03.08.2017 - 28.09.2017
On this visit to Indonesia we start at the furthest point east (Papua) and work our way west towards Bali with stops in Nabire, Raja Ampat, Komodo and Sumbawa.
We arrive in Jakarta and head back to Capsule Old Batavia hostel where we have a private room with bathroom and AC. It’s pretty compact and the flat screen TV offers no English channels, but at 25€ it’s the best deal in the city. Being back in Asia, we have to get used to a few things again: no paper in the toilet, brushing teeth with bottled water, mosquito repellant and sunscreen on hand at all times. It’s good to be back!
With so many 20-somethings sleeping around the breakfast area, Starbucks feels like a better option. On the way, Bakoel Koffie catches our eye. The trendy cafe with jazzy soundtrack is a soothing retreat from the stifling heat and road congestion. It’s 9AM.
We stock up on essentials at the Grand Indonesia Mall, one of several luxury shopping complexes in the center of Jakarta before boarding an overnight flight to Wamena, Papua. Formerly known as Irian Jaya, this western half of Papua New Guinea is Indonesia’s easternmost territory. At 1600 meters above sea level, Wamena is the biggest town in the Baliem Valley and the only reasonable way in or out is by plane. The region is famous for the Dani natives and their annual festival that gathers tribes from surrounding districts in a vibrant display of war games and customs. Among the handful of people milling about the single belt baggage claim is a Dani tribesman wearing just a necklace and penis gourd...
Our guesthouse is only 1km from the airport, yet the taxi charges us five times the normal rate. We quickly learn this goes for everything in Papua and it’s a bit difficult to reconcile given the quality of services and (lack of) infrastructure.
Accomodations are limited and overpriced. I had to read numerous blogs before coming across Guesthouse Hogorasuok (24€). Six rooms wrap around a courtyard and share one bathroom and kitchen. By day two I’ve shifted my shower to nighttime avoiding the line in the morning. Luckily, as soon as the festival is over, we pretty much have the place to ourselves. Breakfast is provided, but DIY. Squatting the kitchen are a couple of frogs and an army of mosquitos.
Wamena has uneasy energy. It's a mix of Papuans, who look more Aboriginal than Indonesian and “Straight Hairs” (Indonesians from other islands) who have been enticed to settle here with fiscal advantages. There's a strong military presence whose mission is to keep the natives in check and quash any separatist ideas. There are a lot of guns (police), knives and machetes (Papuans). Scooters, share the roads with pick-up trucks and the vibe is rather rough. Rows of small shops behind retractable aluminum shutters sell clothing and provisions. Ladies on the sidewalks sell fruit and vegetables and small warungs (restaurants) serve (the staple) nasi goreng (fried rice). Alcohol was banned here a few years ago after some violent drunks got out of hand and people died. Best to keep your distance from inebriated men who are particularly aggressive. This is not a place to be walking around at night. In fact, the owner of our guesthouse puts our scooter in his living room next to his every night even though there is a wall around the property.
The day before the festival we set out to scout the location. The directions are, cross the bridge and continue. Certain we've gone too far, we ask the first man not holding a machete for directions. He motions us to follow then peels out on his bike leading us back to town, turning before the bridge. The road winds along the raging river, washed away in parts, up to the plateau where organizers are preparing the event. Twice a day during the festival, we navigate the rocks and gravel weaving around pedestrians. On the treacherous parts, I have to get off and walk.
The annual Baliem Festival is the most important gathering of the Dani tribe. Approximately 220,000 members are spread over 40 districts in the valley. While they are all from the same tribe, customs and dress vary by district. They can tell the difference, not so easy for us!
Dump trucks carrying 50-100 people from each district unload their passengers at the top of a hill. They jump off the trucks, dancing and chanting as they line up to make their entrance. From the main stage, an emcee announces each group with the traditional welcome greeting, “Waa! Waa! Waa!” and cues them to run, “Lari! Lari! Lari!” down onto the plateau in a frenzy of full-on testosterone to the sound of drums beating and music blaring. Sucie, the town's education director, provides the English translation.
While the event, is primarily local, it does draw tourists, mostly Chinese lugging extra long lenses and heavy packs filled with photo accessories.
The military won’t let locals sit next to tourists in the main grandstand which feels so uncomfortable so I move to the side of the field where the locals are roaring with laughter and cheering as villagers perform ritual dances and reenact stories of daily life. The ambiance is much more fun.
Next to the main stage, a large tent has been set up where local delicacies and artisanal crafts are on sale. This is the place to buy your penis gourd. The local coffee is delicious once you get the hang of drinking it. We learn the hard way that it’s better to let the grains settle in your cup first. The inventor of French press must have gotten the idea here after choking on a mouthful of grains!
