25 04 2008

The name “Borneo” has always conjured up images of wild apes and monkeys for me. Maybe from reading National Geographic, maybe from the animal flash-card game we had when we were kids, maybe from obsessively memorizing animal facts during various pre-adolescent zoology phases. But here I find myself in the northeastern corner of Borneo, absolutely swimming in primates.

And palm oil. I’ve been trying to write something capturing the magnitude of the environmental devastation here, under a blanketing monoculture of palm oil plantations. Imagine the corn fields of Nebraska, except infinite rows of palm trees covering what only a few decades ago was one of the world’s oldest and most diverse rainforest ecosystems. I don’t really have the photos to tell that story, so I’ll save the polemics, but there’s plenty of context on wikipedia and the like. What wildlife is left here, much of it endangered, is cornered into tiny and beleaguered sanctuaries of mostly secondary forest. In recent days I’ve been to a proboscis monkey sanctuary, an orangutan sanctuary, and a protected forest park along the Kinabatangan River. Excellent wildlife spotting, and there’s an overwhelming calm beauty to the jungle landscape. However it’s hard for it to match the unrelenting hype from the package-tour industry, and prices for some attractions here have gone well beyond western standards. It’s easily the most expensive place I’ve been to in southeast Asia, with every half-day excursion forcing you into an overnight stay with full board via a single concessionary, everything at obscene markups. And there’s simply no way to conceal the plantations or hide the fact that you’re visiting the very, very last examples of these critically endangered and disappearing animals. So the wonder of it is obviously a litle bittersweet.

So enough depressing rants, let’s look at some animals.

Black macaque

Proboscis monkeys

Hmm, bananas… don’t mind if I do

I am officially calling for a caption contest for this photo

Baby monkeys: officially cute

Those are all semi-wild animals, living near the feeding stations in the sanctuaries. The following are all wild, around the Kinabatangan River.

Yellow-eyed rumpled eagle

Silver mud crocodile

Rainbow-freckled kingfisher

Two-headed macaque

Three-beaked hornbills

Yellow-spotted nozzlenose bug

Broom-nosed leaf bug

Clear-tipped reef dragonfly

Leopard-spotted zebra moth, emerging from the chrysalis (in case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m making up all these names, I really don’t seem to be very keen at remembering species names)

My new arch-enemy and denizen of my nightmares: the brain-sucking zombie leech. Words cannot describe the horror of these wriggling little annelids, moving at improbable speeds by doing slimy little end-over-end cartwheels. Turn over a leaf, and there can be half a dozen of them, excitedly smelling brains nearby, reaching out and flapping about, anxious to crawl in your ear or under your skin and work their way into your brain and bring about the zombie leech apocalypse. One found his way up my shirt, through my buttons, and into my armpit. Another crawled up my leg, wriggled through the tiny gap in the zipper of my zip-off pant leg, and inserted himself into my thigh. One got on the inside top of my backpack when I set it down for a second, eager to drill directly into my spinal cord. One got on the bottom of my camera and flapped against my lips when I brought it up for a picture, perhaps seeking the direct route, or maybe looking for an eye. Don’t believe anyone who denies the undead zombifying nature of these demonic creatures; they’re already under the control of the zombie leech overlords.

This 5000-volt electric fence surrounded our jungle bungalows, in response to one of their buildings being trampled by a herd of pygmy forest elephants last year. No bullshit. Didn’t see any elephants (or the pygmy forest rhino, one of the rarest species on earth) but did see some elephant tracks, and apparently visitors do see them from time to time.

More proboscis monkeys, wild ones, and critically endangered – though you’d never know it from how common they are along this river.

Big male proboscis monkey lets it all hang out. These guys keep harems of up to a dozen females, enforced by violence and lots of hooting and frequent sex.

The fig tree – essential staple of many of the primate species here.

Plenty more photos visible here – these are just a quick selection.

Currently I’m in Sempurna, Sabah – jumping of point for Sipidan Island and many other renowned dive sites. This, according to many extremely experienced divers I’ve met, is meant to be one of the best dives sites in the world. I’ll let you know in a week or so.

more from Bali and Borneo

22 04 2008

A little more of daily liife in Bali in this post, not just the beach…

OK, the tourist zone near Kuta Beach can be a little crass.

