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Freediving with the Bajau and an arrest

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After a turbulent boat ride, I found myself climbing on the planks on stilts based on the coral reef. These were the streets of Sampela, the village where the sea nomads have settled. P., my host, smiled and immediately showed me the hut I would live in: two rooms, one mattress and one lamp, and a toilet that had direct connection to the sea. If you step heavily on the thin planks you can also find yourself in the sea. P. runs this business since he is one of the few who can speak English.

“Do you want beers?” He says, “My wife and child are going to the shore to bring water.”I nod yes. I explore my hut.

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“How big is your village P.?”
trying to start a conversation. “about 500 people… There are two other Bajau villages nearby” (Bajau population is currently estimated at 800,000, most of which now live permanently in villages).

“All the villages are over the sea?”

“Of course,” he says, “You know, Bajau don’t like mosquitoes.”

“And there are no mosquitoes here?” “For mosquitoes to come there must be plants. You cannot find plants over the sea!”

“Do you live all year in the village?” “My father goes for months at a time on large fishing boats, but I think it’s not worth it.” “Have you travelled to anywhere, for example to Java?” “Yes,” he says, “I’ve been to Germany. A German TV channel made the expenses! A guy came to shoot a documentary in Sampela. And then, he invited us to Munich, me as an expert swimmer and a veteran Bajau as an expert freediver. “” How did you find Germany? ” “Cold,” he tells me. P. does not waste his words.

I started a reconnaissance walk. “Step at the centre of each board, which has support, otherwise it may be rotten and you fall.”

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Bajau children were amongst the happiest you’ll meet
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Where there’s people, there’s cats

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Village is expanding fast

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Some Bajau, mostly women, put a rice cream on their faces for sun protection

With a bunch of kids following me, we reach the courtyard of the mosque where small kids kick a ball. Yes, there is even mosque on the reef! P. told me they are all Muslims, but not too passionate, I realised from the context.

P. arrives and shows me around: “Here’s the school.” “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about it. The children of Hoga come here with the boat.” He lowers his head, “Do you see these beers in the school yard? You get the idea… “. We arrive at the football pitch the Dutch lady H. built in the most central point of the village. The court is small and they play footvolley, picking up occasionally the ball from the sea. P. proudly recommends to his teammates the Greek, who however proved to be a poor representative of the football of his country.

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Education of the kids is focused more on fishing, using baby spear guns

Next day there was a spear gun waiting outside my door. We were going to catch daya (Bajau word for fish), after a short visit to sign the village’s guestbook. Together with one of P.’s friends, we rode the boat to the coral between Sampela and Hoga. There, I became a witness to the Bajau underwater fishing technique. Majestic seen from above.

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The technique is learned by every male Bajau from the first moments of his life since the tradition is to throw babies into the sea until someone dives to save them. Here a Bajau filmed for a BBC documentary:

P.’s friend gives me the spear gun to try my luck. A few minutes later and some unsuccessful attempts, I hear noise from the surface and P.’s friend grabbing my spear gun and hiding it under the coral. We go out, to see a boat next to ours and P. talking to two guys. A chubby one with glasses, not very comfortable being on a boat, and another one with rough features. “You,” says the second, “What are you doing with the speargun here? Don’t you know it’s a national park? “. All eyes on me. “I was snorkeling,” I lied, to save myself, but also not to put P. into trouble. Bajau is a very marginalised society, completely dependent on fish, which have become scarce because of the large fishing boats. P. opened the holds and showed that we have neither spear guns nor fish. “We saw you with the binoculars” said the spectacled one. “And in order to snorkel here, you have to get a ticket for the National Park.” Again, I was surprised. “The ticket…..”. “Get off to the shore” he said angrily.

The closest land was Hoga. The tide had begun to rise, and so we had to leave the boat and walk with P. a 500 meter distance in the water. A shameful walk. We found the two guys chatting with the Dutch lady H. while the bungalow residents were observing with curiosity. After some discussions, H. proposed a compromise: we’ll pay for the ticket, the pricing of which had become a bit creative, so that everyone realises it was a misunderstanding.

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Back to the boat, we searched underwater for the spearguns and found them. P., who was both apologetic and angry with the water police, began telling me a story from his student years in Kentari. Some people were bullying him, because he did not smoke (indeed, P. must be the only Indonesian I knew how doesn’t smoke) and two machetes had appeared. “These conflicts never end up well” he concludes, showing me a scar in his leg.

P. had caught a fish. “Do you eat sushi?”, with a knife he cuts the raw fish into bits. He ate one, put another in his hand and offered it to me. “Try it.” It was not bad, with all this walking in the water I was hungry. “You are on the right track to become a Bajau,” he tells me and we laugh.

