Shop ’til you drop

Departing Ambon for Banda Islands.
All in all, it’s been quite a week. We returned to Ambon to pick up Fred’s father, who flew in safe and sound on the red eye from Jakarta earlier in the week. But we’d also returned to fix several boat problems and undertake a serious stores replenishment, knowing that this is probably the last major town we’ll be seeing for many months.

The biggest problem that needed fixing has been our broken jib roller furler, but on top of this were several other problems that needed electricians, engineers and lots of sourcing specific boat bits. Daunted by the prospect of completing all of this with limited local language, we first set about finding someone who lived locally, spoke some English and had a car or bike who we could hire as a guide. It didn’t take much asking around to unearth Fritz, a 30-something local larakin who met us briefly and promptly announced that he was at our service 24/7, complete with his new Honda 125cc. We liked him immediately, and have since spent many hours tearing around town on the back of his motorbike from shop to shop, trying to source unique parts for engines, electrics, bulbs, chain etc. Hugely patient and with a fantastic sense of humour, we felt a bit honoured when we were one of the first people he came to after his girlfriend dumped him and he arrived in tears needing some company. Unsure how to comfort him, we offered a little Arak (local hooch usually mixed with sprite, nice taste but tends to give ghastly hangovers and very weird dreams) and watched as he promptly drunk most of the bottle neat. This seemed to help somewhat, and before he could get too maudlin we fed him and dispatched him to the nearby beach with the kids to play ball. Anyway, a couple of days later he tells us that his girlfriend was only joking, and in fact it’s all on again…phew! And they think we’re crazy?

He’s been a tower of strength though. It was Fritz who rescued me amidst a circle of women in hysterics at the food market one day, after I’d asked them in my finest Bahasa how much for their paw-paw, forgetting that paw-paw is Indonesian for (as Fritz delicately put it) ladies genitals. They thought this was the funniest thing they’d heard for some time. Fritz later suggested that in this part of town everything was for sale, so in fact the price might not have differed too much from papaya. On the other hand, it was also Fritz who, standing back in stitches when I got attacked by two lascivious women who seemed to have a particular attraction to bule (foreigners), thought it might add to the entertainment to tell them that I was unmarried. Yup, he’s been a good friend alright.

Fritz kindly offered us his bike to drive ourselves around, but the rules of the road here are so unfathomable that neither of us dare drive. I must confess I thought myself pretty experienced having driven and survived a motorbike trip around Paris many years ago, but nothing prepared me for the road madness here, and despite over a week now of regular backseat travel, the rules of who gives way to whom are still totally unclear. Bikes of course are everywhere, and it’s common to see two adults plus two kids balanced precariously, often the women seated sidesaddle, one kid standing on the foot rest with hands on the handlebars, and another held by the passenger. Somehow, the system seems to work, but quite how it manages without huge collateral damage is beyond me.

The roller furler fix turned into a marathon exercise, firstly to source a reputable engineer who’d take on the work, and then to complete it. The removal of two small stainless steel screws ended up consuming three days of a metalworker, along with borrowed generators, welding gear and a host of other tools. The grand finale took place at 10pm, when we moved the yacht as close to the nearby resort as we dared in order to run a power cable onto the boat to power their arc welder. Much debate about the safety of having a power cable running from shore through seawater up to the boat, but these guys seemed determined and we all stood back and hoped for the best when they flicked the switch, imagining instant electrocution for everyone on the boat and a probable blackout for the whole village ashore. But no, it all seemed to work and after several attempts the offending screws were removed amid much celebration. This was a biggie for us, as it’s success or failure determined whether we could proceed as planned to PNG after Easter, or would have to divert down to Darwin to seek a professional rigger. Much relief to see that a visit to Aus has been avoided (lovely though I’m sure those Aussies are).

The eyes of our guide and other onlookers have become wider and wider as they’ve witnessed our reprovisioning, which has involved box loads of food from various supermarkets, arm loads of second-hand clothes from the open market (for trading when back in PNG), and baskets of fishing gear; all of which will be impossible or hugely expensive to buy where we’re next going. I’m sure they imagine we shop like this everywhere we go, but in fact this has turned into an unprecedented shopping spree, and we depart tomorrow with the boat groaning with supplies for the next few months. It’d be fair to say that we don’t rough it too much when it comes to food, and we all have our personal must-haves. Rebecca’s are earl grey teabags, which my sister and now father have lovingly transported all the way from England for us. Mine is muesli, which had proved impossible to source in Indonesia until Rebecca stumbled upon in new hypermarket here in Ambon that stocked the stuff, imported all the way from Dorset England, in fact just down the road from my father’s place. Now that’s a weird coincidence. Much debate now as to whether this is “Daddy’s muesli” or everyone’s, and whether others are allow to dip into it without asking permission. The debate remains unresolved.

