Friday, December 21, 2012

Bali revisited: Day 4

We've moved on to Seminyak. It's not quite what we'd expected: thought we'd find a beach here (yes, that's the depth of research we've done) but instead found a strip of little shops catering to the tourist crowd. Since it seemed to be an extension of Kuta Beach, we decided to walk to Kuta Beach... a whole hour-and-a-half on foot. We had a destination in mind: the Forrest Gump-themed Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. which we share good memories of from the last time we were here. Good food, excellent if a tad over-enthusiastic service.

We both went with pasta options, which on their own were impressive. The shrimp is meaty and fresh; the portions generous. But what really made the dishes sing was not on the usual list of ingredients. We asked for sliced fresh chillies, and we were served a saucerful of pale-looking zingers. Awesome!

There's a promotion going on currently: a free house dessert with each main dish ordered. Strawberry shortcake (above) was a bit doughy for my taste but being served a la mode covered a lot of sins. The key lime pie (below) set the benchmark for my quest for the perfect key lime pie. It was smooth and well-balanced between sweet and sour. This is one dessert you don't need much to reach satisfaction with.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bali revisited: Day 3

A holiday with me isn't complete without a spin on a quad bike. We booked a morning riding tandem on an ATV at Bakas Levi Rafting, which evidently offers more outdoor attractions than rafting. First time using a manual shift but got used to it pretty quickly. Again, prior experience (as in Port Arthur and Chiangmai) didn't make this ride any easier. Though this ride is much shorter, it's more challenging because of the steep gradients and the narrow dirt track bordering a nasty drop into a ravine. The route was simple: one way down, and then back up the way we came. Part of the challenge was to avoid things on the track like butterflies; the odd working elephant; and a gaggle of PRC tourists strolling to their rafting start point. 

Our guide, Jerry, was a jolly, easy-going fellow who knew how to pace our jungle ride. He was close on hand over more difficult terrain, and kept a distance when I got more confident so I could feel the illusion of independence. Though with June riding behind me, safety was always first in my mind, regardless. Being quite experienced with the camera, he was also responsible for many couple shots on this trip which our holiday albums are usually devoid of.

In the afternoon, we trekked the Campuhan Ridge trail. June copied the route directions off TripAdvisor which up to a point were quite accurate.

The trail offers some gorgeous views of the rural countryside. More locals than tourists frequent this area, and for some reason there were a number of high school students clustering along various parts of the trail today. School's out, maybe? Or is today a school holiday? At the end of this nicely paved trail is a number of well-hidden art galleries; a couple of spas and guest houses... and our directions got real hazy after that.

We could have gone back the way we came, but we took the other option suggesting that we make a huge loop back to Ubud central. "Huge" was an understatement. The road took us up and down steep slopes with vehicles whizzing past us and no sidewalk for a buffer. The area we were walking in began looking increasingly rural, and we had no idea what lay in front of us at the end of the road. Turns out we were going the right way, but if we wanted to take this walk, we should have started in the morning. In the end, we hitched a ride with an obliging young man in a Honda Jazz who offered to take us back to civilization for IDR20,000. We gave him 50K as we didn't have anything smaller after we tipped Jerry (above).

We had sate campur at Coco Bistro to celebrate our return. I was quite impressed with the quality of the skewered diced pork; chicken and beef. Served with a plate of plain white rice topped with a sprinkling of fried shallots, smooth peanut paste and a salad of chopped cucumbers; onions and tomatoes, this dish really hit the spot.

But this was treasure for our parched throats. It tasted like sparkling toothpaste, but it was cold and so thirst-quenching, we felt quite assured that were were home from the wilderness at last.

Bali revisited: Day 2

This sunrise view wasn't easy to acquire, especially for the likes of yours truly. Mt Batur was a challenging climb, moreso than we initially thought. After all, we survived the climb up Diamond Head, didn't we? Batur was no Diamond Head. No smooth paths; regular steps with handrails. It was wild, the path was narrow; strewn with rocks; and in parts the gradient was so steep, neither looking up nor down was in the least helpful. Besides all through the climb, it was raining, it was dark, the way lighted only by flashlight.

It turned out that we were ill prepared for the weather. We both had to rent waterproof hooded jackets from the trek guides at IDR50,000 each, having no idea who had worn them and sweated in them before us. We were just grateful to have them. We were also ill-prepared physically for the ascent. Before long,we both were huffing and puffing from the walk... and that was even before the terrain got steep and difficult. I was convinced that at some point, one of us would throw in the towel and collapse and die from exhaustion. Outside, the rain was soaking my rented jacket, inside my t-shirt was soaking with sweat. That bad. 

In the end, it was a game of mind over matter. Of concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and quashing all thoughts of how far more we still had to struggle. The journey had to become more important than the destination. To think of reaching the summit, looking up and seeing the distance and steepness of the path ahead of us was very daunting. Thinking of having to climb back down after reaching the top was a total OMG moment. But if we had our minds on our fluffy, comfy bed back at the Kamandalu, that would have killed us for sure. So step by painful step, up we went. We also took frequent breaks and let others pass us along the path. No deadlines, no hurry. Our guide waited patiently with us and kept encouraging us by accounting how far we've come already and ticking down the distance we had left to cover.

