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!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back to Bali

Editor's Note: This is the last post from Asia for 2010. I apologize if it feels a bit rushed because it is. I am writing from the US and will be leaving soon for Columbia. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.

On the long bus ride from Surabaya to Denpassar we finally decide where we are going once we get to Bali - Gili Islands. The Gilis are three small islands in Lombok which is another main island in Indonesia and another island tourist destination that benefits from runoff from the throngs of foreigners visiting Bali.

The Gili Islands were recommended to us several people though none of them have been to Indonesia in over a decade. When we were first in Bali this July it was peak tourist season and we knew that these small islands would be swamped and anything but idyllic. Now with about seven days left in Indonesia, we are greedy and want a few more at the beach. We choose Gili because of the previous recommendations and for the chance to see some sea turtles though worry a bit that it could be really busy.

Sea Turtle and Me
Our bus stops in Denpassar, Bali and we take a shared taxi to Padangbai. Padangbai does have some beaches, but the main reason that this town seems to exisit is to take people to Lombok and the Gili Islands. There are many guesthouses, tourist restaurants and agents selling boat tickets. The good news is that it seems to be quite empty here and lots of accomodation options.

The next morning we take the ferry, bus and boat to arrive at Gili Air. From the pier heading east there seems to be one guesthouse after another and a lot of construction, but again the first noticeable thing is that there just are not so many tourists right now. It is quite pleasant. There are no motorized vehicles on the island. People walk, ride bikes or take horse drawn carts. It takes around 45 minutes to walk completely around Gili Air. We spend three relaxing and uneventful nights on the island and one day on a snorkel trip with the worst guide imaginable but with an extreme close up of a sea turtle and long distance view of a very large one.
View from the horse taxi
We leave the Gilis and head straight to Ubud. Since this is the very end of our stay I have decided that I will accept Bali for what it is (a huge tourist destination) and try to immerse myself in the tourist culture.
Our Bali style room
Banana Pancake dyed naturally with local flora
We spend the last few days in Ubud - the cultural center of Bali - doing what tourists do:
Shopping...Bali is the center for Indonesian nick knacks.
and they have cornered the world market for wooden cats.
We must have seen thousands on one day shopping trip.
Culture... Balinese dancing. They tell stories with their eyes.
On deciding which dance troop to see a local taxi driver tells us that all the groups are the same (not true) so it just depends on who has the most beautiful girls (maybe true) 

Eating... Fish sate is delicious and actually hard to find. Chicken and goat sate is everywhere.
For a meateater's view on Bali duck checkout this link

Sunday, November 21, 2010

On the Move to Bali via Surabaya

It is hard to believe that we are running out of days in Indonesia. We have just over a week to get to Bali from where we are departnig Indonesia. We leave Kalimantan and take a 24 hour boat ride to Java. We get Economy class tickets which is pretty much large rooms with platforms for sleeping. We splurge and pay Rp 5000 (US $0.55) for mattresses. The boat has two food canteens and a small theater where they charge Rp 10,000 to watch a film. The boat also has lots of cockroaches everywhere. I see one walking in the food at one of the canteens and just can eat plain rice which is served from a well sealed container. Mika eats instant ramen.
Economy Class: If I just close my eyes for 24 hrs. I just might not see a cockroach
We find out later that this boat is continuing on to Bali, but Mika is not interested at all in staying another 24 hrs. on the Cockroach Cruise. So we get off in Surabaya. Surabaya is Indonesia's second largest city. We roll into the giant port passing boats docked from Hong Kong, Panama and North Korea. We stay the night at a decent, clean hotel. We will take a night bus to Bali tomorrow. With some time on our hands we decide to see some sights which ends up being a submarine and cigarette factory.
Surabaya prides itself on its huge port and maritime history so why not have a submarine monument. It is a short walk from our hotel, so we decide to have a look. Since I have never been inside a sub (and a Russian one at that) it is interesting enough. Our entrance ticket includes a military propaganda film about Indonesia's submarine fleet.

