Guilty Pleasure

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\"164_6445-4.JPG\"I’ve finally discovered the meaning of “guilty pleasure.” I’ve never really had a guilty pleasure and if ever asked, I’ve always responded, “Books.” I’ve always bought books without too much consideration of price or how many unread ones I have at home. But books are relatively inexpensive and arguably a much higher intrinsic value than their dollar price. And while Joylani tells me that a guilty pleasure is a chick-flick, a pedicure, and a tub of ice-cream, I’ve discovered it to be diving. It’s a relatively expensive and short-lived activity. It’s a pleasure for sure and I do feel guilty about dropping so much money on it.

            Arriving in Labuanbajo, we immediately signed up for a day of diving. So this morning we headed out to do two dives off the eastern coast of Komodo. The first was to an area known locally as Manta Point. We descended into a really fast current, which just took us. The bottom was only at about 15 meters or so, where the current pulled us along quickly. It was kind of frustrating diving in such a fast current, because I couldn’t stop and look at things more carefully. I could stay almost stationary only if I swam as hard as I could against the current. We were rewarded for our troubles though when we ran into a manta ray. Although its 2.5 meter wingspan put it at an average size, it seemed enormous to me. Definitely one of the largest things I’ve ever encountered while underwater, if not the largest. It was 3-4 meters off the bottom, flapping its huge wings against the oncoming current. It “flew” so gracefully in the fast current, as we struggled to stay stationary with it. As it flew there, eating all the food the oncoming current was bringing, I was able to get down below and behind it from where I admired its size and gracefulness. Eventually it flew off, at which point we turned and sped away with the current.

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this guy was 2.5 meters wide!

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            Our second dive was to Batu Balong, a pyramidal rock with just its peak protruding above the surface of the sea. It was a good dive site, because the oncoming current hit the outcrop and split to either side, but the area immediately behind the rock (relative to the current) was uncannily calm. From the surface, the dive site looked odd; water as calm as a lake with rivers of current on either side, and regular-looking ocean beyond. Very odd, but we dropped into the glassy surface and descended down to about 20 meters. The dive consisted of zig-zagging our way up the calm face of the rock, where all the fish were concentrated due to the surrounding currents. The dive was awesome and I think it was probably the most fish I’ve ever seen concentrated in one place, which is quite a lot considering we’ve been to both the Maldives and Sipadan on this trip.

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a lionfish, one of my favorites

            Besides experiencing the currents firsthand today, I learned a bit about them from our divemaster as well. The currents are what make the diving so good in Indonesia. I’m not sure of the specifics, but something about the cooler nutrient-rich currents from the Indian Ocean hitting the warmer currents of the Pacific creates an ideal environment for marine life. The temperature differences are noticeable too, as our first dive was 29C and our second 26C, a huge difference given their close physical proximity. Needless to say, what was going to a one-day splurge is shaping up to be an expensive two days as we signed up for another day of diving. What can I say? Guilty pleasure :)

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fish hanging out on this side of the rock until the current switches direction

Ruteng to Labuanbajo

\"164_6445-4.JPG\"The drive to Labuanbajo was just as enjoyable as the ride to Ruteng. Beautiful scenery from mountains to ocean to rice paddies. Lots of small churches and Cathedrals in the rusty, dusty little towns. Next time I make it out to Flores though, I’m hiring a private car to do the cross-island journey, because its been incredibly difficult to get any shots the past two days. Two of the most scenic days of my life and no photos! Arggghh.

Ende to Ruteng

\"164_6445-4.JPG\"Joylani and I rode on the back of a couple of motorcycles to the bus station this morning. As we slowed and approached the station, tons men started running after us and grabbing my arms and bags. It was a bit scary at first, because it was all these tough-looking muscular Indonesians, but after our bike stopped I realized what was going on. First, I told them to let go of me and my bags and to back off. The half-dozen of them all let go, but kept on trying to convince me to get on one bus or another. Basically there were two buses going to Ruteng and they were fighting over me. The competition allowed me to negotiate the fare a bit, before I just picked one. Then Joylani’s bike pulled up and I watched them start for her before they realized we were together. We waited another hour or so for the bus to leave, but it was so entertaining watching them chase down and literally stop the motorcycles, cars, and vans of approaching potential passengers. Everyone else they assaulted were local; we were the only tourists, which made me feel better because at least they hounded down locals the same as they chased us down. It was especially funny watching them tear bags our of peoples hands barely after their vehicle had even stopped or seeing several of them run alongside a van and jump on and in it to get passengers. I’m not sure who was more impressive to watch: the ones running after vans and motorcycles barefoot or the ones chasing them down in flip-flops.

