The Last Post: Pictures and ponderings from the final 2 weeks

January 28, 2009

So, as most people reading this will already know, Chris and I are back in the UK and our trip is over. We now have our minds on other things and it seems an age since we were travelling the hot dusty roads of SE Asia but…… leaving the blog incomplete would trouble me so I am here to put up some photos of the last 2 (to date undocumented) weeks in Cambodia.

I’ll start with a view from a spot close to the Thai border, looking down on the lowland plains of Cambodia below. It is very flat down there and flat roads make for very dull cycling, but this was our first day in Cambodia so I had yet to discover this.

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It was in this area (within spitting distance of Thailand) that the last of the Khmer Rouge hid out until the late Nineties. Pol Pot was cremated here with no fanfare, either at the time or since, judging by the rusty corrugated iron shelter and simple blue sign. Locals are still bringing offerings for him- probably due in no small part though to the rumour that he gives out winning lottery numbers in return.

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We headed down from the border mountains to the dusty town of Anlong Veng and from there onwards towards Siem Reap. The road was long, flat and tedious with nothing in the way of spectacular vistas en route but there were a few sights on the road itself with some novelty value for the Western eye.

Cambodian pigs don’t care much for travel. I wonder why?

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We thought we were overloaded with our heavy pannier bags but check out these poor guys! Time for strike action wouldn’t you say (especially with that second driver reclining smugly back on his pillow rubbing their noses in it)?

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One of the downsides of being a cyclist in Cambodia is the Dust. Clouds of the stuff are whipped up by every passing vehicle leaving the cyclist repeatedly enveloped and wobbling along with eyes, nose and mouth all clamped tightly shut (somewhat of a safety issue I’m sure you will agree). Here’s me shortly after we got to Siem Reap and before I spent half an hour in the shower scraping layer after layer of grime off. (Honestly, it was just embarrassing having to check into the Hilton looking like that.)

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With our arrival in Siem Reap came a run of bad luck. On our first day we were on a mission to gorge ourselves on Western food so gleefully ordered huge American-style sandwiches followed by ice-cream (me) and 2 huge pieces of ‘Death by Chocolate’ cake (Chris). What followed was either a result of poor hygiene standards or divine retribution for committing one of the seven deadly sins. While I merely felt extremely unwell and nauseous, Chris had the pleasure of firing ‘Death by Chocolate’ out of both his ends simultaneously. I’m sure all readers will be relieved to know that there are no pictures of this.

Semi-recovered from our digestive ordeals, we set out on what we hoped would be a several day round trip out into Preah Vihear province. However, after 70km travelled, at 6.30 in the evening, when we were quite a way out into the middle of nowhere, Chris happened to discover that there were several loose spokes on his back wheel and that the whole thing was wobbling and threatening imminent buckling and collapse. With no hope of mechanical help in sight we were forced to retreat the 70km back to Siem Reap where we arrived at about midnight in none too positive a mood.

After this setback we decided that we needed some breathing space to get the wheel fixed and re-evaluate things so we booked our Siem Reap hotel room for the rest of the week and bought a 3 day pass to the temples of Angkor. Now, everyone that we had met on our travels thus far had heaped praise and superlatives on Angkor to the point where even my temple-phobe self was wondering if I might actually derive a little enjoyment for my $40. Sadly this was not to be.

When we saw Angkor Wat itself for the first time it looked the same as on the postcards, a stone temple, crumbling in places, with tediously never-ending walls of carvings. That was it. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I did hope that I might feel something being there. As a comparison, if I were ever to go to Nepal and stand looking up at Everest or Annapurna or any of the great Himalayan peaks, I am certain that I would feel awestruck by their majesty and beauty. I would actually feel something (other than bored and disinterested and ready for my lunch).

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After our morning at Angkor Wat, we still had 2 and a half days of temples left to endure!

This is the Bayon where we saw more crumbling stone and more carvings.

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The carvings at Banteay Srei are particularly intricate.

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People get excited about Ta Prohm because it has trees growing through it.

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But of course it also has a plentiful supply of carvings.

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The guidebook hypes the experience of exploring Beng Mealea as being ‘the ultimate Indiana Jones experience’. Ummm, OK then, so since when did Mr Jones trudge round a temple on sedate wooden walkways sandwiched in between 2 Japanese tour groups?

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We had hired a tuk-tuk driver for our 3 days of temple fun and we were not about to insult him by letting on that we were somewhat underwhelmed by his country’s top tourist attraction. So we became adept at giving each new temple a cursory glance, determining an appropriate length of time to be spent ‘admiring’ it and then emerging after the aforementioned length of time, prattling away about carvings and smiling ever so enthusiastically. What did we actually do to entertain ourselves in the meantime you may ask?

How about a spot of ‘Where’s Wally’?

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Passing the time shootin the breeze with the locals……

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Anyone for a nap?

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People watching. Wondering why all these hordes of tourists had chosen to come to Angkor and what they were actually getting out of it. It seems to me that there are an awful lot of people go abroad only to get herded round ‘the sights’, frenetically snapping away with their big expensive cameras and mentally ticking off a list of places they can now ‘say that they’ve seen’. Check this picture out. Is it the paparazzi when Paris Hilton’s in town? No, it’s a load of tourists during a very mediocre sunset at Angkor.

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And now back to the art of time wasting…… Playing ‘Imposter in the Tour Group’ became a favourite pastime. Now, if only I had one of those hats.

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Are you paying attention there Chris?

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Observing tourist fashion at its finest was also a highlight. In our ‘Best Dressed at Angkor’ category, we almost gave the gong to a classic example of butch-German-lesbian-couture but in the end settled for this lady rockin the floral look.

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And finally: Take lashings of steep steps, a dollop of juvenile humour, just add a digital camera and hours of fun can be had!

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Perhaps not the best photo to end the blog on, but end on it I shall. All that remains now is to answer the question (for anyone who’s curious) of why we chose at this point to cut our trip short and return home to the UK a few days later. Nothing dramatic happened at all, we just had a long chat and realised that we both felt that lately we hadn’t been enjoying the trip enough to justify the money that we were going to be spending continuing with it. The 3 months in Indonesia had been perfect but since then we had failed to really discover anything fresh or exciting in Thailand or Cambodia. Everywhere and everything seemed to be ‘more of the same’ or just plain disappointing after Indonesia. We were bored and jaded. We needed to be doing rather than just looking. The cycling was supposed to be the antidote to these feelings but it hadn’t turned out that way. Where we thought there would be adventure there was tedium, instead of freedom we had hassles, and then there was that Dust. Sitting here back in the UK writing this, I’m confident we made the right decision.

