A Salsa massage @ Surabaya

I’m here waiting for my son as we spent the last hour pampering ourselves with Javanese massage after the arduous climb to the 2400ft Ijen Crater.

The beauty centre caters everything beauty for a woman but provide back and foot massages for men as well. I located this place from Trip Advisor, after my guide gave me a blank look when I inquired about Javanese massage, ubiquitous in Singapore and I assumed likewise in Java.

The owner, Mandarin speaking Mr Zhang welcomed us at the door and assured us of his cheap price. My 60min body massage cost Rp 75000 (S$7.50), and the men’s 60min back and foot Rp 80,000 (Rp 40000 each).

The female wing is comfortably located at the roof top, with gym equipments and hot and cold pool. My masseur is young but experienced. Her strokes firm and soothing. The only complaint is the mattress on the floor, which means my head is turned one side instead of looking down, a more comfortable position for my spine.

Midway, the person in the next booth (separated by a curtain) received a call and proceeded to chat with the loud speaker on. I wanted to give her a piece of mind except I can’t speak the language. Perhaps I should just make a loud Shh…

After the massage, I showered in the outdoor shower. The men were offered tea in a cute jar but I was not. ūüėē I didn’t make a fuss as I didn’t like the local tea.

On the whole, a nice experience as reviewed by Trip Advisor. And compare to what I pay in Singapore, it’s truly worth 90minute traffic to get here.

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Traveling budget in Surabaya

We were given a contact to a travel agent by my son’s friend who had visited Mt Bromo a few months before. So we contacted them, agreed on the itinerary and price (S$100pax/day) and here we are.

My vacations are usually economical, with economical flight and 3-4 star hotel. Sometimes the accommodations are extremely basic and simple (like in Bali’s Silent Retreat or Sri Lanka The Other Corner) but they are at least clean and comfortable. Still, I prefer to sleep wrapped in quilted comfort and have my hot morning cup of tea at least.

This trip was an eye opener, starting with the first homestay -Lusy Homestay. There was no sink to brush teeth and no toilet papers. A request for toilet paper came in a thin roll without the core. I realized I had to be very economical with this. But because I knew we wouldn’t be sleeping much as we were leaving for Mt Bromo at midnight, I wasn’t bothered. I had weak Wi-Fi outside our room. My sons were uncomfortable with the swarms of flying insects, mosquitoes and flies plastering themselves on our doors.

The next homestay was Clover Homestay. A slight improvement – we had a sink but still no toilet papers, but at least the ration now was slightly more generous than previous. When I enquired with the chef who kept our dinner plates on some menu issues, the manager, Wagu Agoose, immediately came forward to address my concern. On hearing that we’ve booked the massage advertised, he apologized about the over-promise stated on the stand up banner. There’s no hot towel or flower (perhaps not even the aromatic oil-based) and because the chef is also the masseur who is male, I might not be comfortable and he can only do one at a time. In the end, only my son did the massage as he had a bad neck. I asked Wagu why this is called a homestay rather than a motel, and he said licence is easier to obtain.

Next, we shifted to Three B cafe and Villa and two toilets, a nice apartment with a sea view of Bali across the sea. Unfortunately we didn’t spent much time in this villa as again we had a hike at midnight to Ijen crater. I expected a higher standard here but the shoddy maintainence is hard to ignore. The master bedroom en-suite toilet has no sink but there are the exposed pipes, except a sink might block the door. Couldn’t they changed to a folding door instead? The aluminum door in the common toilet still has the protective sticker on the bottom panel, advertising the brand of the aluminium company. Under the curtain, I see dead insects which should have been vacuumed before the guests are allowed in. And yes, no toilet papers but they provided two new rolls with cores. My son asked if we should keep one roll, and I said no need, a reply he was to remind me of with a ‘I told you so. ‘

I expected my last night at Surabaya to be in a nice comfy hotel because it’s a hotel, and not a guest house but it’s by far the worse. Walan Syariah Hotel is just in a terrible condition.

The two-bedroom apartment has only one toilet (no toilet paper) and very poor maintainence. Exposed pipes and wires jut out from walls, empty TV bracket – a decorative disaster without prior planning.

