Thursday, 28 June 2012

Leaving Asia

It's hard to believe that we've now spent over seven months in Asia, or that before this trip it was a continent I'd never visited. Looking back at the highlights I wouldn't even know where to start.

We've deliberated for a long time over where to head from here, but have now made a decision! Much as we've loved backpacking in Asia, we're itching to get back into the hills. That was where this adventure started after all - those fifty amazing days trekking in the Himalayas. The most awe inspiring views we've ever seen, the coldest we've ever been, walking through amazing scenery day after day.

The Himalayas- where it all began
With that in mind, it's time to head for the mountains again! We love trekking independently- something that's not really possible in this part of the world. So we're swapping the beaches of South East Asia for a summer in North America. Not a destination that originally featured in our plan (such as it was!), but that's the nature of this trip. So far we've timed the seasons in our destinations pretty well, and as the summer in the northern hemisphere starts it seems sensible to take advantage of it. We want to experience the classic scenery of the national parks of the USA- so familiar from pictures  yet neither of us has ever been.

Our initial plan is to attempt a long distance mountain trail- something we wouldn't be able to do on a normal fortnight's holiday. Lots more planning is needed first, but we think it will be the John Muir Trail- a 220 mile walk through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It travels from the cliffs and pine forests of Yosemite, through Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, to finish on Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the states outside Alaska at 4400 metres. The walk is a similar distance to the Coast to Coast in England although rather different in every other way- crossing wilderness, wild camping, never crossing a road and travelling through bear country. 

We're under no illusions; it's going to be hard! Crossing high passes and swollen rivers with big packs full of camping gear- food rationed and carried in bear proof containers- but we think we're ready for the challenge. We can't wait to camp, to experience wilderness, cook outside, wash in streams, and to get back into that exhausting but satisfying routine of walking day after day.

Sundowners in Indonesia
As we prepare to leave Asia and fly across the Pacific, there are some things we'll be happy to leave behind and others we're going to pine for. 
Actually, we're probably going to miss all of it! But we've composed a couple of lists to remind us of some of the things we've laughed at and moaned about while we've been here:

Some of the things we've missed

Breakfast, as a separate meal rather than just another dose of rice or noodles. Muesli or fruit salad were last sighted in Thailand!
Knives. We're not sure why forks and spoons made it over here but knives got lost on the way. Cutting things with a spoon just doesn't work as well!
The smoking ban. Oh, how I've missed this! Here, everyone smokes everywhere- holding a cigarette right in your face in a cramped bemo with no ventilaton.
Pavements. The kind without gaping holes down to smelly drains, or cracks big enough to fall in.
Light switches you can touch, without either danger of electrocution or getting a year's worth of grime on your hand.
Running water, ideally in a bathroom, best of all one you dare enter barefoot.

You have to look where you're going in Indonesia!

Some of the things we'll miss

Hello Mister! I imagine we won't get this shouted to us in the States. Children won't run into the road to high-five us as we pass, and we won't feel like celebrities posing for pictures with every family we meet.
Our fishy friends. We've spent so much time underwater I've started to feel like I know the tropical fish personally. I can think of nothing more relaxing than floating over coral watching life on the reef.
Hammocks. When we eventually live in a house it's going to be strung full of them!
The sun. We've got pretty accustomed to seeing this all day, every day. Looking at weather forecasts again will be weird.
Scooters. Zooming around on our own transport and, when it breaks, getting things fixed immediately for a few pounds.
Beer. I know this is available in North America, but we probably won't be able to afford it there!
Beach huts. We've had some horrible rooms, but we've also had some great ones. I'm writing this from the candlelit verandah of our current driftwood decorated hut, listening to waves lapping on the sand...sigh.
Buses. Mixed feelings about this! Yes, they're cramped, crowded and bumpy, but we've been on some memorable journeys, met lots of locals and never had to wait for one or look at a timetable. Greyhound coaches just won't be as fun, and they're bound not to let us ride on the roof.
Menus, and their amusing translations into English. Anyone for a coodled drink?
Coconuts, enjoyed straight from the tree.

