I had met my friend Plamena while we were both travelling in Timor-Leste in 2016. We stayed in touch through Facebook and realised we shared a love for beer. After an incident in 2017 where I heroically saved a beer when I fell into water and got immersed to my head, we decided, over a very public Facebook conversation, that we should meet somewhere and play floating beer pong. Plamena loves beer considerably more than I do. She scoffs at bottle openers and uses cigarette lighters and other handy items to open her beers.
On December 30, we caught up at the airport in Manado on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. A taxi took us to the harbour for our final destination, the little island of Bunaken. We found a boat that would take us there. It was crowded with people and their belongings. A bunch of locals sat next to us on the boat with a big collection of 650ml bottles named “Casanova”; a big party seemed to be in the works. One of the guys opened a bottle and poured into a plastic cup; his friend drained it; he refilled it and passed it to the next; this continued for a while. Plamena and I got our turns with the Casanova. It was a 15% alcoholic yellow liquid; slightly sweet; not terrible; not something I would consume in large quantities either. Before the end of the 40-minute ride, fifteen bottles lay empty on the floor.
The boat took us to the middle of the island, next to a village named Tanjungparigi. We started walking to Bunaken village, 4.5Km away at the southern tip of the island. A man on a tuk-tuk truck gave us a ride to the village. Bunaken had roads newly paved with smooth stones on which these tuk-tuks and motorcycles could move around. There were no bigger cars on the island. Kids who were barely ten years old passed us on motorcycles. On our route we came across resorts and dive shops to either side. The village had a concentration of houses where the locals lived. The buildings were single-storey, made of bricks and mortar and painted white. People, dogs, little black pigs and the occasional chicken and geese roamed the streets. The shops were tailored toward the locals, providing everyday items rather than trinkets for tourists.
At Bunaken village we met Plamena’s friend Satu. Satu is Finnish, but the name is also Indonesian for “1”. This made for a lot of jokes about “Satu, dua, tiga” (1, 2, 3).
Satu took us to our homestay, Tandjeong, where she had spent so much time she was unofficially in charge. We hung around at the chillout area with some beers until the owners Ope and Ola arrived. Our accommodation included meals. We had breakfasts of pancakes and fresh fruit. Lunches and dinners consisted of rice with fish and vegetables.
Tandjeong’s chillout area was mostly made of bamboo and thatched with palm leaves. We could stretch our legs out fully on the big bamboo chairs. There were small wooden platforms to hold the beer. Hammocks were stretched out in front, where plenty of guests dozed off in the mornings, afternoons or even slept the night. Catamarans lay anchored in front, steadied by bamboo poles on either side that would prevent them from tipping over in a storm. Further ahead was a volcanic-looking hill not far from Manado on the island of Sulawesi.
Tandjeong’s interiors were not universally cheerful. The living space was standard brick and mortar. Keeping sand out of it was a challenge that we never figured out. We drew various borders for limiting access to footwear, but the sand crossed all borders. There was no running water and no taps in the house. Water was filled in tanks in advance and had to be scooped out for use. Every door knob and bolt was in precarious condition. The inside bathroom door would open if given an unthinking push, because the bolt was not being pushed fast into anything solid. A piece of the bolt on the outside bathroom came off when I unintentionally pulled on it to open the door. I was getting out of my swimming trunks after a swim one day when I saw my room’s door swing open and expose me to not just the house corridor, but to the road outside.
Plamena and I shared a room. On the first night, one or both of us went out to use the bathroom and forgot to close the door properly upon returning. I awoke at 5AM because the resident dog Whiskey had walked in, decided that our room was a good hangout and sat around scratching himself loudly. I eventually figured out how to work the lock, but it remained a challenge to Plamena until the day we left.
Plenty of islanders seemed to be good with instruments. Guitars and ukuleles were standard. They also had a single-stringed instrument with a 1.5 metre string and a giant drum at the bottom; one of the locals whom I met called it a “mama guitar”. It seemed to be native to Bunaken (or perhaps to Sulawesi). Playing music was clearly a local pastime and it showed. The locals played many English classics as well as Indonesian tunes at Tandjeong and at various local hangouts. I heard “With or without you”, “Desmond and Molly” and “Californication”. One of the more notable local tunes was about a girl who only wanted the man for sex. It then made no sense then that the music that boomed out of the locals’ speakers consisted of terrible local-language bubblegum pop beats.
The only bar on the Island was called “Deco Stop”; for the uninitiated, a decompression stop is a pause in a scuba dive where the diver stays at consistent depth for a while order to release nitrogen accumulated in the blood at depth. We headed to Deco Stop for the New Year party. The music was in full swing. We counted down to midnight a full two minutes in advance and were the first to launch New Year fireworks within sight. More went off in Manado and elsewhere on the island. Someone brought a new set of fireworks – tubes filled with sparklers and explosives. Plamena took the dare and held one of them as it was lit. It shot off a few sparks, then exploded in a fire of sparks in her hand. I was a few metres to the side and behind, safe, I’d presumed. A spark lying 30 metres away on the beach suddenly shot toward me and exploded in more sparks just a few metres behind me. Plamena had a mild burn, but is uninjured.
We hung around, drinking, talking with the other travellers, taking part in the songs and dancing. Bintang seems to be the only beer available on the island. The locals also plied us (especially the girls) with lots of palm wine. It’s not a bad drink, but they use only one glass shared among all the guests. As we saw on the boat, one needs to down the drink so that the glass may be refilled and passed to the next person. By 2.30 AM I was done and headed home. The girls hung around.
