Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crossing of the Singapore Strait.

Danielle dreaded arriving in Singapore since the beginning of this trip for a very simple reason; Singapore has one of the busiest maritime installations in the world and sailing in these waters with Chocobo made us feel like being a chicken in a herd of elephants. Seeing a supertanker is a very impressive but rather rare event when sailing around the world. But here it is not one but over a hundred of these behemoths we found maneuvering or anchored along the 40 km or so of the Singapore waterfront all of it filled up with docks or refineries. We show you here some pictures but I really don’t think you can feel what it is like without being physically here yourself. The place is huge, immense, gigantic! In fact, the engineering feat of building such a group of installations is so titanic that I wouldn’t probably believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. In many places they reclaimed the sea to create more waterfront length for the cargos. The new lands cover many square kilometers and were claimed over 100 feet (30m) of water. Can you imagine the amount of rock and sand they needed to carry to do that???? And I am not talking about the docks and cranes everywhere required to move the containers around.

But let’s start with the beginning. We were in Batam, Indonesia and all our efforts to fix the refrigerator were unsuccessful so we had to go to Singapore, more precisely at the Raffles Marina on the western side of the island as it is not possible to anchor in a convenient place anywhere in Singapore. Only about 8 miles separate Batam from Singapore but those few miles represent the Singapore Strait. The fact is that all ships sailing from the Middle East or the Mediterranean Sea to Asia must go through the Singapore Strait and this makes this narrow channel looking like a highway of super cargo ships and supertankers. Being in such a strategic location it is not surprising that Singapore developed an impressive array of oil refineries and maritime installations. Our first goal was to cross the channel to get on the Singapore side. This is not very complicated but it has to be done with care unless you want to end up crushed by a ship so huge they would probably not even noticed the impact. We chose the narrowest spot of the channel and literally looked on both sides to make sure we could cross without interfering with the continuous traffic going on in both directions. The crossing itself took about 20 minutes with the engines running at maximum speed (we were making 7.5 knots!) but there was a ship every 12 minutes on each side! We timed our crossing carefully and we didn’t make the front page of the newspapers the next day. Once on the other side we entered the Singapore harbor, which is an amalgam of anchorage areas for the cargos and fairways for them to move about. Note that in a world of giants an ant like us has no rights of way whatsoever and all the responsibility of maneuvering safely falls on us. But since in this area the vast majority of the ships were anchored and even if they were of titanic proportions it wasn’t too difficult to avoid them and move about. At mid distance to our destination we had to stop to clear in the country with immigration. Usually, when entering a new country, it is necessary to stop at a given location and go ashore to see the local authorities for the clearance but here they came up with a much more efficient way of doing business. Arrived at what is called the western anchorage we called immigration on the VHF radio and announced our arrival. They told us to stay put and wait for them. The anchorage is 26m (80 feet) deep, which is too much to drop the anchor, so staying put means floating around and wait. But we didn’t wait much since as soon as we arrived at the rendezvous point the immigration boat was already there. They came by us and pull a net at the end of a pole and asked me to give them our passports and three copies of the crew list. I put the documents they asked in the net and then we waited about 5 minutes for them to process the papers. They came back with the net and a form I needed to sign, which I did, and then they gave us our passports back along with our clearance paper. Everything from beginning to end took less than 10 minutes and we were on our way!

But at this time we were already too late to cover the remaining 20 miles and reach our marina before sunset and had to find a spot to anchor for the night. The western anchorage was already ruled out because of the depth and anyway who in his right mind would like to anchor for the night in the middle of 30 supertankers, seriously? A few miles west there were a few islands and shoals in which we found a nice spot to drop the hook in 20 feet (7m) of water and safely spent the night out of the way of the ships and who knows what. All around us the waterfront was occupied by refineries and these installations don’t stop during the night. We had no smell as we were windward and no noise but instead could witness something impossible to see but from the water. A refinery somehow needs lights all over its pipes and towers, pretty much everywhere and with 10 km or so of refineries around us after sunset we had the impression of being in the middle of Christmas tree! Sorry our camera cannot take night shots like that because of the slight movement of the boat during the one or two seconds of exposure it requires. But take my word for it, it was a scene we are not about to forget! The day after we continued our way between the enormous ships, which were defying the reason but yet respecting Archimedes’s principle, in our Lilliputian boat and made it safe and sound to our berth. While on the way I estimated that there were about 150 ships anchored in the Singapore area. When we crossed the Panama Canal we were impressed by the 50 or so cargos that were waiting at both ends but here we realized that this was merely a maritime sand box. Singapore is the yard of the grown up and in fact I am pretty certain that most of the behemoths we saw here are too big to even go through the Panama Canal!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Arrived in Singapore