The rest of the day was not as entertaining, but just as enjoyable to observe. We spent most of the day on a bus to Ruteng, a cool town in the mountainous interior of Flores. Despite the chainsmokers and lack of armrests (which meant we were constantly clinging to anything so as to not fly our of our seats on the continually windy road), it was a good ride. Good only because of the spectacular scenery. After our ride, Joylani said Flores is one of the most beautiful places she’s ever seen, and I agree. She added, “It reminds me of Hawaii, but much bigger.” The topography is similar to what I’ve seen of Polynesia. Fingerlike lava flows into the ocean, jagged ridges, volcanic craters, tall skinny waterfalls, green covering every square inch of black volcanic soil or rusty red dirt, black sand beaches, and smiley Melanesians. Flores is awesome.

More on Flores…

164_6445-4.JPGAfter our hike down Kelimutu to Moni, we headed back to Ende, from where we’ll catch onward transportation tomorrow morning. Ende is squalid hole of a town, ranking up there with Belize City, the worst place I’ve ever been. So rather than talk about Ende, I’ll write a bit about the transitions we’ve undergone in traveling to Flores. On our hike down Kelimutu, Joylani pointed out that the many of the flora looks different from anything we’ve seen. This is due to the fact that Flores lies in a transitional zone of flora and fauna. Bali is supposedly the easternmost point of exclusively Asian species, while the easterly Indonesian island of Timor is the boundary of purely Austranesian species. The islands in between are a mix of Asian and Austranesian plants and animals. Flores is also an ethnic transitional zone, with the west being predominantly Malay (who populate everywhere we’ve been since southern Thailand) and the east being more Melanesian, from whom the Micronesians and Polynesians are descended. Some of the people even have black skin and blond hair, something I’ve only seen in pictures of places like the Solomon Islands. Ethnographically, Flores also marks the border of Christendom, being about as far west as 19th and 20th century Christian missionaries ventured. Churches are all over Flores and the only religious distinction is between Catholics and Protestants; additionally, the locals we’ve met have names like George, John, and Roberto. Its always interesting to cross boundaries and its cool to experience so many new things in a single place.

The Hike Down

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joylani 130pxWe made a trip this morning to see some gem-toned volcanic lakes, which were beautiful, but the hike back down the mountain was more interesting. Many of the plants were different from what we’d been seeing, and I liked the big pine trees whose smell reminded me of camping back home.

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It was nice to go for a walk that wasn’t in a city for a change. As we started switchbacking down the mountain, beautiful views of the valley and ocean below came into sight.

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It wasn’t completely zen though, as it was starting to get hot and I was getting tired of plodding downhill. It had been almost two hours, and we still weren’t at the shortcut that would allow us to skip a large portion of the main road on our way back to Moni. We started passing little plots of cultivated land and simple homes. Adults with a load of unthreshed grains greeted us, “Hello Mrs., hello Mister!”

We saw a group of school kids off in the distance. Apparently they saw us too, and soon we were surrounded by their curious faces. School uniforms have varied throughout our trip from standard white shirts with blue trousers, to the girls who wore traditional Lao skirts with a western-style white blouse, to students in Jakarta wearing beautiful batik patterned shirts. But these kids’ outfits won the prize for most awesome. They were wearing woven vests, probably lovingly made by their moms, as each one had a slightly different design. My favorite was the little guy wearing only a vest and shorts. But the vest-as-hat look was pretty cool too. One of them pointed to my camera asking for a picture. I hesitated, but then pulled out my camera anyway. They kids started screaming and jumping as they not so calmly posed for a snapshot. Giggles ensued as I showed them the picture on the little screen.

After the photo, the little animated posse joined us as we finally veered off the paved road and onto a dirt path: the shortcut at last. They were with us for a while, pointing the way down the hill until we reached their village.

