Archive for November, 2013

Sing City


a spectacular aerial view of one of the largest ports in the world glutted with ships was my grand welcoming to the sovereign city-state of Singapore.  not only was i pleased to learn that my leftover Brunei money was good here but i had the exact right amount to secure my maximum allowable limit of duty-free spirits and/or wine and/or beer.  i had little trouble negotiating the super-clean-tidy-efficient train system to the Beary Nice Hostel in Chinatown where i was greeted by a very petite, sweet and helpful half Indian/Malay girl who showed me to my bed.  i don’t usually stoop to the dormitory level but in Singapore, procuring a clean bed in a room full of strangers is a privilege you will pay dearly for.


i was reunited yet again with my French-Canadian travel companion Nicolas who had already been in Singapore a couple of days.  for him that’s just enough time to solidify an entire map of this mega-city in his brain cross referenced with points of interest and strategies.  after spending almost half my odyssey-time to date with this man, i know him well enough to let him lead the way when he gets that certain excitably driven look in his eye.

we were told that any traveler worth their salt knows that the very first place you go in Singapore is the Singapore City Gallery where you will find a giant architectural model of the city with an hourly light show presentation overlaid onto it that describes the history and creation of this living breathing utopia.  while there i was also surprised to learn that Singapore goes to great lengths to make its water drinkable,  all the garbage they cannot recycle is incinerated, loaded onto barges and dumped on a nearby island, and that the city actually extends 120 meters into the earth to house sewage lines, service tunnels, a subway system, a super highway and a large stockpile of oil and ammunition.


from the top of the Marina Bay Sands (a.k.a.- the world’s most expensive standalone casino property, a.k.a.- those three 636 foot tall towers with a giant concrete boat resting across the top and infinity pool spilling over the side) one can see the breathtaking view of Gardens by the Bay: the wet dream of both the architect and the botanist.


notice the two booby-shaped bio-domes on the left: “Flower Dome” and “Cloud Forest”.  one contains an odorous collection of exotic flowers and cacti while the other contains a ‘fountain mountain’ with a variable climate that supports a wide variety of tropical plants found at all elevations.  in the mountain’s core is an exhibit called “+5 degrees”: a video countdown that postulates exactly how fucked we are all going to be and when as the average global temperature increases 5 degrees over the next 87 years.  the bio-domes are slanted to one side to collect rainwater for the garden’s built-in irrigation system.  the “Supertrees” on the right side function as the garden’s ventilation system as well as collect enough solar energy by day to brilliantly illuminate the gardens by night.



while wandering about these domes, gardens and compounds, in addition to buying off on the Utopian Singapore sales pitch, i truly felt as though running into folks wearing Starfleet uniforms would be the next logical chain of events but sadly that was never the case.

the Marina Bay Sands is a newer addition to the Singapore skyline.  at its base sits a giant shopping mall with an indoor water way that runs the length of it.  you can stroll at your leisure or take a gondola to the other end where you will find the world’s largest atrium casino.





















utopia or not.  walking barefoot on the spotless orderly streets or looking out over the monolithic jagged skyline, it’s not hard to be impressed by just how far the city has come from its former state 70 years earlier.  the Old Ford Motor Factory was the sight of the British surrender to the Japanese in 1942 when Singapore entered its darkest time.  the factory has since been converted into a museum that showcases Singapore’s bleak and bloody side with tedious detail.  amidst the chronologies are a few heart wrenching accounts (like this one and this one) from people who witnessed the Japanese cruelty first hand.

Little India is a smaller slice of real India only with 99.99% of the rubbish, smells, klaxon and Indians removed.

Little India

Little India















the cherry on top of the whole experience occurred outside of the city where our newfound Canadian friends: Kate, Sandee and Erin hosted a dinner party in our honer.  the food was delicious, the wine was red and the conversations stimulating.  thank you girls from the bottom of our hearts.  i couldn’t possibly convey what a warm welcoming like this means to a guy who’s been on the run for so long.

early on my final morning in Singapore i headed back to the airport to embark on the longest commute i have ever attempted in my life: a 54-hour slog involving five flights all with extremely long layovers in between.  when i arrive at my final destination i’ll be on American soil for the first time in eight months.




