Montag, 30. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XVIII - Sulawesi: Behind the Green Wall


Finally I made it: I ventured into the jungle, quite specifically the Lore Lindu National Park. Now what did I see there? The answer is: not much. But I learned a lot about local culture and why wildlife conservation does not work. Despite that, it was still good fun, and a very scenic trek.

Ascent to the mountain

We (meaning the guide, the porter and me) started off in the Christian town of Tentena, next to the quite remarkable Lake Poso. Not too long ago, Muslims and Christians fought each other heavily in this area, the product of a youth brawl that escalated into full-scale war that cost over 1000 people their lives.

The Bada valley in all its glory

From here we made our way into the Bada Valley, a lovely stretch of pristine farmland, cut off from the rest of the world until the late eighties. Even now, there´s not much road between the potholes and often the jeep would not be able to continue without ad-hoc road repairs and lots of pushing. On the other side of the mountains, though, lies the most peaceful and quaint bucolic village you can imagine: pastel-coloured houses with picket fences are surrounded by lush, green fields in which buffalo graze and peasants plant their rice. Life is easy here. There are no seasons and crops can be planted all year round: rice, cocoa, corn, vanilla, coffee, papaya, whatever your farmer heart might wish for.

The humble buffalo is still the main agricultural tool here

Apart from offering some amazing hikes into the surrounding countryside, the area is known for its ancient megaliths, large stones sculptured into human likeness that are littered across the whole valley. No one knows where they came from or who crafted them, but scholars assume they were made by a small paleontholithic civilization of which no other trace remains.

A female megalith statue of unknown origin

We spent the night there and made for the national park the following morning.

Early morning view of the national park

From the village we went on a freshly made ranger path into the mountain jungle. During the three day journey we were to cover 60 kilometers spread across 2000 meters altitude. The path was barely recognizable, but the my guides knew where to go...and so did every else, unfortunately.
I was expecting an unending barrage of mysterious animal noises, like I heard so many times in countless documentaries and movies before. Instead, the jungle stayed eerily silent. Apart from the occassional bird call once every hour or so, only the persistent scratching of the cicadas filled my ears. No monkeys, no hornbills, not even geckos or frogs. 

Overnight stay is in shelters like these.
For a while I thought, the place was generally wild, but then I saw more and more paths branching out from our own, as frequent as three or four every twenty minutes. That's when a whole lot of explaining started that showed me why, despite protection, rangers and NGO funding nature reserves don't last long in Indonesia and, assumedly, in the rest of the world. 

Self-made kerosene lamps are the only lights
Basically, when a ranger makes a new path, for reasons of tending to the forest or ecotourism, it's the signal for the whole village to use it to exploit the forest. Some of these forms of exploitation is relatively harmless, like the gathering of Agatis sap, others, hunting, trapping, logging are not. For the majority of my trek I was never far from the sound of an illegal chainsaw, the chopping of machetes and the barking of dogs. Obviously, faced with the constant assault of noise and activity, no animal, from the rare anoa to the common monkey would stay anywhere close the trail, and those unfortunate ones who make their presence known quickly fall victim to poachers. While anoa and babi rusa are trapped for their meat (which sells for about 50000 rupiah a piece), monkeys and birds are captured as pets. 

Captured Hornbill

For an example of how extreme this persecution can get, hear the fate of the humble Toke, also known as gecko. When Chinese traders in Sulawesi announced they would pay good money for any dead gecko the locals could find (for use in Chinese medicine), the inhabitants of Sulawesi managed within only a few years to all but eradicate the gecko from the Island, where before it was abundant. As my guide told me, if anyone would hear the sound of its voice (the characteristic "Eck-awww") nearby, they would make straight for the tree to take it down. Well, that explains at least why I didn't hear any geckos. And while jungle life is elusive, I reckon that the two spring traps we destroyed on the way and the many dogs brought by Agatis collectors ( who claim they need the dogs to "protect" them from wild animals) have not helped much.

The ranger sharing supplies with the poachers. They're buddies after all.

The route, however, was stunning, with very diverse vegetation and microlife across the trek, from fern forest to rainforest and almost alpine looking yellow meadows.

