Komodo

Komodo

We booked two separate flights on different airlines to get from Manado, North Sulawesi to Labuan Bajo, Flores; we had a reasonably long 2 1/2 hour stopover in Bali. We came to find out that we had to pay an extra departure tax of $8 by taking different airlines and it also meant a long walk from the arrival terminal to the departure terminal. It also resulted in a hair-raising wait for our luggage. Our first flight was slightly delayed, though, not so much to cause concern. After we arrived in Bali, the baggage claim area was small — only 3 carousels – but somewhat confusing since the flights that the baggage came from were not posted. There were just paper signs at the carousel indicating the airline associated with the flights. The first batch of luggage from Manado came on to the carousel quickly, and then we waited…..and waited and waited. Now we were watching the clock nervously since we still had to go through security again and check in for the flight to Flores. After almost 30 minutes we were still waiting for our luggage with about 1/2 of the other passengers so I decided to go over to the lost luggage desk to see what was up. There were about 5 female employees ‘working’ the lost luggage desk, one of which was eating her lunch while the others stood around talking to each other. I asked who spoke English and then gave my story while presenting my luggage claim tickets. They called the manager over who had to take the ticket to another office. Just after he took the ticket, I heard the luggage had arrived on the carousel. I took the ticket back and we grabbed out bags. We had to hustle, and fast! It was almost 1/2 hour to flight departure. We scooted out of the arrival terminal and, with both big backpacks stacked on my back, we wound our way through corridor after corridor for the surprisingly long walk to the departure terminal. Fortunately (or maybe not) security is somewhat lax. We breezed through security and found the check-in desk had no line. We checked our bags, got our boarding passes and got on another line to pay our departure tax; then back through security number 2 racing our way to the gate. The next flight was running late, as well. It was a weird mixture of feeling relief and exasperation. Once again, information about the pending flight was sparse. We finally boarded the turbo-prop Merpati Airline plane. I overheard some Americans talking nervously about getting on to their first non-jet powered airplane. It was another first for us, too, since the approximately 100-passenger capacity plane had a foul, moldy odor.

The stinky-est plane around

The stinky-est plane around

The terminal at Labuan Bajo consisted of two small buildings but right behind it was the construction of a new, modern terminal that would be used to accommodate larger numbers of passengers. They were expanding the airport so it could accommodate jets and perhaps international flights. Luggage collection was done by a handler passing the bags over a bench separating the outside from inside of a building.

Labuan Bajo is a fast growing tourist town. Just 3 years ago the paved asphalt main street was packed gravel.

Labuan Bajo harbor

Labuan Bajo harbor

Along with the usual bevy of tourist agencies, restaurants and hotels, there were several scuba diving centers from which to choose. The area features some of the best diving in the world due to the confluence of the warm Pacific waters flowing south and the cooler Indian Ocean flowing north creating a plankton-rich diverse marine environment. And because of the difference in heights of the oceans it causes some of the world’s fastest and most dangerous currents. Nearby, Rinca and Komodo Islands sit, respectively, 1.5 to 2 hours away by boat. They are part of the Komodo National Park and the only place in the world (save a couple of other local islands) to find the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest lizard.

Gone were the real local restaurants of Manado where we could get terrific meals for under $5 for two, but the upside were some very good Italian restaurants with excellent food. We were very surprised to find excellent thin crust pizza and great tasting fresh pasta, albeit at relatively high prices. (A basic margarita, cheese and tomato sauce pizza goes for about $6.)

Our first couple of days in Flores were filled with rain. Some locals said the season had changed early this year. On top of the foul weather, Cindy started developing stomach problems which put a damper on our activities. It lasted a few days and I finally prevailed upon her to go to the local hospital. She saw a doctor within 5 minutes, urinalysis completed in one hour, given antibiotics upon exit, and all for about $5.50!

I scheduled a three-dive scuba trip with an outfit called Paradise Komodo Divers. We haven’t met many other Americans on our trip, but while waiting in their office, I met one of the other divers who lives in Cindy’s sister’s town in Long Island. He and his Australian girlfriend are also on a round-the-world (diving) trip.

