10 04 2008

This is going to be a long one. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been able to use the internet, so I apologize for the long silence. Everything is well, I’m safe, no troubles other than infrequent and unreliable transport in these far reaches of Indonesia. This update will come in a few parts since it’s so long coming, so I apologize for the flood of emails for you subscribers.

Last you heard from me, I was on my first stop in Indonesia – Sumatra. I didn’t really intend to stay there long. Sumatra used to be more on the backpacker trail, but the chaos and troubles created by the combination of separatist violence in Aceh province and the devastation of the 2004 Christmas tsunami have really shut down foreign tourism there. End result is less income but just as many mouths to feed, so ever more pressure on the few foreigners who do show up. I was craving something a little more low key, and honestly more pleasant than fighting off guides and ojek drivers and greedy hoteliers all day long. So I bailed on some of the other common destination in Sumatra, leaving me some things to see on the next trip.

A couple short flights later, I show up in Manado. This is another big drab city in the north of Sulawesi – well to the north of the political and population center of Java, home to a significant Christian population, and closer (geographically, and in some ways ethnically and culturally) to the Philippines than to Java. Again Sulawesi is full of interesting sights that take days of rough traveling to get to, which I skipped. By this point I was starting to get the idea that to see everything worth seeing in Indonesia would take several years, so I began triaging very strictly. And my priority was Pulau Bunaken, a sizable island north of Manado, home to relaxed beachside guesthouses, cool blue waters, and spectacular diving and snorkeling. But first I had to escape Manado. I arrived at 11pm after crossing the bulk of Indonesia via three flights and two transits (highly chaotic to book and travel due to a countrywide holiday – every flight booked beyond capacity). By the time I get out of the airport and into town it’s past midnight, and every hotel is full. So there I am dragging my suitcase around on the empty streets, shooing aside rats, being stared at by the motorbike drivers who seem to be omnipresent on Indonesian street corners at any hour of the night. This would be a bit much for even the most seasoned travelers, but once you’re in that situation there’s nothing to do but grit your teeth and keep walking around and going down the list of hotels in the guidebook until you find something open and with a space, which I eventually did.

Very few white people in Manado. I attracted stares and yells everywhere I went.

At the Manado market

The next morning serendipity struck – I headed to the wharf early morning to look for a boat to Pulau Bunaken. Through luck I found a couple of French guys looking for the same boat. This means not only someone to split the rather stiff fare for a boat charter, but others to help watch each others backs and bags, and potentially good conversation and company. As it happened, one of them – Blaise – was a diving instructor based in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, traveling for a bit of fun diving before returning to France. We were immediate friends. Not only is Blaise into French independent and punk rock music, but he has played in bands, done some recording engineering, and most incredibly he knew of and has actually SEEN my old band Funeral Diner. This was definitely the first time for that, and will almost surely be the last. Anyway, we talked music and engineering quite a bit, he tutored me quite a bit on diving, and taught me some excellent French card games.


The boatman, who ended up being a good friend to us (especially after we let him take us to his family’s guesthouse… cheap, comfortable, excellent food…)

This one is dedicated to the cast and production crew of ABC’s “The Bachelorette”

The only boats that visit the island are small outboard-powered launches, and the tide goes out for a ways. So why did they build the jetty ten feet high? At low tide everything has to be carried in, wading through the warm, shallow water.

This island is beyond cute. There are no roads or motorbikes (let me reiterate that the smoky, unmuffled snarl of two-stroke motorbikes is the ubiquitous soundtrack of Indonesia), just some marginal paths through the interior jungle that double as rivers when it rains. Every inch of viable beachfront holds a sandy guesthouse of beach bungalows, with attached dive shop, and bamboo-thatch restaurant serving home cooked meals.

Local kids swimming and watching the sunset

Local boat, in the Philippine style – narrow and deep, with bamboo outriggers.

Pet black macaque belonging to the guesthouse. We bonded, ruffling through each other’s hair. Someone suggested in the comments that I should style my hair like hers…

But enough about the island. The reason to come here is to dive the amazing coral walls – the waters just off the island plunge from 5 meters deep to 200m open ocean, supporting every zone of coral and oceanic ecosystem. The island is a protected national park, so has never been fished with cyanide or dynamite (chief killers of coral and sea life in southeast Asia). I needed a diving refresher, which Blaise helped with, and I got a head cold so I only got a few dives in:


Happy coral

Bunaken is famous for its variety of diminutive nudibranches

Nemofish, or technically clown anenome fish

Blaise, enjoying the traditional Indonesian apres-dive snack of banana

Some observations I had made at this point. Lots of things are thrown away in this country – you could build a raft from all the broken foam flip-flops washing up on every beach – but nothing with utility. I sent a box home with some extra things (why did I think I’d need two pairs of pants? On this trip I have already spent four consecutive days not wearing a shirt or even shoes, long pants are useless). Obtaining a box meant going to a little stall next to the post office, where the fellow inside carefully reconstructed a shipping box for bottles of drinking water, I put my things inside, he carefully cut it down to the minimum possible size, then wrapped it in paper, then tied it up with miles of plastic twine. Something like 50 cents. One of my generic Chaco-style sandals came apart, the lower sole unglued from the upper bit. My guesthouse took it to someone in town, and it came back exquisitely sewn back together with fishing line, each stitch secured with a lockstitch. Far better craftsmanship than from the factory, to be sure.

Indonesians are in a terrific hurry in any kind of line. Expect to be elbowed in the gut and subjected to a slow-motion shoving match. But once free of the line, all sense of haste evaporates and people fall back on a languid stroll, texting on the handphone, stopping dead in traffic, not a care in the world. My naturally long strides are completely out of place here. I often feel safe walking through even the most shifty-eyed group of young hoodlums, knowing they’d have to practically run to keep up with my walking pace – just a bit too much to be worth the effort.



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