Sublime, Stylish, and Seafoody Tokyo

We’ve only been in Japan for a few days and already we think this country might be one of the best in the world to visit. It’s likely this is in part due to coming from 2 months in Indonesia, but still, it’s an amazing place. We’ve already seen some remarkably beautiful sights, eaten some incredible food, and been whisked around wherever we want quickly and efficiently. Everything is clean and organized. If you need something – a toilet, a ticket, a map, a cold drink or coffee – it’s going to be somewhere close. No matter where we end up we’ve been greeted warmly. It doesn’t matter that very little English is spoken here, locals will happily chat away in Japanese while they help you out. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as welcome and comfortable in a completely new country as I have here! We’ve much left to see but at least can safely say Tokyo has leaped into the top tier of our favorite cities.

20170824_143232

We had booked an airbnb near the Shinjuku area of Tokyo for our first few nights in Japan. Our scheduled late arrival became further delayed due to weather, but even though it was past midnight we were able to take the rail most of the way there (the metro shuts down around this time) and our lovely host Reiko waited up for us. She has a cute little apartment just upstairs from a subway stop and made us feel most welcome, cooking us breakfast in the mornings and telling us about some of the places we wanted to visit. Hotels can be quite expensive in Tokyo – our airbnb ended up being a good choice!

Staying near a subway stop in Tokyo is wise because this city is enormous – each district feels like a big city itself. Fortunately it’s not very hard to stay near a stop because this massive metropolis is very well connected. The only tricky bit is the rails are run by several different independent companies, so transfers can be a little challenging – you need to know in advance which operator you are switching to and what the total cost will be so you can properly enter all of the necessary info into the ticket machines. Here Google Maps proved quite useful – not only does it know the location and timing of all of the stops, it told us which agencies we would travel with and what fare to purchase to get there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
fare selection time at the subway!

Our first morning we hit the ground running by visiting the Meiji-Jingū shrine and nearby gardens, followed by a walk through the Harajuku neighborhood. The shrine was unfortunately in the middle of some restoration so a lot was covered up, but we still saw some gorgeous wooden architecture. The gardens nearby were great with a beautiful pond and a serene old well. You have to keep in mind when envisioning these sites is it’s not only the central highlight that makes the experience, but also the attention to detail that goes into everything surrounding it. Immaculate grounds, exquisite signage, and quiet surroundings encourages visitors to be respectful (not that the locals would be anything but) and makes the experience very pleasant – and very Japanese.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
entering the shrine involves ritually washing your hands
20170823_121213
peeking out through the doorway – all of this beautiful wood smells so good!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
prayers are written on wooden votives and left on a wall at the shrine
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
a cute little bird contemplates the spellbinding Kiyomasa no Ido Well (yes, it’s flowing full of water!)

We followed our morning up with an amazing lunch at a tiny restaurant called Yanmo that specializes in grilled fish dishes. It was a little hard to find but we were so glad we did! Elaine had amberjack and I got miso-marinated mackerel. This was our first real Japanese meal and we were not disappointed – it was inexpensive (by city standards), elegant, and delicious. Probably the best mackerel I’ve ever had. Subsequent meals during our couple days in Tokyo from sushi to teppanyaki confirmed what we already knew: we are in for a treat pretty much every time we sit down for a meal in Japan!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
amazing grilled mackerel at Yanmo

Next we went to Shibuya, a famously busy street intersection and rail station. Here we endeavored to find a sim card for Elaine’s phone. This was more complicated than we expected. Unlike pretty much any other country in the world, it’s rather unusual for tourists to pick up temporary sim cards here. I’m not sure why. More common is to get a mobile wifi device (that connects to the same cell networks), which is actually kinda nice because we can connect our tablet and laptop as well. So we rented one of these gizmos – to be returned when we wrap up our tour of Japan back in Tokyo – and then checked out Shibuya station which has a few notable sights. There is the statue of Hachikō the Akida; Myth of Tomorrow, a huge, haunting mural depicting the bomb exploding over Hiroshima; and an incredible basement food market with dozens of high-end stalls. Our day then wrapped up at  a stand-up sushi bar for dinner followed by a visit to a tiny place specializing in Japanese whiskey. Delicious!

20170823_151537

20170823_152432

Our objective the second day was to see the Tsukiji Fish Market in the morning. This is the location of the famed daily tuna auction (seeing this particular event is limited and on a first-come first-serve basis very early in the morning, which we elected not to do). We headed over and grabbed breakfast at one of the many fresh fish stalls in the area surrounding the outer market, and then wandered around until 10am which is when tourists are permitted into the inner wholesale building. Until then, smiling uniformed attendants pleasantly redirect you away from this huge open-air waterfront warehouse. When 10am arrived these same attendants guided us into an orderly queue (very Japanese) and then fed us into the market area, dispersing us into groups so we wouldn’t be too disruptive in any one spot. This market building is not designed for sightseeing at all – it’s busy, wet, and forklifts are constantly zipping around – so they make you wait until the vendors are wrapping up before letting you in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

20170824_091220
this looks pretty good, right?

