A Beer & Oreo kind of day

Five am feels dang early, especially after three days on an epic boat adventure visiting Komodo Dragons and swimming with giant Manta Rays.  I’m exhausted but excited for our next adventure – the Gili Islands.  VWish mini-mini van arrives right at 6:45am to take us to the airport in Labuanbajo on Flores Island.

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Minature VW-like vans are a common vehicle on Flores.

Getting around Indonesia is a bit of a challenge, but Rick has booked everything perfectly – even having paid for our inter-Island flights on Nam and Wing Air at our neighborhood 7-11 in Bangkok.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  No on-line payment available with these tiny airlines so 7-11 handles the payment process.)

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We can pay our bills, buy airline tickets, top up our phone – all at 7-11!

And, because of our early flight we miss our complimentary breakfast, but no problem, we can eat at the airport.

We arrive at Komodo International and get checked through security.  Now breakfast.

 Nothing.  

At all.

In the entire airport. Are you kidding?  An airport without overpriced food?  

But wait.  There’s a coffee shop!  And a nice one at that.  Looks like a Starbuck’s knockoff, all shiny and new.  We’ve got this!  Except that it is their “soft opening”.  Available food consists of one item –  plain white sesame seed buns.  Perhaps this is a McDonald’s knock off because the buns are much like an undressed hamburger bun.

Alright.  I will eat a plain white bun and we will dine on the plane!

And then we wait for our plane.  And wait.  The lady at the counter keeps telling us, “just 15 minutes.” We confer with a group of dreadlocked backpackers and they share horror stories of Indonesian airlines that were as much as 10 hours late.  No reason.  Just because.  So we feel lucky when we board our 8:30am plane at 10:30am.  We feel even luckier when they hand us what appears to be a box lunch!!  And inside?

Water…..and Oreos.

So, I will eat Oreos and we will have a meal once we land in Bali.

Our 30 person prop plane lands in Depensar, Bali  at 11:30am.  Luggage is on the slow boat and by noon Rick is trying to contact the car we hired to take us to our boat.  

No luck, but no problem!  We can be “chill”, right?  We will take a taxi and hope we arrive by 1pm for our scheduled departure to the island of Gili Air.   Since the taxi driver isn’t sure where we need to go, he calls the boat company to get directions and we are on our way.   Luck!  We arrive right at 1pm.  On a pier.  In Bali somewhere.  He points us to the boat company’s shed.  Thanks taxi guy!  So glad he called and confirmed things.

Except we are at the wrong place.  And the driver is gone.  Now what?  Lucky again because a nice guy, Mr. Key, knows a tiny bit of English (that he started learning when he was 7 – from tourists like us) and tells us that yes, this is the right boat company, just the wrong location.  He, with the help of three of his friends, call the boat company and after what sounds like a very complicated phone conversation, and animated discussion with his friends, tells us that another driver is on the way to take us to the correct pier.  It’s now well after 1pm – the time we are scheduled to catch our boat.  So we buy Mr. Key and his three friends a Bintang (local beer) and join them on folding chairs for our liquid lunch and talk about how things have changed in Bali.

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Thank you Mr. Key.  May Karma smile on you!

And, the driver arrives and says, please bring the beers in the car.  Of course.

We drive an hour up the coast and catch the 3pm boat to our final destination, and a much-anticipated meal.  First stop is Gili Trawangan, the noted party island, where 1,000,000 people get off the boat leaving just 4 tourists on board for Gili Air.  Perfect. This is going to be perfect.

Eleven hours after our journey began,  we are here!  The final destination of Gili Air! Funky little island with quirky shops and cafes.  No cars so we flag a horse-drawn cart to take us to our hotel.  What?  You’ve never heard of our hotel?  Closer look at our reservation reveals….we are on the WRONG island.  We are booked for Gili Meno, the smallest and least touristy of the three Gili’s.  People have told us it’s boring and too quiet. This wasn’t our plan.   Now what?

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No cars.  Just these horse and cart rigs to haul you around the islands.

What else?  Sit down at a cute cafe and order another Bintang and some real food and figure out the plan.  What?  We have to get to Gili Meno now?  Last boat leaving at 4:30pm – which is now??  Ok.  Pay, bag the food for take-away, and run to the tiny boat we have chartered because the regular shuttle boat has stopped running for the day.  As the sun is going down our  speedboat races across the choppy channel before the light is completely gone.  

