I’m writing this with a stomach happily full of breakfast, staring out across the bright blue bay of Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores. Flores is just one of around 17000 islands (even they don’t know how many) that make up Indonesia but it’s probably best-known as the diving-off point for the Komodo National Park. Kaleidoscopically beautiful above and below the water, the region enclosing Komodo, Rinca and other smaller islands nearby by is a treat for scuba-junkies and anyone who’s ever dreamed of seeing a real live dragon.
Komodo in the scales
I got to do just that yesterday. There’s nothing like a childhood obsession with dinosaurs to get you excited about seeing the rare – and huge – monitor lizard, the Komodo Dragon in the flesh (in the scales?), even if it is twenty-odd years since you bought your last Allosaurus model.
The water-life here’s pretty spectacular, too. Collecting the coral-dyed sand on Komodo’s Pink Sand Beach and snorkelling around islands like Kanawa, it’s easy to see why the undersea gardens are considered world-class, even if I did get attacked by a small angry wrass for my trouble.
Finding my long-lost Flores family
Although like many people, dragons were my main reason for coming to Flores at all, I managed a quick glimpse of the deeper character of the island before hometime.
I took a quick trip to Ruteng, a mountain town further inland, with not much to entice the traveller other than some surrounding sights such as unique rice fields and hikeable volcanoes.
For me, the trip was made worthwhile by a chance meeting. My accommodation fell through (I was trying to stay at the local convent, which is a thing apparently, but no one understood my drawing of nuns) and the family of my ojek driver simply invited me to their home.
Felicitas, her husband Nofi and three-year-old Alicia were my official hosts, but during the course of my 1-night stay, I met sisters, brothers, mums, dads, nephews, aunties and pretty much half the village and by the time I left, I’d consumed so much local coffee and hot bananas I was bouncing all the way back to Labuan Bajo. Alicia even gave me a treasured batu akik, a piece of local volcanic rock.
This lovely bunch of people gave me the most authentic homestay of my trip, more coffee to go (‘for your family in England’) and the chance to stay connected with a part of Southeast Asia, even when I’m back in the UK. (We even swapped postal addresses. Like proper penpals.)
Learning how to travel (next time)
So I’m feeling lucky as I write this, my last (travel) blog post for now. But I’m also feeling frustrated. Two and a half weeks is a pitifully small time to explore an archipelago so diverse. I bounced around only three of the major islands and had to skip a LOT.
As a kind of ‘break from life’, this year has done exactly what I wanted it to. I’ve racked up some great vocational experience, lived in another country and seen a little more of several others. I’m still glad that 5 months out of my 8 were spent in Cambodia.
But I’ve also learned that to do the kind of travel I like and to get the most out of any country, you need time. Time for things to go wrong and then go right again. Time to take the slow boat, or the slow bus. Time to hear about something unmissable that wasn’t in the book, or on the map. And time to have those much-needed catch-up days when you just need to sort out your washing or go to the Post Office.
So although I’ve been away from home a long while, and I’m very much ready to go back, I feel like I’m already applying lessons learned to the next trip. Perhaps no.1 should be, don’t try and do seven countries in three and a half months. Take longer or just get to know one place really well.
That’s the phrase that will be going round my head tonight as I try to snooze on the plane back to London. Next time.
Don’t know how long, not sure where yet, but there will be a next time. Til then, thanks for coming with me 🙂