Monthly Archives:April 2011

Father of Biogeography

27 Apr 11
No Comments

Krakatau is famous among island biogeographers. These are the scientists who study the geographical distribution of plants and animals over time. The reappearance of this island in the 1920s has given scientists a rare clean slate upon which to watch the appearance and succession of various plants and animals.

The island is rather young. After completely disappearing in 1883, it rose out of the water again in 1927, so it is actually less than 100 years old. Scientists have watched the appearance of plants and animals there, called ‘primary succession,’ and have studied how such ecosystems become populated.

The first plants are generally air-borne, either because their seeds are light enough to be picked up by the winds or because they are easily carried in the digestive tracts of wandering birds. Animals light enough to be carried on the wind also appear – primarily spiders, which practice a technique known as ‘ballooning.’ Later additional plants and animals arrive on rafts, or by floating or swimming long distances.

The first colonizers on an island such as Krakatau must be quite hardy, because the conditions are fierce. Krakatau is not a hospitable place. The sands are hot, the nights sometimes quite cold, and little soil has been formed. So plant and animal expansion takes a great deal of time.

Right now, more than 80 years after the island’s first appearance, the small ring of plant life on Krakatau remains rather limited. There are scrawny deciduous trees and some pines. The understory is sparse, made up mostly of detritus and some vines. We observed few animals – some flies followed us around, while small crabs skitter across the hot sands near the water’s edge. But little else exists here.

Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist I am studying, is considered the father of biogeography because of his pioneering research in this region. I wonder how he would have reacted if given the opportunity to observe a place such as Krakatau.

A Victory for Technology

24 Apr 11
No Comments

Some know it as the sound heard round the world. Author Simon Winchester calls it “The Day the World Exploded.”

On August 27th, 1883, the island Americans call Krakatoa (but which Indonesians call Krakatau) disappeared in a massive explosion. The eruption produced the largest natural concussion ever recorded.

Krakatau though was not the largest eruption in recorded history. That honor goes to Tambora. Using the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or VEI (a Richter scale for volcanoes) Tambora rated a 7, compared to Krakatau’s 6. The scale goes up to 8 – long before recorded history, the volcano at Yellowstone exploded, recording an 8 on the VEI.

So why is Krakatau better known?

Tambora is also in Indonesia (click here for map). It’s located on the island of Sumbawa, two islands east of Bali. Its eruption on April 10th, 1815, ejected some 160 cubic kilometers of material. That’s enough rocks and debris to fill a cube 100 miles long on each side.

As many as 12,000 people were killed immediately by the explosion, but by some accounts they were the lucky ones. More than 70,000 people were killed in total, with most of those deaths coming much more slowly from starvation and disease that occurred when crops failed after the blast.

The effect of the eruption on agriculture around the world cannot be over-stated. 1816 is called the “Year Without Summer” because of the volcanic cloud from Tambora’s ash that blocked the sun. Because of Tambora’s eruption, crops failed and animals died, causing the worst world-wide famine of the 19th century.

So why then is Krakatau the better-known of the eruptions? One word – technology.

American Samuel Morse is credited with inventing the telegraph in 1836 and he tested it successfully in 1838 in New Jersey. By the mid-1840s the U.S. government was paying for a telegraph line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore and over the next two decades telegraph lines spread across the country, and around the world.

Island nations such as Indonesia, however, still remained isolated because telegraph lines initially only worked on land. In 1842 Morse successfully experimented with a cable covered by Indian rubber and tarred hemp that was laid across New York harbor, but the materials used to shield the cable from water damage simply weren’t robust enough to protect a cable of greater length. A major problem was caused by marine plants and animals which attacked the rubber and hemp, eventually destroying the outer protective covering and exposing the cable itself to the water.

But that same year scientists discovered the properties of Gutta-percha latex – the milky fluid of the getah perca tree from Malaysia and Indonesia. This latex produced an adhesive sealant perfect for protecting telegraph lines, because it was not attacked by plants and animals living in the sea. In 1850 this material was successfully used to shield a cable laid between Dover and Calais. Soon after, underwater cables covered with Gutta-percha began linking many other parts of the world, including Indonesia.