So, that’s it for the blog on our Southeast Asian travels 2008. Thanks to all our readers out there. Some people surprised me by reading when I never thought they’d be interested, some people surprised me by not reading (too preoccupied with themselves maybe?) and some people even took the time to comment (thanks Janet and Mike!). As for me, I have enjoyed writing so shall keep this space open for tales of our future travels. I am also contemplating becoming a regular blogger at home as well as on the road so check back here in the not too distant future for a link to the new blog……

Marooned in No-Man’s Land

December 28, 2008

We set off far too late as usual. We had succeeded in great style at faffing the morning away and it was fast approaching midday when I snapped a ‘before it all began’ picture of Chris and his bike outside our Si Sa Ket hotel. Our mission for the day was simple: Ride the 100km to the Thai border, cross into Cambodia and then finish up with a paltry 16km to the town of Anlong Veng where we could spend the night. The only potential snag with this plan, it seemed to me as we settled into a steady rhythm on the straight flat road out of town, was that the border was only open until 8pm so we would have to make it there before then (or else).

This didn’t worry us unduly though- we easily covered the first 40km in less than 2 hours and when we then stopped for lunch at a Tesco Lotus we were in high spirits. The road, due to its straightness and flatness, had been boring but our bike trip was so shiny and new and our thoughts so full of first-day-excitement that it didn’t matter. I was day-dreaming about eating anything my heart desires for the next 3 months and still finishing up thin and toned and tanned. I’m not sure what Chris was thinking about, probably best not to ask. We lingered too long in Tesco Lotus, making my day-dreams a reality with pork and noodle soup, dim sum, cakes from the bakery and an apple, and when we reluctantly pulled away on our bikes we wondered when we would get a sniff of such civilisation again.

Not long after lunch we discovered the first inaccuracy on our ‘Kambodscha’ road map. This road map is in German, not ideal as neither of us speak a word of German, but the place names are not too disimilar to the English versions and we were getting on OK with it until we found that a town which appeared firmly planted with its dot on the map at the intersection of 2 roads was not actually there at all, but was in fact 11km (or several centimetres on the map) away. Without regular signposts pointing the way to the border either, we were beginning to have doubts and started asking locals for reassurance that we were on the right road. Our enquiries were met with total incomprehension by everyone except this one guy who showed great initial promise in the helpfulness stakes by not only understanding us but then also hand-drawing us a map. Sadly this map turned out to be wildly inaccurate which only served to add to our confusion.

It was around this time that Chris nonchalantly remarked that there appeared to be a none-too-small mountain range visible in the distance. I concurred that this was indeed the case and ventured my own observation- that we seemed to be travelling towards these mountains. We looked at the sun, saw that it was near to setting, then back at the mountains (the top of which, it dawned on us, was most likely the border location), and said a collective “uh-oh”. We pressed on regardless, following the road into increasingly remote countryside- no houses, only a very occasional passing car and all a bit spooky in the darkness. With no idea how far we still were away from the border, we were both getting increasingly cantankerous at the thought of spending the night on the side of the road. Then, out of the blackness, appeared a signpost. 26km to the border it said. It was 6.30pm and the race was on.

We pushed off, mentally juggling times and distances and necessary speeds in our heads, and almost immediately bounced over a pothole and then another and another. Great, just when we needed it the road had turned to shit. It didn’t help either that my front bike light was crap and Chris (who doesn’t have a front light) was using a wind-up head torch which was about as useful as something out of a Christmas cracker. I already had stomach ache, my legs were sore, I was generally absolutely knackered and starving and dehydrated, and then we hit the climb up into the mountains. At one point I was convinced I was in first gear, because in the blackness I couldn’t see my gear levers, found it too hard to keep going, got off and pushed, then had a paddy with myself because that’s something I would never usually do. Through all this Chris was irritatingly upbeat and kept saying that he thought we’d make it there before 8.

Which we did. It was 6 minutes to 8 by the clock in the Thai immigration office when 2 sweaty, stinking, wild-eyed ‘farangs’ (foreigners) burst in and presented their passports. The official there was very kind, though somewhat perplexed by us, and phoned ahead to the Cambodian side to let them know of the late arrivals. You see, the Cambodia border is several kilometres away, across a corridor of no-man’s land, and by the time we got there it would be well after their closing time. No matter, the Thai official said to us, they will stay open (specially) for you and I will even drive you and your bikes over there in my car. Now, while extremely relieved and grateful for his efforts, I was not about to cheat on day 1 of the bike trip by putting my bike in a car, so we thanked him for his kind offer and pedalled off under our own steam to Cambodia.

Well, we tried to but we couldn’t find it. Utterly ridiculous though that sounds, it’s true. We could not find Cambodia. First we rode up a wide tarmac road, past shacks full of drunk soldiers, until we were told we had come the wrong way. In the darkness it was hard to make anything out. We retraced our steps and turned off onto a dirt track where the only light came from the lamp-lit shanty-town homes on the roadside. Snarling dogs rushed at our wheels as we rounded a corner, we couldn’t see how many, and I fearfully pedalled on, dreading the seemingly inevitable incisors sinking into my ankle. Thankfully, that never came, instead faces appeared out of the gloom and directed us down a track (so sandy it bogged my front wheel and I almost fell off) which led to the wooden huts serving as the Cambodian border offices.

We’d finally made it. We were relieved, exhausted, happy and slightly worried (as late arrivals) about what cash demands might be made for ‘overtime’ by the bribe-hungry border officials. No such request materialised at the immigration hut though. The humourless official merely inspected our passports and sent us over, application forms in hand, to the visa hut opposite. We arrived at this hut to find it shut up and unoccupied but figured that someone would come over and deal with us when we had filled in the forms. It turned out we figured wrong.