The view (top) was spectacular, but brekkie being all of a couple of slices of plain bread, a hard-boiled egg and a banana... well, this fellow (above) and his mates looked like they needed a meal more than we did. I kept the banana for the potassium I needed to stave off cramps in my sore legs.

The altitude and rain combined to make it feel cold up top, but the crater comprised many small holes emitting natural steam that warmed us up sufficiently as long as we stood close to one.

Needless to say, we survived our ordeal. Climbing down the volcano was way easier than climbing up as we didn't have to fight gravity any more. Still, we had to be careful of our footing on the slippery rocks covering the path but other than that, it was a breeze. But having given our brekkie to the local inhabitants and returning to the hotel too late for the morning buffet, we opted to sleep until lunchtime. We followed a recommendation from one of our travelling companions and tried the speciality roast suckling pig dish at Ibu Oka. Above is a mixed dish of roast meat, deep-fried meat, vegetables and on the left, a slab of crackling skin. The flavours were so amazingly rich, we realised we should have shared one order instead of having one each. The crackling skin was the best I've tasted, crispy pork fat at its finest, though the second piece nearly did me in with the sudden onset of the law of diminishing marginal utility.

Back at the Kamandalu, we indulged ourselves with a sore muscles massage and flower bath at the spa. The skilful papmpering from the professional and friendly staff made a great end to a tough but eventually satisfying morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bali revisited: Day 1

See this? It's a well deserved tall, cold, drink from Cafe Wayan, Ubud, Bali. We very nearly didn't make it here at all. On the way to the airport, we realised that we forgot to pack our hotel bookings. We had to turn our cab around  for home, scramble to find the printed pages... but they were nowhere to be found. By the time we decided to transfer the booking email to my roaming email account, we were pushing late. And because the taxi meter was still running, we were out of $20+ even before we actually left our front door. Fortunately, we arrived last at the flight check-in counter just before it closed.

Our hotel in Ubud is the Kamandalu Resort & Spa. We have a private villa that's roomy and comfortable with both indoor and outdoor bath facilities... but too bad our first night won't be spent here. We're booked on a midnight trek up Mt Batur, an active volcano, to see the sunrise and have brekkie at the crater. But that's another adventure altogether...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Still walking

Picked up "The Walking Dead: The Game" from Telltale Games. I've been following the gripping, gritty series on TV and wanted to know if the PC game version really deserved the Spike VGA Game of the Year 2012 accolade.

TWD:TG is an episodic point-and-click survival-horror-adventure game. Using the mouse, you trawl the screen looking for clickable 'hotspots' that provide information; dialogue; the occasional side snide comment or an interactive element. There are five episodes so far and all are currently available for download as a package.

This story is set just before the lead character, Sheriff Rick Grimes, awakens from his coma at the beginning of the TV series. In the game, you play Lee Everett, an African-American ex-college professor with a history he regrets. The emotional hook comes in the form of Clementine, a little girl, presumably orphaned during the chaos, whom Everett meets and decides to care for.

Apart from the forced choice of adopting Clementine, the game leaves lots of room for the player to make other choices which stick, changing the outcome of the game. Non-player characters (NPCs) remember their dialogues with you and they note your decisions, which determine how they will respond to you in future interactions. Many of these choices are hard: whom do you side in the frequent arguments that flare up due to the stress and pressure -- and self-preservation responses -- that the other characters experience? How do you negotiate with strangers who hold as much menace as promise? Be pragmatic or compassionate? How will your choices affect your relationship with Clementine and the others in your group?

If you've been watching the TV series, you can feel the pain the characters are going through, living day to day as they do. But in the game, it's not so easy when you have to make those decisions in first person and have to live with what you've done because once your choice is made, it's irrevocable. These choices are not what you can ponder long over as there is a timer that will make a choice for you if you don't decide quickly enough, and that sticks too. Some of your choices hold people's lives in the balance and if they die they stay dead... unless they reanimate and try to chew your face off.

Telltale has innovated quite intelligently with the point-and-click adventure genre. Whether it's finding a target area to hit (especially difficult if you don't set your mouse sensitivity properly) or making a split second decision because there's no time to think, yet balancing that with maintaining a consistent character and a healthy relationship with Clementine and the group, you really feel the tension of the situation. And knowing that the story compels you to complete a series of mundane tasks that will trigger some horrific occurrence as your payoff, well, there's good pacing for you.

Glad the game has eschewed photorealism in favour of animating the comic book version of the story. In a way, it's going back to its roots. The voice acting sounds true to character so despite the cartoony graphics, you still feel like you're interacting with real people. And when you lose people for one reason or another, sometimes you do miss the voice you can no longer hear.

Game of the year? Considering that the production values and gameplay mechanics are not as polished as the big-budget offerings, VGA has taken a stand to honour the indie publisher for strength and depth of immersion in an intense story experience over games that involve long-term grinding. These days, I prefer short, satisfying games over games that play out over hours seemingly without end (like the previous game of the year, "Skyrim" which I never completed -- may not even be half-way through!). So, yeah, odd, brave choice, but one that I can support.