Papua. Raja Ampat. Just the names of these places conjured up dreams of adventure, the unknown, the unexplored. When I found out that it was home to some of the best marine life and the best diving and snorkeling in the world I knew that I had to go. I am here now on this jungle beach, a saw-toothed palmetto plant that is taller than me towering over me, the waves gently lapping on the shore at my feet. Getting here was quite an experience, although not as hard as some of the other remote places that I’ve been in this world. I flew to Sorong where I took a two-hour ferry-boat ride to the island of Waisai. Now this was no easy ferry-boat ride. It was a ferry in which I rode in the bowels of the dark boat, the stench of durian and other rotting smells filling the cabin. There were also two big TV screens which played karaoke so loud that I was forced to wear ear plugs. Add to that fact, the air-conditioning stopped working about half-way through the ride and the boat started rocking violently on the big waves and you can get an idea about how comfortable the ride was. Let’s just say that I’m grateful that there was no food in my stomach to begin with. We then transferred to a speed boat to the island of Waigeo where the Raja Ampat Dive Resort is. A long jetty leads to the jungle where the cottages and restaurant are. From my cottage, through the mangrove trees, I can see the waves lapping almost at my feet. Shortly after I arrived, I was treated to a spectacular sunset and felt a sense of perfect calm and peace wash over me. The food was also very good, and I was so hungry that I ate two whole fish and what must have been the equivalent of a whole eggplant which was cooked in coconut milk. It was the most delicious eggplant that I’ve ever eaten in my life. There was no cold water to drink, but I asked the staff to put some bottles in the refrigerator for me, and am excited to be drinking refreshing, cold water again. I browsed through a local magazine and had to laugh. In America, the latest food trend is articles on Asian street food. Here, there was an article about American street food and there were pages of pictures of burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches. I soon went to bed, and I was so exhausted that I slept for twelve straight hours letting the sound of calm waves fill my dreams. I was the only guest for the first night, but the next day a guy arrived from the UK and we set out on the boat to swim with the fish and sharks.
I have never seem more amazing marine life anywhere in my life than in Raja Ampat. Beautiful coral gardens rose up out of the deep in colors that I’ve never seen before. Fish of all kinds swam around me. Huge fish. Huge grouper, sea turtles, and the most colorful and amazing marine life that I’ve ever seen. I borrowed the UK guy’s camera to take some pictures, but no picture can capture the underwater aquarium that I was swimming in. I also soon returned the camera to the boat, as the current was so strong, and I was almost sure that everyone would rather have me not drown than to have pretty pictures to look at. In fact, the current was so strong that I was soon nowhere near the boat. Finally, the boat came and got me and one of the guys from the resort jumped in the water to snorkel with me. I was very glad because what happened next, I will never forget. He pointed at a black-tipped reef shark that was as big as me. “Um, please don’t point that out.”, I thought to myself. “I’d really rather know that was there.” This was not the small kind of shark that I’ve often swam with in places like Belize. Plus, in those sort of places, the guides are feeding the sharks with food while we watch. Here, we had no food. Actually, here, we were the food. And we were very, very far from the boat. And, then he pointed at another. And another. They were surrounding us, and I just about lost it. We were being circled by sharks. The guy from the resort started pounding his fists together. I followed his lead and started doing the same. I didn’t know how this was going to make the sharks go away, but weirdly, it gave us an opening and we were able to swim away. I asked later why we did that. He said it was to make noise. All, I can say was that it reminded me of the scene from The Parent Trap where the twins teach Vicky to tap two sticks together to keep the mountain lions away. Only in that scene, there were no mountain lions. Here, there were plenty of sharks. I got back on the boat for a while until we went to a new area. Here, it was shallower and the coral gardens were absolutely stunning. We stopped on a remote desert island type of beach and had hot tea since they don’t believe in drinking anything cold here. No, things aren’t always comfortable here, but I feel completely honored and blessed to have seen such marine wildlife (and extremely grateful to the sharks for choosing a different breakfast this morning!) Here, I am surrounded by beauty in it’s rawest form. Jungle birds sing. Exotic plants grow. Peace abounds. And I am grateful to be here, and happy to be alive, in Raja Ampat.