Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pulau Surga #2

First question: why does Senggigi have five Mexican restaurants? I didn’t try the tacos. Maybe I should have. What would an Indonesian taco even have been like, anyway?

My last few days in Manokwari were fairly routine – elicitation sessions with Ibu Marice, transcribing, MasterChef Australia. I got my NSF grant application submitted, with a little hiccup at the end when I found out it was supposed to be 10 pages instead of 15 and had to cut, but luckily my margins were too big, so that helped. Once the fly-home-early-for-a-week-in-Ithaca idea was quashed, I emailed a dive shop in Pulau Sipadan, a little island off the east coast of Sabah (one of the two Malaysian states on the island) that’s supposed to have some of the best diving in the world. There were no diving permits left until my last possible day there, but I decided to go for it. And then wrestled unsuccessfully with the internet in the hat, sweaty back room of PapuaNet where the wifi is, gave up, and by the next day decided that Sipadan was too much of a hassle to get to, and I wanted to go to Chiang Mai instead. Lebih santai begitu. And no evening flights followed by hour-long shuttle bus rides, then finding a place to stay, then ferry to the island, then four days later dashing from my last Sipidan dive onto the last ferry back, with an early shuttle bus back to Tawau for an early flight to KL and then Singapore, and missing any of the above meaning missing my flight home. Chances are everything would be fine - there were several hours between each flight to allow for delays – but it would be a hassle no doubt, with my big heavy suitcase, and a full day of travel before my 24-hour flight home, and really who needs that? So Chiang Mai it is, a 15-minute (albeit 11pm) taxi ride from the airport to my pre-bookable hostel, and a full day’s relaxing in Singapore before the long schlep to JFK. But the internet remained uncooperative, and I left Manokwari with no tickets booked.

Twice in my last few days I went into town at night. The road out is different at night, wilder-feeling. There’s no streetlights, so all you see is the tree branches and palm fronds stretching overhead, and instead of a pretty green lane it feels like driving through a forest. Things come out at night and cross the road, then get hit by trucks so you find them flat the next morning. I’ve seen huge centipedes, frogs, a crab, and at the very end a big old lizard smushed near my house. You don’t see any of that walking around during the day.

On my last morning I got up at 3:30 for a 4am ride to the airport. The Manokwari airport is, shall we say, not quite up to TSA standards. They didn’t ask me for any ID to check in, and while everyone’s bags were scanned at the entrance there was nobody manning the metal detector, and my shoes, laptop, and liquids stayed on my feet and in my bag the whole time. I could have had a machete in my belt and likely no one would have noticed. Probably someone did.

My plane left from Manokwari just after dawn, heading from there to Ambon, Makassar, and Surabaya. I’ve taken some beautiful plane rides in my time, but these were real stunners. Coming up out of Manokwari you first see the bay, then turn west and fly over the jungles of the Arfak mountains before hitting the ocean. Ambon and Makassar were much the same idea – deep blue coastal waters dotted with little islands and spits of sand, turning turquoise in the shallows by the shore or in the spots where what would be an island hadn’t quite broken the surface yet, or what had been an island was now washed away and submerged. Makes a girl long for a boat and a snorkel. And on land more mountains, coming down in Sulawesi and Java to plains covered in rice paddies that make the land look like stained glass from above, all shining blues and greens and browns and reds. I wish I’d had my camera handy.

I had a good five hours in the Surabaya airport before my final flight to Mataram, on Lombok. My first bit of post-Papua culture shock came when I walked past a Starbucks next to the gate. First order of business, once I’d checked in for my last leg, was the AirAsia counter over in the international terminal. I finally got those flights to Chiang Mai and back to Singapore, paid in cash, which is always fun in a country where the currency ends in three zeros. Sure, I’ll go get 5 million rupiah out of the ATM, why not? Even with all those zeros, that’s still a fat stack of bills to count out. From there lunch, since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and let me tell you that crappy chicken curry tasted amazing. And lo and behold, a Dunkin’ Donuts next to the curry place. I got a chocolate one with coconut. Amazing. I wandered around a bit, bought a book for the beach – I’m working my way through the Game of Thrones series, which is way more engrossing than it has any right to be – and saw my first toilet paper dispenser in six weeks in the airport bathroom. Things you never thought you’d miss… (Once again, when in SE Asia, always carry a pack of tissues.)

