When your good guy friends ask if you want to go scuba diving and see Komodo dragons in Indonesia, you kinda have to make the finances work so you can say yes to that. We went in November 2015.
To run down who my travel buddies were: Neal is a dude I went to Spain & Italy with. He’s my bestie Lindsay’s husband, but he was her boyfriend at the time of the trip and he is another engineer like me. Zach is also an engineer, we dated for five minutes, but are still amazing friends with no hard feelings. Kevin has been Neal’s BFF forever. He’s from Oahu, and is software dude. Chris (aka “Irish”) has been a dive buddy of these guys forever. I had only met him a month before the trip though. He’s a software guy, and if you read my blog about Ireland, he’s the one that got married there. All five of us were on the Ireland trip and also later went to Africa together.
I was the last one to arrive in Indonesia because I had to be in Florida through Thursday for work. Zach, Kevin & Irish got there almost a week before we did and went to another island (Derawan) for some diving. It was really out there, in fact, some of the locals stopped the white guys on the street and asked for photos! Neal arrived the day before I did and went to dive a famous ship-wreck on the other side of Bali (the Liberty) and met me the night of Halloween. We had dinner and crashed out and the other three guys arrived on the 1st. We stayed at the Kuta Paradiso hotel. Nice enough.
Flying to Bali is an ordeal, especially since I left from Florida. Orlando – LAX – Hong Kong – Bali was about 34 hours of travel time. It was made tolerable by being on Cathay Pacific. Such a nice airline with good in-seat entertainment and really good food. It’s on my alliance with American Airlines, on which I have status, so I was able to use the VIP lounges and drink the free booze. To time adjust, you gotta sleep at the right time, so I totally recommend a melatonin and two glasses of red wine. (Obviously know yourself and consult your doctor). Out for 7.5 hours on flights when I needed to be. Unfortunately I was a total blonde on multiple times this trip, and I left my beloved Kindle in the seat back pocket either from Florida to LA or LA to Hong Kong. D’oh!
Bali has always been on my bucket list, but especially after Eat Pray Love. I pictured it as a more Hawaiian Hawaii – extra spirituality, pristine, friendly. However, I was super disappointed with my particular experience there. What I saw was like Tijuana and Waikiki had a baby after a three-way with Ft Lauderdale. Very dirty, very cheap, very touristy, but most of my time was in party town Kuta by the airport. It’s a third world country with no pollution laws, and the over-pushy vendors trying to braid your hair or sell you bracelets on the beach. The resorts I saw were nice, but you’re insulated from everything outside, and I am not a stay-in-resort kind of traveler. So, if you just want to go and stay in a resort somewhere and drink beers and umbrella drinks, go to Hawaii or Mexico. No need for the long flight from the US to Bali just because it’s Bali. I know that more Hawaiian Hawaii exists on the island. I didn’t get to see it. I’m totally shallow in saying that and the disappointment was my own fault because of my expectations. I’ve loved some really ghetto trips and I’ve been disappointed in places everyone else thinks is amazing, so I definitely know that it’s all about your expectations going in.
