Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Borneo Supremacy

First of all, a few corrections from the last post: Bako National Park is not the only place in the world to view proboscis monkeys -- Borneo is the only place, though there are several spots on the island; and there are not oodles of places to see the pitcher plant -- it is in fact a protected species.

We left Kuching last week via a very fast ferry and landed in Sibu. After a tour of that town's dreadful hotels and its towering pagoda we took an all-day bus ride to Miri, an oil-rich town on Borneo's north coast. It's rich not only in petroleum oil but also in palm oil.

Oil from palm trees is a primary ingredient in biofuels, and both Malaysia and Indonesia are taking advantage of the fact that the oil palm grows well here. Out of Sibu on the highway to Miri we saw some sprawl, some rainforest and mile after mile of newly planted oil palms. Interestingly, while biofuels are seen as a benefit to the environment, the planting of oil palms is destroying it; rainforest is cut, and then burned, and then planted with row after row of dark green oil palm.

It's difficult to imagine what Borneo must have been like as little as a few decades ago, before the population surged and oil became king and forest was cut down. But you can get a glimpse of it in a few of the national parks that dot the north coast. On Wednesday, we hopped on a bus to one of them, Lambir Hills National Park.


Like most other national parks in Malaysia, Lambir Hills is much too small to provide meaningful protection. On top of that there seems to be no buffer protection to parks here; a ridiculous development which appears to be some sort of private graveyard is going on practically across the street from Lambir Hills' entrance.

Despite everything going against it, walking past the entrance gate to Lambir Hills means you are entering a special place. Mammoth ferns crowd clean running streams, and ants the size of my big toe scamper through the duff. Relax your eyes while looking at the forst floor and you see it is alive with movement just like the air is alive with sound and movement and moisture. We walk a steep hill and then along a ridge, with forest falling off both sides in dense Velvia greenery and musky smells. There's a rattle overhead and birds' calls; a shake of a bush in front of us reveals a day-glow green lizard, only this one has what looks like grasshopper legs. It snatches a bug, looks at us, and takes off.

From Miri we took a combination of four busses to reach Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei. Entering Brunei for the first time I got a bit of hassle for being a journalist. When you enter a country you fill out a piece of paper -- the new country wants to know all sorts of stuff about you like your full name, date of birth, passport number, type and place of issue, the number of people traveling on your passport, if you've been to certain disease-prone countries recently and how much money you've got on you. Almost always they want to know where you can be reached in the new country -- a funny thing for us to try and fill out; we usually just write down the name of the first hotel listed in our guide -- and what your occupation is. When I was traveling in Africa and borders could be really sticky, I always put down that I was a student, but after that I started putting writer. Nothing ever happened until entering Brunei, where there was a bit of fuss made behind the passport counter and eventually I had to fill out a form formally declaring myself as a visiting journalist. I told the officer that I was not here "as" a journalist and, better yet, was not even currently employed.

Anyway. Brunei is a country, which most people don't know. Actually I am not even sure I had heard of it until I saw it in the guidebook. But here we are.


Brunei is one of the world's smallest countries and actually comes in two parts -- an east and a west as it's split by a big bay. Other than its frontage on the South China Sea it's surrounded by Malaysia. It's home to quite a bit of oil and a healthy monarchy and a good number of immigrant workers from India, Nepal, Thailand and places like that. Unfortunately, it's also an expensive country to travel in, so we'll have to limit our time here.

Not that there's a whole lot to see in one of the world's smallest countries. We toured the sultan's museum this morning and the central mosque last night during the call to prayer and a brewing thunderstorms and went to the central park before lunch and saw the nation's waterfall and its monkey troupe.

Tomorrow we head back to Malaysia and up toward Kota Kinabalu. We fly to Manila in a week.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Naughty Monkeys

So Kuching continues to delight -- where else in the world do city busses run regularly to national parks and even an orang-utan sanctuary?

There are four places in the world where you can see orang-utans -- one we went to in 2003 on Sumatra, Indonesia. Another is at the end of Kuching city bus route 6, which runs from downtown by the huge mosque out to the sanctuary in about 40 minutes and costs 60 cents.

On the day we were going there we got mixed up on the departure time and got to the bus area at 5.45 a.m. Learning the bus did not leave until 7.30 we had breakfast at KFC. If you're used to KFC's American status as Nascar food it's difficult to describe the spectacle which is KFC in Asia. It's not a restaurant, it's an event. At 6 a.m., however, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. This KFC was unique in the world as being run entirely by the hearing impaired. Laura got to order our meal in ASL.

Then we got on the bus.


From the sanctuary gate we walked a half hour through misty primary rainforest to where the orang-utans are fed. A worker took a basket of fruit out to a platform and called into the forest. Soon the trees overhead rattled and leaves fell as the animals came.