I hope the Indonesian crew spoke Russian
Notice the cigarette shaped pillars
The next day, we do not leave the hotel until checkout. So we have time for just one sight. I cannot think of anything better to do than visiting the factory and museum of an almost 100 year old cigarette company at the House of Sampoerna. Indonesia is a country of chain smokers. I am sure by now everyone is familiar with the 2 year old (and internet sensation) Indonesian chain smoker. After three months here, I do not find that story surprising. Disturbing yes, but surprising no. Inhaling secondhand smoke in Indonesia is as inevitable as eating white rice. So I figure that we should go see where they make the famous "kretek" (mixed tobacco and clove) cigarettes.

We pass a few displays about the history and cigarette production and go upstairs where there is a large window that looks down at a hand-roll production facility. We see on the floor 400 women here busy rolling and cutting cigarettes. These women roll an astounding 325 cigarettes or more kretek per day. The continual speed, pace and concentration of their work is so impressive and mesmerising to watch. And they do this, continually, eight hours a day without crystal meth.

There are another 2,500 women rolling cigarettes here that we cannot see. Many countries have banned clove cigarettes so all of these thousands of cigarettes are cranked out just for local consumption. Up until last year, visitors were allowed to go down to the floor and have a go at rolling their own smokes using the traditional equiptment, but unfortunately, this had stopped. Our guide says that it was too distracting to the workers.

Cigarettes and packaging specially produced for the president's office

The museum also gives free bus tours of Surabaya. We catch one that goes to the oldest Buddhist temple in Chinatown. We are the non-Indonesians on the tour and the guide does do a kind job of not ignoring us. But the tour is something like this:
First in English - There is an old building here on the left. On the right is a river. Next in Indonesian - somethingsomethingsomething then lots of laughter from the group.
I am not sure what we are missing, but it is free, so who's complaining.

Free is fun! The cigarette subsidized bus in Surabaya
After a late lunch of some great street food, we collect our luggage and go to the bus station to take our night bus to Denpassar, Bali and to spend our final days in Indonesia.

A: Kumai, Kalimantan; B: Surabaya, Java; C: Denpassar, Bali

View Larger Map

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part 3

Since we did not see any wild orangutans in Sebangau, we decide that we have to head west to the town Pangkalan Bun which will get us to Tanjung Puting National Park - the most accessible place to see orangutans in Indonesia - which also means touristy and expensive. Tours ask about US $66 per person per day everything included (food, boat, park fees, guide). So for Mika and I, a three day tour (the minimum required) would cost about US $400 - which is a heap of money for us long term budget travelers. Luckily now is November. We have the rainy season and a very low tourist season in our favor. We see only three other foreigners in Pangkalan Bun. The tour company Borneo Holidays quickly lets us fashion our own tour of just two days with their boat and guide while we will supply our own food and can use the boat‘s kitchen. I am excited for this boat/camping because we have not made one single meal in four months. Park fees are the only fixed expense.

We are picked up in the morning and drive to the pier and our boat which will be our home for the next two days. The upper level has a table and mattresses for us while below is the kitchen and place for our guide and crew. The toilet and shower is at the back of the boat. We leave town and cruise across a large river to the smaller river entrance of Tanjung Putting National Park.
Our vessel and floating studio apartment
Inside Tanjung Putting are several ranger stations designed to research and monitor orangutan behavior. The main area is Camp Leakey which was established in 1971 as a rehabilitation center for rescued orangutans. In the park are wild, semi-wild and rehabilitated orangutans not to mention a whole host of other creatures from crocodiles to cloud leopards to horn bills.

Each ranger station has feeding platforms for the orangutan. These feeding times are designed to help supplement the diets of the rehabilitated orangutans who are not fully accustomed to living without humans and living on their own in the forest. The platforms also are good for tourism because they make an easy way for people to see orangutans without traipsing all day through the jungle. Though the impact of tourism on the rehabilitated orangutans is yet to be determined (during our hike at Camp Leakey the next day we meet a university student following orangutans to study that exact thing). Another downside of a reintroduction program like this is that the wild orangutans may learn bad habits and not to fear humans from the rehabilitated apes. At times wild orangutans have been seen around the platforms eying the free bananas.

