Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

November 1 - 15 2012 / Indonesia: Bali to Australia

In Which We See Our Ninth Total Solar Eclipse
Part 2 - Sumbawa Encounters and Komodo Dragons

Part 2 - Sumbawa Encounters and Komodo Dragons

The very next morning after embarking we docked at Sumbawa, a tiny place, the usual messiness of docksides everywhere, people on their haunches under trees (like the smart animals in Africa) waiting for us and watching us, and a small group of folks in black shirts (in the tropics!) stationed by four buses. 

Into the buses we go, having been warned they were non-air-conditioned.  Well, they had air intakes but since the air is exceedingly hot and humid it was no matter.   In the very back of our bus, where we are, there is an exceptionally large and furry black wasp with an orange belly-band, warning me and all comers by his colors.

I see piles of orange roof tiles, small tables with bottles of gasoline as in Vietnam, piles of large woven mats, house materials, rolled up and ready to use.  I see a small horse at a water site, where women stop to look at us, and some of them wave and smile.   At a school, a circle of kids in their red and white uniforms, and later, one after another, Muslim schools, girls in lavender  hajib [Muslim female head covering] at one, standing at the fence and waving excitedly at us, and at another they are all wearing green, waving, smiling, and probably shouting.

The land is so dry, so parched.  It is so not what I was expecting.  John asks me where I got my expectations.  I’m not sure; I think I just thought, well, tropics equals rain forest.  So it is taking me a while to get used to the look of it here.  I guess it will rain, next month maybe, but we have been unable to find out how much or how often.  There is a lot of dry grass around, so it must be green sometimes.  I wish I could see that, but the eclipse determines our timing.

These drives through countryside or town, or by villages, frustrate me and bring me up short.  Frustrating since everything I want to look at glides past the window without stopping and I cannot see enough, only glimpses and tantalizing hints.  And I am brought up short since I think, well, how would I comport myself if the bus WERE to stop and let me out to walk around?  Would I just gape and take pictures of people in their normal life? How rude.  The one time we were the subjects of this kind of thing, in Beijing, I was irritated and very uncomfortable.  So it is the same with anybody here on the street or at their little shop or house.  What do I think I am, sticking a camera in their face?  But still.  The torment of places of which you can never be a part.

Not that I have a desire actually to be a part…so why am I here?  To see, to see, to smell everything and hear the roosters and the voices of languages I do not understand.  To see what is the same everywhere, and what is not the same.  I guess, like Everest, because these things are here, in our earth, and so am I.

At the first village some people were lined up to “greet” us (though what this might mean I have no idea since of course they have been paid, but that is okay, but it isn’t a real greeting, it’s what the company and the local folks think would interest or even amuse us)—these men are wearing bright pink jackets and headgear, and they are rather singing and playing small instruments.   A local guide woman, with quite helpful English skills, explains to us what is happening, but as I am way in the back and can barely see anything, and get the picture of it all right away (greeting us, men, instruments, fancy clothes), instead I look around.  Satellite dishes on every house, a nice little street, slanting up a small hill and curving gently, little houses on stilts on each side.    People looking at us as we at them.  Some have phones and take pictures, which I love.  This technology has changed so much for the good, I believe.  Even the person most remote can be connected to our large world.

A small anxious looking woman, her hair covered as they are all Muslims hereabouts, has smeared her face with a kind of yellowish paste.  Although I can’t hear it all, the explanation seems to be that this is a kind of protection against the sun.  It gives a kind of African aspect.
With chagrin I realize as we are gently herded that, oh, it’s a kind of small grid pattern of streets, houses on either side.  Why am I surprised.  Because I have actually, now that I just think of it, have never been IN one of these ubiquitous villages, perhaps only driven by in haste to somewhere more “interesting.” 

At any rate, we are made to go to the right, to an intersection, then right again and there we are in a kind of small square, where we are told we will see “the wedding ceremony,” followed by rice-pounding and cloth weaving.  On a small dais, a pair of women is apparently enacting a ceremony, but since I can neither see nor hear, I am not much interested.  Besides, I bet they don’t really do this when they get married anyway, so who cares.
Then at the front of a house, several women use long, heavy sticks to pound rice in a large wooden trough.  Another shakes the pounded rice on a tray, to winnow it.  I bet they don’t really do this any more. 

