Sunday, September 28, 2008

Duke's on Sunday

Through the magic of the International Date Line, I find myself blogging again on Sunday, despite having flown a great long way overnight. I mean, we left Bali at 10:30 on Sunday night, and arrived in Honolulu at 5:40 on Sunday afternoon. Ah, well.

And as so often happens to me as I'm on a tropical island, I have a Jimmy Buffett tune bouncing through my brain. Entirely appropriate this time, as the tune in my head is "Duke's on Sunday," a tribute to the very beach we just walked past on our way to and from dinner. Duke's is named for Duke Kahanamoku, the Olympic gold-medal swimmer best known as the man who popularized surfing around the world.

So here I am, on Sunday, at Duke's. Cool.

We've moved across the street from our last hotel, to the Moana Surfrider, which is right on Waikiki Beach, and our room has a window that opens right out over Duke's beach, with a view of Diamond Head. It's great to open the window and listen to the surf, which should be very soothing to our jet-lagged selves.

We had another nice dinner at the Hau Tree Lanai, and Danny the sommelier gave us another fine wine recommendation and also a taste of his newest acquisition, a fruit-infused sake that is really yummy.

Tomorrow, we hope to hit the Waikiki Aquarium, which we always seem to just miss, then hop a flight back home. That'll be another short day, but work awaits on Tuesday, so go we must! Until then, Hawaii is a pretty gentle way to slip back into the U.S.

One little travel note I should include is that we had something like 25 minutes to make our plane connection in Guam overnight, and I was dreading that, because of having to clear immigration and customs. But hey, they've changed things since the last time I went through there. Yes, we all had to clear immigration, but that was just a matter of swiping the passports. Customs we didn't have to clear until we got to Honolulu. So it turned out to be no sweat to make it to our connecting flight. Yay!

Large Numbers

I've been thinking a bit about large numbers recently, probably in part because I read Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker on the boat and here in Bali, and he talks a lot about both large and small numbers, and interestingly, how the human mind is really only adapted to think clearly about certain ranges of numbers. All quite fascinating, as Dawkins always is.

But what's really on my mind here is money. When we were in Mexico a few months back, the exchange rate for pesos and dollars was roughly 10:1 or 11:1, but for convenience, everyone sort of thinks in 10:1, and that's easy. If something costs 10 pesos, you can pay with one dollar, and it's all good.

Here in Indonesia, the exchange rate for rupiahs is about 9,200:1, so not only is it a less convenient quantity to figure in your head, you also have to deal in numbers on an everyday basis that sound more like annual salaries to me. For example, yesterday we had a buffet lunch, which costs Rp80,000 (just under US$9) for each person. We shared a large bottle of Bintang, the local beer, for Rp35,000. Suddenly the bill for lunch is Rp195,000, plus the ubiquitous tax and service charge, and now lunch costs Rp235,000. That's really only US$25 for lunch for two people, which isn't outrageous in a tourist context. But that number just seems large.

Going to the ATM to take out another million rupiah is...daunting, even though I know it's not unreasonable. I can only imagine the effect of the rampant inflation in places like Zimbabwe, where you suddenly need millions or even billions of the local currency to get anything.

And yet, many things here seem very inexpensive. Our hotel costs us only US$45 per night, which is great. We bought a shirt and a sarong from Dewa's wife's shop, and it totaled US$32. There are certainly bargains here. It's just sometimes hard to wrap your head around what they are.

Surreal Dining

Good dinner last night, but it hardly felt Balinese. We dined at Mosaic, which came highly recommended by our ex-pat friends on the dive boat. It's the only place we've encountered that requires reservations a day ahead. Dewa dropped us off for our 8:30 reservation, and we stepped into a very modern, western-style lounge. Cocktail orders taken, a free canapƩ arrived, and we got to look at the menu.

The menu has four options, all prix fixe, six courses with optional wine pairings: An Indonesian experience, a daily tasting menu, a vegetarian tasting menu, or the Surprise menu, where you tell them what you like and/or can't eat, and the chef improvises for the whole table.

We went with one each of the Indonesian and the tasting menus, figuring we would trade some dishes along the way. And of course, we did. I'll spare you all the details, but the highlights included some Japanese-style oysters, a lightly-smoked salmon over citrus, a duck fois gras, and my favorite, cinnamon pork belly with Langoustine.

One of the desserts included fresh durian with chocolate in phyllo pastry. First time for either of us with the durian, and neither was very impressed. The other dessert was much more to our palates, passion fruit baked in phyllo, with coconut sorbet. Very nice.

The whole dinner took some three hours, and was very pleasant. My only criticism of Mosaic is that they had a live jazz combo playing in the lounge, and we could hear it quite clearly at our table. That's fine, except they were still playing their recorded background music through a speaker on the other side of the table, and the two did not blend well at all. Quite distracting, that.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I Can Use Some Rest

Oh, my. Another busy day in tourist land!

Dewa picked us up this morning at 9:00. "Sleeping in" seemed like such a luxury. After early morning diving, we've just pretty much stayed on the same schedule, waking around 6:30 and crashing into bed right after dinner, around 10:00. Tonight's dinner reservation isn't until 8:30, so we'll see how we hold up. I guess last night we didn't eat until well after the dance show ended at 9:00, so this should work out fine.

