A Travellerspoint blog


Sopi trip

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On the way back diving in Ambon Bay our boat was flagged down by the police. We were boarded by two armed policemen.


Travelling around poor countries it is wise to be cautious about contact with policemen. The more corrupt the country, the higher the proportion of their income public servants derive from bribery and fines, often levied at the point of a gun.

But they weren’t after tourists. ‘No problem, mister,’ they said to us. They were on the trail of smugglers. Presumably they had a tip-off, as they knew exactly which boat they wanted. We rounded the headland and approached a fishing vessel, which the policemen boarded.


After ten minutes’ searching in the hold, they found two petrol cans, each filled with a palm distillate known in the Moluccas as sopi. The police confiscated the cans, but did not take the further actions you might expect, like fining or arresting the hooch-runners.


From the cans there drifted a fruity alcohol aroma reminiscent of that in a bodega in Jerez. I had seen a bamboo sopi still in the Siwa Lima museum outside Kota Ambon and wanted to try some. I wondered whether it would be pushing it to buy the contraband from the policemen.

But it wasn’t necessary. As payment for the use of the boat, we received a bottle of sopi. One of the dive guides took it. (All of the guides at Maluku Divers were Muslim, but some more than others.) One of the policemen took my water bottle. I thought I was getting a share too; actually he was just borrowing my bottle. Indefinitely.

We three divers – the others were from Hockenheim - tried it. ‘Very strong’ pronounced the locals. Under 30% abv, concluded the tourists. It was OK, but still by far the best rice wine or palm wine I have tasted was in Kim Sơn in northern Vietnam.

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Singaporeans are among the most myopic people in the world. There are lots of opticians, but they are as expensive as those in London. Lasik eye surgery is a big business here. You see Lasik clinics in the shopping centres, and procedures are advertised at less than S$1000 an eye.

I have thought about having it done myself, and looked into the details of the procedure. There is nothing terrible about it, although I don’t much like the idea of being able to smell my burning eyeball during the procedure. But you also need periodic check-ups afterwards, and that is not practical while I’m travelling.

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I still don’t feel like travelling, however. I still haven’t decided where to go next, and that’s partly because I don’t really want to go anywhere or travel around Christmas. It’s also down to ignorance, as I don’t know anything about Thailand outside Bangkok. I’ve spent the afternoon trying to find a good bookshop in central Singapore, without success.

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Kota Ambon seems to specialise in hairdressers. The males are flamboyantly gay, often plastered in make-up. My barber was dressed in a tight t-shirt with pink hearts, which highlighted his paunch.

Generally speaking, Indonesians are a different build from people in Indochina. They are no taller, but are much stockier, putting on both muscle and fat easily like Samoans. The average Vietnamese man probably weighs 50 kg, while many Indonesians weigh as much as me. The bigger men look just like Oddjob from Goldfinger.

  • **

On the way from Bitung to Manado I had an interesting chat with Sami, a retired teacher from Malaysia. Sami is ethnically Tamil and told me at great length about Malaysia’s discriminatory policies. He says that it is a requirement that bumis must own at least 30% of the equity of any private business; the best primary and secondary schools are reserved for bumis; Petronas is run by Malays for Malays; the bumi discount on property prices applies not just to the poorest band of properties, but to all; etc.

He also lamented the rise of conservative Islam in Malaysia. He says that article 4 [actually article 11] of the Malaysian constitution – which was drafted by the Reid Commission in 1957 - protects freedom of religion. But article 153 states that Malaysia is a Muslim country. The courts and government cite the latter article frequently, and never the former. [In fact, article 153, as amended in 1963, gives to the king the responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malay and other indigenous peoples of Malaysia. Inter alia, it permits the use of quotas for entry into public education and the civil service. It was originally intended to be reviewed in 1972, but the review never took place. Under article 160, a Malay who converts from Islam loses his bumi rights.]

