Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mar 13 - 22: Lombok

Vacation.  After a couple weeks of roughing it across Kalimantan and Flores, that's what we were looking for in Lombok, Indonesia's second most visited island after Bali.

Vacation is what we found, but first we had to get there.  Getting from Flores to Lombok ended up being the longest continuous journey we've taken yet, at about 30 hours door to door (8 hour ferry from Labuan Bajo that left 2 hours late, overnight bus across Sumbawa, early morning ferry to Lombok, back on the bus for another hour, and lastly a hired minivan for a couple hours).  You meet way more interesting people using public overland transportation than you do flying and we met our share of characters.  On the ferry we met a couple guys who in their words run a "local exim".  After a little while we deduced that was short for export import.  They take the 8 hour ferry each way twice a week, carrying oranges one way, and bananas the other, staying the night in an apartment they rent for $2 a month.  By the way they were dressed this is apparently a very profitable line of business.  We thought we'd get some rest on the overnight bus, but with the freezing air condition and blaring Indo rock music, we didn't have a chance.  I had the good fortune of sitting next to an older man who had hiccups that manifested themselves as burps every three seconds.  Just as the music is beginning to die down and we're beginning to fall asleep we stop for the promised "included dinner" 2:30 AM.  Six women got on after dinner all screaming into the cell phones, and we completely forgot about sleep.  As the sun was rising on the second ferry we talked to a guy who worked in Cleveland for two years and loved American casinos.  He had been to them all and couldn't wait to go back.  Atlantic City was curiously his favorite.

Our first of two stops in Lombok was in Kuta in the south of the island.  Primarily a surf destination, it's been hit hard by the succession of bad luck Indonesia has had recently (Bali bombing followed by the tsunami).  This meant magazine-cover beaches that we had to ourselves.  Our daily routine was hopping on our motorcycle to drive to one beach in the morning, have lunch at a great vegeterian restaurant atop a hill with superb views, and then head to another amazing beach in the afternoon.  Grilled fish caught that day every evening.

From there we head to the fabled Gili Islands. The Gilis are three tiny islands in between Bali and Lombok. Motor vehicles are not allowed on the islands which isn't a problem as you can walk around each in less than two hours. Every morning all the food and water are boated over along with any visitors. We liked it so much on Gili Air we stayed for a week, which is longer than we've stayed in any one place since Nosara, Costa Rica.  After the lack of reliable toilets and cold water showers of Flores we were excited for a little accomodation luxury and I think we stayed at the nicest place on Gili Air.  For $20 a night we stayed in a modern bungalow with an outdoor bathroom, beautiful pool and great snorkeling right out our doorstep. Breakfast brought to our deck in the morning, and walks over to the west side of the island to watch the sunset behind Bali's massive volcano in the evening.  Good living...

Vacation's over and we're on our way to Sumatra.  Back to the real Indonesia...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 5 - 12: Flores

Travel in Indonesia is slow going even when you're willing to pay for flights. Cottage airline businesses are a popular enterprise these days with over 10 domestic carriers running similar routes, some with only 1 or 2 planes under operation.  The result is a jumbled map of very cheap flights, with not always the most logical connections. After our adventure in Tanjung Puting National Park our next destination was the eastern side of Flores.  To traverse this distance of approximately 1,000 km took us five flights over two days.  However our journey felt very small in comparison as we soon met some travellers who had taken a four day / four night ferry to cover the same distance.

Flores further rounded out our emerging sense that the only cohesiveness of Indonesia is the islands' geological proximity to one another.  First Hindu Bali with it's luxury seeking tourists.  Then Muslim Kalimantan with it's steamy jungle.  And now Catholic Flores with it's spine of dramatic volcanos traversing the island.  We've met travellers who have 6 months in this country and still can't fully experience it all.  So for all you who thought Indonesia was just beaches, think again...