So by the time of the Krakatau eruption, telegraph lines connected Indonesia’s western coast with the capital of Batavia (now Jakarta), and an under-water cable connected Batavia with Singapore. When Krakatau erupted, news quickly spread around the world, all thanks to Samuel Morse and the sap of a tree found here in Indonesia.

And that’s why today we know of Krakatau, but not Tambora. When Tambora erupted, news of the blast could not be sent around the world. So Krakatau’s popularity is simply a victory of timing and technology.

Reaching Krakatau

22 Apr 11
No Comments

The hotel where we stayed in Carita (pronounced cha-REE-tah) did not provide the best of accommodations. The Sunset Hotel was not on the beach, and buildings across the highway would block any possible view of a sunset, making me puzzle over its name. A dirty pair of men’s underwear lay on the rooftop just outside Carol and Elana’s room providing a poor substitution for that sunset, while the door to the room I shared with Adam was broken, a large crack down its length allowing anyone to push the middle section open enough to reach inside and unlock the door.

Adam particularly disliked our stay there. He woke up almost in tears in the middle of the night, thrashing in bed while trying to scratch what seemed to be dozens of mosquito bites. Fortunately we were taking malaria medication, but that was of little consolation right then. But the hydrocortisone cream I carry in my first aid kit allowed him enough peace to finally fall asleep.

So we were ready to leave the next morning, although exhaustion meant that we got started closer to 9am, rather than the early start recommended by Rohman the night before. We drove perhaps 75 meters to the north and pulled in through a rusted green gate to a marina where we would meet our boat.

The boat was about 26 feet long, with twin 40hp motors and an awning over the middle third section covering seats where we would spend much of the next two days. It was rather old but serviceable with a crew of four, including the man who would be our guide on land. We were paying for a private tour, which meant that the four of us were the only customers.

Krakatau lies perhaps 20 miles out in the Sunda Straight from Carita. It took us about 90 minutes to get there through two-foot seas. At first a haze prevented us from seeing Krakatau, but partway into the trip the island could be seen rising up out of the water. Krakatau is one of a group of islands, and it is not the tallest. It is a bit like a monk’s head, with a fringe of green around the base and a bare cone rising up in the middle. White patches on its sides look like snow, although its position almost straddling the equator tells us it’s something else.

We arrived at the island and waded through a pounding surf to reach its eastern shore. Just inside the trees is a small clearing where a sign welcomes us to Krakatau. Displays tell us a bit about the island’s history. But we are anxious, so we spend little time reading, instead electing to set off for the climb.

The mountain is basically laid out in three parts. The first is a relatively flat outer ring of vegetation we have just passed through. What we are looking at now is the second part – a pile of ash in the shape of an Angel Food cake with the middle a bit depressed. The third part of the island, meanwhile, is the volcanic cone that rises up from that depression in the middle of the cake.

Quickly Adam takes off with our guide, and soon they are racing each other up the 45-degree slope trying to reach the ridge dividing the second and third sections. Elana and I take a more sensible, slower pace, carefully placing our feet on the shifting sands.

We face two obstacles before reaching the ridge. First, the gray and black sand is incredibly hot. The dark color absorbs rays from the sun which are then radiated back as heat, but we are also standing on an active volcano, which is no doubt heating the sand from below. So the sand covering my Tevas is the hottest I have ever experienced.

Of more immediate concern though was the difficulty of walking on the steep, sloping sand. For every two steps upward, we were sliding one step back. Watching Adam bound his way toward the top suddenly made me feel a lot closer to my age than I usually do. His climb seemed effortless, while mine felt more like a slog. But it was an enjoyable slog nonetheless. We were, after all, on the slopes of Anak Krakatau.

