To be a Komodo Ranger is not Easy


Flight 6558 to Maumere had long ago migrated to the top of the departure flipboard, but with the qualifying remark of "TECHNICAL" frozen into the last column, a cryptic explanation for the superseded departure time, while underneath other flights were flipping their way up, disappearing with the final boarding call to Kupang, Jakarta, Bima, Mataram. I had been forewarned about the unreliability of Merpati (the largest domestic airline in Indonesia), but better a delay due to technical problems than a sudden, unscheduled return to ground due to technical problems. However, waiting can be a pain since the airport transit lounge chair is almost universally unkind to one's butt and back. It is usually an injection-molded, one-piece plastic job that terminates exactly at that point where one needs the most lumbar support. Soreness lingers in my tactile memory from far-flung airport interludes in Johannesburg, Moscow, and Fajardo. Clearly this is a calculated callousness designed to seduce passengers to the far cushier furniture in the restaurants and bars, where one can consume, in comfort, a ten-dollar spaghetti marinara or a three-dollar lite beer (multiply by three for Japan). The airlines must be in on it, too, since the only seating possibly less comfortable than economy-class with their ever-shrinking baselines are the airport lounge chairs.

After checking with the Merpati agent, who assured me that only a snack would be served on the Maumere flight, I let myself get sucked in by the insidious stratagem (and my own appetite) into the restaurant, where I had the worst nasi campur I would eat on my entire trip.

Nasi Campur

Literally "mixed rice" in Bahasa Indonesia, nasi campur is a plate of white rice topped with whatever meat, fish, and vegetables the cook had made that day, a sort of impromptu version of the Korean bibimbap . The concept may be disconcerting to the type of dyspeptic traveler who demands from McDonald's a strict level of conformity to the Big Mac recipe whether in Normal, Illinois or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso ("Jesus. Will you take a look at this? They put the Special Sauce on before the lettuce!"), but a boon for the gastronomically adventurous but linguistically challenged who only need to memorize two words to get something different each time when ordering food at a warung, the Indonesian equivalent of a greasy-spoon diner. It usually costs no more than $2 (for your convenience I will quote all prices in the USD equivalent rather than in rupiahs), but the quality can vary a great deal. The version in the restaurant of the Denpasar domestic terminal was the worst with pieces of rubbery chicken, boiled liver and onions, boiled egg, and the ubiquitous (but in this instance stale) krupuk, which are fried chips made of rice flour and fish flakes. A spoonful of sambal (hot chili sauce) is always served on the side to give you control of the spice level. For the record, the best nasi campur I had was in Ulu Watu, Bali, where the toppings were hot and sweet green beans with garlic and ginger, two kinds of white fish, dark fish, fried salt shrimp, peanuts, roast chicken, and crisp-fried egg.

Meet the Mandi

By the time I boarded the airplane, the afternoon sun had heated the inside of the Fokker F-27 to sauna levels. The passengers from the previous stop on this island-hopping flight were already aboard (or were they on the whole time?), sweat streaming down their somber faces. But once we reached cruising altitude, it turned out to be a smooth turboprop flight, two hours eastward above the north coasts of Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, and Flores. We even got a hot lunch (the Merpati agent was wrong) of rice, fish, cauliflower, and fruit salad. The aircraft was old but in good shape, although I have to admit that I needed to kick open the ill-fitting door when exiting the toilet.

After landing in Maumere, I started talking to the other obvious tourist on the flight, hoping to split the cost of a taxi into town with him. Looking in our respective guidebooks, we picked out a couple of cheap losmens (inns). However, we soon learned from the taxi touts that the majority of the places listed in the books had been destroyed by the '92 earthquake. The accompanying tsunami had also severely damaged the coral reefs for which Maumere was famous, so I decided to skip the scuba diving I had been planning there.

So, without too much choice, we opted for the Gardena Hotel where we took a double at $7.50. After one week at a top-end resort hotel in Bali, this was my introduction to a losmen room: a concrete box with peeling walls and a window facing an indoor courtyard, two beds with pillows and cylindrical cushions the size of a dog (What were they for? I never figured it out.) but with no sheets or other bedding, a light bulb suspended from the ceiling by its own cord, lizards, and the attached mandi. Overall pretty much what I had expected, but the concept of a mandi was new to me and, as it is standard in Indonesia, merits some description here.

A mandi is the Indonesian bathroom. It can be indoors, in an outside shed like an outhouse, or open-air. It has only two essential components: a water basin (a concrete or ceramic-tiled rectangular reservoir the size of a small refrigerator laid supine on the floor) and a ceramic squat toilet. And, of course, the all-important large-plastic-cup-with-handle. It is a simple, elegant system. You squat, shit, wash yourself with a cupful of water (left hand only, please), then flush with a couple more cups. To bathe, just dump some water on yourself with the cup, lather up, then rinse off. There is a drain on the floor so the entire area is used for bathing. For maintenance one just scrubs down the floor and refills the basin.

Saturday Night, Maumere

Maumere ("big beach"), located on the northeastern coast of Flores, is the most accessible town on the island by air (i.e., more than one flight per day to the other islands). Historically, it was one of the most important bases for Portuguese Catholic missionaries, and eastern Flores remains predominantly Catholic (albeit a syncretic form infused with older animistic beliefs), an anomaly in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world. The typical small-town Indonesian knows exactly three phrases in English: "Hello, Mistah/Missus," "Where you from?" and "Where you going?" I had thought at first that these were the phrases they learned first in English class at school, but it turns out that the "where from/where to" questions are ones that they ask each other in normal encounters, analogous to our "How are you?". So they are merely translating their own greeting ritual into English. Perhaps as a self-conscious recognition of their distinct religious identity (pride or insecurity?), the Florinese often add another query, "Religion?". They become more animated if you answer that you are Catholic, and will tell you their Christian names and boast that the Pope once visited Maumere, a dusty little port town of 40,000 people.

