Monday, December 28, 2009

Trip to Komodo: Part II - Komodo National Park (Rinca Island)

It was time to charter a boat to our primary objective. Komodo dragons live exclusively in this part of the world, with most of them on Komodo Island and Rinca Island. Rinca is closer to Labuanbajo and has just as many dragons. So, we left for the docks at 6am to bargain for transport.
Offers we received started at 800,000 rupiah, or about 80 bucks, for return travel. I read in lonely planet that it should cost us between 250,000 and 600,000 so we walked some more. Finally we got several captains in one area and made an offer of 300. One of them stepped up and we agreed to this beauty (on the left) for 350:

Here's the businessman who sold us the ride:

The boat, made of wood like others in the harbor, seemed safe enough. There were some lifejackets, though when we asked about a radio the man grinned and laughed before suggesting "hand phone!" as a solution. Satisfied, we embarked, with visions of dragons dancing in our heads:

Satisfied, that is, until we saw this while making our turn out of the harbor:

Yes, pictured there is a boat of similar construction to our own sinking in broad daylight in the harbor. No one was even paying any attention to this boat. We shook our heads and murmured, as so many other times, "only in Indonesia." I laughed so hard before I realized what this portended for our own journey. But I don't believe in omens, and I guess neither did my compatriots, so we pressed on.

Our captain was a one-man crew:

We hemmed and hawed as the boat pitched and yawed. In fact I spent lots of time discussing the finer points of pitching, yawing, and rolling, and tried to remember other nautical terms. By discussing, I mean I talked about the terms for twenty minutes, and the others looked at me like I had three heads. Nicole sat next to the lifejackets. She doesn't like water. Here she is looking a little skeptical:

As we pulled out into the bay, the shoreline of Flores followed us on our left while various islands passed on our right. Occasionally we saw small fishing villages:


Carrie and Nicole:

After two and a half hours, we arrived in Rinca's bay. We glimpsed dolphins and first laid eyes on the island's rugged hills. I was looking for dragons but saw none:

The dock was smaller than I expected. Rinca is part of Komodo National Park, protected and funded by the government/visiting fees. The area is also a UN-proclaimed World Heritage site:


We spied monkeys among the mangrove in the little bay:

After disembarking, we walked a short distance to the visitor's center area. We were overwhelmed by the bizarre scenery - in particular, the rocky, dusty, dry hills interspersed with tall palm trees. As we entered a low valley area we spied our first dragon napping under a tree. We snapped a few shots and cautiously sneaked by. Our arrival at camp was proudly announced by a dramatic sign:

I guess I'll leave the explanation to this close-up. Only in Indonesia!

They assigned us a guide for a 2-hour circular walk, the longest available. I forget his name, but he was a young guy from Java, very knowledgeable, with endearing English speech patterns. It didn't take long before we happened upon the camp's resident group of dragons:

You'll notice that the guide is carrying a large stick. The stick, as you might guess, is for protection from the oversized monitor lizards. They are capable of and have killed people, though no visitor has even been bitten. The first thing you notice when you see the dragons is how big they are, followed closely by how sedate they are. The dragon pictured above who is actually on his feet (walking?) was the only one we saw move his legs all day. The rest, lying asleep on the ground, appeared dead. Their limbs are extremely flexible, so they sprawl out at impossible angles like a 6-year-old who jumps onto a couch and passes out.

Their laziness relates to an extraordinary and strange lifestyle. They eat about once per month in the wild, and can consume 40% of their body weight in one sitting. The diet consists of water buffalo that can weigh half a ton (that also appear naturally - it's a strange ecosystem), small deer, monkeys, and little else. They usually hunt in the late afternoon, sunning or shading themselves near watering holes until they catch the scent of prey. At night their pulse can sometimes sink to such a slow pace that you can hug one without it waking up. My guide said he had done this (though he confessed he was scared out of his mind in the process).

