Right when we get into a leaky wooden canoe with strangers and get to the point where we’re proud of ourselves for being able to rough it in very basic accommodations, someone else comes by to prove us wrong. In this case, one day after arriving at Yangkawe Bungalows on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat and still trying to adjust to not having plumbing, refrigeration or 24-hour electricity, an energetic older French couple came swooping in by longboat from another homestay an hour away. It was their fourteenth time in Indonesia, their third month in Papua, and this would be their seventh homestay in the area. They also spoke Indonesian fluently. Seriously.
They were also a godsend. We are. Such. Lucky. Bastards. As described in our previous post, we hadn’t had the foresight to do any research prior to arriving in Raja Ampat, and the Lonely Planet guidebook was useless. So very long story short, we ended up at this homestay* and spent the first day by ourselves snorkeling around the cove, building a sand castle and wondering where we should go and how long we should stay at this homestay.
When Eva and Ante arrived, we latched onto them like leeches and siphoned them for information. They were incredibly generous in sharing their extensive knowledge with us, and they pretty much planned out the rest of our stay for us among these islands. We also extended our stay at the homestay by one more night because we just weren’t ready to say goodbye.
We spent the majority of our waking hours with this globetrotting couple. Every morning, we started a leisurely, sunny day over breakfast of freshly-baked cakes and instant Indonesian sludge (coffee). This was followed by a snorkel in the vicinity with a couple of family members from the homestay making sure we weren’t going to drown ourselves. Lunch was fish, rice and vegetables. Dinner was the same, except small crabs would scuttle over our feet for scraps as we ate. Hey, I’ll take crabs over cockroaches any day. Even though the main ingredients were always the same, Mary tried to change it up for us with preparation methods.
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.
Sometimes I’m in the right place at the right time. It usually involves food. Like that time many years ago when I first moved to NYC and my friend and I decided to use our day off to go to the Chelsea Piers driving range. We were walking on 23rd Street and as we approached a Krispy Kreme my friend excitedly pointed at the illuminated “Hot Now” sign. At that time I wasn’t familiar with this KK phenomenon, but my very knowledgeable friend walked right into the shop and I followed him. As we approached the counter, an angel disguised as a Krispy Kreme employee asked us if we wanted a free sample of the fresh, hot donuts. We both managed to drool an affirmative response. The Krispy Kreme angel handed us each a fresh, hot glazed donut. Say WHAT?!?!?! A free, fresh, hot donut?!?!?! Talk about being in the right place at the right time. If you don’t see the magic in this then you need to re-evaluate your life.
Anyway, I recently found myself in the right place at the right time again and this time it didn’t involve food. Crazy, I know.
We were in the town of Makassar where most people only spend a day or two before heading up to Torajaland or down to Bali or Flores. We didn’t have plans to stay long, but we both fell ill at different points during our stay so we ended up spending a lot more time than we had planned. Before we had arrived in Makassar we read in the news that a huge discovery was made regarding the cave paintings at Maros-Pangkep on Sulawesi. These cave paintings were thought to be no more than 10,000 years old, but very recent research now dates them back to around 40,000 years old. This makes them the oldest cave paintings in the world! We don’t know shit about archaeology, but the possibility of seeing the cave paintings with our own eyes was something that we couldn’t pass up. I mean, how often are you in Sulawesi and close enough to see cave paintings from 40,000 years ago? Exactly.
We asked the manager of the hotel if he knew about the caves and how to get there. He was familiar with the area and knew exactly where we needed to go, but he couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to go rafting or do something touristy in the area instead of just going to see the paintings. He said he could take us there, but wanted to charge us quite a bit to be our driver and tour guide for the day. Since we were only interested in seeing the paintings we negotiated the price down and met him after lunch to head over to the caves.
The drive to the Leang Leang caves was about 45 minutes through the city. It wasn’t a pretty ride at all because, like many cities in Indonesia, the roadside litter is quite appalling. They haven’t quite figured out a waste management system yet and most people don’t see a problem with tossing a plastic bottle right out of their car window.