The dive trip with Paradise Komodo turned out to be a disaster. It took an hour to start the boat engines which died again after 15 minutes out of port. After getting up and running back to port I went looking for the dive center owner 3 times that day eventually catching up with him at 5pm. He didn’t have cash for a refund then but did make good by having my money delivered to my hotel that night. It was such a disappointment since I was so looking forward to diving in the area. This was my last chance since we were going to fly out in two days.

Once again, I scoured the dive centers in town to find an operator but checking the reviews more carefully before signing up. I found the Komodo Dive Center who were scheduled to go to the premier dive sites for a full day of 3 dives. The currents are notoriously strong and dangerous but we hit it around slack tide which diminished the currents’ strength. Still, the strategy on two of the dives were to descend to depth against the current and then hang on to a rock to avoid getting swept away and enjoy the show. It didn’t disappoint and may have ranked as the top 3 best dives I’d ever been on. It featured some of the largest undersea creatures I’d seen including 6-7 White Tip Reef sharks, a 2+ meter Grey Reef Shark, a giant Napoleon Wrasse, several large groupers, a spotted eagle ray, several schools of large fish, a devil scorpion fish and spectacularly colored pristine coral.

We scheduled a boat excursion the next day to visit Rinca Island to see the Komodo Dragons followed by stops at a couple of snorkeling spots. On Rinca, they require that everyone hire a guide. And for good reason. The Komodo Dragons are huge, scary creatures and have killed a couple of locals over recent years including a couple of guides. Our guide, Aris, was born and bred on Rinca. He was very vigilant and wary the entire tour. Komodo Dragons are stealth hunters who wait for their prey to pass and then attack.

Komodo Dragon prey include water buffalo and Timor Deer

Komodo Dragon prey include water buffalo and Timor Deer

They are even able to stand up on hind legs which must be quite an awesome and fearful sight; they grow up to 10 feet long. If the attack itself doesn’t inflict a fatality, the bite delivers a potent mixture of deadly bacteria that eventually kills the prey. Buffalo can take a week or two to succumb before becoming a happy meal to several dragons. From a distance, the dragons look a lot like logs on the forest floor. I’m not easily unnerved but Cindy and I were pretty uneasy while walking through the forest trails. The guide was armed only with the standard issue fork-ended wood stick.

We were fortunate to see two Komodo Dragons in the wild. This female was guarding her eggs.

We were fortunate to see two Komodo Dragons in the wild. This female was guarding her eggs.

After Rinca, we headed for some snorkeling. No else had signed up for the tour so we had the boat to ourselves.

rinca snorkeling trip

We flew out of Labuan Bajo airport the next day, back through Bali to Lombok Island and the tourist town of Sengiggi. This time we flew the same airline for both flights avoiding exit taxes and dealing with luggage transfers. As we went through Bali airport I passed the lost luggage desk which was now manned by only two people but had a crowd of about 15-20 customers with luggage issues.

We stayed in Sengiggi two nights before heading to our final big stop in Indonesia: Gili Air.

This fisherman is prepared. He's totally protected if a big one he lands hits him in the head!

This fisherman is prepared. He’s totally protected if a big one he lands hits him in the head!

We got taken for ride by an agent in Sengiggi who sold us a bus/boat combo to Gili Air telling us the boat was a ‘shuttle’ boat vs the cheaper, but more crowded public boat. The bus/van was fine but when we got to the harbor at Bangsal it turned out we had tickets for an overcrowded public ferry. We refused to get on it, choosing to wait for the next one which almost an hour later, packed with cargo and just as crowded. They are supposed to limit the number of passengers to 20 but Cindy stopped counting at 40.

The public boat

The public boat

Ahhhh. Gili Air. Just the name sounds really cool. And it is. The only modes of transportation are boat, walking, bicycles and horse-drawn buggy or cidomo. No cars, no motorbikes, just laid back peace and quiet and an easy place to find that deserted beach that looks like no one else has ever been to.

A cidomo

A cidomo, complete with rear-view mirror.

We were able to snorkel right off the shore.

