At the lodge in eastern Indonesia

It’s just a nibble out of the jungle, this lodge, four guest cabins built Indonesian style with open eaves, a shelter that serves as the dining space and the housing for the TV and owners’ son’s toys, a roughed-in kitchen covered by a tarp set in a far away corner.

The owners and their young son sleep in a tiny hut just big enough for a mattress, the second hut built after the first one went up at half the specifications one week when he was away.  It sits there, posing a question, a storage closet with a roof twice its size.

It’s a camp, really, muddy, rocky ground to tread between cabin, dining shelter, boat, thickened with the heavy rain that comes every afternoon and night. The girls who serve the food and clean the huts march full across the site for every forgotten pancake or egg, every missing part for the game of breakfast. Every day we ask for two hard cooked eggs and two pancakes, and get four eggs and one pancake.

Expressing mild frustration or bemusement is a mistake, an affront to the expat owner. “What do you expect when you hire local people and train them,” he grouses. Diplomatic, I try to say that breakfast is one of those times when people like to get what they ask for, that they’re least flexible before coffee.  “Then they shouldn’t travel,” he says shortly.

Partly we are here so Finch can assess the place as a possible client destination, so the owner’s mulishness surprises me slightly. He’s been here in Indonesia a long time, has one successful lodge on another island, has already suffered from having to restart this one after a first site went wrong somehow.  He’s married to a whipsmart Indonesian woman, and they seem to buy land all over, securing it for conservation.  She has plans to start a kindergarten in the nearby village, trains local people to work for them, encourages them to plant more diverse fruits to sell for more money.

It all works, kind of, in a basic way, but there’s such a strange vacuum of accommodation at the centre, a kind of combination of directness and fatalism from decades of trying to create functioning space in the edge of resources.   The button on the toaster needs to be held down with an elastic band and still the power floats in and out. He shrugs as he watches me struggle with it —  “as soon as you buy anything in Indonesia, it breaks.”

The people who met us at the grotty, tiny stinking airport had nothing marking them as our contacts, didn’t have any English, and it wasn’t until we were transported to the dock for our boat ride across the harbor that we were certain we were in the right vehicle. The jetty was washed away in a monsoon months ago, and we have to wade through the water to get onto the dive boat. The marsh edges right up to our deck, harbor for what feels like dozens of stentorious frogs who start squeaking late afternoon and then thump an escalating drum beat from sundown to light. “Do you suppose they are actually IN the room,” sighs Finch, who never complains about conditions. “I think they’re in the eaves, poised to leap on us.” One night, one actually does.

The sheen of the place is supremely romantic, the mosquito net draped bed comfortable enough, wide enough, the room as breezy as steamy tropics get, the jungle held just at bay behind our bathroom wall.  The hammock on each porch, the cake or banana fritters delivered each afternoon, feel like luxury. The solar panels and constant rain provide an abundance of hot water, so hot that on sunny days we have to resort to the traditional Indonesian method of washing with great scoops of water from a bucket to sluice our delicate sunburns. The mosquitos are mostly at bay, the room constantly simmering with burning coils, the net mostly effective, though I end up with dozens of tiny itchy bites up and down my arms and legs, from some moment of inattentiveness.

We lie under the net, brown and burnt and used up by diving, listening to the calls of the willie wagtails that nest off the dock,  the prehistoric-looking hornbills overhead, the celebratory music for Christmas and new year thundering from the sound system in the nearby village.  Present to now, glad to be with each other, dipped with adventure.




 “That was from when I fell down in the forest.  You weren’t there.”

— Finch, to me, explaining a big gash on his shin. A sentence that could be repeated any number of days between us.  My life with an explorer-man.


We are birding in the rainforest, early in the trip, skin dripping under the layers that we hope will keep the mosquitoes off.  (They don’t). We left at 5 am to see a bird that unlocked the concept of evolution for Wallace, the man who independently and concurrently with Darwin came up with the theory.  Wallace sent his ideas to Darwin, Darwin panicked and scooped him and got our undying gratitude, and Wallace got nothing but a demarcation line.

We have our guide plus two other minions, carrying our breakfast.  Nasi goreng (brown fried rice with strips of cold egg) and a flask of hot water I add Starbuck’s instant to.  Christmas cookies with pineapple jam inside in a little glass jar. We eat in a little hut erected just for such purposes.

It has emergency water and mosquito coils cunningly tucked in its eaves.  I lie o the bench made of thin trunks and try to imagine making something like this.