kill, nurture, dive

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most days if you were to say to me “hey Roark, lets go buy a carton of cigarettes, crash a funeral and watch some animals get slaughtered” i would take you for a crazy person, but if you would have said that to me on October 25th and we happened to be in Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia i would have quickly developed an infectious smile on my face.  BUT before i explain to you why this is the case and before i hopefully shed some light on exactly why you are staring at a couple of lifeless water buffalo with no skin, allow me to first explain how i got here in the first place.  as you may recall, my enchanted Raja Ampat excursion came to an end and left me back in Sorong in West Papua.  there, i slipped into a bit of post-amazing-thing travel depression then quickly pulled through it into big decisions mode.  there was no time to waste.  my visa clock was ticking and i had some big ideas festering in my brain.  one of these ideas formulated into a plan to venture deep into West Papua and trek possibly for days through the Balium Valley.  the only way to get to this remote region of Papua is to first reach the Capital city of Juyapura and then fly to Wamena.  i briefly entertained the idea of getting to Juyapura via three-day Pelni boat ride but then caved in the end due to time pressures and shelled out for a plane ticket.  this would end up being the most expensive mistake i have made on my odyssey to date because once i arrived in Juyapura, contrary to all the research i made, i learned that the only airline that flies to Wamena was booked solid for an entire month.  to add a little salt to my new travel wound i met a very nice Swedish/Belgium couple who had just returned from a multi-week trek in the Baliem Valley.  they regaled me with a detailed account of their Baliem adventures with the enthusiasm of a couple of kids who had just recently lived a life changing experience and had been made better people because of it.  rather than waste more time moping around i put my tail between my legs and immediately put magnificent plan B into motion.



the next day i hopped a flight to Makassar: the capital city of Sulawesi, then booked an overnight bus to Rantepao: the main hub of a mysterious and magical region of Indonesia known as Tana Toraja.  it’s safe to say that the Torajan people operate a bit differently than the rest of Indonesia.  set in the backdrop of a vast lush mountainous landscape stitched together by terraced rice fields are some forty tiny villages equipped with raised wooden houses with boat-shaped roofs.  among them live a people who spend the majority of their time and energy saving for, planning for and hosting elaborate multi-day ceremonies to celebrate the deaths of their family members.  after a family member dies they will keep their remains above ground in their house until they have saved up enough money for a proper funeral.  these funerals can last for days and usually involve processions, animal sacrifices, feasting and the consumption of mass quantities of palm wine.  tourists are encouraged to crash these funerals as long as they bring plenty of cigarettes or sugar to give to the families.

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since we arrived in Toraja in the off season, my new Spanish friend Arturo and i were not expecting a funeral crash experience to come our way.  then we caught wind of a rumor of a funeral happening far outside of town near a little village called Lempo.  we didn’t waste any time procuring our motorbike, carton of cigarettes and shitty map of the area.  then we set out in search for Lempo.  after many hours of negotiating Toraja’s unforgiving hills, rocky roads and stunning scenery we finally found the party.  tucked into a small valley and staged in the main square were a couple hundred Torajans socializing, laughing and drinking palm wine.  scattered about the ground was a large number of pigs all in various stages of active dismemberment.  some were being chopped up, some were being scorched, some were being bled out into bamboo vessels.

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we opened our carton of cigarettes right on queue and began handing them out to anyone and everyone who wanted them.  this ended up being quite a lot of people, all of whom immediately became our best friends.  we were offered all the wine and pork we could consume.  i sampled their wine which has a sour milky flavor i have not as of yet been quite able to develop a taste for, and i devoured a chewy but flavorful freshly cooked pig heart.  we spent almost the entire day with them and were even invited to come back the following day to witness the sacrificing of some water buffalo.

we arrived early again the next day.  the festivities started off with an auction.  a man with a microphone stood up in the middle of the family groupings and ran fast numbers as he facilitated the selling of the seven water buffalo that were to be sacrificed that day.  meanwhile a young man drove a wooden stake into the ground.  then before i could realize it the slaughtering had begun.  one after another they tied the buffalo’s front leg to the stake then slashed its throat with one swift strike of a machete.  at first the animal was calm as if it had no idea there was quarts upon quarts of blood spilling out of its neck.  this was followed by a build up to all out raw and robust panic when it came to realize it no longer had the ability to breathe.  hurling itself about with an incredible amount of power, tripping over it’s own feet and the other still dying buffalo, slipping and sliding in a pond of blood.  the more it struggled and fought to draw in air the worse its condition became as it sucked more and more blood into its esophagus making a gurgling vacuum sound.  after the beast was completely tapped of oxygen it would fall down one final time.  that may have been its final living moment, however it could have also been in the several minutes that followed as the beast would occasionally twitch and convulse involuntarily.  as soon as the seven buffalo slaughtering was complete the men wasted no time as they proceeded to skin and butcher them on site.  my appetite left me that day and didn’t fully return for several days.

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speckled about Tana Toraja are many creative grave sites.  some are carved into the side of rock cliffs and others are shoved into trees and caves.