At night, Dario (the Italian-Swiss, dental equipment service technician I met at the airport) and I walked the dark, unpaved roads (Maumere had electricity, but little of it was wasted on street lighting) into the center of town to find food and, perhaps, entertainment as it was Saturday night. We found a warung where we had good beef sate and mie goreng (fried noodles). We also attracted a number of idle youths who wanted to practice their English. We tried to find out if there were any live bands or dance clubs, but from what we could make out, we were already sitting in the most happening place in town with a karaoke machine in the bar. Soon, the machine was cranked up and a Rhoma Irama-wannabe began blustering his way through a dangdut refrain. We quickly paid our bill and left.

Back at the Gardena, the concrete pillbox of a room was at body temperature with no air motion, the TV in the common area was blasting out sounds from a variety show, the mosquitos were starving, and Dario began to snore as soon as he hit his bed. Resolutely, I smeared DEET all over my body, inserted earplugs (souvenir from a Strategic Air Command flight I once took to Greenland), and closed my eyes.

Zen and Rapture on Public Transport

The material infrastructure may be wanting at times, but the level of human service is always high in Indonesia. In the morning, the hotel manager made a phone call and arranged for a bemo to take us to the bus terminal. A bemo is a short-distance (intratown or intervillage) shared transport, usually a small truck or van, with the following defining characteristics: It has at least one teenage tout boy along with the driver, it has a name (and sometimes a motto) painted on its side, and, most importantly, it has a sound system booming out the latest cassette recordings (usually bootleg). As we rode through the town center (a vacant lot where the market, destroyed by the earthquake, used to be), I observed the to-ing and fro-ing of the other bemos, each one gussied up according to the owner's tastes--multi-colored flashing lights above the windshield, fancy chrome wheels, chintz hangings in the windows, a plastic Virgin icon swinging from the rear-view mirror, an "I {heart} my Toyota" bumper sticker. The flavor of their names were straight-ahead macho ("Casanova," "Texas Cowboy," "Al Pacino"--about half of them were in English), while the mottos appeared to incline more towards romance ("Full time for love," "Woman in love"). Perhaps I wasn't yet culturally "in" enough to pick up on the subtler nuances, but these public declarations on the bemos seemed much simpler and more literal than the sly, oblique mottos of West African lorries ("No condition is permanent," "To be a man is not easy," "God bless Allah"). Perhaps strict government censorship extended to bemo mottos as well.

Once at the terminal, the bemo took us straight to a bus bound for Ende (the direction we wanted to go), dropped us off, and left. No charge. Apparently it was a "feeder" bemo for the long-distance bus; the touts from the other Ende buses only half-heartedly tried for our patronage. Mitsubishi must be making a killing in Indonesia--90% of the buses I saw were Colt Diesels with their retro-modern, bullet-train-like front ends.

Unfortunately we were seated at the rear end of the bus, since the rest of the seats were already taken. Even so it took a long time to actually leave Maumere, as the air tank needed to be filled at the garage (with a valve blowing out on the first try) and more people had to be picked up at their homes. Meanwhile the driver had put on a cassette for our pleasure, and the first song that came on was "Country Road." Because I had heard this song played more than once by the house band at the Bali Cliff Resort (you couldn't get away from those guys: No matter where you decided to eat dinner (the Cliff Cafe, the Ocean Restaurant, the Ela Ela Lounge) they would show up like a guitar popping up out of nowhere in an Elvis movie and serenade you with the likes of "Hey, Jude" or something by The Carpenters), I began to think of "Country Road" as my theme song for this trip. Incongruous but appropriate, I thought.

* * *

Flores is a long, thin island running east-west for 230 miles. The Trans-Flores Highway runs more-or-less east-west for 440 miles. More than half of it is paved and some sections actually have a painted divider line, but seldom is its width more than that of one Winnebago. And I would estimate that, on the average, it has a curve every 100 feet. Furthermore, people drive with the firm conviction that anything alive will move out of the way. The saving grace in Flores is the lack of traffic. Only a handful of people are rich enough to own cars, so all you encounter are transport trucks and buses every 15 minutes or so.

As the bus moved westward from Maumere, it made frequent stops to let off and take on passengers. Never say no to a ride, must be the motto. Eventually we had passengers sitting in the aisle and the tout boys hanging out the open doors, Douglas Fairbanks-style. Then the frequent turns started to get to some of the passengers. First it was the little boy sitting at my feet. Fortunately, he already had one of the small plastic bags that were being passed around, and he hardly made a sound. But soon after we all heard a painful "UWWRRAAARRUGGHHHH!" from a woman sitting several rows forward. To make matters worse, people around me began to light up cigarettes to either calm their gullets or to mask that characteristic sour stench of vomit that was starting to waft back to us. I tried focusing my eyes out the window and meditating on nothingness, on the "uncarved block," but the unwanted sensory stimuli were seeping into my mind.

I decided the best course of action was to stand up and hang out the open door with the touts. MUCH better. Fresh air, better views, a heightened sense of motion. Then we stopped to pick up more passengers. I was beginning to feel crowded out. Then, as the bus took off, I noticed one of the touts climbing on top of the bus. What a great idea! Feeling like Indiana Jones, I stretched my right arm around the rear corner of the bus, grabbed a part of the steel lattice that was connected to the roof-top luggage rack, swung myself around to the rear end, climbed up the lattice, then crawled over the luggage pile to the front of the roof. There I seated myself next to the tout boy, hanging on tightly to the luggage rack behind me. Best seat on the bus! Panoramic views of the V-shaped valleys and velvet-green volcanic peaks that form the backbone of Flores, corn fields and iridescent-green terraced rice paddies, bare-foot farmers leading water buffaloes around palm-fringed mud plots to soften the ground for planting, children standing back from the road waving animatedly to the crazy tourist on top of the bus, and surprise vistas of the Indian Ocean at hairpin bends. The road was so narrow that often I could not see its edge but would be looking straight down a precipice, at the bottom of which would be a white ribbon of water. The only things I had to watch out for were tree branches low enough to knock back my coconut and my linear momentum threatening to fling me off at every sharp turn.

