Thursday, June 9, 2016

Captain Summoned Ashore!

Today my blog will be a three-part adventure for the simple reason that there are three separate stories to be told. I need to relate our continued encounters with the local Indonesian authorities. Of course, I need to relate our expedition experience going ashore to visit a small village, and finally, I need to give an update on the medical condition for both Lisa and myself.

Let’s start with the official encounters. As you know when I last wrote, it appeared that every time we turned around the local Indonesian authorities wanted to board the vessel for one reason or another, and there seemed to be an ongoing series of discussions regarding some paperwork issue or other. I think everyone on board felt that that issue had more than been resolved. However, after our morning visit ashore at the village of Yenwaupnor, when the ship attempted to raise anchor and reposition to a nearby island for our afternoon activities, a patrol vessel suddenly appeared off our bow, and an official was waving his hands and making an “X” sign to indicate that we were to go no further.

Now understand that everything I am relating here is coming to you third hand; I did not actually witness all that occurred; and I can only share with you what we were told; and what we ourselves heard later. Believe it or not the local officials had the gall to once again board the vessel and indicate that we in some way had violated Indonesian waters without authority. I gather that discussions went on for some significant period of time during which phone calls, and emails flew back and forth in an effort to resolve the issue. After an extended period of discussions, some kind of resolution was reached with the officials who had boarded our vessel, and they returned to their boat having given us clearance to conduct the afternoon’s activities. No more had they departed our vessel, then they themselves apparently received instructions from their base commander that the negotiations were not acceptable to him, and they were directed to return to our ship. Now, get this! Not only were they directed to return to our ship, but they were also directed to bring back to their base the Captain of this ship, and one other senior officer. Such a journey even by high-speed zodiac would have required 40 minutes. In the 55 cruises or so that Lisa and I had done, I had never before heard of the Captain essentially being ordered off of his ship. More negotiations took place, and the offer was made for the local official himself to come visit the ship since the Captain had responsibilities on board which did not permit him to depart the vessel. That was unacceptable, and after a very tense standoff, the local official apparently threatened that unless the Captain appeared in his office immediately the matter would be turned over to police authorities, and the vessel would be forced to immediately undertake a two-day voyage under guard in order to resolve the matter at some district office or other. Not appearing to have any alternative, my understanding is that the Captain along with the Chief Financial Officer set out in a zodiac as demanded. Before they reached the shore however, our ship received instructions from the Home Office of Silversea which is located in Monaco that the Captain was to return to the ship immediately. Silversea took the position that all of the paperwork had been completed appropriately, and that they had thorough documentation. They also were in contact with Indonesian officials at a higher level. I don’t know exactly how the entire matter was ultimately resolved so that everyone saved face, but I do know that late in the afternoon we were finally given permission to continue with our snorkeling and diving operation. You would think that Indonesian authorities would appreciate the large amount of tourism and money that this cruise line brings to their islands, and all that we can imagine is that this really has to do with local feuds and between districts and the federal government. In any event, we finally concluded our activities in Indonesia, and are now today at sea headed towards the country of Palau.

So allow me to return to my second narrative, which relates to our delightful visit yesterday to the village of Yenwaupnor. The village is located in the Dampier Strait on the Island of Gam. This area, and indeed this village is world famous as being a location where one can view Birds Of Paradise in the wild. I had heard of these beautiful creatures, but did not realize that they inhabit such a small range on the planet. In large, they are confined to the island of New Guinea, and some of the surrounding territory. For those hardy adventurers who were willing to brave the strenuous journey through the forest, in the dark, to the top of the mountain side next to the village of Yenwaupnor - they might be able at sunrise to catch a glimpse of the fabled birds in full display. While all of this sounded interesting to me, the idea of leaving the ship around 4:30 in the morning, and climbing up a steep mountain trail in the darkness in the hopes of getting to see a bird – well, it just wasn’t my “cup of tea.” There were, however I understand about 12 hardy adventurers from our passengers who, along with the expedition team, made the journey. According to the Expedition Leader afterward, they were fortunate enough to have observed perhaps the best display that he had witnessed in his career. So I guess this is one I will have to see on the DVD offered by the ship after we get home.

In any event, at the more reasonable hour of 8:30 am, we were invited ashore to witness a cultural performance by the residents of the local village. Sadly, Lisa was restricted to the ship, but I did make the journey. It was a relatively short 20 minute zodiac ride across crystal clear waters to reach a very long wooden jetty onto which we could make what is known as a dry landing. Right from the jetty you could look down through the water to the coral reef below, and see fish and giant clams along with even a blue starfish or two. The water was so clear, and the sun so bright that essentially I was snorkeling without even having to get my feet wet. At the end of the long pier, there awaited a line of local women who were playing drums and flutes to welcome us to the village. The drums didn’t surprise me, but the flutes did. In fact, this entire village seemed to be quite musical with a large variety of instruments in use.