It's a crappy photo, but here's a kid, a mom and a baby:


Continuing our city bus tour of Borneo, we also went to Bako National Park. Bako is a 45-minute ride from town. You get let off at a boat dock and then zoomed out into the South China Sea to make a wet entry at the park.


While there are four places in the world to see orang-utans, there is just one to see the proboscis monkey. A troop of them was waiting near the landing.


There's probably plenty of places to see pitcher plants, but it's still rather amazing.


We also saw a 6-foot long monitor lizard, a big black scorpion walking through tall grass, and silver-haird monkeys. At one point is a sign warning: "Beware the naughty monkeys."

We hiked 4 miles through dense rainforest and dripping slickrock canyons, took the boat and the bus back to Kuching, took a shower, and ate dinner. Would someone back home please learn to make this for me:


Black pepper beef and rice: $1.30!!!!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sulawesi Sendoff

Despite my vow 48 hours ago to not waste more time downloading photos into the ether, here we are in Borneo at it again -- though with better luck.

We finished our time in Sulawesi much as we began it -- as would be rock stars. I don't think I'll ever get used to being the subject of such attention. Hello friend/Where are you coming from/You are welcome in my country is standard. You need to get used to giving out a hearty HELLO every few feet while walking the streets. But Sulawesians were not just happy to welcome us -- they also wanted us to pose for them with pictures. At the beach this became a bit cumbersome as it was hard to relax under the constant parade of those wanting us in their family albums. Why? As one girl said, "You are white. We are black. White is better."

We took Lion Air from Makassar to Jakarta. Never before have I had such serious doubts about the safety of a plane as I did on that flight.

Jakarta emerged from under a thick blanket of fog. The airport was old-style Java, with barely any AC and a long-delayed flight for us. Air Asia's brand new plane, which we took to Kuching, was an unexpected delight.

Who would have expected such a hip, stylish city perched on the edge of Borneo? After Makassar, Kuching might as well be some place in Holland or Belgium: clean, quiet, and things work.

Nobody has asked to take our photo, however.

Here's some camera work from the past few weeks:

Bira Beach


Sunset in Makassar


Tana Toraja houses




Market day in Makala


Bemo from the inside


Mountainside graves


Pig market in Makale


Market scene


Laura's turn to pose


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Slow Rot in South Sulawesi

Today is day 216 of our trip. For the most part, the clothes we are traveling with today are the same as those we started out with back on July 15. For me, that comes to four t-shirts, three shorts, three short sleeve button downs, one long pants, four underwear and four socks. Due to the heat here, however, I never wear the pants and can not wear two of the button downs.

(tea and bananas on the floating village)


We try to do laundry as often as it's possible -- usually that means being in one place for more than a night, as it takes a long time for stuff to dry here. We do our laundry by hand, using a long block of soap you can buy in markets here for about 30 cents. Still, despite the frequent laundering, stuff is starting to stink. More than once we've walked into our hotel room only to ask each other, What is that smell? Well, it's our stuff. We stink. The clothes, after a while, just don't come clean, and they're starting to fall apart, too. We're in a slow rot down here, sort of like a science experiment I had in fifth grade where I buried various things in damp dirt and documented how long they would take to decompose. That's it -- we are decomposing.

We are just wrapping up a two week circuit of south Sulawesi. Sulawesi is likely among the toughest places I've ever traveled -- and I include Africa in that. It's not just that the roads are awful, or that the transport schizophrenic, or that the hotels basic, or that the restaurants really basic ... it's all of it together. It's really been an exhausting, trying, stressful and dirty two weeks.

Not that it has not also been scenic, though.

We started out the trip in Makassar, the island's half-flooded capital and largest city, at 1.8 million. Like so many other big third world cities, the people who run Makassar seem bent on creating hell on earth. It's a city of smog, endless trash-burning fires, open sewers, mountains of trash, really shitty hotels, restaurants where rats run through the dining room and endless snarls of traffic.

We first went to Malino, a small town high in the mountains reached by a bone jarring three hour ride. Huge storms swayed the trees and knocked the power out, making for a fun time, but unfortunately there was only one hotel there and it was expensive, so we just spent a night before returning.

We then went to Tana Toraja ("Land of the Mountain People"). This area, about 200 miles north of Makassar, is made up of piercing mountains and small villagess. The Toraja are Christian, but hold on to their animist beliefs, the most peculiar of which revolve around death.

The funeral of a loved one kicks off a seven day celebration where people come and play cards, drink coffee and slaughter buffalo. (We were present at a funeral during a buffalo slaughter. If any of you are at my funeral, please do not slaughter any buffalo for me.) Buffalo are a centerpiece of Torajan culture, but are raised solely for slaughter during funerals. The more you slaughter, the better the funeral. Because of this, and the cost of buffalo (cheap ones are about $100) the family sometimes waits a year between death and funeral. During this time, the body is kept in the house and treated as a sick person, not a dead person. Meanwhile, children are responsible for raising the buffalo. After school they walk them, feed them special grass and wash them.