Maybe they do.

A young girl, her head covered, stands on the porch of this house, above the pounders, watching alertly.  I want to take her picture and try to do so discreetly.  But as so often happens, when I get the camera back to the room and look at the image I’ve made, she is looking straight at me.  Busted!  Sorry, girl.

Another woman, older, is seated on the ground using a loom in a somewhat desultory way.  Her face is covered with the paste and she is regal in her disregard of the rude strangers crowding around her and sticking their cameras at her.  There are shawls for sale, a whole clothesline of them, but I am not sure  that anybody here made any of them.   One of our guides demonstrates, spiritedly, the use of these cloths for garments, how you fold and tie them, for men and for women.  Each way of folding yields a handy pouch for money or, for the men, cigarettes. 

Behind and below this little street is a stream, and there are placid cows in it, and a couple of guys bathing, too. 

People mill about, taking pictures of each other standing next to the villagers, arms around them, thumbs up.  I have brought pictures of my family and hesitantly I show them.  I’ve never done this before and it is kind of nice, although I learn right away that they think I am giving the pictures to them. 

Then it is back into the hot buses and a short drive to the place of the buffalo racing. 

This is all so weird.  First some lengthy dancing that is apparently another wedding ceremony, accompanied by some not very harmonious singers and players.  In the audience we are seated on flimsy blue plastic chairs, and one of our members falls backwards in his as its legs buckle under him.  The narrator lady, a true professional, doesn’t miss a beat.  A sweet of some kind, coconut we are told, is served, each pale green piece wrapped in cellophane.  I very much do not eat this.  But there is Coke, in small tall cans, and I welcome that.

The point of the buffalo racing is described, which seems a mishmash of complexity.  We adjourn to the racing pond, a ghastly soup of mud and buffalo excreta.  Two buffs are yoked together with a triangle of wood at their hinds.  A man stands on the triangle and urges his team forward through the muck, trying to steer them by means of stick-whacks on one or the other in order to be able to touch a stick placed in the pond at the far end.  There is some talk of how the shaman (in pink) has endowed the stick with magic, but I do not believe a word of it. 

There are as many local folks watching this spectacle as tourists, and each group is taking pictures.  A lot of kids, some girls have covered their heads, and one I notice takes one end of her scarf and holds it across her face, against the prying eyes of the men in our group.

Little boys leap into the filthy stinking pond to grab the buff teams and hold them away from the rest of the competition, and make over them.  One of our members pets a buff on its filthy nose.  O arg.

The whole affair is over in a few minutes but I get some of the obligatory pictures.  I don’t really get what this is all about, and later in the bus I try to question one of the Aussie guides we have on board, but he is not very helpful either.

Nobody seems to know how much the village gets paid for their shows.  I’m taken to one person after another, from Wilderness Travel, from the ship company, from the guides, and nobody seems to know.  Probably because a little gets skimmed off at each level.

Cynical, but.

We say farewell to this village, and I hope they get a lot for their efforts.  I wish I knew more about their real lives, though.  I hate this feeling of observing them on show, like something in a circus or a zoo.  SEE! The amazing RICE pounders do their rhythmic act!  SEE! The stoic woman weave a shawl while SITTING ON THE GROUND!  SEE!!  The filthy muck spray lavishly as the BUFFALO run through it!  Step up, step up. 

Into the buses again, and a longish drive, through the dry dry countryside, through a small town (so, says John, it’s not all just villages, which I think is a good observation as I think we tend to think of everywhere in the “third” world as being “just villages”).  Here are car repair stores and places you can buy motorbikes, places to buy household goods and their proprietors sitting on their wares, large overstuffed ornate chairs.    Foto copi.  Coke, of course.  Honda.  Schoolyards from which little children in uniforms, the girls in purple or green Muslim dress, the boys in little shorts, rush to the fences to wave and shout at us.  As always, I would like to go in those schools and take those classes—oh, how I would like to do that. 

