I could barely see the road through the foggy windshield as we went careening through the darkness towards Horton Plains National Park. The driver didn’t seem to mind the jarring clang of the long expired shocks bottoming out as we bumped along up the mountain pass road, occasionally wiping the glass with his hand and squinting to make sure we didn’t miss one of the hairpin turns. We wound along the serpentine cutbacks higher up into the mountains overlooking the peaks below, silhouetted by a thin reddish-orange glow fading into powder blue and then into the still starry night sky above. I tougued the finely ground Sri Lankan coffee that had lodged itself between my teeth as the caffein started to take effect. Maybe it’s stockholm syndrome but I had begun not to mind the stuff. Beats Nescafe instant coffee.
The hike was a two and a half hour loop through lush rainforests, past waterfalls, and along the cloud forest cliffs of “Worlds End”. The overgrown trail a few feet from the edge occasionally cleared exposing the picturesque valley below. Without any guardrails to protect hikers, a German tourist had met her demise a few months ago taking a selfie. I made a mental note to resist the urge to tempt fate and ask someone else to take a picture with a safe distance between me and the sheer drop to the forest canopy far below.
Along the trail we encountered an Elk that had clearly become accustomed to people and had almost certainly been fed. Pavlovian response in full swing, it came over to us slobbering and licking its lips in anticipation of a snickers bar or some other human food delicacy. Although we heeded the signs and resisted the urge to slip him a snack we did get some great pictures without the fancy cameras since he was anything but shy.
It had been three days since I made the eight hour bus journey from the southern Sri Lankan surf town of Mirissa up to the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya. The buses fill up at the station but I was able to get a seat with my backpack lodged in next to my legs before it was too late. The bus stops along the road for women and children but only slows down for young men who are expected to run and hop into the open backdoor where the bus money collector squares up with riders. Behind the wheel there is invariably a Sri Lankan bus driver with a cheek full of betel nut, the local stimulant, chewing intensely and liberally laying on the horn as he plays chicken with oncoming traffic.
Despite the Mad Max driving style on the roads, there is a certain organization to the mayhem. For one, horns are actually used to alert fellow drivers to each other's presence during passing and blind turns as opposed to their sole purpose in western culture as an after-the-fact, “fuck you” device. There is also a pecking order with buses at the top of the food chain, followed by trucks, then vans, tuk-tuks, and finally mopeds. So if a bus is coming directly at you in your lane you slow down and steer as far onto the shoulder as possible. Slower vehicles will move further onto the shoulder to allow you to pass after a “I’m here” honk that is not considered rude. It’s all a bit nerve racking but everyone seems to know how the other will react. Predictability makes it a bit safer I suppose.
It was just past dusk as I boarded the third and last bus of my trip up to the mountains. Even in the dark, I could tell that we had gained altitude as I shivered in the board shorts and tank top I had donned that morning. A quick sweep of the bus revealed that I was the only one not wearing long pants and some people were wearing knit caps. Even though I was cold, it was refreshing to be in cool, dry air after the humid, mosquito ridden evenings on the coast.
The bus seats filled up quickly and I saw a man give his spot to a woman that boarded the bus during one of the many roadside stops. The next woman that boarded was young and able bodied but I figured I’d give it a whirl. In Washington, D.C. if I were to offer my seat to a woman that wasn’t pregnant, on crutches, or 179 years old my attempted chivalry might be viewed as perpetuation of dated patriarchal practices or even downright rude. On this Sri Lankan bus however, my gesture was gratefully accepted with a warm smile.
My tuk-tuk from the bus station dropped me on the outskirts of town at the Laughing Leopard Hostel around 8pm. When I rounded the back of the building I walked directly into the consolidated outdoor chill area where I was greeted by about 15 cheery hostel goers sipping Lion beer and puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes. In the grassy yard to my right a staff member was coaxing a bonfire to life. Nothing like a communal area with good vibes especially considering it was Christmas Eve.
In addition to exploring Horton’s Plains an Australian guy from the hostel and I took a “Dumb and Dumber” style moped trip around the tea plantations, a British colonial hand me down which still thrives today. The following day a group of us hiked up Adam’s Peak for sunrise which entailed a grueling 6,000+ stair climb to a temple at the summit. The temple is known for Sri Pada (the sacred footprint), a 6ft rock formation resembling a footprint that is thought to belong to Budda, Shiva, or Adam depending on if you ask a Buddist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian. I am none of the above and I think it resembles a rock formation.
We started the hike at around 2:45am and I arrived at the top, drenched with sweat, a bit before 4:15am. I had passed all sorts of people on the way up including sweet little old ladies who were making the religious journey slowly but with steely determination. At the top there were hoards of people who huddled together under blankets trying to get some sleep before sunrise. I found a little ledge of the temple compound that overlooked some of the rituals taking place to climb up onto and lay down. Thankfully I had picked up a light rain jacket and beanie at the markets that day which kept me warm after I shed my wet t-shirt.