He also says – although I don’t believe it at the time – that non-Muslim publications are not permitted to use the word Allah. Instead they use other words, like Tuhan (Lord). It turns out that he was telling the truth. The government has said that use of the word Allah by non-Muslims would confuse Muslims. The government and the National Fatwa Council must think that Malaysian Muslims are very stupid.

Fresh from this triumph, the Malaysian National Fatwa Council has prohibited Muslims from practising yoga, because elements of Hinduism would corrupt them. More recently, after protest and derision, the PM clarified that practising yoga is acceptable so long as the person does not chant religious mantras. The Indonesian Ulema Council, which follows Malaysia, is now investigating the practice.

[By the way, how many ordinary British citizens could quote articles from the constitution of the UK? A trick question of course, since we do not have a written constitution.]

Posted by Wardsan 18:03 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Here be dragons

Komodo National Park Part 2

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The largest lizard, known locally as the ora, lives on four islands to the west of Flores and on the western fringes of the mainland. The four islands are Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Gili Dasami, and the reptile is the Komodo dragon. There were rumours of dragons in the area for centuries, but the first scientific description arrived only in 1912. The informal name was given in 1926.

The second-largest monitor, Varanus salvator, grows to 25 kg. The largest, V. komodoensis, grows up to five times that or more, partly because it is much chubbier. The heaviest recorded weighed 160 kg, and the average adult weighs 90 kg. The average adult male is 3.1 m long. (The longest lizard is V. salvadori, which lives in New Guinea.)

The dragon may be a descendant of an Australian lizard, Megalania prisca, aka V. priscus, which grew to seven metres in length and lived until humans arrived. (This is a slightly roundabout journey: the genus Varanus originally came from Asia.)

The dragon used to be more maritime than it is today. It used to swim between the islands of Nusa Tenggara, although during the last Ice Age it could walk or take a taxi. But now the currents between the islands are very strong, and the dragon swims only reluctantly.

Rinca is slightly nearer to Flores than Komodo, so I went to Rinca on a day trip with a couple resident in New Zealand. The chartered boat took a good three hours to get there at a slow plod, so we had plenty of time to look at the islands off the coast.


They look brown and dry (it’s the driest place in Indonesia, in fact, with average annual rainfall of 650 mm); not a place where anything would live. But they do: to name just mammals, there are goats, monkeys, wild pigs, deer and buffalo on the islands.

The dragon is at the top of the food chain. It will eat anything else that lives on the islands: insects, lizards, snakes, birds, deer, boar, monkeys, turtle and megapod eggs, juvenile dragons, and even buffalo. It usually eats carrion, including human corpses, but is happy to hunt. In an article in Nature in 1987, Jared Diamond (of whom more in a later post) proposed the theory that in prehistoric times it may have lived off pygmy stegodonts - small elephants, now extinct - which lived in Flores. It has even killed small humans and attacked large ones. Dragons can stand on their hind legs to attack tall prey, on which occasions it must seem at though Godzilla has attacked.


They can eat up to 80% of their body weight in a single meal (often in a single mouthful – a goat can be swallowed whole). And they have very slow metabolisms, so they can go for a month between meals.

Their saliva carries many kinds of bacteria, and is so poisonous that even a small wound will kill a buffalo in a few days by septicaemia or gangrene. They are happy to wait.

As the lizard moves it flicks the air with its forked yellow tongue, like a snake. The scent particles that stick to the tongue are passed through openings in the mouth into the Jacobson’s organs in the nose, where they are analysed. It can smell carrion from six miles away.


Not surprisingly, the population is small, estimated at 4,000 in 1990. It is protected under CITES Appendix I and is officially vulnerable. Unlike other monitors it is active throughout the year. During the dry season (most of the time) it displays bimodal activity: that is, it moves around in the morning and evening. In the middle of the day a dragon will find some shade and flop into it, limbs any old how. If it doesn’t want to move, it won’t. The dragon is afraid of nothing. If it doesn’t like where you are standing, it will issue a sibilant, unvoiced exhalatory admonition, at which point you get out of the way fast. If it does attack, it moves very swiftly.