When we arrived at the cave, our hotel manager tour guide fella took us to the office to sign the guest book and pay the entrance fee. Of course, the tourist rate was double the local rate, but it was still under $2 per person if I remember correctly. We paid and signed the guest book which we noticed had about 10 names in it. I guess the cave paintings aren’t that popular yet. An unenthusiastic security guard walked us over to the painted caves. The cave where the paintings were found are behind a locked fence because there are people who don’t appreciate history and think it would be so much fun to etch their names into the walls. Fools.
Most tourists don’t visit or stay long in Makassar and that’s what makes it interesting to us. We hired a rickshaw to visit a fish market and “traditional harbor” in Makassar and got dropped off by the harbor. We slowly picked our way around puddles and trucks and came upon a tiled area covered in blue tarp with a god-awful stench emanating from it.
There were boys and men everywhere, and as soon as we started walking around, the attention was on us. It was a reminder that once again, we are in an area in this country that sees few tourists, which means we are a fun spectacle for the locals. Hawkers beckoned us over to take photos of them and their fish, and guys jostled each other as they approached us in turns and asked us where we were from before turning around to their buddies and letting them know very loudly where we hailed from.
We felt perfectly safe but we don’t like to be the center of attention for too long in unfamiliar places (just in case), so we didn’t stay long. It was still an unexpectedly cool experience. The harbor wasn’t as interesting but we got to see some pretty big old school wooden boats being loaded and unloaded.
Makassar is the biggest city in Sulawesi, situated on the southwest coast of the octopus-shaped island. Biggest is relative though, because while it might be a big port city, there really isn’t much going on. We flew in to recharge before taking on Tana Toraja and Bunaken.
While there isn’t much happening yet in Makassar, there is a growing number of enterprising young people who are making Makassar their own, opening the kind of places where they can hang out with their friends.
We got to know the son of the owner of the Hotel Agung, a clean, new and budget-friendly hotel near Fort Rotterdam. A graphic designer, Christian designed the interior and exterior of the hotel, which has a simple, modern look. We ended up using this hotel as our base and recovery place (after we got stomach troubles), staying there for a total of ten days.
Christian took us to a nearby cafe opened two years ago by a young local who loves coffee. It was the sort of place you might see in a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn. For a little over a dollar, we had a tasty cappuccino and an Americano, with delicious homemade peanut cookies to nibble on (two for 3000 rupiah, or about 25 cents). It was busy when we got there in the late afternoon, and groups of young people sat chatting and smoking.
When we weren’t dealing with cockroaches and bed bugs we explored the underwater world around Kanawa Island. I don’t want to brag, but I’m like a professional snorkeler now. Is there a snorkeling competition for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? I should start training because I could easily win gold.
One thing I really wanted to do while traveling in SEA was to find a nice beach bungalow where I could unload my backpack and relax for the rest of my life, or at least a few days. I had visions of gently swaying hammocks, empty stretches of soft-sand beach, and swimming with exotic sea creatures that we’ve only seen on Animal Planet. When I found out that such a place existed near our next stop I immediately made plans to park my ass on one of their hammocks.
Kanawa Bungalows is the only accommodation available on Kanawa Island and the reviews sounded fine by us. Basic accommodations for about $40 USD per night. Trying to make reservations over email wasn’t very easy so we headed to their office when we arrived in Labuan Bajo. We reserved for three days even though we had to be moved each morning due to other bookings. It would be annoying, but we’d make it work since we really wanted to be on the beach rather than at the harbor and having to take a boat out each day to snorkel.
The next day we got on the transfer boat with about ten other tourists and less than an hour later we were walking down the long, picture-perfect jetty towards Kanawa Island. We checked in at the front desk and a porter brought our bags over to Bungalow 15. We scanned the room, checked the mattress, admired the view from our porch, then got changed and headed back down the jetty to jump in the crystal clear water.
