Tag Archives: Travel

Indonesia – the land of a million smiles

After Cambodia, we traveled to Indonesia. We had no previous knowledge or expectations and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. People really are incredibly friendly and helpful. They really enjoy it when you try to use some of their language; they try to teach you more!

Tarsier - worlds' smallest primate

Tarsier – worlds’ smallest primate on Sulawesi island

 

There is a lot of variety in Indonesia, with 17,000 islands ranging from enormous to tiny and many different cultures. On one island alone, there are 80 different languages and 4 major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The country is united in the core official language – Bahasa, but you can imagine that it takes time for all these diverse groups to begin to see themselves as a cohesive country. We participated in an incredible cultural event on Bali, snorkeled in some of the most beautiful coral we have ever seen, enjoyed white sand beaches, traveled to see the savage and weird komodo dragons, hiked to a volcano crater, and saw the world’s smallest primate at dusk.

Indonesia is all of the area outlined in red - it is a huge collection of 17,000 islands

Indonesia is all of the area outlined in red – it is a huge collection of 17,000 islands

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Things we noticed in Indonesia

Char and Turtle

Char and Turtle

Terrific snorkeling and diving. We visited many healthy reefs with crystal clear water. If you need a fish photo you know who to call. Some of our favorites are in a slideshow in another post.

How taxis find things. In the US we use the address or a GPS to locate an office or home. Here, if we offer a taxi driver the address of our destination, or show them where it is on a maps app, they give us a blank look and ask for the phone number. They call and ask whoever answers for directions. There’s a conversation about landmarks such as “across the street from the BNI ATM”, and then we’re off to the races.

No beggars. There are plenty of poor people in Indonesia, but we never encountered a beggar. In many cases it was almost laughable how many people were employed. Sometimes they almost seem to trip over one-another. In one hotel there were six to eight people taking care of us in the restaurant, and we were the only guests. They seem to have a great time socializing together. One hotel owner told us he pays most of his staff the equivalent of $75 per month.

No drugs. When you board an airplane and they are going through the various normal announcements about seat belts etc, they include, “Dear Passengers: May we remind you that no drugs are allowed in Indonesia. Possession is punishable by death”. That gets your attention. On one tour we took there was a couple from Singapore and another from Amsterdam, arguably the two most draconian and liberal societies when it comes to drug policy. We had some interesting discussions.

Coffee.

 

A sleepy Luwak.  It's hard to know how they can be sleepy after eating so many coffee beans

A sleepy Luwak. It’s hard to know how they can be sleepy after eating so many coffee beans

There are a number of interesting things about coffee in Indonesia

They grow delicious coffee beans. Sumatra, Java, and Flores islands. You may not have heard of Flores but the coffee there is great!

The common way to brew a cup of coffee is to simply put a spoonful of incredibly finely ground coffee beans in a cup and add hot water. It’s like our cowboy coffee but even better.

 

Luwak poop containing coffee beans on the left, and after rinsing on the right.

Indonesia is the home of cat poop coffee, aka Luwak coffee. Luwaks are related to cats. They eat the coffee beans and them poop them still intact. By hand, humans then wash the beans, sort them by hand, remove the outer shells and roast them in an iron skillet over a wood fire. Then the beans are ground and brewed like any other coffee. We tasted some and it was good but not drop dead great. If you don’t believe the poop story, you can read more here. This includes a funny excerpt from the movie The Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

You can’t find espresso coffee, or even coffee with milk, except in the seriously touristic centers.

Wine

Wine made from grapes is imported, rare, and expensive. A small glass of wine may run you $10.

Palm "wine" and herbs

They make palm wine, which is actually similar to rum. They tap a particular type of palm tree to obtain the sap. This sap may be boiled down to a substance very similar to brown sugar, or it can be distilled. Unlike rum, there does not appear to be a need to ferment the sap before distilling it – evidently it is already fermented when it comes out of the palm tree. Generally this stuff is cheap. During one ferry boat ride we sat on top of the cabin with a bunch of locals. One generous guy mixed a little coca cola with a bottle of this wine and then passed a cup around to everyone. On another occasion we tasted a fully fermented version you could ignite with a match. Various roots had been added to the bottle for flavor. Good stuff but it’d give you a hang over if you drank very much.

