I've now been in Indonesia for going on several weeks and it's been some of the most challenging but in many ways also the most rewarding of my travels so far. The people here in Sulawesi are very friendly so far. I walk down the street and am constantly hailed with "Hello Mistair", which unfortunately is the extent of many of the local's grasp of English, with the possible exception of "Where are you from?" So I've been doing my best to learn at least the basics of Indonesian, with some comic results.
I rented a scooter yesterday, complete with driver/guide. He of course spoke no English. I asked him to take me to a restaurant listed in my guidebook, so he starts taking me miles out of town and I keep trying to ask him if he's sure it's this far, to which he quite insistently replies yes. So we finally get there, and of course it's not the right place. The right place is, of course, in the "kota" or downtown. So we sit down and have a drink anyway as I try to piece together sentences from the limited dictionary included in my guidebook and everyone gathers around to laugh at the silly "bule" (Indonesian for gringo). It was all good fun.
I have also spent a week in another tropical dive paradise known as Bunaken Island on the northern tip of Sulawesi. It's all volcano country around there so there's big volcanoes rising up into the sky, but they also rise up out of the water, so the island is surrounded by dramatic wall dives with the depths quickly plunging to 1000 meters or so.
I also met some local kids that were camping out on the island. They were very friendly and offered to show me around the mainland. Fortunately, several of them spoke English very well. So I got their mobile numbers and hooked up with them once I got back to the mainland. True to their word, they took me around the nightlife of Manado and then up into the highlands to a national park called Tangkoko, where I got to see these little mug-sized monkeys called Tarsiers (Pictures coming as soon as I get to a place that has half-decent bandwidth to upload).
We met some other kids there and they told us about this other place they were heading to with a bunch of waterfalls and invited us along. Why not? It's truly amazing the way it's so easy to hook up with people like that. It was sometimes confusing to me whether or not these people knew each other from before since they were so instantly open and friendly with each other. But that's just the way it seems to work around here.
I'm now in an old Dutch colonial town called Gorontalo. Some of the older residents still speak Dutch. Ramadan has just started and this is a predominantly Muslim town so in the evenings, everyone is dressed in Muslim garb on the way to the mosques and Muslim prayers are broadcast from speakers at the various mosques around the city. I've got to say I have yet to sense any hostility at being a Westerner. Quite the opposite, as mentioned earlier, everyone goes out of their way to greet me and usually gives the big thumbs up when I tell them that I'm from America.
So, contrary to my earlier post, I have decided to proceed cautiously through some of the areas that are meant to be potentially dangerous. I have met several travellers that have come through there and report no problems. There is one place, Poso, that seems to have a lot of problems between Christians and Muslims. But it seems to be exclusively flare-ups between the locals, never with tourists. Nevertheless, I plan to make my way as quickly as possible through there, hopefully staying no longer than to change buses and head on to the next town.
Below there, however, is supposed to be one of the most culturally rich places on the island of Sulawesi, a place called Torajaland. They have their own indigenous culture and religion, and their ceremonies, particularly the funerals, are meant to be quite spectacular multi-day affairs. They include sacrificing of animals, kick-boxing tournees and generally just blow-out gatherings of friends, family, neighbors, and anyone else who can be gathered up. So hopefully I will get to see one of those or some other similar type of ceremony. Regardless, it promises to be quite an interesting leg of my journey.
So I'll leave it at that. Stay tuned for further updates from here at the center of the Earth. Incidentally, I should be crossing over the equator in the next day or two.
So I spent another couple of weeks in Thailand which were really great. I hooked up with my mate Elton again in a place called Ton Sai beach. My Australian friend, Jenni, who I'd met on the way to Cameron Highlands and hung out with in the Perhentian Islands decided to accompany me as well in her roundabout way of getting back to Kuala Lumpur. So yeah, Ton Sai was great, really laid back beach community of mostly rock climbers. We each had our own little cabin with en suite bathroom for US $2.50 a night.
There's some pictures from Ton Sai and Bangkok here:
I then went with Elton up to Bangkok. He was determined to make it for the weekend market there so we left on Saturday afternoon, planning to take an overnight sleeper train from Surat Thani. Unfortunately, when we got there the second class sleeper train that we wanted to take was sold out. We could either wait another three hours for the next train or splurge and go for the first class sleeper train. So we splurged. It was pretty nice, we had our own air conditioned cabin and all, but I gotta say I was hoping for a bit more from first class. Nevertheless, I got a fairly good night's sleep and arrived in Bangkok relatively refreshed.
We stayed at a hotel off of Sukhumvit Road that Elton had stayed at before. It was a nice, western-style hotel, complete with AC, shower, TV, fridge, the works - all for less than $10 US a night each. It was good to stay somewhere else than Khao San Road which is where most of the backpacker farangs stay and is quite a bit outside the center of town. On Sukhumvit we were about 50 meters from the closest SkyTrain station, which was a complete blessing. The SkyTrain is an elevated, air-conditioned train system that allows you to literally fly over the traffic and congestion below.
We crashed out for a bit on arrival and then headed out on the SkyTrain to the Chatuchak weekend market. It's a huge sprawling market covering the area of several city blocks. There's apparently around 15,000 stalls selling everything from live chickens and snakes to handicrafts and clothes galore. Unfortunately, we were both a bit overwhelmed by it all, especially with the immense heat inside and only got a couple pairs of shoes and some various other knick-knacks. Still, it was quite a worthy experience just wandering around and taking it all in.
So then Elton took off, heading back home, which he was actually rather excited about after travelling around SE Asia and Australia for the past 10 months. I moved into a hostel a bit further down Sukhumvit Road. I was just waiting for my Indonesian visa to come through and was heading off for there as soon as it did. I had some fun, though, heading down with some of the boys and girls from the hostel to the go-go bars on Soi Cowboy. Soi Cowboy is one of several such streets in Bangkok lined with go-go bars with tons of lithe little Asian girls dancing, rubbing, and generally doing whatever it takes to get the farangs to buy them drinks, give them tips, and ultimately pay their "bar fine" and take them home for the night. The bar fine is basically the fee that goes to the bar and the rest is negotiated separately with the girl. Needless to say, I never got that far, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.
So I was finally ready to head off to Indonesia. I had my visa, I had my ticket to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, from where I would buy another ticket for Jakarta. I didn't really want to go to Jakarta but it was the cheapest way, via Air Asia, to get to Indonesia. God bless Air Asia, they are by far the cheapest way to get around Asia but sometimes you have to pay for it with multiple connections and more roundabout routes. In hindsight, actually, I might have done it differently, flying directly to Bali. But I didn't.
So I was all set, I just had to grab a bite to eat, hit the ATM to pay for my stay at the hostel, and then I was off on the bus to the airport. Unfortunately, while I was running around doing this, the shorts that I had bought on the street for US $2.50 had developed a hole in the pocket and my change purse containing the keys to the locker where I had my computer and passport and whatnot stored at the hostel, fell out without my knowledge. Upon discovering this, I frantically retraced my steps to try and recover the purse, but alas in vain. I then explained to the proprietors of the hostel what happened and they had me go out and buy a hacksaw to try and saw open the lock. I did this and spent some time trying to saw through the lock, but it was no use, the lock was too strong. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the departure time for my flight and I was really beginning to sweat, both literally and figuratively.
Fortunately, the hostel was just in the process of opening and there were some workers there putting the final touches together. One of them brought up a drill and managed to drill the lock open just in the nick of time for me to catch a cab to the airport and make it to my flight. Whew! You'd think I would have learned after that not to carry things so valuable around with me in my pocket, but noooooo.
I spent the next night in Johor Bahru on the side of a highway basically. I was thinking about going into Singapore, which was less than 50k away, but I had to come back to Johor Bahru anyway for my flight on to Indonesia and when they told me on the bus there would probably be a long line at the border because it was Sunday I decided to fuck it and just stay in Johor Bahru. From what I saw of it, Johor Bahru really does not have much to offer, but I was being a cheap backpacker and this route was saving me a few bucks.
So I flew into Jakarta the next day. I really did not want to stay in Jakarta any longer than I had to. Notwithstanding the recent bombing at the Australian Embassy, I had heard from several people that Jakarta was just another sprawling urban chaos and I had no reason to doubt that. But for some reason buying domestic tickets from within the country is about 75% cheaper than buying them outside the country, so I had to wait until I got to Jakarta to buy my onward ticket to Manado. Of course when I got there, the economy tickets were sold out for several days. So I bought the first available ticket in three days time and resigned myself to spending a few days in Jakarta.
Jakarta was mostly as I expected. I didn't venture much outside of Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta's version of Khao San Road, where all the farangs stay, except the farangs seem to be mostly absent, probably due to the embassy bombing and whatnot. Still, it's pretty cheap and there's a street full of satay vendors the next road down. I noticed in the paper an announcement that they were going to be playing some Spanish films at one of the universities in town for free. Having nothing better to do, I figured I'd venture out and try to check it out. I went to the tourist office to find out how to get there. They said I could either go by taxi or by bus - a taxi would be about $2 while the bus would be about $.15. Again figuring I'd be a bit adventurous and save myself a few rupiah at the same time, I opted for the bus. It seemed pretty straightforward - hop on a bus across the street and take it until the end when it arrives at a bus terminal. The university was supposed to be somewhere near the bus terminal. When I arrived at the bus terminal, it was a mass chaos of buses, minibuses, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles all jockeying for position, never giving an inch, but somehow managing to make some progress without crashing into each other, at least as far as I saw.
Anyhow, I got out and tried to find out where the film was screening by showing a piece of paper with the address on it to some of the vendors there. The paper was passed around several times and much discussion ensued in Indonesian among the participants. Finally, a concensus was reached and one of the vendors tried to explain to me how to get there by spouting off some Indonesian and pointing in various directions, which of course did me absolutely no good.
Finally, they managed to get across that I needed to take another bus and another gentleman that was going in that direction kindly took me under his wing and had me get into a little minibus. These minibuses have benches that run along the side of the bus, so you are sat facing each other with the aisle running down the middle. Once again, it is quite chaotic, with the bus weaving through traffic and people jumping on and off all the time.
There was an old guy sitting next to me and he did his best to try and strike up a conversation asking where I'm from and all of that in broken English. He then started grabbing the hairs on my arms and seemed to be delighted by the fact that I have so much hair on me whereas Indonesians have practically none. He also started grabbing my legs in kind of a weird way which I was not entirely comfortable with but it seemed mostly harmless and he soon stopped. Shortly thereafter, I felt that something was not quite right and reached for my wallet in my pocket to make sure it was still there. Fuck! It's gone! I started to panic and search wildly around but then whew, it was right there on the bench next to me! It must have fallen out. I gotta be more careful about that. It was only much later when I went to retrieve some money from the wallet that I realized there was none! I had been relieved of my cash.
In a way I am grateful that they only took the cash and left the wallet which also contained my driver's license, credit cards, dive certification, etc. But the wallet also contained about $250 in cash of various currencies, mostly American, so it was an expensive lesson indeed. I had been more careful previously about not taking my wallet out with me, just enough spending money for what I would need. But I had gotten lax, and this is not the place to let that happen, apparently. Again, it could have been a lot worse, and it's definitely a wakeup call for me, but it still stings very much, especially when I have been sacrificing so much to save a few dollars here and there and then I go and lose a big wad like that through my own stupidity. Oh well, it's just money. Fortunately, there's still some more where that came from. It just goes to show you, sometimes it doesn't pay to be cheap.
So anyhow, I'm off tomorrow to Manado, in Northern Sulawesi. It's supposed to be one of the best diving spots in the world. I can't wait to get Jakarta behind me and escape to paradise again. Unfortunately, the diving doesn't seem to be anywhere near as cheap as Thailand or Malaysia but we'll see if I can't hunt some deals down when I get there.
It looks like I might not be travelling too much through the rest of Sulawesi, though. Here's what the U.S. State Deparment has to say about the matter:
"Americans should avoid travel to Central, South and Southeast Sulawesi; those considering travel to North Sulawesi should exercise extreme caution. Violence in Poso and in neighboring areas of Central Sulawesi during October-November 2003 produced 19 fatalities. Central Sulawesi's general security situation remains unstable. A specific, credible terrorist threat to Western interests in areas of Central, Southern and Southwestern Sulawesi in May 2004 led many Westerners to evacuate those areas."
Oh shit, there's supposed to be some really beautiful spots in those areas too. But after my recent experience, it's probably better to be safe than sorry. I'm sure there's plenty of other spots that are just as nice and won't entail as much risk. We'll just have to see how it goes. Wish me luck. Until next time...