While districts are performing on the main field, the other groups hang out on the perimeter, warming up, socializing or posing for photos with the visitors. Some do want cigarettes or money, but for the most part everyone is just having a good time.
After the festival, we spend two more days exploring the area. As we ride north, I recognize the names of the districts. Most of the people in the villages are wearing western clothes though here and there, some elders sport the traditional (un)dress. Perhaps the further you go into the mountains the ratio is inversed, but we’ll never know as the scooter begins to stutter with the altitude forcing us to turn back. We follow a small road that loops off the main road and as we come around a bend, find ourselves face to face with a seriously drunk man. It’s a tense moment as he leans on the handlebars of our bike straddling the front tire. When a few polite requests for him to move fail, the only option is to gun it, throwing him off to the side. He stumbles after us, but loses steam quickly and is left standing in the middle of the road swinging his arms in defeat.
The (extortionist) taxi driver refuses to take us to the airport before 5:30 which feels a bit tight for a 6:15 flight, so we walk from our guesthouse. Thankful that it’s not pouring rain (as has been the case the last few nights), we don't encounter any trouble in the early morning darkness but It must be dangerous because the owner of our guesthouse texts, "Are you ok?" We're fine, but the airport doesn’t open until 5:15 leaving us standing out front for about 1/2 an hour!
The flight is delayed and our connection changes twice turning the short hop to Nabire into a full day affair. You have to remain zen when flying domestic in Indonesia. We arrive eventually and are met by two guys from Kali Lemon Dive Resort with whom we've organized a 3 day trip to (hopefully) swim with whale sharks. The trip will start tomorrow. For tonight they check us in to the Filadelfia Guesthouse. A small reception/restaurant fronts a row of basic clean rooms with big beds, A/C and TV (26€). This feels luxurious after Wamena. Anything would.
On schedule, a pick-up truck loaded with provisions drives us about an hour and a half out of Nabire through nothing but thick virgin jungle to Cenderawasih Bay, a protected national marine park. The truck turns off onto a dirt road that leads to two small houses on a beach. This is Wagi. A couple of guys shift everything on to a small boat and it takes about an hour to reach the resort. As we pass a large treehouse and round a long pier, we're a little surprised that this is the "dive resort".
We weren't expecting much, but we were not prepared for this. Afterall, for the two of us, it is about 950€ (excluding the national park fee of 130€) for 3 days/2 nights and while that includes meals, dives, transport and lodging, well, have a look...
But the team is lovely and with no time to waste, lunch is served in the over-water dining pavilion and soon we're back in the boat heading off in search of whale sharks. Out on the horizon there are a bunch of fishing platforms called bagans that look like sets from the movie Waterworld. Whale sharks hang around the platforms waiting for handouts from the fishermen who feed them the tiny fish that get caught in their nets. As the boat pulls up, a huge whale shark swims by, then another. They swim up to the platform open there enormous mouths and wait. We jump into the water with our snorkels and three whale sharks swim around us. It’s unnerving at first because you don't hear them and then all of a sudden one is swimming towards you, coming from the side or beneath you swerving gracefully away within inches! The bigger one is about 5 meters long, with two younger sharks about 2-3 meters. I cannot explain why it’s not scary, maybe because we are not on the menu.
The platforms are structures of bamboo and wood beams with fishing nets in between. It’s like walking on a balance beam and (thankfully) there’s always an outstretched hand for stability.
On the second day at the same spot there are two whale sharks. It rained very hard last night and visibility isn't great. Still, we're in the water with gentle giants.
Life is hard on the platform. A handful of men live here for weeks to months. Fishing takes place at night. They turn all the lights on which attracts fish of all sizes. As they swim into the nets, they switch the lights off, one at a time, until all the fish are in the center net which they then raise. They have coolers filled with ice stored in larger containers underwater and transport the catch by motor boat to Nabire. If the fishing is good, they remain, if not, they use the motor boat to tug the platform to another location.
After lunch, we head to a different platform, but there are no sharks. We continue to another. Nothing. But the third platform offers a spectacular show. There are five whale sharks swimming around and a couple are quite large - 6 to 7 meters. Yet, believe it or not, they are only adolescents, identifiable by their grey and white color. Again, there is absolutely nothing to fear. Sometimes, they’re so close you can touch their tough, rubbery skin. They come and go, circle around, surface for a mouthful of food, over and over. It’s truly breathtaking.
Our final day starts with breakfast on the water before one last dive. Only two whale sharks; my we are becoming jaded!
