In case any of you caught the news about the 6.9 earthquake in Manado, Indonesia just wanted to let you know that we weren’t there at the time so need to worry. Actually we flew out one day before.
Save your worrying for all the flights we had and will be taking on Indonesian airlines. They’re banned the world over for all kinds of recurring reasons; like flying with failed mechanic checks, no clearance from air traffic control, and planes that just ‘disappear’ in the air.
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We’ve just finished a week of diving at Bunaken and then the Lembeh Strait, both in northern Sulawesi. Bunaken was pretty typical diving. Mary was out of it with the big burn bubble on her leg, so we didn’t stay very long. Lembeh, though, is a unique place in the world for diving. It’s often called “muck diving”, but that’s an unfair term. Although the bottom is silty and there’s some garbage floating around, it’s still better visibility than Monterey Bay on most days. What’s cool is that they get critters and small animals that you just don’t see anywhere else. You can’t really call them fish since they don’t have fins and some, like the puppy-like frogfish, walk on four legs. And they’re mostly small animals that don’t move very fast, so taking photos is a blast. Here’s a few we saw:
The oh-so-cute Hairy Striped Frogfish. He’s just like a little puppy:
Frogfish (a.k.a. Anglerfish)
Giant frogfish yawning
Peacock Mantis Shrimp sitting on eggs
Nudibranch (slug) with a tiny lobster thingy
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To balance out all our fun scuba diving, we did a bit of cultural tourism on the island of Sulawesi. There’s a region called Tana Toraja with peculiar funerary habits that we thought sounded like it might be worth a couple 10 hour bus rides to check out.
The region is largely Christian, but the locals have mixed in much of their animalistic tribal beliefs and such to create a set of rituals and practices around death that are pretty, well, interesting. When someone dies, there is a huge funeral ceremony. Temporary buildings are erected from bamboo to hold all the guests and everyone brings offerings of pigs or highly prized buffalo for the family.
The ceremony might go on for up to a week for important/rich families. Towards the end, most of the animals are slaughtered and the meat eaten and then extras given to the guest and villagers or sold back at the markets. In these pictures, all the buildings are temporary; built on the family’s rice paddies. In the
short time we were there (invited in for tea and deserts, of course), we saw a few thousand people come through in groups, all bearing animals; over 100 pigs and probably fifty buffalo while we were there. Guestimates were that over 100 buffalo would end up being sacrificed for this queen of the village with ten kids. She was almost 100 years old.
These ceremonies are big deals that can take years to arrange and finance. In the meantime, the body is preserved and stays at home in the only bedroom of the traditional horned shaped home. Really. The deceased is pumped full of chemicals and lies in the bedroom (8x12ft) and is referred to as ‘the sick’. It’s not until the funeral that they are called ‘dead’.
The fun doesn’t stop there. The last day of the funeral after the cock fight a procession leads the body to the village grave which is often in a cave or dug into limestone walls where the are places in the same coffin as their family. They often place statues called tau-taus of the dead in a gallery overlooking the graves. Each village has some area they’ve carved out and generation upon generation can be seen pile up. Literally. In some places, the coffins were hung from the ceilings of caves to keep them dry and away from preying animals.
And you know us, we had to do a bit of crawling through the caves. With bats. Screeching bats that don’t like to be flashed. Yikes.
One bummer on this part of the trip. Mary’s leg caught the muffler on our motorbike one day and caused some nice damage. It’s much better now, but it cost her some diving while it healed up.