The first stop is at Camp Leakey, the farthest point from town. So we plug along upriver for several hours. A downpour starts -- it is rainy season -- so the bird viewing is minimal. This is also a difficult activity without binoculars. But the rain stops, as if by design, exactly as we pull up to Camp Leakey. Our guide leads us through the trail to the feeding platform and then right in front of us on the trail straddling two trees is a big female orangutan. It is exhilarating to see them this close.
There is a semi-circle of wood benches which face a platform about four feet off the ground. There is a large group of Indonesian tourists and five other foreigners. The guide tells us that according to the rules we should stay at least 5 meters (15 ft) from the orangutans, however, the apes here do not follow this rule. One mother continually stops at and passes over the benches where we are sitting. At this platform we see several nursing mothers clutching their infants while the younger children play around them. This is somewhat far from seeing actual wild orangutans, but nevertheless, a beautiful sight.
This just is not exactly the same as seeing orangutans in the wild
We leave Camp Leakey to our boat and find a place to sleep by the river. We try our hand at fishing with the Indonesian guys and then sit and wait for wildlife to appear. We see a large yellow and blue kingfisher streak by and see some black horn bills from afar. There are also some proboscis monkeys (only found in Borneo), but everything is far away. It is regrettable that we do not have binoculars. Mika and I make fried noodles for everyone. Our guide says it is the first time ever a guest has cooked for him. We fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle being drowned out by the pouring rain on our plastic tarp.
The morning view from the boat
We wake up very early in the morning to the sounds of the jungle. After breakfast we go back to Camp Leakey for some hiking. As we enter, sitting on the narrow boardwalk are two orangutans. One is a large 33 year old female who our guide says is the toll taker. If we want to pass by we will have to give her something. Stuck, our guide calls out to the rangers. One approaches from the other side to save the day. He shoos away the small orangutan and gives the Toll Taker a mirror to look at as we gently slide past her back to freedom.
Notice the ranger in the back coming to save us
Jungle mushroom
We hike for a couple hours in the jungle without spotting any significant wildlife which seems to be our luck these days. I was hoping to see some more orangutan and really wanted to see a gibbon. The most interesting thing are some exotic mushrooms and leeches. Yes, leeches are why we hike with our pants tucked into our socks. Our guide, however, is barefoot and pulls one off his leg to show us. The leeches are like black inchworms. When we arrive back to Camp Leakey I pull one more leech off of my sock and another crawling up my pant leg.

The gibbon
Camp Leakey is not just home to orangutans. There are some semi-wild pigs and three gibbons who hang around the area. A ranger calls a gibbon over for us so we can see him up close bribing him with bananas. The monkey swings swiftly and gracefully to where we are sitting and perches on a branch just out of reach. The ranger tosses him bananas. Gibbons have amazing reflexes and he catches the treat every time. Hearing the action, the Toll Taker strolls over to get her bananas too. She is a really lazy orangutan. Again, this is not exactly the same thing as seeing these animals in the wild, but it is definitely not a zoo either. It is fascinating, and well worth our effort to come here.

Our last stop is for the 3:00 PM feeding at Tanjung Harapan station. We follow the ranger as he fills his basket with bananas and leads us on the short hike to the feeding platform. Above us we hear crashing through the trees and the growling of a male who is letting us know of his presence. It sounds intimidating to me, but the guides are unimpressed.

Unlike Camp Leakey where we saw many mothers with children, this feeding platform seems to be all young males who are too lazy to find their own lunch. One or two guys will be eating and as another approaches the ones at the platform will comically stuff their mouths full of unpeeled bananas and head up to the trees with their stash. None of the orangutans come near us either like in the other park. They all leave through the forest the way they came. The last to arrive this afternoon is a large male with the skin flaps on his face. He is not the king of this jungle, but at least we have a relatively close encounter with a really big ape. We see just one mother here who watches from high in the trees with her two children but does not come down to fraternize with the males.
Two males on the feeding platform
When the bananas are gone, the orangutans leave to make their nests for the night. We hop back on our boat and chug through Tanjung Putting past proboscis monkeys, macaques and another large kingfisher as we say farewell to the orangutans of Kalimantan.

