noodles, and the occasional find of chestnuts, and we were hoping we would find something more substantial in Fenghuang since we heard it was touristy.  Yes, it was touristy, but it was filled with Chinese tourists, not Western ones, so nothing was in English, and most of the food contained pigs.  The villagers were especially fond of hanging pig faces from the rafters to dry.  The village was nice and we liked strolling though the alleys and on the river.  It would have been nicer had there not been millions of Chinese people yelling into megaphones, and screaming their heads off at karaoke.

Dec. 1-3:  Ma’an.  You may notice that Nov. 30th is missing in this outline.  That is because we spent that entire day in transport hell.  It involved taking a taxi to a bus station outside of Fenghuang.  Trying to communicate where we needed to go next, being pushed in opposite directions to different buses, and finally picking a bus, which we sat on for over an hour, waiting for it to depart.  When we finally got to our destination, where we were meant to catch an afternoon train, we had of course missed it, and booked the next train, which left at night, 6 hours later.  This city, Huaihua, was an even bigger hole than Xian.  It was dreary and bleak and there was mud all over the place.  The bus had dropped us off in the middle of the city somewhere, and we luckily found some people in backpacks to follow to the train station, though the mud.  The people were from Hong Kong and spoke good English.  After posing for a picture with one of them, he told us to be in touch when we get to Hong Kong.  So that’s one good thing that came out of the misery of Nov. 30th.

After 6 hours of listening to an Audible book on my iphone (seriously, baruch hashem for Audible and for my mom for allowing me to download books from her account), and holding my hands over my ears to try to block out the yelling ladies with megaphones making announcements every 40-70 seconds, it was time to board our train.  Imagine the running of the bulls, or a Long Island Wal-Mart on Black Friday…I’m guessing that those mobs are nothing next to a bunch of Chinese people trying to get on a train.  People were running and pushing each other over, and shoving and yelling.  It was complete chaos.  I felt pressured to run too, but then I realized that it did not make any sense to run, since we had tickets and seats.  I still have absolutely not idea why every person was running as if his/her life depended on it.  We knew this train would be awful since we had booked hard seats, the lowest class, since that’s all that was left, and we figured we could handle it for 5 hours, a short train by China standards.  When we got to the door of our train car it was as if the whole running mob had congregated there.  There were tons of people trying to shove into the car at once, and many of them were carrying large bamboo poles over their shoulders with massive bags hanging from each end of the pole.  at first I was ok with the shoving, I’m a good shover after living in Israel and New York., but then I became genuinely frightened as the pushing got more aggressive and I realized I was not in control of my movement.  I thought I would get stabbed in the face by bamboo, or maybe get shoved and plummet to my death on the train tracks.  In the midst of this I suddenly felt a distinct grab on my boob.  It was definitely not part of the shoving, and I knew it.  I jerked my head around to see a middle aged man pull his hand away.  I was absolutely seething.  “DON’T YOU TOUCH ME!”  I screamed.  My eyes narrowed and I looked at him hatefully and pointed my finger in his face and yelled again, “DON’T YOU F—ING TOUCH ME!!”  Obviously, he did not understand a word I said, but I figured the finger pointing and swearing and look of pure rage on my face possibly got the point across.  I tried not to cry, as I eventually grabbed on to the railing and simultaneously jumped/shoved my way onto the train.  The pushing did not end here, and I was now being shoved into the carriage and tried to find my seat.

I looked around and realized that Bloom and I did not have seats next to each other.  I then noticed that someone was sitting in Bloom’s seat.  I looked across the aisle and saw that someone was sitting in my seat as well–it was none other than the sexual predator from 3 minutes earlier.  “You have GOT to be kidding me!!”  I cried in frustration.  I saw down across from Bloom, neither of us in our seats, until I was physically pulled off the seat by an angry looking lady who proceeded to yell at me in Chinese.  I showed her my ticket and Bloom’s, and she yelled at the people who were in his seat and made them move.  I tried to communicate to the guy next to Bloom that we should trade seats.  I was in no mood to sit by myself in this hell hole of a train, and I was definitely not going to try to have any form of communication with the sexual predator.  I kept looking at him and giving him dirty looks, until eventually I was scared that maybe he was actually dangerous and would chase me off the train and kill me,and I was just so damn tired,  so I stopped.   Finally the man next to Bloom got the point and went to my seat, but did not kick out the sexual predator, just shoved next to him, almost sitting on his lap.  I then started crying a little over the fact that I felt completely violated by this man, that I couldn’t do anything about it, and that I was on a crowded, loud, smelly train in the middle of the night.  I eventually fell asleep on Bloom’s shoulder and tried to ignore everything else.  We had no idea where to get off the train, since we could not see through the filthy windows of the train, and most of the time, when we did try to see, there were no signs.  Bloom frantically showed everyone around us our tickets asking when to get off.  Eventually we were motioned toward the door, and got off at 1 am in the middle of what appeared to be a forest, not a train station.  A lady pushed us into a taxi and we showed her the name of a hotel listed in Lonely Planet.  She took us somewhere, there was no English, so we don’t even know where we stayed, but we checked in and immediately went to sleep.

But wait, we had not even reached the village of Ma’an yet!  We were in a city, Sanjiang and had to find a bus to the village in the morning.  We could not find this alleged bus station, and ended up taking a motorcycle rick-shaw to the village.

The thing is, after all that awfulness, the village was worth it.  That’s the thing about China, everything is difficult, but somehow, against all my better judgement, it actually ends up being worth it.  Maybe the difficult journey makes me appreciate the nice places, I don’t know.  But we hung out at a very quiet, relaxed village and wandered through the rice paddies and surrounding hills for two days, until we traveled south to Yangshuo, where we are now.

Oh my, I did not mean to write so much here, and now I realize that I could not resist, and as usual, the only stories I told in depth were the most traumatic ones.  I will write up some of the nice ones next time.

In conclusion, our visa runs out on Thursday, so we are taking a night bus Wednesday night to Hong Kong where will will hopefully get our visas to Burma.  We fly to Burma via Bangkok on Dec.14-15, where we will be until Dec. 31st, when we fly back to Bangkok for Shabbos.  We will travel around Thailand, and maybe Laos if there’s time, making our way back down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we will fly to Kochi, India on February 1st.  We will be traveling around India and then into Nepal, flying on April 17th from Kathmandu, Nepal–Qatar–Amman, Jordan.  We will spend the night in Amman, unless we can miraculously hitch a ride to Israel that night, and then we will hopefully, cross the border into Israel on April 18th.  We will be in Jerusalem for Pesach, and it will be glorious.  Unless we get stuck in Qatar or Jordan, which would be glorious in a different way I guess.

It’s crazy to have all of these flights finally booked.  We booked them over the past few days, since we have finally had some time to relax here in Yangshuo, so we have been making plans for the rest of our trip, which is of course why we had no time to write earlier!

We will not be able to post anything while in Burma.  I am not sure that we will find any functioning internet there at all,  but Bloom and I both plan to write some flashback posts to post before we go to Burma, so you will have something to read.

And there you have it.  My version of a short version of our China trip.  In conclusion, China is a bizzaro world in every way, and sometimes it is absolutely horrible, but for some reason I love it here.  More on this later!

