Flores

Scooting around Flores.

Scooting around Flores.

After a few days snorkeling on Semaya Island, we decided to push on to our next venue.

Our friends from Ubud mentioned that they were considering a trans-Flores trip, slowly moving eastward across the island, sightseeing along the way. They were planning to drive across the island on a motorbike, an ambitious plan, verging on insanity except for the fact that Wayan is an expert biker and they were traveling with minimal luggage. With our enormous backpacks in tow, we were relegated to more pedestrian means of transportation, namely, the public bus or ‘bemo,’ as it’s known throughout Indonesia.

Long hours were logged in these colorful 'bemos.'

Long hours were logged in these colorful ‘bemos.’

These are usually older model vans, colorfully decorated and packed to the gills with passengers of all sorts, old and young, men and women, families with peeing-vomiting-crying babies, and men swilling palm liquor out of plastic gas canisters as the sun sets.  Even the cargo was entertaining: nervous chickens tied up by their ankles blinking quietly at someone’s feet, and a tied-up hairy black hog tossed atop the van along with random pieces of battered luggage.

Hanging out with some local kids in the hot springs.

Hanging out with some local kids in the hot springs.

The people we met on these long, hot journeys were without fail incredibly kind, considerate, and politely curious.  We also made huge improvements with our Bahasa Indonesia, mostly through eavesdropping on our friends from Ubud (one of whom is from Bali, and another has lived on Bali for 3 years and speaks impeccable Bahasa), but also just chatting with our seatmates on the long bus rides.

The conversations took a familiar pattern beginning with ‘Good morning, how are you? Have you eaten? Yes, of course. Oh good.’ Etc etc etc. The conversations were delightful and charming in their regularity, but also in the constant expression of genuine interest.

Beautiful crater lakes at Kelimutu

Beautiful crater lakes at Kelimutu

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The sites across Flores skewed toward outdoorsy things – hot springs, hiking up volcanoes, snorkeling, visiting a local village for a traditional animal sacrifice (you won’t see the graphic photos here, but it was an education for both Zev and me in how livestock is raised and butchered in village communities). Overall, Flores is a land of tremendous natural beauty, and unspoiled hospitality.

An animal sacrifice ceremony at a local village near Bajawa.

An animal sacrifice ceremony at a local village near Bajawa.

Mixing up blood lawar for the special feast.

Mixing up blood lawar for the special feast. The fresh blood is mixed with salt, spices

Cooking up a stew near Bajawa. The men grilled and boiled the meat in huge oil drums.

Cooking up a stew near Bajawa. The men grilled and boiled the meat in these huge oil drums.

All of the ladies were involved in steaming the rice.

The ladies from the village steamed vats of rice to feed hundreds of people from nearby villages.

'Ma'af habis' means 'sorry, we've run out.' It became a catchphrase of sorts for Flores. Every restaurant, gas station, scooter rental, hotel was 'ma'af habis.'

‘Ma’af habis’ means ‘sorry, we’ve run out.’ It became a catchphrase of sorts for Flores. We visited Flores in the peak of the high season, and were greeted with this message at many a restaurant, gas station, scooter rental, and hotel.

A few things were constants throughout our trans-Flores journey.

1.The people of Flores were some of the friendliest we have met anywhere, children on the side of the road would shout ‘hello Mister!’ at the top of their lungs or race out to try to give you a high five, desperate to get a reaction from the funny looking foreigners.

2. The landscape of across Flores was breathtaking. Each new region was completely different, from hillsides with tall stands of bamboo, to winding seaside highways with sweeping views of the turquoise sea and misty volcanoes beyond. The sunsets were so incredible, it felt like nature was trying to show off each evening. It is difficult to express in words the variety of unexpectedly beautiful landscapes on the island.

3. The hotels on Flores were terrible. Oh man, so bad. Zev and I don’t mind staying in crummy rooms, as evidenced by our rat’s nest of a beach shack in the previous post, but Flores took it to a whole new level.

4. The food was pretty subpar. Ok, more than subpar. It was on the same level as the hotels. MSG-flavored fried rice for every meal (don’t think MSG is a flavor unto itself, think again my friend)? Check. Said fried rice takes 2 hours to arrive? You bet. A few times we nearly went hungry because every ‘restaurant’ in town shuts down by 7:30pm.

Sapodilla fruit.

Sapodilla fruit.

Despite my expression, this was one of the better meals we enjoyed. Grilled mackerel with sour and spicy fish soup.

Despite my expression, this was one of the better meals we enjoyed. Grilled mackerel with sour and spicy fish soup.

So all-in-all Flores was hit and miss. At the end of 3 weeks trekking across the vast island, I was so ready to see a big city. But we also felt like we had expanded our understanding of Indonesia and come to appreciate the hospitality of a place that is just beginning to come to grips with tourism. Living in the shadow of Bali, Flores has a pretty nifty tourism campaign underway and it seems to be drawing the crowds they hoped for, but perhaps the infrastructure of the island wasn’t quite ready for so many demanding tourists.

A friendly local pup, more interested in my food scraps than my camera.

A friendly local pup, more interested in my food scraps than my camera.

We discovered our own secret beach.

We discovered our own secret beach.

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A dusty market in Moni, Flores.

A dusty market in Ruteng, Flores.

Our next stop brought us directly to the big city. We headed to the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur and back to LaZat Cooking Class to learn more about the Malaysian food we are so crazy about. We can’t wait to share a few recipes and photos with you guys! Here’s a sneak peek:

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Underwater Komodo

The snorkeling and diving around the Komodo islands was breathtaking, so I thought it deserved its own post/ photo exposition. Zev is far and away the superior underwater photographer, so most of these photos can be credited to his amazing breath-holding and underwater photography abilities.

After snorkeling a few sites on our trip with Mackenzie, we knew we couldn’t leave without doing at least some scuba diving. Unfortunately the budget was tight, so we settled for a day trip, three dives total. Given all of the hype surrounding diving in the Komodos, we were a little nervous to put all our eggs in one basket. What if one of us had to scratch a dive? What if we didn’t see what we hoped for? In the end, we agreed to relax and just go with the flow. We opted not to go looking for Mantas (we had come up ‘kosong‘ or empty on Manta dives many times before, and while it’s always thrilling to see the giant rays, the dive sites where they hang out can be deadly boring if they don’t make an appearance).

We were not disappointed by our one day of diving. The sites were challenging and incredibly rich with sea life. Some of the sites we visited are known for strong and variable currents, but we were surprised to find that our experience diving with currents off of Nusa Penida in Bali had adequately prepared us and we both felt fairly comfortable in the fast waters. During our dives we saw white and black tip sharks circling bright healthy reefs teeming with large schools of fish. The snorkeling alone made the Komodo islands one of our highlights of SE Asia, and the diving was really the icing on the cake.

Clown fish at Semaya Island. Snorkeling.

Clown fish family at Semaya Island, snorkeling.

Tiny nudibranch off Semaya Island. Snorkeling.

Tiny tiny nudibranch at Semaya Island, snorkeling. (Photo credit to EQ, finally a decent snorkeling shot!)

A giant pufferfish, snorkeling at Semaya Island.

A giant pufferfish, snorkeling at Semaya Island.

Can you spot the devil scorpion fish? Snorkeling, Angel Beach.

Can you spot the devil scorpion fish? Snorkeling, Angel Beach.

Crystal blue waters. At Cauldron, Komodo.

Crystal blue waters. A site called Cauldron/Shotgun, Komodo.

Giant trevally in the background. Snorkeling at Batubolong.

Giant trevally in the background. Snorkeling at Batubolong.

 

Cool looking box fish at Batubolong.

Cool looking box fish at Batubolong.

Snorkeling cousins, Zev and Mackenzie! At Batubolong.

Snorkeling cousins, Zev and Mackenzie! At Batubolong.

 

Mackenzie and her fellow researchers.

Mackenzie and her fellow researchers. Batubolong.

Snorkeling at Pink Sand Beach.

Snorkeling at Pink Sand Beach.

Blue spotted stingray, Pink Sand Beach.

Blue spotted stingray, Pink Sand Beach.

Diving Castle Rock.

Diving Castle Rock.

 

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A very pregnant shark at Castle rock.

A very pregnant shark at Castle rock.

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More sharks at Castle Rock!

More sharks at Castle Rock!

Schooling fish at Castle Rock, one of the most famous dive sites.

Schooling fish at Castle Rock, one of the most famous dive sites.

Sea turtle, diving at Tatawa Kecil.

Sea turtle, diving at Tatawa Kecil.

 

Another stunning sunset after a full day of diving.

Another stunning sunset off Flores.