The sofa looks stained. The bed has only a thin woolen blanket I last seen in hotels of my childhood. My son slept on his towel as his side of the sheet has a stink. The only positive think about this hotel is the powerful Wi-Fi in the lounge.

The hotels all provided breakfast which we had no choice of – nasi goreng, a small portion which couldn’t fill my tummy as my breakfast is usually heavy.

But we’ve learned to adapt. The taste of the nasi goreng has improved though through the days.

Surabaya is an eye opener. I’ve enjoyed the experience. Imagine hearing Muslim prayers as all times of the day, recited by man, women and even a child once, in melodic and well as out of tune shrieks. The recording is blasted so loud I hear it in the dead of early dawn and while trying to catch a quick nap at eleven am after a tiring night hike.

This trip has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone.

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Behind the curtain of the falls – Madakaripura Waterfalls

I love waterfalls. Who doesn’t? The only problem is, you’d probably need to hike far and high through slippery muddy trails into ancient forest. The anticipation, to me, is part of the excitement. What falls would greet me at the end of my journey? I’m never disappointed, even if the falls are small and shallow, like one I saw in Hokkaido where we spotted fishes jumping out of the cascading rocks. I’m more often awed by the height and energy that greets me though. From afar, I can usually first hear the majestic roar, like a giant awakening in the quiet of the forest, then feel the misty sprays before being greeted by main star attraction. What’s different about Madakaripura Waterfalls is, after tracking for an hour where you admire Jurassic fern trees, you feel the falls before you see it, as if it’s raining through the cracks between the high cliffs as you wade through the rivers in order to reach the main falls. It was totally unexpected as I felt the cold heavy water on me in my poncho. I gasped while grasping my guide’s hand. ‘Rain, rain!’ He told me in his limited English. And it felt exactly like that – walking through a heavy thunderstorm without an umbrella, which I never do, thus making the experience all the more foreign. I looked back as I reached a dry point and I saw a transparent curtain of strung water droplets, like those decorative retro crystal curtains popular in the sixties. I’ve just walked through a waterfall.

Beyond that is the main fall in front. We were supposed to enter into that fall but were stopped incase there was flooding in the cave due to the raining season. With disappointment, we headed back to dry land, as Madakaripura Waterfalls draws its final curtain on us.

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Up close with a live volcano – Mt Bromo

With Mt Agung in Bali erupting last week, friends were concerned about our trip to Mt Bromo, despite their vast distance. True, they share the same ring of fire belt and one eruption could trigger the other, like a contagious sneeze, but that made it all the more exciting for me.

We left the planning all to our travel agent in Indonesia, to arrange our itinerary and hotels, and I didn’t even bother to read the itinerary, which served me right. When our jeep picked us up at 12.30am to drive us to King Kong Hill, the viewing point to watch the sunrise over Mt Bromo, we were underdressed.

The drive took about one and a half hour. Our guide, Yogi, had wanted ample time for my photographer hubby to take photos of the milky way. Unfortunately, the recent super moon is still superly bright, and the sky was also overcast. So there was few stars.

We decided to go up to an open-air makeshift stall for hot drinks. Despite a cardigan over a tee-shirt and a light down windbreaker, I was shivering. The stall owner lighted up two small charcoal burners after we ordered cup noodles from her.

It wasn’t warm enough for me though. As time passed, more stalls started operating. Soon, a man was collecting fees for toilet (Rp 4000) which I had used for free.

We made our way to the viewing point a 10-minute walk away and parked ourselves there by renting plastic chairs for Rp10000 each. More stalls started operating at 3am as the crowds descended and swarmed around us. My sons and I were freezing and we decided to purchase scarves, gloves and beanies for Rp20000 (S$2) each, even if we own a few at home already. That’s our payback for not reading the itinerary and getting prepared.

It was a long and cold night for me up there at King Kong Hill as more crowds jostled and shoved me on my plastic chair to get the best view of what we all thought would be the most spectacular sunrise. The moonlight had cast a silvery glow on the silhouettes of mountain peaks and raised our anticipation.

The tinge of orange at 4.30am created a mini commotion as cameras clicked and flash burst every few minutes. I remained on my plastic chair with a front row view and once in a while turned back to stare fiercely at whoever was pushing me. Don’t ever mess with a woman who hasn’t slept the whole night.