Bus travel in Alor, Indonesia

A coconut, as fresh as it comes!

But first we have one last destination left in Asia, which we're really excited about; a week in Japan. It will only be a taste (which is all we can afford!), but we're hoping to cram it full of quintessential Japanese experiences, from bullet trains to zen gardens. Then all change to fly to Los Angeles, just in time for independence day in San Francisco. 

Watch this space!

It goes without saying, we're going to miss beaches like this!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Close Encounters

How we spent our first anniversary

The sensation is exhilarating, but tinged with just a little bit of fear. We are whizzing along over a seabed of sand and rubble - a fast current of over 5 knots carrying us across this barren moonscape. An occasional boulder sized head of coral is all that breaks the monotonous terrain, and means that you have to keep one eye on the direction of travel lest you collide with them. You can't help but put your arms out like a pair of wings, and if you didn't have a regulator in your mouth then you would be crying out “Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!”.

Harriet learning to fly

Then we hear it - the 'tap tap tap' of Ed, the dive leader, indicating that there's something of interest. As we've been prepped, this means it's time to hunker down against the seabed and find something safe to grab onto, as the current swings us round to point us up stream. Beyond Ed I can just make it out. The visibility is very good at about 20 metres, but it is only the vaguest of shapes at first, nothing more than a shadow. Slowly it becomes more defined, gliding towards us a couple of feet off the bottom. Soon we can see its wing tips curling up and straightening as they beat in a slow, graceful motion. By now it's clearly identifiable, although there was never any doubt - they don't call this place Manta Point for nothing.

This first Manta Ray is massive, with a wingspan of maybe 3 metres, and it's heading upstream, oblivious to the current we're fighting. It comes up on our left hand side, only 4 metres away, before banking right and gliding straight through the middle of the group. I'm dumb struck, in absolute awe as I stare into the face of this alien creature.

Close encounters of the Manta kind

A tight feeling in my chest brings me back to reality, I've been holding my breath for the past 30 seconds without realising it. I take a long exhale and check my pressure and depth gauges. When I look back up, the Manta is some distance off to our right, gradually fading back into the blue.

Letting go of our rocks, the current immediately picks us up and we are flying once more. But no sooner has the first manta gone then we hear it again...'tap tap tap'. Finding purchase on another rock, this time there are three shapes. The leader is huge, a beautiful black spaceship. I fumble with my underwater camera and manage to start recording some video. I'm so focused on filming the leader as he passes within a metre of me that I don't see the second ray. He buzzes past only inches above me, and I instinctively duck. I can imagine the pair chuckling to themselves over that one.

We release ourselves once more and glide on. The taps now come thick and fast, no sooner has one Manta disappeared then another is approaching. They seem more than just tolerant of our presence, they are positively inquisitive, and you can sense the intelligence behind that alien face.

Manta 1 on final approach

Ed signals once more, but I can't see the Manta this time. It's only when I'm within 5 metres that I notice the grey shape lying still on the seabed, a 2 metre long white tip reef shark. This guy is a little more shy, stirring himself from his bed, and with a casual flick of his tail he disappears.
By now the current has eased somewhat, and the previously barren floor is populated with soft corals and anemones, swaying like fields of wheat blown by the wind. We come across a turtle, nestled down amongst soft coral pillows. They always appear chilled out creatures, but you can tell this one is particularly languid. We 'tiptoe' past quietly so as not to disturb him.

Sleeping beauty

Our air is starting to get low now, so we make a safety stop at 5 metres, hanging around a large coral boulder and checking out the reef fish. But you can tell that everyone's minds are elsewhere, thinking about the past 40 minutes and the amazing experience we have just had. We surface, and the smiles on everyone's faces tell the story. With the regulators out of our mouths we can finally communicate our excitement. The smiles last all day.

This was the most memorable day of the five we spent on Kanawa, a tiny island off the coast of Flores and on the edge of the Komodo National Park. The island is uninhabited save a dozen simple beach bungalows, although we took the rare opportunity to unpack our tent and camp under a berry tree. Kanawa is fringed by a bleached white sand beach, which gives way to turquoise waters dotted with patches of coral, before dropping off into the dark blue of deep water. We've seen more than our fair share of priceless islands on our travels, but this one might just take first prize.