Within minutes of sticking our heads underwater we saw lion fish, clown fish, cuttle fish, and a gazillion other sea creatures. It was awesome. We thought snorkeling off the beach in Koh Tao, Thailand was fantastic, but Kanawa made the snorkeling there look like a child’s hobby aquarium. After exploring a bit longer we headed back to the restaurant to get lunch. Unfortunately, they only serve lunch until 2pm and it was now 3pm. That sucked since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast and the only food we had were brownies that we smuggled in from Labuan Bajo. So, we had brownies for lunch. Let me recap this day so far: A scenic boat ride to a private island with a beautiful beach and spectacular snorkeling within a few hundred feet of our bungalow and then brownies for lunch. Yep, life is good.
You can’t go to Komodo National Park in Flores and not see Komodo dragons. And we saw them, but it looks like I deleted the photos off of my memory card so I don’t have any proof. Looks like you’ll just have to believe me. N and I heard that Rinca Island was less touristy than Komodo Island, so we shelled out 300,000 rupiah each to go on a group tour of the island with Christian’s Tours in Labuan Bajo. We weren’t given a whole lot of information from the tour office as to what to bring or how to prepare. We were just told to show up at a certain time and that the boatman would speak English.
The next morning, we walked to the tour office down the street from our hotel. There were four French tourists and a Spanish couple going with us, and we all walked down to the harbor to get on the boat for the two-hour ride to Rinca. The boat we were instructed to board was a tiny old thing with benches facing each other along the sides. The boatman spoke no English. He communicated via hand gestures and that’s how we found out he was 70 and has been manning a boat for 40 years. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was this particular boat he’s been on for the past four decades.
The eight of us sat there for two hours in near silence as we sputtered along past small islands. By the time we arrived on Rinca, the sun was high in the sky and it was hot. We didn’t really know where we were supposed to go so we started walking down a winding path towards what we assumed was the entrance to the park. A guide was leading a pack of French tourists back from their tour, so he waved goodbye to them, turned around and introduced himself as our guide.
Mahmed carried a long stick with a forked tip for keeping the large lizards at bay. The land here was arid and relatively flat, and we walked down a concrete path towards the ticket booth. Mahmed pointed to the base of a small tree, where a juvenile male dragon lay in the shade. His legs were all splayed out comically and he slowly lifted his head to look at us as we stopped at a “safe distance” — whatever that means because these reptiles are fast — to stare and snap photos.
Mahmed explained that the dragons are most active in the early morning when it’s cooler and they’re hungry. By the late morning, they grow lethargic from the heat and the food in their bellies and lie still for the remainder of the day. It was clear we would be watching dragons nap all afternoon. Read more…
Snorkeling and diving in Komodo National Park is supposed to be excellent and that’s pretty much what we came for so N and I signed up for a day trip with a dive operator, popped our motion sickness pills and headed off early one morning on a big wooden double-decker boat with eight adults, three kids and a baby. We were immediately off to a good start as the boat got snagged on the anchor rope of another boat, and one of the staff had to go diving underneath to untangle us. So we sat there inhaling the acrid fumes from the boat’s engine and about fifteen minutes later we were off for real.
We met Kirsty and Emily, a British lesbian couple, who were the first British travelers we’ve gotten to know during our travels over the past year and a half. We shared travel tales and we realized that these 20-something kids were much more hardcore than us. For example, instead of going to Bukit Lawang on the Banana Pancake Trail which most people follow, they went to some remote remote area in Sumatra to see orangutans. While we were being carried up and down the mountain like royalty in a touristy area practically Justin Bieber-style because we can’t handle anything, they went on a more authentic experience by taking a tour on some rickety boat whose engine died halfway through on their way back. They were only saved by a passing boat which saw their captain waving a pole with a life jacket attached to the end of it. While we (I) would’ve spent the rest of our travel money extracting myself from that situation — via helicopter, G7, speedboat, or inflatable raft — and flown back to Tokyo in a traumatized daze, they kept calm and carried on (I had to use that somewhere in this post cuz you know, they’re Brits).
Besides them there were two quiet German guys who were snorkeling too, and a young globe-trotting Swiss family with a billion children (well, four). They were a hot mess even with two of the dive school’s staff on the boat to watch over the chirrens, and I wondered how they managed to travel around the world with their brood in tow. The kids immediately started tearing into bags of crackers and cookies, which they proceeded to stuff their faces with, spewing cookie crumbs and partially-masticated crackers all over the blankets laid out on the deck where we all sat. Not like a few crumbs here and there, but like a thin layer of them coating the floor. The parents didn’t seem to care, scooting all over the crumbs to talk to us and the German boys. My OCD was going out of control.
