(Komodo, Sumba, Sulawesi)

22 Jun - 18 Jul 2000

Computer Woes

If you're reading this, you probably have some sort of access to a computer, and if so, I'm sure you've experienced that awful moment when you realize that that last command wasn't quite what you intended and just might be really bad. Swallowing what feels like a four pound dead frog you stare at the screen in horror and then tentatively type the command that confirms your worst fears.

It happened to me last week in Singapore.

The end result was that I needed to reinstall my new computer from scratch. In the process, I lost all my digital pictures from the last 6 months and all my writing in progress.

I don't have the energy to recreate the writing without the pictures, but it was an interesting few weeks, so here are some highlights.

Komodo diving, for better and worse

The diving in Komodo National Park was fabulous. This is a sparsely populated area of Indonesia and the waters are legally protected, so the reefs are essentially untouched. This is what it must have been like to dive world class sites 20 years ago. On every dive we found incredibly healthy and abundant soft corals with all sorts of marine life. Sharks, turtles, eels, rays, and an assortment of more esoteric (and rare) creatures were spotted. It was wonderful, except...

Besides being unexploited, the reason the diving here is so good is that it's a meeting place between the cold heavy swells of the Indian Ocean and the warm tidal surges of the Flores Sea. It makes for very diverse life but also strong and unpredictable currents.

On one dive, as Tuk descended slowly to equalize her ears, she drifted out from the reef wall. As I swam over to her, a vicious current snatched us away from the reef and plunged us down. In seconds it took us from our planned depth of 25 meters (80 ft) down to almost 40 meters (130 ft), close to the limit for recreational diving.

When we finally were swept free of the current we got tumbled through turbulent water full of bubbles. Orientation and buoyancy control were impossible, it was all we could do to hold onto each other as we were flipped about like socks in the washer. Finally, the waters calmed into what was only a ripping current. It took us far out into the channel, but however fast, at least it was moving in only one direction.

On the surface, a check of the dive computer showed that we'd been within the limits but it was still a harrowing experience and Tuk was shaken up for a few days.

There Be Dragons...

As a child, I was a voracious reader. One of the first "big" books I can remember reading was a collection of adventure stories from around the world -- climbing Mt McKinley, descending the ocean's depths in a bathysphere, discovering King Tut's tomb, and capturing dragons on Komodo Island -- this book told the stories, and I read them over and over again.

Last year, early on my trip, I stood in King Tut's tomb and pondered how this book had influenced my sense of adventure. How many of my life's twists and turns stem from discovering that book gathering dust in my grandmothers living room.

Anchored in a cove just off Komodo island I think many of these same thoughts as I dive off the roof of the boat and swim in to the beach. Blue water, white sand, swaying palm trees, the beach is like many others I've been to, except, that is, for the dragon tracks.

They come down from the trees, meander along the waterline, and then head back up into the underbrush. Two lines of prints the size of my hand separated by a thick line gouged into the sand -- the unmistakable signs of big animal dragging its tail.

One of two photos to survive the reformat
(saved on a floppy I'd cut for Tuk).
The dragons feed on animals as large as water buffalo and have killed more than a few people. They chase prey down and deliver a nasty bite with powerful and infectious jaws. They then follow the wounded creature for days until it succumbs to the infection.

Each rustle in the grass snaps my head around, and I don't spend nearly as much time on this beach as I might have on another

The apprehension lasts until our guided tour through the preserve, but at midday the dragons are just 3 meter (10 ft) long lizards and the guide pokes it with a stick to prove it's alive.

Is it normal for the boat to sink?

The island of Sumba is known for its intact culture and high quality weaving, so despite being far off the normal tourist track, it was high on our list of places to visit. We'd spent the extra 3,000 rupiah ($.25) for 1st class so we had aged but padded recliners instead of plastic benches for the overnight ferry ride.

I woke to the sound of the wave breaking over the auto deck and my first sight were Tuk's eyes bulging with fear. She'd been awake for an hour watching panic develop while I'd slumbered restlessly. People scrambled all around us, rushing first to the stairs to check the water level and then breaking open the cache of life jackets and passing them around.

Numb with sleep and the travelers sense that "maybe this is normal?" I grabbed us two life jackets while slowly waking to the memory that ferries do sink in this country and the realization that these were *big* waves.

Luckily, no more waves broke onto the lower deck, but some of the Indonesians left their life jackets on and I kept the lock off the bag holding our diving gear.

Sumba style

We sat with the villagers in the straw and bamboo hut, me snapping pictures while Tuk bargained for the carved stone "idol of repentant children." The seller was a lean, topless woman, her teeth ground down to an even row and her legs completely blackened with the tattoos women here get on the birth of their first child.

Life in West Sumba goes on much as it has for hundreds of years.

