Thursday, October 6, 2011

Koh Phangan 2011

We arrived in Koh Phangang, took a taxi which took us to a dock from where we caught a longtail boat to Bottle Beach.  We checked in at Bottle Beach 2 resort, but after walking around and exploring the various resorts, we found Bottle Beach 1 resort (which was much much nicer and usually a lot more expensive) and checked in there for 50 Baht a night less.  The bungalow was much bigger and nicer but because it was low season, they offered some significant discounts.  We didn’t really do much at Bottle Beach, but it was a hard change from being really busy on Koh Tao to having absolutely nothing to do.  We kept looking for things to do.  I decided I needed to catch up on our blog but Andrew was pretty much at a loss.  He even started reading to kill the time.  After trying to kill some time with a massage on the beach and just hanging out and reading, we decided it was time to head to a less secluded beach on Koh Phangan.  We took a longtail back to port and grabbed a taxi to Had Yao, where we had stayed the first time we were here.  We spent a day just riding around on the rented motorbike, another day laying on the beach and getting another massage, and yet another day just driving around, stopping at places along the way to drink coffee.  The last night we spent in Thong Sala, which is the main town on the island, as we were taking the 7am ferry to Suratthani and from there a bus to Hat Yai, and another bus from there to Kuala Lumpur.   This was really our last few days in Asia, as we were flying from KL to Paris.  It was very bitter sweet.  On one hand we’re ready to leave but on the other hand it’s hard to realize the life we have been living for the past year is coming to a close.  But we are also very excited to see our family in Poland.  Although we spent a lot of time with family in Australia, we haven’t seen any immediate family for a year now and we will get to see Andrew’s brother in Poland.  We still have 2 months before we come back to Canada but it feels like the adventure is over.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing as I think we’re ready to head back to real life, but I’m sure everyone can relate to the feeling of coming back home from vacation.  You’re glad to be back but wish you could still be sitting on the beach.  Well times that by 10 and that’s how we feel.   But we are happy to be heading in the direction of home and I can’t wait to see everyone!

Kuala Lumpur and Back to Thailand

We arrived in KL late in the evening.  We grabbed some food and went to sleep.  The next day it was Andrew’s Birthday and we just used the day to sleep in and bum around the city for a bit.  We then went for a nice dinner at a nice restaurant.  We spent 2 days worth of our budget on the dinner but it was delicious.  We had pizza, we had salad (vegetables! How we missed those!) and lots and lots of alcohol.  We were very happy leaving that restaurant.  The next day we caught our flight to Phuket, Thailand.  We didn’t have any time to spend there however, and we had the taxi drop us off at the bus station.  We took the overnight bus to Chumphon from where we would catch the ferry to Koh Tao.  The main difference between Thai bus schedules and Indonesian bus schedules: In Indonesia they tell you it will take 12 hours but it really takes 17 hours.  In Thailand they tell you it will take 7 hours but it really takes 5.  That is how we arrived at the Chumphon bus station 2 hours ahead of schedule.  It was 1am and we didn’t really know what to do from there.  A lady that had a shop at the bus station kept trying to get us a taxi but we didn’t know where we were going.  Finally, after sitting around for an hour she told us to go to the train station and that we would have more options there.  We agreed but now there were not taxies around.  She told us to wait a few minutes.  She closed her shop down and her and husband drove us to the train station.  There we had a 4 hour wait for the ferry offices to open.  We then bought our tickets and the bus finally came to pick us up at 6am.  From there it was another hour bus ride to the ferry terminal, and then an hour and a half ferry ride to Koh Tao.