Once we were all seated in a semi-circle, members of the village proceeded to put on a very lively performance that reminded me somewhat of being in the Caribbean by nature of the beat they used. They were laughing, smiling, and in general everyone was having a good time. In fact, I even heard one story from a local who related that since today was a school day, the young people who were there had to have their parents’ permission. Early in the morning, I understand that young children were begging their parents to be allowed to attend the performance and not to have to go to school.

After about 30 minutes, the performances ended and there followed a demonstration of local cooking techniques, and an opportunity for members of our team to try local cuisine. We were also at liberty to wander around the village, which I did. I was surprised at how clean I found everything. I walked down Main Street, and once again it was lined with railings on both sides behind which were clean neighborhood yards. There was a nice school which was in session, and there was a beautiful church, which I believe was Catholic. Everyone seemed very grateful that we were visiting. When you get a chance to look at my photographs, I think you’ll find that I had an exceptionally good day and managed to bring home “some real keepers.”

After returning to the ship for lunch, the unpleasantness of local officials occurred, and after that was resolved many of the people on board went snorkeling and diving. Unfortunately neither Lisa nor I were allowed to join in those activities. Both of us are still being bothered by significant breathing problems relating to asthma and bronchitis. Our room looks somewhat like a medical clinic complete with nebulizers, oxygen tanks, and blood pressure meters. There is one cute story that I do have to share. The photographer on the ship is a good friend that we have met on other cruises, and for this cruise he has for the first time brought along a drone from which he is able to take aerial photographs. He has been very excited to share this with me and to let me operate his new toy. Unfortunately, we just never had an opportunity until yesterday. So I begged the doctor to allow me to go ashore in the afternoon simply for the purpose of playing with the new toy, and promising to return as soon as I could thereafter. Reluctantly he agreed, and inwardly I said to myself – I won! I was so happy at finally being given permission to go outside that I walked out to the pool deck to take a breath of fresh air and as I did so, I immediately started to cough and hack as the warm moist air filled my lungs. Who should come around the corner just as I am in a hacking cough – the ship’s Doctor! With a sly smile on his face he quietly says, “Well, I guess you’re not going ashore today.” So, I will just have to get to play with the drone another day, or else buy my own.

As in all good things, there comes a time when our adventures must come to a close. This will be my last blog for this journey, and I do hope that all of you have enjoyed traveling with us from Australia across the South Pacific to Palau. It has been a wonderful time, and I simply cannot emphasize strongly enough how wonderful every member of the crew on this ship has been to Lisa and me. They have gone out of their way to accommodate our every need, and I genuinely feel as if they have in many ways become family.

Tomorrow afternoon the ship should arrive in to Koror, the Capital of the island nation of Palau around noon. Because we are arriving slightly sooner than planned, activities have been set up for the afternoon. Lisa and I are going to spend our time in the cool environment of the ship, and prepare to depart the following day. We will leave allow around 4 AM on June 12, and fly to Tokyo. From there, we will have a long layover before catching a nonstop flight to Minneapolis, and there we have a short wait until catching our flight onward and we will arrive into Kansas City late on the afternoon of June 12. So even though we are traveling halfway around the world, we will arrive on the same day that we left, thus gaining back the day that was “lost” on our flight over.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Busted By Customs and Immigration


Out of nowhere on a quiet afternoon at anchor in a beautiful tranquil bay known as Triton Bay, Indonesian authorities roared up to our ship and boarded us. I saw their vessel approach, but missed most of the later drama. It appears that these officials, for whatever reason, believed that we had entered Indonesian waters without official clearance. I gather that the situation was somewhat tense as they demanded the ship take up anchor and sail all around the island from where we were located to a town on the other side where proper clearance could be obtained. Such a relocation would have taken two days, and would have ruined the carefully planned schedule followed by cruise ships. While “discussions” took place all the planned activities ashore had to be suspended while we waited to learn the outcome. Eventually things were resolved, and the drama was over. I never did learn if in fact this was indeed a real breakdown in communication as it was described to us, or if it was what I might term a local “shakedown.” Either way, it provided some drama.