As sunrise became imminent the crowds began amassing along the eastern terraces of the temple. People began jockeying for position so I decided to start my decent and enjoy dawn from the empty stairs. I stopped along the way at a tea shack for some of the colonial beverage and a hearty Sri Lankan biscut. The stairs that had been crawling with tourists and pilgrims a few hours before were utterly empty. I hummed happily to myself as I took in the sunrise while bounding down towards the valley. A quick dip in a mountain stream near the path only raised my spirits higher. They were so high I skipped right past the trail that lead back to our chartered van and an additional five kilometers down the mountain to the other side of the park.
Not realizing that there were no direct roads back to Nuwara Eliya I used a tuk-tuk driver’s phone to tell the others not to wait for me. Once I finally picked up reception and took a gander at googlemaps I realized the gravity of the situation. I spent the next 4 hours running like a local to hop into the back of buses and circumnavigate a massive national park to get back to the hostel. That night, to ensure that everyone could share in my suffering, I picked up enough betel nut to share with my new hostel friends. We all chewed, spat, and agreed it is a very unpleasant pasttime. More for the bus drivers I guess. I’ve included a link below to purchase betel nut if curiosity gets the better of you!
I arrived at the Tipsy Gypsy Hostel in Canggu in the early afternoon, once again feeling relieved to have survived a highway moped adventure. After a few hours on the road, rolling through clouds of black exhaust smoke that unceremoniously belched from the buses and trucks I felt like a coal miner, retiring for the evening. I washed the exhaust soot from my face and wearily lowered my pack next to my dorm bed in a dimly lit but delightfully cool room. After using my lungs to filter an ungodly amount of carbon monoxide I felt grateful that trees don’t mind handling that job since I don’t think I’m cut out for it.
Tipsy Gypsy Hostel, Canggu
The next few days were spent reconnecting with a German friend, Jan, I hadn’t seen since 2001 when I was a host student in Nuremberg. For all of its shortcomings, social media provides the ability to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in ages which is going to be key throughout my journey. A couch to crash on and a familiar face to show you the local gems is an oasis to the solo traveler. Although I didn’t stay with Jan, he had spent a considerable amount of time in Canggu and took me to yoga, live music, and the Black Cat Speakeasy which is cleverly disguised as one of the ubiquitous mini marts that line the streets of Southeast Asia. A refrigerator with a paper sign that says “broken” is the portal to the boozy hideaway.
Black Cat Speakeasy
I quickly slipped into a routine that involved my morning oatmeal, the local gym, surf, yoga, and a beer with the hostel crew before an early bedtime. Canggu was a bit too built up for my taste. There was plenty to do but it bordered on a tourist trap. True to my nickname, I became restless after only a few days and booked a flight to Sri Lanka for three weeks with an onward flight to Myanmar thereafter.
My layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was just shy of six hours. It was going to be tight but I had no interest in missing the opportunity to cross Malaysia off the list so I hopped the bus into the city. The trip was about an hour and a half each way, which I spent with a gentlemen sleeping on my shoulder and re-listening to the Audible book “The Alchemist” which felt especially applicable as I set off on a solo journey into the unknown. Reading while on a bumpy bus is nauseating if not altogether impossible, making books on tape a godsend.
I navigated the subway to the Petronas towers for the mandatory selfie in front of the iconic building. Although the majority of Malaysians are Muslim you’d never know it with all of the Christmas decorations and songs blasting from stores. Ahhhh sweet, sweet capitalism. Look at our tinsel and grotesquely large, fake Christmas tree...ok now buy shit.
I hustled to my departure gate and straight onto my flight to Colombo, cutting it a little too close for comfort. Rush hour traffic on the way back to the airport and forgetting my favorite little spring-assisted SOG pocket knife in my carry on didn’t help my cause.
Down one pocket knife and dreary-eyed, I arrived at the Colombo YMCA at around 2am. I gingerly roused the elderly staff member from his cot behind the counter to check into the rundown building whose architecture smacked of former colonial glory. Looking as tired as I felt and as rickety as the building, he showed me to my totally uninhabited 16-bed dorm room which could have been the scene from any B-rated horror flick.
I awoke to thick, humid air and a light sheen of sweat that the weak, rattling fan hadn’t managed to dry from my body. After a trickling but refreshingly cold shower I caught a tuk-tuk to the bustling Colombo train station. I bought a ticket to Mirissa, a surf beach on the southern end of the tear-drop shaped country, and hopped onto the rusty, jangling monstrosity.
The train was brimming with people but I was able to secure one of the coveted standing spots on the footboard looking out the open train door. Catching glimpses of morning life in the small villages and ocean views when the tracks skirted the coastline while hanging out the door of a moving train is simply enchanting. The four hour train-ride flew by and before I knew it I was checking into my hostel in Mirissa.
Far less built up than Canggu, the little surf town of Mirissa has beautiful beaches, clean wave breaks, and a stellar backpacker vibe. The street food is delicious, spicy, and each separate dish is served in bowls which encircle the main plate of rice. The hostel common area provides a welcoming social network to do everything from surf to laze on the beach to imbibe the local favorite, Lion beer. The next stop is north into the heart of the country to explore the flora, fauna, and tea plantations but I’ll definitely be swinging back south for another dose of sun and surf before I hightail it to Myanmar.