Someone did come over but only to deliver the utterly crushing news that the ‘visa man’ had gone home for the night, to the town of Anlong Veng 16km away, and so there was no way for us to get our visas (and therefore no way for us to enter Cambodia) before morning. We were told to go back into Thailand where we could sleep in a guesthouse for the night. Beyond pissed off (and still starving, dehydrated and exhausted) we pushed our bikes over the sand past the snarling dogs back to Thailand. Well, we would have done if there hadn’t been a huge locked gate in our way. We were locked out of Thailand and not permitted to enter Cambodia. We were marooned in no-man’s land!

The wind was howling and we were getting cold so we trooped back to present ourselves (again) and our new problem to the Cambodian border officials who by this time I’m sure were getting pretty sick of our antics but thankfully managed to show some mercy for the 2 idiot tourists. We got taken in a car (with 4 border policemen!) to a nearby guesthouse (in Cambodia!) which switched on its electricity generator just for us (there were no other guests). The guesthouse owners were left with instructions to drive us back to the border the following morning, not that we were likely to abscond without getting our visas anyway as they had held our bikes and passports hostage overnight. Our room had cobwebs in the bathroom sink but we couldn’t have cared less as we feasted on crisps, chocolate and a whole loaf of bread before passing out without brushing our teeth, completely exhausted after our rather drama-filled first day on the road.

Rockclimbing in Rai Leh

December 20, 2008

We are currently cycling in Cambodia but changes of plan are afoot……

In the next couple of days I shall post about the last week on the bikes but in the meantime here are some photos from earlier on. We travelled from Saparua, Indonesia to Si Sa Ket, Thailand (our starting point for the bike trip) and stopped off on the way at Rai Leh (Andaman coast, Thailand) and Bangkok.

Rai Leh is a beach resort which is on the Thai mainland but enclosed by dramatic limestone cliffs. The only access is by longtail boat but that doesn’t stop hoards of tourists making it here.

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It is world renowned as a rock climbing destination and we had a go too.

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The view from the top if you were bold enough to turn round and look:

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One afternoon we followed a signpost pointing the way to a lagoon, expecting a leisurely post-lunch stroll, but the path soon became rather steep. Here is Chris following it Through the rock:

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There was rock and there was jungle. Little Chris found Big Tree:

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And eventually we got to the lagoon.

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We stayed in an exorbitantly expensive (well, compared to Indonesia anyway) little bungalow which was cute but had mosquito-inviting holes in the walls and no mosquito net. This is a photo taken on the only sunny day we saw in Rai Leh, the day we were leaving:

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In our neighbourhood there was a typical reggae backpacker bar (loud and annoying) and quite a few of these little fellas who were much more considerate neighbours:

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Having been driven out of Rai Leh by the double-our-budget prices we retreated to Bangkok to do some long-neglected jobs (a haircut, finally!) and get the bikes ready for their trip. Chris wishes though that he could have treated himself to a night to remember in this Bangkok neighbourhood:

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That’s all for now folks. Look out for a bike blog soon……

Socialised to Death in Saparua

December 13, 2008

Now, as our readers will know, in normal life Chris and I are not what you would describe as gregarious life-and-soul-of-the-party types. In fact we barely ever show our faces at a party. So how did the island of Saparua, Maluku transform us into in-demand socialites with diaries brimming over, always busy whirling from one engagement to another? I’m not quite sure, but here’s what happened……

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It began with a rowdy group of young lads. The afternoon after our journey to Saparua by ‘spid’ (multi-engined speedboat) we had plonked ourselves down on the sand at the far end of the village beach hoping for a quiet few hours of sunbathing, reading and general lounging. It was not to be. Within 5 minutes the motley crew had turned up to keep us company and there they remained all afternoon, shouting, showing off, bringing over the fish they’d caught for us to admire and looking at the pictures in our guidebook over Chirs’s shoulder. Chris actually bore the brunt of it as I think that my scantily clad appearance (I was in my bikini) scared them off.

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We were making our escape, heading for the sanctity of our hotel room, when we heard a guy call us over. His name was Rein, he was a geography teacher at one of the local high schools and he was very sorry about the young boys making a nuisance of themselves. He understood that tourists want their privacy, not continual harassment, and was very sorry for the intrusion. He then proceeded to invite himself to dinner with us that evening.

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After being bulldozed into the dinner date, we had managed to proceed mere metres further down the beach when we were once again ambushed. This time it was a teenage girl named Yeli flanked by her less bold friends. She wanted to practise English she said and would we sit down there and then on the sand and talk with her? This we did and she proved to be very sweet, polite and young for her 15 years. When she invited us to visit her school on the coming Monday it would have been rude to refuse. Just as it would have been rude to refuse Rein’s later invitation to his school (a different one, in the north of the island)……

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Sunday in Saparua saw us skulking in our hotel room until lunchtime, when hunger finally forced us out of hiding. From our previous explorations it seemed that dining options in Saparua were rather limited. We had found 3 restaurants and 2 dishes between the 3 of them- chicken fried in batter about an inch thick and chicken sate with an exceedingly glutinous peanut sauce. It turned out that on Sundays the options are more limited still. None of the 3 restaurants were open. So, we had to content ourselves with pineapple, peanuts and crackers followed by a very pleasant 6 mile afternoon stroll up to the north of the island.

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At 6.30am on Monday morning 2 grumpy tourists emerged after a cold mandi to find a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Yeli already waiting. School starts way too early in Indonesia, at 7am. They begin every Monday morning with a military style ceremony whch involves saluting, marching and raising of the Indonesian flag along with patriotic commentary and singing. After this was done we got a giggly grand tour from Yeli and her friend Gilbert. The lack of equipment/facilities in every department was immediately obvious but everyone seemed hopeful that government funding might increase in the near future and give them the chance to make improvements.

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I had been worried at the thought of being asked to stand up in front of the whole school and give an impromptu speech but this dire scenario thankfully did not materialise and instead we were invited to join an English class which was already underway. It was being taught by a visiting university student under the supervision of Willy, the school’s only teacher of both English and German. Willy, it struck me halfway through the lesson, bore an uncanny resemblance in her military uniform to  Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ but proved to be a much friendlier character, even inviting us into her house later for Fanta and biscuits. Sadly though her hospitality exceeded her command of English. She seemed to be struggling to multi-task with her German and English assignments and had somehow developed the unfortunate habit of ending every other sentence with “likes ziiiiis”. Not wanting to undermine her, we helped out with the lesson when asked but offered no corrections of mistakes made by either students or teacher. We did sit at the front of the class though like a pair of swots, putting up our hands to answer questions!

