Tuesday, September 15, 2009

All At Sea

Heading northwards through Sulawesi we cross the high central mountains and descend to Lake Pozo. These parts have had their fair share of conflict in recent years with fighting between Christians and Muslims, attacks on mosques and priests, buildings burnt and destroyed. It seems to have settled down and the locals are keen to show that their are no problems. Well, in Pendolo, nothing but the usual power outtages and water cut-offs. We have a nice bungalow on the shore of this huge lake and want to stay a couple of nights, but when we ask about the lack of water the friendly old fella who runs the place just smiles and points at the lake. Does he mean we should shit there or just wash? We move on to Tentena instead.
This dusty village is on the northern side of the lake. Ramadan has just begun but because there's a large Christian community it's possible to find restaurants open. It's a mixed blessing. The food's not great but it is food. There is rain, which makes a change, and we spend our extra day here despite there being absolutely no good reason to. The advantage of being in a large Christian community becomes a disadvantage when we try to leave on Sunday morning. There are no buses. After a very long while we manage to wave down a car and agree a fare to Pozo. Pozo bus terminal is derelict, isolated and virtually deserted. Like the shop owner in Mr. Benn, a man appears from nowhere at our elbow, eager to help us on our way. He speaks good English so we suspect he is used to seeing tourists coming through and getting stuck here. He is our only source of information about the local buses but we just don't know if we can trust him or not. So we don't. Instead we walk back to a road junction where there's a police post and ask them for help. They are game and soon start whistling down any public transport heading towards Ampana. But nothing's going that far. Eventually a guy in a car pulls up. He asks for a huge sum of money to take us. We laugh in his face and walk away. He follows us and we haggle seriously. It's obvious the cops want us to go with him, despite his rather manic appearance. Finally we agree a price and hurtle off. The driver has a young lad with him and tells us he is crazy, but they both look bonkers to us. He drives like a mad fool and gets us to Ampana in super-quick time. No food 'til sundown though. We're starving.

Ampana is the port for boats to the Togean islands which sit in the huge 'C' of Sulawesi. We take a loaded wooden boat full of people across flat waters to the nearest big island - a three hour ride - and get dropped at Poya Lisa, a tiny island just across from the village of Bomba. There's only four bungalows here and we are the only guests. The food is prepared in the village and brought over on the boat - it's all a bit rustic and simple, but perfect for us. The waters around the island are calm and clear and even I'm tempted to snorkel a few times. Fishermen paddle past on the look out for anything edible. The week passes peacefully and uneventfully, if you don't include the rat in the rucksack. Just before we leave we are joined by Emilio and Fabrizia. Emilio serenades us in the evenings with his violin whilst Fabrizia keeps us laughing with laments about Berlusconi. When it's time to move on, Ris, one of the staff, takes us by motor boat up the coast to Wakkai port where the weekly ferry calls in. The ferry is a small rusting bathtub, belching black smoke, and overrun with people either boarding or alighting, loading or unloading. The locals quickly grab the spare bunks, whilst some tourists go for cabins. We opt for the small open deck on the prow. After a delay at sunset as everybody breaks the fast with some fast and frenetic chowing, we chug off. We have three more stops before the boat finally pulls out into the open sea heading northwards to the town of Gorantalo. The moon is up, the sky is clear and the stars are out. This is the way to travel, we congratulate ourselves. We stretch out on the deck with a few others and fall asleep. I awake sometime later conscious of my head bouncing on the deck. I feel distinctly nauseous. The bow of the boat is rising and falling sharply, slamming into the water relentlessly. I stagger to the railing and cling on. The boat is rolling from side to side. A small girl has emerged from the lower deck and is fast asleep oblivious. Gayle and a French couple have now risen and decide to seek refuge inside at the back of the boat. Before they can get inside they join me for a collective heave over the port side. My legs are like jelly and I struggle to follow them, but eventually find a seat by an open window out of which I stare alternately at the horizon or the moon, depending on the tilt of the boat. Here I pass a sleepless night. After the longest night imaginable we spot land and reach calmer waters. As the sun rises so do the passengers. There are many green and weary faces, with tales from travellers who were stuck on the roof. Even the crew look relieved to reach port. A terrible terrible journey. Gorantalo, a sleepy town with a clutch of old Dutch buildings, becomes our favourite Indonesian town. We are so happy to be ashore.

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