My time with the Bajau was soon over.

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Diving Greece’s first underwater museum

410 BCE. The Athenian merchant ship, 30 m. in length, sailed off the port of Ikos island (modern Alonnisos). The hold was full of wine, from Chalkidiki peninsula and Sporades islands, along with drinking vessels and other paraphernalia. The wine of these regions was in demand everywhere in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. However, the economic crisis, brought about by the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, forced the owner to load more cargo than usual. It was a stormy night. Disaster was inevitable.

The straight between Alonnisos and nearby islet Peristera

Modern day. Training started a few days before. Together with G. from Athens we needed to upgrade our diving licence from maximum depth of 18 meters to 30 meters, since the shipwreck was lying in -28 meters. Training was organised by South African lady M., the manager of the local diving centre, and contained a ‘search and recovery’ dive. The instructor K. from Thessaloniki, who now lives locally, chose a special task for us: To retrieve the pots of a British artist, placed in the water a year earlier to test the effect of the sea on them.

Location of the shipwreck

A few Roman amphorae lying on the see floor, surrounded by seashells opening and closing, gave to K. the location of the hiding place. Inside the crevices of the reef we spotted a basket containing the artist’s vessels. K. tied a balloon to the wire basket and blew inside a small quantity of air from his mouthpiece. Just enough to control it the way back to the surface and the boat, a task that fell upon me and G.

G. is an old diver, but having a break in recent years and keeping in touch only through his job. He is a ship inspector, supervising the divers fixing and carrying things underwater. This time it was his turn. The basket with the pots changed hands, as we had to monitor our depth and oxygen levels and also for rocks appearing on the bottom while keeping our buoyancy. The pots where in a fragile balance of breaking and bitterly disappointing the artist. K. was also aware of the water police, who he had confronted last time and had to reassure them that the vessels where only 1 year old. All went good this time.

Lady’s amphorae retrieved

Day of the dive. A. an underwater archaeologist briefed us at the diving centre. Consequently, the speed boat headed to the islet of Peristera, where the remains of the ancient ship were found. The remains today are the amphorae that carried the wine and the ballast of the ship. We spit in two groups and entered the water under the gaze of the ship dog. My group included K., G. and G. an Italian with a family history on the island – Italians have a multi-decade love affair with the island and diving. First, was the vertical dive to minus 18 meters following the buoy rope. Following, two turns around the wreck stopping at information points.

Pre-dive briefing.
First group in the water

The amphorae were of two types, depending on their origin, and in three different layers. Some of them clustered together in small islands, with signs of the excavation trenches and random rocks from the ship’s ballast in the middle. These leftovers from the past had new residents. Curious groupers were stopping between the islands. A moray eel was manoeuvring inside the cracks, while an inky black head popped out of an amphora claiming without doubt that ‘this is my home’ – it was another eel. The second time around we stopped to see the profile of the wreck: protruding vessels created a ‘lost Atlantis’ picture. We subsequently went up a level to stare from above. A school of larger fish, amberjacks – or ‘manalia’ as the locals call them – started circling around us. ‘They are curious with people’ said K. after the dive. The second group of divers reported the sighting of a large ray. Diving was over and it was a blast.

Amberjacks

The underwater archaeological site of Peristera is open to the public starting summer 2020. A diving licence that covers 28 meters depth is necessary and the archaeologists are strict about this. You book a diving slot that lasts for about 2 hours, including the briefing and getting to the diving spot. For more info contact local diving centre:  http://www.ikiondiving.gr/.

Finally, in this website: https://nous.com.gr there is live picture from the site from an underwater camera. Sometimes you can see the divers.

Images with Ikion logo courtesy of Ikion diving.

A long weekend in Slovenia, not Slovakia: The capital

That evening we climbed Castle Hill in central Ljubljana. Below, the steep pitch of the roofs and the amount of trees between the buildings indicated that rainfall is very common. From the battlements we could see the wooded hills around the capital, including Rožnik hill, opposite, with its hiking paths offering a welcome break from the touristy centre. The castle itself has a long history, starting as an Illyrian fortification. Nowadays, it features a medieval stronghold with the flag of Ljubljana on top, which features the castle itself and a dragon.

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On Sunday morning, I walked to the city centre to take some pictures in my own time. It was early enough to beat most of the other tourists, while locals seemed to have taken time away, leaving their capital literally empty. Also, temperature hadn’t yet reached the high 30’s that one gets at midday. Perfect.

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At some point between 8:30 and 9 am large groups of tourists were starting to spill out of their hotels. Cafeteria personnel were welcoming them and soon the centre became too busy.