14th November
written by Ilana

When I thought about Bali I imagined beautiful rice patties and some sort of “spiritual” place.  God, what does it even mean to be a spiritual place??  Even though I hate to admit it, it’s actually quite obvious that I am generally a religious person, also I am fascinated by different religious traditions, so I figured Ubud, the “spiritual” capital of Bali would be the perfect place for me to relax and find my inner self…or whatever.

So what did I find in Ubud?

Well, for one, I found many Balinese men standing on the sidewalk saying “Taxi?  Transport?  Hello?  Taxi?? “  At first I responded with a polite smile and a “no thank you!”
Their response: “maybe tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t think so, sorry!”

Ten minutes later:  “Taxi?  Transport”
“No thanks”

Another ten minutes pass:  “Taxi??”
“No.  I do not want a taxi.”
“NO.  Not tomorrow either.”

Five minutes go by.  “Taxi?”
This time Bloom responds “Do I look shy to you??  Do you think I wouldn’t ask you if I needed a taxi??  I do NOT need a taxi, and if I need one, I will find you, and I do not need one tomorrow!”

I told Bloom that this was a rather aggressive approach, and seemed pretty rude.  “They’re the ones harassing me!” Bloom protested.  “And you want to spend three months in India??”  I asked him.  He ignored me.  I decided I was going to take the high road here.  I explained to Bloom that yes, these guys were annoying, and yes, they assume that since we’re white we are rich and want to hire private taxis to drive us everywhere, but the truth is we do have money, and even though we are not rich and have a pretty tight budget (that I am currently blowing on expensive lattes), it’s likely that we do have more money than they do, and so they have the right to harass us.

The next afternoon:  “Taxi?  Transport??”
I had just about enough.  Yeah, fine, they’re poor and I’m white and western and have some dollars, but step off!
“You listen to me, guy.  I DO NOT want a taxi.  I DO NOT need transport.  I am sure I will walk past here again, and you BETTER not ask me if I need a taxi.   Got it??”
The guy smiled and laughed and shook my hand.  “What’s your name?”
“My name is Ilana, and I’m on my way to dinner.  No taxi, got it?”

I looked at Bloom and apologized for being a self-righteous ass earlier.  Damn, these people were getting to me too.  I missed Sumatra where the people might harass you, but it felt friendly.

Ok, fine, I knew that Bali was a million times more touristy than Sumatra, I should have been prepared, but isn’t Ubud supposed to be some sort of spiritual haven and not a place of constant harassment?

So, about that spiritual thing…  I don’t know what exactly I imagined when I thought “spiritual haven,” but it was not a bunch of skinny American women sitting around with perfect posture and talking about raw food and their yoga class.  Ugh.  This is exactly how I imagine LA, which is why I don’t go to LA.  All this pseudo spiritual crap is making me realize that I am not zen at all, no, I am a Jew through and through, and not even a Jew-Bu at that!  Maybe I don’t actually respect other people’s religious journeys as much as I thought I did.  There is something that feels inauthentic about coming to a city and expecting that you will find some sort of spiritual enlightenment, just because other people may have had spiritual experiences there. Take Elizabeth Gilbert, the infamous author of “Eat Pray Love” for example.  There are now “Eat Pray Love” guided tours and different classes here in Ubud for you to experience your own “Eat Pray Love” style awakening!

WHAAAAT.  Look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I like Liz Gilbert, and I liked her book, but just because she found something here in Ubud does not mean that I, Ilana G, will find something here.  My “journey” is mine and mine alone, which means I have to find meaning in places because it’s meaningful to me, not because it was meaningful to Liz Gilbert and to many Balinese people.

There’s also something that’s making me depressed about this whole place.  Are westerner’s so devoid of their own spirituality and meaning that they have to come and hijack someone else’s religious culture?

Ok, I’m being a judgmental ass right now, and I realize that, but there’s something so frustrating about this.  How am I any different than these spiritual seekers who come to Bali or India or wherever else?  Well, for one thing I have my own religious culture and traditions, I’m not looking for something completely new, I just want to see how other cultures practice their religiosity and then maybe see if any of their traditions can work within my own Jewish traditions.  Do they have something that I’m missing?  Do they have something that can enrich my own religious life?

Ok, so maybe I’m not so different than the alleged seekers.  Ugh, but I am!  Something just seems so disingenuous about this whole process here; people seem to just have automatic buy-in to yoga/ayurveda/chakra/healers, etc.

So Bloom and I actually went to a yoga class here to see what all the fuss was about, and because I have always thought it would be cool if I was into yoga.  So I guess I’m the real inauthentic poser here, taking a class because I think it seems cool and all…  But, in my defense, I also think it could potentially help lower my anxiety levels and help strengthen my leg injury, but anyway, back to the class.  There was a point at the start of the class when we were sitting there with our eyes closed and the teacher was telling everyone to think about their breath, the flow of your breath in your body, blah blah blah.

I of course got bored and opened my eyes a drop to peek around the room to see if anyone else wasn’t feeling it.  I looked at Bloom, he looked into it.  Hmm.  Ok, I tried again and closed my eyes and tried to think of my breath and nothing else.  Impossible.  I thought about how lame it was that I couldn’t focus on my breath, then I thought about how lame it was that everyone else was focusing on their breath.  Eventually the class was told to open their eyes and we all did some weird pulling at our knees and bending and stuff.  After pulling at our right knees for a while the teacher told us to sit back and see if we felt a difference between our right and left knees.  I thought about it and realized that my right knee actually felt loose and relaxed!  Had it worked?  I took the rest of the class relatively seriously, and had a pleasant time.  Maybe I can be a yogi yet?

But, dear reader, please do not be fooled by the fact that I enjoyed a yoga class.  This does not make me any less cynical than ever, but I do think that this whole yoga thing could be good for my pizza-eating, daily milk-shake drinking body.

So maybe I will go to another yoga class and see how I go.  The problem is these damn seekers everywhere.

Bloom just read over my shoulder and asked, “but how can you be sure that you’re not one?”
“Not one what?”
“Not a seeker.”

He laughs as he watches me turn back to the computer and type instead of answering his question.

12th November
written by Ilana

We arrived in Solo after a miserable night of not sleeping outside the airport and a massive fight when security took our really nice American spray sunscreen away from Bloom.  “What are YOU going to do with it??”  I yelled at the security lady at 5 am.  “You can put on now,” she replied calmly.  “IT IS DARK NOW.  I DO NOT NEED SUN SCREEN NOW.”  I yelled back, and then to Bloom, “WHY WAS THAT IN YOUR CARRY ON??”  I then stormed off and sat by myself for a while mourning the loss of the sunscreen.

This whole fight may sound stupid, and maybe it was, but when it’s 5 am and you’ve been up since 7am and have spent the day taking a ferry, then a bus, then 6 hours at the “airport” in Medan (airport being a very very generous term here, since it was more like a really crappy bus station) until finally flying to KL where you were kicked out of the airport and onto the streets to spend time until 5am when you can finally check in your bags…then you may not be in the best mood.   Additionally, when we got to Medan super early, I asked if we could go on one of the earlier flights.  The guy behind the counter checked his computer and then said “ok.”  Great, I thought, but I thought too soon.  The guy continued, “you will not get money back from your flight and you have to pay for the new one.”  WAIT, what?  “I don’t want to switch flights completely, I just want to go on the earlier flight, since I’m here, instead of the later one.  Standby, you know?”  He did not know, and was not hearing it.  We argued for a while, and I asked who was in charge, apparently no one.  We had six hours to kill until our flight, four hours before they would allow us to check our bags.  This set the stage for the rest of the evening.  And about that sunscreen—we have searched everywhere for a replacement, all over Java and Bali, and have not been able to find good sunscreen.  So, this is why a little thing like sunscreen was quite valuable to me.