Torajan dead are buried in caves dug from mountainsides. Digging a cave (by hand, naturally) takes about six months (and costs one buffalo). The dead are carried to the caves in replicas of Torajan homes, which are meant to mimic the boats Torajan ancestors sailed to Sulawesi on, with a soaring bow and stern. If more than a dozen buffalo were slaughtered at the funeral, the dead is memorialized with an effigy -- a carved wooden doll which stands guard in a carved pedastal near the cave entrance (cost: one buffalo).

We saw this all on a two day tour we took with a guide, and it left me a bit numb, and I guess that's why this post may seem more seem like a guide book description of what I saw rather then something more fluent.

From Tana Toraja we pieced together bemos (minivans hollowed out and filled with seats) and Kiangs (two-wheel drive Toyota SUVs stuffed with up to 12 people) to make it to Sengkeng. Sengkeng is a small city on the shores of Lake Tempe. We checked into the nicest hotel we could find but still spent a good part of the evening trying to keep rats out of our room. The next day we took a boat tour of the lake. As the dry land of the city ends streets continue into the water; cars and motos are replaced by boats, and the homes stand on stilts. We weaved through channels cut into thick lily growth, and then broke into open water. In the middle of the lake was a small village of floating homes. The small homes float on cut bamboo and are anchored in place. Fishermen here live simple lives; we went into one home and were served tea and fried bananas. We spent a quite hour sitting in the shade before heading back.

From Sengkeng we continued south into unexplored terriroty (read: it's not in the guide book) and pieced together a bus and bemo to make a 10-hour trip to Bira. Bira is the end of the mainland in southern Sulawesi. I'm not really a fan of beaches, but this was a cut above your average third-world beach. Trash was swept into piles (and burned, plastic and all, after sunset), and past the main hotel area was a long sweep of blazing white sand bordered by palms and cliffs falling into the water. We walked at low tide around the rocks to find more deserted beaches and more palms reaching over the water. We had a wooden shack on the beach and simple meals and all the strong, sweet coffee we could drink. Nice spot.

We have a flight out of Makassar to Borneo, but we stayed an extra day in Bira because it was so nice. The morning of our departure the hotel manager offered to help us get a bemo direct from Bira to Makassar, which would save a bemo transfer in Bolumkumba, the nearest big town. But he came back a few minutes later with a sour look on his face and told us there was a demonstration which was halting all transport along the south coast between Bira and Makassar.

This was hard to understand, but if it was true it was potentially catastrophic. The demonstration, he told us, had been going on for two days and there was not telling how much longer it would last. There was a bemo headed for Bolumkumba just as he gave us the news, so we hopped in it in hopes we could learn more there.

In Bolumkumba everyone at the bus station told us it was impossible to continue east, towards the city (now about 120 miles away), but with the help of a local, the bemo driver took us the to outskirts of the city where we were able to catch a bemo headed east. We drove with the windows closed and our heads down to the next town, where we were again dropped off on the other side of town. Here we waited in a restaurant for a bus which was possibly scheduled to swing through. A bus came and went without stopping for us and we started walking and in a few minutes caught another bemo headed east. This ride went smoothly for about an hour until we came to a demonstration blocking the road. We kept our heads down though a bus ahead of us was stopped and turned around. As we drove past, a fight broke out among some of the men standing along the road. A few minutes later another demonstration, this time with a man in a mask holding what appeared to be a knife at vehicles passing through. At this point we were pretty scared -- the demonstration must be more serious than we thought. We did however make it to the next town and from there caught a bemo which more or less (less, actually) took us into the center of Makassar.

Oh Makassar! Never before have I been so happy to be back in such a dump in all my life.

Somewhere along the way we picked up a pretty detailed map of south Sulawesi, and it was useful in yesterday's bemo hop. I was looking at it later and realized how much there is to see here. Sulawesi has 11,000-foot mountains -- tall enough for snow -- and hundreds of islands, named and unnamed. But the truth is, seeing the "main" tourist sites, which is what we did, is hard enough. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to see the really remote stuff. This is just a difficult island.

Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on out. We head to the Malaysian side of Borneo in the morning. We don't have a ticket off the island but are thinking of a short hop to the Philippines before heading to mainland Asia. From there we'll make our way up to Bangkok.

Posting photos, and even stories, is becoming increasingly difficult and frustrating and I honestly don't know how much patience I have for it, so if you don't see another post for a while, you'll know what happened.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Indonesia, There's No Free Ride

We took the slow boat last week from Padangbai, Bali, to Lombok, the next island east. It was a four hour boat ride but we left an hour late and idled an hour in Lombok's harbor waiting for the ferrry ahead of us to depart. The heat, the gas fumes, the motor exhaust and the everpresent clove cigarettes seemed to suck the oxygen from the where we sat watching Bali recede and the sun set.