When we finally arrived on Koh Tao (without any scary ferry incidents!) we were really tired but happy to be back.  We checked in at Big Blue and started filling out our paperwork for the Rescue Diver course we wanted to take with them.  But as we started talking with them, all the discounts which had been promised to us as returning customers (we had done our Advance Open Water course there last year) all of a sudden weren’t available.  They told us only Open water and Advance Open Water courses were subject to discounts.  That wasn’t what we were told last year nor what their rep had told us on the ferry ride over that morning.  We decided to check in anyway but this wasn’t sitting well with Andrew.  We had some lunch, and even though we were exhausted after a night of not sleeping, we decided to walk around and explore other options.  We found Crystal Dive shop (they receive very good reviews along with Big Blue) and Steve walked us through everything and offered us the same discounts we had been promised with Big Blue, even though we had just walked off the street and had never been diving with them before.  We had already registered with Big Blue for the Emergency First Responder (EFR) course that is mandatory before the Rescue Course for the next day, but we wanted to see if we could get out of it.  We arrived back and Big Blue, and of course they wanted to know why we didn’t want to do it anymore but we didn’t really want to get into a discussion with them so we didn’t really provide a reason.  Then we were told if we weren’t diving with them we should check out because they needed the rooms for divers.  Which we happily did.  As we were packing our bags one of the guys came by and started asking why we’re leaving etc. and we told him.  He started explaining the discount policy to us but ultimately we told him it’s not up to us to know all the fine print of their discounts, and besides, their own rep assured us we were eligible for the discount, and it even says so in the brochures they hand out.  It was simply a case of false advertising.  We told him we didn’t want to make a scene and it was just some constructive feedback for them.  We were leaving the resort and the same guy came back and now offered us the discount.  But the damage had already been done.  We had had to do the leg work and find the price they had advertised so what was the point of now staying.  We felt we were being loyal coming back to a dive shop we had had a good experience with and that our loyalty would be rewarded (as advertised) but it wasn’t so we decided to go try a new place.  And we weren’t disappointed.

We did our EFR course the next day with the Sam, who would also be our instructor for the Rescue Dive course, and she is awesome.  We weren’t really sure what to expect when we came over to Crystal, but we really weren’t disappointed.  Sam was very knowledgeable, friendly and approachable.  She is close to our age and right away I got a great vibe from her.  I have to say, she is what made our experience as good as it was. There were a few other people that would be joining us for our Rescue course in a few days, so while we waited for them we did some dives.  The Rescue course itself was probably the hardest thing (physically) I have ever had to do in my life.  Between towing people in the water to the boat, exiting them from the water on to the boat via a ladder (read: you have to carry them up) and various scenarios that were thrown at us without warning (with fake drowning people), after day 2 my muscles were so sore I couldn’t bring my arm up to brush my teeth.  And it was psychologically draining on me too.  One of the things you learn in the course is that sometimes you can’t help people, and that if the person is bigger than you, you won’t be able to get them out of the water on your own.  But part of the course is you have to be able to get a person out of the water on to a boat on your own, and I failed…4 times out of 6.  Looking back, it probably wasn’t the best idea for the assistant instructor (not Sam) to get me to lift a 200lb guy out of the water, but when I couldn’t do it, it had a very strong psychological effect on me.  All of a sudden I started thinking, why am I doing this?  Do I have what it takes?  At the end of day 2, I didn’t even know if I should be doing this.  But on the morning of day 3, I woke up feeling much better.  That morning we had our written exam and I passed with 100%.  In the afternoon we had our scenario day where 4 “victims” would randomly create a scenario for us and we needed to respond appropriately.  It was exhausting.  We had to get in and out of our gear after each scenario.  Each time it had to be as if we weren’t expecting it.  At the end of the day we were exhausted but we had all passed.  When we got back we all had a beer to celebrate.  That evening we all met at a bar to have some drinks but we were all so tired none of us lasted long.  I spent most of the night chatting with Sam.  We had a lot more in common than we thought but unfortunately we were leaving before she would be back at work so we promised to stay in touch via facebook.

I was on such a high after passing my Rescue course, I signed up for the morning dives for the following morning.  Of course the following morning I regretted it as I was exhausted but I made myself go.  Andrew didn’t bother getting out of bed as he was too tired.  When I got back, even though he had just gotten out of bed, we went for a nap.  It’s amazing what a toll the course had taken on us.  It took us the rest of the day to recuperate.  The next morning we did a couple more dives and checked out the following day.  Overall we spent 9 days on Koh Tao but I can honestly say it felt like 2.  I have no idea where the time went.  We were so busy while there that time just flew by.  From Koh Tao we took a ferry to Koh Phangan where we were looking forward to a few days of rest before heading back to KL.