View of Mt. Rinjani volcano from Gili Air

View of Mt. Rinjani volcano from Gili Air

And bike right on the beach.

bike on the beach

And walk down quiet lanes.

quiet lane

Until time to say goodbye to our Indonesian adventure.

indonesian sunset

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Circumstances and happenstances

Circumstances and happenstances

It’s common to see women carry things on the tops of their heads.

Bali women

Bali women

One of the interesting things we’ve seen around Bali is the use of female porters. A job that is usually done by men in other countries, these women tote all kinds of stuff including bags of cement/sand weighing in at around 50 pounds. The method is to wrap a towel on the top of the head for cushioning and proper weight distribution and balance. They’re not large people, either. In fact, most are small in stature. In Amed (and nearby Tulumben), they’re contracted to transport scuba tanks and equipment. The tanks weigh roughly 45 pounds and are stacked on their shoulders two at a time. (There were some male porters there, too). They don’t look it, but I’d say these folks are pretty tough.

Every place we’ve been to in Indonesia, the people often smile and say ‘hello’. And not since Egypt has there been so many people with the same name. In Egypt, every other guy was named “Mohammed”. On Bali, it seems every man is named either Nyoman, Wayan, or Made. The women we met here, as in Egypt, had fairly unique names.

In Manado, northern Sulawesi, the population is primarily Christian so names like Steven, Maria, Jane and Ronald are the norm. According to one cab driver, Sulawesi would like to break away from the rest of Indonesia since it is Christian and the rest of the country is dominated by Muslims. When I hear things like this, the question usually runs through my head,”Why can’t we all just get along?

We’re doing some island hopping which presents the logistical problem of getting around. Short boat or ferry rides are ok but longer ones call for uncomfortable, over-crowded conditions and safety concerns. That leaves air travel. The routes we’re interested in are serviced by primarily by Lion Air, but buying tickets isn’t easy since we can’t pay on-line with a foreign/non-Indonesian credit card. As easy as it would be to post that on their website, it’s not mentioned anywhere. After having my cards rejected several times, I had to call their office to try to book and get more information. They allowed me to reserve seats for about 3 hours until I could get to the airport to pay for them. Afterwards, there were some email exchanges to ask about payments and where the offices were located. It took 2 emails to the ‘contact us’ on the website but I was finally answered through the customer service email address. The answer, however, was totally unintelligible….”We can inform you that for booking reserves in the water already in the Disable lion.”

We knew there was a layover when we booked our flight to Manado, but weren’t told anything about it when we checked in. Nor were we given much information about the flight delay. When we finally made it on the plane we discovered fairly small seats (despite the plane being a large Boeing) and a ragged interior with the seat pocket extended out enough to hit my knees. The easy listening music made the flight(s) that much more goopy and unpleasant.

The plane arrived safely thereby getting us across the equator for the 4th time by only a couple of degrees.

One of the things we wanted to accomplish in Manado was to go to the local immigration office to get a visa extension. Since our visas are good for 30 days and our intended stay in Indonesia is just under 6 weeks, we needed to go to an immigration office for the extension and Manado had one. We researched the process and it seemed to vary from hours to days to a week or more. Not sure exactly what to expect, we figured we could get it done within a week so booked our flights 8 days out from our arrival.

Manado locals hangin' and fishin'

Manado locals hangin’ and fishin’

We arranged for a hotel in Manado before arrival since it would be late at night. Dissatisfied with it for being old and shabby, we checked out leaving our bags there while we went to take care of the visas. We arrived at the visa office at about 9:30am and were told by the person at the desk that her boss was in a meeting. (Someone else told us he got the same answer as a full-blown office party was going on, karaoke music blaring and all!) As we sat patiently (fortunately they had wifi) we could see a whole lot of nothing going on behind the counter. Officials were eating, talking, rolling around on their chairs…. Not much was happening, so just before noon they advised us to grab lunch. We did so at a close-by restaurant, and of course, there were some of the officials eating at the same place. Back at the office, things continued as they had in the morning.

