I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Indonesia SCUBA diving trip: part II, Arrive at Raja Laut

Dead chickens are at the top of the stairs
We landed in Manado,around 11:30 PM. At 1.6 degrees north, I think this is the closest I've been to the equator other than flying over it. We grabbed a ride from one of the touts ready to pounce on us as we left baggage claim and spent 20 minutes getting to the Hotel Celebes which was right across the street from the boat yard. At $28 a night, it was cheap and very conveniently located, though not conveniently stocked with anything like bottled water or toilet paper. The front desk clerk seemed surprised that I was only staying for one night but, in fact, I was only staying for 6 hours and anything more might have been too long at any price.

Putting the motor back together
We checked out at 6:30 AM and someone responsible for our boat transfer from Manado to Bunaken was supposed to meet us in the lobby of the hotel. There was a guy smoking across the street who eventually walked into the lobby and introduced himself as the "boat captain". Keep in mind, any term implying rank or prestige will be used very loosely here and I doubt this guy had any credentials to operate a boat. Of course, the guy doesn't really look like a captain and of course, we would have to walk past a lady hovering over two dead chickens on the side of the road at the boat yard. And, of course, getting the boat motor started would involve taking the cover of and spraying choke cleaner into the carb and pulling the starter 50 times to actually get it to start. We probably only had a 10 mile journey but I was not prepared to row. Oh yeah, this is the private charter service to get across. We would later find out on the public ferry they just fill it with people until you can't fit any more and then set sail,
sometimes having people fall off and drown mid way. But this is all "part of the experience"; the last thing I wanted was a boat on which I had to wear a life vest and pass some sort of safety briefing. That wouldn't be very exciting.

Arriving at Raja Laut
It was a 30 minute ride to Bunaken to a resort called "Raja Laut" (King of the Sea), run by an Italian guy, Roberto, who was very helpful with setting up the booking and answering all questions. The entire resort was 4 rooms in a bungalow style with 2 guests per room. All meals are included because, well, there is nowhere else to eat.

This is the first time I ever stayed at an "Eco Resort" which I've translated to mean "No AC and plenty of bugs". We've been to Africa so we are used to sleeping under mosquito nets and if we could survive living out of a tent on Kilimanjaro for a week this would be a relative luxury. Actually I found it to be a nice balance where you  don't have all the creature comforts of home nor need a team of 30 porters to ensure we didn't freeze or thirst to death (Kilimanjaro). Shortly after arriving, Roberto, the owner gave us some crepes for breakfast and started loading our dive gear onto the boat to catch the morning dives.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Indonesia SCUBA diving trip: part I

It only took  us four years to realize that our joint sport/hobby of preference, skiing, was not doable from Taiwan and we should look for a new time/money sinkhole. We now travel to many tropical places that have great SCUBA diving but have not been certified, we always leave the area saying, "We should get SCUBA certified and come back."

We finally took a diving class in Kenting in April to receive an "Open Water" certification and soon after took an "Advanced" level course which will allow the privilege to dive deeper. After receiving certification credentials and a nifty logbook, we were looking for a location for our first "dive vacation" to, well, fill the logbook. We originally were focused on the Philippines since it is close to Taiwan but geographic close and practical close are two different things. After realizing it would take us a day to get to water and the weather there is less than desirable in August, we broadened the search and settled on Bunaken Island, Indonesia, hoping for predictable weather, gentle currents, and spectacular coral reefs.

We left Taipei in the morning with a planned stop in Jakarta to catch a domestic flight to Manado, a fairly large city in North Sulawesi. We would spend the night at a hotel near the boat yard in Manado to catch an early ride to Bunaken just in time for breakfast and to board the first dive boat out that day. I had never really been to Indonesia, only to Bali, and the Balinese don't consider Bali to be part of Indonesia, despite what the map might say. I was prepared for the idea that Bunaken would not be Bali; there are no big resorts, just a small island focused on diving. I was planning on a moderate amount of electricity and hot water and wi-fi would be an unexpected bonus.

We had a four hour layover in Jakarta which I tried to avoid because Jakarta is not the most comfortable or entertaining airport to be stuck in for four hours. You can get a foot massage and eat noodles, that's about it. Air conditioning is minimal so there will also be some sweating going on. The flight out of Taipei left almost an hour late do to an "operational incident", the details of which I do not want to know. Upon boarding the plane they gave us a "fast lane" pass to get through Indonesian immigration faster. I tried not to build up false hope because I am at least savvy enough to know Indonesia is not known for speed. With that said, we only had to wait in the immigration line for about 3 minutes while the agent starting her shift shuffled papers, re-positioned her stapler, checked her Farmville, and filed her nails before actually starting to process some visitors. That would lead to a 45 minute wait for our luggage even though it was "priority" tagged. I can just imagine how long it takes to get the "expendable" luggage.

Now we had to get our luggage and switch to the domestic terminal to get the Lion Air flight to Manado. Lion Air is a local discount airline that happens to have some great post-plane crash photos available on Google. We were bringing dive equipment so had quite a load to drag over to the next terminal. As soon as you step out of the door towards the curb you are mobbed by touts trying to offer you a ride to somewhere or grab the bags out of your hands to drag them to somewhere and then charge you a couple bucks. Instead of just buying my way out of these situations my natural reaction is to resist and amble over to the free shuttle like the locals. Of course this is a lengthy process and the free shuttle is overcrowded hence, there is a market for taxi rides in between terminals. Perhaps, the shuttle driver is the market maker for the taxi industry.

By the time we got to the Lion Air check-in counter we only had about an hour left before our flight and were pleasantly surprised to find no line at the counter, quite contrary to our experience with local airlines in Thailand. We knew we would be over the weight limit but were happy to pay about $1.50/kg to check all of our dive gear. This process involves going to the check-in counter to get weighed, then bringing an invoice over to the luggage cashier to pay and get stamped, then back to the check-in counter to get ticketed.  You then pass through a "toll booth" where you pay a few bucks to be able to get to the security gate, some sort of island departure tax. At the security check I would come to realize that I was ticketed as "Johan" on the boarding pass and I would not be allowed to simply pretend to be Johan and get on that plane. Luckily the guard was quite responsive and ushered me back down through the toll booth to the counter to get re-ticketed under the right name, which of course required escalating the issue to a manager. Now it is about 20 minutes before departure and the guard escorts me back through the toll booth explaining to the attendant that I do not need to pay again and we go through the security check.

At the x-ray machine, yet another agent checks all my credentials and realizes that on the toll booth receipt, I am still named "Johan". At this point the time constraint must have made my frustration more convincing because after I pleaded "go ask the skinny guy (the guard who helped me out who is probably only slightly skinnier than the average Indonesian) I was simply waved through. Of course, our panicked rush was without merit as we would arrive at the gate 10 minutes before departure and just sit there for an hour waiting to board the flight with no indication of an actual delay. On the monitor they never even indicate a delay, they just erase the entire existence of the flight as the departure time passes as if it never existed. And they board many flights through the same door so you have no idea which flight is which or if you missed your flight and will be sleeping at the airport for a day. Such is my experience in Jakarta. All. The. Time.

Eventually we boarded the flight but were not seated next to each other due to my boarding pass debacle. I hope Shirley enjoys Johan's company.