Our last stop in Indonesia was to Flores - a stunning, less-traveled island known for its easy access to Komodo National Park - home not only to the infamous Komodo dragon but also to some of the world's very best scuba diving. The island was colonized by the Portugese and remains primarily Christian. Labuan Bajo was the base for a 2-day scuba trip we arranged. A lovely, ramshackle bay harbour, this once sleepy spot has found its tourist scene growing, partly due to the influx of Italian inhabitants. We ate some of the best food on our trip - incredible Italian and Greek, and even indulged in a wine tasting next to our dive shop. Those Italians.. can't leave home without their wine!
Off the coast of Flores, the converging of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean create strong currents (too strong, as you'll later hear) and plankton-rich water that attracts a wide variety of large marine life. This is obviously not a photo of us scuba diving, but we like to think this is pretty much what we look like.. epic sunburst and all.
One of our dive spots was Manta Point, where we were told you see many massive manta rays 99.9% of the time. Unfortunately for us, the incredibly high odds were not in our favor. The other group that dove with us somehow saw a bunch and even more infuriating - the girl who came just to snorkel saw some! Joe was ready to ask for his money back, when we decided to give it a go and throw on a snorkel and see if we could find any. Sure enough... down in the deep we spotted a huge guy (even bigger than the one in the picture)! He must've been 3 meters across and looked like a spaceship floating below us. So cool.
On Joe's deep-water dive at Castle Rock, he spotted a Napoleon fish which some call the blues singer of the ocean. Look at those lips!
Our favorite site of the day was Cristal Rock - the most incredible visibility and tons of fish of every shape and size. There was absolutely no current, so it was a breeze. And we saw our first shark! A white-tip reef shark.
One of the most memorable (and scary) moments of our second day, was our dive at Batu Bolong which has been rated as one of the best dive sites in the world. It is a wall dive where you descend immediately and make your way zig-zagging up a narrow rock. Current here can be a huge issue as once you get to the edge of the wall on either end, the current will take you. Our instructor Andromeda (Flores Diving Centre is owned by, you guessed it, four Italians) confirmed there would be current, but said it wouldn't be too strong. Of course Ashley's main concern all day was the current, so she had already worked herself up. The beginning of the dive was lovely - truly beautiful coral and fish along the wall. But at one point the instructor took us too far to one edge and we got caught in the current. We held on to coral and rock and struggled to swim back to the calmer area, but in the process, Ashley's regulator fell out. She cleared it and put it back in, but she started to feel panicked, couldn't quite catch her breath and wanted to ascend immediately. There's nothing like feeling like you're out of breath 20 meters underwater! Ashley alerted the instructor and made a controlled ascent for a nice breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief.
If that wasn't enough excitement for one day, we decided to take a visit to Rinca Island to see the fierce Komodo dragon - the world's largest lizard which can grow to 10 feet and 150lbs. You may also know him from his appearance in Skyfall at the Macao Casino when he takes down one of the rather large bad guys. We did a small hike on the island, flanked by two guides carrying sticks to protect us. One of them had recently been attacked - he was bitten in the foot, scaled a tree for protection and was there for hours with the ferocious dragon waiting beneath before someone came to help him. With stories like these, we were ready for some action. Unfortunately, the only dragon action we got was a small, old female Komodo who would hang out by the kitchen on the island. It was mating season, so all the other males and eligible females were deep in the jungle getting busy. Poor old gal. With our heads hung low, we headed back to the boat. Just as we got there another group came to tell us they had spotted a huge male roaming around. We ran back and caught the menacing beast trolling the area, tongue slithering. Joe got way too close for the guide's liking to snap some great photos, which of course, are no more. But Google's photo ain't so bad.
From Labuan Bajo, we made the trek to Moni - a small village close to Flores' second major attraction- the color-changing volcanic lakes of Kelimutu. This was our bus to Moni. They asked us if we wanted to take a seat up top. Yaaaaa right. We wedged ourselves inside instead.
Moni is a very small, rural village full of cascading rice paddies, thatched-roof huts and grazing water buffaloes. The main attraction is the volcano, but we thoroughly enjoyed the wifi-free, simple, quiet village life.
We stayed at the Estevania Lodge which we're plugging here to support our good buddy Jeni, the guesthouse owner. Jeni was the best - she was one of the saaviest business people we've ever met. Constantly on the look-out for "tooooourists!" (as she would whisper with delight every time a tour bus drove by).
The three color-changing lakes atop Kelimutu volcano from above. After arranging the tricky transportation to get to Moni, we were informed by a fellow traveler we met in Labuan Bajo that the volcano had been closed due to recent activity. The govenment didn't mind shutting it down, but did a terrible job of checking in to re-open it, so once it was deemed safe by the locals, they started to bring tourists up illegally - for an extra fee of course.
We arrived as the sun was coming up and it was quite a sight. This awful cell pic does not do it justice.
During our stay in Moni, we did a lot of hanging with the local kids. The friend we had met scuba diving had recently completed 2 years with the Peace Corps teaching English to village children in Java. She had just been to Moni and asked us to bring some letters to the kids she had met there and conversed with. In such rural surroundings we could not imagine how incredible it would have been to be able to speak to the kids in their native language. When the letters from "Miss Erin" arrived, the kids went nuts. It was adorable.
Ranty with her letter.
Ashley playing cards with Karlitos. The language barrier made it difficult to pass on the rules of Go Fish, but she did her best.
As you can see in his lap, Karlitos carried his special letter from Miss Erin every where he went. So precious!
During a hike through the rice paddies, Ashley decided to get to work helping the locals in the trenches. Thankfully, no leeches.
Ashley and Jeni became good friends during the stay in Moni. She was a spicy little lady and they'd gossip together about the other villagers, her failed marriage (and the story of her chasing her ex around the lawn with a knife), and her daughter who was at the top of her class in Mathematics in college and was Jeni's everything. One night Jeni joined us for dinner and started bragging about the village's extravagent wedding feasts, detailing the delightful food spread - "they have everything you like... beef, dog, chicken, fish." And contrary to the last post, Ashley has in fact started wearing tablecloths. Here she is in her ikat - essentially a hand-crafted snuggie made with natural dyes that all the village ladies wear. Ashley strutted her stuff in her ikat during a walk through town and got more hoots, honks and thumbs up than she could count. The villagers love seeing tourists in the local gear. And Ashley was just happy it was socially acceptable to leave the house wrapped in a blanket.
The ikat gettin it done.
We'll end on this note. The air freshener in our hotel was not-so-aptly named Wenis. This ridiculousness was one of the only surviving photos since Ashley sent it to certain special deener tot in their birthday email.
That wasn't so bad was it? It was nice to have an excuse to steal from Google to grab some epic underwater shots. We promise the next blog on Cambodia will be much better since we traveled with our best travel buddies throughout the country and they have so kindly shared their photos with us.
You can find the rest of the Komodo and Flores photos on our hard drive in a small Laotian hut where the thief is currently enjoying the fifth season of The Wire.