Monthly Archives: May 2015

Four Countries in Seven Days.

Its shoulder season here in Krabi, Thailand. I always wondered what that season was and know I know, it’s between the Peak seasons, and life is not nearly so frenetic. The people take their town back, go out in the evening, walk on the beach, picnic on the sea wall, watch the sunset and treat visitors rather less like walking ATMs. In fact the hustlers and trinket sellers are gone from the beach and the few water vendors who wander up and down join in with Frisbee games and are keen to point out the Monitor Lizards who come in to visit from the sea. The visitors seem to be primarily Thai, down from Bangkok perhaps, though of course there are the usual Europeans from all over, even a scattering of people from North America. It’s quite the Tower of Babel in the bars during the evening, so many different tongues and I’m quite ashamed that I really cannot identify most of them.

After Raja Ampat I had a couple of days on Papua proper in Sorong looking for a bird of paradise feather for my Mother. Seems she has always wanted one so who was I to refuse the challenge, dutiful son and all that. I spent most of a whole day looking round the knick-knack shops, antique dealers, tourist shops, such as they were, and all I could come up with were gaudy head dresses, hopelessly inappropriate. I was greatly helped by Alex’s wife, he from Yenkoranu, she lives and works in Sorong, a teacher and Youle drove me around on her scooter, all to no avail. But at about 8.00pm on the evening before I left she called me and said she was coming to pick me up, again. What we ended up with is so ridiculously ridiculous that we will have to wait until my Ma receives it, in Seattle in mid July, to see whether it suffices, or not. (don’t tell if you already know)

Krabi then, shoulder season, quite a shock after so many months feeling a bit of a castaway in Borneo and the like, but before Krabi there were greater shocks. Sorong to Makassar in Sulawesi and then Singapore in one day.. That was a shock. I think I keep a reasonably positive spin on life going along so maybe I should not linger on Singapore. No, I wont. But I will mention that the western immigrants all seemed inordinately proud of the fact that they lived in what is now the most expensive place on earth. They are also proud of the fact that there is a huge mall, open on Sundays, especially for all the domestic workers from the Philippines so they can enjoy their one-day off. Don’t get me going on the cars, million dollar Ferraris, Bentleys, Rollers etc.

A train, out of there, ASAP to Malaysia. A fourteen hour ride seemed a bit daunting but in fact it was most enjoyable. There were some interesting people to chat with. An author who writes books on SE Asia railway journeys, a family from Chicago who hadn’t slept for two nights and another from Calgary. Lots of seat swapping, chat and time to write the last blog. The terminus was the splendidly named Butterworth where we were expected to find our way to the ferry to Penang. The big problem was that between S’pore and the ferry ticket booth there was no opportunity to acquire local currency. There was a very pleasant Norwegian who was delighted to receive the best exchange rate he will ever get for my US Dollars! A midnight taxi ride to my hotel, still with no local currency, stopped at an ATM and my bank decided that now was the time to put a temporary hold on my account. Thanks very much Wells Fargo. The hotel night watchman loaned me the taxi fare, kindly made me sandwiches, supplied the remnants of a bottle of red and packed me off to bed.

Penang was interesting, a little bit of Britain on an island off the coast of Malaysia, it was one of the last little pink bits. I am not sure when Penang received independence but there is a definite British feel to the place. Some of the street names for instance, there is a King street, a Queen, Beach, Downing, Buckingham etc, even a Fettes Park. The old colonial buildings have been preserved, most of them anyway, and I could not resist tea in the grounds of the very civilized 1884 hotel, the Eastern and Orient, or affectionately the E. & O. It was quite the thrill to sit on their lawns looking out over the Malacca Straits with large thirty-two pounder cannons off an English ship of the line circa 1800 as accompaniment. There was no-one around to take my photo and as I have yet to buy a selfie stick (!) the event went unrecorded. Shame really, they were magnificent cannons.