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on an adventure to the neighboring town of Makale we saw a sign for a tiny airport and then turned and headed toward it without even thinking.  when we arrived at a simple airstrip we were befriended by a young Torajan named Abran.  Abran attends University in Makassar and was here on a family visit.  he invited us to his home to meet his family and friends where we sipped Torajen coffee and talked late into the evening.  Abran and his family and friends turned out to be some of the most friendly, welcoming and hospitable people i have ever met and for the next few days i kept coming back to spend time with them.  Abran and his friends were eager to give me the V.I.P. tour of the real Toraja while his mother Sitti made sure i was properly fed.  Abran and his dedicated following of high school girlfriends: Innang, Ivon, Clara and Linda accompanied me on motorbikes and gave me a unique and one of a kind taste of Tana Toraja through the eyes of young carefree Torajans.

out past the villages and farms where dirt roads become trails, we parked our bikes and bushwhacked barefoot down to a stream being fed by a trickling waterfall.  next to it was a partial cave filled with hundreds of skeletons and decaying coffins.  we carefully crawled amongst them while keeping our voices to a respectful quiet whisper.

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then once we got our daily fill of death we went down to the water for a boisterous photo shoot.


later that night after some necessary house visits we went back to the airport and lounged around in the middle of the airstrip.

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mother Sitti loved to cook me fried goldfish and catfish over rice and one morning i even had the pleasure of joining her, Abran, and aunt Harman on a mission to catch the fish.  taking only plastic buckets and woven baskets (and not a single fishing pole) we walked single file through the backyard and into the jungle which eventually opened up into a patch of terraced rice fields.  in the center of one of those fields was a six-foot deep sinkhole reinforced with wooden planks.  Sitti and Harmon immediately waded out into the muck and started collecting mud to dam up the hole.  once that was complete Abran straddled the hole and started bailing the water out with a bucket.  not really sure as to the point of the exercise i jumped in to help him.  it was quite a bit of work and it took us a while but we damn near emptied that hole.  as soon as the water level in the hole got closer to the bottom i began to notice fish… lots of fish, all flapping about with no place to go.  one by one we grabbed them with our bare hands and chucked them into a nearby basket.  it was too easy.  most of the fish we caught were goldfish (each about 6-12 inches in length) but when we encountered the occasional catfish i was instructed not to touch them because of their stinging fins.  mother of course was a professional and knew how to catch them without getting stung.  she would swiftly grab them by their heads, take hold of their tail with her other hand and apply pressure forcing their heads into the rest of their body until it made a snapping sound.  then one by one she carefully tore their fins off.  when the basket was full and all the fish had been mined, mother undammed the hole and let the water rush back in.  then Abran chose five healthy looking fish from the basket (2 males and 3 females) and threw them back into the hole.  it takes about a year for the fish to fully regenerate and that day we mined about six months worth, almost all of which ended up in my belly.

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on my final day in Toraja before a long sad goodbye, Abran’s crew took me to a beautiful limestone caldera for one last boisterous photo shoot followed by a long contemplative stare out over the still water and tall cliff.  this place proved to be the perfect setting to enjoy the company of my new friends one last time.  it was in those moments i began to reflect on just how close i had come to these people.  this wasn’t just your ordinary local’s tour of Toraja.  i had become connected with these people on a personal level.  i’d been to their homes, ate their food, learned of their routines and gained insight into their hearts.  i truly felt like i had become a part of their gang and for the first time in a long time i did not feel like anything even remotely resembling a tourist.

Abran, me, Lisa, Innang, Ivon

Abran, me, Lisa, Innang, Ivon

Abran, Lisa, me, Ivon, Innang

Abran, Lisa, me, Ivon, Innang

Abran, me

Abran, me

Innang, Lisa, me, Ivon, Clara

Innang, Lisa, me, Ivon, Clara
















we arrived back home at sunset where i got to enjoy one last fish feast.  i embraced each of the girls one by one as they made their final exits.  then i made my own after one last group hug with Abran and family.  of all the places i have traveled on my odyssey to date.  this place was by far the hardest to leave.  who knew that tucked into the hills of rural Indonesia live a people with hearts this pure and with so much love to give?

me and Mamma Sitti

me and Mamma Sitti

ma ans Aunt Harman

me and Aunt Harman


a couple of weeks after i left my newfound family i learned that they had made-to-order twelve glass mugs with my name on it.  a symbol of my visit that they can share with all until my return.  i’ll tell you this much.  if i am never seen or heard from again it’s probably because i returned to my second home in Toraja and never left.




this adventure concludes with a trip to the small Island of Bunaken off the far northern tip of Sulawesi.  there, i spent my final week of my second visit to Indonesia relaxing in my Bunaken bungalow, drinking wine, playing music with the locals and partaking in some world class scuba diving.  each night the receding tide would reveal a shallow shelf that extends for hundreds of meters out into the sea where concentrated groups of bio-luminescent plankton gather in pools and wait for you to step on them.  each footfall gets rewarded with its very own light show splash and once you add in the starry sky above you really can’t help but feel like a Disco Jesus.



so much death, so much love, so little time.  goodbye for now Sulawesi.  you’ve not seen the last of me.