Today's destination was upward, to two big temples and then the volcano.

First was the Tirta Empul water temple at Tampaksiring. This is the site of a sacred spring, where people come both to use a public bathing area and a ritual cleansing area. We just came to look at the beautiful and large temple. First thing we saw on entering was some small deer in cages. These are native animals which are in the temple as a kind of refuge; people kill them for sport outside. They're very small, and quite cute.

Then on into the temple. It's quite large an ornate, particularly when compared to the small, community temple we visited the other day. The most noticeable difference to me is that more things are painted, so it's just much fancier looking. Of course, it's also much bigger. The spring flows directly into a pool, and the water then flows into several other pools, each of which has specific cleansing properties. To my view, it's mostly very lovely. With all the water, there are also fabulous flowers, especially the red Bird of Paradise flowers.

Next stop, just down the way, is the carved stone temple of Gunung Kawi. This is sort of the next stop for the water flowing from the water temple. In a deep-carved canyon in the volcanic rock (much like the one we rafted through yesterday) we walked down a long, stone staircase lined with the obligatory vendors hawking batik cloth, woodcarvings, t-shirts, bed coverings (quilts made from the batik), and so on. Eventually this goes through a gate or doorway in the rock itself, and you're in a valley that has been carved into a temple or palace, right out of the living rock.

The guide books all say this is a temple dedicated to the royal family that ruled Bali around the 10th or 11th century CE. Dewa reckons that yes, it was a temple, but also a palace. And it is huge and stunning, both the parts sculpted from the hillside rock and the parts built within. In many ways it's reminiscent of the Mayan works we saw last summer in the Yucatan, though that was pretty much all built up, as there are no hillsides to build into!

It's hard to describe the immensity of the works here, either the statues, the shrines, or the waterworks. Dewa and I cleared some leaves that were blocking some of the water flow in one area. It was satisfying to see water starting to flow again. This temple must have been incredible when it was first built.

After climbing back up the huge stone stairs to get back to the car, we stopped for a cold drink, then headed toward the volcano. On the way, we stopped at an agricultural area, where they grow and display many of the food plants of the area and allow one to sample some of the product (and buy some, of course!).

We saw arabica and robusta coffee trees, cacao, vanilla, papaya, jackfruit, snakeskin fruit, cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, ginger, lemon grass and more. We got to try some of their cocoa and coffees, and also some lemon and ginger teas. They also served us some tamarillo and the snakeskin fruit. The former isn't all that interesting; inoffensively flavored, but nothing special, The snakeskin fruit is really quite good, and the skin of the fruit really resembles snake skin. The snake tree is also really interesting. It has huge, sharp thorns all along the trunk and branches.

They also had several Asian palm civets on site. These are the animals that eat coffee cherries, then pass the seeds through undigested in their feces. Apparently, such beans make some kind of incredible, rare, expensive coffee called luwak coffee. Yet another reason I don't think I'll be taking up drinking coffee.

OK, finally to the volcano. Bali has several volcanoes in the middle of the island. We were sitting on the rim of the caldera of one ancient one, Batur, where at least one secondary cone has grown up in the middle. The view from our restaurant was quite stunning: we ate at a counter overlooking the volcanoes and the caldera. We could see the results of two relatively recent eruptions, within the last 15-20 years. The buffet was decent, but the view was great.

I've left out more details, but as you can see, it was another typical vacation day for our family. We went to a couple of bookstores and bought some reading material for the trip home,based on recommendations from the ex-pats on the boat last week.

Tonight, a nice dinner at a highly-recommended restaurant, then tomorrow, a little down time before we start heading home. We have a couple more touristy stops to make, too, so I'm sure it will be yet another full day.

My Friends

Yesterday, our river rafting guide was pretty much putting on a show, spinning the raft, rocking it, steering us under waterfalls, and so on. I described him as one part river guide, two parts clown, which probably isn't too far off.

But the thing I just realized this morning is that I found it really irritating as he did all those things, not because he did them (they were fun!), but because always as he did them, he would laugh and say "Sorry, sorry my friends!" Now, he doesn't know us, and probably can't remember our names (just as I can't recall his), and it's all a part of the act. But that repeated phrase, "my friends," just rubbed me wrong.

And this morning I remembered why: it's a catch phrase of a certain U.S. Senator from Arizona who is running for president, and I am not, not, not looking forward to plunking back into the middle of a presidential election campaign when I get home. Ugh.

One thing I also realized is that after the ride, as we were walking back up from the river, we actually struck up a conversation with our guide, and despite his limited English, he didn't use the "my friends" tic except when giving his canned directions on where to go or sit, how to board the truck, etc. It's part of the act, and only part of the act.

I'm just guessing that John McCain doesn't address his actual friends as "my friends," either. Just a thought.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Indonesian Elephants

[Note: this information is all based on things I've been told the last few days by people in Bali. I have not had Internet access to verify facts. Errors are probably due to my faulty memory or misunderstanding.]