View from the mountains on Doda village


Primary Forest

Fern Forests

Speaking of alpine vegetation: in an effort to fight errosion caused by logging and farmland creation, the government planted easily obtained european pine trees, which causes the affected areas to look exactly like Switzerland or Tyrol. Filled me with a sense of home. The government was unaware that the pine tree is a tough tree that would take over the local ecosystem, but the villagers love them, because the lower vegetation density makes shooting the remaining wildlife that ventures there easier. Mind you, please, that this is all information given freely by my guide.

The Alps? Canada? No, tropical Sulawesi...

At this time it dawned to me that nature reserve does not have to mean that an area is protected for it's great biodiversity, but simply because it is the only bloody forest left to protect. Within the national park are many small villages, grown to ten times their size due to higher life expectations and absence of family planning. Where before the forest could sustain the unrestrained reaping of its resources, now it won't, and I give this reserve another 20 years before it's gone the way of the Sulawesi gecko. It's not a often glorified way of living in harmony with nature that kept these communities sustainable for the forest, but rather their small size. The people themselves have no idea why protecting the environment or the extinction of a species would be of any importance. To quote a local hunter when asked: "Oh, when all animals are gone, I can live from logging. And if all the trees are gone, I can plant cocoa! No problem!"

Despite all this, I have learned a lot about jungle life; what plants to suck for water if no rivers are around, which herb cures rabies and how to always find some Agatis resin to get a fire started.

Agatis sap is harvested for candles and candy coating

I also learned that the most dangerous creature in the Sulawesi forest is the Anoa, or Pygmy Buffalo, which may only stand 80 centimeters tall, but is relentless and vicious in its attacks. For the more paranoid people among you: never be the second person in a trek line. Most wild animals never attack the first person passing, so the second usually gets pounced upon. I've braved river waters and swarms of wild bees, six different kinds of leeches and spiders the size of a dinner plate. Since I couldn't find any big things, I turned my attention to the smallest denizens of the rainforest, so there would be at least some pictures.

Moths the size of my hand...
...and spiders big enough to steal my soap.
This creature glues debris to its back to conceal itself.
Strange parasitic plants abound.
The locals call this bug "belanda" (holland) because of its nose
Even opening supplies can be potentially hurtful
A giant cicada
Nepentis plants attract insects that then fall into its digestive liquid
Looks like a forest, but is actually a microscopic moss

After the return is was amphetamine-fueled driving and cheesy Indonesian love songs all the way as usual. When remarked on his reckless driving on barely adequate roads through villages at night, the diver merely laughed and shouted: "Well, we're all good Christians, right?". The Muslims here have a similar sense of humor: when inquired to the safety of the airline I was supposed to fly with, the travel agent simply smiled at me and said "Inshallah". I just love travel in this country.

The next post will cover the Togean Islands, so if your work life can't bear pictures of tropical beaches, you might skip that one.

Samstag, 14. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XVII - Borneo: Explorer's Disappointment Or Why You Should Never Trust Your Guidebook

Not your tourist airport: Balikpapan greets me with mining machine ads instead of resort ones

I came to Borneo with great expectations: It's one of the places on earth that still has pristine rain forests, and its inaccessibility allows for new species to be discovered almost every year. I had visions of teeming wildlife and jungle exploration, and was looking forward to seeing Orang Utans and other elusive creatures. I was very, very excited. Now unfortunately all that didn't happen. Yet I learned some valuable lessons. But let me first tell you about Eastern Kalimantan, locally known as KalTim.