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It was time to move out towards the ‘alternative’ Metelkova neighbourhood. There, I encountered a museum complex and people in reclining chairs on the grass, drinking coffee or eating breakfast, waiting for it to open. I strolled around the area which looks like a big squat. Colourful characters were quietly sitting in front of the colourful building fronts and nosy passers-by like me, often on roller blades or scooters, were photographing the rich graffiti art.

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It was time to enter a museum, which I chose to be the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum. The ground floor hosted a very interesting temporary exhibition of Siberian shamanism. There was also a floor on the history of Slovenia, especially in relation to the rest of the world. I found a panel on the history of their xenophobia (below) disarmingly honest. There was also the story of the Čupas, the now extinct wooden boats, that Slovene fishermen dragged from the mainland to the rocky Adriatic coast, where no suitable places to build ports existed. The top floor was dedicated to the traditional arts of honey and ginger bread making. Very atmospheric, with ambient sounds and an exhibition of the beekeepers quirky folk art.

The museum made me realise that Slovenes are not merely an Alpine or a Mediterranean nation, but a unique mixture of both.

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Back to the centre, where I combined a visit to a church, the baroque St. Nicholas’ Cathedral featuring a temporary exhibition of Pope’s bursts, with a science museum with a variety of interactive experiments. A fair balance, I say.

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Outside, the town squares and markets of Ljubljana were transforming into a Balkan festival. Folk bands, dances, lots of meat, gelato and many fountains to hydrate under the relentless sun. All happening next to the main river, Ljubljanica.

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Let’s pause the story for a moment and let Slavoj Zizek, Slovenia’s famous contemporary genius explains the dual, European and Balkan, nature of the country.

The last hours in Ljubljana we spent admiring the rich architecture. From neoclassical to Art Nouveau, there is something for everyone. There are even Roman ruins for the archaeology geeks among us. One cannot fail to notice the frequent use of classical columns. The perpetrator is a certain Jože Plečnik, Ljubljana’s beloved architect, who can be found even printed on T-shirts. To be honest, I am not sure what to make of all these columns. But the most important is the locals like them, as they seem at least to do.

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It was time to depart. I was glad I was introduced to this scenic country with a very unique culture, combining North and South European elements. Also glad that, from now on, I will never confuse Slovenia with Slovakia! The best way to learn the geography of a place is to go there.

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A long weekend in Slovenia, not Slovakia: The countryside

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I visited Slovenia last June, after the invitation of a friend who lives and works in the capital, Ljubljana. The plan was to combine cycling, trekking and sightseeing and do as much as possible in three days.

We both took it seriously – some of us more than others – and woke up at 5:00 am on Friday. The roads were empty and the air clean and fresh. The sleepy neighbourhoods and weathered roads of North Ljubljana were not a serious obstacle and soon we were climbing the first hills. Beige church towers with grey pointy roofs overlook dark green and golden summer fields, big piles of wood and small villages. The smell of animals lingered. All was wonderfully rustic.

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After passing places with difficult names, like Hrastenice or Polhov Gradec, we heard the bells ringing as we pushed through a steep uphill.

The asphalt became gravel, then asphalt again and we went uphill and downhill all the way to the small river Poljanščica, where we turned right.

Our midway milestone was the medieval town of Škofja Loka. Surrounded by hills and forest, it sits on both sides of the river. At the edges of the town we could see a church towering a hillock, manor houses with red roofs and a castle dominating all. We rode through the very narrow old streets. It was almost mid morning and people were out doing their business.

The rest of the route was passing through dense small villages and fields. At some point we needed to be creative and do a diversion, since the road heading back south to Ljubljana was blocked by road works. An opportunity to catch a glimpse and photograph some small corners.

 

Next morning, we walked to Ljubjiana main coach station. On our way, we passed through the old Olimpija Ljubljana stadium. Nowadays, it is full of weeds. My friend told me half-jokingly, half-seriously it’s safer to wear green clothes around here. And certainly not the purple colours of Maribor FC, their mortal enemies. Well, that’s the Balkans. Don’t be deceived by the clean wide pavements.

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We caught a coach to Lake Bohinj. On the way, we passed by the famous Lake Bled, with its trademark small island and church on it.

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When in Bohinj we began our ambitious trek, starting from the west end of the lake. We were about to climb the mountain that commands the north side and descend from the east side. Not too far from the start, though, we had to turn back. “Path closed”. My friend found on-line that there was recently an accident, a Dutch tourist falling over the edge and losing his life. We walked to the Savica waterfall instead, where the man selling tickets complained that many tourists take the trek lightly, wearing flat shoes. I looked at my shoes. Perhaps it was better it was closed!

