113 minutes after the toothless grin that calmed my nerves, the clouds open up and West Papua and its surrounding islands come into view. I strain over the women next to me to get a glimpse and kick myself for not getting a window seat. What I can see, over two people, out the tiny window, and past the wing is simply breathtaking; lush jungle too dense to see through carpeting mountainous islands ringed by white sandy beaches and coral reef lagoons that shift in color from blue to turquoise. I’ve never seen anything like it except on postcards and travel posters; it’s mesmerizing and I can feel my cheeks pressing up against my ears.
As we begin to descend, I vacillate between giddiness and curiosity. Thousands of images I’ve seen of Raja Ampat over the past 3 years dance through my head, but I’ve also never been on a liveaboard and don’t know what to expect. Like the takeoff, the landing is pretty rough and sends the plane bouncing up and down and teetering back and forth. Everyone lurches forward to grab the seatback for stability and we brace ourselves and hold on. It’s a bittersweet reminder of what I’ve been through to get here over the past few days, months, and years.
Off the plane, down the air-stairs, and across the tarmac to a building smaller than some outhouses I’ve been in. Crossing the threshold, I’m accosted by an overwhelming wave of humidity and sweat along with the accompanying odors. Greeted by a swirl of orange and blue clad porters jockeying for customers I make my way to a simple hole cut in the wall to await my backpack.
As I’ve elected to forgo a porter, trying to get within sight of the baggage coming out is near impossible as the porters have staked out the prime positions to retrieve their client’s bags. It’s a painstakingly slow process as every bag and its tag, is checked and re-checked by a half-dozen porters before being passed back to the rest of us.
Deciding to skip the queue, I walk outside and look around as I’m expecting to be met by someone from the boat. I’m not really sure who I’m looking for, only that I hope I’ll recognize them or they’ll spot me. Not seeing anyone, I head back inside once things have thinned out a bit and start to look for my bag. As I’m peering through the cracks between people, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I swing around and see a young, fit, and clearly West Papuan young man with a big smile on his face. He says “Mr. Bruce?”
I’ve gotten used to being called Bruce since I’ve been in Indonesia. Surprisingly, even though there is a hard “K” in Bahasa, when my name is pronounced it’s as if the “K” has taken it’s own holiday. And, even though the name Bruce evokes a feeling of a hairy chested, disco dancing, mustached, Tom Selleck lookalike from the 80s, I don’t mind so much as the imagery it conjures up makes me smile.
I nod and shake his hand and learn his name is Rudi and he’s one of the divemasters aboard the Tambora. He also tells me I’m the second to arrive and that there will be 6 people on the boat for this trip. He says it with a tone that makes me think it’s abnormal so I ask what’s normal. Sixteen is the response. I smile and hope that means I won’t have to share cabin.
After collecting my backpack, we hop in a truck and head for the harbor. Since this trip came about quite quickly, I hadn’t really taken the time to look at any pictures of the boat online. As we get to the “harbor” and hop out of the car, there are a few crumbling buildings next to the water and the only boats I can see are either police boats or single level tourist boats as well as a half sunken tanker. Knowing, hopefully, that nothing I see is where I’ll be spending the next two weeks I nervously ask Rudi where it is. He smiles, grabs my bag, and points toward a few men sitting on a platform under a tree and tells me we have to wait for them to come pick us up.
After a few minutes, a zodiac appears with a few guys from the crew to pick me up. I hop in the zodiac and we head away from the docks and get past the tanker, I can see about a dozen schooners moored up. As we head further out, I ask Rudi which one is the Tambora. He points to a white two-masted schooner with a wooden deck.
As we pull up, a half dozen or so of the crew comes out to greet me. They all clap and yell “Welcome!” as I hop off the zodiac and climb on the boat. I’m handed a cool towel and a warm cup of tea and led towards the main deck to relax in a deck chair. I lean back to sip on my tea, soak up the sun, and I can’t help but grin like a cheshire cat as I can already tell this is going to be the trip of a lifetime.