Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Stay at the Rustic Jungle Inn"

I've never lived in a house that wasn't connected to a road. In this day and age it seems like such an odd outlier. How many people in America, or even Malaysia for that matter, inhabit a joint that you can't park in front of, whether it's a car, motorcycle or bike? But that's where I find myself typing this blog up: in a wooden jungle house that no road reaches.
The Lady smiling from the kitchen window of our jungle home. *** All photos can enlarged by clicking on them.***
Our latest home is only accessible via a wood pontoon buoyed by plastic jerry cans (once used for transporting petrol) that drops you off at a footpath leading here. Or you can wade across the mangrove mouth at low tide avoiding slippery rocks of slime, swim across if the water's high or take some kind of boat if you don't fancy getting too wet, like a kayak. 
Myself maneuvering the pontoon across the lagoon.
We're not that high on the remoteness scale out here though. I can see the pontoon from our porch and can easily hear the motorbikes ridden down to the end of the road where you catch the boat. We're just across a small lagoon from where we're working out of this summer, yup, it's called the Lagoon. We can hear people at the beach sometimes, and next door to us rubber trees are tapped and bushels of tapioca rise upward.
View from the pontoon. Our house is just behind the vegetation in the middle of the photo.
Our home is more vacation locale than a Ted Kaczynski outpost. “Stay at the Rustic Jungle Inn” our promotional material could proclaim. It's set back just enough from the shoreline to blend into the jungle, which surrounds it. The land wasn't cleared and for the most part you can never see the house from shore, except at a few precise vantage points. 
Looking back at the lagoon from our porch.
The fact that no road passes by or ends here ratchet-ups its remoteness feel, even if I can be on cement in five minutes. In Juara, and most places Alli and I've been to in Malaysia and Indonesia, if there's a way for a motorbike to get there, it will. Up a steep dirt path to a plot of land enveloped by durian trees, through a nutmeg plantation, or careening through sidewalks skirting gobbling turkeys and front porches en route to a lake's fish-farming baskets, no problem at all.

The end of the road in Juara, on the south end of town. This is where our raft journey to our house begins.
Here in Juara people love their motorbikes and zip around all day long on them, with most houses and establishments lying right along the road, soaking up all the accompanying noise as well. People are constantly stopping to chat or just driving around for kicks. Reminds me of when I was 17 and just got a 1992 Buick Park Avenue. I cruised around constantly, smoking cigs and cranking Jay-Z's classic “Reasonable Doubt” album. I thought I was a lot cooler than I was, but my steer was a boss hog. Gas mileage efficiency? Hell, this was pre-9/11 where a gallon of gas cost the same as a bottle of King Cobra malt liquor. 
Laundry day.
But out here where no motorized transportation swings through; privacy actually exists. To get here you have to actually put in a little effort, and will probably have to get your feet or tush wet and/or muddy, receive some jolting ant bites or break a spider's web with your face as you walk along. So that's a deterrent to some. The bonuses of living out here are bulky though: encountering Reticulated pythons (Broghammerus reticulatus) slowly progressing across the forest floor on your way home from dinner; rockin' an outdoor shower; witnessing sea eagles, kites and ravens scrappily tussle over mangrove canopy space; and sipping coffee while rain pummels our roof. Plus no one ever bothers you, just the occasional tourist who's lost the waterfall trail. 

Reticulated python (Broghammerus reticulatus) recently spotted above a tree in a Juara river. Unfortunately the photos of the python I spotted on the way home the other day were deleted by my camera, and of course they were the best photos I've gotten of this snake in Asia.
In addition to the remoteness factor, one thing that we are constantly reminded of is how quickly the jungle wants to take back the house. Cleaning the digs up after it experienced the drenching monsoon season all by itself took a few days. The owner, a lady from Germany, uses it a for a few months every year, but the rest of the time it sits, and the jungle around grows. I had to wield a machete for a few hours to clear the trail here, and then we spent the rest of the time making it livable.

Mopping up the floors, which had a nice layer of gecko poop on them.
Geckos are beyond prevalent out here, like feral cats in American cities, except these lizards take shelter in the rafters and rain poop down, in drastic numbers sometimes. The collection of gecko crap inside the house and on the mattress (we got a new one) was by far the most I've seen. The resplendent Kuhl's Gliding Gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli) lays its eggs on vertical surfaces, which outside means tree trunks, but in here it's our walls. The hatchlings pop out, leaving white painted dots the size of M&Ms behind. You'd a thought a vat of brown Tic-Tacs had spilled down from the ceiling. Spiderwebs covered most open areas. A layered chocolate cake mound of ant life shared a wall with our bathroom and kitchen. Yellow larvae (silkworms maybe) swooned around our porch like puppets maneuvered by a wino. We've had a few rats, too. 