We walked parallel to the north side of the lake. Many people had dropped their bicycles and had dipped into the water. Slovenian people seem to make the most of their outdoors. From the east end, we climbed the mountain until we reached a high point. There we sat and ate our sandwiches taking a good view of the wild Slovenian country.

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Finding those who live over the sea

Weighting up my alternatives, after the boat cancellation, it was clear I had to retrace part of my journey by air, since there were no direct flights from Komodo to the island of Sulawesi (Celebes). Both options, via Bali or via the city of Surabaya in Java were equally expensive for a last minute fare, and I chose the latter in order to avoid disruption from tourists evacuating Bali after the earthquake. My first flight at 10:35 with Lion Air was canceled and we were moved to the 13:50 flight, along with a meal of consolation. This is when I had that discussion about Euphrates river.

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Lion Air’s prayer sheet proves the diversity of Indonesian religions.

Once in Makasar, the capital of Sulawesi, I spent half of the next day admiring the surreal promenade called Pantai Losari and the Dutch colonial remnants of Fort Rotterdam. Speaking a few Indonesian words apparently saved me a few rupiahs, since the officer decided to offer me with the discounted ticket for the locals. On the other hand, a local tour guide managed to take my whatsapp and flood it in with messages about day long trips and pictures of ‘unmissable’ places.

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Pantai Losari, looking at a mosque under construction opposite

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Fort Rotterdam, the well-preserved centre of Dutch colonial command

My entrance to Wakatobi islands was the airport of Wangi-Wangi. The name Wa-ka-to-bi comes from the first letters of the four islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongo. Odd! My target was the second island, Kaledupa, and since the speedboats departed only in the morning, I had to stay one night in Wanci, the capital of Wangi-Wangi. This is probably the biggest disadvantage for tourists traveling to this place: you need two extra nights, one in each direction.

Wanci, however has its charms. A busy night market full of fish and figures moving in the dark. The local girls were unusually direct and flirty for this part of the world. The only other Westerner appeared next to me only for a moment, to help me buy some fruit using his Indonesian. On my way to the harbor, the next day, I even spotted a demonstration. “Local authorities are rubbish”, said my moto-taxi driver. This place was definitely different from the touristy places I’ve seen in the first 20 days.

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Plenty of fish in Wanci night market

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Map of the islands

Once in Kaledupa, I stayed in a Dutch lady G.’s bungalows in a tiny island off the coast called Hoga. On the way I teamed up with Italo-Lebanese-Briton A. and his Moroccan girlfriend I. and a mellow retired music teacher from Queensland J. Initially there was no free bungalow for J. but general manager and excellent cook local lady V. found a solution, but moving around some of the staff. One doesn’t want to sleep in the beach with the small Komodos – in fact small monitor lizards – strolling around. Enchanted by the isolation and tranquility of this place and the hospitality of the Dutch and Indonesian ladies, I decided to spend a few more nights there. I even did a few more dives in the waters that Jacques-Yves Cousteau described as “underwater Nirvana” and the best to dive in the world.

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Approaching Hoga

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Hoga resort had the essentials you need

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Small monitor lizards hiding under the bungalow

The people of the sea, called Bajau, arrived on the second morning for the Dutch lady’s birthday. They barely set a foot in the land, but instead did some boat racing to honour their beloved benefactor. G. had recently made them a football pitch in their village on stilts and was constantly helping them with their troubles. They are literally her children. G. herself when younger had sailed these waters, fell in love with the sea gypsies and the beauty of the place and when she later received a heritage she decided to come back and build this business. Even the local dignitaries were here today. Of course, running a business as a foreigner in Indonesia is not made easy by the Indonesian law, and G. had a few interesting stories to say on her relationship with the authorities.

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Gathering for the Bajau boat race

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Celebrating with the local dignitaries

In this occasion I met a Bajau looking around 20 years old, though it was hard to be sure. He spoke some English, but remained distant. I asked him what he was doing, he thought for a while, and glancing at his friends, said, “spear fishing”. Then I asked him what music he liked and again after looking at his friends, he said laughing, “Suka Musik Jawa” (not sure if that was a type of music or just said “I like the music of Java”). I noted down his name, S.

The second Bajau I met was D.. About 20, he had just received the diploma of diving instructor. Seemed strange because the Bajau are traditionally free divers, but an excellent job opportunity nevertheless. He was my faithful diving partner. We never exchanged a single word, but his sweet smile and respect made him the ideal companion.

