The Middle Aged Lady Promised Land That is Ubud

If you fail to take an artsy photo like this in Ubud, they kick you out of the city.
If you fail to take an artsy photo like this in Ubud, they kick you out of the city.

So, I did my due diligence and paid a visit to Ubud.

Ubud was made famous by “Eat Pray Love,” the widely popular and critically scorned Elizabeth Gilbert tome that launched a thousand female midlife crises. This small Balinese town is set among the rice paddies of the island’s Gianyar Regency, and it’s really only a brief drive from South Bali — although the grinding, construction-driven traffic of the island during the midday can make it something of a longer haul. I reached it easily from Sanur by way of the aged but trusty Perama shuttle bus, for the princely sum of $5. (50,000 IDR).

Bali’s cultural capital, Western artists and culture vultures arrived on the scene in Ubud in the early 20th century, working with local Balinese talent to open up interesting museums, fund artist training, and attract more tourists to the region. Thanks to what is often referred to as That Goddamn Book, in certain snobbish Asian expat circles (shout-out to my homies!), Ubud has recently become a magnet for upscale and spiritually ferklumpt tourists who categorically scorn the frivolity of Kuta and the quiet beachiness of Sanur.

Temples of Ubud.
Temples of Ubud.

They don’t want to lounge on a sun-kissed beach or dance to House music until they pass out in an alley somewhere from an overdose of E: no, they want to find themselves. And preferably a dark and handsome Brazilian stranger with access to a trust fund as well, if he’s there to be found.

So I was amused to discover that all those pleasingly bitchy stories about an onslaught of hopeful looking women in yoga pants in Ubud were true.

There they were, padding down Ubud’s streets in their Om Shanti Om tank-tops and Ganesha print pants, carrying shopping bags packed chock full of sensible organic fibers and locally produced lemongrass soap. There they sat, in a Westernized cafe offering broccoli quiche and frozen sugary coffee drinks, trying to look wistful and mysterious just in case an Exotic Brazilian Stranger caught their eye from across the room. They had stepped from the pages of Gilbert’s book: I wondered if they felt satisfied by the reality of the place, which is both green and full of temples but remains un-sanitized Indonesia.

Largely missing from the scene were visiting men, who seemed to wash up in Ubud in the company of their blissful looking wives or girlfriends, trailing a few steps behind and looking sheepish about the whole thing.  A few rather nerdy looking young male tourists clomped around in cargo pants and t-shirts, their oversized cameras thumping against their hips: perhaps they should stay a while and see if they can recast themselves as suitably exotic for the spiritually-seeking older lady crowd.

ubudmanytemples copy

The whole place reminded me very much of Sedona, that aggressively New Age town in the red-rocked and ravishingly gorgeous Arizona desert, where a full 50 percent of local businesses will attempt to sell you magic crystals and spiritual healing vision quests conducted by an Actual Goddamn Native American Human Being. I can’t say that I find all this unpleasant or even particularly offensive from an ethical tourism example —  for example, I felt none of the fantastic repulsion a wander down Kuta or even some bits of Siem Reap may evoke.

Ubud is in a different sort of mass tourism business than the belly-shirt and grossly offensive bumper sticker hawkers of Kao San Road and Kuta. It caters to the upmarket and educated, people who wish to stroll in leafy gardens full of aesthetically worm-eaten antiques, thinking great thoughts about the turning of the universe, waiting for their Angels and Dharmas to whisper sweet nothings in their ear about Brazilian lovers and drum-circles.

I also find this erudite seeking incredibly annoying, but on the bright side, no one in Ubud was likely to attempt to hump my leg after the inky and inexorable march of nightfall, either. They might just try to sell me on the magikal health benefits of cupping treatments. I can live with that.

ubudstandard copyAs I quickly determined, there is not a heck of a lot to do in Ubud other than shop for aforementioned pleasingly worm-eaten antiques (real and simulated — where do they get the worms?), sit wistfully in cafes, and take somewhat spendy yoga and mindful Reiki breathing courses.

I can perhaps see why the twenty-somethings — a group which I tend to conveniently forget I belong to — avoid the place, which lacks Bintang beer, delightfully slutty tanned young things from New Zealand, and three-story tall body paint bubble parties, or whatever the kids do these days.

No, Ubud is for sitting in rice paddies and having deep thoughts — mind the Dengue fever, of course, and watch out for the mosquitoes with the stripey legs.

