Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I've often dreamed about finishing my PhD from a developing world paradise -- an Indian mountain top, or a tropical beach. However, there is always the fear that once I get there, I'll slack off. Since all of my leisure travel up until now has involved sitting in hammocks, reading books, and relaxing, this is a very reasonable fear.

I spent 8 days on an island last week, with no Internet, no phone, no one else but 3-4 staffmembers, most of whom spoke no English. There was electricity for 5 hours a day, in the evenings..

In that time, I managed to read 5 books, and write the better part of 4 research papers. Sure, they've been in my head for a while, but I was amazed at the rate at which I was able to put stuff down onto page (or in this case, into my laptop).

I go back to the beach tonight, and my hope is that I can finish all the papers off.

This sort of thing gives me confidence that I really can trust myself, and that if I wanted to jump on a plane at some point in the future for a few months, that it wouldn't destroy my productivity.

Cool, eh?

Back to the Islands

Within hours after arriving here in Gorontalo, my buddy Mike called to tell me that he was on the Togean Islands... Which meant I had wasted time, money, and a 12 hour boat trip to come back here to find him. Sigh.

That meant I'd have to wait 3 more days before I could go back to the islands.. and this time, it'd be on a horrible wooden boat -- with a cabin shared with 3 other people. No private cabin, no A/C, no life rafts. Eeek.

Tonight at 10PM, we catch the boat. I'm sharing a cabin with a few other foreigners. I've bought 3 bottles of bootleg arrak (the local strong spirit), which I've hidden in my bag. I've also purchased about $16 in fireworks (mainly rockets), which I'll be getting other people to let off (I'm not crazy ... I don't want to lose a limb 12 hours from the nearest hospital).

By Thursday morning, I should have found Mike. Hopefully. and then I can relax again.

If anyone needs to reach me, I may or may not have phone access, depending on which island I'm staying on. I expect to be away from reception for at least two weeks.. but plans could change.

The best way to reach me is via SMS. +62 85823042433

Happy Newyear

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rising above the unwashed masses

The search for paradise creates strange incentives. While at times, in a land where no one speaks your language, it can be a wonderful sight to spot another foreigner -- someone to converse with, to play a game of chess, or to exchange a book.

However, when scarce resources become involved, the foreigner becomes your enemy.

Case in point, the night ferry from the Togean islands back to Gorontalo last night. There were around 15-20 foreigners on the boat, and only 4 nice cabins with A/C, electricity. Every foreigner on that boat was a threat to my abilit to get a cabin.

However, I was in luck, because I don't play fair.

Before heading off to catch the ferry, I had a chat with Lani, one of the friendly dive-instructors at the Black Marlin -- the same company whose agent in Gorontalo had reserved me a cabin the previous week.

Lani called his buddy, and asked to reserve a room for me.

Hours later, I met his buddy -- Ali, an english speaking gangster, with tattoos, needle marks, and a really friendly personality. He looked a bit like Vinny Jones, and we chatted for quite a bit of time. It seems that Ali knows -everyone- in town, and if anyone needs any business done, it usually happens through him. Not someone you want as your enemy, but a perfect person to have in your side of the ring.

Thus, when the boat docked, and the foreigners, indonesians, and goats all pushed and shoved their way to get onboard, I stood patiently on the dock.. Minutes later, once the crowd had cleared, Ali strolled off, handed me my key, and I was done.

No other foreigners managed to obtain a cabin on that boat -- it was packed to the gills with 2 local football teams.

I did at one point head downstairs to the economy class seats -- a sweaty, stinky den, melding the scents of urine, sweat and tobacco smoke. It made me glad, almost euphoric that I had managed to use my connections to get a cabin.

And thus, when I catch the boat _back_ to the islands on Wednesday, a crappy boat without A/C cabins, I'm going to experience something far closer to that economy class experience.

All because of you Mike, all because of you.

Soiled sheets

Cockroaches get everywhere.

On the tiny island where I stayed, I met a Swiss couple who had been there for a few nights. It seemed that somehow, cockroaches had made it into their bed, in spite of the mosquito net tucked under the corners of the bed. They reported waking up to finding a cockroach hanging out on the, er, wet spot of their bed.

Another couple I met on the boat reported the same thing. It seems that cockroaches are attracted to the proteins left over from sex.