To get to Raja Ampat, an archipelago of about 1500 islands off the northwest tip of West Papua, you have to fly to Sorong, catch a ferry to Wasai, then take a small boat to your island. Naturally, flights, ferry schedules and local operators are not coordinated so you have to be lucky or rich. Our flight lands in Sorong at 1:45 and the last ferry to Wasai is at 2 PM. Banking on lucky, we jump into a cab and race to the port. The cabbie calls ahead and tells the ferry to wait! Two hours later we arrive in Wasai. With no news from our guesthouse, we just follow everyone else to a dock and stand by as a couple of tourists negotiate the price to take us all to our respective guesthouses on the island of Kri about 30 minutes away.
Our “resort” Koranu Fyak, has a small wooden dock with an open-air dining room and a handful of bungalows set back from the beachfront.
We stand on the dock for a minute waiting for the owner/divemaster, with whom I’ve been conversing with for about five months now, to appear wondering if we’re in the right place. A guy introduces himself as part of the team here and takes us to our bungalow. Inside the thatched roof hut is a wood frame with a mattress and mosquito net, a small table and a few nails on the wall. There’s one light bulb. Electricity, powered by a generator in the jungle, runs from 6pm to midnight and a few hours around midday. The 2 toilets, 2 showers and 1 sink, also open-air, are down a jungle path. He offers a few tips - beware the giant brown spiders lurking in the bathrooms and bungalows. Their bite won’t kill you, but you’ll be sick for 24 hours. Mosquitos are on full offensive in the showers especially at sundown so best to be quick, and If too many people shower at the same time, water runs low. All this for 45 € /day including meals for 2 (excludes dives, day trips, etc.)
Meals consist of fried fish, rice and a vegetable with an occasional variation of chicken. Breakfast is banana fritters or glutinous fluorescent green pancakes.
There is never enough food for the 6 -10 guests. The only seating is in the dining area at picnic tables with rock hard benches, or on the dock. Even the couple of loungers on the beach are just wood planks. Rustic, is a massive understatement. For the price, we’re not expecting any luxury, but throw down a bean bag chair, a big pillow or a mat for heaven’s sake!
it’s a struggle to like this place, but the raw beauty of the surroundings is undeniable.
By day two, our host has still not said hello which I find extremely rude. The guys who work there are all very friendly, but getting information is like pulling teeth and when you do get it, it is often inaccurate. As we get to know other travelers from our place and elsewhere along the beach, it becomes clear that the lack of communication and service is pretty much status quo. Perhaps that it is the off season is a factor? I'm having trouble enjoying myself because I'm being eaten alive despite all precautions, but as the days go by, we put together day trips with other tourists, snorkel on our own or dive with the crew from the guest house and every outing produces incredible sightings like 30 bumphead parrot fish chomping on coral, giant cuttlefish, phenomenally large schools of fish, bands of barracudas, giant groupers, lion fish, turtles and so much more, eventually trumping the discomfort.
Raja Ampat is also famous for Birds of Paradise, but no one at our guesthouse or the one nearby can be bothered to organize a day trip. We decide to leave a day early and head back to Waisai which is also known for birdwatching only to find out there will be no onward ferry to the following day leaving us no choice but to continue directly to Sorong.
The Guardian Family Hotel in Sorong (29€) is relatively clean and comfortable with a hot, fresh water shower, A/C and satellite TV. After basically living outdoors for the last two weeks my expectations are so low, I appreciate every detail.
It turns out, Taman Wisata Alam National Park is just outside the center of Sorong. We hire a local guide for an early morning walk the next day. Regretfully, we don’t spot any Birds of Paradise, but the Cockatoos are singing their hearts out.
At this time of year, the arid landscape of the island of Sumbawa is dramatically different from the jungle-covered islands of Raja Ampat. We check-in to the nicest place in Bima, the Marina Hotel (26€).
Most tourists come to Sumbawa to surf off the west coast. We’ve come to see the kid jockeys who race local ponies, bareback, barefoot and with little protective gear. But it’s a Muslim holiday and all offices and any hope of information will have to wait a couple of days. Town consists of a few streets with small shops and warungs (restaurants). The only thing to do is visit the shopping mall which turns out to be just a supermarket. The clerks are so excited to see foreigners, we have to pose for photos.
The tourist office has moved and left no new address. A kind lady who can manage a few words of English, makes some inquiries and offers to take us. She flags down another scooter and we’re off on the back of two bikes. The Office of Tourism is more like a military post. Shoes at the door please. It’s funny to see people in uniforms and socks! The officer doesn't have much information, but he's friendly and as we press, he has his subordinates chase down a few addresses. He offers to drop us at the local radio station, but first we must pose for photos. A nice young journalist for a Jakarta-based outfit welcomes us to the studio which has a radio cabin and a couch with a camera. He calls a friend and they do try to help, but the timing is off, so we decide to continue north to the town of Sumbawa Besar hoping for better luck. It’s a comfortable five hour ride in a VIP van. Little do we know, we’ll be taking this route several times in the coming weeks.