We arrived in the nation city of Singapore from Batam in Indonesia, on November 11th, 2010 after a passage of 24 nautical miles (45 km) that took us just a few hours. In fact Batam and Singapore are so close we can see one from the other assuming we can see through the stream of super-cargos crossing the Singapore Strait! What makes this arrival in Singapore special is not the distance covered but the crossing of that strait and the port of Singapore. This is one, if not the, busiest port in the world and crossing the Singapore Strait must be done with care. First we got to our crossing point where the channel is the narrower, and then we looked on both sides and put the throttles to max speed and crossed the main ship channel at right angle. But this was just the beginning of the fun. Once on the other side we had to manage through the 50 km length of the Singapore maritime facilities but I’ll talk about this only in my next post…

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Orangutans of Borneo.

One thing we really didn’t want to miss while in Indonesia was to see Borneo’s orangutans, which only live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. These great apes are obviously, like all other large animal species in the world, threatened of extinction by the destruction of their habitat. Here in Borneo it’s the palm oil farming and deforestation that are finger pointed as the great culprits but obviously the situation is much more complex than simply telling Indonesians to stop growing palm and cut wood for living. Big monkeys are great but they need to eat.

To see our distant cousins we stopped at the Kumai village in the province of Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo. I make this precision because if you look at a geographic map you’ll see that a large part of the island of Borneo actually belongs to Malaysia and another small section form the Brunei sultanate. But in Kumai we felt in deep and very authentic Indonesia which has nothing to compare with the authentically touristy island of Bali for instance. From an occidental point of view the place may look rundown and the populace poor but look carefully at this young girl’s eyes and tell me honestly if you really think she’s starving and unhappy? In fact, people here are maybe poor, from our standards, but they eat very well and seem quite happy, thank you very much.

Although the jungle, where live those primates so coveted by picture cameras, is only accessible by boat it was out of question to venture in it with Chocobo. In fact, many places were too narrow for our catamaran to fit. We hire Adys’s services who, on board of his boat Mama-2 and helped by a crew of three others plus a guardian who stayed on Chocobo while we were away, took us through the meanders of the Indonesian jungle. But even though the rivers and the boat itself gave us at some point the impression of coming directly out of the movie “The African Queen” we must admit we were quite comfortable. The trip lasted two days and one night in the Tanjung Puting National Park and we slept comfortably on the deck, with a mattress of course, and a mosquito net. Do I need to mention that the Indonesian meals prepared by Ana were delicious?

The best way to see orangutans was to go to feeding stations where they offer them bananas. The boat would stop on a nearby dock then, after a 15 minute walk in a trail in the jungle, we arrived at a place where a platform was erected for the guides to place bananas they brought. Meal times being fix every day, the families of primates were sure to show up even if this means eating under the fire of the cameras and in front of twenty something peoples looking at them! But from the expression they had I believe that for orangutans as long as they had free bananas they were really not bothered if another group of primates was looking at them during their meal. They were also pretty agile in tree climbing and, even though they could be up to 8 times stronger than their homo-sapiens cousins, they still needed their four “hands” to climb. So, to take away some bananas for later consumption the female you see on the third picture had to use some imagination at the cost of her dignity it seems. But seriously is she greedy or what? She’s maybe a monkey but still!

But Tanjung Puting National Park is not only orangutans land. Scenery is beautiful and we saw from afar other monkeys with funny noses and even a jaguar! Apparently, no other tourists ever saw one in this region since they usually live about 25 km from there. The water was brown in the first part of the river as it is usually the case in rivers but we turned into one of the tributaries and the water then turned clear with a reddish tint. According to our guide, the brown color of the main river comes from the industrial byproducts of the gold mining activities upstream and of which the environmental practices may be debatable. Tributaries not having to suffer the effects of exploitation have clean water and the red coloration is naturally produced by the roots of the plants giving it a spectacular mirror effect reflecting the surrounding vegetation. Also, this region is populated by an abundance of butterflies of all kind such as this one who came resting on Danielle’s finger and stayed quiet long enough for me to even take a decent picture of it. We also saw butterflies with whitish wings measuring close to 20 cm (8 inches) across!