We headed off into the forest in search of more dragons. Young dragons, until 5 years of age, will spend their time high in trees such as this one, hunting insects, birds, and other lizards. They avoid the ground because adult dragons, including the young's own parents, will eat them if they come upon them:

Which is not to say that an adult dragon couldn't follow you or I up a tree. The dragons possess human-like hands that allow them to climb trees. As a side note, they generally eat the entirety of their prey, bones included, with the exception of the skull - probably because the enormous horns of the water buffalo and the girth of the skull make consumption tiring. The guides on Rinca collect these skulls when they find them and adorn the campsite and other areas:

This one was twenty feet to the right of the tree above. It was covered in flies, and in its dazed state we thought it might be dead. But as we approached an eye opened warily:

We were able to get pretty close - but the only safe way to do this is from behind. This way, the dragons have to at least turn themselves around to get you, buying you time to prepare the stick:

He definitely knew we were back there and didn't like it:

Our roving brought us to this dragon-head-looking rock. Somebody carved out the eye:

Around the corner from that rock, we found our next dragon relaxing in the shade. He too opened a wary eye when we approached:

These mostly dry riverbeds attract water buffalo, and therefore dragons, to the area:

The dragons fill up their massive abdomens in feeding time. As they digest the food, they store much of it in the base of their tails. You can tell just by looking at a dragon whether it has recently eaten (like two dragons ago) or is probably very hungry. I'll let you guess about this guy:

Notice how the thin, deflated tail of the higher dragon (same animal pictured above) dragon compares with the lower:

Dragons can smell blood. Their sense is so acute that they can track menstruating women from more than a kilometer away, if the wind direction is favorable. Our guide went right ahead and asked if any of the girls were menstruating. Indonesians can be quite forward. (Today, I introduced a game called 'Mafia' to one of my classes. In the game, students accuse each other of being mafia members and through argument try to convince their colleagues of their guilt. One of my students made an accusation, and when I asked him, 'Why do you think Fikri is a member of the mafia?' he responded 'he's FAT!') If you were curious, none of them were menstruating, and in groups that do have menstruating women the safest thing is to move them to the center of the group as you walk. If the dragons catch a strong scent of blood, it will send them into a blood frenzy. You can't outrun one in this state; you have to hope the guide is pretty good with the stick. Luckily, the dragons hunt alone.

Dragons also don't share their kills. But a water buffalo is so big, and the sense of smell so acute, that usually 5-7 dragons will consume one buffalo after its killed by stealing the meat from each other. Considering this, eating their young, and hunting alone, you could say the dragons are downright antisocial! Can you spot the dragon in this pic?

I didn't, and nearly walked into it before the guide noticed and said something.

Here's one of the massive buffalo. This one was used to humans, contentedly grazing as we walked by. They only allow guided hiking in a circular area near the campsite. Rinca is large enough that in doing the longest, 2-2.5 hour hike, we probably circled an area 1/50th the total area of the island. The animals living in or near that area become familiar with humans, but the ones on most of the island would run away far before you ever got this close:

You're probably wondering: with that animal being so large, and its horns looking so menacing, how does a dragon, large as it may be, go about taking it down? Seems like a risky endeavor. Well, it turns out that the dragons, hunting alone, are virtually guaranteed success in taking their prey. Our guide said that he had seen a dragon that appeared to have been wounded by water buffalo horns, but that this was extremely rare, and that in his experience dragons were never killed by their prey. To fell the giant beast, dragons bite them on the back of one leg, then the other legs. The crippling wounds slow the animal. The dragon's saliva, teeming with deadly bacteria, slowly work to weaken and eventually kill it. A dragon will follow its prey for 2 or 3 weeks waiting for it to die. If it is less patient, it can simply go for the throat (our guide had apparently seen this as well).

Most of the way through the walk, we reached the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the valley and bay below. You'll notice it's pretty overcast. We were there on the "coldest" day of the year - probably 85 degrees or so. Lonely planet described the island as a "furnace," so I guess you could say we lucked out. Here's the four of us with the stick:

The landscape vaguely reminded more than one of us of Dr. Seuss - specifically, that environmentalist story that was turned into a movie about the trees. Something about the tall coconut trees scattered on the barren rocky hills. It was fantastic and eerie, the kind of place you might expect to find dragons:

On the way back, we all passed out and awoke to a pounding, beautiful rain. This next picture I would call quintessentially Indonesian. Here's our boat driver, talking on his cell phone and yes, steering with his foot. Only in Indonesia:

We wrapped things up at The Lounge, another cool cafe in Labuanbajo. Delicious food and coffee complete with some cool art and trendy lighting:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Trip to Komodo: Part I - From Lombok to Labuanbajo, Flores