The morning of the first, Neal and I took an Uber about an hour and a half from the town of Kuta where we were staying (beach town right by the airport) to Ubud, which is the spiritual center of Bali, and is where Elizabeth Gilbert stayed in Eat Pray Love. (The Uber ride was $8.75 each way!) We started at the Sacred Monkey Forrest, which was awesome! I’ve seen a bunch of monkey sanctuaries, but this one was the coolest. We spent the best two dollars of the trip and bought a small bunch of bananas and they climbed all over us!! It was so fun, despite concerns about fleas and rabies and that they were trying to pull my dress down. There was a little pond where they could climb up a tree and canon-ball into it, and it was adorable. We even saw two monkeys doin’ it, but was not fast enough with the snapchat. I’m assuming the female monkey was more disappointed with the short performance than I was, ha! It was a million degrees, so we stopped for some beer and walked around the market part of the town. I took cash out of the ATM and promptly left my ATM card behind, so that totally sucked. I had to lean on the guys for cash for the rest of the trip, and I paid with credit wherever possible. We balanced everything out in the end in a pretty complex spreadsheet. #whenengineerstravel
We stopped for coffee and I bought my mom some of the Kopi Luwak coffee and had to buy us a cup ($10, which is a lot in Indonesia!) to taste and see what all the fuss is about! It’s the most expensive coffee in the world and it’s made when a little critter that looks like a cross between a cat and a Wolverine eats the coffee berries and then people collect the poop and wash it and roast it. Didn’t taste more amazing than any other coffee I’ve ever had before, but maybe it’s just because it was so hot and I didn’t really want coffee? I always advocate for taking care of animals when you’re traveling and this is definitely a caution area – if there are farmers walking through the forest picking up the droppings and making wild coffee, it’s fine. But there are kopi luwak farms where they have the little critters in cages and force-feed them the coffee beans, and it’s a sad miserable exploitative life for them. Please avoid the cheaper, farmed kopi luwak coffe.
We went to a super hippy vegetarian place for lunch to get the feel of Ubud. There were white people dreadlocks everywhere. I overheard someone telling their friend that they were “just so visible right now,” so yeah, OK. I wanted to go see a Balinese healer and see if I would have an Eat Pray Love experience, but it’s apparently you have to book in advance, so that didn’t work out. Ketut Liyer (from EPL) was still alive at the time and doing fortunes, but there’s a huge line, he’s expensive, and the reviews say he has dementia and keeps saying the same thing over and over again, so we didn’t do that. On the way back, we were in a minor fender-bender. Felt super bad for our dude. The drivers over there are NUTS.
We got back to Kuta and the guys were there and we walked around on the beach for sunset and had some dinner and we sat on the beach and drank some cheap Bintang beers. It was super nice.
A note about scuba diving that you’ll need to know later: When you dive, there’s a lot of pressure from the water above you, and you’re breathing compressed air that is regulated to whatever depth you’re at. Air is 78% nitrogen, and when you’re at depth, it causes a lot of the nitrogen to dissolve into your blood and your tissues. If you go to a less than sea level pressure (going up a mountain, or flying in an airplane), or if you ascend from being really deep underwater too fast, then the nitrogen comes out as bubbles, and that’s really bad for you and it’s called the bends. You get treated for this in a decompression chamber, and in extreme cases it can kill you.
The next morning we flew out at 6am to the island of Flores, which is right next to Komodo National Park, which encompasses several islands including Komodo itself. We stayed in the town of Labuan Bajo, which was a super tiny pirate outpost shanty town. Our hotel (Bayview Gardens) was up the hill a bit from the main street, so we had a nice view, but was a serious hike with dive gear and if you’re tired after diving/traveling. The hotel was nice enough, but very basic. There was trash and dirt everywhere in the town, a lot of tin shacks, filth in the gutters, super poor area. There are a bunch of dive shops in the town, two tourist shops to buy nick-knacks, and a bunch of restaurants and bars. Saying this because I don’t want people to think I’m snotty for not liking Bali – I loved this island and this part of the trip. But I knew it would be remote and it didn’t have the spiritual reputation that I had built up in my head.
We got there too late to take the dive boat out on Monday – Komodo Island and all the good dive sites are over an hour away by boat, so they leave early. So we found a little activity shop and hired a boat for the day to take us to see the dragons and the flying foxes. It was a looong boat ride to get there, and we had a deck of cards, and we decided to play @$$hole. You get rank for the next round based on how you finish the last round, and the first one out gets to pass out drinks and make people do things for them during the game, and the @$$hole always deals and gets to give out the shit while they’re dealing. We were on a teeny piece of crap one stroke motor boat with three Indonesian dudes and no beer, so we just started daring each other to do push-ups and little dances and stuff. The boat dudes thought we were HILARIOUS and couldn’t figure out WTF we were doing. We had a blast.