For two hours I stayed on top until a bus driver coming from the other direction stopped and warned us that cops were ahead. Grudgingly we climbed back inside for the rest of the trip to Moni.

ABBA and Einstürzende Neubauten

At the suggestion of one of the locals in Maumere, Dario and I (we had sort of become traveling companions since we were going in the same direction) headed for the Original Homestay in Moni. Even though it is a small village, Moni boasts many losmens due to its proximity to Flores's premier tourist attraction, Keli Mutu, the caldera with three lakes of different color. The plan was to stay here overnight and to take the pre-dawn truck ride up the mountain for the classic sunrise view of the lakes.

One of the great pleasures of low-budget travel is the ease with which one meets other travelers. Most of the travelers I met in Flores were young backpackers in it for the long haul, many who were "doing" Australia, southeast Asia, and perhaps India over the span of a year or more. Others were older working people from Europe taking their annual six-week vacation just in Nusa Tenggara (the string of Indonesian islands east of Bali of which Flores was one). They were incredulous to learn that most American jobs started with two weeks of vacation per year and that I was lucky to get 4.5 weeks per year. They could not understand how Americans could put up with such a grueling lifestyle.

Original Homestay was a big German hangout, partly because the manager, Chris, was a German who also doubled as the village physician. The other lodgers were: Dieter and Kuni, the gung-ho Bayern boys who kept eating cloves of raw garlic, claiming they were the best mosquito repellent (a much more effective people repellent, I said); Elke and Jürgen, the flaky, beauty-and-the-beast couple who had no agenda but to tag along with whatever plans others made; Jacqueline, a German-Swiss who had hit the motivational doldrums and had been hanging out at Original for three weeks doing nothing; and Nicole, once a cog in the corporate machine, who quit her job in a dramatic take-this-job-and-shove-it confrontation (her co-workers, hearing her screaming diatribe leaking out of the boss's office, gave her an ovation when she emerged 2.5 hours later); now she finances her trips by importing arts and crafts.

When communicating with people from other countries, it's important to find an area of common experience in order to establish a feeling of connectedness. With young people popular music is always a good bet. When Kuni confessed to having a particular fondness for ABBA and the BeeGees, we were all over him, an international show of solidarity against bad taste. Nicole then related the nauseous tale of being trapped on the 11-hour bus ride from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa with one Bryan Adams cassette, repeated over and over. I left Elke in a haze of German nostalgia when I talked about Nina Hagen and Einstürzende Neubauten. Dario liked Tom Waits. Jürgen broke out into the German version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The global reach of pop music. The kitsch and the cool.

* * *

When my alarm went off at 3:30 am, the roar of rain on the zinc-pan roof told me that there would be no truck ride to Keli Mutu that morning. When I awoke again at 8, Chris told me that it was only the second time in the past half year that it had rained like that in the early morning. Actually, the weather was still bad. The lakes would probably not be visible even if I hiked up during the day. So. I would stay another day. I was not going to leave without seeing the lakes.

One for the NSF Geosciences Directorate

After a lazy day of strolling around nearby villages between rains (and buying a pair of flip-flops at the market for 50 cents), I went to bed with the alarm set again at 3:30 am.

When the alarm went off I could hear the rain on the roof again. Shit! How could I be so unlucky? Disgusted, I went right back to sleep.

At 4:00 am, a banging on my door. It's Ambros, the owner's son. "The truck is here." WHAT? Quickly I wriggle into my clothes and insert contacts into my protesting eyes. The rain had stopped and, once outside, I could see stars in the sky.

It takes the truck 1.5 hours to rumble up the bad, 9-mile dirt road, slick from the rains, to the 5300-ft summit. Once on top, it's already light enough to see the lakes--two side-by-side in the east and the other in the west, each in a volcanic cone. They are all more-or-less circular and similar in size, maybe 500 feet in diameter. The western lake is soy-sauce colored, while the eastern ones are dark emerald and milky lime with curry foam around the edge. The latter two have convective spots on the surface. The truly strange thing is that the colors have changed over the years. Photographs from the '70s show that the lakes were red, white, and blue. No one has a quantitative explanation. Someone ought to write a proposal to find out exactly what is going on here.

Sadly, we never did get our Keli Mutu sunrise that morning, as low-level clouds in the east developed and rose faster than the sun. But the lakes and the panoramic contextualization of Flores as a narrow-waisted ocean island were well worth the $1.50 I paid for the truck ride.

* * *

Instead of riding down with the truck, Dario and I decided to hike back. And despite the story we had just heard of the Dutch tourist who wandered off from the summit three weeks ago and was never seen again, we veered off on an unmarked foot path at the first opportunity. Unlike the road, the path descended steeply, eschewing switchbacks in favor of the fall line, and we had to step carefully on the slippery soil. In the woods, I could differentiate at least a half-dozen different bird songs--enough material for a Messiaen symphony. Out in the open, hawks circled overhead. Judging from the direction of the sun, we appeared to be angling further south toward the ocean than we wanted. Into the woods again. With descending altitude and rising sun, it was growing hotter. We kept expecting the path to change direction or to bifurcate, but neither happened. Then suddenly we came upon a clearing in which there was a little house.

The Ever-Shrinking Global Village

Young children playing. When they see us, they call out in greeting and quickly fetch their mother from inside. The mother courteously beckons us to sit down and rest. We thank her and seat ourselves on the bamboo-slat deck. Amazing how obvious the human gestures are even though we know only a few Bahasa Indonesian phrases. It's also remarkable that Bahasa Indonesia is known in the most rural places; the Indonesian government has been very successful in spreading the use of Bahasa Indonesia (a language similar to Malay and one that has been used as a trade language here for centuries) as the official language, a crucial factor in maintaining any semblance of national unity in a country with over 300 ethnic languages.

