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Hogmanay Toraja Style

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

New Year’s is going to be boring here. Our former regular pub has changed management and the new regular has recently attracted a crowd of shady types, displaced from the ‘Fox’ when it lost its late licence. As if the possibility for skirmishes isn’t enough to put us, off, they charge entry for tonight, and it will be jam-packed.

I prefer instead to remember one of the best New Year’s parties I’ve ever had (apart from the one where the diving club held an impromptu ceilidh in the streets of St. Andrews at 3 am).

A year ago on this day, I climbed on a nightbus in Ampana—having returned from the Togean islands—and passed through a portal into a fantasy kingdom which bore no relation to the world around it.

I had arrived in Tana Toraja.

Toraja, roof

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The Great Indonesian Flu

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Yahoo is notoriously difficult to get into, I may change my account to Gmail. I don’t know what their excuse is for running such slow servers. So I tried the old ‘mailto’ protocol instead, but got Outlook Express, from which of course it is not possible to send a simple email without having to run the Internet Connection Wizard. Thanks, Microsoft!

Hence another personal message disguised as a blog entry:

Hi John,

What do you mean ‘relax in Bali’? What about diving?? Diving in neighbouring Lombok is great. The logbooks (blue wallets) are in the box next to the computer desk and the contact lenses are in the small box under the bathroom sink. But even if you don’t want to go diving, bring at least a mask and snorkel! If I ever get access to USB, I’ll show you pictures of the corals around here.

BTW, the Great Indonesian Flu is making the rounds and everyone has it—in Sulawesi at least. It is a bastard: just when you think you got off lightly it hits with the second round, which includes fever. We didn’t need to worry about the Bird Flu virus recombining with Human Influenza in Europe where the arrival of migratory birds coincided with the flu season: it can happen here at any time!

Some Islamicists just bombed Palu market. They are joyless bastards. By happy coincidence I did not travel through there (there was a direct nightbus to Palopo). But don’t worry too much—it means that security is going to be tightened up quite a few more notches!

Happy New Year! Here in Rantepao it is great, a real party town. It is all part of the Tana Toraja culture (Google it—I can’t. Internet is too slow.)

Hopefully the weather will improve and I will recover from the flu, so I can have a look around soon.

The Trouble with Travelblogging…

Friday, December 30th, 2005

…is that travel often leads to where there is no internet, or electricity for that matter.

This is why I have not been in touch for a while. I’m very sorry, John—I back-stepped on my original plan to go to Manado first and email from there, took a bus to Poso instead (which left before the internet café opened) and almost ended up marooned in the Togean Islands for a week.

Long story.

Or rather, quite a few long stories. I will upload and back-date my entries from this time (so that they are in sequence) when I next come across internet access with USB. This blog is therefore likely to lag behind until I get to Bali to meet up with John on January 20th.

To cut a long story short (for now); Indonesia has been a bit of a culture shock. I won’t censure the (printable) parts of my journal too much, which have been typed up on the Palm, because I think it is an object lesson in travel—warts and all. The entries from Dec 21st up until now, as and when they come, comprise a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but I must say that Indonesia is slowly reeling me in. Despite my initial love-hate relationship, the country has me gripped.

All is well. Happy new year from Rantepao, Sulawesi.

PS When I can’t get into Yahoo (such as now) I can still get into this blog! Sometimes this is the only way to get in touch—bear with me. This is extreme blogging.

Is it a bird? Is it a bat…

Friday, December 30th, 2005

…No—it was a bug! A beetle, to be precise, the size of my hand, which whizzed above our heads with an awesome buzz before colliding audibly with one of the roof beams at Black Marlin Divers on Kadidiri, Togean Islands. One of the little dark geckoes that scuttle around on the walls actually tried to grab it. I wonder what would have happened if it had succeeded—I guess the beetle would have flown off with it hanging like a salmon in the claws of a sea eagle; and perhaps it would have eaten it as well.

The title question is far from unreasonable, because here the butterflies are the size of blackbirds and the bats are the size of butterflies back home. In Indonesia, the bugs are awesome. Just look what they swept out of the office in the same dive centre earlier that morning:


The coin next to this little fella is a 100 rupiah coin, the same diametre as an English 1 £. The fangs of this specimen would have fitted smugly around my little finger.

It doesn’t stop there. Back on mainland Sulawesi, we stopped briefly at a village next to a small tree which was entirely encased in a dense gauze of spiderwebs, festooned with dozens of spiders each the size of my hand—like the veil of the bride of Dracula. I can only presume that the spiders eat the birds around here.

Snorkelling in the Togeans

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Memories of happier times…

I’ve managed to shrink a few pictures down to manageable size, for blogging purposes only. They are a little grainy, but clear enough. They were taken just after Christmas in the Togean islands—as close to Paradise as I have yet been; if you disregard the areas where blast fishing has reduced the coral to rubble.

Black Marlin3

The place is Black Marlin Divers on Kadidiri. The time is early morning and we are getting ready for a diving-and-snorkelling trip.

Even on the beach in front of the resort, heads of coral poking through the sand are populated by starfish and hundreds of flitting fish taking advantage of the nutrient-rich water.

