I’m Sorry for Your Loss, Care for a Cigarette?

Well, we’re back, so to speak. At least back to the land of Internet, surfing away with the desperation of a couple addicts jumping the fence at rehab. We’ve spent the last 3 weeks or so traversing the rather large island of Sulawesi. A brief synopsis would go something like this – bus, funeral, hike, bus, lake, war zone, bus, boat, beach, boat, rowboat, bus, ta da! Gorontalo, Northern Sulawesi. See any trends there? I’ll try not to go too deeply into the bus rides since they are generally similar, although each one does manage to astonish us with the exact details of its oddities and painfulness. Those of you that have been on them already know what I mean, and I’ll be kind enough to try to spare the rest of you lucky bastards.

From Ujung Pandang, where we sent our last e-mail, we took the bus to Rantepao in the heart of Torajaland. It’s a popular spot with visiting travellers, both for the mountain scenery and the fascinating culture. We got an idea of just how popular when we began encountering Torajans who had English vocabularies of maybe ten words, yet those ten included “scenic”, “panoramic”, and even “picturesque” (I’m guessing that they don’t spell it the same, though). Apparently the place is completely overrun by tourists in July and August, but, as through all of Indonesia to this point, we had the place pretty much to ourselves (as far as travellers go, anyway). So, like most visitors to Rantepao, our first order of business was to “honour” one of the local deceased with our tacky Western presence. Yep, there’s nothing like crashing a funeral dressed in strange foreign garb and armed with a prying camera. At least that’s how it feels, even though they seemed to welcome us with open arms. The more the merrier, I guess. It seems as though the benevolent, soul-receiving Torajan gods have been well informed as to the importance of popularity and the all-powerful tourist buck.

Back to the point, the funeral we went to was for some sort of village headman and had somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 guests. All but a few of those came bearing cartons of cigarettes as gifts for the men of the deceased’s family. The next day the family would be sacrificing two dozen water buffalo and over seventy pigs (no runts either, we’re talking monsters here). I guess the idea is that the family is willing to practically bankrupt itself because the number of sacrifices determines the esteem and spirituality bestowed on them by the gods. There was no mention of the likelihood that the gift opening was prone to causing large increases in lung cancer and, therefore, even more funerals. A nasty circle, to be sure.

The funerals can be as long as five days, as this one was. We were there on “Day 3: Reception Day”, which is when all the guests arrive with their wagonloads of smokes and the close family members present their gifts (i.e. livestock) and pay homage to the deceased (watch for the “Please Keep Off The Body” sign). The only way I can describe it is that it’s like some sort of existential hybrid of a wedding, livestock auction and circus. Beyond strange.

Perhaps fittingly, we finished off the day with some onion-flavoured ice cream. Mmmm, oniony. Despite the horrific taste we ate it, and tried to smile, so as not to offend the guy we bought it from or to appear (more) foolish. I swear I could still taste that crap two days later. There’s a very good reason that onion isn’t one of the 300 flavours of ice cream you find in Canada.

Author’s note: We later learned that it wasn’t onion, but actually durian, which is an Asian fruit infamous for its, um, unique flavour and horrendous smell. In fact, you’ll often see signs in airports, bus terminals and hotels specifically banning durian fruit from the premises.

We spent the next few days hiking in the nearby rice fields and mountains, and visiting elaborate “cave-graves”. The graves have carved likenesses of the dead person placed in front of the tomb. Although interesting, I have to admit I found the whole thing just a little creepy. I suppose it makes it easier to remember where to leave the flowers, though.

We spent the night in the mountain village of Batutamonga.  Our room had an incredible view of the entire valley, and was actually above the clouds at one point. We Saskatchewan-folk may not know a lot about culture but we sure can appreciate “dem dere big hills”. In the evening we were treated to a Japanese movie (subtitled in Indonesian) that, even without understanding most of it, was the worst thing I’ve ever seen, on any screen, anywhere. I feel that I now owe Mr. Van Damme an apology. He is not, in fact, the worst actor in the world. The hike back down to Rantepao turned out to be a little longer and more “interesting” than we had counted on thanks to a faulty map. Sure, it was a third the price of the other map and had all the right town names on it but, unfortunately, their locations were a wee bit random.

Moving right along, the next day we spent thirteen hours on a bus to Tentena. For the last two hours a family took up residence in the aisle next to us and while the father smoked and coughed, smoked and coughed, the children used my legs as pillows and mom sat squashed up against Laynni, repeatedly puking into a plastic bag. Tentena is a small town on the edge of Lake Poso, a volcanic crater lake that averages (!) 450 metres deep. We only stayed one day and really only saw the corner of the lake that was nearest our hotel. I called home from there, mainly to learn how to use the phone system just in case we needed to in a crisis at some point. I got my sister, Andie, on the line and it took us at least a minute to coordinate ourselves to the two-second time delay. After that we made barely intelligible small talk for another minute or so (How is it? Great. That’s good.) and hung up. That, my friends, cost more than our hotel did that day (or any other day). So don’t expect us to be calling home just to chitchat anytime soon. To top it all off, it turns out that all you do is dial 001 before the number. Hope I can remember that.