Out of town, a rough road, and we are supposed to be visiting some kind of festival.  Sure enough, we round a hill, arrive on a kind of plateau, and there are crowds of local people who rush to greet us.   There’re hundreds of them.   We are herded to a much larger buffalo pond, and there are rows of red plastic chairs on the uneven ground.  It seems this is a recently harvested rice field, now dry and lumpy.   I can’t see anything of the racing—which is apparently a truly legitimate thing inasmuch as the winner gets a new motorbike as a prize—but the crowds of local people are surrounding me and I cannot see anything but them.  And I have no way of communicating with them.    I am deeply, deeply frustrated.  We don’t stay long, and we don’t get to stop by the little row of kiosks at which I guess people are selling things to the fair-goers.

We are the center of attention.  John says, The running of the tourists.  Our pictures are taken with cell phones.  Children are held up for their pictures to be taken.  Thumbs up are exchanged.

But it is all over in a very short time and we are herded back onto the hot buses and driven back down the little hill and back across the rutted road, and through the town.  There is a stop in the town to see some kind of official building of some sort, but one is to remove one’s shoes and I don’t wish to, so I hang outside.  How much I would like just to walk around here, and not feel uncomfortable.  But that is the nature of it, these kinds of trips.

At the grounds of this house, I walk up to the nasty blond Aussie who made the rude comments about political parties, the first night, and tell him that it was not appropriate.  He is hideously rude back to me and walks away.

At dinner, fortunately, some nice conversation above the din.

I don’t sleep well, and get up very early and go out on deck.  The rush of humid air—my curling hair, the railing slippery with unmelted salt.  The spreading sunrise.

We are now completely out of touch with home.  No internet connection, no phones, no nothing.  How are our girls, following the storm?   What is happening with Barack?  I so need to know these things and cannot.  A man I was just talking with, loud but thoughtful, said, well, in 1970 you wouldn’t even have known that there had been a storm.  Yes, quite true.  Our expectations lead our frustrations.

It’s Komodo, early in the morning as we approach it—them, for there are several islands that are a part of it.  We’ve been told there is a Holland America ship to come in there too, this morning.  There is of course much scorn heaped upon the Holland America ship, which is to our eyes a lovely thing, but of course because she has 1800 passengers—and is here ahead of us—nothing good can be said.  I’m thrilled with her of course—that lovely ship!—and would like nothing better than to jump ship over there, away from this cramped and noisy place where I’m crammed in with these others.  But of course they will probably not see the eclipse—or maybe they will?  When I get home I’ll see if I can find her itinerary; she’s the Volendam.

Again I am so surprised by the dry, barren look of it here.  My visual expectations have been so wrong; I’d stupidly thought, well, equator, so it’ll be rain forest, lush and filled with green.  So not true.  The mountains are jagged and high, quite bare. 

A soft wet landing in the sand.  The Hollands are tendering.   Lots of us come ashore at the same time.  We’re assigned a group, get our shoes on after the landing, and then a hurry and wait for the briefing pavilion, groups before and behind us.

One of our guides carries a very long stout forked stick.  I can see that you would catch the attacking Dragon around the neck, to deter him.   Two other rangers are with our group of about twenty.  They are still, dark, pleasant.   The one with the stick wears a plaid shirt and is taller and larger than the others.  I wonder if he is of a different island.  He smiles and seems pleased with his work.

We are shown our route, which walk we’ll be taking: the long walk, a loop.  And we set out in search of Dragons.   Groups ahead and behind us.  The ranger shows us some plants, including one with mint-like leaves which he says has antibiotic properties against the dread Dragon spit.  I pluck a leaf, crush it to smell.  Sure enough it is pungent with chemicals.  How I love this tiny demonstration of botany principles, and that I know them.

I do so little botany these days, and so seldom exercise my skills, that just this tiny indication of competence is satisfying.

OH!  To the right, at ease and motionless in the dirt in the shade, there she is, a female Dragon.   I’m in awe of her, her finely-scaled coat, her wrinkled drapey neck, her long seal-like, snake-like and evil-looking head, her heavily-clawed feet splayed on the ground, her long tail.  Pictures are taken, caution is taken.