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Alone again, we continued the trek downhill. Most of it was along a thin dirt path, barely visible between swags of tall grasses. My pants were covered in those little pointy grass seeds, and the rest of me was dripping in sweat. At a couple points the path forked, but luckily this was usually near a village of some sort (say, 5 houses). Twice we started heading the wrong way, but then a kind villager would appear in a doorway and, smiling, point us in the right direction. Finally, three hours later, we made it back to Moni. A little bit dusty, a lot bit sweaty, but we had a good time.

Kelimutu

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164_6445-4.JPGIt was an early morning today as we headed up to the volcanic lakes at Kelimutu. We hired a car to drive us up the mountain about forty minutes, before hiking up an additional twenty to view the unusual lakes. Not much to say about the lakes that these photos don’t. Although they’re black, brown, and green today, the periodically change colors although the causes and process is unknown. The last time this occurred was in 1992, when the changed from blue, white, and red to their current colors. Locals believe the souls of the dead go to rest in the lakes, the old to one, the young to another, and the wicked to the third.

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Also, every now and then tourists disappear, most likely slipping and falling down into the lakes. Scary, but it kept Joylani and I on the paths. After about an hour sitting up there with the lakes in the clouds, we opted to hike down the three hours to the village. Super hot, but a nice walk.

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Flores!

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164_6445-4.JPGFlores is where I was most looking forward in Indonesia. We took a ramshackle little plane on an incredibly scenic flight from Bali to Flores this afternoon. We flew over Lombok, Sumbawa, near Sumba, and half of Flores, taking in the volcanic mountainscape, azure seas, offshore reefs and waves from the air. On our descent into Ende, we stared out the windows in amazement as we flew right by conical volcanoes and lush valleys. The runway was positioned awkwardly, running parallel to beach in a semicircular bay. Consequently, we banked sharply into the mountainous bay, it seemed within arms distance of the dramatic lava-flow coastline. The runway wasn’t much more than a single airstrip, so at the end of our landing, our plane did a 180 and taxied halfway back down the runway to two-room “airport.” Taxi drivers, touts, and welcoming families crowded inside and out the small structure. We waited inside while our bags were unloaded into a pickup and then put on a wooden desk for us to claim. A little different from the conveyor belts we’re used to.

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view of shacks on the side of the runway and one of many conical volcanos all over the island

The two hour drive from Ende to Moni was unbelievable. Massive green mountains and cliffs dropping down into verdant valleys, the black road curving through bright green landscapes, and passing tons of streams and waterfalls reminded a bit of parts of Hawaii, although a lot less developed. Most of the buildings along the way were simple bamboo huts, much like the ones found in rural Lao. Most of the people we saw walking along the road or working in the fields carried big machetes, even young boys. Besides using them for harvesting and collecting wood, we passed several villages under construction. Perhaps the end of the rainy season marks the beginning of the home-building and repairing season. Also of note, we had a live goat on the roof of our van. We’ve sat in everything from cars to buses with chickens, have seen dead pigs loaded up on motorcycles and pickups, seen motorcycles hoisted on top of buses or tied to the backs of vans, and lot of other weird ways of transporting animals and things, but putting live animals on top of a van is new to us. The owners just tied up the legs and threw it up there with all the other goods and parcels being transported.

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our rustic losman in Moni

Arriving in Moni, we realized its not so much a town as a few structures strung out along the main road. It’s a pretty rural and simple place and our accommodation options were similar. But it’s a really scenic area, as it overlooks a massive valley that descends down to the sea many miles away. So even from here in the mountains, we can see the sea and a horizon of water. Although we’ve only been here for a few hours, what we’ve seen of Flores has been stunning.

Ubud Walks

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164_6445-4.JPGMy favorite part of our time here in Ubud has been Joylani and my early morning walks each day. Although Ubud is a pretty touristy place since its renowned for being a cultural capital of sorts, walking for just a few minutes in almost any direction will bring a nice change of scenery. Our first morning, we walked north of town and quickly found ourselves in an endless landscape of rice paddies. We walked along a palm covered path which was nice, considering the blazing sun. Bali gets pretty hot even in the early hours. The scenery was unbelievable, but it was an interesting walk as well. We passed men and women at work in the fields and along the paths, we saw little families of ducks walking single file alongside the irrigation ditches only to duck into paddies as we approached, and passed a multitude of pretty little shrines and offering dishes.

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Photo from our first morning’s walk, along with the Photo of the Day
Our second morning walk took us south through a couple villages and their small quiet streets. Like the touristy part of Ubud, the rural residents of Ubud also live in ornately decorated family compounds and the intersection of art and nature is evident.