Located between the borders of Malaysian Borneo and the Sulawesi Strait, KalTim mostly consists of jungle. It is one of the richest locations on earth, with mind-boggling amounts of coal, gold, diamonds and oil slumbering beneath its lush rainforests. Consequently most people who come here seek to exploit its treasures, and not as tourists. Apart from its capital Balikpapan, life is still (very) raw in these parts, and Indonesians liken it to the Wild West of the American railroad era. Its local inhabitants, the Dayak, are regarded with superstition by other inhabitants, and tales of black magic and mysterious deaths are whispered at campfires on the rest of the archipelago. Sounds great, doesn't it? Alas, my adventures had to stop prematurely, due to some mistakes that I made in ignorance:

Relying on the information in the Lonely Planet guide book
I didn't mind finding travel times on what Lonely Planet calls roads about twice the amount stated, not including getting stuck. I was going into the jungle, after all. What I did mind, however, was that prices where about 4 to 5 times the amounts quoted (and no, Indonesia does not have a 25 % inflation rate), forcing me to quit halfway through before it got too expensive. So when Lonely Planet says the boat upriver costs about 15$, it is actually 60$. The guide fees in the book are the official ones, but no guide can sustain himself (not to speak of his family) on that amount, and most guides will be "busy" for anything lower than 4 times the price. Speaking to locals, this has been practice since the existence of the reserve, which leads me to believe that none of the authors have actually been there. I could continue to rant about wrong maps and missing information all over the chapter, but I'll spare you for the time being. Suffice to say that this has been the most unreliable Lonely Planet I've had so far.

Not researching more about the destination.
Lonely Planet made it seem like a very straightforward affair, with difficulties only in the most remote regions. I didn't bother double checking anywhere on the internet, apart from a few sample itineraries from touring agencies, which looked pretty much the same, but came at a (comparatively) ridiculous price. Unfortunately, those prices are not as ridiculous as they may seem. It's enough of a gamble that sometimes the tour operators actually lose money sending tours there. I know, because I befriended one, Lucas Zwaal, a Dutchman who has been living in Indonesia for 25 years, who gave me the lowdown on traveling there. Further up from where I made it, gasoline prices can reach 7$ a liter, countless local factors like water level, local situation or roadblocks can mean you are stuck in the middle of nowhere (and I mean: nowhere) for several days, at up to ten times the rate you would pay anywhere else in Indonesia. Jungle life is even more expensive than island life, and villagers only sustain themselves because there are some lucrative side jobs to be had (such as gathering perfume ingredients).
All of this I could have known, and prepared accordingly, had I put more effort into researching my destination better. Pieced together from locals and some of Lucas' information, my journey would have cost about 2500$ or more, far beyond my budget (and Lonely Planet's, erm, guesses).

Not being fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. 
So far, learning the local language of the places I travel to has been more of a hobby than a necessity. Most essentials can be communicated with hands, feet and a piece of paper. Unfortunately, away from the major towns no one speaks English, with even the official language being a second one, and communication subjects become more daunting than the choice of food or an exchange of pleasantries. While Indonesian is a very easy language to learn, I did not spent enough time learning it to be prepared to hitch a canoe ride or to explain trekking plans in detail. Without a proper course, travel away from the three major towns is difficult at best, and impossible once you have to arrange more than a meal and a place to stay. Not to speak of it being boring. In some cases I had to even dig my lousy Chinese out of the relic box to actually make myself understood.

Underestimating the little things.
This is the most embarrassing part. Thinking I could settle for just doing the Kutai National Park which is less extreme, but still pleasing, I headed back down. On the way, my shoes got stolen. I don't know who would want a pair of size 45 (UK11) trekking shoes, but I assume someone in the exact situation that I am in now. Because of it I won't be able to do any jungle trekking anymore. Neither here nor in Sulawesi, where I am heading tomorrow. Because size 45 simply does not exist in Indonesia. I would settle for sport shoes, fashion sneakers even, but there are no Indonesians with size 45 feet. Ordering them in takes at least a week, and they are very expensive (trekking shoes about 200$). Trekking in Flip-flops would be "possible" but extremely idiotic. So unless I find someone's shoes to buy off on the way, my main reason to come to Indonesia has been thwarted not by lack of adventure spirit, but lack of footwear.  