We got to our first snorkel/dive spot and N and I donned our masks and fins and watched scuba divers struggling awkwardly into their suits and equipment. Scuba diving reminds me of skiing but worse. There’s so much prep work needed before you actually go out and enjoy yourself. At least with skiing, you don’t have all these potentially life-saving computers and gear hanging off of you.
I have a newfound fascination with volcanoes, thanks to Mount Bromo on Java. She isn’t very beautiful by any stretch of the imagination. Her top is all blown off and disfigured from recent eruptions, but she’s a vivacious, vocal and volatile volcano (I did that on purpose). N and I had never been to an active volcano, so we figured we would visit Mount Bromo, known to be one of the most accessible volcanoes in Indonesia and didn’t require a challenging (multi-day) hike.
It was a real pain in the ass to get to there from Yogyakarta, but having read loads of blog posts about it, we were mentally prepared. A little discomfort wasn’t going to keep us from looking down into the depths of Mount Bromo’s soul. After braving a packed economy class-only train, and then an ancient minibus ride up the mountain in the dark which felt like some kind of nightmare rollercoaster experience, we arrived at the village of Cemero Lawang to find out that the overpriced hotel we had emailed to hold a double room for us hadn’t held onto that room. So we paid for an overpriced triple room, which was a dark, musty room with a hot water heater that barely worked. And we really needed that hot water. The nighttime temperature on the mountain at our elevation of 2,217 meters (7,218 feet) dropped to close to 5 degrees Celsius (about 40F), which isn’t that cold but it is for a couple of people who have acclimated to SEA nights, which are mostly sweat-inducing. The fleece jackets we rarely had any use for (except for on buses where they crank up the AC) came in handy, and carrying them all through sweltering SEA suddenly became totally worth it. Since we had an electric water heater that came with our fancy room, we added boiled water to the barely lukewarm water from the shower and bathed Indonesian-style (using a bucket and ladle) as fast as we possibly could. The next day erased all of our lingering annoyances about this town and the highway robbery of the minibus drivers and hotels in the area. While most visitors pile into jeeps at the buttcrack of dawn to drive up to a vantage point to see the sun rise before heading to the crater in droves, we opted instead to have breakfast before setting out on our hike to the volcano. This ended up being the best decision for us because we hate crowds and even in the midst of one of the most touristy attractions in Indonesia, we like to pretend like we’re the only people who discovered it.
The hike wasn’t really a hike. It was more of a walk. We passed jeeps coming back from the crater and unloading hungry tourists in front of their hotels. With the morning rush finished for the day, enterprising moped drivers and horseback guides called out to us. As in most developing countries, they seemed perplexed when we told them we wanted to walk. Why walk if you can afford a cheap ride all the way there? And because they never understand that we walk because we want to, they slowly followed us and whittled down their initial prices.
We started walking through the Sea of Sand, a flat expanse of sand leading up to the volcano. I finally called out to two approaching horse guides and asked them how much for a ride back. 100,000 rupiah (about $8) each there and back, they said. We insisted that we only wanted a ride back, and that we wanted to ride the horses ourselves. Totally unconcerned if we had any sort of riding experience, they agreed to 50,000, turned their horses around and followed us. Fine sand blew into our eyes and mouth, and we trudged on as the guides occasionally offered the horses to take us the rest of the way up “if we were tired”.
We were tired. The elevation was killing us, and this was on relatively flat land. In the not too distant distance, there was a photogenic little volcano next to a larger one that looked like it had its top blown off. The pretty one was Mount Batok, and her neighbor was Mount Bromo, one of the most active and volatile volcanoes in Java. According to volcano experts, she’s ready to erupt at any time. We walked on, huffing and puffing up the short but steep slopes leading up to the stairs to the crater. The horse guys just watched us in silence, most likely wondering why we were being so damn cheap and subjecting ourselves to this much physical discomfort.