Smoking

Almost every man we met in Indonesia smokes. We’re told that a package of 20 Marlboros costs 10,000 Indonesian rupia, or about 80 cents. The Marlboros are made in Indonesia and each cigarette is hand rolled. This is a major source of employment. There is a theory that unemployment breeds dissension in a society. Perhaps the government purposely set up this system as a strategy for reducing dissension.

Photos

 

A girl and her dog.  They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

A girl and her dog. They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

A girl and her dog. They gave us directions and asked us to take a photo

We never really understood why, but people seem to love to have their picture taken with foreigners. People would come up and ask if they could take a picture with us. If we agreed they’d click into producer mode and tell us just how to stand etc.

Garbage.

Trash in the river.

Trash in the river.

There is quite a bit of litter around, and it was not uncommon to see someone simply throw a plastic wrapper or bottle over their shoulder. We were told that until recently there was almost no plastic. Food, for example, was commonly packaged in banana leaves. Of course it is OK to throw a banana leaf over your shoulder when you’re done with it. In many locations garbage collection is still non-existent, and a “don’t litter” ethic has not yet been established.

Sandwich, wrapped in banana leaf

Sunsets, Snorkeling, Beaches in Gili

Gili Islands –  Drop dead sunsets, great snorkeling, and holiday time beaches

Beach Gili Trawangan

Beach Gili Trawangan

If you want to feel like you are really on vacation, on an island getaway, and don’t mind if it is a little bit touristic, the Gili islands are terrific. We relaxed there for 5 nice sunny days. They offer beautiful snorkeling, blazingly beautiful sunsets, a relaxed happy vibe, and almost everyone there is wild about the song Hotel California! You can walk or ride a bike around the main island, Gili Trawagan, in less than 2 hours, going from beach to beach,

Char looking happy, Gili Trawangan

Char looking happy, Gili Trawangan

enjoying ocean side beach bars, easy snorkeling, and swimming. We even went horseback riding on the beach one day. If you want less company you can stay on one of the other Gili islands – Menos or Aire. We were happy to stay put on Trawangan. One thing that makes these islands so delightful is the absence of motor vehicles.  Everything from construction materials to tourists are transported by horse cart.

Horse cart, Gili Trawangan

Horse cart, Gili Trawangan

A current runs parallel with the shore so we did a drift snorkel. First we walked up the street in our bathing suits, carrying our masks and snorkels. We were passed by horse carts carrying tourists and their luggage, horse carts carrying building supplies, kids going to school, a trash pickup horse cart. We swam out off a beach to find a couple of handsome turtles, and then drifted down on the current to the other end of the island, marveling at the colors of the parrot fish and taking photos of clam lips. Later we went out on a boat snorkeling trip. The most amazing thing we saw on that boat trip was a Muslim woman in a full body black suit and a hijab who dropped down 20 feet to swim with a tortoise on the bottom. A 30 second video of a turtle and a puffer fish from this snorkel trip is here.

 

Other favorite photos from Gili Trawangan are below.  Click on a photo to see a slideshow with captions. The fish we saw on Gili are mixed into the Fish Photo post.

 

Bali – Ancient Hindu Traditions

Local Dan met on a morning run

Local Dan met on a morning run near our hotel

On Bali, we skipped the beaches and traveled to an inland town called Ubud. There we stayed in a beautiful small hotel in the middle of the countryside, which meant lots of rice paddies. It was peaceful and serene. 

Our timing in Bali was amazing as it fell on a holiday called the Nyepi, or Hindu New Year. Nyepi involves one day of amazing parades and one day of 100% silence. 

Preparation for Nyepi involves (mostly) boys and men in the villages, who build giant statues called ohgo-ohgos out of styrofoam, papier mache and paint. The statues are really

Our favorite Ogo Ogo

A funny ohgo ohgo in a Bali village

scary creatures, e.g. half men, half animal, with huge claws, fangs, in scary stances. Or sometimes a female monster, with a creepy face and HUGE boobs or sometimes an animal like a tiger or dragon. These are carried by the men and boys with huge bamboo palettes for the parade on the night before the silent day. The different villages compete to make their statue look really fierce by careening it almost out of control as they walk along the parade route. We stood on a corner in a crowd and this huge tiger-like ohgo-ohgo was careening left and right and came super close to the crowd and stared down at us from way up high and very close. We were crushed in the mass of humanity lining the streets for the parade. It was a bit scary, as the guys with the tiger monster seemed to be enjoying scaring the crowd we were not sure how far they would take it! Dan was standing at the back of the crowd so he wouldn’t block the view for all the shorter people.  Twice the surging crowd knocked him backward into the bushes.  A video is here.