Anyway, back to Solo.  When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by the adorable airport and friendly people.  We had no place to stay, and didn’t have much of an idea of where we were going.  We found an information desk and the guy wrote the name of an area on a piece of paper for us, which we gave to a taxi driver.  We made it to this area, found a hostel, and slept for the rest of the day.

When we finally woke up, we wandered the streets, and we decided this was a cute place, and we wanted to give it more of a chance.  It was now Thursday night, and our original plan had been to leave Friday morning for Yogyakarta (for some reason pronounced Jogjakarta), a bigger city an hour away, but now we decided we would do an early morning bike tour before making our way to Yogya.  This was a wise decision, because the bike tour was really great.

Bloom and I, with a guide, set out early in the morning and biked around the city, and into the outskirts to see all sorts of artisans at work.

Crossing a river with the bike

We watched a guy painting traditional leather puppets, people making shrimp crackers, which was crazy, because it wasn’t a factory, but people making thousands of crackers more or less by hand, tofu-making, traditional gamelan (like a gong)making, batik making, and other such fun things.  At one point we ended up in a family home, where I was asked to please hold their newborn baby.  Our guide told me that in their culture it is very important that people have babies, and holding this newborn would “pull the baby” out of me.  I guess the idea is that there’s a baby inside me just trying to get out, and it needs help from babies on the outside.  He turned to Bloom and said seriously, “do not worry, there is no science to prove this yet.”  OK.  Phew.  I held the baby, who was only 3 days old (!) and the parents were very pleased and took many pictures.  I thought of my friend Becky’s baby who was having his bris on this same day, and was sad to miss it, but found it funny that I was meeting this other Indonesian newborn on that day.

Indonesian form of segulah

While at the tofu making hut, a torrential downpour began.  We decided to wait it out, while we ate fresh fried tofu and soy milk from plastic bags.  Shockingly delicious!  I have been craving soy milk ever since.  Our guide asked us why we had to take the early train, couldn’t we just wait and take the later train?  We explained that it was our Sabbath, etc.  He was interested in this, and asked us many questions about what we can and can’t do on the Sabbath, and then after a few minutes asked/said excitedly “You are Jews?”  Bloom and I looked at each other.  Should we admit it?  He seemed safe, so we said “Yeah, we’re Jews.”  He was really excited to hear this and asked us why we didn’t tell him this earlier, because he had many questions to ask about Jewish things and about the Talmud and the forefathers, and Jewish traditions.  We spent the next 30 minutes or so, waiting out the rain, and answering his questions about Jewish law and tradition while he compared it to different Islamic traditions.  We talked about Yom Kippur and Ramadan, praying 3 times and praying 5 times, torah reading and Koran reading, the Talmud and hadif, etc.  When we told him about different kashrut laws and what we ate and didn’t eat while travelling, he was very impressed and said “you are very serious!”  He decided he would take the train with us to Yogyakarta and help us find a hostel, and promised us it would all be done before Shabbos started.

Cracker making

Since everything was going so well with him, I stupidly decided to ask him why he thought Israelis were not allowed in Indonesia.  “Thailand makes tons of money off Israeli travelers,” Bloom explained, “Indonesia would make a lot of money if they let Israelis in.”  He looked at us seriously and said “Indonesia does not allow colonizers in the country.”  We tried to explain that surely Israel is not the only colonizing country out there.  In fact Indonesia can be seen as a colonizing country.  “Indonesia allows people to live freely,” he explained.  “What about China?”  I said, “You know, Tibet?”  “China is very good,”  He said, and looked confused when I mentioned Tibet.  I tried to explain to him that I agree that Israel has done some bad things, but in the country everyone can say what they want, there is a free press, etc.  We also explained that many countries do unfavorable things, but they singled out Israel as the colonizers.  He refused to budge on this one, but said “you are very open Jewish people,” and seemed to like us, even after the Israel conversation.

Overall, it was a great day and we had a nice time seeing artisans at work, and of course discussing religious philosophy with our guide.  When we got to Yogyakarta we had an hour to find a hostel and arrange shabbos meals.  We gave the guide a list of vegetarian restaurants, and he found us a hostel near a few of them, and it even had a pool.  Sadly, it rained for hours every day we were in Java.  On Sunday we went to Borobudur, a giant Temple, which was amazing, but again, there was a downpour and this time we had nowhere to hide.  We were also, again, bombarded by teenage Indonesian tourists who took many pictures with us.

I'm in there somewhere

We almost went to check out Mt. Merapi, but people were saying that it was probably going to erupt soon, so we deiced we would skip it.  It did indeed erupt, and I think it is still erupting, and has caused many deaths and lots of damage.  It started erupting the day we left Java, so I guess we had good timing.  We left Yogyakarta on Sunday night, taking a very loud overnight train to the big, not so quaint city, Surabaya.  The sole reason for our visit to Surabaya was that it is one of two cities in all of Indonesia where one can acquire a Chinese visa.  Since we only decided to go to China once we were in Indonesia, and since we wanted to get to China as early as possible in order to avoid freezing temperatures, we had to go to Surabaya.  We checked into a hostel at 7 am, went to get our visas, went to a mall in search of food, where we found Red Mango frozen yogurt, which was by far the highlight of the day.  Who knew it was in Indonesia??  And who knew it was in this random mall??  I was starving and sweating through every article of clothing, so Red Mango was a fantastic find.

We left Surabaya at midnight to see the sunrise at a volcano in Eastern Java called Mt. Bromo.  We arrived at 3 am, and it was freezing, which I stupidly, was not prepared for in my sandals.  We also had not really thought about the fact that we now had two bed-less, transit nights in a row.  When the driver kicked us out of the jeep at 3 am, I was ready to just skip the sunrise and sleep in the jeep.  The sunrise was nice, but it was packed with tourists and Bloom witnessed two Europeans get in an actual fight over God knows what.

After our time at the volcano we went to the bus station and hitched a ride to Bali with some French people.  We had no idea where we were going in Bali, so we told the driver we would go wherever he was going, and that is how we got to Seminyak, a fancy beach resort town.  More on that next time!

10th November
written by Ilana

When we finally arrived in Berastagi after one early morning ferry crossing, a long bumpy school bus ride, and then a crowded van ride, we were exhausted.  After walking around a bit, we found a hostel, dropped our bags and went looking for food and cold drinks.  Happily, we found both.

During our walk we were constantly followed by hordes of school children.  The followed us down the street, waved hello, asked us our names, and then asked us to be in pictures with them.

Posing with the kids

We were celebrities.  It was a hilarious introduction to what would be our lives for the next week in Sumatra.