But again, like Singapore, it was quite expensive in Penang so I moved on to Krabi, on the South West coast of Thailand where I have been roosting for a couple of weeks. I found a pleasant Inn about twenty feet from the beach which has reduced my need to walk considerably. This is a good thing because I can’t, walk that is. It started back in Saba the day I walked for ten hours and has been getting steadily worse until now I can barely walk for ten minutes without having to sit down. Mighty inconvenient. I consulted with ‘Nice Mike’ back in Papua, the splendid Dr Singh in Singapore and friend Luca in Germany and the consensus is that I have Plantar Fasciitis, or ‘joggers foot’, the left one. I have been prescribed steroids, but they don’t seem to be making much difference so I am bound for Bangkok where I shall be fitted with a cast for support. Apparently it will be only like a sock so I can wear it with my shoe. I just hope it works.

Apologies for the blog less period but not a lot to comment upon on the twenty feet between hotel and beach. Lets hope for more interesting observations from the Lower Mekong, by boat.

I will put this up tonight and upload photos tomorrow, if the wires, tubes, and Internets permit!

 

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Raja Ampat.

Timing is everything and if the trip from Ambon on the plane to Sorong, a small port on the coast of Papua, and then to Waisai in the Raja Ampat Islands by ferry was to be achieved then I would have thirty minutes to collect my bag from the carousel and ride a taxi to the port. At Ambon airport I tried the old trick of asking for a Fragile sticker on my bag, well it would either be first, or last. As it turned out it was first even though the sticker had fallen off and then it was a dive into the first taxi and rush, rush, rush to the jetty. I need not have worried, it was inevitably delayed, my bags were portered aboard for about a dollar, I found a seat and exhaled. We sped across the Dampier Strait, a thrill in itself, and arrived successfully at Waisai where my carefully laid planning collapsed somewhat. I find it hard to remember where I am supposed to be going and I make a list, so this one was quite easy, Ambon to Sorong, except of course it wasn’t Sorong it was Pelabuhan, the name of Sorong’s port, and then Waisai. I called my homestay from the ferry to tell them I had made the scheduled departure successfully and expected the usual ‘Mr Tim’ sign on my arrival, but no sign and I hadn’t written down the name of the homestay. There was the usual posse of agents, touts and hustlers vying for my business all of whom I thank you’d away except for one guy who seemed particularly insistent. It turned out he was the Waisai agent for the homestay, Yankoranu, and had been dispatched to meet the ferry and point the only westerner aboard in the right direction. He lowered my bags into an open boat filled with large bottles of drinking water and we went off to purchase the required license for Raja Ampat National Park. Mission accomplished, at a not inconsiderable fee, we returned to the boat and due to the cargo perched on the edge, the gunwale, and with the twin outboards roaring raced away to Yankoranu on Pulau Kri.

The tide was in, disembarking was achieved with ease, I found my hut some ten feet from the high tide mark, dithered around in the usual arriving fashion and headed for the communal dining, rec’ area. Oh dear, six guys, each sitting at different tables all showing a distinct lack of camaraderie for each other and more especially for me, the newb’ on the block. I made a few attempts at conversation that fell on deaf ears so I had my solitary beer and went to bed wondering if I should move on the next day. Happily though as dawn broke the six solitary ones loaded themselves into a boat and thankfully went on their way. I had the place to myself. Bliss. I was ushered to the end of the jetty with the children from the local village and witnessed the morning shark feeding. Only reef sharks, harmless (perhaps!), but still quite large, maybe five feet or longer and all looking distinctly shark like, there were maybe thirty of them, maybe more, I took pictures from above which actually came out surprisingly well. People arrived on the jetty throughout the day and all seemed to want to chat before heading off down the beach to other homestays. I was intrigued, what were they doing here, how had they even heard of Raja Ampat. There was a couple from Chile who had come non stop, as it were, from Santiago it took them four days, a couple from Sao Paulo who were similarly well traveled. Why here I asked, I mean I had only first heard of the place two days ago and these guys had been planning their trip for months. It seems that the Raja Ampat Islands are at the center of the coral triangle, there are over one thousand eight hundred varieties of fish and over eighty percent of the world’s different corals are found here. Plus the microclimate makes for extremely clear water and so the divers come, from all over the World. The wealthier ones take to what are known as liveaboards, large yachts fitted out for diving, luxury accommodations, gourmet food, wine, gin, brandy, the usual stuff while the rest of us stay at homestays and experience the islands for a fraction of the price. These then were, I suppose, my kind of people, even though I don’t dive, heck, I can barely swim! The day meandered along and by day’s end my homestay was full. I could tell things were improving because everyone, upon arriving, rushed around introducing themselves. Ok, then, this is better. Beer time came and we all gathered, at the same table, and told stories, where we were from, what we did, had done, a joke or two, nice people, not at all pretentious. Eventually there were four Brits, one living in Ottawa, one Melbourne, one Frankfurt, by way of Edinburgh, and me, SF. Two French guys from Versailles, a great Indonesian guy who worked for Toyota who had the best gadgets I ever did see (!). A really good guy I christened ‘nice Mike’ to myself who turned out to be a Doctor from Colorado. Then there was the couple from Slovakia. “Where is that?” I said, my brain fixated on Slovenia, I just couldn’t place Slovakia. My brain had stopped but I eventually got it and publicly apologized for my temporary ignorance. One of the French guys piped up “that’s ok, now we know you are from America”, it was that sort of crowd, very good natured and humorous.