Mikrolets: the local way of getting around

Mikrolets: the local way of getting around

Our plans were really up in the air at that point. We had no place lined up to stay and since we weren’t sure how long it would take to get our visas, we didn’t even know how long we’d need to stay in the city of Manado. As we looked online for places to stay in Manado, anything in our budget didn’t look very good. Our plans were to go to Palau (island) Bunaken for some snorkeling and diving but we didn’t really know when we could go there. Then a guy with long blond greying hair walked into the immigration office and we start conversing. Terry Bradford is a native Australian and is somehow related to William Bradford, the 17th century Governor of Plymouth, MA. He had a great suggestion for a hotel where he knew the owner and his wife called him to book us a room for the night. Terry seemed to know quite a bit about Manado and Palau Bunaken. It turned out he is also the owner of a diving hotel/resort on Palau Bunaken.

By about 2:30pm we went to check in with the people behind the desk at immigration. Nothing had progressed, so with lots of apologies, they suggested we return Monday or Tuesday, five or six days hence. It made us a bit nervous since our flight out was early Wednesday morning but we didn’t have much choice. Terry’s place sounded pretty good, so we went looking for him, found him drinking a cup of coffee around the corner, asked if he had space for us. In a matter of minutes we had him cancel our Manado hotel and arranged to join him at the marina to catch a boat to the Sea Breeze resort.

The Seabreeze Resort

The Sea Breeze Resort

The reefs and sea life in Indonesia are in great condition, near ‘pristine’ as per the guide books, though, similar to the Caribbean, you don’t see fish as large as in past years. Still, diving and snorkeling are spectacular as there is such aquatic diversity and I’m continually seeing new species of fish and coral. One of the peculiar aspects, and something to watch out for, are the currents. They can be fast and change direction and speed very rapidly. We saw a news article about a diver who got swept into a current and floated for 16 hours before getting picked up by fishermen.

Paying close attention to the tides and currents, Cindy and I snorkeled the reef in front of our resort. We found a few ways to account for the fast currents, usually starting in one spot, drifting along with current and walking to/from the resort. The scuba dives I did were all ‘drift dives’ where the divers go below the surface drifting with the current until the end of the dive when the boat, which has been ‘following’ the divers, picks them up wherever they happen to surface.

The last post included a story about an aggressive parrotfish. The correct species was actually a Titan Triggerfish. Now I am constantly on the lookout for those suckers. My fears were confirmed by a diver who showed me a scar made by one that actually bit his leg.

The truly sad and disheartening sights we’ve seen here have been the amounts of trash floating in the waters. For unexacting reasons, the $15 park fees do not appear to benefit the environment. There is lax enforcement of the laws and commercial deals are often made resulting in a compromised natural environment. In the future, they stand to lose a lot of tourist income, though, they may not realize it for a long time. From a day-to-day view, it’s common to see people cleaning the streets in front of their homes or stores but it’s just as common to see people to throw out trash without the use of proper receptacles. Environmental education could go a long way to helping the country and people.

We took a dolphin tour early one morning, like 6am-early. Woof. But were rewarded with seeing perhaps 200-300 dolphins swimming and frolicking in the Celebes Sea. They would sometimes swim alongside or in front of the boat and I would occasionally see them in the distance breaching the water with spins and flips. Try as I would, my camera had a delayed shutter –and the dolphins weren’t saying when they would jump or dive– so I had difficulty catching many good photos.

Bottlenose dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins

There were several fishing boats in the area using a unique system to catch the same fish the dolphins were pursuing. The fishermen would fly kites that trailed fishing lures which dropped in the water as far as perhaps 50 meters behind the boats thereby avoiding interference from the long tails of the boat propellers.

The public ferry back to Sulawesi

The public ferry back to Sulawesi

I’m not sure exactly what the locals paid for the ferry, but I’m certain it wasn’t close to the $5 the tourists paid. I appreciated that it was open information that the tourist price was higher than the price paid by locals.