During our time at anchor that morning in Triton Bay, our adventure began immediately, when whales were spotted all around our ship. Once setup, the expedition team took everyone on a two hour long zodiac ride into the back tributaries of this gorgeous water paradise. Triton Bay is in West Papua, Indonesia. It is world renowned for its underwater beauty, and is a favorite for divers and snorkelers worldwide. I might add that even if you just cruise the back waters, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the natural beautiful. There are towering limestone cliffs, surrounded by clear blue-green waters. In fact, to enjoy the corals and fish, one only has to look down from a sitting zodiac since the reef and its inhabitants are clearly visible--so clear is the water. I really was sad when it came time to return to the ship, but in all honesty, I was starting to suffer from the heat.

You see, I managed to catch the bronchitis which Lisa has, and before long each of us has green stuff and hacking coughs. Before we realized it, Lisa was starting to have deep coughs from her chest, and difficulty breathing. Well, what is good for one, is good for both, and before long I am right in there with her. At this point, we have both become good friends with the Doctor on the ship, since he has been coming to our room throughout the day to give nebulizer treatments. First it was just for Lisa, but then he caught my cough, and after listening to my chest, I, too, am subjected to his torments. For this reason, Lisa did not get off yesterday morning for the zodiac ride, she was just too sick. I made the ride, but paid for it when I got back to the ship. It appears that our infections are not all that bad, but they have triggered our asthma in a bad way. So, yesterday when everyone finally got to go diving and snorkeling, we got to stay in our rooms. This morning we have each had our treatments, so we’ll see. I bet ours is the only room in the ship with its own nebulizer and oxygen equipment!

Before I close out today I do wish to relate an incredible story about an act of kindness by one of the expedition team. You will recall that yesterday when we visited Agats Village, Lisa and I were not able to physically make our way across the rickety boards placed over the swamp between our boardwalk and the men’s ceremonial hut. The significance of this was not merely that we never got to see the inside of the hut, but it was that inside that hut was for sale some prized local carvings that Lisa had been hoping to acquire for her collection. This was the only place that “good” art would be for sale. It was a big deal to come prepared, because the locals would only accept Indonesian Rupiahs, and so our ship had arranged for a special currency exchange on board to allow us to be ready. So far, we have not purchased any souvenir items, thus Lisa’s excitement at finally getting something unique and valued. While we were in line to exchange currency, a member of the expedition team was standing behind us and in our conversations, he became aware of Lisa’s interest. So, fast forward – we could not get to the ceremonial hut, and indeed, there was nothing else that we saw that was of any interest. All our efforts and hopes were in vain; that is until the expedition member approached Lisa this morning, and said that upon learning of our predicament, he had purchased a nice piece which he thought she might like, and if she did, he would gladly let us buy it from him. Not only was the item unique and just what we would have bought, but he both managed to buy it from the Chief, and as only a member of the crew can do, bargained down the price to a ridiculous level. So, now Lisa is one happy camper, with our only challenge finding a way to get the rather large object home!

Today, Sunday June 5th where we are, the ship is traveling full speed towards MacCluer Gulf, Indonesia. Once at anchor, then this afternoon we will be offered the opportunity to visit two separate local villages. So, stay tuned while I put this on pause, and rest for the adventure ahead.


Monday June 6, 2016

Well, what an experience I had yesterday afternoon. Once anchored safely in MacCluer Bay, we set out by zodiac to visit Arguni Village, a small, mostly Muslim community of roughly 1,400 people nestled in a small corner of the Gulf. As it turns out, this was the first time Silversea had come to this destination, and it was the very first time the little village had been visited by a cruise ship. So, it was a very BIG event for the locals, and we later learned that they had been up since 5 am preparing their little community for our arrival around 3 pm.

As we sped across the Gulf on a 30 minute ride across smooth water, local boats which had been elaborately decorated began to make their way from shore to greet us. On board most of these boats were percussion musicians, all of whom seemed intent on seeing which boat could make the loudest welcome. They played music, they sang, and they danced all the while leading us to the village. I was on the first zodiac to land, and I was overrun with smiling people wanting to shake my hand and to offer the traditional Muslim greeting. The dock had been decorated in giant banners of colorful cloth, and indeed the entire walk into town was along a wide walkway colorfully decorated its entire length. People waved, children ran out to touch us, and adults clasped our hands in greeting.

On reaching the center of town, a welcome area had been setup with an awning carefully constructed of palm leaves and plastic tarp, and new chairs had been setup so that all of us could be seated for the ceremonies. Since I walk so slow, and take so many pictures, by the time I arrived, most of the chairs were gone, except to the far right where curiously a single chair was open directly behind, yet beside the men who were seated in front of a table on which had been placed a bottle of water and some fruit for each of them. As I approached, they all got up to give me the traditional welcome and directed me to this lone chair. People all around me kept shaking my hand and touching me.