Kuhl's Gliding Gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli) in our kitchen.
Not the most pleasant creature to wake you up at 3am. That's what happened for awhile. The said rat would mosey around the chocolate cake ant mound into the house, knocking off a few dishes on its way to the ground, in general causing a ruckus. That's when I'd wake up, put on my headlamp and in a sleep stupor actually think my swinging a broom in its general direction was going to finish the rodent. Fat chance. After a few nights my strategy never gained gumption and it was clear my baseball swing was still at tee-ball level. Cue the rat trap and a dangling piece of pseudo-wheat bread. Later on that night I was woken up by Alli, who definitely heard some commotion in the kitchen. And there it was, the hair-less tailed mammal, flailing about in its trap. Success. 

The rat that was lured into my pseudo-wheat bread trap.
We had another visitor a week or so later. This one must have smelled the garlic sizzling and marinara bubbling. I first saw it in the yard when I was taking a shower and later on when it zipped into our kitchen only to be chased out by me. Figured it was time to set another trap, which yes, was another success. These guys are quite predictable. But what to do with a live rat? I tried the poison I found in our bathroom, but I think tropical humidity and time had won out. The pellets crumbled like ancient pencil erasers and never worked. Drowning was the next best option and that did 'em in. 

The pink poison that didn't do jack.
Because of our distance, and location across a mangrove lagoon, no cats claim this property as home. Almost every house and building in Juara has a few kitties milling about, being lazy in the sun and offing a host of jungle creatures: lizards, bugs, snakes, birds, and of course, rats. Neuter and spay services don't exist here. Just having the felines post up is enough to prevent a visit from these nocturnal nuisances. But bringing a cat over here and starting up a rogue, minuscule rat-killing colony is not the answer.
First trash fire ya heard!
Part of being disconnected: from the road, from the town, from enjoying the perks of non-neutered felines, is to accept the remote-ness. Along with peaceful cups of coffee in the morning and lack of motorized visitation you have to get used to a few pests, and accept that once in awhile your toes will get stung by marauding nighttime ants or your kitchen, with its sweet Milo stash, will draw in a rat.

Every self-respecting jungle house needs a healthy Milo stash.
As a whole, humans the world over have transformed landscapes,slicing jungle or desert here, adding in roads and black-top there. The trade-off with a secluded jungle house is exactly that, you have to accept living in a secluded jungle house. Trying to make it something it's not just doesn't jibe. We have certain staples of modernity here: electricity, running water and a laundry machine to name a few; but obviously other staples don't show face. Plus, without cats around I've had to do a little more dirty work. 
Attempting to put in a palm frond shower wall thingie. Sadly it only lasted about 24 hours as a fierce thunderstorm came in, and big bag wolf style, blew it all down.
It was strange killing the two previously-mentioned rats, watching them convulse about in the underwater trap. I'll stamp out mosquitoes and bugs without a thought, but I get all pissy and mad when I hear people talking about killing snakes or lizards. And truth be told if a snake slithered into my abode I'd be ecstatic. It's strange to ruminate on these thoughts while watching a rat struggle for its last breaths. But the fact is if we wanna live here we can't have rodents scurrying wild in our kitchen, trying to nibble on everything from oatmeal to packaged noodles. That would be way too rustic. 

Porchin' it at our new digs.
Sunrise our first morning back in Juara.
Getting the kitchen in order.
Gotta take a beverage break when cleaning.
Outside sink and counter area.
Our hammock is a low-rider model.
I got a bookshelf! Pretty absurd to think I was carrying most of these around with me while traveling.
Complete with some gliding gecko eggs underneath, hanging above my clothes.
Red ants running wild on our deck.
Futurist spaceship moth we found one morning.
Mass of spider eggs above the kitchen sink.
Above two photos: Kuhl's Gliding Gecko (Ptychozoon kuhli).
Beetle on our bedroom wall.
Another python found recently. Not near our house, I just like pythons.

Moth that had taken a liking to my towel.
Above two photos: backpack laundry in a bucket. It was time to wash Nepal sweat off Alli's bag.
Spider in our sink one night.
Mantis bowl!
Rubber trees and tapioca: our neighbors to the west.
Part of the footpath we have to take to get to the house.
At low tide we can cross the mouth of the lagoon, which is right at the end of the beach.
Most of the walk is through mangroves to get to and fro.
Alli on the raft.
View looking west up the lagoon, amongst the mangroves and a sunk sailboat on the right.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

All Aboard the Pelni Pandemonium

I've just watched the Pelni employee dump a full trashcan of garbage over the side of the ship, into the ocean, for the third time. As it stands, we're not even halfway through our seven hour boat ride. This behemoth of the sea has around four or five floors of decks with railings all around, and plenty of more people generating plenty more trash. I think you get the point. 
Easily the biggest boat I've ever been on. Pelni's are custom built in Germany specifically for Indonesia. Frickin' huge.
These aren't the little wastebaskets in the bathrooms at doctor's offices or posh restaurants. These cans are roomy, the ones some of you probably filled up with leaves as a child, and then with ice and a keg of beer during your formative years. Alli and I watch the rubbish fly, my stomach tightens, and we can't help but think: what a damn shame. Hours later, we witnessed one of the most stunning sunsets we've ever seen leak out of the sky, like a cup of technicolor tea that just tipped off its saucer. Up and down, watching highs and lows, there we went, along the Pelni paradox I thought. 