Pool side view from our "prison" on the silent day

Pool side view from our “prison” on the silent day

On the silent day we were “imprisoned” at our paradise hotel. The silent day is a stark contrast to the night before. Truly silent! Can you imagine they shut literally everything down? ATMs don’t work, restaurants are closed and there are special police who keep you off the streets. At night you can use lights but you have to close all your curtains. All transportation, except for ambulance traffic, is banned, and this includes closure of the airports! The idea is for everyone to have a shared day of reflection, being with family, and giving thanks. Sort of cool actually. We did hear that many Balinese people like to escape it and vacation on nearby islands to party! 

Outer welcoming door, and inner wall to block spirits

Outer welcoming door, and inner wall to block spirits

There are lots of traditions and beliefs in Bali. On a bike ride through the country we saw numerous houses that have a double gate. There’s an attractive outer one to welcome visitors, and a horrible inner one to dispel bad spirits.

We also saw cows

Cows that make manure, Bali

Cows that make manure, Bali

that are kept tied up in their stalls 24×7. Their primary job is to generate fertilizer for the rice paddies. In another location they employed crop rotation by planting each year in sequence, rice, corn, lentils, chilis.

A typical daily offering

A typical daily offering

Appeasing and pleasing Gods and Demons is a daily ritual practice.

Women carrying offerings to the temple

Women carrying offerings to the temple

 Offerings are left every day on ground – everywhere – in little leaf baskets, with flowers, leaves and burning incense sticks.  We also saw lots of women carrying offerings to the temple on their heads.

The Ubud Monkey Forest  describes its mission as conservation of the area within its boundaries according to the

Char with a monkey on her back.

Char with a monkey on her back.

Hindu principle of Tri Hata Karana (“Three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being”), which seeks to make people live harmoniously during their lives.  It’s pretty fun to wander around among the monkeys watching them doing various things from grooming one another to stealing tourist wallets.

NE Sulawesi Isl. – Beaches to Volcanoes

Paddle powered ferry crossing the river, Manado, Sulawaisi

Paddle powered ferry crossing the river, Manado, Sulawesi

We flew a couple of hours to the Northern end of Sulawesi Island. Here in we found an odd juxtaposition of modern and undeveloped. The city of Manado was the only place in Indonesia we saw where there are more automobiles than motor bikes, and many tall office buildings. (But then we did not spend time in Jakarta). We also spent 5 days on the island of Bunaken, right off shore, which was far more primitive. Every day we snorkeled, typically along coral walls, seeing new things every time.

Getting to Bunaken Island was a bit of a cultural adventure. We decided to try to public boat because it was ridiculously cheaper than a private boat. The public boat “dock” was an incredibly grimy affair – including rats and people peeing on the steps to the boat, tons of litter in the muddy river – you get the picture.

Inside the Ferry Boat

Inside the Ferry Boat

Our boat was loaded heavily with water bottles, construction materials, mattresses, people, a live rooster, water, food and many other boxes and crates. Many of the passengers sat on the roof. Dan sat on top with the owner of the inn where we would stay and a weathered older man who chain smoked and drank from a bottle of palm wine, but was really friendly!

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Our boat to Buanken Island, waiting for the tide to rise.

Our boat to Bunaken Island, waiting for the tide to rise.

In the US we occasionally hear of fatal ferry accidents. It was easy to see how they could happen here. This boat was a wooden one about 70 feet long and 12 feet wide. It was powered by a 40 HP outboard. The Captain sat with the outboard in the back, where he could see absolutely nothing. There were no life jackets, life boats, compass, lights, and no evidence of a bilge pump. There were two spare engines. Our passage was perfectly calm but we were told that 2 meter waves are not uncommon.

Tarsier - worlds' smallest primate

Tarsier – worlds’ smallest primate

After our trip so Bunaken we returned to Sulawesi and drove to the town of Tomohon, which is known for its greenery, beautiful (active) volcanoes and flowers. We trekked up to a volcano crater that was still venting sulphur and visited a park where they have the cutest little pocket sized monkeys, called Tarsiers, and animals they call Sulawesi bears which look more like possums.

