A Travellerspoint blog


Another volcano

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Following my eighth trip to Denpasar airport I am in Makassar, at the south end of Sulawesi. The locals seem very friendly, as in "you want a friend for tonight?". (Yes, if she has gorgonzola.)

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Mount Rinjani is Lombok’s highest peak, at 3,726 m. It is, of course, a volcano, and it is situated in a national park. We stayed at a hotel with splendid views.


On our first full day near Rinjani we went on a lengthy but easy walk through a local village and then to see a couple of waterfalls. Most of us swam in the first one, which was cold but invigorating.


Katni, our guide, was a Sasak like 90% of the population of Lombok.


The houses in the village were, as everywhere here, bungalows made of bamboo and elephant grass thatch. A couple of black-toothed old women sat on a verandah chewing betel leaf, lime and nut, their mouths red as if they had been drinking blood. The odd dog and child wandered around. But the village seemed surprisingly empty.


Katni showed us inside a hut. On a second level was a house for the spirits, which is where the offerings go. There were no windows and there was a strong smell of smoke, which keeps the mosquitoes away.

There are very few dogs in Java; Muslims do not like them. Bali is full of dogs. Lombok, although notionally Muslim, has plenty too. The Sasak people, who make up the large majority of the population of Lombok, cleave to a version of Islam that bears little resemblance to the version practised in Arabia Felix. Except for the imams, they do not fast during Ramadan. They may drink alcohol – they make both rice wine and palm wine - and eat pork. And they keep dogs to protect the village and its crops from monkeys. (In the Gilis, on the other hand, just off Lombok, there are no dogs, and millions of cats.) And each house as a little spirit house within it, where offerings are placed. They also grow tobacco, and dry it, and then roll it in corn leaves to make very strong cigars.

When they marry, Sasaks file their front two upper teeth down to about half their natural length.

It is not a poor village. The village has had piped water for thirty years.

We soon discover why the village was empty. At one end of the village there is niche in the outer wall of a hut. In this niche is a television, and in front of the television are nearly all the village children. We try to get them to dance, but they are too shy. Carey bravely goes up to demonstrate, provoking widespread but not universal hilarity.



We walk around the paths near the village. A great variety of crops grows in the area with little or no intervention: cashew, cacao, coconut, kapok, coffee, cotton and various fruits. They also grow a little wet rice, which does need a lot of work, but all in all it takes little effort to produce a healthy, diversified and plentiful diet here. Cashews grow at the bottom end of a fruit. The fruit tastes much like apple but is very tannic.


On our second full day in the area we climbed 2,000 m to the crater rim, which is at 2,641 m. We were accompanied by porters carrying water, tents and cooking equipment. We walked through forest most of the way, and saw a few black leaf monkeys as well as the ubiquitous long-tailed macaques. It probably took about six hours of walking; there were a handful of rest stops along the way and it was not especially hard work. Long-tailed macaques congregated at the higher rest stops.



We also stopped for a delicious lunch cooked by the porters, which I ate sitting on a tarpaulin in the sun. During the climb we experienced the usual progression into temperate weather, the trees becoming more and more stunted and eventually disappearing, and the bryophytes taking over at altitude. We also saw edelweiss.

We were supposed to camp on the crater rim, but it was extremely windy, so instead we camped at the last rest stop half an hour’s walk below. It was a beautiful spot, from which we could see the Gili islands to the north west. The sun set directly behind the cone Gunung Agung in Bali, maybe forty miles to the west across the Lombok Strait.



I had bought a top at the Matahari store in Yogyakarta that happened to be identical to the Primark top of Steve, the tour leader. So here we are gurning for the camera.


There was a forest fire about a mile away, so Steve and Pam, the trainee tour leader, got up every couple of hours to check on its progress. The wind was very strong and the tents in poor shape, so the draughts got in. No-one slept much.



We climbed up volcanic sand to the crater rim in the late afternoon and again in the morning. It was cool but not cold at the rim.


The floor of the crater is largely occupied by a lake, but there is also a small and perfectly formed (at least if you're a barnacle) volcano in the crater, Gunung Baru, “new mountain”, which is 200 years old.


This is Sakur, one of the guides.


The journey down was fairly hard, but nothing like Kinabalu, and I was hardly stiff at all the next day. Perhaps walking with a stick made the difference.

We passed the night in a nice hotel at the port.