I managed to jam all of my worldly possessions back into my backpack and bomb down from Ubud to Padangbai on the southeast coast of Bali, the departure port for the Gili Islands off the northwestern coast of Lombok Island. As I came cruising in to the port area it became clear that touts were jockeying for business in the low season. The fast boat companies running between the port and the islands provide a kickback to anyone that can bring people in to their outfit, which means there is a swarm of touts gunning for foreigners. I even got hit up by a guy that pulled up next to me on a moped while we were driving who I politely told to pound sand.
I generally try to avoid touts at all costs since they are nothing more than middle men with the class of greasy used car salesmen, but I saw a fast boat approaching the port and knew I’d never find the corresponding company in time to get a ticket in the melee without one. Dealing with Egyptian taxi drivers conditioned me to bargain out of principle over pennies by walking away to compare prices with the competition. I grabbed the closest tout and hastily bargained down to 450k, about 25 bucks, round trip to the islands and back with a flexible return ticket. The islands don’t have any motorized vehicles so I ditched my moped and jogged towards the Golden Queen fast boat just in time to huck my bag to the staff and climb aboard for the hour and a half journey.
The three Gili Islands, Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan, are classified as chill, sleepy, and party, respectively. I decided to take the goldilocks route and opted for Gili Air. Once I stepped off onto the little island it became clear that without a bike I was going to have a hell of a time checking different lodging options. So I rented a bike and landed at Begadang Hostel, which seemed to be the only happening spot this time of year. For about ten bucks a night I scored a three bed dorm with AC and set about meeting the other inhabitants that were congregating around the courtyard pool, fittingly shaped like a mushroom.
Before dinner I managed to find the local gym, Holiday Fit, where I dropped seven dollars for a three day membership. These little gyms are so fun because you either have them to yourself or they are a great place to meet other travelers. No shirt, no shoes, no problem. Naturally, they are quirky. For example every plate was marked with kilograms and then said 44 lbs on the other side regardless if it was 20 kgs or 5 kgs. That minor mixup was more than compensated for by the Tiki protein shake bar where peanut butter berry shakes are served in bamboo cups and straws by the friendly, guitar strumming owner.
While I was working out I met an Aussie boat captain, Nick, that had just bought a plot of land on the island where he planned to build his home, a guesthouse, and a yoga studio where his wife could teach. He hoped to spread out economic opportunity to the locals by organizing group trips that would patronize different businesses, including those that struggled to bring in the larger groups. But what struck me most was his plan to buy a plastic grinding machine that could produce plastic “sand” to be mixed in with concrete. He would offer to pay the locals for large bags of plastic and coordinate with builders to provide his building material grade concrete which the bumpy roads could sorely use. Obviously the key is to reduce the use of plastic and packaging overall, but in the interim providing economic incentives to keep the island and surrounding waters clean was inspiring, especially after seeing garbage floating in the waters and on the beach in this fragile ecosystem paradise. It is difficult to make money, do good, and achieve visible results. On such a small island, he may pull off a hat trick.
That evening I lined up snorkeling the next day through the hostel and then headed to one of the beach restaurants with a large group of fellow travelers. Bean bags, Bintang (Indonesian Beer), and the beach at sunset made for a relaxing atmosphere to swap travel stories with new friends.
The next morning I awoke after a deep sleep that air conditioning had made possible and hurriedly threw some things into a go-bag, including my freediving mask. I can compromise on lots of things but having a low volume mask that fits your face and doesn’t fog makes all the difference in the world. The low volume part is really only important if you are free diving as the air in your mask compresses with depth requiring you to blow precious air from that one breath out of your lungs to reduce the pressure in your mask. If you don't the mask gives your face a hickey resulting in two black eyes. On the other hand, if you're scuba diving and have a tank of air to blow around to your heart's desire get whatever mask feels good and gives you the best field of vision.
The waters were clear and despite a strong current and few pesky jellyfish stings the snorkeling experience was delightful. There were lots of green turtles who seemed unphased by our presence. To avoid the swarm of others, I headed to some deeper water to find a turtle to freedive down to where the other snorkelers wouldn’t be able to join me.
On my bike ride back from the harbor I stopped by a house that had a few spearguns hanging up to dry outside and met Hani, who agreed to take me out the following morning. Dinner was at a small local restaurant with a large group of us from the hostel. The woman running the place left her stove unattended for too long while taking our orders and an oil fire started in the kitchen. We watched her run back to address the issue but when the smoke increased and we could see the light of three foot flames through the cracks of the bamboo wall several of us sprang into action. Luckily someone intercepted her as she ran toward the inferno with a large bottle of water as that would have almost certainly been the end of her little tinderbox of a restaurant. Another guy threw a towel over the blaze, smothering the flames and averting disaster. With a bit of adrenaline as an appetizer we all settled back in for our meals before having drinks at the beach around a bonfire.
This kitchen was one water bottle away from being a smoking crater.
As the sun rose, I was pedaling along the bumpy roads towards Hani’s boat to go spearfishing. After checking an offshore atoll for larger pelagic fish to no avail, we hopped out along a reef shelf to drift with the current. I cursed myself for each drink I had consumed the night before as my calf muscles cramped with dehydration and lack of oxygen. No point in being a hero out here, I’m not going to push it too deep today and risk a deep water cramp or an infamous shallow water blackout. I saw some large snapper, unicorn fish, and oriental sweet lip but they were in the open water where they knew to stay just out of range of my gun. Finally, I saw a sweet lip swim around the backside of a large coral head and I dropped down to the sandy bottom on the far side. As I peered under the reef I could see the fish’s silhouette directly facing me a bit out of range. My lungs started to ache as I waited motionlessly. Come just a little closer. He did. Now he was in range but looking directly at me providing too narrow of a target profile.