The colours in the sky changed from dusky blue to tangerine to finally daylight. In front, Mt Bromo is smoking, its height disappointingly shorter than the rest of its taller, triangular shaped, and more majestic looking cousins.

Next, the jeep drove us to a desert area, which I was told used to be a crater. From there, we continued to where we could climb up to Mt Bromo’s crater. The approx 0.8km walk on the soft sand is not long but if you prefer, you could also ride a horse for Rp200k. After which, you’d still need to climb the 200-odd steps up to the crater. But for me, the climb was worth the workout, for being so close to a live volcano is exciting. To think Mt Bromo just erupted merely two years ago.

Despite the thick cloud emissions, there’s no smell. The area around the crater is narrow and I have a fear that some people might accidentally be pushed off either side. Was that why the army has stationed at emergency tent with an ambulance on standby? The locals, who are Hindus, offers flowers and livestock to appease the volcano by throwing them into the crater. I decided I don’t want to be a sacrificial lamb and made my descence as more crowds arrived.

As if in unison, we all decided to ride a horse down. I needed to use the toilet and the horse is quicker than my own speed (Rp50000 S$5). My husband remarked that it’s cheaper than Uber for which he was unanimously disproved.

The surrounding areas consist of dessert and a grassland. We drove past a pasture of swaying hare’s tail grass in bloom, a perfect place for photos.

At 9.30am, hungry and sleep-deprived, we were driven back to our homestay for breakfast and checkout, onwards to our next destination.

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Villa Lusy – Mt Bromo

I sit here at Villa Lusy at 7pm, after a packet dinner of rice, satay, beans and tempeh, enjoying the cool temperature, while recording of prayers compete with the calls of crickets. It’s cold enough to warrant a jacket. It’s been dark since an hour ago. I’m tired after traveling three hours, stressed from witnessing how my driver navigated through throngs of scooters, swirling in and out between heavy vehicles which stubbornly clung to the right lanes in snail pace. At a traffic stop, a young teenage boy armed with a feather duster was ignored by my driver but the next car kindly handed him a coin for dusting the wind screen. Across the street, I saw a man at a mobile hawker stand, pulling a stick of two meatballs out from a pot and dousing what I presumed to be ketchup manis all around them, before popping one into his mouth. The meatballs are called bokso and I see advertisement of it as we near our homestay.

Villa Lusy is a homestay consisting of a few rooms, spartanly furnished with a bedside table holding a TV and queen sized bed. There is no sink in the toilet, only a toilet bowl and a shower, which thankfully has hot water. It reminds me of my room at Laban Rata at Mt Kinabalu.

As in all mountain hikes, we’re praying for good weather, as lightning flickers intermittently. I refused to succumb to my worry. If it rains, I’m prepared to initiate my Uniqlo light down jacket into its first use.

Wish us luck if you want to see beautiful sunrise photos of Mt Bromo.

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Ashtanga/Vinyasa with Arya

I have this love-hate relationship with my Monday yoga classes. I try to attend two classes back to back, so as to make full use of my traveling time to the studio, and I also enjoy the challenging Ashtanga followed by the Vinyasa class, which leave me pumping with endorphins¬†and drenched in perspiration after each class. Yet, I’m filled with a kind of dread before each class – an apprehension, or even fear – would my tired body be able to handle two classes? Morning classes are especially difficult as the body is stiff and inflexible. My classmates are advanced yogis to whom I’m no match for, which makes me feel sore. Sometimes, I make excuses and skip the second Vinyasa class, only to feel regret for not persevering, because look, I’ve not been killed or harmed so far from completing two classes. Yet, I don’t understand this dread. Yes, I do. The classes are torturing and put me in my most uncomfortable zone which I’d rather not be in.

Arya teaches at my yoga studio only on Mondays. He is voted the most popular teacher, in part because of his Bollywood good look. His students are, after all, mostly women. But I like him because he takes the trouble to adjust our poses, even standing on my palms during downward dog and pushing me hard backward.

Last week, he returned after three weeks of home leave to see his newborn son. During his break, regulars like me also took a break. Last week, I initiated myself into only one class, just in case. Yesterday, I was determined to do two classes.