It was Pam’s last night on the tour and we went to a bar where an amazingly good band played Rolling Stones covers. (Indeed, the quality of the live music in Indonesia has been remarkably high.) And then a quick crossing by outrigger perahu to Gili Air. In the afternoon I walked around half the island, had lunch, and then visisted a book exchange. There were as many Dutch books as English ones. The quality of the books read by the Dutch and Scandinavians is far higher than those read by English-speakers. In a café on the beach I drank mango juice and read.

The following day, five of us went on a snorkel trip in an outrigger perahu. There was a lot of faffing around and not enough snorkelling. The first snorkel spot was poor, the coral completely dead, but I did see Vlaminck’s unicornfish, schooling snapper, goatfish, lizardfish and Moorish idols.

A second swim was better, although the coral was not particularly healthy. The third, opposite the main street of Gili Air, was the best, with healthier hard and soft corals and plenty of sea squirts. I also saw a nice black boxfish with orange spots, several masked pufferfish, orange-spot surgeonfish, humpback unicornfish and lots of Moorish idols. We saw a hawksbill turtle grazing on sea salad. Charlotte dived and touched it, at which it swam off. On the third swim a gorgeous trevally with an electric blue back and grey-green body shot past. Just before I got out of the water, I met a turtle in the shallows. It came up to breathe three times, and then swam off languidly. Indeed, turtles have only two gears: neutral and languid.

The highlight, though, was playing with a cuttlefish on the second swim. Sepiids, like octopus, possess the ability to change their colour, which ability is used for camouflage and for communication. They do so by means of pigmented chromatophores and reflecting iridophores. They can also control the polarisation of the light reflecting from their bodies. They have three hearts. And, like octopuses (don’t say octopi; octopus is not a Latin word), they are fairly intelligent – staggeringly so for a mollusc. I watched the cuttlefish, and the cuttlefish watched me, for several minutes, as it wandered around the local corals. Every twenty seconds or so the cuttlefish would change its colour. It started off cream, but changed to chocolate and cream, yellow with bright blue spots, and dark red with cream spots. Slowly I extended an arm and touched it; at which it cuttled off, literally jet-propelled. Since it did not squirt any ink, though, I assume I didn’t worry it too much.

In between snorkels I visited the Gili Meno Bird Park, which is not up to much. It mainly houses birds of the parrot family in rather small cages.

On the third day on Gili Air I dived with Blue Marlin. The first dive was a deep dive – 31 metres – and lasted only 38 minutes. We dived through an amazing landscape of canyons, with good visibility. There were fish but we turned it into a muck dive. The second dive was just off the island, Hans Reef, a sandy stretch with bommies, culminating in a huge bommie called the Brainiac, perhaps 15 feet high and twenty wide. This was a rich environment, especially the clouds of red and blue anthia at the top.

Posted by Wardsan 16:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Strands afar remote

Pulau Lembata

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The volcanic chain that is eastern Nusa Tenggara begins to run out east of Flores. (In fact it turns north and disappears for a while before turning up again in Maluku and then northern Sulawesi.) There are three islands known as the Solor Archipelago, and then a pair of which the larger is Alor. At this point we are north of Timor and only 400 miles or so from Australia.

The largest island in the former archipelago is Lembata. I came here, if there was a goal, to visit Lamalera, a whaling village in the south. But really I was here just to visit a rather remote area.

First I had to get from Maumere to Larantuka. I waited for a minibus for over an hour. I managed to squeeze on the third that came past, although it was full by normal standards. I sat between a fat man and a nursing mother, and could get only half my back and one cheek on to the seat – a bad journey.

Every bemo and minibus on Flores has some writing at the top of the windscreen. Examples: Beckham; Allah Besar; Golgota; McJagger.

In Larantuka I bumped into Matthew, from Donegal, with whom I had dived in Labuanbajo. He was trying to get to Alor but had been stranded in Larantuka, so he came to Lembata instead. I had been looking for Oreos to take to Lembata; Matthew suggested that they had disappeared from the shelves because they are made in China.

The trip took four hours across a millpond of a sea. The ferry was wooden but in good condition, and four TVs on the upper deck played overamplified Indonesian karaoke. We passed the islands of Adonara and Solor on the way. Adonara possesses a mile-high volcano. It is the same shape as mounts Ile Api on Lembata, Rinjani, Batur and Semeru: conical. Adonara looks like a joint Normal distribution.


