A new text for my „wine and friends“ column has arrived! Have fun with this beautifully personal text from my dear girlfriend Sandra, who left Germany and her career in PR behind to start over a new life as a scuba dive instructor in southeast Asia:
Craving wine and cheese in paradise
For almost four years my husband and I have been living in Thailand and Indonesia working as resort managers and dive instructors. It is not a “normal” life. The days are long, on most days our office is the ocean and our guests and colleagues are wearing wetsuits. Conversations about whale sharks, manta rays or the best way to adjust the white balance on your camera while 30 meters underwater happen all the time.
„It is a long way from my previous life in Düsseldorf.“
I love my current life, but life in the tropics is not always how it looks on Facebook or Instagram. Yes, the weather is beautiful, the ocean is very blue and we meet amazing people. However, learning and adapting to a different culture, working with people who have an entirely different background and experiences takes time and has its own challenges. We are working very hard and sometimes a girl just wants to kick back with a glass of wine and some brie to relax. Well, that is not quite as easy as it sounds. The reality of living abroad is also about craving food, especially wine and cheese. So here is a quick look behind the scenes on the three islands I have lived on these last few years:
Koh Tao, Thailand
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tao is one of diving’s meccas. For years young people from all over world have flocked to Koh Tao to get their PADI Open Water diving license. Thai cuisine is absolutely amazing and you can easily spend weeks without touching any western food. Massaman curry, an amazing combination of curry, potatoes, peanuts, coconut milk and chicken. Pad Ka-Prao, the classic fried chili basil leaf is packed with a dense combination of flavors. Not to mention the imports like the crunchy, tart and totally unique Burmese salad.
„But even with all these options there comes a time when you simply need wine and cheese.“
Although there are now many western options we definitely had our favorites. We found a little French gem called “Le Petit Palace”. The French owners created a lovely place with a friendly atmosphere and served the most delicious “galettes” (which are, as they would clearly explain to you not a crepe). My favorite was stuffed with crispy bacon and a perfectly cooked soft fried egg. We would also indulge with cheese platters and imported wine from France.
„In general wine on Koh Tao is a bit of a disaster.“
Wine is not only very expensive, but also very limited in terms of quality. Not a big surprise, all the bottles have to be imported from Australia, South Africa or Europe. The most reasonable option is to buy a bottle of the ever present “Mont Clair” for about 500 baht, which is around 10 Euro. You can also get a 3 liter box for around 20 Euro. Mont Clair white is passably drinkable when served cold with ice. The “red” is an acceptable base for sangria. It doesn’t say a lot for the wine when it is dramatically improved by adding orange juice and fruits. But desperate times call for desperate measures when you are having some nice cheese and you want to have a little taste of wine in your mouth (even if your face makes a funny expression after the first sip).
The best source of food is to get it “smuggled” in. I remember vividly how we couldn’t wait for our expat friends to return from their vacation at home in Spain or France.
„That was like Thanksgiving and Christmas at the same time.“
We knew they had their suitcases stuffed with duck pate, cheese and ham and would kindly share with us. First we only opened the packages and inhaled the exquisite smell before we ate everything like hungry wolves.
Bunaken, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
After living on Koh Tao for almost two years, our next stop was a small, remote island in North Sulawesi, Indonesia called Bunaken. Roughly the size of Great Britain, Sulawesi is a strangely shaped island with arms that extend in different directions, Bunaken sits just off the western side of the northern arm.
„Be honest, could you find Sulawesi on a map?“
However, this remoteness is also one of Bunaken’s greatest assets. The island is a dream for divers with the most pristine coral reefs and underwater landscapes. Divers drift next to massive underwater walls and glide along in the current with the countless turtles. It is a very quiet island, with a couple of resorts but no shops, restaurants or bars. Life is easy, people are happy and the guests are all passionate about diving. We were living, eating and sleeping in the resort we were managing. The food was typical Indonesian cuisine with a little European twist. No dish was too spicy.