Our visit to the second school was a bit more peculiar. When we pulled up outside, ‘Mister Rein’ was standing in the entrance waiting for us. We hadn’t promised to be there at a set time, just whenever we were finished at the first school, so goodness knows how long he had been waiting. He ushered us in to meet the headmaster and other teachers, including his brother who, rather embarrassingly, we had sharply sent packing on our first day in Saparua when he had attached himself to us in the street, trying to hawk his guiding services. Small island I guess.

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Chris and I split up and each set off with a teacher for a tour of the classrooms and to meet the students. Strangely not one class was in progress- I have my suspicions that everything had been put on hold for our visit, so it’s a bloody good job that we bothered to turn up! The routine in each classroom went like this: The teacher and I entered to a wave of giggles and shrieks, I introduced myself, then every student one by one stood up and told me their name, their age and which village they were from. There were about 30 students to a class so, as you can imagine this got a little tedious after 2 or 3 classrooms. Especially as they were all saying “My old is…” instead of  “My age is…”. These were teenagers aged between 16 and 18 who no doubt had been learning English at school for years and years, they still hadn’t been taught such a basic phrase correctly and only the odd one could make any attempts at conversation with me. Chris fared a bit better. His manly good looks seemed to work all the schoolgirls up into a frenzy (much to his delight) and this young lady even stood up and serenaded him!

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By midday we were ravenous, dehydrated and our faces were aching from 5 hours of non-stop polite smiling. As the first ever tourists to visit the school, we were asked to pose for pictures with the headmaster and staff and then, to our relief, we were permitted to depart. But our day was not done yet, oh no. There was a lunch date to go to with Mister ‘Scrounger’ Rein who had seized the opportunity to invite himself again (at our expense of course), an upcoming afternoon chit-chat and photo session with Yeli and friends, and an evening invitation to drink ‘sopi’ (a fierce palm wine/jungle juice) with Rein’s father and family. Were we going to be allowed any time to pack or an early night before our 5.30am departure the next day? Hell, no. Not in Saparua.

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In Photos: Banda Bliss

December 5, 2008

The Bandas are a cluster of 10 tiny islands which were, in the 15th century, the world’s only source of nutmeg (then a highly prized commodity).

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This inevitably led to European invasions, first the Portugese then the Dutch then the British. In the main port, Bandaneira, there are many old colonial buildings still standing, random cannons all over the place and this Dutch-era fort (which was built to keep the British out more than the locals).

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Before we even had chance to get off the boat from Ambon, we were collared by ‘Abba’, the owner of ‘Guesthouse Mutiara’ in Bandaneira. He had found out by jungle telegraph (aka text message) from our host in Ambon that there would be 2 tourists arriving on the boat that day and so he was there to meet us and herd us off in the direction of his establishment. We soon forgave him for his pushiness though when his guesthouse turned out to be the best we had stayed in during the whole of our Indonesia trip.

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Our room was clean! The bins had been emptied and garbage from previous occupants removed (a rarity in Indonesia). The decor was classy and there was a nutmeg tree in the garden and homemade nutmeg jam for breakfast. Tea was served in a china teapot and the home-cooked fish dinners were the best we’ve eaten in our whole time in Indonesia (imagine barracuda and red snapper in caramelised nutmeg sauce, eggplant in almond paste, spicy tofu, mmm……). There was even an amiable pet cockatoo.

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Our visit to Banda completely randomly coincided with a special week of festivities for the local people. We went with Abba to a neighbouring island where we spent hours standing in the ferocious heat, trying to peek between and over the heads of the local crowds. There was a lengthy procession, plenty of chanting and guys in full costume doing some kind of warrior dance.

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The climax of the day was when they carried a new church-spire-like-thing all the way through the village and then up this specially constructed bamboo staircase to its home on the top of the mosque.

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We could also have gone to watch the annual island vs island ‘kora kora’ (dragon boat) races but we wanted to go snorkelling instead. This photo was taken of one of the boats out training.

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After a couple of days in Bandaneira, we hopped across to an even smaller, even sleepier island called Pulau Ai. Here we found sweeps of white sand, jungle and a picturesque little village of colourfully painted concrete houses. (In the Bandas in general the houses are a lot easier on the eye compared with other parts of Indonesia- there is less rusting tin, fewer falling down wood shacks, less garbage on the streets and some houses even have front gardens.)

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We spent our days exploring, reading and snorkelling. The first time we went into the sea was at low tide and we tiptoed off the beach over sharp rock and dead coral with nothing too promising in sight. Within mere metres though the seabed dropped sharply away into nothingness beneath us and we were floating, gazing at a huge grand vertical wall of coral teeming with sea life.

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All around us it was like looking into an aquarium. Our underwater photography doesn’t do it justice. Small fish, big fish (some more than a metre long), so many different colours, shapes and sizes.

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We did manage to snap this turtle in action. (The picture was actually taken on a day trip to a different island, Pulau Hatta. Someone else saw a shark that day too.)

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Chris got excited about all the different varieties of coral. The reefs we snorkelled were intact, not damaged by fishing unlike a lot we’ve seen before.

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Sometimes the current was in our favour and we could just float, gently drifting with no effort beside the coral wall, as if on an invisible conveyor belt, watching the spectacle unfold before us.

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Our stay on Ai was utterly blissful until right at the end. The ladies at our guesthouse had told us the night before that the only public boat back to Bandaneira left at 7.30am and that they would serve breadfast at 6am. Imagine our surprise therefore at their innocent exclamations when we all saw this very same boat chugging merrily on its way at 6.15am. This, not so coincidentally, left us stuck with having to charter a tiny outrigger to take us back, at 10 times the price of course. By this time, we had barely any cash left so, with the nearest ATM 200km away, we had to go begging for a loan to our guesthouse companion, an Austrian called Martin who saved the day (thanks Martin).