I like the many rounds of ashtanga flow Arya puts us through. I lost count of the numerous chaturangas and jumps I did, my heart pumping and sweat pouring in the non-airconditioned room. A normal easy warrior-one pose became wobbly after the seventh time. He adjusted my leg outward for Warrior-two and urged us to go lower,  lower. My legs trembled but I lowered further.

Then, as I collapsed into my forward fold, I felt a tap on my knee. I pulled my knees up into what I hoped was straighter looking legs.

He wanted us to go from a wide-angle forward fold into a tripod headstand and I¬†was happy to accomplish it. (Not many in the class can do a tripod headstand!) My eyes drifted to the clock. Only half-an-hour of class and I’m exhausted. The next few sitting down poses involved half-lotus, with my ankle on my thigh, as I folded or squatted. For a few terrifying seconds, I heard my ankle giving off a series of audible creaks, like crisps breaking. There was some pain with the pulling and I was really scared if I’d fractured something. I know now it’s not fractured, just some cartilege realigning, but I decided I’d forgo the rest of the ankle on thigh poses. Of all body parts, I hadn’t realised ankle flexibility is also crucial.

After a ten-minute break, we started Vinyasa class, with some serious arm-balancing exercises which I usually like, except that yesterday’s class required my ankle to hook onto my arms and I¬†didn’t want any more pressure on my ankle just in case. I was also so wet my limbs kept slipping off each other and I couldn’t do any balancing. ‘Try hard, if not, next week you still can’t do,’ Arya said, in his gentle voice. He gave me a nudging nod Try!¬†and I pretended to do some preparation for that arm balancing. He doesn’t like it if we sit around looking while others attempt the pose.

Arya doesn’t push us but I push myself and am disappointed if I can’t achieve certain poses (only those which do not challenge my flexibility). I know my own limitations and am not so stupid as to hurt myself. I also know yoga is not about poses, but I do so love the changes my body has gone through and I’m amazed at my improvement, and doing the poses is the only sort of validation of my achievement.

Until next Monday then. I have decided I shall look forward to Arya’s Ashtanga and Vinyasa classes with eagerness henceforth.


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Dear Life by Alice Munro


It’s time for my final thesis in my MA creative writing course – a creative project of 25 thousand words. I am still indecisive about what I should do – a full-length fiction would be too short unless it’s an incomplete work; or a compilation of short stories. I’m not very good at short story, although I must brag that a recent ghost story submission won me RM200 at the Georgetown Literary Festival.

I decided to I should read more short stories from my favourite author and see if she can inspire me Рthrough her books- to write more short stories for my thesis. And lo and behold, while midway through this book, I woke up one miserable morning at 3am, unable to return to sleep, tossing and turning, a zillions things running through my mind, including remembering a friend who has departed. And suddenly, I got my story, which I then rushed down to my PC to write. (There were many occasions when a story came in the middle of the  night but I decided to put it off until morning and then promptly forgot!)

There are fourteen stories in the collection, one of which, Amundsen, which I really like, was published in The New Yorker. Many of her short stories involve some unrequited love or adultery, that despite being happily married, the protagonist still longs for love outside, which sometimes she gets and sometimes she doesn’t. I know you’re not supposed to associate the writer with any of the protagonists, I hope nobody will do that to me, yet, but it’s as if Munro is writing from her own experience, and giving hope to dull ordinary women like me that if you let it, you can bring some excitements (adulterous or otherwise)¬† into your life, like the story To Reach Japan. Yet in Amundsen, you’re annoyed that what you believe to be a fairytale ending is ruined by the jerk who jilts the young teacher, whom when she meets him again years later, still harbours¬†a yearning for him, despite already being happily married. In Train, a young man sets up a platonic relationship with the landlady when she gives him a place to stay in exchange for him doing some¬†odd jobs for her. From his POV, you’d think he has some feelings for her, as you sympathize with her loneliness, but he doesn’t and coldbloodedly leaves her to die of cancer in a hospital.

Other in the book are simple stories with mundane details so rich you would never think they would enhance the plot, which perhaps they don’t, but they strike a chord for describing feelings so familiar they tug at your heart. When writing from a child’s POV, her description reminds me of how I was like as a child, as in The Eye.

The last four stories – Finale – is autobiographical in feeling, though not entirely factual. I would say I prefer her fiction more than her memoirs.

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