It’s clichéd, but it seems like we are walking on the moon. Not because we can bound effortlessly across the surface, although there was more of that on the downhill return. Rather, it was the moonscape look of this portion of the island. The dark sand is split by long, narrow gullies caused by periodic rainfall running down the slope, unimpeded by the lack of vegetation. Small shrubs and trees poke up rarely and randomly, many dead from the heat, while one or two trees manage to stand relatively tall, somehow surviving in these rugged conditions. But mostly we just see gray.

I am surprised actually at how quickly we make it up the slope. In at least one account I read before coming here, the author describes an immensely difficult climb that takes him more than two hours. He agonizes over each footstep, at one point wondering if he will be forced to turn back. Adam however makes it to the top of the first ridge in about 20 minutes, beating the guide by perhaps 30 seconds. After being abandoned by Elana because I was too slow, I top out less than ten minutes later.

We’re standing now on that outer ridge of the Angel Food cake, looking down into a gully that then slopes back up toward the cone of the volcano. On the edge of the ridge sits a collection of scientific instruments with the remains of a protective fence now rusted and mostly buried in the sands. Scattered throughout the gully and on the slopes of the volcano cone are dirty white sulfur deposits and various sizes of lava bombs.

The sulfur deposits, while white, display other colors as well, indicating the likely presence of sulfur-eating bacteria. Called chemolithotrophs, these bacteria convert sulfur into energy rather than living off plant or animal material. They represent perhaps the only life, other than a fly or two, to be found this high up on the volcano.

We spend perhaps 30 minutes walking around this ridge, and down in the gully (mom, don’t read this part), before the kids climb partly up the cone of the volcano itself. They watch rocks, called lava bombs, roll down the side of the cone after first being ejected by the volcano, and they pick up a couple of them before we finally prepare to head back to the boat.

From the ridge looking south we can see Pulau Rakata, or the island of Rakata. The island of Krakatau that exploded in 1883 was made up of three volcanoes, and this island is the only volcano not totally destroyed in the eruption. The northern half of the island disappeared, but the southern half remains today, and we look at it as we begin the walk back to the boat.

Adam races down the side of the volcano in a cloud of ash, reaching the tree line in what seems like about three minutes, and he is eventually followed by his sister. When I catch up with them they are sitting under a tree where the sand is cool, so they take their shoes off to cool their feet. Deciding to finish the walk in bare feet, they leave the comfort of the tree’s shade only to howl in pain as they are reminded of the sand’s heat. I make my way back to our starting point while they get their shoes back on.

Lunch and bottles of water are waiting for us back at the clearing in the vegetation. After we eat the kids swim in the surf before we leave for our next destination, Pulau Peucang.

Family Reunion

21 Apr 11
No Comments

My cousin came to visit this month.

Like lots of extended families, our history has not been marked by the best of relationships. Feuds from long before I was born kept many family members from talking to each other for years, and sometimes the silence continued until someone died. As a teenager I learned I had an Uncle Henry only after he passed away. He and my father hadn’t spoken since they were young men.

Over the last dozen or so years, as the older generation has finally passed on and we have become the tribe’s elders, the cousins have been breaking down these barriers and slowly getting to know each other, and we’re finding that we actually like each other’s company. It’s been a pleasant discovery. But I was still surprised when Cousin Carol sent an e-mail saying she would take me up on our offer for her to visit.

Carol lives in Ohio. A long-time college professor, she raised two wonderful kids and now spends her retirement well – dining with friends, golfing and visiting her grandchildren. She never struck me as the adventurous type. But not only did she want to visit; she wanted to see one site that most here seem to avoid.

Carol wanted to see Krakatoa. The island, called Krakatau by the locals, is known around the world for disappearing in a massive eruption in 1883. In 1927 undersea activity created a new island in its place, and it is called Anak Krakatau, or ‘Child of Krakatau.’ Anak Krakatau is an active volcano, still growing each year. For some, it has an irresistible pull.

By coincidence, such a trip was also on our agenda. I’d been fascinated by the story of Krakatau since I was a child. Anak Krakatau sits off the west coast of Java, and it is close enough to Bandung that we decided we couldn’t miss it. So just a few days after Carol arrived, we set off by car.