By this time, six children have come out to examine us more closely. Two of the girls are identical twins. One goes back in to brew tea, and the other goes out to pluck some fruit. Thus, we are served hot tea and a plate of passion fruit and guava, split and peeled by one of the twins (the one with a miniature Canadian flag pin on her shirt). "Canadian?" I ask her. She nods her head, "Canada." There is also a weathered, 3x5 photo tacked to the door jamb; it shows a young, saronged white man and an old Indonesian man posing together in front of this house. Travelers descending from Keli Mutu must occasionally wander off the main road like we just did. Just then the old man in the photo steps out through the door. I greet him and point to the photo. "Australian," he says. The bamboo wall of the hut is further brightened by plastered monthly calendars from 1994, each one with a photo of a sports car and a scantily clad woman. The cultural semiotics become even more confusing as a young man appears out of the bush carrying a bow and arrows with crude but mean-looking iron tips, then squats in the traditional resting stance and lights up a Marlboro Light. He tells us he was hunting for wild pigs.

Now it was time to show off for the visitors. The oldest daughter goes over to the loom and begins weaving ikat, the traditional cloth in Nusa Tenggara, where the warp is dyed with the desired pattern before the woof is woven in. The youngest boy eagerly demonstrates a rubber band trick where the band is shot with a backward spin such that it rolls back towards the shooter once it hits the ground. If he figured that out himself, he has a pretty good intuition for physics already. The "Canadian" twin splits more passion fruits.

We had no appropriate souvenir for the family (Dario tried to give away a small bottle of mosquito repellent, but it was handed back by the tea-serving twin with a blank smile), so we left some money for the tea and fruits (50 cents), relying on my Lonely Planet guidebook that suggested this was appropriate behavior.

* * *

After we left the little house there were many forks in the path. We did get a bit lost, but with the helpful hand gestures from the people we met (EVERYBODY knew where Meestah Krees, the doctor, lived), we arrived safely at the Original Homestay by lunch time.

Bool Sheet

Next day, the entire contingent at Original left together on the morning truck to Ende (except for Dieter who had left earlier). And the first song to be played through the truly boss sound system? "Country Road." Oh, but mama, was I a long way from West Virginia.

It was a slow ride. (Nicole had insisted on a truck rather than a bus as the more fun way to go, but I think she was just paranoid of being trapped in a closed space with a Bryan Adams tape again.) Not that we were in a hurry to go anywhere. But Dario was uncharacteristically in an irritable mood and every time we stopped to pick up passengers he emitted an exasperated "Bool sheet." Every time a bus overtook and passed us, "Bool sheet." Tottering over a dubious two-plank wooden bridge, "Bool sheet!" As huge sacks of cocoa were pushed in under our benches so that we to sit with our knees against our chests, "BOOL sheet!" Finally, spotting another passenger truck that had two water buffaloes, head-to-tail, crammed in with the people, "BOOL SHEET!!" Literally. He was in a better mood after that.

After a goat-soup lunch in Ende, we said good bye to Nicole and Jacqueline, who were taking a ship to Lombok. The rest of us continued westward on a bus to Bajawa, dodging boulders the size of VW Beetles, skirting the jagged edge of washed-out asphalt (road workers were everywhere; if they ever went on strike, the Trans-Flores would become impassable in a couple of days), the route snaking around volcanoes (one active, emitting copious steam), climbing up to the interior highlands.

Of Bad Drinks, Big Rocks, and Rain in Ruteng

At 3700 feet above sea level, Bajawa (pop. 10,000) is cool. Taking that cold-water bath in the mandi becomes an ordeal. It is also scenically set in a ring of volcanoes, of which the 7500-ft Gunung Inerie in the south is king. And there is more money here than in the larger Maumere as is apparent in the better building materials and the larger, better-stocked stores. Also, more ethnic Chinese business owners. There is one general store that sells everything from TVs to guitars to pellet guns (well, okay, there was one guitar ("Yamaha style," the label read) and one gun). There are at least three photocopy centers. (This was also a peculiarity of Indonesia: I'm not surprised to see a satellite dish in a small village, but every small hamlet along the main highway had a Selex photocopy shop. Is there so much bureaucratic paper work here?) There is even a Merpati office, so I go in to see if I could book a ticket from Labuan Bajo to Denpasar. One man and one empty desk, no phone in sight. The only customers are large packages addressed to Kupang, Bima, Mataram. No can do. He only sells Bajawa tickets. Will have to buy in Labuan Bajo. But could I make a reservation? Sorry, radio broken.

For dinner I have noodle soup and tempeh with peanut sauce. Out of curiosity, Elke, Kuni, and I buy a bottle of Anggur Putih ("white wine"), a 36-proof, clear liquid with a suggestive picture of grapes on the label. And it tastes just like...Inca Cola! That same insidious bubble gum flavor! Is Indonesia covertly exporting arms to Peru in exchange for flavored-drink technology? A coke-and-dagger deal?

* * *

5 am at the Sunflower Hotel: Awakened by church bells AND a muezzin's call to prayer. The further west we go, the more mosques there are. I reach for the earplugs to try for a couple more hours of sleep.

At 8 am, Dario and I are in the central market waiting for Wildo, who was recommended to us by other travelers as a guide to the traditional Ngada villages in the Bajawa area. He shows up promptly in jeans, a hand-painted jacket (English song lyrics on the back), and a Walkman-clone, a hip Bajawan in his early twenties. We set out in a bemo to the first village, Wogo.

