Flores, Komodo and Sumbawa
30.03.2013 - 16.04.2013 35 °C
I began my journey east on a thirty hour public ferry from Lombok to Flores. The boat was dirty but better than expected. Either that or I was becoming more accustomed to the punishing travel in Indonesia. Ekonomi class decks consisted of large dimly lit rooms full of wooden planks on which one could place a thin foam mattress. The sleeping pads gave off a funky smell but were comfortable enough for a weary traveler. The rooms housed around 150 people each and the humid air was thick with the smell of sambal sauce and cigarette smoke. Families with crying babies and boxes full of produce or men traveling for work were the norm. As is typical in Indonesia, everyone was very friendly and interested. Anyone who spoke a little English took the chance to practice.
Meals were included in the $16 ticket but consisted of a scoop of rice, two or three beans and a one inch block of dried fish. I had to supplement every meal with instant noodles and crackers. The boat made stops at various ports. As more people filtered in the decks slowly filled and the rooms heated. I was sweating bullets when I went to sleep that first night but was tired enough to make it through the night.
In the early morning hours I made my way up to the top deck to catch the last few minutes of the sunrise. When one of the ship`s captains walked by I asked where I could find some breakfast. Instead of pointing me in the direction of the cafeteria he invited me into the control room. He made sure I understood the trajectory of the boat over tea and grilled cheese sandwiches before I returned to the deck below.
On my way down the stairs I heard a "hello mister" from behind me. The greeting had come from a smiling middle aged man sitting on a bench with a set of crutches leaning against the wall to his right. He waved me over to join him. He had an endless array if questions for me to which I responded with shorter and shorter answers. When I could finally get a question in myself I asked what he was doing on the boat. "I'm on my way to find a doctor in Flores." He said pointing to his leg. Because of his relaxed and jolly demeanor I failed to notice that his foot had swollen to about twice it's size and turned all shades of purple, white and blue. It was not pretty and must have been very painful. He told me he had fallen from a coconut tree and that the doctors in Lombok had recommended amputation. He was taking the ferry to Flores in order to find a doctor who could fix his foot for an affordable price. Here was a man in the midst of a thirty hour boat ride, undoubtedly in extreme pain and facing the prospect of amputation, yet he seemed so content with life that I almost failed to notice his injury. It was a clear reminder of both how difficult life can be for those living in a third world country and how mentally strong these people really are.
I asked him if he had taken anything for the pain to which he replied that he could not afford drugs. "Wait a minute" I said as I ran down to the bottom deck to fetch my bottle of IB profen. When I gave it to him he was far too grateful. I felt it was the least I could for someone in such a tough situation but to him it seemed to mean the world. I wished him the best of luck before returning to my mattress, thoughts of the pain this poor man must be enduring still swirling around in my mind. He hobbled down the stairs later in the afternoon to ask how many and how often he should take the pills.
As the sun set the boat navigated through the small islands which dot the east coast of Flores. Soon we were docking in the picturesque harbor of Labuan Bajo. The colorful little town was built onto a hill overlooking grassy mounds of land rising from the crystal clear water. Small wooden vessels were scattered throughout the bay and the chaotically shaped green mountains of Komodo park made faint impressions on the horizon. If there was a ever a competition for most beautiful harbor in Southeast Asia, Labuan Bajo would have to be considered. My only previous knowledge of Flores had been it's proximity to Komodo dragons and I was surprised to see such it was such stunning place. The days to come would hold many more such surprises.
As I disembarked from the Pelni ship I heard a British accent yell "Hey" from somewhere behind me. As a turned my head I saw two young foreigners, one waving his hand to get my attention and the other attempting to walk barefoot across a dock covered in broken glass. I guess I wasn't the only white face on board. Eyes bloodshot and drenched in sweat they quickly approached me and blurted out "Man... were you on that boat? Thats got to be the worst ride we've ever taken." I actually quite enjoyed the ride but I agreed anyways.
"I never saw you guys on board" I said.
"We locked ourselves in our cabin for the whole trip. Where were you?"
They looked shocked "Thats crazy, how did you survive down there?"
"Well they had food, water and oxygen" I joked. Nobody laughed. They introduced themselves as Charles and Ben. We decided we all deserved a beer before splitting ways to search for hotels.
