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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Turtle Beach

There are some ingredients that make a good adventure: being with people that you enjoy, going to a beautiful place, facing a challenge and learning something about yourself you didn’t know before and having an unexpected surprise that brings a smile to your face. My trip to Sukamade beach on East Java had all these and more! I left the house at 4:00am and walked about an hour to the train station farthest up the tracks from my house. It’s a beautiful walk at that time of day, kind of quiet and there was a good moon so I could see where I was putting my feet. I like to walk to the up-tracks station, even though the down-tracks station is closer because the 5 am train is the economy train and there are no assigned seats. When I walk to the far station I board the train before it gets to my town where there are lots of people waiting to board. I have a better chance of getting a seat before the train gets really crowded. No luck. The train was already full. I put my backpack in the over rack above a peaceful looking family and stood next to them in the aisle. About an hour later the train pulled onto a side rail and stopped to let another train through that was going the opposite direction. When the train stops it gets hot quick. I was feeling a little queasy and squatted down in the aisle to rest my head in my hands. The father asked me if I wanted to share their seat. I thanked him and scooted my butt about half way on the seat. The seats are made for 3 people, but often 4 people sit on each one and usually there are children on many of their laps. So our seat now had 5 passengers but it was wonderful to actually be able to sit. I rode that train and chatted with the family for about 4 hours, then I got off and waited for the next train. I was kind of excited. This was going to my first time on the “exclusive” train! I had traveled to the train transfer point a little over a week ago so I could buy a ticket on this exclusive train. Because it was the school holiday season, the week after Ramadan, the fasting month, the trains were charging twice as much for an exclusive ticket. So the 4 hour economy train cost me 60 cents and the 6 hour exclusive train cost me $20.00. It was worth it! The train was air conditioned! And I had my own seat with lots of leg room and I could walk to a small compartment with a hole to the ground outside and “use the bathroom.” The space which had held 5 people in economy now held 2 people and the seats reclined! Okay, I was spending 5 days worth of my living allowance to take this train, I was totally enjoying it. My seat companion was a woman who wanted to know all about Peace Corps and my life. I showed her my map and she told me how I could get off the train a little early and I would be close to the main road where I could catch a bus to the next town. At least that’s what I think she said. One thing about conversations in Indonesian is that I’m never really 100% sure what people are saying. Sometimes they say one thing and mean something else, but I’m not culturally sensitive enough to pick that up. But it looked like it made sense on my map so I got off at a little station and was immediately swamped with guys on bicycle pedi-cabs trying to get me to go with them. I kept saying I want to take a bus to Jajag and they kept trying to convince me I should ride with them. I asked a policeman for help. He told me that the rickshaw driver would take me to the bus transfer point. I asked him how much it should cost. He said 50 cents. The driver was listening. So I got in the becak/rickshaw and the driver took me about 5 minutes away to a busy street with lots of buses going past. The driver told me it was $1.00. I told him no, it was 50 cents, gave him the money and thanked him for the ride. I don’t like it when people try to charge me more than the local rate but I understand – tourists have more money and with my white skin, I look like a tourist. It’s an occupational hazard for Peace Corps volunteers. We get enough money to live like a local person but in an economy where there are no fixed prices we have to figure out when to bargain and when to just take a deep breath and pay the higher price. I know some volunteers who totally think the hassle of bargaining is not worth it and always pay the full amount and others who would never ever buy anything without getting the price down first. I’m about half way between the extremes. A man in a min-van was rounding up passengers. I asked him if he was going to Jajag and he said yes so I go in with about 10 other people. Three of them were going to Jajag too. We waited about 5 minutes and then everyone started to climb out of the mini-van. The driver came running over. One woman told him, either you leave right away