Monday, April 28, 2008

Creaks and groans

Getting my body into shape was never going to be easy but it sure is turning into a nightmare.
Having decided to actually make the big effort to get this lump of lard trip ready I have devised an exercise plan. Since there is still over 3 months to go I have been easing myself in to it all, doing regular long walks, yoga and cycling, and listening to my body when it is tired. But it's driving me bananas! My body feels like that of an eighty year old - aches and pains and stiffness, hobbling around like I've done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson.
The back is probably the area giving me most trouble, with pain and stiffness extending down into my buttocks and hip girdle. Sometimes I'll be halfway through one lot of yoga exercises to discover that my back has stiffened yet again so I'll have to redo the series of stretches and mobilisations I use to loosen things up. Damn frustrating.
Of course I know what the problem is - my stomach muscles are pathetic, as are the rest of the muscles responsible for strengthening my lower back, the result of a few slipped discs thanks to downhauling sails on stiff masts.
Only one option available to me, since I'm stuck with what I've got. It's time to declare war! No more being nice. Yes rests are important, but no more rest days. Those back muscles must be brought up to speed, so they are now on daily bootcamp.
Don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying the walking etc and pushing myself to go further and faster, despite the nasty blister campaign that my heels are subjecting me to. But if I didn't have a goal, I'd be struggling to keep up the intensity. It just ain't nice hobbling round like an old lady.
Thank goodness for those regular massages.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Why Sumatra?

A few years ago my New York friend Naomi introduced me to the delights of diving in Indonesia. On my first trip - to Raja Empat, yes I started at the top - we watched a fascinating video about a group of young men who followed in the footsteps of an explorer who had travelled Indonesia in the mid 1800s. The video was from the 1970s, and the conditions those young men endured were pretty primitive indeed. It appeared little had changed in the intervening 120 years.

The explorer was a British naturalist called Alfred Russell Wallace, who had travelled throughout the region for 8 years, travelling by boat and land from Singapore right through to Papua. By his own account he travelled 14,000 miles making 60-70 separate journeys. He observed both the people and the flora and fauna, describing both the massive biodiversity and the distinct differences between the islands in relation to the spread and distribution of certain mammals, birds and insects. He concluded that certain parts of Indonesia had been connected to Asia, and others to Australia, that some islands had been cutoff for longer than others, such that animals had evolved differently, and explained why some were only found on certain islands but not on others.

So what? you say, what's new? Well this was the mid 1800s, when a certain English naturalist called Charles Darwin had not yet published his great book "The Origin of Species". Some believe that Darwin may have borrowed some of Wallace's insights to inform his own research, as the two were indeed in correspondence with each other. I imagine the two sitting around at the Royal Geographical Society chewing the cud and discussing their findings over dinner and a glass of port, tossing theories around like two great colleagues of science. Wallace dedicates his book "The Malay Archipelago" to Darwin "not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his Genius and his Works". I do hope Darwin returned the favour!!

I'd never heard of Wallace, which I think is a real shame as I really do believe he deserves equal billing with Darwin. Naomi gave me his book to read, which is a rather dry scientific tome taking some perseverence to conquer. He was quite a man. Off he went into the jungles, with a smattering of knowledge of the local Malay language, employed local people to collect specimens, and wrote some pretty derogatory comments about quite alot of them. He did, of course, kill alot of animals, from orangutans through to birds of paradise, thousands of bugs and butterflies etc etc. My modern sensibilities railed at his innate racism and killing sprees, but over the course of the book you get to follow a journey with this fascinating man, where he questions the west's take on society and wonders whether the life of the simple Malay or Papuan villager is in fact the more sensible one. Next time I visit England, I intend to search out his collections which he donated to the British Museum.

Wallace only went to Eastern Sumatra, in the region of Palembang, where he saw many beautiful butterflies and Hornbill birds as well as rhinoceros and flying lemur. He missed seeing orangutan, because he didn't travel to the northwest "a part of the island entirely in the hands of native rulers". He got his fair share of them in Borneo though!!

What inspires me most about Wallace is his curiosity and eventual compassion, both for the natural surroundings and for the cultures he encountered. Not only did he document the flora and fauna, but he also documented words in 59 different languages throughout the archipelago, with the acute understanding that with increased trade with the west, language and culture would be lost. A man ahead of his time, I salute you Mr Wallace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Then there's blisters

I have narrow ankles. All new shoes rub. Then there's the issue of the left foot being smaller than the right, just enough to make the left be a bit more slip slidey than desirable.

I tried an extra sock on the left foot, to no avail. First big walk I had a small blister on left heel. Second walk I had a huge blister on left heel, time for drainage. Next walk, small blister right heel. Huge 5 hour walk yesterday, great big juicy mother the size of a golfball. So now I'm into stage 2, awaiting callous formation, happens everytime, why would I think I'd be spared this time?

Calf cramp. Definitely more painful than blisters (as long as I have good old Fixomul at my disposal) and a not so gentle reminder to STRETCH after a morning of walking. Massage booked for Friday - can't wait!

Hazel, by the way, is loving all this walking, though yesterday's 17km walk knocked her around a bit. She got home, drank a huge amount of water, dragged herself upstairs then plopped down on the floor with an almighty belch, and promptly fell asleep. It's a dog's life!!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

These boots are made for walking

Have just returned from a short trip to Perth and am now the proud owner of a pair of authentic walking boots. And a few other things thanks to Ikea!!