Score 1 for me, I assumed -- I'm by myself, no ladies in sight, and so that should mean that the cockroaches will leave me alone, right. The swiss had been staying in a fancy $20 per night hut, while I had opted for a cheaper $15 a night room. I took some rather perverse pleasure in the idea that they were paying more money than me, yet had to share their bed with cockroaches, while I was free of the little beasties.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

You see, my sheets were also soiled -- I just didn't know it. Each night, after the electricity got cut, tiny insects would descend upon my bed -- little creatures that were small enough to get through the holes in the net. They weren't mosquitoes thank goodness, but they still buzzed around me, landed on my body, and did their best to suck my blood.

Thus, For an hour or two every evening, before falling asleep, I'd spend my time, in a semi-panicked state, hopelessly swatting at the unseen creatures, occasionally scoring a hit, and smooshing a dead insect that had lingered for a moment too long on my leg or stomach.

After a few nights of this, my sheets had become a mass graveyard for dead insects -- mostly black stains, with a bit of red here and there, every time I'd hit one of the guys that had been sucking on me for a bit.

And thus, on my last night in the room, I woke up to see a cockroach at the foot of my bed -- not nestling in human proteins, but milling around the collected corpses of dead insects.

Ick ick ick.

The clusterfuck

I've just returned from the Togean Islands. It was paradise, I was happy, I had snorkled every day, read 5 books, written the better part of 4 research papers... but my friend Mike had yet to arrive.

He flew into Jakarta on Tuesday, and was supposed to meet me in the Togeans on Thursday morning... if he missed the Wednesday night boat, there was always the Friday night boat, getting on Saturday morning.

By Sunday, he hadn't shown up, and I was getting worried. The poor boy had spent several thousand dollars for airplane tickets, had never been off doing the backpacking thing before, and English isn't that well spoken. In many ways, he is my responsibility.

So, on Sunday, I catch a 7AM boat from my tiny island to the main island of Wakai, then pay some fisherman to take me to the main backpacker beach, which has the Black Marlin Dive Resort... a hub of backpacker activity, beer drinking, beach parties, and people in the know... They hadn't seen Mike either.

So... that night, I boarded a 12 hour night boat, back to Gorontalo, so that I could get telephone/Internet access, and figure out where the hell Mike was...

I get here today -- no emails from him, no text messages waiting for me on my phone. I email him, repeatedly, I email his parents... I contact a few hotels in Jakarta to see if he showed up there.

3 hours later, Mike calls me from the Black Marlin in Togean, to tell me he's been at the islands for the last four days, and arrived at the Black Marlin this afternoon.


So now, I'm stuck in Gorontalo, a sleepy little town with nothing to do, until Wednesday night, when a very unpleasant and crappy boat will depart for the 11 hour trip back to the Togean Islands. Instead of the nice and safe ferry (with a VIP cabin, with A/C and electricity) that I had last night, I'll be taking a rickety wooden boat, with no life rafts in case of an emergency.


So, 2 days of email/Internet/blogging, and then back to the islands.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The airplane tickets took a good amount of time to buy, and even then, I was lucky.

Lion Air's website refused to take my foreign credit cards, and so I had to head out to their office. There were a good 15 people in front of me, but somehow, I got called ahead of most of them -- mainly, due to the language issues. Most people here seem to only speak a few words of english, and so a bigwig from the office upstairs was called down to help me out. Lucky me.

On the way back, I spotted a fancy looking supermarket -- and somehow managed to spend $40 there, nearly as much as my airplane ticket tomorrow. I've done the beach/island thing before, and so I know what to stock up on: Candles, lighters, honey, chocolate, peanut butter, and mosquito repellent.

With the 10 dark chocolate/cashew bars that I purchased at the supermarket as well as the condoms and tampons that I brought from the states, I'm going to be in a -very- good position to trade with any other westerners that I meet. Is it wrong to sell condoms to a bunch of horny drunken western tourists at exorbitant prices? Nah... it's just creative business.


I'm off to an island, with no telecommunications, where the link to the outside world is a four hour ferry, twice per week.

This, of course, means that there is no ATM in town... Which also means that I need to bring enough cash with me to last the full 30 days on the island. I'm budgeting approx $20USD per day (well, really about $12 per day, but this'll allow for special things like snorkeling/scuba trips. etc). That means I need to have $600 cash on me.

Indonesia has a highly inflated currency: $1USD = 10,000 rupiah, and thus, $100 USD = 1 million rupiah.

Well, the largest bank note is 100,000 rupiah, which means that my money belt is bulging with approximately 60 banknotes. My plan is to quickly get rid of it when I arrive, by pre-paying in bulk for whatever guest house/hotel I end up at. This is good for several reasons -- 1: There is less money to lose, should your money belt get stolen, If you do get robbed, your food/room are already taken care of, so you aren't totally screwed, and 3: You usually get a discount on a long-term room if you drop a big chunk of cash on day 1.