Just as I thought I was going to have to surface for air and try again he listed a bit showing me his broad side. I squeezed the trigger and without waiting to see if I had hit him I pushed to the surface. Ahhhh, you really appreciate air when you haven’t had it for a while. The tugging on the gun told me I had hit him but not fatally. I pulled up the spear, swiftly killed him, tied him to my float and went about resetting my gun. Untangling my spearline from my bands and float line proved to be a real challenge as the current and wind had begun to toss me about while whisking me down the coastline.
When I finally unfucked the rat’s nest and successfully reset my gun Hani and his boat were nowhere to be seen. Shit. The end of the island was a few hundred meters away and the current had picked up significantly. I thought back to the fliers that were posted up around the island reporting a woman missing that had last been seen a few days before as she headed out snorkeling. Oh yeah, now that I think of it I remember reading that almost every year some unlucky soul is claimed by the currents between these islands. Ok, no need to panic but time to make moves for shore. I didn’t see any channels before the end of the island where I could avoid the reef break and swim to safety. I’ll take some scrapes over missing my chance to make it back before the island ends. I swam diagonally with the current towards the reef break which I realized with dismay had become exposed as the tide went out.
From the beach the waves breaking on the rocky reef look small and insignificant but when you are swimming towards the shore those same little waves gleefully play cheesegrater with you across the reef. I watched the bottom get closer and closer moving only towards shore when the waves moved me along. The water going out meant that regardless how hard you kick you’re stuck in place until the next wave moves you far too quickly and uncontrolled into shallower water covering the razor sharp rocks below. Swearing under my breath but feeling relieved, I spooled my float line as blood trickled down my knees and onto the sand. After a decent walk along the beach I rounded the island to see Hani’s boat. Salvation. I shared my catch with some friends at the hostel, which a local restaurant cooked up for us and called it an early night.
I tried to get an early start the next morning since it was a travel day. I was heading to the western Bali town of Canggu, a surfer spot that is more built up than Uluwatu but offers plenty of yoga, surf, and nightlife for the backpacker crowd. After the fast boat back to Padangbai, I hopped on my moped to travel to the other coastline. Along the way I was pulled to the side at a police checkpoint where other westerners and a few locals were having their documents checked. Thankfully the guy I rented the scooter from in Kuta warned me that the sweet spot for police shakedowns was 100k rupiah, about 6 bucks. I parked my moped and walked past a ruffled couple that were losing an argument with several cops. My police officer took me to the side and pointed out some random aspect of my international drivers license that he claimed didn’t allow me to drive scooters. Under his breath he said 250k rupiah. I smiled politely and said “No, I’ll give you 100” and was sent on my way with a high five. Can’t make this shit up. He gave me a high five. I feel like in the history of Italian Mafia shakedowns there weren’t many high fives given to the victims. As I walked back past the visibly flustered couple, still fighting the good fight, I whispered to the guy, “Just give them 100k rupiah and you’re good.”
Sundays in Uluwatu center around a party at Single Fin, a bar with a panoramic cliff view of the impressive and punishing surf break below. I woke up with the sun around 6, had my oatmeal breakfast with dried jackfruit, and drove my moped from Bingin beach to grab a coffee at that evening’s designated party spot. It’s funny how watching the waves from far above while sipping coffee makes them seem so friendly and approachable. After the last crunchy sip of my Bali coffee, another name for unfiltered cowboy coffee, I rented a board and descended the cliff to the narrow cave like access point to the reef break. As I paddled out into the channel the raw power of the ocean current pulling me away from my path was a reminder of how deceiving the placid appearance from restaurant above had been. Huffing and puffing I arrived in the group of surfers scattered along the surf break to try my luck. These waves were unquestionably larger than those in Bingin and Kuta. After several failed attempts or bails to yield to surfers with the right of way I managed to drop in on a medium size wave and briefly ride along the face before ungracefully eating shit.
When a decent wave breaks on you it forces you down and then rolls along almost allowing you to reach the surface before forcing you down once more. If you haven’t taken a deep breath and mentally prepared for it, that second, unanticipated trip to the bottom can be disconcerting to say the least. Not to be overly dramatic but to be in the ocean is to be surrounded by potential death. On land if you get knocked out or tangled up you can still breathe, in the water if you can’t get your face to the sweet, life-giving air death is eagerly waiting in the wings.
I dislike being publically mediocre at stuff but that is the only way to improve at surfing since finding a decent wave to practice on without others around is nearly impossible. As I paddled back out another rookie surfer dropped in directly at me. I paddled as hard as I could towards the peak of the wave to avoid him and almost made it but instead of cutting along the left break he came uncontrolled directly down the face of the wave. In the last second I pulled my leg away just as his fins sliced into my board. I felt the impact as the wave gave me the washing machine treatment. Thankfully I was unscathed but my board had a significant gash it it. Holy shit, if that had been my leg I’d be heading to the hospital for sure. Enough for one day. I paddled in and barely made it back to the cave as the current threatened to pull me past the narrow opening to the far side of the channel where waves were crashing against a sharp rock wall. My shoulders were screaming with the lactic acid as I dismounted my board in the shallow protected cove. I can see why sailors in the old days used to kiss land when they made it safely ashore. I bit off more than I could chew that time.