Berastagi was alright, but while there I decided I should deal with the fact that my tongue and mouth felt swollen and dry, and had felt this way since we left Australia. At first I had assumed that I had just burnt my tongue or something, but as it progressively worsened, I realized this must not be the case.  I was constantly waking up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and mouth, and by the time we reached Berastagi, I was starting to freak out.

So, instead of taking the morning to climb one of the volcanoes, we decided to look for a doctor.  Luckily, we found one around the block from our hostel.  We walked into a small empty building.  “Hello?”  We called out.  After some time two women found us and asked us to take a seat.  “Doctor?” I asked them.  They shook their heads, “coming soon,” they said and began to take my blood pressure and made me write my name on a piece of paper.  A few minutes into this, a man walked in and proclaimed himself the doctor.  I was escorted into this office where I told him “MOUTH HURTS.  OUCH.  TONGUE HURTS” and then stuck out my tongue.  He motioned for me to say ahh, and then shone a flashlight in my mouth.  “tonsils swollen,” he said.  He walked out of the office and I followed him.  He gave me four different types of medicine.  One for cough, one for swelling, one anti-biotic and one for inflammation.  He then gave me a bill.  It was 75,000 indonesian rupiahs, which is approximately $8 US.

Wow.  I looked at my watch and saw that I had only been inside the building for 15 minutes.  This was the cheapest, most efficient doctor’s visit of my life.

I decided that before getting too excited about the amazingness of the doctor’s visit, I should probably call my aunt, who is a doctor, and check that these medicines were legit.  I found an internet café, where I sat at a computer surrounded by teenage boys playing video games and smoking cigarettes.  I turned to the boy next to me, “don’t you have to go to school?” I asked.  He gave me a confused look and logged onto facebook.  I called my aunt on skype who told me the medicines all sounded good. Mid-conversation I turned my head and found a small boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, perched right over my computer screen on a small stool.  This place was weird.

Following the Indonesian teen’s lead I then logged on to facebook and started chatting with Feiber.  He asked me how I was.  I typed, “yesterday I fell in a toilet.”  I asked him if this seemed appropriate blog material and he said that not only was it good material, but it should be the title of the post, and so Feiber, here it is.

So, you may be wondering, Ilana, how in fact did you manage to fall in a toilet?!

Well, my friends, as you know, I am in the land of squat toilets.  I have not yet taken a picture of a squat toilet to post here, but imagine walking into a stall and finding a porcelain hole in the ground, on the sides of the hole are ridges, where I assume you are supposed to place your feet.  When we were in Medan having tea and a belligerent conversation with our ex-tour guide/driver, I went to the “bathroom.”  It turns out the bathroom was a family’s cement floored laundry room.  The squatter was positioned directly underneath a clothesline with wet, dripping clothes hanging from it.  While being dripped on by the laundry, I tried to maneuver my feet on the ridges, which were wet,  and my foot slipped and fell into the hole/toilet.  Oh, disgusting.  At least I had pre-emptively rolled up my pants since the bathroom is almost always soaking wet.  It was not my best moment.


After the doctor’s visit, and my foray into the internet café, Bloom and I decided to move on to our next and final Sumatran location, Lake Toba.  Lake Toba is a very large volcanic lake.  More specifically, we were going to be spending about a week on the island in the middle of the lake called Samosir, and even more specifically we were staying on a smaller part of the island called Tuk-Tuk.

We decided to save money and take local transport.  I’ve been backpacking for some time now, and I figured I could handle it.  Our first step was getting on a door-less minivan.  There were no real seats in the back, just 2 benches on either side of the van.  The van came to a rolling stop in front of us and after confirming that it was going to the right place, we jumped on.  It was packed with ladies and babies who laughed at us and our big bags.

On the first of many crowded vans

The bags were taking up too much space and were thrown on to the roof.  After around 20 minutes, we reached our next destination where we were put onto another van, this one had rows of seats and even a door.   I am pretty sure this van was meant to seat, maybe, ten people.  However, there were about 30 people squeezed in, a few babies, and one live chicken being held upside down by its feet by its lady friend.  I was lucky to have a window seat, and spent most of the 4 hour ride with my head out the window trying to breathe, and trying not to puke as we bumped over unpaved roads.  We reached our third destination and were put on yet another van, less crowded and chicken-less this time, but no window seat, where we rode for an hour before we were dropped off on the side of the road somewhere near Lake Toba.

By this point, I had had it.  I was proud of myself for saving money and for being a badass backpacker, but I also thought I would puke everywhere, and was quite grumpy about this fact.  We now needed to find the ferry that would take us to Tuk-Tuk in the middle of the lake.  One of those door-less minivans came to a rolling stop.  “FERRY??”  We asked.  They motioned for us to jump in and after a few minutes we reached the ferry, where we were told that it would not be departing for another hour.  I sat on my backpack and was grateful that I was not on a moving vehicle at the moment, but was not excited about the 40 minute ferry ride that was coming up.  As soon as I sat down a bunch of locals approached us.  “Hotel?  Tuk-Tuk?  Transport?”  We were being attacked on all sides, trying to be sold on hotels, food, drinks, etc.  I was in no mood for this.  “NOOO.”  I said loudly and aggressively.  They laughed.

Eventually, we got on the ferry, and it was actually a beautiful ride as we watched the sunset from the boat.  We got to Lake Toba, eventually found a hostel, which we left the next day, but we were exhausted and fell fast asleep.


We spent a week chilling out in Tuk-Tuk, which is the longest we stayed anywhere.  We ended up with so much time since we hadn’t done the long jungle trek, and we already had a flight booked to Java on October 20th, so we hung around.  It was a great place for loitering.  We were staying in a great hostel with a porch overlooking the lake and our own fridge, although there were constantly millions of ants everywhere, but it was still a great place.

Bloom went swimming every day, while I loitered on the internet, trying to keep in touch with the outside world and planning the rest of our trip, which was completely unplanned other than our flight to Java.  We planned on staying a few days in Java and then heading overland to Bali.  How long should we stay in Bali?  Where should we go next?  At first we decided we would go to Thailand to meet our friend Anna, which would be awesome, but then when we looked into flights for some reason it was very expensive for us to get to Thailand at that time.  I started looking into our other options and saw that China was actually not much more expensive than Thailand, but much further away, so we decided that from Bali we would go to China, starting in Beijing and then working our way south overland, ending up back in Malaysia in order to fly to India by the start of February.  We found a flight deal for Nov. 10th and booked the flight to China.

We also spent time just wandering around Tuk-Tuk, and one day we even rented a motorbike and rode around Samosir island.  Awesome.I was terrified, but it was actually pretty fun, and I got a kick out of Bloom driving a light pink motorbike.

In all of Tuk-Tuk we found two restaurants which met Bloom’s approval.  One was a tiny place, I think an old woman’s house, where she happened to not cook any meat or chicken.  We ate there once.  We sat outside her hut in one of the two tables available, and I watched as a chicken climbed on the table and walked around.  This was not my idea of ambience.  There was also a cute looking kitten who climbed onto the table and hissed at me.  It freaked me out and I moved my chair a bit and suddenly the chair broke into many pieces and I was sitting on the concrete.  Bloom was laughing hysterically, and the chicken and kitten just stared.  Needless to say, we did not return.