I met some wonderful tourists in Hoga, visited the only village of the tiny island, consisting of a dozen wooden huts and children playing with the mud, discovered the haunted buildings of an abandoned NGO, listened to the strange sounds of the jungle. Then, I decided it was time to break the spell that holds me in this island, and I got G. to arrange for a Bajau to pick me up. Shortly after the morning boat with pupils from the island left for the Bajau village, where there is a school, I also jumped on the boat of my new Bajau hosts

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The school boat taking children of Hoga to the Bajau village school

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Approaching the village in the middle of the sea

Underwater bliss and overland catastrophe

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The diving crew aboard the ship

Let’s meet the gang.

– H., a vivid character, from the deep interior of Flores island, who has completed thousands of dives. He was our teacher.

– V., newly arrived from London, who, like me, has made 0 dives. He was my trustful diving partner.

– An Englishman who learned scuba in Colombia (cheap) and wanted to update his diving skills.

– Many Dutch people, mostly unrelated, but all from Nijmegen. The fact that the lady who owned the diving business was also from Nijmegen must have something to do with it. Among them, a family with three generations of divers: grandfather, dad, daughter. They had some pretty awesome audiovisual recording equipment, which we, inept newbies, put into risk with our careless use of soap in the communal washing bucket.

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Pre-dive briefing

We were going to do our dive in the waters of Komodo island. I never dreamt of doing scuba diving. In fact, just a few weeks before this trip I was looking at photos of the so-called Coral Triangle, and in fear of missing out I enrolled in a scuba indoors course in Birmingham. However, the first breath underwater and the feeling of flying, when learning to be buoyant, is something I will never forget.

H., beyond the standard skills, demonstrated some special gestures when we see specific animals, e.g. to raise your hands as if praying when you get encircled by the giant Manta Ray. We took this seriously with V. and applied it obedientlyonly to become a laughing stock when we returned at the boat. We realised we have fallen for H.’s half prank. This is also when we realised that this activity is much more than diving. The spirits are always high and the jokes aplenty. V. and I were satisfied with our achievements. The Englishman was more focused on the spectacle of a lady changing clothes on the windy deck. The Nijmegen people were happy to explain us everything about their city. And H. was the happiest of all, meeting so many cool people from all over the world.

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After 4 dives in 2 days I wrote in my logbook:

First dive: Turtle, cuttlefish

– Second dive: Turtle, big manta ray

– Third dive: Huge turtle detaches from rock and surprises me from underneath

– Fourth dive: Many turtles, colourful coral and many fish

The girl next to me had written four pages.

One of the crew was an English marine biologist who was training as a diving instructor. I noticed that coming out of the boat at the port, he gave his equipment to another and started walking inconspicuously away from us. Then I learned that as a foreigner in Indonesia, it’s extremely hard to get a work visa, and those we choose to work are in constant fear of deportation. Unless you are married to a local, that is.

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The port of Labuan Bajo, Flores

From Labuan Bajo, the port town of Flores that serves Komodo, I rented a motorbike and started driving to the interior of Flores. So much to see in this big island. The cave where they found the Homo Floresiensis, the Hobbit man. The coloured lakes of Ende at the Kelimutu volcano. The traditional Manggarai villages, a 1000-year-old civilization with mythical roots. But one needs to be aware of the distances.

After a cold 4 hour ride, a punctured wheel, and some wrong turns I was glad to reach at least the famous spider web rice fields. These ‘pieces of pie’ structured fields are distributed between community members, in an original form of collective agriculture. I saw many Christian churches – Flores is an anomaly in a predominately Islamic country. And the people of Flores… one offering me to come for a coffee and meet his mother, another riding with me along the way, kids jumping on the motorbike.

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Paradoxically a tire repair shop was 200 meters down the road from the point of puncture.

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Spider-web rice field near Ruteg, Flores

When back to Labuan Bajo, I received a text message. A 7 Richter quake had taken place in Lombok. And this time it was complete destruction. 500+ dead, thousands of tourists gathering in the open fields waiting for rescue, many loosing their luggage when roofs had collapsed, landslides in mount Rinjani killing two climbers, tsunamis. Of course we were in a safe distance, but the news from the text message meant that my boat to Sulawesi was canceled, participating in the Lombok rescue operation. Now my plan to find the sea gypsies of Sampela was in danger.