I brought the board back with a shamed, apologetic expression on my face like a dog that tore up the garbage can in its owner’s absence. The friendly old man running the board rental directed me to the ding repair shop next door to right the wrong. The guy that hit me split the cost of the repair and I accepted the old man’s peace offering of gross, dry, chew tobacco as we waited for the board to get fixed.
That evening I had dinner and a few beers at the Single Fin with other travelers from the UK, US, and Australia that I struck up conversation with. It was mesmerizing to watch the local surfers rip down the waves reflecting the setting sun from the safety of our bar stools.
I set an alarm for 5am to get on the road at sunset in hopes of beating the insane crowds on the main roads for my moped journey up to the the central Bali town of Ubud. I upgraded my navigation game with a gopro mount and iphone clamp next to my speedometer so that I could view my route with google maps as I drove. Without a coastline, Ubud makes its mark by being a cultural center defined by chilled out vibes, temples, and traditional architecture.
The Yoga Barn is the creme de la creme of Yoga studios, nestled in sprawling tropical gardens with two floors of open air thatched hut mansion to soak up while practicing alongside other travelers seeking enlightenment. So as soon as I got settled into my lodging, a homestay style compound with six bungalow set back from the main drag, I ventured over to line up a vinyasa flow yoga session. It didn’t start for a few hours so I walked through the monkey forest, a mandatory tourist trap filled with primates monkeying around for the amused masses before having an afternoon coffee while partially submerged at Folk Pool and Gardens.
The next day I rode along the back roads out of Ubud up to the water temple of Pura Tirta Empul, where Balinese Hindus go for ritual purification. The place has a Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom feel to it minus the doom. All of the old stone architecture has moss growing on it and incense wafts continuously from countless small offerings laid upon plates woven out of palms. The locals are very welcoming and happy to share their religious customs with you. As you enter the holy areas visitors are given two sarongs, one to wear dry while walking the temples and a second one to don while taking part in the water purification rituals. I’m not a religious person but I couldn’t help but get swept up in the effortless spirituality of the place.
On the drive back down from the temple I noticed a large group of people congregating under an open air pavilion next to the road and pulled over to investigate. The cultural juxtaposition couldn’t have been much starker. Still on a spiritual high, I had just waltzed into a cockfighting event with other gambling opportunities scattered about. Now I’m no proponent of animal cruelty but I do advocate taking part in cultural experiences of all sorts, even if they involve chickens with three inch razor blades tied to their legs. This didn’t seem to be a spot for foreigners since I was the only white person there, so English wasn’t going to get me too far. I tried to put 50,000 rupiah on the cock closest to me by waving money around like everyone else and shouting incomprehensibly into the cacophony. I saw a guy collecting money and we both spoke our own languages and gesticulated until it became clear that he wanted to bet on the same bird. Having no idea how to size up a winner I agreed to take the other rooster and I handed him 50k. The birds fluttered around, striking at each other and the crowd moved fluidly to create a circle around them as they fought as might happen with a street fight. When both birds were taken apart it was unclear to me which one had won, until the guy I bet with squeezed my arm and pressed 100,000 rupiah note into my hand. I nodded my thanks and plopped down at one of the food vendor stalls to enjoy my winnings.
Video Compilation: Southeast Asia (part 1)
Please subscribe to the Restless Ben YouTube channel!
After a 14 hour flight from Dulles to Incheon, South Korea and a six hour hop down to Bali I had put the rough part behind me. It was midnight when I walked to the Korean Air counter to declare my delayed baggage. They scheduled my backpack to be dropped off at lodging that I haphazardly set up using their desk phone and with almost mafioso flare handed me an unmarked envelope with 600,000 Indonesian Rupiah for my inconvenience. Don’t get too excited, it’s about 50 bucks but that goes a good little ways here.
I opted for the budget room option at a budget spot in Kuta beach near the airport. Fan cooled instead of AC and cold water shower. It ran me about 8 bucks. Who wants a hot shower in a tropical climate anyways? Kuta beach is a bit too touristy and crowded for my taste but I didn’t want to stray too far from the airport until I got my backpack. The next day I did a bit of surfing and got my ass absolutely handed to me by a local playing chess in a shaded part of the beach. That evening I walked around the Kuta beach area to take in the sights and get some local street food. I don’t want to be the one to tell them but somebody should let this place know that the massage parlour market might be saturated. You can’t go ten feet without being catcalled by a zombie apocalypse hoard of masseuses. The next morning I was reunited with my backpack and ready to make moves. I rented a moped with a surf rack and high tailed it south out of Kuta for the backpacker and surfer haven of Uluwatu.