The stupidity tax

Ok, its time to lay my cards on the table. I did _0_ planning for this trip, and it shows.

I flew into Jakarta, not knowing where I was going to go next. I then bought a ticket to Makassar, and flew there the next day, not knowing much about it, other than it was on the same island as the place I wanted to end up...

Well, there are a couple problems:

1. It's raining non stop here in southern Sulawesi.
2. Central sulawesi is in a up-and-down state of civil war/disturbances. Thus, everyone advises against land-based travel from south to north.


The place i want to end up -- the Togean Islands, is a total pain in the ass to get to. I first need to go to one of two places on the east/north east side of Sulawesi, and then take a ferry to there. Except that the ferry only leaves twice a week, so timing is critical.

However, I think I've got it sorted out.

I fly to Gorontalo tomorrow, wait 4 hours or so, and then board an overnight ferry to the Togean Islands. I managed to (hopefully) reserve a cabin on the ferry, through an SMS exchange with a british guy who runs a diving shop on the islands.

On Jan 18, I catch the overnight ferry back to Gorontalo, and 4 hours after arriving, board an Air Asia flight back to Jakarta. The night of the 19th, I stay in jakarta, and the 20th, I fly back to the US.

All in all, I wasted about 2 days and $50 or so to fly to Makassar and then Gorontalo, instead of flying directly there..but, well, thats the cost of not planning.

I'll have Internet (i think) in Gorontalo tomorrow, so I should be able to blog a little bit before I get on the ferry. After that though, I expect to be off the Internet for the following 30 days. No phone, no SMS, etc.

If I need to be reached, and its an emergency, the Black Marlin diving shop has a representative in Gorontalo, and messages might be able to get sent back and forth between them and the islands..however, it won't be speedy.

So, by Saturday morning, I should be on the islands... my buddy Mike flies in on Tuesday night to Jakarta, and should hopefully be with me by Thursday.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In Makasssar

Just arrived in Makassar, Sulawesi. Late night flight, arrived at midnight. Took a taxi straight to my hotel.

Within 5 minutes of sitting down in my room, I've got 5 mosquito bites. Eek.
This island has both Malaria and Dengue Fever, so I'll probably need to stop wearing shorts in the evening.

Off to bed.


Last night, i picked up 2 SIM cards... one from XL and one from Telekomsel.

XL charged 5 rupee per second of data, while telekomsel charged 100,000 rupee ($10USD) for either 24 hours worth of data, or 300mb....

I thought it was the best deal I'd get.

Well, at the Ambassador Mall today, less than 2 minutes after i'd put the $10USD on my telekomsel card, I saw an advertisement for a third company, indosat.

Telekomsel only offered 3G data (UMTS speed), whereas indosat offers 3.5G (HSDPA), which is considerably faster. Plus, for that same 100,000 rupees per month, indosat gives you unlimited bandwidth... however, after you go past 2GB downloads for the month, they cut your speed down to dialup.

So.. I bought yet another sim card.. the guy at the store, who spoke english set the thing up...and so now I'm writing this blog post, from the back-seat of the taxi en-route to the airport. Isn't technology grand?

$10 per month, 2gb of data, no contracts, prepaid service...and high speed access. Why can't we get this in the states?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The flight to Jakarta was rather uneventful. However, I sat next to a really nice Lebanese guy who has been living here (in Indonesia) for 8 years. He answered lots of my questions, and then insisted on giving me a ride to my hotel in the taxi he was paying for. Sweet!

My first task was to get a SIM card for my phone -- to make calls, and hopefully get Internet when i'm in more remote places. I bought 2, from different companies, since they're just $1 each. 3g broadband internet is available for approx $9 USD for 300MB of downloads per month.. not too shabby, and if it works, i'll be great for email.

Once I got here, I spent the next 2 hours frantically trying to arrange for a flight out of Jakarta, the next day. I hadn't really spent any time planning this trip, and so I tried to spend as much of the airplane as possible reading through the lonely planet to pick destinations.

In the end, I settled on the island of Sulawesi, and in particular, the tiny Togean islands off its coast. However, several of the airlines here in Indonesia are like RyanAir and Southwest -- that is, the flights are dirt cheap if you book in advance, but obscenely expensive as the dates get closer.

Thus, Lion Air was charging $250 for a one way ticket to Massakar in Sulawesi. Eeek.

After a considerable amount of time, I was able to locate a 1 way ticket for approx $100 USD, for tonight at 8:30PM. It's not ideal, but it's good enough. It looks like I'll be spending most/all of the trip on Sulawesi, where I'll be joined by my buddy Mike arrives in a week or so.