For a place that sustained several terrorist bombings and hundreds of deaths (backpackers like me, and locals) only a couple of years ago… this is the only reference to that that I’ve found yet. The young men running the surf shops and bars here grew up on Australian surf culture alongside their parent’s Hinduism – the fanatical Javanese Islam of the bombings is as foreign to them as it is to us.

OK, more beach shots.

I think this gives some sense of the chaos of cars, motorbikes, smoke, surfers, brightly lit shops, hawkers etc in Kuta.

Then I ran into Thomas, the Swedish fire-spinner I met in Kuala Lumpur. He has a place in Ubud, a well-established craft center inland and put me up for a few days. Urban southeast Asia everywhere else I’ve been is all cold, hard, dusty, artificial surfaces – bare concrete, tile, steel shutters, dirt lots, open sewers clogged with trash. Ubud is drastically different. Everything is an explosion of green, dripping with art, everything built and placed just so with deliberate craft. Everything built with with a local volcanic stone that famously weathers just so and looks positively ancient after only a few years in the sun and rain. Everything growing a patina of moss, enveloped by creeping ivy, blooming with tiny flowers between each crack.

This place is so fantastically alive – something is growing or buzzing around everywhere you go.

Green envelops everything

And everything is scaled just so, just a bit smaller than human size, inviting close looks and isolating details. It’s a fascinating place to photograph and can be difficult to make much progress down the street. Angie H., your brain would simply explode here.

Then there’s one of the reasons I went to Ubud with Thomas – I was fascinated to try to photograph his fire-spinning. Some results:

Then it was on to Malaysian Borneo to flee Indonesia before my stingy 30-day visa expired. Arrived in Kota Kinabalu (capitol of the East Malaysian state of Sabah):

Not too many photos of KK yet, as I’ll be back there in a bit for the annual Sabah Fest, which will add lots of color and variety to the town. Next stop was a quick peak-bagging dash up Mt. Kinabalu (4095m, 13,500ft), claimed to be the tallest in Southeast Asia (there’s a taller one in New Guinea, whose geographical provenance is somewhat contested). Anyway, it’s a beautiful massif of dozens of twisted and dramatic peaks on a stark granite pluton, not unlike the Sierra Nevada, utterly unlike the ugly piles of volcanic cinders making up Indonesia:

Dawn, on the way back down. Check out the shadow of the massif against the alpenglow, on the left, and the Pacific Ocean visible in the distance.

Next: orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and a river trek into the rainforest.

Maluku: Banda Islands

11 04 2008

Last post in this series, after which we will be up to date.

A flight from Ambon to Kei was not too hard to work out. Kei has a decent sized airstrip, big enough for medium size, reliable twin-prop airplanes that come five times a week. Getting there was no problem. Getting to Banda was harder – there’s only one flight a week from Ambon to Banda and back (all flights in the region go via Ambon) on a tiny, lightweight cargo plane. Turns out the biggest flat spot on Banda Neira (the biggest of the small group of islands) is too small by half, so the runway consists half of landfill into the bay, has a pretty steep gradient to boot, and the plane has to make a sharp dive on takeoff or landing to avoid a volcano. Banda has no instrumented beacons, so all landings are on visual approach only. If the pilot can’t see the strip, he can’t land (four crashes in ten years), and since there’s no fuel depot, he must return immediately to Ambon rather than circle and wait for the low morning clouds to rise. Anyway, the one flight a week wasn’t nearly on the right day for me.