Harry Potter’s ocean cruise

Currently anchored off village of Amahusu, 7km South of Ambon city, Indonesia.

We’re pleased to report that the boys’ games have progressed somewhat from the “stick a plunger on your tummy and dance around” game (not to cast nusturcians on an excellent form of entertainment, mind you).  Amazing, in fact, to witness game-making ingenuity at work. Luca and Gabriel continue to be obsessed with Harry Potter, as they have been for several years. You’ve got to hand it to J.K. Rowling, she really hit a perfect formula. We carry all the books and films, plus a few additional info books essential property of any serious HP fan.  The stuff the boys have created from this are endless. Gabriel wrote out a full list of spells & curses, and they’ve invented a top trumps card game with each character and creature.  Both boys have spent hours scouring beaches for suitable twigs and then carefully stripping and decorating them into wands. The full collection of wands owned by different characters has been lovingly drawn, and each boy now owns several home-made wands of their favourite HP characters.  Supper usually injects a whole new burst of energy into the boys that needs expending, so they tear around the foredeck having wand battles as the sun sets. Lord knows what passing fishermen make of it, seeing three semi-naked boys leaping around the deck shouting spells at each other and falling over writhing in agony. Yesterday they reached a new peak in HP gamesmanship, taking long sticks into the water as broomsticks to play underwater Quiddich, with a small football as the snitch. Sticks clenched between pearly white buttocks (yes, early evening skinny-dipping allowed only when the vicinity is free of easily-shockable Indonesians), they make an unbelievably mad sight as they plunge around the waves off the back of the boat.

Incidentally, those of you who haven’t read Harry Potter (if such a person still exists) should probably skip this post.  Or perhaps its time you got on the bandwagon?  The books have been read and re-read several times. A while back I became a point of huge frustration, having not read the last two books and therefore restricting mealtime conversation about the plotline twists and turns, so determined to bring myself up to speed and spent a happy two weeks engrossed in books 6 & 7, talking to no-one. Now that I’m fully initiated, endless detailed discussions take place on the various interpretations of events and motivations of the accomplices, and impromptu quizzes have yet to show up a chink in their HP knowledge armour.  Rebecca and I have even tried to bring HP into the onboard education, drawing dubious analogies between Lord Voldemort’s reign of terror, the Nazi’s attempt to create a pure German race and Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist reign…abit of a stretch, perhaps, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find the odd Phd popping up around English universities on similar topics.

Having spent several days now in Ambon taking care of repair jobs, sourcing materials and tearing around getting things done, with the boys mostly stuck doing schoolwork and getting increasingly boat-crazy, we decided a day’s outing was warranted.  We’d heard of a site of famous freshwater moray eels, which bring good luck and perform an important role in the locals’ spiritual affairs.  Apparantly they let you stroke them. Quite why anyone would want to do this is beyond me, but of course with three boys in tow anything vaguely gross or freaky gets the immediate thumbs-up, so off we go.  We arrive at a river running through a small village, where downstream about 15 women are washing clothes, upstream men are washing themselves and in the middle kids are playing.  A local man leads us to where the women are washing, and with a raw egg in hand starts splashing the water to entice the eels out.  Sure enough, within seconds 2 or 3 of the most enormous moray eels are sliding out of the rocks and slithering through the water between the man’s legs, as he drop bits of egg into the water, all horribly reminscient of Nagini, Voldemort’s snake.  He then invites the boys in with him, and of course they’re delirious with the sheer freakiness of the whole thing, stroking the beasts as they slide around them. I feel myself overcome with snakephobia, and determinedly ignore the calls of “Daddy, you’ve GOT to jump in and feel this one, it’s SOOO slippery!”  Ugh.  My anguish is only slightly assauged by seeing that Rebecca isn’t exactly leaping in either, despite the beloved Jakey happily wandering amongst them. So this becomes more of a kids’ treat, with us adults staring pathetically from the sidelines, both of us transfixed as much by the boys’ complete lack of fear or squeamishness as the beasts themselves.  Anyway, Gabriel seems to attract the most slippery attention, and much is made by the locals of the fact that the eels continued to cavort with him when they’d normally retire to their holes. Little did they know that our little hunter gatherer was probably just sizing them up for a late-night spearfish.  Anyway, the water was cool and fresh, and once the eels had finally retired we all lazed in the shallows, revelling in the coolness of the water, fresh water feeling like a  true elixir after so many days bathing in salt.

Byebye Banda Islands

Coordinates: 03 degrees 36 South, 128 degrees 42 East

We’ve said a temporary farewell to the Banda Islands and set off back to Ambon in order to pick up Fred’s father David and hopefully fix the roller furling problem we’d had since xmas.  Despite the shortage of viable anchorages and two anchor-dragging episodes we’d become quite fond of the Bandas.