or we are all going to find another way to get there. He got in, started driving slowly and stopped 2 more times to pick up more people. It’s to his advantage to squeeze in as many people as possible. I asked the other passenger what we should pay for the 45 minute trip. They told me $1.00. I got a text message from the Peace Corps volunteer who lives near the turtle beach. He was with his host family, in a car, close to Jajag and could pick me up at the terminal. Wow! Great luck! I got out when the driver stopped and looked around. Sure enough, there was another white person about a half block away. I waved and started walking toward him. Yes! It was Ryan! Ryan’s family was really excited to have me be with them and insisted that I sit in the front passenger seat, the seat of honor. There were 8 or so people in the car and I couldn’t figure out who was who. Finally I figured out that they were talking about Mees-ter Ree-an! That’s what they called Ryan. My name, Colleen, is unrecognizable in Indonesian, and so I always go by the name, Oma, which is Dutch for grandmother. It’s what Indonesians would expect to call an old white haired woman with white skin. Kind of like a skinny person introducing themselves as Slim or a person with red hair saying, “Call me Red.” The trip to Ryan’s house took almost 45 minutes. I’m glad I didn’t have to figure out this part of the trip in mini-vans. When we arrived, Ryan’s family announced that I would get to sleep in his bed with the mosquito net and he would sleep on a mattress in the living room. I had met Ryan’s group of volunteers but I didn’t remember him specifically. He was more than generous and had even requested out-of-community days to come with me to the Turtle Beach. That night was peaceful: a great meal with his family and a chance to compare our different situations and just relax into the luxury of speaking English. In the morning everyone in his extended family was in the living room having a family meeting about what everyone needed to do, since Ryan’s host father had died 3 weeks before. It was an honor to just be sitting there watching as an Indonesian family talked about all the ins and outs of moving on with life after a sudden tragedy (motorcycle accident). The father was in his early 70’s but healthy, the leader of his village. The teenage grandchildren who live in the house with Ryan were instructed by their professional soccer player uncle to be more diligent about saying the Muslim prayers 5 times a day and helping their grandmother around the house. Remarkably, after he left to go back to his home on a different island, the teenagers did exactly as he requested! Ryan’s extended family gave us a ride to a town where would wait for the “Taxi truck” to Sukamade turtle beach. We got there early and were invited to sit on a little bench for several hours. 3 little girls about 8 or 10 years old were fascinated with us and watched every move I made. Ryan talked about how he has a lot more sympathy for Brad Pitt. It’s like living in a fish bowl here. Our presence is just an endless source of delight for people who have never seen a white person. The taxi truck looked like a dump truck without the dump part. We climbed into the back on top of 50 pound sacks of rice, cardboard boxes of instant noodles and canisters of bottled gas and an old tire. The lonely planet book had said that this transport would cost $2.00 each. Ryan had already been told that we would need to pay $20.00 for the 2 of us to go the beach. The driver asked if we were going to the beach house or the town house. When I told him the beach house, he frowned. The two hour trip was incredible! The road was so rutted, it would have been impossible in a regular car. As it was, I was wondering if we would loose a transmission on the rocks. At times we would stand up to see where we were going and had to duck as tree branches grazed our heads and our hands. We stopped at a little village and I bought some more water and cookies. I had a stash of beef jerky, peanuts, velveta cheese, crackers and we had brought a few apples and pears from Ryan’s house. The guide book had said that the beach was very isolated and you shouldn’t count on being able to get food there. The truck climbed a steep mountain and there were breath taking views of beaches and forests as far as the eye could see. Monkeys sat in trees and watched as we passed under them. Some of the trees were as big as giant sequoias in California. Vines and vegetation covered the ground. We stopped at a tourist registration point and Ryan had to write down a name and passport number. The driver told us that it would cost $30.00 total ($10 more than our agreed upon already high price) to take us to the beach house. I told him no. That it was only an hour walk from the town to the beach house and we would walk. He said $5.00 and I said no. Ryan