Until this trip, I wasn't aware that there were elephants native to Indonesia. Over the last couple of days I've seen a lot of elephant artwork, which I originally assumed was just Hindu style borrowed from India. But it turns out that at least one of the big Indonesian islands, Sumatra, still has a native population of Asian elephants. Borneo may have, at one time, but does not currently.

It turns out that Sumatra has a problem with dwindling numbers of elephants. As in other areas, elephants are threatened by poachers looking for tusks and by habitat loss. The native population of elephants now on Sumatra is maybe 2,000. Note that this problem is not confined to elephants. Sumatra is also widely known for its tigers, rhinoceroses, and orangutans, all now critically endangered.

So the Indonesian elephants are all now owned (or at least controlled) by the government, which is running a conservation and breeding program. Because of the pressures on Sumatra, they have chosen to send some of the elephants to other islands, where sponsors such as the Bakas park take care of them. Bakas has ten, and three other parks on Bali have 19, 20, and 27. [Note: there might only be two others; that 19, 20 might have been two guesses at the same park...possible transcription error in my brain.] As far as anyone can tell, Bali never had a native population of elephants. Frankly, it's a pretty small island, so the absence of a huge herbivore is not a surprise. But it also means that the elephants are out of their native habitat, and so have trouble feeding themselves.

So the government assigns mahouts to the elephants, at least some of which are park rangers. These mahouts have to report to the government daily on the health, environment, and care the animals receive. The government can decide, literally at any time, to pull the loaner elephants back home to Sumatra.

This makes life interesting, to say the least, for the mahouts. Mo, the mahout we rode with today, decided in high school on Sumatra that he wanted to help save his country's elephants. And after extensive training, he was assigned to the newborn he named Febi. They have now been together for 14 years.
Seven years ago, the government decided to send Febi to Bali, and Mo with him. Mo's family, all office workers, had never been keen on his career choice, and his girlfriend doesn't like Bali, so she is on Sumatra. The pay is better on Bali, though the cost of living is higher and he no longer lives with his family. On the other hand, there are also more tourists on Bali, so more tips. Even though Mo is fascinated by the world and would love to travel, he is pretty much tied to Febi, 24/7, so he takes comfort in the fact that his picture travels all over the world with tourists.

I asked Mo what language he speaks to Febi in, as none of his commands were intelligible to me. He said it's a combination of three languages: Thai (his original mahout teacher/trainer was Thai), English, and Indonesian. Then he smiled and added, "And my feet." Indeed, he seems to do nearly all of his steering by foot pressures on Febi's head, along with gentle hand touches and a few words.

Life for Febi seems pretty good. We got to watch the morning elephant wash, and both Mo and Febi seemed to enjoy it greatly. Having the same full-time mahout seems to be great for the elephants, but seems pretty hard on the trainers. Still, Mo clearly loves his work. He smiles almost constantly, and speaks with great affection both for Febi and for elephants in general.

Just Singing and Dancing in the Rain

The rain didn't really let up until after the dance show. The show itself was moved from the Ubud Palace to the public hall across the street (under a roof) because of the rain. The show itself is very impressive. The skill and precision of the musicians and dancers is amazing. I have to admit I kind of lost the thread of the story, but followed the long-ago advice of a wise friend: "It's art, Chard. Just let it flow over you."

So I did, and it was good. We were there pretty early, so had seats in the second row to one side. Good spot to watch the gamelan players and the drummers, and prime position to watch the monkey (a dancer; not a real monkey this time). This photo set on Flickr seems to be the same show, two weeks earlier.

After the show, we lit out for one of the restaurants that had been recommended by the ex-pats on the dive boat who live in Bali. Lamak had, as promised, excellent cocktails and dinners. Both the pancetta-wrapped mahi-mahi and the scallops were most tasty.

By the time we got to dinner, I was pretty dry again. I had chivalrously given the umbrella to my lovely wife, and I got pretty soaked as a result. And all's well that ends in a tasty dinner.

Oh, and one more new experience to add to my list: when we had the restaurant call the hotel to give us a ride back, they sent over two motorbikes, so we rode back on the backs of them. My first ride on a motorbike, anywhere. I survived with only a small burn on my leg where it brushed the tailpipe.

Tourist Season

Today has been one of those lessons in how tourists see the world. Yesterday's driver, Dewa, arranged for us to go river rafting and elephant riding today. A driver from the park picked us up at the hotel at 8 am, as planned, and promised us that the rain was done for the day (though it proceeded to rain essentially the entire way to the park).

In his limited English, he tried to sell us on the notion that we needed to stop in at a wood carving place on the way, and we tried to explain that we'd done that yesterday, but with limited success. He also wanted to get us to buy into the notion of hiring him tomorrow to take us up into the mountains and such (which Dewa is already going to do). Ah,well.

We have long-since clued in to the fact that wherever we go as tourists, cab drivers and such are always looking for ways to get you to particular stores, generally owned and run by their friends and family members, and from which they earn "commissions." Fortunately Dewa comes recommended by trusted friends who have traveled with him and even bought goods from his store that they are very pleased with. So there is a level of trust there. But still, there are some obligatory visits. And that's OK, as long as you understand what's happening.