Along road to Bogor

We planned to take two days to reach Krakatau. The first day we drove to Bogor, a beautiful town in the mountains south of Jakarta. Our goal was to stay the night at the same Kampung where Elana stayed during her 5th grade field trip. What I had been told would be a three hour trip took closer to six, so by the time we reached our first stop, the Taman Safari, it was almost dusk.

Malaysian Tapir

Taman Safari is a private zoo. But rather than walk past cages, you drive, in your own car, along a winding road that takes you past animal displays. The hippos, Asian moon Bears and most of the rest of the animals are contained in enclosures surrounded by moats or walls, but a few animals, including camels and Llamas, wander openly, free to come up to your window to beg for bananas and carrots purchased from stands near the park entrance.

It was exciting to see from a distance a black leopard lounging casually on a tree stump – an animal I’ve been trying to see ever since my first visit to the rainforests of Belize. But the highlight for me was reaching the tiger and cat enclosures. The entrance reminded us of the Jurassic Park movie – huge wooden doors on rollers slid to either side as we approached, alerting us to something big and dangerous inside. Your car passes through, the gates close behind you, and suddenly Bengal Tigers begin walking toward your car. And they look hungry. While I knew we were safe in the car, these cats are large, and somehow it still felt like they could come right in if they so chose to.

Park Rangers sit in vehicles inside the enclosure, and after a few moments they began talking over a loudspeaker. I assumed they were telling people the park was closing, so we stopped the car for some pictures in the waning light before moving on to the next enclosure, which held the lions. Once we were with the lions, we again stopped for pictures, until I realized what the rangers were actually saying through the speakers was that we should keep the car moving. A stopped vehicle presented an opportunity for the cats to come right up to the car. Had we stayed still much longer, I have no doubt they might have started climbing on top of our vehicle.

By the time we left the park, it was dark. Our Kampung guest house was not far away, on the other side of Bogor. The problem was, we couldn’t find it.

My dad used to laugh at the idea of asking a local for directions. Often it seems the more familiar someone is with a place, the less likely they are to know how to get anywhere. That maxim seems to hold for Indonesia as well. I stopped several times, showing a brochure for the guest house, and could find no one who knew where we should go. I could tell we were close though, so when I spotted a police station I pulled in.

The station was an old building with open-air offices on the first of two floors. Two older men wearing uniforms were lounging on chairs around an ancient television and smoking cigarettes, while a much younger man sat behind a counter. I showed them our brochure. None of them spoke English, but with my limited Bahasa I was able to explain that we were trying to find the guest house. They first tried to explain how to drive there. Then, after a hurried discussion between the three, they indicated that we were to follow them.

After a short trip down a winding road, we finally arrived. The guest house sits on a small bluff overlooking a river. Visitors pay not only for a room and meals, but a tour of the village, or Kampung, located on the other side of the river. The next day we took our tour, and the kids planted rice just as Elana did when she visited with her classmates. It was an exciting opportunity for Elana to show us her special place. I was glad we stopped.

The next day we pushed on to Carita, a small town on the west coast of Java. This would be our jumping off site to reach Krakatau.

The day began with sunshine and blue skies. We left Bogor close to noon, and a downpour soon began. Much of our almost 7 hour trip was accompanied by a deluge of rain. The main road we were traveling was covered in potholes from the hundreds of trucks that drive the same route every day. And the closer we got to Carita, the more water we discovered on the road.

It seemed like we were in a monsoon – the rain was so intense at times that it became difficult to see the road. And when we could see clearly, we didn’t like the view. Dirt roads descending the mountain to our right were disgorging huge volumes of muddy brown water onto the road. At times we were forced to drive through water as deep as a foot or more. It seemed like we would never reach the coast.

By the time we did finally arrive, the rains had stopped and the hotel manager said it had been sunny all day. We ate at the hotel, and met with Rohman, who owned the tour company that would take us out to the island in the morning, to learn what to expect on our two-day trip.