In Lewoleba, the capital of Lembata, we found a very cheap homestay for 40,000 Rp, about $4. Unfortunately, there was no fan. It had been getting hotter as I headed east, and Lembata is very hot indeed. We went looking for beer, and found only warm beer. It still tasted pretty good; perhaps I’ve been travelling too long. Chargrilled chicken with rice for dinner at a local warung, where we took our beers, was simple but delicious.

After dinner, we decided that it was too hot to cope without a fan, and checked into another hotel as well, where we commandeered two fans for the room.


The following day I started wandering around Lewoleba at 8 am and it was already fiercely hot. I discovered that there is really nothing at all in Lewoleba, except for a lot of traffic. The shops are the same as you see in the provinces all over Malaysia and Indonesia: mobile phone shops, above all; little grocery/chemist kiosks; motorbike repair shops hardware; bag shops.

There used to be a central market but it burned down. Now there is a dismal central square where it used to be. In most parts of the town you can see Ile Api, the island’s volcano.


The Lonely Planet says that Lembata receives only 200 tourists a year, although I think this an underestimate. Nevertheless people are not used to foreigners. Everyone wants to greet you: ‘hello Mister’; ‘hello Missus’ from the confused; selamat pagi (good morning). One or two of the shopkeepers, though, speak acceptable English, which is a surprise.

The Lonely Planet, early 2007 edition, is also out of date. Not only do you have to double the prices all over Indonesia, but most of the facts about Lembata are wrong.

There is a Muslim kampong by the sea. From there you can see the island of Adonara.



Kids followed us as we wandered around. We found a family gathering seaweed. Dad came back in a sampan and he and Mum carried seaweed to the shore. Grandpa turned up in another sampan with more seaweed. The seaweed is farmed: I swam into such a farm when snorkelling in Maumere. It looks rubbery and unappetising, nothing like Japanese seaweed; I wonder whether it is for agar-agar, but Matthew says they also boil the stuff down and eat it.


At 11.30 I boarded a gaily-painted truck (lemon, lime and pink) bound for Lamalera. It wandered around town for an hour and a half picking up goods and passengers, and departed fully stuffed. Most of the floor was taken up by dusty cement bags (cement is semen in Indonesian, incidentally). There were a lot of leaky petrol cans; my bags got petrol all over them. The accelerant did not, of course, stop the passengers from smoking and flicking their ash willy-nilly. Passengers got on and off but on average there were 21 of us in the rear; the overflow went on to the roof.


The road was, as expected, awful. It was as windy as those in Flores, but unsealed. It is about 20 km in a straight line from Lewoleba to Larantuka, but it took four hours. We passed the aftermath of a lot of slash and burn. Much of the island is covered in dense creepers and dry brush. Like Flores, it looks like a forest fire waiting to happen. But the only evidence I have seen of a forest fire was in Lombok. The biggest forest fire recorded was in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, in 1983. It covered 3,000 square kilometres of forest.

Above 500 m or so, it turns greener. A high fraction of the trees are, I think, kapok and cashew.

Every now and then we round a corner and nearly crash into an oncoming vehicle. Cries of “Yesus Maria” go up. The passengers do not speak to each other in Indonesian. They are Lamaholot, like the people in Larantuka. Like most others in Flores, the women wear wraparound ikat cloth and t-shirts. There is a lot of ethnic diversity in these rugged islands. In Maumere they are Sikka, in Bajawa Ngada, in Ende they are Ende, and in Ruteng Manggarai. In Alor there are twenty languages, from seven language groups (and headhunting officially ended only in the 1950s). In Lamalera I ask the name of the language and am told ‘Ba’ir’ (I think).

We arrive in Lamalera at five, not long before dusk. I am taken to Mister Ben’s. If there is a Mister Ben I never meet him. The lower part squats around a cove, the higher part overlooking it. I sit on a balcony looking at the view, drinking coffee and listening to waves, cockerels and pigs. On the beach children play foot-volleyball, very skilfully. All the houses at beach level are boathouses.

The village is a whaling village. They hunt in rowing boats that have not changed over centuries. Their main aim is sperm whales, of which they catch up to 25 a year. The global population of sperm whales is around a million, and they are subsistence whalers, so they have a waiver from the IWC. They also hunt orca, pilot whales and mantas.