We disembarked at a small jetty and walked through a parched mud flat to a hut that marked the entrance to the national park.


After paying a large amount to enter, we were assigned a ranger and set off walking. We walked through sparse low woodland and scrub. But we saw most of our dragons at the beginning and end of the walk. There is a set of cabins on stilts – you can stay the night in a cabin – and the space under the cabins offers convenient shade for the dragons. We saw perhaps half a dozen in this way. You could get fairly close, because once parked, they did not want to move.

As we walked towards the wood, a fairly large dragon walked towards us, and then past us across the volleyball court.


It moved reasonably swiftly, without in any way displaying haste, and lay down in the shade next to a favourite football.


When they want to hunt, the dragons lie in wait. You can’t see them. But for our guide, Paul and I would have walked straight into a two-metre ora without ever seeing it.


Courtship and mating take place between May and July; the male uses one of its two hemipenes to enter the dragon. Egglaying occurs between July and September. They use abandoned nest mounds of orange-footed scrubfowl, of which we saw several pairs on the island. Incubation takes eight months. Females are capable of parthenogenesis, producing male offspring thereby, like Mary. (This could be observed in two ways: when females without male company give birth in a zoo; and by DNA fingerprinting.)

We saw a juvenile moving cautiously through the brush. It was dark with green spots; the adults are a dusty brown. Juveniles are arboreal. They have to be: adult dragons get a tenth of their calories by eating juveniles. Sometimes juveniles must approach a corpse, after their seniors have eaten, and before doing so they will roll in shit to deter cannibalism.


After an hour’s walking we reached a dried up creek with a few small mud pools in it. Here a few water buffalo had congregated. Thirty metres away, in another pool, a dragon rested, arms podgy as a baby’s.


But there were long claws at the ends of the fingers.


It lifted its head every now and then to look at us, without every really displaying any interest.


A buffalo walked past. It had a bloody wound at the top of its tail from a dragon attack. The wound would soon kill it; it was a dead cow walking. It walked straight past the dragon, but the dragon still did not move; perhaps it could smell the wound.


Posted by Wardsan 15:46 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

Manta Point

Komodo National Park

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The island of Flores has two good reasons to visit, both in the far west: the diving and the reptiles. You stay at Labuanbajo to see both. In this post I'll describe the diving.


I dived for three days, I think, and snorkelled for an afternoon. The diving is world-class. The currents can be strong and there are washing machines, but there are also large pelagics: sharks, trevally and manta rays. I dived with Bajo Dive Club, a shop run by a saturnine German; my dive guide throughout was Kira, who did an excellent job.


At Tatawa Besar, I saw boxfish, pufferfish, groupers and a few hawksbill turtles, some baby snappers and a school of black surgeonfish. This is a spotted boxfish.


This is a pufferfish.


At Manta Point I saw the biggest lobster I’ve ever seen; a huge moray eel, being cleaned; lots of clown triggerfish; several bumphead parrotfish and a Napoleon wrasse; a sleeping white-tip reef shark. A blue-spotted fantail ray swam right under me. I got very close to an angelfish, fins extended in ecstasy, being cleaned. These are fox-faced rabbitfish receiving the same treatment. Fish at cleaning stations typically hover, facing diagonally upwards, and extend all their fins. I have seen black snapper open their mouths so far for the cleaner wrasse that you can see through their gills from in front of their mouths.


Oh, and half a dozen manta rays. I got within about three feet of one. In fact, at one point, I was taking photos of something small when a ray came right up behind me. You cannot communicate underwater, so I didn't know. This is me taking photos once I had come to my senses.


The biggest was about 5 metres across. Another was being cleaned and I could see it up close: they have a long tail, a tiny dorsal fin, and the feeder aerofoils (which give the ray its Linnaean name, Manta birostris) are flexible. A great dive.