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Top speed to beat the sun.

The boatman lands the boat on the beach with a crash and yells “hurry, hurry” as he literally throws our wheely suitcase onto the sand.  He shoves off and is gone before we have waded out of the water.

And here we are on Gili Meno.  We are alone on the Mangrove lined beach.  We see a guy with a horse and cart and flag him for a ride.  Our bungalow is on the other side of the island.  We pass ladies with goods balanced on their heads and children yelling “hallo” to practice their English.  The Call to Prayer as we trot by the dilapidated Mosque is the only sound beyond the hooves of our pony.  We see an occasional baked brown backpacker, walking to their home stay.

Ten minutes later,  we arrive at our beach bungalow, unload our things and look around.  Jungle meets the beach.  Paradise.  We unpack our “take-away” meal and have another Bintang as we watch the sun set on this unforgettable day.

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Not such a bad view for dinner.

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Pirate Gratitude

“I guess I’m done being afraid.” This thought struck me as I boarded a tiny boat with 8 guests, two guides and two boatmen.  We had arrived in Labuan Bajo the day before.  This small town on Flores Island in Indonesia, has seen the fast influx of backpackers heading either to sea or to the jungle.  It reminds me of the “ports of call” depicted in pirate movies.  Booze, women, fishnets.  Smell of garbage and gasoline.  Unpaved roads with deep ruts cut by monsoon rains.  A rugged frontier town ready to make a buck.  Remote.  Rough.  

Welcome Sign Luanbajo

Selamat Datang or Welcome  to Labuan Bajo.

But today, as we head out to sea toward a group of isolated islands between Flores and Salawesi, “remote” takes on a whole new meaning.  There is nothing but sky, water and hundreds of unpopulated islands.

Time for our safety briefing.  Simple.  “Life jackets in the back.  Follow the captain’s orders,” explains our guide, Mikel.    The captain grins, takes a drag on his Lucky Strike, and salutes us.  And we’re off.  Adventure on the high seas!bow of boat

Today we are snorkeling our way toward our campsite.  We see a Dugong off the bow.  These giant sea cows are much like a Manatee.  Paul, our “guide in training”  says we are very lucky.  He is disappointed that he missed it.  And then the turtles!  The joke is that every time I use the head, a turtle will be spotted. I missed seeing three of them this way.  But there were plenty more of them.  Along with the dolphins, porpoise and sailfish. And then the giant turtle we spotted while snorkeling.  Easily a meter long.   One friend saw a shark.  Me? Not so lucky.  

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Bungalow #1.  On my way to the outdoor shower.

Arrive at our campsite as the sun is setting.  Little open air bungalows with mosquito netting.  Solar powered lights.  Dinner at the canteen and planning for day two.

Komodo Island for the infamous Dragons.  Apparently, these creatures were hunted almost to extinction.  Then, the government banned all people from the island for four years and now it is a national park.  You can only visit with a park pass and must have a guide with you.  

Our guide is bravely armed with a big stick.  Oh good.  That will do it.  Our first encounter is with some VERY old Dragons that have the pensioner responsibility of entertaining the tourists.  A stick was more than enough protection from these old geezers!  Still, they are amazing creatures.  

We head  back to the boat for more snorkeling and this time diving.  

I’ve seen pictures of Manta Rays, and have never really thought much about them. So when I jumped into the water and found myself next to a five meter wide gentle giant, my mind was blown!  Indescribable.  We did a short “drift” dive and found ourselves underneath the Mantas.  Then we snorkeled and watched them from above.  Swimming in schools of 3 to 10, we saw them in their feeding “station” and their “cleaning” station.   Everyone on board, including the captain, jumped in to experience this incredible moment.  

And then suddenly it was our last day.  A lovely hike on Rinca Island produced a wild Komodo. OK, I was worried that the stick wouldn’t cut it.   We also saw a baby – just a little guy at 4 feet long.   More snorkeling.  And a long, leisurely sunset cruise back to Labuan Bajo. Not a single light on the dozens of islands we pass.  

Sunset off boat

No filter.  Really.

The solitude is broken when we head into the crowded port well after dark.  We “raft” up and haul our bags across three boats just to reach the dock.  We say our goodbyes and move on.

I feel incredibly grateful to have these adventures.  Maybe I could become a pirate? I’m not afraid.

skull on beach