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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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.

33 Hours From Bali to Flores

A quick geography lesson (because we certainly needed one before we started traveling around Indonesia):

Flores, just one in a long chain of volcanic islands.

Flores, just one in a long chain of volcanic islands.

Indonesia is composed of 17,000 islands. We were on the island of Bali and decided to head east to the island of Flores to meet Zev’s cousin, Mackenzie, who was on Flores doing research and planned to spend a long weekend on a boat tour around the Komodo islands.

Our first glimpse of the boat.

Our first glimpse of the boat.

The Tilongkabila, coming in to port in Labuanbajo, Flores.

The Tilongkabila, coming in to port in Labuanbajo, Flores.

We decided to forgo the $280 flight from Bali to Flores and instead invested in a first class cabin on the government ferry for $100, meals included. It was to be a 33 hour journey on the Tilongkabila, which was built in 1995 and age-wise falls in the middle of the fleet of Pelni operated boats, neither the oldest nor the newest of the 22 (?) boat fleet. We had no idea what to expect other than a day and a half from departure to arrival. Some of our expat friends told us we were crazy, others thought it would almost certainly make for a good story. So we readied our cameras and charged up our kindles for the long trip. The Lonely Planet suggested we bring sufficient food and water for the whole trip, so we loaded up on peanut butter, ramen noodles, and as many big bottles of water as we could carry without looking like alarmists.

Omnomnom.

A snack stand at the port in Benoa harbor, Bali.

Shopping for snacks before we get on the boat.

Shopping for snacks before we get on the boat. Would this be our last chance for food??

This is my skeptical face. It's not easy to ride a motorbike with a huge backpack and take photos at the same time.

This is my skeptical face. It’s not easy to ride a motorbike with a huge backpack and take photos at the same time.

Our day began with confusion. We arrived at the designated port only to be directed to a different area. Conveniently, the port authorities could offer us a lift to this new dock for the low price of $1 each, which we haggled down to 50 cents. With my luggage on my back, I was gripping my knees for dear life so I didn’t simply fly off the back of the bike. Finally at the right dock, the scene in front of us was one of pure chaos. Porters carrying boxes loaded with god-knows-what, hawkers selling all sorts of snacks and a million flavors of instant noodle, and people, so many people.

The cabin. It was a great hideout from the flurry of activity on the deck of the ship.

Our cabin. It was a great hideout from the flurry of activity on the deck of the ship.

Once we shoved our way onboard, we were led to our cabin which consisted of two beds, a window, a fan, a bathroom, and reading lights. A perfect setup to do nothing and relax. And that is what we proceeded to do for the next day and a half. Meals on the ship were served 3 times a day, a uninspiring routine of rice, fried chicken, and soupy vegetables in broth. The regular mealtimes may not have provided much in the way of sustenance, but they helped to mark the passage of time and provide a source of entertainment as we chatted with our fellow 1st and 2nd class passengers.

Twice on our journey we stopped in port to unload and load passengers and cargo. The crowds at each stop were overwhelming and the frantic crush to get onboard was equal parts amusing and terrifying with people climbing up the sides of the rickety gangplank to be the first on the deck.

In Bima, the crush to get onboard verged on insanity.

In Bima, the crush to get onboard verged on insanity.

We also loaded up local produce and unloaded vital supplies to the islands. Many of these ports rely on the arrival of the Pelni boats to supply basic necessities.

At the stop in Bima, Surabaya, we loaded up on the famous local onions.

At the stop in Bima, Surabaya, we loaded up on the famous local onions.

Between stops, we entertained ourselves by practicing our Bahasa Indonesia with the other passengers. We were interested to hear where the other passengers were going and what they did back home. Many people on the boat worked on the island of Bali and were heading home for Ramadan.

One of our lovely boatmates, truly delightful conversationalists.

One of our lovely boatmates. Our topics of conversation were somewhat limited by my vocabulary…

After many naps and a few books finished, we arrived in Labuanbajo on the island of Flores. It was dark by the time we finally arrived, but with the help of the overhead floodlights on the dock we could make out the shape of countless bodies pushing and shoving to get on the boat. Zev and I were overwhelmed and could barely make it through the tightly packed crowd. With the help of some very intimidating police officers, a path was cleared for passengers to disembark. We slowly shuffled through the port area and walked down the dusty main road to our hotel. After a hot shower and a quick bite to eat, we collapsed in bed and stayed there for the next 3 days. We were both suffering from a combination of malaise and stomach complaints. Avoiding the oppressive heat in Labuanbajo, we laid low until it was time to get on another much smaller boat to see the Komodo dragons.

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The sunsets in Labuanbajo were captivating. Up next, Komodo dragons, amazing snorkeling, and breathtaking dive spots!

Super Moon on Gili Air

Super moon rising over Rinjani volcano.

Super moon rising over Rinjani volcano.

Happy little beach bum.

Happy little beach bum.

Lately, Zev and I have been playing tour guide for my mother, who is visiting us in Bali for the month of June. Most of our time has been spent seeing the sights around Ubud (which I’ll share more about later) but we spent this past weekend snorkeling and diving on Gili Air. Gili Air is a tiny speck of white sand and palm trees east of Bali, ringed by turquoise water and brilliant coral reefs. It was the perfect setting for an ultra low key weekend at the beach.

Just being touristy with the mama.

Just being touristy with the mama.

We spent plenty of time lounging around our perch on the northern end of the island, reading books and watching the waves crest. We spent the afternoons wandering the beach and wildlife spotting in the tide pools. Each evening, we were treated to a 270 degree view stretching from the western sunset over the open ocean to the eastern full moon rising over Mount Rinjani, the volcano on neighboring Lombok. It was after all, a super moon and we had the super panorama for the big event.

Another great sunset on Gili Air.

Another great sunset on Gili Air.

Howling at the moon.

Howling at the moon.

During our stay on the island we also experienced a rattling 5.2 magnitude earthquake, centered about 5km from us. We were suddenly acutely aware of the active volcano lurking on the horizon. For the rest of our stay, my heart jumped into my throat at the slightest lurch or bump, and especially during the tiny aftershocks we felt.

Looking for creatures in the tide pools.

Looking for creatures in the tide pools.

Check out this little guy we dug up in the tide pools.

Check out this little guy we dug up in the tide pools.

Gorgeous sunset outside of Legends bar, on the north side of the island.

Gorgeous sunset outside of Legends bar, on the north side of the island.

Lounging around the beach shack.

Lounging around the beach shack.