This market is remarkable in many ways. First, it’s very quiet – a feature common to many busy areas in Tokyo. The most prevalent sound is the constant squelch of styrofoam which is absolutely everywhere. Second, it’s very clean. Despite there being thousands of live fish, butchered fish, and fish somewhere in between, there’s very little mess, no smell, and not a single fly in the whole place (I have no idea how this is possible!). Third and foremost, it’s simply an awesome huge space with any type of seafood you can imagine. There are whirring saws cutting huge blocks of ice, vendors delicately slicing massive chunks of tuna with knives as long as swords, and a constant stream of ice-packed crates headed out to their destinations across Japan. Despite not being allowed in while the market is at full swing – which must be amazing – we really enjoyed visiting this unique place. We were asked not to take photos, and we (mostly) followed this instruction which was really hard to do (we failed a couple times).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
there’s not much to indicate scale here but these are huge! The floorboards are normal width…

20170824_110403

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
knives cleaned and ready for tomorrow. The leftmost one is used for slicing thick tuna in a single long stroke

The afternoon brought us to the 300-year old garden of Rikugien, the people-watching street of Takeshita-dōri, and dinner at a Japanese teppanyaki grill. First, Rikugien is a peaceful garden in the north of Tokyo that is quite photogenic even though we visited in between the more beautiful seasons of spring and autumn. With proper preparation (sunscreen and bug spray, because it turns out mosquitoes like to hang out in these water-filled gardens too) it would be a really nice place to spend a whole day. For us we wandered around for a couple hours mixing Zen moments with adrenaline-tinged anxiety fueled by a dozen simultaneous bug bites. Truly though, it’s a beautiful place!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
just in case your Zen enthusiasm gets the best of you near these treacherous garden waters…

20170824_161417

Takeshita-dōri is a busy little street that is the place to go show off your wild trendy Japanese outfit. Think anime-ninja-princess. We prepared ourselves by visiting an excellent neighborhood brewery and then walked around for a little while trying not to stare too much. (It was a lot more entertaining than I expected.) From there we headed towards a nearby ramen bar but instead found ourselves in front of an intriguing little teppanyaki grill filled with locals. We joined in and chowed down on okonomiyaki (thick savory pancake things): mine had a mix of seafood and Elaine’s was noodles and bacon. Yum! The best part is you sit right in front of the large flat grill to watch your food being prepared – and it also keeps the dish piping hot as you work your way through.

20170824_180215
not that this is surprising, but the Japanese do beer really well.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
crowded Takeshita-dōri
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
shopping for the next outfit
20170824_192255
sake and pickles at dinner

By this point we were wondering if we were crazy to leave Tokyo while we were enjoying it so much. There was much of the city left to see! But we planned on staying a couple nights at the end of our trip as well and we were excited to tour around Japan by their amazing rail system. So after a hearty cold-noodle breakfast prepared by our host Reiko we packed up and headed for the train station.

20170823_201219
near Shinjuku station

Kuala Lumpur – Has Nothing to Do With Koalas

We had to buy tickets out of Indonesia in order to extend our Visa there, so we just booked the cheapest flight possible (to Kuala Lumpur) and figured we would sort out our future itinerary later. We have a hiking trip in Nepal booked at the end of September so had a solid 4 weeks to fill until that event. What to do! Discussing our plans while in Bali, we had pretty much decided to travel around Malaysia and then up through a bit of Thailand, but then we harnessed the power of the internet (the force was strong in Bali) and got to clicking around and found some good flights to Japan! So instead of being a jumping-off point for more SE Asia travel, Kuala Lumpur became a stopover. Kuala Lumpur (KL for short) was welcome break from the gaping-hole sidewalks, barrage of taksi (taxi) drivers and general disarray that is Indonesia.

20170826_171113

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We arrived in Kuala Lampur and took an Uber to our Airbnb in the Golden Triangle part of town. Although it was only a 3 hour flight from Bali, this trip took over 10 hours to complete and we were wiped. However, the Airbnb was great and our cheerleader of a hostess made the end of our journey easy. Later in our stay Shin, our hostess, also arranged for us to go out to dinner with her friends at a place outside of town. In our experience if we can get a local to order for us it always turns out better than we could do. Shin ordered some great dishes especially this whole roasted fish that was delicious.

20170820_203005
Dinner with Shin and friends! 

Our first day in KL we started with a luxurious breakfast (pig bacon!) and walked to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park on real sidewalks, a novelty after the gaping holes in the road of Indonesia. This is the largest free-flight bird park in the world and there was no shortage of bird life in every direction. Fortunately we did not get pooped on and saw some really interesting birds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

20170826_171651

Totally enamored with being able to simultaneously walk in a straight line and not fall in a sewer we proceeded to walk to the Islamic Arts Museum where we rounded the building and entered on a side door. We found out as we were exiting the museum that it was in fact not supposed to be free and we inadvertently snuck in. Oops! We did have a Shakshuka (a very good one!) at the cafe which we reasoned mitigated our proscribed blunder.

