“Can you repeat that, I can’t hear you”, I am calling Merpati airlines from the bus to Makassar to make a reservation and the booking girl is difficult to understand over the noise of the bus: “For tomorrow 19th of January I have reserved for you a flight leaving Denpasar, Bali at 13:00 and arriving in Maumere, Flores at 15:15. Price is RP621.800 that you have to pay before 11 a.m. at the airport”. My flight from Makassar should arrive at 10:15, so I should be able to make that. “Before 11 a.m., OK, thank you”. I had finally figured out that my last ten days were a little bit short for the Moluccas or Irian Jaya and after Steve’s enthusiasm over Flores I had read a bit more about that originally Portuguese island and decided to fly to Maumere, to the east on the island, and first visit the three coloured lakes of the Kelimutu volcano and then travel across the island to Labuanbajo on the western tip for the unique Komodo Dragons on Komodo and Rinca.
“What do you mean, my reservation is canceled?”. I have definitely raised my voice now, my flight came in half an hour late in to Denpasar but heading straight to the transfer lounge I still had 8 minutes to spare. “Sorry sir, but your reservation has already been canceled”. “Well than you un-cancel it because I am on time, your booking people told me before 11 a.m., I am before 11a.m., so I want my ticket”. Heads are peeking around corners to see what all the ruckus is about, but I am pretty mad and not about to let the matter go. Not only because they messed up, but also because I don’t want to loose a full day in Denpasar. “It is automatic sir, there is nothing I can do”. “That’s your problem, I don’t care how you do it, call your supervisor, book me in another class, do what you want, but I am on time and I want my ticket”. By now my being mad is gradually replaced by calculation because I reckon the more I can make him feel uncomfortable, the more he will try to find a solution to appease this difficult customer. He is conferring with his supervisor, but there are three on the waiting list for the second leg from Sumbawa to Flores and I end up number four, and apparently there is no higher class available either. Ten minutes later I am back at his window, he is looking anxious to help me, so at least that part worked: “Do you also have flights to Labuanbajo?”, since it occurred to me that I can equally well start there and then make my way across the island and fly back from Maumere. Merpati hasn’t, but their neighbour Trigana Air does, and he scoots off to go and arrange it. “Here’s your ticket sir, the plane leaves at 13:00 and arrives in Labuanbajo at 14:30”. That settled I thumb my guide and decide to call the Dutch run Golo hotel on a hill just outside Labuanbajo overlooking the bay and minutes later Linda (the owner) confirms somebody will pick me up at the airport when I arrive.
“Peter, I’ll leave my bag here and when we come back from the trip to Rinca, I am going to find another hotel in town, I am not staying again here tonight”. Peter, the Golo hotel’s guide and the one who received me last night, doesn’t look to happy, but lying awake from 4.30 a.m. onwards this morning, waiting for 5.30 a.m. to get up for the trip to Rinca Island, that thought has solidified. The electricity did not work (no light, no AC, no camera batteries recharged and no alarm since my phone dying tune was what woke me at 4.30 a.m.), no water (no toilet, no shower, no shave), no lobby (under restoration), very difficult to rent a motorbike (Golo has a beautiful view but is 2 kilometres up the hill outside Labuanbajo). Come 5.30 I had gotten up, straightened my hair with a bit of bottled water, lugged my bag down the steps to the level of the work going on in the lobby and spotting Peter I detailed my miserable night. “This is Indonesia, what do you expect“. The blond woman, mid thirties, provisionally covered in a blue-green wrap-around shawl tied above her chest, has walked up from the cabin behind us and repeats with that little edge in her voice to let me know I am making an uninitiated spectacle of myself: “This is Indonesia, relax, it’s normal things don‘t work”. “I know all about things not working, all the more reason to let them know”, I retort, while she hands Peter a small stack of bills: “Rp 600.000, is that OK Peter?“ It is, he nods to her and then he goes off to get me my breakfast. “Paulien”, she introduces herself when I observe that we will probably share the same boat later. “Ferry“, she points back over her shoulder, ”my partner, is still in bed, he is not much of a morning person”. And after my breakfast on the porch of the cabin next door, I wait for the both of them a little bit lower down the hill at the small parking area where the Bemo, the small public bus Peter sent up from the harbour to pick us up for the boat to leave at 7 a.m., has arrived in the meantime.
“Come on Ferry, they are waiting for us”, Paulien has heard the phone call from Peter inquiring with the driver where we are. ‘Grrr, mblmbl, bonk, bonk. Leave me alone‘, the driver and I exchange a knowing glance when Ferry’s rumblings emerge from somewhere inside the cabin; indeed: ‘not much of a morning person‘. “He needs his coffee to get his system going”, Paulien shrugs apologetically when she finally joins me inside the Bemo and a wordless Ferry does the same soon after.