told me he would have just paid it. We really didn’t know where we were going. We forded two rivers, maybe 2 feet deep and I was thankful that we were still in the dry season. I had read that in the wet season these roads were not passable and you had to walk across and then take your chances from there. The driver stopped at a dirt side road (Well, every road looked like a dirt side road) and took a stick and drew on the ground the way we should go to get to the beach house. We carried our backpacks and food stash and set off down the road. After a few turns we were there! The beach house is several cottages run by the rangers in the Meru Betiri National Forest. We got a room with 2 beds for $10 a night. The cottage had 4 sleeping rooms and 2 bathrooms. A woman showed us the room and put clean sheets on the beds, which were the only things in the room. In the hallway near the bathrooms there was a sofa and 2 chairs. The bathrooms had an Indonesian mandi – large tiled container with water and a scoop to pour water over yourself for a bath and a sit down toilet, which you also had to pour water into to get it to flush. That was an unexpected bonus. Home sweet home! We walked the 15 minutes to the beach and had a great feast of velveta and crackers, jerky, fruit and cookies. An Indonesian family asked to take a photo with us and later invited us to join them at the 8:00 night walk to the beach with the rangers to see the turtles. So we went back, sat on our beds for a while as darkness descended and then waited for the rangers in front of the cottages. Three people from Belgium were in 2 of the other rooms in our cottage. They had a jeep and a driver. The husband and wife had come once before and were excited to show their friend around. They planned on staying 1 night and hoped that a turtle would come to lay her eggs. At 8:00 two rangers showed up and the group of about 15 Indonesians, the 3 people from Belgium and Ryan and I followed the rangers. They told us to sit down on the beach near the entrance to the forest trail. We waited for about an hour and then the rangers flashed their flash lights and woke up the sleeping kids and we all quickly followed them to a place where there were tracks leading out of the ocean. The turtle was HUGE – about 4 feet across. She had crawled up on the beach and walked around a bit but was heading back down to the water without laying any eggs. The rangers explained that often they come up to look around and then go back into the water. The sea turtles are shy creature and if they are disturbed they won’t lay eggs. Because she had already made the decision not to lay eggs it was okay for us to touch her. They invited a few of us to touch her face too. Wow, it was kind of leathery! She paused for a few minutes and then headed back into the waves. We waited on the beach for a few more hours and then the rangers said that we should head back to the cottages. I slept well. That truck ride had been exhausting and I felt so honored to have actually seen a giant sea turtle. This one was green turtle, but leatherbacks and others sometimes come to lay their eggs at Sukamade. It’s one of most remote beaches and attracts 5 different kinds of sea turtles. The next morning Ryan and I discussed trying to find the town because Ryan needed to tell his host sister that we had arrived safely. We walked back to the fork in road and followed the tracks about an hour and a half to a little community of several hundred houses. We asked if we could buy breakfast, but no luck. We bought some cokes and cookies. There was no phone signal as we walked around the town, but Ryan asked a teenager and she walked us a block away to a place where 3 sticks were in the ground in the middle of the road. There was a rubber band around each stick. Ryan looked and sure enough he got one bar of signal right in that exact spot. It wasn’t enough to make a phone call, but was able to send out a text message. He squatted on the ground, put his cell phone in the rubber band holder and pushed send. Success! We stopped at an abandoned rubber processing plant on the way out of town. There was an amazing amount of ancient machinery and cement troughs running through the big industrial buildings. Then we started walking back and soon didn’t recognize which road we had taken. Many motorcycles from the village used the road, so our tracks were covered in the dust. We came to the river crossing and realized that we had missed a turn so we went back and took a road that didn’t look familiar but we could hear the ocean in the background and it seemed we were heading toward it. We met some people and when we asked where the beach cottages were they kept waving us in the direction we were going. At one point I really didn’t know if we should go right or left. Ryan said left, we went that way and Yea! We were back at the beach