20170826_171420
Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

If you like swords (Gregor) stay on the 2nd floor, if you like textiles and furniture (Elaine) stay on the 3rd. A very good museum and the building was beautiful also. There was also a very in-depth special exhibit on bookbinding. Before the exhibit I thought I had a pretty good handle on what it takes to bind a book, after the exhibit I think I have a pretty good handle on what it takes to bind a book.

20170826_171505
Swords. Or, if you’re on Celebrity Jeopardy, “S” words.

Another main area of KL is Chinatown. With all these well renowned Chinatowns we get to go to I guess we can skip China, wahoo! Hungry, we plopped ourselves down on the ubiquitous plastic stools and waited for someone to take pity on us and feed us. Someone did and brought us over some Laksa (curry-like soup) with noodles which was really good and not rice so, really really good. We observed some local wildlife foraging as we exited (rats) and headed back to our place for a break.

20170826_171251
Chinatown
20170819_143307
Laksa, most of this is vegetarian we think.

Kuala Lumpur is supposed to have a great Indian part of town and we love Indian food so that night we went to the Wednesday night Indian market which was entertaining but did not actually have any Indian food. We had promised ourselves great Indian food and managed to find a street of Indian restaurants nearby and picked a busy one to try. That is the end of the story, it wasn’t that great.

Moving right along! The next day we did this cool skywalk which has some bridges that seemed pretty structurally sound, took some pictures of that big tower building thing and had cocktails at the famous Heli bar. I will say that we really somewhat reluctantly went to Heli Bar as we’ve been to a few rooftop bars that are overpriced and not great, but we actually enjoyed Heli Bar! Oh yes, there are no railings, though,  so if you like your children don’t bring them up there.

20170821_181313
View from the top of Heli Bar
20170821_202531
Watch out for the edge!

Next stop, Japan! Thanks for reading.

Feasting in Ubud, Bali

The busy inland town of Ubud on Bali is a striking contrast from the more remote areas of Indonesia where we had been traveling for the past several weeks, and much of the change was welcome after being off the beaten trail for a while. There may be hordes of tourists and higher prices, but with this comes a cornucopia of delicious (and often healthy) foods which we were more than ready to sample. Throw in peaceful and comfortable accommodation, clean and solid (by Indonesian standards) sidewalks, and a pleasant absence of the smokiness that pervades the air on Sulawesi, Flores, and Lombok, and you’ve got a good place for us travelers to rest and recharge. I think we did well to make Ubud the wrap up, rather than introduction, to Indonesia – otherwise it might have been a bit harder to enjoy some of the more rugged areas we visited along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This is street art in Ubud

Recharging is what we came to Ubud for. With our last week in our two-month Indonesia adventure we wanted an opportunity to catch up, relax, and make new plans. Bali has a lot to offer including great beaches and diving but is also crowded; we were content with our unique aquatic experiences elsewhere and so weren’t seeking the coast. Up in the hills and rice terraces, Ubud sounded like a good place to enjoy some local culture while remaining pretty comfortable. At first we were surprised by how crowded it was with travelers – I think this may be the highest ratio of foreigners to locals we have encountered since Siem Reap and Angkor. But quickly the charm (and tasty food) took over our experience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
a rainy Bali landscape
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
these loaded motorbikes never get old…

We stayed in a roomy garden-filled guesthouse stylized after the numerous Hindu temples that are around every corner. This aesthetic is quite common in Bali, with Hindu motifs and statues on every wall and nook. After the primarily Muslim areas we had been elsewhere this was another big shift for us and I can’t say we especially missed the 4am calls to prayer from the local mosques! Our room was located near the main road in town but far enough back for it to be pleasantly quiet, which was great – we could easily walk to anything we needed while having a space to relax.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This temple doorway from Pura Tirta Empul is a good example of Balinese decor

We arrived looking for meals that didn’t center around rice and we were not disappointed. Fresh greens, fruits, and breads abounded. We gorged on salads, juices, and sandwiches, cheap duck eggs for breakfast, and even some fantastic crepes with real French cheese! Not wanting to wholly abandon Indonesian cuisine we also made sure to try out one of the higher end places providing such, and it was excellent: local tuna crudo, oxtail stew, and braised lamb shoulder. We even tried some local Bali wine and it was passable!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Think this breakfast looks good? Try traveling in Sulawesi for a month. Thanks Bali Buda!
20170813_143041
Crepes at Le Moulin are better than some we had in Paris
20170816_181903
Real cocktails (before an awesome dinner) at Hujan Locale

One of Ubud’s charming features is its market. Sure, much of it is for tourists and a lot of the stuff for sale is junk, but compared to many other such markets we’ve been to this one is laid back and enjoyable. There is little shouting or pestering for your attention and the layout takes you through a multilevel building as well as an ornamented alleyway. Unique artwork and crafts balance out the standard tourist fare and we were also able to load up on fresh fruit for our stay.