We found another restaurant where we discovered that they cooked all the chicken and meat  in separate pans, which was a lucky find, since it was a nice place and had decent prices.  We decided we would eat there for shabbos.  We had already been there a few times, and we spoke to someone there about setting up a tab, which was how many places worked in Sumatra, and we even asked if we should leave a deposit, but we were told it was all good, we would have a tab and pay later.

We ate a delicious Friday night dinner and when we got up to leave, we were approached by a waitress who told us we had to pay now.  We went to  the counter to explain that we had set up a tab, etc, and we ended up talking to a European woman who had not been there earlier in the day.  She was apparently the owner, and she did not take kindly to our tab.  “You are not guests in our hotel, so you cannot have a tab, you have to pay now.”  When we explained that for religious reasons we don’t use money on this day, she didn’t buy it.  “What religion is this?” she asked skeptically.  “Judaism, we’re Jews,” we explained.  “I’ve never heard of this.  It’s very weird,” she said judgmentally.  Europeans are such anti-semites, I thought in my head.

She tried another approach.  “Can I have your passports?”  We explained that on the Sabbath we don’t carry anything, not even passports.  She looked at us like we were idiots.  “Look, we were here earlier, we’ll come back tomorrow, we promise, we’re really sorry, we can give you our passport numbers, but we don’t have anything to give you.”  She seemed ok with this, and gave us a paper and pen to write our passport numbers down.  Oh God.  More awkwardness.  “Well…We also don’t write on this day,”  we explained.  She looked horrified at our archaic ways.  After the passport exchange she was still not satisfied.  “I don’t know about this…Isn’t there something you can give me..?” She asked.  “Take my wedding ring,” Bloom said.  “WHAAAT!”  I yelled.  I didn’t expect this to upset me so much, but I almost cried right there.  The European lady started to reach for the ring.  What the hell kind of person was this??  Was she really about to take his wedding ring?!  “You are NOT taking that,” I said to her.  I looked at myself.  I could give her my shoes and walk home barefoot… I had forgotten about my watch.  “Take my watch, it’s a good watch, and believe me, I want it back.”  “Alright.”  She finally agreed.

The Indonesian man who we had spoken with earlier stood by and watched the whole exchange.  Earlier, I had thought he was the owner, and maybe he was the part owner, maybe he was even this woman’s husband, it was unclear.  He gave us a look that said he was sorry about this lady’s behavior, and the next day he even approached us and apologized, which was nice, but I still felt terrible about the whole thing.  We would have left a deposit if they had asked for one!  Now I felt like some sort of Jewish stereotype living an antiquated life, and trying to get out of paying for things.  And what kind of European was this woman?  Did she really not know what Jews were??  It was humiliating returning there the next day, but the food was good, and we ignored the woman.

We even went back Saturday night with a Belgian couple we had met in Berastagi and had run into again in Lake Toba.  I told them the entire story about the food and shabbos, etc.  “Do you guys know about Jews?”  I asked them.  “Yeah, we learn about Jews in school.  We know about Jewish things, the Sabbath and all that.”  Hmm… So what was up with that woman?  We asked the Belgians if they recognized the woman’s accent, since we were trying to figure out where in Europe she was from.  They said they were not sure, but wasn’t the place called Tabo Restaurant and German Bakery…?  I should have known.

SIR, EMBRACE ME:  Our Encounter with an English Class

While Tuk-Tuk, like most of Sumatra, was pretty empty for most of our stay there, on Sunday it came to life with Indonesian tourists.

Our Hotel in Tuk-Tuk

Bloom and I went for a walk and made it only a few feet from our hotel when we were bombarded by teenagers who wanted to ask us questions, take our pictures, and get our autographs.  This was a much more intense form of celebrity than we had experienced in Berastagi.

We would walk a few steps, and then we would be interrupted by a teenager who would ask us a questions, usually “hello!  What is your name?” and as soon as we stopped to answer, 20 other teens would come out of nowhere asking us all sorts of questions.  The questions were immediately followed by pictures.  Some were group shots, but many of them wanted individual pictures with me or with Bloom.  After we posed for the pictures, the kids would shake our hands and thank us, and many would then ask for our autographs, and some even asked for our email addresses.  Many of them walked with us for a while and soon it was like a parade as more and more students joined us in our walk.

As we talked, we discovered that they were students in an English language course and they were on a field trip to Tuk-Tuk where they were hoping they would find native English speakers in order to practice their English.  Some of the questions they asked were standard like, “where are you from?”  “What are your hobbies?”  “What is the reason for your visit to Sumatra?” “Do you like Sumatra?”  “Do you like Indonesian food?”  “Do you like Justin Beiber?”   Some of the more unusual questions were, “What is the reason that American children are more smart than Indonesians?” and “Is Justin Beiber your brother?”  My responses were, “American children are not all smarter than Indonesians, why would you think that?” and “No, I am not related to Justin Bieber.”  They told me that Americans are obviously smart because they have advanced technology and that I look like Justin Bieber.  It’s true that we are both white.

The highlight of all of these interactions was that, more than once, one of the students said to Bloom, and I quote, “sir, embrace me.”  I found this to be quite a spectacular way to ask Bloom to put his arm around them in the photos, although I would not necessarily recommend using this phrase in an English speaking country.  People might get the wrong idea.

After a restful week, we packed up our bags once again, and were off to the Medan airport to fly to the next island, Java, to a city called Solo via Kuala Lumpur.  We flew via KL because it was cheap, and because then we were given new visas since we were going to overstay our original 30 day visas.  We flew to Solo because it was the cheapest flight we found to Java.  We spent from midnight until 7 am in the KL airport, which I thought I could tolerate, but when at 1 am they kicked everyone out of the airport in order to fumigate the place, I no longer supported my let’s sleep in the airport plan.  In the end, after some fighting and complaining, we managed to arrive safely and even happily in Solo, which I will write about in the next post.

31st October
written by Ilana

We arrived in a small village with a few tiny shops.  The driver told us this was Tangkahan, so we got out of the car and said our goodbyes.  We went through a small hut and saw that on the other side was a river.  In order for us to reach our jungle lodge, appropriately named “Jungle Lodge” we would have to cross this river on a “ferry.”

On the ferry

The ferry was a wooden raft with a little hut over it to shade the passengers.  The river was pretty narrow, so the ferry ride only took a few minutes.  We took the ferry, climbed off, and climbed up many stairs and through a jungle-y path to reach our lodge.

The whole place felt abandoned.

“I have a reservation “ I said to the 3 people sitting around the lodge.

I got a bunch of confused looking stares in response.

“I emailed ALEX”  I said slowly and loudly, hoping that would help.

“Alex,” a woman said to me.

There was much confusion and quite the language barrier.  It seemed the Alex who I emailed with was maybe in Germany…  In any event, he was not in the jungle.  We were eventually led to a hut overlooking more jungle and a part of the river.

View from the Jungle Lodge

It was pretty spacious, and we had a nice balcony.

I stood on the balcony and looked around.  It seemed we were literally in the middle of nowhere.  There was no electricity when we arrived; it only went on from around 6-11 pm from a generator.  This worked out well for Shabbos, because we could just leave the lights on and they would automatically shut off at 11.  I knew that there were a few things to do in Tangkahan—there were elephant treks, which we would do on Sunday, and there was some waterfall somewhere and hot springs.  I went back into our hut and remembered that I was sweating through all of my clothes.  It was so damn hot.  There was no fan, and even if there was, there was no electricity so it wouldn’t really help me.