The forest is dark, and Finch was right to tell me not to bring my big lens.  I see amazing birds — the standardwing bird of paradise, two or three types of parrot, white cockatoo, the prehistoric blyth’s hornbill — but never closely enough to photograph them.  They’re high up, and fluttery, and I feel so privileged to see them.

Finch tells me that many of the endemic birds need primary forest — the incredibly tall, first growth trees — in order to survive — for height and for diversity and plenitude of fruit.  The forests are being logged everywhere, and the owners of our lodge have bought big tracts for conservation.


“I do not know this trail.”

Finch is at his prowling best here, sniffing out an old logging trail that’s been regrown, striding off down it.  Our guide is uneasy, more concerned about returning us safely than letting us explore the area.  He’s never followed this trail, right off to the side of the hut.

I watch Finch’s ears twitch — “did you hear that sound like drums?”  He senses an invisible rail, the sound reinforced by the presence of sago palms, alert to the most subtle shift of habitat.  He points out what looks like a pile of dirt to me, the breeding space of dusky scrubfowl, who cooperate to build this nest area over generations.  I make the long-suffering guide stand next to it to demonstrate scale.

The guide grows increasingly uneasy, and Finch sends him back with me to the hut.  I saunter along, taking photos of Things I Can’t Identify

and the incredible lacy detail of this thick thick forest.

Back at the hut, I try to persuade the guide that Finch doesn’t need to be rescued.  He won’t listen, and sends a minion to find him.  As fully expected, Finch pops out in about 20 minutes, and the minion is lost for a while.  Minion #2 starts hacking at the vines to find him.


We reach our perfect balance on this trip, Finch taking himself out birding early while I sleep in, and then I join him for smaller doses.  On our last day, we drive up the winding main road,  looking in the highest canopy for Blyth’s Hornbills, the drab whistler, rufus bellied triller, huge Goliath coucal, red-cheeked and eclectus parrots, grey headed fruitdoves, Brahmin kite.


Locals buzz up and down on their underpowered motorbikes.  They’re curious about us, and our guide tells one pair briefly that we’re looking for birds.  Burung.  They are intrigued.  They buzz off, then come back, the most curious carefully tucking his banana cutting knife into the space under the handlebars.  The pair stands about four feet from us, watching us look up into the trees, looking up themselves, wondering what we’re looking at.  Burung?  They ask and laugh, watching us watch the birds.

One starts texting.  “He’s texting his friend to come and watch the white woman and the really tall man behaving like crazy people,” I say.  Five minutes later, another pair appears, pulls over their motorbike, join the first pair.  Burung!  They nod and laugh and watch us for at least 15 minutes.


14th Marine Dive


My 14th dive in Indonesia is utterly peaceful, the site mostly patch coral with a small wall, rich with tiny creatures, square and improbable sea slugs, schools of blue and yellow fusilier fish, swarms of jack and mackerel, spotted sweetlips, a lurking blue pufferfish below an anemone.  It’s all spread out here, what I’ve learned on every dive over the last week, how to see tiny nudibranchs as alive, something different from coral, the tiny black and white daschylus who swim just beneath the surface in the anemones and their accompanying clown fish. The first time I saw these, the brave small clown fish darted out to attack Finch’s head.  “This is my anemone,” the clear message.

On the lower part of the wall, I find larger fish lurking in the crevices of the coral, look for creatures like the painted spiny lobsters we found hiding the day before. I hear Saldi, the guide, grunting and shouting through his regulator to get my attention, signaling for me to come up a couple of metres and look into the murk.  He puts his palm upright over his head, miming “shark.”  I miss it, and he grins at me. (He thinks I’m hilarious because I jumped in the water wearing my sunglasses once, almost forgot my fins another time, tried to put my mask on over my glasses, couldn’t find my mask when it was on my head.  Apparently getting ready to dive makes me scatty).  I go back to gazing at the coral, mesmerized by the cosmos.

I’m relaxed on this dive, use the least air yet, descend at the right pace, spend the right amount of time inspecting my computer and my air gauge, stay connected to Finch without being neurotic about it.  When it comes together, diving is effortless, the closest thing to flying we can ever hope to come to.  The day before, at the end of the dive, we let the current carry us back down the reef, and I stretched out my arms and embraced it, flying under the sea.

On this dive, my buoyancy is in my hands, perfect pivots with my breathing, up so gently with the intake, down as I let it out and get lighter.  Every dive, I’ve learned something, the ease so paradoxically hard fought.  There is a lot to know, all of it technical, all of it dangerous, the knowledge and techniques imperfect, much of what feels like absolutes subject to fierce debate.  (Should you do your safety stop at the reef where it’s interesting, or off the reef where the boat can fetch you more easily? What does it mean to be a buddy, exactly — pair-bonding or loose coupling?)