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And to finish…… an interesting Banda fact: Pulau Run (another island in the chain) was a victim of English/Dutch squabbling over nutmeg in the 17th century. The Dutch destroyed all the island’s nutmeg trees which left the English stuck with a now worthless scrap of land. They eventually swapped it for a Dutch-owned North American island which at the time was equally useless. That island turned out to be Manhattan. Not a bad deal, huh?

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Sailing the Seas to the Spice Islands

November 29, 2008

Our stay on Lembata coincided with the first ever visit of a Pelni liner to the island (Pelni operate Indonesia’s long distance passenger ships). As luck would have it, it was headed for Makassar, Sulawesi so we bought 2 tickets (11 pounds 50 each for a 25 hour voyage) and awaited its arrival. We were very pleased to see the ship when it finally pulled into the port- it was 7 hours late- so we took this photo:

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The important folk of Lembata dallied away yet another hour with a ceremony to mark the occasion, meanwhile all the town’s riff-raff stormed the ship to have a boisterous nosy round. We got swept on board with them and soon located economy class which looked like this:

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A bit like a prison don’t you think? A prison infested with cockroaches and with unruly children very curious of the 2 Westerners who had appeared (I’m not sure which were worse). Toileting conditions were unspeakable. Meals consisted of dirty rice with a rank bit of fish/vegetables. There were layers of grime everywhere. I had a very traumatic experience in the bathroom early on which left me seriously glowering, much to Chris’s glee. I had used the squat toilet, with my eyes fixed firmly ahead not down at other people’s deposits still remaining below, then went to push the flush and found to my utter horror that this resulted in the contents of the pan being, not sucked down, but instead fired out of the toilet and all over my legs and feet. This incident plus the 2 hours of un-volunteered-for babysitting which followed did not get me and Pelni off to a good start. A surprisingly successful night’s sleep and a good book helped brighten the mood though and we arrived in Makassar the next evening in good spirits.

Two of the best meals since Bali later and we were on a cheap flight, destination Ambon, Maluku. Kota Ambon, the area’s ‘big city’, is a lively place where everyone seems to be vying with the neighbours to have their music playing the loudest on the block. Reminders of the 1999-2004 ‘troubles’ (a conflict between Muslims and Christians which left thousands dead) can be found in the battle-scarred buildings and ever watchful police presence. A plain clothes officer at the airport took our details before we could be on our way and, when we arrived at a guesthouse, the owner had to scurry off to report our whereabouts to 2 different sets of police.

From Ambon, we had our hearts set on journeying onwards to the original spice islands, the Bandas, so we were disheartened to learn that the weekly outgoing flight had sold out (18 seater plane only), the return flight could only be booked once in Bandaneira and was prone to cancellation anyway and the Pelni ship’s fortnightly run to the islands would only allow us 2 days there before having to return. The other tourists at our guesthouse were in the same predicament and gave up, declaring getting there to be an impossible task. We decided to spend one more day exploring less orthodox solutions. And so began the curious case of the non-existant boat……

The next day we were a persistant presence at Kota Ambon’s 2 ports, enquiring as to the destinations of all the cargo ships (and in doing so being the cause of much hilarity amongst the rather rough cargo-loading gangs). We tried our hand (unsuccessfully) at charming the crew of a luxury live-aboard dive boat bound for the Bandas into letting us hitch a ride (we are obviously not charming enough). We talked to the coastguard and even got into the harbour master’s office to look at ship schedules. All the while we were asking EVERYONE we met “Is there a boat going to Bandaneira?” and the response was always the same. ‘No, no boats are going. Only the Pelni ship on Saturday.”

It was 4pm, we had been getting nowhere for many hours and we had pretty much resigned ourselves to defeat when Chris suggested we walk along the quay one last time. We saw a wooden ferry filling up with passengers and I half-heartedly asked a lady where it was going. “Bandaneira” was the reply. Oh. My. God. We sprinted out of the port, tumbled into a becak (rickshaw), told the driver to pedal like the wind (actually we didn’t because we don’t know the Indonesian for that, but you get the picture), then back at the guesthouse we scrambled to pack our things and hustled back to the port where the boat was still waiting (thank goodness for Indonesian tardiness). Soaked in sweat we took our places on a rockhard wooden bench with nothing but biscuits for food and a 15 hour voyage ahead of us.

It turned out to be a warm, still, beautiful night and we watched the moonshine on the calm waters as we chugged on hour after hour with no land in sight. We were stoked that our persistence had paid off, excited to be actually on our way to the Bandas but completely mystified as to why we had been misinformed about 50 times in succession. The curious case of the ‘non-existant’ boat remains unsolved……

Missing Photos Added

November 26, 2008

This is just to let our readers know that we have added the missing photos to the last 2 blog entries. Enjoy!

Current update: We have just left Maluku so look out for our report on that in the next week.

The Living Legend of Lamalera

November 20, 2008

After returning our motorbike to its rightful owner in Labuanbajo, we set out the next day on the bus with the tedious task ahead of us of retracing our steps back to central Flores. Many hours and yet another night’s stay in Bajawa later, we ventured into pastures new, heading towards the east, again on the local bus with the chickens tied on the back, the goat on the roof and vegetables piled high in the aisle. Our destination was Larantuka, a port at the easternmost point of Flores, from where we hopped on a wooden ferry over to the island of Lembata (part of the Solor archipelago). Next up was a 4 hour truck ride (no buses around here) on a road which was appalling even by Indonesian standards. A highlight of this journey was crossing a river where the bridge had been washed away and never replaced (think precipitous downhill hairpin bend in ankle deep mud, then charging full throttle through the river and up the steep face of the opposite bank).