About 20 minutes east of Bajawa and a short walk off the main road, we enter a rectangular dirt space about the size of two football fields laid end-to-end surrounded by thatched-roof, bamboo-frame huts. Each house is set off the ground on stilts, with a covered porch extended out in front. The village is mostly empty except for young children and geriatric folks. The others must be out working or at school. Some of the children are completely naked and all are quite dirty from running around outside, snot running from their noses, with knotty, ragged hair. A few distended bellies, but overall they seem pretty healthy. Also, this village is close enough to the main road to have electricity. I don't see any satellite dishes, but I wonder if the chief's house, at least, has a TV.

In the middle of the field are three rows of objects, each row consisting of seven of the same class of items. The object in the first row is a stone pole, about 2 feet high. In the second row is something that looks like a beach parasol, about 8 feet high, with a steep, thatched top; at its apex is a little, straw man holding a spear in each arm. The final row has a scale model of a village hut, about 5 feet high.

Wildo explains that the stone phallus (peo) represents the father (god), the parasol (ngadhu) symbolizes the son (man), and the doll house (bhaga) refers to the wife (woman). There are seven each in this village, because each family group has its own peo, ngadhu, and bhaga. When the annual water buffalo sacrifice is made, it must be killed by the kepala suku (village chief) with a special ceremonial knife in front of the bhaga with the animal tethered to the peo through a hole in the ngadhu. Then the kepala suku slices open the buffalo heart to read the future of the village. Actually, Wildo adds, the ceremonial knife is too old and dull to kill the buffalo, so the chief only gives a light tap with it, then switches to an ordinary cutlass to lop off the head. Wildo's father is a kepala suku, and some day Wildo will take his place.

A short walk through a foggy bamboo forest brings us to the site of Old Wogo where the ancestral megaliths (basically piles of large rock shards) of the current village still reside, one for each family group. For the Ngada, the family megalith provides an unmoving reference point from which to draw a sense of identity and belonging even if one moves away to a distant city. Exactly the kind of thing for which many rootless Americans yearn. Perhaps there is money to be made here: "Membership in a family megalith for only $500! For $1000 you can become a certified kepala suku! Special ceremonial knife included, plus a giant Ginsu cleaver for that hard-to-hack-off buffalo head! Sacrificial water buffalo available for an additional shipping fee inside the continental states! Call this toll-free number now!"

* * *

Early next morning we boarded the "super express" bus to Labuan Bajo, which even had reserved seating at the normal fare of $5. Not only was the first song NOT "Country Road," it was not even the dreaded Bryan Adams that Nicole had warned us about. Instead we were treated to some interesting Indonesian rock music (FYI: the group was Sawung Jabo and the album was Sirkus Barock). There was a sinking feeling in my stomach when the infamous Bryan Adams tape was played next, but Allah was merciful and did not let the driver play it more than twice.

Despite some setbacks (a bad tire, which was changed during the lunch stop, and a torrential downpour in Ruteng that prompted the driver to provide door-to-door service (the market and roadside stores were flooded, pigs were wallowing happily in the overflowing ditches)) we roared down toward Labuan Bajo well within the standard 11-hour travel time, tires squealing around the last hairpin bends as the amber rays from the setting sun grazed and glinted off the stuccoed waters of the Komodo Islands.

Slow Boat to Rinca

End of the road: On the northwest tip of Flores, Labuan Bajo (pop. 2000) is a one-strip fishing village, used by travelers as the ocean gateway to the Komodo Islands. Literally "bay of the Bajo," an ethnic group known historically for their nomadic fishing lifestyle (a Bajo was said to have been born, married, and died on a boat), the town is now also populated by the Manggarai from inland Flores and the Bugi from Sulawesi.

Together with Sabine and Silke, social workers from Hamburg whom we met on the bus, Dario and I arranged for a two-day boat trip to Rinca, the smaller and wilder of the two main islands in the Komodo National Park. We then hiked up to the Merpati office where the women and I bought tickets to Denpasar for Thursday, the day before I was scheduled to fly out of the country.

Next morning the four of us put out to sea on a putt-putt wooden boat, about 40 feet in length, with a small cabin in the back for the crew of two, and an open-air, canopied deck in front for the passengers. The diesel motor spewed a lot of smoke and was very slow, but the boat was roomy and comfortable. The captain and his mate looked like teenage boys (age estimation of the Florinese is difficult; their faces mature early but do not change much with age) and didn't speak any English, but fortunately Sabine, a veteran Indonesian traveler, was fairly conversant in Bahasa Indonesia. In any case, the term "bagus" (the Indonesian equivalent of "cool") went a long way in generating good will, so Dario and I used it indiscriminately in that buffoonish way for which tourists are not penalized.

The sea was remarkably calm. We could see convective clouds beginning to form over inland Flores (probably over Ruteng), but the sky above us remained clear and bright. Later in the morning we anchored off of Bidadar Island for some snorkeling. VERY warm water--warmer than in the Caribbean. Other observations: A large variety of soft coral, an abundance of giant clams and giant starfish (both brilliant blue), damselfish, angelfish, lots of tuna, and a huge orange worm that looked like it was built from an erector set. The sand on the beach was white with flecks of red mixed in like maraschino cherry minced into vanilla ice cream. Looked at from a distance the sand had a pinkish hue.

While we were swimming, the crew had prepared our lunch: fried fish, eggplant with peanut sauce, fried noodles with green beans, cucumber florets, rice, and krupuk. Simple but tasty. The $25 for the two-day trip, which seemed a bit steep at first (in Indonesian terms), was starting to seem like a good deal. After we finished eating, the boat started off again as we sipped our post-meal tea.

The narrow channels around the Komodos are notorious for their vicious currents and whirlpools. Twenty to thirty divers in the pearl farms around Rinca die each year, swept away by the underwater rapids. At times we could feel the boat being tugged this way and that like a car with bald tires fish-tailing on patches of black ice. I had still been considering arranging for a scuba trip around these islands, but I decided then that there was no need to push the agenda, especially with the lack of proper facilities in Labuan Bajo.

