Saturday, June 11, 2011

First Underwater Photos Published!

I used to want to be a marine biologist but I realized in college that I had more of a knack for languages than lab reports. Still, I have always loved the ocean and I have always loved swimming. The diving I have done these past two years in Indonesia has reignited my love affair with the ocean and has shown me that even though I am not a professional marine biologist, I can can still be passionate about the ocean in other ways. I have done 168 dives to date, I am a certified PADI Rescue Diver and I have also fallen in love with underwater photography. At this point in my life, if you asked me what my absolute dream job would be I would say a freelance travel writer and underwater photographer since this job would combine my loves of writing, traveling, diving and photography. Therefore, it's perhaps no surprise that I consider the publication of my first dive article and underwater photos to be the unofficial highlight of my two-year fellowship in Indonesia.

Rantje first asked me to write an article for 'What's Happening?', the free North Sulawesi tourism magazine, more than a year ago near the end of my first fellowship year in Gorontalo and now it's finally been published in the Spring 2011 edition of the magazine. And he really surprised me by submitting two of my own photographs with the article! I knew there would be the photo of me with the Salavador Dali sponge because we did a special underwater photo shoot for that last year but I had no idea my own photos would be published! I was thrilled when Rantje sent me the hard copies in the mail last week. However, my photos were extremely dark because the publisher got the printing saturation wrong on the first run. Fortunately, this mistake was corrected in subsequent printings and in the online version of my article that you can read here on page 18.

Although I've been fortunate to dive in some pretty spectacular places like Komodo, Nusa Lembongan, Bunaken, Lembeh, and the Togean Islands, Gorontalo will always be my absolute favorite diving destination in Indonesia for all of the reasons that I listed in my article. Since leaving Gorontalo, I've been back twice to dive - once in December with my sister and Mark and once again in March with Megan and Christina. I love diving there, I love diving with Rantje and the gang and I love introducing Gorontalo to other divers. That's why I was thrilled once again when Rantje unveiled Miguel's Diving's new t-shirt design:

Miguel's Diving t-shirt
The diver with the wavy blond hair admiring a Salvador Dali sponge while a whale shark passes overhead? That's me!!

My diving days in Gorontalo have come to an end (for now) but I find it beyond fitting that my departure from Indonesia is marked by the publication of my article about diving in Gorontalo and the introduction of the new Gorontalo t-shirts with my likeness!

I hear there will be a new ELF in Gorontalo next year. I really hope that person is a diver too so he or she can enjoy Gorontalo's hidden paradise! 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Durian - What's The Big Stink?

I had somehow managed to survive nearly two years in Indonesia without sampling what can arguably be called its most famous fruit - durian. Resembling a large, slightly oblong bowling ball covered in spikes, this is a fruit with a colorful, or should I say, malodorous, reputation. Banned in hotels and airplanes for its intensely fragrant aroma (stench?), this is not a fruit to be messed with. Food and travel writer Richard Sterling once famously described its odor as a mix of 'pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock'. Anthony Bourdain, host of the popular food and travel show 'Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations', noted that after eating durian, 'your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother'. In spite of these descriptions by Western writers, durian remains a popular flavor here in Indonesia for everything from ice-cream to condoms.

You would really have to like durian a lot to use these...

With just over a week left in Indonesia, I decided that I had to try durian just once to see what all the fuss was about. It seems that people either love it or hate it and I was curious about which category I would fall into.

After my ICRS farewell party, where I had mentioned my desire to try durian before I left Indonesia, one of my coworkers offered to take me to a roadside durian stand on the way back to my guesthouse. I was all for the idea. We drove down Jl. Kaliurang until we came to a row of 5 or 6 durian sellers on the side of the road. We parked the car, crossed two busy lanes of traffic and then sat down on the mat next to several big mounds of durians. The durian seller started sniffing different fruits until he picked one that was suitably ripe for us. He sliced it open with a huge machete type knife and then set the two halves down in front of us.

Time to dig in!

I pulled out a big chunk of gooey, light yellow colored fruit. I cautiously took a bite, expecting it to taste something like a pungently ripe piece of soft cheese and was surprised to find that it didn't taste like that at all. And, for that matter, it didn't taste like for turpentine, onions or gym socks, either. It had a mild, not unpleasant taste, sort of like almonds. And the texture was creamy and custard-like. Dicky and I ate our way through the first layer of fruit and then the seller cut the halves in half again to reveal further seeds and flesh. We kept eating. I surprised myself by eating so much of it. I had imagined just taking one bite and then being done but it really wasn't bad at all. Dicky asked me to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 and I gave it a 7. Maybe that was a little high, but I think I was factoring in the whole authentic experience of sitting at the side of a busy road with my Indonesian colleague and the durian seller while countless motorbikes whizzed by.

Devouring the roadside delicacy 

As we ate our way through the entire fruit, Dicky told me interesting facts like how the durians we were eating weren't from Yogya because the durian season in Yogya is only from November to February. The durians we were eating came from Sumatra. He also said it was possible to get drunk by eating durian. Well, I didn't feel drunk at the end of our culinary adventure but I do sort of agree with Anthony Bourdain's comment about the aftertaste!

I'm glad I tried it and I was happy that the odor and taste of that particular durian weren't as bad as I expected but I think my life will go on just fine without durian once I'm back in the US.

Mission successful. Still smiling after my first durian experience.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Monkey Thief of Uluwatu

Last week, the entire ICRS office went to Bali for a couple of days. Several of my Indonesian colleagues had never been there before so the purpose of our trip was to spend time together and see some of Bali's famous sites like Pura Luhur Uluwatu, a Hindu temple perched on a step cliff. Since we were traveling as a group, I didn't even bother to bring my Lonely Planet guide book. If I had, I would have read this warning about Uluwatu: "This temple is home to scores of grey monkeys. Greedy little buggers, when they're not energetically fornicating, they snatch sunglasses, handbags, hats and anything else within reach. Of course, if you want to start a riot, throw them your banana." Boy, do I wish I had read that warning beforehand! Or paid attention to any of the other warnings that followed...

When we arrived at Uluwatu, the guide at the front gate warned all of us to take off our hats, jewelery and glasses because the monkeys would take them. Now, I had been to the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud and had no problems with the monkeys there. So, I figured I could handle these monkeys, too. After all, if I didn't bother them, they would have no reason to bother me, right? And besides, if I took off my glasses I would barely be able to see anything. And what's the point of visiting one of the most famous sites in Bali if I can't see it? With those thoughts in mind, I confidently set off on the path to the temple.

I walked right past this sign:

And this one:

The message was repeated in Indonesian, French, Italian, German and a couple of other languages.

I walked right up to the edge of the cliff and oohh'ed and ahhh'ed at the beautiful view:

I heard some people start to shriek and when I turned around I quickly spotted the cause of all the commotion. A monkey was nonchalantly sitting on a wall munching away on someone's glasses. How funny, I thought, and took a picture:

Even after hearing the guide's warning, seeing the signs, and seeing a monkey furiously nibbling away at someone else's glasses, I still did not remove my own glasses. I figured I wasn't standing next to the wall or under a tree or anywhere where a monkey could suddenly jump on me. And surely I would sense it if a monkey started crawling up my leg or something.

So, there I was minding my own business taking in the scenery when all of the sudden my vision became terribly blurry. What the...?! NOOOOOOO!!! A monkey had come out of nowhere and snatched off my glasses before I even realized he was there. Squinting, I tried to make out where the monkey had run off to but there was more than one monkey and I couldn't tell them apart. Oh noooooo! My glasses!!! My brand new glasses that I had just bought in Washington, DC in April! And now I had no idea where they were. I could feel the tears welling up as I realized how utterly helpless I was. A monkey had just run off with my new $400 glasses and I couldn't do anything about it. I felt like I had been mugged.

Fortunately, my predicament didn't go unnoticed. Mas Ramang, one of my colleagues, attempted to go after the monkey. But that monkey wasn't going to give up the glasses for nothing. He quickly scampered off. Someone else gave chase and came back with my glasses a few (very long) moments later. THANK GOD!! Then he asked for a tip for the food he used to bribe the monkey. I was too flustered to do anything but one of our tour guides paid him 10,000 Rp., about $1 - thank you, thank you, thank you. So worth it!

I gingerly put the glasses back on my face but quickly realized something was wrong. Taking them off again, I noticed that the lenses were smeared with monkey saliva. Ewww.... A closer inspection also revealed that the monkey had chewed up the ends of the branches, taken a big chunk out of the frame over my left eye, and dented both lenses in various places. Sigh. At least I could see again and the glasses sat properly on my face.

But I wasn't going to take any more chances. I had finally learned my lesson. I put those glasses in my bag, vowing not to put them on again until we were safely back in the car.

I continued walking around Uluwatu with my coworkers but it wasn't much fun because 1) I couldn't see very well and 2) I was terrified of the monkeys. I felt like I was in a real live horror movie where unseen beasts could attack at any given moment. I couldn't wait to get out of there!

Smiling blindly through the terror

Back in the parking lot, Charlotte found these abandoned glasses glistening on the ground - a sad reminder of another tourist who did not follow the rules:

At our next stop of the day, I saw this t-shirt for sale that pretty much sums up how I feel about the aggressive monkeys of Uluwatu:

I realize it was totally my own fault that the monkey snatched my glasses. I was given ample warnings and blithely ignored them. Still, I wonder if Lenscrafters will replace them free of charge...