Bali and Komodo
July 26, 2008
Bali- Kuta, Leggian and Seminyak
Mention Bali to almost anyone and images of a tranquil paradise come to mind, an exotic locale of peace and quiet. That Bali exists but is not found in the coastal cities of Kuta, Leggian or Seminyak.
We chose Kuta after arriving because it was central to many beaches and small towns accessible by motorbike. It also a popular tourist destination with inexpensive hotels, eateries and watering holes.
We quickly learned it was far from ideal in Kuta. It was loud and crowded, full of twenty-something Australians escaping their winter for sun, surfing and drinking. It was the downunder equivalent of our own “Redneck Riviera” with the antics one would expect. Let’s just say we didn’t take many pictures, though the beaches around Seminyak are full of white sand and clear blue water.
Like anthropologists among the chimpanzees, we watched the practices of the Aussie snowbirds. Bali is a relatively cheap and accessible getaway for Aussies. We had to be honest with ourselves; after all it could have been us not that long ago. In fact, that probably was us back then. It certainly doesn’t suit us now. It seemed a shame though, those kids weren’t seeing Indonesia. They had merely moved the party to a cheaper, warmer place. Middle-aged and in search of different things, we moved on. This was made easier by the fact that a decent rock band was not to be found here. We got coffee at the Starbucks, checked our email at the Internet café and headed out.
With Kuta and surroundings too familiar and un-Indonesian, our daily routine was to rent motorbikes and explore nearby towns in search of the real Indonesia. By the way, if you are ever offered insurance, politely decline. It’s almost the cost of the bike rental and seems more of an additional tax on visitors than something you would actually make a claim on. Do get an international driver’s license though: we have been stopped now in every country we’ve visited.
Sanur was a first stop and a tranquil beach, a romantic place for couples (if we ever returned with someone special). The beach was far less busy, with hidden gardens and peaceful resorts. We were antsy to explore more of Bali and didn’t stay long in this sleepy getaway.
We sampled numerous local foods this way, from grocers to roadside stalls with meals prepared right on the street. Never did we suffer from our culinary exploits, and in turn were rewarded with some great finds. Sweet tea was a comforting drink to be found often, called Tehbotol, and it goes well with everything from the local specialty, Babi Guling (translated as “suckling pig”), to pork skins (immediately recognizable to any Southerner from Georgia!) and our new favorite fried chicken- Indonesian style. Tehbotol even comes in the old style glass bottles reminiscent of the way Coca Cola was served many years ago. We should mention though that chickens in that part of the world—and yes, bird flu can be a reality in Indonesia—are much leaner and taller than our hormone injected and force fed birds back home. Picking that tasty fried meat off the long, skinny legs of the local birds gave us a smile every time. Oh, and beer, plenty of beer was required with the local food for good measure. Ort would be proud.
Imagine an ancient city in the foothills, an hour drive from the airport and hidden in the jungle. We had found Ubud, and like Athens, it was full of artists. Streets were lined with vendors selling paintings, carvings, jewelry and exceptional handmade furniture. Since we are on bikes, we kept the shopping to Balinese coffee and kretek cigarettes for the most part. It is possible to purchase one of the infamous dragon kites at the market and safely hand carry them all the way back to Athens, but it isn’t easy. The streets are tranquil and sidewalk cafes dot the streets. The fresh fruit drinks of papaya and mango taste like nothing we’ve ever had back home, and the monetary exchange rate for all of this is very much in our favor.
In no way could we have planned it better, but serendipity smiled on us the day we chose to head to Ubud. In search of the recommended “Naughty Nuri’s” we found ourselves in one of the largest public ceremonies to take place in that tucked away part of paradise— the cremation of several royalty, the highest ranking member of the town and more than sixty others preserved for the ceremony. The buzz with the journalists and other visitors was that this may be the last time, the end of a tradition. Globalization and the high cost of hosting such a soirée may mean it will not happen again. Imagine UGA game day with RVs replaced by thousands of motorbikes, people wearing sarongs and everyone staring for hours at the homecoming floats at you are almost there.
Labuan Bajo, Flores Island
The airport on Flores Island is interesting. Labuan Bajo is a small airport and uses the three-horn system. The first horn is to clear the runway of cows and goats in preparation for aircraft. The second horn signals the time to double check that the runway is indeed clear of farm animals. The third and last horn is the cue to evacuate the vicinity of the runway, even if stray livestock remain, because the eagle is landing.
If you are ever in Flores, you must try the local moonshine, called “arak.” Just mention this to your taxi driver, shuttle bus operator or bus boy at the restaurant and they will know how to get some. It’s a special backyard concoction that is legendary in archipelago as the best. Its taste is similar to grappa, so don’t look too closely at the fact that it was given to you in a reused wine bottle with plastic wrap and a rubber band for a lid. And don’t look too closely at the mosquitoes floating near the bottom—you barely know they are there when it’s going down.
Komodo and Rinca
This part of the journey was the easiest and was recommended as the only way to go. Like other protected national parks and sanctuaries, access to Komodo and Rinca are controlled since boat is the only means of transport. A crew, field guides and permits are all involved. A thirty-foot sailboat called the Sojourn was to be our transport, and we soon learned this capable crew knew how to cook as well as navigate. Life aboard the sailboat for those three days was welcome relaxation: swimming, eating, drinking beer, playing guitar, snorkeling and hiking. It is almost a necessity to bring a guitar to Indonesia. Like Athens, music is a big part of the culture. We played and sang a few songs while drinking a few Bintang beers with the crew. In return, the crew played a few local folk songs in Bahasa Indonesia. Surprisingly, the song that got the most applause and participation in the sing-along was The John Denver classic Country Roads! Who would have thought that all the lyrics to that song could be recited by Indonesians living half way around the world on a remote island?
Nothing comes close to seeing a Komodo dragon in the wild: off on a hilltop scenting the air for its mate, or possibly breakfast. Komodo dragons are some of the most unique lizards in the world. Not only are they the largest but they also have the distinction of having highly infectious and septic mouths which are laden with all kinds of nasty bacteria. They are only found on the island of Komodo and nearby Rinca where they hunt their prey by ambush and wound them. Later, the unlucky victim stumbles off to die from the bacterial infections that were injected in the wound by the festering mouth of the Komodo.
Apparently they are quite gifted in being able to detect odors for many miles and they can track their wounded prey by smell for days if needed. Every year a few unlucky locals are surprised by a dragon and bitten. Only one person has been recorded to survive a Komodo attack.
We were cautioned by our guide and translator that we may not see dragons. That was not to be the case that day, as we saw many.
And so we returned. Matt Salleh went back to Kuala Lumpur and John back to Athens, GA. Mission accomplished- we had seen on of the rarest and the largest living lizards on Earth, the great Komodo dragon. We had eaten and drank things both familiar and different. But it wasn’t over. Far from it. For our next trip, we’re already talking about Angkor Wat lost in the forests of Cambodia and maybe the Mekong River in Vietnam!