Janixko Hlixka, aka Jan, and Tatiana Hlxnkova from Bratislava were quite the stars of the show, Jan being the tall guy, totally fearless and Tatiana, his wife of twelve years, the not so expert in the water person, just like me. As always their English was superb but I have this minor ‘thing’, and at the risk of offending the entire planet I have to confess. Whenever I hear ladies with that particular Slavic accent I go into this “I want to be a classic Russian novelist” dream. Its not going to happen for many reasons, the prime one of course, I can’t speak Russian. (Away with the fairies, Tim.) It happened on a tour bus in Istanbul with Ms Vxka Zolxt, despite her being from New York, again in Uzbekistan with Katya Andrxshxna, although Katya did do four years at Stanford, and here was Tatiana sounding like someone out of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. There, I got that out of the way. We really did have some interesting conversations though and I don’t think she will mind if I mention that her Father fought with the Russian Partisans during WW2, that’s some gene pool. There was the infamous occasion when I misheard her pronunciation of ‘fruit’, hearing it as ‘Freud”, as in Sigmund, her face after a few sentences from me was, well, startling! Startled?

(An aside here, I am on a train heading north in Malaysia, it is sunset and the crew have just all come to the back of my carriage for evening prayers. How excellent)

I snorkeled, lots more than I have ever snorkeled before, I had too really with all the divers around. I have become quite familiar with dive speak, I even know what a nudibranch is! It’s a tiny multi colored snail that lives on the bottom, with horns. I jumped, well slid, off the side of the boat a couple of times and swam about seeing things I had never seen before but it was when Jan and Tatiana gently persuaded me to go with them out onto the reef that I really got enthused. It was as if I was observing another civilization, something from Science Fiction, so many fish, of every color, thousands and thousands of them, swimming about among the absolutely remarkable coral, each species having its own role. I just wish that I owned an underwater camera so I could share, but you will just have to believe me. It was absolutely stunning.

Yankoranu and its staff were above and beyond what one would expect from an isolated homestay. The food was basic, mostly fish and rice but plentiful, the huts were, again, basic, and interestingly perhaps, to some, featured proper loos, but they didn’t flush. I don’t think I have met that before. Every evening there was a communal pow pow when the staff laid out the options for the following day and after a debate some signed up to go off and, for instance, dive with the mantas or chain themselves to the reef at the turn of the tide to observe the big fish. I did join an early morning expedition (4.30am) to go observe the courting dance of the bird of paradise. Apart from becoming lost in the jungle for a while this was quite special except I had this concept that the dance took place on the ground rather like peacocks. Oh no, it takes place high up at the top of the canopy, maybe one hundred feet up. This of course makes for a difficult photo opportunity and I ended up with many photos of branches and leaves, and a stiff neck.

Raja Ampat then. Quite a special place.