Mountains of vegetables

Mountains of vegetables

Tomohon has one of the most fantastic markets we have ever seen. It is huge, and appears to be almost like a regional distribution center for the overwhelming amount of produce grown on the island. We have never seen so much green lettuce in one place. But the other thing this market is known for is its rather gruesome meat area. There you will see dogs, rats, bats, snakes etc., in various stages of preparation for the dinner table. To us it was a very macabre scene. There was a cage of live dogs right next to a counter where there was a dead one, and we know they do the killings right there in the market, but fortunately we did not see one. By the way, not all Indonesians eat dogs! Many people we talked to said they would not consider it. If you wish to see these photos follow this link.

Other favorite photos from Northern Suluwesi Island and Bunaken Island are below.  Click on one to see a slide show with captions.

Komodo Dragons Eat People

Flores Island and Komodo National Park

Sunrise at our campsite in Komodo National Park

Sunrise at our campsite in Komodo National Park

Flores Island is  the key entry point to Komodo National Park, home of the scary looking komodo dragons.  The best part of our voyage to see the komodo dragons was getting there. We went by boat, snorkeling at numerous stupendous coral reefs, and camping on a beautiful little private island at night. Our six fellow travelers were all delightful and interesting. We had a fascinating debate about drug policy because one couple was from Singapore, which has the worlds most draconian drug policy and another was from Amsterdam which is renown for its liberal drug policies.

Komodo Dragons

Large male komodo moving toward the smell of a dead deer

Large male komodo moving toward the smell of a dead deer

You may have seen videos about komodo dragons on the National Geographic or other documentary programs. They are as creepy as they look on the videos! They resemble super large crocodiles, they can grow up to 3 meters long, and they weigh up to 200 pounds. They really are dangerous, as they have been known to eat humans (children).

On Komodo Island they mostly eat deer, and occasionally water buffalo. The hunting

Komodo claws.  This guy was sleeping under a porch

Komodo claws.

technique of this carnivore is to lie very quietly, and then bite the calf of their victim extremely quickly when they pass by. In addition to their lethal bite, their saliva carries 80 different bacteria that will weaken or kill the victim over the course of several days. They just take a bite, and then follow their victim while the bacteria do their work. When the victim dies, they get their full meal. At one meal they eat 80% of their body weight, but then they don’t eat again for a month or two. When they eat, they eat everything, bones, hair, muscle. We could see remainders of all these things in the komodo poop.

As a result of all this, two rangers accompanied us everywhere we went, on in front and one behind. They carry forked sticks. If a komodo approaches too close, they put the forked stick against the komodo’s neck to hold him back. One ranger told Dan they need to do this every day or so.

A young komodo near the water hole

A young komodo near the water hole

Komodo dragons have an unusual way of raising their young. The mama komodo lays her 15-30 eggs in a 4 foot high mound of dirt that is actually the nesting ground of a particular bird. Then she guards the eggs day and night to keep other komodos, and other animals, from eating them. Finally the eggs hatch, but it seems that mama’s mood changes immediately. She suddenly does her best to eat the hatchlings she was just protecting, along with everyone else. The babies make a bee line for the closest tree and climb up as quickly as possible. They then spend about 3 months living in the tree eating newts and whatever else they can find. Eventually they grow so big their arms are unable to hold them up in the tree, so they move down to terra firma.

People travel from all over the world to see komodo dragons. We’re fascinated by creatures that can eat us. Actually mosquitoes are much more dangerous. Around here they may carry Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria, or Dengue fever. But we see few tourists traveling to see the mosquitoes.

Man who made our Komodo Dragon carvinga

Man who made our Komodo Dragon carving

Fishing Village

We also visited a Muslim fishing village, remarkable in its evident poverty and self sufficiency. The Muslim fishing communities in the area subsist on islands with no fresh water and no government services. They make a living solely by fishing and selling the fish in markets in the larger towns in the islands. The living standard is poor, with no medical service or utilities in sight. But the people are friendly to tourists, knowing perhaps they are a potential source of income. We bought a small komodo dragon carved by a local man.

A slideshow of this colorful village is below.

A few other photos from this trip are below, and a remarkable sound we heard one night is here.  We think it is frogs.

Favorite Fish Photos

Perhaps our favorite things about Indonesia was the snorkeling.  The waters are warm and crystal clear, the reefs are comparatively healthy, and the life forms are very diverse.

Below is a select one percent of our fish photos.  Click on one to see a slideshow.