Full Circle

Way back when (in April) we were in Costa Rica volunteering with giant leatherback sea turtles. It was nesting season, and at the time the only thing that would have made the experience more special would have been if we could have been present for hatching season. Mission complete! Because it turns out that it is hatching season for the green sea turtles here in Indonesia. Unfortunately, the handling, procedures, and overall treatment of the turtles falls short of ecological standards. In fact, it would probably make the research assistants and directors in Costa Rica (and other organizations) cringe. However, we were lucky enough to enter the hatchery and release the hatchlings back into the sea, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. A few days later, we got to see and do the photo op thing with another bunch of hatchlings in the middle of the day. The guy with the bucket of turtles, reached in a handed one to me. I hesitated, and tried to question if it was ok (which obviously to him it was since he was calling my name and holding it out). I’m not sure why they were kept in a dry bucket for hours until their release, but with the language barrier I was only able to be told that they were fine and did not need water. There’s something weird about sea turtles not needing water, but the guys were supposedly trained members of the World Wildlife Federation and who am I to challenge the way things are done on the island? I know conservation efforts and humans the world over are trying to help, but sometimes I wonder if in some instances it would be best to let nature take its course. So in a moment of weakness and deliberate selfishness, I took the turtle from him (ok, and another one out of the bucket so that turtle #1 wouldn’t be lonely and freaked out-my lame justification). It’s like when you are a kid, and your mom has taught you not to touch [fill in the blank], but one day it’s right there in front of you. No one else is in sight (although in my case there were witnesses). The chance may never come again. What do you do? As I got eye to eye with one of the babies, I felt lucky for experiencing a dream, saddened by the slim chances of it ever reaching adulthood, and guilty for the part I had so willingly played in it.

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

*Side note: I would have felt a little better about this, but my google search on handling hatchlings revealed that although there are all sorts of pictures of people holding baby turtles (even on the conservation websites), the majority state that this is a serious no-no. Apologies to all those conservationists and animal rights activists out there.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Paradise Found

We made it.! We finally made it. Assuming you’ve read Jeff’s last blog, then you know what it took to get here. To get to the remote speck of an island that is Derawan, you truly have to want to. And probably for this very reason, it remains virtually untouched. If all the Balis, Cancuns, Bahamas, and Oahus of the world have all become (or are on their way to becoming) paradises lost, then Derawan is still paradise without all the hype and “extras”. There are no resorts on the island. Well, actually there is one-a dive resort. But it is the furthest thing from a Hyatt or Four Seasons as possible-just a bunch of nice bungalows on stilts over the water, with flush toilets in the bathrooms. For $970, one can enjoy 5-nights accomodation with 3 dives per day. Instead, Jeff and I are staying within striking distance from the resort, also over the water at a charming little guesthouse. Our room is $8 per night, with free breakfast, a clean shared bathroom and squat toilet.

After arriving and having our Oreos, we wondered what exactly we were going to do to occupy our days here. A walk around the perimeter of the entire island took half an hour. The only electricity comes from generators that power up from 6 pm to 6 am daily. Aside from a few warungs and restaurants that operate out of homes, the only forms entertainment seem to be an outdoor volleyball court and stage area, an indoor badminton court, and a concrete mini-golf course (of all things). And 360 degrees of ocean. The snorkeling is out of this world–we see new creatures each time. There are coconut, banana, and palm trees dotting the white sand, and of course the water is a crystal clear aqua blue that fades to a bright royal blue at the drop offs. But what makes it paradise, is that it doesn’t try to create authenticity. There’s just no need. We spend hours just watching island life going on around us. Men fish, do repairs, smoke in the shade. Women sit in small groups after completing their many chores. The children are some of the friendliest, funniest bunch we’ve come across. They are everywhere! They ask us our names over and over. We watch them as they climb trees (or anything climbable), sing Indonesian pop songs at the top of their lungs, play games with whatever has washed up on shore, and get a good scolding or two. The calm is periodically broken by the sound of their voices, a motor boat, a falling coconut.

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

Eel swimming around can of sardines (seen during our lunch)

It may be tiny. It may be quiet. But we have experienced highlight after highlight, and moments that take our breath away everyday. Now, here we are seven days later and trying to figure out a way to stay just a few more days.