At Batu Bolong there were strong and variable currents, washing machines, and cold water. It was a rich wall reef, as rich as Sipadan. Several hawksbills; a couple of white-tip reef sharks; some large grouper and sweetlips; a mantis shrimp; a white-margin unicornfish; giant pufferfish; six big-nose surgeonfish; two lionfish, swimming freely; two kinds of nudibranch; and bluefin, silver and giant trevally.

At Sabolon Kecil I saw lots of bumphead parrotfish – one swam right beneath me as I fiddled with a camera.


Yellow and spotted boxfish; nice gorgonians; a sandy patch of garden eels; red-tooth triggerfish. These are the garden eels; come any closer and they retreat into their burrows.


I took several photographs of banded boxer shrimp, up close, before realising that my hand had been only inches from the maw of a moray.


Best of all, a white manta ray joined us and circled around.



At Sabolon Kecil, again, I saw more bumphead parrotfish; several blue-spotted fantail rays; the same patch of introverted garden eels; fantastic gorgonians and ever-grasping octocorals.


We also saw two juvenile shaded batfish. When younger still, they have an even more exaggerated pinnate shape, and are black with a ready-brek orange margin.


And a spotted eagle ray, black with white dots. It had a very long tail and was perhaps 6 metres long: it drifted very slowly, and then when it saw us it shot off very rapidly, flapping quickly.


At Castle Rock, we swam against a strong current and I never recovered, having to vomit slightly into my regulator. The current was occasionally downward. Nevertheless it was not a bad dive. We saw a bright white scorpionfish; a school of motionless ribbon sweetlips; a small Napoleon wrasse; tobies; spotted boxfish; clown triggerfish; a school of long-fin batfish; a big hawksbill, feeding; a blue-spotted fantail ray; several sizable reef cod; and a white-tip reef shark. But best of all were the trevally: schools of silver trevally, plenty of bluefin and lots of huge giant trevally, very dark, with big teeth.

And at Crystal Rock, it was a very good dive although we were restricted by washing machines at both ends of the dive. The divers’ bubbles go in weird directions; the fish shoot downwards and then struggle up against the current. We saw two hawksbill turtles, one I watched for a long time, feeding, a rusty stain on its rear shell and flippers. A huge Napoleon wrasse cruising slowly. A baby white-tip reef shark under a table coral. A lot of lionfish swimming free. Blue-spotted fantail rays and lots of unicornfish. Two huge fat Phyllidia nudibranchs, together, and a small Chromodoris.




Finally, strangest of all is a network lamellaria, sitting on Kira's tank-banger. It is about a centimetre long. It is not, as it appears, a nudibranch; in fact it is more closely related to cowries.


  • **

On the Sabolon Kecil dive, a guy called Matias was stung by a lionfish on his first ever open water dive. He went very grey, and his hand swelled up and his finger went black in patches. He was in real pain for a while. But he bravely persevered and dived again a couple of days later.

If that was a lionfish (and that was speculation), imagine a stonefish wound. Its venom, a myotoxin, is ten times stronger. The pain is very severe, and may last for hours, days or months. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, delirium, vomiting, shock and cardiac arrest. Without treatment, the tissue at the wound inevitably becomes infected, ulcerated, abscessed and gangrenated within a few days.

The treatment for a puncture wound from a venomous fish is hot water, poured over a towel to hold in the heat. The hot water is thought to denature the proteins in the venom.

I read about this is a book called something like Indonesian Reef Guide, by Helmut Debelius, available in German and English. There is an extract from a 1951 article in a South African medical journal, in which Dr J L B Smith describes the symptoms after a stonefish punctured his thumb.

Many African victims had lost fingers and toes, which had become gangrenous and fallen off. Dr Smith did not suffer from this because his wife gave him 1,000,000 units of penicillin, repeated a week later. And it was she, I believe, who came up with the hot water treatment.