I found a guest house and and settled into a very cheap and very basic room. When I noticed a young backpacker booking into the room next to mine I walked over to ask if she was a traveling solo and if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She replied yes to both and twenty minutes later we were chowing down on spicy pan fried chicken legs, sipping local beer and exchanging travel stories. That's one thing I love so much about traveling. It really is that easy to make a friend. A level of camaraderie that can take weeks or months to build in the 'real world' can be established in just a few minutes on the road.
This new friend's name was Friea, a German girl in her late twenties who had run out of money traveling and was on her way to Bangkok to find work. She had some days to kill in Flores first so we decided to explore the area together. The following day we rented a motorbike to drive up the coast. We found a couple beaches where local kids were all to eager to practice a few words of English with us as well as a couple nice viewpoints overlooking the bay. After sunset, we booked a two day tour to Rinca and Komodo island leaving early the next morning. Anyone who has traveled with me knows I am not a big fan of tours but it's impossible to go to Komodo without one.
Bright and early the next morning we made our way to the docks to meet our tour mates. Low and behold, we were sharing the boat with Charles and Ben, the British guys from the Pelni ship. The boat was small but comfortable and seemed safe enough. Although I probably would think twice about taking it out for more than a couple days. It was manned by a captain and a cook, both of whom were all smiles but spoke not a word of English. There was no guide so everything we saw was a surprise. The tour was a never ending string of surprises.
Day one started with a long boat ride past bright green hills and rocky cliffs. After two hours we were docked at Rinca island to see the tour's main attraction, the biggest lizards in the world. Only minutes after stepping onto the island we caught our first glimpses of the majestic Komodo dragon, endemic to just these few small islands in Komodo park. They were certainly big and would have been right at home in the next Jurassic park film but they were also lazy and could not be bothered to move an inch in the midday sun. I got to wondering how these apparently deadly animals kill anything at all. When I expressed my concerns to the park ranger he told me that their mouths are full of so many bacteria that it only takes one bite for their prey's wound to become severely infected, after which it dies a slow painful death. I kept my distance.
The komodos are the main attraction but Rinca island itself is very unique. Its green grassy hills are sparsely covered by giant palms where cockatoos play and its hill tops offer nice vistas of baby blue sandy bays. After an hour of trekking we got back into the boat and sailed over to what was supposed to be a pink beach. The beach and the bay were gorgeous but the sand only looked pink if you held it in your hand. In the coral reef off shore we had our first taste of Komodo's famous underwater world. Colorful fish were feeding off even more colorful coral and bizarre marine animals made frequent appearances. When we got back into the boat I was a little annoyed to hear that everyone else had been swimming with a sea turtle while I was following around the far less interesting stingrays. Ever since I saw sea turtles gliding below the docks in Kabung island I had been desperate to swim with one.
As the afternoon became evening we made our way over to a random spot next to the island where the captain let down the anchor. None of us really knew what were doing there but the cook kept pointing at the sky. Minutes passed and nothing appeared. "What are we looking for?" we asked anxiously. He pointed forcefully into the sky. After several more minutes I saw a large eagle flying over the horizon. I had seen more than a dozen eagles since the tour began and was not very impressed. But this eagle was soon joined by another, then another. In just few moments at least a hundred soared over the horizon. As they approached the boat I heard loud screeching noises and I got a better look at their strange black wings. That's when I realized that these were no eagles, they were giant bats. Well over a thousand of them were pouring out of a cave somewhere beyond the hill and turning the sunset black. It was a surreal sight. For twenty minutes we sat watching this horror movie scene unfold until the last of them exited the cave and disappeared into the darkness.
For dinner our cook fried up some tasty squid in sweet and spicy sauce with noodles and rice, a satisfying meal. Usually on a backpacker boat tour such as this the food is the first thing to take a dive but every meal was plentiful and delicious. At night we played cards for a while then just laid on the deck of the boat watching shooting stars and mapping constellations. You could see trails of space dust in the sky it was such a clear night. When we were bored of the shooting stars we shifted our attention to the sea where plankton was glowing and flashing neon green all around the boat. We discovered that if we dropped something in the water all the plankton in the area would flash in unison. It was like wizardry when we began stirring the ocean with a large stick creating a whirpool of sparkling green light. After playing with the plankton, we noticed a bright yellow harvest moon rising just above the horizon and illuminating our surroundings with a subtle glow. The space dust, the shooting stars, the plankton and now the moon... it was almost to much to take in at once. We just sat and enjoyed the magic of it all for a couple hours. When we were ready, we laid out some mats on the deck of the boat and fell asleep.