20170813_105417
A small slice of Ubud’s market

One of the “must-see”s in Ubud is a local dance performance, of which they have a few different varieties put on by what seems like dozens of different venues. We selected the variant that focuses on elaborate costumes. It was entertaining and unique – the dancing focused on hand and eye movements more than I’ve seen otherwise (not that I’ve been to a great many dance performances), and lively accompanying music was played by an orchestra of traditional instruments.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Elaine was excited to partake in some yoga, another activity Ubud caters to. A pleasant wooden open-air studio was not far from our place and so she go several times during our stay. I also acquiesed to tagging along and joining in on a beginner’s class while Elaine was upstairs doing her advanced moves. If I was going to try yoga anywhere, Ubud would be the place, and it was pretty fun! I managed to not fall over, and found it to be a nice mix of unhurried and deliberate mental and physical activity kind of like a relaxed version of rock climbing.

We spent a day visiting a couple of the more famous temples on Bali: Pura Taman Ayun and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. We were more excited about the latter, with the former only filling in for a different temple that we couldn’t visit due to renovation; but after visiting both we found we preferred Taman Ayun. It has manicured open grounds that lead to the main temple itself – a small walled complex – behind which is a small forested garden. The whole temple is surrounded by an attractive moat. Ulun Danu Bratan, on the other hand, sounds appealing with its lake and volcano surroundings but came across as rather commercialized and haphazard. The temple tour trip also included a stop and brief walk around the scenic Jatiluwih rice terraces which was worth going out of the way for.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Taman Ayun’s moat and temple grounds
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A great fountain too!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Temple and jungle at Taman Ayun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The waterfront Pura Ulun Danu Bratan

20170815_131556

20170815_133233
For some reason Ulun Danu Bratan has a lot of random animal sculptures scattered around outside the temple.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
It may be a weird touristy site but the volcano crater backdrop ain’t bad
20170815_145044
Rice terraces at Jatiluwih

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

20170815_143818

20170815_145410

Looking for a little more sightseeing, I rented a scooter on our last day and headed east while Elaine stayed in town for a spa visit. She’s not a huge fan of riding on the back of a motorbike and in this case she chose well: despite heading over to the guidebook-recommended Sideman Road, the views weren’t particularly good and I got soaked by a passing rainstorm. Fortunately the rain cleared as I found a more fun stretch of windy road to travel, and I passed a series of independence-day celebrations (it being the 72nd anniversary of Indonesia) on my way to Pura Tirta Empul temple. This is a really cool spot where crystal-clear spring water flows up from the ground and into a series of temple pools where it is customary to make an offering and douse yourself. It’s considered quite a special place by the Balinese and I can see why – it was totally worth throwing on a sarong (required) and wandering the grounds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My soggy scooter on Sideman Road
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This event involves a mud pit, a palm tree trunk, some convenience-store prizes and several adventurous youths. I was the only tourist here and got many warm smiles as crowds on both sides of the road cheered these guys on.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Spring-fed pools at Pura Tirta Empul

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The crystal-clear water first flows up into this gorgeous reservoir before being fed into the nearby pools

Our appetites satisfied, plans made, and batteries recharged, we made for Bali’s airport in Denpasar and our flight to Malaysia (bought a month ago in order to extend our visa). We booked a group shuttle with plenty of time to spare, and fortunately so: not only was the driver quite late, he then disappeared for half an hour at a stop midway through the drive, and then Denpasar’s international terminal was a complete disaster. We had flown through the domestic terminal several weeks ago on our way from Flores to Sulawesi and it was totally fine so we were unprepared for the confusion and huge lines this time. Our expectation of a relaxed travel day with a few hours to kill at the airport turned into missing lunch, running for our flight, and then starving on the way to Kuala Lumpur. After two months in this country we shouldn’t have been surprised. Farewell Indonesia, you amazing, frustrating, exhausting, and beautiful place!

20170817_185920
Some goodbye beers at the internationally-themed Melting Pot in Ubud.

Specifics: the airbnb we stayed at was Taman Mesari Homestay – certainly recommended, it has a great location but remains calm and quiet. For eating, we loved Bali Buda Cafe and their bakery/shop around the corner. Le Moulin has excellent crepes and Hujan Locale was great for semi-casual Indonesian dining.

For sightseeing in the area: As mentioned, Ulun Danu Bratan may be picturesque but lacks atmosphere so be prepared. Tirta Empul is also crowded but it didn’t seem to matter as much – it’s a really nice spot. The rice terraces at Jatiluwih are worth stopping at if it’s near your route – there were some groups biking the paths there which looked fun, but I’m not sure how far you can actually go. As for driving, I didn’t find Sideman Road to be all that great but I did find some fun roads in between the area south of Gunung Agung and the terraces north of Ubud. I think I would have actually preferred to rent a bicycle and ride north from Ubud up to Pura Tirta Empul.