But it was not all for naught.
So what can I say about Kalimantan Timur? Have I gained anything from it? Yes, I have: Some interesting insights into the local culture, some hands-on experience with corruption and violence, and an entirely different perspective on civilization. KalTim is a place where nature is still close to people, especially the Dayak, and people are more in tune with the natural flow of things. But not in a hippie way. Death is all around people here, and a life holds no value. During my stay I have seen three bodies float downstream on the Mahakam River, and a week ago a Dutchman got stabbed to death for not sharing his cigarettes (a crass discourtesy in Indonesia) in a border town. Another (unarguably stupid) American shot a Hornbill, a bird that is holy to the Dayak as it carries away the souls of the dead, and subsequently was found decapitated at the outskirts of town. The Dayak used to be headhunters, and despite a "ban" violence flared as recently as the late nineties, when 500 Madurese immigrants where killed and thousands needed to be relocated. All in all, even for non-Dayak, life is a fight, and the philosophy is to live in the moment, as die we all must in the end. You can feel that resonate in how people treat you in the small towns; they smile, but they tax you. They will be friendly as the rules command, but if any opportunity presents itself to gain advantage they will take it. Evidence for this attitude can be found in Dayak folk religion, in which shamans will bestow riches to you or damage your enemies, but the price for those services is always blood (meaning death of a child or loved one). Having met such a shaman has made me aware of how thin the line can be, between modern western man and those living near (not even in) raw nature, where concepts such as human rights and sanctity of life are mere fantasies of an idle mind. It may sound odd from a staunch atheist, but this experience has made me realize what a big feat people such a Jesus or Mohammed have achieved in their time, where undoubtedly, attitudes have been similar.

Many buildings float on the Mahakam River banks

Speaking of attitudes, corruption here is so prominent that I went to a museum knowing it would be closed, expecting someone to open it for me for a price, which is exactly what happened. In fact, the caretaker was waiting there for exactly that to happen. It then only comes at a minor surprise that the museum's director turns up as well, trying to sell me some of the remaining antiques. Most exhibits, I was told later on by Lucas, are actually replicas, the originals long sold off to foreign collectors. And I can't blame them: with the legal minimum salary of 1.2 million Rupiah (and most companies will pay exactly that) no one can make a decent living in KalTim. Role models are far and few between, and surely not to be found in the government. Did I mention that the Suharto family marks promising mining spots as 'nature reserves', so they cannot be exploited for the next 75 years, to lay claim to them for the next Suharto generation? Or that government posts, even low police ones, are called "key" businesses here, because when you want one of these, you have to bring a key to the interview? For a police office, a motorbike key will suffice, for a better post a house key might be required.

(Illegal?) Logging is still good business in Kalimantan

And my personal lesson: sometimes it is better to retreat, regroup and recalculate rather than pushing things through. Pressing my itinerary would have been tiresome and expensive beyond reason, and I just will have to find other goals instead. As much as I hate to concede defeat, Indonesia is big and has plenty to offer, so I will have to choose flip-flop friendly terrain for the time being and not fret. I will return, some day, with more money and a second pair of shoes. Until then, the mighty jungles of Kayan Mentarang must remain unconquered (at least by me). I'm now off for a last try at shoes. I hear there is a basketball shop in town, maybe I will find something there.

Random Impressions

Indonesian gas station, the bottles hold gasonline
Ojeks, motorbike taxis, are the way to get around quickly
Indonesian mosques are colourful and modern
Every bus has someone who "entertains" the passengers with songs for a small donation

Montag, 9. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XVI: Malaysia and Singapore - Food Porn

I can't deny it: my conclusion after visiting several Islamic states is that Islam is just bound to make people unhappy and (ironically) less spiritual. Whether or not the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) was a miserable bugger or not, I cannot say, since he was wise enough (just like all other great religious founders) to not write a book in his lifetime. His followers seem to be for sure: Gender seclusion, uncomfortable fashion, party denial and bearded patriarchy are but a few of the great inventions that Mohammed's disciples have left their countrymen to enjoy. I find that since they cannot live their life with the freedoms that most humans, independent of background, seem to enjoy, they turn to shopping instead. Whether you go to Dubai or Brunei, Kuala Lumpur or Tehran, it's all about shopping malls and generally buying more stuff. Thankfully though, in Malaysia there are other cultures as well, which gives the country not only an added notch of celebratory liberty (even if at expensive prices), but has also created some of the best cuisine on the planet. Add some Indians, Indonesians and Thai to the mix, and this place becomes food heaven.
If you follow my facebook you might know I fell food sick in Penang, depriving me of some of my intended mission to just eat eat and eat while in Malaysia. Additionally, I seem to have had my best food when there was no camera around. Still though I have managed to capture a few of my amazing meals on camera, with which I will delight (or torture) you now. None of these cost more than 2 pounds.