One of two photos to survive the reformat
(saved on a floppy I'd cut for Tuk).

I guess that's not allowed

The man with the assault rifle screamed at the people riding on the roof of our bus and then began viciously kicking them as they climbed down? Some sort of terrorist attack I wondered as I fixed my eyes forward? No. It turned out he was just a cop and riding on the roofs of busses isn't allowed in Sumba.

Wait on this...

Thoughts of another all-night ferry ride flickered through my mind as the ticket agent made it clear he wanted a bribe to move us up the wait list for the flight from Sumba back to Bali. I declined to hand over any cash and despite the long waiting list the flight was nearly empty. Go figure.

Visa? How about MasterCard?

Indonesia is one of those countries where visas must be renewed by leaving the country and then reentering. The page in our guide book on overstays and visa extensions basically read, "don't even think about it." The problem is, Indonesia is 5,000 km (3,200 mi) long and we are smack dab in the middle of it. As well, when entering the country by air you are supposed to show onward plane tickets, even if you intend, as we do, to leave by land.

I spent hours concocting all sorts of convoluted but economical schemes for managing all these issues only to see them dissolve as the travel agent announced, "full, full, full..." to all our flight inquires. It eventually became obvious that with our visas expiring in only a few days our only option was an expensive roundtrip flight to Singapore and then either bribing our way in again or buying some tickets just to show to immigration and then trying to refund them.

After three days of travel agent hell we showed up at the airport with our Singapore tickets in hand and ready to go, only to find that I'd miscalculated the expiration date of our visas and we were one day over. As they dragged us off to the immigration office I was well and truly scared. It turns out though that they do have an official rate for short overstays, US$20 a day. Unfortunately all our American cash was in checked luggage. On the verge of tears I finally burst out with, "ok, we don't have $40 American but how about 40 Singapore dollars (US$27)?" The immigration official must have sensed that I was about ready to lose it, because he tossed the cash into his desk drawer and stamped our passports. Whew.

High-tech stress

In Singapore, I was trying to find away to repartition my computer's hard disk without the aid of a bootable CD drive when I decided to try the "recovery" floppy. Without asking any questions it erased the partition table and rendered my computer a paperweight.

So, instead of a restful few days of civilized shopping, I ran around the city like a maniac trying to find someone who could rescue my files, and then in the end, someone who could just get the damn thing to boot again.

Ask to see it, Please?

Burnt out on bribes, we bought spurious tickets for a flight out of Indonesia. Of course, the immigration folks in Bali never asked to see them, and they proved very expensive to refund.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program...

19 Jul 2000
Armed with another 60 days worth of Indonesian visas we are back on the move. Today we fly from Bali to Ujung Pandang in southern Sulawesi.

On arrival we're met by a (reasonable) tout who ropes us into an organized tour of the Tana Toraja and also lets us know that there has been ongoing Muslim/Christian violence in central Sulawesi. The land route we'd been planning on using is a military operations area, so we need to book a short plane flight to bypass it.

20 Jul 2000
All day bus ride to Rantepao.

21 Jul 2000
Tour of Torajan funeral customs.

22 Jul 2000
A mellow but pleasant day of rafting on the Sungai Sa'dan river (class II-III).

23 Jul 2000
Tour of Torajan graves and tombs.

Overnight bus back to Ujung Pandang.

Torajan funeral rites.

"Here in the Toraja," my guide intoned, "we live only to die." Or, at least I think it was something like that. I found it difficult to concentrate on his monologue, punctuated as it was by the wet thwapp of an ax as a worker behind me split open the carcass of a buffalo just sacrificed for the funeral.

The Torajan people believe that death is the most important event in life, and go to great expense to ease a spirits journey into the afterlife. When an elder Torajan dies their body is preserved and kept in a place of respect in the family's house for the months or even years it make take to save and prepare for the funeral. In fact, a person isn't considered to be completely dead until their funeral rights are finished, so it isn't uncommon to have non-breathing bodies at the table for dinner.

The number of buffalo slaughtered at the funeral is the premier Torajan status symbol. One or two for a commoner; six, 12, or 24 for an upper-class person; and our guide spoke in reverent awe of funerals where more than an 100 buffalo had been killed.

Fascinating to read about, but much harder to take in real life I learned on the first day of our tour as I picked my way across the bloodstained grass with the fresh scent of buffalo entrails wafting through the air.

What's amazing to see in the Toraja is just how intact the culture is. The rituals and traditions survived the arrival of both Christianity and tourism. And although they say things have changed some since the, "old days" what is practiced today is not just for tourists but what the people believe.

Traditional houses are seen all over the Toraja and are still being built today, they are just more likely to use a corrugated metal roof than the original straw. This ability to take on useful bits of the new without losing the old makes Tana Toraja an incredible place to visit.