Back at Rantepao

After we woke up we grabbed some food in the lobby of our hotel (Hotel Pison…we recommend it.  Cheap, clean and hot showers!) and right away were joined by a guide looking to see if we wanted to go see a funeral ceremony.  We definitely did but we wanted to first make sure our guide could speak English and that he actually knew what he was talking about.  We spent some time talking with this guy and were pretty much decided we would hire him for the next day.  And then he started rubbing some cooking oil on his face and neck and explained to us this is his magic oil.  He said it cures everything but you have to believe.  If you don’t believe it won’t work.  That pretty much made up our minds not to hire him for the next day, even though he wanted to include a free bottle of his magic oil in his price.  Looking back, the fact that he was wearing a Domino’s Pizza shirt should have tipped us off he might not be the best guide to go with.  Later that afternoon, we went out to get some dinner and met another guide (they all hang around restaurants and prey on tourists).  His name was Rudy and he seemed like a nice guy so we decided to hire him for the following day.

We met him the next morning, and after renting some motor bikes we were off.  The village we were going to was approximately 25km from Rantepao.  Before we arrived we purchased a carton of cigarettes to offer to the family as a gift.  The ceremonies last anywhere between 3-7 days, all depending on the class of the person who has passed away.  Before we went there we asked Rudy if it was okay with the family that we attend, but he assured us, the funeral is much bigger part of people’s lives in Tana Toraja than the wedding, and the more people that attend the funeral, the better it looked on the person who had passed.  Basically, the more the merrier.  We arrived on day 3 of the funeral, and this would be the last day.  The funerals are really elaborate where temporary shelters and even homes are built to accommodate all the people that will be attending the funeral.  The Torajas spend their lives working to pay for the funerals of their loved ones.  When a person dies, they are not buried right away, as the family first needs to hold the proper ceremony for them.  Ceremonies however are so expensive the families first must save up for them.  Usually it takes 3 -4 months after the person dies before the ceremony is held and the person is buried.  Until then, the deceased is kept in a small traditional tangkonan home, where the immediate family is required to visit and talk with them every day until they are buried.  When we arrived, there were a lot of people just hanging around and we were the only tourists.  At first it was a little intimidating and it felt very voyeuristic being able to get a peek into their lives.  But Rudy led us into the heart of the site where pigs were being roasted on an open fire.  Coming in we had seen the blood on the ground from when the pigs were sacrificed.  But they weren’t roasting the pigs to cook them now, just to burn all the hair off of them.  The pigs that had not made it into the fire yet were being cut open to remove their guts.  It was a little gory but at least they were dead.

Rudy explained to us each family has a level of “class”.  There are 3 different classes: lower, middle, higher.  It’s a very complicated system but essentially you belong to the class you are born into and no matter how much money you go on to make, you will always belong to that class.  This is not a system to distinguish the rich from the poor, but a system that has been established many generations ago.  Part of the ceremony is to sacrifice animals to help the soul pass into the afterlife.  The preference is to sacrifice water buffalo however they are very expensive and can cost up to $30,000 for 1!  And to give you an idea of how expensive the ceremonies can get, when a person from the higher class dies, up to 200 water buffalo can be sacrificed.  You do the math.  But when it’s a person from the lower or middle class, there is a limit to how many buffalos they can sacrifice.  Even if they had the money to sacrifice more, they have to stick to their number.  I can’t remember the numbers exactly, but the important thing is the family doesn’t need to meet those numbers, but it wants to.  The more buffalo they sacrifice, the better the chances for the deceased to pass on to the afterlife.    But other animals can also be sacrificed, such as pigs.  The ceremony we were attending had sacrificed all the pigs the day before, all 20 of them.  On the last day, the day we were there, they would be sacrificing the water buffalo.