We sat on the right side of the ship because the sunset out there in the open was glorious.   
The boat we were on is part of Indonesia's largest ferry line (Pelni) with connections all over this geographically sprawling country. These cruise-ship-size vessels usually travel fortnightly or monthly to a myriad of destinations. Currently the easiest way to get to the Banda Islands (our destination) occurs only every two weeks. The Tidar leaves from Kota Ambon, the biggest city in Maluku, easily Indonesia's most forgotten region. That's how the Lady and I found ourselves on one of these ships, in economy class sitting on the third flood deck, sandwiched between humongous bags of laundry detergent and stacked-up cardboard boxes. Next to my head sat a pizza-box-size array of chilis, getting some fresh air as they cruised through the Banda sea.

Our space for the journey. On the far left are bulky bags of laundry detergent and closer to my head was a spread of chilis on top of a plastic bag.  Alli and I rotated on and off our dirty laundry bag to sit on.   
Pelni is no American-esque cruise ship experience. There's no prime rib, swimming pool or ventriloquists. The boats exist to move thousands of Indonesians from here to there on a regular basis because when your country is comprised of 18,000+ islands, the water route oftentimes is the only route. And it's usually cheaper than flying. 

The lovely smelling chilis next to our set-up.
People are everywhere on the Tidar and have set up shop on any available space. I think the legal maximum capacity was in the middle hundreds, but after doing a few tours around looking for a place to plop down, this number was laughable. Even if that many people were actually enforced, the combined weight of goods on the boat easily exceeded human kilograms. While the economy floors have cushioned seating inside, it was very claustrophobic in there, with folks (from infants to the elderly), boxes, suitcases and goods laid about all over. Territory was claimed by the time we got on, as no space was left inside. That's alright we thought, the absence of any natural light and heavy presence of cigarette smoke wasn't selling it anyway. People sit on floors, in the aisles and staircases, and outside, where we ended up. This was the largest and zaniest boat I've ever been on. 

People are everywhere on the Pelni's decks: sitting on the floor, atop cardboard boxes and luggage, and, of course, gazing overboard.           
The on-board economy is a bustling one, as the staggering diversity of items sold included: food (rice dishes with chicken or fish, fried noodles), NBA basketball jerseys (I'd say the Chicago Bulls have a dominant edge in the Pelni market), hot coffee and tea, baby clothes, bottled water, juice and soda, tarps to sleep on, sticky glutinous rice (I bought some of this yummy stuff), dried fruits, pineapple-on-a-stick, cigarettes, Pop Mie (Indonesia's version of the Cup O' Noodles), top up for your cellphone and probably a few I've forgotten. 
Looking east up Ambon Bay, with part of Kota Ambon on the right, from the Pelni port.
While I'm not sure the word impressive is the best adjective to describe the litter seen flailing overboard it surely was a striking sight to see. Carry out plastic food boxes, orange juice and water bottles, styrofoam, candy wrappers, plastic bags, cigarette butts, single-serving instant coffee packets (including the ones from our vendor who immediately tossed them over the railing after she dumped the powder in), chip bags, fruit and popsicle sticks, and soda cans all ended up in the ocean. Plus whatever was in the previously mentioned trashcans. 

Alli waiting for the boat to leave. Across the bay is the green coastline of Pulau Ambon, home to the capital city of the Maluku region of Indonesia.
Sitting on the third deck's floor got me thinking though. First, some of these people are on tough slogs. In economy class what you see is what you get. The photo of me sitting on the tie-dyed sarong is also a photo of our space. Some people take these boats from Java to Papua, a journey that can easily last a week or more, in basically the same set-up I'm sitting in. There is no privacy to speak of. If it rains and the wind isn't friendly, tough luck. I'm not squeamish at all when it comes to squalid bathrooms, but the ones on hand were not pleasant. There are first, second and third class rooms, complete with beds and your own attached bathroom, but the majority of people are in economy. I'm a tourist and, yes, it might be uncomfortable for me to make this journey, but I'm on holiday. Most of these folks aren't. They're just trying to move from point A to B, and take care of business. 