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All this travelling landed us in a place called Lamalera, a tiny fishing village with a big claim to fame. It is the last village on earth whose people still regularly hunt whales by hand. They only manage to catch around 15 to 25 in an average year so have been deemed exempt from the international ban on whaling. What is really amazing though is the way that they hunt. They roam the seas in wooden boats which are usually about 10m long and equipped with a sail, a set of oars and nowadays most likely a motor too. When the whale is spotted, a frantic chase ensues and, should they get close enough, a guy who is standing poised with a harpoon on the very front of the boat attempts to LEAP ONTO THE BACK OF THE WHALE, using his body weight to drive home the harpoon. If he is successful then it becomes a free-for-all with other crew members sticking harpoons and knives in until the whale is finally dead. Unbelievable huh? For any skeptics out there, here are the pictures which accompanied an old German magazine article we saw on Lamalera:

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Whaling season is May to early October so when we visited we missed the action by about a month, much to the disappointment of our adventurer selves. Our sensible selves proclaimed that it wouldn’t be wise to get unwittingly caught up in a whale hunt anyway- the harpoons are attached to the boats so, when an injured whale tries to dive, it drags the boat with it. In the nineties, a whale dragged a boat full of men almost all the way to Timor! No such dramas befell us you’ll be pleased to hear, indeed no whales were spotted during our visit, but we did get to tag along for a morning in a boat and see the infamous harpoon in action……

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The house where we were staying was on a ridge overlooking the beach so when, at about 6.15am, some guys appeared and started preparing their boat for a morning’s fishing, our hostess spotted them and called down that she had 2 tourist tag-alongs. Without having had time to finish our breakfast we were scurrying down to the beach and scrambling aboard the boat. It was a beautiful hot still morning and before long we were out in the deep blue, watching literally hundreds of dolphins jumping and frolicking all around. The guys on the boat were all business though. The main man on the front had had his harpoon sharpened and loaded into its bamboo pole and was standing with the pole raised to the sky, alert and ready. The second in command directly behind him was giving basic signals to the driver of the boat (eg go left, right, fast, slow). And the others, we found out later, all had their specific jobs too, whether it be making sure that the rope attaching the harpoon to the boat didn’t get snagged or reeling in the catch or bailing out seawater/blood. As for us, we were just sitting at the back on a very uncomfortable bamboo pole, trying not to get in the way, waiting for the action to begin.

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The boat forged an ever-changing path through the midst of the gathering of dolphins. They jumped in synchronised groups of 3 or 4, sometimes mere metres from the boat prompting urgent shouts from the crew and raisings of the harpoon, but they were smart enough to recognise that we were no friends of theirs and rarely surfaced close by a second time. The hunters held onto their patience though and soon enough with a lightning quick stroke the harpoon was slicing through dolphin flesh, turning the sea red as the unlucky creature thrashed and slapped its tail uselessly against the surface. That was the first of 3 dolphins to be killed that morning. One was only a baby (awww, I know) which was speared then grabbed by the tail by one of the crew who was in the water with it in his hands before we even noticed him jump in.

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We sat on our bamboo pole, bums growing ever more numb, hoping we weren’t in the way during the periods of frenzied activity and wishing we could make conversation the rest of the time. There was a guy on the boat who must have been in his sixties, toothless but still agile, and he in particular looked like someone who would have had many a sea-faring whale-chasing tale to tell.

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Before midday it was all over. The dolphins had fled either to cool off in deeper waters or to escape the little boat that was persecuting them. We made our way languidly back to the village with most of the crew asleep, hats pulled down low over their faces to hide from the now harsh sun.

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The village of Lamalera lies in a perfectly proportioned rocky little bay with a curve of sandy beach on which stands a row of lovingly built thatched-roof boat shelters. Each boat has its own little house where it rests between outings, surrounded by hanging whale bones as a reminder of past triumphs. We helped push the boat that we had been out in up the beach and into its shelter, a task which required about 15 guys, a set of makeshift logs/rollers and a lot of heave-hoing as the beach is steep and the boat heavy. It was sweaty work and the sun-sparkled waves were calling to us so after lunch we went for a swim in the bay. Just the two of us- oh and a gang of about 10 kids following behind, hanging onto makeshift petrol-can floats and clamouring to have a go with our swimming goggles (they proved so popular that we struggled to get them back). We tried out our basic Bahasa Indonesia on our companions and asked them where they were from (Lamalera, duh), how old they all were (between 6 and 10) and what their names were (the first lad insisted he was called Batman- do you think they were taking the mickey out of us perhaps?).

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As I said earlier, the house where we stayed was located in gossip’s heaven, on a ridge with a bird’s eye view of all village comings and goings. There was an open-sided kitchen and sitting area out front where we ate our meals, admiring the view of the bay whilst getting pecked at by roaming chickens. There was one in particular who was quite persistant with its attacks on my burnt leg (the motorbike exhaust injury) so I learnt to be ever vigilant. A pig pen a few metres from the dining table added to the farmyard atmosphere (and smell). Our bedroom was a concrete cell (albeit a very clean cell, with freshly laundered sheets on the bed) which during the day collected a stifling, suffocating heat despite all of our window and door opening efforts. No fan of course. It was the only place on this trip so far where we have been lying absolutely still in bed in the middle of the night with sweat literally dripping off us. And then, when the air finally began cooling at around 3am, the farmyard outside would start coming to life with no consideration for our sleep- first the roosters, then the pigs, then the dogs, then the Siamese cats which made the most hideous racket of all.

So, we did not sleep well. But it didn’t matter. We had an awesome time in Lamalera and I hope it never changes, at least not before we’ve been back for that elusive whale hunt…….

The Motorcycle Diaries Ctd: Roadtrippin Flores, Part 2

November 9, 2008

DAY 6

We set out late morning and head in the direction of Riung, a village on the north coast of the island. We want to have a look at the view from the top of a volcano on the way so we start asking the betel nut chewing, scarlet mouthed passers-by for directions. Maybe it’s our command of Bahasa Indonesia (surely not?) or their lack of teeth or the distracting amount of spittle being sprayed, but we find most of the responses frustratingly incomprehensible. When we end up back where we started an hour later we concede defeat on the volcano and make straight for Riung instead.

We peruse the guidebook for places to stay and feel optimistic on reading of a ‘clean as a whistle’ missionary-run place and a ‘well-constructed new set of bungalows’ jointly owned by a Swiss woman and her ‘somewhat self-obsessed local partner’. The missionary-run place sadly turns out to be too expensive (what kind of Christians are they trying to charge 2 weary travellers an arm and a leg for a room?) so we go in search of the Swiss woman. Amusingly, it transpires that she got a divorce and did a runner sometime ago leaving the self-obsessed local ex-partner with the bungalows. Maybe the shame of having that written about her husband in an internationally read guidebook was just too much…… Anyway, we meet the guy himself when we arrive and he seems pleasant enough in a long-haired playboy kind of way. He even invites us to a wedding in the village that night but we are not in the mood for an evening in the spotlight so politely decline.