But we got to the park, the Bakas Levi Rafting and Elephant Adventure, and paid our fee. First up was the elephants, which was good for us, because early in the morning is both cooler for us as passengers, but it also means the elephants and their mahouts are fresher. We watched as our elephant came out and had his morning bath, then got saddled up (in the form of a teak chair on blankets, tied on with ropes). Then we climbed aboard, and off for a one-hour ride through the surrounding area.

Our elephant's name was Febi (pronounced like the English name "Phoebe"). We looked a little surprised, and Mo the mahout laughed a little sheepishly that he knows it's a female name. He named it after his sister, who dislikes elephants! Mo has been raising and training Febi (the elephant) since Febi was one day old, and has been with him almost nonstop for the ensuing 14 years. I'll write a separate entry later about some of the things we learned about elephants and their training in Indonesia. But for now, suffice it to say we had a pleasant and wide-ranging discussion with Mo as we rode.

Along the route we got to see a bunch of wild macaques, much like the ones we saw yesterday in the Monkey Forest, but without all the tourists and bananas. Febi foraged for snacks pretty much the whole way, as elephants will. We also saw domesticated pigs (quite unlike the wild pigs we've seen elsewhere), chickens with broods of chicks, and a number of birds.

At the end of ride came a couple of obligatory tricks, including balancing with all four feet on a small pedestal and sitting down on another (all with us still riding up top!). After a final chat and posing for portraits with Febi, we were off to river rafting.

There's not a lot to say about the rafting itself. The river doesn't run very fast, and it doesn't have a lot of drops, either. It was really more of a leisurely float, and we rarely had to paddle at all. We were the only two guests in the raft, along with the guide. Normally there would be 4-5 guests, but not this time. The guide (whose name escapes me, darn it!) did his best to make the tame ride more exciting, with lots of whooping and yelping and jokes, as well as turning the raft around and guiding us under waterfalls so we got good and wet.

What the ride does have going for it is gorgeous scenery. The river runs through a rather steep canyon cut in volcanic rock, and the canyon itself is quite beautiful. And you also get nice views of the surrounding jungle, from a different, lower angle than we'd had from the elephant. All in all, it was a very pleasant ride.

Then, off for a quick shower and change of clothes, then a mediocre buffet lunch, then back with our driver, who again wanted to take us to wood carving or book us for tomorrow. Luckily, we were exhausted, and the tape he put on of bad covers of American music really put us to the snooze.

Back to the hotel, then, and my wife is now off getting a massage at the spa while I write. I'm going to go pick her up soon, and probably go see some Balinese dance at the palace.

Although I should note that it is raining. A lot. Again.

Dry Season

We've had terrific weather during our stay in Indonesia. On the dive boat we were blessed with sunshine and soft breezes, which made for pleasant times both during and between dives. This is, of course, the dry season. In the rainy season it can be stormy and rather less pleasant on the boat.

Last night we noted as we got back to our hotel before dinner that the air was a bit misty. We saw clouds as we walked off to dinner, but we could also see stars. No worries.

During dinner, in rained. Only briefly, maybe 5-10 minutes, but it was pretty intense. Although the restaurant (like many, many buildings in Bali) is essentially outdoors but covered, we were happy and dry, sitting on our cushions, enjoying our meal, watching the rain fall. When we walked home after, the ground was wet, but it wasn't raining.

Overnight, though, it rained. A lot. The sound woke me several times in the night. This morning we both mentioned we were reminded of the opening line of one of my favorite stories from Winnie the Pooh: "It rained and it rained and it rained." This morning it is still raining a bit, off and on. We wonder whether the river rafting and elephant riding will take place. And we wonder, does it often rain this much in dry season?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beginning Bali

Diving being done, and thoughts of early home going having been dashed, we embarked with our hired driver/guide Dewa to see some of Bali and eventually end up at our hotel.

Leaving the airport at Denpasar, he first took us through the tourist district of Kuta. This was where the famous terrorist nightclub bombing took place back in 2002 (one year, one month, and one day after 9/11). We saw the memorial erected at the site, but didn't stop to spend time there. Our main reaction to Kuta was that we were really glad we had elected to stay elsewhere. Didn't really need the chain stores and nightclubs that could be in any tourist beach town in the world.

But we had expected this. Our friend Sharon had recommended not only that we hire Dewa, but that we spend our few days in something more like the real Bali, so we're in Ubud, about 45 minutes north of the tourists. The streets are narrower, the shops are smaller and have local flavor instead of designer labels. And it's really rather quiet.

On the drive up, we stopped at several places, including both stone and wood carving places and a small, local temple. Bali is known for both its carving crafts and its batik cloth, as well as its Hindu temples and dancing. The carvings are just amazing, even though we know they're produced in quantity for the tourist market. It is really high-quality stuff.

The temple was interesting. It's quite old, and constantly being renovated. But it has the sincere feel of a local church. Much less pretense than temples we visited in Fiji, for example.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. Their pizza oven is in the stomach of a large carved stone turtle (wish I’d gotten a picture!). The dining room is on the top floor, open on all sides so you can see the surrounding country, which is largely rice fields. It was very calm and peaceful, and the food authentic and tasty (we skipped the pizza and had curry and fried noodles with veggies).

