On to Ambon

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October 29 2010

 Hi all — Just a quick update to fill in the gap between leaving gorgeous Torajaland and the best hotel we’ll probably have on this trip, making our way back to Makassar and then on to Ambon.

We had gone to Rantepeo via Lake Tempeh and so broke up the bone jarring journey which we had to endure in one 10 hour marathon to get back down to Makassar for our flight. The road out of Toraja is a winding serpentine coil of one hairpin bend after another. We had expected that once we got on to the flat of the sea coast things would go more quickly. However that whole area is under road construction and, as far as we can figure out, has been for years with no end in sight. No wonder the Torajans are so bitter and have set up their own political area hence the forthcoming elections Their tourism depends on getting people up there and there is no good way. Everyone thinks the money for the road has gone into corruption and they are probably right. You have never seen such a ridiculous way to build a road — Jeremy and the other engineers would have laughed themselves silly when they weren’t jostling up and down and flying off the bus seat on the impacts. It appears that small chunks of the road, say about 2 or 300 metres had been contracted out separately. Some of them had completed one lane of the 4 lane highway, others two, in some places there were sad little land locked bridges all painted but useless, but the really weird thing was that between each chunk was a no man’s land of 50 metres or so which seemed to be noone’s responsibility. Since the road is all being made of concrete poured into forms, you can imagine how hard it was for the bus to navigate itself down the 18 inch step onto the gravel, then up again at the next bit. Every now and then a few plastic chairs or some such had been thrown into the road to act as an indication that a detour was required. Honestly, though the bus had quite comfortable seats, and we had the prime front seats with a good view of all oncoming disasters, the transmission was shot and the suspension was toast, but we could certainly see why. We spent over 10 hours negotiating 323 kilometres and we stopped for two 10 minute breaks. The driver deserved a medal, but I think his reward was to turn around and drive the night bus back!

Next morning we flew on to Ambon in Maluku, another new island to us. What a tropical paradise — turquoise sea, palm trees, luxuriant greenery — all the cliches, plus unrelenting horrible traffic like all of Indonesia so far. Ambon is small, about 340,000 with nothing too much to offer tourists except a gateway to various island groups. Pleasant enough for a day or two though and we had errands to do here. We have a slightly shabby but most efficient hotel catering to Indonesian business men. There was one other foreigner eating breakfast the other day but when I approached him it turned out he was a very deaf Norwegian who has lived here for 30 years — I should have realised it as he had the distinctive yellow colour that all expats seem to get if they stay in the tropics too long.

We wanted to extend our visa here as our future travel plans depended on when and if we could do so. The first day the hotel told us which bemo to get for “Immigrasi” and we went off to the nearby massive bemo depot to find the correct one. It is hard to even describe the bemo system here (bemos are those tiny little vans with bench seating along the side into which as many people as can squish onto the seats are packed) The depot is vast — two depots together really full of different coloured bemos with names on them and swampers yelling for customers. We knew ours was meant to be yellow but it turned out that there were yellow ones going to all manner of different places. I would say that there were at least 5 or 6 hundred bemos packed into the so called depot waiting for customers. By repeating the name of the bemo we wanted to various helpful swampers we succeeded in boarding the correct one and it was all remarkably efficient. Since we are such an extreme oddity we find that there is virtually no chance of them forgetting to let us off at the correct place, it is just that I guess my Indonesian accent is so terrible that unless I can show them the name of the place in writing they stare blankly at me!

The visa office was strangely co-operative — on our second visit that is, they were all out watching a dance performance when we went the first time. We filled out some forms and they told us to come back Friday — weren`t interested in our onward tickets, taking our photos, fingerprinting us etc etc all of which we had been told to expect. I think the whole process was helped by the fact that one of the women initially mistook our 60 day visa (which is not common) for a 30 day and thought we had “overstayed“ a major crime in Indonesia. She ran off with one passport gabbling in Indonesian, the only word of which I could pick out was “over stay over stay“ so I picked up the other one and called 60 day 60 day and she came running back, hysterically laughing with relief. I guess they actually thought they might have to do some work if two foreigners came in who had overstayed. They told us to come back today, which apparently was ping pong day, the entire staff was in gym clothes playing ping pong, and gave us our passports back (after we paid of course) and sent us off in another bemo to have photocopies made of the 3 relevant pages in our passports. It was only later that we thought why on earth did we bother, we had the passports with the visa stamp in them, we could have just taken them and gone — but good obedient Canadians that we are we returned and gave them the photocopies and they happily went on with the tournament.

We also, with some difficulty managed to get tickets to and from the Banda Islands which was one of our main goals in coming here. We are off there tomorrow on an 8 hour ferry and hope we have booked to fly back a week later. Communications with the islands seems to be very difficult but we found a very helpful English speaking agent who spent ages sorting it all out for us. If we go on to Papua from here she will work that out for us too.>> We have spent the remainder of our time touring about a bit, we got a guy with a car to take us yesterday to some very Indonesian not foreigner friendly beaches, (Indonesians don`t want to swim so the beaches are not your idea of a beach despite the lovely sea coast, instead they build out concrete promenades so they can sit and eat basically) and to see some other sights of interest including the oddest eel pond. In a place called Weei there is a lovely freshwater spring which the villagers have conducted through a cement canal. All the children splash and wash in it, and farther down everyone in the neighbourhood does their laundry. The odd part is that the canal is home to these huge eels — they are a good two metres long and too large in diameter to span with my two hands. A man there is known as the “eel master“ and for a payment he takes raw eggs and calls the eels to come to him. I am not sure whether he has trained them or if they are naturally docile, but he gets them to come out from under the rocks and he strokes them and you are supposed to stroke them too. Remarkably slick and slimy creatures they were, he kept trying to get me to pick one up by the middle and it kept just slipping through my hands until I was gripping the neck when I quickly let go! All the time you are doing this, you are stepping around the piles of wet laundry and avoiding the splashing naked children all of whom co-exist happily. Odd. Since our driver was charging us so much money we made him take us to a restaurant on a high hill above Ambon to have dinner where we had a beautiful grilled fish, something they do very well in this part of the world — not TOO many bones Andrew!

Before I close I have been meaning to mention a couple of socially interesting things about this country. First of all, pretty much all males smoke and they smoke constantly — it is much worse than China. They smoke everywhere and all the time, and they throw the butts down on the floor when they are finished. Consequently, any hotel that was stupid enough to install carpeting is a nightmare of cigarette burns if it is more than a year or two old. The counter in our bathroom in this hotel has dozens of burns on it. People sit under no smoking signs (like in the lounge of the hotel where I am typing this) and smoke like chimneys. The other thing is that even the most seemingly poverty stricken market person has a cell phone, and everyone sits texting constantly. I know it`s bad in Vancouver, but this is beyond anything I`ve ever seen. People text while they`re serving you in stores or agencies, behind hotel desks, and everyone sitting on a bemo is texting constantly. Cell phones (“handpons“) are very cheap and the “pulsa“ or minutes that you buy are virtually free. And of course motorcycles are ubiquitous and annoying as hell since they drive everywhere including the sidewalk but everyone seems to accept it as normal…

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