Rocks and Boats and a Fishing Village

Half a year ago, I was living halfway around the world. On special weekends I would visit special islands, The days would start with the sun. Except when I brought out the camera. Especially on expensive photo trips.

One remarkable island out of the 15,000+ that Indonesia has is called Belitung. Off the east coast of Sumatra, almost directly north of Jakarta, this island has/had two claims to fame. First, during the Dutch colonial period, it was exploited for its vast supply of tin. When tin fell out of favouring the world, the island met with a similar fate. Decades later, a talented Indonesian writer, Andrea Hirata, published Lashkar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops, in English). A blockbuster movie followed that successful book, and brought out visually what Belitung should forever be famous for: its landscape of crystalline waters and rocks with personality.

After reading the book, a visit to the island was on my list, but it took my reliable partner in photo-adventures: Rajbir, to make it happen. And the expert guidance of our photography guru, Ranar, to make it better.

 

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THAT particular trip we were blessed with an overcast sky and no sun to make those colours pop.

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But we persisted.

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Over 2 days and 2 nights.

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Until the last day, when the sun finally shed it’s shyness and cast some shadows.

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Success!

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A Lake in the Mountains

Lake Titicaca features in geography text books as the highest navigable lake in the world. I missed that nugget when I was in school, but life dragged me by the collar and dropped me off right by the lakeside to drive home the point. Not that I was an unwilling traveller. After following the route of the sun (in reverse direction), we got to the coldest spot of my Peruvian adventure, at 12,000 ft above sea level, tucked into the Andes mountain, this enormous lake with sea-like proportions.

Lake Titicaca

The hotel I picked was higher up, at Mirador del Titicaca, a short drive from Puno city, up up up onto a hill. The hotel has only a few rooms, all of them looking out at the lake from glass windows. You can spend all your time in the cozy confines of its lobby with the fireplace, or your heated room, and admire away from a distance.

Lake Titicaca

Or, you can sign up, like I did, for a boat ride into the lake, to visit one or more of the islands, and have a mini adventure.

Lake Titicaca

A day tour promises a visit to one of the many floating islands of Uros, and then to a larger island, Taquile, for about USD 25. The floating island is a concept that I’d read about in plenty, but not quite grasped the concept until actually setting foot on one. The totora reeds that grow abundantly in the lake are employed in everything on the island, right from the ‘floor’ to houses and boats. There’s no terra firma to step on, just a dense carpet-like squishiness, and your foot sinks into the reedy floor, with a bit of a swing. No shuffling possible, you have to tread purposefully for every step.

After being welcomed by this colourful lady on the island, we were whisked off on one of the smaller boats for a ride into the reeds.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Then, returning to the island, the chief spoke to us about their life, with some scaled demo models.

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Of course, there were pretty things available to buy, and photos to be taken:

We had a friendly bunch on our boat, all eager to take photos of each other, and have their own too.

Lake Titicaca

After a short snooze, we arrived at Taquile, and my heart sank at the thought of climbing the hill.

Lake Titicaca

I’m sure our guide said something about the island and its people, but all fell on my deaf ears, as I panted my way up into the thin atmosphere. If I had missed the altitude sickness before, it hit me right then. The only relief was stopping for scenic photos. Until I finally arrived at the plaza, where the group had been waiting for me to go to lunch.

Lunch was a simple affair at the home of one of the local families. They had long tables set out in the courtyard, and a young man serenaded us with his songs, while we were served quinoa soup and trout, followed by a herby tea.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

After lunch came the easier bit of going downhill, which was trickier than it seemed, thanks to the never-ending uneven steps. I wasn’t complaining.

The return journey was long, and we’d been warned of winds and waves that might pose a threat – apparently a couple of days back, tourists were stranded on the islands because the winds had been too strong for the boats. We were spared of that fate, and the winds worked in our favour, sending us back a little faster than we anticipated.