When the find a target, one of the men stands in the bow with a harpoon about eight yards long. He plunges it into the target and hangs on. I have seen photographs; it is a bloody business.

A couple of weeks before I arrive in Lamalera they caught five whales. I am not expecting there to be much, if any, whaling while I am there. It does not happen very often.


I stay in the house above the village for 60,000 Rp ($6) a night, all meals included. My room has a mosquito net but no fan, and it is extraordinarily hot. For dinner on the balcony I am given rice, some greens and instant noodles. The rice- pounded this afternoon – is delicious, good enough to eat with sambal alone. The noodles are lovely, full of MSG. The following night I am given exactly the same thing, and the utility derived from the meal is much diminished. The balcony smells of nam pla, Thai fish sauce; lumps of dried whale meat hang from a string.

I have bought a packet of kretek cigarettes to distribute. Sitting on the balcony overlooking the cove and the lights of the village, I try one. A pleasantly contemplative mood arrives. I can see the point.


The following morning, before seven, I wander around the village. Lumps of whale are everywhere.



I pass a pile of vertebrae and ribs. On the beach I find several skulls, all are too small to be sperm whale skulls; too small too, I think, to be killer whale; perhaps they are pilot whales. [Since returning to the UK I have seen a killer whale skull in the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge; it was remarkably small.]


I have an idea of getting on a boat that is going out at seven, but two charmless Australian journalists have already booked their places and do not want anyone else on board. They go out for a couple of hours to take pictures.


So I wander around and chat to some people on the beach.



Then while walking through the village I am invited up on to the verandah by two women who were on the bus they day before. They are Anna and Maria, and they live in Larantuka. They have travelled back to Lembata to see their father, Bapak Yosep; it is his eighty-eighth birthday. His remaining tooth pokes upwards when he opens his mouth. He is very pale. (Incidentally, the Indonesian for old is tua, which means pale; young is muda, which also means dark. I had assumed this was because clothes fade, but perhaps skin does too.) He is very quiet; not surprising, actually, because Anna talks all the time as she did on the bus. Also on the verandah is Yosep’s friend, also called Yosep, who is 77. He wears glasses as thick as milk bottles.

Maria disappears instantly into the kitchen and I talk to Anna and Yosep. The younger Yosep used to work on the nearby island of Adonara, grinding maize. Anna lived in Malaysia for twelve years, working as a babysitter, returning last year. “Malaysia is better than Indonesia”, she says firmly. I ask why. “The economic situation is better.” Unarguable. As is often the case, it is easier to follow conversations in Indonesian when the subject is abstract or technical, because then all the terms are English loan words.

Tea is served, inside. Actually, it is Energen, a chocolate drink with corn and oats. I express enthusiasm but don’t like it much, and I’m not much of an actor. It’s cool indoors. The walls are whitewashed and about six feet, tall, so they do not reach the roof. There is no ceiling. As we sit the others quickly and silently pray, while I dive in immediately. Oops. Various photos of Christ and the Virgin adorn the walls. In an adjoining bedroom I can see a shrine.


I go for a swim in the bay. Visibility is not good, but I do see a number of reef fish, including a pair of Vlaminck’s unicornfish. And in the shallows are a number of very large whalebones.


Since there are no boats I decide to walk along the coast to Tapobali. I ask someone how far it is, and am told 2 km. This turns out to be a typical Indonesian answer; if you don’t know, you answer anyway. I buy 1.5 litres of water and a small bottle of a sports drink. It’s nowhere near enough. I’m walking in the middle of the day. Two kilometres down the road I ask again. Again the answer is two kilometres. It turns out to be about five in all.

It is hot and dry. The land is naturally scrub, but cashew trees dominate the landscape by the path.


Every single person along the way greets me: ‘Hello mister’ or ‘Selamat siang’. They don’t see many westerners out here. I walk for a while with a schoolteacher and a few of his pupils. School finishes at 11.10 am. He says he teaches English, but is either unwilling or unable to converse in English. One thing that reflects well on Indonesian primary education, though, is the quality of the Indonesian spoken. Everyone, even small children, speaks Indonesian well. This is a surprise: only 10% of the population of Indonesia speaks Bahasa Indonesia as a mother tongue. It is like Italy at the time of unification.

