Janus in Singapore: Bali, Bali, Bali!

March 14, 2017

For most exchange students coming to Singapore, Bali is usually the second destination for a weekend away after Kuala Lampur. It’s one of Indonesia’s many islands, known for its gorgeous and varied landscapes that include beaches, forested mountains and volcanoes, and rice fields. Home to most of Indonesia’s Hindu population, Bali is also famous for its many temples and places of reflection, and is a popular destination for yoga enthusiasts and meditative retreats.

Enjoying a quick snack!

In truth, it was a bit of a surprise to hear that Bali was such a popular place for exchange students. I took a class back at Richmond centered on Balinese and Javanese music, and our professor, who spent a not-so-insigificant amount of time in those islands, told us that much of the area was calm and traditional. A few older friends of mine spent honeymoons on the islands, too, and told me they thought of Bali as more a romantic place than a tourist-y destination. Nevertheless, I went with an open mind – my flatmates had gone through the effort to organize the trip, from booking a villa for several days, a driver, and our tickets to and fro, and all seemed to be quite excited – if they went through that much effort, it must be worth, it right?

Main building of our villa

I was blown away by the quality of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport. When I think of Indonesia, I think of a country very similar in terms of economic development to the Philippines, and I had grown accustomed to dirty, slow, and disorganized airports. When we landed in Ngurah Rai, however, it felt like I was landing in Shanghai or San Francisco or Dubai. The area was spotlessly clean, with high ceilings and an excess of windows giving the building a sense of grandeur. It was busy, suffocating crowded in the ways that Beijing’s Capital Airport or Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport were.

Enjoying a giant coconut

Outside the airport, however, we were faced with the usual tourist conundrums. Our villa was about a forty minutes drive away from the airport given the mid-day traffic, so we wanted to book an uber or grabcab to make sure that we had a driver who knew how to go somewhere fairly far away, and a driver who wouldn’t trick and scam us. We didn’t do our research thoroughly enough, though; in many tourist-y destinations (like an airport) grabcabs and ubers are not allowed to enter to give local taksi drivers an advantage. Instead of a $8-10 uber ride, we ended up paying around $25 because the taksi drivers knew we didn’t really have leverage. It was early in the morning, we were tired and in a new country – they could just ask just about any price to take us to a villa 40 minutes away, and they knew we would pay it.

The pool offered a relaxing end to each day

The villa itself was probably the highlight of our stay in Bali. 8 of us shared the 4 bungalows with king sized beds. There was a sizeable pool in the middle of villa, along with a gorgeous kitchen and patio area where we spent most of our nights relaxing and swapping stories about home. Besides two of my flat mates, the rest of the people I travelled were exchange students at SMU who I knew through friends of friends, so it was interesting to hear about their experiences at university. The gap year in college is much more common than I imagined – some of them spent time in Canada or Central Africa all on their own with no real plan besides “experiencing the world.” To be honest, the idea appeals to the romantic inside of me. A year without any real responsibilities besides just getting to know yourself and another part of the world better? Sign me up. But there’s also the part of me that’s already accustomed to the way life works in the U.S. I wouldn’t be able to totally enjoy the experience because I know I’d be constantly thinking about what comes after.

A view at Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach, which was only a few minutes’ walk from us, was unfortunately quite a disappointment. Although we caught an absolutely gorgeous sunset, the beach was quite dirty, with litter scattered virtually all over the dirt-colored sand. The water was foamy and even at shallow depths, you couldn’t see the sand because of how dirty it was. It was quiet a shame – the waves were large and powerful, and a few free spirits spent all day surfing. It would have been an absolute joy to swim around and play that game where you see how long you can stand upright before getting knocked down by the waves, but I would need to take a day long shower before I could clean the muck off of me if I did that.

Jack in NZ: Awaroa

September 15, 2016

“I feel that I am pressing my face into the hot sand of a tropical beach. I feel lucky to be alive. I am lucky to be alive! Or is it that I am alive to be lucky?” – Terence McKenna

I’m sitting on a beach in Abel Tasman National Park watching the tide go out. My back rests against an oversized piece of driftwood. There is a solitary sand fly crawling across the left lens of my Ray Bans toward the bridge of my nose. I adjust my sunglasses slightly and the bugger retreats to my hand, preparing to dig in. I squish him a little bit and he gets the message: ‘shoo fly, don’t bother me’.