cottages, 4 hours after we left, tired and ready for a nap. That night we asked the rangers if we could buy some of their instant noodles and use their stove to cook them. They said yes, so we restocked on water and had a meal of hot noodles. I mixed the velveta in mine and it was really tasty. Ryan was a little skeptical of eating something which is supposed to be refrigerated and hadn’t been for several days. I figured that I hadn’t had refrigeration for so long that my body had acclimated to eating food left out for a long time. It was delicious and didn’t produce any gastric side effects. The rangers told us that the guided trip to the beach last night would cost us $10 but if we wanted to go again tonight it would only be $5. After a little discussion we agreed. They were many fewer people this night. We waited as before, the rangers called us and we saw another huge turtle who also had decided not to lay eggs. My heart went out to these gentle giants. It seemed to take so much effort to climb out of the ocean and walk the 30 or 40 feet to the edge of the forest. To then turn around and walk all the way back to the ocean seemed like so much effort. She stopped and rested every few feet and then finally vanished into the waves. In the morning I walked to the beach while Ryan was still sleeping and met the ranger as he was finishing the morning beach patrol. He had a bucket with 111 eggs. He said the turtle must have come much later in the evening. They looked like sandy golf balls. He took the eggs back to the compound and entered a locked and screened area. Each time a clutch of eggs was discovered, the rangers dug them out, carried them inland to this protected place and reburied them with a sign showing the collection date, species and number of eggs. The signs were arranged like miniature tombstones. It looked like they collected eggs on maybe 1/3 of the most recent days. I felt lucky to be here at just the right time. Ryan joined me and we waited for the ranger to return. We watched a huge domestic white rabbit hop around with monkeys scampering nearby. The ranger led us into the turtle hatchery and took out a black plastic bucket. He started scooping baby turtles into in. The babies were maybe an inch and a half across. He said they were about a week old. Then he handed me the bucket and told me to take them to the beach and release them! Oh my gosh! When my daughter was visiting I had watched a family release two little baby turtles into the ocean and I really wanted to do that too. She offered to buy one for me but it was expensive and I knew that the babies had a much higher survival rate if they were released as a group. And now I had a giant batch of baby turtles. I giggled. Thanks God, this is awesome! I give up one and get rewarded 100 fold! Ryan and I walked to the beach. I gave him his own personal baby to carry. We made guesses about how many turtles we had. I said, “Over a hundred.” He said, “No way.” So we counted as we released them. We sat on the beach and let the first 20 go. They walked down into the ocean and got tossed and turned over and thrown farther down the beach. We righted the ones on their bellies and kept a look out for birds because we had met a bird watching couple who told us that baby turtles were a favorite food for some kind of bird that I don’t remember. No birds. 20 babies successfully launched. Then we launched another 20. They ran on their little legs plunging head first into the waves, then proceeded to wash up even farther up the shore, then walk back down toward the ocean, they get washed up again. By the third batch, I was letting them crawl on my feet. They were so cute and so determined. Okay, I’ll spare you all the details. There were 157 baby turtles total! The ones at the bottom of the bucket were already exhausted by the time it was their turn to find the ocean. They had just survived 150 of their brothers and sisters crawling on top of them. They took a few steps, then paused, then took a few more steps. I put the last few closer to the ocean. When the water hit them, they revived and started swimming like crazy. We patrolled the beach, checking to make sure all the little guys made it. There were a few stragglers who had gotten washed farther down the shore, so we helped them into the surf. 157 Baby Turtles! All safe and sound in the ocean. What a successful day! That night we ate dinner with a young couple from The Netherlands. They had arrived with a jeep, a driver and a guide of their own who spoke English. They shared some of their fried fish that their driver had caught. We tried to buy some more water but the ranger told us that the cabinet was locked and they didn’t have the key. But we had a real dinner with white rice and vegetables. We never did figure out why sometimes the rangers cooked and sometimes they didn’t. That night we went to the