Yesterday, for our last day at Bandanaira, we went out for lunch and sat around a beautiful courtyard eating nasi goreng surrounded by pawpaw trees and carp ponds. We’d struck an arrangement for leaving our dinghy by the wooden pier of a waterfront guesthouse, but unbeknownst to us the wind had veered pushing our dinghy underneath the pier, and the tide had risen, trapping it there. So we returned to an inaccessible dinghy with several hours to wait for the tide to recede. Experienced cruisers, or plonkers? You decide.  

There were worst places to be stuck though, and we killed a happy hour or so hanging out while the kids tore around the place> But inevitably they started getting irascible and so we set off in search of a local longboat to take us back to Tonga Moon, sitting at anchor at the other side of the bay. As it turned out there were no boats going that way, but after a protracted discussion with an growing crowd of locals by the fish market, we fumbled our way towards a deal with a local boat owner. We finally settled on the equivalent of $4 for taking us across, which for us was probably fair but clearly to the locals was a great boon and another clear indicator of mad Westerners frittering away their money. During all these discussions, Rebecca and the boys sat in the shade on an old wooden bench outside a shop, the owner of which came out to shoo a chicken away by chucking a sandal at it, but entirely missed the chook, the sandal ricocheting off the wall, rebounding off Gabriel’s head and hitting Jacob squarely in the eye. Neither shop owner nor chicken seemed too perturbed by this collateral damage, but Jakey felt quite put out and expressed this in his inimitable fashion.

Having spent several days here, we’d established a regular late afternoon visit from a group of local kids – gorgeous olive skinned boys and girls with an attractive mixture of part-SE Asian, part-Melanesian features – who swim out to the boat to join our boys in games of jumping, swimming and splashing off the back while their parents watch on from the shore. We returned just in time for their arrival, and Rebecca had the inspired idea to partially fill balloons with water, providing hours of entertainment for our kids’ visits.

We were a little anxious about the passage to the Lease Islands, given the route is directly contrary to the NW monsoon winds which usually blow 10-15 knots but frequently more. Our broken roller furling reduces us to the storm jib as our only foresail, giving us limited ability to claw our way to windward however much mainsail we use. Forecasting is all-but impossible this close to the equator, much of the bad weather driven by unpredictable short-term squalls, so you pretty much take pot luck. But our luck was in for this passage, as we cruised through the day with low swells and winds below 12 knots and from an angle that allowed us to motorsail most of the way, the storm jib providing a valiant (if a little small) gesture of sail before the mast. As often seems to happen up here, the squalls came at dusk, presumably when the land-sea temperature differences are highest and pressure imbalances need to be restored, but these resolved themselves after a couple of hours and the rest of the night was cruisey. We arrived at 5am a little earlier than planned, so stood off for an hour or so awaiting dawn and good visibility for finding an anchorage. Much relieved to find shallow water and good holding in sand, we dropped the anchor in 6 metres of clear water. A great relief to put aside the complications of deep water anchoring for awhile.

We’d chosen to stop near the small village of Ouw (pronounced “aah-ooow” … giving rise to a predictable stream of quips from the wits in the family) where our Lonely Planet had told us locals specialise in pottery. So after the boys’ morning school we took the dinghy into the village to “jalan jalan” (walk around), and after dropping a couple of hints were invited into a potters’ house to watch her at work. Primitive and fascinating. She crouched on the ground using a spindle, but with no independent means for rotating it, not even a foot wheel, simply turning it by hand as she moulded the most beautiful pots, bowls etc with the other. Edges are shaped with a piece of wood and smoothed with a spoon made from unripe pawpaw skin, and the finished product is fired not, as you’d expect, in a kiln, but by laying it on the ground and building a fire around it. What could be simpler?  The hot bowl is then extracted from the fire, and rubbed with a clear solid rock-like substance apparently made from tree sap which melts onto the pot and provides the glaze….and viola!  We sat around this old lady mesmerised as she whipped up a bowl for us, and alongside built a fire around another she’d prepared earlier, encouraging the boys to help finish the glazing. Luca was hugely disappointed at our insistence that we couldn’t take some wet clay back to the boat and fashion a spindle out of leggo, but Gabriel immediately returned to the boat to attack his playdo with nearly-inspired vigour. We are now the proud owners of three lovely bowls, including the one we helped glaze, which hold bananas and lemons in proud display; and meanwhile Gabriel’s playdo bowl sits in the oven, awaiting its fate.

Lucky bat poo

Location: Pantai Lanutu, Banda Islands. Coordintes: 04 degrees 30 South, 129 degrees 56 East.