A man hauling a trailer drives by on an ATV and parks on the edge of the promontory. We exchange friendly nods. He unloads boxes of gear and departs, disappearing behind the curves of the inlet. He returns by boat with several others. They load the gear and head for the Cook Straight, riding the remaining bits of river into the sea.

The tide has been slowly receding all morning, revealing patches of muddy sand and collections of thousands of cockle shells polished green and blue and purple. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and wade across a trickling stream to an exposed sandbar where a flock of ducks soaks up the sun and enjoys a seafood feast. The ducks aren’t a fan of me, it seems. I get about 50 feet from a pair before they make a waddling retreat to the opposite shore.


I adjourn to the log, digging my swollen feet into the shoals along the way, letting the clam remains scratch and massage their flea-bitten, calloused skin. The water is refreshingly cold.

I walk to a small side trail flanked by large patches of gorse. The bushes are beginning to flower. Fuzzy green pods are emerging from the plants spikey stalks. Small yellow flowers like miniature orchids pornographically beckon bees that buzz past. The nectar-seekers bumble along, their striped backs alternating between orange and black.

I hear a whooping from one of the bushes that belongs to a California quail. The bird is dusky blue and has a single teardrop feather emerging from its head. He’s an order of magnitude friendlier than the ducks, tolerating five feet of separation before flitting over the trail with his buddies and a chorus of whoops.


I trek back along the trail. It’s interpolated with quail and boot prints. I sit on the log and drink lukewarm green tea out of a Nalgene bottle and watch a petrel float past the Jurassic landscape. The riparian mountains are every shade of green, dotted with palm-sized ferns. I can faintly hear the calls of tuis and the pips of small birds over the trickling of the tide.

It occurs to me that I haven’t experienced solitude like this in a long time. The weeks leading up to mid-semester break were hectic and crammed, with no time to visit the Great Outdoors and relax. Here there is no rush. I feel like I can finally think clearly, so I do. I sit and sip and think and write.


The tide has gone all the way out, it’s time to continue the trek. I walk back to camp and trade smiles with a group of trampers relaxing on the beach. I reach the hut and one of our group members says, “Wow dude, where were you? You were gone for almost four hours”

Another says, “You look really happy right now, man.”

“I am,” I say.



Naomi at Akita: Don’t Stop Believin’

September 12, 2016

So, you wouldn’t believe this BUT we ended up missing the train again. No worries though because we ended up finding ANOTHER festival – Akita Music Festival. It was around 9am so there weren’t too many people. Everyone tried cow tongue and matcha (green tea) flavored soft cream. I’m not sure what I was expecting but cow tongue tastes very salty and gamy. The mascots we took a picture with are from TV stations, I think. After the festival, we also found a huge garden filled with lotus flowers. Our friend Okkasan (Okaasan is mom in Japanese so you can imagine how much we enjoy yelling his name) told us that we could eat the seeds. They tasted like almonds – 美味しいかった !


Finally made the train to go to Shimohama! It cost only ¥500 by train to get there. We practically had the beach to ourselves, besides the guys wearing the pink speedos. We swam, played soccer, wrestled, swam, swam, got stung by jellyfish, wrestled, swam, soccer, swam, got stung by jellyfish, swam…mid-afternoon we ended up finding the Orange House that served かき氷 (flavored shaved ice) and drinks. The Ojiisan working there let us sing karaoke so everyone sang Bohemian Rhapsody, Party in the USA, Sorry, Just The Way You Are, and several other hits. After spending 7 hours at the beach and seeing the sunset, we head back to Akita Station and ate some udon and tempura. Udon, thick wheat flour noodles, is usually served hot but we were all exhausted and hot from the sun so cold udon was the way to go. By the way, none of us brought sunscreen…almost a week has past and our skin is still peeling.