Singapore style Laksa

South Indian-Malay Thali

Barbequed Sweet Duck Noodles

Sweet and Spicy Hokkien Prawn

Random Penang Buffet

I can generally really recommend peninsular Malaysia as a tourist destination: it is relatively cheap, has everything from temples to islands, the food is amazing and infrastructure is good. It also offers authentic and lively ethnic quarters, giving you immersive experiences of destinations such as India or South China conveniently in one place. The only drawback might be the relatively expensive booze (about 1.5 pounds for a small can of beer).

Donnerstag, 5. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XV - Thailand: How to Make the Most of It

When people come to Thailand, two of the first things they do is eat Thai food and get a Thai massage. Sadly though, many never actually experience either, despite belief. Tourist demand has caused innumerable amounts of "Thai Restaurants" and "Thai Massage" parlors to spring up along streets in any major tourist destination, handing tourists a watered down experience, only vaguely resembling the actual thing. This is a little guide on how to actually get a good Thai massage, and on how to find authentic Thai food.

How to Get a Good Thai Massage

This is a collection of both two talks I had with Thai massage therapists and my own experience.

This is how it not looks.
Most people take this hump, but frequently enough I hear people go: "...and then she patted me on the back a few times and was looking like she was waiting for me to say something, and then I realize; this is actually a whorehouse!"
Brothels and massage parlours are actually easy to tell apart: If the girls wear makeup and tight dresses, it's a brothel. If they wear shirts and are in their thirties, then it's a massage business. Any signs that hint to personalized service, such as "special massage" or advertising rooms to rent for cheap in the same building are dead giveaways.
It also pays well to stray from the main tourist areas, often a better (and cheaper) local place is hiding just minutes away. Simple looking exterior usually means good massage.

Massage or Rub
Assuming that you are now not in a whorehouse, the quality of your massage if probably your next concern. To establish that, you must first decide what you actually want: someone giving you a relaxing petting session (to which I will refer to as a 'rub') or an actual massage, which are actually two quite separate things. There's nothing wrong with getting a rub, if that's what you are looking for, but in case you are looking for an actual massage, here is how you can spot it:

The Masseur
Traditional massage is a method to cure a problem, such as back pain, stomach ache or chronic illness. It was used by specialist doctors as a means (among many, such as herbal medicines) of medical treatment. Now you wouldn't go to a doctor without a good reason, right? If you walk into a massage parlor and get "just a Thai massage" is a bit like going to a western doctor and saying you want "just some pills". A good traditional massage therapist will first ask you about or, in most cases, diagnose your problem first, usually using classical methods such as pulse and tongue diagnosis and only then administer any treatment. They are usually surprisingly accurate and will tailor massage treatment specifically to your condition.
Certificates on the wall are no guarantee for a qualified masseur (A forged Harvard diploma in Unicorn Taming is just 10$ in Thailand), and neither are the ubiquitous posters of acupressure points or foot reflexology. The majority of masseurs will have no clue about them, but if you fancy some loss of face in action, ask them about it.
A clean place and a non-spa ambience is usually a good sign for a quality masseur, who just wants to get a job done. Rub places usually have more furnishings, glitter and music.

The Massage
Getting a Thai massage should make you feel relaxed and energized afterwards, but contrary to many peoples perception, the actual treatment is far from relaxing. In fact, it will hurt plentiful. Loosening the blockages in your body requires significant amount of force, and the fact that the worse the respective condition is the more the Sen lines (similar to the meridians in Chinese medicine) will hurt upon being massaged. It will be a "good" pain though, and you should trust your body and endure. If you feel like a mixture between a demonstration puppet for a Yoga class and a half empty tube of toothpaste to be squeezed out, then you've got right. Cracking and popping of bones is common on the better ones, and use of feet as a massage tool is also frequent.
If it's a foot massage, the difference between a massage and a rub is easy to find out: if certain spots get  repeated, strong pressure from the masseur and that hurts, it's a massage. If there are lots of of flat, long strokes, she (or he) is just doing whatever.