The magic continued the following morning. I awoke in time for sunrise and the ocean's surface was completely still save for occasional ripples created by a jumping fish. It was like a mirror reflecting the vibrant colors of the sunrise. As soon as the breeze picked up, however, the effect was gone. Once everyone was awake, we fired up the engine and made our way to the next attraction. A school of dolphins made an appearance along the way. We arrived at Komodo island early and began a guided trek through the jungle covered hills. We saw a few Komodos on the trail but, like in Rinca, they were not particularly active. It was not until we finished our trek near the park HQ that we finally saw a giant Komodo lug it's giant body across the grass. At 3.8 meters, this guy was the biggest we had seen yet. His split tongue sampled the air as he placed one large claw in front of the other to slowly move out of the sun. Once he had found shade, it was time for another well deserved rest. A few of his buddies came lumbering out of the forest to join him and we really had to watch our step as we made our way back to the boat.
When we left Komodo island I was already more than satisfied with the tour. We had paid less than $50 each for the two days and had seen far more than expected. In fact, I had only really expected to see Komodos. But there was one more surprise in store. The captain navigated into shallow waters and the cook kept on saying "see manta" and spreading his arms wide. We got the message and I thought, if we were lucky, maybe we would see one manta to cap off an the tour. If not, it would not be a great disappointment. The boat chugged against the strong currents as we prepared our snorkels and fins. But before we were even ready to get in the water the cook yelled "manta!" and pointed to the left of the boat. About two meters below the surface were two giant black manta rays sailing gracefully through the water. We watched in awe as they glided past the boat. By the time we made it in the water they were gone. We held onto the ladder on the side of the boat as it's engine struggled against the current. If we let go, we would be swept away. Not the safest snorkeling I've ever done but it was the only way.
We waited for several minutes while the captain searched for more mantas. My eyes were scanning the sea floor below when Freia grabbed my hand and pointed forward. I lost my breath and my eyes widened. Only a couple meters away was a giant manta gliding towards the surface. It had massive dark black wings, a bright white belly and a long slender tale. It relaxed in the waves for a few moments filtering water through its gills before slowly diving to the ocean floor a few meters below. I wasn't able to breath again until it was out of sight. More soon appeared. Eventually we were surrounded by them. They sailed below us on the ocean floor and next to us along the surface. Some were close to four meters wide with mouths that looked like they could swallow us whole. They were huge, quite close and somewhat intimidating. And if the mantas didn't provide enough of a rush, a two and a half meter reef shark soon started circling below us as well. I had to resist the urge to scramble out of the water. We spent close to an hour swimming with the mantas. After we had seen over thirty we got tired and we got out of the water to watch them from the boat. I never thought I could get tired of swimming with giant manta rays. It was an fitting end to an excellent tour. As the boat sailed back to Labuan Bajo we all napped on the deck, our day dreams filled with dolphins and dragons. After washing up at the hotel, we celebrated our adventure by drinking beer and eating BBQ snapper at the local fish market.
The next day was a Komodo hangover day. We all slept late then sat on computers all afternoon. Charles organized a diving trip for the following morning and invited me along. Komodo is supposed to have some of the best diving in the world. I thought it would be a bit too pricy but the dive shop organized a trip to an island next to Komodo where we wouldn't have to pay entrance fees. They also let me do just one dive. For $50, I was able to at least get a taste of the underwater world without breaking my budget.
On the boat the following morning I told our guide I really wanted to swim with a sea turtle. She said she would do the best she could to find one. We descended into a beautiful reef with tons of bizarre coral and schools of colorful fish. We said hello to a spotted moray eel, pestered some stingrays, scared away a few puffer fish and swam with a humpback whale... just joking. There was no whale. But with the way things were going in this park I wouldn't have been that surprised.
After the dive we went to another spot to snorkel. My fins were killing me and the current was very strong so I didn't stay in for long but Charles swam around for over an hour. When he returned to the boat, he told me he had just swam with another sea turtle. I couldn't believe it. I had missed another one. He knew how much I wanted to see one so he told me to throw on my mask and follow him to the reef. We searched for about twenty minutes but had no luck. On our way back to the boat, however, our little shelled friend suddenly appeared in the rocks below. A smile formed around my mouthpiece. We watched him chomp down on some coral for a while, stopping occasionally to glance over at us. When he'd had his fill, he surfaced for a moment to take a breath then he strode off into the ocean. I had finally swam with a sea turtle. I was happy.