Bali street food is on point
Watching the surf from my perch in Bingin beach
Driving a moped in urban areas is an absolutely hair raising endeavor. Not only do they drive on the other side of the road but the entire experience is like Luke Skywalker shooting the death star gap. In order to not die you have to join the locust swarm zipping in and out of slower moving vehicles in a torrent of other mopeds. After a considerable amount of cursing I made it out of the city limits where the roads mercifully shrunk down to two lanes and actually became enjoyable to cruise on.
With no reservations, I pulled up to the spot google maps decided was Bingin beach and asked around for budget accomodations. I settled on a non-descript guesthouse that was directly on the beach nestled into the terraced hillside about 40 feet above the high tide mark. It required me to park my moped at the top of the cliff and descend a long, steep concrete staircase in utter disrepair. Dripping with sweat and wondering what I could jettison from my backpack to make it less arduous to haul around, I negotiated down the price of my little thatched hut room to a tolerable 15 bucks a night. The view from my balcony was unbeatable but if another Tsunami came rolling through I decided I didn’t like my chances. Oh well, YODO!
I grabbed my little gobag and headed back up through the shaded rainforest staircase to my scooter for some exploring. After getting the lay of the land I had some local balinese food for dinner and then splurged on a tiny dessert at one of the posh cafes geared towards westerners to poach some wifi. Uluwatu is an international melting pot with something for everyone, especially if you are a surfer.
One of the many surfing coves around Uluwatu
Getting back into it
Every good gobag has a headlamp and I definitely needed it on the way back down through the dark to my little lodging perch. To my dismay high tide had totally covered the beach which I had used to walk to my guesthouse and water was lapping against the stone terraced wall rising steeply up the hillside. I opted to hop through two private businesses’ balconies until I reached solid ground again. When I climbed under my mosquito net and into bed I made sure to bring my headlamp to do a sweep for any stow away bloodsuckers. There is a certain futility to this task. I managed to kill two but spotting them all is impossible. The lucky ones that evaded me now had exclusive access to my completely exposed body all night. If they just took a bit of blood and called it good I really wouldn’t take much issue with it. However, I react horribly to mozzie bites with big itchy welts and they seem to be a finicky bunch when it comes to sticking you. Like an inexperienced nurse trying in vain to start an I.V., the same asshole mosquito will stick me over and over in search of the perfect spot.
Mosquito net battleground
The next few days were used to recalibrate my expectations for the “new normal.” I would always be a bit sticky, mosquito bites are inevitable, my dirty clothes will accumulate rapidly in heaps around my room, organization of my possessions requires totally emptying my backpack, and most concerningly, at the end of the day I’m here on my own. I’ve been bullshitting with people while sitting on my board waiting for waves and in passing but I was definitely going to miss my core friend group back home. As if the universe heard me, the same day two separate friends reached out about linking up in Bali in the coming week. Haha, suck it loneliness! I’ve accepted that this adventure is going to be a mix of linking together visits with people I know, striking off into the unknown to meet new people, and from time to time experiencing life solo. I think I can handle that.
My daily routine in Uluwatu has been somewhat structured of my own design. I wake up with the sun and make my morning oatmeal with local fruit, nuts, and honey just like back home before catching the morning surf. As the sun begins to reach its peak I seek shade in the local gym which charges a buck for walk-ins. In the afternoon I go seek out new beaches or a chill cafe to do some reading. In the evenings I get a massage and am in bed by nine. So far, so good.
Dried jackfruit in my oatmeal served with my seat to summit collapsible camping cup and sporknife
Compilation Video - Southeast Asia (Part 1)
Please Subscribe to my YouTube Channel
I was up before the sun and my alarm on Sunday. The excitement and nervousness about beginning my solo world travels hadn’t kept me from getting a good night’s sleep but when you wake up to go on an adventure there is zero grogginess. The old floorboards groaned under my bare feet as I strode through the dark hallway toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Pour over coffee and oatmeal served in tin camping cups fortified us for the drive to BWI airport.
My goodbyes had already been said to friends on Friday during a party for Luke’s closing on the house. The shindig provided a natural conclusion to several weeks of work on the place. The termites were gone, a French drain had been installed, the mold inspection had passed, the loan had been approved, the kitchen and bathrooms were updated, the German cockroaches had headed for the hinterlands, and Luke had already acquired his first renter. It was time for me to hit the old dusty trail.
If you’re not going on an adventure morning grogginess still applies
Celebrating Luke’s first home
Work hard, play hard
I’m not big on goodbyes. I know who my friends, family, and loved ones are. Give me a big hug and keep in touch. No grand gestures necessary. Easy. Knowing this about me, my brother hoisted my backpack out of the car at the curbside departures terminal, gave me a burly bro hug and said, “Hit me up from Bali. Safe travels.” Perfect. My kind of goodbye. Let’s do this.
I strolled into the airport ready to get my marathon of flights to the other side of the globe underway. But of course, as I stood in line to drop off my bag my phone buzzed to let me know my flight had been canceled. The best option was to catch the exact same flights out the following day. No worries, I thought, it’s not like this is a week long vacation that just became shorter because of a 24 hour push to the right. I’m on my own time now.
The unexpected delay was almost a relief. I had braced myself to strike off alone into the unknown and an hour later I was back on the couch next to Luke and my buddy Joe laughing and bullshitting. May as well enjoy it. The bonus day was spent reconstructing a frankenstein box spring we had splintered trying to get through a doorway and bouldering at the climbing gym. Dinner was at Timber pizza, a Petworth mainstay and paragon of hipster foodie culture. I snuck in a few mini bottles of red wine to accompany the meal. After all, I’m an unemployed drifter now so it seemed fitting.