The Sounds of Silence

16 Apr 11
No Comments

It’s 6:30 on Saturday morning, a day for much-needed rest, but sleep is elusive. Outside, the neighborhood has been awake for several hours. The daily calls to prayer began at 3:30. Now three hours later, the nearby guards chat to stay awake as their 12-hour overnight shift draws to an end. Next door a ping pong game has become heated, the sound of balls thwacking against the wooden tabletop and cheers over good shots echoing in the open-air garage just outside Elana’s bedroom window. Motorcycles, mufflers altered or removed, roar by. It’s just another morning in Bandung.

Every country and city has its soundtrack. The hum, energy, and feel of excitement found in New York is well known, but for Indonesia it’s the bang and the clatter – the sound of cars and motorcycles, power tools, tires beating on worn pavement, and always the voices. That’s at least in part because Java, the Indonesian island on which we live, has more than 130-million people crammed into an area the size of Florida, which has less than 19-million. They live on just about every possible space, making Java the most heavily populated island in the world.

A vendor selling bubur ayam, a rice porridge with chicken pieces on top, is now clanging his bell outside and loudly announcing his wares to let people know his food is hot and available. He hopes to get their attention before they make something else for their breakfast. A few minutes later the guy who sells bread from a container strapped to the back of his motorcycle rides by, his recorded message blaring from a tinny loudspeaker declaring “Roti! Roti!”.

But it’s Saturday, and I hope to sleep in. So with a pillow over my head I make another attempt at slumber. No luck.

Aside from the usual daily noises, we’ve had our own personal soundtrack here. Since we’ve moved to Bandung, we’ve been followed by construction sounds. At the hotel where we first stayed, they began demolishing the room next door to ours while I tried to work. After a week of constant headaches from the pounding, the hotel management agreed to move us to a somewhat quieter area of the building.

But even when the hammers and saws stopped for the day, the sounds of the street were magnified at night by the echo chambers created from the hotel’s balconies. There was no escaping the noise.

So we were excited when we moved into our home. We had more space, and less noise. We could actually sleep through the night.

No more than a week after we had settled in, our neighbor to the left of us began a remodeling project. We found out about the work when the hammering began at 6am. Then came the saws. Sleep was fleeting.

After a few weeks, the work was finished. Then two days later, the neighbor to the right of us had workmen constructing a metal gate to cover the front of their garage. Metal grinders shooting streamers of red-hot sparks served as our early morning alarm clock.

After weeks of metal on metal, their work was finally done – just in time for the neighbor across the street. And that project is the most ambitious yet – near as I can tell they are remodeling and expanding the whole house, inside and out.

After what seems like hours this morning, I do manage to drift off again for a few moments of light sleep. Then the hammering brings me back to consciousness.

One of the things that sold us on the complex where we now live was the quiet. It provided a respite from the sounds of the city. When we saw the house, we could literally feel the calm. My body relaxed, the tenseness from anticipation of noise was gone. But as we found when we moved in, that peace and quiet is fleeting.

After months of construction noise, I finally had enough. I went to the office of the complex’s manager, confident that these construction projects must be violating some kind of weekend rules governing noise. After all, it seemed that at least the weekends should be safe from aural assault. And as it turns out, PRV (our complex) has some of the stricter guidelines concerning such matters. No construction can begin before 7am, and it must end for the day by 5pm. Seven days a week. So no sleeping in on weekends.

Regardless of the rules, I still complained. The manager, seemingly understanding of our plight, dialed the phone number of our neighbor across the street and quickly handed me the phone. I spoke with him, and he was very apologetic. Homeowners, at least those with money, move into hotels while construction is done on their houses, so he had no idea that the noise was beginning so early. He promised that he would stop the louder noises from occurring before 10am. For several weeks he kept that promise. But the workers get paid by the job, not the day, so they are eager to get the work done. It wasn’t long before the hammering once again started at 6:30.

This morning I try one more time, laying now with one ear pressed to the bed, a pillow resting on the other ear, and a shirt across my eyes to block the daylight sneaking past the curtains.