We decided that since we had at least an hour or so before Shabbos we would try to find out where this waterfall was, and maybe stick our heads under it, and then we would at least we would know where to go to cool off on Shabbos.  We walked back into the lodge area and I tried to communicate to the folks chilling there that we wanted to know where the waterfall was.  Again, my words were met with blank stares.

I saw that on the wall there were pictures of a waterfall.  I pointed at the picture.  “WATER-FALL.”  I said, slowly and loudly.  God, I hate myself when I talk like that.  But on the other hand, locals never seem to understand me when I don’t speak in my slow loud I’m-communicating-with-a-non-English-speaker voice.  But still, I feel like such a tool.

Anyway, the message was understood, and a guy started walking.  We guessed we were meant to follow him.  He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and Bloom and I were also wearing our clothes, since we assumed that someone would just explain where the waterfall was and then we would briefly check it out before going back to our hut and showering for shabbos.

We followed the guy through the jungle, down some stairs and then he proceeded to walk into the river in his clothes.  He motioned for us to follow him.  Alright.  It was so hot anyway, I guess it didn’t matter that I was about to walk into a river fully clothed.  I was freaking out a bit as we climbed over slippery stones and I thought about how my near-drowning the day before.  Whatever, it was too hot to be afraid, and this guy kept on walking, so we kept on following him.  We walked past something that looked like a cross between a crocodile and a snake.  “What the hell is that??”  I asked, alarmed.  The guy laughed at me, and kept walking.  “It’s a monitor,” Bloom said.  What on earth is a monitor??  I stared at it and kept walking.

After a few minutes he climbed over some very large rocks and held my hand as I struggled up the rocks.  Then we saw the waterfall which was up quite a few more large slippery rocks.  The guy climbed up those rocks as if he was climbing a normal, dry staircase.  He then went and sat under the waterfall as the water pounded down on his head.   I was wet enough.  I was too scared to climb up more slippery rocks.  How would I get down?  I was already cooling off since I was standing in water up to my waist, so I figured I didn’t really need to climb under a waterfall.  Good, so now we knew where the waterfall was.  And it was only a few minutes walk from our hut.  “HOT SPRINGS??”  I asked the guy loudly and slowly.  Ugh, again, I hated myself as I spoke.  He seemed to understand and he bounded down the river, as again we followed him.  We waded toward the direction of our hut, and then the guy started swimming across the river.  He motioned that we had to swim across to get to the hot springs.

It’s one thing to wade through waist high water, but it is quite another to actually swim across a river fully clothed, the day after the near drowning.  No.  Bloom swam across.  I then watched as Bloom and the guy climbed behind a rock and then I couldn’t see them.  Eventually, Bloom came back over the rock and yelled across the river to me, “it’s really good here!  Come across!”  After much back and forth, and me acting like a complete baby, Bloom agreed to swim me across the river.  Yes, I admit, it is very very lame to be swam across a small river instead of swimming myself, but alas, that is what was done.  We got to the other side, and the hot springs were indeed really good.  In fact, this whole place was pretty good.  True, it was the middle of the jungle and we had yet to see more than 4 people in the whole place, but it was kind of nice that way.  Creepy, but nice.  We had our own private river, hot springs, waterfall and jungle.

We ate dinner at our lodge that night, which was beautiful and was basically a large open air gazebo overlooking the river.  Dinner was basically a war of who could get to our food first, us or the mass line of ants marching across the table.  It was pretty dark, and I tried not to think about what the odds were that I had eaten an ant over the course of the meal.

We went back to our hut, and tried to sleep even though it was ridiculously hot and the mosquito net seemed to make it even hotter in the bed.

Eventually I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew  I was awoken by a scratching noise, which I tried to ignore, but then I heard a loud “HISSS.”  I looked next to me and realized that Bloom had made the hissing noise.  The scratching stopped.  Oh my god.  “Bloom, what are you doing??”
“I think there’s something in here,” he said.

It was so dark that I couldn’t even see Bloom next to me.  Like idiots, since it was shabbos, we didn’t even have our flashlights anywhere near us.  I was freaking out.  “What’s in here?  Is it a monkey??”

I love to look at monkeys.  From afar.  I am terrified of them.  They look and act too much like humans to be trusted.  I feel like a monkey would stab me in the back any day.  I also suspect that there will come a time in this trip when I have a physical fight with a monkey.  I have been careful so far, and have backed away and behind closed doors when monkeys have come near me, but I know that eventually the monkeys will catch up with me, and if we don’t have a physical fight, at the very least it will steal my camera or something else valuable and then laugh in my face.

“I don’t think it’s a monkey,” Bloom said.  “It might not even be in here.  It sounded like it was biting through the wood of the floor or the door or something.”  UGH.  Repulsive.  Maybe a small hut in the middle of the jungle with no electricity or people was not the best place after all.

I turned on the indiglo light on my watch to try to see Bloom’s face.  He got out of the bed and wandered around the hut.  I was freaking out.  What if the animal was right next to the bed?  What if it was in the bed?  What if it actually was a monkey??  I couldn’t see a thing, so I just kept holding down the indiglo light on my watch.  How could I care about shabbos when a rabid monkey was potentially on the loose in my bed??  And Bloom was out in the room wandering around doing God knows what.  I kept shining my watch on him, but I’m not sure it really helped.

After quite some time he came back to bed, but this time I really couldn’t sleep.  I kept imagining things crawling all over me, or hearing scratching on the floor, and then Bloom would hiss again to quiet down the creature.  “Bloom, maybe we should just try to get out of here right after shabbos, maybe we should forget about the elephants.  I’m really creeped out here.”
“Don’t worry, try to get some sleep.”

I dozed in and out until at some point I woke up and saw that I could see.  The sun was out.  We had made it through the night with no monkey bites!  Hooray.  In the light of day I looked around and realized what an idiot I had been at night.  There was nothing to fear.  It was completely safe here.  Bloom looked through our bags and discovered that one of his infamous banana’s had been eaten.  So there was an animal inside the room.  Ew.  I tried not to think about it.

Shabbos was uneventful.  We read, slept and swam, and discovered three other tourists.

At night Bloom and I both had a hard time sleeping.  We thought that the animal had perhaps come into the hut through the drain in the bathroom, so bloom filled a bucket with water and put it over the drain, he also locked the bathroom door.  It was still creepy.  Eventually I fell asleep, but I was again awoken by Bloom shining his flashlight all over the walls and floor of the hut.  “There’s nothing we can do, just stay here and go back to sleep” I said to him, as he started climbing out of bed.  He did not listen, and he spent a while wandering the room, shining his flashlight all over the place trying to find the creature.

We woke up the next morning and got ready to see some elephants, and tried to forget about the creature of the night.  We crossed the river on the “ferry” again and were surprised to see many Indonesian  families walking down to the river carrying coolers and food.  We were no longer alone in the jungle.