Our neighbors took a snooze quite early.
What's to complain about really? Everyone was friendly, as they usually are in Indonesia. Alli and I had broken conservations here and there since our Bahasa Indonesia is still comical. People definitely got a kick out of seeing us playing cards in economy. It was nice to chit chat to others though. I'm not sure most Americans are aware but President Obama lived in Jakarta (Indonesia's capitol) for four years starting in 1967. Contrary to many other internet blogs, he didn't spend his time there in a radical Islamic school, plotting to take over of all branches of our federal government almost 40 years later. 

Regardless of your opinion of Obama, most Indonesians smile proudly when you say you're from America (“the U.S.” response sometimes gets perplexed looks). They love the fact that someone who lived in their country and had an Indonesian stepfather eventually became president of the U.S.A. “Obama bagus” they say, meaning he's good. Now, Obama has joined the famous roster of other Americans Indonesians like to talk about when we say we're from there: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van-Damme (who I think is Belgian?), Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis. The Action and Adventure section of Blockbuster circa 1994 is alive and well is the world's largest archipelago.
What sitting on the Pelni floor meant most of the trip: being neighbors with butts, old rambutan skins and discarded food containers.
My second thought was, watching all the rubbish rain down is an obvious downer. Alli and I have spent so much time in Indonesia because of its dazzling natural beauty and boisterous biodiversity. Just like in so many other parts of the world Indonesian's waters are in trouble too: coral is bleaching, reefs have died due to cyanide poisoning and dynamite explosions, sharks are finned, it goes on and on. Sure there are some healthy and bumpin' parts (we've seen a few), but many areas are hurting. Heap loads of trash thrown on top of it all doesn't help.

But I admire the honesty in throwing rubbish overboard for all to see. Trash is pretty prevalent in Indonesia as no central waste management services exist. When people are done with something they toss it. Alli and I, and I assume most Americans, as well as folks from other “developed” countries, aren't used to this. We have regular trash pick-ups, recycle bins, re-usable shopping bags, car engines converted to run on french fry grease, compostable chip bags, etc. However, we pollute thick as thieves too, it's just invisible right? Alli and I have flown all over Malaysia and Indonesia, with a leap to Nepal as well, plus our initial flight over a year ago from Phoenix to Singapore. 

Sunsets on the Banda Sea did not disappoint.
So far to date our carbon footprint (from flying alone) is a little bit over 15,100 pounds (6.85 metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2). On a per capita basis Americans emit 17.22 metric tons of CO2 compared to Indonesia's 1.90. We spew crap out into the atmosphere and it just trickles down to the ocean slowly, out of sight. I can't help but love the contradiction: I'd never think to toss my chicken rice container overboard, but I've taken seven flights in Indonesia alone. I get pissed when I see plastic disposed of in our oceans, but I've driven thousands of miles in cars over the years, many more than any Banda islander can. And if the sea level rises just a smidge those folks are in the crosshairs, not I. It's a tough nut to crack without splintering it a bit. Watching the trash fly overboard and feeling pissed is a reminder that nothing as complicated as climate change, environmental stewardship, responsible tourism and the dumping ground that is our world's oceans, is ever simple. Or a black and white issue, right and wrong. It's a funky grey area that I'm partly responsible for.
Heading down out of Ambon Bay toward the Banda Sea.
The whole ordeal lasted around 11 hours: three waiting in port before departure, seven on the seas and a little under one getting off; it was a cramped-to-all-hell exit, reminiscent of a tightly-packed OutKast concert I attended oh-so-many years ago, when “Ms. Jackson” lived on the radio. Thinking about the Pelni outing beforehand made it sound fun, a way to scope the open ocean, peep a few islands and have one of those “experiences” travelers are always yapping about. 

Lots and lots of people filing on for the 6am departure.
Overall I enjoyed the Pelni pandemonium, but truth be told after so many hours I got sick of sitting on the floor next to extinguished cigarettes and rambutan skins. My butt hurt, but I was all smiles as we pulled into Bandaneria around 11:15pm, with the volcanic outline of next door neighbor Gunung Api illuminated in the night sky. Twenty days later when we left the Bandas to return to Ambon I was still all smiles, but this time we opted for first class. It was nothing fancy, but passing out on the bed, surrounded by quiet, was a real treat. I didn't have to hear Maroon 5's “Payphone” played endlessly by our deck neighbor this time. And I didn't see any pollution drifting out to sea. None of it was visible through our cabin porthole, whether on the Pelni or during our multiple flights back to Malaysia. 
Our first class cabin on the way back. No economy class again.
When a Pelni ship comes to town the area around the port pulsates. Motorbikes, people and vendors galore. An awesome time to have an appetite. During the rest of our time on Bandaneira when no ship was there this street was practically deserted, with a shop or two open.
Tidar docked up before we took it back from the Banda Islands to Ambon.