So I took a boat directly to Banda, on the state ferry line Pelni. “Ferry” doesn’t really do it justice – think cruise liner size with half of the boat consisting of steerage-class sleeping benches, covered with cigarette burns, cockroaches, and mysterious drip stains on the walls. The other half is perfectly serviceable, clean first- and second-class cabins. The boats cruise continuous circuits between Sumatra and West Papua, many stretches taking 3-5 days (luckily the bits between the islands I visited are only half a day). There are a couple of karaoke bars, video games, a room showing movies, sometimes live bands. Also a permanent traveling merchant class seems to live aboard, selling everything you can imagine. At each stop, an army of small boys rushes aboard and runs around the halls selling bottled water and cigarettes, screaming “air…rokok” at the top of their lungs, rushing out again before the boat sails. Middle aged ladies trundle around with big baskets of whole fish, rice, oily boxed meals, hard boiled eggs. Men wander around selling stuffed animals, huge varieties of clothing, perfume, fake gold watches, jewelry, shoes, luggage. The noise and fuss settles down a while after setting sail, and at night every available horizontal surface in the Ekonomi class has someone sleeping on a mat, surrounded by a fortress of boxes and luggage. Uniformed officers keep these locals out of the upper class cabin areas when possible, or simply lock the gates when not. It’s always worth a good exploratory wander first off, inspecting which routes towards the lifeboats are actually unlocked.

So I arrive at Banda stupid early, around 3:30 a.m. Another trepidacious walk around town, looking for an open guesthouse. Luckily this time the first one, recommended by fellow travelers in Kei, had space and the Ibu woke up when I came in. Ten minutes later I was asleep. Sleep is difficult in Ekonomi class, from the noise and movement and eternal light, and the abundant stories of organized gangs of robbers working the boats in teams. Many other travelers expressed surprise that I would even go down on the ekonomi decks, much less book a ticket there. As always so far though, I saw nothing worrisome and felt no threat. It may have something to do with me being a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than almost anyone I see around me…

The Banda Islands were once the world’s only source of nutmeg. This is an apricot-sized tree fruit, containing a hard dry flesh (can be dried and candied into something resembling a bland, cloying candied ginger), a hard seed (to be dried in the sun and ground), and a red, rubbery skin over the seed (this is mace, to be dried in the sun and powdered). The island’s whole economy is still dominated by nutmeg, and it takes two hours to load the bags of nutmeg for export onto the Pelni boats on their bimonthly visits. Nutmeg groves abound in all the villages I visited, and nutmeg is laying around everywhere drying in the sun. Also peppercorns, eggplants, cassava (a staple starch in the small villages, wealthier communities having long ago switched to imported rice), cloves, chili, corn, greens, green beans, cabbage, papayas, jackfruit, breadfruit, guavas, bananas. Hard to find mangos and pineapples though.

Enough words, here are the pictures:

Drying fish in the sun. The woman uses a whisk to shoo away the flies, entirely too infrequently for comfort

Thin, curled strips of cork bark – used to waterproof the seams of home-built wooden boats. All the small boats here are simple dugout canoes from a single tree (have been searching everywhere to get a shot of the carving in action, but apparently it’s a rainy-season activity). Larger ones are built from planks and always have some water sloshing in the bilge…

Bamboo nutmeg pickers

Locally grown chilies

Nice t-shirt. One of the guidebooks notes how common this kind of thing is, and asked people who he was. Many didn’t know, and some said “I think he’s a nice old man who gives money to children.” This guy was a relative of the guesthouse owner, fishing with a net right off the waterfront guesthouse.

There are a dozen or so islands in the Banda group. Most day trips involve looking at the couple guesthouses in town for other tourists, and chartering a boat together. My first day trip out was through the owner of one of those guesthouses, who keeps track of the quality of the five or size boats available. His preferred guy was making repairs, so we used a new guy with a supposedly brand-new boat. You can see the result. The single-cylinder diesel engine failed in the open ocean and the boatman spent hours trying to fix it, with tools like a single rusty spanner and a fishhook. Turns out the fuel gasket had failed before and been replaced with some wraps of a black plastic bag. Guess what, that disintegrated under high-pressure diesel fuel immersion, and sprayed all the fuel into the engine compartment rather than the engine. After several fruitless hours, he pulled up a plank from the deck and started paddling. The three of us bules (Indonesian for whites) paddled too with steadily increasing panic levels as darkness approached. I fashioned a distress flag from a sarong and the long bamboo pole used for maneuvering in shallow water – it was ignored by several nearby ships until around 4:30, when the fishing boats head for home. Then we got a tow back to town with only severe sunburns to show for the day. This is the closest I’ve come to disaster on any of my trips abroad.

The open water is like glass here, in the calm season. No strong currents, no winds, no swells – eerie.

Nutmeg fruit on the tree

Nutmeg seeds and mace, drying on someone’s lawn.