Even prematurely crotchety me wished for something to happen that would break the considerable earnestness of the place — when really the only excitement I witnessed was two barely-dressed young Australian men discussing travel guides at a high-end bookstore, as if everyone just casually discusses the merits of Lonely Planet in nice bookstores while minimally dressed here in Indonesia.

Noting that the typically quite conservative Indonesian dress code is the exact opposite of what most tourists wear in Ubud might horrify those seeking total cultural integration. I did not do this.

ubudbridge copySo I wandered through the Bali palace and took some photos of the lovely Hindu architecture, and I wandered through art museums and admired Balinese art (which is worth a considerably more sincere blog post), and mostly I watched other tourists, because I derive any powers I may possess from ill-humored commentary on the foibles of other humans. (It is all that I know). Here is what I saw:

Beatific looking couples in clingy yoga gear wandered through the local Balinese palaces, while others tooled down the streets on scooters, driving entirely too fast for the local custom. Grinning young guys handed out brochures for Spiritual Tours and Bird-watching Trips, while others held up laminated signs advertising Taxi Services.

A few female beggars holding irritated looking children hung out and half-heartedly hustled on the main tourist strip — a far cry from the hardened and swift-handed professionals I’ve grown accustomed to in Phnom Penh and in Saigon. April is off-season in Ubud, and the tourist industry types were succumbing to the humidity, not exactly bringing their A-game. I felt for them.

ubudpig copyI enjoyed a delicious lunch of roasted suckling pig and local vegetables (shredded papaya leaves, cabbage, and green beans) near the Ubud Palace, joined largely by merrily carnivorous Asian tourists happily able to reconcile spiritual awakening with devouring the luscious flesh of an intelligent baby mammal.

I did not feel any burning desire to alleviate my guilt with a bit of tempeh and a carbon buyback afterwards. Mostly I just wanted a nap. For dessert, I had pork rinds.

It began to rain later in the day,  and I wandered in the mist across a lovely suspension bridge to a high-end cafe, which played soothing meditation music and overlooked a beautiful jungle canyon, replete with creeping vines and immense and limpid Technicolor butterflies.

The menu offered wine flights, cheese plates, and vegetarian options, but I opted for the cheaper quotidian pleasures of a chilly Bintang, which was served in a smart and expensive looking glass, and poured for me with an elegant head of foam by the waitress. The staff all spoke in low soothing tones, and everyone was wearing some variant on organically pressed white linen.

artsyubudlotus copyAs I sat and drank, I leafed though a local tourist magazine that  featured insights into Tarot card readings (including the brilliant card-reader inference that a woman’s job working as a bush pilot in Papua New Guinea might be “dangerous”), an article on a sanctuary for orphaned little kitty cats, and a piece of terrible poetry about Living in Harmony With Nature.

I looked out into the jungle canyon, and looked down at the magazine, and I listened as the music in the restaurant shifted from the sounds of the gamelan to the chanting of Tibetan monks. An attractive woman in her 50s was looking through a series of photographs of Balinese antiques on her Macbook Air, and a group of French women were animatedly drinking wine and chain-smoking a corner over. The air was humid and fresh, and birds sang from the rainforest outside.

And in that moment, I realize where I was.

I had stumbled upon the Middle Aged Lady Promised Land.

Your friendly neighborhood fruit bat

fruitbatdude copy Quite literally your friendly neighborhood fruit bat, since that’s the kind of thing that happen in Bali. This gent is named Rasta, and he lives in a tree at the Art Cafe Warung and Spa in Sanur, near the Mercure Beach Resort. He ended up here after his wing was broken, and now he seems to subsist pretty happily on handfed fruit. happybat copyFruit bats may look offputting but are among some of Southeast Asia’s most charming wildlife. Although they don’t exactly smell pleasant, they’re quite harmless, and Rasta is especially amiable when it comes to tourists snapping incessant pictures of him. derpbat copyHe can easily be cajoled out of his tree with pineapple or watermelon, and watching a fruit bat climb during the daytime is a uniquely alien experience. He also has a charming and extremely long pink tongue.

fruitbatwingThe staff at the cafe have sort of trained him to extend his wings when they clap. Using food rewards to train a fruit bat is an achievement in and of itself.