By the way, at the beach, Patrick and I wanted to swim out as far as we could, which was a horrible idea because I ended up getting hit by a banana boat. The bruise has gradually gotten worse throughout the week and most people say I look like I’m wearing eye shadow HAHA I’m proud of this bruise. I feel like that and my painful sore arms are an accomplishment for my swimming distance.


Friday night and no one planned anything! At the last second, the 10 of us decided to go to a karaoke place. Unfortunately, we had to wait at the station for 40 minutes till the next train to Akita so, naturally, we decided to take a group picture and this is what happened. When we finally arrived at Akita, we found out we couldn’t karaoke because people under 20 years old need to have a parent with them after 11pm. Since our plan was to stay out all night, we ended up hanging around the city. We listened to 80s music throughout the night, singing and dancing our sleep away – we basically sang karaoke. Four of our friends left earlier though and missed the beautiful sunrise. I’m not lying when I say we stared at the sunrise for about an hour. It was unbelievable – crows flying above us, roads filling with passing cars, people heading to work.

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After the sunrise, we took the train from Akita to Wada. The bus back to school picks us up from Wada station, except we decided to walk back to school since the bus wasn’t coming for another two hours. All we passed were rice fields and trees – everything green.

Colleen in Singapore: Coasting Around Cambodia

September 17, 2015

Nicole and I are currently on a bus ride to Phnom Phen for our departing flight back to Singapore. In the past four days, we have been on two planes, one overnight bus, two regular buses, two ferry rides, and several tuk tuks. The title of this post is deceiving.




Friday, we flew into the Siem Reap and took a tuk tuk directly to Angkor Wat to see the temples. Our tuk tuk driver ended up taking us around the temples, which was great because we didn’t have enough time to walk around the whole area (and because we were so hot and sweaty, it looked like we had just gotten out of the shower). However, we did get out for about an hour and a half to walk around Angkor Wat, which is the main temple that most people know of.




The travelers we met later that night gave us a tough time for only spending a few hours at the temples, claiming it was “such an American thing to do”. But for me, a few hours was perfect and definitely enough.




Upon entering the temple grounds, a man came up to us asking if we would like a guided tour. We said sure, wanting to get the most out of the experience by knowing the history behind the temple. I think the only English this man spoke was “bad man,” “king,” and “yes.” He loved to say yes. After every incomprehensible sentence, he would finish with “yes, yes.” I was so deranged from the heat I just smiled, nodded, and continued to snap some pictures while taking in the temple’s wonder with a sense of awe and amazement.






After touring Angkor Wat, Nicole and I headed to our night bus, which took us to the beach town of Sihounkville. Upon arrival in Sihounkville we took a ferry to the island of Koh Rong, where we stayed in a bungalow right on the white sand beach.




Roh Kong is a backpacker’s heaven. A row of cheap yet charming bars, restaurants, dorms and mini villas hug the coast. Locals enjoy games of beach volleyball as their children test the patience of the island dogs. There were dogs everywhere, but they didn’t bother anyone, not even for food.




If you’ve ever heard of someone saying, “I’m going to quit my job and become a bartender on some island in Southeast Asia,” I imagine they would end up in some place like Koh Rong.



Colleen in Singapore: Traveling to Tioman

September 2, 2015

First trip of the semester was a success! My roommates and I went a quick, two-day trip to Tioman, a small island located off the east coast of Malaysia.

To get to Tioman, we took a three hour bus ride to the coast of Malaysia, followed by a two hour ferry ride to the island.

To get to Tioman, we took a three hour bus ride to the coast of Malaysia, followed by a two hour ferry ride to the island.



The ferry ride was a little rough (the person that was sitting in front of Monica and me got sick, and let’s just say things got a little messy). However, we were rewarded with sunny skies and blissful beaches upon arrival.






Tioman is a popular scuba diving spot thanks to the numerous coral reefs that surround the island.


McKenna, Lauren, Monica, and I went snorkeling one afternoon, spotting numerous fish, sea urchins, squid, and a dozen other sea creatures.


Celebrating McKenna's birthday beach-bum style

Celebrating McKenna’s birthday beach-bum style



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