Our boatmen – these ones trusted and reliable. Perfectly clear water, healthy corals, lots of fish. I snorkeled a lot (diving hasn’t really caught on here yet) but often you don’t even need a mask to see the fish, the water is so flat and clear.

Perfectly clear night skies too (alternating with torrential downpours)

This kid was sitting on the jetty at one of the tiny outlying islands, fishing with homemade goggles and a homemade speargun. The goggles are bamboo, carved perfectly to fit, inlaid with a bit of glass epoxied in place. The speargun is a bit of scrap wood, powered by a strip of inner tube, firing a straight bit of steel rod, triggered by a bent piece of wire.

Last day in Banda, on the way back to home base.

The plan was to leave Banda via the cargo plane (along with the other five tourists on the islands… one week is about the right amount of time to stay, so every week’s crop funnels together to the airplane). The pilot didn’t bother to phone the Banda airport for conditions before departing Ambon, and arrived to heavy, low cloud cover. So they sounded the klaxon to clear the dogs and motorbikes from the airstrip, he circled around a few times invisible in the clouds overhead, then turned back to Ambon. The crowd of locals (including a nine-months-pregnant woman with urinary complications) launched into a real shouting match with the airport agents. The local feeling is (I later learned) that (mostly Protestant) Banda is suffering from a deliberate campaign by the Muslim government in Jakarta to marginalize and cripple their economy, the lack of coordination with the plane being just one of many symptoms.

An hour later, clear blue skies. No rescheduled flight, there’s only one plane and it visits other islands on the other days. Got a refund from the ticket agent (tickets are purchased at his house, where he sits you in his living room with the kids watching TV and makes you tea. You don’t get a ticket or a receipt, just your name in a little notebook and an assurance that he’ll be at the airstrip and know you by sight!). Got on the next Pelni ferry to Ambon, luckily only a day later.

Ambonese kid, selling cigarettes on the street.

Next day, flew on to Bali. What a shock! Kuta Beach (epicenter of Bali tourism) might as well be Key West. Heavily developed, all concrete, packed with cars, motorbikes, plus-size package tourists (there are actually Americans here), “backpacker” food everywhere (horrifying mealy pizzas, watery pastas, steaks made of leather, and always European soccer matches on the TV) and endless touts and sidewalk sales pitches. Still it’s nice to have water pressure, a wide variety of food, abundant services, internet, pharmacies, etc etc. And there’s still a bit of magic left here behind the westernized verneer, when the devoutly-Hindu locals leave daily offerings to the gods on ever street corner and storefront, and in the light on Kuta Beach itself. Never seen anything like it – a mile wide, perfectly flat, clean, fine sand, endless sets of perfect surf tubes curling all day long just off the beach.

I’m only sharing one day’s worth of photos from Bali so far, more variety to come.

The area around Kuta is swarming with motorbikes, many of them piloted inexpertly by western tourists with no experience and maybe a couple of cocktails. Moving around here is a lot more dangerous than other dense parts of Indonesia, where every kid was practically born on a motorbike. Fuel for these diminutive two-stroke engines is different than car fuel from official gas stations, containing two-stroke oil. It’s usually sold from old cooking oil containers on the side of the road. This one was a little different.

Magic light.

That’s all for now. Next stop is Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. My one-month visa is expiring, so I’m engaging in the familiar maneuver of longtime Southeast Asian backpackers – the visa run. Leave the country for as little as a day, get stamped back in with a fresh visa. This one will be almost three weeks though, climbing mountains, diving in Sipadan, and catching the famous Sabah Festival of culture, food, dancing, and music in Kota Kinabalu. Then back to Bali, visiting Komodo for diving and dragons, and eventually on to Java for the Waisak Fest – a celebration of Buddha’s birthday at the world’s biggest Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur. Looking forward to your comments and emails…