Desert island castaway on Kanawa

From Kanawa we took a boat over to explore Komodo Island itself, whose jagged savannah covered ridges look like the land that time forgot. And forgotten it must have been, for the Komodo dragon is like something out of pre-historic times. Getting within six foot of one you realise that round here man isn't necessarily at top of the food chain. Although usually placid, occasionally they do attack and kill people, and it's best to stay behind your guide who is armed with a forked stick!

Komodo Dragon basking in the sun following his late lunch

With only a week or so left in Indonesia, we reluctantly had to tear ourselves away from Kanawa, and head to the much busier islands of Lombok and Bali. It's quite a shock to see tourists suddenly outnumbering locals. A few days surfing on the south coast of Lombok was followed by a day up in the hills of the lush interior, before descending to the coast for a last bit of beach time. 

Our final stop in Indonesia is the town of Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. Although the traffic choked streets and constant calls of “Taxi Mister?!” are a little off putting, just a short walk away from the hustle and bustle is the rice field scenery that Bali is famed for. It's very interesting to watch the local Balinese families head off to the temples in smart colourful costumes with wicker baskets of tasty offerings for the Gods. After meeting Muslims in Java and devout Christians in Sulawesi, experiencing a little of the Hindu culture found only in Bali is an interesting way to end our time in this fascinating country.


The sun sets on our time in Indonesia

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Indonesia- highlights and harder times

Indonesia is big. It's really more like a group of separate countries - an island chain stretching across three time zones and with diverse culture, religion, and scenery. We began our explorations back at the end of April in Java, a place Karl visited on his last big trip over ten years ago and had fond memories of. Time had faded his recollection of the distances involved, so it was a surprise to both of us quite how far apart everything was. There were three places Karl especially wanted to revisit, and on the map it looked straightforward. In reality it took at least ten hours on cramped and bumpy buses or hot, crowded trains to get between each of these spots, and travel here quickly became draining.

Noodles for breakfast!
These are the parts of backpacking so often ignored in accounts, blurred by nostalgia or even forgotten. It's natural to focus on the highlights, but there are also days which aren't actually that enjoyable! Between every picture of a beautiful waterfall, surf break or national park are the unrecorded hours of uncomfortable travel. The hot and sweaty waits in bus and train stations; the lugging of a backpack around a traffic filled and stressful town to find a dirty room to stay in for the night; the enforced alarm clock of the 5 am call to prayer; the boredom of a noodle and rice based diet (it's hard work being vegetarian here); the frustration when travel plans fall through and you get stranded somewhere you really don't want to be; and the disappointment when all the effort to get to somewhere doesn't pay off. This is how we are choosing to spend our lives at the moment, and most of the time the rewards are well worth the effort, but sometimes days can go by between these highlights. We try to embrace the experience whatever happens, but it can be a little trying at times!

Smiles in Java
In Java and Sulawesi, what made everything worthwhile were the people. Everywhere anybody travels in the world there's the cliché of 'the people are so friendly', but it often really is the case, and nowhere we've been in Asia more so than here. In every village there'd be an enthusiastic welcome; workers in the rice paddies would stop to wave, children run over to greet us, and generally we'd feel a bit like celebrities. When our rented motorbike died people stopped what they were doing, phoned friends, gathered tools, and generally went out of their way to come to our aid. It's comforting to know you can't go far wrong before someone here will help you out. We've had some less positive encounters too, but for every person who tries to rip you off or mislead you, there are dozens more who are kind and genuine.

You never have to wait long for a bemo!
Our travel in Indonesia has involved a lot more time in towns and cities than we would ideally like. Although often hot, tiring and dirty, they give a more realistic view of what life is like here for most people than beauty spots ever could, and the markets and street food are particularly interesting. Negotiating a public transport system that consists of hundreds of identical blue bemos (small minibuses), each blaring hip hop music and covered in Britney Spears transfers and 'Jesus inside' stickers, is surprisingly fun. You don't really want to be a pedestrian here, where gaping holes in what pavements there are drop into stinking drains full of rubbish. We've got to know the towns and cities by jumping from one bemo to another, no-one minding our rucksacks taking up a whole space and pushing against them, our fellow passengers helping us with language tips and ensuring we get off at the right point.