Kelimutu – Now That’s Some Fine Geology!

kelimutulakesbrownblue copy

The ride up to the Kelimutu crater lakes of Flores winds through green chasms and tropical jungles, so incredibly beautiful that it’d be some sort of violently curated five star national park in most other countries, with an image on every billboard and brochure. Here, in enormous and shockingly ecologically wealthy Indonesia, these incredible gorges are just a place where people live — white waterfalls tumbling down cliffs, huge stands of bamboo, tree-clinging banyan trees, and rice paddies tumbling down to a rocky wild river. Ho, hum. Just Flores.

Bad people go to this lake when they die.
Bad people go to this lake when they die.

People who sell gasoline out of plastic bottles and potato-chip specialists live in wooden homes with access to views that would cost billions in most other places. I feel this is probably as it should be.

My driver takes me to the gate of Kelimutu and I pay about $5 total for an entry and a camera fee — I’m definitely the only car to come through, and none of the green clad guards understand my (less than excellent) Bahasa pronunciation of “Where is a bathroom?”, although they all feel rather apologetic about it. Well, not their fault.

We drive through cloud forest and than arrive at a optimistically large and totally empty parking lot, other than a few motorbikes. An ikat-clad woman waves me over and convinces me to buy some biscuits and water from her: the three people manning the Kelimutu parking lot businesses on this day seem mostly glad for the company.

Useful information!
Useful information!

The driver and I begin the brief walk to the lip of the Kelimutu crater: the verdant jungle gives way extremely suddenly to a barren moonscape. I walk up a series of stairs and there’s the first crater, the brown one where the spirits of the old and wise go — rusty water glinting in the early sunlight, divided from the turquoise lake by an almost comically slender spit of rock.

The wind rattles over the rocks, and some clouds are blowing in from the left, but the sun is out and sparkling. The smell of sulphur hangs in the air, the tell-tale sign of the presence of hydrogen sulfide, and the volcanic activity that comes with it, here in the midst of the Ring of Fire. It is no mystery why the people here have certain mystical beliefs surrounding this place: it appears largely impossible.

kelimututurquoise copyIt goes without saying that it is stunning. And I have it to myself.

An old man who’s been sitting up there since dawn offers me ginger coffee, although he sounds less than hopeful: I buy two, one for me and one for my guide. I unfold the spidery legs of my new Manfrotto tripod, and I conclude that it was worth the (rather reasonable) $130 I paid for it. My country for image stabilization.

Some tourists tried to hike down to the caldera and perished somewhere between there and here. I keep meaning to look for a paper on the chemical composition of the water, but even I want to retain the odd mysticism of the place for a few more days.

Ende and Wolotopo: Never Mind the House Heart

viewfromwolotopo copy
The view from Wolotopo.

Ende is rife with small annoyances and miserably slow Internet connections, but has managed to endear itself to me as I wobble on the back of a scooter with the charming guide Sri. I visit Vincent the travel guide’s home with yellow-washed walls and the English teaching class, and the dog and five puppies wandering around.

Photos from Europe on the walls of a younger Vincent in 1990s clothing, mugging at European landmarks. I wonder how people go merrily from Eurotrips to a rather raggedy Ende backyard, but the answer probably is that they want to, are drawn inexorably back. You stare at the Louvre and then you go home and make something of yourself in familiar turf.

Ende Beach a flawless black-sand marvel, without a single soul upon it, the sort of place that would been packaged, groomed, and locked up behind a large fence in most more civilized locales. Here, it’s crabs and a man drawing on a cigarette, who has tied up his cow to one of the smallish beach-trees, allowing it to browse on grass from the road.

“Sometimes people come here to swim,” says Sri. “But only in the afternoon,” she added, as if the horrifying traffic of 15 kids with lunchboxes after school would render the place totally ruined.

One of Ende's black-sand beaches.
One of Ende’s black-sand beaches.

The Great White-esque developers of Dubai and Australia have not rendered Ende an overpriced playground with a Sandals resort yet. I am hoping it will take a few years before stores selling inflatable alligators and obscene wooden carvings open up, before families with irate children drag them on “cultural learning experiences,” before the first McDonalds displays its golden arches to a curious public. This will take time. But it is maybe inevitable.

Wolotopo is an almost Mediterranean candy-colored marvel, a bunch of brightly painted cement and steel roof houses tumbling off the side of a Jurassic-Park esque green mountain. The people here are shockingly friendly and the kids follow you around and marvel at your being a foreigner, pointing out things and shouting at you delightedly in Bahasa.