The Komodo Dragons have only first been documented in 1910 when the director of the Zoological Museum in Bogor wrote about what had been called a ‘land crocodile’, but in fact is the largest lizard around, up to 3 metres long and 70 kilos in weight and their habitat limited to the Islands of Komodo and Rinca just west of Flores. Their size is one of several examples of gigantism and dwarfism found on Flores (both evolutionary responses to environmental pressures and often found in island populations), like the now extinct Stegodon (a mini elephant, about the size of a buffalo), or the giant rats (45 centimetres with a tail of up to 70 centimetres; imagine that one skirting under your bed) that still roam the island’s jungle, almost a match for the Flores Hobbit (Homo Floresiensis), pocket sized humans (1 metre tall and weighing 25 kilos; skeletons found in a limestone cave in Liang Bua near Ruteng in 2003. Rain had made the dirt track impassable when I wanted to visit the site two days later), who inhabited Flores as recently as 12.000 years ago.
“My contract had just been renewed and I felt guilty about quitting my job and I would not have done it if a colleague of mine had not urged me to follow my heart, as she had not done twenty years ago and regretted that ever since”. The sun is out after the downpour last night, Paulien and I are sitting under the tarpaulin and having coffee at the table in front of the steering cabin, while Ferry is leaning over the bow inspecting the calm blue waters, as our boat steadily plods on between the idyllic islands west of Flores on the three hour trip to Rinca. Paulien had been a marketing manager for Sanoma (a Swedish owned Dutch magazine publishing firm), when Ferry got a grant from the Dutch culture ministry to do a few months of research in Indonesia. They had been living together only for a few months, so it was a bit of gamble on more than one count for her to join him for the trip, but it worked out well, she tells me. Paulien is 36 and Ferry 33 and underneath that Dutch practical woman surface, her longing, for a steady relationship is almost palpable, as she tells me about girlfriends who are settled with kids and their own home; well nothing to be ashamed of there.
“What did Ferry get that grant for then?” I ask and actually it is an interesting story. The Dutch culture ministry, conscious that the generation of Indonesians that lived through the Japanese occupation and the independence struggle is about to disappear, has instigated a project to document that period. Ferry had written a thesis on the period and he was asked to document some hundred locations in Indonesia where notable events took place involving the Dutch. “Indonesian museums are little more than a collection of patriotic dioramas, so I suspect you guys did not find a lot of people with an informed view on the period”, I observe and indeed they even sometimes were a bit miffed when people were totally unaware of dramatic events that had happened on their doorstep so to speak and had no clue. Ferry has joined us now and we discuss the period at some length and in particular their other project, namely to set up an on-line travel agency. That idea had started with Ferry’s fascination with the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) period, he is something of an expert on the subject and they had wanted to start a travel agency that would organise history tours in all the locations where the VOC has been implanted at some point in time. “I would love that”, I say, but then again I am some kind of a history geek. “But would there be enough of a market to make that work?” That is what they are hesitating about and for the moment only have a heritage tour as part of their Indonesian offerings and are still considering if and how to develop new ones elsewhere. “Actually our website ( www.footprinttravel.nl ) has just gone on-line“, Ferry says and surprises even Paulien who wasn‘t aware of that yet: “But only in a beta version so people won‘t be able to find it easily yet, still in one or two days we already had 50 unique visitors“. “Who is going to do all the Google smart stuff then to make sure it ends up high in the search results“, I ask and that will be Ferry himself who also was an IT guy in an earlier life.
“But I have another idea for you, Ferry“, it is something that had come to me some time ago and he would be the perfect guy to go and run with it: “You should set up a VOC museum in the Netherlands, there is nothing like it and it a fantastic period of Dutch history, think of the possibilities: daring entrepreneurs, rugged adventure, harsh living conditions on board, colourful captains and crews, dramatic shipwrecks, dangerous locations all over the globe, the start of capitalism, the first multinational company and its ignominious demise and the Dutch colonial empire that took over, you name it“. “There isn‘t something of the kind yet?”, Paulien asks, looking at Ferry, “No not really“, he muses, “Only one room about ships in the Maritime Museum, but nothing that covers the whole of the VOC“. It seems I got him thinking there.
Rinus (many names on Flores are European due to the Portuguese-Christian influence), our guide on Rinca for the two hour walking tour over the island, leads the way, as we make a bet on how many Komodo Dragons we will encounter. “We shouldn‘t count the ones that were congregating near the shed where the rangers are cooking their meals, don‘t you think Ferry“, I suggest, just to tease Paulien, who with 11, has the highest estimate, but will win the bet hands down anyway. We keep a safe distance when we do encounter Komodo Dragons lazing in the sun to warm their bodies, at least three people have died on the island over the last few years, Rinus tells us, curiously not by the bite itself, but by the infections resulting from the virulent deadly bacteria a Dragon carries in its mouth. “Do they then follow the wounded buffalo around for that long?”, I aks Rinus, when he explains that the Dragons will sneak up behind a wild buffalo, bite it and then wait for the infection to kill it in one or two weeks time. They do, Rinus confirms, and Paulien shudders at such sneaky calculating behaviour.
