Every Day Ends In Splendor

20121220-194115.jpgWe flew in to Flores in the early afternoon. The airport was rustic, with just the bare necessities to run. It was a really hot day, and the heat hits you like a tidal wave as you descend the stairs to the tarmac. First thing you see is a large, poorly done Komodo Dragon sculpture, but it’s enough to build up the excitement. The entry building is just that, an empty room. No baggage claim, no security, no anything except some faded tourist posters from the eighties. Our luggage was just dumped in the middle of the room in a big pile. The normal bullshit goes on at the airport with cabbies trying to get you in their highly priced cabs. We turn them all down and walk out of the airport on a dirt road. We know it’s only a kilometer to town, and though we each are carrying 20 kilos of stuff on our backs, we muscle through it. We cross a field in the heat to the main road, and every driver we turned down pulls over to see if we had changed our minds. Nope! Then a motorbike pulls over and we negotiate for two dollars to drive us both to town, that’s more than half of what the other drivers wanted. The hitch is they are motorbikes, and we are loaded. Well we both hop on the back of a bike each with our full packs, and they take our smaller bags in front. You want to talk about a funny sight, it looked like a circus acts with all the animals stacked up on each other over a little big wheel. It’s a fun ride to town, what with gravity pulling us off the back of the bike, and extremely steep hills. The first place we stop recommended by Lonely Planet was not too good, with only squatter toilets, no western style. For me if at all possible, I want western toilets. I like to spend quality time on the pot, catching up on my reading and all, and I do a lot of reading, so hovering over a hole is just not feasible. So then we motored to another place the bike guys suggested, and this was worse. Looked like a place sailors might go with their hookers on boat leave. No way. Plus, even nastier squatters.

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So one more try is in order that the bikers recommended. Still fully loaded, we turned the corner on the town and made our way up a very steep hill. I really was not sure we were going to make it, as the hondas slowed to a crawl and made a shrill whistling noise with our great weight holding them back. But in the end we topped the ridge and were greeted with the soft purr of a happy engine and a large modern two-story hotel. Well modern by Flores standards. It was decorated in white and green tiles everywhere, with a staircase so steep it was a slippery death trap. The rooms were air-conditioned and modern with western toilets, though the shower was above the toilet. You can shower and shit at the same time, highly efficient. It was more than we wanted to pay but it’s important no matter how dire the situation, in a negotiation we are not desperate, we will walk away. So I tried to negotiate, but the girls were not having it, so I told them to call their boss. Well he said he would be over in ten minutes. So we waited. When he got there we sat down and had a weird awkward negotiation, where he chewed on his lip and spoke in another language to the cook. He was a heavy-set man, stocky, with a Charley Chapman stache, that accented his multiple chins. Sweat beaded up on his head like getting that five dollars off him would break the bank. In the end he agreed to the price, and we got our room. Sadly we were way too close to the mosque, but it was a small town, and everything was close to the mosque, which means chanting and off tune singing five times a day. Everything else was good otherwise.

The port town of Labuan Bajo was built on the side of a hill, with most the activity going on the bottom near the port. It was dusty, dirty, and squalid. Everything was on a hill, and the front was a ripped up construction site, where it looks like a water front restoration was being done. For now it was a muddy red rut with construction vehicles sitting idle. In the water were hundreds of ships and boats; outrigger canoes, ferries, wooden sail ships, and fishing vessels. Really it was a hodgepodge of everything. Looking further past the boats were numerous islands going out as far as the eye could see. Now that was a great view. The town on the other hand, was not a pleasant place, and did I mention it was hot, oh boy was it ever. It really felt like a frontier town, and if this was considered the main city of the island, you have to wonder what the rest was like.

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Being up the hill had its advantages, like a nice view, quiet, and peaceful. Problem was everything was in town, tour operators, restaurants, and dive shops. So we would have to trudge the long way around, numerous times a day. I knew there had to be a way straight down the hill, but it looked like it was through everyone’s backyards, or worse, through their houses. Well, after sitting on my porch and studying the situation, and observing numerous locals walking down a dirt track through the trees, I decided there clearly was a path. So throwing my daypack on, I headed on the path past numerous goats and chickens. It wound its way past a backyard to steep stairway leading between houses. Most the houses doors opened up to the stairway and they were all open, looking right onto what amounted to one bedroom houses. People washed in the alley, ate on the stairs, watched tv together, and all stopped what they were doing as soon as I walked past. I would say hi, and after a pause they would greet me back. Well, it was a short cut, cutting ten minutes of walking up hill off, so I was determined to be accepted. So I went up and down numerous times, greeting everyone, talking to the kids who waved at me, and pretty much letting everyone know that there was a white guy using the back path. I’m pretty sure they just decided I was harmless, because the weird looks stopped. At night it was a bit awkward because they would often sleep with the doors open, but I was careful to respectfully avert my eyes, and only greet those sitting outside. On numerous occasions rats would run past my feet, down little side alleys. But what I saw of the insides of the houses they were very clean, with shoes being left out side, and people constantly sweeping.