When we finally got to the island, we walked about 10 minutes to a little campground area where the park rangers stayed. There were a bunch of houses up on stilts about four feet off the ground. Not even one hundred yards into the camp area, there were about seven adult Komodo Dragons just chillin’ under one of the huts! It was SUPER hot and they were being lazy. We had a guide with us at all times, and he had a wizard staff type thing to keep the dragons away if they decided to walk up to us. We took a bunch of pictures and video and then walked a few minutes away and there was a nesting mother building her nest. I was totally looking over my shoulder all the time for the sneak attack. I asked our guide if he had ever seen anyone be bitten, and he said his friend was bitten and he died. O.o The dragons are only very mildly venomous, but what makes them so deadly is that they have a cocktail of every awful bacteria in their mouths. If you are bitten, you’re dead six hours later if you can’t get the mega-serious antibiotics ASAP. Or it’s zombie apocalypse rules with an immediate machete amputation. So we were already an hour and a half away from Labuan Bajo, and they didn’t even have the antibiotics there, you’d have to fly to Bali to get them (no idea why? They’re perishable? This town’s only major draws are seeing the dragons and scuba diving, and they don’t have a decompression chamber either, that’s how small/poor it is). If it was after a dive, you can’t fly for 24 hours afterwards because of the nitrogen thing, you’d have to take the fast boat to Bali to get the meds, and that’s 10 hours, so you’re totally effed. I had a moment where I was picturing myself ending up as the next “Florida Man” by being in an article said “California woman mauled by komodo dragons while trying to take a snapchat”
Then we got back in the boat and went to this teeny little deserted island. It was gorgeous, beautiful white coral sand, great snorkeling around it, and we just chilled there for three hours. If we would have known it would be that much down time there, we would have bought a bunch of beers and a cooler to take with us and have less time there, but whatever. There was a time when I was the only person on the island because the boat guys were in the boat, and the guys were all snorkeling, and I had a total Mark Watney moment (I am currently the best botanist on this island!) and it was really neat.
As the sun was starting to go down, we went and parked the boat right next to Kaolong (sp?) island and there are over a million bats living in the mangrove trees there. As the sun set we saw them all take off and fly off to Flores island to hunt for insects and food. It was crazy! And they had the total batman wing shape. From there it was about an hour to get back to Labuan Bajo. There was one of those moments you just have seared on your brain because it’s so beautiful – we were all sort of dozing and one of the guys was all “Oooooh, look!” and if you leaned over the edge of the boat you could see a train of glowing algae trailing as the boat cut through the water. And it was so dark that when you looked up you could see the milky way across the sky like a beautiful swath of fabric. It was unreal. We had dinner and a couple of beers by the hotel and passed out pretty early.
Then we had our three days of diving with Divine Diving. I’m up to 38 dives now, and these guys have all been for 100-200 dives, so I was worried that I was going to be inept and hold them back in some way, but it worked out alright. It was AMAZING DIVING. All of the guys had at least one if not two dives from Komodo in their list of top 5 dives they’ve ever done. The first dive we did was on this ridiculously amazing reef – the coral came in Every. Single. Color. that exists, it was unbelievable. It was the most density and diversity of life that I’ve ever seen. It’s something that I can’t ever really convey in words what a great experience it was and you can’t really get it on video. That was in my top 5 dives for sure.
Above is Zack’s dive video including the stuff before I got there. Go to 8:15 if you want to see the part I’m talking about. Includes the dragons and the bats!
The best part of the trip was Manta Point. These things are huge mofos – their wingspan was twelve feet long! So picture two really tall guys laying down head to foot, and that’s how far across they are. We were stopped on the boat and gearing up and we saw them flying around under us, it was amazing! Some came pretty close to the surface and we saw some breaching. They like to go to this one point because there are a lot of feeder fish that come and clean all the parasites off them, and they like the strong current. We would drift along for a bit in the current, and then we’d see one, and you go as flat as you can on the sea floor and try to grab on to whatever you can, because they don’t like people bobbling around, and you would have to kick a bunch to spend any time with them in the current. I mean, they were HUGE. They flew right over us. I could have pushed off the bottom and touched one, but they warned us not to do that. They are filter feeders, and their sting tail is only vestigial. (If you want to sign a petition for their conservation, go here – mantawatch.com/stop)
The rest of the diving was great, saw a lot of the cast of Finding Nemo, turtles, GIANT puffer fish (unpuffed) and seahorses, regular sting-rays, nudibranchs everywhere, angel fish, butterfly fish, cuttlefish, and on the last day we swam with some (harmless) sharks!