Just then Rudy called us over to take our places to watch the water buffalo sacrifices.  It was something I didn’t want to watch, and for the most part kept my head turned away.  They brought the first buffalo (a female…not their first pick…they prefer the bulls to the females) and tied her leg to a stake in the ground.  She was quite calm.  And then with a very swift move of his hand, a guy (especially selected for this…it can’t be just anyone) slit the buffalo’s throat.  Everyone cheered lightly, but for me it was a very disturbing sight.  I had just witnessed with my own eyes a helpless animal being slaughtered…sorry, sacrificed.  Thank God I turned around because apparently when he slit her throat a whole bunch of blood sprayed out.  The poor buffalo staggered around and after a minute or so fell to the ground, and everyone cheered happily!  But this was not the end of the buffalo’s suffering.  She was lying fully alert while bleeding out with her blood all over the place.  Her eyes were wildly looking around and she was trying to breathe, which of course she couldn’t because her throat had been cut.  It was a very disturbing sight and I really didn’t want to be there.  I know this is the tradition but it seemed really unnecessary.  Then the other buffalo was brought (a male this time) and the whole process started again.  He was fully aware something was going on (I’m sure he could smell the blood) and he didn’t want to be tied so easily.  Again his throat was cut, people cheered and I wanted to vomit.  Then the 3rd male buffalo was brought and again the process started again.  This time when he fell, the female buffalo, the first one that was sacrificed raised her head fighting.  It seemed she hadn’t died yet.  Overall it was very disturbing to watch.  I think there must be a faster way to kill these animals because it takes them ages to die this way.

Luckily there would only be 3 buffalo sacrifices and we were ushered into one of the shelters for the body of the deceased to be brought out.  Andrew went to take some pictures but he returned quickly and said he couldn’t take pictures because his hands were shaking.  The buffalo sacrifices had taken their toll on him too and I’m glad, because he was very keen to go and see them.  At least now I knew he had a heart.  Later he told me 3 buffalo sacrifices were enough.  Some people pride themselves on the amount of animals they had seen sacrificed at a ceremony but for me those 3 had been more than enough.

The tradition for this village was the body of the deceased was to be taken to her burial spot after the animals had been sacrificed.  Other villages will sacrifice the animals, cook and eat them and then bury the deceased.  The body was brought out wrapped and covered in various cloths, and the immediate female members began to wail.  It was hard to watch, but more so because this person had been dead for over 4 months.  It felt like the grieving process had been unnecessarily dragged out just to have this elaborate ceremony.  After the priest said a few prayers (the family were protestant) the body was taken to the burial site in the caves 2km’s away.  We could have gone with them but Rudy said there was no need and to stick around.  Then we found some members of the family and offered them our gift of cigarettes and they offered us tea and homemade sweets.  They didn’t speak English but with Rudy acting as translator we sat around on the floor of the shelter and  chatted with them for a while.  After an hour they offered us some food.  They brought out pieces of the sacrificed pork which had been cooked in bamboo over an open fire, some spicy fish and fresh rice.  The food was delicious.  The meat was tender and the fish was spicy but the flavour was really nice.  We sat with the family chatting and eating for a couple of hours and then it was time for us to go.  We were so happy we hadn’t gone on a group tour and that it was just us and the guide.  A group of 20 tourists had come just for the buffalo sacrifice, but because they were in such a large group and had left right afterwards, they completely missed the opportunity to sit and chat with the family.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember having a great time.  Rudy taught us some words in Torajan (different from Bahasa Indonesian) and the family loved it!  Overall the sitting and eating with the family was the best part of the day.

Rudy then took us to a burial site in the caves of the mountains but since we had seen that the last time we had been there, we went home afterwards and spent the day bumming around Rantepao.  We spent the remaining few days sleeping and relaxing around Rantepao.  One day we went to the market that is held once a week.  There you can buy literally anything.  From clothes to coffee to house cleaning products to fruits & veggies to Buffalos and pigs.  We came across the Buffalo part of the market and it was crazy, there were literally thousands of people trying to sell their buffalos and another thousand walking around.  But these buffalo’s were not kept in any cages.  We had to squeeze between buffalos just to get around.  It was definitely different.  It seemed everyone from Rantepao and the neighboring villages was there.  I guess that is the place where all the local ladies do their weekly shopping.  We had rented a motorbike that day and went to see the city of Makale,  near Rantepao, but there was not much to see so we just came back.  That night we met a Polish guy who was travelling around Indonesia and ended up having dinner with him.  The next day it was time for us to check out but our bus back to Makassar wasn’t until 9pm, so the hotel owner let us stay as long as we wanted.  Actually Andrew and the hotel owner now email back and forth all the time.  They were a really nice family.  We had a late dinner with the Polish guy again and said goodbye to him when it was time for us to catch our bus.  Our bus left late but we arrived at the airport in Makassar at 4am.  Our flight was at 5:30pm and we had a lot of time to kill.  The airport was small but we managed to find some internet, and we also used up the last of our credit on our SIM card to call our families in Canada.  Then it was time to leave.  We were flying back to Kuala Lumpur.