We walk to a Banyan tree that to the locals is apparently ageless, where someone is browsing a pig near the pastel-tiled graves of ancestors, recent and not-so-recent. A man with numerous tattoos plays guitar on top of the Stonehenge-esque tomb of one of Wolotopo’s founding relatives, and waves languidly at us in the heat — Saturday among the ghosts, so it goes.

Rumah adat - old house - in Wolotopo.
Rumah adat – old house – in Wolotopo.

People come out of their houses and ask me what my name is in their best English, calling over husbands, grandparents, and mostly ambulatory children to feast their eyes on this, all in a sense of extreme benevolence. They congratulate me on being Very Beautiful and Still Young.

They are extremely pleased that unlike the other young white female tourists they see, I’m not dragging from an imported Lucky Strike. The population is almost uniformly exceptionally attractive: fabulous complexions, interesting tattoos, and in excellent physical shape. Walking up all those damned hills. That’s why the Swiss like Flores, I bet.

The Wolotopo house is populated by nine generations of wiry and extremely loud people, who compete with one another to switch on the lights and show me things, as I step over one and another sleeping relation, chicken, and confused puppy on my way into the house.

Decorative breasts. Also a symbol of friendship.
Decorative breasts. Also a symbol of friendship. The joined-hands people, not the breasts.

The famous old house here is meant to symbolize a human body in the most visceral of fashions: the entryway is a carved wooden vulva, and a curious wooden object meant to signify the important heart and liver of the community sits in the center of the house. I bang my head upon the scared Community Heart and am immediately horrified: this is greeted with supreme disinterest, and maybe a titter or two. The Wolotopo people are many things, but they do not stand upon ceremony. A guest can clock their head against a stray sacred ceremonial organ without arousing anger.

They are cooking a huge pot of pork up and eating it with rice over a curious hearth composed of six molded bumps of rock, which can contain various configurations of pots. The kids are outside doing cut and paper crafts, and there’s a television on the porch showing an episode of Wipeout.

spinningwomanwolotopo copyOne woman is weaving some goldenrod colored rope, and I ask if I can take her picture. She bids me to wait and then quickly sweeps up her hair into a more appealing form. OK, snap the thing now, she smiles at me, her teeth stained bright red with betel nut. I do. I show it to her. As is always the case, she laughs uproariously.

Their wooden house looks out over the sea and back to Ende, which is situated on a peninsula in between two large volcanic mounts. They never see whales here, they say, but they like to sit and look out upon the view while they drink coffee and tea, and pull from their cigarettes, and sit and philosophically chew their betel nut. It is stirring for the soul.

Inside the "old house" in Wolotopo.
Inside the “old house” in Wolotopo.

Anyone would like to sit and look out upon this view, with the emerald green volcanic mountains, the perfectly clear sky, and the electric blue water. That this view has been accorded to the earnest tumble of humanity that is the Wolotopo people and not some miserable Jakarta super-executive with a massage therapist and a Blackberry earpiece is a small, pleasant miracle in a world rife with injustice.

Don't nobody not like no sate.
Don’t nobody not like no sate.

We have lunch at an excellent restaurant that serves coconut milk goat soup, sambal, bean sprouts, and goat sate with dark peanut sauce. The food is excellent, and I would never have found it myself. Sri regards my Flores People and Culture book with extreme interest, and I resolve to figure out a way to have a copy of the volume sent to her. It is nice to find kindred nerdy spirits in foreign lands, who want to learn about the motifs of sacred houses for reasons that go no deeper than mere curiosity.

We walk across the newly renovated Ende Central Park, where an enormous banyan tree plays host to a huge colony of aggressive and large red ants. I marvel at these for a minute, then we discover the Ikat museum is closed, although a family of goats under the traditional wooden structure provides a moment of amusement.

Then off to the harbor, where Sri briefly chats with a shirtless and bored looking sailor. “Ah, they’re headed to Makassar to do some trading,” she says. A sentence from the time of Wallace.

Green coffee beans.
Green coffee beans.

The coffee lady at the water-side market (sunbleached and painted blue, like most things here) carefully scoops out ground coffee from the bag with a plastic cup, then weights it out in another plastic cup. The woman selling chilis across from her booms in Bahasa to Sri, and the coffee lady nods emphatically.

“What was that all about?” I ask, standing like a rather pale bump in a log between two eminent figures of the Ende wholesale market. “They are very happy that you don’t smoke, not like the other tourists. Smoking is bad.”


The women all nod emphatically. They appear to be harboring dark memories of slatternly European tourists wandering through the market in flip-flops and string bikinis and smoking Marlboros, or something like that. Anyway I am glad I have won their approval.