Then we stopped to check into our hotel, the Tunjung Mas Bungalows. It's a small place (6 bungalows, I believe), but quiet and lovely, easy walking distance to town. The name translates as "Golden Lotus Flower," and there are lots of lovely flowers on the grounds.

We then visited the Monkey Forest, where there are, unsurprisingly, about 300 macaque monkeys in residence. They're a hoot, running all about doing monkey business and delighting the tourists. Interestingly, there is a Hindu cemetery in the middle of the forest on a hill, and there was a community burial going on which we watched some of. I was not aware that in Bali, at least, they bury their dead for a while, then eventually exhume them for a mass cremation. The purpose is to save the expense of individual funerals.

After visiting Dewa's shop and his wife's, too, we crashed at the hotel for a bit before heading off to dinner at Bebek Bengil, which translates to the Dirty Duck Diner. It's a lovely setting, built on what used to be rice fields. It's extensive, but doesn't feel big or crowded, as the facilities are really well designed. There is flowing water and fountains throughout, and tables that feel private. The food was quite tasty, and we both tried cocktails made with arak, the local liquor. Rather a strong flavor, so we switched to Bintang, the local pilsner beer.

Whew! Long, busy day, and we have to get up in the morning to go river rafting and elephant riding before Jan's spa appointment and Balinese dancing at the old palace. Hey, short visit, no time to waste!

Last Seven Seas Thoughts

Just wanted to put down a few more thoughts about the recently-competed diving aboard the Seven Seas before I start scribbling about Bali.

First, I have to say that the Seven Seas was a very nice, very well-run operation. Mark and his crew did an excellent job of making us all feel welcome, comfortable, and safe. The boat itself is lovely, and the dive crew and kitchen crew were all top-notch. Good food (self-serve is nice), friendly service, and all well maintained. I believe we had one of the smallest cabins on the boat, but it was quite adequate. We stored our luggage and some other things on the unused upper bunk. Getting dressed with two of us was challenging at times, but we managed.

And the diving was really, really good. Graham made sure we got a taste of all the different environments available around Komodo, and Tomi and Bram and the boat drivers made sure we saw the key things and got to and from the sites quickly and easily. Best of all, I felt like Mark and his crew had a good, positive working relationship. I didn't sense any of the labor-management tensions that often creep into dive-boat operations.

It was hard to say goodbye, but after ten days and about 35 dives, we were ready to think about heading home.

We'd had some thoughts about trying to get home sooner, rather than spending an extra four days in Bali, but Continental Airlines assured us that the one flight leaving before ours on Sunday, tonight, was already overbooked considerably. So we headed off for a little mini-adventure in Bali.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Boats to Build

We did a really interesting little tour of a village known for building boats. Unfortunately, I seem to have neglected to write down the name of the village, so I hope one of my trip mates can fill in that gap.

Anyway, they build boats in the traditional Indonesian way, which is to say, by hand, from wood. They use a few metal bolts in key locations, but for the most part, it’s wooden pegs, driven by wooden hammers. They do use an electric drill, however.

Some of the fascinating aspects of the process are that, unlike Western ship-building, they build the hull's planking first, then individually shape the ribs to fit the planks. By hand. And nearly everything about the process is handmade of wood, like the ladders down into the boat, the roof over the hull that shelters the workers (and the boat) from sun and rain. I hope my pictures can convey some of that.

We climbed up a ramp to look into one of the hulls that was in process. It’s not nearly as rickety as it appears, though it is a bit steep, with not much in the way of a railing. Depending on who you ask, the four guys building this boat have been at work on it for either one or two years so far. There’s still much to do, including plugging the gaps between the planks and adding decking. Once the hull is complete, they have to launch the boat and tow it to another island where it gets its engine and other finishing.

The village itself was pretty interesting. We stopped by one house and saw people weaving. We walked through much of the town, followed by a horde of children. One teenage boy was talking to his girlfriend on his mobile phone so she could hear us speaking English. Several people in our group had brought gifts for the children of the village, including pencils and books. I thought a riot was going to break out over the package of pencils. It’s hard to believe how much of a difference such a thing can make in a kid’s life, but we later had one little girl showing off her pencil and just beaming.

We saw lots of motorbikes in town, but only a few cars. The biggest, fanciest house belongs to one of the big boat-builders, naturally. That is really the business of the village. But we saw other interesting stuff, like a shack with a hand-painted sign that reads "Rental Playstation." For a place with little apparent electricity, that seemed odd.

Poking About

Diving (and the visit to Komodo National Park) is winding down. Josh is editing his trip video, which promises to be splendid, as always. This morning we visited an interesting site where a big boulder from the top of the reef recently (like 12-18 months ago) rolled down to about 90 feet. In the wake of its roll, there are a lot of small rocks in the black sand. And among them, more nudibranchs than I can describe. Graham says it's the premier nudibranch dive in all Asia.

It's funny how we can get from watching schools of big fish one dive to poking under rocks for tiny slugs the next. Truly, I enjoy both. One of the joys of looking so closely at small things is that you notice more and more detail the longer you look. You might start out looking for a pretty nudibranch and notice a tiny shrimp or a well-hidden crab. Much like life in general, I suppose: When you're open to seeing things, you might see things you didn't expect.