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We pulled up to the pier and as the group walked to the entrance gate our cruise director Susana yelled for them to step back as everyone had walked to within 5ft of a dragon. No one had seen it and all of a sudden everyone jumped. We were all very excited and were able to get quite close to the sedate ten footer. That was also when the mozzies came out as half of us starting scratching uncontrollably. We walked to the ranger station and saw another big male laying on the low grass and again we didn’t see it until we were within tripping distance. There were 3 more conveniently outside the kitchen window. The dragons are so still, like Disneyland rocks, that you don’t take notice of them until they’re pointed out to you then you can’t figure out how you ever missed these menacing beasts. They’re rather evil looking lizards, even when they’re laying flat on their bellies. Their eyes look like they’re constantly following you. One month ago a local boy was mauled by one while relieving himself behind a tree and died soon after from all the rotting meat bacteria in the dragon’s saliva. Knowing this we kept our distance at first. Slowly we got braver with our proximity to them as they would at most lift their heads to follow us. At the end I was even brave/foolish enough to touch the big male on the tail. I thought that would be the peak of the excitement, silly me. On our way out we saw the dragon that met us at the gate had moved down the way around the rocky shore. Peter the Polish Canadian decided he wanted to toss some little fishies, 1 inch long, at the dragon to see if he could insight some reaction, any sign of life. Four of us inched to within 6ft of the ten foot long Komodo dragon. He had turned his head to regard us. One fish, two fish, three fish land right in front of his snout and he didn’t even blink. I turned off the video. Peter gives up and tosses the last one at the dragon. The dragon raises his head then feet and advances towards us. As someone had joking pointed out earlier, we didn’t have much of an exit path if the dragon decided to rush us. And he kept on coming, closing in on our cushion of safety. Knowing the dragons could run at 30mph we wasted no time to recognize we had dropped on the food chain and turned to bolt. I hobbled down the rocky shore imagining the dragon increasing its speed behind me. I looked back to see if it was still in pursuit and saw that he was advancing with his forked tongue leading the way. Steve had fallen off his precarious position, the water bottles were on the ground, and he was fumbling to get up. Granted he did stay behind the longest and got some good photos of the ‘attack’. I yelled for him to ‘leave the water!’ while I kept hopping over the rough rocks. One of my flip-flops broke and flew off, then the other so I continue on barefoot, ripping flesh off a big toe. At a safer distance I looked back over my shoulder and the dragon had stopped its pursuit and was glaring at us in his raised ready position. We hurried to the boat and every time we looked back the dragon was still on its feet watching us. Don’t worry we’re fine, and we’re sure to put the ‘Blair Witch’ style video of our chase online in the video library, eventually. It’s both lame and hysterical.
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We heard the waters of Indonesia are fabulous for underwater life so we hopped at the chance of incorporating our Komodo dragon visit with a 5 day liveaboard that we booked online. Of course we were nervous about the actual boat conditions. We saw some local liveaboards on glorified fishing boats and hoped desperately that the website was true to life. On board we met the owner, tour operator, and the agent. They were incredibly friendly and we felt at home almost immediately. They were making this into a vacation as much as we were. There were only five normal passengers and an 8 person crew. The Moana was exactly like advertised, in even better condition than the photos actually. It’s a beautiful 4yr old 80ft vessel made with Kalimantan wood in the 400 year old south Sulawesi tradition. Our cabin had an aircon unit that dwarfed the room and a private western style tiled bathroom. Very nice. This boat was designed for comfort with all the amenities. The on call barman Woody brought us papaya smoothies and had a platter of fried bananas after our first dive. It was a glimpse of the service to come. We didn’t have to lift a finger, except to get another drink from our ‘Isaac’. We did 3 dives during the day and 1 at night with torches in hand. We saw all kinds of big and small creatures, many of which were new to us. There were even dolphins playing around on 3 different days. There was plenty of nap, beach, and hammock time. Our daily schedule went as follows: eat, dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, sleep. Seriously, that’s what we did each day. I know, a busy schedule but it grew on us.
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We arrived on the island of Flores a week before our dive boat was due to leave for a tour of the islands around Komodo. Without sufficient motivation to trek around Flores, we faced being stranded in the port town of Labuanbajo. The only option that suited us was to run out to the nearby island of Seraya for a few days of deserted isle bliss. We shared this tiny island with just a handful of other guests, a few staff, a small fishing village at the far end of the sand and a family of squeaking deer who truly own the beach.Our beachfront bamboo huts may not have had air conditioning or indoor plumbing, but we did get electricity and running water for four hours a day. Freshwater for showering is brought in from the mainland, so we’d run out to the ocean with buckets to get saltwater to flush the toilet with.