Price and Aftermath
A proper Thai massage should set you back by about 300 Baht per hour, unless it comes with additional treatment, such as herbal medicine or nutrition counseling, which can make it up to 600 Baht. The Thai price is about half of that, and if you get along well with the staff you might pay less. Often you are asked to return the next day to see if your condition has improved, which should be free. Well versed practitioners often give dietary recommendations based on Chinese medicine, or other additional lifestyle advice. I cannot say much about whether they are efficient, but they certainly don't seem harmful.
I find that after a good massage it feels like I'm stoned for another hour or so, but that might be up to the individual.

How To Get Good Thai Food

Kao Soi

Unless for some reason you are really, really lucky, you will not get Thai food in any resort or in any beachside restaurant in a tourist spot. It's simply a bad deal for the owners. To quote the chef of a beach bar in Ko Tao: "Farang don't like Thai herb, farang don't like Thai vegetable, farang don't like spicy. You serve once, they not come again. So not keeping fresh food, better go to street." Or in other words: Since many foreigners who come to the main tourist areas have little or no experience with Thai food, they are reluctant to order it, and if they do, they will shun anything short of bland. This obviously means that there is no point for the cook to keep high quality ingredients and thusly you won't get good food even if you ask for it.The rule of thumb is: the more it looks like a "nice" place, the worse the food is going to be. The place you want to go to looks like a tiled garage with lots of plastic chairs. Some guidebooks will tell you to go where it's packed with locals, but some places are popular at certain times, and as a non-working tourist you just might be around when it's quiet, so don't rely on that. Also some places are more geared towards take away, so if you think it might be good, give it a try even if it's empty.
Another good option are the various food stalls, especially at night markets. They may not look particularly clean, but most people acquire their traveler's diarrhea from contaminated Western food (less throughput, longer sitting times for perishables), not from hawkers. Most of these do only one or two dishes, and have no menus (see below).
Never order Thai food in a "Serves Western and Thai food" place. It is never any good, so you might as well go for the Western food, which you know and where you can judge quality.


Now if you have found a promising place, you might find that the staff speaks no English. Most of the time you might be handed an English menu. The problem with it is that it will list only a few all-time favourites, such a Phat Thai, which you'll have seen a hundred times and which the (usually quite specialized) restaurants will not be good at preparing. Try asking: "Thaan ('a' as in 'car') arai dee?" so they recommend you something. If they are unsure, try "Mee arai peesaat ('a' as in 'care')?" asking for their specialty. Just say yes to whatever they recommend, it usually is good and chances that it will be something weird, such as chicken feet are very very slim. Knowing the basic words Gai (chicken), Koong (Prawn), Muu (Pork) and Plaa (Fish) does help.
Food stalls usually serve only one or two dishes, so if you look interested enough and nod, they will just give you whatever they serve. If it requires choices on your behalf, they will usually pick the most common options for you, so just trust them. At markets you can order from several places and sit down anywhere, there are no seats allocated to stalls.

If you like it spicy (and by that, I actually mean moderately), make sure that you say: "Pet OK." when you order, otherwise you will get the minimum amount of spice as a precaution. Remember that what makes Thai food spicy also gives it flavour, and staying clear of all things peppery will significantly dilute your food experience. You'll almost always find some chili in your dish, but they are not all spicy: the big green ones are more like bell peppers, and it's the little ones you gotta watch out for. Your body gets used to spiciness quite quickly within a week or so, after which you should be able to eat most things, so train yourself a bit, it's worth it. Eating rice or milk products will reduce the burn, all else (including water) will make it worse.

Sonntag, 1. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XIV: Thailand - Further Itinerary

I just thought I'd give a rough idea of what I'm planning next. While not particularly accurate, this map shows where I'm planning on going. As you can see, it's going to be pretty rural, with lots of nature, national parks and diving. It takes me through East and West Malaysia, Borneo, Sulawesi, Komodo, Bali and Lombok. If this can be managed in such short time will be seen. :)