We’ve been hanging off the hook at this beautiful Banda Island beach for the last week or so, enjoying a prolonged period with no passages. The anchorage is tucked into a shallow bay protected from the NW monsoon winds, we’re anchored in deep water close to a rapidly rising reef, with only a small margin for error if the anchor drags towards the beach, so anchor watch is necessary at night when the wind picks up. Fully exposed to the SE ocean, we have braced ourselves for a late night southerly squall that might cause drama but so far the monsoon winds have prevailed and we’ve felt pretty secure. The island is thick tropical bush rising to a high peak, so the few monsoon squalls we do get come rushing over the hill to us, the hillside hiding their arrival so there’s little warning, and we get sent into a mad scurry to close hatches and secure clothing on lines… all good fun. The rain brings cooler temperature and the opportunity to top up our drinking water tanks, so the squalls are not unwelcome.

Inevitably though, our week of tranquility was to be interrupted. Last night a small offshore gale blew through. All seemed fine until I happened to hop onto deck to secure a rain catcher and noticed that we were some distance from our anchorage point, slowly dragging our anchor out to sea. Bugger. For some reason, these wee dramas always happen at night. It took Rebecca and me some time to retrieve the anchor, hopping around the foredeck with torches ensuring that all lines and chain were secured, by which time we were some distance out and drifting fast. This was not worrying in itself as there was no immediate land to drift onto, but the prospect of returning to our beach and re-anchoring at night, in what is already a pretty precarious spot, was a little daunting. Nevertheless, our options were limited so return we did, motoring slowly through the gusts to as close to our original spot as we could gather in the dark, making a very cautious approach close to the reef. Remarkably our anchor dug in first time, and we swung around in the gale apparently secure. Not entirely sure how close we were to the reef, we kept a close watch for the next few hours until it seemed safe to sleep.

We discovered recently that there is a cave at the point containing bats, so took off in the dinghy one evening after dinner to get a closer look. A massive fissure in the rock face provides a perfect crevice, under which we can see hundreds of bats hanging upside down with their wings folded around them. The smell of bat urine is overpowering and as we get closer their squeaking becomes louder and louder. They seem determined not to fly though, so we start making our own racket to rouse them, Rebecca and me wolf-whistle and the boys screaming their heads off (in other words, having their normal level of conversation) and a host of bats come flying out past us. Understandably cheesed-off, they circle around our heads squeaking furiously, one takes exception to Gabriel’s shouting and lands a perfectly-aimed and substantial dropping onto his forehead. This makes great entertainment for the rest of us, fuelled by Gabriel’s absolute horror, and Rebecca barely manages to whip the camera around to focus on her son’s demise before he’s plunged his head over the side to wash it off, surfacing dripping with seawater muttering repeatedly “this ISN’T going into the blog, OK”. Of course not, Gabriel. Rebecca recounts her theory that being pooed on by a bird is considered good luck (news to the rest of us), and therefore bat’s poo must be extra-lucky. Gabriel’s not buying it. The funny thing is that, wonderful and educational though visiting a bat cave is, we all know that this bat encounter has been made that much richer and more memorable by the poo incident. Nothing like someone else’s misfortune to entertain the rest of us!

The boat’s running low on fruit and veg so a trip to town is planned Rather than take Tonga Moon round, our plan this time is to hail down one of the regular passing longboats and blag a lift. We’d seen longboats packed with people passing by every morning, so lay in wait for one to appear and leap into the dinghy in hot pursuit. As we approach the longboat on a converging course, many faces turn to look at these mad foreigners hooning towards them with clearly no idea of boating etiquette, and a couple start making shooing gestures at us. The driver reluctantly slows down, Fred whips out his pre-written Bislama phrases asking whether the boat’s going to BandaNaira and can he and Luca join it, at which point all faces relax and we’re welcomed onboard. Being intercepted by foreigners is not an everyday event for them, and our arrival causes quite a stir amongst the 20 or so passengers who’re perched uncomfortably on wooden planks or out on the edge. Very soon they’ve made space for us, and we’re one of the group who appear to commute by open boat from an outer-island village into town. The boat is due to return at midday, so we have a few hours to pack in shopping, arranging diesel supplies for next week, and a wee treat…grabbing a pancake at a local cafe. As it turns out there’s a cruise ship visiting the town for a few hours, and small groups of overweight Australians are being led around the place, every Indonesian with something to sell is out with their stall determinedly marketing their whares, but steel wire, eggs, bread, fruit and veg are not at the top of most cruise passengers shopping lists so we manage to avoid the more strenuous sales pitches. As usual the market ladies have taken a liking to Luca and many now know him by name, cries of “Luca, Luca!” are added to the strongarming tactics to get us to buy their produce. We stagger out of the market laden down with fresh produce, arriving at the jetty a little early to be warmly welcomed by many of our fellow morning passengers who now seem to consider us one of the commuting gang.