Posing for family portraits
Many days in Indonesia we haven't seen any other foreigners, which is really refreshing after some of our travels in India and Thailand. Sometimes the most memorable experiences are in the least likely places- like the shopping mall in Makassar where we went to look for an umbrella, but ended up in the midst of a throng of people all keen to shake hands and practice their English. When we got in the lift we had about twenty people cram in with us just for the ride! Being slightly further off the South East Asia backpacker trail, we've felt more immersed in the country and have been trying hard with our Bahasa Indonesian. People here make it easy to have a go at their language- they don't laugh at our pronunciation or lack of sentence structure and it's amazing how much you can communicate with a very small vocabulary.

Catching a wave in Batu Karas
We're now six weeks into our two months in Indonesia, and have still only scraped the surface really. In Java , the best few days were spent at Batu Karas, a little fishing village with a black sand beach and famed surf. The point break was small enough for me but still good enough for Karl. Surfing here was much easier (not to mention warmer) than it is in England, with a consistent, relatively gentle wave peeling away from the headland. A highlight of the trip for me was surfing the wave all the way in to the beach- a ride of maybe twenty seconds (a long time in surfing!). Arriving at the beach, already feeling pretty chuffed, I couldn't stop smiling when I got a round of applause from a group of muslim ladies, wading in the shallows in their hijabs.
Gunung Bromo National Park in East Java was a complete change of scene- high up, cloudy and really cold! Here there are thick woolly socks for sale, cabbages growing instead of bananas, and, even under two blankets, it's chilly at night. The attraction is a massive volcano crater, 10 km across, with 3 newer volcanoes inside. The crater has wildflower filled savannah grasslands and the atmospheric 'sea of sands' where mist swirls around beneath the steaming summit of Gunung Bromo. A unique scene, especially when viewed from above a cloud inversion at sunrise.

Watching sunrise at Gunung Bromo

The amazing coral reef at Pulau Bunaken
We left Java to fly to Sulawesi, a bizarre shaped island east of Borneo. After exploring the interior (see the last blog on the Tana Toraja), we travelled to Pulau Bunaken off the northern tip of Sulawesi to snorkel and dive on probably the best coral reef I've ever seen. Every square inch covered in hard and soft corals, the reef swarming with colourful fish and, as the divemaster said, 'so many turtles you'll be kicking them out the way'. The coral reef rings the island just 100m offshore before dropping far into the blue at a vertical wall with excellent drift dives. We had to drag ourselves out of the sea here!

Tarsiers- always surprised!
Away from the water the wildlife of Sulawesi was plentiful too. We visited a national park where on guided walks we saw huge hornbills in the trees, a playful troop of macaques, the rare bear cus-cus and, best of all, the extremely cute tarsiers, whose huge eyes give them an appearance of constant surprise.

Leaving Sulawesi, we journeyed to West Timor. The people here resemble aboriginals in appearance, and we haven't found all of them to be quite as welcoming- or maybe that's just our experience, mainly based on an aggressive public transport mafia. Kupang in West Timor is just another town we keep getting stuck in en-route to places we actually want to be! It does have a fantastic street market at night where you pick your fish for the grill, alongside fresh avocado juice to drink.

Alluring waters of Alor
From Kupang we flew to Alor at the eastern end of the Indonesian island chain. We loved it here, staying on a tiny rocky islet with white sand beaches, in a fantastic guest house run by a French couple. In the morning our dive boat would motor along channels between undeveloped, forested islands, passing tidal races and whirlpools. There was an exciting moment when we spotted a whale surfacing, his shiny back reflecting the sun and the vapour cloud lingering long after he'd returned to the deep. The diving was unlike anything either of us had experienced, with challenging currents making it more like an adrenaline sport than the usual relaxed scuba chill-out session. It was really interesting though, speeding along underwater cliffs and spotting quite a few new marine creatures. We slept in a traditional thatched Alorese house with the sound of waves lapping on the shore. Delicious meals were eaten together, family style, the couple's two sweet little girls running around, and evenings spent chatting to the other guests.                
One evening there was a party for the islanders to celebrate the completion of a new boat. They danced around a banyan tree to the beat of a drum (accompanied by the local palm wine home brew), singing a traditional melody about being far from home. On our last night we swam under the stars, the water so clear that you could see the fish by moonlight. A real haven, and just the break we needed from harder travels in Indonesia!