It is polite to ask permission to take photographs of people, but here there is no need. I am carrying my camera in my rucksack, but even so most people I pass, and all the children, are desperate to have their portret taken. It’s the same on Flores. I try to oblige.



After two hot hours of walking I reach Tapobali, hoping to find a shop to buy water. There is a kios, but it looks as though it has not been opened in a long time. There is a lovely view over the sea. Over the horizon is Timor. It feels like the end of the earth. I am likely to visit places that are geographically more remote – Papua, Maluku – but none will be harder to get to than here.

All the children in the village run to say hello. They have wonderful names: Hendrikus, Veronika, Dominika, Anjelina, Sabina, Bernadette, Monika, Yosefina. My favourite is Immakulata. And after that I slog back for another couple of hours.


You can see the variety of faces in Indonesia. The classic Malay face, as described by Wallace, has a recessed brow, relatively round eyes, a small, wide nose and a wide mouth. They have straight, jet hair. People’s mouths often seem too big for their faces. Their lips, even though not especially full, tend to sit forward of a line drawn between nose and chin. This sounds terrible, but actually I find Indonesian women better-looking, on average, than Thais or Vietnamese. When Malays smile it is a big smile. (The proportion of Thai and Vietnamese women who are good-looking is about the same as the proportion of English or German. This is highly subjective, of course.)

The ‘true’ Papuan, as Wallace put it (his ethnography being Victorian), has frizzy black hair, darker skin, and more pronounced lips, nose and brow. But the point is that everything is a continuum: skin colours vary from caffe latte to espresso; hair from straight to frizzy, with everything in between. So these girls have wavy hair and fairly pale skin.


As you go east you the frequency of curly hair (or papua in Malay) increases, but that’s about all. And skin colour is only loosely correlated to hair curl, if at all. There is no line separating distinct races.

At this point I had hoped to return to Lewoleba to climb Ile Api, but there is only one truck a day, at 4am. So I catch the truck the following morning. I had been hoping to climb the mountain with some people from Médecins du Monde, a French NGO which was founded in 1979 by 16 refuseniks from Médecins Sans Frontières, including Bernard Kouchner. They are here to conduct a pilot public health programme for malaria. It is funded by a Spanish corporate donor. There are three foreign staff and I think 60-odd Indonesians, including guards and drivers. They work in English as often as not. The statistics show a high incidence of malaria on the island, although the statistics are probably wrong. There are certainly plenty of mosquitoes.

I had met Cesar, Pauline and Laura while diving in Labuanbajo, and had then snorkelled with the MdM people in Labuanbajo, and had met up with Cesar on my first night in Lewoleba. Cesar, a doctor from Lima, is the programme coordinator; Laura is a nurse from Indonesia; Pauline is from Brittany and does the finance and HR. Paul, from Belgium, is the lab technician. Cesar has worked or studied in Peru, France, Spain and England. He is a top bloke, which is fortunate because he never stops talking.

In the event I return to Lewoleba too late, and the MdM people have already set off to climb the mountain in order to avoid the heat of the day. In order to climb the mountain you first have to get a guide. You must pass through a village with a lot of antique objects of spiritual value, and someone must pray to the spirits. It turns out that it is not possible to climb, as there is a funeral on. So, fortunately for me, they return to Lewoleba and Cesar makes ceviche. (He originally wanted to be a chef and studied medicine as a second-best.) We sit and drink beer during the afternoon and then dine out for £1 in the evening. Indeed, I didn’t do much for the local economy. In four nights on the island I managed to spend about $50.


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That was a long post, because I am typing flat out. I will try not to be so prolix in future. For my sake, not yours.

Posted by Wardsan 15:31 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Christianity in Flores

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As I mentioned before, Flores is 85% Christian. I had expected that this Christianity would be a thin veneer on a strongly animist base, but actually it goes deep. Portuguese missionaries first arrived in Solor, just to the east, in 1561, and in the eastern part of Flores it has a long history. In the seventeenth century the VOC evicted the Portuguese from most parts of Flores and took over the trade. They exported sappan, cinnamon and slaves, which is why much of the population lived in the hills. The trade in slaves lasted informally into the twentieth century, although Holland abolished slavery around the time that Alfred Russel Wallace was visiting in the 1860s. The Portuguese retained enclaves in Larantuka, Sikka and Paga, and it was their religion that won out (the VOC were never interested in proselytising).

