Friday, August 27, 2010

Whirlwind tour of a tiny part of Indonesia

As many of you know, we had no plans for August because D was waiting to hear if he had a job/visa and we couldn't plan anything until that was settled, which it finally was towards the end of July (he got both and will be moving here in a few weeks!!). We then very hurriedly planned a last minute trip to Indonesia - we literally bought the tickets four days before we left, got a guidebook and a hotel for the first night and then took off. For some countries that's fine, but for Indonesia it's not extremely recommended to do it this way... but it sure beats staying at home!

We based ourselves in Bali, which we found out is the center of honeymoon culture for a reason - it is packed with gorgeous boutique hotels organized into villas rather than giant rectangular buildings. Many of the villas have their own private swimming pool, jacuzzi bathtub, etc, and the option of having a candlelight dinner out next to the pool in your villa. It's a bit over the top, but very luxurious... and once you locate the online discounts, relatively affordable. Our favorite was the Gending Kedis in Jimbaran, closely followed by Dreamland Villas. Highly recommended for some quiet time relaxing with your loved one.

But of course we only relaxed for a few days before flying over to the neighboring island of Lombok on a tiny little Chinese plane. We spent the next three days climbing the Rinjani volcano, which is extra awesome because inside the crater is a lake, and in the middle of the lake is a mini-volcano that is actively smoking. It was, on the whole, a beautiful hike, but much more difficult than advertised. A lot of people intended to summit, but in the end probably less than half the people who made it to the crater rim even attempted to summit, and of those, several didn't make it all the way up. I let D go while I slept in, as I was nursing some serious blisters and couldn't quite face the thought of scrambling up volcanic scree on my wounded feet.

We recovered with a night in Senggigi, a seaside town on Lombok with more big villa resorts, where there was a gorgeous sunset over the beach... though I was fairly passed out the whole evening and barely able to walk because of the muscle soreness and blisters, so I can't say I took advantage. Seemed worth staying longer if you have the time, though - it's got all the beauty of Bali with less of the crazy party atmosphere.

The next day we got a fast boat back to Bali and spent the afternoon in Kuta, which is kind of like an Asian Cancun... lots of scantily-clad Western women, all-night booze fests, drinks with dirty names, etc. The attraction for me was mainly the shopping, though, and the proximity to the airport, which we visited again the following day when we took another tiny plane over to the island of Flores, where we landed in Labuanbajo looking for a boat to Komodo National Park.

Organizing a tour on arrival was relatively easy, though it meant that our day got cut a little short. After lunch we took off on a fairly small boat, just the two of us and two crew, with a table on the deck that was moved over and replaced by mats to sleep on at night, which was actually relatively comfortable, though it was pretty much camping. But of course it was totally worth it, and we arrived at Rinca Island, home of about a third of the world's wild Komodo dragons, and just as we got off the boat there was a dragon sitting there in the sun not 10 feet away from us. Over by the visitor center were several more (attracted by the smell from the cafeteria, apparently), and we went on a hike around the park and saw a few females guarding their nests. The nests are big holes in the ground, and they actually make several as decoys so they are harder to penetrate.

Komodo dragons, we learned, can reach up to 3 meters in length and around 100 kg. They are vicious predators, eating anything that moves, and can kill animals as large as buffalo (even lions can't kill adult buffaloes). They rarely attack humans, although it has been known to happen. The coolest thing about them, though, is that they aren't actually venomous - instead they have over 50 species of bacteria in their saliva, so when they bite their prey, they infect it. They then can trail the prey and wait patiently for up to two weeks (!) while the animal slowly dies of an overwhelming infection.

When you are on the islands, you are required to have a guide with you at all times, and that person carries a big wooden stick with a forked end. Supposedly this method of defending against angry dragons is time-tested, but it didn't look especially trustworthy to me. As we were on our way off the island, a big dragon lumbered down the path ahead of us and then got in a territorial fight with another dragon just in front of the pier. There was a lot of loud hissing and it definitely looked like you wouldn't want to mess with the dragons, but fortunately there was a platform we were able to get onto so we didn't have to try out the stick.

The next day we went to the actual island of Komodo, where we saw more dragons, a lot of deer, a snake, and a kind of bird that always goes around in pairs that you see digging dirt with their feet. We then went snorkeling in unbelievably crystal clear water near Pink Beach, where there were incredibly colorful (and big) fish, before heading back to the main island for our flight back to Bali.

The last few days we spent in Ubud, Bali's cultural capital, where we stayed in a hotel right on the edge of the Monkey Forest. It lived up to its reputation and not only did we have a whole troop of monkeys playing on our balcony in the morning (which we could watch from bed), but monkeys routinely came and stole food off the breakfast tables of people sitting at the edge of the dining room. Since a comment to this effect was one of the main reasons we booked the place, we were happily satisfied. We visited a few temples, ate really well (Three Monkeys is highly recommended!), did a fair amount of shopping, saw a pretty uninspiring performance of Balinese dance, and visited a coffee plantation where we tried the world's most expensive coffee.

This coffee is, I kid you not, made from beans that are collected from the poop of the civet, a lemur-like animal that trolls the forests of Bali looking for the choicest coffee beans. The beans are then processed by the enzymes in the digestive tract of the civet and collected by people who spend their days searching the Balinese hills for civet poop. They are cleaned and roasted and then sold at several hundred dollars per kilo of coffee... I'm not exactly a coffee connoisseur, but I would say the civet coffee tasted more "earthy" than regular coffee. I didn't think it was worth the price, but the experience was, of course, priceless.

We spent our last day in a gorgeous villa in Jimbaran, from which I had to be dragged kicking and screaming, such that we almost missed our plane home. It's really a shame Indonesia is so far away, because realistically I wont be back any time soon, much as I am dying to return. It's a huge country, extremely varied, with something for every taste and budget (though as far as I could tell, not a lot for the extreme low budget traveler). It's a bit of a hassle to get around because of the island chain factor, but it's worth every bit of energy and money you put into getting there, and once there, you can have a luxury vacation for the price of a low-end one at home. Plus, tourism is somewhat reduced after the bombings of 10 years ago, so it's less crowded and overpriced than it was, and outside of the main resorts of Bali, you have the place practically to yourself... for now.

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Adventure map for 2009...