Sumbawar Besar is a bit nicer than Bima, but the good feeling dissipates when we arrive at Bougainvilla guest house to find that the room we pre-paid is not available. We have no choice but to accept the room they propose. I realize that 9,60 euros for a hotel room is dirt cheap, but still...
We spend the better part of the next day gathering information about the festival and realize that we are a week early. The barber ($1) points us to the only cafe in town that has a real cappuccino machine. Across the street at a ladies salon, once everyone has recovered from the emotion of seeing a foreigner and taken photos, I have a cut, color and incredible head massage for $7! During the process, the stylist patches her husband in on Skype and props the phone up in front of me for the duration!
With time to kill, we head to Komodo to see the famous dragons and test the world class diving. Getting there takes two days: 5 hours back to Bima, overnight at Marina hotel, 5:30AM local bus to Sape (2 hours), followed by a 7 hour ferry to Flores island.
One look at the economy section of the ferry (an open platform with dozens of people squatting) and we head to the VIP cabin which everyone seems to assume we have a ticket for. Here there are (fairly) comfortable seats though the leather is so worn, the foam is sticking out,. As usual, some Indonesians think they can smoke anywhere they like. We quash that immediately.
The town of Labuan Bajo on Flores island is the kick-off point for all excursions to and around the Komodo archipelago. Small shops line the main road, all offering the same trips. We sign up for the Komodo day trip, which includes a stop on Padar island for the famous 3 bay view.
Needless-to-say the Komodo dragons are something else. We see six on our afternoon walk. The dragons seem pretty confortable with all these humans snapping selfies but do not underestimate them. Bad things do happen. It’s very, very hot and the (required) guide tells us that more dragons come out in the cooler morning hours. Plan accordingly.
We sign up for a diving trip the following day. Unlike the laissez-faire attitude in Raja Ampat, this company is a well-oiled machine. The brand new boat is fabulous. The lower deck holds all the equipment, wetsuits (even for snorkelers) and gear has our names on it. There are several dive masters and crew members to help everyone get ready. On the top deck, tea, coffee and snacks are waiting on a low table surrounded by comfy bean-bags. A detailed briefing and safety instructions are given and we’re off on a two hour cruise to the first of three spots.
A guide is assigned to me and one other snorkeler enabling us to see so many fish we would not have spotted on our own. The current is very, very strong which is fun, but sometimes you just want everything to slow down so you have time to see all the creatures. However, strong current brings a lot of food which attracts big fish! The gigantic manta rays are supremely elegant as they glide by.
Mantas also enjoy a bit of pampering and stop in at “cleaning stations” where smaller fish tend to their skin. Groups of divers kneel on the sea floor to watch the spectacle.
The day is so exhilarating, we go out again the following day for three more incredible dives.
Every night (of 4 nights) in Labuan Bajo, we dine at Made in Italy, a divine authentic Italian restaurant. Hard to believe such a sophisticated place exists here.
We make our way back (ferry, bus, overnight again in Bima and mini van) to Sumbawa Besar. There is only one restaurant on this route and we will eat their lousy food four times!
Unlike the first hotel we stayed at in Sumbawa Besar, Pondok Daun guest house (modern, clean and roomy) has a hot water shower (16 €)
We rent a scooter and spend the next 10 days at the racetrack.There are not many people during the preliminary races and we get to know everyone at the dusty, unkempt track. We hang out with the organizers in the tower at the finish line, drink fresh juices at the food truck (our savior in this heat) and basically have carte blanche to go anywhere on the track.
Within a few days we’re quite chummy with the General Manager of the horse racing association and he invites us to his home one day after the races. In the late afternoon, the grooms lead his horses to the river for bathing. All the local boys join to help and play in the water.
Restaurants in Sumbawa Besar are rather disappointing, but every morning we stop at D’Big for cappuccino before heading to the track.
Some nights we eat dinner by the sea, where small shops have set-up tables and chairs, for a whole grilled fish and freshly squeezed juice.
Despite the threat of Mt. Agung (which will disrupt the lives of many locals for several more months before erupting) we are able to fly to Bali, the last stop on this trip. It feels like another country. Bali felt too built-up the first time we visited several years ago, but your perception of a place is definitely influenced by where you’re coming from. Given the minimal comfort we’ve had over the last two months, we’re suddenly excited about the luxurious room, hip restaurants, massages, etc., and wondering why we’re not staying longer! No matter, we’ll be back. It’s going to take many more trips to Indonesia to cover it all...