beach and waited a long time. There were 4 Indonesian teenage boys waiting near us. At one point I got up and walked back to the forest and peed in the trees. When I was walking out 2 of the boys saw me and stood perfectly still. I said “Mongo’ which is the polite greeting in Javanese and I swear one of them almost jumped into the arms of the other one. I went back and lay down next to Ryan. I started laughing as I told Ryan the story of how I had scared the local kids. I guess you just don’t expect to see a white woman with white hair walking out of the woods in the night without a flashlight. Movies about ghosts are very popular here and I was pretty sure that’s what they thought they were looking at. I heard them laugh as they told their friends the story too. In fact it took me almost ½ hour to stop laughing! I really have no idea if they had stopped to unzip their pants at the edge of the forest – I kind of guess that’s what happened. We didn’t see any turtles that night. A little after midnight the rangers came and told us to all go back to the cottages. The next morning we got ready to leave, started hiking out, found the right trail and then back tracked from the river crossing to a spot where there was a little bamboo bench. A man told us that we should wait for a truck on the East side of the river. I’m really glad Ryan was there. In my old age I sometimes miss words that people say and I was glad he heard all the instructions. We took off our shoes, rolled up our pants legs and walked across the river to the other side and waited at the bamboo bench. A family with a father and 3 children took off all their clothes and “washed” in the river. Ryan was a little horrified that the boys peed in the river. I was a lot more worried about everything else that goes into a river. He had some soap and we soaped down our legs with the hope that all the mosquito bites and scratches would appreciate the anti-bacterial soap and not get infected with whatever was in that brown muddy water. We waited about an hour but no truck. We started walking up the road, but we knew that it was way too far to walk out completely. We had a little extra food but no extra drinking water because the rangers hadn’t been able to open the cabinet and sell us any. A motorcycle stopped and we asked him when the truck would come. He said in about an hour, so we went back to the bench. One more hour, no truck. Then Ryan heard a truck. But it seemed like the sound was getting farther away. He borrowed my spare sandals. His had come apart. Then he dropped his pack and started running toward the sound of the truck. I picked up his pack and walked after him. Ryan was in cross country in High School. I think he’s 24 now. I’m 63. I’m not a runner. I could hear the truck up ahead. They were shoveling rocks out of the big truck into holes in the road. Ryan said the man had told him that he didn’t want to take us but that he would for $30. (We paid $20 to get here.) Ryan told him yes. Then the man asked me if we wanted to sit in the front or the back. I said the front. It was wonderful! We sat on the seat, not in the back with the rocks. It started to rain a little. It was totally worth the extra money. I thanked Ryan profusely for running out, stopping the guy and getting this all arranged for us. Two and a half hours later we were at the big town near Ryan. We went into a little store and bought water, ice cream, M&M’s, Pringles, apples and a coke for Ryan and a yogurt drink for me. Then we sat on the street in front of the store and ate and drank almost all of it. There’s no regular transport to his town. We were looking at another 1 hour walk. But a man said he would take us there in his mini-van for $5. I said “$3” just as Ryan was saying “Yes.” So I said, okay, but we need to leave right away, no waiting around for other people. The guy took us to Ryan’s street. We walked to his house, took a mandi bath, ate some dinner, sat on his porch and Ryan played the guitar and sang and once again I got his bed. In the morning his family had arranged for a car-taxi to take me to Jajag. The driver had to touch two wires together to get his car to start. Then I waited an hour and a half for the bus. The bus took me not just to Jember, or Probolinggo, or Malang, but continued on to my town – 11 hours on the same bus! I set a new personal record. From 7:00 am – 9:00 pm without looking for a bathroom! So. Thanks Ryan! (Good friend) Thanks Sukamade turtle beach! (Beautiful place) Thanks world, for getting us safely in and out of there and finally home! (Personal challenges) And finally thank you to our own adopted 157 baby turtles! (Unexpected surprise) All in all it was a great adventure! And if I can upload this video you can watch me releasing baby #61 into the ocean - that was a very good number for me - it's how old I was when I joined Peace Corps!