Volcano update: The cone was shrouded in clouds this morning. Unfortunately I didn't get to take a picture, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Don't Know

Good diving today. We're still at Sangeang Island, and this morning conditions were very mild, so we got to dive again at Deep Purple and Bubble Reef in the morning with essentially no current. Then an afternoon dive at Sangeang Rocks, where we bimbled (Graham's term for it) around the rocks looking for critters. I found lots of little shrimps and crabs, some little nudibranchs, and a few little fish. Lots of baby and juvenile fish on all the dives; this is a great time of year for that.

As we rode the skiff back to the boat, we noticed the smell of smoke in the air, and someone pointed out that the top of the volcano is smoking a bit. Last night coming back from the night dive we had noticed an orange glow up there, too. No notion that things might blow, but it's kind of fun being next to an active volcano.

UPDATE: As the sun went down, we could see the orange glow up near the top of the volcano. There was some debate over whether we were seeing lava or a fire, but Graham assures us there is nothing up there that would burn (anymore), so we concluded that it was lava glowing. Kind of eerie and yet cool.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Small and Large

Fascinating deep dive this morning at Sangeang Island, a relatively-recently active volcano with lots of black sand. We dropped down about 110 feet into a canyon full of fan corals and such. I found a huge scallop on the wall, probably the largest I've ever seen. Working with our friend Sharon, I also spotted a tiny pygmy seahorse on one of the fan corals.

Probably the oddest find was a dive mask one of our friends found sitting on top of the reef. The cover on the mask strap had the logo of our local dive shop back home, Bamboo Reef! We decided to leave it there. I'm hoping someone can snap a picture of it when we go back later this morning.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Life on the Reef

Today we're at Banta Island, not technically part of Komodo National Park, but just outside. The water is warmer again, and the dive site we're currently visiting, called K2, is quite spectacular. The late morning dive was particularly good, with lots of light, warm water, and just about the whole range of reef life on display. As we swam along, we could feel different currents blending, which is usually a signal that much will be happening. The different currents bring in nutrients, and that was certainly in evidence.

Many corals that are usually only open at night were fully out and feeding. Schools of reef fish that are normally lurking in or near their coral homes were out in the open, gorging themselves on yummy planktonic lunches. From the perspective of our photographer friends, the visibility isn't all they'd like, but the amount of life on display more than makes up for it.

At one point I spotted a couple of groupers, so I watched, thinking I might get a repeat or a variation on yesterday's courtship dance. Instead, one took off almost immediately, headed down the reef. As I pointed out the remaining one to my buddy, he spooked a little, and moved away. Almost instantly, the “rock” above him moved, revealing itself to be a fairly good sized, very well camouflaged, octopus!

I tried to get the octopus to play, but it only wanted me to go away. Doug came and got a few pictures, but by the time Andrew and his video camera got there, the octopus wanted nothing more than to hide. He found a rather deep hole in the reef, where I could barely see a tentacle and an eye, so I figured we were done.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Love is in the Water

We're south of the equator here (8 degrees or so), which means that it's Spring, and you can certainly tell by the behavior of the critters hereabouts.

We did two dives today at a site called Castle Rock, where there is often a current running ("breezy" or "drafty" and sometimes "gusty," depending on who you listen to). Currents tend to bring in bigger life, and this site is no exception. As we dropped in, we could see numerous white tip reef sharks cruising by. There we lots of trevally jacks, mackerel, and some tuna, too. Some of the mackerel were getting a bit frisky, swimming side-by-side, bumping into each other, getting excited.

After watching that show for a while, we headed up the sea mount to shallower water. There were some really nice corals and lots of fish; pleasant to watch. I spotted a pair of camouflage groupers circling around one another. This was clearly a mating/courting ritual. We watched for a while, and then noticed a much bigger grouper come peeking around the rock, apparently deciding all was going well, and heading off again. I decided this must be the chaperon. After a couple more minutes a third grouper of the same sort, but showing rather different coloration, joined in. One of the others, presumably the female, moved off, and the two others literally faced off, sitting nose-to-nose for a couple of minutes. Then there was a little snapping, some displays of wide-open mouths, and the interloper (I think) moved on. The female returned, and the courting resumed.

One positive thing I noticed this morning was a crown-of-thorns starfish. These are known as a great, voracious pest in many places, and the last time I recall seeing any was on our honeymoon ten years ago in Fiji, where they had devastated quite a number of reefs, practically scraping them bare. We were told at the time that the rise of the crown-of-thorns correlated with the decline of giant clams, which filter enormous amounts of water, including filtering out the eggs of the crown-of-thorns.

Here we have noted quite a few clams, although not the truly huge ones, but they seem to be doing the job of keeping the crown-of-thorns in check. Balance is important.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Big Black Fish

A highlight of the afternoon was a dive along a reef that culminated in us "hooking on" to the reef in a strong current while "big, black fish" came to check us out. I'm not entirely clear why the dive guide didn't want to say what kind of big, black fish we might bee seeing. I guess either he didn't want to jinx us, or he wanted the nature of the fish to be a surprise.