The dive boat was really great and the food was very authentic Indonesian and good. The last day we went and did some more technically difficult dives. We did a few drift dives, where you don’t really swim, and you just let the current move you by everything. They gave us reef hooks, which is a hook at the end of a short bungee. You hook into something not living on the reef, and you inflate your vest a little bit so you’re not kicking at the coral, and you just kinda float there. Pretty fun! So here’s the part where I almost died. Remember how I said that you get Nitrogen dissolved in your blood and you can’t surface too fast? Well, I was using rental equipment and it’s not maintained the best. I hooked into the reef and went to add a little air to my vest, and it got stuck on inflate and I started to go to the surface really fast. So I start dumping air through a secondary vent while it’s still inflating, my hook comes loose from the reef and I start accelerating towards the surface. I’m banging on my vest and finally get it unlodged. The dive master saw what was going on and came up and grabbed my leg and yanks me down as I’m getting the last of the air out of my vest and I get hooked back into the reef and all set up. So yeah, turned out OK because I knew what to do, but I want my own scuba gear now because I can’t trust the stuff I rent in these third world countries I go to.
The non-diving stuff in Labuan Bajo was pretty fun, but IMHO no reason to go really far to get there if you’re not diving. They, of course, had a bunch of Indonesian restaurants, but there are only so many days in a row that you can do that. They also have what is well known as the best Italian restaurant in Southeast Asia (totally rando), and we went there a few times and it was amazing.
I had a blast with the guys the whole time, we had some really intelligent and insightful discussions about world events and politics and it was so nice being taken away from my real life and not having to worry about the Kardashians or TV shows or celebrity gossip or what color the Starbucks cups are. (I do not worry about the Kardashians but I am using them as a trivial point). I was able to focus on the beauty of the place I was and how great the friends I was diving with was, and I really got to reflect on the living conditions in a third world country and how my #firstworldproblems aren’t that bad. I always say this, but I want to purge more and have less stuff and spend more time reading and exercising and outside.
We went to the fish market by the pier, and that was a real eye opener – the guys all love seafood, and I hate it and don’t eat any. I went into the one in Morocco, so I thought I would be adventurous and go in with them, but I was two steps in the door and turned around and ran. Absolutely food poisoning central – flies everywhere, none of the fish was iced, really smelly and rotting. Good thing we saw this early on, the guys didn’t eat any seafood at all the whole trip. We went into a grocery store in the poorer part of town, and it was eye opening on what life is like in third world countries where the tourists don’t really visit. It looked like an earthquake had gone off and the food was broken and smashed and old. The shelves were in total disarray and I also got the impression that there hadn’t been something bad that went through, but this is how it always was. I thought about how Americans have to have everything perfect and won’t eat all this perfectly fine food because it has a spot on it, and it was just sad. Other good restaurants were Mediterraneo and we loved this coffee shop.
The infrastructure in LB was really bad too. The power went out all the time. Our first night there it was super hot (it was always super hot) and the power went out at about 2am, killing the AC, so we opened all the windows. Well, they have mosquitoes there big enough to rape a chicken. (Quote from Eat Pray Love). So they all came to the party. Indonesia, with the exception of the island of Bali, is Muslim; so at 445 in the morning they broadcast the call to prayer over really bad quality loudspeakers all over the town. And there were roosters going crazy. We were pissed and grumpy the next morning. But it was all so cheap – nice hotel with an infinity pool (no elevator, no shampoo, kinda like camping with weak wifi), breakfast and lunch every day, and the dive boat, dive masters, air, and rental equipment, all for $100/day. That’s unbelievably good!