We walked for a while until we some elephants hanging out by the side of the road.  We watched as their mahouts (elephant driver) rode them down to the river to bathe them. It was awesome.  I had read somewhere that Tangkahan is a relatively new tourist destination (even though we only saw a few tourists there are still 4 guesthouses there which means it does cater to holding a few tourists), and a few years ago the whole area was in danger of being completely logged.  The locals got together and decided to protect the area and turn it into a tourist destination or something like that…  Anyway, the elephants are used to patrol the area and make sure loggers don’t come in and illegally chop down the trees.  So the elephants were being used for a good cause.

We bathed  and fed the elephants and saw the newborn baby elephant who was adorable.  We were joined by a Japanese family and we all set off to ride the elephants for an hour through the hills of the jungle.  It was a pleasant morning.  The only unpleasant part was when we got back to our hut and realized that the bucket covering the drain had been moved the night before, and that the creature of the night was still hunting us.  Ugh.  We would deal with that later, I guess.

We spent the rest of the day swimming in the river with the locals.  A girl swimming in her underwear swam up to me.  “HELLO! What is your name??”
“Ilana, what is YOUR name?”

She laughed and swam around, and then told me her name was SIska, and that she’s seven years old.  “Do you like visit Tangkahan?”   I told her I very much enjoyed Tangkahan, and praised her English skills.  She then decided to swim underwater toward me for a while, before getting bored and swimming to the hot springs to fill a water bottle with water from the hot spring to then pour all over me and her brother.

That was the thing about Sumatra, the kids were all so friendly and hilarious, and were always  making conversation with us.

Anyway, after our swim we realized that we had to figure out how exactly we were going to leave this place.

Bloom swimming in the river

Our plan was to take a bus to the big city Medan, and then connect to another bus to a small city called Berastagi where we would hang out and maybe see a volcano or two on our way to Lake Toba.  The problem was that the last bus to Berastagi was at 4 pm, so we had to get in to Medan before that.

We asked anyone some of the locals when the bus was leaving the next day.  We received many responses.  “Bus at 6, 7 and 2,”  “Bus at 6:30 and 8:30,”  “Bus only at 7:30,” “maybe only one bus tomorrow at 6?”  Whaaaat.  There was definitely no such thing as a bus schedule here, so we were not quite sure how to move forward with this one.

We went back to our lodge and asked them about the buses.  We were mostly met with blank stares yet again, until one guy who sort of knew English came by and declared that the bus was at 7.  “Ok so we want to take that bus,” I told him.  “No can take that bus” he responded.
“Why not?”
“You need to cross river with bags to get to the bus.  Ferry does not run early in morning.  Water too high.”
“Ok, well then can we sleep on the other side of the river?”
“Ok, I take you to place to sleep.”

We followed this guy back across the river and he showed us an overpriced dilapidated room surrounded by chickens.  Bloom was the one who said no to this one.

Hmm.  We weren’t quite sure what to do now.  We headed back down the steps toward the river when a man approached us and said “need transport?”  We explained that maybe we did need transport, but really we just wanted to take the (cheap) local bus to Medan, but weren’t sure how to get across the river in time for the 7 o’clock bus.  “Maybe no 7 o’clock bus” he told us, “maybe only 5:30 morning bus.”

Whaaaat.  Where was 5:30 coming into this whole plan?  This was a new one.  The man introduced himself as Mega, the owner of Mega Inn and said he would talk to the bus driver when he arrives and ask him what time the bus will leave tomorrow.  We could find him at Mega Inn and ask him about the bus times.

Ok, well at least this Mega guy seemed to be helpful.  Finally someone who would find us some answers.  We went to Mega Inn for dinner, which was delicious by the way, and Mega told us there would only be two buses the following day, one at 5:30 am, and one at 2 pm.  We asked him if there was any way we could take the ferry across to make the 5:30 bus.  We expected him to say no, after we had been told we couldn’t take the ferry across to make the alleged 7:30 bus, but Mega said yes.  He told us that he was driving to Bukit Lawang to pick up some tourists and had to get across early, so he and his friend would take the ferry across  themselves, and we could go with them.  Wejust had to be at the ferry crossing at 5 am.  Ok, I think we can handle that, I thought, as I sat back and drank my banana milkshake, and listened to one of the locals play guitar.  He played “Knocking on heaven’s door,” and then he seemed to be singing Jingle Bells, but I listened and realized that instead of the Jingle Bells lyrics he had changed the words and was instead singing “Jungle trek, jungle trek, in tangkahan.  See the monkeys, see the birds, see the elephants…”  I thought this was awesome, but am no longer of this opinion when, three weeks later, I still find the “jungle trek jungle trek”  lyrics running through my head.

We tried to get some sleep, which we of course did not do, since Bloom again spent much of the night trying to find the creature, and hanging our bags from the walls so they would be safe.  At 4:45 am, in the pitch black jungle, we put on all our bags and our headlamps and trekked through the jungle,  and down the stairs to the river, where Mega was already waiting for us.  I handed him my bag and waded through the river to then climb onto the ferry.  I felt like we were escaping Poland to try to get to freedom.  Dead of night, climbing onto boats, carrying all of my belongings, etc.  However, this place was warm, and I had yet to meet any blatant anti-semites or angry dogs, so I guess there were a few differences between  Tangkahan and Poland.  A few.

We made it to the other side of the river, and we saw our bus.  To call this a dilapidated schoolbus that was probably used in some western country in the 1970’s before it was deemed unfit for use, would be an understatement.  There were holes in the wall, cracks in the windows, and the sides seemed to be rusting away.  Oh well.  We said goodbye to Mega and got on the bus with a few local schoolchildren, and by 5:20 we were off, bumping along the unpaved jungle roads to pick up at least 100 more schoolchildren, and quite a few sacks of oranges.  I found it hilarious that we were actually on a local school bus, as did the children, many of whom used us to practice their English.  I was afraid for some of their lives as I looked out the window and saw a bunch of them hanging off of bars on the outside of the bus  and sitting on the roof.

While on the bus, we looked at our bags and realized that Bloom’s daypack had a hole in it.  Bloom looked into the bag and pulled out his hazon chicobag and saw that that too had a hole in it, he then pulled out a double wrapped Ziploc bag and saw that it too had a hole, and when he looked inside the Ziploc we were not surprised to find a granola bar had been eaten.  Damn that creature.  It must have been some sort of psychotically resourceful rat if he was able to eat through a strong backpack and into another cloth bag and then through a double Ziploc and then into a granola bar.  When I thought of this rat’s strength, I was glad to be leaving Tangkahan.

After four hours of the bumpiest, sweatiest bus ride of my life we made it to Medan, where we sat around the bus station for a while with some local crazies, some of whom had their shirts half off, many of whom were lying on benches singing to themselves.  I was exhausted, so I joined them, and lay on a bench and acted crazy myself.

Our fired driver had wanted to meet us and maybe give us back some of our money so we waited for him for over an hour.  When he finally met us, he took us to a “café” (read:  the front of someone’s house) and berated us for a while.  I wasn’t feeling well at all, so I was trying to ignore this whole meeting and hoping he would just give us some money back and we could all move on with our lives.  But for some reason he chose to go on and on about how irresponsible we were for hiring him and then firing him, no one has ever treated him this way, etc.  I had felt guilty enough about firing the guy, but at the same time, we paid him half the cost, and he had driven us to only one place!  Why was he telling us how terrible we were?  Did he drag us here just for that?  Did I lie around with a bunch of possible drunks in an abandoned bus station for this?

