Jun 20, 2015

Lamalera: Traditional whaling village

Elizabeth and I made our way to the legendary whaling villages of Lamalera in the south of the island of Lembata. The whalers of Lamalera eke out their existence in various states of contention with conservation groups and the Indonesian government. They have been exempted from international prohibitions due to the small number of their subsistence catch (about 10-15 whales per year). The government sometimes sends in emissaries to try to negotiate and end to their fishing practices. In any case, the 2,000 or so people who live here are continuing to hunt in the same way they have for hundreds, if not thousands of years--in tiny boats with bamboo harpoons,and enormous cahones. In true Gonzo spirit I sought to accompany one of the whaling boats on a hunt. Vegetarians, you should probably just stop reading this now.

All aboard the mighty ship Monas!

Gateway to Lamalera

Alfons Mnua was the unmistakable leader of our vessel, the Monas. Alfons stood on two dark-skinned and stick-thin legs, improbably resolute against the constant and unpredictable reeling of the boat. He had the indeterminate age of experience, such that you didn’t know how old he might be, but surely he had been doing exactly this for 40 years. What few sentences were spoken that day, he spoke the majority of them, dominating the quiet times of waiting and watching with an austere monologue of the Lamalera language, which was always earnestly heeded. He would smoke his corn-husk cigarette voluminously, and when he reached for his jar of tobacco it was a sign that the chase had ended, for now. The others of our boat all smoked them as well. They were all imitators, unable to produce the billowing clouds of tobacco smoke which emanated from Alfons.

Alfons on the right, harpooner up front

The man who came closest was our harpooner, whose job it was to bodily fling himself from the prow of our speeding boat as a human extension of the harpoon itself until he had driven the hook deep into the prey as he clung to its back. The spikey-toothed sperm whales that he would launch himself onto grow up to 20 meters (65 feet) long compared to our wooden boat of about 5 meters.

Clearly these were men that Hemingway would be proud to write about

All together our crew were nine including myself. We gathered at 6:30 on the shore and squatted, smoking until the whole crew had arrived. We dragged the Monas out of its grass hut and down into the water and by 7:00 we were underway.

Last-minute adjustments

Ready to haul the boat

It was not long before excited shouts rang out. The crew had spotted our first quarry, a two-meter manta ray. The motor man sped up to give chase and the harpooner raised his weapon, pointing it’s tip toward the disturbance on the water’s surface ahead, barely visible to my untrained eyes.

At this point I’d like to point out that catches tend to be few and far between. The village had not caught a whale since April, but considered it to be a very good year since on most days at least one boat had caught something--a manta or whale shark. That means the vast majority of boats that head out into the open water for eight hours return with nothing at all. The chase will begin, but often the quarry will dive down and disappear before we can get close enough. The boat will circle, watching intently for any sign of it coming back to the surface. Or else the harpooner will let fly (with himself), but fail to reach the prey.

Back to our first sighting of the day: We drew close enough and the harpooner struck! He was nearly keel-hauled in the process, but clambered back aboard so quickly he could not be missed. The manta took off to starboard, trashing and flapping its great wings above the surface. We gave chase and more harpoons went in. The manta was reeled in to the side of the boat and administered a coup de grâce by Alfons with all the seriousness of a man securing his next meal and his livelihood. The manta was hauled on board within an hour of our leaving the beach.

Alfons led a prayer for the manta, a gift from god that they were harvesting for their village; we crossed ourselves in the Catholic tradition and bid the manta “selamat pagi”, a good morning for its spirit’s departure. Then the tobacco and corn husks came out as the crew celebrated our good fortune.

After our catch we headed further the the east. I was astonished to see a series of massive water spouts on the horizon, one after another. All ten of the village’s boats were headed for a pod of very large whales. Of whales, the hunters seek only toothed whales, chiefly sperm whales and orca. They do not hunt blue whales, which are considered holy, or other baleen whales. We did not get close enough to the pod to discover if they were sperm or another kind of whale before they disappeared into the depths. Dolphins (lumba-lumba) are also not hunted and as we sat for a while waiting, I watched a huge pod frolicking and leaping clear out of the water in the distance. For some time we picked up in hot pursuit of an orca, but we never got close enough for a try and the rest of the day passed without another catch.

Hours passed as we sat, patiently scanning the sea for what may lie beneath the surface

We did cross paths with another fisherman who was hauling in a net of the more conventional sort and tossed a few buckets of flying fish into our boat. I was surprised when two members of the crew, Andreas and Alan, lept upon the catch and started to devour the eyes straight out of the raw fish!