DAY 7

Riung has a forlorn feeling about it, like a place tourism has forgotten. There are only 2 other Westerners in town, a German couple who are also staying at our bungalows. The mainly Muslim community here lives in crooked stilt houses by the water or in concrete dwellings which look plusher from the outside but which are apparently mould-infested and stinking inside. That’s according to the Germans who were offered lodgings in one such house when they first arrived.

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The four of us decide to club together and share the cost of a day’s boat trip and off we go, first to an island with a huge colony of sleeping bats then to another with good snorkelling. The bats are quite a sight- they are enormous and, when we wake them up, they circle above the boat, darkening the sky and filling the air with screeching like something out of a horror movie. The island where we go to snorkel is the most perfect slice of paradise we have come across so far on our travels. The sand is so pale and unblemished and the sea, as warm as bathwater, is a crystal clear turquoise, almost green in the fierce sunlight.

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The Germans want to spend the night on this island but are put off by muttered warnings of pirates/dodgy characters who cruise the neighbouring seas when dark falls looking for trouble. So they join us instead for a rather tamer evening at the sole surviving restaurant in Riung. Judging by the rather limited and squid-heavy menu (squid with noodles, squid with rice, fried squid, squid with sauce etc etc) and general food quality, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if eating out in Riung soon becomes a distant memory.

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DAY 8

It is about 9am when we say goodbye to our self-obsessed host and get ourselves on the road back to Bajawa. We wanted to return to Labuanbajo via the north coast road but it is apparently in a deplorable state so we are having to retrace our steps instead. We arrive in Bajawa in time for lunch and for variety check into the other hotel in town. It has a lobby thick with dust and serves up a highly unpalatable breakfast of bread with chocolate chips (no butter), a cold boiled egg and a black banana, but our original hotel had blood stained sheets and smelly pillows so we are undecided as to which is worse.

In the afternoon I want to go and soak in a nearby hot springs and manage to persuade Chris into steering the bike down the worst road we’ve found yet. It’s literally one long heap of loose rubble in places and I keep having to get off to try and save the back tyre. Thanks to a few locals pointing us in the right direction (and a group of young kids who all stood up like a row of traffic policemen and signalled us down a turn-off without even needing to ask where we were going), we eventually arrive at the hot springs.

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An emerald-green river of hot water flowing through the forest joins with a cold water stream and right at the meeting point there’s a waterfall/power shower. It’s tranquil, picturesque and the water is scalding hot. In fact it is so hot that we can’t get in! We have driven all that way and we’ve only dipped our big toes! To add insult to injury a local woman then shows up, wades in without so much as blinking and then proceeds to get her soap out and commence scrubbing away. We have all but given up when a guy appears, on his way to a cooler spot further downstream where we join him for a delicious wallowing session. It is dusk by the time we leave and the rubble road is no better in the dark. Chris rises to the challenge though and gets us home in admirable fashion, albeit with some swearing and cursing along the way.

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DAY 9

Today is the last day of our roadtrip and there’s not really a great deal to say about it. We set the alarm for an unpleasantly early hour and, after 2 breakfasts (the choc chip/bread/egg/banana offering followed by something more tasty at our favourite restaurant) we are off with 8 hours on the bike ahead of us. Did I mention that riding on the back of a scooter is not comfortable? After an hour or two my bum feels bruised, my tailbone aches and bracing with my legs against the footpegs everytime we go downhill is starting to hurt my knees. Chris’s rear end is suffering too and we stop for a quick break to stretch our legs. It is then that I manage to burn myself on the bike exhaust. I had been warned about this by Chris who, as a veteran biker, has done it himself (in his own words) “more times than I’ve had hot dinners”. It only takes a moment of carelessness when about to get back on the bike and I am squealing, leaping back and looking down at a patch on my leg where the skin has been taken right off. It is still a red oozing mess now.

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We roll into Labuanbajo just in time for sunset, tired from a full day driving (Chris) and waving (me) and exceedingly dirty. It has been an awesome trip. On reflection we decide that it merits a place in our Indonesia Top 3. For now anyway. Who knows what is to come……

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The Motorcycle Diaries: Roadtrippin Flores, Part 1

November 2, 2008

DAY 1

Yesterday we arrived in Labuanbajo, a ramshackle little port on the westernmost tip of Flores. It will be 2 days yet before we get our motorbike so today we decide to head out into the Flores Sea for some island exploration. Along the town’s main street there are travel agents offering day trips but they are all expensive. The guidebook suggests that we might do better looking for boat owners down at the jetty and bargaining a price directly with them. We approach somewhat hesitantly but lo and behold the first person we talk to turns out to be a man with a boat who speaks English and is keen to take us to the islands. We are so pleased with our find that we forget to bargain and eagerly accept his first price. Damn, not so smart after all are we? Anyway it is still cheaper than the travel agents and we have our own private boat for the day which kinda makes us feel a bit rich and famous. We spend the morning jumping from the bow into warm turquoise waters to snorkel the coral reefs below and later, when the tide is higher, he brings the boat in to moor on a white sand beach without another soul in sight. Ahhh, paradise.

We return to the dry land of Labuanbajo before the late afternoon rainstorm and settle in a cafe to have dinner and watch the sun set. A very mangy cat with a severe odour problem insists on joining me on my chair. I offer it food scraps but it seems that it just wants a snuggle. Chris threatens to disown me and move to another table but I still let it sit with me. Afterwards its smell seems to follow us home and we trace the source to my T-shirt and shorts.

DAY 2

Today is a day of dolphins and dragons (and how often can one say that?). We are down at the jetty early to meet a friend of yesterday’s boatman who has promised to take us to the island of Rinca, home of the fabled Komodo dragons. The boat trip is 2 hours of stunning beauty- the sea calm as a pond and all hues of blue in the morning light, dolphins jumping and little islands in sight in every direction rising up green and mountainous from the white sand of their beaches.