The day in Ende has become something like a long and drawn out foreign PSA on tobacco. I am once again glad I never succumbed to the quotidian delights of American Spirits rollies when all the cool kids were — because I am a sick spendthrift and not because I harbor any deep moral panic about smoking, if we are to be truthful.

Ruteng and Wae Rebo

Scenic downtown Ruteng.
Scenic downtown Ruteng.

I’m in Ruteng for the day, a sprawling town in the mountains of Flores that quite obviously does not get many solitary tourists wandering around. Ojecks (motorbike taxis) are few and far between, restaurant staff just sort of stare at you blankly when you try to order off the menu by aggressively pointing at things, and street signs are nonexistent — but then again, the Jurassic Park-style scenery nearby this settlement justifies a lot of irritation.

I went out to visit the Ranamese crater lake today, a very deep and very blue indentation in the earth that reaches a respectable 21 meters in depth. Huge and indolent butterflies flitted over the scenery as fishermen on cobbled-together rafts paddled carefully around the outskirts of the water. True to form in Flores, myself and my ojek driver were about the only people there otherwise.

Needs a lake monster.
Needs a lake monster.

I imagined Brontosaurs paddling in the lake in some time before time. Certainly the Flores “hobbits” — the only aspect of this massive island beyond Komodo dragons that has penetrated the international consciousness — occasionally came to this place. The local government is trying to foster more tourism at this promising spot. I suggest engineering a lake monster, if there isn’t already one.

Cathedral in Ruteng.
Cathedral in Ruteng.

Ruteng is very Catholic, like the rest of Flores, and school kids in the local uniforms are a ubiquitous presence on the streets. There’s a nice cathedral in the center of town, which makes a fine picture in the early mornings as mist comes tumbling off the green mountains.

Bamboo forests.
Bamboo forests.

Flores reminds me of Hawaii in its curiously antediluvian foliage – the sort of place you’d really imagine some sort of ghost from the past to lumber out of the woods and stare at you. To the aspirant 10-year-old naturalist in me, it’s nothing short of stirring. Plants and animals and insects one has never seen before, unique to the area. The peculiar appeal of a trip to Wallacea.

howtomakearakEver wondered how they make palm arak, Indonesia’s dearly beloved and shockingly potent local tipple? Here’s the contraption. Labuan Bajo kids regularly go up the hill on the way to Ruteng to procure the stuff, which is sold in innocent looking plastic water bottles. The remarkable bamboo contraption used to make it is pretty impressive.


Visiting Wae Rebo: Day One

roadtowaerebo copyBack from Wae Rebo, a rather Neolithic feeling village perched in the mountainous jungles of central Flores.

Getting here is a production. You must hire a driver from Labuan Bao for the seven hour trek up to Denge, the village where the Wae Rebo people send their children.

The drive skirts cloud forests and immense rice fields, and eventually takes you by a glorious strip of rocky beach, looking out to Mulies Island. It is the kind of place that would have been covered in vacation homes and resort developments in most countries, but here, maize farmers and water buffalo herders put their shacks up on primo beachfront property.

There is a homestay in Denge run by the friendly Blasius Monta, the local schoolmaster and a general sage of Wae Rebo culture, who will put you up on a clean mattress.
In Denge, they eat purple rice, a special variety that commands high prices in the USA, and rather high prices here, too.

jimmyfish copy

We brought fish from the coastline, which Blasius’s wife fried up with cap cay (mixed vegetables) that was heavier on the sweet potato than other things I’d had in Asia. They like sweet potatoes here. She made lombok, tiny and violently crisp green chiles pounded in a mortar and pestle with a bit of kecap (sweet soy sauce Indonesian condiment) and some salt and pepper, giving everything a fresh and potent flavor.

The next day dawned pleasingly blue and clear, and we had what I would discover was the traditional Wae Rebo breakfast: instant noodles mixed with vegetables, served over rice.

Then the hike began — a full three hours of walking, repeated my driver and guide Jimmy, a prospect neither of us was immediately too keen on. Jimmy admitted he’d been to Denge numerous times but had never felt compelled to try making the hike. We had brought lots of water and Fox’s hard candy.

Men collecting grass for traditional roofs on the way up to Wae Rebo.
Men collecting grass for traditional roofs on the way up to Wae Rebo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the road to Wae Rebo is all upwards, which has made the town — supposedly founded hundreds of years ago by a man named Maru, who tired of wandering — rather pleasingly impregnable.