Lake Titicaca

The dark clouds threatened to bring rain, and more cold weather. I was glad to be back in my cozy room before any of that happened. Souvik finished his day’s work in Juliaca nearby, and we stepped our later at night for a meal of delicious wood fired pizzas accompanied by the aji (chili) and ajo (garlic) sauces at Pizzeria del Buho.

A Tale of Two Islands

Souvik & I have the same birthday, and we like to celebrate it in style. Last year, I was in Malaysia for a training program, so Souvik decided to join me there for the birthday weekend.

We went to Langkawi – that world-renowned tourist hotspot – and spent a glorious weekend there. We stayed in the Temple Tree resort, which has to be among the most exotic places we’ve lived in, ever, and checked off all the touristy boxes on the list – island hopping, jet skiing, cable car ride, eagle watching, even managed a helicopter ride for spectacular aerial views.

‘Langkawi’ means reddish-brown eagle, and there were plenty to spot, sadly thanks to various groups going out to the water to feed them.

Consequently, nothing less than an exotic island would do for this ‘milestone’ birthday. Bali was rejected for being ‘over-travelled’. And then we found Cubadak, a tiny island off the west coast of Sumatera. It was everything that Langkawi was not. One simple resort – Cubadak Paradiso – with not even a sign. A quick flight to Padang, then just follow the people who hand you over from the car to the boat to the cottage. No air-conditioning, no room service or even menu cards, hardly any phone signals. No roads, no vehicles on land. Just a calm blue ocean, a few basic boats, and living with the tides. We managed to forgo wi-fi for 3 days, and didn’t regret it once.

And yes, we went diving and swimming and snorkelling and eating and reading and meeting new people. Wonder or wonders, we even met some friends from Jakarta there! A different picture of sunrise and sunset every day. Waded in knee-deep water for miles into the ocean. Not much that the camera could capture, but it was more about touching all the different senses. The day we left Cubadak early morning before sunrise, millions of stars glittered in the sky like divine blessings from up above.

I grew a year older from one island to the other. Learnt new skills. Read more books. Made new friends. Visited old ones. And found that the urge to travel is stronger than ever.

It’s been a wonderful life already.

Selamat Natal in Lake Toba

This Christmas, we dashed off to Lake Toba. Actually, ‘dashed off’ is misleading – it was a long drawn journey, flying to Medan, then 6-hour drive to Parapat, a ferry to Tomok and an ojek ride to our hotel. Further complicated by the ferry deadline of 6 pm, and we were stuck in traffic at 5.30, so we decided to walk, suitcases, backpacks and all. Then it rained, and poured. Got back in the car. Missed that last ferry which would have taken us directly to the hotel. Hence the last last ferry to Tomok, and ojek. The journey couldn’t have got crazier! We hoped that Lake Toba would be worth it.

The lake is supposedly the largest volcanic in the world, covering an area larger than Singapore, but probably at the opposite end of the spectrum of Singapore in terms of development. Which is a great thing, really. Unspoilt (yet) is the first word that comes to mind. Opting for a scooter instead of our usual bicycles, we explored the island of Tuktuk, which is a peninsula off the larger Samosir island. The tourist facilities are concentrated here, and the charm is all about the great weather (wet), greenery, bright exotic flowers, and the laid-back, friendly Batak population. There’s fishing, swimming in the lake, relaxing with a book (available on rent from one of the bookstores), cycling/walking/boating on offer, and anywhere you turn, you can be sure of a picturesque lake view.

We explored further on to Samosir island, where the Bataks live. It was pretty festive too, with most of the locals being Christians, and celebrating Christmas on the weekend. There seemed to be as many churches as rice fields, and we didn’t tire of driving past all of them and running out of words to describe the landscape – lush, verdant, green, refreshing!

Another day saw us hiring a speedboat to go out in search of a waterfall. We found it, and spent a significant part of the morning relaxing in its spray.

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The only reason we were glad to leave the place was the hotel. It’s been years since we ‘roughed it out’ in a bad room with a creaky bed and stinky loo. We discovered so many home stays/resorts on Tuk Tuk island that could’ve been better than Samosir Cottages, so the next time we visit, we will be better informed. And yes, there will be a next time!