In Moni I went to Chenty’s restaurant in the evening. Next to the verandah forty chairs were lined up in rows. There were two bare electric lights. I assumed it was a cinema, but then a large group arrived, including a couple of women dressed as nuns. Children sat at the front, then women, then men. At this point Bjoern, Kai and Simon, the Swiss guys I was dining with (with whom I had also dived in Labuanbajo), gently pointed out that the chairs were lined up in front of a shrine devoted to the Virgin. There was no priest. A woman led the prayers, very quietly. They all recited unhesitatingly, often with their eyes shut, in a monotone. Most of the responses consisted of the same prayer: ‘Santa Maria, buna Allah…’ (Holy Mary, Mother of God) etc. In between they sang a few hymns; the women sang in harmony. The prayer was probably repeated over 200 times in all, so perhaps the Virgin is hard of hearing too.

In SE Asia I always say that I am a Christian. It is easier than explaining disbelief, unthinkable in most parts here. And as a description of cultural background it is true.

In Waiara, a little east of Maumere, I stayed at Sea World Club. The resort is owned by a charity run by a German priest, Pater Heinrich, who lives at the resort and conducts masses nearby on Sundays. It is a collection of bamboo bungalows by the sea, some with hot water, with a bar and restaurant. The restaurant serves superb grilled fish. I got a bungalow to myself for $25 a night.


Embedded in the paving stones were the blue stones from the beach near Ende.


In each bedroom there is a diglot New Testament in English and Indonesian: an international Gideon Bible. I read the Gospel according to Matthew and some of Acts. My grasp of the New Testament is largely limited to old scripture lessons, and readings from weddings and funerals, so Acts in particular was informative.


It was the New King James version, which seems to have taken the King James Bible and updated phrases rather randomly. Like all other versions, it’s a bit prosaic in comparison. Thus

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever. Amen.

Does the prayer really contain a plea for debt forgiveness? Isn’t it better to think of it as a reference to torts rather than contract? Why mess with “for ever and ever”? And why not ‘today’ if you’re concerned about linguistic desuetude?

Other updates:

Let the little children come to Me.

Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise.

As for the terms in Indonesian, they sound Dutch and Arabic.

    God is Allah;
    Jesus is Yesus Kristus;
    a Christian is orang Kristen;
    the Holy Spirit is Roh Kudus;
    the Devil is Iblis, another name for Shaitan in Arabic;
    Apostles are Rasul ('messengers' in Arabic);
    Matthew’s Gospel is Injil Matius;
    the Bible is Alkitab, which is 'the book' in Arabic;
    the Lord is Tuhan;
    Heaven is Sorga;
    the Sermon on the Mount is Khotbah di Bukit, again from Arabic - the khutbah is delivered by the khatib;
    priest is Imam;
    Joseph and Mary are Yusuf dan Maria;
    verse is Surat, which also means letter;
    James, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are Yakobus, Matius, Markus, Lukas and Yohanes;
    Hebrews, Philippians, Corinthians, Ephesians and Thessalonians are Ibrani, Filipi, Korintus, Efesus, Tesalonika.
    Acts of the Apostles is Kisah para Rasul
    Revelation is Wahyu (also derived from Arabic, usually used to describe what was received by Mohammed).

I snorkelled at Sea World a few times. Maumere used to be a very famous dive site, but an earthquake and consequent tsunami in 1992 killed the coral (as well as destroying Maumere). It is growing back, but very slowly. Overall, the hard coral is in very poor shape, and there are few sponges or feather stars. On the other hand there are vast numbers of sea urchins and plenty of starfish and octocorals.

On the first go, I saw a two-metre long mottled brown sea cucumber that I at first took to be the tentacle of a giant octopus. (Before the Portuguese came there were Buginese in Flores. They obtained sea cucumbers from the bay where I was snorkelling. They also exported rubber, sandalwood, cinnamon, shark fin, coconut, cotton and slaves.)

I also saw large schools of grey trumpetfish; lots of razorfish; a school of very nervous juvenile squid; a lionfish, swimming in the open sea eight metres down; some rock cod, snapper and jellyfish; two boxfish; and a pipefish, six inches long, cream with cursive purple lines. It was very relaxed; I even touched it.

On my second snorkel I saw a lobster; a green chromis with a huge sea louse on its side, a third of the length of its poor landlord; lots of pufferfish and some razorfish; a couple of flutemouths and lots of juvenile butterflyfish.

