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:

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