Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flores & Rinca Island

In mid-December shortly after I returned to Yogyakarta from my three-week extended stay in Jakarta, I got an email from my boss asking for pairs of ELF volunteers to conduct three days of teaching training and youth outreach for the Access Microscholarship Program in various parts of Indonesia. This program, the same one I worked with in Jakarta, provides after-school English language classes for smart but economically disadvantaged high school students and is funded by the U.S. Department of State.

The sites up for grabs included Banjarmasin, Bengkulu, Kupong, Ende, and Lombok. I didn't immediately recognize the town of Ende on the list but once I realized it was on Flores I couldn't get over this stroke of good luck. A predominantly Catholic island, Flores lies to the east of both Bali and Lombok. Perhaps you've heard of another island very near by - Komodo Island? Flores is a place I've been wanting to visit for several reasons - to see the Komodo dragons, of course; to dive the turbulent waters known for big pelagics; and to see the island where my dear friend and co-worker Ingrid is from. Flores is a place that Ingrid raves about constantly - a place of great natural beauty, friendly people and delicious food. Expensive to get to and a bit off the beaten track, I had no idea when, if ever, I would get to visit Flores but now the perfect opportunity had just landed in my lap. 

I immediately emailed back my interest in the Flores site and recruited my ELF friend Mark to co-present with me since I knew he had been wanting to go to Flores too and he's a diver. Mark quickly texted back his interest, my boss signed off his approval and soon I was writing up a budget proposal for the trip. It was on!

As my plane flew into the tiny town of Labuanbajo at the end of January, I was entranced by the sight of the rolling green mountains and vast expanses of ocean dotted by small islands. One plane change and 35 minutes later, I found myself landing in the town of Ende, my attention grabbed again by the sight of black-sand beaches, blue water and green palm trees. 

Father Kons, from the local Catholic high school SMAK Syuradikara, and Mark met me at the airport and took me back to the Hotel Mentari where we met up with Ingrid's aunt and uncle who graciously took Mark and me sightseeing that day. We headed out to the village of Wolotopo to see some traditional houses, stopping at one of the many black-sand beaches along the way.

Beautiful black-sand beach!

Ikat (traditional cloth) weaver in Wolotopo

Traditional house in Wolotopo

Eating delicious local food at the Pusat Pangan Lokal - note the mugs made out of coconut shells!

Two days later, Ingrid's aunt and uncle took us to Kelimutu National Park, where we hiked up to the rim of the tri-colored lakes on top of an ancient volcano. Well, the three lakes were supposed to be different colors but when we went two were the same turquoise color and one was black. The dissolving mineral content of the lakes can change their colors to shades of yellow, orange, red and brown. Locals believe that when villagers die, their souls leave the villages and stay in Kelimutu forever.

Hiking Kelimutu with Ingrid's aunt and uncle and Pak Diding from Universitas Indonesia

The two turquoise lakes 

The black lake

Ikat weavings for sale at Kelimutu

Ingrid's uncle aka 'The Dancing Professor'

After getting back from our morning hike to Kelimutu, Mark and I kicked off our English Camp at SMAK Syuradikara with an afternoon program of introductions and ice-breakers with the high school students. The next day we had our teacher training sessions in the morning and our sessions with the kids in the afternoon. Then we returned the following day for a marathon eight-hour session of activities with the kids. We were totally exhausted by the end but the teachers found our teacher training useful, despite numerous logistical SNAFUs, and the Access kids enjoyed our program of activities focusing on speaking fluency and cross-cultural understanding.

With Access Microscholarship kids in Ende

Enthusiastic Access kids
The program came to an official end with a dinner - a feast, actually - of local food at the same restaurant Ingrid's uncle had recommended to us a few days before. I was glad to return because I found the local food from Ende to be DELICIOUS! Sweet appetizer balls made of cassava and brown sugar, sweet potato satay, cassava leaf and coconut salad, young bamboo shoot salad, grilled fish, brown rice, white rice mixed with corn, chicken, fish meatballs (no, seriously, these were pretty good), more cassava dishes and on and on. I washed it all down with some seriously good mint iced tea.

A delicious feast of local food with Father Kons and others from SMAK Syuradikara

Our work done, Mark and I took the short flight back to Labuanbajo the next day to squeeze in some diving and dragon spotting before heading home. We found some cheap rooms right on the main street near the dive shops. The rooms had no AC or hot water but look at the view we had:

Harbor of Labuanbajo as seen from the Gardena Hotel
The next day we headed out to sea with the Bajo Dive Club. We had the boat to ourselves and the itinerary for the day included two dives, lunch and then a stop at Rinca Island to see the famous Komodo dragons. To my great and utter dismay, I realized that I had forgotten to pack the o-ring for my camera housing! This devastating oversight meant I couldn't take any pictures underwater. I tried to convince myself that I would just focus on living in the moment instead but after two amazing dives with sharks, manta rays, turtles and gorgeous coral, I do kinda wish I had some pictures to show! At least I could take pictures on land. Our dive boat dropped us off on Rinca Island where we hired a guide to take us on a hour long 'trek' around part of the island.

Dive boat moored on Rinca Island

My first Komodo dragon sighting!

Whoa...lots of dragons. Here a male is keeping a watchful eye over the females.

The guide carried a long dragon-poking stick in case they got too close.

Where there be dragon eggs

Look at those big claws!

While posing for this one the guide warned me not to swing my backpack around because the dragons might mistake it for a hunk of meat. And that would not end well...

It was a great trip but like so many of my excursions to the more remote corners of Indonesia, it was all too short and leaves me wanting more. If I ever get the chance to return to Flores I would 1) do more diving around Komodo! 2) check out the muck diving near Maumere and 3) spend time in the traditional villages near Bajawa.

No comments:

Post a Comment