After finishing the first semester at Dwiwarna, I departed on a plane for Lombok, ready for adventure. The plan was to travel to Komodo Island, taking a long overland route so as to see more of Indonesia. Fellow ETAs Nicole from West Java, Carrie from East Java, and Kelly from Sulawesi were on board. Nicole and I arrived in Lombok first, with an afternoon to kill before the other two girls got there. We hopped a ride to Mataram's local markets for a cheap and delicious bite to eat before heading up the coast to the beach. An Indonesian on our bemo (truck/van hybrid public transport) very kindly offered to let us use her porch for beachfront lounging. I didn't think we'd be seeing a nice beach so quickly after arriving, but there we were:

The sun was almost setting by the time we arrived there. We took off our shoes, snapped some quick shots, and wiggled our toes in the sand. Tropical ocean water is warm (one of those obvious things that still surprises you when you experience it, or at least, still surprised me). Here's Nicole on the porch:


I was so happy at our good fortune so early into the journey, I couldn't help jumping for joy!

The sunset was beautiful and we thought surely these were good omens for the rest of our trip:

We had arranged for the bemo driver to meet us at 8, so after dark we still had an hour or so to burn. Our ever-generous Indonesian friend offered us coffee, tea, and traditional cakes from her native Tana Toraja (highlands near central Sulawesi). She's a Christian, far from home working as a villa caretaker. She said she didn't like Lombok, she just had to be there for work, but told us a story about a great night she had had grilling fish over giant banana leaves and dancing on the beach into the night with a group of Australians. I think she was lonely, and I couldn't help repaying her generosity by slipping a 20,000 rupiah note ($2) under my glass. It's hidden so well you can't even see it in this picture:

We met up with our Bemo man and headed off to the terminal. Now began the improvisation! With the hulking lonely planet Indonesia (pictured above) as a guide, I had gathered that we couldn't really count on transportation being timely or reliable in Lombok and points east. We were hoping to catch a night bus to Poto Tano (Lombok's eastern port), then a 1.5 hour ferry to Sumbawa, the eastern neighbor. A long bus ride across Sumbawa would bring us at last to Bima and the nearby port town Sape, where an 8-9 hour ferry to Labuanbajo, Flores awaits.

When the bemo arrived at the shady bus station (which turned out not to be the actual bus station), we found out that apparently, no night buses were running to Sumbawa. We would have to wait for a morning bus. The gentlemen there directed us to a hotel whose rooms were booked, and before we knew it, some random guy was getting in our face about how he was a bus driver and he wanted to sell us tickets to take us all the way to Labuanbajo.

I'm going to go over in exhaustive detail the way in which we got "got." If you get bored, cut to the next picture.

Now as foreigners, you generally expect that everyone is trying to take you for a ride. But that doesn't change how annoying it is, or how difficult it can be when you have the language barrier and little travel information. I told the guy that we wanted to wait until the next morning to find a bus, figuring that the way to get the best price would be to find it hunting around the station. Certainly the first guy that accosts you late at night does not exactly have your best interests in mind. This guy did us the minor favor of finding us another hotel nearby that by all accounts was hot and mosquito-ridden. But I guess that's what you get for $3 per person. This bus guy continued to harass us at the hotel, saying that there would not be seats available the next day and on and on. We agreed to reserve seats but not to pay until the following morning. I thought this was a safe move - we would hold onto seats if he was in fact telling the truth, and still shop around for the best ticket price when we got there if they weren't the only seats.

Carrie and Kelly arrived an hour or so later, and the four of us hit the hay. The following morning, our bus man showed up with a taxi promising to take us to his bus straightaway. We piled in and headed off. There was indeed a bus waiting (though it was far from full). I wanted to be sure about the finer points of the plan before agreeing to pay the 275,000 rupiah that I knew had to be overpriced. If Lonely Planet's numbers were correct, the ride should cost not much more than 200,000. There were two intriguing things about the man's offer, though. First, I thought we had to overnight at Bima/Sape in eastern Sumbawa because the ferry is supposed to leave only once daily at 8am. But this guy insisted that the ferry would be a "ferry malam," night ferry, and that we would leave immediately after arriving in Sape, without an overnight. We would effectively gain a day, if what he was saying was true. Second, he said that the ticket was for "full service," and included 4 meals. Those two things, the security of having a ride all the way without having to negotiate another one, and a general distaste for prolonging an already exhaustive bargaining process (though we had bargained relatively little on the price itself), prompted us to take the offer.