Manado & Back to the Togean Islands

We spent the night in Manado, again hanging out at a very nice hotel using their free wi-fi and calling our families.  Of course we also made time to stop at the local McDonald’s to get our fix for western food.  We woke up at 5am to catch the 6am bus to Gorontalo.  We took a bemo (the blue bus/taxi) to the bus station and before we could even get out of the bemo people were yelling at us and pulling at us.  It turns out they were from all the different bus companies which were going to Gorontalo and they were all trying to get our business.  Initially our cynical minds told us this was because we were westerners, but later we saw they did this with everyone.  We finally settled on a bus company and made ourselves comfortable for the 9 hour bus ride. 

As a side note, I have to say we will never again complain about travelling anywhere in Canada.  The amount of buses/trains/taxies/planes we have had to take, and the amount of time we have spent in each, will never compare to travel in Canada.  We have now reached a point where we don’t even blink at the mention of a 10 hour bus journey.  We now consider this normal. 

We arrived in Gorontalo in the afternoon, and since we had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to get on the ferry, we went to grab some food at KFC.  Now it might seem like we eat at western fast food chains a lot, I have to assure you it’s not as often as you might think.  There are days where we just can’t think about eating another fried rice or fried noodle.  The thought just repels us.  And then we go months without seeing any western food at all.  The interesting thing is, food chains we would never even consider eating at at home, we run to them with big smiles on our faces when we see them.  Mainly because we know we get something other than fried rice there.

We hired an ojek (motor taxi) to take us to the ferry.  It was 2 hours before the ferry would depart but there was already a line up at the ticket counter.  There was even a live band playing in the parking lot.  This was obviously an event here.  We lined up in the queue, but right away we noticed people were just butting in left and right.  After 15 minutes of standing in the same spot (behind only 6 other people) I decided to see if we can just get on the boat.  This is how it worked when we were leaving the Togean Islands.  First you boarded the ferry, picked your seats and then you went to buy your ticket.  Unfortunately no such luck here.  You first had to buy your ticket, and then you could board the ferry.  So back in line.  Again, everyone butting in front.  And not just in front of us, but each other.  It was blatant butting in.  We saw a couple of westerners up at the front.  They were second inline but they had been there since we had arrived.  Too many people had butted in in front of them and the first people in line.  (And no one said anything!  No one tried to protest!)  So Andrew approached the western couple (turned out they were from Germany) and asked them if they could buy the tickets for us.  They agreed and we acted as the bodyguards around them to prevent others from butting in.  After pushing (literally pushing…but gently) people out of the way it was our turn.  We finally bought the tickets (with the German’s help) and boarded the boat, and picked our seats. 

We had bought business class seats but don’t let the name fool you, there were no business people in this section.  I don’t think a business person had ever seen the inside of this cabin.  The business section was really just an air conditioned room where smoking was no allowed with some old broken leather chairs.  Since we had done this trip before but backwards, we knew to get a seat with another empty seat in front of us so we could put our legs up.  We found some seats and put our bags on the ones in front of us.  After 2 hours the boat was ready to leave.  The first thing that happens is an announcement comes on telling us our tickets would be checked.  This mostly applied to the locals since it’s very rare for the tourists not to have a ticket.  This time there was a bit of a scene.  We couldn’t really understand much since it was in Indonesian, but it was pretty obvious some of the locals were upset that we had put our bags on the seats in front of us to use as leg rests, and they had to sit squashed together or on mats on the floor.  Normally I would feel bad about this and would have moved my stuff to make room for them.  This time, I didn’t feel too bad because as far as I was concerned, they were getting the better deal with the mats on the floors because they could at least lie down and go to sleep for the night.  Also, they wanted to use those seats for the exact same reasons we wanted them…as leg rests.  But mainly, I didn’t feel bad because they had bought economy seats and weren’t even supposed to be in the business section.  That was also why the ticket guys didn’t ask us to move our stuff, because those people weren’t even supposed to be there.  Also, right at that moment we saw one of the guys from Lestari Resort in the Togean Islands and he came to sit on the chairs our bags were occupying.  Eli was a local and he sat at chatted with us for the next couple of hours and the whole commotion about our seats went away and we were able to stretch our legs for the night.