The way up the Wae Rebo highway is slippery when wet and cuts through what looked to me like rather virgin cloud forest: tree ferns, massive and tacky butterflies, parasitic palms and lots of red mud.

The Wae Rebo people treat this seven kilometer long vertical ascent as a casual little stroll to work, and old men were walking up and down the path, carrying the grass that’s traditionally used to make Manggarai style houses.

These houses are conical and constructed rather ingeniously from bamboo and palms: donors from Jakarta put up the money in 2009 to build a new house, and renovate some of the old ones. Finding the grass for the roof can be difficult, and as they are building a new welcome center house, production is in earnest.

Traditional Manngarai houses of Wae Rebo.
Traditional Manngarai houses of Wae Rebo.

I was told that it was “really expensive” to build traditional style houses these days. This makes sense: the amount of effort and gathering time that must be exerted to produce something so seemingly organic and sprung from the ground is dizzying. Stuff like this is worth remembering when the Western suburbanite longs for a simple palace in some antediluvian jungle: actually, it’s a lot of hard work.

We arrived gasping at the top of the hill and were ushered into the main house, distinguished by a horned pole on the roof.

The interesting interior architecture of a Manggarai house.
The interesting interior architecture of a Manggarai house.

“They have to bless your camera and tell the spirits you’ve arrived,” Jimmy explained. “Otherwise your pictures won’t come out.”

This seemed practical enough: the 84-year-old patriarch of the clan, Rafeal, came out and spoke with us for a bit. I handed him 20,000 IDR, and he said some words in the local language, which I realized a bit too late were actually a chant. Everyone was friendly.

I walked out the door and discovered an enormous leech between my toes — leeches being part of the fun of cloud forest exploration. I trod on it and it spurted blood on a rock wall of the house’s entryway much to my horror, which I hoped in earnest that no one would notice.

There are 7 traditional houses at Wae Rebo, centered around a round grassy area where one makes offerings to the spirits of ancestors, which can include chickens, pigs, or dogs. Children, dogs, puppies and numerous brassy chickens wander around the yard in all kinds of weather.

“The pigs used to roam free, but now they have to be in one place,” Jimmy found out, when I asked if the locals had a particular taste for “dakhing babi” or “pig meat.”

Unfortunately, it began to rain when we got there and thus our exploration was curtailed, though I did manage to go inside one local woman’s house and greet her mother. I spoke no local language and about five words of Bahasa, and they didn’t speak any English, but we gestured at each other a lot, and they showed me their central fire and their tools. Everyone ate a lot of rice. Everyone ate a lot of taro.

Women cooking dinner at Wae Rebo.
Women cooking dinner at Wae Rebo.

The men were up the hill gathering coffee beans and cacoa pods, which they grow here, as well as macademia nuts and the aforementioned taro and cassava and coconuts — the backbones of any self-respecting tropical diet.

Rice is brought up from Denge, as well as snacks, some clothing items, and whatever other modern accoutrements the Wae Rebo people require. This has led to what seems to be a rather pleasant dual existence for them — up the mountain for tradition and tourists and cool mountain air, down the mountain to the (also pleasant) Denge for school, motorbikes, and even erratic cellphone access.

More tomorrrow. Now, I’m in Ruteng in the mountains for a day or so, before making the long drive to Ende. Ruteng as far as I can tell is muddy and a bit charmless, and very dark at night. Got a ride home from dinner at a small warung from a nice French couple. As one does.

Flores: Hanging around Labuan Bajo

hohumfloresSince WordPress is proving utterly non-functional tonight, here’s an image dump from the past few days. I really like Labuan Bajo and am heading to the small village of Wae Rebo in the interior of the island tomorrow — I am guessing it’s going to be a good time.

beachsceneflores floresskyline2 floresskyline interestingwallflores gettingreadytodive hohumflores I really like Flores. Nice people, beautiful scenery, and a chilled out beach bum aura. I’m headed to the interior village of Wae Rebo tomorrow which should be quite interesting, and will keep me off the Internet for a well-night unthinkable three whole days. I think I’ll survive.

Rinca, Komodo Dragons, and Existential Terror

dragonvictims copyA visit to Rinca is a brush with existential terror.

This is what theme parks are trying to sell you with their roller-coasters and bungee jumps and thrill rides: a completely controlled moment of heinous fear and vulnerability in the face of total destruction, something to make you value being alive.