Maluku: Kei Islands

10 04 2008

Sulawesi was already a world removed from the ease and comfort of Malaysia, and even from the abundant transport of northern Sumatra. But my next stop was Maluku – a giant, watery province of all the loose groups of islands east of Sulawesi, bound only by their outlier status. Politically as well as geographically and racially – the Ambonese backed the Dutch against the Java-based independence movement after World War II, the Sundanese are more Philippino than Indonesian, many people are visibly more related to Austronesian Papuans and Aborigines than the Asiatic bulk of Indonesia, and most of Indonesia’s 5% Christian minority lives here. These are the original Spice Islands, source of such excitement to medieval Europeans as to spark centuries of foreign military and economic warfare and colonization. At the time of the Dutch and British East India Companies, tiny specks of land in Maluku (which you may remember from your history books as Malacca) were the world’s only source for cloves (revolutionary for making spoiled meat palatable), nutmeg (a magical, multi-purpose medicine in its day), and mace (also derived from the nutmeg fruit). Colonization by Portuguese, Dutch, and British brought Christianity along with it. For centuries the Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side, in relative peace.

Until 1999. The whole region exploded in neighbor-on-neighbor violence, starting with protests and riots, ending with church arsons and murder as extremists moved in from more radicalized parts of the country like Java. Every town I visited had all the churches under reconstruction, or abandoned and quickly being overtaken by jungle. One island would be solidly Christian, with a big church and lots of Papuan faces, and a tiny moldering mosque in a corner of the village. The next island over would have a great shiny new mosque, beautiful brand new concrete paths, seawalls, and street lighting – all paid for by the Indonesian Islamic political party – while the former Christian side of the villages looked to have been abandoned in a hurry, the church in ruins. There’s been quiet since 2004, it seems mostly because partition into separate communities was nearly complete. That’s a recipe for further conflict, who knows when. Dutch tourists I met told me that the racial and religious conflict here goes so deep that Ambonese and Kei Island emigrants living in Holland for generations are still hostile towards each other – Amsterdam features a tensely divided Indonesian quarter.

Moving from Sulawesi to Maluku, everything took a giant step away from easy. English speakers are rare and unpracticed. Transport withers from once or twice a day, to once or twice a week. Distances increase. Services dwindle. Toilets in Sumatra have water pressure and flush, with showers and hot water (if you pay extra for it). In Sulawesi, you have a seat but no flush, rather a big bucket and a scoop to supply water, but still water pressure and a shower. In Maluku you have a hole in the ground and you shower with the scoop, and the Ibu (the guesthouse mama, she’s the one in charge) reminds you please not to waste the water.

First, Ambon. Drab, concrete seat of Malukan government, epicenter of the 1999 violence, home to an astounding concentration of army and police barracks (there was briefly violence between them in 1999, and today public platoon marches are entirely too prominent and loud), and the only transport hub in southern Maluku.

Shoe store

Fish sticks
Kid in a bucket. Seemed to be some sort of bathing activity?

Night market. Power is unreliable, cutting out repeatedly all night long. The markets are lit by kerosene lamp and candle.

Ambon is home to some spectacular diving, but as a transport hub it’s best enjoyed as briefly as possible. My first destination was the Kei Islands, a remote little archipelago closer to Australia and New Guinea than Java. Kei Kecil is home to a guesthouse with the most glowing, effusive review in the entire Lonely Planet (sole Bible for independent backpackers in the region, until the new Rough Guide comes out in 2009 anyway…) – calling out the “pure narcotic tranquility” of Savana Cottages in a special “best of Indonesia” section in the front. Judge for yourself:

I only saw this kind of bubbly, joyous enthusiasm and carefree play in Christian villages. The Muslim villages were more home to cold stares, reluctant greetings, reserved children.

This big fella crawled in my window one night

The semi-legendary Savana Cottages. Run by a Kei man who lived in Holland for 30 years, interesting patois of Indonesian, English, and Dutch – particularly after non-infrequent bouts of heavy drinking. However the place is more than a little magical – the bay in front of the village is no more than 2-3 feet deep for at least a quarter mile, covered with pure white, silky soft sand. The light reflecting off the sand provides an ever-changing palatte of sun-drenched blue and green and turquoise:

This speaks for itself

Christians on this island. The tiny mosque is visible down at the end of the street.

Quite a bit of this, too. Under-represented in photos, though there have been moments I regretted not taking the waterproof housing out to take photos of kids playing in the rain, bathing in the downspouts…

After the rain. This reminded me of a Rothko painting…

(one more post coming in this bunch)