Going over the top
Monday morning was a carbon copy of Sunday morning. Shower, oatmeal, burly bro hug, BWI, even the same departure time. As I was checking my bag, the gate attendant informed me that she couldn’t issue my ticket unless I had a flight out of Indonesia. I had only purchased a one way flight to Bali since I planned on figuring out my next move while I was there. “So all you need from me is a flight confirmation out of Bali inside of the 30 day tourist visa window?”, I asked. “Yes, sir. Without that I can’t issue your ticket”, she responded robotically. “Alright, give me two minutes.” There was still time before my flight but this was no time for overthinking it. I didn’t even walk away from the check-in counter. A few clicks later I had booked my one way flight to Myanmar at the end of the month and showed her the flight confirmation. As promised, she issued my tickets without further hesitation.
I checked my bag, cruised through security, and plopped down at the gate wondering if Myanmar had been the right choice. I had done no research into visas or the seasons, I didn’t have any travel companions, and I had no idea what I wanted to see or do there. Oh well, we’re gonna wing it. Then, right on cue, the announcement came over the PA system that my flight had been delayed an hour. That shouldn’t be an issue, I thought. Better check my connection just to be safe though. Shittttt. I was going to miss my connection out of Detroit. Nope. Hell no. Not again. I wasn’t going to be the little boy that cried traveling the world. I wasn’t going to take another bonus day.
The only option I had was to catch a direct flight to South Korea out of Dulles departing in less than two hours. I jumped in a cab from BWI to Dulles that took an hour and cost a cool $168 with tip but I made the flight. Fortunately, the hour cab ride gave me a chance to file a reimbursement claim. Here’s to hoping Delta coughs up some dough and a few extra miles to smooth things over. Especially since I’m definitely not going to see my backpack for a bit considering it was already checked at BWI.
Time to settle in for some airplane food and horrible movies. I’m glad I got to expend some energy yesterday before being stuck in a series of metal boxes hurtling through the atmosphere for up to 14 hour stints. Especially in coach. I hope those bastards in first class, with their little laydown pods and shit-eating grins, get headaches from the champagne and have sub-par dreams. As for me, I will have no dreams because I will have no sleep unlike the 125 year old Korean woman who is currently using my shoulder as a daybed. Next stop, Bali!
In order to avoid the anxiety, nagging doubt, and boredom that I figured would creep in if I didn’t have a plan immediately after quitting, I booked my 25 hour flight from DC to Bali for the Monday after my last day. May as well get this party started. Next stop, endless adventure. Then life threw in a little curveball. My brother Luke bought his first home in the Petworth neighborhood of DC and asked that I stick around for a few weeks to help him renovate it. His plan involves moving into the basement unit with his girlfriend and renting the three upstairs bedrooms to other young professionals to defray the cost of an oppressive DC mortgage.
The place is a sprawling 2000 square foot home that, despite all of its turn of the century charm, needed some serious work. As an unemployed gentleman I didn’t really have any excuses and besides, what kind of brother would I be if I bailed when he could use the help. So Luke agreed to pay the change of flight fee and provide room and board in exchange for some old fashioned indentured servitude. I accepted. So now with a new departure date of December 2nd, I was free to focus on helping Luke convert his traphouse to a steezy party mansion fit for young, rent-paying millennials to live out their hipster dreams.
The next two weeks were a blur of home depot runs, pest control folks, dumpster coordination, furniture procurement and working with contractors on renovations. My lower back is killing me. Carrying furniture into and out of no less than five separate residences is the likely culprit. Right out of the gate a mold inspection threatened to derail Luke’s loan being approved. Fortunately, some bleach, drywall/stud replacement, and rental air scrubbers resulted in an “all clear” verdict. Then we battled with termites who had whittled the basement studs into a fine powder, German cockroaches who, much to our chagrin, do not drink beer or wear lederhosen, and some rather bold mice who were more akin to passive aggressive roommates than mammals at the bottom of the food chain. Pest control blitzkrieg and a band of home depot parking lot painters gave the place a more presentable appearance upstairs while the contractors gutted the basement.
With just a little over a week until I head to Bali (for realsies this time) Luke’s vision for his home was beginning to take shape. Then yesterday, as I peered out the window to see his car roll up to the curb on a return trip from the store, 10 police officers materialized out of thin air to surround his vehicle. I came out grinning and exclaimed to the whole group, “Luke, what did you do? Must have been pretty legit to get this sort of turn out!” As fate would have it, the last tenant in Luke’s new place appears to be involved in an ongoing investigation that warranted a stake out. The cops probably got tired of sitting in unmarked cars, watching us do non-nefarious things like drink pour-over coffee on the stoop and decided it was time to end their stake out. We promised to reach out to DC’s finest with any new information should new things come to light and decided our two fishing spearguns would have to suffice in the unlikely event of a home invasion. Never a dull moment.