The land gets more arrid as we go and when we reach Rinca we see that it is scorched and hot, apparently up to 43 degrees celcius in the midday sun. The land is so parched that the vegetation looks ready to set ablaze with the slightest encouragement. There is only the one water source nearby, a freshwater spring, so it is there that we go in search of dragons with our guide. On the way we hear tales of these cannibalistic monsters whose septic jaws can deliver a bite toxic enough to weaken even the much larger buffalo into easy prey ie dinner. The guide carries a big stick and tells us of times he has had to use it. When we arrive at the spring though things are (almost disappointingly) peaceful. There are buffalo wallowing in the mud and dragons lazing in the shade but it seems as if the midday heat has brought with it an uneasy truce. We come across a dragon nest with the mother guarding it and find out that she only sticks around for the first 3 months so, when the eggs finally hatch, the baby dragons face life alone and fend for themselves from day 1. Back at the camp there are a couple of pensioner dragons who have given up fending for themselves, predators turned scavengers, loitering around the kitchen hoping for food scraps. This is the last sight we have of these magnificent beasts as we head for our boat and the ride home.

DAY 3

Let the roadtrip begin. We pick up the bike, borrowed from a guy we met on the street, and head off down the road out of town with only a small backpack each, the cool breeze in our faces, feeling giddy and free. 45 minutes later we ride into a fierce rainstorm. Huge raindrops bounce off the road, drenching us in minutes. We ride on, T-shirts clinging to our skin, wondering why we didn’t bring any waterproof clothes, not feeling so giddy now.

We are noticing that we seem to create quite the stir wherever we go. We are already used to constant “Hello Misterrr”s and question-firing on the street but this is on another level. As we pass through villages people are lightning quick to spot the tourists under their helmets and word of our progress spreads like wildfire. Almost everyone waves, sometimes whole families from the doorways of their houses, and the children on the roadside shout with excitement, hands outstretched for 40km/hour high fives. After about 3 hours of waving more than the Queen does on an average day, Chris comments that the back end of the bike is weaving all over the place and, sure enough, we discover that we have a flat tyre. We are in the middle of nowhere when we get off and start pushing.

This is Indonesia though and sure enough within 10 minutes our bike is surrounded by about 10 would-be helpers and curious onlookers. How many Indonesians does it take to change a tyre I wonder but the job gets done. Chris is whisked away, the offending wheel under his arm, on the back of someone’s bike to the nearest garage and I am taken to wait in someone else’s mother’s house where I am offered a seat in a completely bare room and told I am beautiful. As if this weren’t nice enough, they put another smile on our faces by not demanding extortionate amounts of money for what they have done. We pay them gratefully and drive away (with a wave).

DAY 4

After a cold night in the rather bleak town of Ruteng, we set off early to try and beat the rain. We follow the optimistically named ‘Trans-Flores Highway’ as it tumbles down through lush tropical valleys and past impossibly green rice fields and as it climbs, one tortuous curve after another, through small hillside villages of wooden houses where the women wear hand woven sarongs, carry baskets on their heads and wash themselves and all the clothes in streams. There are goats and cows tethered at regular intervals along the way for roadside grazing (see future blog installment for our later disastrous encounter with one such cow).

The road is for the most part good but there are places which have been washed out in landslides and never resurfaced. We happen upon such a spot somewhat unexpectedly- it’s just over the brow of a hill and out of sight until the last second. Chris swears as he wrestles the bike over loose stones and spiky rock with no time for braking. I hang on and we ride it out, intact except sadly for our back tyre. Day 2, puncture number 2. With the help of a top-up of air from a good samaritan along the way we manage to make it to a friendly little hill-town called Bajawa where we get a new inner-tube fitted (much to the hilarity of everyone in the garage), check into a hotel bizarrely named Edelweis and go for dinner.

We find a great restaurant and end up revisiting it for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the days to come. There is a band playing there every evening which comprises a singer with not a bad voice, a motley crue armed with guitars and a lugubrious guy in a dodgy ‘Michael Mouse’ jumper on the keyboard. They have a large repertoire of both Indonesian and Western songs, some of which are performed quite successfully, others less so. Their treatment of Beatles classics such as ‘Yesterday’ is particularly dire. The restaurant owner’s wife clearly isn’t bothered though and sings along with great gusto (and at a rather high volume).

DAY 5

Today is the day we see all the pigs die. Squeamish readers (Ruth) be warned. We decide to go and visit a ‘traditional village’ which is something we have not done before due to skepticism on both our parts. We have this vision of all the villagers in loincloths prancing about with spears and beating a drum then, when the last tour bus of the day rounds the corner out of sight, heaving a sigh of relief, putting their jeans on and settling down in front of the TV. Hoping that this will not be the case here, we make our way gingerly down 19km of rough potholed ‘road’ to see what awaits us.

2 rows of thatched roof houses stand facing each other with a communal square in between and it is there that we are led, after we have made our donation and signed the guestbook (ahem). It is clear that something is going on as we arrive and it’s not too difficult to work out what. There are about 10 pigs with their legs tied, the guys milling about all have machetes hanging from their belts, carcass chopping is in full swing over to one side and there is a huge pot already bubbling away. The whole village is crowding round and there is a guy acting as commentator for the event, his voice rising as the atmosphere builds and the bloodshed begins.

3 machetes come down in unison right through the centre of each pig’s head. The other pigs are screaming now as the blood is drained into bowls. I look over at Chris and he is white as a sheet! They have started on a pig not 2 metres from us and, as we try and make our escape, I fear that we might get spattered. Chris finds a place to sit with his back firmly towards the action while I sneak a peak- there is a pig on fire now, its body twitching and spasming, but I think (and hope) it is not still alive. I don’t feel queasy like Chris, just sad and a bit shocked.

Meanwhile, Chris’s plight has been noticed and we are invited to sit on the verandah of one of the houses and have a reviving sweet tea. Our hosts have the red mouths and bad teeth of betel nut chewers and speak no English so a very basic phrasebook-aided conversation in Indonesian ensues. We manage to ascertain that they will be having a big meal tonight and that they want to sell us vanilla (we think) but the whys and wherefores of all the slaughtering remain a mystery. It certainly wasn’t put on for the tourists though as we were the only ones watching.

To be continued……


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