Finally, I said something, “look, we are sorry we decided we didn’t need you.  We told you we felt bad.  We paid you the money.  What’s the problem?”

He told us that we were reaching the moment of truth to see what kind of people we really were.  Whaaat.  He then asked us how much money we think he ought to give us back.

Oh God.  So he was testing us?  We asked him for very little back, which was more than we were ever expecting to see again, and he was happy.  He deemed us good people, and gave us some money back, and pointed us toward our bus.  Good riddance.  At least that awkwardness was over.  We are never hiring a driver in advance again, that’s for sure.

And we were on to Berastagi.

17th October
written by Ilana

Oct. 7
After tubing down the river in Bukit Lawang at the end of our jungle trek, and watching many locals tube down the river all day, Bloom decided that, for a little more than $1, renting our own tube was a worthwhile investment.

When we had tubed at the end of our trek, Bloom and I had shared a large tube that was tied to two other tubes, and we had guides who appropriately steered us through the rapids, but we had seen that water was shallow, and there were only rapids in a few spots, and tiny local children were tubing, so it must be safe, right?

I was happily reading in the hammock on our balcony, enjoying the shade and the view, but Bloom wanted to tube, so, trying to be my most chilled out self, I encouraged him to go, and agreed that of course it was fine for him to go for a while by himself, he should just come back and get me later and maybe I would join him.

Bloom left to get a tube, and I went back to my book.  After 40 minutes or so, I looked out at the water.  The rapids looked strong from here.  Shouldn’t I have seen Bloom tube by?  Would I have missed him?  No, I’m sure everything’s fine, I’m just being crazy…but..isn’t it dangerous for someone to go to open water by themselves?  Hadn’t I learned that somewhere?  Isn’t that a thing?

As the minutes ticked by, I was using all of my strength to not think that something terrible happened to Bloom in the river.  I decided I was an awful wife for letting him go alone, and got my bathing suit on under my clothes, hoping he would be back soon, and this time I was going with him.

As soon as I was dressed and ready to go, Bloom came back.  We went down to the water, and it was awesome.  The river  was beautiful, and most of it was pretty calm, and serene.  I couldn’t believe I was such a beautiful place, in a tube, in the jungles of Sumatra.  A few times the water got rough and at one point we fell out, but it was fine, and we managed to get back in the tube.

When we had gone far enough, we got out of the tube and sat in the water for a while, watching mothers clean their clothes and children bathe.  Eventually Bloom said he was ready to walk up the river and tube back down again.  I remembered how freaked out I had been when he had gone by himself, and it had been fun, so I agreed to go again.

This time was even more idyllic, since at the start of the tube ride we saw an orangutan swinging from the trees on the side of the river.  How crazy!  We floated along peacefully, hitting a few rapids, getting soaked, screaming and laughing, when suddenly we hit a rock and instead of landing on our feet like the previous time, I got pulled under the water in the strong current.  I tried to lift my head out but I kept getting pulled back in.  I got my head out for a second, but felt myself losing control.  “Bloom!”  I yelled, swallowing water.  “Grab onto me!” I heard him say, and then I saw him reach for me.  I was able to grab onto him, but only for a second when the current shoved me back under.  I felt that I was only wearing one of my flip flops, and I felt the other one get pulled off my foot.  I managed to get up again, and grab Bloom and this time I managed to pull myself out enough that I was standing, but I still felt like the water might knock me over, even though it wasn’t deep.  We weren’t far from the shore and we managed to pull ourselves over to the riverbank, where I collapsed onto the rocks.  My legs were shaking, and I was mentally shaken as well.  I took a deep breath.  I felt on my head and realized my headband that I wear almost every day was gone, and I looked at my bare feet.  Dammit.

We looked down the river and saw that around 50 feet ahead, the water was completely calm.  I wondered what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been able to grab onto Bloom.  Would I have just been dragged along to the calm section?  Did I hurt myself by trying to resist the water instead of letting it pull me along?  Ahhh…what a clichéd metaphor!  If only I didn’t resist and fight, I would float gently by…  Gross.

I was terrified, and I was just thankful to be alive, but maybe it wasn’t actually that dangerous…?  I guess it doesn’t really matter if it was really dangerous or not, what matters is that I felt incredibly scared, well that, and the fact that I now lost a pair of reefs and the UV protected head wrap that I will not be able to replace out here.

Needless to say, I told Bloom no more tubing.  He was not so happy about my demands, but I begged him not to go back in the water right now, and I was pretty freaked out, so he agreed.  He went to the calm part of the water to look for my flip flops, to no avail.  Oh well.  We walked back to our guesthouse, and it started to pour.  It was actually refreshing and I was already soaked and shoeless, and walking very slowly on my still shaking legs, so I didn’t mind.

I still loved the tubing, it was just a shame that it had to end on such a rough note.  I felt vulnerable and scared of this crazy jungle.  All I wanted was to take a hot shower and crawl up in bed and maybe watch a movie.  That was definitely not in the cards.  We made our way back to the room, through the rain, took cold showers, and then I lay down under the mosquito net , and read some of my book to distract me from my fear.

We went to dinner, and, as was usual in Bukit Lawang, we were joined by some of the locals.  One of them was a man called Danny (many of the Indonesians we have met go by Western names for tourists, we asked if we could call them their full names, but they seem to like the Western  ones) who had helped us out a few times and had agreed to be our driver to Tangkahan, our next destination that cannot be reached from Bukit Lawang on public transport.  He had also helped us find yet another vegetarian restaurant in the town where the owner/cook/waiter allowed us into the kitchen and showed us how he made our meals, and he had helped us plan our onward itinerary.  He was very friendly and I liked him a lot.

He introduced us to his friend and said that he was very sorry, but he could not drive us, and his friend would take us instead.  The friend was wearing what looked like a big knit kippah.  “Where did you get your hat?  My husband is looking for one like that.”  He laughed, and then he and Bloom traded hats.  He put on the green 5 boro bike ride baseball hat, and Bloom put on the Muslim kippah.

“You look very serious now!  Everyone respect you!” The guy told Bloom.

I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but somewhere in this exchange I decided to go for it, and reveal our Jewishness to this guy, explaining that Bloom wanted to wear this hat for religious reasons.  The Muslim guy loved it.  “You are religious Jewish??  Very similar to Muslim!  You are my brother!”  If only all interfaith relations went this well…

We went on to discuss all our similarities.  He prayed 5 times a day, we pray 3 times a day.  He pays attention to what he eats, only eating halal, we also have weird eating habbits.  He was very excited and asked us if we could leave for Tangkahan later in the day, since we were leaving on a Friday, and he wanted to go to the mosque for afternoon prayer.  We explained that we needed to be in by a certain time for Shabbos, and we all worked out an agreeable time to all religions.

He said that he would take us to the local market in the morning and we would eat lunch at his house.  Bloom explained our different issues with kashrut.   He was very understanding about our requests, and it was all good.

The day in the market, our meal at the guy’s house, and the bumpy 2 and a half hour drive to Tangkahan were a good time.

We said goodbye to Bukit Lawang and moved on to Tangkahan