The third time I went swimming I found a blue-spotted fantail ray, trumpetfish, and razorfish. On the sandy shallows I found what appeared to be a jellyfish walking along the bottom. This is not what jellyfish do. In fact it was a crab, which had found a jellyfish and was carrying it on its back. Some crabs do this permanently, and devote a pair of claws to holding on to their dorsal defence at all times. [There are three families of crab that carry things for camouflage: Dromiidae, Homolidae and Dorippidae. A crab carrying a jelly is probably a Dorippid. Indeed, in one of the marine books I have seen there is a photo of a Dorippe frascone carrying an upside-down Cassiopeia andromeda, taken in the same location I saw this crab.]

I sat out on the verandah reading. The light attracted insects, which attracted geckos. The smaller, common geckos say ‘tut tut’. They are called cicak in Indonesian, which is presumably imitative. They are probably a thirtieth of the length of the Komodo dragon. I think they are the common house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus.

The larger geckos are the pale ones with red spots, called tokek. They are very loud; you can hear them from 70 yards away or more and they often wake you up at night. It sounds as if Donald Duck were saying ‘thank you’ very firmly, speaking through a kazoo.

The night before flying to Bali I returned to Sea World. As I sat giggling to Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père I heard unusual gecko sounds above. A pair of cicak kept approaching each other. One would bite the other on the neck. Sure enough, a few minutes later one climbed on top of the other and wriggled for a minute. As soon as it was over they separated. And then both licked their private parts. Because they could.



Posted by Wardsan 13:37 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


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With Angkor Wat, Borobudur must be the best-known site in Southeast Asia. It is a Buddhist temple on a hill, built in the reign of King Samaratunga between 778 and 824 AD. The carvings, in both high and low relief, were added under his daughter.


According to Raffles, who wrote a heavy book on Java, the structure is 620 feet square and 100 feet high. There is a single stupa at the top, as you would expect, about 15 metre in diameter. In all there are 1,545 stupas and 400-odd Buddhas, mainly in niches.


It is built on 13 levels. Reliefs decorate the wall, inside and out, on most of these terraces. If I have it right, the lowest two represent the world (Java). Levels 3-7 represent stupas, 8-10 Kathmandu, and the top three, three levels of heaven. That makes no sense to me, I admit.


To walk around all of the levels and see all the friezes would require a five kilometre walk. Most of the friezes, if I remember correctly, relate the lives of Buddha, and depict examples of the virtuous life and its opposite. The sculptures are in excellent shape, given their age. This is presumably because they were covered in volcanic ash for most of their life.


Signs in strategic spots at the temple apparently instruct on personal hygiene: “keep clean” and “no scratching”. Neither easy for a backpacker.


The top three levels are open terraces covered in stupas. Unusually, these have holes in them: 60, then 80, then 100 at the top terrace. Apparently they represent kinds of guilt (or perhaps sin). Each stupa contains a Buddha image. It brings good luck to reach through a hole and touch a finger (if you are female) or a foot (if you are male). The main stupa, the highest heaven, is hole-free: no holes, no guilt.


The temple was built with dowels, giving each block some room to shake without falling. Nevertheless, it was eventually destroyed by the violent earthquakes common in Java. Theodore Van Arp cleaned and restored the superstructure between 1907 and 1911. Restoration of the lower part had to wait until 1973-83. The entire construction was dismantled, and reinforced concrete foundations and drainage were added. It seems to have worked well, although the concrete foundation covers the lowest level of the frieze.

At the site there is also a boat museum. On one of the lower terraces of the temple, on the northern side, are engraved two ships, one larger than the other. Both have outriggers, two triangular masts and two staysails.


A former naval officer named Philip Beale decided to build an accurate replica of the larger ship and to sail it along the cinnamon route from Indonesia to Madagascar and Africa. He teamed up with an Australian ship architect and with As’ad Abdullah, a local fisherman and shipbuilder. The ship was launched in 2003 and sailed to Madagascar, Cape Town, St Helena and Ghana. It is now the centrepiece of the Borobudur Ship Museum.


Boats all over the archipelago still possess these outriggers, in effect turning the boat into a thin, keelless trimaran. Even tiny rowing boats have an outrigger. I have wanted to see them for as long as I can remember. They are beautiful, but less stable than you would think. They let in a lot of water.