In any case, after swimming along the reef for a bit, we swooped up through a gully into shallow water and grabbed onto pieces of dead coral rock. As the current rushed by, we scanned for big, black fish.

And then, they came: Manta rays. At least four of them, about 5-6 feet across. They would swim up through our streams of bubbles, almost close enough that we could touch them. Then they'd open up their mouths and float back on the current, feeding as they went. It was great, and went on, over and over, for about half an hour. We had a blast.

Later, some folks went back to snorkel at the same site. They had some good encounters, but only when there were also divers in the waters. They appear to really like the bubbles. When the divers were gone, the mantas still played and fed in the current, but farther away from the people.

Here Be Dragons

This morning we awoke at Komodo Island. After breakfast we took the skiffs over to the visitor center at the park, where we hired guides to walk us around the island. On the walk we saw a lot of deer, a couple of wild pigs, Imperial pigeons, chickens, eagles, and some other birds. But no dragons. We did see some genuine dragon poo, complete with deer hair, so we know they are around and feeding.


As luck would have it, however, there are four big dragons who like to hang out by the kitchen at the ranger station, so they took us over there. It's not the same as seeing them truly in the wild, but they are wild and uncaged. Lovely animals, if a bit slothful this morning.

The island itself, at least the part we hiked, is quite dry ('tis the season)and not particularly diverse. After the obligatory stop at the ranger-station souvenir shop and one other little higher-end gift shop (I so wanted to buy a plush Komodo dragon, but didn't want to carry it home!) we walked through a local market where we were offered carved dragons (many wearing scuba gear), pearls, and some other crafts. Little kids followed us back to the skiff, imploring us to buy some pearls, a necklace, a carving. Or give us your hat, your sunglasses, something. They ultimately seemed pretty pleased with our plastic water bottles.

One of the ongoing difficulties in diving in some of these remote, impoverished areas is how to deal with such requests. We have so much, it seems criminal to leave without leaving something behind. Most of us try to help, and often bring some small gifts for the villagers, but it is always difficult.

I guess I'm slightly disappointed in the dragon encounter. It's cool to have seen them. In some ways the distant spotting of them on the beach the other morning was more satisfying, but both reinforce that we are really in Komodo.

Now back to diving for a bit. Supposed to be lots of fish life hereabouts.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Good Days and Bad Days


We've spent two days moored in Horseshoe Cove at the southern end of Rinca Island. There are several terrific dive sites within short skiff rides, so the boat stays put, and we get to choose from many options.

The beach right in front of the boat occasionally features a little wildlife. Wild pigs come out to forage (a family of four, at least). We've seen a deer rearing up to eat leaves off a mangrove tree. And...dragons. At least two small Komodo dragons have put in appearances. All too far away for my little camera to register them, but through binoculars they're quite clear.

One afternoon we took a bowl of fish and chicken parts over to the beach to see whether we could entice any dragons to come into camera range. One did poke his nose out onto the beach while we were way down at the other end, but by the time we got back to his area, he was long gone.

While we strolled the beach waiting for dragons, I took the opportunity to shoot some pictures of the trash washed up along the tide line. Ugh. Much as we'd seen in Sian Ka'an preserve in the Yucatan, there was a load of mostly plastic trash all around the high tide line. Rumor has it that cruise ships dump their trash not far off shore. We found lots of food packets, bottles, bottle caps, and just small bits of brightly colored plastic.

Very sad, here in a national park, a World Heritage Site, to find more signs of negligent human activity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Let the Diving Begin!


Just finished our first dive off the Seven Seas. We're anchored off Wainilu Point on Rinca Island, next door neighbor to Komodo Island. This spot is terrific for critter diving, also known as “muck diving.” We basically just go over a limited area, looking closely for small, often obscure, creatures.

The highlight of the dive for me was finding a little octopus called a "Wunderpus." He was actively hunting, and we even saw him surround and eat a small crustacean (a maneuver known as "tenting"). Apparently they are rather rare, but there he was, just sitting out on the sand!

I suppose I should mention that this is a somewhat unusual dive charter. Organized by our friends Liz and Josh at Undersea Productions, it's a 10-day cruise on the traditional-style Indonesian boat The Seven Seas around Komodo National Park. Along on the trip, in addition to the boat's regular dive crew, is Graham Abbott of Diving 4 Images. Graham is a British ex-patriot who lives in Bali and dives these waters a LOT. He's known for being able to find the critters that photographers and videographers want to capture, so he runs a service for them. Since nearly everyone on this trip (other than us) is shooting either video or stills, this will come in quite handy.

Komodo National Park

We caught a flight this morning from Denpasar, Bali to Labuan Bajo (LBJ) on Flores Island. This is kind of the entry point to Komodo National Park. It's cool to step off the plane into a very small airport covered with giant posters of Komodo dragons. They're close by, somewhere!

Truth be told, the primary motivation for me to come on this trip was not so much the diving (though I'm told it can be spectacular) as the opportunity to see the dragons. I'm not sure what the attraction is, exactly. I know they are the largest living member of the lizard family, I've seen them in at least one zoo (Sydney's Taronga Zoo), and truly, they're not all that inspiring. But I hope that seeing them in their native habitat will be better.

