28 - Vänskap, Chicken Rants, & Jargon Dance (Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia)
An eight-hour ferry and a fowl descent into madness. Enter Frederick “The Swede” and a budding friendship. Inaccurate diction and sloppy pronunciation will get you nowhere. Captain Rudy takes command.
by The Nostomaniac
GUIDEBOOKS ARE OLD. Even when hot off the press, many are still hopelessly outdated, the information spoiled. If you indulge in extensive travel in far-flung corners, you’ll appreciate this. According to the Lonely Planet, the ferry from Sumbawa to Flores left daily at 8:00 am. The motel clerk? 9:00 am departure. The ticket office opened at 8:30 am. The agent gave me a 10:00 am departure time. The ferry left at 12:00 pm. Can’t float without diesel. So, we waited for the refuel.
I secured a seat in “business” class because frankly, I’m fucking worth the extra $1.50. What do you get for an additional buck fifty? Padded bench seats, air conditioners that feel more like props than functional cooling units, and a superiority complex. I joke, but the sad truth is the minuscule difference in fare isn’t so minuscule to locals. That could be a week or more of wages. Turns out, it ain’t worth the splurge. I spent most of the time in economy class. Fresh, diesel-tinge air trumps stale climate-controlled luxury any day.
The farther I traveled from Bali, the more dilapidated the ferries became. There seemed to be an inverse relationship between length of journey and quality. From Bali to Lombok? Decent. Lombok to Sumbawa? Less decent. Sumbawa to Flores? Lesser decent-er. Nothing unbearable, but noticeable nonetheless.
I marveled at the different fare categories: Adult, Child, Vehicle, Cargo, and Livestock. A horse, a buffalo, or a cow ran an extra ten dollars each. A sheep, goat, or pig about half that. I saw a rat soaking up business class. Not sure what the charge was for Mickey.
An eight-hour ferry provides ample time to think, to ponder life’s mysteries. Why does the chicken cross the road? Growing up, this was nothing more than a prelude to a pitiful punch line. But after so many hours on a motorcycle across three Indonesian islands, I was genuinely intrigued. Why? Because every day I came perilously close to snuffing out one or more of the clucky little bastards.
“To get to the other side”, you say? Sure, but this is unsatisfactory. Why do you do this, you stupid fucking bird brains? In all seriousness, not only do these (and their farm comrades) pose a real threat to motorists, they’re also a source of income for their owners. A dead chicken might represent a significant financial setback. High-level negotiations concerning a hen’s current market value is not something any foreigner wants to engage in…probably. I must admit there was a deviant sort of appeal in watching that scenario unfold.
What is it about a road that compels these fowl renegades to risk life and wing for little or no reward? Do they realize they’ll have to return, eventually? Is that part of the thrill, knowing they have to come back? Adrenaline junkies with a thirst for danger or just degenerate retards? When someone asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest, he responded simply, “Because it's there”. Would daredevil chickens empathize? I think they might.
If we could speak to chickens, I assume we’d be able to talk to goats and cows as well. I would certainly treasure their input. Would they blame the chicken for glamorizing an act of potential suicide? I wonder because it’s clear to me goats refuse to be outdone by something as insignificant as a flightless bird. They aren’t content with merely crossing the road. Oh no, no. They take it up a notch and linger for as long as possible before relenting. That is, of course, if they relent. There appears to be an elite brand of thrill-seeking goat that refuses to move even when looking down the business end of a large cargo truck. I assume those goats think other goats are complete pussies and aren’t shy about saying so. I mean, if I were a goat…
I don’t know about the cows. To be honest, I don’t believe they have it in them. I impute apparent risk-seeking behavior to mere coincidence, resulting solely from ignorance or old-fashioned genetic stupidity. Just a theory. I apologize to any cow lovers out there.
When I wasn’t having ridiculously inane thoughts on the suicidal tendencies of livestock, I was making friends and influencing people. Enter Frederick “The Swede”, a nineteen-year-old solo traveler from the Kingdom of Sweden. Highly intelligent. Incredibly well-spoken. Wise beyond his years. We were to spend a week together which included a three-day boat tour of Komodo National Park. I never felt the vast age discrepancy. Whether it was his maturity or my immaturity is anyone’s guess. We discussed my Pulau Moyo failure, specifically my futile attempt at locating the road to Air Bari, the hopping off point to Moyo. Frederick assuaged my ego by telling me it was almost impossible to find without local help. You might recall I repeatedly asked locals along the way. Guess I didn’t ask the right locals. Too bad, so sad. He confirmed my suspicions—a visit is worth the trouble.
We had something else in common: Papua New Guinea. I spent over three weeks there in August 2000. If I wasn’t addicted to foreign travel by then, that small island nation sealed my fate. I may elaborate in a future post, but for now, I can say it is (or at least was) an enchanting place if you know where to look and have extra coin to throw around. I got lucky on the first count and used my student-loan money to satisfy the second. Oops.
