Landed at sunrise at a tiny airport in forest drenched Sorong with a rusted roof on the one carousel baggage claim area filled with porters.
Took an ojek ride past markets and trash-free streets and Papuan women’s slow smiles, massive silver, gold and blue mosques interspersed between churches topped with towering crosses, kids in blue and green school uniforms marching, yellow bemos blaring music, and two people asking if I know their friends: Alex and Tom from America.
Bugs crawled on ferry walls while a Middle Eastern musical with Indonesian subtitles played. Arrived in Waigeo and Waiwo Dive Resort to sandy paths weaving between rainforest overlooking brilliant blue waters, a crab skittering across my porch, mosquitos the size of horse flies, and the resounding music of bird calls: Welcome to Papua.
Waiwo sent a driver to come fetch me, so when I got off the ferry and was swarmed by men offering rides, I explained I was awaiting the Waiwo driver.
“Oh yes,” a skinny man with a stained shirt said in perfect English, “They sent me. What was your name again; I’m sorry I forget. I am your ojek to Waiwo.”
I stared at him dubiously when a voice called, “Sara!” from a car in the lot. Nice try clever ojek driver.
In typical “Sara in Indo” fashion, I fall sick: stabbing pains throughout my digestive track, so I spend the day in bed, windows open. The waves roll against the shore. Birds call. One sounds like a high-pitched siren and last 3-6seconds at a time. At first I thought it was someone’s alarm, then realized it was emanating irregularly from the forest. Another bird makes the most beautiful 6 note call I’ve ever heard. Cicadas pulse. In the distance, speedboat motors.
To help with my belly, the staff agrees to substitute out the sambal slathered fish and oil drenched vegetables for white rice, boiled eggs, boiled veggies and bananas. Dinner is beautiful: hard boiled egg, potatoes, grilled Spanish Mackrel (“No oil—grilled like in Bali”) and a gorgeous apple.
Raja Ampat is a collection of breath-taking, forested islands in a vast expanse of ocean. Schools of thousands of fish jumped in the distance, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have seen small groups of fish jumping before, maybe 20-100 fish. This was thousands moving in vast, arching ribbons. My guides thought my reactions odd: growing up with this bounty, they have no idea how touching it is to see for the first time.
Our first stop was Arborak Village.
Putting on my snorkel gear and jumping in after Jecky (my amazing guide—a Master Diver who has over 2,000 dives logged), I almost burst into tears. 1000s of fish in a beautiful underwater dance.
I flashed on Evan and I visiting the Colombia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon where there was information about the salmon that drew people to the area; salmon so thick people were said to be able to walk on salmon backs across the Columbia River (which is 14m wide between Astoria and Megler, WA). Raja Ampat is the world before huge salmon hatcheries and massive fishing industries cause devastation, which makes it both feel magical in its healthy vibrance and terrifyingly fragile.
A brilliantly colored nudibranch.
The largest lionfish I have ever seen. A scorpion fish tucked back and camouflaged so brilliantly, I never would have seen it without Jecky.
My first school of bat fish.
Pipefish (like snakes that nearly blend into the sand).
A dozen giant clams with vibrant colors.
I was blown away; by far the best snorkeling I had ever done in my life was under one little dock off Arborak Village.
I got out my notebook, wanting to record all the life we had seen. As Jecky was helping me to remember, I saw a massive crab 2x the size of my hand crawling on the dock. “Crab!” I yelled excitedly, writing it down. He laughed, shaking his head. “Crab…”
His sister-in-laws appeared on the island, well-dressed (loose-fitting, sun-protecting island wear) with big hats and huge smiles.
They loved teasing Jecky. They chatted, and then we were off. 100m from the dock, our engine stopped working. Jecky took out tools and started tinkering while I watched the island, the waves. 100s of fish nibbled just below the surface, so you could hear slapping and see bubbles rise.
It became clear after 15min Jecky was going to need a little time, so he paddled us in towards the shore. I explored with Jecky’s sister-in-laws: villagers chatting under bale, dirt road, women weaving palm leaf, a naked four-year-old girl with sun-dyed red hair manically chewing on sugar cane, sucking the juice out of the stalk and then spitting the rest out.
Once Jecky fixed the boat, we headed to Yembuba Conservation Area.
Again, so much life! Schools of fish (not nearly so many as our first stop, but here instead of 1000s of a single species there were schools of 100s of various species, looping in and out of each other).
Many trigger fish (which I cautiously avoided after being bit by one in Menjangan). A leatherback turtle with a patchwork pattern that we watched rise to the surface, and then dive back down again, camouflaging with its surroundings.
Huge schools of barracuda.
Sweet lips. Unicorn fish. A giant leopard fish hiding under a rock.
My first shark! A black tipped reef shark swam underneath us, and then looped back a second time before receding into the darkness.
Jecky pulled on my leg, pointing intensely: a massive morey eel swam below us and then curled into a crevice between two rocks, looking out threateningly.
Bat fish. Parrot fish. A massive Napoleon. Brilliant.
Boating away from the island (where our motor almost did not start again), there were kids paddling about in boats. A man fishing with a rainbow umbrella as sun protection.
Our last stop was a sandbar
where another boat was already docked and a crowd of people laughed and played in the water: Jecky’s family. As soon as we had landed, they asked Jecky to ask me if they could take pictures. There were photo shoots with separate members of his family and then big group shots. A little girl maybe a year and a half old, was handed to me, and as I held her she started at me with wide eyes, one wrong move away from tears.
They left with huge smiles and waves, and we snorkeled. The current was so strong that we started at the far end of the sandbar, swam out as hard as we could, and then let the current wrap us around the incline. Because of the speed of the current and the shallowness of the water, I didn’t think there would be much to see, but again the area was teaming with life. Tons of “nemo fish” (as Jecky called them—talk about a movie that has powerfully integrated itself into the language of the global culture) slipping in and out of the anemones.
On the way back, hawks dipped. A constant call of birds between the drone of the motor, and I wrested with competing desires to have people see this beautiful place and an intense fear that it will be exploited and destroyed within my lifetime: the trees razed, the islands mined, and the fish populations decimated. Maybe Raja Ampat’s saving grace is it’s remote location; maybe that will help keep the pressures of development at bay.
Another huge benefit the area has is the clear belief in conservation. Instead of selling me plastic water bottle after plastic water bottle as they do across the rest of Indonesia, all their water is treated and boiled and given to you in a glass or refilled. I have watched people here very consciously put trash in trashcans instead of discarding it on the ground or dropping it in the ocean, as I have seen so many people (people I respect, well-educated women I work with) do in Bali.
In 2007, seven marine protected areas covering 9,000 sq km were set aside to protect the area from the dynamite and cyanide fishing ravaging Indonesian reef. In 2010 the entire 50,000 sq km area was declared a shark sanctuary and rays are also protected species. (Lonely Planet Indonesia, May 2013).
Thriving, wild and beautiful Raja Ampat; my favorite part of Indonesia.