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Feast or famine

Apologies for the delay in posting to my blog followed by five posts in quick succession. It took my a couple of weeks to master the internet here. but looks like I’ve cracked it now so I’ll be able to keep you updated on the latest news from Raja Ampat.

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Man make fire, women make breadcrumbs

Saturday 2nd: I was put on the spot today when asked if I knew how to make beefburgers. From scratch. For 20 people.
The project leader had arrived from Sorong having bought the entire city’s supply of mince (3kg), quietly confident that someone would be able to turn it into burgers. As those who know me well will attest, I do not cook, at least, not if I can avoid it. But at some point my son had passed on his burger recipe, so I was able to confidently confirm the ingredients required. I should have kept quiet because, of course, this turned into me actually making the burgers. Have you ever tried making a large quantity of breadcrumbs from very soft fresh bread with only a large washing up bowl and two forks? No? Well, let’s just say it takes a while. Our local cook looked on with interest and no little amusement. When I finished I told her (via our translator) that at home I had a machine for this task. “Ahhh, blender.” she replied, nodding, as if she had one at home, too. No wonder she had been watching with such amusement.
While I was preparing the burgers, the men had been busy with the traditional male task of making fire. This was approached with traditional male engineering rigour and much debate over the size and amount of wood to use. As a result there were now sufficient glowing embers for cooking to commence. There was a brief hiatus while they worked out how to persuade the tightly rolled chicken wire to stay flat enough to cook on. Personally, I’d have done that before the fire was quite so hot, but then the whole thing would have been much less amusing to watch. Finally everything was ready and we cooked our burgers and served them with the traditional salad, home made relish and fries. Sitting on the sand, under the starriest sky imaginable, with a burger in one hand and a can of Bintang in the other, this was the best meal of the trip so far.

Living in a dormitory

I normally live on my own. I like it like that. I have a place for everything and everything stays where I left it until I need it again.
Moving into a dormitory with six other people where my only storage space is my suitcase was a bit of a shock to my system. It takes a bit of adjusting.
Thankfully there is no shortage of wood and nylon cord, so I have now crafted two sturdy shelves and a hanging rail complete with coathangers. Having liberated my inner Girl Guide, I have a place for everything and my bunk area now feels quite like home.

Return to Raja Ampat

As some of you know this is not my first trip to Kri Island. I was here with some friends for a 10 day holiday a few years ago. Little did I guess that I would get the chance to come back on a 10 week trip and be staying less than a mile from the resort I was in last time.
In many ways little has changed. But, there are more liveaboards, more resorts and many more homestays popping up along the coast. Two new homestays have been completed in just the 2 weeks I have been here. For those who haven’t experienced them, homestays are local style huts rented out on a bed and breakfast basis. Made of wood and bamboo screens with roof made of leaves, they can be erected in a few days given a motivated team of builders.
Whether I just didn’t notice it last time or, more likely, because there was less of it, the amount of plastic detritus that washes up on the shore seems greater than I remember. There is no way to dispose of rubbish on the island other than to burn it or bury it. We take our rubbish to Waisai, the district capital, where there are 4 containers for refuse disposal. It is not clear – despite enquiries being made of local officials – what happens to it after that. Burn or bury seems likely to be the only option there too.
Luckily the diving is just as fantastic as ever, and there is little evidence of litter or damage on the reefs despite the amount of floating plastic. Most of the dives I have done so far we have been the only boat on the reef. Even at Manta Sandy, the popular manta observation dive site, divers are generally well behaved. The sheer number of divers means that there is some damage from hanging on to rocks, hard and soft corals and general kicking up of sand while trying to maintain a position in the sometimes strong current. The relatively small viewing area and the fact that the majority of the divers are only interested in the mantas means that the surrounding area still supports loads of life. The mantas still seem to like it as a cleaning station; there are have been at least one, usually two there at any point in time on my four dives there. They hang around for a bit and then leave to be replaced by another. It almost seems as though there is a queuing system organised just out of sight of the divers.
PS, by the time I posted this we have had 7 mantas on our most recent dive.

Return to Raja Ampat

Thank you Miss Boland

Me: How many tests do we have to do?
Bernie: Only nine.
Me: And how many of them involve learning the latin names for stuff?
Bernie: Most of them.
Me: Speechless.
Yes it’s back to school to learn the names of all of the living components of a coral reef. I knew this was part of the programme, but I was ill-prepared for my return to the learning process. Admittedly, I got off to a poor start by falling asleep in the first lecture. In my defence, I had been travelling for over 48 hours, so I think my tiredness was understandable.
Over the next several days, I gradually got my head – and tongue – round Seriatopora hystrix, Protoreaster nodosus and Chaetomorpha. Who could have guessed that all that dreary Latin my teacher tried hard to drum into me at school would be so useful 40 years on. Granted, it also came in handy when reading the Harry Potter books, but it has otherwise not helped me much until now.
Two weeks later and I have got pretty much all of the names under my belt. I still have some difficulty identifying the really tiny algae, but that’s because they are too small to see properly, not because my Latin is inadequate.
So, Miss Boland, it’s probably too late for you to hear this, but please accept a belated thank you from a less than diligent student.

Taking the long view

With a dreary Scottish winter ahead I have decided to take the plunge – literally – and I’m heading off to do a bit of diving for a few months.

I’ve been thinking about another trip for a while and finally, despite the usual calvinist rumblings from my inner Scot, I set aside my ‘get-a-job’ imperatives and booked a trip to work on a conservation project in West Papua, Indonesia.  Raja Ampat is such a devil of a place to get to, that a long trip makes a lot of sense.  Or it does to me, at any rate.  Don’t you find it’s amazing what you can justify when you put your mind to it?