Except the theme park is carefully engineered to not actually kill or injure you, whereas the carnivorous and often grumpy Komodo dragon is subject to no more restraint than a big pointy stick with a fork in it.

This distinction, I should note, is somewhat underplayed in all the travel guides.

When we disembarked from the boat at Rinca, our guide met us at the entry way to the dock, which has a wooden entryway that somewhat resembles a low-rent Jurassic Park gate. Which is entirely the right atmosphere to convey when you are willingly entering the domain of prehistoric lizards that want to eat you. In fact, paying good money for the experience.

After a confusing few minutes of figuring out which park entry fees to pay – the tickets, camera fee, and guide fee are all separate and must be divvied up by use of complex theoretical equations, or it seemed that way — our guide led us to one of the buildings near the ranger station, where a small group of Komodos was lying docilely in the sun.

dragonlazy copy“We don’t feed them, but they smell the food cooking and they come here,” he said. The guides were making sure to keep the tourists well away from the Komodos. “They can move very fast when they want to.” The forked sticks were held at the ready.

“Are they particularly hungry this time of year?” I asked, watching as one big male dragon opened and re-opened its eyes, regarding the tourists with what seemed like profound disinterest.

“They are always hungry,” he said, darkly.

As we walked through the low-lying jungle of Rinca, the guide told me and the Swedish couple accompanying us that he had in fact been bitten by a Komodo dragon in May of last year. He freely admitted that it really hurt. “Enough pain to last me a long time,” he noted. They washed it out with antiseptic and he was OK, but he remained a bit — jumpy.

“How long have you been here?” I asked him, dancing around the “Why in the hell do you do this for a living?” question.

“I studied hotel management, but I worked in a hotel only two months. It was very boring. So I came here.”

dragonavoidancestick copy“Boring” is not a word that describes the working life of a Rinca tour guide.

In fact, three rangers had already been bitten this year, and last year featured a well-documented incident wherein a Komodo crept delicately into the office and took up residence under a desk — surprising the man who returned to occupy it with a flash of large and pointy teeth. Another man who came to his rescue was badly bitten as well in the ensuing man-on-lizard brawl.

Suddenly, on the path ahead of us, there was a Komodo Dragon —moving at a rather impressive clip for such a low-slung creature. “Goooo back,” the guide said, brandishing the stick, sounding worried. I went back, shooting (mediocre) photos as I went. “Gooo back further!” the guide said, and I moved rather faster as the dragon picked up speed, flicking its khaki colored tongue into the wind.

komodoadvance copyThe creature eventually made a sharp right turn into the bushes, dragging its tail languidly behind it. We walked by quickly. Jumpily.

“After I got bit last year, i am a little…traumatized,” admitted the guide. I felt this was eminently understandable.

“They look so much like the palm fronds and logs,” I said, myself afflicted with a spot of jumpiness after seeing a Komodo Dragon actually *move* for the first time in my life. Move faster than I wanted them to move, really.

“They have very good camouflage,” the guide said. Ruefully.

“Do you have any snakes?” I asked. We had moved into an area of thicker jungle, interspersed with numerous plops of water buffalo dung. Megapod birds chased each other through the trees, and small lizards scattered at our tread. Every log was manifesting into a Komodo.

“Oh yes, we have three kinds of venomous snakes,” the guide said.

“You have a lot of problems here,” I said.

“Yes. Yes, we do,” he said.

We turned a corner and the guide suddenly stopped. “There’s a green tree viper!” he said. What timing!

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The emerald-green snake was draped languidly over a bush and staying very still, perhaps hoping that we wouldn’t see it. Green tree vipers, unsurprisingly for such a malicious sort of place, can kill you. Most things on Komodo, it appears, can kill you. We all took photos, including the guide, as apparently such snake sightings are rather rare.

Two encounters with potentially deadly reptiles in a mere half-hour! What a bargain!

What the hell is wrong with us?

rincalandscape copyWe went up to a hill and looked out over Rinca and the little sheltering bay where the boats moor. I stood on the grassy hill overlooking the Jungle of Certain Death and wondered about early human explorers on Rinca. I imagine they must have sheltered here, in the grassy outcroppings where hungry Komodos would likely find it hard to hide. Did they have pointy sticks, at least? How many of them got eaten?

The rest of our walk back was uneventful, though all four of us reacted with somewhat unusual attention to every mysterious sound and crackle of bush. We had all been jolted into the reality that we are small and soft and eatable: this is the peculiar, rather dark appeal of a visit to Rinca.