But to get to more pristine sites, we take a 20 minute boat ride between the islands and enter the water above a coral garden…

coral garden3coral garden1
…just above a sheer drop-off. In the clear water, I can see the divers 20m below me and silhouettes of large fish in the distance. A lucky buddy-pair saw a turtle slowly flapping past.
coral garden2

One day, I’ll get back to this writing business and I will tell you the whole adventure, with better photos.

Togean sunset

Togean Temptations

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

And here is one of the highs:

Imagine a land where it is always summer. Where green islands are dotted in turquoise waters, surrounded by coral gardens. Where dolphins weave through the silvery tapestry of the sea in shouting distance from shore. Where looking into the clear water you can see neon-bright fish darting among the blue-green coral. Where the sultry air is heavy with the scent of flowers.


Occasionally, brief rain storms lash at the beaches, ruffling the palms and reminding me what the weather is like back home, but here the rain is like a warm shower and the grey sky is incongruous; the tropical sun quickly boils away the clouds like so much steam.

But paradise had not been easy to reach.

After nearly a week of hard travelling, I shouldered my backpack and stepped off the boat, walking along the fringe of golden sand between the sea and the wooden chalets in front of a verdant wall of the jungle.

I had arrived in the Togean Islands with a runny nose and a scratchy throat—great timing, as always.

Christmas Day in Ampana

Monday, December 26th, 2005

Marina Cottages, Ampana

At 5:30 in the morning, the sun painted the sky pastel pink. It looked to be a wonderful day with a mirror calm sea and clear sky. I mimed throwing a stone at the dog whose howling had woken me up and went back inside the hut to sleep.
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Palu to Poso

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

Rant warning; the following (backdated) entries up to January 20th are a largely uncensored account of my experiences in Indonesia. Solo travel in Sulawesi drove me to the verge of a nervous breakdown (yes, really) and isn’t recommended for the feint-hearted. There have been many downs, but also some spectacular ups. This, my second day off the Pelni ship, was one of my lowest points until I got to Makassar:

It’s nearly Christmas and I considered going to Manado in order to spend it in civilisation. However, Manado is the gateway to the Moluccas and it is too early for me to go there—I’d miss all of Sulawesi. The Bunaken Marine Park is no longer worth a visit if I am to believe the officer I spoke to on the Tidar. In short, there is nothing that should draw me to Manado right now.

On the other hand, looking at the map, Poso seems to be a better option. From there it is easy to get to the Togean islands (via Ampana) and to Tana Toraja. So after a good night’s sleep (and being woken up by a pesky child banging at the door with a cup of tea at bloody 6:30 am) I changed my plans and decided to head to Poso to resume my adventure. So what if the town is a backwater—it can hardly be much worse than Palu. Supermarkets, washing machines, internet access and (sadly) restaurants—let alone those that serve beer—are a thing of the past: from now on, my social life will resolve around wooden sheds which sell soft drinks and shampoo in one-portion sachets, screaming children (and sometimes adults) and honking horns from every car or scooter that passes me.

Might as well dive straight in.
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The Pelni Experience (1)

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

(ca. 1500 words)

I had my adventure back.

The smell of fried plantain mingled wit diesel fumes as I pushed my way through the throng of taxi-touts. There were buses going to Manado, but I had decided to base myself in Poso and from there explore the Tama Toraja in the Southern heart of Sulawesi and travel to the Togean islands and from there up north.

The intended highlight of my trip, Pulao Bunaken Marine Park near Manado with its staggering diversity of coral, had apparently been turned into a rubbish tip—according to one of the junior officers on the ship and a fellow diver whom I had no reason to doubt. He’d also told me that the best diving was in Kalimantan. Too late.

Eventually, I was grabbed and rescued from the throng by one of the minivan drivers who turned out to be a friend of another man I’d met while talking to the ship’s officers. He smiled serenely and sparked up a Kretek as I threw my backpack into the van.
Pantoloan Harbour, Sulawesi
¤ndonesia very beautiful! —Tchch…”

He was right. As we rattled out of Pantoloan harbour and into Sulawesi in a smoking, hooting convoy of minivans and scooters, I saw blue mountains reaching into the clouds, palm trees grabbing at the sky with feathery tendrils and gaudily painted buildings in verdant fields. I felt exhilarated, as if the volume of all my senses had been turned up a notch. In these moments, immersed in sounds, colours and smells, travelling is like a drug.

Indonesia is beautiful, but getting there had not been so easy.
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The Pelni Experience (2)

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

The guy at the information counter, when it finally opened, confirmed that the ship was due to arrive in Pantoloan, a port 22km north of Palu which wasn’t on my map, at 10 o’clock the following morning. I could not change my ticket and that upset me a little, until I figured out the value of the rupiah—it cost just over 80 RM. It was alright.

The steward gave me a locker for my camera and PDA. I went pack on deck and sat in the balmy breeze. On the horizon, ligtning painted the sky with orange strobes; each capturing a snapshot of a false sunset. There was no rain and no sound except for the distant humming of the engines and the gentle rush of water against the hull. The ship’s teeming underbelly semed miles away, and even the men who had been yelling “Hey Missis!” at me left me alone.

Indonesia is no place to have a nervous breakdown. I stopped snivelling. I’ve had worse trips—unless the ship should start to sink.

A double flash lit up the sky in rapid succession, like a frantic celestial paparazzi clicking away. It was quickly followed by more lighting sweeping horizontally under the clouds. It was far away, but I could feel the electricity in the air.

Of course, the peace didn’t last long.
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