A Tropical Sanctuary on Una-Una

The Togian Islands are probably the most out-of-the-way destination of our trip so far. Tucked into the huge gulf formed by the northern arm of Sulawesi, this Indonesian equatorial archipelago is only accessible by boat from a couple towns that are already far-flung themselves. We weren’t by any means certain it would be worthwhile to go here: a quick Google search will show the islands are indeed quite beautiful, but so is much of the Indonesian coast; and we had heard mixed things about the quality of the diving there. Would the experience make up for the trials of traveling via public vans, tuk-tuks, local ‘airlines’, and overnight ferries? The short answer is, yes indeed!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Wakai – the Togian Islands

We began this leg in the northeastern Sulawesi town of Tomohon, where we closed out our visit by finding more delicious ragey (fatty pork sate – we hadn’t had pork in a while, with much of Indonesia being primarily Muslim!). We worked our way to Manado’s airport on a combination of minibus and mikrolets – these are small blue hop-on hop-off vans which make up 99% of non-scooter traffic in this region of Sulawesi. We then took a short flight over to Gorontalo, skipping a 10-hour bus ride by paying $24 each rather than $12 (woo-hoo!). We parked ourselves in this nondescript port town for 36 hours, awaiting the ferry for our next leg.

20170802_140511
driving a mikrolet, it’s common practice to keep cash piled in the dashboard for quick change

The “Tuna Tomini” ferry that sails between Gorontalo and Wakai in the Togeans offers a range of accommodation from open deck free-for-all (see this post for more on this Indonesian seagoing standard) to small bunk-bed cabins with AC. These are actually 4-bunk crew cabins that they rent out to tourists in an unofficial manner. They run 600-700k (~$50), quite steep compared to normal costs here in Indonesia, and they aren’t exactly posh! But having been on similar vessels before we were loathe to spend 13 hours in the heat, smoke, and noise of the cramped common areas. The best scenario would be to share the 4 bunks with another couple travelers but we didn’t know how to find anyone, nor did we know how to actually secure a cabin. Happily, both of these problems were solved simultaneously by asking at the hotel front desk: she knew a guy who arranged cabin bookings, and a Swiss couple passing by heard the discussion and said they were also looking for passage. Five minutes later the go-between shows up, sends a text to his buddies on the boat, and tells us there is one cabin left. Cash is exchanged for nothing but an assurance (this is typical) and the transaction is complete!

20170803_122044
we made friends with a guy at the post office who, finding the supply of postcards in Gorontalo to be lacking, decided to make his own.

Our overnight ferry voyage was uneventful; we and our new Swiss friends were quite happy to have a small room. The common areas were indeed hot, smoky, noisy, and busy with both locals and less-fortunate tourists (of which there were many!). The bunks were tiny, but we actually slept fairly well and awoke to the sunrise as we arrived in Wakai.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
ferry cabin! we were obligated to accept the American sheets.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
outriggers in Wakai’s harbor

The final leg of our trip would be by a small boat out to our island of choice. For many travelers this is Kadidiri which is close to Wakai and has several dive resorts and homestays. We almost went there ourselves, but while considering our options a couple days previously we had decided instead to make for Una-Una. Una-Una is an active volcanic island that sits apart from the Togian chain and is remote even by local standards, with few inhabitants or connecting boats. So why go there? For the diving: unlike the other islands, Una-Una has not been commercially fished, which sadly in Indonesia commonly included dynamite and cyanide fishing in the not-too-distant past (which as you can imagine is not so good for reefs). So for Sanctum Resort on Una-Una we were bound. After some in-port confusion due to the surprisingly large group of seven of us who had made the same choice, we were packed into a small fiberglass boat for the 90 minute ride. This 5-meter vessel was close to meeting its match on the 1.5 meter swells in the open channel crossing and we were all soon soaking wet. The low, wide silhouette of Una-Una was painfully slow in changing from a hazy blue-green to distinct lush jungle and sand as we wallowed and splashed across, but finally we arrived, shot through a gap in the reef, and beached in front of Sanctum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sanctum’s pier, boats, and one of the friendly resident mutts.

Our soggy arrival was quickly righted by a warm welcome, warm shower (geothermal!), and hot coffee. Being greeted by two cute puppies Gula and Madu (Sugar and Honey) also helped, and this pair entertained us endlessly during our stay with their playful and friendly nature. What a place to be a puppy – an expansive beach, grass and jungle, friendly people, the occasional fish to gnaw on… Anyway we were quite comfortable here ourselves with a simple airy room, hammocks everywhere, a nice open area for meals and hanging out, and a great view along the empty tropical beach.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gula and Madu playing on the beach

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite its distant location Sanctum was quite busy with fellow travelers and we made some good friends from Paris, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. The energetic dive staff also hailed from all over – Finland, Israel, France, and one instructor from Colorado. Family meals were a happy busy mix of guests and staff and were followed by lively games of cards and dice. It was a great group to hang out with and a wonderful place to relax! The food was simple – to be expected given where we were – but well done, with tasty vegetables, occasional fish or chicken, and fiery homemade sambal. One dinner we were all treated to some trevally sashimi by one of the guests who free dives with a speargun, and who also apparently travels with soy sauce and wasabi. It was served on a baking sheet and was incredibly delicious.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gula and Gregor both tired after a busy day
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
life is tough here on Una-Una.

So we ate, made some friends, played cards and read, cuddled the puppies and watched the moonrise on the beach – all in between some great diving! The out-of-this-world experience that was Komodo remains unmatched, but Una-Una gave us some great sights and highlights that we were more than happy to have made the trip for. With the furthest sites merely 20 minutes away by boat (most much closer), going out for a dive was a breeze; and with absolutely nobody else around, each location was all ours to explore. We checked out underwater pinnacles decorated artfully with huge sponges and fans; drifted along reef walls and slopes; and hunted around in the ‘muck’ (sand/mud/grasses etc) for weird critters. We swam alongside big dogtooth tuna and banded Spanish mackerel, hung out inside a blackfin barracuda tornado, and visited with a couple cuttlefish (smart!) and a spiny seahorse (dumb!). On one dive we were paced for a solid ten minutes by a spotted eagle ray, which I’m pretty sure was just showing off as it glided around with occasional bursts of speed. That same dive we heard something new underwater as well – a deep, dull explosive boom which our guide confirmed via a unique hand signal as Una-Una’s volcano rumbling away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
tiny transparent blue shrimp hanging out in an anemone
As before, we didn’t bring our camera on most dives and the photos we have barely scratch the surface! But we got a few fun ones. Top left down the column: a pair of gobies, colorful tunicates (weird transparent animals), and three nudibranch (colorful mollusks). On the right, a mantis shrimp peers out of its hole, and on the bottom, a broadclub cuttlefish checks us out. See a cool video we got of the cuttlefish here – watch it change shape and color near the end!

As on Bunaken, a night dive here on Una-Una was a special treat and this was definitely our most amazing one yet. As soon as we dropped in we were face to face with a pair of juvenile African pompano, gorgeous silvery fish with long delicate filaments off of their fins – a special thing to find on a dive, and just the start for us. From there we found several bigfin reef squid hunting in the dark with their huge eyes. We didn’t seem to bother them and they swam quite close at times. After watching each other for a few minutes we actually saw one dart in near some coral, catch a fish, and tuck it away right in front of us!

The dive was still far from over. We went on to see a bevy of weird little shrimps and crabs, a blue-spotted stingray rooting around in the sand for something to eat, and hefty broadclub cuttlefish hovering around slowly like an alien spacecraft. Elaine found a pink/purple reef octopus hiding in a rock and I spotted a big blunt decorator crab moseying along in its disguise of reef detritus. After a full 90 minutes of diving (our longest by far) we emerged exhausted and exhilarated, with our guide Dean also ecstatic – one of the best dives of his life, he said. Hunting squid! Juvenile African pompanos! He was bubbling over the rest of evening chatting with his fellow dive pros. It was also with Dean that we saw the eagle ray, spiny seahorse, and many other awesome things – by the time we were leaving he had declared us quite lucky and wished he could keep diving with us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
the hand-sized blunt decorator crab! See its two eye stalks sticking out?

Once again we managed to completely exhaust ourselves by the time we packed up to leave our diving destination. Our trip to Una-Una brought me to over 60 dives, with Elaine not far behind – considering that merely seven weeks before we had arrived in Indonesia with nothing but a notion to perhaps try out diving, this is some combination of impressive and ridiculous. But we both remain completely enthralled with the activity, and given how much Indonesia has to offer at really good prices, I can’t say I find that number to be excessive at all!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our journey away from Una-Una partially retraced our steps; a small boat to Wakai (thankfully smaller swells) followed by taking the Tuna Tomini ferry to Gorontalo, this time bunking with a couple of our new friends from Sanctum. After staying a night in Gorontalo and visiting the local “pizza” establishment (ever do the toaster-oven pizza thing with English muffins, frozen shredded cheese, and processed red sauce? Think that flavor) we caught a couple flights through Makassar to Bali, thereby re-emerging from our several weeks of travel pretty far off the beaten path.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
departing the Togians at sunset
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
cards on the top deck with our Dutch friend Merit
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
locals relaxing on the ferry
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Una-Una is the island in the distance on the right hand side.

N.E. Sulawesi from -40 to 1600 meters

Our journey from Sulawesi’s southwestern corner to Palau Bunaken in the northeast was a familiar relay of car – plane – car – boat – motorbike. The only close call came in catching the public boat out of Manado’s ferry after we landed in the afternoon, but fortunately (for us; not so fortunate for the folks who had been waiting on the boat for hours) the departure was delayed due to the tides and we got onboard just in time. This was a typical public Indonesian vessel piled with dry goods, fresh food, Bintang beer, and 5-gallon water jugs, with people parked in the remaining nooks and crannies.

20170724_160500
on the boat to Bunaken

As we puttered over to the island we ran into Ferdinand, the Dutch owner of the dive resort we were headed for. He’s a funny guy with a ton of diving experience and we enjoyed chatting with him during our stay. Like many other expat-run businesses he’s teamed up with his local wife and family – she runs the room and board and he handles the diving. Their place (Cakalang – pronounced cha-ka-leng) is a cute beachside set of bungalows and buildings where they serve tasty family-style meals in between dive excursions. They have worked hard here to create something functional and sensical and it works well – Ferdinand has designed and built many components of the business himself from the main building to the trash incinerator (a real one, not a typical roadside fire) and even the details of their commissioned dive boats.

20170728_074857
relaxing by the beach
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Cakalang’s tiles are homemade from incinerated trash!
20170726_133226
Bauer (named after the air compressor) hanging out by the boat

Bunaken is much more of the tropical ideal for us than Bira was. Having a perfect place to stay certainly helps a lot, but it goes well beyond that. The island is a beautiful combination of jungle, mangrove, beach, and reefs, with no big eyesore resorts marring the palm tree vistas. The air is fresh, the sand and ocean mostly garbage-free, and the water is the clearest we’ve seen – you can look down from the dive boat before even getting wet and clearly see corals and fish tens of meters down. Once down on a typical dive you’re floating along  at 25 meters with crystal clarity above and a view down the vertical reef wall to at least another 30m deep, often more. This makes for some spectacular views – sunlight beams down over the top of the reef and through caverns onto massive sponges and fan corals, and just off the face of the wall thousands of fish are schooling and eating while turtles glide around everywhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Elaine with her new dive computer!

Most outings here were peaceful wall dives like this, each unique and interesting thanks to our guide Mervy being very good at finding interesting critters.  Bunaken is not a place to see big sharks or rays, but we’ve seen a lot of small amazing things here that are really exciting to find like leaf scorpionfish, ghost pipefish, brightly colored ribbon eels, and an adorably minuscule pygmy seahorse (no way in hell I would have found that myself – thanks Mervy!). A night dive was also prolific with all sorts of crustaceans including big hermit crabs, banded shrimps, and a chunky hand-sized decorator crab (these stick reef rubble on their exterior for camouflage and look like a weirdly animated collection of junk when moving). In the dark we also found a trifecta of mini cephalopods: tiny octopus, cuttlefish, and squid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
our intrepid guide Mervy
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I jumped in between dives for a quick photo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Evenings at Cakalang are a time for relaxing in the perfectly warm air, enjoying a cold beer while playing cards or reading, and listening to one of the locals play guitar or Ferdinand tell some of his stories. He’s got some good ones, both from his 12 years here in Bunaken and his previous life diving in Europe. The waves gently wash up through the mangroves on the beach and the three rotund little dogs contentedly lie nearby, at least until one of the big red jungle crabs wanders near looking for some food scraps. It’s really quite lovely!

20170726_181841
listening to Ferdinand’s stories
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Cakalang in the evening

One dive that didn’t fit the Bunaken wall-dive mold was the Molas wreck. This is a pretty big (70m long) steel cargo or fishing vessel off the nearby mainland. It sank sometime around WWII and lies almost upright with a slight starboard list. We’ve been on a couple other ‘wreck’ dives before – see our Gili post – but this was our first honest-to-goodness shipwreck and it did not disappoint. We descended through relatively low visibility for here (still 10-15m), following a line until the huge bow of the ship slowly appeared. Swimming down along the starboard side we marveled at all of the stuff that has grown on the structure in the last 70 or so years, and then descended to close to 40 meters at the stern (our deepest dive yet) to see the two big screws. After ascending a bit around the port side, but while still pretty deep, suddenly one of the other divers in our group caught my attention – she had a problem. It was unclear what, and she was panicking a little. She wanted to immediately ascend, but she did a good job signaling and staying with the group instead. I tried giving her my secondary regulator but she waved it off, only wanting to surface. So I took her over to our guide to get his attention and he quickly helped her calm down and switch to her backup regulator – later we found out that the rubber mouthpiece had torn and she was getting some seawater in as she tried to breathe. It all resolved itself quickly and we continued the dive, but this was a good experience for me to see how Mervy calmly handled the problem!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We weren’t very excited about leaving comfortable Cakalang behind but we had to pull ourselves away eventually. Our next destination was Tangkoko Park on the main island of Sulawesi, home to some fun creatures such as the tarsier. We took the public boat back to the coastal city of Manado with the intent to head to a bus terminal and make a couple transit connections out to the park. As we walked along with our heavy packs in the midday heat, fatigue started catching up with us (doing 3 dives a day, even when they’re calm, is tiring!). We’ve been there before plenty of times – the stress of figuring out how to get somewhere can sap your energy – but usually we just push on through. Not this time, however – upon losing a lunchtime roll of the dice on what turned out to be unappealing organ soup, our ambition to travel further that day evaporated into the hot and smoky city air. Revising our goals for the day, we sought refuge at a nearby hotel that Ferdinand had recommended. This was a good decision. We napped, caught up on odds and ends, and found a good satay place for dinner.