Our Alorese house

Lion fish at Alor

Karl heading off to surf at T-Land
 Now we're in a very different sort of place, on the island of Rote off West Timor. Closer to Darwin in Northern Australia than Jakarta, the scenery is much drier, with golden grasses, scrubland and long windy beaches. We're staying at a spot called Nemberela with big surf, but not a lot else. There's an odd mix of seaweed farming locals living in ramshackle thatched huts on the beach, and luxury foreign owned 'surf resorts' for holidaying Australians. It's not got a lot of character but, like all the tourists here, we came for the surf. Unlike Java the break is not for beginners, so I'm reluctantly playing the 'girlfriend holding the towel' role, watching the head-high wave breaking on the reef beyond the beach with binoculars, while Karl takes a boat or does the long paddle out for three sessions a day on a break called 'T-land'. It's a shame most surfers here don't tear themselves away from the water long enough to look around. We explored the coast by bike and the scenery was amazing; limestone headlands, caves and arches, turquoise lagoons, mangroves, deserted beaches and fishing villages with seaweed drying on racks in the sun.

Looking out to sea on Rote
From here we'll travel to the island of Flores, where we hope to unpack our tent for the first time in Indonesia, ideally on a desert island, visit the dragons of Komodo national park, dive with manta rays (fingers crossed), and, of course, seek out some more surf!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Trekking in the Tana Toraja

Language difficulties and 'Shaun The Sheep' in the heart of Sulawesi

Tana Toraja scenery
We had thought it would be straightforward to find somewhere to stay in the Tana Toraja- naïve optimism combined with an inflated opinion of our very basic Bahasa Indonesian convinced us that we could turn up at a village at nightfall, armed with the magic phrase 'Saya kari tempat tidur tolong' (I would like a bed for the night please), and locals would be falling over each other to offer their hospitality. It didn't work out quite like that, but it did work out. 
The first family we asked shook their heads with some vigour, eventually pointing to a house down the road and telling us 'losmen' (guest house). Wow, a guest house? We weren't expecting that....neither was the owner of the house, which emphatically was not a guest house. When we asked him if there was anywhere in the village we could sleep he shrugged, and eventually and without much enthusiasm said 'I'll ask my mother'. It was starting to get dark now, so luckily his mum agreed and we were shown upstairs and offered tea. The conversation was stilted to say the least, but we managed to learn quite a lot about each other none the less. We felt pretty guilty for imposing like this, but our host and his mother's friendliness towards us grew, aided by lots of smiling if not much actual conversation.

Torajan houses and rice barns
It had been a very interesting day. We wanted a proper adventure, and that this was. Armed with a map, the essential phrase 'Ke mana' (Which way?), and not much else, we'd set off on an exploration of the Tana Toraja. This is a fascinating area of Sulawesi with a very strong traditional culture. The most notable feature is the architecture of  wooden houses and rice barns on stilts, covered with beautiful carvings and an oversized curved roof shaped like a pair of buffalo horns. 

Cliff tombs and tao tao

Torajans are devoutly Christian, but with an unusual twist in their attitude to death. Funerals are the most important events in the calendar, often lasting days and consuming a life time of savings, with valuable buffalos and dozens of pigs slaughtered for the occasion. After the funeral the coffin is either placed in a tomb carved out of a cliff, in a cave, or even hung in a tree. These cliff tombs and cave graves are everywhere, the coffins piled up and sometimes rotting, with bones and parts of corpses sticking through. In front of the caves are placed effagies of the deceased called tao tao, grouped together on wooden balconies so they look like spectators at a sports event. It's all very odd and I think unique to this area. 