We walk on, halting as the group in front halts.  We see deer, large ones, which we are told is the primary prey of the Dragons.  This seems improbable.  I try to find out how a Dragon would take a deer, but the guide cannot explain to my satisfaction, and later I read that they are actually carrion eaters for the most part.   But there are deer all over, and in fact we see a brief set-to of two males, butting their antlers.   All along the little trail small animal trails lead off into the dry brush.   One guide says these are Dragon paths, another that they are deer trails.

Shortly it’s the water hole, dry now, and laying about are several more Dragons.  One has his right hinder delicately lifted above the ground, claws fanned out.  All the other legs are splayed, and the animals are belly-down.  Once in a while there is a bit of movement of head, and possibly they are watching us.  I ask our stick-carrier if he has ever had to use the stick.   Nine times, he says with fervor.  What do you do? I asked.  Grab them around the neck?  Yes, he explains, if you get them that way they will rise up and turn away.  Was it scary, the first time?  Oh yes, he says, very scary. 

Finally other groups are off on their own walks, and we have the trail to ourselves.  It’s oppressively hot and humid.  We slog on.  I have my stick and I am glad of it as a kind of aid in the heat.   We stop by a dry pile of dirt; it seems the Dragons lay their eggs in the dirt mound nests of megapode birds, and this is one of them.  I tell the stick-carrier about the large litter-nests of megapodes in Australia, and how they are hot within (I know from sticking my arm in there).  Like a large turkey, I tell him.  Yes, yes! He says, and I believe he does know what I’m talking about.

We slog on.  Although the notes on the ship suggest that this longer walk has a good chance of seeing Dragons, there are none.  Inasmuch as they are reptiles and hence would seek shade in the heat, and since there is no shade here, I am not surprised.

We slog on, with occasional brief rest stops in bits of shadiness.   I drink hot water from my bottle and worry a bit about some elderly people on this slog who seem not very fit.

Finally there is a welcome sight, a sort of raised blind, and a bench.  Being in the front of the line, I get to have a seat.  One of our ship’s people rushes back along the trail to gather up the laggards.  This is the halfway point and a good thing too.  The heat is staggering and oppressive.   Birds are heard but no one tries to find them for us. 

After a brief rest we slog on, this time going down the other leg of the triangle of our loop trail.  There’s a sighting of some Dragon poop, white (calcium from crunched bones, like hyena poop) and filled with deer fur, and it’s agreed that some will go back the less-hilly way, and others of us will tackle the bit of hill ahead.  One of the men, a large, heavy fellow, is dying in the heat.  I try to show him how to wet his scarf and use it as a portable cooler on his head and ears.  He kind of gets it but can’t seem to follow my instructions very well.  He is wearing the heavy black cotton t-shirt given out by Wilderness Travel for this trip, a totally unsuitable garment for this walk. 

With the help of my stick I make the top of the hill, where there is a handsome sign announcing it and the fine view, of the two ships in the blue water below. 

Finally, at last, we all stagger down to the waterfront.  I leave John for a moment to browse the souvenir stalls, where I buy a tiny Dragon to add to my collection.

But when I come back to go to the zodiacs with him, I find him sick, faint and nauseous.  I’ve seen him like this before and I know the chances of him keeling over, or being sick at either end, are high.  Fortunately the Expedition Leader is nearby, and immediately many helpful people come around to tend my precious man—cold wet towels, water on the head, and, shortly, a litter arrives and he is able to lie in it.  He’s carried to the zodiac and placed carefully in it; I scramble in and we rush back to the ship, where they carry him up from the zodiac and right to our room.

The ship’s doctor arrives and checks him out, gives him some rehydrating fluid.  He’s feeling better and I tend him, get him into the shower and tend to everything.  I spend the afternoon on the comfy bed with him, skipping the Komodo snorkeling trip.  I’m pretty wasted anyhow and am content to lie here in the low light, resting.

Dinner is a “seafood extravaganza” on the outside deck.  I sit between two nice men, and have a good time.  But in general I’m just not feeling right.  Now that I think of it, this is common for me on trips.   I haven’t had any fine experiences on this trip yet, and I’m not enthusiastic about the guides or the other passengers.  I’m here but I’m not here