Madagascar was an symbolic destination for the reconstructed boat. Malagasy is an Austronesian language. Indonesian traders first visited three thousand years ago, and Madagascar was first settled by Indonesians during the Sriwijaya kingdom of Sumatra (which is where the Malay language comes from), in the seventh to ninth centuries AD.

Many words are similar in Malagasy and Indonesian. Yam is ovy in Malagasy, ubi in Indonesian. Rice is vary and padi; a river mouth is hoala and kuala; an octopus horita and gurita; and easy/cheap is mura and merah.

Posted by Wardsan 12:50 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Grim up North

all seasons in one day 31 °C
View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I’m back in the northern hemisphere in order to get a new Indonesian visa. The rainy season seems to have begun in Kuala Lumpur. I am predictably suffering from culture shock after Nusa Tenggara. My room has a flush toilet, a shower with hot water, a basin and a television. I have eaten roti canai twice in my 16 hours here: bliss! (On the other hand, the coffee is sadly inferior.) What has struck me most, though, is that nearly everyone around here is speaking Indian, Chinese or Arab languages. There’s not much point trying to speak Malay to someone who speaks English just as proficiently.

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In the UK, consumption and aggregate demand display a strongly seasonal shape. There is a sharp peak in the fourth quarter, due to Christmas spending, and then a sharp dip in the first quarter, while the second and third quarters are in the middle. This is why the GDP growth figures you see have to be seasonally adjusted.

In Indonesia there is a similar pattern, if you filter by lunar years. Demand for goods and services rises sharply during Ramadhan, and prices rise accordingly. By law, workers receive an annual bonus at Idul Fitri.

Despite the fact that it is a month of fasting, Indonesians spend more on food than at any time of the year. This is because they are buying fancier food with which to break the fast (buka puasa), and because prices are higher, but also because people eat more. This may be due to the blowout at Idul Fitri, but restaurants are very busy throughout the month.

Even with price hikes, supply cannot always meet demand. Last year there was unfulfilled demand for sugar and cooking oil. Right now there is a problem with LPG supplies. The government has introduced a programme to convert kerosene to LPG throughout the country. Pertamina, the state petrol company, cannot keep up.

Price data, as at end August: inflation 11.85% year on year, 9.28% year to date. The Bank Indonesia base rate is 9%, which is a negative real interest rate.

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One good reason to come to KL is to buy books. In Indonesia I have started to encounter the book famines that I feared all along. In Malaysia and Indonesia at least half of the retail space of a bookshop is devoted to wealth and how to acquire it: business, economics, sukses books. A surprising portion of the residue is devoted to electronic Korans. In Kuala Terrengganu the few English books available were thrillers and romance only, and I made do with a couple by Martin Cruz Smith, which turned out to be very good. In Solo, on the other hand, there were six books, all Penguin Popular Classics.

Recent reads:

  • Red Square and Gypsy in Amber, Martin Cruz Smith

  • Night Train to Lisbon, Pascal Mercier

  • The Ramayana, Sunardjo Haditjaroko

  • Animal Farm, George Orwell

  • The Tempest, William Shakespeare

  • Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray. A nice mix of acid and sugar.

  • Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons, Gerald Durrell

  • Voice of the Violin (in English), Andrea Camilleri. One of the Commissario Montalbano series, comic, brilliant and best-selling detective procedurals, which have also been well adapted for Italian television. Well translated into American English.

  • Polar Star, Martin Cruz Smith

  • Free to Trade, Michael Ridpath

  • Pourquoi j’ai mangé mon père, Roy Lewis. Given to me by Cesar in Lewoleba. The original English edition is What we Did to Father (the French title rather gives it away). Very funny.

  • The 47 Ronin Story, John Allyn

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How to make a Vietnamese hat: take some green Latania (latan palm) leaves and spread them out in the sun. Leave for two or three days. When they are white, spread them on the ground to soften. Iron out the creases with a heated ploughshare. Construct 16 bamboo hoops of varying sizes. Take the biggest, and attach eight or ten bamboo sticks to the rim, so that it forms a cone. Drape the other bamboo hoops on the cone. Stitch the leaves on to the cone. Reheat the hat over burnt sulphur to whiten the hat and prevent mould.


Naturally, you should not do this unless you have grown up in a village that specialises in hatmaking.

Posted by Wardsan 12:13 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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