My last day of work came and went so smoothly it was almost a bit surprising. The office gathered and some words were said by my leadership that were equal parts good-natured roast about my plans to be a drifter and genuine farewell. For my part, I attended the event in workout clothes with my long hair down as a “zero-fucks-given” tip of the hat to my still employed colleagues that would be well advised to adhere more closely to “business casual” dress code. You don’t quit often so may as well have fun with it. I used the opportunity to poke fun at the organization as well as dole out some heartfelt thanks to the folks I had spent so much time with over the past 7 years. After a few hugs and handshakes I was spirited away to sign some non-disclosure agreements, my badge was taken, and I walked out the front doors as if I were leaving any other day of work. But it wasn’t any other day. It was my last. My brain knew it, but strangely I didn’t really feel anything. How could that be, after all those years I spent in school, applying for jobs and then advancing in my career to pursue western society's definition of success? I’m not sure. But quitting happened so quickly and seamlessly I didn’t even have a chance to think twice about it. Which is probably for the best. Don’t stand on the edge of the bridge and carefully weigh the relative merits of bungee jumping. You already know you want the experience and you know it's "safe-ish" so no more thinking, just doing.
That weekend I decided to to take a trip to Shenandoah National Park with some friends to do an overnight hike. Not only was this a good time to catch the fall colors and cooler hiking temps but also a chance for me to do a gear “shakeout” for my trip. I plan on staying primarily in hostels as I travel but having the necessary equipment to post up anywhere in any weather is key to really winging it. So I brought a camping hammock, inflatable sleeping pad, lightweight sleeping bag and a bivy sack. Even if it rains I should be toasty, dry and off the ground where all the Southeast Asian creepy crawlers may be looking for a snuggle buddy. The additional benefit of the bivy sack is that once your sleeping pad and bag are inside, it all stays together as one unit and doesn't become a yardsale every time you shift around. It set up quickly, the sleeping pad insulated the bottom of the hammock, the bivy cut the wind, and it all fits compactly in the bottom of my pack so that’s my home away from home when I’m not crashing in a hostel. Now the hard part is waiting for my flight to Bali in a few weeks. I'm so ready to get this show on the road!
Quitting your job is exhilarating. Not just because financial ruin is scary, although that almost certainly plays a role, but because not knowing the next time you have to go back to work is like having endless snow days. That excitement you had as a kid with your pjs on inside-out for good luck while waiting on a favorable verdict on your school closure, it’s still out there. It’s called quitting your job.
I have dreamed about quitting my job and traveling the world since I started my career. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy my job but rather that work simply gets in the way of a long, unplanned adventure. When you travel for weeks, it’s a “vacation.” To really go “traveling” the time should be measured in months if not years. The tricky part is finding the window where you have money, youth, and the freedom to cut and run. And then actually doing it.
The folks I’ve met at hostels in far flung corners of the globe are often traveling for an undetermined period of time. They don’t have a set course or end date. There isn’t a plan to deviate from, just endless possibilities and opportunities that they don’t even know exist yet. The hostel common area conversation inevitably turns to how long someone is traveling and where they’re going next. Until now, I’ve had to sullenly admit I’m backpacking for only a few weeks, at best. In short, vacationing with a backpack. Even when I was backpacking through Syria in 2009, it was with defeat in my voice that I admitted to a group of dusty travelers at a mountain monastery, that I was only “traveling” for another ten days. I was vacationing. It was off the beaten path but it was just too short. I wanted to go traveling, for real.
So while staring longingly out the window at a sunny day from my office I decided it was time to pull the trigger. It happened so quickly I was caught off-guard. It was almost as if someone else had just made the decision for me. Although I had been saving money, I hadn’t planned to quit and travel the world. There wasn’t a certain number I had to reach to fulfill my carefully crafted budget. There was no itinerary. There wasn’t even a first country to start the trip… But there was no mistaking it. It was time. I was going to wing it.
Cooler heads prevailed and I decided to sleep on it. The next morning, nothing had changed. I asked the boss if I could have a minute to discuss something. The conviction I felt as I sat down across from him gave me a rush of adrenaline because I knew there was no going back. You can’t quit to the boss’s face and then say, “PSYCH!” Nope. I was actually going to go through with it. I expressed gratitude for all of the career related opportunities that had been afforded to me during the last 7 years but made clear that I was leaving to travel the world. This wasn’t a negotiating tactic to ask for a higher salary or more vacation days. This was no bluff and we both knew it. He accepted my verbal resignation with a smile and a handshake. “That’s going to be one hell of an adventure. I wish I would have done that as a younger man”, he said. And that was that.
The next two weeks was simply taking care of administrative housekeeping at work to make sure that I left as gracefully as possible. After all, I wasn’t going to have enough money to travel forever so when the money eventually runs out it’d be nice to have a place to come back to where I still have some connections.
Tying up loose ends involved renting out my house and selling my car. I was able to get two renters for a year lease which covered my mortgage but took a hit on the car sale. I bought it with every intention of sticking around for a few years so selling it three months after buying it meant losing a few grand. It sucked but that is the cost of spontaneously quitting your job and leaving the country inside of three weeks. Now I just needed to pick a spot on the globe and buy a one way ticket. I decided to make the first stop, Bali Indonesia and bought my flight leaving a week later. That's the extent of planning I did. I'll figure the rest out as I go.