As the ceremonies started, the first order of business was the introduction by our local guide of the dignitaries in attendance. First, the man directly beside me, who had been the first to stand and welcome me, it turns out that he is the local King. Next to him was seated the Chief of The Secret Police, and lastly was the village Mayor. Next, a member of our passengers presented to the King a backpack put together by Silversea of school supplies and select items for the village. Then for the next hour, we were treated to several warm and entertaining performances. In the end, everyone broke out laughing at the end, and clapping, and cheering because everyone had a good time. We then had 45 minutes to look around on our own, but we were warned that with the ceremonies over we would become the subject of the photographs. Before our eyes, cell phone cameras seemed to come from nowhere, and our hosts started taking our photographs. Before long entire groups wanted their photos taken with me, to the point, that I was becoming tired of smiling.

Finally making my way back to the zodiac, I was frankly sorry to leave. In contrast to some of the welcomes we have received on this trip, this visit had genuine warmth, and a real chance to interact with people who were glad to share a smile, even if we could not speak the same language. On our way back, we stopped briefly to look at some very ancient rock art, estimated to be over 10,000 years old, then we caught an eagle flying overhead.

While the zodiac prepared to make a quick stop at another village, I begged off to return to the ship. I was not feeling at all well, and poor Lisa had not been allowed by the Doctor to even go ashore. That evening we both had inhalation therapy, and Lisa now has a shunt for the input of cortical steroids.

Neither of us had a good night. My bronchitis worsened, and I coughed up green all night, plus I have been having some trouble breathing. Lisa seems to have beat the infection, but her bronchial asthma is causing her significant respiratory distress. Even after treatments for both of us this morning, we had to put Lisa on oxygen and call the doctor back to our room. He seems fast becoming our new best friend. So, I got my third antibiotic today, and we both got grounded from going ashore. Just as well, because today was an all day visit to a deserted island with diving, snorkeling, and a beach Bar-BQ. So let’s hope we sleep better tonight, and that tomorrow is back to normal.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Surrounded By Cannibals and Headhunters


OK, the headline might be a little over-hyped, however, we were indeed rapidly surrounded by local warriors as we approached the village of Syuru in the Papua District of Indonesia. They were former headhunters, and until the early 1970’s cannibalism was still practiced in this region. We were a party of perhaps 7 zodiacs heading ashore in this remote region when from out of the surrounding shoreline a fleet of perhaps as many as 80 or so dugout canoes rushed out to completely surround our little party of zodiacs. In each canoe were somewhere between 8 and 10 warriors, each looking fierce in their war paint and feathered head gear. They were making a great deal of noise both in chanting loudly and in rhythmically beating the sides of their canoes. Once they had us surrounded, the circle started to close until they were right up alongside of our zodiacs, all chanting and banging their canoes. Then horns were blown and as one, our entire group was shepherded like sheep towards shore.

Of course this was all staged and planned in advance--still it was quite a spectacle, and good fun was had by all. I had hoped to get some good pictures of the warriors once we got to shore, but almost as an apparition, both the men and their canoes seemed to vanish into the myriad of channels and riverines.

Before going on, allow me to stop for a minute and describe exactly where in the world we are located. Essentially, we are on the far western side of the Island of New Guinea. On the eastern side of the Island is the country of Papua New Guinea, while the western half is Papua, the eastern most Province of Indonesia. The Province covers 123,000 sq. mi., and it is one of the most remote regions in the world. Even today there is a low-level conflict between the Government of Indonesia and the indigenous populations of the West Papua region. Indeed, just last week the Indonesian government instituted a brutal crackdown of 600 West Papuan natives who were peacefully protesting for self-determination outside a conference of the region’s leaders.

Our journey today was to be one of the highlights of this voyage, and so Lisa and I were quite excited about the upcoming adventure. This region is known as The Asmats Region which is a large area of lowland swamp and rainforest. The natives live in an elevated world in which all structures are built on stilts well above the swamp, and in which they are connected by wooden walkways, or boardwalks. Indeed, there is such a maze of intersecting walkways that they actually have street signs at corners, and from my perspective, I could see the boardwalks going on for as far as I could see. We were told that some of the people actually live in the trees. The surrounding forest where we were appeared to be mostly a mangrove swamp.