 

Here is a fish photo with credit due to Tom in Melbourne.

Here is a fish photo with credit due to Tom in Melbourne.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This could be a Tiger fish. Again credit to Tom.

This could be a Tiger fish. Again credit to Tom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The dive shack and jetty at Yenkoranu.

The dive shack and jetty at Yenkoranu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bird of paradise, with branches and leaves.

A bird of paradise, with branches and leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharks.

Sharks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A failed trip to the Banda Islands. Then Raja Ampat.

Such a low tide today, the reef is exposed, the lagoon is nearly dry and the little boats are having trouble reaching the jetty. The high tide too was extreme, the sound of the waves at 4.30am woke me up and fearing that my cabin/hut/shack might be swamped I set off down the beach to watch the sunrise. All this because the moon is almost full and that means that it has been a month since I was on Maratua which in turn means I haven’t put pen to paper or even fingers to keyboard for far too long, sorry about that, lets see what’s been happening. There have been the usual ups and downs, a definite low was being presented with a stale sandwich for breakfast one morning that contained nothing but chocolate sprinkles, though a high was drinking tea on a cliff top one afternoon with half a dozen volcanoes to gaze upon. People too, I’ve met Slovakians, Italians, Chileans, the occasional (quiet) American, French, Dutch, Germans (of course) and a whole BnB full of English, really! Right now I am on the Raja Ampat Islands off the west coast of Papua, New Guinea is right next door so that is the second and third largest islands in the world on my list of places visited lately. I am quite geographically pleased. Greenland next?

My last jottings were sent from Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Borneo where I was on a mission, an over night mission, from Manado, North Sulawesi, to stay one night and pick up a replacement credit card. Yes, I finally managed to loose mine. Stupid I know, but fortunately my bank had sent a new one to the house some time ago and Julia was kind enough to Fedex it over, sent on Friday I picked it up on Wednesday, not bad from Fairfax to Balikpapan, Borneo. But while waiting for the mailman what was I going to do, carry on with the plan seemed best so a very quick flight to Manado in Northern Sulawesi (was the Celebes) where I was picked up and taken to an English run BnB called Bahowo Lodge. Built from scratch by Phil Boast and Paula Larcher it is possibly a perfect example of the way such places should be run. They sponsor the local village school and all the village kids receive a free, primary education, there are six classrooms with a teacher for each one. They bought a bus so the older kids can get to town for secondary school and a number have moved on to university, again sponsored by Phil, Paula and guests of the BnB. Imagine then, the jungles of Sulawesi, in the middle of a village, pigs roaming the streets, happy children singing the alphabet song and eight Brits plus an American girl from Baton Rouge. It was worthy of a screen play, a tv series, a movie. There was Marmite on toast, gin and tonics, affordable wine, egg and bacon, I mean, really, you can’t make this stuff up! No names, but there was a Chief Inspector from the Terrorist Squad and MI6 there, with his wife, who could be persuaded to tell some tales including how he was flown, by the “cousins”, from Tallahassee, Florida to Medellin, Colombia in the back of a Phantom, for coffee. You might like to do a search for Phil as not only has he written a book about building the BnB but he has also written a series of books on life in an English village.

It was time to leave and another short flight across the Celebes Sea to Ternate. A tiny dot on the Planet but it looked interesting being volcanic and was on my planned route. It was billed in my book as being the perfect tropical paradise. Opinions differ! There were some interesting 17th Century Dutch Forts with old canons lying about and a most spectacular Mosque. But I think it is on the verge of converting to Sharia law and I really have no time for that.