On one dive, my mask kept flooding, and as I asked Finch to help me for a moment, as my mask filled further and I couldn’t see, unconsciously started finning upward, pulling both of us unsafely, too quickly up.  A lifetime of treading water to stay in place is so hard to unlearn in the muscles, so absolutely vital.  It wasn’t until I squinted through the stinging seawater and realized Finch was dumping air from his regulator that I realized what I was doing, stopped and headed for the reef to steady myself, apparently descending at the same time.  (Another huge mistake). One moment of trying to use a still raw skill, and totally consequential.  It could have been Very Bad for both of us.  On the next dive, I practice mask removal and regulator retrieval, back to the basics.

The same day, two dives later, I got swept under the boat as I rolled into the water, fiddling with my air release because I hadn’t added weight when I added another layer of wet suit and I couldn’t get down.  I finally succeeded in finning down, and Finch handed me a weight, I got down, we dived peacefully, and it wasn’t until we resurfaced an hour later that I realized that the boat’s propeller, turning slowly, had grazed my tank.
“We almost lost her,” shouted the owner of the lodge, blaming Finch entirely, perplexingly not addressing me at all.  “You are a terrible buddy. “ Worried, clearly, about endangering someone on his watch, but his ire completely misplaced, the incident my fault entirely for not swimming clear of the boat immediately.  Critical in choppy conditions like that dive, and something I just hadn’t been attuned to at all.

His reaction embodied Dutch directness, along with a weird objectification of me, either as a new diver or a small person or a woman, I don’t know.  The same impulse that made him grab my arm and tow me around every time he guided us, blurring the buddy lines and making it difficult for me to keep gaining competence.  Babysitting, not teaching,  unnecessary and irritating.

Fourteen dives, two or three alarming incidents I’ll hold indelible as critical moments of learning, fourteen hours underwater gaining the balance and steps and confidence that make me a diver.  Working out the idiosyncratic language of hand signs between me and Finch, signaling “pretty” and “so cool” and “I love you” just as important as “how much air do you have left?” Every dive more relaxed, more sure that I won’t hit the reef, that I don’t have to fin madly to move away from the coral, more able to hang motionless, assured, present to every hiding creature, every strange tiny shrimp, pygmy seahorse, every variation of coral more diverse than any surface garden, every miraculous silvery waterfall of fusiliers or  triggerfish. A whole world to know, the privilege to be in it.  I am lucky.

Mid journey

6:45 am, Dive boat to mining camp.

All the jetties on the harbour were smashed in a storm a couple of months ago, so we have to wade off the boat on a makeshift gangplank. The stones are sharp.  Hati hati, caution the boys, our dive boat crew and guides, as they have throughout our trip.  I apologize to Saldi for inadvertently getting him into trouble with his boss the other day and tell him he’s a wonderful guide.  He smiles huge.

8:00 am, mining company Twin Otter to nearest town with an airport.  We’re circumventing a 5 hour drive and a 1 hour boat ride.  I regret the boat ride a bit, the driver stepping lithely over our piled luggage with simian feet, inevitable cigarette dangling, on the journey out my first real sense of indonesia.

They weigh our luggage and our persons for the plane.  We had to pay for 3 seats because of our excess baggage.  I’m happy the scale is in kilos, which are a blur to me. We watch a briefing video, in Indonesian with English subtitles.  The survival kit is not a toy.

The mining company airstrip has tiny skinny cats, and one of the insignia-ed security guys feeds the cats the leftovers of his breakfast — fish, cabbage, rice — wrapped in brown paper.

8:30 am.  Landing in Ternate, we have to drag our luggage up improbable hills and ramps, in through the out door of the smoke-socked grungy baggage claim/  No smoking signs are everywhere, but the place is steeped in an acrid aura. The hour until our next flight is eaten up by a glacial slow check in process, a wrangle over the airport tax.  Both the tax collector and the guy manning the security gates have improbably long fingernails on their thumbs and forefingers on one hand.  I try not to associate this with the local practice of bum-washing with a hose instead of using toilet paper.  I fail.

About two hours after taking off.  We land somewhere else, somewhere in Indonesia, some transfer point in Sulawesi with a name that won’t stay in my head.  I find Magnum bars — first ice cream in two weeks — and Finch finds good coffee.  And our first wifi.  The coffee shop is abutted to a glass enclosed smoking box. A smug, portly man sits inside, smoking his way through his duty free, one after the other.  I ask the coffee shop man to close the door, but it’s a losing battle.  The smoke stays in my nostrils long after I leave.

