The land where I was born. Why on earth did it take me so long to get back here? Upon arrival at Bangkok airport, I found out that flight schedules had changed and I would have to wait 12 hours (at least) to get on a flight to Jakarta. So I walked around in several hundred circles, checked my email in 5 minute chunks with horrible metal keyboards that didn't work so well, ate random food I wouldn't have eaten otherwise, and read several hundred pages of Shantaram (what an incredible piece of literature!)
Finally made it to Jakarta at 6am on the 25th. Manggi and Wati, who had known me when I was too young to speak, were waiting for me, which I was and am and will be grateful for. They are both wonderful, and though it's been more than 20 years since I've seen them (I later found out I had seen Manggi in DC when I was about 10, which I don't remember at all, oops), I feel immediately comfortable with them and am happy to be in Jakarta.
This enchantment with Jakarta is probably due to the fact that they live in a beautiful compound with plenty of greenery, amazing homecooked Indonesian food, and I don't have to venture into the scary traffic and noise of Jakarta. Though it's not nearly as bad as Dhaka, thank goodness. I sleep a lot, given the fact that I had a very tiring day in Bangkok the day before, then I go with Wati to see the house I had lived in when I was born, we run some errands, and in the evening I go out with Manggi for dinner.
The next day, I fly to Manado in Northern Sulawesi and transfer to Bunaken. Still bleary-eyed, jet-lagged, and probably in a horrible mood, I was still impressed by the rich shades of green all around, and the friendly smiles of the people even when sitting through traffic jams. Arriving at the small harbor, I meet Sem, a boatman from Bunaken village nor learning to be a dive guide, and he has one of those wonderful smiles that fills half his face, and all the wrinkles on his sun-kissed face are the grooves that have been carved out by his smile.
What to say about Bunaken? Its turqoise waters, lush greenery, quiet lack of cars, and constant background of guitar strumming and singing is addictive, and sneaks up on you and then all of a sudden you realize you don't want to leave, that you'll do anything to stay even a moment longer.
Admittedly, I wasn't that excited at the beginning, due to exhaustion, humidity, heat, and hunger. The fantastic food and comfortable beds quickly changed that, and the next day I was all ready to dive.
And diving is the name of the game here. I've been spoiled and been fortunate enough to dive places that most people would envy; Sipadan most recently, and in the past, the Red Sea, Similan Islands, Galapagos (still the most enviable I must say), Cozumel, and a few other spots. In every other place, the operators boast of the richness of coral life (excpet in Galapagos where none is left after El Nino, but other things remain the star attraction of this heavenly archipelago) - but Bunaken blows them all away. Where other places have several species of coral growing side by side in an orderly fashion, the coral of Bunaken has an overgrown, wild sense; on one piece of coral, you'll see a completely different species on top of it, and then with assydians on the side, and then an anemone branching off of it, and then...it just goes on. It's mind-boggling, and it's incredibly heartening to see an underwater ecosystem that is still thriving so fully.
The diving is great because you don't have to go so deep; the multi-level dives usually start at 25m maximum depth for the first dive, then the second one goes to 18 or 20m. This means you can stay underwater for much longer than in some other places, and the majority of my dives were over 80 minutes. The last 20 or 30 minutes could be done at 5 or 7m, where there is so much color from the sunlight, and still so much to see. The diving in Bunaken isn't action-packed like in some places; in general, there aren't many big exciting animals to see, due to its location in Manado Bay, though you still get occasional sharks, turtles, and rays. The reason it is spectacular is because on every single dive, you will find something new; whether it's a nudibranch (sea slug) that you could not have dreamed the color combinations up for yourself, or a new type of coral, or some strange fish or crab that can barely be seen, the possibilities are endless.
There are more than 1300 species of fish in Bunaken, and still more being discovered frequently. I don't think I can even comprehend what the means in terms of biodiversity. Whatever it means, it is beautiful and breathtaking.
After 2 long dives in the morning, you return to the resort to have lunch, and usually, a nice afternoon nap. The island is so quiet and so utterly peaceful that you find yourself falling into the rhythm of the island. There are 3 villages, the largest being Bunaken village, with a large church, long pier leading out to the sea, and many many smiling faces. On the other side of the island is the smaller village of Tanjung Parigi, which retains a sense of being lost in the jungle, and emerging on Pantai Lintang, a beautiful beach where during low tide, the entire shoreline is covered in exposed coral.
The evenings alternate between quiet small groups playing guitar, and big birthday parties with plenty of palm-wine (SO), singing, and dancing with big speakers brought in by speedboat from the village. The people of Northern Sulawesi, who are majority Christian, are known for their love of music, and it is one hundred percent true. As soon as the music starts, it doesn't matter if you're staff or guest, male or female, everyone just starts moving. It's impossible not to fall in love with the place, and even more so with the people.
The people are so enthusiastic when they realize that you're making even the tiniest effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia. It's a charming language, with grammatical simplicity that makes you wonder why we had to invent gender, conjugations, and verb tenses. After every dive Kris, my fantastic guide, would practice with me words he had previously taught me and throw in some new ones; the rest of the day, every one else of the staff that wasn't too shy to run away from me would chat with me and laugh delightedly at my progress, or lack thereof.
I really didn't want to leave when the time came, but I know that I'll be back. It's a magical place, not only for what lies underwater, but as well for what is above.