All of this was to get me to Gili Air, one of three islands known as the Gilis off the northwest coast of Lombok, which is the next island east from Bali. This was to be my tropical island retreat for four days before my visa ran out and I’d have to leave the country. Boats to the Gilis stop running at 4pm, so my first night was in Senggigi, a little resort town just up the coast from the airport. That’s where I ran into the Mexican restaurants, and those five were just the ones I noticed. There’s not much to Senggigi, just a pile of hotels and inns along a main road, some restaurants and gift shops, and a reasonable beach. Not sure I’d vacation there, but it’s a reasonable place to spend a night. Lombok is known for its farmed freshwater pearls, so I bought a few of those. You’re welcome.

And in the morning I took a van another 45 minutes up the coast to Bangsal, then dragged my gigantic suitcase down the beach to the little outrigger that took us across to Gili Air. Of the three islands, Gili Trawangan is the most popular, good for getting trashed on various substances and lying out on the beach. Gili Meno is the smallest, with a couple of guesthouses and not a lot going on. I chose Gili Air, which is somewhere in between the two, though if this is less developed I’d hate to see what Gili T is like. It’s a different world altogether from Manokwari. Firstly, it’s crawling with bule. Not many Americans around, mostly Europeans it seems, but I haven’t seen this many white people in one place in a very long time. And with the tourists come the Italian restaurants and wood-burning pizza ovens, the snorkel and dive shops, the spas and yoga studios, and the quaint little guesthouses. I’d been looking forward to coming here and speaking English again, since Manokwari was all Indonesian all the time (except with baby Gio, who couldn’t answer me back), but now that I’m here I find myself resisting the English and answering back in Indonesian whenever I can. Surprises the heck out of the locals, but they seem to appreciate it, and I’m better at bargaining in Indonesian anyway. And after 6 weeks of working indoors in long skirts and t-shirts, all the bits of me that haven’t seen sun in a while are starting to turn pink. Oh the pleasures of beach vacations.

But despite the high-season crowds, this place definitely has the feel of a tropical paradise to it, which of course is the whole reason the crowds are here in the first place. Clean white beaches, palm trees, flowers, a sea so beautifully turquoise blue they should charge you a million dollars just to look at it. No road or cars, just a sandy track around and through the island, with bicycles and horse carts to get around. It reminds me of the Perhentians from last summer, if the Perhentians were a little bigger and far more developed. Perhentian Kecil is still my favorite island paradise, but this isn’t a bad second place.

Most of my time so far has been diving. I decided to go for my advanced open water certification, which means five dives in two and a half days. I walked into the Manta dive shop at one something in the afternoon my first day to ask about signing up, and was told yes there’s an advanced course starting, we’re leaving at 2:30 so go get your swimsuit. I’ve done two dives so far, 18-meter drift dive in the strong currents by a sea wall and one 30-meter (100-foot) dive this morning. So far there’ve been three moray eels three sea turtles, all sorts of gorgeous colorful fish, but no sharks. I took my underwater camera down this morning and came out with 120 shots of blue-gray fuzz. From those pictures you’d think there were only about three fish in the ocean, since that’s as many as you can make out from the blue. I swear I stuck the camera right in one eel’s face, but there’s no trace of him that I can see in the photos. (Vampire eel?) Oh well. Tonight is a night dive, which should be a lot of fun. I’m told the phosphorescence is amazing. (ETA: several more moray eels, a trumpetfish, an octopus, some mantis shrimp, a 6-foot long black-and-white striped sea snake about two feet below me, a cuttlefish, a school of gigantic bumphead parrotfish, and more other fish than I could hope to name. Still no sharks. Later pictures are a bit better, and will be up eventually.)

So that’s where I am now. I expect my next two days will be mainly diving, napping, and relaxing on the beach, with maybe some snorkeling on the last day. I’ll post again if anything interesting happens, otherwise you’ll hear from me next week in Chiang Mai.

ETA: Last night here, finally made it to the internet café during open hours. Better late than never. No snorkeling, but lots of diving, walking, eating coconuts, and reading on the hammock in front of my bungalow. Life could be worse.

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