“There must be loads of wild buffaloes here”, I point at the dung along the path. “How do you know it is buffalo dung?”, Ferry, walking behind me, queries. Well it looks like buffalo dung, not like elephant dung that as you know is only half digested, we have already covered that Ferry has spent some time in Namibia. “Yes, I do know and it is not the first time today you tell me something I already know”. I slow my step and while Ferry walks past, I ask Paulien, only half mocking: “How did you manage to live with this guy already for 16 months?” She pulls a face that says: 'you learn to live with it'. No wonder Paulien shuddered, slow to get his system running and a virulent bite, Ferry would do well as a Dragon.
“It’s more a kind of a girl thing”, Ferry says. We are on our way back and will stop off at one of the islands where we are go snorkeling for an hour or so and enjoy a very tasty lunch together under the tarpaulin of he plodding boat. We have already covered a lot again,: their 6 months stay in Ubud on Bali (they enjoy staying and working there and the contacts with the locals; see their website for a video of the place); would it be wise to invest in building a cottage like the one they are renting for €500 a month (a good deal because we roughly calculate that on an investment of €25.000 the Canadians who own the place, make return of about 10%; pretty good, but you do need somebody reliable to manage it locally); the house Paulien owns in Utrecht and the feeling of security that gives now that they are still trying to figure out how to go and make a living, the fact that Ferry is some years younger than she is: ’better watch it he is after your money’, I ’warn’ Paulien (they joke about that themselves, so I am still on safe ground) and now Paulien is telling about the small scale Reiki (a Japanese holistic healing technique) training sessions she is giving, with good results she feels and how she is contemplating to attain the second level in Reiki proficiency and go and do training sessions in companies and the like. I have never heard of Reiki or of Shin Do, a related technique she mentions and I tend to be a little bit skeptical of spiritual healing, but Paulien is clearly very much into it and convinced of the positive effects. Maybe it is more of a girl thing, I agree with Ferry. “I will be in Japan for a few months later this year“, I tell Paulien, “So if I can do something to help with the courses, or buy something you need, let me know“.
Peter joins us again when we land in Labuanbajo late in the afternoon and we assure him the trip was nice, the Dragons prehistoric, the lunch excellent, the snorkeling refreshing, in short we had a great day. “I spoke with Linda and she is prepared to let you have the room for Rp 200.000 for last night”, he tells me as I am about to walk off to go and find another room in the village. “We’ll see about that”, I retort a bit curtly, because in my mind I had decided that I would agree to settle for half the price, be it that for once I had not asked what the price was actually.
“I’ll take this one”, I tell the guy from the Gardena hotel when he shows me the last one he has on offer. It is only marginally better than the others and they were clearly under par and I am beginning to regret my decision to leave the Golo. But thirty metres up the slope the view is nice here too and being in the village itself it is close to restaurants and to the travel agencies which is also important since I still need to negotiate a price for the car that should take me in four days to Maumere, so I leave it as it is.
“I didn’t know that all that went wrong”, Linda tells me when I relate to her the whole series of mishaps of last night.” Peter only told me about the electricity, not the water and the rest“. It turns out Peter had ‘forgotten’ to mention still another matter, namely the fact that he knew the electricity was not working, because he tried to switch it on when he showed me the room. At the time I thought it was simply a rolling black out and had expected it to come on again during the evening and when it didn’t, I tried to find somebody in the lobby but to no avail. “Now that I know how it was, I’ll let you have the room for free, because it was obviously a bad experience”, Linda continues and I‘ll have a word with Peter about this. “That’s very kind of you”. I say, accepting her offer and she even throws in the laundry I had done overnight for free. So even if in Indonesia not everything works, letting them know, sometimes helps.
“You may entirely be right Ferry, maybe I am running a bit behind the times when I used the term ‘hits’ instead of ‘unique visitors’ when we talked about your website this morning (he is at it again, pointing out how IT-retarded I am), but if you are such an IT wizard, can you then tell me some term with which I can dazzle my son who with his company is into selling virtual workplaces”. The three of us have run into each other again at The Corner restaurant and are now waiting for our dinner while we are working away on our laptops. “I don’t even know what virtual workplaces are”, Ferry confesses. “What is that term again, that I like so much”, Paulien joins in: ‘Open something‘, looking at Ferry to help her out. Again we have been talking about a lot: the financial crisis; the Tiger economies of Asia and Singapore in particular; how Ferry disconnected from his former news-junkiness and Paulien now catches him watching Buddhist television for hours on Sunday mornings; his fascination with Discovery Channel’s ‘Seconds from Disaster’, where they painstakingly analyse plane crashes, while he is terrified of flying (“So you are not only a dork but also a wimp then”, I couldn’t resist that one; he still had something coming) and lots more. “Open source”, the term Paulien meant to suggest has come back to her. “Sorry Paulien, but ‘open source’ is not going to impress my son”, and also Ferry doesn’t manage anything beyond ‘unique visitors‘; some wizard. But really it was very enjoyable talking to these guys and it is close to midnight when we say good bye and I walk back to my Spartan hotel room just across the street hoping for a better night than the last one before I get up for my four day privately chauffeured trip across the island starting tomorrow.