Woke at 3 for my 6am flight out of Miami. Computer trouble: no short checking bags today. I hope my suitcases arrive with me in Singapore tomorrow night.
It’s a long, 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. Not as bad as I thought. A Tylenol PM helps me sleep. We fly over the ArcticSea and look down at the polar ice. The temperature outside reads -57 degrees. A layover in Hong Kong. We find a noodle shop with Japanese anime and free internet. The noodles are delicious but the chrysanthemum peach tea is too sweet and flowery. We arrive in Singapore at midnight, check into the transit hotel and sleep for a couple hours.
We lose a day crossing the dateline. We find a Starbucks and breakfast in an orchid garden beside a koi pond. Silk Air assures me that my bags will be on the plane. Our flight to Manado lands at 1:30. We arrive; my bags do not. Arthur, at the Silk Air counter, is expecting me. He has already received word that my bags are in Singapore and will be on the next flight – due to arrive Wednesday afternoon. He gives me $30 in Rupiah for clothes and a voucher to pay for my rental gear. I am fine. I have my toothbrush, my reg & computer and my good friend. What more do I need?
The drive from Manado to the boat takes two hours. The roads are barely two lanes wide, with scooters, small vans and trucks constantly trying to weave in and out and pass each other. We’re driving too fast to absorb it all. Young children stand barefoot on the roadside, I see a pile of coconuts, two white oxen pull a wooden cart. It is a kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds and smells.
The road is blocked. We cannot get to the Police Pier where the resort boat waits to pick us up. We drive to the local pier and try to reach them. We cannot. Ronald calls the resort but the dive boats are still out for the afternoon. We wait. The young children edge closer and closer. Finally they are close enough to take a photo. I offer them bananas and snake fruit.
The boat ride is 15 minutes across the Strait. The water is gray-green. So different from the Caribbean Sea’s impossible shade of blue. I cannot wait to see what lies beneath the surface. The resort sits tucked into the side of a hill, the only access by boat. It is much hillier than I expected. The cottages sit high above the dive center and main building. They are traditional Indonesian style, made of sturdy dark wood with big verandahs and open-air baths. Home for the week: I love it. I talk to the dive shop about rental gear and head back to the room for a massage. One hour of pure bliss for only $25. I feel like a new person. Erwin, the Dive Director, greets us at dinner. It will be the only night we dine alone.
I wake early. The morning mist is just clearing and the seas are calm. Across the Strait, Mt.Bitung rises high with the familiar cone shape of a volcano. The hills are green – thick with palm trees and other vegetation. It is breath taking.
Backwards roll off the wooden boat. Lionfish, cuttlefish, clownfish (I had no idea they were so aggressively territorial!) moorish idols, nudibranch, razor fish, reef lizard fish, banded boxer shrimp, spotted eel, bobbit worm, many huge cushioned sea stars and a big school of cat fish. The soft corals and anemones are abundant and amazing.
“Tanjung Tebal” – Corner Graveyard
The healthiest most beautiful coral I have ever seen – stretching on forever. Iridescent blues, greens, pinks. Lots of lionfish, clownfish and a rare juvenile dancing sweet lips. (It looks like a clownfish with polka dots). A Pacific cowfish, flying dragonette, leafy filefish and a couple of huge puffers.
A straight sandy slope stretching down. Lots of flying gurnards – they look like they’re straight out of JurassicPark. Two pipefish, a stonefish, another leafy filefish, flounder and the now ubiquitous lion and clownfish. Gigantic sea cucumbers.
I’m not 100% happy with my rental gear. The mask is not comfortable and a fin broke this morning. Three dives are enough for me. The crew handles our tanks and gear but I still tire easily and all the dives are at my limit: 70-80 feet. I am always the first one up. The staff already knows our names. They give us fresh watermelon and cool water after each dive. I thank them: “makasi”; they answer “sama-sama.” The service is excellent. Sandy and I are having a wonderful time. She is so compatible; a great travel companion. We meet Sunny. She works in the dive shop and is adorable. Sandy has promised to bring an Indonesian girl home for her brother. We ask Sunny to pose for the photo. She happily responds “Facebook?”
The selection at the bar is minimal. My choices are scotch, beer or Riesling. I order a glass of the wine. Dinner is served family style with our fellow divers: Stephan from France, Birgit from Germany, Lee, an American and Erwin. We will share all of our meals with this group. We laugh a lot.
