“I’m gonna freefall, out into nothin’; gonna leave this world for awhile.”
After more than a week discovering the villages and regions of mainland Papua New Guinea, it was time to get back to what I really love—the ocean. I’d enjoyed all my land excursions, but save 2 days in Nusa Lembongan when my parents visited, it had been well over a month since I’d been diving, which was really what this whole trip was about. The sea was calling my name.
I hopped on a plane in Port Morseby bound for Hoskins airport in Kimbe, on the island of New Britain. As we flew over the teal blue waters I could already tell the diving here was going to be incredible. From the plane I could see the varying shades of blue leading my imagination toward the promise of good visibility and healthy reefs below. The plane descended onto a small airstrip similar to the others I’d visited in PNG. Once again, my massive luggage miraculously all made the journey with me and I was collected for the transfer to the Walindi resort where the Febrina liveaboard was docked.
As I exited the airport, I was surrounded by wails and cries from the local people in a crowd nearby. On closer look, I saw that they were gathered around a casket that was being brought out of the airport.
One of our guides on the land tour had told us about witnessing a gathering like this—a “cry cry.” I had never seen anything like it. Women wailed and threw themselves on the casket. The sounds of sheer pain filled the air. It brought tears to my eyes to see their grief. So I sheepishly got into the van, a bit embarrassed at stopping to watch such a personal moment among these people.
As we headed to the resort, we passed through field upon field of palm oil trees. They seemed to be endless, and the industry employs the vast majority of the people in the region. Eventually the trees parted and we approached a small, simple, but comfortable dive resort. I spent the afternoon lounging around, enjoying lunch, and meeting a few of the people who would be on the boat.
Later that afternoon we embarked the ship, and I was shown to my cozy one-person cabin. And I mean cozy. There was room only for the twin bed, bathroom, and enough space for the door to swing open. But it was quite comfortable and just what I needed—my own little space to relax, work on photos, and snooze between dives.
The Febrina itself was likewise just what any diver needs from a liveaboard. It’s not the largest ship and certainly isn’t very fancy, but it gets the job done, with a nice and spacious dive deck with plenty of room to fiddle with cameras. The crew was fantastic, and the first night we were treated to a delicious beef stroganoff that was fairly indicative of the fabulous quality of the local chef on board. (And I’m usually disappointed by stroganoff since it’s one of the 5 dishes I actually cook really well.) The only thing missing from the ship was a sundeck, although my German/English/Polish skin was ultimately grateful for the shade.
We began with a few dives in Kimbe bay before steaming a bit farther out toward the fairway reef and father’s reef areas. These are caldera—old sunken volcanos—out at the middle of the sea. Being in that remote of an area meant we saw no other divers the whole time. Plus the visibility was great, and the conditions outstanding, with little current to speak of. We dove on sheer walls and pinnacles that rose to near the surface of the water, while plunging into the deep blue hundreds or often thousands of meters below.
The diversity of diving in PNG was truly the highlight. I had a tough choice every dive between macro and wide angle, with lots of little critters hidden away on every reef, yet plenty of barracudas and other big stuff joining us on nearly every dive. For the first few dives, we saw so many barracuda that it became a running joke to surface and say to Josie, the (exceptional) instructor who leads the dive crew on the boat, “no barracuda. When are we going to see some barracuda?”
There really isn’t much more to write about my 8 nights on the trip, as it was pretty much eat, sleep, dive. We did 4-5 days a day, although worn out from all the travel, I did skip two in the first couple days (something I don’t think I’ve ever done on a dive trip with a package of scheduled diving). But there were plenty of highlights. On many dives we were joined by some friendly turtles who actually seemed too friendly at times, giving a few divers nibbles on their fingers, mistaking them for the sponges they had been munching on. We had some of the best night diving I’ve had, full of octopus, huge lobsters, crabs, and tons of other critters. I was thrilled to see a baby octopus swimming around on one of those dives, which reminded me of the little octopus from Finding Nemo who inks himself. I also finally got my first good photos of an octopus (not the little one, sadly) who changed colors repeatedly as he tried to blend into the surroundings.
I did experience my first ever equipment failure while diving on this trip—a burst O-ring. We were headed down to hunt for a pygmy seahorse known to be on this dive site, and at about 86 feet, I heard a huge explosion and gush of bubbles. When I turned I could see that my tank was freeflowing. As I swam over to the divemaster (who was the nearest diver and wasn’t far away), someone came behind and shoved her octopus into my face, and I turned to see Josie who I didn’t even know was there. They shut off my freeflowing tank and we did the alternate air source ascent I’ve practiced so many times but have never actually had to do. The whole thing was not a big deal—I stayed calm, got an alternate air source well before my tank ran out, and made a safe ascent to the surface—but it was a good reminder of the importance of diving near your buddy/group, something I’m not always so great at, especially when I have my camera. In the end, we switched out the tank, and hopped back in the water, and I still got my pygmy seahorse photos.
After 8 nights and 27 dives, we headed back to the Walindi, where I would spend one final night. We had some options for excursions, but I decided to be lazy and just hung out at the resort. We did go after dinner one evening to witness some synchronizing fireflies, which were very similar to the ones I had seen in Borneo. It was a nice night out, and a good way to end my time in PNG.
After that it was back to Port Moresby en route to the Solomon Islands. As we took off in the small plane, I could see the caldera where we had been diving the last few days. The round teal circles in the deep blue waters were almost as beautiful above as from below—but not quite.
NOTE: Thanks to internet issues, there are a number of photos that won’t upload to this blog. You can see the full set of PNG photos here, with the underwater photos starting at page 31.
Location: Kimbe Bay & Father’s Reef, Papua New Guinea
Dates: August 29-September 4, 2017
Max Depth: 112
Total Bottom Time: 1520 minutes
Dive Sites: Vanessa’s Reef, Bradford Shoal, Belinda’s Reef, Alice’s Reef, Midway Reef, Meil’s Reef, Killibob’s Knob, Jackie’s Knob, The Arch, Norman’s Knob, Leslie’s Knob, Jayne’s Gulley, Lilua’s Reef, , Gorgonian Reef, Otto’s Reef, Inglis Shoal, Joelle’s Reef, Susan’s Reef
“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”
-Mary Anne Radmacher
[A note before I begin: As with my last blog post, because the internet is so weak I haven’t been able to link these to the full-sized versions. But the PNG gallery on my zenfolio site is coming along, slowly but surely. The files are still uploading, but I’m hoping the land files will be done by the time I go off the grid in the Solomons in a few days. My PNG trip was a photographer’s dream, so I’ve only inserted a small percentage of photos in this post. I think the best way to get a sense for the place is really to scroll through the photos. I’ll update this post once the photos are all uploaded.]
Papua New Guinea is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. My uncle Bill used to tell stories of his visits here many years ago, and I knew it was a visit that always stayed with him. So when I planned to spend 6 months traveling to some bucket list destinations, I knew PNG had to be on that list. Because of its reputation as a relatively dangerous place to visit and the difficulty of visiting the remote corners of the country on one’s own, I opted to sign up for a group trip through Trans Niugini tours before hopping on a liveaboard dive trip for some diving.
Immediately upon arriving, I found the people of Papua New Guinea to be extraordinarily helpful and friendly. Through an unfortunate series of events that I won’t dwell on, the folks from Virgin America took all my rechargeable AA batters but two, leaving me unable to use my underwater strobes. Since I’m heading to a relatively remote area of PNG to go diving, I did not want to be left strobeless, so I asked the tour company if they’d help me find some. The helpful guides drove me to two stores near the Port Moresby airport to find the batteries, and we were successful. But it actually turned out to be a good thing. I spent some time getting to know the guides, learning they played in a band together, and I got to see some of the area around the Port Moresby airport. And aside from the guides, all the local people were so helpful. One gentleman working at the first store (which carried rechargeable batteries but was sold out of AAs) even went in the back to check a recent shipment and called another store for me. Such helpful people, and I immediately realized why Bill loved meeting the locals here.
We headed back to the hotel and that evening, we met as a group for a brief introduction followed by dinner. It was a great group of experienced travelers, and we were all extremely excited for the adventure that was in store for us.
Days 1 and 2: Mount Hagen Show: The “Sing Sing”
Our first, and most anticipated stop, was the annual Mount Hagen show, where dozens of tribes from nearby regions (highlands, lowlands, and coastal areas) visit to demonstrate their traditional songs and dance, complete with full tribal costumes and makeups. We flew to Mount Hagen to meet with our local guides, who would drive us directly to the show. Our guide told us it was a photographer’s paradise, and that was very true. The colors, the sounds, and the sights were simply stunning. In fact, I was immediately overwhelmed, and I didn’t take that many photos the first day, instead, taking in the sensory overload. (Well, I guess “not that many” is relative… Only about 150.)
First, a little about New Guinea, which was a helpful prequel to the show. Jacob, our local guide who was from the Mount Hagen area, told us a bit about his life and the country. In this part of PNG, the first language of most people is Pigeon English, but every tribe has its own language. (While we were told that all people speak Pidgeon, we would later learn that while that’s true in Hagen, it’s not true in the entire country.) In total, there are over 800 languages spoken in New Guinea. While each tribe speaks its own language, they also can understand the neighboring tribes’ languages as well. While Pigeon English is written, the tribal languages are not—they are only spoken. English is the official language taught in schools, but we would later learn that only approximately 1-3% of the population is literate in English (although most of the people I met spoke it quite well).
Each tribe is also divided into clans, and further into subclans. Many people still practice polygamy, with only the richest men able to have multiple wives. (And they marry within the tribe, but not within the family, although it was unclear to me whether that line was drawn at subclan or somewhere else.) Wealth is determined by land, wives, and pigs. Not coincidentally, tribal wars also happen over those three things, in that order. And no, I’m not talking about how things were 40 years ago. While New Guinea has modernized somewhat, it is still a tribal culture, which is one of the things that makes it one of the most fascinating people to visit.
We learned a lot more in our drive to the show, but it was too much to really take in. Likewise, as soon as we arrived at the show, it was truly sensory overload. As soon as we turned down the road toward the arena, we saw the groups of dancers preparing along the side of the road, finalizing their costumes and practicing their “sing sing.” While I had seen photographs, I didn’t expect it to be as authentic and traditional as it was. Our first sight was a group of barebreasted women wearing grass skirts, stunning shell necklaces, vibrant face paint, and incredibly ornate and intricate headdresses made of the feathers of the numerous species of stunning tropical birds who reside in New Guinea, including the birds of paradise.
Our bus turned into the parking area, which was surrounded by vendors selling assorted artifacts and goods. We quickly passed them by to find our meeting place in the arena (which is really a large field surrounded by a fence—much like a fairground). We were told that we’d be unable to stay together since it would be a frenzy of activity inside. And it was true, we were able to walk around the arena viewing the various groups (although it was a bit questionable about what exactly was permitted and what wasn’t), and we all dispersed to take in the show from various angles.
As the groups came in the arena, I was truly surprised at how diverse they were—different facepaint patterns and colors, different types of headdress (made of feathers, moss, mud, whole birds, leaves, and various other resources), and different costumes. One of the first groups to arrive was the famous “mudmen” who spread mud on their bodies and make masks of mud. Another fascinating group was a group of skeletons following a man dressed as an ape, but we learned was a “giant.” One more group had clay pots atop their heads with fire burning in them, and I later learned they were roasting insects inside. And of course, there were dancers and singers galore. A helpful young woman who was a guide in training (although I didn’t completely understand that was her role at the time) ushered me around the stadium and told me where the groups were from. I was surprised at how far some had come for the occasion, and I only wish I had absorbed more of what she told me, but the whole experience was so overwhelming.
The first day of the sing sing, I spent most of my time wandering about trying to take photos, but mostly just absorbing the experience. More than once I got teary eyed with the authenticity, particularly thinking of the fact that the dances and costumes are more or less the same as when my uncle visited decades ago, and indeed, probably hundreds of years before that. For no group was that more true that when I observed the huli wigmen—a group known as fierce warriors who inspire fear in all those who come across them. They truly had a menacing look, often with sticks and bones pierced through their nasal septum. And while I have no doubt today it is, to a certain extent, for the benefits of the tourists, they still have a fierce, menacing look on their faces, seeming to warn everyone they are not to be trifled with. And of course, their stunning headdresses, made of human hair that traditionally they must grow themselves for years, are topped with the seemingly endless tail feathers of birds of paradise. Seeing them reminded me of the story my uncle told many, many times about his interaction with them. He was with a German tourist and upon meeting them, one of the wigmen slyly elbowed him and remarked “I don’t like Germans, too salty.” (It’s entirely possible this story wasn’t entirely true. For one thing, I’m actually not sure the Hulis ever practiced cannibalism—despite common misconceptions cannibalism was practiced across the country, only in certain areas. But it still makes for a great story, whether it happened or not. After all, the title of Bill’s memoir was “These Stories Are True, I Think.”)