Despite the amount of money spent on the dead, the villages still seem very prosperous and each family has quite a number of traditional tongkonan houses and rice barns. When you picture traditional tribal areas it's easy to fall into the trap of imagining a way of life preserved as in a living museum, unchanged for hundreds of years. This wasn't the case here, with satellite dishes and motorbikes as much a part of life as buffaloes and ceremonies. The torajans have held on to many of their traditions while still embracing some of the comforts of modern life.

Karl helps build a house!
Earlier in the day we had stumbled upon a celebration to mark the completion of a massive tongkonan. The old man who's building it was invited us over, his wife gave us coffee and Karl got to help in the raising of a large cross that formed the final support of the house. On the count of  'satu, dua, tiga' three teams of men on different ropes pulled with all their strength to raise the massive structure a few more millimetres. The whole community was there to help and there was a bit of a party atmosphere, with our appearance adding some novelty to the event. 

Karl and his entourage
This was the great thing about our trek- with no guide and no fixed route, we wandered through villages not knowing what we might come across next. The common feature was the interest the villagers showed in our arrival. Usually it would start with a group of children giggling and shouting 'bule bule' (foreigners). They were fascinated by us, but usually too shy to respond when we asked them their names. The adults would greet us warmly, often asking us where we were from, while some would go a step further. Like the old lady Maria and her husband Jakob, dressed in their sunday best on their way back from church, who showed us up to their balcony for coffee. Maria kept talking fast, long sentences and didn't seem to quite understand that we could speak barely any Bahasa Indonesian. Luckily she seemed satisfied with us smiling and nodding.

A landscape of rice paddies and villages
We had a compass with us but couldn't get lost with so many helpful people around, going out of their way to find out where we were headed and point us in the right direction. In this way we travelled from village to village, through a scenery of hillsides terraced into verdant green rice paddies, pine forested ridges with views into valleys of rushing rivers, attractive tongkonan in every village and cave graves and tombs in between.

Petrus helps Karl with Bahasa Indonesia Level 1!
On our second night we enquired at a village shop (a wooden shack) about accommodation. After serving us tea the shopkeeper, Petrus, sorted out everything for us. Initially he took us to his family house where we tried our hardest at conversation, aided by a very limited phrase book and Petrus' patience. We saw a lot more of village life accompanied by Petrus than we ever would have on our own
The tongkonan were arranged around dusty open yards where the community gathered, sifting baskets of rice, packing avocados for the market, children playing badminton or 'keepy uppy', women sitting on their front steps chatting. The men were gathered in a shelter akin to the village pub, wrapped in traditional patterned cloth that made it look a little like they were wearing their bedsheets.

Torajan village life (complete with satellite dish!)
That night we stayed with Petrus' brother and his family, who were very welcoming and didn't seem to mid that we couldn't answer many questions. Despite the elaborate woodwork on the outside of the buildings, furniture seemed to be completely lacking inside the house. Mats were laid out on the wooden floor for us to sit on, but the only object in the room was a TV. After we'd exhausted our conversation skills with the family (which didn't take long) we all sat and watched Shaun the Sheep- a perfect choice to traverse language boundaries! At night we were shown to a thin mattress in a room so dusty I was scared to shift position in case clouds of it fell in our faces. After a not entirely restful night came an early start- at 5.30 am the TV was blaring at maximum volume and everyone was up, the kids having combs dragged through their hair as they were got ready for school. This was village life, and there was nothing for it but to get up! 

Contouring between rice paddies with expansive views
After a breakfast of noodles and spinach, we set off on the third and last day of our trek. It was the most scenic section, contouring along a hillside between rice paddies. The path teetered along the mud wall between the pool of one rice paddy and the drop to the next terrace, and we passed through attractive hill side settlements far from the road, finding the way by following school children on their way home to their villages. 

It was a long day and we arrived back in the town of Rantepao well after dark. The awaiting hot shower, beer and soft bed were so very welcome, but it's those three improvised days we spent out in the Tana Toraja that we will remember best from our time in Sulawesi.