Follow the links below for more detailed information about organizations working for conservation in Kalimantan:

Orangutan Foundation International - Doing research at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation - They have several projects in Kalimantan

Nyaru Menteng - Training young orangutans to survive in the wild

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - About their work at Sebangau National Park

Kalaweit - This organization is rescuing gibbons

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part 2

Note: This is part 2 of my three part series on trying to see orangutans. For those who would like more in depth information about some work being done by organizations in Indonesia to save the orangutans I will place links at the end of the last post.

We saw a couple young orangutans at the rehabilitation center Nyaru Menteng, so now we would like to try to find some in the wild at Sebangau National Park. We are not sure how difficult this will be.

The office for Sebangau National Park is located at a pier about a twenty minute ride in shared taxi from Palangka Raya. We are greeted by a very friendly young woman, Suli, who speaks excellent English and gives us plenty of her time to explain the area to us. Sebangau is open for visitors, but is definitely not ready for an influx of guests. It sounds like visitors need a guide and she is the only English speaker. But actually her bosses are coming from Jakarta, so she will not be able to take us. Therefore, Suli kindly let’s us go on our own without a guide and arranges it so that we will meet up and stay with the workers from the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). Since they do not speak English, Suli loans us her pocket translator.

We buy seats on a public speedboat that will take us to SSI, the WWF office at the entrance of the park. The water is black and smooth with perfect reflections of plants and clouds. It feels like we are gliding on a mirror.

Sebangau is a relatively new national park and is the largest protected area of peat land - think swampy wetlands - forest in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This is actually the last remaining peat land in the Central Kalimantan region after the central government initiated the Mega Rice Project in 1995 in which they tore down an unprecedented 1.4 million hectares of peat land forest for agriculture (and you can bet logging concessions too). 1.4 million hectares ( = 3,336,000 acres) is almost exactly the size of Conneticut.

In the past in Sebangau hundreds of canals were dug by loggers (different than the Mega Rice project) which gave them access deep into the rainforest. The canals and forest degradation reduced the natural ability of the peat land to retain moisture during the dry season and made the area very susceptible to fires which in turn released enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and significantly reduced the natural habitat of the animals. Peat land is a breadbasket full of flora and fauna. It is easy to imagine the impact this sheer devastation of forest in Kalimantan is having on the 808 species of plants, 150 types of birds and 35 species of mammals, including 6000-9000 wild orangutans - the largest population in Indonesia - that live in Sebangau.

These edible jungle mushrooms became part of our lunch
 A program of canal blocking was started in 2005 by WWF along with the local governments. The pilot program was at SSI (where we are staying). The huge canal here runs 24 Km (15 miles) straight into the jungle. Canal blocking allows the ground near the canals to remain moist and prevent fires. After having success with canal blocking, the forest began to revegetate itself. Though it could take 100 years to get back to how it was. So the organizations have been growing and planting the proper species to help accelerate the process.

This nursery is growing indigenous species that will be planted in the area.
We arrive at the pier and are greeted by the three WWF employees. There are three teams of three men who stay here for one month at a time. Their job is to monitor the water levels of the peat land (which they do only once a month) and to cruise around the canals looking for illegal loggers. This year there has not been any illegal logging - a testament to the success of the project.- so I am not sure actually what they do for a month. At SSI there is a observation tower. From the tower we can see huge swath of land that was burned by fires and where the newer, five year old vegetation meets the tall trees of the older forest.
The WWF station at Sebangau
Two of the guys take us down the canal by boat to see the canal blocking and how they check the water levels. We hike a little in the peat land. The ground is very soft and getting shoes wet is unavoidable, no matter how hard we try. You take a step on what you think is solid ground and you go down to your ankle. Another step as you prepare to soak your ankles and you sink down to your knees. One misstep later and I my left thigh is covered in wetlands. This is the first time in my life I think it could be worthwhile to have a pair of Crocs.
Later in the day we take another short boat ride. This time on the river and small tributaries behind SSI. I am not sure what we are looking for exactly, but we do not see any wildlife. We do, however, get to see the younger of our two guides scale straight up a tree to get two jungle apples. And we do slog a bit more through the swampy jungle, which is always fun, I guess.