There were a couple of serious rummy games happening on the ferry

There were a couple of serious rummy games happening on the ferry

Back on the main island of Sulawesi, we hit the immigration office early on Tuesday, the day before our early morning flight. We reminded them our flight was the next day and, sure enough, we had our visa extensions in one and a half hours and were good to go. We passed the Governor’s office on the way and caught a game of croquet going on in the front yard.

Croquet

Manado is not a tourist town but a pass-through to other destinations and home to numerous provincial government offices. As such, we benefited from paying local prices for many things including a stay at the newish hotel (recommended by the Bradfords and breakfast included) for about $25 a night and a couple of awesome meals at the restaurant across the street. Cindy and I had delicious fresh fish, veggies, rice and drinks for less than $5 for both of us. However, we had to be very careful walking down the streets as there were immense gaps in the sidewalks.

Gaps, large and small, were a common sight

Gaps in the sidewalk, large and small, were a common sight in Manado

Complete with our extended visas, we left Manado for Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores.

Lion air

Getting our feet wet in Indonesia

We heard Kuta (town on the island of Bali) was inundated with tourists but since we only had a general sense of where we wanted to go and do in Indonesia, and since what we were arriving late at night and just needed a place close to the airport to crash, we figured we could handle it. How bad could it be? Well, as Joni Mitchell wrote and sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut…you name it, they got it in Kuta; a giant mall with doors wide open blowing cold air out on to the street, oodles of retailers, hotels, restaurants, hawkers, touts all doing the dance. So the plan was to put a plan together for a country that spans over 17,000 islands. But first we had to see the beach. It was lined with all the things we wanted to get away from, but wow, what a beach!

Kuta Beach, Bali

Kuta Beach, Bali

Our expectation for Indonesia was for lots of beach and water but since we weren’t sure how much else we’d encounter on other islands, we headed inland and north for a town called Ubud. It had its share of tourists but with a bit of a bohemian flavor; lots of art galleries, yoga and practicing various healing arts. We took the tourist bus there and on the way I noticed quite a few temples. More than a few, in fact. They seemed to be everywhere, and were. I came to find out that each house has a “pura” or temple. The Balinese Hindu really take their religion seriously.

hindu doorway

pura

temple entrance

In Ubud they were preparing for a massive funeral cremation ceremony as the eldest of the local royal family had died. They were preparing for the ceremony by building a massive structure about 50 or 60 feet high that would hold the body as it was being cremated. They built a staircase, too, to accommodate the logistics of getting the body to the top.

funerary stack

Stairway to heaven?

Stairway to heaven

We didn’t stay in Ubud for the ceremony, though, I’m certain it would have been quite the sight. The entire structure would be held up by throngs of people and taken to the site where it would become a funeral pyre.

Ubud had a long-tail macaque sanctuary called The Sacred Monkey Forest. Monkeys represent positive and negative forces in Bali. They’re thought to chase away evil spirits from the temples.

A beautiful, quiet and  peaceful sanctuary.

Beautiful, quiet and peaceful.

monkey forest ii

There were lots of long-tailed macaques and naturally a few locals selling fruit to tourists to feed them. A totally unnecessary thing to do since the macaques are fed by the conservators anyway. But some tourists insist on being, well, tourists.

Moments before the macaque urinated on him.

Moments before the macaque urinated on him.

We purchased tickets to see a traditional Barong dance. We enjoyed it but perhaps we would not have gone if we’d known we’d be presented with an opportunity to see one during a holiday ceremony in a few days hence.

Barong dancers

Barong dancers

Our home-stay (similar to a Bed and Breakfast) in Ubud was probably the best value in accommodations we’ve had since starting out. For about $17 and a half dollars a night, we had air conditioning, great wifi and breakfast.

The next leg of our journey consisted of a bus to boat combo. For a difference of a couple of dollars, I purchased the ticket through one of the multitudes of travel agents. Everyone seems to be a travel agent or tour operator offering to set up buses, taxis, boats, tours, whatever. We took a ‘naturally’ air conditioned minivan to the dock at Sanur where we had to step from the beach and into the water before boarding the boat to Nusa Lembongan (island). I’d heard about Nusa Lembongan from a dive instructor in Curacao who deemed it a laid-back alternative to some of the hectic tourist towns of Bali. It was a great tip.

