I’m here, wherever that is….

I walked around town and found the one hotel that has WiFi and even though I am not staying here, they gave me the password to use their system. The internet cafe next door was completely full. Not a tourist in sight, only small children playing computer games.

So, here’s the latest scoop. I’m sitting in a town I didn’t know existed until I read about it yesterday. This morning, I was awaken by the Muslim morning call to prayers at 4:30. I dozed back to sleep and got up before 6:00. A quick shower, checked out of the hotel and hoisted my pack for the walk to the bus stop. This walk was pretty simple. Down the street, turn left, up the hill and go straight.

Yesterday, I was spying Squid, Sting Ray, Moray Eel, Jack Fish, Barracuda, etc. On the way out and back, I saw the remote villages of the Sea Gypsies. I read about them after the tsunami. Apparently, living in such close relationship with the sea, they knew something was so they all left. Simply took their boats and went off. Not a single Sea Gypsy perished in the tsunami. The ones here build homes on poles they pack into the sand, a bar that is too shallow for boats but perfect for them fishing and growing some sort of sea weed. They harvest both and come to the village when they have to.

Reality transported as this morning, I found my minivan and had 20 minutes before it departed. I ordered a “Kopi Susa”, coffee with sweet milk, and waited. When I walked to the van, one man was sitting in the very back. Did I say man, I mean travel angel.

I said hello, he spoke very good English, something that has been rare since I entered Indonesia. He told me about an island not far from here that he used to work at and described it as “paradise”. Yesterday I didn’t know where I’d be going, now it seems I’m headed to paradise!

Funny ending to the story about this man. When the van finally loaded up and was ready to leave, he said something from the back and got off. Apparently, he was there for me.

Our driver delayed and delayed before finally taking off and driving a slow circuit around Semporna honking the horn and trying to attract a few more customers. Back where we started and 15 minutes past our departure time, he got out. Our “real” driver showed up finally and we took off, sort of.

He turned off the highway a few kilometers out of town and honked the horn. No one there, so he proceeded to the next cross road, turned right and honked some more. After five minutes, several people appeared. I thought they were passengers. Not to be! One was his daughter with his brief case and whatever else he had left behind in his rush to be late for work.

On the road finally, for 20 minutes, when he pulled off the road again. I looked around for passengers but there was no one in sight. The driver got out, I suspected a low tire. I was wrong, a full bladder was the cause. He walked behind a tree and once finished, we continued our journey.

Arriving in Tawau, I had no idea where I was or where I needed to go? The driver pointed behind and said something about my watch or time. I thought we were near the ferry terminal and immigration. Not so.

About five minutes later, I saw an official looking building with security wire around it. I asked the guard if this was immigration? He said yes. I asked about Indonesian Immigration and ferry terminal? He excitedly pointed down the road ahead of me.

Three or four more times of doing this, in a very unofficial looking part of town, I found the office for the ferry tickets which was nearly next to Malaysian Immigration. Apparently, the boat direct to Tarakan doesn’t run every day so I was lucky. The tickets were pricey, nearly as much as my plane ticket from Bali to Singapore, but it was a deluxe ferry.

I walked off, found a place for breakfast, and ate amidst and entire restaurant of curious eyes and nervous giggles as they all observed this one tourist in town. Not a lot of tourist traffic here.

Back to immigration, I was waiting when a friendly older man asked if I was German. I told him I was from the US. He lived in New York for 7 years and was a seaman. He was also one of the people who’s village was destroyed in the tsunami in the Banda Aceh area of Sumatra. We had a nice visit waiting for immigration which turned out to be a very quick check out.

Once on the boat, Eddy introduced himself and started talking about his travels and adventures and then telling me about opportunities in this area. He gave me his phone number and address and told me next time, call him and he would set up a jungle trip to see the Dayak’s up river about 3 hours.