Even after this treatment, after 80 days Dr Smith reports:

Hand still weak… thumb barely moveable, toxin has had a marked adverse effect on my general health and condition.

Given the extraordinary toxicity of the spines, it is a shame that the stonefish is perfectly camouflaged – much more so than lionfish.

Posted by Wardsan 15:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Together again at last

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I am back in Makassar and have been reunited with my laptop, which I have hardly seen over the last three months (hence, partly, the lack of photos on the blog recently). I'll be staying in and watching a DVD - Spiderman 3, perhaps. Joy.

The main preoccupation, as it has been for the last month, is whether I can escape from Indonesia before the visa expires. I could not buy an international air ticket in Ambon (where the airport optimistically calls itself Pattimura International) and in Makassar the travel agents are closed tonight. The visa expires the day after tomorrow.

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I spent the last week or so in Ambon, which is in the rain shadow of the island of Seram. A few days ago in Seram a Christian teacher said something to a Muslim pupil that, when later reported at home, caused outrage. A church and a village were reportedly burned. So the religious violence in the Moluccas continues to simmer at a low level, it seems.

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In Manado, dog is on the menu. There it is called 'rw', the initials for 'soft fur' in Indonesian. The Minahasans eat dog, as do the Bataks of Sumatra and the Torajans. The Torajans, at least, reckon it keeps their peckers up. But I was not able to try any, as I was not really capable of eating solids at the time.

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Inevitably, I spent a lot of time in Manado at the Mega Mall. On sale on the ground floor of the mall were three dozen shiny new German grandfather clocks. Nasty kitsch things, they were retailing at about $1,000 apiece.

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Not only is there rabies in Indonesia, there is bird flu. On one day last month, 17 patients were admitted to hospital here in Makassar with suspected bird flu. Their chickens and their neighbours' chickens had all died of it. The week before, a man died from bird flu in Semarang, Central Java. The province of Central Java has had 11 human deaths from bird flu since 2003.

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In my post on the Kinabatangan I mentioned that Indonesia plans to increase production of palm oil significantly. That policy is now in reverse, because palm oil prices have plummeted recently, along with other commodities.

The average monthly spot price per ton on the Malaysia Derivatives Exchange was RM 3,857 in March 2008, RM 2,406 in September, and RM 1,505 last month. It has recovered slightly to RM 1,633 at Friday close. Similarly, rubber has fallen by more than a half, robusta coffee by nearly a half, and cocoa likewise. As with many commodities, demand and supply elasticities are low in the short term, so the price is volatile.

In the medium term, supply is elastic. Oil palms take only 3-4 years to produce fruit and are at their best at 6 to 7. They produce for 30 years or so.

Palm oil has well-known uses in food, but it is also used to make biofuel. One reason for the extraordinary growth in production of palm oil in the last few years - with massive resulting habitat loss for forest-dwelling species - is the crazy, irresponsible and damaging subsidies paid by rich-world governments for biofuels. Not only by rich world government, though: in Indonesia it is mandatory to add biofuel to diesel and petrol mixes. In transportation diesel, for example, at least 10% of the mix must be biodiesel.

The top importers of palm oil are China, India and the EU. The top producers and exporters are Malaysia and Indonesia. They share 90% of global production. This year Indonesia is likely to produce 18.6m tons of palm oil and Malaysia 17.5 m tons. Like OPEC, the two countries coordinate inventory policies. They have agreed to reduce supply growth sharply next year. Indonesia is to replant 50,000 hectares, Malaysia 200,000.

Palm oil accounts for about 15% of Indonesia's exports. Indonesia mainly exports crude palm oil; Malaysia exports processed product and gets twice the export revenue.

The top producers of natural rubber are Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, which share 70% of global production. Last month they agreed to cut production by 210,000 tons by replacing trees. Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee after Vietnam, Colombia and Brazil: it grows 450,000 tons a year, of which 250,000 tons are exported.