Flying from Bali among all the small islands was quite spectacular. Lots of islands, with amazing variety in size, shape, and vegetation. Very scenic. Indonesia has always struck me as phenomenally diverse and widely distributed. As usual, my history is weak, so I'm quite unclear on how Indonesia came together, but it strikes me that it would be nearly impossible to govern something so large and diverse.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sweet!

And we're off! It's the start of yet another dive vacation. Starting off slow and easy, we flew to Honolulu this morning. That's five hours in the air. After one day in Hawaii we'll have 13 hours to fly to Bali, via Guam.

In a flash of extraordinarily poor judgment, we decided to take the shuttle bus to Waikiki. It worked really well for us on a previous visit, but in retrospect, that's because then our hotel was one of the first to drop off, where this time we were closer to the Diamond Head end of things, which was one of the last. So we sat on the bus a long time.

The good news was that when we arrived at our hotel (the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani), they upgraded us to an ocean-view room. About the time she said upgrade, I blurted out “Sweet!” and she paused, typed a few keys, and upgraded us to a suite. So a random homophone paid off! We were on the 28th floor in a corner suite with a nice view of the ocean and beach.

Since we had all that time on the bus, we spent much of it reading tourist brochures, and decided it might be fun to check out Cirque Hawaii. It appears not to be actually affiliated with Cirque du Soleil, but some of the acts were definitely either copies of the real thing. Parts were kind of cheesy (group jump rope, even in black light just isn't all that thrilling). But it was a fun way to spend the evening.

Then we strolled down the street (they were having a kind of street fair/block party) to our dinner reservation at the Hau Tree Lanai restaurant. Tasty dinner, and Danny the sommelier was very helpful and friendly. He pointed us to a very tasty French wine that went well with both of our main dishes: a filet mignon and the avocado-and-crab encrusted mahi mahi.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Squirrel Smashing

Just found a link to this over at Pharyngula. It's a hoot for science geeks.

We're headed off diving tomorrow, so I likely won't post for a bit. Lots of back-dated posting when I get back, as usual. Cheers!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Torch of Evolution

I had meant to look this up before I went to the Galapagos earlier this year. I stumbled across it this morning, so I wanted to mention it here.

It's a passage from Nathaniel Philbrick's book "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," a historical account of the sinking of a whale ship that probably inspired some of the story line for Melville's Moby-Dick. At one point the Essex stops in the Galapagos to gather some tortoises for food. Having taken 180 tortoises from tiny Hood Island (now Isla EspaƱola) in four days, they headed to nearby Charles Island (now called Santa Maria, or Floreana, depending on who you listen to), where they picked up a 600-pound tortoise that took six men to carry.

But on their last day on the island this went awry:
On the morning of October 22, Thomas Chappel, a boatsteerer from Plymouth, England, decided to play a prank. Not telling anyone else on the Essex what he was up to, the mischievous Chappel (who was, according to Nickerson, "fond of fun at whatever expense") brought a tinderbox ashore with him. As the others searched the island for tortoises, Chappel secretly set a fire in the underbrush. It was the height of the dry season, and the fire soon burned out of control, surrounding the tortoise hunters and cutting off their route back to the ship. With no other alternative, they were forced to run through a gauntlet of flame. Although they singed their clothes and hair, no serious injuries resulted--at least not to the men of the Essex.

By the time they returned to the ship, almost the entire island was ablaze. The men were indignant that one of their own had committed such a stupid and careless act. But it was Pollard who was the most upset. "[T]he Captain's wrath knew no bounds," Nickerson remembered, "swearing vengeance upon the head of the incendiary should he be discovered." Fearing a certain whipping, Chappel did not reveal his role in the conflagration until much later. Nickerson believed the fire killed thousands upon thousands of tortoises, birds, lizards, and snakes.

The Essex had left a lasting impression on the island. When Nickerson returned to Charles years later, it was still a blackened wasteland. "Wherever the fire had raged neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared," he reported. Charles would be one of the first islands in the Galapagos to lose its tortoise population. Although the crew of the Essex had already done its part in diminishing the world's sperm-whale population, it was here on this tiny volcanic island that they contributed to the eradication of a species.
We didn't go to Isla Santa Maria on our trip. There are dive sites there, but it wasn't part of our itinerary. I would have liked to see what the island looks like today. On the map I bought at the Charles Darwin Research Station (ironically, about the closest we came to Isla Santa Maria), the islands are colored to show vegetation and such. Isla Santa Cruz is pretty much entirely a lush green. Isla Santa Maria is almost completely brown, with just a bit of green near the peak.

One of the reasons people visit the Galapagos is to see the islands where Charles Darwin explored and examined the variety of life and the environmental factors that shape it, contributing to his development of his theory of speciation. A mere fourteen years or so before Darwin's visit, a careless, reckless sailor almost single-handedly wiped out at least one subspecies (PDF) of that great variety. I've read estimates that whalers may have taken as many as 15,000 tortoises from this one island for food, not to mention those wiped out by the fire.

As I noted in my other Galapagos posts, the hand of man rests heavily on the islands. Nature has done amazing things there, but mankind seems determined to show that it, too, can shape the course of evolution and extinction.