My most recent trip took me hundreds of miles from my current home in Java to the eastern isles of Flores, Komodo, and Padar, in a province called East Nusa Tenggara. The Flores landscape is stunning: green hills slope in and out of the vast blue expanse. Dramatic ridges play hide and seek endlessly past the horizon until the sun disappears behind the ocean, like a giant, fossilized water snake left stuck in time. The atmosphere here is remarkably different from the bustling, traffic-laden, densely populated Java. A bit more laid back, a little less conservative, and admittedly more relaxing than the island I call home, this visit was a welcome change of pace and quite literally a breath of fresh air.
Labuan Bajo, the island's main city, is quite developed due to the increasingly booming tourist industry. Visitors from all over the world come here to see the famed Komodo dragons, to go island hopping, and to sample some of the world's best scuba diving.
However, if you go five minutes outside of Labuan Bajo, the poverty on the island becomes much more apparent. Flores appears to be much less developed than Java, the main commercial, political, and economic hub of the sprawling archipelago; an island that accounts for nearly 60% of the country's population.
Flores is also unique in that it is a mostly Christian island in an otherwise Muslim-majority country. This is because the island was colonized by the Portuguese, who left their religious and cultural influences here. Flores, like the majority-Hindu Bali, has evolved in its own context, somewhat differently from many of the other large islands in Indonesia. This is what makes Indonesia so fascinating: many areas of the country have evolved in their own "vacuum," so to speak, and as a result of the geographic isolation and varying historical contexts, there are endless variations of religions, beliefs, customs, languages, tribes, and traditions to be found throughout the archipelago.
As our guide stood by, armed with only a two-pronged stick in case of any sudden movements, we got about a meter away from the lizards to take pictures. It was only after our photo op that our guide explained to us that these lizards will lure their prey close by pretending to be apathetic and sleepy, and then suddenly chase after its prey when approached. "Run zig zag," he generously informed us, although we were left wondering why he neglected to mention this until after we had gotten so close.
Our guide also mentioned that the mothers often attempt to eat their own babies when they hatch, and it is only the babies that outrun their mothers and hide in trees long enough to grow big that will survive childhood. I feel like a pun belongs here, but I don't know what it is - something about early childhood trauma and the cycle of abuse.
Following the excursion to see the dragons, we hopped back on the boat and sped to the other side of the island in order to volunteer at a local elementary school. We held a workshop for the most adorable second- and third-grade children, where we read them children's stories and taught them vocabulary about animals. They were incredibly engaged and excited about our presence, and it was a quite rewarding experience. Admittedly, I could not help but wonder if these children would count as a full meal or merely a big snack for their predatory dragon-like neighbors.
Following this experience, we got back on the boat and headed to Padar island. We hiked up the steep, arid mountainside at high noon - an intense challenge - but we were rewarded by an incredibly stunning view. We stayed for a few pictures, and then ran back down the island for the shelter of the boat.
We took naps in the boat and woke up near a remote and empty beach, where we snorkeled in the best coral reef I've ever seen in my life. We had the entire place to ourselves, and after the heat is was incredibly relaxing to paddle around the delicious blue waters and explore the rich coral.
On Saturday, we visited a different elementary school on the Flores mainland, and ran another workshop for some students. At this point, I had managed to shake out of my head the dark curiosities of what a dragon eating a child would entail. Once again, I left feeling grateful for another energizing experience with more enthusiastic kids. In the afternoon, we went to a large cave formation, where we had to crawl on all fours to get inside. It was so dark inside that I was able to experiment a little with my photography, and got some good results.
Although this trip to Flores was quite short, we were still able to hit all the major sites: Labuan Bajo, Komodo island, and Padar, as well as do some snorkeling and spelunking in between. A greatly rewarding trip that left me feeling refreshed and ready to tackle my last few weeks in Java!