The next day (Oct 25), we followed the specific instructions of at least three different people and boarded a bus for the town of Poso, where we would connect to Ampana on the ten AM bus, and, from there, take a ferry to the Togean Islands. Well, there had been “some trouble” in Poso earlier this summer that has supposedly been cleared up but I have to say that in retrospect I’m a little skeptical about some of that info. My cynicism is based mainly on the fact that not only were we not allowed into Poso, but we were forced out of the van at a police checkpoint fifteen kilometres from the town. We spent over three hours there being babysat by military cops who were all armed with M-16s. Just in case that wasn’t enough firepower they were backed up by a Tommy-gun style automatic perched on supports overlooking the road (c’mon, let’s see you try to run that yellow, bub………just kidding, I’m sure they’ve never seen traffic lights). Yeah, sure, everything’s back to normal all right. The soldiers were actually really friendly, though, and it turned out to be a great opportunity for me to practice speaking Indonesian, what with none of them being able to speak more than a word or two of English. When I asked about the meaning of the word “dara” they informed us it meant “virgin girl” and the chief proceeded to demonstrate its usage by taunting every female within a hundred yards (except Laynni – I think he assumed that she’d already been around the block a few times). Later on he put his arm around me (very common among males in many parts of Indonesia) and when he saw how uncomfortable I got began to have a pretty good time with that one, too, calling me “handsome man” and rubbing my back. A born comedian. Another surprise was how well they fed us. Every vehicle coming to the intersection was kind enough to offer the cops a “gift” of some of whatever their cargo happened to be. Bananas, cigarettes, some fruit I don’t remember the name of, peanuts, some twinkie-type things, and even some fish.

Anyway, the aforementioned ten o’clock bus arrived earlier than the cops had expected – at noon. It was already full, which, of course, was not really a problem since a bus being full in no way suggests that more passengers aren’t welcome. Our main concern was spending the next six hours cramped up in the aisle among the sacks of rice and bundles of lettuce. Luckily for us, though, just as we were debating/stalling, a little van pulled up right behind the bus and the driver waved us over. It turned out that the van had been chartered by Paul, a Montreal native who now owns a dive shop in the Philippines, who had had it up to his eyeballs with buses and was on his way to the Togeans, as well. We climbed in, chipped in (not exactly a fair share, but still ten times what the bus would have cost), and were on our way.

The next morning the 10:00 boat to Wakai, Togean Islands left relatively promptly at 11:40 and six hours later we had transferred, along with three other passengers, a driver, and all the bags, into the equivalent of a motorized wooden canoe for the one-hour ocean journey to Kadidiri Island. Thirty minutes after that, we were wet, cold (quite unusual), and back in Wakai humping our packs around the streets trying to find a place we could get out of the rain. This was all in the aftermath of a failed and nerve-wracking attempt to buck the wind and waves of a rapidly advancing storm. Apparently, ye olde canoe doesn’t do too well in choppy water, which leads me to wonder if the ocean is really the best place for it. Eventually, we were shown to some lady’s house, where she rented us a couple rooms (Paul was still with us, or vice versa) and fed us for roughly hotel prices (i.e. not much).

The next morning – Friday, October 27, 9:00 AM – we finally made it. Tropical paradise! This place was probably as close as I’d ever come to a deserted island. Interestingly enough, though, it turns out that thirty-seven hours of travel by bus, boat and becak from the nearest city worthy of the name was still not enough to outrun those global demi-gods, Coca-Cola and Marlboro. Either way, the place is truly amazing. You get thatch huts, three meals (chef’s choice, 2 of which must include fish; I was in heaven, not so good for Laynni, though), gorgeous beach, stunning coral right off the beach, and dazzling sunsets all for a price equivalent to six dollars a day. Beer, however, cost approximately $3.75 each. Transport costs, I guess.  Consider me on the wagon. There are only three places to stay on the entire island (three places……period, as well) and less than thirty people in total, including staff. I can’t resist giving a run-down of the names and nationalities of the four other guests at Black Marlin Divers during our stay. There was the aforementioned Paul, along with Stefan from Belgium, Silvio from Italy, and, this is the best one, Andy from England. I kid you not. Actually, Andy had a bit of a humourous romance develop with one of the cooks during our stay, who he (and we) later found out was four months pregnant. We cut him some slack, though, since it’s not like the place was exactly crawling with women.