Because of the residual nitrogen I mentioned before, you can’t fly for 24 hours after your last dive, so we had a day of literally nothing to do. Massages in Southeast Asia are ridiculously cheap, so we all had two massages, ate a lot, and drank some beers. We tried to shop for souvenirs, but there really wasn’t anything if you weren’t interested in hand-carved wooden statues of dragons. We walked by a couple of schools where all the little girls were wearing head scarfs. They would run up to the gate and wave at me and say hi because I was white and blonde. There were a bunch of other tourists there, we met a lot of Dutch and some Germans. All the people in Indonesia were so super nice. Except the taxi drivers who are always trying to eff you, like in every country.
Geographically speaking – as you go from West to East, the bigger Indonesian islands are Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, one other island, Komodo and the small islands we were diving on, then Flores. Getting home was tough because there was a pesky erupting volcano called Mt Rinjani on Lombok. We were monitoring the closure of the Bali airport pretty closely. Neal and I were both taking our international flights out of Bali, but the three guys had a domestic flight to Jakarta on Java before heading to Japan for their layover. They were closed for a few days while we were diving, and they had just opened right before we left Labuan Bajo. We flew pretty much right over Mt Rinjani getting into Bali and everything was fine. We all split up at the Bali airport because we were leaving at different times out of different terminals. Neal and I went to check in for our flight, but we couldn’t because we had a six hour layover and our ticket counters weren’t open yet. So we found a locker and ditched our big checked bags and went to the hotel we had stayed in before. It was right by the beach and a little market, so we did some shopping and chilled out by the pool with a coconut beverage and some beers. We were waiting for the uber to go back to the airport and I got a notice on my phone that my flight had been cancelled out of Bali because of volcanic ash. Ummm… I just flew over that Volcano and everything was fine. I was told the winds were shifting and that the ash cloud was coming back and would hit around the time that we were supposed to take off. Cathay Pacific seemed overly conservative in their cancellation, as Neal’s international flight to Taipei (same routing as mine to HKG) took off two hours after mine was supposed to, and the three guys got out domestically to Jakarta.
Since I have status on this airline alliance, I got lumped in with the business class treatment. We got private taxis (instead of a bus) to take us to our hotel, and I had an ocean view room at an AMAZING four star resort for free! It was a Holiday Inn!! I was SO SURPRISED I can’t even tell you how nice it was. Swim-up pool bar, my room was SUPER swank and I had an ocean view. I had dinner, breakfast and lunch paid for. Went to the beach to watch the sunset, and saw all the planes taking off and landing at the same time I was supposed to. I worked out in the gym for an hour because there wasn’t anything else to really do – I was spooked to travel alone as a single woman in Kuta. I didn’t have my Kindle, so I went to the little traveler lender library there, and the only English book was a very bad romance novel, so I read that and chilled. I woke up early on my last day and had arranged to have a private sunrise Balinese yoga lesson on the beach. Umm, it was $11. You can’t even get into a group lesson at 24 Hour fitness here for that! He told me I need to meditate more.
I was able to make it out that day, so that was good. I got to use the lounges again, clutch. Very interesting – because I was up so early and I was flying from West to East, I saw the sunrise and sunset twice on November 8th. Crazy! Cathay Pacific is such a nice airline, I think I watched about 10 movies on the seat-back TV and the food was super good. Would definitely fly them again!
That’s that. All sort of rambly and all over the place. Ask if you have any questions
[…] totally out of their comfort zone to leave the town they’ve always lived in and go look for Komodo Dragons. For me, the converse would make me equally uncomfortable. I have friends with kids that travel a […]
[…] totally out of their comfort zone to leave the town they’ve always lived in and go look for Komodo Dragons. For me, the converse would make me equally uncomfortable. I have friends with kids that travel a […]
[…] of my friend Irish, who was the groom at the wedding we went to in Ireland and also went on the Komodo dive trip. He was really interested in scuba diving the sardine run in Africa. We started a […]