Watch your step!
The next day we want to head out very early because that is the best time to see animals. From SSI we can hear the morning call of gibbons carrying across the treetops. It is a loud wwwooooohhhhhhppppp like the cross between the howl of a dog and the whoop of a large bird. In Bahasa Indonesian the word for gibbon is “wah-wah” which is quite similar to their sound. Unfortunately though it is drizzling, and one of the WWF guys is still sleeping. When he finally gets roused the rain is just a patter so we make them, via the boss, take us out immediately without waiting to have breakfast. Probably not good social conduct in Indonesia, but who cares we have wild orangutans waiting.

View from the canal blocking site. This canal streches another 19 KM.
The green is where vegetation has begun to return.
We take the boat back up the canal to the dam where we were the day before. We slog through the swamp for an hour or so with no sightings of the red ape. In the distance we do hear the call of a gibbon. The older guide says, “jauh” which in Indonesian means far and also, more subtly, means farther then the guide wants to take us. We heard this before from our guide at Tangkoko National Park in Sulawesi when we were searching unsuccessfully for the black macaques. We return to the boat having not seen even one of the 6000-9000 wild orangutans in Sebangau. Bummer!

As we near the base, our boat makes one surprise stop to a clearing by the canal with young trees, some of which have name tags including one from the Prince of Denmark. Mika and I get to plant five trees (without our name tag) of different species, two of which are Tutup Kabali (not sure what that is in English), the preferred food of orangutans. Across the canal are five year old trees that were planted when the project started. They look healthy, but far from ready to support an orangutan. So who knows, maybe in fifteen years or so orangutans will be eating from trees planted by our own hands. Making our small contribution to the re-greening of Kalimantan definitely saves our morning and more than makes up for the lack of wildlife viewing.

Because of the public boats infrequent boat schedules we have to choose between leaving today or staying for three more days. We decide to let the WWF crew get back to their relaxed life and go in the afternoon.

We never did see an orangutan here, but I am glad to have witnessed Ground Zero in the battle to save what is remaining of Kalimantan’s forests. With the now more progressive attitude towards conservation by the central government along with programs to educate and generate alternate sources of income for local communities maybe (hopefully?) the alarming rate of forest degradation in Kalimantan will cease. And it better because the orangutans survival is dependent on it.
A very bitter tea made from Akar Kuning (Sp?).
This root found in the forest will supposedly help fight against malaria.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part I

Note: This is part 1 of my three part series on trying to see orangutans. For those who would like more in depth information about some work being done by organizations in Indonesia to save the orangutans I will place links at the end of the last post.

Mr. Orangutan, What to do?
The rainforests are disappearing
And so are you.
But there’s always a home
In the zoo,
Next to giraffe and gnu

Bad idea?
You turn it down
What about work as circus clown?
The children laugh
As you frown
Traveling from town to town

Not good either?
Well then maybe you could
Get a job in Hollywood
Be an actor
Yes you should
Star in movies with Clint Eastwood!

— Jeffrey Leventhal

I wrote this poem about 10 years ago when I was going through a mini-creative writing phase of animal based poetry, just like everyone in their late twenties does I suppose. Of course, I did not know then that ta decade later I would be in the rainforests of Borneo looking for orangutans, but this is exactly where I find myself now.

Orangutans (“Forest Man” in Bahasa Indonesian) are the only large primates living outside of Africa. Their natural habitat is the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra which for years has been disappearing at an alarming rate due to illegal logging and forest clearing for slash-and-burn agriculture and palm oil plantations. According to the info center at Tanjung Putting national park, Indonesia and Malaysia are first and second in the world for rainforest degradation. So it is easy to see why orangutans numbers are rapidly decreasing. It is not just orangutans. Indonesia is listed as third in the world for having the most number of critically endangered species. By the way, the United States is first on that list.

View Larger Map

Mika and I arrive Friday evening in the city Palangka Raya. We are now closer to the jungle, but still not quite sure the best manner to see the only large primate not in Africa. Farther east from Palangka Raya is Tanjung Puting national park where we can definitely see orangutans because they have feeding stations for rehabilitated orangutans. But the tours there are expensive, and we would like to see wild orangutans if possible.
Borneo Orangutan Society has a program at Nyaru Menteng near Palangka Raya to take orphaned orangutans and teach them to survive in the wild at their orangutan school. Orangutans are naturally solitary animals, but because now of the lack of natural habitat the founders of BOS have also taught the young orangutans to live as a community. When the orangutans are ready to leave the school and their frequent human contact, they are placed on Orangutan Island as rehabilitated orangutans. This is the next step at being reintroduced into the wild. This organization is very successful. They have hundreds of orangutans at Nyaru Menteng, each with their own adopted human mother and orangutan survival class. The television channel Animal Planet has even made a program called Orangutan Island which documents the life of young orangutans learning to live on their own with minimal human contact after being placed on the island.

People are not allowed to visit Orangutan Island, just pass by it on an overpriced river cruise, so we decide to skip it and just go to Nyaru Menteng. We get the permit from the government office and hire a taxi to take us to the center outside of Palangka Raya. The information center there is quite uninteresting. Through a window we can view a group of about 15 adolescent orangutans in a cage. This group is actually ready to be taken to the island, but unfortunately the island is full to capacity. As of now they do not know where they will put these guys or any of the following groups. This is a major problem for organizations and the government that we hear many during our stay in Kalimantan: With limited rainforest options and competition from big business and local communities for resources, where do we put the rehabilitated orangutans?

I'm with you buddy! We are not so excited to be here either.
At the information center they play an episode of Orangutan Island for us on a large screen. We also find out that we cannot get any closer to any other orangutans. What? Our dreams (and unrealistic expectations) of cuddling baby orangutans in the nursery are dashed completely. Nyaru Menteng is a quarantined area because orangutans are susceptible to human diseases. To visit the nursery one needs a slew of shots and a special permit from Jakarta.

Obviously this organization is quite successful and, understandably, they are busy worrying about orangutan survival, not foreign visitors. Their information center is more for groups of local Indonesians and children to learn about the plight of the orangutans. Regardless, we are severely disappointed. Not to mention that we hired a private car to come out here just to see some orangutans in a cage and a TV episode of Animal Planet. So we decide to just take a short walk. There is a boardwalk running along the outside of the quarantined, fenced off area.

We walk a little with an escort. We get to a bench where three employees are sitting, and we can actually see an orangutan a short distance away hanging in a tree. I am very excited. Apparently, there is an orangutan class going on and this one is playing hooky. Then suddenly we here a rustling in the nearby bushes and we see a smallish orangutan approaching our watching area.

It is hard to keep a boardwalk intact with so many adolescent orangutans around
The workers tell us that this four year old is in a biting mood. He keeps trying to get closer to us and the employees shoo him away. He takes to the trees and makes a puckering sound that signals his testy mood. This is of course a bit of a contrived setting to see animals. However, the orangutan is roaming freely near us and we are in Borneo, so I am giddy to watch him for a while even if it is a temperamental adolescent in a rehabilitation clinic.

A cheeky 4 year old playing hooky from school

We leave Nyaru Menteng happy to have our first glimpse of these wonderful creatures in the jungle. This first taste also gets us excited for our next attempt to see them which will be in the wild at Sebangau National Park.
This larger one came by just as we were leaving