Komodo by Boat

The real reason we slogged all the way to Flores was to catch up with my cousin, Mackenzie, who was in the area completing a research project. She was visiting remote villages across Indonesia to interview local villagers, and saw parts of the country that few Westerners ever visit. Having spent a few days recovering from our epic ferry ride to Labuan Bajo, Flores, we met up with Mckenzie and her gang of fellow researchers and hopped on another, much smaller, boat for a three day tour of the Komodo Islands. It was so nice to meet up with family from back home and hearing about her project was fascinating.

Our trusty vessel.

Our trusty vessel.

After getting on the boat and stowing our massive stock of snacks and beer, we motored to Rinca Island, one of the two islands where you can see Komodo dragons, for our first trekking trip. Rinca’s savannah covered hills felt like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Since it was mating season, the Komodo Dragons were busy getting busy in the woods, but we did manage to spot a small one hanging out at a watering hole, and got up close and personal with the gang of elderly dragons that hangs out at the park ranger’s kitchen. We were told that they stopped feeding the dragons in the mid-90’s, but these guys must be senile enough to keep coming back anyway.

A 'small' dragon.

A ‘small’ dragon.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger station.

The enormous older dragons, lounging beneath the ranger’s station.

On day one we also went on the first of many snorkeling trips, where we found a baby bamboo shark sleeping under a rock, and managed to snap our best photo of the trip, of a baby box fish. We’d heard incredible things about the marine life in the Komodos, but neither of us imagined how spectacular it could be until we got there. As a rule of thumb, the crazier the ocean currents, the bigger and better the fish. To say that the ocean surface in many places around the Komodos looked like the agitation cycle of a washing machine wouldn’t be an exaggeration and the abundance of sea life certainly upheld that saying.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

An adorable juvenile boxfish.

Our captain, Matt, who has been working on tour boats in the islands for nearly 10 years, was truly a jack of all trades. After every snorkeling trip, he welcomed us back onto the boat with a plate of piping hot pisang goreng (battered fried bananas), and prepared delicious dinners with fish purchased from local fisherman who paddled out to our boat in canoes to deliver their fresh catch. We slept on the roof of the boat, under a sky filled with the stars of the southern sky. After half a year in the southern hemisphere we’ve only recently adjusted to the sky with no north star and an upside-down big dipper.DSC_0153

Our epic second day on the boat consisted of two hikes and three snorkeling trips. Although the big game animals, manta rays and Komodo Dragons, had taken the day off, it was still another day of jaw dropping scenery. Our 4 hour trek across Komodo Island began in temperate forests that felt surprisingly similar to our home landscape of the eastern US. Climbing up past the forests through the palm-tree dotted savannah to the top of a ridge provided breathtaking views of the island, all the way back done to the ocean. The paths up and down the hill were steep and dusty and we all took a few spills. Had we not seen dragons the day before on Rinca, the lack of wildlife, heat, and difficulty of the trail would have probably been overwhelming, but we managed to keep our cool and enjoy the view. Our two snorkeling trips to Manta Point were fruitless, but well made up for at our third spot, the Cauldron, where we saw more turtles than you can count (if you can’t count to 5), and a few of our boat-mates even spotted a dugong! To wrap up the day on yet another high-note, Matt lead us up a hill on an uninhabited island to watch the unset over a crystal blue bay.

The temperate forests on Rinca.

The temperate forests on Rinca really reminded us of the Shenandoah in Virginia.

Gorgeous views greeted exhausted hikers.

Gorgeous views, exhausted hikers.

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One of the many turtles we spotted while snorkeling at Cauldron.

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

A beautiful sunset hike with Mackenzie!

DSC_0282 DSC_0290DSC_0264After getting off the boat on day three and saying goodbye to Mackenzie and her friends, we met up with friends from Bali who also happened to be in Labuan Bajo. They were heading back out to the islands to spend 2 nights at Seraya Beach Resort, a row of bare bones bungalows along a wide strip of untouched white beach and a bay full of pristine coral. Having no plans other than an eventual hot and crowded 4 hour public bus ride to begin exploring inland Flores, we happily joined them for a few days in a hammock soaking up Komodo’s spectacular scenery.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Beach bungalows on Semaya Island, an amazing little getaway.

Our bamboo beach shack was also occupied by some kleptomaniac rats.

Our bamboo beach shack was also home to a rambunctious (and prolific) family of kleptomaniac rats who evidently thought Eliza’s shorts would make a great nest. Fortunately they didn’t fit through the rats’ front door.