Frederick had a different experience. His six-month adventure was financed on a shoe-string budget. No such thing as budget travel in Papua given the infrastructure and realities of an island economy. He spent time in the capital, Port Moresby. I avoided it like the plague. This was a mistake but my reasoning was sound at the time. Crime-ridden. Abjectly poor. My research failed to reveal any redeeming qualities, the precise reason I should’ve visited. There was, however, one redeeming quality: the people. I experienced this first hand elsewhere. Frederick managed a homestay in Moresby and spoke of overwhelming hospitality. What they had, they shared. Their enthusiasm was tangible and they were grateful for the chance to show him their world. There wasn’t much to do, the food was pitiable, and he brushed cockroaches off his face at night, but the people he met were magnificent. And I understood.
I’d found a kindred spirit. Gimme an “S” for simpatico. At nineteen, I was drinking shitty beer in a dorm room in Upstate New York, not avoiding the Rascals (as the local gangs terrorizing the streets are known) in Port Moresby. Impressive. Very impressive.
We arrived in Labuan Bajo around nine o’clock at night. I wasn’t a big fan of night driving, especially with a subpar headlight. And certainly not in a strange locale. Most budget options were booked, and the ones that weren’t were, let’s say, really “budgety.” There was a more expensive option two kilometers outside town, so I decided to investigate. En route, I asked a gentleman by the road for directions. I couldn’t remember the hotel’s exact hotel name. This would initially prove fatal to my quest.
“Permisi, ada hotel Komodo Hotel Bajo dekat di sini?” (Is the Komodo Hotel Bajo nearby?)
Confusion reigned. I rearranged the name repeatedly (e.g. Bajo Komodo Hotel, Komoto Bajo Hotel, so on and so forth).
“Nooooo, no hotel. No hotel that way.”
Um, kay. I knew guidebooks can be outdated, but this was befuddling. A error that huge? Say it ain’t so.
Thank you kindly.
I turned back. About five hundred meters the other way, I stopped at a shop and inquired again, this time with the proper name (Baja Komodo Eco Lodge). They pointed in the direction whence I came. Um, kay.
Thank you kindly.
I turned around again and encountered the same gentleman on the roadside. I stopped and announced, “Baja Komodo Eco Lodge!”
“Ohhhh, yes! Two kilometers that way.”
Are ya shittin’ me? Yes, I garbled the name. Guilty as charged. Still, you’d think there was enough to connect the dots, right? There’s me sitting on my bike with a backpack using the word “hotel”. And there were three other hotels near that one. Apparently, “No hotel that way” meant “no hotel down this road that matches your f’ed up literal description. Pronunciation, bitch! Go back.” How could I be upset? It was innocent…and hilarious.
I arrived at the Baja Komodo Eco Lodge at long last. It was then I realized there were two classes of lodging in Labuan Bajo: “Nice” and “Shitty”. Nothing in between. Forty dollars a night was a splurge but one I felt comfortable with under the circumstances. LB has a quasi-charm but isn’t particularly memorable. I was tired and in no mood to backtrack. A safe area to park the Phantom was the clincher. The lodge’s beach location was the butter on my sweet roll.
Frederick and I planned to book an excursion together, so it made sense for us to share a room. Given his means, we agreed he’d pay half the going rate for the budget options. I was fine with that. Besides, we’d split the boat fee. Another bonus? I could relinquish sole decision-making responsibilities, a welcome cognitive relief. We became cohabitating heterosexual adventure partners with a suitable HQ.
And then there was Benny, a hotel employee brimming with personality. That man’s smile could disarm a syphilitic ISIS rebel. A kind soul you’re compelled to like. Pleasant and extremely helpful. He kept referring to me as Eric and I didn’t have the heart to correct him.
We spent the next morning and afternoon researching our Komodo trip. The day was full of difficult Englonesian language conversations, price negotiations, and boat inspections by the harbor. We set up appointments/interviews with potential captains at the hotel. All business.
In the end, we went with Captain Rudy, a recommended operator listed in the Lonely Planet. He spoke almost no English whatsoever, so the initial phone conversation was a real treat though I did paste together enough Indonesian to get him to the hotel.
Most folks do a two day, one night trip through the national park, but we met another tour operator that did three days, two nights. This was much more appealing as we knew there was plenty to see. Also, no need to rush. We were hoping to encounter fellow travelers, not only to defer the cost of the trip (with two it was about a hundred dollars per person), but also to spice it up with a few more dynamic personalities. Frankly, a few Scandinavian female volleyball players would’ve done nicely. Although Frederick and I were more fun than a barrel of monkeys, it’s always nice to add variety to the mix. We’d both been traveling solo for a while and were looking for some socialization. (Maybe a volleyball match or two—wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Unfortunately, our search proved fruitless. It was low season so there weren’t many travelers about. The ones we did meet didn’t lend themselves to a three-day trip on a relatively a small boat. We were forced to amuse each other.