The first day, we heard some odd high pitch barking while we were napping on the beach. After a while we found we were sharing the beach with a family of short and stout deer. Barking deer. One took a keen interest in us and I ended up wrestling with his horns and making a friend for life.There is a small restaurant that is intent on teaching guests how to say “no” in Indonesian. At breakfast, “no toast”. For lunch, “no curry”, “no oil”. The best was the third day when we learned there was no more fish to be had. Really. Fish. We’re on an island! There’s a fishing village just over the hill! Alas, we were forced to move on to squid, which turned out just fine.
A Finn learned to climb the palm trees one day and a Frenchman had found a machete, so we learned how to crack coconuts one night. There was even an attempt at making steamed coconut milk by leaving the nut in the fire for a bit before hacking it open. Too bad we didn’t have a cappuccino machine to go with it.
Six days later, we’d done not much more than sleep, eat, snorkel, float in the water and read. In other words, it was a great week and prepared us for the rough days ahead on our dive boat.
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To recover from our short trip home we headed directly to Gili Trawangan off the waters of Bali. It took us two travel days from SFO but the prospect of no cars and nothing to do but to soak in the sun and the sea on a spit of land the size of a city mall was irresistible. The only way to get there was by local fishing boat, but once you’re on the island there’s no reason to leave. It’s a tropical island escape with all the western comforts. Meals are eaten on shaded cushions on the water’s edge. During the day we lazed in the pool, joined in the afternoon sand volleyball game, or did some diving towards our advanced certification. There is a single dirt road and with horse carts offering rides. A bar projects the latest movies on a wall at night. Or you can watch a movie of your choice on your private platform with the water 20 feet behind the screen. At night the starry universe reveals itself in twinkling detail. Add no bugs and no humidity and Gili is one of our favorite beach spots to get away from it all without roughing it, all for a whopping $20 a day.
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It had been a year since we had last been home and while sitting in Bali we found an opportunity to go back to the Bay Area for a short visit. We booked the next flights out and found ourselves back in the middle of Silicon Valley as if we’d only been gone on a 2 week vacation. There was only enough time during our week long stay to visit a short list of family and friends. Steve squeezed in a couple games of hockey and I got in a few tennis and golf swings. The only other thing we exercised was our stomachs. We went to our favorite eateries and, of course, there was mom to make sure we were overstocked on food. We got a bigger harddrive for our ever growing collection and restocked on dri-fit underwear for Steve. Before we knew it we were back on an airplane with another 2 days of travel to pick up where we left in Indonesia.
Thanks everyone that rearranged their days to say hi to us and make our stint home worthwhile.
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Bali really didn’t hold much interest for either of us initially, but it turns out we’ve now spent nearly two weeks total here. Aside from touristy reasons, it turns out to be a comfortable home base and airline hub for the islands east of Sumatra. There’s plenty of tourism, but the island has quite a bit more hidden between the beaches, resorts and tourist-only temples.
Here a temple, there a temple…Bali is mostly Hindu, and there are something like 20,000 temples that dot the countryside. No kidding. All over the island are Home Depot-style temple and statuary stores for the Do-It-Yourselfers of Bali. Just about every home has at least a small temple outside, sometimes larger than the house itself. Then there are the community, guild, caste temples and more for protecting the island itself.
…everywhere a temple temple.
It’s just very cool to see a culture that is still clinging on amidst so much tourism. We spent a fair amount of time on a scooter getting out of the bustle of the south and found that the countryside is really beautiful. It’s hard to believe that the smaller villages and farming communities are on the same little island as Kuta and Denpasar.
Bali does good at making cultural dance and music available. The ultra-touristy town of Ubud has a dozen shows of one kind or another going on in various temples every night. It’s actually pretty cool stuff. The Kecak dance has a hundred chanting guys surrounding two dancing girls. Fire Dance has, well, a guy prancing around on a bamboo horse kicking smoldering coconut husks at the audience. Not to be outdone is the Barong dance with the centerpiece mythical dragon/lion/dog thing that prances around. All would do really well in Vegas.
All in all, Bali has kind of grown on us. It’s got everything the hardcore tourist wants (A&W, Krispy Kreme and several Dunkin Donuts), but it is easy enough to get away from it all and enjoy the natural wonders and culture.
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