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Beneath the surface of Sulawesi

Written on: Saturday September 20th, 2008

To most American ears, Indonesia sounds like an exotic place.  One's mind envisions such islands as Bali, Komodo, Java and Sumatra.  But for me there was one island in this massive archipeligo that always stood out amongst the rest: Sulawesi.  Located just east of Borneo, this was my idyllic Indonesian destination, and one week ago I finally arrived at this psychodelic-shaped puzzle piece of an island.

I flew into Manado in the far north of the island.  It was here, while waiting for my baggage, that I met a group of five friends traveling together with whom I would share the next week of my life.  There was Marco, the Italian guy whose love of fishing and scopa could never be questioned; his girlfriend, Ksania, the young Rusian who posessed a keen interest in snorkeling and an always-ready-to-laugh attitude; the Swami, Anthony, a USA expat here on his honeymoon, who is known for his diplomacy amongst the group, not to mention his entertaining stories; his wife, Ema, the Taiwanese bride who offers sincerity, considerateness and a perpetual smile; and finally Hendricks, the young Dutch guy who, seemingly, can laugh at any time of the day...and for the matter, can drink a beer at any time of the day too!  These were my new friends.

Due to the late hour of the flight, the first night we needed to stay in Manado.  We booked rooms in the New Queens Hotel and headed off for a late dinner.  The company and the beer were much more pleasant than the hotel, and by morning we were all itching to get out of town.  After securing return tickets to Bali and a few million Rupiah, we hired a private boat to take us to the island of Bunaken...a little chunk of land known mostly for what is beneath the surface than what is above it.  Upon arriving, we settled at the MC Homestay in the southeast of the island.  Here we were provided with beautiful views overlooking the best beach on the island.  The all-inclusive rooms were a steal for the single traveler at ~$24/day.  We had a fresh red snapper for dinner, along with a few Bintang, before setting off to exlpore what the island had in store.  Wandering through the quaint village, we seemed to arouse every dog alive!  All worked out brilliantly, as we headed back to the beach to find some young local guys playing guitar and drinking arak!  Following the ever-friendly Indonesian way, they invited us to sit with them and sing along.  Soon the arak was flowing and Marco went with a local to get more.  Upon their return, we found oursleves in an "arak attack",  passing around the cup, singing songs and chatting until the wee hours.  Yes, a good time was had by all!

The next day I set off early for my first underwater exploration in the area.  We dove a nearby wall and, although there were a few too many divers in the group, the dive itself was outstanding.  The corals were phenominal, the tropical fish plentiful, and even a few exotics were spotted, including a couple very large Napoleon fish, two black tip reef sharks, six different types of nudibranchs, a well camoflauged leaf fish and one teeny, tiny, yellow pygmy seahorse.  The second dive was even better!  Amazingly, the corals on this wall were even more brilliant, and hiding amongst them was the largest green sea turtle I have ever seen, measuring approximately eight feet long!  At dusk I went for my third dive, during which we specifically targeted the local mandarin fish!  This unique fish is like nothing I've ever seen.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Synchiropus_splendidus_2_Luc_Viatour.jpg  The colors are so vivid, that even in waning light it can be easily identified.  The fish scurry around the coral as the darkness falls upon the sea.  Eventually, they find a mate and begin to do so, floating up out of the coral into the open water.  After about ten seconds of watching them rise up, we see a POOF of white eminate from their bodies, and they swim back down into the safety of the coral.  Thanks in large part to Dion, our divermaster, we were able to witness this mating ritual three times!  Eventually we gave them some privacy and continued on with the night dive, which only kept getting better.  We saw huge, multi-colored slugs out of there shells, feeding on the corals.  I also found two small cuttlefish in another coral patch, changing colors and transferring electrical currents around their bodies!  This is what began the ultimate sequence of the evening.  While watching the cuttlefish, I suddenly saw a scorpion fish swim directly into my light, sit atop the coral and blend perfectly into the colors, virtually disappearing from sight; while watching this, I saw a two foot piece of coral 'walking' right past my light!  What the bleep was that?  Upon closer inspection, I realize that it was a giant crab that attached this coral on top of its shell for camo.  Too cool!  Following it into a small cave, I startled two slipper lobsters that were chilling there.  All these creatures that my eyes had never seen before...in a period of just a couple minutes!  Yes, this is a special place.

The following day's dives proved equally impressive.  But this day I passed on the night dive to join my friends for some drinks at Dion's bar.  I say bar, but you must envision a small outdoor patio, with a corregated metal roof and a few benches.  On one side of the patio is his mother-in-law's shop (ie: local convenience store), which contains a refridgerator and, consequently, beer.  But this bar doesn't serve peanuts; instead, we were offered tuna sashimi! We had a large Bintang before the Arak started to flow.  And flow it did...from the bar to the beach, where we had a bonfire and once again the musical offerings of the local guitar players.  From the beach the party shifted back to our resort where we played darts, drank and laughed into the wee hours.  Unfortunately, this is also how I became a bit sick.  The next two days were hell, with fever, chills and dizzyness.  And that cost me from diving any more on this trip, and missing the fabled Lembeh Straight on the other side of the peninsula.  I guess sharing the same glass with twenty people has its disadvantages.

Feeling almost 100% again, the last day we chartered a boat to go snorkeling around the island.  It was a spectacularly beautiful day for snorkeling, and we even bought an octopus and some snapper from a local fisherman for lunch.  Although Marco and Ksania stayed on Bunaken for a couple more days, Anthony, Ema and I returned to Manado for our last night before the early flight back to Bali. 

In town, Anthony had found an A&W!  Although the burgers were nothing like "The Dow", it was good to eat something other than rice and fish, and cold root beer never, ever tasted so good!


From Maria on Sep 28th, 2008

Your fotos are amazing! Glad you're feeling better. Heard you meet a lady from Uffa, they're taking over the world. Bee Well, Bright Blessings.

From Ella on Nov 2nd, 2008

We drink arak in Ufa too! its tatarian word for vodka!