Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas Eve Eve, Landfall in Bitung, Indonesia

Indonesia, the land of pirates, terrorists, con artists, and people you just can't trust, or so we were led to believe by all the guidebooks and sensational news reports. After 17 days at sea, we motored hard into the wind for the last 24 hours to arrive mid-afternoon on Christmas eve eve. We figured Christmas eve would be a public holiday since Christmas fell on a Saturday this year, and we needed to do the paperwork Cha Cha with government officials. Businesses were already closing up shop as we desperately sought the Port Captain an other officials that could grant us legal visitor status before close of business. We really wanted to enjoy Christmas on land.
We didn't know where to start with the official process of clearing into the country, and we had heard that it was a multi-day affair of under the table bribes and lengthy paperwork for yachts arriving in Indonesia. After dropping anchor, we made our way to a wharf and tied the dinghy up among the brightly colored fishing boats with the help of a very friendly fisherman. He even let us lock our dingy to a long bamboo pole he was in the midst of sawing into sections for some sort of net or cage construction. After walking about two miles, we came upon the shipping terminal and went into the main office. It took some animated explanation, with Hobs breaking into a full-body pantomime, but the two men in uniform that attended to us eventually understood that we had just arrived on a "ship" and needed to find Immigration. "It is very far. You must catch a taxi" they told us. We explained that we had no local currency yet to pay for a taxi, so we would try and walk. One of the men led us back out to the main road while explaining to us the complicated route and significant distance to our destination. He hailed a taxi before we could explain. He told the driver where to take us, paid our fare, and waved goodbye as we disappeared into the flood of blaring moped horns and grinning pedestrians.
The drive was unnerving. The driver laid on his horn almost the entire way, swerving and weaving, barely missing motorcycles and pedestrians and negotiating busy intersections without stopping. In the middle of a busy pedestrian market he slowed down to about 10 mph to do a one handed money exchange with a vendor in the median, lighting the purchased cigarette before reaching the next intersection and speeding up. With our heart rates elevated, we were practically shoved out the door onto a peaceful tree-lined street next to two casually-dressed men. "What are you looking for?" the men asked. At this point we were in such a rush that we tried to brush them off. The Immigration building was in sight so Hobs yelled over his shoulder "Immigration" as we rushed past. "We are Immigration" they calmly and helpfully replied. We thought they were pulling our legs (Indonesians are notorious pranksters) but we took a chance and explained how we had just arrived on a yacht, our visas had expired before we'd been able to make landfall, and we were hoping to "clear in" before offices closed in an hour. We expected them to burst into laughter at this seemingly impossible goal. They hurriedly moved us to a nearby unmarked van and instructed us to climb in the back. With a bit of Indonesian chatter among themselves, they took off at high-speed with us in the back of the van, and immediately started making a series of short phone calls to several people. For all we knew, we had just been taken hostage. But, after two years of being in new countries and not understanding what was going on half the time, we have learned to let things play out before getting stressed. They pulled the van up at a bank and told us that we had to pay US$25 each to the bank for two new visas. The bank had already closed. "Hang on, let me talk to my brother" said one of the men. In a moment, the door opened and a security guard took us into a back area of the bank. The "brother" obliged and issued us a receipt for $25 dollars.
Again, we took off in the van, still in the dark. They asked us for directions to the boat and we did our best to remember the blur of streets and landmarks (including an Eiffel tower!) that had marked our route from the boat to Immigration. We found the fishing wharf and our dingy, and before long another van pulled up full of men from Customs, shortly followed by a man on a motorbike, supposedly from Quarantine, but also dressed like he was about to go watch a baseball game. They told us that Hobs should take the men to our boat while they took me in the van back to their office. Again, we weren't sure if this was all legitimate, but took a chance on them. Sure enough, they took me to a different Immigration office down at the wharf and issued official-looking but hand-written visas in our passports.
We were apprehensive about losing our basil plant that we had successfully smuggled from Australia through Papua New Guinea, but the quarantine man was more interested in taking happy snaps with his mobile phone of him standing on the boat with his arm around Hobson's shoulder and a proud grin on his face. Miraculously, we had cleared in through all three departments before 4pm. However, when I was sitting with our fisherman friend on his boat waiting for Hobs to deliver the Quarantine officer back from Australis, I noticed a panicked look on Hobson's face. "The boat is drifting" he yelled as he approached the wharf at full throttle and practically threw the Zip-Lock bag of quarantine paperwork at the officer that he hastily "helped" out of the dingy. Sure enough, the storm that had just blown through had pulled our anchor free and the boat was making its way out the pass towards sea. We weren't sure if we had enough petrol in the outboard or if we would be able to go fast enough in the leaky half-full dingy, but our 4HP Yamaha gave us everything it had and after five minutes at full throttle we were climbing over the rail and diving for the ignition as the boat slowly drifted towards an anchored cargo ship towering above us. The funny thing is, while I had waited at the wharf for Hobs, a fisherman invited me onboard his trawler to take shelter from the "barat" (storm) that was whipping through the harbor. We sat there chatting on his brightly painted wooden boat strung with red lanterns, him in Indonesian and me in English, not understanding a word each other said. But then he started pointing to our boat saying "barat, barat" with sweeping motions of his hand towards the sea. I interpreted this as "the cargo ship is going to head out to sea as soon as the storm passes." Stupid white girl!