As we removed our wetsuits on the boat our guide pointed out a sea snake swimming in the shallow waters. It was small and didn't look dangerous but she told us it was more poisonous than a cobra. I'm glad I didn't know this before the dive. We returned to Labuan Bajo a couple of happy sailors. Another meal of fresh fish at the market, a good night sleep and my short time in Flores and Komodo had come to an end. What a magical time it was. Undoubtedly one of the most awe inspiring places I have ever visited.
Early the next morning I said goodbye to Friea, Charles and Ben then caught the ferry to Sumbawa to begin my journey back west through Nusa Tenggara. The six hour ferry was comfortable and surprisingly air conditioned but also full of more crying babies than adults.
The small highway which runs from Sumbawas east to west coast is a common route for tourists in Flores who need to get to the airport in Lombok. Many budget travelers buy a 40 hour ferry-bus-ferry ticket which leaves them in Mataram or Bali. Nobody actually stops in Sumbawa. Nobody except for me I guess. I had a week before my flight back to Jakarta and took the opportunity to see another untouched region of Indonesia. The large island is sparsely populated and save for a few Australian surfers (Sumbawa has some of the best but least known waves in the world) and a few miners, there were no other white faces around.
From Sape on the east coast, I took a chicken bus through the eastern mountains where the scenery is great. Rocky cliffs stood above terraced rice fields with rivers running below. I considered jumping off the bus to get a few pictures but given the unreliable transportion in the Sumbawa, I thought better of the idea. After a couple transfers I arrived in Dompu. It's the islands third largest settlement but only has maybe 25 000 people. It was nice little town but difficult to navigate and no one spoke a word of English.
I tried to organize a ride to take me around the countryside but trying to explain this to a local moto driver was futile. Luckily, a local student noticed the foreigner in distress and offered to show me around. His name was Triar and he had lived in Bali for three years selling trinkets to tourists so he spoke English quite well. He took me around the countryside by motorbike and down to Pantai Lakey, Sumbawa's top surfing destination and one of two places on the island where you'll see a few foreigners around. It's also the former stomping grounds of Ownee Anwan, a famous young surfer who is set to become the first indonesian to make the world circuit. It turns out that Triar is actually Ownee's cousin. He took me to the bay where Ownee first learned to surf where we drank beers with Ownee's brother out front the house where he was born.
I thought Triar was showing me all this out of the goodness of his heart but after a couple beers the Bali hustlers in him emerged. He started asking me to pay for everything and everything seemed bit a more expensive than was usual. Eventually I just asked him to take me home. I still gave him a little cash for driving me around as, hustling aside, I had enjoyed the day. But I was not interested in hanging out with him again.
The next day I took a jam packed chicken bus to Sumbawa Besar, the island capital of 50 000 people. The town was friendlier than Dompu and had a beautiful mosque in it's center. I checked into a hotel right next door so I could listen to the calls for prayer. The room had seen better days but the manager was very courteous. He drove me around the town to find an Internet cafe and a laundry service free of charge. He also let me borrow his motorbike for a few dollars since there was no moto renting service in town. I took the bike into the surrounding countryside to a small village called Poto. I had heard that it was famous on the island for producing handmade sarongs. I thought that would make a nice present for a lucky family member. It was difficult to find but after a couple hours of searching the dirt roads I made it to the quaint village. The rocky village trails were ringed by cute little fenced shacks where even cuter kids played. A local man took me around to various homes to find sarongs but most of the little old weaving ladies were fresh out of stock. Eventually I was invited into a small home where a woman sat on the ground with a wooden hand powered weaving device on her lap. She created intricate designs as she pulled levies and pushed switches with her slender hands. In an old wooden cabinet were a few finished products. I selected one, thanked the lady and made my way back to the main road. After driving my moto to Poto, I took it up into the mountains to the rice growing village of Semongkat. The tree covered path was well paved with only a few potholes. Small monkeys waited next to the road for scraps and curious faces followed me where ever I ventured. Unlike Bali, where the traffic is a nightmare, there was hardly any vehicles on the road. It was some of the best motorbiking I had done in a while.