After I complained to management last month, I tried once again to be understanding. But after several more weeks of being jarred awake I finally lost it.

This is not a good thing in Indonesia. No matter the insult, Indonesians don’t raise their voices, at least in anger. I have yet to see one person lose control, no matter how outrageous the insult. While our western behavior of letting people know when we’re upset may be healthier, relieving tension that would otherwise build up, here it simply embarrasses people.

Throwing out my understanding of inter-cultural communication, I once again protest, this time loudly, to the complex manager. I explain that we have lived here for seven months, and endured seven months of construction. I explain that he too would be troubled if it were his child waking up in tears because they could not get enough sleep. And I tell him that I would recommend to the children’s school that they start looking elsewhere for housing. Several of the school’s teachers live here, and Elana’s teacher will be moving her family into our home when we leave. If the school were to pull all its teachers out, it would mean a major loss of rental income for owners. It was an idle threat – I doubt the school would care very much about my concerns – but desperate times call for lying measures.

Since that conversation the construction sounds have mostly stopped, at least early in the morning. But now other noises fill in the gaps between the hammering and sawing. Delivery trucks rev engines as they slow down for the turn outside our house. A baby next door screams at all hours of the day and night.

It’s kind of odd that we’re having so much trouble. My friend Noni, who lives in Semarang, came for a visit several months ago. She actually came during a rare quiet time. She jokingly complained one morning that it was so quiet she couldn’t sleep.

Just as I finally drift off again this morning, a loud motorcycle sputters its way down the street outside the house. So I get up and start my day.

Up From the Streets – Part 6

11 Apr 11
No Comments

Poorly translated signs are generally always fun. They can be found just about anywhere, including in the United States. This particular sign was found on Bali, at a wonderful facility called Tirta Gangga, or Water Palace.

It’s a beautiful garden with ponds and other water features. It was restored through the guidance of an American, Emerald Starr, who now operates a few bungalows there. But there is also a small hotel, and its operators are not as fastidious as Emerald for doing the right thing. The sign below was posted outside a restroom door at the hotel. If you visit the Water Palace, be sure to stay with Emerald, unless you like to be inconvenienced.


I Know It’s Only Rock and Roll…

04 Apr 11
No Comments

It’s tough for me to take trips because I don’t have a good childcare system in place, especially for travel taking me away overnight. So when Beth arrived for her last visit at the end of March, I left the next day for a trip to Kuching, in Malaysia. The kids could have her all to themselves, while I got a needed trip in.

I had been back less than a week when early in the morning I woke up. Groggy, I had visions of Beth, for some odd reason, wriggling her leg rapidly so that the bed shook. Just then she rolled over. “Why are you shaking the bed?” I said accusingly. She, also in a sleep haze, snapped back, “You’re shaking the bed.”

Slowly it dawned on us – our first earthquake.

A shallow quake had struck less than 200 miles off the southwest coast of Java, the island upon which we are staying. Its power was less than 7.0 on the open-ended Richter scale, but friends said dishes fell in some households around Bandung.

Other quakes have hit the region and caused much greater damage. In 2006, a 6.2 earthquake struck south of Java, but it was powerful enough to severely cripple the town of Yogyakarta as well as damage a world heritage site located outside that town. Damage was still quite visible at Prambanan, a Hindu temple, when I visited three years later.

When we first moved here I had hoped to experience an earthquake, minor enough not to hurt anyone but big enough to really feel it. But this quake came less than a month after the devastating quake that hit Japan, so suddenly that wish seemed rather petty and selfish.

In the end the region survived with little damage and no deaths, both a blessing. And we had finally gone through our first earthquake.

The kids, of course, never felt a thing. They slept soundly all night.

(An interesting side-note to the article attached to this posting. While the article is dated Sunday, April 3rd, it speaks of a quake hitting early Monday morning, which was April 4th. It’s the vagaries of time zones – while the quake did occur on Monday morning here, it was Sunday afternoon wherever that particular website was based, giving an odd appearance of some level of television clairvoyance.)