As our very last destination in Indonesia and in our travels around parts of the world (for now), we decided to take a slight detour to Raja Ampat, a.k.a., Paradise. Frustrated with the crappy internet, we figured we could just wing it like we have in the past. We would just fly into the main island of Waigeo and decide on our accommodations and destinations from there. This ended up being the biggest amateur mistake we made over our year and a half of traveling. There’s a reason why smart travelers plan way in advance before coming to this part of the world. So here’s Raja Ampat: Take One.
What was supposed to be our final and blissful destination in Indonesia ended up rearing its ugly head as soon as we landed in Sorong. It was completely our fault that we ended up in this predicament too. We haven’t had much luck with finding lodging when we get to a place, but we were feeling lucky despite the added fact that we had done almost zero research on these islands. We flew in on a small propeller plane — as is the common type of plane in these parts because the runways aren’t big enough for jet planes — and drooled over the beautiful small islands below surrounded by turquoise and blue water. I had high hopes, and they were soon dashed.
I knew something was off when we got off the plane and all of the other foreign tourists who were on our flight got immediately whisked away in private cars sent by the expensive resorts they were staying at (think $200~400 per person per night). Then all eyes were on us. A cab driver quoted us 100,000 rupiah (about $8) for a ten minute ride to the ferry terminal. I’m sorry, did I suddenly get unknowingly whisked back to New York? We haggled one cabbie down to 60,000, and his friend jumped into the passenger seat and proceeded to talk to us, telling us he was Papuan and pinching his curly hair.
That’s definitely something you notice right away. The Papuan people are dark, and closely related to the Aborigines in Australia. They are also very quick to point out that they are Papuan, NOT Indonesian. Until a few years ago, not many travelers ventured this far east to Papua because it’s honestly a pain in the ass to get to, and more importantly because there was violence due to social and political discord. Nothing like a few incidents of civil unrest to make the tourists stay away!
There still aren’t that many tourists who make it out here compared to the rest of Indonesia. Not yet, anyway. We were the only tourists on the public ferry to Waisai, the biggest island on Raja Ampat. The ferry was perfectly clean, and the people (the locals) were nice and friendly. What wasn’t so nice was the bathroom on board, but better any bathroom when you don’t really know when you’ll come across one next. Our seats were at the very front of the boat, where two air-conditioners blew acceptable cool air at us and a Bollywood movie played on the screen. Two hours later, we landed in Waisai.
Every cab driver we talked to quoted us 100,000 rupiah and wouldn’t budge. This was making Labuan Bajo in Flores seem cheap. We finally agreed to the price and made the driver stop at three hotels to check prices. The scary shithole was $35, the less scary bungalow was $40 and the least scary hotel room at the Waisai Beach Hotel was $40. Contrary to what the name might suggest, this was not a beachside hotel. But we had clean beds and a cleanish bathroom that reeked of urinal balls (they use them everywhere in Indonesia to keep out the sewage smell from the drains). This would have to do.
This ended up being the best decision because the young woman who worked at the hotel became our personal concierge for the duration of our stay. I wasn’t sure if this was voluntary on her part, but for lunch and dinner, she would knock on our door and walk us to a local restaurant, help us order, wait for us to eat, teach us Bahasa words and walk us back to the hotel. We must’ve looked that helpless. And we kind of were, because of all the places we’ve been to in Indonesia, this had the fewest English speakers. In addition, there was no internet anywhere on the island. We were so screwed.
N and I tried to keep our spirits high (we did bicker heatedly at one point) and asked about a full-day snorkeling trip by boat. 8,000,000 rupiah. Say what. Yes, that’s about $660 for one day of being shuttled around to snorkel on a small speedboat. I don’t care if gas prices are three times what it is in the rest of Indonesia (which is cheaper than the rest of the world, btw). Our girl walked us to the pier where she asked another guy for a quote. He looked us over, hesitated and said 6,000,000 rupiah. We were suddenly painfully aware that staying for “cheap” in Waisai and spending a bit more on snorkeling boat trips wasn’t going to work out so well for us.