Oh -- and I woke up with a horrible cold yesterday morning. I'm hoping it stays a cold, and doesn't turn into any kind of infection.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


It took me a little while, but I think I've got it figured out now.

For the most part, brothels here in KL are all poorly hiding as massage parlors. This ranges from the fancy looking spa at the 5 star hotels, to the far more seedy "foot massage" places in the tourist district.

In Brick Lane, London, owners of curry houses stand outside with laminated plastic menus, which they shove under the nose of every passing tourist, which advertise the multitude of food options available for the low low price of 3 pounds.

Likewise, in Bangkok, Thailand, touts standing outside sex shows use laminated plastic menus which explain, in detail, all the various sex acts that you are guaranteed to see upstairs.

Here in KL, outside the massage places, tarted up women have the same laminated menus, except that these list only legitimate acts (foot, back, hot stone, etc).

The sordid bit, of course, is left to the imagination. Why else would a heavily made up woman be promoting a foot massage, in a store-front below a hotel that advertises hourly rates for its rooms?

I made this mistake in thailand a few years ago -- beautiful made up women give absolutely horrible massages, as, of course, their clients tend to not go to them for such services. I've learned since then that if you want a good massage, it's best to go for an aging woman, with calloused hands, or preferably, an old man whose armpits smell like week old socks.

And thus, I've found myself, night after night, crossing the road, walking past the poorly disguised pimps, the briefcase on a table viagara and merkin sellers, and numerous night-market stalls selling fake clothes and DVDs, to a collection of 6 or so beach chairs where old men perform massages out in the open.

At 25 (7USD) ringgit per half hour, it's approx 4x as expensive as Thailand, but it's still out of this world, and a wise investment.

A note to western ladies

Dear Western Women,

Welcome to Malaysia, or any other non western country, for that matter. I know it is damn cold where you live right now, and so I, like you, have flown east (or west) to avoid the winter.

I recognize that in your home countries suffrage and equal rights under the law were battles that were hard fought, and in some cases, still being fought. I also recognize that as young women in your prime, you want to show off your beautiful bodies, while they are still wrinkle and gravity free.

However, you are not at home, you are in a foreign country, a Muslim one at that (even if it is much more liberal than say, Saudi Arabia).

Thus, if you get on the metro, and you notice that you're the only woman wearing tiny shorts and a tank-top, perhaps it should be a clue that you're not appropriately dressed.

Please put something on -- at the very least, cover your shoulders.

Honestly -- with George Bush, Baywatch and the crap that Hollywood exports to go on, it's not surprising to think that most people in the world think that Americans are stupid, fat, and promiscuous. Dressing the way you do only further encourages such false impressions, of Americans, and Westerners in general.


A fellow traveler

3G cellular broadband is a lie

I've been swindled. The 3G, HSDPA high-speed 7.2Mbps modem that I bought yesterday, in tandem with a sim card for Celcom, turns out to be a bit of lemon. I think the modem is probably alright, but Celcom's service leaves much to be desired.

It goes up, and down, with long periods of no data sending at all. Seriously, I've had bouts of food poisoning that were more reliable than this horrible Internet connection. When it does work, it's actually pretty snappy... but that is perhaps 5 minutes of every hour.

Hopefully, in Indonesia, with a different 3G provider, it'll be better. In the mean time, I'm back to using WiFi and Internet Cafes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best food, ever

This morning I came to terms with the rather shameful fact that other than bubble tea, I haven't actually consumed any malaysian food since I arrived two days ago.

The problem, of course, is that 99% of the food sold by street hawkers seems to contain dead things, which I prefer to avoid. So, how to try malay food, yet avoid flesh?

The answer: The Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Center, a tiny food court in the basement of a nondescript apartmment building. It was all buddhist-friendly, 100% vegetarian chinese/malay food. And oh my goodness, it was out of this world orgasmic.

The highlights: I had a spicy noodle soup that contained about 6 different kinds of fake meat -- gluten, tofu and some other random fake things. It was fantatic.

After that, I had some kind of fried daikon dish. It looked like fried tofu, but the inside was creamy, and melted on my tongue. Mmm.

The total price of my 4 course meal: $3 USD.

Needless to say, I'll be going back tomorrow, for lunch and dinner.

After I was done with that, I accidentally stumbled across the largest computer shopping mall in the country -- 6 floors of independent computer stores, all selling gear. I picked up a 7.2Mbps broadband cellular GSM modem that connects to my laptop via USB, for approx $100USD. For another $3, I picked up a 3.5G SIM card, which I plugged into my new modem, and can surf the web anywhere in the country for approx $1.5USD per 24 hours. No contract, no locked hardware, no hassles.