Torajan boy with his souvenir funeral toy.
A traditional Torajan house called a tongkonan.

In Toraja the people believe that the journey through the afterworld to puya (heaven), is a long and difficult one over many mountains and valley. This is why the spirit of the deceased needs the spirit of a strong buffalo to ride.

On arrival in puya the deceased gets status according to the number of buffalo killed for them. And because the Torajan people believe an ancestor's unsatisfied spirit is willing and able to make trouble for the living a lot of effort is spent caring for the dead.

Because the Torajans believe earth is sacred they don't bury their dead in it, but rather prefer graves in rock. If a family doesn't have a cave they may chop one out of a cliff face, or even just build a stone house to hold the bodies. Upper-class Torajans sometimes place their dead in coffins and then suspend the coffins from high up cliff faces in hanging graves.

If a family can afford it they may have a tau tau or effigy of the deceased carved. The tau taus are placed near the graves so that the ancestors spirit can look out over and protect the living.

All of this funerary is frequently visited and maintained and they seem comfortable with the skulls and bits of bones that sometimes poke out. For in the Toraja, life and death are tightly woven together.

A baby grave tree.

If an infant dies before teething the Torajans bury it inside a tree. They feel they baby's spirit never had a chance and in the afterlife its spirit will grow and be nurtured within the spirit of the living tree.

Tau Tau presiding over graves carved into a rock wall.
Coffins suspended from a cliff face, "hanging graves."

24 Jul 2000
Fly to Palu.

The whole point in flying here was to try and avoid the violence near Poso in central Sulawesi, but now that we are here we find that all the busses run through Poso anyway. Wish us luck...

25 Jul 2000
Bus from Palu to Ampana (through Poso).

We got to the station late, so didn't exactly have our choice of busses. The one we got stuck with was 90% Bondo, 10% bus and stuffed full of mail and cargo with a few passengers tossed in as an afterthought. We got the worst of the worst seats, against the back wall hemmed in by a large box punched full of ominous air holes and two Indonesian guys hell bent on poisoning whatever air was left with their constant cigarette smoking.

So situated we headed out into the mountains. The road quickly faded from asphalt to dirt, and then to a subtle reminder of where a road once might have been if it wasn't for all the recent landslides. In several places the mud slicked track had crumbled to even less than the usual single line and I was almost thankful for the lack of a window, sparing me the terrifying view down into the canyon.

With the standard Indonesian practice of launching full throttle into every blind corner with only the blaring horn for protection it was almost a relief to reach the riot zone.

We were miles from the army checkpoint when we passed the first burnt house, but then they came faster and faster until we passed entire villages burnt to the ground and it became a novelty to see a house still standing. I was stunned at the amount of destruction.

Even after being there and talking to people I'm still not clear on just what triggered the problems. Poso is a Christian town in predominantly Muslim Sulawesi (and Indonesia). The tensions seem to stem from an influx of Muslims, but how name calling and economic jealousy escalated into violence and wholesale house burning is beyond me.

At least here, the army seems to be doing a decent job of containing things (after the fact). The checkpoint where our bus was searched was manned by tanks and many soldiers in full battle dress. We were told that they've pushed the troublemakers up into the hills and plan of staying for months to root them out. But for now, Poso remains a ghost town.

26 Jul 2000
The bungalows on Kadidiri

From Ampana we took the ferry to Wakai in the Togean islands and then caught a shuttle boat to the beach on Kadidiri.

The Togeans are a pristine chain of islands in the Tomini bay of North Sulawesi. Far from anywhere in the best of times, with the recent troubles in the area the Togeans have quickly gone from traveler-hip to off the beaten path. We arrived expecting high season crowds but found only one other party staying on Kadidiri.

Kadidiri is a perfect place to get away from it all, so finding it empty was a lovely, albeit unexpected surprise.

27 Jul 2000
For divers the Togeans are known as the only place in Indonesia where you can find all three major reef types, atoll, barrier, and fringing. We did a very pleasant morning dive but I couldn't for the life of me tell you which of the three it was.

In the afternoon we dove the Togeans WWII wreck.

On May 3, 1945 the American B-24 bomber commanded by Lt. Henry Elderidge had an engine failure en route from their base on Morotai Island to bomb a target at the head of the gulf of Bone. Lacking enough fuel to return to base on only three engines they elected to ditch the plane into the sea rather than risk parachuting into the rough and heavily forested terrain.

As we approach the site by boat, I wondered how you pick the place where you're going to ditch a plane? What was going through their minds as they chose this quiet little cove instead of that one? The seas were calm for us, as they were for Lt. Elderidge in 1945. His plane skidded on the surface for 50 yards and the crew was out in less than a minute but the plane was still floating when they were picked up 1.5 hours later.