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Second morning walk, through villages
And our third morning walk was incredibly scenic, as we climbed and walked up a grassy ridge sandwiched in a river valley. The past mornings have been beautiful, beautiful walks and a good time of conversation with Joylani. I cannot think of a better justification to travel than our past three mornings.

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Third morning walk, along a grassy ridge

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A mother-child pair we met on one walk

On Ubud

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joylani 130pxWe’ve been relaxing for the last couple days in the small town of Ubud on the island of Bali. Bali is really beautiful. There are bright rice paddies and moss-covered gates and buildings decorated with stone carvings all over the place. Our room is more expensive than we normally would have gotten considering the choices ($6 vs the $13 we are spending) but has been nice because it gets a lot of sunlight (big windows on three of the walls), is somewhat private (on the second floor of a building in the back of a family compound off the main road). Besides, I don’t care how quaint or traditional an open air bathroom is, I did not like the idea of bathing surrounded by crazy bugs. I’ll pay more for our enclosed bath. One of my favorite aspects of the room is that there is a nice breeze flowing through the balcony and into our room. After so many rooms in Malaysia with no windows, it’s refreshing to wake up to endless sunshine in the mornings.

Breakfast is included with our little home stay, and after I get out of bed I just walk out to the balcony where a pot of hot water is waiting for me to brew some morning tea (skip the sugar, there’s a lot of ants in there…). I let the lady know we’re awake, and after a few minutes she comes upstairs with a tray of breakfast. Each day it has been different, but there’s always a plate of fruit: bananas, papaya, and pineapple. My favorite dish was on our first morning when we were served a jaffle (toasted sandwich) filled with sweet slices of banana covered in freshly grated (and still milky) coconut. The view from our balcony is just roof and tree tops, but it is still nice, especially since we’ve been spending a lot of time there catching up on writing and studying.

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Each morning we’ve gone on walks, which I love for many reasons, one of which are the unannounced details. Ubud is full of details; you don’t have to do much except walk and you’ll notice things along the way—an old man up high trimming a coconut tree; ducks quacking to each other and diving into rice paddies

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elaborate offerings among the paddies, and the people who drop them off

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a chicken snacking from the rice drying on the road

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a monkey grabbing my leg…(That detail was actually kind of creepy. Matt and I were in a place called Monkey Forest debating which path to take when a monkey came up behind me and put one hand on my leg and the other on my water bottle—I screamed and it went away. I think it wanted food. After that I tried not to stand still when there were monkeys around).

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Where is the monkey expert when you need him? And how is anyone supposed to “stand still” and “walk away slowly” at the same time? Oh those silly monkeys.

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We’ve eaten a lot of good food here too, which is great. I don’t really know what it is in terms of how it is cooked/ingredients, but Indonesian food seems to be hardy and flavorful in a way different from the other SE Asian cuisines. We’ve tried jackfruit curry, chicken and potatoes in kecup manis (sweet soy sauce), roasted suckling pig, and countless dishes whose names I’ve forgotten or didn’t know in the first place. But my favorite is the tempe—which is made from pressed fermented soy beans. Like tofu, it can be cooked in many different ways, but has a much firmer texture and a bit more flavor. (In the US it goes by the name of tempeh, and one brand of it is made by the same manufacturer as the tofurky. Go try some! The tempeh that is.)

The weather has been great for us, with just a quick shower one night.  But after about 10am, if you’re not in the shade it gets hot and, well, sunny.  Without a fan or a breeze, it can get quite uncomfortable.  So during the afternoon we just hang out around our guesthouse where we have both a fan and an uninterrupted breeze.  Matt has been diligently studying for his test, and I have been catching up on writing.  (I’m a morning/daytime writer, but when we’re always doing stuff during the day, it’s harder for me to concentrate and get my stuff done!)  Between our leisurely morning walks and languid afternoons, Ubud has definitely been refreshing.

At night the polyphonic sounds of percussion-driven gamelan music really get going as dance performances take place in various venues throughout town.  There’s always people trying to sell us tickets to various performances, which are actually one of the big attractions in Ubud, but we decided to pass.  Even though I didn’t want to sit through a whole performance, I still love hearing the sounds of the playful and mysterious music permeating the air at night.

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Dancers practicing