Tuesday, March 30, 2010

You Gotta Be Kidding Me!

My friend Mark, the English Language Fellow in Makassar, is also a diver and came up to Gorontalo this past weekend for his first visit, lured by my blog posts about whale shark sightings. Although we didn’t see any whale sharks this weekend, Mark enjoyed his time here tremendously and said the diving here was the best he’s ever done – and he’s dived the Red Sea, Bunaken, Bali and, of course, Makassar. He was thrilled with the colorful and abundant corals, the swirling schools of fish, the deep caverns, and the “swim through” at Sand Channels. The phrase he kept repeating with awe throughout the weekend was, “You gotta be kidding me!” Yep, that’s Gorontalo!

We also had two very memorable surface intervals between dives. On the first day after the second dive, we pulled into the fishing village of Olele to eat our lunch of tuna and rice, which had been prepared for us by the boat captain’s wife. Not long after we arrived, a small traditional fishing canoe pulled up next to us with its catch of the day – a very big yellowfin tuna! And the men had caught it with a hand line, imagine that. We followed them to the cleaning station where they gutted and weighed it. It was 62 kilos, which they said would fetch about 1.5 million rupiahs at the market (about $165). They asked us how much such a fish would get in the America but we had no idea. So we just posed for pictures with the tuna before we watched the men expertly cut it into pieces. Tuna is a very big part of the local diet in Gorontalo.

The next day we had just climbed back on the boat after our first dive when we heard one of the boat crew cry out, “Lumba-lumba!” This is one of the handful of Indonesian words I know – dolphins! There was a pod of Risso’s dolphins swimming off in the distance. The boat crew carefully maneuvered the boat a bit closer and we spent a good part of the surface interval watching these beautiful creatures swim and dive around the boat. I counted at least nine but there may have been more. It was hard to tell because they kept going underwater and resurfacing. For Mark, this moment was extra special because it was his first time seeing dolphins in the wild.

Even after the diving was over, Gorontalo continued to impress. On the way back to the dock after the last dive of the day, we passed pristine beaches and majestic limestone cliffs. As we pulled into the river, an extremely large bird flew overhead. Mark took one look, shook his head in disbelief and said, “Of course”. I smiled in response as I watched the Brahminy kite soar above the river. That night, after a bit of jalan-jalaning in a bentor, we went to a seaside restaurant to enjoy some ikan bakar with dabu-dabu iris by the ocean. We just missed the sunset, but we had plenty of time to linger over our food and chocolate ice cream while enjoying the cool ocean breezes. Mark confided that he thinks I quite possibly have the best site out of all the ELFs this year.

Unfortunately, he had to return to Makassar after only two full days in Gorontalo. On Sunday I went diving again and, wouldn’t you know, on my 50th dive I saw a blacktip reef shark! I posted this sighting as my Facebook status and Mark was the first one to comment: “You gotta be KIDDING me!!!!!” He will be back again soon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Diving the Mysterious Island of Nusa Penida

Off the southeast coast of Bali, beyond Nusa Lembongan and beyond Nusa Ceningan, lies a much larger and much more mysterious island – Nusa Penida. Seldom visited by tourists and seemingly lost in time, this island retains a truly unique aura. Locals who live on this rugged, hilly and dry island speak an ancient form of Balinese no longer spoken on the mainland. Adding to its mystique, the island was used as a penal colony by the Rajah of Klungkung (east of Denpasar) until the early twentieth century and was regarded as dangerous and somewhat sinister because the criminals banished to the island were believed to have practiced black magic. Many mainland Balinese still believe the island is possessed by occult powers and are reluctant to visit.

The waters surrounding Nusa Penida are just as powerful and sinister as the superstitions that shroud the hills. The south coast is pummeled by the fierce swells of the Indian Ocean and the north and east coasts, as well as the Toyapakeh Strait between Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan, are guarded by strong currents of up to 4 knots. Large requiem sharks patrol the reefs and the elusive mola-molas, or ocean sunfish, which can measure up to 3 meters fin to fin, are regularly sighted here. Not surprisingly, the big marine life and the exhilarating drift dives attract many divers to the area. It was here at Toyapakeh Bay where I logged my 40th dive.

Round numbered dives tend to be memorable for me and this one was no exception. I knew we were in for a bit of current when the Indonesian divemaster made everyone enter the water in rapid-fire succession. But he failed to mention just how strong the current would be. Divers are supposed to follow the divemaster but to my great alarm, I whizzed right by him! Then I turned around and frantically finned against the current in order to fall back into line with the rest of the group. I did this repeatedly. I got caught in current so strong that I was afraid I would crash into one of the coral bommies that appeared suddenly without warning. Every once in a while the divemaster would lead us to the lee side of a coral bommie or head where we could rest a moment where there was little current. But as soon as we left this shelter, I would, once again, be swept away. Most dives I spend looking at the marine life and noting things I want to record later in my log, but on this dive I barely had time to think about the marine life at all. It was stunning, to be sure, but I couldn’t tell you what I saw.

I used up almost all my air after a mere 40 minutes and surfaced with only 20 bar. I must have been gulping air extra fast because of my exertion finning against the current and my fear of crashing into something or someone. Once onboard the boat, I was relieved to hear that even the more experienced divers with hundreds of dives to their names also found the current to be very strong. At least my perception of the difficulty of the dive wasn’t exaggerated. I asked them what I could have done differently to have avoided that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride feeling and they told me that I needed to stay low. It was valuable advice that came about 40 minutes too late. But I did go out again the next day feeling more prepared and had two much better dives. Now I’m thinking that one of the specialty courses I do will be Drift Diver! The way I see it, either I gain knowledge and training in difficult dives or I’ll have to give in to the mysterious powers of Nusa Penida.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Seaweed Farming

Besides the surfing and diving, there is something else that Nusa Lembongan is well known for – seaweed farming. While the tourists are drinking their cheap beers and enjoying the phenomenal sunsets, the local seaweed farmers are busy hauling baskets of seaweed up and down the beach. Seaweed is harvested here for carragheen – a thickening and stabilizing agent that is used in the production of everything from cosmetics to ice cream all over the world, and the waters off Jungutbatu are rife with cultivated seaweed plots. The beaches are covered with tarps of seaweed left to dry in the sun before being packed up and sent on for further processing. Here’s a picture I took of a late afternoon scene right in front of the beach retreat where I was staying:

A little farther down the beach, I met this man who has been a seaweed farmer for ten years and whose English was surprisingly good. We struck up a conversation about the different types of seaweed he harvests and the different prices they fetch. Most of the local lot is sold to France, China and Japan. He said a small portion goes to Bali, where it is used in Balinese ice cream.

The importance of seaweed for this island cannot be underestimated. According to my Lonely Planet book, 85% of the people on Nusa Lembongan work in seaweed farming while only 5% work in tourism.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nusa Lembongan – The Perfect Getaway

As soon as I read the following description in my Lonely Planet book of the island of Nusa Lembongan, 30 minutes off the southeast coast of Bali by speedboat, I knew I had to visit: “It’s the Bali many imagine but never find: simple rooms on the beach, cheap beers with incredible sunsets, days spent surfing and diving, and nights spent riffling through a favorite book or hanging with new friends.” So, when my friend Amber was looking for a place to celebrate her 30th birthday, Nusa Lembongan was my immediate suggestion. She readily agreed and that’s how it came to be that a mini congregation of ELFs gathered there for her milestone birthday and a little R&R last weekend. Nusa Lembongan delivered exactly as promised.

SIMPLE ROOMS, CHEAP BEERS, INCREDIBLE SUNSETS

We had booked ourselves into a beach retreat that sounded good on the website. We found out that “simple rooms on the beach” meant no AC, no TV, no hot water, and power that threatened to go out at a moment’s notice. I liked the small touches though – the used paperbacks on the nightstand, the strawberry scented soap in the bathroom and the fact that the proprietor lent us her own shorts and hats as needed. It almost felt like being a guest at someone’s beach house. The owner was a woman from Perth, Australia, who came to Nusa Lembongan two years ago to visit her brother, saw the abandoned property for sale, bought it and started fixing it up for guests. The place still wasn’t 100% ready - the main entrance on the beach was being rebuilt and partially blocked the view and the sink in my room had the special ability to wash my hands and my feet at the same time (i.e. it had a major leak). Yes, the beach retreat had a certain charm, but it wasn’t for everyone. Amber and Maura ended up relocating to another place a little ways down the beach. This turned out to be a fortuitous move, however, because they found a place that not only had AC and a TV but, more impressively, had a nice infinity pool facing the beach and a restaurant with a good stock of cheap beers and unblocked views of the incredible sunsets.

DAYS SPENT SURFING AND DIVING

Lonely Planet describes Nusa Lembongan as “a funky travellers’ scene with stellar surfing and diving”. What makes the surfing and diving here so spectacular is the element of risk and danger present and the accompanying adrenaline rushes that come from conquering surf breaks called “Shipwrecks” and “Lacerations” and diving the waters between Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida, which are just as notorious for their strong currents and monster swells as they are for the mola-molas, mantas and sharks that are frequently seen here. (My diving experiences here merit a post of their own). None of us surf, but we took great pleasure in eating lunch at a waterfront restaurant with a view of the Shipwrecks break and watching the hot surfers who paddled back to shore and exited the water right in front of us. In other words, we had cute surfer boys literally wash up at our feet.

NIGHTS WITH BOOKS AND FRIENDS

Nusa Lembongan is not the place to go if you’re looking for crazy nightlife. But it’s perfect if your idea of a beach holiday includes bringing some good books and catching up on your reading. I retired early the first night, turned on my dim reading lamp and made some progress in my current novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, as I listened to the sound of the waves crashing at the Shipwrecks break in the distance. Shortly thereafter I was lulled into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by the sound of crowing roosters early in the morning. I also relished the other evenings of sharing long dinners and chatting in and around the pool with Maura, Amber, Courtney, and Sarah.

The number of tourists in Nusa Lembongan is not huge, and the town of Jungutbatu feels like a small neighborhood after just a couple of days. On my last night there, I walked down the beach to meet the others at Scooby Doo Bar & CafĂ© and gave a little wave when I saw them. As I got closer to their table, I was greeted by a woman from the UK at a neighboring table who thought I was waving at her. It turned out I had gone diving with her and her husband the day before. I hadn’t seen her as I was approaching but I’m glad she noticed me. We chatted for a few minutes and then I sat down at my table with Maura and Amber and Amber’s friend Bret, who I met for the first time on this trip. A little while into our meal, Maura noticed that the German family from Leipzig, who I had befriended at the resort’s pool, had also just arrived at the same restaurant. I said goodnight to them on my way out and we chatted about how much their three children had enjoyed playing with me in the pool. I loved it too – it reminded me of my days as an au pair in Switzerland when I would take Benni and Johanna swimming. I walked away from the restaurant at the end of the night feeling completely relaxed and happy to have chosen Nusa Lembongan for our getaway weekend.

You know you’ve stumbled upon something good when you talk about returning before you’ve even left. Nusa Lembongan is a very small island of about eight square kilometers but my days were so full of diving, snorkeling, eating and general lounging about that I didn’t even have time to see all of it. At the south end of the island there is a little crescent of white sand called Dream Beach nestled between the limestone cliffs. The surf crashes hard and fast here and leaves a stunning impression. At least it did for me when I saw it on Maura’s camera - I never made it there as the others went one day when I was snorkeling. Dream Beach will remain a dream for now, but I hope to get there someday. If any of you reading this want to come visit me in Indonesia, I highly suggest we go back there. Nusa Lembongan offers a simple getaway on a beautiful island with no cars (except for hotel transportation pick-up trucks), no ATMs, and no pushy souvenir hawkers. It truly is the Bali many imagine but never find.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Falling in Love

Shortly before Valentine’s Day, my Facebook status announced that I would be spending Valentine’s Day weekend with my new love – scuba diving. At the time I posted that, I was thinking that maybe this is what Valentine’s Day should be about. Instead of bemoaning their single status, single people everywhere should just spend the day doing an activity they really love. Who needs roses, pink hearts and failed expectations when you are doing something you are passionate about? And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the passion I feel for scuba diving really is sort of like falling in love.

I live for the weekends when I can be with my love. Weekdays I spend working, shopping for groceries, paying bills and doing other mundane activities. I wish I could be diving instead. I fill my spare time reading dive magazines and pouring over fish identification guides in anticipation of my next dive. On days when I am diving, I wake up energized and excited.

I relish my new identity. In the same way that I might take pleasure in being someone’s girlfriend or referring to someone as my boyfriend, I also take great pleasure in thinking of myself as a diver. Not everyone can be a diver. Some people can’t swim. Others can’t equalize the pressure in their ear or have other medical issues that prevent them from diving. Many just can’t afford it. But I am a diver. And I’m moving up the ranks too. I am a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver. Sometimes I just like to remind myself of that and shake my head in disbelief. It’s really happening to me. It’s something I have always wanted and now, at the age of 32, I can finally say I am a diver.

I am guilty of turning down opportunities to spend time with friends because I’d rather be with my new love. A couple of the other ELFs went to Tana Toraja this past weekend. It’s a place I really want to visit as well - someday. I told them I couldn’t make it and then I went diving in Gorontalo instead. Other ELFs are planning trips more trips in April and May, but really, I’d rather just stay home and dive.

I’m investing in a new wardrobe and accessories. Like any woman who wants to look good for her significant other, I decided the time had come for me to buy my own wetsuit. No more ill-fitting, too short or torn rentals for me! I traveled all the way to Jakarta to buy a new one. It’s beautiful – tight and black with pink stripes on the arms and torso. Hey, I need to look good for the fish! I also got an underwater flashlight, a dry bag, and a bottle of equipment wash.

I celebrate small anniversaries. With any new relationship, I always take notice of the small anniversaries. Has it been one week? One month? Two months? With diving I count my dives – 10, 20, 30 and now I’m closing in on 40. Each round number seems to be a major milestone in our relationship. My 20th dive was Jinn Caves in Gorontalo – the eerily beautiful submerged cavern at 18 m guarded by the rare Burgess butterflyfish and black coral bushes. My 30th dive was when I saw my first whale shark at White Point, Gorontalo. And I plan to complete my 40th dive this coming weekend in Bali. Who knows what wonders that dive will bring?

I dream about our future together. I really want to take the PADI Rescue Diver course this summer. I would also like to take some specialty courses such as Digital Underwater Photographer and Night Diver. Once I have my Rescue Diver certification, 5 specialty certifications and 50 logged dives, then I qualify to be a Master Scuba Diver – the highest non-professional level in recreational diving. I also dream about all the places I want to dive in Indonesia, such as Lembeh, the Togean Islands, Papua, Komodo, Flores, and Maluku.

Counting from the day I got my Open Water certification, I am seven months in to what I hope will be a relationship that will last the rest of my life. So, I just want to apologize to all my readers who were hoping my blog might be more focused on teaching or language or cultural challenges. At the moment I’m preoccupied with diving so that’s what I’m writing about. I can’t help it – I’m a woman in love.