The next today I started the journey to Maluk. First I went to Taliwang on a chicken bus where the attendant was overly curious of everything I owned. I was a bit cautious at first when he kept grabbing my things but quickly realized he was harmless. By the time we reached Taliwang he was listening to my iPod, playing my guitar and wearing my prayer bead bracelet. He was a little reluctant to give me back my bracelet. In fact, this was the third time someone in Sumbawa asked to see it then tried to keep it. I'm not sure why they liked it so much. From Taliwang I took a Bemo to Maluk, a coastal town which serves east Sumbawa's lucrative mining activity. Because of the mines, I saw a couple white faces around the town and there were some more upscale amenities in the hotels. For a few different reasons, my week in Sumbawa had actually been a little stressful so I thought I deserved some luxury. I treated myself to a nice $15 room which, to my surprise, had a TV with 'Fox Movies'.
The following morning I organized another motorbike and drove south down the stunning east coast of Sumbawa. I explored a few massive white sand bays surrounded by jungle and large rocky cliffs. The beaches easily gave those in Bali a run for their money and except for half a dozen small hotels and a couple villages which dotted the 50 km stretch, they were completely abandoned. I had some wonderful moments sitting on a hotel terrace, sipping a bintang and looking out over a gorgeous crescent bay where the only signs of life were myself, the waitress and a herd of cows grazing on the grass. When the afternoon showers moved in a made my way back to the hotel and watched three Hollywood movies before falling asleep.
Early the next morning a caught a bus and boat to Lombok to catch a plane. I spent one uneventful night in a dingy guesthouse. My neighbors were two older Indian gentlemen who cooked an entire Indian meal from scratch on there porch. By 'from scratch' I mean they actually defetheared a chicken and ground up the spices themselves. It made me want to go to India.
I landed in Jakarta mid afternoon and went straight to Ben's place to kick off another three days of partying. Although I still enjoyed second stint in Jakarta it was not as awesome as the first. A major reason for this was that I was simply sad to leaving Indonesia. I had a great time in this country and I was really going to miss it. The culture and the sights were amazing but the friends I made along the way were what made the experience. The country had forged itself a special place in my heart and a big part of me wanted to stay here for a lot longer.
Two months in Indonesia made me realize that experiencing a new country is like making a new romantic interest. There's several different approaches one may take. You can go for a one night stand in which you get in, see the major attractions and get out. You don't have any interest in really getting to know the country. You just want to see some things that lay within it's borders. When you return home you have a story to tell your friends about how you have 'been there' and 'done that'. Unfortunately, one night stands seem to be all backpackers are interested in these days as travelers compete to see who can get the most passport stamps and visas in the shortest amount of time.
You can also have a fling with a country. In addition to seeing the major attractions, you get to know the country a bit. You learn a few of it's secrets by taking the 'road less traveled' and you do your best to better understand the culture through basic communication with locals. This takes more time but you leave with a better understanding of who the country is and whether you would like to come back.
If you do return, you may consider starting an actual relationship with the country. Relationships offer the most meaningful experience but require commitment and effort. You need to learn the language and build trust with those around you. If you want to make it work in the long term you must make concessions, give up some things from your old life and learn some new things. It's a process that takes time but there's never any guarantee it will work out. If it does work, its a very rewarding experience.
Indonesia, however, is a country I could really consider a relationship with. I think it has the makings of an expat haven. It has an urban culture which is quite sympathetic to western ideas and ways of life, friendly rural populations that offer a more traditional perspective, a very learn-able language and decent grub. The tourism industry hasn't taken over so locals are still very interested in foreigners but you have ample access to those western niceties which keep an expat sane.
In addition, the travel opportunities for someone with an extended visa are endless. At the very beginning of my trip I met a backpacker who had just spent one year traveling just Indonesia. At the time I thought it was a bit odd but now I completely understand. I don't even think a year is enough to see everything this country has to offer. Indonesia takes diversity, whether cultural, biological or natural, to a whole new level. Every island has developed separately with its own language, culture and traditions. The landscape is ever changing and full of a wide variety of unique natural attractions, from old growth rain forest to volcanoes. And the wildlife is more diverse and abundant than perhaps anywhere else in the world. In Indonesia, you can party hard in a giant metropolis, chill with rare apes in a jungle, learn age old fishing techniques in a remote village and just about everything imbetween. The possibilities are endless.
To make a long story short, of all the countries I have visited in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is the only one I would consider as a place to live.