03 September 2009 | Labuan Bajo, Flores Indonesia.
We have now been in Indonesia for 6 weeks and I can confirm that what I wrote in my last blog about "total hospitality and total chaos" hits the mark totally. After customs and quarantine had visited our boat late on in the day, a "water taxi" was to pick up all participants to ferry us to the evenings festivities. Despite many radio calls and flashing of lights it never arrived and quite a few of us didn't make it to the gala dinner. I found out later that the water taxi didn't have enough fuel to go and collect everyone. "Total chaos" The morning after, in the light of day we set off to shore in our dinghy to complete our paperwork and check out the town, only to be surprised by queues of yachties having to go through the customs and immigration again. Just to highlight some of the chaos, a quarantine official was demanding about 100,000 rupiah ($AUD 15) for a certificate we had to have. At another table we collected a refund on that because he was not meant to charge us. Go figure that one. As a result of this unexpected hassle we again missed out on the organised trip to see the island but made up for it with some other disappointed yachties in the local bar sampling the rather palatable local brew Bintang. On leaving the administration centre we were inundated with children wanting to say hello and practice their English. The frustrations of previous day disappeared within minutes with the welcome we received from the locals. "Total hospitality"
Moving on from the port of entry we sailed a few miles away to a quiet anchorage where the locals in their canoes and sailing vessels with brightly coloured sails came to check us out, always with a friendly wave and the ubiquitous greeting of "Hello Mister, Hello Missus" At a similar anchorage on another day with 4 other boats we were all invited to the village which was inhabited by about 6 people who made a living from building traditional boats a living off the land. From here we left in the early hours for the 2 day crossing to Banda - centre of the spice islands, the crossing was quite boisterous and a strong gust of wind broke the spinnaker pole I had made in Australia just before leaving. Banda has a strong colonial past which many of learned about at school, just wish I had paid more attention in the history classes. Banda Islands are wonderfully picturesque, dominated by the recently active (1988) volcano Gunung Api. The Lonely Planet guide rightly recommends a visit to this paradise before the world turns it into a western resort. It is quite difficult to get there as only one flight a week arrives at the island. There are many Dutch colonial buildings still left standing, some only just standing and others very well preserved.
The snorkelling around the island is also good. During our stay of about a week we had a trip to a neighbouring island where nutmeg and cloves were grown, it was quite fascinating to see the whole process, a village of about 5000 people all employed in some way or other in this spice trade. On another day Jean, myself and 3 other equally stupid yachties decided to climb to the top of the volcano. At 666 mtrs of loose rubble slopes it was a devil of a climb with 2 steps up and 1 back for most of the way. It was well worth it for the amazing views and to be actually standing on the top of a volcano that was still hot below our feet.
From Banda we again had a long 3 day sail to Ambon which was a major rally stop. The Ambon people put a great deal of effort into making our stay a safe and enjoyable one. Ambon has a recent history of ethnic fighting but is trying very hard to shake of that tag so the tourists will return. From my point of view it was a highlight of the trip so far. The Ambonese people were genuinely friendly, not because they wanted to sell you something but for friendships sake.
Our week in Ambon was filled with activities and dinners with the obligatory speeches and local music and wonderful dancing. The highlight however was a day tour of the island and its diverse villages, for the cost of about $AUD 30 each we treated like royalty with 2 police motorcycle riders escorting us all the day. It was worth the money to see them ride through the traffic forcing the cars buses and trucks over to the side of the road to make room for our tour. At times it seemed impossible to find a way through but with the help of the blue flashing lights and constant sirens a path through always miraculously appeared. The tour itself was apart from the police escort was memorable. We visited a museum and were greeted by all the staff and curator as we got off the bus and given a guided tour. We then went onto a village that made sago from the sago palm trees in the forest, turning the tree pulp into delicious little cakes for us to try. I must say it was much better than the sago pudding we used to get for dinners at school in England in the 60s. Other highlights of the day were a trip to hot springs for a refreshing bath. More dancing and the famous "Crazy Bamboo" wrestling display were attended. The crazy bamboo was quite fascinating and needs a little explanation. Ambon is a mixture of Moslem and Christian faiths but underlying this is a belief in a magical spirit existence not unlike voodoo. The crazy bamboo is performed to show the power of the magic. A long bamboo pole is held by 6 men who are protected from the spirit of the pole in a ceremony performed by the local Shaman (witch doctor). The pole then develops a life of its own and follows a lighted torch to wherever the torch holder led it. The men holding the pole were there to resist the movement but inevitably couldn't. To show this was not a sham a number of us on the tour were invited to replace the locals and of course I was in there. Having seen the film afterwards and been part of the action, being flung about trying to hold on, all I can say is that something very strange was happening. We just could not hold the pole and stop it from following the torch. After the event I was mobbed by newspaper reporters for my impressions. They were happy when I said that I felt something unusual was happening and I would write about it in this blog. See the photo gallery for the action shots. Other tour spectacles included a visit to a "Broom Beating" ceremony, where adolescent you men beat the crap out of each other with sharp thin reeds. A sort of right of passage. The whole of the village turned out to see this and of course we were given the pride of place on the "king's" balcony to get the best views and apply the soothing oil afterwards.
After more dancing including obligatory participation we were escorted back through the busy streets to our boats. A wonderful day was had by all.
Ambon was a decision time for many boats, the Indonesian government had tried to highjack the rally by giving no option but to travel to a major sail expo to the north of Sulawesi. Saying the travel permit was only valid if we travelled there. This has however backfired on them as many of us have called their bluff and split from the main rally. The reason being that it adds a further 1000n miles to the journey through adverse winds and currents. Of the 150 boats in the rally only about 50 went north and many of these didn't go all the way. Some of those who went north have had great difficulty coming back south. For us that broke away most of us have a wonderful, relaxed time, not having to keep to a schedule that had been put together by bureaucrats not sailors.
The account above is not up to date but I will fill in the rest over the next week or so.
Have fun we are.
Dave and Jean WdtW
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