Other fisherman used conventional nets for smaller fish

Those eyes didn't just fall out into the soup

After some pause I did try one but found the texture not entirely agreeable. The hard lens of the eye just didn’t seem like something I ought to chew, but Andreas must have eaten about 100 fish eyes that day. A couple of times we came across small fish floating in the water that must have come out of someone’s net and he dove straight off the boat to recover them!

Around 14:00 we struck out for homeskirting the rocky coast around the volcanic peak.

Wrapping up the harpoons after eight hours of sun and sea

When we got back to shore we found that out of the 10 boats that went out that day, one other boat had caught a manta ray and one had caught a small whale shark.

The catch is divided up; for a large catch everyone in the village will get a share, nothing is wasted

I was rewarded for my valiant bailing efforts throughout the day with a big chunk of manta meat and some organ bits. I don't know what they were, but Mama Maria, the patroness of our homestay cooked it all up into an extremely delicious and delicately textured supper.

My share of the catch

Fish face

Jun 14, 2015

Taking Our First Indonesian Ferry

We arrived at the ferry building amid a crowd of people disembarking, an auspicious sign given the myriad stories of ferries being hours (or days) late. We successfully boarded not too much later amid a mass of people acting much less like a queue and much more like grains of sand in an hourglass. Our tickets declared that we were in Economy Class, Deck 5, Cabins 063-A and 064-A. With little hope that “cabin” was anything more than “bunk bed,” we made our way up to Deck 5.

...Back to the drawing board…

With our cabins apparently non-existent, we found someone in a uniform and pressed our tickets questioningly into his hands. We were directed down to Deck 4, an entire deck of bunks swarming with passengers, and not a single bed in sight unoccupied.

I looked around futilely for numbers (063-A and 064-A??) but didn’t expect that they were anything but first-come first-serve. Our sojourn to the deck actually listed on our ticket may just have cost us beds. Did I mention that the ferry left at 11 PM and arrived at 7 AM?

A blank space caught Nick’s eye, and although it was only a one person space aaaand didn’t have a sleeping mat, we clambered on to stake our claim. Deck 5 had looked too good to be true as soon as we stepped onto it, a quiet, private looking floor above the open clamor that was the deck below. The “Economy Class” portion of our ticket somehow seemed way more important that the suddenly suspect deck and cabins listed. But the weirdest thing is that we had tried to upgrade when we bought our tickets and were told that only Economy existed for this particular crossing. But here we were, both sitting on a one person, unpadded board, thinking longingly of a whole floor of private cabins above us, wondering if we could give anyone our money to let us sleep there.

Side note: I know that this POV may spit in the face of Nick’s recent “disinhibition” post where he outlines how we’ve been getting more comfortable in traditionally uncomfortable situations, but sleep is something I have not yet learned to be easygoing about. I have not (yet) gotten to the point where I can cheerfully greet the THOUSANDS OF CROWING ROOSTERS before 6 in the morning, or understand the busses that roll through towns at 3 AM, idling in the center of town for 30 minutes with music blaring. I have not (yet) learned to greet the day before sunrise or shrug off a night of poor, heavily interrupted sleep. I’ve been showering with a bucket, happily sweating through my clothes daily, gotten bit my mosquitoes and successfully ignored the itching, eaten everything put down in front of me with gusto. I’ve been very disinhibited and I feel quite free, but I’m not (yet) to the level where I can look with a clear head at a 2.5’ x 5.5’ area of board and think “yes, Nick, myself, and our 2 bags will spend a lovely night here.” Sleep is my final frontier.

All was not lost: as I guarded our spot and Nick went in search of an upgrade to a cabin, two girls took pity on us and showed him an area we hadn’t seen that still had some beds (with padding!) available. He came back to tell me and we grabbed our things and rushed to the area where we gratefully spread into the two spots.

The area was shockingly under-crowded, and we’re pretty sure part of that is because it was someone’s “territory.”

We’ve been calling it “The Pelni Mob.” (Pelni is the ubiquitous Indonesian ferry company, we’ll probably be using them a lot). Upon sitting down, the man next to Nick began chatting with him. I, slightly overwhelmed with the experience so far, withdrew into my notebook to document it with accuracy. A few minutes later Nick leaned unobtrusively over and informed me in a low voice that the guy wanted 50,000 rupiah (~$3.75) for us to use the beds. The whole ticket was only 150,000! Some quick whispering back and forth (I really didn’t want to move away from the beds, but we also didn’t want to negotiate with extortionists) and Nick disappeared once more in search of an upgrade. If we’re going to pay to have beds, 50,000 might actually get us a cabin.

“Alone” with the mobster, I made myself busy with my notebook again. He and his mobster partner kept going around moving things on mats, moving the mats themselves leaving 2-3 slots in a row without padding, but not even attempting to talk to me or get me to give them the money that Nick had left without paying. He returned unsuccessful, still being told that private cabins did not exist on this crossing. The mobster tried again to get the money, so Nick and I discussed if we should pay or not.

Cons of paying:
out $3.75
feel silly for paying an extortionist for something we already paid
for a ticket for
what are they going to do if we don’t pay? Throw us bodily off the beds?

get to stay in the beds unharrassed
maybe it’s not a good idea to piss of the Pelni Mob
seriously, what are they going to do to us if we don’t pay?

We decided we would pay, but he had walked away while we were still discussing. He did not ask again. We’re pretty sure that Nick’s carefully cultivated air of not understanding got him to give up on us. Our selves and our bags (laying between us on the beds) remained unperterbed and I was able to sleep.

Jun 11, 2015

Disinhibit yo' self

Those of us who have been bitten by the ever-popular travel bug are always seeking out the adventure of new places, cultures, and sights. A major part of my purpose in venturing through parts of the world where I literally don't know how to wipe my own ass (each of the links in this post contain elaborately graphic language) is to educate and expand myself. Today I will address the conquest to eliminate inhibitions which serve little purpose.

Your sense of carefully calculated refinement or your life!

Stop for a moment and think about all the times throughout your day when you are held back by some inhibition against a minor discomfort or fear:
"Go out to join my friends having a rollicking good time down at the pub? No, parking is a nightmare."
"Use the toilet at this restaurant for some much, much-needed relief? Nope, it's a bit dirty in there; I'll hold it until I get home."
"Take a walk to enjoy this brilliant summer's day? Nah, I would get a bit sweaty."
"Wear my favorite jeans that are at least 95% as comfortable as walking around butt-nekkid? Hmm, someone might notice that stain from last night."
"Eat a slice of John's insanely delicious pizza? Hellz to the no, that place has a 'C' health rating!"
I ran out of antiperspirant. The local replacement is tobacco-scented.

Travel forces us to collide with and surpass many of these minor an unimportant inhibitions, and in surpassing them realize that it's much more fun to not give a rat's patootie.
"Yes, I will have another helping of your delectable meat of unknown origin Mr. Street Vendor. It will introduce me to flavours I have heretofore only read about in Kipling, and if it does more, well I can pick a course of cipromycin out of the suitcase of the vendor next door for 11¢!"
The most coulourful fish I've ever eaten

..And whatever this thing was

Have you ever been caught in the rain on a warm day? At first you might think "Aw jinkeys! It's going to pour down on me and I'll as miserable as this dog:"

'The misfortunes of weather represent my total undoing'

You start to hurry toward your destination and maybe cover your head in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable deluge. The impact of each drop makes a staccato tap-tap-tapping sound upon your meticulously ironed and starched shirt, unprotected by the civility of a raincoat or umbrella. At first the wetness is unpleasant, the natural world is leaking into your carefully constructed reality of dry clothes and leather shoes. A little rain leaks in, then a lot. Your are drenched. The sound of your socks squishing in your shoes starts to take on a faintly humorous note. It doesn't matter anymore how wet you get. It's happened, and in fact it's not really than bad, it's kind of nice in fact in the summer heat. Suddenly something turns and you're feeling all Gene Kelly as the pure pleasure of nature’s watery caress pours down your body.

'It's not so baaaaad!'

So as I continue my conquest I will seek to embrace ever more moments like this. In excess, I will seek to hold onto those feelings of freedom that come each time I've broken down another inhibition and banish future unnecessary discomforts from my senses. What remains I hope will be a more raw and full experience of what it means to be alive.

Dancing across the face of the waters

Jun 10, 2015

Indonesia ho!

Our first land border! Our first home stay in Indonesia! Our first time having the police called on us! It was an... exciting day.

Border selfie!


We crossed into Indonesia on the 7th. A bus service exists between Dili, Timor-Leste and Kupang, Indonesia which makes this our first land crossing! Getting into Indonesia may be our easiest border of the whole trip, but the country itself is over 17,000 islands, about 1,000 of which are permanently inhabited, so... it's not going to be all busses up to Singapore.

Land Border!! Crossing with our kind host, Marthen.

The bus was luxurious! It picked us up at our hostel around 9 AM, took us to the border, and another bus picked us up on the Indonesian side about an hour later to take us to the western end of the island. It would drop us off at our hostel in Kupang. First class service. There was even a little breakfast box on our seat when we got on.

At our first pee break a couple hours in, a gentleman named Marthen with very good English began chatting with Nick and before I had even returned to the bus, we had an offer to stay in his home instead of at the hostel. We gratefully accepted. Our first home stay offer in Indonesia and we weren't even in Indonesia yet!

Great views along the many hour drive.

The bus that picked us up on the Indonesian side after the immigration and customs was outwardly identical, down to the color and company logo, but had a decidedly harder time with hills. We were driving through mountains. I honestly expected to just struggle on like this the whole way, but a short time in the driver must have decided this was above and beyond the usual level of struggling. We switched buses at our lunch stop and continued on. Ironically it was this replacement bus that broke down on us a couple hours later. Sitting by the side of the road with the other passengers, we got more of an opportunity to chat with Marthen, who was so excited that we had agreed to stay with him.

He told us that his brother and sister-in-law were in Papua an a mission, so we would be staying in their room, next to his mother and father. Marthen, it turned out, lives 10 minutes away, but he will drop us off and introduce us to his parents before driving home to his wife and daughter, who we would meet the next day.

Broken down bus...

By the time the bus was fixed, we had driven the rest of the way to Kupang, gotten some rice and meat take-out, and gotten to his parents place, Nick and I were exhausted. It was about 9:30. We had barely enough energy to eat our dinner and set up our mosquito net before collapsing gratefully into bed. It had been a long day.

"But wait, Elizabeth, your teaser included something about policemen? Did you forget that part?"

No, no I did not.

We were in bed asleep when I heard a knock at the door. A voice said "good night," and I assumed it was Marthen come back to make sure that we had settled in well. I just called back "good night" and turned over to return to sleep. The knock came again, this time at the window next to the door, and I distinctly heard the word "police." Dressing hurredly, I opened the door to a uniformed policeman and a crowd of about 20-30 people. I asked him if there was a problem. He did not speak any English. He said some things to be in Indonesian, but I could not understand. From the crowd the call went up, "English, English!" A shy looking girl who looked about 16 or 17 stepped forward and approached.

I addressed her timidly, "is there a problem?"

"They need your passports."

With our passports in his hands, and shining gold letters declaring "United States of America" accross the front of each, he asked "where are you from?"

"USA, America"

He handed the passports to two gentlemen near him who began rifling through them and writing things down. Was the one jotting my details down writing on a napkin? I think that's a napkin!
(Neither gentleman was wearing a uniform.)

"Why are you not staying at a hotel?"

"We got invited to stay here by the gentleman whose parents live here." Marthen was not there, living 10 minutes away as we had discovered earlier. His parents were, but spoke no English.

"I see, just for tonight?"

"Yes." Well, we were intending to stay longer, but that doesn't appear to be an option anymore.

My eyes kept flicking to the men with our passports. They were still flipping through them and occasionally jotting down a note.

"You did not inform the police that you would be staying here tonight. When you stay in this area you need to inform the police. When you stay at a hotel this is not a problem."

"We didn't know this, we were just invited to stay."

"We have been having trouble with illegal immigration in this area. It is no problem now for you because you have passports with valid Indonesian visas."

Ok, so the guys did successfully find the pages with our Indonesian visas and could see that they're valid. WHY ARE THEY STILL FLIPPING THROUGH THEM MAKING NOTES? Maybe it's not a napkin, now it looks more like tissue paper. Still...

We stood there awkwardly while the whole group chatted away. The girl did not volunteer translations, the policeman was not speaking.

Occasionally the policeman would reiterate the fact that we should have warned the police but that it's ok because we have passports, so we're not illegal. He did not, however, make any motion to retrieve our passports and allow us to go back to bed.

At one point the man with mine walked away toward the edge of the crowd to take a call. Still holding my passport. Nick started visibly and we both made semi-incoherent noises at the poor impromptu interpreter involving the word, "passport."

She assured us that we would get them back and a couple of minutes of anxiously craning to keep him in sight, he walked back. At this point the policeman collected our passports back, but made no move to return them to us. He himself began idly flipping through them. He made untranslated comments, and judging by the words "Darwin, Australia" he was just treating the crowd to some samples of where we'd been.

At this point we were brought chairs and finally told why we weren't getting our passports back yet. We were waiting on someone from immigration to come. This man, when he arrived, spoke English and was very quick and businesslike.

While taking pictures of our passports and visas: "I see you just arrived today, everything is valid, some people in the community were worried because you arrived in the middle of the night and it seemed someone might be trying to hide you."

"Our bus broke down, so we arrived much later than scheduled."

He did not care at all, he was already handing us back our passports and shaking our hands goodnight.

We were finally back to bed. It was now 12:15.

Jun 8, 2015

Roads of Timor-Leste

This is a quick post to show you how we have been travelling through the mountains here.

A full load of fun

Many of the roads are too rough for buses (you can totally forget about cars outside of the capital), so you have to hop in the back of a big truck if you want to get around. Locals on tiny motorbikes manage to maneuver around the potholes and through the mud as well.

Also some snorkeling footage! This is from the deserted beach on the north side of Christo Rei right outside of Dili.