Once back on Chocobo we took the opportunity to give our guides a few gifts to show our appreciation of their good services. Nothing very fancy just a few lines we didn’t need any more, some clothes, toys and candy bags for their kids and a few things we needed no more. They were all pretty happy and thanked us more than once. After chatting, taking pictures and having a laugh for a while they left and I then came inside the boat and noticed that the temperature of the refrigerator was abnormally high. After a closer inspection we realized that the cooling unit was kaput! With a freezer full of meat and in a country with an average temperature of 30°C (85°F) day or night it was a catastrophe! The problem is not only money we also have to find replacement parts and it’s surely not in Kumai we would find that kind of parts. I then went to the village to find some ice to conserve our food until we get to Batam or Singapore where we’ll be able to fix. Yet again, not speaking Bahasa Indonesia makes things quite interesting. How do you describe ice in a village located almost right on the equator? Luckily, after a few twists and mimics giving the ladies I was speaking to the impression that I may have stayed too long with the orangutans, I felt on a guy speaking decent English and put my hand on 15 blocks of frozen solid ice. This would be nice for the moment but would it last long enough for the five days of our passage in the South China Sea to get to Batam our next destination?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting fuel.

This is Lembongan an island just a few miles East of Bali with a nice village and plenty of activities for the many tourists brought here every day from Bali by the big ferries such as the yellow one in the picture. We had no plans to stop here and the story I want to tell you is not about the place but the reason we had to stop here. It is about getting fuel. In Bali we moored at Bali Marina where they actually have a very rare infrastructure in Indonesia called a fuel dock at which we can attach the boat, pull the nozzle from the pump and just fill up the tank. Ahhhhh the beauty of modern technology! Of course this is in contrast with everywhere else where we need to find a guy who will come in his boat, sometime a dugout canoe, filled with jerry cans dating probably from the last ice age, and then siphoning it into the tank. This is a lot of trouble but on the other hand I must mention that the local guys who help us with this are very helpful and are not afraid to literally bend backward to help us with our fuel needs. As the marina guy asked me to do I went to see him the day before, which is the 14th, to tell him that I’d need about 200 liters of diesel fuel the following morning on our way out of Bali. He said, sure no problem. The next morning we were ready to leave and I went to see the guy to make sure no boat block the fuel dock and the person responsible for the fuel was ready. When I told him that we were ready he started to look a bit embarrassed and told me that he may not have all the fuel we needed. He showed me his register to prove that many people just came and empty the tank. I took a look and sure enough he had sold a couple thousands liters of fuel recently. But the date on the register showed this happened the 12th which was three days ago already but I didn’t notice that immediately as I was now focusing on the more pressing issue of getting fuel since we didn’t have enough to get to Borneo. He then pointed on the other side of the bay and told me I should be able to get fuel there right at the dock in Benoa. I looked and could barely see the tour he was pointing at but I thought I’d well find out once we get closer. We quickly left and headed toward the place in question. As we got closer we indeed saw the typical rectangular shape of a gas station sign with a large concrete dock. Of course it would have been way too easy if we only had to tight to it and refuel. For one thing we were at low tide and the dock was way too high for us to attach to it but anyway this was not even an option as the dock was completely occupied by so many other boats that they had, at some place, to attach up to three boats to each other, the first one attached to the dock the second one attached to the first one and so on. There was a large steal fishing boat attached directly to the dock and using signs we managed to get permission to attach Chocobo to her. We threw the lines to the fishing crew, climbed in their boat and finally got on the dock. There sure was a gas station here in Benoa but it was a regular gas station for cars and motorcycles with regular short hoses very far from the 100 feet I needed to get to the boat! The place around was quite rundown and there were people everywhere, all talking only Bahasa Indonesia, including a guy with something like 100 jerry cans probably emptying the station of all its gasoline. But what I needed was diesel, the only word I knew in Bahasa was “solar” meaning diesel and clearly I was not going to get fuel here. Plan A and plan B had failed I needed to be a bit more imaginative. I was maybe at the other end of the world, in a country I don’t speak the language, in a town looking like a deportation camp; we’d cross half the planet on a sailboat so I should be able to find fuel here no matter what! I came to a guy passing by and asked him “solar?” pointing at the tanks. With patience and using all the hand signs he had in his vocabulary he managed to tell me there was no diesel left in the tank, which corroborated what the fishermen tried to tell us earlier but we didn’t quite understood. Equipped with a sophisticated arsenal of hand signs I wanted to start debating with him about the socio-economical effects of such a shortage of fossil fuel in this Indo-Asian part of the world but all I managed to say is “Where else can I get fuel around here?”, which was complicated enough trust me. My good fellow pointed me in the direction but it was too complicated to make me understand where it was exactly and elected to lead me directly there himself. He then took me to a place and I looked around. From my foreigner’s eye it looked like a shed filled up with all sort of junk but I think down here they refer to it as an energy broker as there were old propane tanks and jerry cans everywhere. The lady behind the counter didn’t speak a word of English but she told me to wait a second. As I was waiting I took the time to take a closer look at her store and once my eyes got accustomed to the exotic decorating scheme the place started to look not as rundown as I first thought. In fact it was quite tidy; all propane tanks and jerry cans were piled properly. They were maybe old and not esthetically to the North-American standards but were clearly sound and proper. The lady finally came back with her cell phone, dialed a number, talked on the phone for a minute then gave me the phone. A man was at the other end of the line and appeared to be the lady’s husband and talked decent English so we could have understood each other easily if the phone had cooperated a little bit. Between the many “Can you hear me now?”’ I told him I needed 200 liters of diesel for my boat. “Do you have the jerry cans?” he asked. “Yes but only two 20 liter jugs, it’s not enough.” He sounded a bit embarrassed and I could imagine him scratching his head to find a way to help me. “The problem is the jerry cans I have have no lids” he muttered. I was too close to my most wanted combustible to be deterred by a technical detail such as having a proper lid on a container to carry an inflammable liquid. “Couldn’t we just put a plastic on the top with an elastic band or something?” and as you can see I started to know the trades of this part of the world. He talked to his wife for a second then she told me to go back to my boat, which I did. Danielle was waiting for me, “Did you get fuel?” she asked. “Well I think so.” “How much did you get? I’m not quite sure but I asked for 200 liters. So when would it be here? I have no clues; I guess we’ll have to wait.” And so we did and sure enough after about 30 minutes the lady showed up at the dock pushing a two wheel cart with 6 large jerry cans in it with their opening properly sealed with …. plastic bags and elastic bands! Helped by the fishermen we carried the jugs on Chocobo then I asked one of them if he wanted to give me a hand with the siphoning. After about 20 minutes all six jugs were emptied and filtered into our tank. I gave the young man a little monetary thank you for his help and Danielle gave him a glass of juice to rinse his mouth of the diesel he swallowed while siphoning it! I then spent about half an hour cleaning the cockpit from the inevitable spills that happen when we use this method of filling up and finally sat down. I was quite proud of myself that against all odds and in the middle of a completely alien place to me I managed to get the tank full of “solar” and be ready to go. But by the time we were out of the harbor it was already close to noon and we were not in the shape of leaving for an overnight of sailing to Kangean Island, our next anchorage on the way to Borneo, and decided to just cross the Badung Strait and spend the night in Lembongan; we ended up staying 3 nights! This story is just to show you that sailing may look from the outside like a long vacation but in reality it is hard work; what we take for granted should take 20 minutes always end up taking 4 hours and sometimes two days!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cremation in Bali.

During our tours in Bali we witnessed something pretty unusual, at least for us; the public cremation of a member of the royal family. While coming back from the volcano visit we ended up detoured by the local police blocking the streets for the funeral procession. Our guides parked the van nearby and we walked to the cremation area to wait for the remains to arrive. First, arrived the bull, which is a vessel for the dead to travel to the afterlife. The bull was carried by about 40 men and brought to the cremation site under the scorching sun strangely with a happy mood. Then another group of carriers arrived with the remains of the deceased who was then put inside the bull through a trap door on its back. Family members and friends added a few items inside the vessel and finally a gas torch was set under the bull and lit to begin the incineration. The temperature of the flame must have been relatively high because after approximately ten minutes there were not much left of the burnt remains. By then the belly of the bull had collapsed and the corpse, or what was left of it, felt hence giving us the gruesome sight of the carbonized body leaning with its legs still hanging in the bull! I save you to choose this picture for this post! In all fairness I don’t quite know how to describe how we felt about the whole ceremony and personally I still prefer to just send the remains of our loved ones to the cremation center and getting the urn back with the ashes instead of witnessing the whole burning process. But again, other peoples other customs.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The magical island of Bali.

After Komodo our logical next stop was the legendary island of Bali. This island, located in the southern part of Indonesia, is well known; tourism being the main economic sector. Prior to our arrival we thought Bali would be just another island in Indonesia. But quickly we realized that it is a place of its own and one of its main attractions is Balinese dancing. During a dinner show we attended one of the many dance shows presented across the island but unfortunately no picture would ever make justice to the sophistication of the moves in this dance. One after the other the four dancers demonstrated their skills in the mastering of the complex movements of the fingers, the eyes, the head and every other muscle they possess and seem to be able to move independently. Of course, I didn't miss the opportunity, at the end of the show, to get a picture in the company of the four pretty Indonesian dancers!

In addition to tourism Bali is also in the rice growing business but doesn't miss the opportunity to take advantage of the fusion of the two. For instance this terrace; although used to grow real rice it is so pretty that all the best view points are crowded with tourist stands and the whole nine yards. On the second picture we stopped along a regular rice field where we could have a closer look at the "sticky" rice, which is very tall, and the normal rice at about half the height. Obviously, for Asians seeing a rice plant is as common as seeing a corn cob back home. But for us, rice like bananas grow on the shelves of the supermarket! Putu, our guide, found it a bit amusing that we asked him to stop to look at the plant, probably the most grown in the world.

We can't separate Bali and religion. While the rest of Indonesia is mainly Muslim, with 240 million inhabitants this makes it the one of the largest Muslim country in the world, people of Bali are of the Hindu faith and we can apparently find over 1000 temples on the island to worship Brama (the creator), Wisnu (the protector) and Siwa (the destructor/reconstructor) although the other spirits are not left apart. Everywhere we can see the daily offerings, called canangs, people leave on their doorsteps in the morning to attract the favors of the good Gods or to keep away the evil spirits while trying to keep a balance between the two groups. The offerings in questions are almost always small square baskets about 15 cm (6 inches) on the side in which they put flowers and/or fruits and offer to divinities. Of course, if you are too busy to make your own canang it is possible to buy them already made at the local market! Apparently Gods are not very bothered on the effort. The only thing though is they put the offerings in the middle of the door hence we have to be very careful where we put our feet not to walk on the offering and, we can always suppose, attract on our host the wrath of the Gods! It is also interesting to notice that in the polytheist religions (with several gods) like this one or the ones of the Incas we saw in Peru, have a relationship with their divinities based on exchange and reciprocity while the monotheist religions (with a unique god) such as the Judeo-Christian religions have a relationship based on submission before a punishing god.

One of the most visited places in Bali is the Tanah Lot temple built on a large rock located in the sea close to the shore and accessible only at low tide. The temple itself is, of course, pretty but what is even more interesting is what tourism has done with it. Tourists gather here by hundreds every day and they inevitably attracted with them a myriad of vendors like this little girl who was selling a kind of doll on a stick. The girl in question seemed to be at the beginning of her vendor's career and, although we didn't ask, was probably of legal age to work in Indonesia! But the street vendors, or this one who offered to show us a "holy" snake in exchange of a few rupiahs, were nothing compare to the tourist boutiques at the site entrance. Normally, near a tourist interest point we would find a strip of boutiques selling the usual crap such as all kind of sculptures, masks, sarongs, t-shirts, postal cards and so on. But here it is an entire village of boutiques that we find with streets and all! In fact, the boutique site is larger than the temple one! We nevertheless felt for a vendor who offered us to take a picture of us with his large python. I volunteered to wear the little crawling beast at the neck while Danielle said "No Way!" and was happy to just take pictures of me.

Ubud village has a macaque sanctuary and we did a quick stop to visit our distant cousins. Ok well, at looking at some people on the street or in politic we may come to think that the inhabitant of the Ubud reserve are not cousins that distant but our goal here was to see monkeys and not to conduct an anthropological research on the origins of political men!

Art and workmanship are intrinsically part of Bali. Our guide took us to see wooden sculptures, jewelry making and basket or motorcycle . weaving. Wooden sculptures are characteristic of Asia, i.e. extremely beautiful and with an incredible level of details. Jewels were on the same line and while we couldn't afford to buy these beautiful nautiluses set with silver we still acquired two necklaces and two silver wire sculpture frames. However, the interesting part here is yet again the people. At the jewelry store prices were bits high but not excessive. But the saleswoman was giving us 20% off right away and clearly let us knows she was open to dealing. After a few minutes of back and forth with the price we would eventually converge on a price about 50% of the tag price making the purchasing quite attractive. Of course the negotiation was a bit difficult but was made in good faith and always with a smile. As for the wicker motorcycle we didn't buy it but Danielle always wanted one of these triangular hay hats Asians wear in the rice fields and we found a nice authentic one in a village market.

(photo7) We found these signs in every Hindu temple. It seems that menstruations have something impure for Hindus. (If the picture is not yet posted the sign says "Your attention please. During menstruation ladies are strickly not allowed to enter the temple. Thank you")