Ok, even with the aid of our short cut, I was feeling pretty lazy. I needed power, and in these countries power only comes in the form of cheap Chinese scooters. How else were we going to see Flores. So eight dollars later I had a scooter for 24 hours. We did a little exploring, hoping to find a nice beach to swim at, even though we were warned there were none to be found. Going a few kilometers out of town we saw a BBQ place with Karaoke too. Sweet! It was around noon, and we were starved. We drove down a dirt path, past some goats, and into an open livingroom. There was a box tv with cartoons playing, and a pudgy man sound asleep on the couch, surrounded by equally sleepy dogs. We strolled past him into the garden, which lead to the beach. Clearly this was not a happening place yet, maybe tonight. The beach was not the most pleasant, lots of trash, shallow soupy looking water, and the every present beautiful islands in the distance. We were thinking of heading out when we looked past the rose hedge to the swanky neighbors pad next door, including their infinity pool. There was an older couple sitting in a large peaked thatch gazebo. They waved at us in a very exuberant and friendly fashion, so we waved back. We then turned around to find our sleeping buddy had woken up and was quite shocked to find us in his gardens. We asked him for BBQ, and his confusion grew, so we hopped on our scooter and shot off.

As we pulled out we could not get the pool out of our mind, so refreshing looking. So we pulled into the resort and asked if they had food. It was an ultra modern minimalist joint, including the amount of people there. Really just the old couple that waved us over, and the staff. Well we ordered lunch, spaghetti bolognese for me and Nasi Goreng for Yvonne and sat under the thatched gazebo. The older couple both turned around in their chairs and started chatting with us. They were so happy to have company, they started shooting us a million questions, where are you from, what you doing, married, kids, where have you been. We barely had time to get a response. We compared prices and techniques on traveling. They bargained this swanky resort down by fifty bucks, and also walked out of the airport with their bags, getting a greatly reduced fare of two dollars, beating us, plus an air-conditioned cab. They had been traveling for years, they knew Thailand and south east Asia like the back of their hand, been to the Gili’s twenty years ago when there were barely any tourist there, living life large. After a bit of listening to their adventure, Yvonne asked when they found time to work with all that traveling. “Cheeky girl” the woman states. “We’ve worked very hard at IBM, seventy hours a week, but have travelled a lot since retiring at forty five years old. Then they hopped in the water and he joked about gravity taking his wife a bit in the center, and some other jabs back and forth when she climbed out. The pool was so minimalist that they did not put a ladder in. They were a hilarious couple, clearly so happy and in love still. Yvonne had her bikini, and joined them in the pool. I only had my boxers, but what the hell, so I jumped in too. Well in the end we acted like we were guests, and no one questioned us. We chatted with our new friends all afternoon. Here was a couple I could respect, traveling in their old age, still having fun, and living for every day.

Back at town, we were highly torn between renting a boat for the day and heading out to Komodo island for a day trip. There are three islands with dragons on them, Komodo, Flores, and Rinca. Rinca is closest with the biggest dragons, Komodo is bigger, but the dragons are smaller, and Flores, which we were on was huge, and chances of seeing them slim to none. But the trekking on Komodo supposedly is great, and spotting a dragon there seemed like more of a true wildlife experience. But it was a lot of travel, lot of money, and we knew that we would be seeing them on Rinca in a few days. In the end it just made more sense to wait and see them on the boat trip. Instead we thought a day diving and snorkeling would be wonderful way to kill some time. So I signed up with a company that had a trip planned for the next day.

Yvonne tagged along for some snorkelling, and we were off at 7:30 am. Our boat was not the biggest, but had enough space for us to relax on the top deck. I did two dives that were really amazing, with tons of sea life and corals. Saw some sea turtles which always excites me. Yvonne was out snorkeling for both dives, the third one I decided to snorkel instead and to give my ears a chance to relax. The boat dropped us off in what should have been easy snorkeling, but the current was nasty. We had to swim our hardest to get where we were supposed to meet the boat. When you swim this hard you really don’t get a chance to see a lot, which is the point. We were exhausted by time we got to the end of the island where the current let up. Were we ever happy get back on the boat. Poor Yvonne was so sun burnt she looked like a lobster. She forgot to put more sunscreen on when we went out. Let’s just say she was not able to sit for a few days.

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One word; Sunset. We all have these images in our heads, landscapes silhouetted, golden colors, slowly turning orange as the fiery ball drops below the horizon. We’ve seen thousands, barely even take time to look at them in our busy lives, but we all know we like them. Well, throw away all images of sunsets from your head, because from Flores island the sunsets are like nothing I have ever seen. Every damn night. The sky burst into a of kaleidoscope colors, lasting ages, till the sun finally disappears. And you are looking through numerous islands in the distance. We watched from view points at bars, our hotel room, and even a local shop where we bought cokes and hung out with family. Every night we would stop what we were doing and just marvel at the beauty of it all, and ponder just how lucky we are to be on such an amazing adventure.

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