 

Two days sail for the dragon

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Sailing towards Komodo

Entering the small boat was a bit like entering Big Brother’s house. Dutch siblings E. and S. were the first to greet me, expressing their sympathy for the great fire of Athens earlier that summer. 30+ passengers and crew will spend the next two days and three nights in a very confined space, some sleeping on the decks and some in the tiny cabins. I slept, together with a group of Danes and Germans, on the floor of the lower deck. This was the place where the sleepless came to smoke cigarettes, which, together with the smell of the engine, the changes in temperature and the rocking of the waves had an adverse effect on our sleep. The Danish couple next to me had to deal also with the invasion of water that fell frequently onto their heads. It was a relief when dawn broke and we found ourselves on the calm waters next to a small island.

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Our meals were tasty – if only there were no waves to upset our stomachs

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Our sleeping spots

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Waking up next to the round island, Satonda

The crew started preparing the food while we climbed the well trodden path up the small hill. At the top the view was breathtaking: the whole interior of the island is a salt lake, surrounded by wooded hills. Among the trees there was a megapode nest, a small mount one meter tall, which unusual birds like chickens with huge legs build gradually from sticks and leaves to bury their eggs. The new family member grows all its adult functions before hatching from the egg, unless first eaten by a Komodo dragon which considers them a delicacy (sweet aren’t they, Komodos?).

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Megapode nest

We spent the evening on a beach of Subawa – the big island between Lombok and Komodo – cooking corn on a campfire while observing the local fishermen. One of them, raggedy and scraggy, approached us, and we took a picture together. His sober expression remained the same, his English non-existing, a reminder of how isolated we were. On the way back to our boat …magic: the sea was sparkling. Bioluminescent plankton or fish, who knows what, put on a farewell party, perhaps to make up for the locals’ lack of interest. On the ship, some of us laid on the upper deck staring at the sky. With a complete absence of light sources around, the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and the planets were a feast: Mars, Saturn, Scorpius, Lyra, Sagittarius, the Southern Cross

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Fishermen of Sumbawa

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One of the locals posed for us

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A pitch dark night

The goal of the next day was to spot the infamous ‘dragons’ of Komodo. They only live in these islands and are the largest surviving lizard on the planet. Their ancestors chased Aborigines in Australia and spanned 7 meters. The contemporary ones reach a maximum of 3 meters and 70 kilos and chase deer and tourists who enter without permission, as instructed by the ranger in charge of protecting us as we climb the first hills of Komodo island.

I am walking with a Canadian, K., former hockey player, talking about another type of hunt, that of on-line dating. Naturally, in these occasions, one is looking for just the right adventure photo to put on his Tinder profile. Luck did not seem to be on our side. Every time the ranger or his assistant left to sneak into the spots frequented by Komodos, he returned disappointed. Then, when we have almost reached end of our path, somebody shouts “here’s a small one” and we all start to run towards him. There we meet a group of tourists, who tell us that they just saw the “mum” in a ditch drinking water. We start running towards the adult. The Komodos are not very fast runners and they don’t bother to chase you. But if you approach them within half a meter, you are screwed. With a quick dash, it buries his jaws on your body, injecting in your blood 47 toxic bacteria that will put YOU in threat of extinction. With fear, but for Tinder’s sake, we follow the Komodo taking pictures, freezing every time it turns and stares towards one of us. Job done!

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Komodo dragon

Lombok: Smiles are Jamu for Westerners

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People finding …creative ways to skip the queue

When I embarked at 1:30pm, as the last person, in Rhama Giri Nusa, an old tub made in 1989, I was grateful for my good luck.

From 8:30am, we, a flock of tourists packed like sardines, were queuing for a boat to Lombok. Boats were loading and leaving, some were leaving empty causing collective protests. Happier were the street vendors selling overpriced snacks and beers to desperate tourists. One asked me if I want Bintang beer 10 or more times until we got to the point of laughing with each other. A family of upset Germans left in a rush leaving their baby’s diaper on the street. Americans were fighting with their guides and a family of Hungarians, a small drunk mob, were skillfully skipping places in the queue, mum leading the way.

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Making friends on the boat

I had bad dreams. I was trying to escape, but I couldn’t and I was trapped in a village with head hunters. I only remember that I woke up with a clogged nose a small headache. In Lombok, like in Bali, locals believe in spirits and magical medicine, they call “Jamu”, that heals the soul. The weather was cool and hopping on my motorbike I was hoping that the curse was temporary and would not affect the rest of the trip – or that I would accidentally find my Jamu”.

Lombok has historically gone through Hinduism to a form of Islam with Hindu elements, and more recently to orthodox Islam, but Hindu religion survived in several villages. Arriving in the capital, Mataram, I saw a huge, newly built mosque, with, I learned, the help of Saudi Arabia. It seems they are trying to disturb the delicate religious balance.