The next morning, we had lunch at a small shop where the food was displayed on shelves in the 35 degree heat. We generally try to avoid this kind of diarrhea food but we didn’t want to be impolite so we ordered the fried chicken with rice, which was properly manhandled with bare hands as is the special Indonesian preparation method for food. We ate in the stifling heat, sweat dripping from our faces and glistening on our arms while it rained outside.
Our new friend Adonia from the hotel didn’t seem to mind the rain. We followed her to a house which I guess is a hotel of some sort. She asked the owner about internet and came back saying since there was no power on the island, we would have to try again in the morning. We were bummed but there was nothing we could do about it. We followed Adonia to the beach, where some men were cementing over the dirt and building what looks like some kind of esplanade. Crabs scuttled away from us on the rocks below and empty plastic bottles were crammed in between the rocks. The three of us walked in the light drizzle onto the wooden boardwalk, where we stared out at the empty ocean.
We walked to the Raja Ampat Hotel, hoping to use their internet (which wasn’t working because the internet was down on the island), and met a Taiwanese tourist and an Indonesian couple from Jakarta, who were kind and let us use their mobile hotspot and laptop to look up some phone numbers for resorts and homestays on the prettier islands. They were the first people we came across who spoke good English, and we wanted to chat them up forever but we had already taken up enough of their time and resources so off we went back to our hotel.
We gave our poor girl some time to relax before asking her to make calls on our behalf to the homestays we would hopefully be staying at. We had some luck here and got in touch with a rustic homestay which had one raving review online. One is better than none! We asked the homestay owner to pick us up in his boat the next morning and hoped for the best (i.e., please god no bedbugs!).
On our way to dinner, we stopped by the only ATM in town and took out 12,000,000 rupiah (about a grand) to add to the few million we already had from Makassar. This would hopefully last us for the week. And since Indonesia’s largest currency denomination seems to be the 100,000 rupiah note, we left the ATM with bulging pockets.
We thought we had successfully communicated with Adonia to go to the same restaurant as the night before, but after walking for a good fifteen minutes in another direction, I realized I had failed. It’s best to just trust the local sometimes. We eventually got to a small ramshackle tent filled with people, but our friend thought it was too crowded so she took us to another one. The bakso there was tasty, but my stomach was feeling a little weird from lunch (foreshadowing!).
On our way back to the hotel, Adonia stopped by a fruit seller to buy some mangoes. We said we didn’t want any but she bought three and insisted that we have one each. We took the gift and thanked her. What happened next happened so fast neither of us had any time to react. After handing us each a mango, she apparently had no use for the plastic bag they came in so she tossed it over her shoulder towards the open sewer. I laughed, and she looked at me and smiled uncomprehendingly at the weird tourist. I then wracked my brain for how to communicate why this was wrong. I couldn’t come up with anything so we walked along in silence back to the hotel.
I get that Adonia works as a staff member of the hotel we were staying at, but I was touched that she took time out of her free time to make sure we were doing OK and nourishing ourselves. You can’t say that about people in other parts of the world, and it was another instance of just how generous and hospitable the Indonesians — well in this case, the Papuans — are to foreigners who come bumbling in to gawk at their country.
That night was the start of my gastric issues, but I wasn’t surprised. My bowels have an uncanny ability to try to ruin my forays into less-developed areas by being present in full-blown splendor during every one of them. In Vietnam I was hit hard in Saigon and suffered through a day tour of the Mekong Delta. Later, it happened again the day we left for the cow country of central Vietnam to explore caves. Then again the day before leaving for the jungles of Sumatra. And then again in Sulawesi when we took a 10-hour car ride up to visit the Torajan tribes. And then now. It sucks. But you just gotta suck it up, pop a Cipro (and an Imodium if you’re not going to be near a bathroom for a while), keep hydrated and hope for a swift recovery.