Today it rests on the bottom in 22 meters (72 feet) of water, but in remarkable condition. The water here is usually murky, but we could just see the outline of a wing from the surface, and only had to drop down a short ways before the wreck came into focus.

She is modest in size compared to today's passenger jets, but was big in her day and bristled with weapons. One barrel of the turret gun is still in place, encrusted with coral now and pointing off into the past at some long forgotten target.

We were given a detailed briefing on what life to expect here and it turned out to be surreally accurate. Beneath the twin rudders of the tail we found several large lion fish, their red and white striped plumes fluttering as they drifted waiting for a small fish to stray just a little bit too close.

Off the right wing tip was a school of jacks, their silvery bodies endlessly spiraling in a tangled game of follow-the-leader lacking only a leader.

And just as we were told in the briefing, a pair of cleaner shrimp were living under the pilots seat. In 45 minutes we circled the wreck three times before it was time for us to return to the surface and the present.

28 Jul 2000
The perilous mangrove boardwalk

A rainy morning that we spent lounging in our bungalow.

Kadidiri is small, just the three groups of bungalows and nothing else. Accommodation includes three (limited) meals a day, and there is only electricity when they turn on the generator in the evening. We ended up playing a lot of Connect-4...

In the afternoon the weather cleared and we went out for a dive, a pleasant drift along a newly discovered wall where we saw a turtle and a shark as well as the usual reef inhabitants.

29 Jul 2000
We went for a two hour boat ride to the volcanic island of Una Una for some more diving.

On the second dive Tuk spotted something I've read about but never seen before, a small goby fish and a shrimp living together symbiotically. The shrimp digs the burrow and catches food, while the goby stands guard with its superior eyesight. We found them lounging on their patio together, until the goby called out a warning and they disappeared down their hole, and odd little interracial couple.

30 Jul 2000
We'd planned on day of animal spotting above the surface, in the mangrove forest, but we arrived to find the boardwalk we'd read about in a terrible state of disrepair.

The supports leaned ominously and the planks were mostly rotted through but we walked until a section actually collapsed on us before giving it up and retiring back to the white sand beach.

31 Jul 2000
9 a.m.- Shuttle boat to Wakai
10 a.m.- Ferry to Ampana
4 p.m.- Charter a bemo (minibus) to race to Pagimana. This was driven by a couple of teenagers who seemed to delight in hiding behind language problems and stalling to see how close to the ferry departure they could get us to the port. Thanks guys, I needed that extra bit of stress...
9 p.m.- Overnight ferry to Gorontalo, we opted for some luxury and hired a cabin from one of the crew.

1 Aug 2000
8 a.m.- Get roped into a group charter of a minibus.
9 a.m.- The minibus finally leaves for the 7 hour, hair raising trip through the mountains to Manado. I almost wish this road hadn't been paved, it might have slowed the driver down a bit. I tried to ignore him nodding off and get some sleep myself, but kept being awakened by the constant horn blaring and screeching of the tires as he dodged yet another obstacle racing through yet another single lane blind corner.
5 p.m.- Arrive in Manado after 32 hours of continuous travel -- whupped
Do some email and crash.

2 Aug 2000
A day in the real world, shopping, errands, etc...

3 Aug 2000
Ferry to Bunaken, North Sulawesi's capital for diving.

Only and hour boat ride from the city of Manado, Bunaken is much more "on the map" than the Togeans, but the level of accommodation is similar, rough hewn huts with night-only electricity for about US$5 a day including three (marginal) meals a day.

But, while the Togeans manage and Adam and Eve style tranquility Bunaken is a gritty weekend getaway for the city folk of Manado. Everything is a bit easier, but not quite as sweet.

4 Aug 2000
Two dives with a low budget dive operation.

5 Aug 2000
Switch beaches

6 Aug 2000
Two dives with a high end dive operation.

A short swim out from the beaches of Bunaken you find huge walls that drop down 100s of meters. Surprisingly though, the diving here isn't known for large pelagic (free swimming) fish, but rather small reef based critters.

We would fall off the boat and drift lazily with the current, poking out heads into every corner of the reef looking for odd little fish, shrimp and other miscellaneous marine doodads.

7 Aug 2000
Ferry back to Manado city of errands.

8 Aug 2000
Errands in Manado.

9 Aug 2000
More errands in Manado.

10 Aug 2000
I fly to Jayapura in Irian Jaya while Tuk will spend another week or two in Manado.

I'm going ahead in hopes of climbing Puncak Jaya (aka Carstenz Pyramid), at just over 5,000m (16,000ft) the highest point on the continent of Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, et all), and thus one of the seven summits.

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