Monday, September 17, 2012

Coney Island this ain’t.

 It’s raining out, hard. Yesterday was hot and humid as hell – I went downtown mostly just for the wind on the motorbike ride there – and now it’s all falling from the sky. Ibu Marice read me the Noah’s ark story in Wamesa on Saturday (actually, she spent almost two hours reading to me from a bible badly translated into Wamesa, copyright Amsterdam 1915, but more on that another time), and on days where it rains like this it becomes awfully easy to envision that happening literally. So while I wait for it to stop so I can walk to school, I’m going to write about going to the beach.

Pantai Amban
We’ve already pretty well established, I think, that I’ve got rather a thing for sand and salt water and fish, particularly the big, colorful, and/or oddly-shaped ones – the amount of money I’ve spent going diving in the last few years is a little ridiculous. So is it a coincidence that I’m out here doing my fieldwork in basically the most biodiverse marine region on earth? Maybe. I certainly didn’t choose it consciously. There’s something about Papua that just invites speciation and diversification – and there’s no internet right now, since I’m not at school and even if I were the wifi usually goes down when it rains, so these numbers may be totally off, but if I remember right – it’s second only to the Amazon in terrestrial diversity; the Raja Ampat islands, where I’m going in November, have something like 75% of the world’s coral species and a crap-ton (scientific term) of fish and pelagics – promotional materials from the resort claim a record of 374 fish species sighted on one dive; and roughly 12% of the world’s languages on an island about the size of Texas, which is more per capita than anywhere else on earth. Trust me on that last one, I’m a linguist.

Which all goes to say that if you show up at a beach around here with a snorkel and stick your face in the water, assuming it’s clear enough to see anything, you’re gonna see some pretty cool stuff. Hopefully that stuff doesn’t include a saltwater crocodile, ’cause that can happen. But so far at least it hasn’t. To me, anyway.

So. Sonja, a linguist from Germany working on the Yali language, was until yesterday staying in the same house as me, which has been a huge plus for many reasons, not least because she’s been here often enough to know all the good deserted beaches and has a motorbike to get there. Manokwari proper has a popular beach called Pasir Putih (literally ‘white sand’, but it’s crowded and dirty enough that there’s nothing putih about it. We visited deserted beach #1, Pantai Amban, on Sunday, my first day here. It’s about a 10-minute drive out of town, then two minutes down a pair of dirt ruts and you’re on the beach. The pros are that it’s empty and flat-out gorgeous, the cons are the sandflies, so it’s better to stay in the water and leave quickly when you get out – no lolling in the sun here. Supposedly they sometimes harvest (mine? poach? remove.) sand here for use in projects elsewhere, but there was nobody working when we went, probably because it was Sunday. But the sand there is a dark grey, and the water is warm, and there’s a gentle swell, with palm trees on shore and a village a ways down where two guys were dragging a fishing net into the water. The whole scene is more or less stunningly beautiful. So we floated and chatted and swam and relaxed for about an hour, then drove back home to wash off the salt with a cold mandi before dinner. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera.

Beach #2: Pantai Bakaro. (Pantai means ‘beach’, in case you haven’t gathered.) Thursday afternoon Sonja suggested we head off early from work and go for a swim. (Though at 4:30 it was only half an hour early; that’s how irresponsible we are.) This time I brought my snorkel, and we took the 20-minute motorbike ride out to the village of Bakaro. The drive itself was half the fun, passing through villages and swathes of jungle, with sago gardens and cows and pigs by the side of the road, and once a pair of baby goats in the road, possibly the first time out here I’ve seen goats standing on the ground rather than on a bench or a wall or something. (Little-known fact: Goats like to climb.) Pantai Bakaro is apparently a hotspot on weekends, and a bus was pulling out when we got there, but late on a Thursday afternoon we basically had the place to ourselves, along with one guy out in the water with a snorkel and another with a spear gun looking for dinner. The sand here was rough and white rather than fine and grey, made mostly out of ground shells and coral. When you see that gorgeous picture going around facebook of sand magnified x250 and it looks like a lot of beautiful pieces of shell and glass, it’s this kind of sand, not the Pantai Amban kind. And the reason it’s made of shells and coral is that’s what’s under the water, along with all the pretty fish that go with it. (Aaand the power just went out. Lovely.) There’s almost no waves at Bakaro, and no sandflies, but lots of sand crabs darting between their holes up on the beach and their lunches in the water.

There were nearly no waves, and the visibility was good, which was lucky because there were plenty of fish to see. I recognized a school of sergeant majors, parrotfish, some clownfish hiding in anemones, urchins, a sea cucumber, those little florescent blue fish you see everywhere, those black/white/yellow-striped angel fish you see everywhere too, and near the end a fair-sized red and white lionfish. There was a good lot more that I didn’t recognize as well. Unfortunately, no camera this time either.

On shore I collected shells called mata bulan, moon’s eye, a pretty little white circle with a spiral in the middle. So that’s what you’re all getting when I get home. At that point the sun was getting low and the water had turned opalescent, and the whole scene was just paradisiacal. Since I didn’t bring my camera, you’ll have to take my word for it. It was a long damp ride home, with a fiery orange sunset behind the Arfak mountains across the bay. And it turns out dusk is a good time to be on a motorbike, since you’re moving so fast the mosquitos can’t get you. So I count that as a win.

Pantai Amban
Beach #3: Pantai Amban II. Sonja flew home on Sunday, so Saturday afternoon we headed out one last time to Pantai Amban, this time farther down where we hoped the sandflies might be less. (They weren’t.) The waves were bigger here too, so even though I brought my snorkel there was so much sand in the water I couldn’t see a thing. More warm water, gorgeous vistas, swaying palms, et al, but this time I got photos. We got knocked around by some of the bigger waves and ended up with that fine sand everywhere, including in the crevices of my (happily waterproof) camera, so there was some quality time spent later cleaning that out. I still haven’t gotten it all off the bathroom floor.

Well the rain’s stopped, the sun’s shining, birds are chirping, and the dove has brought an olive branch, so it’s off to school for me. Maybe if I’m lucky the internet will be good enough this morning to get a picture or two up. Here’s hoping.

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