We moved the boat to a nearby island. Tucked up into a sheltered little bay in front of a quaint fishing village we enjoyed our first full night of sleep in 17 days. The next day, we caught a water taxi back to the mainland in search of modern conveniences. There is an Internet cafe that charges 30 cents per hour, 100 times less than the cost in Papua New Guinea! At one Internet cafe; a patron asked where I was going while Hobs worked at the only available connection. I told him "Shopping for food, supermarket." The young man quickly replied, "Ah, me too," and proceeded to escort me 1 km down the road to the store. And as I piled veggies and perishables into a basket, he continued to tag along, helping me find what I needed. As quickly as he had volunteered to help, he disappeared saying, "I go now," and shaking my hand with that soft grip typical of an Indonesian handshake. At the register, I was nervous as my overloaded basket resulted in large numbers in local currency flashing on the screen, the total was more than $150,000.00 Indonesian Rp... equivalent to only $15 USD. Restaurant meals have typically totaled to US $5 for the two of us. Unfortunately, we are now quite certain that we dined on rat soup for lunch at one of our restaurant splurges. Using sign language and animal sounds with the staff, but we did establish that the soup meat was definitely not chicken. It looked and tasted unfamiliar and we had read that rat is a common source of protein in this town and commonly served in restaurants. But the "special" soup was all they were serving at the odd hour of the afternoon when we walked by.
In the afternoon we wandered through some of the narrow residential alleyways. It was raining and we were jumping from one dry patch of dirt to the next while dodging gutters of gushing water. The roofs of the houses either side of the road were so close together you could easily reach out and touch them with either hand, Hobs had to duck under 220V power lines, and the alleyways were only wide enough for a single moped or pedestrian. The residents had their doors and windows open offering an intimate view into their rainy afternoon lifestyle. After making our way deep into the warren of alleyways, a man called out from his open doorway saying that we shouldn't be out in the rain and should come inside for a cup of tea. So we did. Our host, Goodman, turned out to be a guide at the national wildlife park that we planned to visit in a few days. The home belonged to his relatives whom he was staying with while waiting for his son to arrive from Irian Jaya for Christmas. We sat around with the ten or more family members in the small living room with a bare concrete floor and bare mud and concrete walls while children and teenagers gawked and giggled from the doorway and pane-less windows. Outside the front door was a hole carved out of the stone roadbed. It had filled up with rushing rainwater and the community had gathered with their shampoo and toothpaste to clean up. During the hour that we sat with them, we made plans to visit our new friend's village by boat and spend the night in his home there to see the early morning risers in the wildlife park, including makaks, nocturnal marsupial monkeys called tarsier, and jungle birds that lay eggs in holes in the ground.
Indonesia is a welcoming, colorful place. Everything, whether it is a house, boat, monument, van, or fence post, is painted in multiple bright colors that make you smile. And there isn't a stranger anywhere. Nearly every passerby waves, says hello or "how are you" to practice their English, while smiling broadly. Some even asked to take photos of us with their mobile phone camera. Many strangers went out of their way to help us in our brief visits to Bitung for restocking and paperwork. It made us feel guilty for the lack of welcome that we often give visitors to Australia and America. It is beautiful in so many ways. We already feel we don't want to leave. This has been another confirmation that it pays to look past the tourist brochures and warnings from other travelers.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Indonesian Christians enjoyed a holiday for Christmas Eve today while their Muslim office mates went to work. The two religions seem to coexist in harmony here. The Muslim immigration officer yesterday introduced me to his best friend, a Christian. As you walk down the street, churches sit alongside mosques. In the early morning, you can hear the Muslim prayers being broadcast over loud speakers while the church bells compete for an audience. Tonight we are enjoying fireworks displays in a 360 deg panorama of booms and bright flashes. We are sad that we are not home for Christmas, but this is turning out to be a special place. For the first time since leaving Australia, we feel like we are surrounded by friends.
P.S. On the following Christmas morning we were woken by a phone call from our new friend, Goodman, wishing us a merry Christmas and letting us know that he is now back in his village, Batupiti, waiting for us to come and visit. He'd helped us purchase $10 prepaid SIM card and was helping us get some use out of it already. Christmas carols are blasting from the little village here on Lembeh Island where we are anchored.

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