The one and only day trip we have gone on was an excursion to “jellyfish lake” as we like to call it, as I don’t know if the lagoon has an actual name. This might be a good thing because it is one of those secret places that you want to keep all to yourself (although it was one of the major reasons we came to Indonesia and something Jeff has been talking about for the past seven months now). As our speed boat approached the island, I silently hoped it wouldn’t disappoint. Here’s the deal with “jellyfish lake”. At some point way back in time, there was a shifting of the tectonic plates that resulted in the creation of a lake in the middle of this island. Without any predators, the jellyfish that remained in the lake multiplied as well as evolved, losing their ability to sting. The island setting itself is picturesque, both from the outside as well as from within. The lake was larger than we expected and surrounded by mangroves. We wasted no time putting on our snorkels and fins and jumped right in. What can I possibly write that might capture the experience of swimming in turquoise waters among thousands of jellyfish? At worst, it was still magical. At best, it was practically spiritual. And if nothing else, it was therapeutic. As I moved slowly through the first few clusters of jellyfish, all I could do was try to stay at a safe distance (because who knows, what if they can sting afterall?), and stare. But within minutes, I was (gently, of course) poking, pushing, and holding each of the four species of jellyfish that inhabit the lake. Some areas of the lake were so chock full of them that I could feel them bumping into my shoulders and arms and sliding down my stomach and legs as I tried to swim through. It was like being inside a jellyfish screensaver. We stayed for hours. We stayed until the “crowds” (consisting only of a few other small families and groups) left, and we were the only two people on the lake. On the way back to Derawan, our boat driver let us out for a snorkel on the outside of the island–clear with beautiful reefs and a huge drop-off, which would have been a treat in itself, except that we had just snorkeled with jellyfish!!

Anyway, we’ve developed a basic routine for the rest of our days on Derawan. Wake up whenever it starts to get hot. Have tea and eat breakfast. Sit around, chat, take it all in. Swim with the sea turtles that come to shore daily. Snorkel. Have lunch. Snorkel. Lay out in the sun/shade. Read. Snorkel. Walk around the beach, look for seashells, other wildlife, or try to catch the sunset. Have dinner. Sit around on porch, hang out and chat with fellow guests. Take bucket shower. Go to bed. Repeat.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

goL yliaD

5:48 pm Friday—I touch foot to sand and yell over my shoulder, “Crack open the strawberry oreos!”

5:32 pm Friday—I’ve just overpaid the boat captain by 50,000 rupiah. He knows it and I know it. We both knew I would pay it the moment Mari and I dragged our sweaty, worn selves out of the van in the middle of nowhere as the sun was beginning to set.

5:30 pm Friday—After the 2 hour drive, we finally pull into Tanjung Batu. I smile out at the villagers who are returning home from work and all of the people on their porches. Blank stares or outright sneers are their responses. I turn to Mari and say, “Whatever it takes, we’re getting a speedboat and getting there today. I don’t think we’re welcome to stay here tonight.”

4:12 pm Friday—We just went over a huge pothole in the road. The driver had no choice but to swerve to avoid going into a part of the road that had previously collapsed. The pothole though, makes my backpack jump in my lap and it comes down on me heavy. The baby is jarred and stops breast feeding in the front seat. Why is it immodest for this Muslim woman to show her hair in public, but able to let her boob hang loose? I’m just asking.

3:27 pm Friday—I’m in the middle of the street in Berau and staring at the driver as he’s staring back at me. In front of us is the boot of the van, and it’s filled with eggs. At least 90 dozen eggs, stacked from floor to ceiling. I laugh because he seems to think I can put our backpacks on top of them. What the hell?

3:15 pm Friday—We just passed a turnoff to Tanjung Batu. Looks like we’re doublebacking.

1:46 pm Friday—My car buddy says something to me in Indonesian, which I assume means move. I oblige and we all exit the car that’s pulled over to the side of the road. And then we all take a few steps into the rainforest and pee. I find some plants whose leaves, as a defense mechanism, instantly close up when you touch them and aim my stream at them in attack mode.

12:53 pm Friday—Road trip! That’s what this feels like. I don’t know the driver or the other three men in the car that exists somewhere between a taxi and a carhire, but there’s some feeling of companionship in listening to the same music and having a shared destination. They’re my car buddies; they just don’t know it yet.

11:40 am Friday—Are we there yet? Are we there yet? I’m 55 minutes in to this boat ferry and starting to feel sick. Maybe it’s being cramped in a small boat with 29 other people, maybe it’s the low roof that’s making me feel like I can’t breathe, maybe it’s the small dirty windows that don’t allow me to see the horizon, except between the bounces of the boat.

10:38 am Friday—I repeat the Indonesian word for “head.” Then, “mouth, nose, and eyes.” The man that sold us our boat tickets has taken a liking to me as evidenced by this impromptu language tutorial and by the fact that his hand is on my thigh. My upper thigh. It’s a nice moment except for his hand.

9:59 am Friday—I’m still holding out hope there’s another way…a shorter way. But our hostel receptionist and the taxi driver both confirm that if we want to get to Derawan, our route is as follows: 1 ½ hour ferry from Tarakan to Tanjung Selor-3 hour taxi to Berau—2 hour taxi to Tanjung Batu—30 minute speedboat to Derawan. Damn you Lonely Planet!