Our first challenge was to exit the zodiac without falling into the dirty brown water. Our little rubber boat rode up onto a wide wooden ladder made of small tree limbs spread across three supporting beams. The gaps between the small limbs was just big enough to give both Lisa and me some problems, but as usual the expedition team did a wonderful job of insuring that somehow we managed to make it up to the top. Once on the boardwalk, I realized that the planks were not always even, nor solid. We had to be careful where we stepped, but slowly we were led along, while all around us were throngs of people, as well as, small huts lining the walkway. As we were being led forward, I noticed many things of interest. Outside every hut sat a porch full of people, mostly women and children. There were so many children climbing everywhere that there was almost no free space. The next thing that struck both Lisa and me was the fact that people did not smile back at us. Universally if you smile at someone, you almost get a smile back, but not so with these people. They were not hostile, they simply looked at us with blank inscrutable faces. The children, on the other hand, were children, and could usually be counted on for at least a small smile or a grin.

Finally, we were all led to a section of the boardwalk which on the left had a long building in front of which a large crowd had formed in the shade facing our party which was now standing on the boardwalk in the blazing sun. We were separated from the building by a swampy area in between, where at three places were placed ladders made from limbs to climb down, then some branches or planks had been placed across the gap, and on the other side were log rungs for climbing into the building. A small raised platform had been constructed from which, I guess, the chief would welcome us, because I could clearly see him standing to one side smoking a cigarette. Before he would speak, however, a man took a microphone and stood below the platform in the muddy bottoms, and started to speak to us “Ladies and Gentleman.” We all dutifully turned towards the speaker. Now picture this in your mind – all of our team is lined up on this wooden boardwalk standing facing into the blazingly hot sun, while this man in the swamp below drones on and on and on. Behind him is the men’s ceremonial building, in front of which are standing a large crowd of people in the shade of the building itself, all looking at us across the swampy gap. Soon I am drenched in sweat, and my camera becomes hot to the touch. I look left, then right, and at each end of our line I see we are surrounded by locals all standing in the shade, and suddenly an image snaps into my mind of POW’s arriving into camp and being greeted by the commandant. There they stood at attention in the blazing sun while the commandant goes on and on about the camp rules. As our speaker droned on constantly saying “And Ladies and Gentleman” one by one our group started to move to the side seeking shade, which is exactly what Lisa and I did. I never could understand what the man was saying, and at that point, did not really care. Finally an expedition team member asked if we could make it across to the building, which of course we could not, so while the speaker was still droning on with the Chief yet to speak, we left back to the zodiac for a ride down the waterfront to where everyone would eventually end up.

Now I have to really praise the Silversea Expedition team. They allocated to us a zodiac and a driver, along with an expedition team member and a local guide. All of this effort to accommodate our disabilities. All the while I must tell you, Lisa is going along like a little trooper. Right until the very end you would not have known her knee is in trouble, but eventually it did give out, and by the time we got to the ship it was quite swollen, but today she is definitely better, at least knee-wise. Both of us have bronchitis and we are taking antibiotics, but Lisa’s conditioned worsened, and she had to go back today and be seen by the doctor since she was wheezing so badly.

So let’s finish our adventure; our ride along the waterfront was basically following what the group would eventually walk. We arrived at a concrete jetty, which was actually located in another town, Agats. I gather this was the administrative center of this community of around 13,000 people. The boardwalk was wider here, and to be precise was actually a concrete walkway. I quickly learned that even on this narrow pathway, I was expected to walk on the left as motor scooters and bikes whizzed past me on then right. We passed a police station, and in the distance, I noted some electric poles and even some lights. We were essentially walking along the market street while back in the forest were the residential areas. I was disappointed at the garbage thrown everywhere into the swamp below the boardwalk. This is also where sewage ended up. Our guide explained that the government was willing to pay for people to pick up the trash, however, since every time they had a really high tide it carried it all away, no one really saw it as an issue. It suddenly dawned on me that as these scooters zoomed past, I heard no sounds of a motor. I was curious when I woke up to the fact that at most corners there was an awning where underneath stood 2 or 3 scooters and drivers. These were taxi stations, and each had wires running along the back where the scooters could be charged--they were electric of all things. So, if there is electricity there may be cell phones, and sure enough our guide produced her phone. Gee, the world is really shrinking.

Sadly, I did not get many pictures because it started to rain and so cameras were put up, then it rained harder, but still our guide wanted us to walk farther, until Lisa said no more. We took a brief refuge in a small hut, where the people were all extremely friendly and smiling – a few questions revealed they were not originally from this region, hence the smiles I figured. Finally we headed back, and by this time, the expedition had sent a member to check up on us. He walked with us all the way to the jetty, where a zodiac and driver were assigned to take us back to the ship. Again I just can’t believe the lengths to which Silversea had gone to make our trip enjoyable and to help our problem.

Our visit to the Asmats region was pretty spectacular. Originally the ship was to spend two days in this region, however, because of the tides that is not possible. Therefore, today we are at sea where I am sure more adventures will await us.