This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Search for Diamonds in Kalimantan

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We are now in Borneo. Borneo is the world's largest island and divided into a Malaysian part and a larger Indonesian part. Indonesia Borneo is called Kalimantan. We are primarily in Kalimantan to see orangutans, but we have some distance to cover before we can get to them. Our first meaningful stop is in the city Banjarmasin. We have two activities that we would like to do which is visit floating markets and the traditional diamond mines. Even though to Mika's disappointment we will not be allowed to keep anything that we find.

The mine
One mining area is near the village Cempaka which is a minibus, shared taxi and short walk from Banjarmasin. At the road leading to the mine we pick up an escort who leads us to the mining area. The first thing is we hear the chugging of the pumps as they carry the water, rocks and silt to the separating contraptions above on the hill.

The silt and rocks are collected here
Then filtered out in the large basins in the water to see if they have found anything

while others search through the larger rocks looking for a gem
 We are shown some tiny specks of gold and white gold that were found that day and will later be separated out. This area has numerous precious metals, like amethysts and onyx, but the big find is a diamond. In the 1960's a 167 karat diamond was found in the region, while a 77 karat diamond was found as recently as 1999. These miners work very hard and only get money when they find something and after giving half to the land owner and village chief.

While watching the process we are approached by young sellers with polished stones wrapped in paper. We have no idea what we are buying, and probably have "sucker" written on our foreheads, but we decide to get some tiny semi-precious stone souvenirs. Mika chooses a purple amethyst and I select a black Kalimantan onyx, or so they say that is what they are. Both for under US $3.00. The miners give us some free unpolished agate that they just found. There is a larger town outside of Cempaka that has a gem polishing center and numerous gem shops. There are also several hotels, so I imagine they get numerous, serious international buyers here.

The other main activity for us in Banjarmasin is to see a floating market where the buying and selling all take place on boats on the river. There are two different floating markets around Banjarmasin. I want to go to the busier one, but different guides give us different information. A guide recommended in the guidebook tells us Kuin Market is the place to go - a shorter boat trip and busiest market. He also tells us that this market dates back 350 years. Since we are not really interested in a guide, just cheap transportation, we end up hiring a goofy guy that has 23 years experience guiding, knows practically nothing and to Mika’s utter disgust, spits when he talks.

The guide picks us up at 5:30 AM and takes us on the river passing rickety wooden homes built over the water. The river is the backyard and the bathroom. At this early AM hour we can see people washing clothes, bathing and brushing their teeth to start their day. The river also serves as the sewer system. I am not exactly sure how clean the water is or if I would want to brush my teeth in a river used as a toilet by my neighbors upstream. But without proper access to running water they have little choice in the matter.

As we pass on the boat it feels slightly invasive. We are uninvited guests observing their personal morning routines. Women bathe wearing sarongs and men are in shorts. I guess I would be too if strangers passed by my open air bathroom every morning.

The small river leads us to a larger river. We begin to see more boats some carrying produce. We arrive to the main area and I am not sure if it is because of misinformation that we received from the “Lonely Planet recommended guide“, or if just the incredibly overcast morning has kept away most of the sellers. Either way the number of boats here is disappointingly small at around twenty-five, not including tourist boats. At the market the sellers paddle around in wood canoes selling produce to the buyers on other boats. Some sellers travel for hours with their wood canoes pulled by a motorized boat from their distant village.

We hang around the market, buy some bananas, have a coffee and donut at the floating café and head back to once again invade the privacy of the bathers, teeth brushers and the laundry washers as we pass their homes on the river. Having our fill of voyeurism we decline our guide’s attempt to sell us his afternoon tour which would take us past many more homes through Banjarmasin’s narrow canal and take a bus to our next destination.

The Wild Man of Borneo Travel Tip: When searching for a guide in Banjarmasin ask if he will take off his shirt and insist you take photos of him.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Search for Rare Primates

We have been to Bunaken and Tomohon, so there is one more excursion that we want to make in Northern Sulawesi that is to see the tarsiers at Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Tarsiers are the world's smallest primate and quite rare. They can only be found in the wild in North Sulawesi, Indonesia and the Philippines. A one hour bus ride and twenty-five minutes in the back of a pickup truck gets us to our hotel which is just a short walk from the area.

Tarsiers are nocturnal animals, so the typical way to see them is to go with a guide (foreigners must have a guide though we do see a birdwatching couple without a guide) at 4PM and walk to the "Tourist Tree" before sunset. This hollowed out banyan tree has three tarsiers who always come out at sunset to hunt and greet the primate papparazzi with popping flashes.

A tarsier home
These little jungle critters (adult 10-15 cm) are definitely the big draw to Tangkoko, but since it is a jungle there are plenty of other exotic animals to see like hornbills, pythons, kus-kus (sloth like creature) and black macaques. The best way to see these animals is to hire your guide again and go out in the morning. However, Mika and I do not want to hire a guide twice so we devise a plan to leave very early in the morning to catch the tarsiers on their way back home and then see the other animals after dawn. Mika does some wheeling and dealing and finds a guide that does not speak great English, but says he will show us everything for the price of just the evening Tarsier tour. I am not quite sure when (or if) we will ever learn that you-get-what-you-pay-for when hiring a discount guide in Indonesia.

We have a lot to see, so we head out at 4:00 AM where our first stop will be at the tarsier tree. As we walk in the pitch black jungle with flashlights our guide is searching trees for pythons and tarantulas. Unfortunately we do not find anything except a few mice frozen in the flashlight.

We arrive at the tarsier tree and wait. There are no other tourists here to compete for the tarsiers' attention. As we sit fruit drops around us from bats eating in the tree tops and we hear the squeaking of the tarsiers as they approach their home.

My best tarsier shot
The guide walks around the tree and points out our first tarsier. They are exactly as envisioned - small, furry and cute. It is still quite dark and our cameras are not equipped for low light wildlife photography, so after a few weak attempts we just enjoy watching them climb around the tree and listening to them communicate in their high-pitched squeaks until they decide to go in their hole and go to bed. It is a fantastic visit with these unique creatures and I am excited for what the rest of the morning will bring.

Mika's best tarsier shot
Hornbills are a large bird that live high in the trees. Their call can be heard from afar. If we do find one, I am not sure if it can be seen without binoculars. Meanwhile, the black macaque monkeys live in large groups and are followed by researchers everyday. They should not be too hard to find. Our guide is even calling researchers to ask where they are exactly. The problem is that now the monkeys are on the move. Also, I do not believe that our guide knows the trails very well. Several times he tells us to wait at some random spot in the jungle and goes off to find something, always unsuccessfully. After four hours of trekking I am ready to quit. Spider webs are sticking to my face like cotton candy to a fat boy's fingers at a carnival. I am quite sure the guide is also ready to quit, but Mika is determined to get what we paid for. After 6 1/2 hrs. of wandering in the jungle, we return to our hotel hungry, drenched in sweat, exhausted and having never caught up to the monkeys or a hornbill. Our lovely pre-dawn visit with the tarsiers feels like it happened ten years ago.

Calling the hornbills
Luckily, the very experienced guide from our hotel takes pity on us. He kindly invites us to join him and his Dutch tourist the next morning at no charge. He has spoken with the researchers and knows exactly where the black macaques will be when they wake up. We head out at 5 AM, walk for about 40 minutes and find the monkeys right as they are waking up and heading down to find breakfast and start the day.

This is a group of eighty monkeys and one of three tracked by researchers. The Sulawesi Black Crested Macaque is only found in Northern Sulawesi and is critically endangered. Their population has been reduced by about 90% since the 1980's due to hunting. The meat is considered a delicacy and eaten for special occasions like Christmas* dinner while small ones are captured to become pets. Forest degradation from logging and slash and burn farming means that the monkey groups are competing for less and less resources. In Tangkoko Nature Reserve, researchers follow three separate groups of the black macaque from dawn to dusk to study and protect this monkey. The ones still living outside of the reserve are probably doomed.

We spend about an hour with the family of monkeys watching them forage, groom, play, fight and fornicate in their natural environment. With some jungle hiking now under our belts, we return to Manado and buy our airplane tickets for Kalimantan - Indonesian Borneo - to search out larger primates, orangutans.

Get a room!
* All of the eating of strange animals in this part of Sulawesi, Indonesia (rats, bats, dogs and monkeys) is done by the Christian community. Because of Halal laws, Muslims tend to avoid chowing down on peculiar mammals.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Our Amateur Underwater Photography

The main reason for people to come to Manado, Sulawesi is to make the short boat ride to Bunaken Island. Bunaken is a very well-known diving island surrounded by coral reefs that drop straight down 90 degrees to form a coral reef wall. The snorkeling off the beach of the island is also great and you do not have to swim too out far to be surrounded by reefs and fish. A couple divers at our hotel even say that they actually prefer snorkeling here. The fish and coral seen are the same. One difference, however, is that snorkelers tend to scare away the fish while divers just sort of blend in with the aquatic life.

The currents at Bunaken tend to be quite strong, so we usually walk down the beach to find a good entry far enough away from our guesthouse, swim out to the reef and then glide back with the current. Bunaken has so many more types and schools of fish then we have seen thus far. It is like swimming in a tank. After snorkeling we usually check the book to try to get an idea of what we have just seen, but since I whiffed badly on the Togean blog (see comments), I will just post photos and state the obvious.

Apart from snorkeling there is really not much else for us to do on Bunaken, so I use this blog post to showcase our blossoming underwater photography from Bunaken and Togean Islands. Mika has a small fuji digital camera that we can take about 5M (15 ft.) down. It is quite difficult to maintain buoyancy underwater and get fish to sit still for a shot though, I must admit, our skills have improved some as we have traversed through islands in SE Asia. The images are definitely not professional grade underwater photography, but will hopefully give you a glimpse into the creatures and colors that we have been seeing every day while on islands in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Fish holding their position by swimming against the current

A Ray
Visiting another world

Another Ray

A sea snake

Hide and Seek

I was one of the few people not to see a turtle. Look closely and you can see Mika's only shot of one.
I also made a few enemies in the ocean. This territorial anemone fish is staring me down,

while this very territorial damsel fish makes mad dashes at me until I swim away
Fox face butterfly fish

Something weird

Like swimming in an aquarium
and like floating in space

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tomohon - The Good, The Bad and The Gross

We arrive in Manado on Monday, Oct. 4. This is the largest city in north eastern Sulawesi and is the gateway to go to Bunaken, the island world renown for its coral reef walls. The city Manado is quite terrible with no real character, unless boiling heat, garbage, too much traffic and very little green is considered “real character.” But we have several important administrative things to take care of: laundry, internet, toiletry shopping and boat schedule checking out of Sulawesi so we stay for two days. Manado also has a great assortment of English channels on cable which slightly takes away the sting of being in a stinky city.

We find out that our boat is not until the 14th or 15th of October. With 10 days to kill we decide to take a small trip to Tomohon. It is a short one hour, approx (US $0.66) ride from Manado by public bus. In good Indonesian fashion the driver is holding his door closed with one hand while steering and shifting with the other up a windy hill.

The first thing we notice is that the temperature is much cooler as we gain some elevation. We are also surrounded by green farms and forests again which is much more typical in Sulawesi than the concrete landscapes of Manado. Tomohon is actually a weekend travel spot for locals from the city. Tomohon is labeled the Flower City. There are many florist and plant shops and there is an annual flower parade. Homes are decorated with many potted plants and gardens. In a way it reminds me of the Balinese who also take a lot of pride in their home landscaping.Two towns away is a beautiful lake sprinkled with fish farms.

Smoking crater and lake
Tomohon is also constantly under the watchful glare and threat of Gunung Lokon, an active volcano which last erupted in 2002. A much larger eruption in 1991 had Tomohon evacuated and killed a Swiss researcher. The hike to the rim of the crater takes about two hours up a riverbed of frozen molten lava from the past two eruptions. Out of the riverbed and closer to the rim, the climb up is just rocks. Not much grows around here. We also start hearing a churning noise as if we were approaching a steel factory while the smell of fire and brimstone is in the air. Once at the top we get a glimpse into the crater and see plumes of smoke are billowing out. There is also a small, greenish yellow volcanic lake. Like any warning system when this water turns red it means real danger. Regardless of the water color it is not recommended that we stay too long. The wind today is in our favor, but we are still inhaling sulphur and probably other toxic gases, so after some photo taking we head back down the solid lava flow and thank Gunung Lokon for at least waiting one more day until belching out her river of lava again.

A riverbed of solidified lava

Near the top of the crater
 If nature is not exactly your thing, Tomohon has one notorious attraction for the traveler to North Sulawesi - their market. The market itself, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, is quite typical with the usual sellers of fruits, vegetables, fish and meat. What is unusual and the main attraction are the few sellers of bats, forest rats, snakes and dogs all part of the local cuisine. The bats and rats are impaled on sticks. Their hair is completely burned off with blow torches until they are charred black and look like over zealous Halloween party favors. The bats faces look frozen in agony. These critters look anything but appetizing. Though locals assure us they are very tasty. Pig heads also appear to be on the menu in Tomohon. It is all quite interesting, but my Western sensibilities find it gross as well. 

Forest rat (Tikus Ekor Putih) on a stick
20,000 Rupiah (US $2.25) for a large and 15,000 (US $1.60) for a small

35,000 Rupiah (US $3.90) for a large charred bats
On other tables in this section are whole dogs which like the bats and rats have been charred to a crisp and ready for purchase. I always knew that people in some Asian countries (ie. Vietnam, Korea) eat dog. I also know that Westerners love their canines, but the thought of dog meat never bothered me. Maybe because I never had a dog (as a pet, nor dinner). My logical and vegetarian perspective is what’s the difference between eating a dog or, say, a lamb? Lambs are much cuter than most dogs, but really tasty. Right? Dog is probably considered tasty, right? Even seeing the charred pooch chopped in pieces does not bother me so much.

This does not look appetizing! 
25,000 Rupiah (US $2.75) per kilo
However, it is our emotions that separates us from fish and Vulcans. And frankly, I feel a bit disturbed hearing the yelps of desperation and seeing cages full of scrawny, scraggly mutts that have an appointment with a baseball bat to the head.

I am not sure why, but more so than a cage full of scrawny, scraggly chickens or pigs that will meet a knife. I think even Mr. Spock would agree.

A different perspective: I am probably the strangest thing that this girl will see in the market today