I begin to climb the southern foothills of the mountain passing through a series of villages of traditional rice growers. Poor tiny villages where life is in full swing: schools, marches, football in the dust. Small improvised parties behind a moving truck with loudspeakers. Men and women working in the field: the woman head-carrying wood though the narrow paths between the flooded fields and the man finishes the job with the motorbike through the puddly road. Later in the day, pupils walking home stop and give carefree smiles and friendly shouts “Hello Mister”, making me feel already much better. I was left contemplating how people can be so happy with so little, and if we are the ones in need of “Jamu” instead of them.

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Next day I was ready to embark on the wooden boat, called pinisi, to sail around the next island, Sumbawa, in order to reach the famous Komondo island. I chose a well known company, Perama, which first organized a tour for us, stopping at various places in Lombok including Mr. Perama’s garden. Mr. Perama has built his pinisi “empire” over the last 50 years and is now trying to teach the locals entrepreneurship. Our guide Tommi’s music selections on the bus were brilliant and at the end of the day we had a small party at the shipyard, getting ready to step into the unknown.

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Three days in Bali

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Monkeys are the world’s experts in opening candy wrappers.

Gilimanuk harbor was my entrance to Bali. Monkeys were mooching at the edge of a forest as we rode to Pemuteran, suggested by Lonely Planet as a good place to spend a night in the North. Indeed it is much calmer than the South and apparently good for diving.

That night there was a full moon – “Poornachandr” – and Balinese Hindus pay attention to such things. Actually, it was more than a full moon. The date was July 27th 2018, time of the longest lunar eclipse of the century. Five minutes after exiting the hotel, I was sitting in the lotus position in front of a small family sanctuary. Relatives were praying around and the family leader was explaining to me the beneficial properties of meditation for treating stomach ache. He went on to suggest swimming as the cure to anxiety and almost everything else and, encouraged by my receptiveness, he invited me to his home and to show me around the next day. At the end of the ritual they applied rice on my forehead. Good for my chakras, I guess?!

Mosquitoes did me a favour by waking me up in time for the eclipse and at 4 am the chanting began…

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Lunar eclipse and Mars.

Next morning, I arrived with a taxi in Singaraja, the first town of considerable size, whose name means “Lion King”. Then, a change to bemo (small van where you have to bend forward in order to fit and the doors remains open, good fun) to get to the correct station. From there a small shuttle bus to Denpasar which is the capital in the South. The fresh air of Bali’s central mountain range was welcome. It was Saturday and schoolchildren were marching on the streets, as they normally do in Indonesia. “Baris Berbaris”, literally a line lined up (Indonesians love reduplication).

The `Bali museum’ in Denspasar is worth visiting for a fast track introduction into the Balinese culture, and impressive as a building itself. From there I took a motorcycle taxi to Ubud, passing though the very dense traffic that converges to the super-developed cultural capital of Bali.

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Flying a “layang-layang” (kite)

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A good sized family in Bali Museum

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A Balinese sacrificial dagger – “Kris”

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In an Ubud hostel

Third morning, exiting my hostel room, I hear the following not so typical dialogue: “Did you feel the earthquake this morning?” “Seriously? I thought you were masturbating in the bed above. ” I open the news and read: 6.4 Richter in Lombok’s Rinjani Volcano, casualties and hundreds of climbers trapped from landslides. But I haven’t felt it at all and there was no second thought of amending the route. I purposed to an Englishman, W., to rent a motorbike to explore the island. With 75,000 rupees, we got in record time the keys to a 125cc Honda, helmets and the blessings of the lady in the kiosk just outside.

Having W. as the navigator through the complex road network we reached the gates of Luhur Batukaru temple at the altitude of 1300 meters, in midst of the misty tropical forest.

Next we stopped in a buffet restaurant over UNESCO protected Jatiluwih rice terraces (we had to pay a toll), were W. told me about his goal of sailing around the world non-stop, a bold endeavour that few have achieved. Then, I decided to visit a small tea plantation and hotel nearby – it seemed unique in a coffee growing island. And soon we ended talking to a person whose ambition was even bigger than W.’s.

E., the owner, was somewhat surprised, but invited us without hesitation in his comfortable palace on a slope overlooking a pool and lush forest. Javan in origin, he protested when sent to become a sailor, not wanting a boss over his head. So, he started with a ticket for Bali and 15,000 rupees in his pocket, at some point in the early 70’s. Working here and there, he found that tourists, who had begun arriving in Bali, were buying jean jackets and so he started selling them. The jeans became leather which he brought from Java, and so gradually he managed to build a business based on leather. And at the same time, he opened a nightclub, the first surfing company in Bali, which he sold to Rip Curl, and expedition company, a health centre etc.. ‘Capital is fair,’ he told us, showing us his collection of dried tea. ‘You just need motivation and ideas’. At some point in the 1990s, his mother called him: “You a Muslim man making money from selling alcohol in parties?”. E. reflected on this, and decided to buy this land on a mountain that no one wanted, and to build his small garden of Eden. Now he enjoys his new ‘toy’, the first tea plantation in Bali, with his second wife and daughter who has an English boyfriend, and prays 5 times a day on his balcony over the clouds.