Our next stop was alongside a small, mangrove-covered island, right across from an even smaller, rocky island (about 500 feet in diameter) where three huts stood side-by-side along the sloping shore. We could make out several little children playing on the beach. I wondered where they got their fresh water--the island was too small to have its own supply. They must ship in tanks from Labuan Bajo. The Bajo may have settled down, but some, apparently, have not given up on the sea as a way of life.

It was close to dusk, and the crew began to cook dinner. The four of us dived off the boat to cool off, but the current was too strong for comfort; we had to keep swimming to stay in place. Back on board, as we started on our dinner, the captain called and pointed above the mangrove island. The first "flying foxes" (large fruit bats) were beginning their daily trip towards Flores in search of food. Silhouetted against a luminously orange western sky, they kept streaming out in an orderly, single-minded fashion, flapping their classic, Batman-logo wings at a leisurely twice-per-second rate with their opaque "arms," looking exactly like large rats powering themselves along on primitive flying contraptions. Occasionally a non-conformist would take an off-ramp from the highway in the sky and dip down to the water, coasting just above the calm surface. The bat flux continued unabated for at least twenty minutes as the sun set with the rapidity characteristic of the equatorial latitudes. The mangrove island must harbor many tens of thousands of bats. Why they had colonized this particular island when they had to travel so far every day for food was as mysterious to me as why some Bajos settled on waterless islands the size of a suburban back yard.

Under a moonless and cloudless sky we chugged on toward Rinca. The Southern Cross gave us a sense of direction as we wound around dark isles. Dinoflagellates were abundant in the water and we stuck our feet in the water to produce more of the phosphorescence. Eventually we dropped anchor in a cove where everything was absolutely calm--no waves, no breeze, no mosquitos, no fishing boats. Only the jumping fish broke the stillness (as they had been all day--I had never been in waters so full of jumping fish). We laid down thin mattresses on the deck as the crew climbed on top of the cabin to sleep. The current flowing past the taut anchor line streamed off fireflies of phosphorescence, as if the rope was a slow fuse burning with a cold, blue fire. The four of us lay down side-by-side and declared that the first one to fall asleep would be used as dragon bait in the morning.

To be a Komodo Ranger is not Easy

Soon after a fried-banana breakfast, we landed at Loh Buaya, the main ranger station on Rinca. Not five minutes after landing we spotted our first Komodo dragon (varanus komodoensis, the world's largest lizard). This one was somewhat smaller than me. Locally known as the ora, about 2000 live on the main island of Komodo and about 600 on Rinca. They are, of course, protected by the national park service and have become, in recent years, quite a tourist attraction. For President Suharto's visit to Komodo in 1988, the government built a heli-pad and a grandstand where the old man watched as a strung-up goat was devoured by the giant lizards. For a while this feeding show was continued twice a week for tourists, but it has now been discontinued. On Rinca there are fewer visitors (we were the only ones there that day), and we were pointedly warned of past tourists who, wandering out of the station without a guide, were never seen again. The ora usually do not attack people, but given the opportunity they certainly will eat us, so the National Park strictly forbids hiking without an official guide.

After signing in at the post, Dario and I left for a 3-mile hike with the ranger (Sabine and Silke, unfortunately, only had flip-flops). Early morning, and it was already hot. The ranger said that it got up to 45 deg C in the height of the dry season. Dragon weather--they loved the heat and were most active in hunting at mid-day. The vegetation was a big change from Flores--mostly savannah with a few trees and lots of cacti. A large herd of crab-eating macaques loped across our trail. A wild horse, a deer, wild pigs. A sweeping panorama of the Komodos from a hilltop ("That's a Japanese pearl farm down there"), but no dragons.

On the way back, the ranger told us of the Sumbawan poachers that openly landed on Rinca and shot at park rangers who tried to intervene. When he said "poachers" I immediately thought of the movie, The Freshman, in which the plot revolves around a dastardly dining club that meets to eat only endangered species, in this case a Komodo dragon, but the ranger was talking about illegal deer hunting. He said a colleague lost an ear last year to a poacher's bullet, and lamented that they were not allowed to carry guns themselves. He admired the wildlife administration in Kenya where rangers had permission to shoot-to-kill elephant poachers. "Here, we can only call the police from Labuan Bajo. And when they show up..." He rubbed his fingers together to imply that all they do is take bribes from the Sumbawans. From everything I heard about the Indonesian government, this was business as usual.

Back at the station we were greeted by a smiling Sabine and Silke, who were now virtually surrounded by dragons. "They came to us!" We had to admit that we did not see a single one on our hike. Laughing at our sweat-darkened shirts, they bought us warm Cokes. The five lizards were of all different sizes, from a foot-long baby to a 7-foot adult, which the ranger estimated to be about 8 years old. They looked pretty cute to me. Just big lizards. Well, okay, the teeth and claws looked kind of nasty, but they acted so benignly. Only when one whacked another with its tail (in play, I presume) did I get a sense of their power. I wanted to see one swallow a poacher whole.

Lazy Days at Waecicu

With stops for more snorkeling and dolphin-watching, we putt-putted back toward Flores, and were finally dropped off at Waecicu Beach, twenty minutes north of Labuan Bajo. There, one could stay in a beach-front, bamboo bungalow and be fed three meals for $5 a day. The women and I had a few days to while away before our Merpati flight, so we figured it would be a nice enough place to hang out. Dario, on the other hand, was leaving the next morning on a 5-day boat trip to Lombok. Three of the Germans from Moni were already there: Kuni, with his ever-ready machete against poisonous snakes falling from tree branches ("Hey, no joke, I killed a scorpion yesterday"), Elke, with her diamond-studded nose and a copy of Anais Nin, and Jürgen, with his scruffy beard and saronged beer belly. Elke and Jürgen, upon hearing Dario's plan, decided to go with him on the boat.