The eleven days we spent on Kadidiri can be summed up pretty accurately as follows: sleeping, eating, reading, backgammon, hearts, snorkelling, diving and one, count ’em, one, jungle hike. That was probably the most strenuous hour of our stay. Oh yeah, and Laynni kicked my ass twice at Monopoly. That was pretty much the end of that. I wonder how many divorces that game’s responsible for? Last, but not least, I’d like to mention that I set what I believe to be a personal record by not wearing foot covering of any sort for nine consecutive days. Pretty impressive, I thought, but the Guinness people still aren’t returning my calls.

The diving was pretty cool; we explored a wild underwater coral canyon one day and the next a sunken (obviously) B-24 Bomber that was in remarkably good shape. Then I developed a bit of an ear infection and suffered through a forced hiatus from diving, and chewing, for a few days. The snorkelling started ten metres off the beach and was truly impressive. Besides the usual incredible variety of marine life we saw some huge barracuda and I had a huge sea turtle swim right under me in about three feet of water. Laynni had an unfortunate experience when she was chased completely out of the water by a feisty little damselfish that was lunging at her for coming too close to its home/sea anemone. I’d guess it was about two inches long, although Laynni insists it was at least three. Somehow, though, thanks to her natural determination and undying courage, she managed to harness her fear and make it back into the water to face the ferocious little buggers. Kudos, Layne.

Oh yeah, Laynni just reminded me about the tent-girls. A few days before we left (or maybe a week; actually I have no idea when, time had no meaning there), a big group of university students from a town called Gorontalo (where we are now) showed up. They were all studying to be English teachers and came mainly to check out the tourists and practice their English. It struck me as a long way to travel (fourteen hours by boat from Gorontalo) just to talk to me, and absurdly far to talk to Laynni. “Tent-girl” is the name we were using to describe the Muslim chicks with the spiffy white headgear (which I have no idea the real name of). Paul quickly developed a tent-girl fetish, but you can rest easy knowing that his heathen charms got him nowhere. As for us, we spent a good hour being interviewed, photographed, tape-recorded, and “observed”.

“What is your name?”
“Dean” “Where are you from?” “Canada”
“Toronto?”
“No”
“Oh”
“Ummm…..sorry…….”
“Why did you come to Togean?”
“The same reason anyone does, I guess, to find cheap black-market babies to sell back home.”
“Pardon?”
“To scuba-dive”
“Ah, scuba-dive, yes.”

We did notice that some things are the same everywhere. While most of the girls, and a couple of the guys, obviously the least popular ones, interviewed us and posed with us for pictures, the rest of the guys smoked cigarettes and played pool. Wow, culture shock!

All things considered, Kadidiri was definitely the quietest and most relaxing place I’ve ever been. Absolutely stress-free. I would pity the person who goes there and doesn’t like to read, though. All three of us are obsessive readers and we were still starting to get bored after ten days. By the time we left (this morning) we were ready for a change. Not to mention that if I didn’t get Laynni out of there pretty soon she was going to starve to death. Between being mildly sick for nearly a week and the fact that she doesn’t like fish (the basis for two-thirds of our meals) she was starting to fade away. Rice and bananas only get you so far.

Anyway, the weekly fourteen-hour ferry ride (which didn’t sound all that appealing to us in the first place) was cancelled the week we wanted to leave. According to the rumours it actually sank but was expected to be fixed up and back on the sea “soon”. As excited as we were by that prospect, Laynni, Paul and I decided to get together with the people staying at the other guesthouse charter a “speed”-boat that would reputedly get us to the mainland near Gorontalo in about four or five hours. For a price of 1,200,000 rupiah (about $200) between eight of us, we saved ourselves from what I’m sure would have been a long and nasty ride on a ferry of questionable sea-worthiness. The only downside was that “near Gorontalo” turned out to be a couple hours away and, to top it off, the boat didn’t take us to the dock. Instead they stopped about 200 metres off shore on the other side of town and expected us to pay the long-tail drivers more cash to take us the rest of the way. Naturally we didn’t take kindly to this tactic, but after a good fifteen minutes of arguing we ended up giving in and paying half what the long-tail drivers were asking. On the bright side, thanks to Jens (Denmark), I don’t think any of us will ever forget the phrase “Tidak bagus (No good)!” again.

Now we are on our way to Manado for yet more beach-time and scuba diving, as well as to find a cheap and easy…….. (let me finish) way to get out of the country to renew our visa in a couple weeks. Now I’ve got to run off and find out who won the World Series (don’t say anything!). Talk to you soon.

Dean

p.s. I asked Laynni if she wants to say hi but she says she doesn’t like any of you, so maybe next time

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