Diving license

Gave myself a birthday present today: I am now a licensed open water diver, after completing the last set of training dives. All were out in the sea, none of that pool nonsense. You learn how to put the gear together, buoyancy, losing and recovering mask and regulator, emergency procedures, and dive planning. Plus practice dives down to 18 meters out on the coral wall.

Saw a huge turtle gliding along at 18m. Quite impractically constructed animal really but it clearly knew what it was doing. Diving is a lot of fun once you are properly equalized and neutrally buoyant; you just float effortlessly.

Diving

So what do you do in a dive center? Dive, of course. I don’t have a license but they have instructors. The reefs seem a little less interesting than the ones at Pulau Weh (see way down on this blog) but of course they don’t let me dive the really deep places. Got to change that.

3

I so love getting up at three in the morning. Well, it got me out of Jakarta and to Bunaken, a small island off the coast of Sulawesi, which is a large Indonesian island northeast of Java. Bunaken is very quiet; there is just one tiny village. People come here for diving.

On unrelated news, Lady Gaga just had her concert in Jakarta canceled by some Muslim blockheads. The world would be a better place without that biblical bloodthirsty desert god from the bronze age.

Jakarta

The fastest way to go from Yogyakarta to Jakarta is by train. The luxury executive train may lack elegance (and speed) but it’s certainly spacious and comfortable. Eight hours of rural panoramas of Java: endless rice paddies, little villages, lakes, and green hills in the background.

Jakarta continues to fail to enamor me. Not only does the train pass through dirty slums, full of garbage, dirt, and lean-tos built from tarps and rusted corrugated metal, but downtown is still the soulless traffic-choked concrete jungle I knew from my previous visit. On the other hand, like Yogyakarta there are quiet green, if rather dilapidated, neighborhoods in the middle of the large blocks formed by the main streets.

I am here only for the airport to catch a very early flight to Sulawesi tomorrow.

Yogyakarta

Java isn’t like Bali, it’s more like Indonesia. Gone are the posh resorts, the vans with tinted windows, the busloads of Australians invading temples like cellphone-wielding locusts, and the westernized malls. Yogyakarta, or Jogja as it’s called here, has no synthetic attractions and caters mostly to locals. Very refreshing. Much cheaper too.

Rented a becak – a bicycle rickshaw, see photo – for the afternoon to show me around the various neighborhoods. Jogja’s main streets are not beautiful; life happens in the little alleys that are not shown on any map. Old ladies bbq satay squatting on the ground, people sit in front of their houses to make the silver and batik souvenirs sold on Java’s markets, and children play soccer pretending to be Bayern München. I skipped the usual tourist attractions like Borobudur, you can read up on those way down in this blog.

North Bali

I have been to Bali before but never to the northern end. They have some pretty major mountains and a volcano there. The water temple is on a lake at 1200 meters. The temples themselves are not accessible but they have a big platform where monks do a sort of brief pray-in, scheduled by a guy with a bell and a megaphone.

Also saw some massive waterfalls deep in the forest, and could swim there. Also at some natural hot springs. Water falling from high up is like a massage…

They also have a Buddhist temple, the only one on Bali and very large, which would be tranquil and serene if a tour bus hadn’t unloaded a herd of loud French tourists apparently working out the thing with taking off shoes in temples for the first time and having a ball of it.

Bali again

Time to leave the Gilis… The speedboat I had booked promptly broke down before it could leave, and we had to wait for another one. In Indonesia such things are not a reason to get upset. The minibus that brought us from the harbor to our destinations got stuck in Denpasar’s traffic maelstrom, no news here either.

Bali can actually be very nice provided you stay away from Kuta, Bali’s mass tourism hell. Still too much in relax mode to do much today, but I’ll be on tour tomorrow.

Island life

The Gili islands are wonderfully relaxing, but after a while it does get a little tiring if every local I talk to drops into that signature whisper after a minute: hashish? Ecstasy? Cocaine? “Super duper mega radical maximum fuckin’ bloody fresh magic mushroom”, end quote?

Just a block behind the beach promenade, the locals have their houses and real life begins.

Now I am waiting for my barbecued red snapper at a fancy dinner restaurant, sitting at the edge of the sea, sipping a sublime guava-pineapple-mint juice. It’s not all pizza and spaghetti.

Shrooms, boss?

Drugs are illegal in Indonesia so you have to promise the dealers not to report their offers. Enforcement seems a little lackluster.

Gili Tralala

There’s three tiny islands off the coast of Lombok, called the Gilis. Small green jewels, quiet, wooded, no motor traffic, endless beaches. Gili Trawangan has the most visitors and the occasional party, so people call it Gili Tralala. I got a traditional hut in a very nice resort. The island is small enough to walk around in an hour or two, to escape the huddle of beach restaurants and dive outfits at the harbor.

The harbor is not quite like Rotterdam: boats simply run up the beach and guests must wade ashore.