I arrived to a Tandjeong where everyone else was asleep despite the monstrous music played by the neighbours. More bizarre, the doors and windows were open. I closed a bunch of open doors and windows to reduce the noise. I then dug up my earplugs. One more thing remained: how could Plamena get in when she wanted to? The door would swing open unless bolted; I found that it would stay shut if I wedged a sock in between the door and the frame. Plamena arrived many hours later, having imbibed a considerable amount of beer and palm wine. She had amused herself by jumping off the jetty into the sea with a local and losing her slippers. She knocked on the door and entered only when I responded. I thought that she smiled for an awfully long time. What I did not know was that a sock on the door is college code for “hanky-panky, do not enter”.
What I did not know was that a sock on the door is college code for “hanky-panky, do not enter”.
The original purpose of this trip had involved beer consumption in the water. I had brought along a bunch of floaties. One floaty had six holes that could hold cups of beer. I also had palm tree floaties that could comfortably hold a beer can each. A Bintang bottle could be placed inside. It would not stay upright but a bottle attached to a floaty was easier to handle than one that was not. We improvised the beer pong. Each person would throw a ping pong ball and take a drink if they missed. No one really had incentive to land. This was certainly one of my better party ideas. After doing this for a while, we set the pong floaty aside.
We decided to have a go at swimming to the end of the jetty. We set off, three palm trees heading to the jetty, Bintang beers and humans attached to them. It became clear soon enough to Satu that the current was pushing us away from the jetty. She suggested that we turn back, and promptly both girls headed back. In what must have been my finest moment, I decided to continue, knowing how poorly I swam. Well, swim I did, arm-movement restricted, as I held on to the palm tree floaty with the beer. I kicked, and occasionally used one arm to propel myself forward. After keeping at this for perhaps twenty minutes, the thought struck me that I could make short work of the swim if I just dropped the fucking beer. Dismissing this heresy from my mind, I continued. After taking forty-five minutes to swim about 150metres, I clambered onto the jetty, beer still intact. Like a champion, I victoriously chugged down the contents of the bottle; half of it must have been seawater.
There was one more mission to accomplish. On her previous trip, Plamena’s friends had gifted her a compass and told her to bury it in a place to which she wished to return. She buried it in the compound of her friend Lorenso, knowing that she wanted to return to Bunaken. Lorenso had promised her that he never changed anything at his resort. Imagine the surprise when the place where she had buried the compass had been completely revamped. Plamena had not marked the spot or photographed it. Searching for it was unfeasible. At least we know what this means: Plamena will come to Bunaken again.
That night we were not alone for dinner. There was a much bigger feast than normal at the table. There was the local favourite of eggplant in coconut gravy. There were two fish dishes – fried and curried. Pork and chicken and vegetables were in abundance. We mostly had just the three of us at the table at dinner. On this occasion the big table was full. Ope’s and Ola’s relatives had flown in the last few days and were celebrating in Bunaken. This was New Year’s dinner with the family and we were made to feel welcome.
Scuba diving and snorkelling are among the major tourist activities at Bunaken. The highlights included large numbers of turtles, nudibranchs, colourful tropical fish and shrimp of various sizes.
Diving was very pleasant with 29°C water and mild currents. We did have some challenges organising some of the dives. Our dive guide told us on New Year day that there would be no night dive because he was not feeling well. The woman who ran the dive centre complained to us later: “I can’t get anyone to work. The men are drunk, the women are drunk and even the kids are drunk.” This was not an exaggeration. On the way to the dive stop, we had come across a foreigner zigzagging along the road. We stayed a safe distance behind until he stumbled, fell and cut his face. He declined our help and after a few minutes got up and left. We set off for Deco Stop to rejuvenate. The only bar on the island was closed. “They are partying with their real buddies”, someone muttered. This was the stereotypical island life that we had come to experience. It was a holiday. Everyone wanted to get drunk including the bar man, so the bar was closed. We now had a search on our hands if we wanted beer.
The men are drunk, the women are drunk and even the kids are drunk.
This time we walked the village with a sense of purpose. The drinking had started in the morning. Wild parties were going on. We walked past a house that had really terrible and loud music emanating from it. A makeshift disco ball threw moving patches of light all over the place. A big group of kids, perhaps 40 of them were wildly dancing under a tent. We passed two or three closed shops before finding an open one that sold beer. We ordered one each and walked around checking out the parties. People recognised Satu and Plamena and started greeting us on the streets. The man who ran the public boat came over to us and danced. A random fat man saw us and veered toward the girls. A woman who was with him forcefully checked his movement and kept him on the “right” track. Eventually we ended up at the jetty where we traded shit stories. You know you’re in good company when you can tell stories literally involving excrement and everyone is having fun. As before, the night ended with more jumping off the jetty and Satu also losing her slippers.
You know you’re in good company when you can tell stories literally involving excrement and everyone is still having fun.
On the day of our departure we decided to have one last dip in the sea with our floaties. As we lay in the water, we started seeing fins emerge from and disappear back into the water. Within minutes the number of fin sightings increased significantly. We hurried up the jetty to get a view from above. I turned back to grab my phone and ran barefoot to the end of the jetty. There was a pod of 30 or more dolphins. This was as nice a parting gift as one could ask for.
We split the three palm floaties amongst us before departing the island. Satu and Plamena will probably both be back to Bunaken. I don’t know about myself. We agreed that it was our wackiest New Year experience ever. We will probably meet again sometime, somewhere. I am not sure, but I may have teared up a little as I left.