Lembongan harbor--Mt. Agung, Bali in the background

Lembongan harbor–Mt. Agung, Bali in the background

The rub came when I went to sign up for a scuba dive to a site called Manta Point. Since I am PADI certified as an “Open Water Diver” I am only supposed to be allowed to dive to a maximum depth of 18 meters or 60 feet. The dive center insisted on having an “Advanced Open Water” certification to dive deeper to a site like Manta point. By now I had completed over 185 dives and gone deeper than 60 feet many times, and almost double that on a handful of occasions. The instructor who dove with me a day earlier attested to my diving abilities but the shop owner insisted on having the Advanced certificate. But “money” talks to shop owners and the PADI organization. I had to swallow hard since this went against personal tenants (hands-on, experiential learning and performance-based merits) that successfully lead me down many roads in my life. I bit the proverbial bullet and completed the course gaining my advanced certificate as well as some underwater compass skills that would come in handy at some point.

In our rented sarongs on the way to a local ceremony  for Kuningan

In our rented sarongs on the way to a local ceremony for Kuningan

Cindy and I spent our last two days on Nusa Lembongan snorkeling. As much as I love scuba diving (I liken it to cheating nature with specialized equipment while touring an underwater jungle), snorkeling is simple way to have a lot of fun and often results in surprising scenery or events. We went to the north side of the island where we would not need a boat and could snorkel right off shore. There was a lot of beautiful coral and a few species of fish I’d never seen before. On our way to shore on the first day, we saw the biggest fish I’d ever seen snorkeling and ranked quite high even among fish I’d seen diving. I’m guessing it weighed about 45 lbs, oval in shape and about 3-4 feet long. I’m not sure of the species as I’d never seen one before.

On the next day I had a real shocker. As I was snorkeling, I looked down and saw the biggest parrotfish I’d ever seen coming right at me. It must have been about 2-3 feet long and a guesstimated weight of 25-30 pounds. It’s teeth were grinning as it approached, almost in a sardonic smile, its beak pointed right in my direction. I waited a few seconds to make sure I was the target and sure enough it stayed its course. When it got about 3 feet from me I started kicking my fins in its direction. I didn’t know what was next or how close it would get or if it would try to bite me, but it veered off when it was less than a foot away, swam away for about 10-15 feet and then turned and came at me again! I fended it off the same way and the same thing happened; it swam away only to return for another run at me. This happened about 7 or 8 times. It came after Cindy once and another snorkeler a couple of times, as well. I would have been more than mystified about the whole incident except that the very night before, Cindy and I went to a lecture called “The Weird Wonderful Water Life” given by a local marine research conservationist. During the talk he described a similar incident with a parrotfish explaining that it was a territorial behavior. Needless to say, I avoided Mr. Giant Parrotfish’s area afterwards.

Nusa Lembongan is famous for its sunsets

Nusa Lembongan is famous for its sunsets

Cindy read a lot of scary reviews of some of the ferries around Indonesia, enough to alter our itinerary somewhat. We’d still go everywhere we wanted but would have to reroute. Another glitch put our plans when we went on line to book our flights to the northern Sulawesi city of Manado using Lion Air. We couldn’t pay for the flights on the website. We tried calling them but they wouldn’t take payment over the phone. The only way to pay would be to go to the Denpasar airport back on Bali and there was no guarantee we’d get the same price as we saw on their website.

We had another more critical reason to go to Bali. Cindy’s iPad crashed and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, they didn’t have one with enough memory so the replacement purchase would have to wait.

After going to the airport to pay for the tickets, we headed to the northeast coast of Bali to an area called Amed known for its diving and snorkeling. It’s a relaxing town –actually a string of towns that hug the coast for about 10km– and quite mellow. Our hotel was a great value, as well. For less than $30 there was a pool and an ocean view!

View from Anugerah Villa

View from Anugerah Villa

Aside from enjoying the wonderful snorkeling in numerous spots right off the coast, I did a couple of scuba dives and Cindy did a free-diving course.