7:30 pm Thursday—Mari and I think it’s best to eat someplace simple and quick as it looks like we might be in for a long day of travel tomorrow and need a good night’s sleep. So, we’re eating at a mall foodcourt, which turns out to be more interesting than expected as it has a karaoke performance going full blast. Funny Asians.

4:07 pm Thursday—“How can you not know how to get to Derawan but your travel agency advertises itself as ‘Derawan Travel?'” I ask the woman across from me. She mutters something to us and returns to her paperwork. Mari says, “Thanks…for nothing” as we turn to leave.

2:00 pm Thursday—“To Derawan? No, not from here. I think you have to go to Berau.” answered our taxi driver, giving us the first inkling that I’ve read the signs wrong.

12:21 pm Thursday—Our plane just landed in Tarakan. Hopefully we’ll be in Derawan by the end of the day!

11:44 am Thursday—We checked in, paid our airport service tax and got through security in eight minutes. Record time. And with a minute to spare, I buy some strawberry oreos and jokingly tell Mari, “We’ll save these as our reward for getting to Derawan.”

11:36 am Thursday—I’m in front of the ticket office of Sriwijaya Airlines and they’ve just assured me that if we buy now we can still catch the flight that is scheduled to leave in exactly nine minutes. I take it as a good sign, since we’re supposed to be able to get to Derawan from either Tarakan or Berau and this flight leaves forty minutes earlier than the Berau ones. Could it be any easier?

Posted: August 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Not a Timeshare, a Holiday Club Resort

Indonesians like to sing. A lot. From the latest Indonesian pop songs to Jason Mraz, we hear them after we pass their little warungs, or doing karaoke in the electronics store, or as they pass us on the street. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s often followed by a laugh just to let us know that it isn’t so much about being in key as it is about being happy.

Mari and I were reflecting on this after having just secured our next day’s plans of visiting an off the path village and temple hopping. With the rest of the day free, we decided to just walk around the beach the rest of the afternoon before heading back to our hostel. There are times when we have time to kill in spades and this was one of those afternoons. We passed a group of uniformed guys who asked us if we had a minute. And we’re used to usually just walking right by them (Mari after politely refusing, and me usually without any acknowledgement), but today decided to give them a chance to do their spiel. One of the guys gave us two prize cards and asked us to open them. Mari opened hers and “won” either A) a digital camcorder B) a week free in a resort or C) $500. In sing-song English the guy exclaimed how excited he was for her and told her if we went to listen to a holiday club presentation, we were guaranteed one of the three for free. We balked a little, but he threw in a $20 food voucher for us. We balked a little less and he threw in free drinks, and a free taxi ride back to our hostel. Sold.

As we entered into a van to go to the resort where the presentation was Mari started to freak out a little and exclaimed, “for the record I don’t like this one bit.” I asked her what record she was speaking of and tried to calm her down by telling her it sounded like we were going to sit through a timeshare pitch and come away with some freebies. She said fine, but she wasn’t talking at all throughout the pitch. She yelled her last words of, “we are not giving you any money!” to the sales guy as we pulled into the resort.

It turns out, the Royal Resorts are the largest Holiday Club in Australia and expanding almost exponentially after its 18 years in business. With luxury apartments or suites in Goa, India; Phuket, Thailand; and Bali, Indonesia we had the opportunity to OWN a studio for a week a year in India if we purchased that day. And if we did that, we’d receive airline and cruise discounts up to 50% off public prices, and be tied into a network of partners that offered luxury holiday stays for about $200/week. I smiled through the presentation sipping my cold coca colas and asked a few questions to seem interested. It seemed too good to be true, but I was assured people from all walks of life made the jump and took advantage of it. In fact, it was pointed out to us that we could sell our week or even the cheap holiday stays and make our money back within 6 months. And despite the numbers not adding up, us knowing nothing about this company, not even knowing where Goa, India was, and us not having gainful employment, their pitch did get our minds turning. Do we have friends and family who we could share this wonderful gift with? YES… Did we think we could travel enough to take advantage of this remarkable savings? YES! Could we put just $1500 down today to start cashing in on these guaranteed rewards for the next 25 years? And see, that’s the sticking point we keep coming back to…no.!

In the end, we wizened up maybe because of cash flow and maybe because it was a silly dream to begin with, and told them no. We finished our drinks, took our food voucher and free week in a resort in Phuket, Thailand. And we left to return back to our hostel in our air-conditioned taxi ride. And as I looked out the window, scooters rushing by, I caught myself barely and nearly inaudibly, but definitely, singing.