The person who sold it to me asked to see my passport, and typed my name and passport number into an application running on her laptop. While she didn't get all the details right (only typing in my first name), she got enough right that it would be pretty easy for the authorities to locate me if I did anything fishy with my data connection.

Anyway -- no more cyber-cafes for me, if this thing works out OK. Much cheaper, and I can hang out in coffee shops instead of smoky internet cafes full of sketchy married guys looking at hard-core porn on the computers next to me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Strong Authentication, Malay style


I now have a mobile phone (+60 17 354-6249). As a security and surveillance geek, it's always interesting to see how this is done, especially these days.

I went to a mobile phone shop yesterday afternoon, and the nice lady behind the counter pulled out her own mobile phone, asked for my passport, and then proceeded to key in a few details from my ID document. No photocopy of my passport was made, and she gave it back momentarily. After that, my phone was active.

Now, of course, she was no expert on US passports, or canadian, swiss, or german documents. Thus, the issue of mobile phone authentication in Malaysia is rather similar to that of ID checks by bars in the US -- sure, the bartender might be able to spot a fake ID from his state, or even those nearby, but he'll never in his life have seen a Mongolian passport before.

If I did want to buy a mobile phone SIM here, and not have the government track me, the key would be to use a fake passport from another country.

It'd be interesting to find out, of course, if the government had linked the phone registration system to immigration -- that is, they know which foreigners are in the country at the time, and their passport numbers. However, I doubt that such checking is currently done.


With the phone in hand, the next goal was to get online. Kuala Lumpur has free wifi in most of the city, but signing up requires that you have a phone that they can use to send a validation code to (thus, of course, tying your internet activity to your number, which is tied to your identity... sneaky eh?).

Unfortunately, their website sucks, and I couldn't get it to work.... I'll try rebooting to Windows later, and see if it's a Firefox/IE issue.

In the mean time, Starbucks here offers free wifi through the "Time" broadband provider. The only snag is that you need a Malaysian NRIC (social security) number to signup. This proved to be problematic.

Luckily, two geeks sitting nearby helped me out. It seems that no one but the government has the ability to check the validity of a NRIC number, and so service providers (who are required to ask you for it) have no real way of knowing a real from fake number. One of the geeks wrote down a fake, yet authentic looking number down on a napkin... I typed it in, and was soon online.

It seems that the Malaysian NRIC number has all kinds of information embedded into it, including where you were born, your criminal (ex-con) status, dual citizenship, naturalized citizenship, etc. It's rather creepy that so much can be known about someone merely by reading his SSN.

My fake number (as given by the starbucks geeks) is 701010-08-7113.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Stepford Wives of Malaysian Airlines

The journey was guaranteed to be grueling, yet it went surprisingly well.

I cashed in frequent flier miles for this trip -- which meant that I didn't really get to control the dates of departure/return, the length of the trip, or the routing. On the plus side, this meant that a trip to Indonesia for xmas cost me $62. On the downside, this meant four flights to get to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the first real destination). Ick.

At Boston, I attempted to flirt with the women at the Delta counter. First, I tried to snag an upgrade to Business. "This is a business. Nothing is free anymore." Drat.

I put the accent on a bit thicker, and scaled back my request. Exit rows to NY and then LAX. Success.

Once I got to LAX, I tried the same thing at the Malaysian Airlines counter, and again, no business class seat, but I scored an exit row for the 19 hours to Kuala Lumpur. Score!

The first international flight was uneventful. I slept for 12 of the first 14 hour flight to Taiwan.

Malaysian Airlines seems to recruit stepford wives for its stewardesses. They're all beautiful, friendly, with perfect hair that is magically held into place. To make things a little bit more interesting/strange, every time I established eye contact with one, she'd tilt her head slightly, and beam a smile at me. This kept happening, no matter how many times I re-established eye-contact with the same woman. This was clearly some form of job-based programming, similar to WalMart employees being instructed to tell everyone to have a nice day.

At this point, I couldn't sleep any more, and I had 5 hours of flying left to go... so I passed the time trying to see how many times I could get the stewardesses to flash their plastic smiles at me before they snapped. I don't think they particularly liked my game, but their training/company rules forced them to play along. They seemed to get their revenge by pouring increasingly strong gin and tonics, perhaps in the hope that I'd doze off again.

In any case, I landed in KL at noon, mildly jetlagged, and rather drunk on seven gin and tonics. I splurged on an airport taxi, and spent the next hour slowly getting used to the idea that I'm back in Asia again.