Waecicu reminded me of summer camp. The call to meals (with a bamboo knocker), the shared dining arrangement, the smell of mosquito coils burning under the table, the campers playing badminton, writing postcards, and swapping stories, and the staff singing around a guitar at night. Even though it was on Flores proper, it was isolated from Labuan Bajo due to a lack of roads--one had to take a boat to go to town. So even though it was low budget, Waecicu was a real "resort"--one where backpackers could spend a few days off the road and relax on the beach without having anyone come up to ask "Hey, Mister! Where you from? Where you going?"

Waecicu also had three entertaining characters. Ahim, who was in charge while the boss was gone, loved to sit and chat with the travelers, apologizing profusely for his "green" English, but nevertheless keeping Sabine and I especially amused with his unique turns of phrase. Chain-smoking his way through a pack of Garams (Indonesian clove cigarettes), everything was bloody this, bloody that. "Stress" was also a big word: he was stressed because there was too much work, the monkey was stressed because it was raining, the shuttlecock was stressed because you slammed it too hard. And anything that did not work had a broken heart: "Ahim, what's wrong with the boat?" "Oh, broken heart. Too much stress." Hell, all that smoking was sure to put him in acute financial stress AND give him one bloody, broken heart one of these days. Even though a pack only cost 50 cents, at a pack a day that still ate up 3/5th of his fixed salary. But this predicament seemed typical of the Indonesian man. (Women, on the other hand, were fond of betel nuts, which were much cheaper but gave them messy, red teeth.)

Oni, the eight-year-old son of the owner, was also a smoker already. Knowing that the boss would not be happy, Ahim allowed him to smoke at will, laughing at the novelty of an eight year old smoking. Oni was also the fattest child I saw in Indonesia. He would start banging the bamboo knocker at odd hours demanding to be fed immediately. Ahim would then point to him and remark, "Big boss stress." Oni and Ahim were continuously roughhousing and it was hard to tell who had the upper hand. Ahim, slim and only about five feet tall, was more agile, but Oni already seemed to have more raw strength. Plus, he was aware of who the real boss was around here and would get seriously upset if Ahim kicked his butt. Once Oni retrieved a knife from the kitchen after a good-natured thrashing by Ahim and had enough emotional momentum to leave a cut on Ahim's arm. Kind of a scary character.

Then there was John Lennon. Little Johnny was a baby macaque that Ahim found in the woods one day without a mother. Now the unofficial Waecicu mascot, he would climb up on the table at meal time and try to grab a krupuk or stick his head into your glass of tea. A baby monkey is undeniably cute, but unfortunately an untrained one also defecates at will. It was definitely not a good idea to have Johnny playing around your dinner plate before you finished eating. He was only about ten inches tall and was obviously still looking for a mother figure, preferring to sleep against the bosom of a woman whenever possible. He became quite attached to Silke, and I remarked that she should consider a career move from social work with drug addicts to social work with orphan monkeys. She replied that it would still be the same work.

Merpati, Again

The transience of life on the road: Dario, Elke, and Jürgen left on the boat to Lombok in the morning, then Kuni departed in the afternoon to catch the ferry to Sumbawa. As I owed him a few dollars, I promised to send Dario a bottle of Barrilitos 3-Star rum when I returned to Puerto Rico. The Hamburgers and I were the only guests left at Waecicu.

Finally Thursday arrived. We bid adieu to John Lennon et al. and headed out on the boat to Labuan Bajo. After a brief stay in town, sipping orange slurpees with chocolate syrup in a warung, we took a bemo to the airport.

"This is the AIRPORT?" Silke asked, aghast. Well, what do you expect for a place that services one flight per day? The terminal looked all right to me. A nice, concrete, one-room building with a zinc-pan roof, one door marked "Departure" and another marked "Arrival." In fact, this was the new building. The old one, with a thatched-roof waiting-area gazebo, was standing, half-demolished and weed-infested, 50 feet away. But it was disturbing that the doors were locked and no one was there.

It was only a few minutes before a woman in uniform came walking up from the road. Aha, she must have the keys, I thought. Then she opened her mouth: "No flight today. Please go to Merpati office."

* * *

At the Merpati office, where workers were tending the vegetable garden out front, a man told us, "Technical problem. Airplane broke in Kupang." It has a broken heart, I whispered to Sabine and Silke. "Your tickets, please. Will change date to tomorrow." Are you sure? we asked. "We will know this afternoon. If no flight, we will call you at your hotel."

As we left the office, the man called out, "Check in will begin at 8:35 am. Please be on time."

* * *

Checking into Chez Felix, a losmen with a phone, we told one of the workers there that the Merpati flight today had been canceled. With a straight face he answered, "Of course." What do you mean? we asked. "Don't you know Merpati means 'maybe'?" he replied. (This was not literally true; merpati means "pigeon.") Then we met two young English women who were also trying to fly out. They had a friend in the health center sick with malaria, and they were desperate to get her out of Labuan Bajo and back to England. Having booked later than us, they were unfortunately on the waiting list for tomorrow. So even if the plane did show up in the morning they needed divine intervention or the sudden, timely deaths of three other passengers for them to be able to leave. To their credit, they did not plead with us, or try to bribe us, or attack us with their Swiss Army knives. As for me, having lived in a part of the world where getting malaria was like catching a cold, I was not all that concerned. "She's being treated with Fanzidar? She'll be all right in a couple of days."