The Famous Huli Wigmen:
Around 2:00 the rains regularly roll in in this area, and we were told that the dancers quickly will scatter to protect their lovely headdresses and cherished feathers. We learned that was true, and the crowd began to dissipate. The group reunited and we were all giddy with the experience, already planning our photos the next day, now that we knew what we were doing. Unfortunately our high was diminished when one member of our group had her phone snatched through the window of the bus as the thief sneakily acted like he was posing for his picture, only to reach inside and grab the phone. It was a harsh reminder that while most people are friendly, there are still those who are not, and unfortunately this country still has a relatively high rate of this type of crime. (But this isn’t the end of this story… stay tuned.)
After the sing sing, we were escorted to the Rondon Ridge lodge, where we would spend the next two nights. The lodge is atop a ridge on a mountainside, overlooking the valley and the city of Mount Hagen. The lodge was stunning and the view beautiful, and we were all excited to return to the show the next day.
We got up in the morning and were taken to show grounds, this time early enough to watch (up close) the various groups applying their makeup. I once again paired up with Tracy, the trainee who had escorted me the previous day, and she took me around to various groups, including the school where many of them were staying. Much like girls getting ready for prom, many of them blushed and exclaimed “sorry, sorry, we’re not ready yet!” as I walked in. Everyone was friendly and thrilled to pose for pictures and show me their makeup techniques. Tracy showed me that some of the feathers in their headdresses were not merely feathers but whole birds, stuffed with their plumage creating a colorful crown. She and some other trainees also showed us how they chewed the beetle nut, which stains their teeth bright red, and I was surprised to see that the nut was not red inside at all—instead it is a reaction with “mustard” (which may or may not be mustard as I understand it… I’ve no idea) and lime. It was a lot of fun talking to the local people and getting to know just a few of the people behind the stunning costumes.
One group wanted to paint my face, and since I had no small kina, an Australian man paid for me to have my face painted. Unfortunately, once we started, they wanted more and more money, and when one man heard I was American he had his two small boys put on their best sad faces and said “spare us.” Those moments are heartwrenching, but unfortunately common in developing countries. Tracy eventually suggested we leave them, so we headed back into the arena for the day’s sing-sing.
This time, I had a front row seat for the action, and rather than spend my time meandering throughout the arena watching the different groups, I stayed while each group came and performed its sing-sing in front of our tent at the side of the arena. Jacob and the other guides explained the significance of various groups. We learned that there were several widows’ groups, typically with body paint of all black or white, which were widows and their children. We saw groups from various areas of the country, and began to see the differences and similarities depending on what area of the country various groups came from. And we saw men’s groups and women’s groups, although several contained individuals of the other gender. I asked Jacob why a man joined a women’s group and his response was simply “because he wanted to be in the women’s group.” It was refreshing that it was really no more complex than that. And of course, he was sure to point out the women in the next men’s group to show me it went both ways!
Finally, when the groups had all entered the arena, a few of us took some time to mingle amongst them and get some pictures with the dancers in costume. I made sure to have my photo taken with the huli wigmen, among some others. Again, everyone was incredibly friendly and happy to oblige. In fact, during the two days, a few people even asked for my photo, including a group of young people from Mount Hagen visiting the hotel. I also snapped a photo of a little dog dressed up for the occassion.
It was finally time to leave the sing sing, and we had all had a wonderful time. The second day, I took about 8 times more photos than the first. It was a truly incredible experience.
After a brief and unremarkable stop to a local supermarket, we headed back to the lodge. We had the option to do one of two nature walks—a short 20 minute walk or a longer hour walk through the forest. I chose the long walk and it was incredibly pleasant. Our guide, Joseph, is an expert birder who learned the birds when hunting with his father as a small boy. When we began, we saw an enclosure where some larger animals live, and we were fortunate enough to see a wallaby and a tree kangaroo. I never even knew the latter existed until this trip, but apparently there are kangaroos that are arboreal! It looked more like a bear. As we continued, the forest was calm, cool, and serene. A creek flowed beneath us as we walked through the muddy, but otherwise relatively easy trail. Finally, when we reached the top, we saw a bird of paradise. It was far away, but I did see a black spot with a long tail, so I am sticking with my story that we saw a bird of paradise.
Finally, I spent the last evening overlooking the valley of Mount Hagen, and the clouds rolling into the valley. It was a lovely vantage point.
Days 3 and 4: Lake Murray
We awoke early the next morning for the ride to the airport. On the way, our guide received a phone call that the missing phone had been retrieved from the thief. We never learned the whole story, but apparently someone at the resort called security who talked to someone who knew someone, etc. etc. etc. It ended in a bribe and the return of the phone. Apparently, this is relatively common in Papua New Guinea—the phone itself has no value, but is stolen in hopes of a reward in return. It was a lesson in how truly connected the people of this country still are. In a tribal community, everyone in a clan really does know each other, so they can usually get to the bottom of what happened. At any rate, it was a happy end to that part of the story.
We arrived at the airstrip and eventually boarded a small plane destined for Lake Murray. We ascended over the mountains, and while clouds still filled the valleys, the view was stunning. We could see rugged mountaintops and lush valleys below. As we descended toward Lake Murray, I was surprised by its vastness. Small islands dotted a huge inland expanse of fresh water. Several people were there to greet us, including our guides, who showed us to the boats that would take us to the lodge. The rest of the people hanging out were mostly children, who came to see us, a novelty, and the airplane.
Lake Murray is in the western province of New Guinea, which is one of the largest provinces, but the least inhabited. The lodge is the newest of the Trans Niugini lodges, and it was built by bringing all the materials in on a barge—everything from building materials to salt and pepper shakers, including gravel and cement. Only the wood was not brought in, as it was used from local materials, along with the meticulously hand-woven internal roof of the lodge and a few other decorative items–all woven from Sago palm. The local people all lived on-site while they built the entire lodge by hand. Most of the tribes here welcomed the lodge and the opportunities and resources tourism would bring to the area.
There are five tribes in the Lake Murray area. Each speaks its own language, and they are completely different, such that none can understand each other. Our guide, Smith, explained that we would visit two villages today, taking a walk of approximately 30 minutes through the area. Both of these villages were from the same tribe. Moreover, we learned that the five tribes in the area are currently peaceful with each other, which is not true of all areas of the country.
After lunch it was time for our first excursion in Lake Murray. We again boarded boats which took us to Pangea, a small village in the Kuni tribe. The people were there waiting. Dozens of children rushed to the shore to watch us approach. We climbed out of the boats and were greeted by adults, children, dogs, and a baby cassowary—a bird that looks prehistoric. Our guides explained that they would grow to be vicious and deadly, but that as young birds they were extremely docile, and would follow you almost like a puppy. We’d later learn how true that was.
The reception we received in this village was truly remarkable. We were only the third group to visit this village, meaning this was only the third time most of them had seen white people. Smith explained that many of these people still believed that we were the spirits of their ancestors returning to them (which, as we learned in the terrific film First Contact a few nights previous, was what the tribes of New Guinea originally believed when the Australians came into contact with them for the first time.) I think everyone in the village that day lined up for a view. The most entertaining part of the visit was the children, and taking pictures of them. We would take a photo, then show them the photo on the back of the camera, and they would squeal with delight and excitement. The joy was palpable, and the interaction was very special.
We headed through the village toward an old church and associated buildings once established by Australian missionaries, followed by everyone we had met. Smith explained that when PNG obtained its independence, the white man had left, and as a result, the administration had gotten much, much worse. He explained that the government is very corrupt, and it has gone downhill. We asked whether there are any leaders who provided hope for the community, and he explained that there were not.
We then headed on (with our growing following) toward what used to be an airstrip, but is now a long piece of grassy land. When the planes landed, they ended their taxi by driving uphill, and to depart, they raced downhill back the same direction. The children ran ahead of us down the airstrip to tell the others that we were coming. And, like a dutiful puppy, the cassowary chased after them (along with the actual dogs). At the airstrip, Smith led the group in singing their national anthem, and we sang ours in return.
We continued toward the last village, where we met more people, took more pictures, and enjoyed more time with the people. We also got our first close view of the pigs that were viewed as currency. I got a particularly close view when I thought I felt a dog sniffing my leg and looked down to find it was a piglet.
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye, and we boarded the boat for the return trip to the lodge. By this time, I think everyone from both villages had joined our group, and they all lined the banks of the lake to say goodbye. We waved and thanked them for a lovely visit, and headed back to the lodge to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
The following morning we gathered for a tour of two more villages. First, we visited Mutin, which has people of both the Kuni and Pari tribes, which was in its second year of receiving visitors. It was about a 30-minute boat ride from the lodge. As before, the people of the village were lining the banks of the lake awaiting our visit. For today’s visits, the villages had prepared cultural programs to show us some of their traditional dress and traditions. Several of the children and a few of the adults had their bodies painted black with charcoal and their faces painted white. They demonstrated how they weave goods from various parts of the Sago palm, and we learned that the craft is passed down from mother to daughter. The local people showed us a traditionally-made fish trap, and explained how the worm is fed into the trap by wood, and then when the fish puts its head in to catch the worm, spines keep it from pulling its head back out. We also saw a man crafting a roof from the Sago palm fronds. In addition to the people, several dogs and a piglet greeted us as well.
The chief of the village also lined up with his granddaughters. He was dressed in western clothing, while the granddaughters all wore traditional attire. And while they put on stoic faces for the camera, when showed the pictures, their faces lit up with smiles just like all the other children. That was particularly true of the little ones, while the older girls seemed a bit more like typical teenagers. The elderly women were also nearby and were eager to shake our hands, with one woman taking my arm in her hands and sharing her charcoal body paint with me.
We wandered through the village, seeing the church and the elementary school. One local gentleman was in traditional garb, with a shell from the sea used as a penis gourd. We saw the dugout canoes traditionally used for fishing or travel, although in light of our visit they were unused at the moment, with only the dogs lazing about inside. We continued showing the children the photos we had taken of them, as delighted by their reactions as we were by seeing the photos. We also saw some crocodiles the local elementary school teacher had taught. They were about 2 years old, and he would keep them for another 6-7 years before killing them for their meat and selling the skin at the market.
After showing us around, the village asked us to tell them where we were from, and Smith gave us a map of the world to illustrate. We all went around and told them where we came from. I tried to tell them about how cold Chicago is in winter, but I suspect it’s difficult for them to even fathom. A group sang the national anthem for us, and then the church choir asked to sing for us. We were shocked at the talent, and loved the beautiful four-part harmony as they sang the songs the missionaries had taught the villages long ago. When it was finally time to say goodbye, we pulled away in our boats, and they sang to us as we departed. More than one tear was special. We didn’t think it was possible to top that experience, but we would soon learn we were wrong.
After stopping for lunch along the banks of the lake, we proceeded away from the lake up the river to a remote village—Upovia, of the Pari tribe. Although missionaries had visited at some point, this village had never been visited by tourists, and most of its residents had never seen white people before. As soon as we arrived, we could tell that they had taken special preparations for our visit. The people were lined up on either side of a sign welcoming us, and in front, there was something of a bamboo fence concealing those behind it. It was a symbolic barrier, and they explained that once it was broken, they would open their village to tourist. They had prepared a ceremonial welcome for us.
The men standing behind the bamboo barricade began to sing a traditional song, and after they did, they removed the barrier and stepped to either side, asking us to pass in the middle, saying “welcome to our culture show” as we passed. Children were then revealed standing beneath the welcome sign. They sang the national anthem, and again parted and asked us to pass through, repeating the same welcome.
Next, we were taken to a group of women, who sang for us their traditional song, while a man in traditional dress danced with a drum behind us. After the women, the young men sang for us, along with an older man who led them. Finally, we were escorted into a shelter with benches, and the men in traditional garb performed a dance, which involved beating a drum while hopping in a circle. We learned that this is inspired by the mating dance of the bird of paradise.
Again, we were asked to tell them where we were from, so we did so while the entire village stood watching. They then invited us to come look around the village, and the residents showed us around, where we saw the school, a basketball court, a volleyball court, and a soccer field. They explained how they extract wood from the Sago palm, and proudly identified which homes were theirs. One thing I was surprised about in this village as in the others, was how well some of the adults spoke English.
As I passed through the village, I took pictures of some children, and showed them to them where they were just as excited as those in the previous villages, although some were a bit scared of us and stayed in the back. One of the other visitors, Carol, and I decided we wanted to play with them and have some fun, so we were making funny faces and dancing for them. I demonstrated “dabbing” at her suggestion, and then pulled the only dance I could think of out of my head, which was the Macarena. We then did the hokey pokey with them, and that was the real winner. They played along, and the entire crowd (which was probably 100 children) giggled with delight when I “shook it all about” with my whole self.
Sadly, after all that fun, it was time to say goodbye. As I walked toward the boat, one of the guides told me that one of the young women wanted to present me with a gift. She handed me a bundle of beautiful black cassowary feathers wrapped with a woven rope. I thanked her and continued on, while two older women presented me with strings of beads, saying they were for dancing with the children. When we got in the boat, they began singing to us, and I could not contain my emotions.
Visiting this village was one of the most special moments of my life. The organizer had so carefully planned everything, wanting it to be perfect, and presenting each portion of the “culture show” in a carefully planned order in ceremonial fashion. But while we certainly loved every part of that, what really made this special was meeting the people and playing with the children. And when I returned to the lodge, I unwrapped my cassowary feathers, only to reveal that they were carefully woven together to form a beautiful traditional headdress. I can’t even imagine the effort that must have gone into crafting it, and it is one of the most special gifts I have ever received.
Day 5: Kalawari
Of course, we could not spend all of our time in Lake Murray, so the next day we said goodbye to the wonderful people at the lodge and boarded a plane for the Kalawari region. After a bit of a bumpy ride over the mountains, we descended into a valley, watching the winding rivers and their hairpin turns at the bottom of tree-covered hills. We could see the stately lodge atop a ridge, with the main building modeled after the traditional spirit houses of the region. We landed on a grass strip, and after a 15 minute boat ride and 10 minute truck drive up the hill, we arrived at the lodge.
Kalawari is a relatively small river region with 6 language groups, including the Yokoin tribe that we would visit that afternoon. The Yokoin tribe were fishers, hunters, and sago makers, and traditionally were cannibals. They killed the enemy, believing that when they ate them, they would take their strength and become more powerful. Unlike the Sepik tribes, they were not headhunters, however. Chris, our guide, was himself from the Yokoin tribe, and he explained that they had been the top warriors, and as a result, the Yokoin have the best fishing and sago-making territories.
Unlike the other parts of the country we had visited, the tribes in this area do not raise pigs or view them as currency. Instead, a few men in the village are skilled hunters, and they go out to hunt wild pigs at night whenever they want to eat meat or for a celebration. They have well-trained dogs that track the pigs, sometimes biting their legs so that the hunters can catch up to them and spear them. These dogs also help hunt cassowary during the day. There is virtually no hunting with guns, and the only guns in this region are illegal and homemade. (Guns are generally illegal in Papua New Guinea, although some people do have permits that require them to remain concealed.)
We learned that when the people in this need to buy or trade goods, they must travel 2-3 days to reach the nearest town. They first take a boat for at least a day, and then spend the night and take a bus for 6 hours to get to the market. While the government has a policy that there is free healthcare and education in this country, there is no place to get it. There are buildings near the lodge that once housed doctors but they were long since abandoned, with the doctors isolated and unable to get supplies.
That afternoon, we headed back down to the river and took a boat to the nearby Kundiman village of the Yokoin tribe. There, the residents demonstrated the traditional methods of making Sago. Chris explained that this was not merely for our benefit—this is how the people of this village still make Sago, which is their primary food source.
Sago is made from the pulp of a tree, and is virtually all starch with little nutritional value. First, one of the men of the village demonstrated splitting the log to separate the pulp from the bark, and then hammering the pulp to break it down. A few members of our group gave it a try, and Chris explained that both men and women perform this task. Then, a woman took the pulp in a basket woven of reeds to the river, where two dug out logs had been formed into a method of collecting the sago extract. She used a hollow coconut to pull water from the river, and placed it into the basket of Sago pulp. The milky water that came from the basket was then collected, and would ultimately be used to make the Sago flour. After the water runs clear, the remaining pulp is discarded into the river. The extract is allowed to sit for 15-20 minutes while the sediment settles to the bottom, and it is then dried to form the flour. We had the opportunity to feel the flour, which feels like cornstarch.
The people of the village then demonstrated how they form food from this flour. There are two primary methods—pancakes and pudding. To make the pancakes, a scoop of sago is poured onto a skillet, and it is then spread out to form a pancake. Once one side is cooked, it is flipped, and the pancake is ready to be interesting. The pudding was more fascinating (although extremely unappetizing). First, the sago flour is dissolved into a small amount of water, which is continuously stirred. Meanwhile, a pot of water is simmering nearby. A woman used leaves as potholder to life the boiling cauldron and pour the water into the Sago. Before our eyes, it immediately congealed into a glue-like substance—the “pudding” to be eaten.
For flavoring, the best parts of the bark (as determined by methods long ago discovered by the Yokoin’s ancestors) are burned in a special manner to form ash. Water is filtered through the ash, and this flavored water can be used to cook vegetables and meat. The village demonstrated how small fish related to a piranha mixed with “vegetables” (really just leafy foliage from the jungle) were boiled in the flavored water.
After some time mingling with the village, we headed back to the lodge for a talk with Chris to learn about the area, and for dinner. After dinner we were treated to some entertainment by the Kalawari bamboo band. The band has learned songs from listening to radio signals from across the world, and copying what they hear. They used stacks of bamboo to form a type of instrument, which made different tones when beaten with the sole of a flip flop. The music was very entertaining, and the best part was seeing how much the band members seemed to enjoy playing music.
Days 6-8: Sepik Region
The next day, a small group arose early to go birding in the hopes of seeing an elusive bird of paradise. We set off on a boat a few minutes down river, and then took a short walk into the woods. We were rewarded by both a male and a female 12-wire bird of paradise. They aren’t the most spectacular of the birds, and the plumes of the males are 12 wires hanging of the backside, as the name suggests, but we were still thrilled to see these unique birds.
After breakfast, we headed off toward our new home for the next 3 nights, the Sepik Spirit. We remained on the Karawari river, but this time proceeded to the Sepik region. That afternoon, we visited the village of Manjamai. First, we saw a fishing demonstration, and the women showed us the traditional methods they used to catch fish from dug-out canoes. Here, the people are entirely dependent on fishing and Sago for food. While a few gardens are visible along the banks of the river, gardening is only possible during the dry season, and even then, a heavy rain may cause a flood that washes them away. Occasionally the men will hunt for pigs and cassowaries, but they are used for food rarely, perhaps eating pig only once or twice per month.
After the demonstration, we disembarked the boats to visit a school with children ranging from 11 to 19 years old. They performed the national anthem, another national song, and two dances for us. They also had prepared questions for us, which they read and we answered. We learned from the teacher that the school is new, and although the government promises free education, the funding from this school has not yet come. She said that next year they will receive the money, but we all feared from what we have seen that this may be just a hope and not the reality. As a result, we saw school rooms where the children sit on the floor, with no desks, chairs, books, or any other resources apparent.
The state of this school is not unusual in Papua New Guinea, unfortunately. One national with whom we spoke walked 27 kilometers each way to go to school when he was a boy. And while the government says that they provide free education, the parents still are somehow forced to pay hefty fees on the promise that the money from the government will come eventually.
But regardless of their circumstances, the children seem to love their teacher and be full of laughs. Before we left, we did a performance of the hokey pokey, and they heartily joined in.
After leaving the school, we saw a traditional demonstration of war canoes, where the men showed us the rituals their ancestors took place in when fighting, and killing, the enemy on the river. They carried the fallen enemy back to the village where they showed us a traditional celebratory dance. After the demonstration, we spoke to the village chief, who told us he was the counselor for the village. However, he explained that they had gone four years without a meeting due to lack of funds. We also asked about healthcare and whether the children had any vaccines. They told us the children used to be vaccinated, but no more. There is no money for vaccines.
This was a common theme throughout our visit to Papua New Guinea. It became quickly apparent that corruption in the government runs rampant, with little of the money earmarked for certain regions actually making it down to the local communities and tribes themselves. In recent years, things have deteriorated, with the money and resources the villages used to have drying up. Yet with all of this corruption the people remain cheerful and hopeful. Our guide told us that the opposition party is the strongest it has been in over 40 years, and while they just had an election, in eighteen months the prime minister will face a potential vote of no confidence. With the dire situation facing people in these remote areas, this remains a source of hope, even in the corrupt government.
The following day we again boarded small jet boats to set out for the village. First, we visited the two parts of the village of Minimbit. Although they are the same village, the two parts are from different clans of the Iatmul tribe. The first was inhabited by the clan Mailambu, and had approximately 300 people. The second, smaller part of the village was home to the Mandali clan.
In this visit, we witnessed a reenactment of an ancient method of resolving disputes. This ritual was traditionally conducted in spirit houses or the men’s houses, and women were not allowed to participate. A carved wooden stool was placed in the center of the ring of men. The stool represented the spirits of the ancestors. On stop of the stool were 3 bundles of straw. One by one, the men approached the stool, stated their opinion on the matter, and then swept the straw against the stool. If someone disagreed with the person who had gone before, he would beat the stool with the straw strongly to show his displeasure.
The guides explained that unlike the highlands, this area was relatively peaceful because they settled their disputes in this manner. However, the ritual is no longer practiced, and now the areas have elected officials and policemen. Because they aren’t always respected, the tribes sometimes take law and order into their own hands, and fights ensue. Four boys in one of the villages we visited are in prison for five years for burning down the village of their adversaries, including a men’s house with the ceremonial stools.
Like many other countries, Papua New Guinea has courts that resolve such disputes, but unfortunately they are tainted by corruption as well. Indeed, the prime minister has stayed court orders to arrest him. And while there has been an investigation against him, he fired the investigator. (Sound vaguely familiar?) Despite lacking the actual authority to overturn court decisions, he continues to evade prosecution.
At that village, we also had the opportunity to see the men making the traditional wooden crafts for which the Sepik region is known. I watched a man put the final touches on a drum shaped like a fish, and I was immediately drawn to it. Thanks to the extreme generosity of two of my fellow travelers who brought it back to the states for me, I am now its proud owner.
And of course, as with the other villages, we had the opportunity to meet with the people from the village.
That afternoon we visited our guide’s village of Mameri—also a member of the Iatmul tribe. At this village, we met the chief and several counselmen. We learned that while counselmen are elected, chiefs were chosen long ago, with the title passed down from generation to generation. The chiefs are still an important part of village life, responsible for helping to resolve disputes among the inhabitants.
The following day, it was time to visit what was probably the most remote area of our trip—the blackwater lakes. We had a full-day excursion to two villages, waking early in the morning to take the jetboat through the river and to the lakes via our guide’s “shortcut.” Because the river levels had been high just a few days before, the water was murky and was not the black, tea-like consistency that is the reason for the lakes’ name, but the region was beautiful nonetheless.
First we visited the village of Kabraman, of the Kabriman tribe. This village housed what used to be the highlight of the trip—a large spirit house. Unfortunately, a year or so ago it collapsed in a large flood, having been gradually worn away over the years by termites and rot from the rising water. The sepik is a very flat region, and while we were there in the dry season, we could see the water lines on the stilts below the houses. Typically the rainy season brings raised water levels, yet they are not high enough to destroy the homes. But from time to time, a huge flood washes everything away, forcing the people to seek higher land or live from canoes. It was such a flood that caused the spirit house’s demise, although it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back in light of the termite infestation.
The village housed large totems, some in the ruins of the spirit house, and others elsewhere in the village. The ornate wooden carvings are there to invoke the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors. And while it would have been nice to see the house intact, it was interesting to see the ruins nonetheless, and in some ways, that was more indicative of the general state of repair in Papua New Guinea. We also saw the carvings throughout the village; even the canoes are carved with crocodiles.
The women of the village also showed us a ceremonial dance used in the initiation process for a woman when she begins menses. In the Sepik region, the process of becoming a man or a woman still invokes centuries of tradition. The villages continue to practice the process of scarification. For the men, when it is time to transition to manhood, their skin is carved with razor blades, on their chests, arms, and backs, with a pattern reminiscent of a crocodile. The man is then believed to have the spirit of the crocodile, which is revered in these areas. It wasn’t entirely clear whether all men have this done, or only a subset—we met one man in his twenties whose scars were relatively recent but had older tattoos, and he said that he was not expecting the ceremonial scars, so he chose to get tattoos (which do not have traditional meaning, but he got simply because he wanted them). Others said all men undergo this ritual, so I suspect it may vary from tribe to tribe, and perhaps even village to village.
Many women undergo this ceremonial scarification as well, and it is up to a woman’s family as to whether they choose to subject her to this. Any woman who will become a midwife must undergo the ceremony, and she is quarantined from the rest of the tribe while being instilled with the knowledge of the other midwives and elder women. We learned that if any family wants a woman to have an important rule in the village, they will chose to have her undergo this process.
After leaving Kabraman, we visited Tanguimbet, also of the Kabriman tribe. This time we were able to see the results of scarification up close, with several men and women displaying their scars. It looks tremendously painful. Not only do they cut the skin with razor blades, but they fill it with ash and other materials. Accounts varied as to whether this is to prevent infection or to promote the raised appearance.
At Tanguimbet, we saw another ceremonial dance, this time with a woman who was currently living in the family home and preparing for her ceremony. It is difficult to know the pain that is coming to her.
And with that, I had completed my final village visit in Papua New Guinea. It’s a remarkable place, and I learned a great deal about its culture and people. On our final afternoon and evening, our group discussed what is to become of this amazing place. We learned that the young people now learn the culture in order to demonstrate it for tourists, but they lack the understanding of the centuries of beliefs behind it. In ten or twenty years, it may be gone (or at least, significantly degraded).
It’s difficult to know how much of this is good, and how much of it is bad. Missionaries and subsequently tourists have brought numerous western items and traditions to Papua New Guinea. It is hard to deny the positive effect that things like education, medicines, and mosquito nets have in alleviating suffering. And certainly from a human rights perspective, the elimination of headhunting and cannibalism is difficult to criticize.
But the benefits to the every day life of a Papua New Guinean living in one of these remote areas appear, at least to this outsider, relatively small. The medicine doesn’t reach the far corners of the country. Many children remain without education. And those who do receive it, understandably, often leave the villages for the promise of a better life (although with the importance of family and community, they still send money home and take care of their families).
Yet the western influence is pervasive in terms of the erosion of this rich culture. Except for special occasions or for the benefit of tourists, people wear western clothes, which are totally unnecessary, difficult to keep clean, and can even cause infection. The masters carvers who create the beautiful works of art for which the sepik region is known are dying out, and the young people who replace them may be able to recreate the aesthetic, but they don’t understand the meaning.
The people of this region see tourists like us and they long for a different life. I cannot fault them for that. It would be cruel to see these children with bloated bellies and hope that they continue to subsist on Sago and bony lake fish. But at the same time, it’s difficult to look into the future and see much improvement for them, while I fear the culture will be washed away. I only hope that Papua New Guinea can find a way to improve the lives of its people, while maintaining its rich cultural heritage.
“Orangutans look straight into your soul.”
[A brief note before I get into this long overdue post: because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the internet in PNG, where I am now, these photos don’t link to the full-size versions, and I’m leaving most of the photos out of the blog. However, all of my Indonesia photos are posted on my photo website. Click here for the Java photos; click here for the Kalimantan (Borneo) photos; and click here for the Bali photos.]
After about 6 weeks in Bali, I flew to Yogyakarta (or “Jogja” as it’s called locally) Indonesia to meet my parents for a week in Java and Kalimantan, following which we would return to Bali for one more week. We stayed in an AirBNB in a nearby village, nestled away in the woods next to a river with an animal shelter next door. It was a relaxed and inviting setting—we felt almost like we were camping, yet with the comfort of beds and air conditioning.
I arrived in the morning, and before my parents arrived, my driver took me into the village to show me around a bit. Many artisans live in this area of Java, and they supply a good deal of clay sculptures that are prevalent in Javanese architecture. We visited a studio where some of the sculptors were working on fountains in the shape of female figures. Some of them are very large, but they must work quickly, finishing the entire statue within a few hours before the clay dries.
After that, my driver returned me to the airport to collect my parents. We enjoyed the afternoon relaxing by the river, listening to the afternoon call to prayer rolling softly through the countryside in the distance—that is until the mosque across the river began its call. They certainly want to make sure it can be heard from far away indeed! I don’t know how people who live there can sleep through it, but being so near to it made us feel like we were truly somewhere new and different.
The next morning, we woke before dawn to visit the Borobudar temple for the sunrise. It was about a ninety-minute drive, so our guide Heri collected us early and took us to climb the temple in the dark and wait until the sun came up. From the temple, we had a magnificent view of the sunrise overlooking the volcanoes and valley below. We then had the chance to tour the vast Buddhist temple itself. While many of the statues were stolen long ago, we still had a chance to see the remaining figures of Buddha that adorn the beautiful structure.
After leaving Borobudar we headed to Merapi volcano for a jeep lava tour. The volcano erupted in 2010, and our first stop along the bumpy road was a museum showing the ruins of various items that were left behind. Sadly, seismologists had predicted the eruption, but the leader of the land was convinced they would survive, and many people stayed based on his advice. Hundreds perished as a result. Now, many of the people who lived there have moved to other areas, while others have become tour guides to show tourists around on jeeps. We watched in the valley as construction crews still worked to clear the rubble and rock.
On the way back, we stopped to see the many picturesque roadside views surrounding the volcano. Lush trees cover the mountainsides, and the valleys look like something out of Jurassic Park. (And in fact, there are several Jurassic Park themed tourist attractions in the area, although what, exactly, they were wasn’t clear to me.)
The next day our guide took us to a nearby village for a bike ride through the countryside. We climbed aboard antique Dutch bikes, which were actually much more comfortable than the bikes I rode in Bali. We passed through rice patties, and stopped to watch one farmer spraying his corn. He even strapped his hose on my dad’s back, who gave farming a go. He may have a new profession.
We then rode along to a market, where we saw various meats, fruits, vegetables, and assorted other goods. We tried the local drink—brown sugar mixed with coconut milk and tapioca, and we spoke with the local people in the markets. It was fascinating seeing the various items available and how they were prepared and sold.
We continued along the back roads surrounding the villages, and eventually stopped to take a break at a small house where a woman was weaving on a loom and her husband was working on the house. My mom took a shot at weaving, and then tried on some of the traditional Javanese clothing.
We loved the bike tour and seeing the countryside, but after that, it was time to head into the city to learn a bit about Yogyakarta. Our first stop was the Kratan—the sultan’s palace and still his home—where a puppet show was being performed. We watched for a bit, but then went on with our local guide to explore the palace. Although Indonesia has a democratic government, the Sultan is still very important to Yogyakarta, and is beloved. The Kratan consists primarily of a museum showing the belongings of recent Sultans. The current Sultan also still lives on its grounds, and he is the first to have only one wife. And while the next Sultan should be his son, he has none—only six daughters. The official position is that the oldest daughter will be the next Sultan, but there is some question over whether the community will accept that.
We then walked to the water palace where the Sultan relaxed with his wives and his harem. We also visited the underground mosque—a place where the Sultan and his family could escape in the event of an invasion. There is still a tunnel leading somewhere underground, and it is blocked so that no one can discover exactly where it leads. We enjoyed walking through town, enjoying a banana crepe as a snack, and watching some artisans make batik outside the underground mosque.
Finally, we wrapped up our day with a visit to a batik factory, a silver factory, and a chocolate factory. While the chocolate factory was closed, we had the opportunity to taste some chocolate, including durian (which did not smell as bad as expected, but as my mom aptly described, tasted like garbage). We were impressed by the intricacy of the silversmiths’ work, and we picked up some beautiful goods at the batik factory.
The next day we visited Prambanan temple in the morning. To me, it was actually more stunning than Borobudar. We walked around the grounds a bit and went into one of the temples to see the statue. On the grounds, we saw a large bird I would later learn was a Cassowary. (And I learned it only as a coincidence looking up flora and fauna on Papua New Guinea… More on the Cassowary in my PNG post.)
For sunset, we headed to another temple further uphill. It is right above the spot that Obama visited when he came to Indonesia, although Heri was a bit perplexed as to why they took him to the spot downhill rather than the temple itself. The sunset was a bit obscured by the clouds, but we enjoyed the view anyway.
Then, it was back to Prambanan for the Ramayana ballet. Unlike the kecak dance in Bali, which displayed the whole story, this was only an episode from the larger tale. The temple was the backdrop with a full moon (or at least almost full) above. It made for a stunning setting to watch the vibrant costumes, and it was a great close to our time in Yogyakarta. We said goodbye to Heri and prepared to check out of our air BNB and head to Semarang on the way to Kalimantan.
After checking out the following day, our driver Kadek picked us up and we began the drive to Semarang. We stopped at Candi Gedong Songo, a series of 8 temples ascending the mountain. However, we were all so tired from all the events, we opted not to hike up past the first temple, nor did we ride a horse. Instead, we checked out the first temple and then headed onward to Semarang. Kadek dropped us first at the Lawang Sewu—house of 1000 doors—a government building that was built by the Dutch and once used by the Japanese to imprison Indonesians in the basement. After Independence, it became a train station, and it is somewhat of a train museum now.
Finally, we relaxed at our airport hotel, before getting up the next morning to head to Kalimantan, the Indonesian province on Borneo. After the early morning flight, we were collected at the airport by our guide, Rafael, and taken to the river boat where we would spend the next two nights. The boat was simple but extraordinarily comfortable. Our home would be the upper deck, which had a table with four chairs for dining, two loungers, and four twin mattresses. They were stacked to serve as couches, but in the evening the crew would change the linens for them and lie them out under mosquito nets. It made me feel as though I was traveling on the African Queen. (Not that I really remember anything about that movie.)
Near where the boats were docked, we passed tall cement buildings with holes in them, which we learned were large swallow houses. The swallows enter them and build nests, which are then collected and sold to the Chinese for an exorbitant sum. I asked what they do with them, and our guide said, “I don’t know, probably feed them to their babies or something.” Another guide on an adjacent boat opined that he did not like this practice, because he had been a guide in this park for many years, and he doesn’t like to hurt the animals for money. It was nice to see, throughout the journey, how much all of the guides loved and respected the wildlife in the beautiful park.
We set off down the river, and enjoyed a beautiful lunch prepared by our talented chef. We all agreed that the food made in the simple boat in this kitchen was the best we had in Indonesia. We turned down a tributary into the national park. The river is known as the Sekonyer river, named after the Dutch word “schooner,” which the Indonesians could not pronounce, referring to it instead as “sekonyer.”
We were immediately extremely fortunate. Although we were headed to the orangutan feeding stations, the orangutans there are habituated to humans, having been reintroduced to the wild after captivity (or descending from orangutans who had been). I had read that the best chance of seeing wild orangutans was to get up at dawn and watch for the rustling in the bush. Well, we didn’t need to wait that long. Almost immediately we saw a wild orangutan along the side of the river before we could even sit down for lunch.
Our luck continued the entire journey to the first feeding station. We saw some proboscis monkeys—the first of many. And of course, macaques were seemingly everywhere. But our true luck was seeing a silver leaf monkey, which Rafael explained were very rare to see. The next two days would continue in that same way. We saw monkey after monkey as we passed down the river, plus several more wild orangutans. Rafael told us we were very lucky, and we definitely believed him.
When we stopped for the first feeding, Rafael explained that we would wait for a bit to begin walking to the feeding station, but he would go buy the tickets. When he returned, he told us to move quickly to disembark the boat, as he had already seen an orangutan at the ticket office. Sure enough, there it was, posing for all the tourists with cameras. It headed over toward a shed where they keep the food, and Rafael told us that sometimes the orangutans charge with their heads to try to get into the storage area.
After taking some photos and visiting the information center, we headed off to the feeding station, where the guides brought large bushels of corn and bananas. The dominant male was on the platform already, munching away. It was incredible to see how the rest of the orangutans reacted to his presence. Unlike the other apes, orangutans are largely solitary animals, coming together only to mate. (With the exception of young ones, who spend several years with their mothers before venturing off on their own.) Due to the presence of the dominant male, we learned the other orangutans were afraid to approach the platform, and we watched as the others cautiously and slowly approached the platform, snatched some food, and scurried away.
That night, we enjoyed a lovely dinner on the boat, looking out into the jungle. At times, we could see glowing eyes peering back at us, which we speculated was a tarsir—a nocturnal primate with amazing vision—although we couldn’t know for sure. But whatever it was, even with no light coming from the river, the reflection from the eyes looked as if a flashlight was being shined at us from inside the forest.
The next day we would proceed to two more orangutan feedings. For the morning feeding, we had to wait a bit for the orangutans to show up, so we passed the time by taking photos of a curious squirrel who came to steal the food meant for the orangutans. But eventually they did show up from all corners of the forest. We watched as they stuffed their faces with corn and bananas, many taking as many as they could carry into the trees. At times, they would hang in a seemingly impossible position from the trees, often staying there for 5-10 minutes, just hanging. It is incredible that such large animals can be truly arboreal, but they glide through the trees in a way that is truly surprising considering their size. This was distinct from the behavior of the gorillas, who are not truly arboreal and come down from the trees with a crash that sometimes seems more accidental than intentional.
For the afternoon feeding, we enjoyed a visit to Camp Leakey—named after Louis Leakey, who sponsored the original great ape research of Jane Goodall (studying the chimps), Dian Fossey (studying the gorillas), and, most relevant to this trip, Birute Galdikas (studying the orangutans). We read up on the research at a great information center before heading off for the 30 minute walk to the feeding station.
The afternoon was a different story from the morning’s wait—the orangutans were there waiting for us already. One large orangutan disregarded the rope separating the viewers from the feeding platform and came out among the unsuspecting tourists. One less than cautious tourist very nearly lost his cell phone when she reached out with a mighty swipe, but he leaped back just in time. Everyone who crowded around that orangutan was very fortunate she didn’t make them pay for their carelessness—although they may look cute, it’s important to remember that they are still strong wild animals. When the food finally came out, so did numerous other orangutans, along with a few hungry boars who would eat up the orangutans’ leftovers. But unlike in Africa, the boars are not dangerous. Our guides explained that since Muslims don’t eat pigs, the boars have no reason to be afraid of people.
At both of the second day’s feedings, the dominant male was absent, and it was fascinating to see the different dynamic. Although the adult orangutans seemed more wary of each other, they could be on the platform at the same time, and didn’t see troubled by the presence of the others. One exception was a mother with a baby orangutan, who took a big swipe at a younger orangutan. A bit of a squabble ensued, and the mother resumed her place on the platform. But mostly, they tolerated each other, but were not close, although I suspect some of the younger ones were also the kids of the mother with a baby, since at times she handed them some food. It was very different from seeing the gorillas, who live in groups, groom each other, and show human affection.
Overall, visiting the orangutans was a real highlight. It is always fascinating to see the other great apes, and how human they seem. The word “orangutan” comes from the Indonesian words “orang” for person, and “hutan” for forest—in other words a person of the forest. And you can easily see where that name came from in watching them and looking into their smart eyes.
We were sad to say goodbye to our crew, who made the journey an incredibly pleasant one. But the next day we disembarked for good and headed back to Bali via Surabaya. The first three nights we spent in a villa near Ubud. While we planned to go into Ubud to do some sightseeing, it was too hard to resist lounging around our two bedroom villa with its private pool, and instead we just lazed about. The second morning we did take up the owner, Agung’s offer to walk with him through the rice fields. The scenery was beautiful as we passed through the rice fields and into the forest and valley near the river, where we saw people washing themselves and their clothes. After about 2 hours, hungry for breakfast, we asked for a ride back, and spent the rest of the day without much activity, which was exactly what we needed after a busy week.
We then headed for two days to Nusa Lembongan, so that my parents could see where I had spent about a month. I enjoyed two more days of diving, while my parents went on an island tour of Nusa Penida and Lembongan. We also enjoyed some beers at blue corner dive, and just hung out. It was good to return after having spent a month there, and great seeing the people again.
Finally, it was time to return to Bali, where we would spend two nights in Padang Padang, near Uluwatu. The first night, Eka (the same driver I’d been using throughout my time in Bali) and his family met us for dinner at the Pink Coco, the delightful hotel where we stayed. We enjoyed spending this evening with our Balinese family and exchanging stories about our lives.
The next day I had to head out to look for a cell phone (mine having had an unfortunate close encounter with the tile floor at our Ubud villa) while my parents relaxed. That evening, we headed to Uluwatu temple to watch the kecak dance, which I had seen and knew my parents would enjoy. We first walked out to the vista from which to view the temple. Heeding the guide’s warnings, we all removed our glasses. I put mine in my bag, while my dad decided to keep his in his hand. Unfortunately that was not enough, as a monkey snatched them and scampered off behind the fence. Fortunately he didn’t get far, nor did he intend to. Instead, he waited for the inevitable bribe from the guard, who gave him some fruit wrapped in plastic, and scaled the fence to retrieve the dropped glasses. My dad was left with a minor scratch on his hand, and a few little gnaw marks on the earpiece. The monkey got exactly what he was after—food. You’re not permitted to feed the monkeys at Uluwatu, and I think it actually makes the situation worse, because they know they’ll get fed by stealing glasses. At least in the monkey forest where you can feed them, they only bother those with food.
But we put that behind us and went to watch the kecak dance for our last night in Bali. It was just as stunning as the first time I saw it, and my parents agreed it was great (and easily surpassed the Ramayana ballet). The next day we said goodbye to each other and to Eka and his family at the airport. My parents would head to the US via Singapore, and I was off for the next phase of my adventure—exploring Papua New Guinea by both land and sea. It was sad to say goodbye to Indonesia, but extremely excited for the next step in my journey.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
It’s been a few more great days in Bali. Genny and Andy are back safely in the US, and I’ve had a few days to myself, I planned to spend the time editing photos and getting descriptions written of all the Bali photos in my gallery; I’ve done some of the former, but basically none of the latter–mostly I ended up just relaxing. But I head to Java tomorrow, so I figure it’s a good time to write about the last few days in Bali.
After my last blog post, we spent another day in the Munduk area, guided once again by our wonderful driver Eka. He took us first to a local market (not one for tourists) where we were able to see people selling fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat, and countless other necessities. Wherever I go, I always find markets fascinating. They are always an interesting glimpse into real life in an area, and I enjoy seeing the different and exotic goods available. Plus, they’re social places, so I love watching people interact with each other.
After the market, we spent the rest of the day taking in the scenery of the Munduk area. We drove around to see vistas of the beautiful lakes nestled in the mountains, and we visited Munduk waterfalls. There are more falls in the area, but we were told they were a farther, steeper walk, and since it had been only a few days since we braved the trek up the volcano, none of us were quite up for it. (My knees have only just forgiven me.) But the walk to Munduk was relatively short and easy, and we enjoyed watching the powerful falls, as well as the walk through the woods to get there. As most places we’ve visted in Bali, the path was dotted with places to leave offerings. The song of a man playing a type of xylophone made the short walk even more pleasant.
Finally, we wrapped up the day with a visit to the Bali Botanical Gardens. Although there weren’t as many flowers as we expected, the sculptures throughout the park are beautiful and fascinating. We also enjoyed visiting a large ficus tree.
The next day we headed to our next overnight stop in Canggu, visiting Taman Ayun and Pura Tanah Lot along the way. Taman Ayun is a temple surrounded by a beautiful garden and separated from the streets by a small moat. It was a rainy day, but we enjoyed the picturesque setting, and were entertained by watching some cats help themselves to the offerings.
Pura Tanah Lot is a temple set on the rocks along the coast. At high tide (as it was when we visited), the temple is on an island, while at low tide, it can be reached by foot (although visitors are not permitted to enter unless worshiping).
Apparently the best time to visit is sunset, but we opted to avoid the crowds and spend sunset on the beach instead. So we headed from our villa to Echo beach, where we ate at a grill along the black sand beach, watching the surfers catch waves with the sunset in the backdrop.
The next day would, sadly, be our last full day together, but it would be a good one. Eka invited us to his home to meet his wife and daughter, which was an honor. I have found that wherever I travel, I always meet wonderful people in every corner of the world. Eka and his family are shining examples of that. Eka has been so kind to us during our week of exploration, going out of his way to make sure we had everything we needed. (Even Pokemon cards as a souvenir for Parker.) The car rides to some areas of Bali were quite long, but we truly enjoyed talking with Eka and exchanging stories about our respective cultures and ways of life. The visit to his home was a wonderful way to cap off our days together.
Finally, it was off to the Uluwata temple, where we would see the famous Kecak Fire dance at sunset. Uluwatu was probably my favorite temple we visited in terms of the natural setting. While Tanah Lot has a mystical effect being an island at high tide, Uluwatu is a small temple set on a stunning cliff. But beware the monkeys–a PA announcement warns you that they’ll steal your glasses and other valuables, yet asks you not to attack them (or the officers? Is this something that happens a lot?) It seems they are a bit more aggressive or problematic here, where you’re asked not to feed them. We didn’t have any close encounters, but we enjoyed watching them.
Finally, it was time for the kecak dance, which turned out to be one of my favorite things in Bali. Eka kindly got us our tickets as we explored the temple, but after the venue opened at 5:00, we made our way in to nab some good seats. We were gladly did, as it ended up being a packed house. The kecak dance is set to the sound of dozens of men singing chants (hence the name–the chant repeats “cak” quite often). While I certainly did not pick up all the intricacies of the story (they do hand out a synopsis but I didn’t do a good job of reading it very closely), it essentially tells the story of a prince whose wife is kidnapped by an evil demon. The story culminates in a battle between the demon and a monkey army. (Incidentally, it is this battle depicted in the photo of the sculpture from the botanical garden above.)
Dances of this nature are always some of my favorite things to see in Asia. (A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see many dances and costumes at festivals in Bhutan.) The costumes are always stunning and colorful, and the talent is remarkable. And as you can see from the plethora of photos that I’ll let close this post (only a tiny fraction of the photos I actually took before my camera battery finally died), these dances and costumes make some of my favorite subjects to photograph.
This dance surpassed my expectations, and I plan to visit again when my parents and I return to Bali. It’s not the only kecak dance on the island, but with the backdrop of the sunset and the Uluwatu temple, I can see why it’s the most popular. But for now, I am off to fly to Yogyakarta tomorrow to meet them in Java. We’ll spend a few days visiting the temples of central Java, before catching a plane to see the orangutans in Kalimantan. Then it will be back to Bali where I’ll share some of my favorite things about this beautiful island with them. So it’s bye-bye Bali, but only for now!
As always, if you’d like to see more photos, click here for the full Bali gallery, or click on any image to view the full-size version.
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
It’s been only a few days since Genny and Andy arrived and began helping me explore topside Bali, but we’ve seen and done so much that it’s hard to believe it’s only been that long. On Saturday our driver, Eka, and I picked them up from the airport and we headed to Kuta, where we would spend two nights to let them get acclimated to the time zone and new surroundings before heading off to Ubud. I hadn’t been to Kuta yet, but it was basically what I’d expected from what I’d read–the classic hustle and bustle of a touristy beach town. As soon as we set foot on the beach, we were swarmed with vendors offering to braid our hair or sell us any variety of goods. Still, we were glad to have a full day there, as we made the most of our time in the spa and relaxing at the hotel. We also made our way over to the beach to watch the sunset. But one day was more than adequate and we were ready to escape the commotion and explore the rest of what Bali had to offer.
Early Monday morning Eka picked us up and we set off to Ubud, where we would spend the next three nights. We started off with a bike tour through the countryside surrounding Ubud, and all of us agreed it was one of our favorite days. It was almost entirely downhill (the only way I’d actually agree to get on a bike in hilly Bali). We were picked up at the hotel and dropped at the owner’s home, where we were treated to Balinese banana pancakes and tea before starting off on the tour. Our driver then took us to one of the many coffee tasting venues in the surrounding hills, where they would show us how the famous Luwak coffee–which is made from beans that have been eaten by a mongoose, digested, and pooped out. The nickname is “catpoochino” and it was apparently featured as such in the movie “Bucket List.” It was interesting to see how the coffee was made, and although we didn’t taste it (yet), we enjoyed trying the different coffees and teas.
We were then taking further uphill where we would begin our biking tour. Our first stop was a local “compound”–a family home into which we were invited to see how local people lived. Our guide explained that traditional families live all together and continue to build homes on the compound to fit the growing families. He explained that he lived with 35 family members in his compound in a nearby village. He told us that as the oldest, he would eventually get married and go off to buy his own land, while his younger brother would stay in the compound (joined by his wife whenever he got married) and take care of their parents. He explained that Balinese boys can never leave home because they are expected to stay and care for their families. He also told us that all of the compounds have a temple in the northeast corner of the property, pointing toward the highest mountain in Bali.
We then continued on our bikes (which admittedly had seen better days) through the rice patties, and eventually we stopped to watch the rice being planted. The rice patties are full of calf-deep water, and the seedlings are placed quickly into rows. It was quite impressive how quickly the workers moved through the murky water.
Our next stop was a local school, where we were invited to come in, say hello to the children, and take pictures. The children were quite eager to pose and wave for the cameras. It always interests me to see that wherever you go in the world, kids are pretty much the same–happy, goofy, and playful. We also heard singing from other schools as we passed by, and during our time here, we’ve seen several groups of children marching in groups through the streets. Eka explained to us that they are preparing for the annual independence day celebration on August 17.
We ventured on and stopped eventually at another rice patty–this time observing many people were busy cutting the rice stalks. Our guide explained that only a few of these people were associated with the land. The rest would come help cut the rice stalks (which are not useful), and in exchange, they could take them to feed their cattle. After a busy day of biking through the rice patties, we were taken once again to the owner’s house, where we were treated to a delicious buffet lunch full of scrumptious local foods–although we were told the guides had a separate meal to eat that was spicier and therefore more to their liking! We then returned to our hotel, where we relaxed for the rest of the evening and had an early night to get ready for an early morning to follow.
The next day was our much-anticipated hike of Mount Batur. We were collected at 2 AM and taken to a small restaurant up the mountain, where we were treated to the usual welcome breakfast of banana pancakes and tea. We were then taken to the base of Mount Batur where we’d begin our climb, with the goal to get to the top by sunrise. It was a pretty steep climb in light of the guides’ speed, so none of us made it to the “tip top,” but we all found beautiful vantage points from which to watch the sunrise. While the fog the whole way up made me very nervous the climb would be for naught, the clouds parted long enough to give a breathtaking view of Lake Batur and the surrounding mountains.
After sunrise, I was given yet another breakfast (this time a boiled egg and banana sandwich) and taken to visit the volcano crater. I wondered what the loud shrieks and yelling were from, but I soon discovered the predictable source when I arrived–monkeys eager to jump all over tourists for a bite of food. Vendors sold bananas you could use to coax a monkey onto your shoulder, but I declined. After all, monkeys are wild animals with very large teeth (which I think many tourists too often forget). Nonetheless, I was wearing a backpack, and an uninvited monkey made it his perch for a few seconds, hoping he could open it and find some snacks. When he found I had nothing to offer, he hopped off, and sadly I have no photo proof this actually happened. After saying goodbye to the monkeys, I headed down the mountain on the return journey. It had been dark when we ascended, and the gorgeous vistas all along the mountain made the descent much more enjoyable. (Not to mention the fact that I was not huffing and puffing the whole way this time–although my knees seemed to enjoy the ascent much more.)
That afternoon after a bit of a rest, Andy and I headed over to the sacred monkey forest in Ubud. Not being a fan of monkeys, Genny stayed back and had more R&R at the hotel. I hadn’t been entirely certain the monkey forest was a must-see, having seen plenty of monkeys in my life, but I was so glad I went. It really was interesting seeing them all scampering about among the tourists and temples. Plus, the statues alone were worth the visit–it’s always intriguing to see religious sculptures and wonder what they mean. (Particularly a very unusual erotic statute of a woman and a snake.) And while we could not enter the temples, it was fascinating to see the many women in traditional Balinese dress carrying offerings in baskets on their heads to worship. Again, we declined to feed the monkeys. None jumped on me this time, but one did use Andy as a jumping off point from tree to tree. And they provided plenty of entertainment while we watched, including one that splayed out and slid right down a banister. We also watched several grooming displays, which demonstrated that monkeys certainly have no sense of modesty.
As we headed back to the hotel, I noticed the kites flying over Ubud. Kites are ubiquitous in Bali, and it’s amazing how high they often soar. In the skies behind our hotel, there were dozens dotting the sky.
The next day Eka picked us up again for a tour of Ubud and the surrounding area. We first visited a Hindu temple, where we were given sorongs to wear to maintain respect for the temple. We enjoyed being able to go inside and see the beauty of the decorations throughout the temple. Most other temples are closed to visitors. (This one also had some closed areas, but it was mostly open.)
After the temple, we spent most of the day visiting various artisans and learning about the crafts. We saw a silver shop, a batik factory, and wood carvings. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, but the variety and complexity of all of the art was stunning. We were, however, able to photo the artisans at work, as well as various works-in-progress.
We wrapped up the day with another visit to a coffee tasting–decided we needed to take some luwak coffee home as gifrts. We also decided to finally give it a try. I am not a fan of coffee and I was not a fan of this, but I could tell it was a bit milder than normal Balinese coffee. I’m still glad I tried it, though, so at least I can say I’ve had the famous (or perhaps infamous) “catpoochino.”
The next morning it was time to head out of Ubud and to the Munduk area. We first stopped at another rice patty Eka told us we should visit. Before we arrived, we didn’t know how it would be different than the others we’d seen along various roads, but when we got there, we discovered what must one of the most picturesque valleys in Bali. The terraced hillsides surrounding the jungle valleys made for some truly spectacular views. And although we saw mostly muddy water in the rice patties with no evident growth, we were told rice is still planted there, and they were currently preparing the soil.
Those views continued as we ascended into the central mountains. Although it was a bit foggy, we could still see the terraced hillsides below jungle-cloaked hills. Eventually, we arrived at Pura Ulun Danau Bratan–a temple on lake Bratan, surrounded by the mountains. It was smaller than I imagined, but lovely and surrounded by beautiful flowers. All lakes have temples in Bali, but not all are as accessible as this one, so we appreciated being able to see it without another lengthy trek.
We finally headed back to our hotel, where we sat and watched the sunset while listening to the music from ceremonies at nearby temples in the valley, and prepared for the rest of our explorations.
This is once again just a sampling of photos from this part of the trip. Click here for the full Bali gallery, or click on any image to view the full-size version.
“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
-Robert Lewis Stevenson
With a successful IDC and IE behind me, it’s now time for the real explorations to begin! Don’t get me wrong, my IDC was great and I had a blast and met great people, but it was pretty time consuming, so I didn’t have much time to actually explore. So after finishing a few specialty dives, I took a day off from diving to actually see what Nusa Lembongan was all about beyond “the main road” and the dive shop. My homestay owner rented me a motorbikes and taught me to use it and after a few minutes puttering around his driveway and the adjacent alley, I was off for the harrowing experience of trying to navigate the hills and dodge the trucks while exploring the island.
And what a beautiful island it is. First, I headed over to the mangrove and walked along the sandy beaches. I didn’t spend much time there–avoiding the people hawking various mangrove tours is almost as challenging as avoiding the other motorbikes along the mainroad. But I at least took the time to savor the scenery and get a few shots of the gorgeous coastline. I then stopped at a Bamboo, a small warung, and had a delicious (and gigantic) seafood lunch.
After lunch, I took the backroad through the mangrove forest and over to the far side of the island to take the “yellow bridge” to nearby Nusa Cennigan island. I managed to carefully hobble across the bridge on my motorbike and the view from the other side was breathtaking. I attempted unsuccessfully to navigate a bit farther into Cennigan, but with the roads much rockier, I decided to take the safe route and turn back to Lembongan.
That afternoon, while trying to find Devil’s Tear, I stumbled upon the “underground house” I had heard about. I decided to pay it a visit. I was greeted by a proud man who ushered me down a treacherous “stairway” into an underground home. He gave me a tour, “suggesting” I try to fit through various crevices and look down into wells and up into skylights and “yoga rooms.” (I don’t know how you can do yoga where you can’t stand up, but I’m no expert.) It felt more like a dungeon or something out of law and order than a home, but I appreciate the effort that went into building it. He proudly told me his father had built it and prodded me to take photos, unsatisfied until he heard the click of my shutter. (Challenging when my camera is on focus mode and it’s pitch black so there’s nothing to focus on and no way to take a photo.) I did manage to get one photo that is something other than black blur. Overall, I can’t say I would try to maneuver my way through there again, but it was an experience, and there is a certain charm to see something built and shown off with so much pride.
I finally did make my way to Devil’s Tear, where the waves crash into the rocks, and I headed up to “water blow” hotel to enjoy a milkshake overlooking the beach. I then continued upward to a lookout, where I took the time to enjoy the view from above of Jungutbatu. When it was time to head back, I remembered the steep road we had climbed to get to our IE, and rather than brave the steep decline on the motorbike, I returned the way I came. I think my motorbike days may now be behind me.
The next day I headed out for my final dives on Nusa Lembongan–to Manta Point and Crystal Bay. The mantas did not disappoint and there were probably 4 or 5, although with them returning again and again it felt more like 20. Crystal Bay was lovely as always and made for a nice end to the trip, although there were no mola molas to be seen this time. Unfortunately I neglected to take my usual test shots with my camera (facepalm!) and if I had, I’d have noticed my sync cables were missing. Oh, well–made the most I could of the natural light! Including by taking some topside photos (droplets on my dome port and all) between dives of the absolutely stunning coastline of Nusa Penida–I’ll happily take that 45 minute boat ride with that view!
The next day I boarded the Scoot fastboat back to Sanur to begin my explorations of Bali… eventually. I should have learned to check the tides before booking a boat, and we ended up being very late because they couldn’t get the boat in at low tide. (If only there were some way to predict the tides…. hmmmm…) But I made it eventually and my driver Eka picked me up to hit the road to Tulamben, where I would spend the next two days diving. The scenery along the drive was beautiful. Lush forests and terraced fields throughout the mountains that descend to the coasts. That’s the best I can give you because I didn’t take any photos. (Whoops.) Much to my delight, at one point I watched as a woman shoo some strange looking cats from the road only to realize they were not cats, but monkeys!
The next day I began diving in Tulamben with a 6 AM dive on the USS Liberty–one of Bali’s most famous dive sites. The Liberty is an American ship that was sunk by a Japanese torpedo and then beached in Tulamben. This dive, as with most dives in Tulamben, is done from shore, so I was loaded up into the back of a pickup truck with my gear to head to the beach. The site is a popular dawn dive due to the presence of bumphead parrotfish, some dinosaur-looking creatures that look like they should be living in another time. I finished the day off with three more dives–one on a wall and the other two in some muck that made for some good macro stuff. It’s nudis galore in Tulamben! I saw such a huge variety over the two days that there is no way I could keep them all straight. (And in fact, the quote that opens this post came from the critter ID book my guide was using to tell me what we’d seen.)
The second day of diving it was really time to get in the muck, and my dive was on the hunt to find me the small stuff. We began with one of those dives where you spend the first 15 minutes thinking the critters are all in hiding. I had just turned to shooting random colorful bits of life as abstracts when things turned around–with a gorgeous seahorse–a pink one perched on a purple backdrop. But not just that! Not far away were two harlequin shrimp! I was in heaven. The rest of the day continued that way–my guide Made found critter after critter, including a frogfish. And although I wasn’t able to take photos during one dive due to a little camera issue (I knocked the switch onto manual mode when I opened my housing… again with the facepalm since I only checked the strobes and firing and not the focus on my tests shots… oh well!) we finished up with a spectacular night dive back at the Liberty.
Despite having a pick up at 11:00 the next morning, I wasn’t quite done yet. I couldn’t let the trip go by without taking my wide angle lens to the liberty, so we headed back out to the wreck for one last dive. It was not as busy as it had been at 6 AM, and it was a great dive and good way to end my time in Tulamben.
Eka then picked me up and brought me back to Denpasar, where I picked up Genny and Andy. Now it’s time for some land-based adventures for awhile!
Note that I’m not including all my photos in these blog posts. This website (particularly on poor internet connections) does not like large files, so I have only uploaded the poor quality versions of the photos that I think will give the best sense of what I’m seeing. If you click on these images, it should take you to the full-size image on my zenfolio site, which is much more stable in terms of uploading and gives me more freedom in terms of storage capacity, so I have more photos on there as well. You can scroll through all my Bali photos here (or check out the full set of travel albums here).
Dive Summary (Nusa Lembongan):
Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Date: July 18, 2017
Max. Depth: 61 feet
Total Bottom Time: 88 minutes
Dive Sites: Manta Point, Crystal Bay
Dive Summary (Tulamben):
Location: Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia
Date: July 20-22, 2017
Max. Depth: 86 feet
Total Bottom Time: 476 minutes
Dive Sites: USS Liberty, The Drop Off, Kubu, Coral Gardens, Sidem, Melasti, Seraya
“We make a living by what we get.
We make a life by what we give.”
This past Thursday, on my 200th dive, I successfully became a PADI Open Water SCUBA Instructor. At first, I was surprised at how emotional I got after successfully completing the Instructor Exam. After all, the big “leap” I took was quitting my job to start this year-long journey. Yet somehow passing my IE made it all seem real. It was the culmination of a huge journey that began the first time I ever breathed underwater and swam through schools of countless jacks in Belize. A love affair that began that moment and continued through many more–me and the ocean. The place where I found endless calm and peace amidst a chaotic world. The place where I connected with the earth and was spellbound by the mystical diversity of the creatures of the deep. And with that, I thought it fitting to share that journey and thank the many people who helped me get here. So a big thanks to everyone mentioned in this post.
It all began on a spur-of-the-moment birthday trip to Belize with my long-time friend Jen. We both had a lull at work and decided to make the most of it with a long weekend–planned about a week in advance. We lobbied about ideas of where we could get easily, at first thinking of Mexico. Somehow the idea of Belize popped up and since neither of us had been and we could get a decent fare, we pulled the trigger and booked. Knowing we would probably do some snorkeling, I decided I should probably get myself a mask and fins. So the day before the trip I started calling all the sporting goods and outdoor stores in Chicago. No success whatsoever. Finally, one of the stores asked, “have you tried that dive shop on Lincoln?” A SCUBA store in Chicago? I had no idea. But I looked it up and the mythical store did, in fact, exist. I saw that it closed at 7:00, so I planned to leave work at 5:30 to head up and get the needed equipment.
And so began the insane night that first made me a lifelong customer of Underwater Safaris. First, I had just an awful day at work–the kind of day that makes everything that follows seem that much worse. And then, a torrential downpour meant it took me an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trek from downtown to North Lincoln. And that traffic meant I was very nearly out of gas by the time I arrived. And as I parked on the street and opened my bag to grab my wallet, I found nothing but a checkbook. (Why I had that I still have no idea.) I had no gas, and no money that was worth anything without an ID. And I was to leave for Belize the next day. A pitiful, sopping mess, I went into the store anyway and asked if I could take shelter from the rain to call my friend to come meet me at a gas station and give me gas money. I tried to hold it in, but my eyes brimmed with tears that eventually spilled over from the unrelenting bad day. And despite it being ten minutes before closing and having no money, I asked the unthinkable–would they take a check and sell me some snorkel gear? Marianne decided I was either having the worst day ever or was the best actress on earth, and she took pity on me. (This long story may be a bit of a digression, but it’s an important one. Marianne’s treatment of me that night was part of the reason I came back to Underwater Safaris when I got back–and it turned out to be somewhat of a second home for me in Chicago. And by the way, my friend Sarah came to my rescue at the gas station, and all ended well.)
With the insanity behind me and a snorkel gear in tow, we left for Belize the next day. Jen, a licensed open water diver who had not dove since a few post-certification dives in Thailand, talked me into doing a discover SCUBA course. I was content to snorkel (which was not even one of my favorite activities anyway… still isn’t), but I thought, “why not?” So the hotel hooked us up with a local dive shop who picked us up on our dock, fitted us with gear, had us watch the PADI Discover SCUBA video and ushered us onto a boat with our dive instructor (whose name I believe was Tony, although I’m not certain… we’ll just call him Tony) and our boat captain, Big Sexy (whose name I will obviously never forget). We motored off to a shallow, calm sandbar for the confined water session, where I learned to clear my mask, and recover and clear my regulator. Jen tagged along for this portion as well, getting a refresher since it had been sometime since she dived. Despite thinking it would be physically impossible to remove water from a mask while STILL UNDERWATER, it was surprisingly easy. So once I was ready, we swam off for my first dive.
As we got about ten feet down, the fear set in. I looked up and realized I could not just stand up if I was having a problem. The regulator began to breathe harder at depth, and while I now know that is fairly normal for a cheap regulator, I thought for certain there was something wrong with it. So in response to Tony giving me the “OK” I gave him the “something’s wrong” sign and pointed at my regulator. He looked at it, gave me the “you’re fine, just breathe” signal, held my hand, and we continued to swim along. “DOESN’T HE REALIZE MY REGULATOR IS BROKEN?” a part of me thought. But the saner part of me prevailed, realized I was still breathing, and just went along with him, likely turning his knuckles white in a grip of death.
But then something happened. We entered a new, previously unknown universe, full of corals and fish. I had snorkeled before, but I never had experienced anything like this. I was seeing new things, and at the same time, I felt weightless, like I was flying. Slowly my fingers loosened their grasp on Tony’s hand and eventually they let go. We continued floating through this magical new world, even gliding through a school full of jacks in a small swim-through I had just moments before thought certainly I could never actually get through. (Now the instructor in me kind of cringes at that, but nonetheless, it was incredible at the time…) And not only that, thanks to a cheap disposable camera, we even had poor-quality greenish-tinted photos to remind us of this experience.
My First Dive (Sorry Sea Cucumber! I know better now.)
As soon as I got back to Chicago, I called Underwater Safaris and signed up for a weekend confined water class to begin the certification process. I had a week planned in Florida the following months, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to become a “real diver.” I had a blast learning all of the skills in the pool under the direction of my instructor Mike “Smy” Smykowski, and was surprised at how easily it came. I had never been an athlete and was not a super strong swimmer, but thanks to Smy’s coaching and encouragement, I felt at ease in the water. That was not true for everyone. My buddy had some challenges with the mask skills, and even then I felt like I wanted to help her. Looking back, I think a part of me caught the instructor bug even then.
I was so excited, I very nearly signed up for the Fiji trip with the shop that fall. Jen talked some sense into me and suggested perhaps I wait until I actually get certified to decided if I really like it. I agreed, but deep down I knew I was Fiji bound.
So feeling confident, during a weeklong gap between jobs, I hopped down to Fort Lauderdale Florida to do my four open water dives. I signed up for private lessons with Lauderdale Divers. I showed up at the shop, was fitted for my gear, and met my instructor, Chris Webber, who took me over to the harbor to board the American Dream II. We hopped in the water, descended to the maximum depth for dive one, and hung out on the line. (The first dive was a wreck that was beyond my limits, but I’d be able to see the wreck the next day, and the second dive would be a reef dive.)
While we were underwater, mother nature decided to give me a little test. As I ascended the line for my safety stop, I was bobbed up and down; up and down. The swell had grown and it was all I could do to hold in my breakfast. (TMI: When I got to the surface, I didn’t. Sorry to the cop who was diving as well and ascended right below me! Wish I had known back then that was an excellent use of an alternate underwater.) I made it back on the boat, and after our surface interval, we hopped in for dive 2. The swell was still pretty heavy, but we were optimistic once we descended things would get better.
They didn’t. Aside from the swells, still making their presence known at 30 feet, there was a wicked surge. I tried a skill, and simultaneously trying to keep from puking, I lost all control of my buoyancy. We got to the surface, and I still remember feeling like this was not possible–I would not be able to do it. But Chris knew I could. “Forget the skills for now,” he said. “Just give me 20 minutes. All you have to do is stay down for 20 minutes and it counts. We’ll do the skills tomorrow and just do the skills for both dives on Dive 3. Do you think you can stay with me down there for 20 minutes? If not, we can get back on the boat.” I nodded and gave him the thumbs down (“let’s descend”) signal. So he put a couple extra pounds on me and we headed down. We didn’t get through any skills, but I made it. Back on the boat, I wasn’t sure I could come back for the rest of the dives the next day. But Chris encouraged me. He promised me that conditions weren’t usually that bad, and if the water conditions had been like that when we were leaving, we wouldn’t have gone.
Mother nature decided she still didn’t want to cooperate, and she kept me in suspense. The next day I got a call that the dives were cancelled because the seas were still rough. They weren’t sure about the following day, so they told me they’d make the call at 7 AM the following morning. And it turned out we were on.
Mother nature apparently decided she had tested me enough. The seas were glass, and the visibility incredible, so I could see everything on the wreck–my first wreck dive. I was again mesmerized. We did the skills for dive 2 and dive 3, and still managed to have a wonderful float around the wreck. When I ascended from dive 4, I was a certified diver. I was so excited, I signed up to go out on the American Dream the next 2 days. Chris was teaching another course on the boat, so he said he would help me find a buddy. He hooked me up with two experienced divers who turned out to be the best buddies I could’ve asked for for my first dive without an instructor. And as soon as I got back, I signed up for that Fiji trip. (So did Jen.)
By now you’re probably wondering if I will go into this excruciating amount of detail for every dive trip I’ve been on. Of course not. Suffice it to say that the following years, diving was where I felt truly happy. I’ve been fortunate enough that every dive trip I’ve been on has been not only fantastic diving, but on every single trip I’ve met new and interesting people I genuinely enjoyed spending time with–many of whom I keep in touch with to this day. So from Dive Wananavu to the Kona Aggressor to to Salt Cay Divers to CocoView Resort to Atlantis Dumaguete and everywhere else I’ve dived–thank you to everyone I’ve dived with–whether it be fellow guests or divemasters/instructors. I’ve learned so much from watching other divers and talking to them that truly all of you have left a mark on me.
But I want to give a special shout-out to those who have dove with me and taught me over the past year. It has been about a year since I decided to take the instructor plunge, and so I’ve been thinking of diving a bit differently since then. First, I want to thank every person who works at at Small Hope Bay, but especially the dive staff there. Despite having never actually taken a class there, I feel like my diving has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year thanks to my three trips to Small Hope. I was given the option of navigating dive sites on my own (and not an easy dive site like a wreck or a wall), which gave me confidence in my compass and my navigation abilities. I went to depths I quite literally never thought possible and even did a cave dive. Watching the instructors there teach my others and guide people on DSDs showed me what I want to be as an instructor. It is everything diving should be, and I am not sure there is anywhere I’ve ever had more fun.
And of course, there is simply no way I would have passed my IE without my fabulous divemaster instructors, Marc Merel and Ashton Kinsey, or my fellow DMCs Stacy and Jamie. The divemaster course was fun but it was also a challenge. I started to think about diving in an entirely new way. And I started to think of myself in an entirely new way as well. I really wasn’t certain I would be able to swim fast enough to pass the water skills, but they gave me confidence in myself. (And I don’t think I’ve ever been so elated as when Marc yelled “4!” and held up four fingers after my tired diver tow.) Plus, watching them teach open water students makes me hope that someday I can be that kind of instructor. The joy in new divers’ faces is something I hope to see many times.
And last (chronologically) but certainly not least, a huge thanks to the team at Blue Corner Dive in Nusa Lembongan, especially Cody McDonald and Rosie Dixon, and my fellow instructor candidates Chris Danna and Belinda Huang. The last few weeks have been physically and emotionally demanding for me. Getting used to diving in a new environment while learning new skills has been more challenging than I expected it to be, but you all got me through. The support and encouragement has been outstanding, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Thanks to all of you. Fittingly, Rosie reminded me the other day that the Winston Churchill post that opens this post is at the beginning of our instructor manual. Well all of you have given me a lot, and I hope one day I can do the same for other divers.
So to wrap up this lengthy (sorry) post, I felt like quitting my job was the beginning, but it really wasn’t. In the opening paragraph, I said the IE is a culmination, but it really isn’t. This is the beginning. It’s the beginning of my new life. Even though I don’t plan to be a full-time instructor, I hope that teaching diving can always be a part of that life in some way, shape, or form. And reflecting on this story, I remember attending my first Underwater Safaris party and running into Smy after finishing my certification. I told him “I’m finished!” He replied “No, you’re just starting.”
And so I am.
Photo Credit: Cody McDonald, Blue Corner Dive
Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Date: July 5, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15 & 16, 2017
Max. Depth: 81 feet
Total Bottom Time: 433 minutes
Dive Sites: Pontoon, Mangrove, Sekkohlah Dasar, Sental, Buyuk, Pura Ped
“Let’s talk trash…. Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.”
-Syliva A. Earle, The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One
For the last week and a half or so, I’ve been busy with my IDC course at Blue Corner Dive in Nusa Lembongan, soaking up lots of new information and learning to teach people how to dive. It’s been a lot of fun and I have fabulous instructors and two great classmates, but after a week in the classroom and pool, all three of us candidates were itching to get back in the ocean! Lucky us, on Saturday, we all got to participate in a Project AWARE Dive Against Debris (along with the DMTs and several members of the Blue Corner team). Some of you may know that marine conservation is a cause near and dear to my heart (so much so that I hope to make a career out of it somehow), so I was stoked to get in the water for a good cause. And even luckier for me, my job was to document our efforts as the designated photographer!
For our first stop, we went to Caring Sari, which is the adopted dive site for Blue Corner’s divemaster program. The dive site is absolutely stunning, and we were fortunate enough to have pristine conditions–clear visibility and no current to speak of. This gave us a great opportunity to focus on our task of cleaning the place up! It’s a popular spot for fisherman, so the most waste at this dive site is fishing line and nets. The Blue Corner team went to work with their knives and scissors to get as much of the line and net we could, along with any other errant trash. Jo and Steph took home the prize for the heaviest bag for sure, having dragged up a whopper of a fishing net.
After a nice relaxing surface interval and a tasty lunch, next it was off to Buyuk, the adopted dive site for Blue Corner’s IDC program. Buyuk is near a harbor, so it tends to be the recipient of a lot of trash from the boats. Although the current had picked up a tiny bit, conditions were still pristine, and the water crystal clear. With the little bit of current I wasn’t able to move around the group and get as many action shots, but we still were able to do some good work! And have some fun, of course.
But Buyuk was pretty clean! We ended up carrying away about 1kg of trash. It really is a stunning dive site, with gorgeous corals teeming with a huge variety of fish and sealife. But I’ll be interested to hear whether this dive site is affected by cyclical patterns. After all, busy season is coming, and I fear the harbor will bring more trash to this stunning place.
When we were done diving, it was all smiles back on the boat!
Finally, we made it back to the shop, where it was time to sort, weigh, and dispose of our take. Everyone who participates in Dives Against Debris across the world submits data to Project AWARE, which helps them keep track of the health of our oceans, how the amount of debris changes with seasons and local events (whether it be weather-related or based on an influx of tourism or other activities at particular times of year).
Overall, it was a great experience, and I think we all learned a lot and had a lot of fun in the process. It is great to make your dives count, and be able to make a difference in the marine ecosystem. And seeing the trash–particularly the plastics and remnants of consumer products–makes you think about how everything we do affects the health of our oceans and our planet. Even if you live nowhere near the ocean, those streams, rivers, and lakes all ultimately lead to the same place, and what we do in one place affects living creatures all over the world. Although these dives were pretty clean, I’ve seen tons of garbage throughout my years of diving that can never be picked up. It’s terribly sad, and I hate to think about how many beautiful sea creatures are harmed by our waste. So think twice next time you use that disposable plastic lid, straw, or water bottle! It may not always be possible to opt for something you can reuse again in the future, but every little bit helps! And if you’re a diver, check out whether there are any Project AWARE events happening at your next dive destination! It’s a great way to have fun and do your part.
After those great dives on Saturday, it was back to the classroom for more IDC studies. But my fellow instructor candidates and I did manage to sneak in one more dive–a dawn dive right in the midst of our EFRI training. And as luck would have it, we were great with not one, not two, but THREE molas–my first sighting ever. And while the photo I got wasn’t great, at least I have proof I saw it! It’s really hard to describe these fantastic creatures. Even having seen photos of them next to divers, their scale is still a shock the first time you see them. Nothing I’ve seen has ever seemed so massive. (Although I haven’t been graced with the presence of a whale shark yet.) And, as with any time I am awestruck by some gorgeous creature, the more I am reminded that every little bit we can do to save our seas comes one step closer to protecting them.
(Note: This file is for some reason not agreeing with this site,
but click through for the full-size version if you want a better look.)
Thanks for some great diving, Blue Corner!
Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Date: July 1 & 3, 2017
Max. Depth: 130 feet
Total Bottom Time: 122 minutes
Dive Sites: Caring Sari, Buyuk, Blue Corner
“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.”
It’s been roughly a week since I began my six-month overseas journey (give or take a day… the time zones make it hard to keep track) so that means it’s about time that I start documenting and sharing my travels. It’s been a wonderful first week, although relatively uneventful, which is generally a good thing when it comes to international travel.
I set off on Sunday from Chicago, ready for 30+ hours of travel time. Fortunately for me, I had accumulated enough miles for a business class ticket (and I got one for a relative steal) so the journey was entirely comfortable. I slept most of the 13 hour flight to Tokyo and the 6 hour flight to Bangkok (yes, I am a champion sleeper), so I arrived relatively refreshed and ready to do a little bit of wandering around Sanur after arrival in Denpasar. Upon arrival, I was not surprised to see that the Denpasar airport was a zoo with hundreds of drivers waiting to collect their fares. Fortunately I had pre-arranged a driver who told me it would be easiest to meet a bit past the chaos, so getting out of the airport was relatively stress-free.
My driver, Eka, took me to my homestay–a small collection of rooms with an open air common area and a small pool, tucked away in an alley off the main drag. It was a modest, but comfortable place, and the hosts were delightful. After freshening up a bit, I went to explore Sanur beach and have a bit of dinner. To get there, I had to cross the main drag, which it turned out was an adventure in and of itself. While there are pedestrian signals, they don’t seem to mean much, and it was a bit of a game of frogger, but I made it across safely. Once there, I enjoyed a simple local meal of fish, rice, and soup at a small warung recommended by the owner of my homestay. Delicious, but the soup was too spicy for me. After wiping my hand across my mouth, I thought I had numbed my lips with Deet only to remember I was wearing no bug spray–just the natural effects of the chilis! I checked out Sanur beach and walked around a bit before tackling the return trip across the road and relaxing for the rest of the evening.
My humble but comfortable homestay in Sanur
Dinner and exploring on Sanur beach
(Update 7/2: I finally got around to processing the Sanur photos on my good camera so I’ve added a few above.)
In the morning before I headed out for Nusa Lembongan, my hosts offered me breakfast, and I opted for some banana pancakes that it seems are very popular here in Bali. More of a crepe than a pancake, they contain fresh banana and appear to be fried in oil in a cast iron skillet, giving them a char that reminded me of the Chapati we had in Uganda (although made of much thinner batter). Delicious! Then in the early afternoon I headed off to Nusa Lembongan, my home for the next month, and the location of my IDC (instructor development course).
Getting to the island requires taking a speedboat from Sanur beach, which has no harbor so it is necessary to wade to the boat. Fortunately the waves were small and we were able to board easily. But the tide was low and arriving in Nusa Lembongan was another story! The boat captain took about 40 minutes to maneuver through the shallow waters to get us close enough to disembark. We finally made it, though, and I was dropped at the homestay where I had booked my first two nights–or so I thought. As it turned out, the homestay was roughly 300 meters from the main road through an alley. No problem if you’re not dragging two large bags. But eventually a gentleman came to my aid and I made it. The hostess, a lovely and welcoming woman, invited me to sit on a chair on the beach while they prepared my room. Only after I got up did I realize I had a friend lounging below me. Dogs seem to be everywhere on the island, and they seem to keep hanging out by me. Perhaps they can tell I miss Ernie!
I headed over to the dive shop where I met a few people and had dinner before collapsing back at my homestay. I hadn’t planned to dive the next morning, but I hadn’t adjusted to the time and woke up at 5 AM, so I couldn’t resist! Fortunately for me, the owners of the homestay made me a banana pancake before I headed out. Nothing beats a beachfront breakfast!
I headed out to the dive shop for two dives. The diving on Nusa Lembongan is mostly drift diving and is quite lovely. The first site we visited was Manta Point. And unlike most dive sites where naming the site seems to scare away it’s namesake (I’ve yet to see any sharks at a site with “shark” in the name, or turtles at a site with “turtle” in the name, etc.), this one is aptly named. The mantas like the area because the currents bring in a great deal of plankton. That means less visibility, but it’s worth it to see these beautiful and graceful creatures. Although I’d seen them before, it had been some time, and somehow I had forgotten how awe-inspiring they are. For our second dive, we visited Crystal Bay, where the visibility was higher and the corals more abundant. I was pleased to see how healthy and teeming with life the reef was.
Because it was just one day of diving, I left my large bulky camera back and opted to just carry my small point and shoot. Most of the shots I got were not great, especially of the mantas. (Relatively poor visibility means you have to be really close to get a decent photo, and we didn’t get super close.) But I still can’t resist sharing one manta photo, since they’re such beautiful creatures. You can’t get a sense of the size from the photo, but this was a relatively small one. We did see one big guy–probably 12-15 feet long. And while these pictures aren’t the best I’ve taken, you can get a sense of the healthy marine life from the rest of them. And no, the third photo isn’t just coral. Can you spot the fish? (I believe it’s a scorpionfish, although I don’t have my ID books with me.) I just love seeing how some sea creatures have evolved to blend in with their surroundings.
The following day, I started my IDC study period. The first segment is made up of largely classroom and pool work, so it will be awhile before I’m back in the sea. The first few days have been theory study days, so there isn’t much exciting to report. I did take part in the weekly Friday night party, where I got to see the new divemaster trainees’ “snorkel test.” Not the 800m snorkel test in the water, but a different kind of snorkel test that involves drinking through a snorkel in costume. It was quite entertaining, and the party was a lot of fun.
I’ve also moved into a new homestay, where I’ll stay for the remainder of my time in Nusa Lembongan. The owner, Ketut, is very friendly and welcoming, and keeps a lovely, lush garden, which makes for a welcoming home. He also offered to teach me Indonesian, and after suggesting he teach me 3-5 words every day, he prattled off about 60. Hopefully eventually I’ll absorb some of them. He likes to chat, so hopefully at least some learning is inevitable!
Overall, the trip is off to a great start. The people on the island are extremely friendly, and it’s a safe, relatively comfortable place. I am looking forward to spending the next month getting to know this place.
Location: Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
Date: June 22, 2017
Max. Depth: 75 feet
Total Bottom Time: 99 minutes
Dive Sites: Manta Point, Crystal Bay
“May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”
-inscribed on the Golden Spike, Promontory Point, 1869
Today is the day. The day I leave you to set off on an adventure around the world, to see what else is out there. And although I’ve left you before, it’s never been quite like this. This trip is the longest, has the most destinations, and is marked with the most uncertainty since I’m not exactly where what or where I’ll be coming back to at the end of it.
True, we’ve had some hard times recently. I’ve seen a divisiveness at home that makes my heart ache and brings tears to my eyes on a regular basis. I’ve seen people do some unconscionable things and been hit with the staunch reality of how far we still have to go. And hopefully when I come back, you’ll have come a little farther, and we can continue to press on together. Maybe I can even help.
But this letter is not about the challenges that have recently come to pass. On a recent trip to the Bahamas, someone asked me what I’d miss the most while I was gone. I wasn’t able to answer immediately–before leaving I was so filled with excitement for my new adventure and so overcome with all the work I had to do in preparation that I hadn’t really stopped to think about it.
Of course, I will miss my family and friends. That’s the obvious part. I have so many amazing people in my life who are supporting me on this great adventure. But my parents (as well as some friends) are coming to visit me at some point, and the reality is I have friends spread across the US (and the world) who I don’t see on a regular basis anyway. Plus, thanks to the internet, no one is ever too far away. So I wanted to look beyond that at you, my home, and think about the other things.
So without further ado, here are the things about you that I will miss. Some are shallow or mundane, others less so, but I think I’ve taken them all for granted.
- Ernie: I can’t say much more without crying. I miss him already.
- Being able to get pretty much anything, anytime: Hungry? Have food delivered. Something that can’t be delivered? Hop in the car and you can probably get it. Not nearby? Go on Amazon and get it the next day. We are so spoiled. And on that note…
- Hopping in the car and running a quick errand: I know, in Chicago it’s less quick, but still… It’s not going to be so easy to get around where I have no car and don’t speak the language. And no Target to go get whatever I need…
- Blue Steel (my car): There is simply nothing like riding through the country with the top down on a summer day.
- Live Theater: One of my favorite releases, and it’s hard to believe I’m going to miss so many amazing shows.
- Blow Dryers (and a climate that makes them useful): This is so superficial, but it’s true. Even the most adventurous among us, and those of us who give the fewest f—s sometimes feel like doing our hair and looking pretty. My hair is going to be a massive ball of frizz for the next year. And I’ve learned in the tropics that even if you blow dry your hair, it’s more or less a futile exercise.
- Good Old Midwestern Food: OK, back to some more mundane things. I know that I will eat and eat well all over the world. But I’ll be missing that late August midwestern sweet corn, frozen custard, Wisconsin cheese, grass-fed steak, and a plethora of other things that just don’t seem to be the same anywhere else.
- Variety of food: It’s not just the specific food you offer that I’ll miss, but also the fact that I can get just about anything my heart desires. It’s pretty awesome.
- The Seasons: Ask me if I still feel this way when I step off the plane in December.
- Reliable Air Conditioning: This is one I’ll get used to, but I’ll still be on a hunt for a room with a breeze.
- Ready Access to Internet: Another double-edged coin, I am going to be in some places where it will be tough to get in touch. This will make some logistics annoying as well as be tough in the times I’m homesick. But again, a little liberating too…
- My Clothes: Another superficial one, but it’s going to be an adjustment to have basically 4 things to choose from every morning. (At the same time, maybe this will be a little liberating.)
- Being Able to Wear Whatever I Damned Well Please: Related, and it seems superficial, but it’s about more than that. Women have a long way to go in America, but at least if I want to walk around in a bikini, I have the right to do that. No one is going to tell me I’d better cover my shoulders or wear pants or a knee-length skirt. I respect the customs of other countries and locations and will cover my shoulders and legs where required, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it. (Plus, it’s going to be HOT.) And yes, I realize there remain problems at home relating to body shaming, slut shaming, fat shaming, etc., but the bottom line is no one’s getting arrested for having bare shoulders or knees–we’re better off than some areas of the world.
- Unlimited access to fresh, clean, hot water: Some of the places I’ll have fresh and hot water. Others it may not be hot. Some places even the water from the taps may be brackish. But regardless, it is a precious commodity. Home, you give me the ability to take a wholly unnecessary soak in a giant tub of water, and all of us who live there are so fortunate for that. We take it for granted. (As an aside, there is a great book, Tropical Fish in which a young woman from Uganda describes her first bath. I highly recommend it as it will give you a perspective on how ridiculous and amazing a bath seems in some areas of the world.)
- Cleanliness, Generally: Although far from perfect and there’s a lot of work to do, the air, water, and land at home remain cleaner than many other areas of the world. Please, I implore you, keep it that way, and make it even better.
- Purple mountains majesty, and the rest of it from sea to shining sea: Living there, I often fail to recognize how beautiful the American landscape is. We have so many national treasures. I leave without having explored anywhere close to all of them, but that leaves me a lot to do on return. Please treasure them and keep them safe for my return.
- Diversity: I’ve met so many people from all walks of life without ever having to leave my country. I’ve learned from all of them. Not just diversity of background, but diversity of thoughts and ideas. It’s what drives us all crazy sometimes, but it’s also one thing that makes you great. I’m sad to see not everyone appreciates that diversity. I hope when I’m gone, some of the wounds can be mended, and people realize how your diversity is one of your greatest assets.
- Your Inspirational History: As I prepared to leave, I flipped through my freshly-renewed passport and the quotations that adorned the pages. (I’d encourage everyone to do that. That was the source for the quote that started this blog.) I continue to marvel at what the founding fathers did, and I hope you continue to work to live up to the promise of the great American experiment.
This list isn’t comprehensive, and I’m sure there will be other things I miss as I’m away for longer. But even though there are some things I won’t miss, and you’ve sometimes broken my heart and made me cry, you are my home. And when it’s time to find home, I know the way.
We set a course to find
A brand new island everywhere we roam
We keep our island in our mind
And when it’s time to find home
We know the way
-“We Know the Way” from Moana, lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda