Friday, November 21, 2014

On To Raja Ampat - Things Really Get Interesting...

Nikko ferried us to the docks of Sorong early monday morning. Our plan was the catch the first ferry to Waisai Island that morning and return on the last ferry back to Sorong. From Waisai, we assumed that we would somehow find access to the marine preserve and fabled tiny islands of Raja Ampat.

Boarding the large ferry, we had plenty of company. Inside the boat where plush red velvet seats similar to what you would find on a nice bus or airplane. Loud karaoke seemed to be the morning's entertainment for the 2 hour passage to Waisai. The day before, we had made friends with one of the girls who worked on the ferry. She allowed us to pass through the wheelhouse and on to the open air front deck. There was no seating here save for some wooden slats. The front deck, however was open and gave us easy access for making photos along the way. The three of us, Mr. T, myself & Widi were the only passengers on deck... except for a man dressed all in black, wearing a black ball cap with a gold medallion and carrying a black leather "man-purse" emblazoned with the same gold medallion. He kept to himself, chain-smoking kreteks as we found our places and readied for departure.

Mr. T, immediately upon spotting the stranger in our midst, nudged me and whispered "keep an eye on that guy... he's somebody". We all assumed he was some government official. Later, we would find that our assumption was correct.

As the boat prepared to cast off it's mooring lines and leave the harbor... straggling passengers continued board via a rickety gangplank. Even as the ferry began pulling away from the docks, a couple of last minute passengers made the last minute leap, clinging desperately to handrails along the side of the boat until they found steady footing.

As we finally left the docks and made our way out of the harbor, we were granted front row views to the waterfront of Sorong. Unfortunately the morning was grey and hazy. We hoped for better conditions once we were out to sea and on our way to Waiego Island. The ferry crossing would take just a little under 2 hours.

About halfway through the trip, the mysterious man in black, still puffing on kretek after kretek, began to strike up conversation with us. He proved to be friendly and talkative and we quickly learned that his name was "M" and that he was the head of Indonesian National Intelligence... the head "spook" for all of Indonesia. Learning that I was an American, he seemed to take great interest and began telling me how he had just been with our Secretary of State, John Kerry. Kerry had been in the country for the inauguration of Indonesia's new President Jokowi. As we talked further, we learned that M was meeting another top Intel friend and the Chief of Police in Waisai, Waiego Island's capitol. They were there on official business but M was also in the process of developing a small eco-dive resort on the island. He then offered to give us a ride from the docks once we arrived on Waiego.

The ride on the ferry was smooth, fast and uneventful. Our new friend was very talkative and once we arrived in Waisai, as promised, M and his friends picked us up at the ferry terminal and drove us into town.

Sadly, the skies were no clearer in Wasai than when we had left Sorong. We piled into the car, M's companions stuffed themselves in the far back, Mr. T and Widi occupied the back seat and I was given the front passenger seat next the M. 

Waisai looked like a frontier town just on the front edge of a boom. There were the usual rustic storefronts and food stalls found everywhere through asia but there was a more organized feel of development about to happen. M took us to a large, new hotel where he planned to stay during his time in Waisai. The place had a big minimart and modern looking restaurant and was situated a block from the town's waterfront. M suggested we stay the night in Waisai rather than return to Sorong that afternoon as were our plans. We considered his suggestion and took a look at the rooms... barren, sterile and cold. From what we could see from the drive into town, this was not what we had come looking for and, at that point, decided we would stick with our original plan of returning by afternoon ferry.

M looked disappointed but decided that he would become our guide for the remainder of the day. First, he guided us across the road to a large, newly developed and very modern, recently built public park... now in disrepair and a state of decline. The park, we learned, had only recently been completed. There were large water features left dry and with giant dolphin sculptures. A giant electronic jumbotron rose on a scaffold between the coco palms, the large, wide walkways were paved in mosaic stone & lined with wooden lighting towers that no longer worked.

M informed us that $8 million US had been spent creating the park. It had been nice & functional for about a week. Former Indonesian President SBY had flown in to make a speech here and dedicate the park. Once the former president returned to Jakarta, the park had been abandoned. The place was surreal... an idea far ahead of its time. We saw no signs of life there other than a couple of young people lying the the shade of one of the pavilions scattered around the property.

Heading back to the car, the three of us were left scratching our heads over the waste and immediate decline of what could be a magnificent waterfront for what appeared to be a very small town.

Driving around with M, we could see that Waisai was, indeed, on the cusp of a boom... a holiday resort for scuba divers at the gateway to Raja Ampat. Everywhere we drove, land was being cleared for small hotels, an airport, shopping centers. M took us to his property, just on the other side of the ferry terminal. The land was still being cleared and M described to us his plans for small wooden huts on stilts that would extend out over the crystal waters and coral gardens. We were also told that all available land along the coast had been scooped up and about to undergo similar development. 

It turns our M had a plan. His plan did not involve us returning to Sorong that afternoon. Shortly after leaving his property, we followed the road along the coast, eventually ending up at a beachfront dive retreat called Waiwo Dive Resort. The word "resort" might be stretching things a bit but the place had a certain charm as we wandered down a shady path of coral-lined sand, among a cluster of small wooden bungalows, eventually emerging from the forest at a magnificent beach, complete with long wooden pier, water as clear as glass and colorful fish everywhere you looked. Small islands drifted offshore but still, this didn't look like the Raja Ampat I had found on the internet. Making inquiries with M, I learned that to see these islands, we would need to charter a motorized long boat for the day at a cost of roughly $600US. None of us had brought that much money with us as we had only planned to be there for half a day.

Then M grinned widely and told us he had already chartered a boat for early morning the next day. If we would change our plans and spend the night, we would be his guests. The idea sounded promising but we had already booked flights to fly back to Bali from Sorong on the following afternoon. When we informed M of this plan, he smiled, shook his head and said "no problem". After all, this was head of National Intelligence for of all of Indonesia. He "knew" people. He took out his cellphone, made a call and hung up. Then he informed us that our flight had already been changed and our tickets would be waiting for us at the airport... no additional fee. OK... this seemed like an offer we could not refuse. I would be a returning to Bali a day later than planned but still had four days to conclude my business there and check on production. We looked around the property some more, then decided to stay at this retreat for the night. 

M shook our hands at the wisdom of this decision and we checked in. As we had not brought clothes, toiletries, etc. M then suggested we carry on with our tour by car and on the way back to the beach, he would take us back to the other hotel where we could grab toothbrushes, etc. We grabbed our cameras and wandered back up the path to the road and waiting car.

First stop... M decided to treat us to lunch at a Maskan Padang style warung in town. These places cook a days worth of food early in the morning then stack plates of the daily offerings in the front window of the warung. You simply grab a plate and help yourself, cafeteria style. The food was excellent and we were happy to eat something besides fish for a change. After lunch, M and his friends continued on as our tour guides and showed us all around the island, then took us to the mini-mart to secure necessary items to spend the night and then back to our lodgings late in the afternoon. M and his friends stayed with us and we all headed out to the pier for some swimming and snorkeling. The water surrounding the pier was like an aquarium... fish everywhere and water clear as can be... other asian tourists staying at the dive lodge were also out enjoying the scenery, warm afternoon air & water.

Once the sun had set, M and his companions suggested that they drive us back into town & treat us the a grilled chicken dinner at one of his favorite warungs on the island. M assured us he would return us to the hotel after the meal and that we were to meet him and the chartered long boat on the pier the next morning at 7am. Dinner was exceptionally good and we talked and laughed with our new best friends for a couple of hours before, as promised, M dropped us back at our hotel on the beach.

Mr. T and I shared a bungalow that night and slept like logs, excited for what we might see and do the following day.

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