Underwater bliss and overland catastrophe

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.

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.



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.

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.




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


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

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.

Our meals were tasty – if only there were no waves to upset our stomachs
Our sleeping spots
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?).

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

Fishermen of Sumbawa
One of the locals posed for us
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!

Komodo dragon

Lombok: Smiles are Jamu for Westerners

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.

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.





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.




Three days in Bali

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…

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.

Flying a “layang-layang” (kite)
A good sized family in Bali Museum
A Balinese sacrificial dagger – “Kris”
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.



Back in Ubud for a Balinese fire & trance dance

From the ocean to the fire mountain

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).

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!

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.

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.

Trying to breath through the vapours
Dawn at Bromo’s rim
The Sea of Sand
Not long ago the whole rim was unfenced and no stairs
The Hindu temple at the back