Ben Hur in Sumbawa

The ferry was canceled on Thursday so I was stuck on Flores for another day. Chartered a motorcycle with driver to see more of the Island and some caves. Very friendly, green, and pretty little villages. Afterwards he showed me his home and seven days old son.

The Friday ferry to Sumbawa was going, rather late, and it was a bit of a rust bucket; shall we say, proven technology. On Sumbawa, a bus took us to Bima, then another to the other side of the Island, then another ferry to Lombok, then Senggigi. Took 24 hours and no sleep was possible because Sumbawa is very mountainous and the bus was careening around tight curves all the time. But the views were great. They still use horse carts as taxis; they call them benhurs.

I write this on the beach, waiting for the restaurant to grill my fresh fish, next to the fancy hotel where we rented a beach bungalow. We think we deserve some luxury after the bus ordeal.

There Be Dragons

“There Be Dragons” is what ancient map makers wrote in spaces for which they had no data. They clearly didn’t know the islands of Rinca and Komodo. Here, and only here, live the Komodo dragons. They are big (2m+) scaly lizards with massive legs and claws. What they bite won’t get up much anymore. They move slowly but if convenient they will outrun a human. We went there on a little tour boat and had long guided hikes on both islands, plus generous time for snorkeling on the nearby reefs. One night we slept on the boat. Our guides carried long forked staffs to discourage the dragons from spicing up their diet with tourists, and had to use them to shoo dragons off our path. I want a dragon to myself to walk about Berlin, on a leash, with the claws making loud clicking noises on the pavement. Very spotty Internet access here…

Flores

Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores is not an interesting town. It’s very small, mostly made from corrugated metal and open sewers, and has no sights. People come here for the islands; there’s a small airfield.

It’s so small that our little turboprop touched down, did a U-turn on the runway, went all the way back to the other end, and parked in front of the little building there, all alone on a field smaller than the typical supermarket parking lot. Tomorrow I’ll take a boat out to the islands too; I’ll be back on the net on Wednesday.

Phone chargers

Airports are supposed to have lots of power sockets, but not all of them do. In Lima we actually had to sit down in a Starbuck to charge equipment. In Kuala Lumpur they have little lockers, just big enough for a phone. Inside is a charging cable. Different boxed support different phone types. Cool…

Bali

Finally made it to Bali, after a long sequence of long flights. I’ll fly to Labuan Bajo on Flores tomorrow but I’ll have to stay a night on Bali. My chosen hotel is quite fancy. It’s in Seminyak because it’s the farthest, but least touristic of the three beach towns up Bali’s coast north of the airport. Seminyak, too, wants to sell its soul for a handful rupiah but it’s still tolerable.

Last day in Lima

<p>Went to some precolombian ruins in Lima’s San Isidro district. “Ruins” doesn’t really capture it, they have rebuilt the whole thing so it’s now in absolutely perfect condition. It’s a 20m step pyramid from which one has a perfect view of the residential towers all around. Spoils the impression completely. </p>
<p>San Isidro also has a large golf club in the middle, and extends all the way to the sea. It’s evidently quite rich, except who would want to live in glorified office towers? The BMW density is very high there. </p>
<p>Lima doesn’t really have a beach. It has a neglected stretch of mud where sea meets land, but it’s hard to get there because a freeway runs alongside the shore. Next there’s a steep cliff, and the city begins up there – with a very nice park. First place in Lima we really enjoyed. Trees, lawns, lots of flowers, free wifi, and sea views. Behind that, more residential towers, oh well. </p>
<p>This is the last post from South America, promise. I’ll be on the road for a while, and in a few days I’ll post from Indonesia. Back to the real mission of this blog, finally! </p>

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Lima continues to fail to amaze. Tried to visit some Inca ruins outside town, but they were closed and a look over the fence didn’t impress. The nearby freeway, oil refinery, slums, and dirty beaches with dead birds that vie for the discriminating traveler’s attention made Lima look good again so we returned.

Which takes a while because Lima has no real public transport system. There’s a number of competing bus companies that serve major streets, with a guy shouting destinations out the bus door like a souvenir vendor hawking Inca masks. There are no schedules, marked stops, or reliable connections. But we found our way. Can’t praise GPS units with preloaded OSM maps enough.

No pictures worth showing today, so here’s some more liquid bubble gum in three-liter bottles.

Lima is useless.

Ok, it serves to stow the third of Peruvian who choose to live in this city. But there is very little to see or do here. It’s main property is size. We chose to stay in the Miraflores neighborhood, which is a little less ragged and dangerous than el centro, but it’s not very interesting either. And even here houses have huge fierce-looking barbed fences.

There are no sights to see in Lima, so I’ll just show some generic colonial-looking white building downtown.

Machu Picchu picture

That last photo was taken with my friend’s iphone. Evidently iphone take photos upside down and then set a flag telling the viewer to turn it around. Some viewers do that and some don’t. Blogger doesn’t. So here it is again, after Android treatment.

Mucho Pictures

Machu Picchu is 400 meters above Aguas Calientes. It’s the #1 tourist attraction of South America. It’s an Inca city on top of a mountain, nestled between two other mountains in an incredibly scenic way, as if the Inca designed it as a tourist attraction 700 years ago. The Spaniards who looted the rest of the continent never found it.

We got up there early in the morning, but for the first two hours we saw exactly nothing because of dense fog. I suppose there’s a reason the forests up here are called fog forests. The buildings all lost their roofs but were otherwise intact, and we explored the city for hours. They let tourists roam freely, except where guards are posted; they create tiny one-way zones around them.

Gringo nightmare

Aguas Caliente is a small village boxed in by high mountains. It has a train station, a bus terminal, and as many hotels, pizza restaurants, and massage salons as can possibly be stuffed into the limited space in between. There is totally no reason to pay this tourist trap a visit – except that it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu. You don’t pay rent here, you pay ransom.

That said, we just had the best food here in our entire south America trip, at the Indio Feliz restaurant. The Lonely Planet guide book recommended it with the words “You have one night. Eat there.” This place would succeed in France.

Our hotel room looks out on a raging river. Better than the techno beats in the center of this gringo nightmare.

Ollantaytambo

There’s an Inka ruins park here that covers a large section of the mountainside north of the town. They terraced the mountains and built forts and storage buildings on top. Some look almost glued to the wall. Everything is connected with narrow stairs and footpaths hewn into the rock. The scenery is dramatic.

We could also see the steep mountain overlooking the town (photo), and saw some people mounting paths to several scattered Inca buildings clinging to it, about halfway up. So we went there next. Those paths are very narrow, occasionally have rough steps, but often simply rocky slides. The ascent is occasionally a little technical and vertiginous, but not really dangerous. A walk in the park if you just spent a year hiking in Marseille’s Calanques. The sign “danger, closed” with skull and bones, and the barrier we had to climb over, were really uncalled for. Wimps.

Ollantaytambo

Took a taxi to Ollantaytambo. The taxi costs 20 times as much as local buses but saves hours of time in diesel-filled sardine cans, so we’ll file this under rich Europeans supporting the local economy.

Ollantaytambo has its own Inca ruins hanging impossibly from the hillsides that box in the town. We’ll explore those tomorrow. The town is small and still uses the old Inca layout, foundations, and many of the old walls. Roads are very narrow and most have a channel with fast-flowing water on one side.

A modern square with tourism infrastructure is tacked onto the village on one side. For the first time, the first few hotels we walked into were fully booked; we ended up at Casa de Mama. No wifi, I write this using an AP irresponsibly left open.

Inca ruins at Pisaq

We are in the Inca Sacred Valley, and there are Inca ruins all over the place. After visiting the main ones near Cusco yesterday, we took a local business to Pisaq, hired a taxi, and went up the hills to follow the trail there. The trail hugs the edge of the hill, and the views of the valley and surrounding hills, and the old Inca towns, are fantastic.

The way they brought huge stones from a quarry many kilometers away, up a hill on trails barely wide enough to walk, and then fitted them together without cracks or mortar, is amazing. Too much free manpower I suppose. The walls still stand today as they were built, although the roofs were lost.

Heart of the Inca kingdom

Cusco in Peru’s sacred valley was the center of the Inca kingdom. They fought against Pizarro here, and lost. Today Cusco shows almost no trace of its Inca heritage, apart from some foundations here and some walls there. The city was rebuilt by the Spaniards, often by tearing down Inca monuments to build their own churches.

One of those Inca monuments is Saqsaywaman, a huge Inca fort on a hill at the edge of Cusco. Only 20% escaped destruction, but the remaining triple walls, built from tight-fitting stones up to five meters high, are amazing. So is the panorama up there.

Cusco is a pleasant and beautiful town, with all the amenities. Our hotel has a wonderful hot shower, internet, and even heating. You’d think that heating would be obvious high up in the Andes, where the winters get really cold, but it isn’t.

Luxury train through the Andes

Perurail runs a luxury train from Puno to Cusco in the holy valley of the Inkas. It feels like a 1920s Orient Express: everything is paneled with dark wood, there are comfortable big chairs, tablecloths, brass lamps, and vases with real roses. Got an excellent three-course lunch and afternoon tea. The next car was a bar/panorama car, with an open back and windows in the roof. All very posh.

The ten-hour trip first runs across a flat plateau. It passes through villages that have discovered the value of the train tracks as an outdoor market. When the train arrives, they move their carts and umbrellas away and put them back when the train has passed. Blankets with wares between the tracks stay where they are, we simply roll over them. Reminds me of Saigon.

Later the terrain rises to 4300 meters, and the hills on both sides become steep, and some are capped with snow. Our slow descent to Cusco takes us through greener and more wooded countryside. A travel day can’t be much more interesting and scenic than this!