So, for the next 2 – 3 months I’ll be living here and diving most days.

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I’m assured that I will get a 3G signal here, although my inner sceptic remains to be convinced.   If it all goes to plan I’ll be posting my best pics and stories in this blog as I go.  I’m planning to take video as well as my usual photos this time.   This is going into the prime season for manta sightings and I have high hopes of getting some amazing manta vids.

Current status:  Vaccinations updated.  Antimalarials in the post.  Indonesian embassy working hard on my visa.  Dive kit laid out in the spare room ready for packing.

In less than three weeks I’ll be on my way!

Saving the best till last

Well I can hardly believe it but this is the last day of my 7 week trip.

I decided to do something a bit special and booked an elephant ride and in an extravagant moment added the elephant bathing experience too.

On arrival I was allocated a seat on the largest elephant they had – his name was Barooooom or something very similar.  Can’t remember exactly but I remember thinking it sounded a bit like an elephant farting underwater – and I later found out I was pretty close on that!

Initially it was a bit sedate, sitting on a park bench strapped to the poor beast’s back while his mahout chivvied him into moving along by not-so-gently nudging his ears.

We were soon invited to swap places with the mahout, Joan went first which gave the mahout  chance of dropping hints about how I might want to tip him.  After about half an hour of plodding through the jungle, with the hints from you know who falling on increasingly deaf ears,  it was my turn to ‘drive’.  Just manoeuvering from the bench to the front seat was pretty tricky.  It was a long way down and Bassoom was not for standing still.  I made it though.

Sitting on an elephant’s neck is not as comfortable as it looks.  They are bony beasts.  After half an hour my backside was black and blue.  And I had cramp in my hands from trying to balance – there’s not much to hold onto up there you know.  It was great fun despite the pain, but I’ll be taking some extra padded cycling shorts the next time!

After the trek I was taken back down to the river to give the elephants a  bath – which is how I found out about the elephant’s farting noise.  It was great fun although the mahout seemed more intent on soaking me than the elephant.

I got absolutely soaked but it was more than worth it.   What a fantastic last adventure.

Luang Prabang – pretty, hot and cool

Luang Prabang is really beautiful.  It is small, tidy and not as hot as Cambodia.  Just about perfect in fact.  No wonder Unesco have declared it a world heritage site.  The ambience is faded – but not jaded – french colonial.  The town seems to be pretty much dependent on tourism for its continued existence, which will need to be carefully managed  if the atmosphere in the town is not to be spoiled.   Most of the shops in the main street are selling tours, airline tickets or souvenirs.  The rest are cafes and restaurants.   It is well known as a backpacker destination.  I suspect this is probably due to it being a bit difficult to get to rather than because it is cheap and basic.  This pic of the main street in the old town kind of captures the feel of the place.

Many young men come from the countryside to study to be monks in the many monasteries in town.  The temples are open for visitors; I popped into one in passing and was amazed at how beautiful it was.  Mosaics on the exterior walls of the building had been carefully done in mirror glass to catch the sun and the effect was stunning.

While there I came across a saffron-robed temple cat which was displaying some pretty un-buddhist (but very cat-like) behaviour ….

Yes, that is a lizard it is tormenting and eating.  I spared you the close crop in case you were squeamish.  🙂

Wat can I say?

I’ve spent the last two and a bit days visiting the temples of Angkor near Siem Reap.  I had planned to get through it in a day, but then I discovered there are more than a thousand temples to visit and adapted my plan to suit. I was lucky to have an introduction to a fantastic guide, Mr Chou Vichet (Chet).  If you’re ever in Siem Reap give him a call (+855 12699 193 email chouvichet@hotmail.com).  He knows all the best spots for photography in the temples and can find places away from the crowds.

I struck lucky again and my visit coincided with a major festival.  As a result the temples were filled with young saffron robed monks and wizened little old nuns dressed in white.   Very few old monks or young nuns were to be seen – I was told that women become nuns when they get older in preparation for the next life while men and boys become monks for a short period of religious study and then most re-enter the secular world.  There may be some deep cultural lesson to be learned from that, but I’m only here for 3 days so I’ll think about later.  Whatever their reasons there were around 200,000 of them there.  The results were some REALLY chaotic traffic mayhem and some terrific photos.

I’ve already described the ‘make full use of the available road’ traffic rule in Cambodia, so no surprise that when the narrow road to the main temple got a bit crowded the single lane became 2 lanes and soon spilled over onto the packed earth at the sides.  Cycles and motos were weaving in and out, the tuk tuks likewise, leaving the cars and minivans to make what progress they could.

The police had the assistance of the military police to help control the traffic but they were having a pretty tough time of it.  Sweating in the heat they realised they were up against it when they had to direct a VIP bus coming  the other way!

After that my guide, Chet ,and driver, MrKing decided discretion was the better part of valour and we resolved to drop me off in Pub Street and to try the most popular temples the next day.

Turned out to be an excellent decision as next day the roads were much quieter and fewer tourists were about.  Still lots of monks and nuns in most of the temples though.  Many of the monks wanted to take a photo with me and I took the opportunity to get some shots of them in return.

Not all of the temples are in good repair, some are still suffering the ravages of the jungle.   One tree fell onto a wall as recently as a few months ago and many other trees are shored up with scaffolding.

I took hundreds of pictures – including the obligatory Tomb Raider shot – just to prove I was there.

The speed of this internet connection has now caused me to lose the will to live, so more photos on this subject when I get home.

On the way back to my hotel my guide, Chet, asked if I wanted to stop at the landmine museum.  My first instinct was to say no, but I’m glad I went. It was extremely interesting and not nearly as depressing as I had feared.  In fact it tells quite an uplifting tale of a child soldier who now helps clear mines and runs a home for disadvantaged children.