We took a hired car to Sengiggi, Lombok's main tourist beach, and checked into a hotel which once must have been quite the place but in the past few years has evidently been left to rot. It a way that's a good metaphor for Lombok as a whole, where there is a lot of beauty and a lot of rot.

(Kuta, Lombok)


Next we went to Kuta Lombok, where the town is a cluster of trash piles and mangy stray dogs but the beaches are wide and white and packed by forests of palm trees and sandstone cliffs.

The past few days we've been in Mataram, Lombok's capital city, a sprawling mess of open storm drains and endless motorbike jams but plenty of spots of beauty, too -- a line of girls walking to school, a sudden burst of orange from cosmos planted near a home, small Hindu offerings in front of small temples.

Like Bali, Lombok has a strong Hindu presence, though it's not nearly as well developed or preserved as Bali's Hindu culture is. But like the rest of Indonesia, Hindus, Muslims and Christians here work to get along. A guide at the water palace today told us how holidays from each of the religions are celebrated by everyone. When the Christian church has something going on, he said, the nearby mosque pipes down. When the Muslims are having a fete, the Hindus keep quiet, and so forth. It seems like a philosophy worth following.

Like much of the rest of Indonesia, Lombok is caught between modernity and a sort of ancient-ity. Kids here, I reckon, can out-text most American kids; on the other hand, local clerics have just issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from practicing yoga and voting for non-Muslims in upcoming elections.

We have been picking up the English-language Jakarkta Post (a fantastic newspaper -- better than anything we saw in Australia and better than most American papers, too) and every day it's full of Indonesia's history, writ large as current events: Christians worry Muslims will implement shari'a law; Muslim women are choosing divorce over polygamy; the government is receiving requests to log over the last remaining stands of Borneo rainforest in order to expand palm oil plantations.

We've continued to dig Indonesian food, and have replaced Bali coffee with Lombok coffee; both are made cowboy-style, with fine grounds dumped into hot water and stirred. Though we like the food, I feel like I'm slowly withering away: it's all pretty small portions, and I've still got a pretty large appetite.

(water palace)


We've also continued to be stymied by island transport. Most people take bemos to get between towns -- a bemo is a pickup or van hollowed out and filled with seats. You are charged 25 cents to go from one city to the other. Or should be -- we routinely get charged 10 times that; often an empty bemo will stop and pick us up, turning a normal ride into a "special ride" with "special fares." The only real alternative is to simply hire people to take you in their cars where you want to go. I hate having what amounts to a taxi take us around the island but there seem to be few other options.

So the little things that bug us -- gas fumes, endless rain (it's the monsoon season), and expensive bemos -- can be negated by finding a spot of paradise. It's the off season for tourists (after bombings, a dictator, minor wars and a worldwide economic recession, it looks like Indonesia may be in permanent offseason for the forseable future) and we've gotten some sweet deals on hotels. One of those was in Kuta, where we got a huge modern motel room in a tiny resort with expansive grounds and a big pool just back from the beach. The real surprise came when we opened the door to the bathroom -- 150 square feet of outdoor shower and toilet. Needless to say, it took some getting used to.

One night we had dinner at a warung -- a simple sort of cafe -- overlooking Kuta's halfmoon bay. Huge waves were breaking about a mile offshore on a coral reef, but as the sun set the tide withdrew and fishermen with innertubes and lanterns and nets waded into the water; by full dark the bay was aglow with more than a hundred shimmering lights.

We rented a motorbike -- that's what I'm calling these tiny motorcycles everyone drives here -- from the guy who cleaned our room one day and toured the coast. It was refreshing to move under our own power for once, and fun to see the countryside. Naked kids would run into the road to hold out their hands so we could slap then as we went by. We'd follow narrow sandy tracks that would pop out at blazing white sand beaches and stopped at a mountaintop restaurant for coffee and a sandwich.

When we got back to the hotel I went to find Agust, the bike's owner, and he asked me, "How was it, Obama?"

Calling Americans here "Obama" is sort of a joke, but a good one. It's the first thing everyone says when you tell them you are American (tentatively, we've renounced our "Canadian" citizenship in favor of the truth). Obama lived in Jakarta for a short while when he was a kid, and apparently still knows some Bahasi Indonesian. News that he may visit Jakarta in July has the locals going nuts. It's possible to think that with this sort of enthusiasm America's impasse with the Muslim world may be coming to and end.

We take an early morning flight tomorrow for Sulawesi, a twisted orchid of an island north of here once known as Celebes. "Celebes" was once one of my favorite coffees for sale by the pound at Salt Lake Roasting Company. I've got high hopes for Sulawesi.