Our first stop on Flores was the small town of Moni to see the crater lakes atop Kelimutu.  With it's primary source of income being tourism in a country that's been hit hard by a reduction in travellers, Moni was a bit depressing and hassling.  But the sites of Kelimutu made the stop well worth it.  As we watched the sunrise over the colored lakes, we learned that five of us eight travellers on top of the volcano were from California.  Seeing as that's probably about as many American travellers as we've met in total all year, it was quite a remarkable coincidence.  We traded stories of where in the world we were for election day and what $500,000 will buy you in the Bali real estate market versus back home.  One of the Californians also happened to be working on updating the next version of Lonely Planet for Indonesia and so we felt some karma at work as we'd just been wanting to send in a complaint about our less than stellar accomodations in Moni.

Our next stop in Flores was the small town of Bajawa, set in the middle of the island.  The area is known for a continued strength of its traditional Ngadha villages and culture.  We were lucky to meet some travellers who had hired a fabulous guide, Florean, for the day and they let us tag along as he took us to several local villages including his own where we shared lunch with his family.  Because he is himself so strongly committed to the beliefs this culture, Florean's descriptions were incredibly rich and at times intoxicating.  He described the details of rituals still performed to this day -- such as the process of building a shrine to ones ancestors which involved the burial of a live pig, a duck and a chicken under the wooden structure.  Perhaps most interesting was his description of how he had found peace in the harmony of still being deeply committed to the beliefs of his traditional religion while now also practicing as a devout Catholic.  In all of the villages we visited, Catholic crosses - the result of Dutch missionary work - sat next to the traditional houses and ancestoral shrines.

Our third and final stop in Flores was Labuanbajo and the Komodo National Park where we did two days of absolutely incredible diving -- the best either of us had ever done.  We also visited the island of Rinca to see the komodo dragons.  Though interesting by virtue of being so unique to this part of the world, the dragons ended up paling in comparison to all the creatures down below the sea.  A highlight was watching the giant (4-5 meter wingspan) manta rays surf through the "airstrip" where they come to be cleaned by fish and the coral was like none we had ever seen before, particularily at the dramatic Batu Bolong site. We also say black and white tipped reef sharks, greenback and leatherback turtles, porcupine rays, napolean fish, scorpion fish, barracuda...the list goes on and on...  Ah, if diving all over the world was only as inexpensive as it is here in Indonesia...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

February 26 - March 4: Kalimantan, Borneo

From the early planning days of this trip, we've been really excited to venture into mysterious Borneo and see orangutans in their only natural habitat.  Straddling the equator, Borneo is the world's third largest island, and is shared by three countries, Indonesia (the Kalimantan region), Malaysia, and the sultanate of Brunei.
Before heading into the jungle, we flew to the largest city in Kalimantan, Banjarmasin.  Kalimantan is 90% muslim, a big change from Hindu Bali, and we felt the difference immediately, from the more conservative dress, to the lack of any alcohol, to the sometimes beautiful, sometimes annoying (at 5 AM), call to prayer. Banjarmasin is one of the more bizarre places I've ever been.  Teenagers sell turtle oil on the side of the road, next to plastic bottles of gasoline.  We heard some thumping music coming from a building and popped our heads in to see a room full of sweaty women doing aerobics, in full proper muslim garb, headscarf and all.  We visited a mosque that looks like a spaceship, a seemingly out of place Taoist temple, and ate bountiful amounts of curious seafood.

The real weirdness begins though when you get off land and hop into a motorized canoe.  Half of Kalimantan's million inhabitants live on the water in small canals in ramshackle one room wooden homes, either floating on bamboo, or balanced precariously on rickety stilts, with the water reaching about an inch below their floorboards.  Within 5 minutes of checking into our hotel, the only guy who speaks any English in town (and not that well) found us and offered his services as a guide.  While we generally like to go off on our own, we're finding in these remote parts where no one speaks English, a local guide is essential.  So we spent the majority of the day with Tailah in his boat exploring the canals.  Every house has an outhouse in front, where everything just ends up in the canals.  Despite this we were surprised by the fastidious cleanliness, bordering on obsession, exhibited by everyone we saw.  In the morning and late afternoon, everyone emerges from their homes and is at the water, bathing, washing dishes, the younger kids doing backflips off the bridges, girls splashing each other in the water, boys flying homemade kites.  Every five buildings you find a tiny mosque made out of cardboard and sheet metal. It is a beautiful, cacophonous jumble of humanity.  We also saw a massive Storm's Stork sitting on someone's deck, which only later did we discover is incredibly endangered with only 500 or so left in the world.