Also had fun buying clothes. Not only has technology developed in leaps and bounds, but the stuff actually looks quite nice as well. I have one t-shirt, made out of superfine merino, 2 long sleeve shirts made out of new age material that keeps you dry and cool and one of them even looks smart enough to be dressy. And one fleece, which will come in handy on aircon buses as well as on top of volcanoes at dawn. A friend gave me a pair of zip off trousers, so aside from one more pair of trousers, I'm set.

The boots are magnificent, having never owned real walking boots before I am in covetting mode. And these days you can even buy special socks (one for the left foot, the other for the, you guessed it, right foot) that wick away the moisture and also claim to reduce the odour!! I'll keep you posted my results after a good day in them.

The boots have had their maiden outing, a simple walk with Hazel around Tomato Lake with Hans and Lil. The right boot squeaks a bit and it certainly is a different feel to bludging around in thongs and sandals. No blisters or sore spots, and the socks are still odour free. I'm not washing the socks till they start to smell, I mean you've got to do proper field testing before heading off on adventurous trips through the Sumatran jungle!

Next big walk is tomorrow, meanwhile I'm off to stare adoringly at my new walking companions....

Friday, April 4, 2008

Rice Paddy Walk

Think Bali and immediately you picture vistas of terraced rice paddies, achingly green, with a cloud shrouded volcanic peak in the background. Well I do anyway, having studiously avoided the whole tacky beach and party scene of Kuta/Legian altogether. My first trip in 2005 I'd spent a few days in Ubud, going for walks in the nearby countryside, but the extreme humidity - yes it was actually hotter up there than on the coast - had sapped my energy too much to really do some decent exploration. So this time I was determined to get out and about.

Day 2 in Candi Dasa I hired a car and driver and visited most of the nearby sites: Ujung Palace, Tirrta Gangga, Pura Besakir and also a fantastic lookout with views down to the coast and across to Lombok. I'd stopped many times for photo ops but it's never really the same as using the pegs and getting properly out into the countryside along paths used by the local farmers to get to their fields.

So there I was back in Candi Dasa a little after noon, looking for a restaurant for lunch, when I chanced upon Putra.

Putra had brought his kids down to the beach for a break after school. His wife had a shop on the main drag selling the usual sarongs and woven boxes, and he made ends meet running walking tours into the local rice fields. His English was pretty good and after the usual discussion, when I told him I was more interested in getting a feed than anything else at the moment, I jumped on the back of his motorbike and we headed south of town to a local warung. Over a delicious lunch of Ayam goreng we negotiated our itinerary for the following day.

Putra had good English, a motorbike and excellent business savvy. He offered his services as my guide on a half day trip to walk through rice paddy terraces, following which he would give me a lift back to Sanur on the back of his motorbike. He would also arrange with the owners of my accommodation for a late check-out so I could return and shower before the trip back down the coast. He was absolutely upfront about what was included in the price, and insisted that he would pay his share of our lunch. The price we negotiated was about what it had cost me to take a taxi then bemo up to Candi Dasa 2 days previously, and I was getting a guided tour thrown in as well! We sealed the deal by going back to his wife's shop and buying a sarong - I needed one anyway.

The following morning we met at 8 o'clock for a short bemo trip north of town to a crossroads where we hopped off to take another bemo into the fields. But in true business style, our driver decided to take us the whole way as he had no other passengers, so we hopped back in for the rest of the trip. Deposited in a nearby village we began our walk.

And there she was, Gunung Agung, the holy mountain, standing over the valley looking down at us. And green, so green it made my eyes water.

We wandered along the valley for a while, then detoured through a small village where women were drying rice, before beginning our climb out of the valley. The irrigation system is an engineering marvel in its complexity, with water channelled through bamboo pipes, trenches and tunnels from the very top of the hills down a meandering course to the rivers in the depth of the valley. Individual rice terraces can be flooded with water during the growing phase, or drained for harvest. In this region they plant 2 rice crops a year, and between times will plant with peanuts or other crops. And they have been practising this level of intense cultivation for hundreds of years!

Our path took us to the very top of the valley, clambering literally along the paths between the fields, jumping over the irrigation trenches and past locals engaged in various stages of agricultural labour. At the tree line we ducked in to have a refreshing drink of fresh coconut juice - the sort that comes straight out of a freshly cut coconut with the use of a machete and a plastic straw. The local family offering this hospitality tried to sell me some woven boxes, but were not too bothered by my indifference, in fact I think they were more bewildered by my presence than anything else. After our restful sojourn amongst the trees, we continued further along the valley rim and into the jungle. Well it wasn't really jungle, just scraggly rainforest, but very pleasant after the heat of the sun drenched terraces. Onwards and upwards, through another small village then over the crest and down through quite thick undergrowth to arrive outside the village of Tenganan. Since I'd already visited the village 2 days ago, Putra jumped on an ojek while I wandered down the road slowly, taking a few more photos. Putra returned with his motorbike and we headed back to Candi Dasa.

Refreshing shower later, I met Putra for the trip south. He had a proper helmet for me, and had warned me to wear long sleeves to protect myself from the sun and dust etc. But first was lunch, back at the warung south of town for another tasty meal with lots of the local, and very hot, sambal - delicious!! Then we were on our way.

Travelling by motorbike in Bali is such a great way to get around. The wind rushing by stops you feeling hot and sticky, and you feel closer to the locals and what's going on. It's such fun weaving in and out of the traffic with ease. I only had a small daypack, which Putra insisted on carrying up front so no-one would snatch it. In no time we were back to my friends' place in Sanur, doorstep to doorstep beats bemos and buses anyday.

And where did Putra go after dropping me off? Over to KFC to get the kids a western treat - I'll stick with the local version any day of the week thankyou very much!