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Intro to Indonesia

So we spent yet another night in an airport-this time in Jakarta. I dare say we are getting quite good at this. Even though contrary to prior online research, we were told that no waiting lounge existed, and therefore we would have to sleep in the baggage claim area, we settled in (or on) for the night across from a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk. The wooden benches in addition to being flat and backless also had perpendicular armrest bars cutting each slab in thirds and making it impossible to lie down. The humidity set in and the mosquito slapping began, but we took it all in stride. A mere few months ago and this would have been bad. Now we just make ourselves as comfortable as possible and plan to sleep in shifts. However, it would seem that I have become relaxed enough in our travels that about eight minutes into my watch, I caught myself and my eyes flew open to see Jeff staring at me with a mixture of exasperation and irritation. Whoops. Even though I assured him that he could get some sleep and I was perfectly capable of staying awake, Jeff was the one who kept vigil until morning.
We took the public bus into Jalan Jaksa as planned, found lodging right away, and slept through the entire rest of the morning and afternoon. We ended up staying in Jakarta for what ended up to be about a week, taking care of some travel business matters, in the form of applying for more passport pages at the American Embassy, and subsequently obtaining tourist visas at the Chinese Embassy. During our free days, we mainly explored different parts of Jakarta. The electronics mall was a highlight (more so for Jeff) with eight floors of every possible model of camera, camcorder, video game, computer, TV, DVD, with phone and iPod accessories and more imaginable. Taman Mini Indonesia (what I can only liken to an Indonesian Disneyland in the 1950’s) was underwhelming, yet interesting. Our decision to go there had not been based on much research, and I had thought it was simply some large park. I don’t recall “theme park” being written anywhere in the description. Our nights in Jakarta were spent becoming regulars at a local restaurant and wifi hotspot across from our hostel.
A couple of overnight trains got us to Yogyakarta and back, although had time permitted, we both agreed that we could have spent more time there. The Lonely Planet has not gotten much right in regards to Indonesia; however they managed to in regards to Yogya, which is described as “an uneasy truce between the old ways of life and the trappings of modernity”. We took our first bekak ride (a covered seat powered by a guy on a bicycle), bargained at the craft stalls and strolled around the bird market, which had flying foxes, komodo dragons, monkeys, rabbits, and owls for sale, and declined an offer to watch the prize cock in his next cockfight in the morning.
“Yogya” as it’s commonly called, while a major tourist destination in its own right due to its proximity to Borobudur had a certain charm. We went to see why Borobudur is the number one tourist site in Indonesia, and it did not disappoint. The temple was built from two million stone blocks and wrapped around a hill to form a stupa. There are terraces and stairways leading to the top tier where Buddhas sit inside individual latticed stupas. The walls of the corridors are covered with intricate carvings depicting Javanese life and Buddhist scriptures. And despite all the tourists, there was a feeling of calm and peace.

We took a short flight out of Jakarta and into Bali earlier this week. It feels like an entirely different place and it is. We had a hard time choosing where to stay on the island, but chose Sanur as our home base. When we first arrived in the late afternoon, we dropped our bags off in our room and headed straight for the beach, less than five minutes away on foot. When we got there it appeared we had made the wrong decision. The “beach” was a long stretch of sand with boats haphazardly moored here and there. There was no crashing of waves. There were no waves at all. Instead, there was a grayish-white film covering kelp and debris a few inches deep resting on the shore that gradually became the dark gray-blue of the ocean. Down the length of the beach was resort after resort, each marked by their signature lounge chairs and pools which were deserted. The staff were getting ready for dinner, and despite the fact that it was sunset, we saw only a couple of tourists wandering around and all the dining areas were empty. This was supposed to be high season. We each made our guesses as to what was the matter. The economic crisis. The recent bombings in Jakarta. The less recent bombings on Bali. Whatever the case, we were bummed. This was not the Bali we had envisioned.
Yesterday we took a taxi to Kuta, the next beach town over. It was as touristy-beachy as anything we’ve seen. Surf shops and flip-flop stores fought for space with designer sunglass and clothing boutiques. The restaurants with outdoor seating had their misters on and the mist floated at regular intervals over their customers and towards the crowds at Starbucks. I was tempted to stop in at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf for my favorite drink, but had to remind myself that I am still supposed to be in “Travel Mari” mode, and something like an English Breakfast Tea Latte will have to wait until I’m home. We made our way to Kuta Beach and breathed a sigh of relief, wishing we had chosen to stay there. There were waves and surfers catching them, soft sand, couples snorkeling, sunbathers, and lots of people but not enough to call it “crowded”.
But on our way to catch a taxi back we had second thoughts, as the streets were just a little too packed with everything we had been trying to escape.

Today, we gave Sanur beach one more shot and were quite happy to discover that it was a perfectly pleasant little beach, now that it was high tide. It was transformed. Sanur was the calm version of Kuta. The waves were not as big, but the quiet was both relaxing and invigorating. There was enough of a breeze to pull the kite surfers and windsurfers trying out their skills, and the only noise was snippets of conversation of beach-goers and the occasional roar of a jet ski. This is more like it. And a yummy dinner at a little warung cost us a total of $1.70. I like this Bali.

Posted: August 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »