Sunday, February 27, 2011

Orangutans in Borneo

'Tom' - King of the Orangutans
Indonesia is a great country for seeing magnificent animals in their natural habitats. I've been lucky enough already to see whale sharks off the coast of Gorontalo, manta rays off the coasts of Bali and Flores and Komodo dragons on Rinca Island. Now I can also say I've seen orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and gibbons in the jungles of Borneo. Inspired by friends' photos last year, I quickly said yes when Mark started organizing an orangutan river trip for the end of February. Our merry band of travelers included Mark and his friend Dave, visiting from Alaska; my ELF friends Noreen and Michaela; and my housemates Melanie and Anastasia from Yogya.

Lonely Planet describes these orangutan river trips to Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan (part of Indonesian Borneo) as "the world's easiest adventure travel" and I'd have to agree. An English-speaking guide named Ambo (like Rambo without the 'r', he told us) met our plane at the tiny airport in Pangkalan Bun and whisked us off by car to our awaiting klotok on the river. This traditional river boat would be our home for the next three days and two nights as we leisurely cruised up and down the rivers of the park, disembarking only to visit orangutan rehabilitation camps. My friends and I spent all of our time on the klotok topside and the crew did a fantastic job of transforming our living space from a lounging area to a dining area to a sleeping area and back again multiple times. We ate delicious food, slept under mosquito nets at night and kept our eyes peeled for primates in the trees.

A klotok heading up river

Dining topside

Early morning on the klotok

Looking for wildlife
Proboscis monkey - look at that nose and the long tail!

Orangutan rehabilitation has actually been deemed controversial. The original idea was to train formerly captive orangutans to live in the wild but this idea backfired when scientists realized that the reintroduced orangutans were spreading human diseases they had picked up in captivity to native orangutan populations, who were also forced to compete for food and mates. Currently, orangutans are only rehabilitated into areas with no native populations. 

A mother and baby eating bananas

Michaela, Anastasia, Melanie and Mark at an orangutan feeding station

Did you know 'orangutan' is an Indonesian word that means 'forest person'?

Treehugger :-)

There WERE crocodiles in the river! My friends saw some but I didn't :-(

A gibbon! We would listen to their calls while eating breakfast on the klotok.

A wild boar at a feeding station

Orangutans are only found in the wild in Borneo and Sumatra.

Melanie, Michaela and Noreen

Me on a boat in Borneo :-)
One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was seeing fireflies at night. At home, fireflies seem to come out individually and spread themselves out over a large area. Here, the fireflies came out in droves and would concentrate themselves around individual trees, giving the effect of Christmas trees covered in live twinkling lights. I've never seen anything like it. 

Cruising down up and down the river was magical for all the reasons I've already mentioned but it was also thrilling to think about some of the other, unseen animals of the jungle just beyond the riverbanks like sun bears, clouded leopards, and pythons...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Does Vagina Chalk Really Exist?

Via Via is one of my favorite restaurants in Yogya. Calling itself a 'travelers' cafe', it not only offers up a delicious mix of world cuisines and live jazz on Friday nights but it also organizes interesting sightseeing trips around town using local forms of transportation. One of the tours on offer is the 'Jamu Tour'.

Jamu is the word for traditional herbal Indonesian medicines and you can see jamu sellers all over town - these women are easily recognized by the big woven baskets of traditional medicine they carry around strapped to their backs. And yes, they're always women. This is because women are believed to have magical powers for making jamu - a carefully concocted blend of bark, leaves, roots, and fruit used to heal an array of ailments.

Anastasia, Melanie, Michaela and Jackie and I headed down to Via Via early one morning to meet our tour guide in front of the restaurant. We were interested in learning more about the traditional medicines but we were even more intrigued by the existence of something called vagina chalk. Apparently, there is a special stick of chalk that Indonesian women insert into their vaginas before sex to make themselves drier. Say what?! Yes, apparently, Indonesian men desire their women to be dry because that means they are more virtuous or something. We simply had to find out more about this.

After meeting our guide, we climbed into our three awaiting becaks, a type of bicycle rickshaw, and headed off to the local market to visit the stall of a woman who sells jamu ingredients. We stood around her stall for a good long while sampling the many fruits and leaves she had to offer. Then we piled back into our becaks and went to the house of a retired jamu seller to see these raw ingredients transformed into a special elixir.

Jamu ingredients for sale at the local market

Anastasia and Jackie in a becak

Anastasia paints a sticky rice face mask on Melanie.

Turmeric and asam are ground together for our jamu.

Jamu maker and her final product - a jamu juice to relieve menstrual cramps
All of this facial mask making and turmeric juice sampling was fine and good but when we got back to Via Via we begged our tour guide to tell us about the 'sexy' jamus we had heard about. She laughed, disappeared inside the store and reappeared a few minutes with this box of questionable items.

Note the 'Worldy Stick of Joy'!! A.k.a. 'vagina chalk' this was the item we had only heard rumors about before. And now here it was. It really exists! Women really use this!!

Vagina chalk!
The box was filled with all sorts of interesting powder and capsule jamus. There were jamus to increase sexual stamina for men, tighten the vagina, and even ones for 'late menstruation' i.e. abortion. We weren't tempted to buy anything but later one of Michaela's friends commented on her blog, "If you get me anything - anything at all [from Indonesia] - it has to be the Vagina Chalk."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ancient Temples of Borobudur & Prambanan

The Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound known as Prambanan are Yogyakarta's most popular tourist attractions. Although one is Buddhist and the other Hindu, these two places of worship have very similar histories. Both were built in the ninth century, abandoned shortly thereafter, and devastated by disaster and neglect for centuries. Today both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are right in my backyard.

I visited both of these sites for the first time in September and then again in February when my ELF friends Jackie and Michaela came to visit. We left the ICRS guesthouse at 5:30 in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds. Our efforts paid off because we had Borobudur practically all to ourselves on a gloriously sunny morning. But by the time we got to Prambanan, the midday sun was at its strongest and we felt ourselves fading fast and in need of some frozen mango drinks at Parsley. However, before we called it a day we got in some great photo-ops and learned some interesting facts.

The origins of the name 'Borobudur' are disputed 
but it might mean 'temple above the hill'.

Borobudur was abandoned in the 10th century
 and remained buried under volcanic ash until its rediscovery in the 18th century.

Borobudur is Indonesia's most visited tourist attraction.

There are 2,672 relief panels representing Buddhist cosmology 
from the lusty everyday to Nirvana.
Originally there were 504 Buddha statues.
Today more than 300 are damaged and more than 40 are missing.

One of the few intact Buddha statues. Many statues were decapitated soon after Borobudur's rediscovery in the 18th century. The heads can be found in museums all over the world.
There are more Buddha statues inside each of these latticed stupas. This top level of the temple was closed because the Buddhas in the stupas are still covered in ash from the recent 2010 eruptions of Mt. Merapi.

Like Borobudur, Prambanan was abandoned in the 10th century, probably because of a volcanic eruption, and  was further damaged in a big earthquake in the 16th century. Proper restoration began in the 20th century but earthquakes remain a constant threat. The main temple is still closed to visitors today because of the 2006 Yogya earthquake.
Four-headed Hindu statue in one of the smaller shrines.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flores & Rinca Island

In mid-December shortly after I returned to Yogyakarta from my three-week extended stay in Jakarta, I got an email from my boss asking for pairs of ELF volunteers to conduct three days of teaching training and youth outreach for the Access Microscholarship Program in various parts of Indonesia. This program, the same one I worked with in Jakarta, provides after-school English language classes for smart but economically disadvantaged high school students and is funded by the U.S. Department of State.

The sites up for grabs included Banjarmasin, Bengkulu, Kupong, Ende, and Lombok. I didn't immediately recognize the town of Ende on the list but once I realized it was on Flores I couldn't get over this stroke of good luck. A predominantly Catholic island, Flores lies to the east of both Bali and Lombok. Perhaps you've heard of another island very near by - Komodo Island? Flores is a place I've been wanting to visit for several reasons - to see the Komodo dragons, of course; to dive the turbulent waters known for big pelagics; and to see the island where my dear friend and co-worker Ingrid is from. Flores is a place that Ingrid raves about constantly - a place of great natural beauty, friendly people and delicious food. Expensive to get to and a bit off the beaten track, I had no idea when, if ever, I would get to visit Flores but now the perfect opportunity had just landed in my lap. 

I immediately emailed back my interest in the Flores site and recruited my ELF friend Mark to co-present with me since I knew he had been wanting to go to Flores too and he's a diver. Mark quickly texted back his interest, my boss signed off his approval and soon I was writing up a budget proposal for the trip. It was on!

As my plane flew into the tiny town of Labuanbajo at the end of January, I was entranced by the sight of the rolling green mountains and vast expanses of ocean dotted by small islands. One plane change and 35 minutes later, I found myself landing in the town of Ende, my attention grabbed again by the sight of black-sand beaches, blue water and green palm trees. 

Father Kons, from the local Catholic high school SMAK Syuradikara, and Mark met me at the airport and took me back to the Hotel Mentari where we met up with Ingrid's aunt and uncle who graciously took Mark and me sightseeing that day. We headed out to the village of Wolotopo to see some traditional houses, stopping at one of the many black-sand beaches along the way.

Beautiful black-sand beach!

Ikat (traditional cloth) weaver in Wolotopo

Traditional house in Wolotopo

Eating delicious local food at the Pusat Pangan Lokal - note the mugs made out of coconut shells!

Two days later, Ingrid's aunt and uncle took us to Kelimutu National Park, where we hiked up to the rim of the tri-colored lakes on top of an ancient volcano. Well, the three lakes were supposed to be different colors but when we went two were the same turquoise color and one was black. The dissolving mineral content of the lakes can change their colors to shades of yellow, orange, red and brown. Locals believe that when villagers die, their souls leave the villages and stay in Kelimutu forever.

Hiking Kelimutu with Ingrid's aunt and uncle and Pak Diding from Universitas Indonesia

The two turquoise lakes 

The black lake

Ikat weavings for sale at Kelimutu

Ingrid's uncle aka 'The Dancing Professor'

After getting back from our morning hike to Kelimutu, Mark and I kicked off our English Camp at SMAK Syuradikara with an afternoon program of introductions and ice-breakers with the high school students. The next day we had our teacher training sessions in the morning and our sessions with the kids in the afternoon. Then we returned the following day for a marathon eight-hour session of activities with the kids. We were totally exhausted by the end but the teachers found our teacher training useful, despite numerous logistical SNAFUs, and the Access kids enjoyed our program of activities focusing on speaking fluency and cross-cultural understanding.

With Access Microscholarship kids in Ende

Enthusiastic Access kids
The program came to an official end with a dinner - a feast, actually - of local food at the same restaurant Ingrid's uncle had recommended to us a few days before. I was glad to return because I found the local food from Ende to be DELICIOUS! Sweet appetizer balls made of cassava and brown sugar, sweet potato satay, cassava leaf and coconut salad, young bamboo shoot salad, grilled fish, brown rice, white rice mixed with corn, chicken, fish meatballs (no, seriously, these were pretty good), more cassava dishes and on and on. I washed it all down with some seriously good mint iced tea.

A delicious feast of local food with Father Kons and others from SMAK Syuradikara

Our work done, Mark and I took the short flight back to Labuanbajo the next day to squeeze in some diving and dragon spotting before heading home. We found some cheap rooms right on the main street near the dive shops. The rooms had no AC or hot water but look at the view we had:

Harbor of Labuanbajo as seen from the Gardena Hotel
The next day we headed out to sea with the Bajo Dive Club. We had the boat to ourselves and the itinerary for the day included two dives, lunch and then a stop at Rinca Island to see the famous Komodo dragons. To my great and utter dismay, I realized that I had forgotten to pack the o-ring for my camera housing! This devastating oversight meant I couldn't take any pictures underwater. I tried to convince myself that I would just focus on living in the moment instead but after two amazing dives with sharks, manta rays, turtles and gorgeous coral, I do kinda wish I had some pictures to show! At least I could take pictures on land. Our dive boat dropped us off on Rinca Island where we hired a guide to take us on a hour long 'trek' around part of the island.

Dive boat moored on Rinca Island

My first Komodo dragon sighting!

Whoa...lots of dragons. Here a male is keeping a watchful eye over the females.

The guide carried a long dragon-poking stick in case they got too close.

Where there be dragon eggs

Look at those big claws!

While posing for this one the guide warned me not to swing my backpack around because the dragons might mistake it for a hunk of meat. And that would not end well...

It was a great trip but like so many of my excursions to the more remote corners of Indonesia, it was all too short and leaves me wanting more. If I ever get the chance to return to Flores I would 1) do more diving around Komodo! 2) check out the muck diving near Maumere and 3) spend time in the traditional villages near Bajawa.