On then to Ambon, the Capital of the Mulukas, and the heart of the Spice Islands of old. A certain sense of triumph because this was perhaps the end of my Silk Road quest, for it was here that the Chinese came to find cloves, nutmeg, mace. Returning with them to the mainland they were loaded on to camels with the silks and off to Rome, Egypt and other western destinations. I sat amongst the trees inhaling the fragrances and dreamt of Samarkand, Khiva, Turpan, Tash Rabat and other Silk Road stopovers. I likedAmbon. Definitely in ‘Hello Mister” country, this being the cry of the locals as I passed by, from both the kids and the adults. I don’t think I saw another westerner the entire time I was there so there was a sense of surprise as I came in sight. There is a mode of transport perhaps unique to the island, the becak. A small carriage for two, attached to the front of a bicycle and pushed along by pedal power. At first glance I dismissed this as perhaps a little Rajish, elitist, just a gimmick for tourists. But, as I said, there were no tourists, the locals, young and old used them. There were ranks of becaks everywhere and after careful observation I deemed them safe and took a ride. My plan was to head on to the Banda Islands, I had heard a rumor of a boat so becaked it to the port where I was deposited outside the office of the Port Authority. After much gesticulation, pointing at maps etc I determined that the boat had sailed at midnight the night before. Back to the becak and a ride to a travel agent where a delightful Indian lady did her due diligence and determined that the only airline that flies to Banda, Susie Air on a six seater, was sold out for a week. There was a possibility she said of getting a boat to the Kei Islands, about 500 hundred miles past Banda, then another boat back to my destination, though there was no guarantee that I could leave Banda in a timely fashion. If I had not lost my credit card this might have been just about possible but my mistake caught up with me, I couldn’t go to Banda and leave the country before my visa, expired. Therefore I lost the opportunity to expand on the tale of a battle between the Brits and the Dutch over a small and unproductive Banda island that the British were occupying. The story goes that they paused the battle to have tea together, had a bit of a negotiation and the Dutch decided to swap the unproductive rock for another desolate island they ‘owned’. And that is how the Brits gained Manhattan. Good story.

There I was then, in Ambon, without a plan. I took a tour to ponder, high up into the hills to see spice plantations. The spice trade is not what it was and though spices are grown all over there seemed to be no actual ‘farms”. Here was a nutmeg tree, there a clove, here a rambutan fruit tree and there a betel nut tree amongst the many durian trees. Although not exactly what my western organized eyes had expected it was gloriously haphazard, chaotic and I guess to some extent it worked. Cloves dried on cloths on the road surface, rambutan and durian stalls abounded and everyone seemed very happy and content. Me and my preconceptions, ha, wrong again Tim. Did you know btw that nutmeg and mace come from the same nut? Nutmeg on the outside, mace in the middle. I didn’t.

On a slightly negative note there has been trouble in Ambon recently between the Christians and the Muslims. I passed through areas that had been closed to traffic for months but saw little sign of destruction. The result of the disturbances is that the island is now heavily segregated with the Christians predominating in the city and the Muslims relegated to the area around the airport. Sad I find.

However, I couldn’t see out my visa on Ambon although the becaks were charming, the Ojeks (sitting on the back of a motor bike) slightly alarming and the Ojeks (mini buses playing very loud music) plentiful and cheap it wasn’t exactly a place to spend too much time. Research, research. I half wanted to go see the Dragons on Komodo, or hang out in the Gillis or go stay with a tribe in Papua. My eye landed on Raja Ampat off the west coast of Papua. A National Park dedicated to wildlife, fish and coral it sounded interesting. The Diving Tribe considers it some of the best diving in the world due to its location at the center of the coral triangle. I couldn’t find any suggestion of a hotel on the islands so called a homestay to check availability. Sure, said the guy, fly from Ambon to Sarong, pick up the once a day ferry to Waihai and we will pick you up at the jetty in the speedboat for the ride to Kri.

Its not easy these days escaping far the maddening crowd.

A classroom in Bahowo village. Sulawesi.

A classroom in Bahowo village. Sulawesi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catching the school bus.

Catching the school bus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volcano.

Volcano and local outrigger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canons on Ternate.

Canons on Ternate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dutch fort on Ternate.

Dutch fort on Ternate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big volcano and a small one.

A big volcano and a small one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Market place in Ambon.

Market place in Ambon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Patriotic durian sellers!

Patriotic durian sellers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allied World War 2 Cemetery.

Allied World War 2 Cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old Palace.

The old Palace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nutmeg.

Nutmeg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambon taxi.

Ambon  becak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ambon taxi rank.

Ambon taxi rank.