 

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Back in Ubud for a Balinese fire & trance dance

From the ocean to the fire mountain

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Saying goodbye to the Happy Tree hostel cat

Afian was my courteous driver this morning. Not only he took me to see the ocean but also acted as:

– tour guide, showing me the new big international airport that is being built right next to the beach and showing me through the small village.

– teacher, using sand as a whiteboard to teach me the days of the week in Indonesian, which begins for Muslims on Friday. Jumat, Sabtu, Minggu, Senin…

– local gourmand, explaining the area’s culinary choices and eventually taking me for his beloved bebek (duck).

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The sea south of Java is a mighty beast

In the train to Surabaya I sat in the economy class next to a group of five, a girl and four boys. They were members of a local fan club of Persib Bandung FC, from the coastal town of Pangandaran. While sugarcane fields and volcanoes were coming and going outside the window, we played a tabletop game, cheekily hitting each other’s head with a plastic bottle when they lost a point. We were also hiding from the train inspector so that we can jump off the train at brief stops and smoke kretek (clove flavoured) cigarettes and other such shenanigans that you expect from people in their 20s – some of us delayed 20s.

Gradually I realised that most of the passengers were Persib FC supporters travelling to Surabaya for an away game. Meeting other trains in stations sparked small parties. In one of them everyone decided they wanted a photo with the Caucasian and so I got my 15 minutes of unexpected fame. Imagine people from their laptop scratching their head listening to their club’s chants being butchered by a man with such strange accent!

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Football fans on the train

That night there was a single goal. The approach and ascent of mount Bromo. Bromo is the volcano with the perfect conical shape that is appears in many guidebooks and postcards as the iconic image from Indonesia. Or rather it is not, as I will find out very soon.

2:00 am wake up. Haggling with a taxi driver for the two-hour route from Probolinggo to Cemoro Lawang, the closest village to the volcano. Listening to dangdut, a very popular Javanese music genre that combines tradition with synths and guitar, we chat with the driver J. and his flirty friend N. on how young people have fun in Indonesia. “We just watch TV, that’s all”. The conservative elements of the government have passed an alcohol selling prohibition law for small super-markets and kiosks. If you don’t frequent touristic places, your choices are restricted to the sometimes dangerous arrack and the black market. J. and N., who speak between them in the traditional Javanese language and not Indonesian, are very critical of the situation.

4:30 am, sitting on a very cold street looking at dark figures selling entrance tickets for the main path to Bromo and a street vendor selling woolen hats, I decide to take the advice of a Dutch couple I met before. There is a “back door” to Bromo, an unguarded path that starts from the other side of the village and appears in the Maps.me mobile app.

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Stepping on a lava rock in the Sea of Sand

First I descended the dunes that surround the area and form the crater of an ancient much bigger volcano. Straight ahead, dimly visible in the background, was the volcanic cone. Ditches etched by ancient lava were the only features of the empty landscape in between, called the Sea of Sand. Some fires on the distant horizon were the only lights under a starry sky. After 45 minutes I was at the foot of the big cone and trying to figure out how to climb it. There, I saw the surreal picture of a group meditating in a small Hindu temple. And at last, other lost hikers – two couples from France and from Germany. To my surprise, I learned that the big cone in front of us is not Bromo, but its big brother Batok! Bromo is on the side, less photogenic but much more active.

The climb to Bromo through the 250 stairs was not easy, sulfuric vapours brought by the wind making breathing difficult. Eventually we reached the crater at the moment the dawn broke. The only other person there was a friendly New Yorker, Jack, with a mask and a camera. What an impression to look over the boiling crater and listen to its roar! I did not want to leave and kept taking photos of the million years old landscape. On the way back we joined forces with Jack and laughed with the Indonesians, always asking the same questions: “Where are you from? Which hotel do you live in? Why do you travel alone? “. The crowds were on the other side of the Sea of Sand taking panoramic photos and now slowly making their way to the crater.

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Trying to breath through the vapours

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Dawn at Bromo’s rim

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Offerings

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The Sea of Sand

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Not long ago the whole rim was unfenced and no stairs

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The Hindu temple at the back