Typical Indonesian food is simple, but good. Especially the “Pisang goreng”, the fried bananas, are a very famous and delicious snack. In December we would get the most tasty, small fresh mangos right from the tree. But living in a resort means the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a two week rotating schedule, so the food choice was limited.
„In Europe we are used to the fact, that everything is available 24/7. I love Bunaken for many reasons, but it taught me never to take special pleasures as wine and cheese for granted.“
If we are hungry, we prepare some food. If we have special cravings, we go to the next shop. If we want a special delicacy we order it online. None of these options are given on a remote remote island.
In the evenings we would eat dinner with the guests and often the conversation would turn to food. Sometimes we had returning guests who understood our plight and would bring bottle of wine as a gift. These people were our absolute favorites! Many times I had dreams about cheese and wine and how I had a huge choice of delicious food in front of me.
„You know the situation is tough when you are dreaming about wine.“
The reason for all of this is Indonesia is a Muslim majority country with import tax on alcohol up to 150%. Currently there are no nationwide bans being enforced in Indonesia, with the exception of Aceh, located on the northern end of Sumatra. Nevertheless, in more cosmopolitan Indonesian cities like Jakarta, Medan and Surabaya and also in tourism hotspots such as Bali, Yogyakarta and Batam, alcohol beverages are readily available, yet with higher prices. Although we were living in the Christian part where alcohol is widely available, everything has to be shipped in.
„The cheapest bottle of wine costs around 25 Euros. A bottle of imported vodka easily 45 Euros. With very limited selection of cheeses.“
This makes it a pure luxury which you allow yourself only for very special occasions. Normally you stick to the Indonesian Bintang beer, which belongs to the Heineken company. A small bottle of Bintang is around 2.50 Euro. No problem for westerners, but of course all too expensive for local people of Bunaken who have an average income of around 150 to 300 Euros per month.
But necessity is the mother of invention and for the locals of Bunaken that means taking the sugar from the omnipresent palm trees and distilling it into palm wine or “Arak”. Don’t be misled! This drink has nothing to do with wine. Depending on the quality it gives you some chills, because of the taste and the amount of alcohol in it. To test how strong the homemade Arak is locals would put their eye over the top of the bottle to see how much it burned. If it’s a good quality it tastes similar to a grappa – if it’s a more basic version the taste is questionable and the locals mix it with Coke or Sprite. Bunaken people love to drink it while playing their live music and singing emotional songs.
Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia
After 15 months on Bunaken our next stop was Nusa Lembongan which lies just off Bali. Like Koh Tao it has been a tourist destination for a long time. It still holds its charm and is a tranquil oasis from the often too busy, noisy and crowded Bali. And it has some wonderful restaurants!
„After living in a resort for a very long time, the first weeks we still got a small giggle by asking “where do you want to go for dinner?“”
We were also lucky enough to find an amazing house that even has a kitchen and a BBQ on the porch. We are able to order frozen steaks and lamb chops from Bali and grill to our hearts delight. Wine, beer, and liquor are all available but at a price. Our table wine is “Two Islands”, perfectly drinkable. My other recommendation is the “Plaga Rosé” which became my preferred wine on Lembongan.
„A glass of rosé on ice is very refreshing after a day of diving.“
Best restaurant recommendations are “Oishi” a reasonably priced Japanese restaurant with delicious Sushi and “Tigerlily” which serves a mix of Indonesian and western cuisine. Also make sure to have a giant frozen mango margarita at the “Sea Breeze Bar” on the neighboring island Nusa Ceningan.
Despite the fact that not everything is available all the time, I enjoy it that some things like wine and cheese have become precious again. We are consuming them consciously and enjoy every second. Whenever I’m back in Germany going to a supermarket makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop. Sometimes I am almost overwhelmed by the vast selection of food immediately available and reasonably priced. A fact that we as Germans are not always aware of and should celebrate way more! Being surrounded by my friends, sharing wine and food is a very precious gift that I treasure. It is all that I need when I’m back at home and recharges me for my next adventure.