Another two and a half hours later. We’re still in Indonesia, unbelievably.  We have several hours, so we leave the airport and take a taxi to a nice hotel and have a steak and a glass of wine. The cab driver asks Finch his age, and when he discovers Finch is older than he is, develops quite the boy crush on him.  He keeps making the hand gestures for nice muscles! and pulling on his hair and saying very good!  He seems to particularly like his nose.  I think he wants to take him home and show him off, but I want my glass of wine.

The lodge wasn’t exactly dry, but the insipid local beer was the only thing on offer.  The slightly sour australian red is delightful.  I almost lose my footing on the marble staircase and nearly tumble down.  Before the wine.  I’m losing my equilibrium here.

We cadge a ride on the hotel’s shuttle back to the airport, and check in for our next flight, which will pop us out here and there and eventually to London. The clerk weighs our bags solemnly, and we argue — they’ve been weighed many times today — and announces that we are 17 kilos over, even with the diving “allowance” of an extra 5 kilo each.  He sends us off to the cashier, who tots up our overweight charge — of $1092.  $65 per kilo or something like that.  We argue, we look for ways around — can we pay for an extra bag? Surely they want people to visit Indonesia to dive?  Does he understand this is the cost of the whole ticket almost?

Another guy gets involved, and Finch finally hits on the strategy of asking them to “be flexible” while counting out rupiah on the counter.  The guy goes to Ask the Boss, and comes back and says it’s okay.  Finch slips him the equivalent of $50, and we board.  We try to figure out if the first guy will get any of that, or just had to endure our wrangling.

About four hours later.  Another airport, still in Asia.  We have wine and bad sushi and I try to keep my eyes open and not think about the fact that we still have a 14 hour flight to London and then my 7 hour flight home to deal with.  I try to close my eyes and remember the diving but it’s too easy to see the end of the week, with the calendar that’s actually shifting in front of my eyes as LZ makes adjustments to my schedule that were made necessary by my business partner’s dad’s death this week.  I try to imagine sleeping sometime in one of those flights.

December 29, 2011

I saw a reef shark today, at 33m underwater. My first shark. My first deep dive. I’m only certified to go to 18m, but this lodge is casual and the owner, an instructor, accompanied me the whole dive.

We had to descend on a rope that’s already growing barnacles, other life, a reef in the making, fighting a current the whole way. There are no points to fix on when you can’t see the reef below you and only have a dim sense of light above, just the dark blue force of sea, the fuzzy rope, the divers below and above you.

It’s a very intimate thing, being in the air bubbles of another diver, feeling the tickle and fizz of the release of their breath surround you. My lover is below me, and I feel the reassurance of his bubbles. But descending on a line to a sea mount that only begins 30m below is primal, simultaneously intimate and so solo. Down there, it is just you, your gear, the sea, your hope that your instincts are the right ones. In a few flicks of your fins, floating off against the current could suddenly become a cyclone, a fight not to be swept off, up too quickly, away. A prime directive to never do anything that might put other divers in danger trying to rescue you. Hand over hand against the current, this kind of descent is almost the dive itself.

You draw so much air at depth, put your body in such strain, that you only stay at the reef 5 minutes or so, the feat in getting down and then back up again safely and slowly. Letting go of the rope on the reef is faith itself, edging gently toward the ledge that drops into the chasm of flashing schools of silvery fish, a lurking reef shark, huge Spanish mackerel, the predatory blue fin trevallies with their sharp arced tails. An abyss of nothing and everything, no firm ground, swirling winds of silver, blue, yellow, black life.

My guide lightly holds my wrist as we hover on the reef edge, points out the shark, the predatory lunges, the unexpected. It is all unexpected to me, darkest blue, oppressive, suspended, breathing, among the graceful interwoven schools. On the surface later, I think, ask for names of creatures, wonder how fish make flocking decisions, exclaim with delight. At 33 m below, I am just breathing, watching, trying to signal awe. At the reef, time is nothing, and I am just lungs, eyes, my heartbeat.

As we move back to the rope, my guide, who is taciturn on the surface can’t stop pointing out marvels. Two fingers pointing to his mask, then gesturing toward the fish. He wants me to see it all.

In most ascents, at most safety stops at around 5 metres to bubble off the nitrogen in your blood, there is reef and its endless tiny wonders to look at. On this kind of dive, there is you, and the rope, and your computer marking the flickers up and down of depth as the current shoves you, a physical effort to hang on long enough to surface safely. The current pushes you harder near the surface, hand on the boat’s underside to avoid being smashed into it, the air and the ladder and the deck the unpleasant splashdown to earth.