20170730_125039
the sembal in this part of Indonesia is deadly spicy

After further planning we decided to skip Tangkoko altogether and spend a few days up in the cool hills of Minahasa, an area south of the city of Manado. We took a public bus up the windy narrow road to the small destination town of Tomohon, popular with both locals and tourists. Of fame here is a macabre market (which we skipped), birdwatching (we saw some nice birds, though I think the grandeur was a bit lost on us compared to the camo and camera laden pros), and the volcanic jungle countryside. We got a bungalow at a run down but cute place with a view of the dramatic Gunung Lokon (an active volcano) and spent an afternoon wandering up through the town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
on the public minibus
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
one of the local volcanoes, Gunung Lokon
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
our bungalow

Tomohon itself is a pleasantly clean place with a good sidewalk (rarities in Indonesia!). Beyond this the town itself isn’t remarkable, though it is surrounded by some beautiful countryside. Finding a place to eat that looked okay and offered more than a collection of fried items was a little challenging, but happily we decided to stop at a busy little satay place where smoke was billowing out of the fire pit. This place goes by the name of Ragey Von Von (ragey is a type of satay here in the Minahasa region, turns out) and they served up some super tasty pork belly skewers and grilled tuna.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Tomohon is really several clusters of buildings strung out along a main road
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
These signs are all over Indonesia and we finally got a photo of one. Everyone here is rail thin and yet their crosswalk man looks like the Hulk. Maybe it’s supposed to make drivers think twice about hitting someone, but if so it doesn’t work well because these signs are meaningless here.

Having heard that hiking up nearby Gunung Lokon was a good way to spend part of a day, we wanted to give it a shot. It’s close and small enough to do on your own but it being an active volcano with a few different ways to die we figured we might as well go with a guide. We arranged one through our host and set our alarms for 3:30am the next morning so that we could enjoy the sunrise up at the crater.

We met our guide Jotje in the predawn dark over some coffee. Jotje has been guiding here in Minahasa for decades (he told us about some of the first Americans he guided, missionary doctors back in 1975) and has climbed Lokon over five thousand times by his estimate. So to say the least he knows the mountain rather well. We began the hike on a fairly gentle slope of an old andesite lava flow scattered with rubble from huge boulders to black sand. A starless cloudy sky made us a bit apprehensive about it actually being worth coming for sunrise, but as we neared the crater (and the level of the low clouds) we started to see breaks coming through. Unlike one’s mental image of a ‘typical’ volcano, Lokon’s crater sits adjacent to its bright green peak rather than atop it, so reaching the crater is quite easier than actually summiting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
catching sight of the summit through the dawn clouds

We arrived at the crater by sunrise and our early start paid out in spades with dramatically lit views of the smoking quarry-sized pit and neighboring peak fringed with passing pink clouds. Past the crater we could see the coastline and the island of Palau Bunaken where we had just been. As the low fluffy clouds rolled by Jotje continually remarked at how unique and beautiful this morning’s scene was – lucky us! (I don’t think he was just saying that for our benefit – he couldn’t restrain himself from taking photo after photo himself).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Jotje our guide
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
looking out at the islands where we had been diving

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the crater we looked uphill and began climbing towards the summit. At this point the toxic smoke from the cauldron appeared to stop which made Jotje nervous – “it’s not good when it stops smoking”, he observed. “Maybe we only go up a little ways.” It was only a brief pause, however, and with billows of smoke behind us (blowing away downwind) we hoofed up the steep slope. This was tough going on the way up and we anticipated correctly it would be even less fun going down: lots of loose, sliding rubble for a ways followed by steep dense mud covered with tall sharp-edged grasses. Our efforts were rewarded with some grand panoramas of nearby Sulawesi, in addition to actually reaching the marked summit of the volcano. For scenery alone we decided the summit wasn’t worthwhile compared to the crater, but as many tourists only visit the latter we left with the satisfaction of a unique accomplishment (along with more than a few scrapes and cuts).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The summit trail heads up left past the crater. Watch out for loose rocks and toxic fumes!

20170731_055951

20170731_065216

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
the summit itself isn’t much of a view because of the grasses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spent our remaining time in Tomohon relaxing though afternoon rainshowers, playing cards, wandering around, and dodging rather sizable, tenacious, and painful spiny ants. Our next intended destination, after a stopover in Gorontalo, are the off-the-grid Togean Islands for more tropical coast bliss and diving (hopefully) – who knows when we’ll be back online!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
putting your hand down on one of these little devils isn’t fun

20170731_180209