Back in town, we attempted to satisfy Sabine's craving for spicy Sumatran food by lunching at a Padang restaurant. The protocol was similar to that of dim sum: various dishes were brought out to your table and you were only charged for the ones that you ate. Sabine explained, though, that you could spoon out the sauce from each dish for free--a great concept for a sauce-o-phile like me. Even though the food was good, Sabine was disappointed by the lack of variety: only fried chicken, chicken curry, dry-fried shrimp, potato croquettes, fried-boiled eggs, and stewed greens. A canned-beat disco tape oddly reminiscent of Belizean punta rock blared in the background. We stared in fascination at a government calendar that glorified the exploits of the military with collage paintings for each month (I went up to the wall and flipped through the year): officers in heroic poses, phallic missiles rising into the sky, a squadron of fighter jets zooming across a Technicolor sunset, a muscular tank commanding a hilltop position. I wanted one as a souvenir, but I could not find a store that sold them. I guess I had to be there when the propaganda wagon was rolled out.

Later we met a man from Sulawesi who was trying to start a new beach losmen. When we told him about our predicament with the canceled flight, he proceeded to regale us with more Merpati lore.

For example: Merpati had lost four aircraft in and out of Flores. The last crash occurred only two months ago on the approach to Ruteng. All 15 aboard died. Bad weather was blamed. The cause of an earlier crash (Labuan Bajo to Bima--our flight) was never resolved (the wreck was never recovered from the ocean), but sabotage was suspected (V.I.P.s were on board).

Another story: A group of Australians, who were not allowed on a flight out of Labuan Bajo due to overbooking by Merpati, sat down around the wheels of the airplane to block its departure. After several hours, the police and a few strong, young men were called in from town to remove the Aussies. A tense confrontation followed, but in the end Merpati caved in and bumped off some ethnic Chinese women who were trying to reach Ende in time for Chinese New Year.

Finally, he told us an Indonesian take on the classic crashing-airplane joke. There were five passengers on an airplane: A Japanese, a Chinese, an Arab, an European, and an Indonesian. Suddenly the engines failed and they started to go down. The Japanese tried to get everyone to work together to repair the engines. The Chinese asked how much money was needed to fix the plane. The Arab looked for his ticket so he could get a refund. The European put on his parachute and got ready to jump. And the Indonesian just sat there arguing with everyone about why the airplane wasn't working.

* * *

Not believing that Merpati would actually call us at Chez Felix, I went to the office in the late afternoon to check for news, but was asked to return in half an hour when they would have a radio message from Kupang. Workers were still tending the vegetable garden. After a random walk, I went back as specified. When I arrived, the woman who gave us the bad news that morning, now sans uniform, led me around to the back of the building. In the front room there was a group of women singing hymns. The Merpati office obviously had many uses. In the back, the manager informed me that the flight was on for tomorrow. And, yes, the check-in was at 8:35 am.

That night, the women and I toasted our last night in Labuan Bajo (we hoped) with a bottle of arak, a 70-proof liquor made from the sap of palm trees. A little alcohol goes a long way in restoring perspective to an absurd situation. So what if there was no flight tomorrow. I would just have to postpone my flight out of Bali for a few days. We could take the 8-hour ferry to Sape, Sumbawa (but not tomorrow--Friday was the only day of the week on which the ferry did not run), then a bus to Bima, then a Merpati (maybe) flight to Denpasar. Or we could take the slow boat to Lombok, then a ferry to Bali. Or we could just cancel the flights and keep traveling until our visas expired...

Rain in Ruteng, Again

Friday morning: Suspicious that passengers on the waiting list might try to bribe their way onto the flight, we went to the airport at 8:00 am. There were already a dozen people waiting for the doors to be unlocked. The English girls were there, too, and I saw with a slight pang of guilt that the malarial one looked like she had suffered quite a bit lately. She was gaunt, colorless, trying to be strong, making an effort to joke with her friends, but her eyes were weak and watery, her hand clutching a wad of toilet paper for the next trip to the mandi. I could tell she REALLY wanted to get out of here. It was not a life-or-death situation, but I thought about whether I should offer her my seat. On the other hand, she probably would not want to go without her friends.

The Merpati staff arrived remarkably on time. Why they needed a half-dozen workers for a once-a-day flight of 16 passengers was beyond me. As we began our check in, a portable bathroom scale was slid out to weigh our baggage. It was rather difficult to weigh a bag larger than a purse because the dial would be covered up. A mini concession stand was set up, so you could relieve your thirst with a bottle of warm Sprite or satisfy your nicotine craving with a pack of Marlboros. I noted outside that the airport was equipped with a Mercedes-Benz fire engine.

Then around 9:30, the news was announced: Bad weather in Ruteng (did that sound familiar?) was forcing the flight to come directly here from Kupang. Then the good part: Because all the passengers from Kupang were going to Ruteng, the aircraft would start out empty for our leg. Therefore, everyone on the waiting list could go! I didn't have to feel guilty about the sick girl being left behind! (Bad news for the passengers waiting to leave Ruteng, though; they were screwed for two straight days.)

When the wailing siren (to clear the landing strip of playing children) finally signalled the arrival of the airplane, the weather here was turning for the worse, also. As the disgruntled passengers were disgorged from the twin-engine Otter (they would have to take the five-hour bus to Ruteng), the Merpati staff piled our luggage on a hand cart and prepared for departure. When the aircraft was ready, we quickly walked out of the terminal (to the ominous calls of "Good luck!" from the locals) just as the first raindrops began to fall. By the time we left the ground it was raining in earnest. However, once we departed the coast of Flores and were flying above the ocean, the sky cleared and we were all treated to an aerial view of the parched savannah hills of the Komodos. The Brit girls chattered away, half excited, half nervous. Sabine and Silke sat quietly admiring the vistas. The pilot and navigator blithely passed a bag of unshelled peanuts back and forth. And I had just begun the first leg of a seven-flight itinerary to return to the opposite side of the Earth; there was nothing to do but to sit back and enjoy the flight to Bima.


April 4, 1995

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Copyright 1995, John Nagamichi Cho