getting to Manado

If you are coming to Sulawesi, and particularly to its northern prefecture to experience Manado’s wonderful diving, please note that your journey will not necessarily be a piece of cake.  While the city’s Sam Ratulangi International Airport is serviced four times per week with direct international flights to Singapore (via Silk Air), this is not always the cheapest option.  In order to keep our costs down, we chose a package flight through Kayak.  Saving a couple hundred dollars each unfortunately put us at the mercy of two layovers:  one in the extraordinarily chic airport in Hong Kong, and the other, in Hell!

Okay, perhaps it was not that bad, but close enough to it.  Our second stopover was a mighty five hour “respite” at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on the island of Java.  While the decor was pleasant enough - who doesn’t love a whimsical Micronesian decor motif? - the amenities left a lot to be desired.

First off, that smell!  Thanks to a food court that rammed Asian outposts of Starbucks, Beard Papa’s and Krispy Kreme all into one corridor, the rancid stench of frying fat was completely inescapable, clinging to clothes already soiled by our 14 hour flight from Los Angeles.  And since the terminal seemed to have no working air-conditioning, it wasn’t long before both of your Set of Drifters felt the need to change out of dampened undergarments.  Sadly, since our bags were packed away on the plane, our only choice was to go shopping.  Luckily, a rather large department store type shop - next to the Krispy Kreme - offered an array of options.  We forked over about $12 USD worth of dead-stock Pierre Cardin underwear and Felix Bűhler T-shirts and headed to the bathrooms to change.  Regrettably, that’s when things really went sour.

As you may have heard, the peoples of Southeast Asia, and many other parts of the world, handle the restroom in an entirely different way than most “Westerners.”  While these people cannot even imagine “cleaning up” with our hands the way we do here in the United States, a similar percentage of Americans would be equally perplexed at the methods chosen overseas.  Your Set of Drifters are a bit more flexible and can usually roll with the punches.  Still, it must be said that there is an inherent design flaw to utilizing water hoses attached to the walls of public bathroom stalls to clean your arse.  Water gets everywhere, and in busy places like an airport bathroom, that means the floor is almost always wet!  To combat any potential safety risks, a staff of attendants must be on hand around the clock to mop up.  Let’s just say, the conditions make changing your clothes mighty anxiety-ridden.  As if the stifling indoor temperatures were not bad enough!

A recent article in the Jakarta Post newspaper described how Indonesia’s Ministry of Culture is trying to elevate the country’s poor reputation as having some of the dirtiest bathrooms in all of Asia.  (Who knew that a group called the “World Toilet Organization” policed this kind of stuff?)  The “Sapta Pesona Clean Public Toilet Award” was introduced by the Indonesian government in 2007.  In the years since, it has been held biannually to help promote and educate airports on the importance of cleanliness and the need to “modernize” facilities.  Truthfully, the contrast from Hong Kong to Jakarta was startling.  In the former, completely enclosed stalls offered the option of having your toilet seat cleaned each and every time.  In the latter, well, you simply hoped for the best.

So, stuck in Jakarta on a long layover and can’t even enjoy the bookshop thanks to that horrendous doughnut smell?  For the first time, we advise heading for one of the airlines “Executive” clubs.  If you have an affiliation with Silk Air or Cathay Pacific, great.  If not, pay the 60,000 or so rupiah to join for the day.  Chances are, you get clean, dry bathrooms, a variety of free food and beverage - and even some much-needed air conditioning!  Elsewhere, the Jakarta airport offered little to bide our time.  There was a nice batik shop with some rather colorful “modern” designs and a few souvenir stalls with prices much too high to even bother bargaining.

Once in Manado proper, you will need a local friend to pick up, or you will have to take a taxi or a bemo.  Small blue minibuses are ever present throughout town, though we cannot attest to their comfort level.  The glory of Bunaken is found on the eastern side of North Sulawesi, while the muck-diving of Lembeh is on the western side.  If you are coming to stay at a resort, most will offer transportation to and from the airport to ease your transition.  Use this option!  (Many of these further result in a short boat ride across the Lembeh Strait or the Sulawesi Sea.)

Alternately, if you must rent a car and brave it out on your own, keep in mind that the few roads that criss-cross North Sulawesi are always busy with local motorists - day or night.  What seems like a short distance on a map will undoubtedly take you much longer than anticipated, particularly if road conditions are poor.

We share more about the wilds of driving in Indonesia in our reports on Java and Bali.

earplugs required?

One thing we figured immediately on our very first night in Indonesia is that the region’s biodiversity must be staggering.  How else could you account for the cacophony of loud chirps, burps, clicks, squawks, grunts and other piercing calls that can be heard in the duration of any standard evening?

For our first four nights in the country, and a number of others scattered throughout the three-week itinerary, we slept in a room that butted right up against the living jungle.  It’s an experience that is entirely invigorating, if not a little frustrating at first.  Now if you are adverse to nature in any way, we recommend you book accommodations well within city limits.  Nevertheless, even if you are not as precious about beauty sleep, we still must prepare you for the extent to which this nightly animal orchestra invades your senses.

Some of these species are particularly vociferous, especially when their decibel levels are compared relative to their size.  It took us two and half weeks to track down the culprit of the most intense shriek, a pulsating vibrato that we likened to an electric fence being battered repeatedly by an angry ram.  It turns out the sound emanated from a single tiny male basket grasshopper only about the size of a tube of lipstick!

Long story short, while your Set of Drifters personally enjoy the sounds of the jungle, the average person may want to bring along some earplugs!

By the way, in case you were wondering, according to recent reports, Indonesia ranks #1 in the world for diversity of mammal species, but #3 in overall threat for species biodiversity.  Which can only mean one thing:  someone must be cracking down on those frogs!