We arrived in Wakai at the Togean Islands early in the morning and the first person we saw was Tommy.  He was so happy to see us again!  We made our way to the boat and waited for him to get the other tourists.  When they joined us some of them were complaining that the prices were very expensive and that it was out of their budget.  The truth was, it was expensive.  Lestari charges 150,000 Rupiah per person per night, which is roughly $15 per person per night.  It might not sound that expensive, but if you’re on a budget, you like to spend half of that.  The only upside is the price included food.  But there were no cheaper options.  There was nowhere else to go.  And this was not unique to the Togeans, this was all of Indonesia.  I think the number of tourists that visit from Australia for a short vacation, really affects the prices.  They mostly come for a short vacation and $30 a night with food is a good price.  It’s the backpackers that suffer as we try to spend as little as possible.  Unfortunately the other tourists just kept going on about it and wouldn’t stop.  When we arrived at Lestari Aka was very happy to see us again.  The other tourists were travelling in a group of 4 and they tried to negotiate that the 4 of them could stay in 1 room for a cheaper price, but all they really managed to negotiate was that the 4 of them stayed in 1 room for the same price we were already paying.  So in the end I’m not really sure what the point of that was.  The rest of the night they kept telling us how they were leaving the next day because it was too expensive and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t wait.

Unfortunately they didn’t leave the next day.  We spent the day being lazy and catching up on sleep.  We wanted to go diving again but the trips were only going to where we had already been.  That evening Tommy started teaching me Bahas Indonesian.  And it wasn’t that hard.  We spent the evening drinking arak with him, his friend and Aka.  After dinner I started feeling unwell and went to sleep, even though it was 7am.  But Andrew, the other 4 tourists and Tommy, Aka and Puddin stayed up late into the night drinking and having a bit of a “disco”.  I could hear them but I couldn’t get out of bed to join them.  I’m not sure what it was but I was exhausted.

The next day the other tourists did leave for a “camping trip” Puddin had organized for them, and Andrew and I were the only tourists left at Lestari.  It was actually really weird being the only ones there, but also quite nice.  We again didn’t do anything of significance, except for reading, sleeping, taking walks and eating.  It was quite relaxing.  The following morning we left on the ferry to go to Ampana.

We were heading back to Rantepao (Tana Toraja) but it was at least another 17 hours from Ampana by bus.  We decided to get as far as we could that day and found a car that would take us for the same price as the public bus to Poso.  From there it was another 12 hours but at least we would be 5 hours closer.  On the way we were telling our driver about where we wanted to go, and he got in touch with is friend and found out he was heading our way that night.  We agreed on a very cheap price and that should have tipped us off.  We met up with his friend in Poso and it turned out it was him and 4 other army guys travelling south to Makassar, another 9 hours past Rantepao.  They were going in an SUV and we would have to sit in the back.  This SUV was not how you picture our typical SUV’s.  The leg room in the back was non-existent.  To the point Andrew and I had to sit sideways just to fit.  Initially we thought it would be okay but after a few hours of that it became very very uncomfortable.  The only upside was the driver was driving really fast and we were hoping to arrive in Rantepao early.  We somehow managed to fall asleep with Andrew sprawled across my chest.  When I woke up I couldn’t breathe.   We stopped for something to eat and the driver told us it was only 2 more hours to our destination!  That was great news because it was about 4 hours ahead of schedule.  Except we ran out of gas and the gas stations were closed so we had to wait another 2 hours for them to open and then drive another 2 hours.   So really we were only 2 hours ahead of schedule.   We could barely get out of the car.  Our legs had gone completely numb.  And we weren’t in Rantepao, we were in a town an hour outside of Rantepao.  It turned out they were not passing through Rantepao at all so we had to find another car to take us there.   Which we did.  But he, apparently, couldn’t get inside the city because the bemo drivers would get mad so we had to hire a bemo driver to take us to our hotel.  And finally we were there!  After 6 different modes of transport (small boat, ferry, 3 cars, 1 bemo) and almost 24 hours, we had arrived in Rantepao.  And obviously we were exhausted so the first thing we did was go to sleep.