It was a long walk from the boat to immigration and he was out of breath so I took his luggage for him. I’m so glad I got my tourist visa in Penang. The agent looked at my passport and was confused by the old entry stamp from Sumatra. I finally got him to look at the new one, a quick look and stamp and I was on my way.

Outside, Eddy was waiting. He got two motor bikes, I followed on the second and went with him to his home, met his daughter and grand daughters, and visited with them for a long time. He took me on his motor bike to find a hotel. Seven stops later, I found one.

Tomorrow, I’ll scout around for trips to the island I heard about. It’s not every day you are around paradise so I may as well check it out. I’ll also see about flights to Sulawesi and have pretty much decided to localize my stay in the Southern part of the island. That is, unless I change my plans and decide to head North to Manado and the islands there that are supposed to be legendary diving and snorkeling spots. Of course, the area around Mabul was supposed to be.

In the evening, Eddy will pick me up and I’ll have dinner with the family. His grand daughter was disappointed when I left.

This isn’t the kind of town I would consider hanging around. It’s spread out along the waterfront and inland. I’ve yet to get a feel for the place. Hotels are either very pricey like $295,000 rupiah a night or the bottom end of $40,000 which was really…..not nice. I found a place that feels comfortable, clean and safe. I have a private bath and AC, a rarity to have either and especially to have both.

That’s it from here, the place I didn’t know existed until yesterday, I’m here NOW, and who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Ciao….

Mystery tour beginning tomorrow

Today, I went snorkeling. It was lovely, lots of fish, many turtles, moray eels, colorful fish, unusual and weird fish, and a lot of dead coral. Whether from dynamic fishing of years past or heating of the ocean, a lot of the coral was dead. When I was near live coral, the fish population exploded. Schools of Jack Fish, Dolphinhead Fish, Barracuda, a school of squid, tiny fish, huge fish, the population exploded. Kind of eerie looking up to see 30 or more Barracuda swimming together keeping a watchful eye on me!

Tomorrow morning, I’ll get up early, catch a shuttle bus to Tawau, and begin my mystery tour. It’s a mystery because there is little information here about how things operate on the other side of the border. I was able to find out that the minivans drop me near customs. I am fairly certain that is also the area where the ferries operate. That’s it, I’ll be making it up from there.

I might wander down the East coast of Kalimantan but have read it takes at least three days to get to the next major town. I also learned that Tarakan has an airport so I may be able to catch a flight from there. Some time tomorrow, I’ll have to decide where in Sulawesi I want to go. At the top of my list is the Tana Toraja area where the burial caves and excellent day hiking is.

I’ve read that I can to to Palu and take a bus South. The dive resort recommended there is no longer open, a sign. I’ve just learned a flight to Manado may stop at the city nearest to Tana Toraja so I may do that? Manado is the Northern most section of Sulawesi but is renowned for wonderful diving and snorkeling. However, the Togean Islands are nearer where I’ll be so….decisions, decisions.

I’ll be dropping off the grid quite probably so next time I write, the mystery will be more clarified!

Found an amazing Mango Sago Icy tonight, wyw! Fresh mango mixed with some grape like fruit, icy and oh so refreshing after a day of snorkeling in the sun. I may have to go get another before heading pack and get some sleep!

Ciao…Larry

Semporna: wonderful encounters, snorkeling and nearing the end of Borneo

Two days of interesting encounters between yesterday and today. I went walking to the Post Office in Sandakan and was the only tourist there. In fact, once I left the area of the waterfront, I didn’t see another tourist. Everywhere, people looked at me shyly but kept looking back like they hadn’t seen a tall tourist before. When I notice, I smile or wave or say hello or all the above. They break out into a huge smile. Even the very stern looking faces of men and women wearing their Muslin garb.

When I pushed open the door of the post office (POS here), it felt like a tremor passed through the lobby as everyone realized a foreigner was in their midst. Slowly, they all turned to look much as the faces of the crowd at Wimbeldon turn in unison to watch the volley cross back over the net. I smiled, found the stamp window and made a minimal spectacle of myself.

On the walk back, a man working construction smiling and excited standing beside a large truck said “Picture! Picture!” I stopped, took a picture and showed it to him. A smile from ear to ear gave me a thumbs up and his buddies started ribbing him.

I got on the bus early rather than stand in the parking lot for the last half hour. An older man drove up as I was getting to the truck, stopped beside the ticket office, got out and purchased tickets. He’s obviously done that before. The car came through the buses and stopped by my bus. A woman got out and three young children. A young girl of maybe 13 was helping with two gorgeous brown eyed, black haired boys about 2.

I took my seat and got out my book. The woman and children were seated across from me. Bags stashed above, the man left and came back with a basket that looked like supplies for the boys, bottles, snacks, etc. They looked like twinc.

Pappa or Grandpa, I couldn’t be certain. But his affection for the family was clear. He gently touched the faces of the woman and girl. Then the young boys, one at a time, took his hand, brought it to their lips and kissed it. Very touching moment.

During the ride, something fell out of the bag in the overhead bin. She attempted to stash it in her pile but I offered to put it back up more securely. The boy sitting on her lap couldn’t take his eyes of me. She was trying to get him to sleep. I looked over and saw one eye closed, the other looking at me.

When he was awake, he was staring at me. I’d wave and he’d nod his head. Finally he fell asleep and all four of them then slept together in their two seats. I woke and saw a sign for Semporna so started putting my things back in the pack. The young boy woke, his mom grabbed his hat and cool sunglasses. He then saw me put something away and excitedly shouted, “Good Bye! Good Bye! Good Bye!”, before rattling of something in Malaysian that had everyone around me laughing.

I got the bags from overhead and said good bye. They left the bus, and I walked into a field of operators wanting to know if I had reservations already and pushing brochures in my face.

After walking away, putting my packs down so I could get them on properly, and then asking a few questions, I asked directions for where town was. I started off and noticed the family standing just a few feet away. The little boy’s face lit up when he saw me. Spontaneously, out of habit, I reached down to shake his hand.

He took my hand, raised it to his lips and kissed the back of my hand. His brother did the same. Feeling very honored, I walked on toward town.

At the fish market, a coupe men asked me to take their picture. At the bus station, an man shouted at me from across the street (the one in the black t-shirt) PICTURE! Boys here make money by hanging around the markets and carrying people’s things in wheel barrows. When not used for hauling, they are convenient for napping. There are a few photo’s of that.

I found lunch at the Dragon Inn. The views were spectacular but the food only average, the price spectacular. After my daily second shower, I wandered down the street and found a restaurant that served roti. The owner was very excited and helpful. OH MY GOD, dipping chicken and vegetable roti in a fresh curry sauce, amazing. And less than a third of my mediocre lunch for everything! He makes his own Masala Tea, let me know he opens at 6:00 am so I can come before going snorkeling. I’ll visit tomorrow.

I’ve only been in Borneo for 11 days and was prepared to spend weeks here. I didn’t find it the kind of place I could spent weeks in! But now I know since I’ve had first hand experience. My friends are staying on Mabul where I’ll be snorkeling tomorrow so I may see them once more.

Then, I’ll head for the border at Tawau and start my journey into Indonesia. From the few things I’ve read, it sounds unmistakeable when you pass into Indonesia. Schedules, road conditions, immigration, travel, etc. are very disorganized compared to things here.

Not knowing just how long it might take me to get around, I’m considering an early morning mini-bus to Tawau at the border and going straight away to customs and the ferry terminal. It looks like it’s possible for me to take one ferry for three hours instead of having to catch two different ferries with scheduled that don’t sync. It looked like I would have to take one to Nunukan, then another on to Tarakan. Now, it looks like there are two a day that go all the way to Tarakan.

Once I start that leg of the journey, it may be a writing blackout for a few days. Stay tuned!