Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: A Visit to the Maasai

The next day brought us to a slightly more rustic visit, this time to a Maasai village. It was a fairly long drive in, this time on the flat plains but still very dry. The first word that came to mind when we stepped into the compound was “squalid”. This village was simply a group of little huts circling enclosed by a fence made of twigs, with a corral for the livestock right in the middle. There was plenty of space in between the huts – space for the animals to roam. Then the smell of livestock and poo struck. Squalid. No wonder.

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We went into one of the huts and were shocked at how dark it was inside. The sun was bright and pretty much overhead when we visited, yet when we entered the hut, everything was pitch black. It had no windows at all! The walls were made from dirt, ash and animal dung, with a roof of twigs. The twigs overhung the walls so that any rain would roll easily off and not wash away the walls. The inside contained a central area with with several alcoves. Two medium sized alcoves were for humans – one for the men and the other for the women and children. A big one was for the calves and a smaller one for the goat kids. Apparently lambs couldn’t be kept indoors and were put together with the sheep and other livestock in the large outdoor corral.

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We emerged from the dark hut and found that the village kids had discovered us. They ran up and charmingly tried out all their English words on us. It was clear that they had no clue what they were saying because they were shrieking “byebye, byebye!” gaily at us while trying to hold our hands and touch us. I’d normally be quite happy to pet the kids and play along, but I was horrified to find that flies were buzzing all over, concentrating on their eyes and seemingly feeding on their eye secretions. This is true village life all right, Maasai Wanderings had taken us to see a real village with its attendant problems like trachoma. It wasn’t a dressed up version like the one they attempted to show us at the Masai Mara for USD50 per person with a young man barely out of his teens claiming to be the village headman just because he had a hat made of a lion head.

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They taught DC how to use a stick to prop himself up the Maasai way – this helped to relax the body and allows a herdsman to stand for ages watching over his livestock. It’s so much of a habit that you can check out the young leader’s pose inside the hut. Look carefully and you can see him standing in a typically Maasai pose. And the man in the bright red plaid? He’s the village elder and it was beautifully endearing to see how much affection he had for his grandchildren.

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Soon, it was time for dancing. The village women gathered in a wide circle.

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They insisted that I join in too, and tried on several beaded collars on me till they were satisfied with the results.

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It was just sign language and smiles between us, and soon we were ready. Two ladies grabbed my hands and they started to chant.

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The ladies started dancing, a sort of hopping motion while jerking their ribcages so the beaded collars flipped up and down to the chanting. I shuffled along in a rather ungainly fashion and shrugged my shoulders up and down to simulate the flipping of the collar.

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Then it was time for the silly tourist to do her thing. My leading lady grabbed my hand even tighter and we crossed the circle, hopping away and went close to the other side, with a lady from the other side approaching too, and we almost crossed collars. “Hnee! Hnee!” chanted my leading lady in time with the beaded clashes.

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She then brought me over to DC and again “Hnee! Hnee!” as we hopped in front of him. Later DC told me it was some sort of presentation of a his woman dance and they were well pleased. Or somesuch. Pfft.

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Soon, the dancing was over and the ladies only let me admire the collar for a short while before asking if I wanted to keep it for USD25.

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This is where all the ladies took out their wares and the bargaining began. I ended up with a bracelet made from porcupine quills for USD5.

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I think the experience and the pictures are worth far more than that!

Lombok: A Trip South to a Very Different Kuta Beach

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DC and I had a rental car and we took it down south to the very sleepy Kuta Beach. We passed by lots of gentle-eyed buffaloes grazing along the road…

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… and ogled at the cute, lighter-coloured calves obliviously munching away.

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At a cafe, there was a sleepy dog that epitomised the laidback atmosphere of the beach. It lay on the trademark peppercorn sand of Kuta Beach.

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Look closely at the sand and you’ll see that the little granules are round, like miniature white peppercorns.

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We later went for a walk along the beach and found more of the peppercorn sand.

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It wasn’t a fantastic white beach, not quite even up to the (not that great) standard of Kuta Beach in Bali. But there were still great views and it was a lovely walk just before the rain started coming in.

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We walked up to a rock outcrop partway out of the beach and found some slightly macabre sights, like the remnants of a heron, perhaps…

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… and the lifelike remnants of a crab’s moult.

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Luckily, there was still some life out here, as evidenced by this cute little lizard skulking its way stealthily along the rocks.

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It was then time to make the bumpy, pot-holed trip back to Mataram. We took respite from the bad road conditions by stopping at a Sasak village to have a look round. The Sasak are the indigenous people of Lombok. They are mainly Muslim and traditionally live in huts with packed-mud floors and roofs thatched with the local long grass, alang-alang. The huts in which they lived I felt were rather nondescript, and the only structure of interest was the bale, or storage shed. Its characteristic structure is the symbol of Lombok and is replicated in concrete and wood all over the main city.

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What’s a village without chickens? This cute little chick was poking around the village grounds with its brothers and sisters, learning how to fend for itself.

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And having had our fill of sleepy beach and equally sleepy village life, we headed back to Mataram. Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended Restaurant Taliwang, a local place serving up Lombok specialties. I started off with a jumbo-sized coconut drink with honey. It was really good and such a godsend because Lombok food is very spicy!

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We ordered a whole array of dishes like deep-fried tempeh (I couldn’t get enough of it), deep-fried squid, grilled gurami and vegetable soup. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of the fiery chilli sauce made with local belacan, a kind of fermented prawn paste.

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Belacan, the smelly delight, really came into its own when turned into the local delicacy, kangkung pelecing. Here, toasted grated coconut is piled on top of toasted peanuts, and boiled beansprouts and kangkung. The kangkung is a more tender, heart-shaped leaved version of the Singaporean kangkong. Toasted belacan is worked into a spicy sauce of chilli and tomato (and probably other secret ingredients) and then poured on top of the mound of veggies. The result? An in-your-face explosion of sour, sweet, spicy and fishy that hits the taste buds with a one-two (POW!) blow. Amazing. This is one dish that I have to attempt to recreate soon.

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Rumah Makan Taliwang I
No. 20 Jalan Ade Irma Suryani
Mataram, Lombok
(Ask at Villa Sayang for exact directions)

September in Bali: A Quiet Little Island

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One of the reasons why we did so few dives a day was because the waters here was less sheltered. The other reason was that the locals were very religious and often had to go for evening prayers. This gave me plenty of time to wander around the village, checking out the sights and sounds of the place. One  of the first things I noticed about this island was their fanaticism for fighting cocks. I didn’t get a chance to witness a fight myself but almost every house kept prized roosters and men would fuss over them in the evenings, getting them ready for the big fight by attaching spurs to their talons. The cocks were then placed under small baskets and left in formation till the fight began.

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The locals were far less concerned about their motorbikes. It wasn’t a big deal at all if a bike didn’t have a proper seat.

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The most spectacular thing in the evening was to witness the locals at their evening festivals as the sun starting setting over the village, causing the temple towers to glow orange.

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We entered the temple grounds through imposing stone gates…

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… and watch discreetly from outside the temple wall.

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All the worshippers were decked out in their finery, the equivalent of their Sunday best. They sat on mats on the ground while waiting for the priests to  spoon out their share of the holy water (or was it holy milk?)

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All waited quietly in the ceremony, including the young children. I was surprised at how quiet the children were as I got bored with the ceremony where there only seemed to be chanting and holy water distribution.

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I soon wandered back to the beach to enjoy the sunset.

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Tekong at Changi

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Shinta wanted to eat seafood and we found ourselves in my neck of the woods. The oddly named Tekong Seafood is at Changi Point, somewhat badly located in a building way to the back of the hawker centre. We were there on recommendation of Shinta’s guildmate and ordered most of his recommendations.

The gong-gong was decent, though nothing to shout about. A bit chewy, not particularly tasty nor fishy, went decently with the sweet chilli sauce. Next.

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I quite liked the meesua though it’s not something that I’d make a special trip down for. I liked how the special meesua was just cooked so it was still rather stiff and almost chewy, a bit like very fine meekia. The sauce was the classic brown gloopy sauce that was very well made, aromatic and full of seafoody flavour. Yummy.

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Things really started going when the deepfried squid rings appeared. They were so good that they disappeared before everything else and we had to immediately order a second plate of the stuff. The batter was very crisp and perfectly seasoned with plenty of salt crystals, aromatic curry leaves and a touch of sweet. I liked how the crispy outer layer gave way to the slightly chewy squid on the inside.

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I thought the oat prawns were great too. I normally prefer prawns poached as it really brings out the flavour, but this time the flavour wasn’t sacrificed as they fried them so the heads were still juicy inside. Plenty of crunch from the batter and oats, prawns fried well so that it was so crispy that the shells could be eaten too yet still juicy on the inside. Nothing much to criticise here. Great stuff.

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Aim of the next visit? To check out their crabs!

Tekong Seafood Restaurant
Block 6 Changi Village Road #01-2100 Changi Village
Tel: 6542 8923

July in Vietnam: The Fishing Village of Mui Ne

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I moved on from Quy Nhon to Mui Ne, bypassing Nha Trang because I wasn’t up to much partying after Hue (I chose not to post about celebrating Canada Day because of that awful, awful hangover) and I heard the diving there wasn’t very much different from Hoi An (with which I wasn’t impressed, that’s a story for another day). Mui Ne didn’t disappoint. I arrived as dusk fell and the idyllic coconut-trees-swaying-in-the-wind setting immediately started working its charm.

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Daytime augmented the coconut-tree charm and I soon found myself on the back of a motorcycle off to a nearby fishing village.

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Early in the morning, fishing boats return from the night’s work and the flotilla waits in the shallows for the coracles to come out to unload the cargo.

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The coracles are unique circular little fellas that are nimble enough to float on mere inches of water to bring in the catch.

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By the time this tourist arrived, most of the activity was tapering off and people were starting to relax after sorting and selling their wares.

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Many of them were still milling around the main bartering areas, leaving their little boats on the beach out of reach of the waves.

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The highlight of this visit really was getting up close to these boats. I’d not seen them anywhere else in the world and was very intrigued by how they managed to get anywhere. I imagine myself just going round and round in circles if I had to captain one of these! These boats were really just waterproofed baskets, no wonder they were simply left unguarded all over the beach. If one goes missing, just weave a replacement, easy!

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Coracles aside, there were other interesting things going on at the beach. There were bullock carts hauling fresh catch or selling breakfast treats.

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There were baskets upon baskets of fish on sale, mainly small to medium ones.

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And there were plenty of locals in the characteristic conical hats negotiating good prices for crates of silvery fish.

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Some areas of the beach were strewn with open shells. Here, plenty of sorting had taken place earlier in the morning where I’m guessing workers went through thousands of scallops, extracting the meat to be dried for export.

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Near the beach, fish were being salted and laid out to dry in the already fierce morning sun.

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And off I went to my next adventure, admiring how the sun glinted off the sea in waves of silver as my motorbike whizzed past.

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It was also a wonder how we got anywhere, considering that the bike’s speedometer needle didn’t move past zero! More to come next post.

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Crispy Pata at Katong Village

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DC and I chanced upon this place while parking at Katong Village. We are big fans of unhealthy pork knuckle and were sold when I later saw the restaurant showing off their crispy pata on a TV feature.

Too bad that I couldn’t allow us to just have the crispy pata on its own. We had to have some other dishes to complete the meal. The grilled squid stuffed with vegetables (i.e. tomato and onion) was fairly decent, though I’d prefer it to be a bit more charred for more flavour and texture.

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Then there was the stir-fried mixed vegetables that we ordered for the sake of health and fibre. Nothing to shout about, a typical Filipino style stirfy with long beans, ladies fingers, brinjal, bitter gourd, pumpkin and peppers. Vegetarians do note that it’s almost impossible to get pure vegetarian food here. I was surprised that there were quite a few pork slices in this vegetable dish. It wasn’t mentioned in the description on the menu and neither did the server tell us. Not a big deal for us, we treated it as a bonus.

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And now for the star of the show. The crispy pata was what we were here for! When we ordered, they told us that the crispy pata was sufficient for three or four people and despite this, we carried on to order the other dishes above. Nonetheless, the two of us fell on this dish and polished it all off, it was that good! I don’t know how they made it, but the meat was meltingly, unctuously soft on the inside, with the fat just lightly coating the meat, most of it having dripped off in the cooking process. The skin was robustly crisp and consistently so. The crisp to soft ratio was very satisfying, with enough of both to keep me wanting more. Very excellent. I’d go back there just for the crispy pata.

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Cafe D’Manila
01-19/20 Katong Village, 86 East Coast Road

July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.