Komodo Dragons

dragonlazy copyThis is what Komodo Dragons on Rinca usually look like: somnambulant. Almost drugged. Camp-dwelling bums who have forsaken their natural, beautiful heritage of hunting amidst wild nature.

Well, they say they don’t feed them. Except for the occasional park ranger who has sat down at his desk without checking under it first.

Since Komodo Dragons, for some perverse reason, rather like to come inside. 

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But sometimes they emerge suddenly from the bushes and come at you at very disarming speeds. Then, it’s time to break out the patented Komodo Island Forked Poky Stick.

Success not guaranteed. dragontail copyHelpfully, Komodo Dragons bear an uncanny resemblance to downed palm fronds and logs when they are sitting in the forest and being very quiet.

“They have very good camouflage,” said our guide, who was bitten last spring. I detected a rueful note in his voice.

This was quite an existential-terror sort of day. In all the best ways.

Diving for the First Time in Komodo

portshipflores copyI always meant to learn to scuba dive but the timing was never right. School in New England, freezing temperatures and swimming pools. Tulane University had cheap PADI courses, but I was caught up with school and never got around to it. I was too poor when I first got to Cambodia, and then the macabre horror stories I heard about the Sihanoukville dive outfits dissuaded me from biting back my existential terror and checking them out.

But when I got to Bali and Flores, I realized that not diving in these balmy, zoologically explosive waters was a remarkably dumb thing to do. So I decided to take a testdive with DiveKomodo yesterday to see if I liked it.

Cliffs Notes: Loved it.

I was under the impression diving was a lot more technical than it is, conveniently ignoring the fact that little kids and frat boys visiting Thailand manage to do it all the time.

boatraveflores copyI know actually being certified is a lot more complicated than just doing a guided test-dive, but it seems like the basics are pretty simple: breath slowly. Keep breathing. Stay calm. Pay attention to what others around you are doing. Don’t poke creatures you shouldn’t poke, lest you become a comical news feature in the Daily Mail when the local press gets wind of it. Don’t knock over grossly endangered and delicate coral with bullish impunity. And so forth.

I’m too hilariously self-conscious to really enjoy swimming for the sake of swimming, but putting on a wetsuit and poking around at remarkable wildlife — which is everywhere in Komodo – somehow overcomes my inherent sense of extreme mortification. It’s very Zen, and I like to have that in my life. Having a great instructor definitely helped.

Boatman in Labuan Bajo.
Boatman in Labuan Bajo.

As a nerdy person who loves adventure travel, photography, and weird nature, it’s a bit of a mystery why I didn’t take this up sooner. Well, other than fear of being seen in a wetsuit, I suppose. Which I got over. They’re mostly just incredibly clammy when you’re back on land.

What a Tentacled Flathead looks like.

Today I saw….multiple clownfish, a blue, giant sea anemone that looked artificial, a well-camouflaged Tentacled Flathead, a rather irritated looking Hawkbill sea turtle, a shoal of multi-colored squid in a pyramid phalanx, nudibranci, giant clams in psychedelic colors, a lurking red lion fish, huge puffers, and much, much more.

The colors of Komodo are akin to what I’d expect to see on a particularly bad acid trip, and are perhaps proof positive that nature is not and has never been particularly tasteful — an ecological object lesson that the Asian tropics are particularly keen on driving home at every possible opportunity.

To be quite honest, the entire transcendental experience, upon reflection on the boat, made me want to rewatch “Finding Nemo” and eat quite a large amount of fried fish for dinner. But I would like to pretend I reflected deeply on the delicacy and art of the remarkable, untouched variety of marine life in Wallacea.

Maybe later, I’m tired.

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Also, diving (at easy sites) in Komodo does seem to reward the rank idiot and the clumsy, as there’s such an inordinate variety of life that not seeing interesting things would actually require an active effort. Manta rays, whale sharks, and reef sharks make regular passes, and up-above ground, there’s man-eating monitor lizards and uninhabited beaches to occupy one’s time.

And it’s all reasonably priced and no one has plonked a 5-star-Hilton-Doubletree-Sandals on it yet — the order of the day in Labuan Bajo is still somewhat rickety, occasionally smelly fishing port, albeit punctuated with dive shops and a few (apparently quite nice) pizza restaurants run by Italian expats. It’s only a few hops away from the Little Australia that is Bali, but it feels much more isolated.