The island gods are smiling today. The morning dives are cephalopod city. We meet Frankie and Ing Ing, from Brunei. A week ago I could not have found that country on a map; today I have two new friends. Frankie wears a doo-rag with dancing sheep. They bring spirit and more fun to the dive boat.
Holy crap! Best dive yet. Another steep rubble slope down. A giant cuttlefish shows up out of nowhere and puts on a show. We see a brown seahorse, cute yellow frogfish, a blue & white banded sea snake, more stonefish, sweet lips, tons of nudibranch including a large one Jerry tells us is very rare. We also see a zebra lionfish.
Many people spend their lives hoping to see one of these animals … we see them all on just one dive.
Our first true muck dive. No coral; only a dirty sandy bottom. We see flamboyant and broad club cuttlefish, another banded sea snake and the tiniest orange frogfish you can imagine. How did the guides find it? The flying gurnards are now commonplace. Lots of dragonettes, burr fish, a snake eel sticking its head out of the bottom and a blue spotted ray. Jerry is an excellent guide!
“Lembeh House Reef”
The mating mandarin fish dusk dive. We watch the mating for about 35 minutes. The female chases the much smaller males until one complies; they rise together for 3-5 seconds and then swim apart. Their bodies are painted by the hand of God. We move away from the mating area for the now dark night dive. We see a long-armed octopus, hermit crabs and three very curious, very friendly reef squid that swim directly into our lights.
When we get back to the cottage my suitcases are sitting in the center of the room. An awesome day of diving and my luggage has arrived! I look at all the clothes I have no use for. I will never pack the same. We celebrate by wearing dresses to dinner. I order a glass of wine. Stephan asks if it is the same as last night. I say, yes the same bottle. He says “You mean zee sem box.”
Our last full day of diving: we intend to make the most of it. Our plan is to dive the two morning dives, do a quick tour of the house reef this afternoon and join Stephan for the night dive tonight. Our guides call the morning a “double dive.” We do not go back to the resort for our surface interval. Instead we anchor in a quiet bay of beautiful black sand. We play in the warm water. Someone picks coconuts and we drink the clear, sweet liquid straight from the shell, then scoop out the white fruit with an old spoon.
A pinnacle dive. The coral wall is unbelievably beautiful. We float along peaking into the nooks and crannies. Sandy spies a nice moray eel. My new favorite, moorish idols, are everywhere. It is nice to be diving with my own gear. We have fun posing for the camera.
After a glorious surface interval at the black sandy beach we ride the bottom down to the muck. Ribbon eel mania! They are everywhere! We pass one clump of coral home to two morays and a lionfish. We see a large mantis shrimp with her eggs and the coolest giant frogfish: lime green and big as a basketball.
“Lembeh House Reef”
Private Sandy-Joanie dive! Gayus gives us our briefing. He and Sandy giggle like schoolgirls. He shares her exuberance. I say you two are twins of different mothers.
The house reef has beautiful corals, lots of pipefish, sea stars and a blue lobster with white antenna.
Night dive. Never in my life did I ever think I would say “oh just another giant frogfish.” After sixteen of the basketball-sized yellow fish I lose count. Flamboyant cuttlefish, nudibranchs, a star gazer, two hairy crabs (crazy spider-looking things). The sea urchins are decorated in neon-pink trim. We come across the sweetest pair of sleeping clownfish. They are sacked out in their anemone bed like a pair of tired puppies. Our lights do not wake them. Two lionfish swarm a conch when I shine my light on him.
I am paying the price for my early morning coffee on the verandah. One bite is particularly pesky. Just above my knee, it is swollen and I have scratched it raw. Erwin offers to amputate my leg with his rusty dive knife. Birgit tells us she is a surgeon. It is not a problem, she says with her thick German accent, it can be done tonight. I remind them that many amputees have sensation in their missing limbs. The bite will continue to itch even if my leg is gone. What is the point in taking it off?
Our last dive in Indonesia. A very cool WWII Japanese wreck, fallen on its side so a combo wreck/wall. We dive Fort Lauderdale-style: follow the line down to the wreck and use it as our ascent line back up. Paulus finds a holy grail: a pygmy seahorse! The growth on the wreck is amazing but at that depth and current I do not stay down for long.
We leave for Tangkoko at 2:00. Erwin and Lee have joined us. It is a two-hour drive to the park. We drive high into the mountains and down the other side. We arrive at the park and negotiate two local guides: Madi and Iwan. They lead us into the jungle. I do not see a path but they pick their way with confidence. Within minutes we are in the middle of the first group of black crested macaques. They are all black, baboon-like animals with large calloused butts. They stand two feet tall and can weigh up to 25 pounds. We see a group of about 30 running up a hill. We follow and suddenly we are surrounded. They pummel us with small hard mangos. The guides tell us there are two groups in the park of about sixty each. They are in constant territory dispute. One has a wounded arm: a poacher’s trap. Iwan says they rescue one monkey a week. I ask why? The zoo trade? No, he says, for the meat.
We leave the first group and continue deeper into the jungle. We come across the second group, many sitting directly in our path. One alone is intimidating. Sixty together are scary. I am glad Madi and Iwan are with us. They point to a tree and say it is time to move on. I look up to see a monkey desperately trying to loosen a coconut. That will hurt more than the mangos. We move on.
We hike another ten minutes. In the 22,000 acres that make up the nature reserve there are only six trees that are home to the tarsiers. We are headed to one of those trees. The guides do not disappoint. The little monkey is home, hiding inside the trunk. Part beanie baby, part gremlin, I cannot take my eyes off him. He peers at us with his huge golden eyes. The guides are prepared. They’ve brought live grasshoppers: his favorite snack. We wait patiently and sure enough, he leaps from the trunk and onto a branch to grab the grasshopper. He is lightning quick but we have our photo op.
We hike back to the van. Olga is waiting with icy cold Cokes and wet towels. We walk down to the beach and see LembehIsland off in the distance across the Strait.
It gets dark as we drive back. Sandy and Lee doze but Erwin and I chatter the whole way. He is well-traveled. I ask him about Indonesia and New Zealand. He asks me about South America and Machu Picchu.
The boat picks us up at 10:00. Just as we’re leaving, the morning dive boat returns. Gayus calls from the boat: Good bye Sandy! I love you! Arthur is at the Silk Air counter. I ask to him make sure my luggage gets on the plane. He laughs and assures me it will.
We arrive in Singapore and check into the hotel. A taxi takes us to the Flyer. It is dark and the harbor and city spread out below us, twinkling with lights. Someone is rehearsing for an August celebration. We watch the choreography from our high perch. We reach the top and, as if on cue, fireworks light up the sky. They continue for our descent.
We walk to Boat Quay. It is a long walk but the evening is pleasant: warm with a cooling breeze. Boat Quay sits on the river – a long narrow strip of restaurants and bars. Japanese lanterns and Christmas lights decorate awning-covered tables along the water. One looks promising. We order black-pepper crusted crab, spring rolls and steamed rice. I try not to look at the rest of the menu: Right Bite has gone out the window. I order a Tiger beer, the local draft.
Our plan is to eat, shop and then head to Long Bar but it is getting late. We walk as far as Clarke Quay and then head north towards Raffles Hotel. Singapore is sultry, sensual. Beautiful couples walk arm-in-arm, the long-legged women wear short skirts. Sidewalk tables are full of people eating, drinking and smoking. Everything is so clean. It feels exotic and sexy. We miss our men.
Long Bar is straight out of another era. It is old fashioned, with paddle ceiling fans and wicker chairs. I order us each a Singapore Sling. Sandy is surprised: she likes the fruity gin drink. A band plays an eclectic mix of rock & roll and old-style 40’s. We stay for one set. We want to stay longer but it’s very late.
We’re at the airport by 4:30am. A typhoon is blowing through Hong Kong. All flights have been delayed. Our 6:40 flight is now scheduled to leave at 3:30pm. If you can choose any airport in the world to be stranded, choose Changi. We walk to one of the many free internet stations. While Sandy waits for me she makes a crayon rubbing of the Flyer. She hands me the poster with much flourish. We watch the sunrise and the butterflies wake in the ButterflyGarden. We find a quiet spot by a koi pond to nap. We stroll through the shops and find things to buy: beautiful collections of Singapore stamps and Chinese calligraphy. We get manicures and a foot massage. It is time to head to our gate. Sandy does not want to leave. There’s still too much to do! I say our goal is to eventually go home.
Our flight from Hong Kong leaves at 10:00pm. We hardly have time to grab some food before we’re back in the air, heading for Chicago. We both sleep through dinner. Good thing we bought something in Hong Kong. We sleep almost the entire 14-hour flight. I finally wake up around 8:00 and force myself to stay awake. We land in Chicago at 11:00pm. Amazingly, it is still Sunday July 19.
I open my book. Tucked inside the pages are 200,000 Rupiah. It is settled: we are going back.