Of course it turned out he was lying. Not only was there no "ferry malam," there was only 1 meal, not 4. So we probably ate $7 or so each that we shouldn't have. But as usual in Indonesia, it's the principle of getting got that proves more bothersome than the money.

We boarded our "full service" bus and were aboard the ferry to Sumbawa by midmorning. Good fortune struck and we secured an invitation to the captain's room where he steers the ship (cockpit?). It had AC! And the guy on the wheel, Dwi, was an absolutely hilarious mess. From right to left, here's Carrie, Kelly, Dwi, and Nicole:

Indonesian racial attitudes are not exactly what we in the states would call politically correct. For example, they have a really hard time believing that anyone who doesn't look European is from the United States. I mean, a really, really hard time believing it. Everywhere we went, Indonesians repeatedly asserted that Carrie must be "orang Jepang," Japanese. Even after insisting that no, Carrie is "dari Amerika," from America (and Korean-American at that), we would get replies of "No, no...orang Jepang!!" Sometimes they even followed that by obnoxiously stretching their eyes with their fingers, as if to say, "but look at her eyes, she's clearly orang Jepang!" Dwi was one such Indonesian. The instructions and labels on the instrument panel were all in Japanese because the ferry itself, like trains, buses, and so many other things in Indonesia, was passed on from Japan. Dwi kept asking Carrie to read them, saying "You can read, you orang Jepang." I felt like I was in Borat II, with Dwi playing Borat. He was so absurd that we couldn't help laughing aloud.

Nicole jokingly asked Dwi if she could steer the ship, and to our utter disbelief, he said, "ya!" Now there are hundreds of people on this boat who have no idea that this man has just handed over direction of the ship to someone with no experience or training whatsoever. This was a true 'only in Indonesia' moment. Here's Nicole, piloting the ferry. She can barely contain her laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation:

Luckily, Dwi took over after only a few minutes and we made it to Sumbawa. It was a beautiful day, and dry, mountainous Sumbawa loomed in our approach:

We got back on the bus, which had ridden the ferry along with us, and headed off on the only road that goes east across Sumbawa. Sumbawa is not a tourist island. It has a rugged beauty and is dominated by agriculture. Here's a shot of the winding, breathtaking coastal road:


It was dark for a couple of hours by the time we reached Bima, in eastern Sumbawa. We had a short overnight here at the Hotel Favorit, where we scored a VIP room with AC (yes!) for 60,000rp a person. A 4:20am wake up call took us to the port town of Sape by 8. We waited to board the ferry to Flores. From left to right, here's Kelly, Nicole, and Carrie, munching on the ever-popular biskuats:


At first, we thought we scored bigtime by setting up camp on the still-vacant upper deck chairs. But this leads us to a Rule of Travel in Way the Hell Out There Places: do as the natives do. It only took a short time for us to realize that the upper deck would be 90+ degrees F. We retreated to the big middle room with the rest of the Indonesians:

This ferry ride crosses fairly rough seas and the massive group of islands between Sumbawa and Flores, which includes Komodo Island and Rinca Island. Basically, the boat travels to the north of all these islands. Now Sumbawa felt remote, but this is when I really started to feel like we were getting out there. The view off on the right (port?) side:

Here's that middle room I was talking about. Nicole slept while the rest of us watched Indonesian sinetrons, soap operas with acting that will make you gag. They're almost bad enough to be lovable:

We pulled into Labuanbajo after a mere 7.5 hours, ahead of schedule. You'll notice Flores is greener than Sumbawa and the other islands we passed:

Labuanbajo is a really cool port town. It is small and feels off the beaten track, yet has some really nice hotels and even cafes with trendy furniture, mood lighting, and wireless internet! The harbor is beautiful, and the seascape features the countless islands fading into middleground, middle-background, background, etc. This port was our easternmost destination, the jumping-off point for Komodo National Park and our home base for two nights (or so we thought). Here is our first Flores sunset: