Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back in Bali

Sat 9/25

We check out of the hotel and head back to Labuan Bajo's small airport. I purchase a sweet coffee cup w/ a Komodo dragon eating a goat pictured on it. Apparently the can stand on their hind legs if it will feed them.

We get back to Bali and head back to Kuta to try and find a hotel. This turns out to be more problematic than we'd anticipated. Finally, the 4th or so place we stop in has a room. We also ask at the desk about whitewater rafting companies on the suggestion of another diver. Shortly after dropping our stuff in the room we get a call from a rafting company and schedule a pick up for 1pm.

We kill a bit of time in the lobby waiting for the driver. He arrives and takes us about an hour away from town. Along the way, I get a much better look at Bali and must admit I was probably a bit hasty in condemning the whole island based on Kuta. Actually, even just getting away from the overdeveloped beach area of Kuta makes a big improvement. Hindu temples are scattered about, providing a nice change from the buddhist temples scattered throughout Korea.

We get dropped off at the rafting office and must hike down to the river through a jungle. There is a concrete path, but it's worn and muddy in many places. The dense jungle coverage creates a nice atmosphere for rafting. It begins to rain, which is also nice. The rafting is fun.

We head back to the hotel. Kill some time at the beach. Swim in the pool.

Sunday morning we're up and head to the airport. All our flights depart around 1pm. Unfortunately for me, this flight only takes me to Jakarta where I must wait until 10pm for my red-eye back to Seoul. The Jakarta airport is not a very fun place. Red eye flights are not very fun either.

Landing in Seoul, I have the feeling of getting back home. Which I guess I was.

So that's the Indonesia trip. and it only took me 2 months to post it. efficiency. Maybe I'll try to get some more Korea stuff going, but if not the next destination has been booked: Thailand for the New Year.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Diving in Komodo

Fri 9/24

Just after midnight I wake up and rush to the bathroom to find that my ass has discovered how to piss. This neat trick combined with an odd pain in my upper abdomen keep me awake until almost 4AM. Clearly I have caught a strain of super-malaria that is overpowering my hallucinogenic anti-malaria meds. I will die soon. This angers me b/c I'd very much been looking forward to diving. I finally pass out.

Alarm goes off at 6. I feel a bit better. I hope the stomach will be appeased with an offering of scrambled eggs and coffee. It grudgingly accepts. I am non optimistic about the day.

We head to the lobby to get a ride to the dive shop and meet a Swiss family that tells us they are also on our dive trip. We all pile into a van and get dropped off at a dock. It turns out the Swiss are sabotuers. We are not diving with them and we have been led to the wrong place by their vile lies. Fortunately, we are able to find the boat we're supposed to be on and they radio to the dive shop.

We get delayed a while before leaving the dock. Apparently the harbor master has decided today would be a good day to inspect this dive boat. Apparently he also decided to do this on his own leisurely schedule. After about an hour, the dive operators are able to postpone the inspection and we're off.

I don't have pictures from the dives and I don't think I can really do them just with words, but all 3 dives were great. The first one was in a current where manta rays swim upstream to feed. As soon as we jumped off the boat we looked down to see 2 mantas hanging out. We descended and watched them and for the next hour we probably went no more than 5 minutes w/o at least 1 manta swimming within view. The divemaster said afterward that it was probably the best manta dive he'd seen.

The 2nd dive was along a rock face between two strong currents. The narrow calm patch afforded by the rock was home to coral and a ridiculous number of bright colored fish. It seemed fake. Like swimming in a screen saver. Also there were some giant sea turtles searching for food amongst the coral.

Dive 3 was in a really strong current. We used hooks to attach ourselves to the rocks on the bottom to avoid being dragged away or burning all our oxygen fighting the stream. Securely attached to the bottom, we just watched schools of larger fish swim by. The spot reminded me of a highway for fish, with tons of them just passing through. Much bigger stuff hung out here- there were at least 3 sharks visible at one time.

When we came up after the third dive, two of the divemasters immediately dove back in. While getting out of our gear we learned that the propeller had fallen off and the divemasters were hoping to find it. They did not find it. So now we were stuck a few hours from harbor without a prop on the main motor. There was a secondary motor, so we weren't quite marooned, but the 'few' hours on the main motor suddenly became more like '8' hours on the back up.

Fortunately, our diving was already done for the day so no one was very upset. Really, hanging out on a boat in the tropics isn't exactly the worst fate. So we puttered along toward the harbor while the captain radioed in and tried to arrange a tow or shuttle. Finally a little while after dark a speed boat arrived to take the divers in ahead of the boat and crew.

At first it was kind of amusing riding in the small speed boat like shipwreck survivors or something. But after a while, sitting in cramped quarters in the dark with cold ocean water continuously splattering your face stops being adventurous and just becomes uncomfortable. Still, it did get us back to Labuan Bajo hours ahead of dive boat.

The dive shop had ordered food for us and after the trip, drying off and getting a hot meal definitely hit the spot.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Thurs 9/23

I spent the night fitfully on a mattress on the deck of our boat. I was awakened at one point when our drifting anchor resulted in a collision with another boat moored nearby and from that point on drifted in and out of awareness of the chatter of 100's of bats returning home. By daybreak, everyone was awake and we were on our way to Komodo.

Welcome to Komodo

We got there early and waited for the rangers as more boats dropped off groups of tourists. Luckily, by opting for the longest trek, our group only picked up a lone British guy. The four of us and our ranger headed out leaving the other groups to shuffle through the park en masse.

Shortly into our trek the ranger spotted a baby komodo dragon hiding in a tree. Even with the guide pointing it out, he was hard to spot.

Baby Dragon

They live in the trees for about the first 4 years of their lives until they're big enough to not be eaten by the other dragons. Apparently the mother dragons dig decoy holes to disguise their nests and will guard the site, but have no qualms with eating their children as soon as they hatch. Sucks to be a baby dragon.

A dragon on the trail

There were only a couple of dragons out on the trail, which seemed a bit disappointing after the hoardes of them on Rinca, but the baby dragon was nice. There were also a few wild pigs and deer to be seen. And a vicious land crab.

The land crab prepares his attack

Back near the ranger's huts and souvenir shop a few more dragons were laying about. The locals clearly are not too worried about them.

Perhaps they don't see the dragon lying next to them

Lazy Dragons

As we head back to the boat a swarm of village kids descend upon us to sell crap. Actually, for crap it's pretty decent. The wooden and shell carved Komodos are pretty sweet. Except I don't really need crap. Even if it is hand made and costs only $5, a price which our guide advises we haggle down from. For whatever reason, I must look like a prime target since the kids pretty much leave the others alone to swarm me. I buy nothing. Nor do I exchange the Singapore bills that some guy offers me.

Back on the boat. We stop to snorkel. Solid coral and fish. Back on the boat for lunch. I don't think I've mentioned, but the food on the boat is ridiculously good. I don't know how the cook manages it in the tiny kitchen, but every meal is delicious and there's always more food than we can eat. In addition to this, there are awesome fresh fruit smoothies in between meals. I fall asleep in the sun after lunch and wake up to see dolphins swimming alongside the boat and tropical islands dotting the horizon. This is not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.

In Labuan Bajo we stop by the scuba shop to be sized for gear. There is some hassle since Z's Padi registration was entered incorrectly (wrong B'day) and he didn't have his card on hand. After sorting that out we head to our hotel. It's nice. Only a year old a pool and beach access. The cows and dogs freely roaming the beach are an interesting touch. The rooms in the hotel are ridiculously big and there seem to be more employees than guests at the place (only like 10 rooms total). However, nothing makes me happier than flush toilets and laundry service. Snorkelling may have washed me off, but my clothes were not so fortunate. Amenities are nice sometimes.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The North Will Rise Again

So I'm a couple days late with this, but thought after talking to the family on Thanksgiving figured I'd at least mention the attack on South Korea. I was in a meeting out of the office when North Korea started firing artillery shells on Yeonpyeong-do, a small island near the boarder. Just before the end of the meeting someone mentioned that there was breaking news and told what was happening. Preliminary reports were that 4 people had died.

At this point, I had no idea where Yeonpyeong-do was, or what exactly this meant. My coworkers and the others in the meeting were somber, but didn't seem particularly perturbed. I guess you get used to this kind of threat.

In the car, we listened to the radio. I could heard either shots or explosions or something (I'm guessing now it was the South returning fire), but couldn't really follow what was happening. I was told that civilian houses were on fire and that this marked the first attacks on civilians since the armistice. My coworkers weren't saying a lot and I didn't press, but I found this situation a bit disturbing. During my time in Korea, I've not really worried much about the North. I've always had the opinion that the North knows restarting a really fight would be it's last act and the South knows restarting it would do too much damage to justify.

I don't buy that Kim Jong Il is crazy. You don't last that long running a country if you're crazy. Your father who ran the place for almost 50 years doesn't select you as a successor if your crazy. But instability due to another succession? I can see crazy things coming from that.

I got dropped of and went home to read up on what was going on. I looked into the US embassy evacuation plans and all that jazz. Then....well then I stopped thinking about it. Went to the rock gym, had dinner, met a friend for drinks.

Seoul was as bustling as ever. On the streets you couldn't tell anything had happened. And that's pretty much how it's been since. I went to work the next day asked if anything had happened and checked to see CNN's take. And that's pretty much it. Life goes on here.

For a good take on the situation I recommended checking out Ask a Korean!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rinca Island

First stop: Rinca Island

The Lonely Planet warns that dragon sightings are not guaranteed, so I was trying to temper my expectations. However, as we pulled up to the dock on Rinca, monkeys running around on the dock, trying to swipe bits of the lunch from the other boat crews reminded me why traveling places is cool.

Dragon and Monkey Greeters

As luck would have it, there was little suspense before our first dragon sighting, as a small female dragon was hanging out not 10m from the dock. A welcoming party apparently drawn to the smell of fish and food that comes with the boats.

We headed to the park hut to pay the park camera fee and get a ranger to lead our trek. Our guide told us there is some dispute between the locals and the government and some private conservation company on the island. I didn't quite follow it all, but apparently the conservation group is just keeping all the money it receives. Not really knowing the difference, we just took his word for it and paid the camera fee but not the conservation fee (or something) and headed out with our guide and a park ranger each carrying long Y-shaped dragon fighting sticks.

Buildings on the island are all on stilts to prevent dragon invasions

In the camp near the ranger hut we were greeted by a much larger committee of dragons. Nine of them just hanging out by the kitchen. The just laze about and certainly don't seem very threatening, but it's easy to imagine how this can lull someone into a false sense of security that quickly ends when you carelessly leave the kitchen and find that a dragon has attached itself to your calf. Which apparently happened just a few weeks ago.

I find it completely fascinating that there isn't consensus about the danger of dragon bites. It's been long assumed that the primary risk is infection that comes from the hordes of bacteria that live in the dragon's mouth. Recently, though, some scientists claimed to discover a venom gland in the dragon. The guide said there were scientists investigated not so long ago and they hope to have the results before too much longer. It just blows my mind that this is still in dispute. I would think you could just cut a dragon open and figure it out pretty easily. I mean, what do biologists even do?

Outside of camp we saw another dragon lumbering about. Not moving too quick, but at least proving they can walk.

I might be poisonous, but science is dumb

We left the camp and headed towards a watering hole where an injured Water Buffalo had been hanging out. The ranger told us a dragon had bitten it a couple of days ago and now it was just a matter of time before the infection weakened it enough for the dragons to feast. He also told us the dragons cam smell prey like 2-5km away or something similarly ridiculous. Whatever it was, the buffalo apparently smelled enough to draw about 10 dragons to hang out around it.

A bored dragon stares at a buffalo

They are incredibly patient animals. If they see opportunity, they'll bite, then retreat while the venom/infection does its thing. Whenever the buffalo finally gets too weak to really pose a threat to them, presumably the dragons will descend and turn the watering hole into a bloodbath. A meal like that will then tide them over for a month or so while they slowly digest the bones to crap out in white, chalky piles.

The dragons get a little frisky, but don't attack

We hung out at the water hole for a long while and were briefly excited when the two dragons closest to the buffalo got up and started hissing a bit. Unfortunately, they decided not to kill for our entertainment. the guide said sadly, "maybe tomorrow they will have their dinner party". So close, but no blood. Still, ~20 dragons on our first stop is a win.

Yes, they can move
The photogenic one

Back on the boat we set sail to anchor near Komodo for the night. While this was ostensibly to get to Komodo early for a morning trek (best time to spot dragons), we moored next to a mangrove grove that houses hundreds of 'flying fox' fruit bats.

Shortly after we arrived, the bats began to wake up and started chattering in the trees. The racket of their squawking picked up intensity until just around dusk the 1st bast emerged from the trees. In short order, hundreds of these giant bats were streaming out over our heads to raid fruit trees on Komodo Island. While they lack the insane number of the bats in Austin, TX, they make up for it with a 3 foot wingspan (wikipedia says they can get up to 6 foot, not sure where I got 3). Flying overhead they look just like Batman logos cruising above you. As the stream of bats died down, we stayed on the roof of the boat watching the stars peak out from the sporadic clouds. Rinca did not disappoint.

Rinca, with a Dr. Seuss tree

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Labuan Bajo

Wed 9/22 (We're only 2 months behind schedule here)

There'd been a note slipped under my door telling me that Benny from Flores Exotic Tours, the company arranging the Komodo trip, would pick us up at the hotel at 6.30am. We wondered to the lobby around then and a man waiting by a van waved to us. I asked if he was Benny, he nodded, smiled and motioned us around to load our bags in the van. I told him we were hoping to grab some breakfast and asked if we'd have enough time before our flights (all arranged through the company). He seemed confused. At this point we realized he was not, in fact, Benny, but just another asshole wanting to drive us somewhere. No doubt, he could also hook us up w/ a massage.

We left checked out and went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Before long a man who knew our names found us and said he would be taking us to the airport where Benny was waiting with tickets for our 8am flight. Fortunately, since airports here aren't concerned with harassing you to keep up the appearance of safety (that's only at the hotels) loading up at 7am wasn't a problem.

We met Benny and handed over a wad of cash in exchange for our tickets and an envelope w/ his signature as proof of purchase. Benny assured us there would be a driver waiting upon arrival and we headed into the airport.

Unlike in Yogyakarta where there was no gate info, here it was contradictory. Our boarding passes said gate 17, the monitor said 15. We went to 15 first and asked an employee who was nearby eating breakfast. She asked to see my boarding pass and told me to go to gate 17, making it quite apparent that I seemed mentally deficient. There were no people or signs at 17, so we sat nearby keeping an eye on the family that received boarding passes ahead of us and appeared to be heading to Labuan Bajo with enough supplies to last the winter. About 8.15 an announcement was made that our flight was boarding at gate 16. Tricksy.

The Labuan Bajo Airport

Upon landing in Labuan Bajo, we entered the 'arrivals' door (as opposed to the 'departure' door next to it) and found ourselves literally locked in the 2-room airport. Apparently in order to keep people from wandering into the waiting area, they just lock the exit until everyone and all the luggage is unloaded. Behind the gate was a crowd of people offering transport (but no mention of massages here). It was a lot like being in a zoo with a crowd staring and hollering at you from the fence.

View of the port from above Labuan Bajo

When released from the airport we found a man with our names on a sign and followed him to a van. He told us we were heading to the harbor where we'd meet our boat and head to Rinca island for a trek this afternoon then head closer to Komodo island to stay for the night. The next day we'd trek at Komodo, have some time to snorkel and head back to Labuan Bajo. The next day we'd meet our dive crew and head out with them. Food and water were covered on the boat, but we needed to stop to stock up on beer and snacks. We met our 4 member boat crew and set off for Rinca (pronounced Rincha, in case you cared).

Some Islands seen from the Boat
First view of Rinca