Tailah woke us at 5 AM to take us upriver to see the daily floating market that has been in continuous operation for 350 years.  Farmers ride their boats up to 10 hours downriver to get to the outskirts of Banjarmasin to sell their goods to the cityfolk. Just about any food item is available from the stinky, spiky durian to fresh fish. Sellers who don't do well sleep in their boats and try again the next morning.  At around 6:30 AM the breakfast boats shows up, where you grab a stick with a nail at the end and impale your selections.

We didn't see one other non-Indonesian in all of Banjarmasin. And everyone we meet that learns we're from America has the same reaction, "Obama!" with a big thumbs up.

From there we began our long journey to Tanjung Puting National Park to try and see the orangutans.  A quick tangent on getting around in Indonesia.  Indonesia has dozens of domestic discount airlines.  They are for the most part mom and pop operations, often having a vat fleet of two planes and one route.  Even the travel agents (when you can find them) don't know how to get to certain places.  The one thing each of these airlines has in common is an invocation card in your seat pocket with muslim, catholic, protestant, hindu and buddhist prayers for a safe landing (in that order).

We had heard that the best way to experience the park is by staying on the Kalimantan version of a houseboat, called a klotok.  In Pangkalan Bun we hired a guide (again the english speaking guy in town found us) along with a klotok driver and crew (cook and mysterious third guy, we were never really sure what he did)  to take us slowly upriver.  Four flights from Bali, on three airlines, various taxi rides and two days in a boat and we finally arrived at Camp Leaky, where Dr. Galdikas, a disciple of Louis Leaky, has been studying and living with the orangutans since 1971, the longest continuous study of one animal group anywhere.  Her primary role is to rehabilitate orangutans that have been dislocated either through illegals captivity or more often loss of habitat, but her broader responsibility is educating and putting pressure on the world.  The massive-scale illegal logging of the nineties has thankfully subsided through intense government intervention, but has been replaced by the tearing down of rain forest to build palm oil plantations.  We spoke to her for a while and she is an interesting woman.  The orangutan only gives birth to one child every eight years, the longest birth interval of any animal, and thus is especially prone to extinction.  A child orangutan does not leave its mother's side for the first 6-7 years of its life. This is the most intense mother-child relationship in nature.  Largely pessimistic about the future of orangutans in Borneo, Dr. Galdikas thinks that only the minority that live in the park have a chance at survival.  6,000 of the estimated 30,000 orangutans left in the world (mostly in Borneo, some in Sumatra) are in the park.  You can find out more about her organization and work here:

All of our expectations were blown out of the water and they were high to begin with.  Some of the rehabilitated orangutans have a hard time giving up the free food from the park administrators so every day there is a feeding at designated stations in the park.  This gave us a chance to see these magnificent creatures up close.  We saw some orangutans from the boat, wild in the jungle, but nothing compares to seeing them up close.  Looking into their eyes you feel an immediate connection.  There is clearly so much thought going on.  It is a little spine-tingling at first to have one stare at you, scoping you out, you doing the same to him or her. The juveniles and females swinging through the trees, bending small trees as they nimbly swing from branch to branch or scale vines is like the flying scene from Crouching Tiger.  Watching a dominant male, at 250 lbs, doing the same, you feel like you are watching King Kong, huge trees bending, smaller ones snapping as he gracefully, yet forcefully moves anywhere he pleases.  It is no accident that the best analogies I can find come from art, as it is really unlike anything I have experienced in life, and is one of the most awe-inspiring things I've even seen.

We spent three days on the klotok, and even withouth the orangutans, that would have been an amazing experience.  Waking to the haunting arpeggio of gibbon calls at dawn, the rivers teaming with life, long-tail macaques and the Pinochio-like probuscis monkeys flying above you, kingfishers and hornbills darting across the water, giant butterflies all around, crocs patrolling the waters, and fireflies filling the night.

We got a little physically beat up our second day on the water when Allison got a nasty bee sting that made her right hand swell up like a balloon, and I found leeches on my stomach and calf, but the crew took good care of us, with great meals and a great mosquito netted mattress on the top deck for the nights.

All part of the great adventure.