So its economy is heavily dependent on commodity prices, and the rupiah has fallen sharply against the US dollar recently. This would be good news but for the fact that traders have also decided that the UK is a banana republic. Despite growth averaging over 6% a year, Indonesian government debt is rated BB- by S&P: junk. This is probably because the tax base is narrow and the government's autonomy is constrained by an established and costly system of subsidies.

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And that reminds me. As I mentioned before, I had been wondering what the seaweed farms in Lembata were for. It turns out that the main purpose of seaweed farming in Indonesia is to extract polysaccharides called carrageenans, which are widely used as a thickening agent in food, especially in desserts and ice cream. The source I found, which could be out of date, stated that the seaweed is exported raw to Holland, where it is processed.

Posted by Wardsan 01:38 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Trouble in paradise

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To get from Ambon to the Banda islands you go by Pelni ferry. (Or, in theory, you can fly once a week; but the plane is liable to be cancelled when a butterfly farts in Mexico.)



It takes, at best, seven hours. It looks OK in the photos, but the journey is no fun, since the ship is home to perhaps half a million cockroaches, and hundreds of mice.


Getting off is even worse. As soon as the ship docks, tens of people rush on to the ship before anyone can get off, thereby increasing overcrowding in the gangways. At this point my arms were pinned across my chest and I realised that someone was stealing my wallet, by slicing the back of my trousers open, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Apparently it happens on every ferry to Banda.

Banda is a bad place to have a wallet stolen. There is a bank, but it has no ATM (so I was carrying a very large wad of cash), does not change money and does not buy travellers' cheques. Without help from other tourists I would have been in serious trouble. But it turned out there were six of us staying at the same guesthouse: Hans, Bruno, Niek and Vire from Holland and Robert from Austria. I had met Niek and Vire in Tana Toraja. Niek and Vire and Bruno were kind enough to save my skin by lending me money, and so I was able to stay on the islands.

I spent most of the following day at the police station. The young sergeants tried to be helpful but did not speak English and my tourist Indonesian does not extend to giving a witness statement. Eventually the hotel manager came to help out. This was after a visit to the home of a man described to me as the 'chief of intelligence', who was not helpful. Some cash exchanged hands and eventually a man was found to type up a declaration of theft.

I hope that I will be largely reimbursed for loss and damage by my insurance company, that being the point of insurance, but I am left with overwhelming and painful feelings of stupidity and anger. After nine months, and three months in Indonesia, my defences have been lowered. I initially wore a money belt, but in the tropics they are very uncomfortable. In Indonesia, in particular, I have been trustful, even leaving my bag unattended at times, because, on the whole, you can. So I was just carrying my wallet in my back pocket - something I would never contemplate in Italy.

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Trouble, part 2

I am posting from Kota Ambon, the main town of the island of Ambon. It was home to a Japanese HQ in the Second World War, and so, like Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, was flattened by the Allies. Like the two Malaysian cities, it is spectacularly unattractive.

The city was further Beiruted between 1999 and 2002, when an extraordinary and horrific bout of religious violence gripped the south of Maluku. Christian mobs burned mosques and Muslim kampongs, and Muslim mobs returned the favour (radical Muslims travelled from elsewhere in Indonesia to participate in the fun). Many died. The area was put off limits to tourists. But amidst the general ugliness it is now hard to identify the physical scars left by that collective insanity.

As in the Balkans, people of different religions had lived side by side in the Moluccas, and exchanged favours. Now they don't, and the children are educated separately. Indonesia has a proud tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance, encapsulated in one of the five principles of the Pancasila. As conservative Islam grows in influence in Indonesia (following Malaysia), that tradition is increasingly in question.

  • **

Anyway, that is all I have time for at the moment. I am hoping to go diving in the south of Ambon for a few days, and then to return to Makassar mid-month. And Selamat hari raya Idul Adha 1429 H to any Muslims out there.

Posted by Wardsan 07:32 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

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