Monday, August 9, 2010

Chilled Out in Flores

Janet's on a day trip with friends into the interior of the island. I'm relaxing on the boat nursing a cold. It's mostly a runny nose and I think I'll be pretty much over it tomorrow when we head west again.
Flores is mountainous, volcanic and lush. We're anchored off the first tiny slice of the western world we've seen since leaving Kupang and it's a lovely spot. Outside of any river estuary or settled area the waters in this sea are the clearest, deepest blue I've ever seen. The phosphorescence at night is the most intense. This place is called Sea World Club and it's a small resort catering to foreign guests, very rustic and isolated but with good food and some idea of what foreigners expect in service. The anchorage is a lovely black sand beach with good holding and dinghy access. The staff is nice and there is some English spoken. They welcome boats and it's all comparatively civilized.
Kupang was the end of any reliable internet access for awhile and this will be sent via Sailmail and HF radio. From Kupang the fleet split again with some boats heading south to Roti and then northwest towards these islands. We decided to head northeast to Alor and the town of Kalabahi, mainly because we had heard about really good diving off Alor. Kalabahi was a much smaller and more primitive version of Kupang. What you really need can be found there, but what you want, that may be somewhere else. But as in Kupang the welcome for the Sail Indonesia boats was a little overwhelming. They really went to a great deal of work to arrange big dinners for the fleets with the regional politicos showing up. There has been lots of dancing, lots of cultural exhibits, lots of attempts being made to lure tourism to a very beautiful but very poor part of the world. As it stands only the most adventurous tourist will find their way to this part of Indonesia and they won't be greeted by much in the way of amenities.

But what we lucky boat people can see is perhaps the most interesting cruising ground in the world. From Kalabahi boats split up further. We moved to the north side of the Alor Archipelago and began day sailing westwards. We've been anchoring for nights in places where there may or may not be a village but there's always been good shelter and holding. We've had some great snorkeling and some great interaction with the local people. These islands are very steep and the villages are generally up the mountain a small distance from the sea. It's certainly a well populated area but some areas much more so than others. Often we see a village with a prominent Christian church and then another with a prominent mosque very close to each other but not quite co-located. Apparently the two groups like a little space if possible. There's very little sign of agriculture. Fishing seems to be pretty much hand to mouth. People in the interior villages live pretty much as they always have except maybe the head hunting is no longer an obvious part of the culture. Everyone, without exception, has been very sweet to us.

The indigenous vessels are classic wooden boats ranging from 200 foot long coastal freighters to dug out canoes. You may read that wooden boat building is a "lost art". Not here. Everything is wood here and some of it is beautifully done. Although you do see dugouts, usually with a couple small children paddling around, the more typical small boat is a planked hull outrigger canoe. These have a high "clipper" bow and a sweeping shear line to a very low free board. They can be lovely or crummy depending on the owner but we run into them well offshore going from some unseen place to another. They scale up from that model and it's very common to see a 40-80 foot long ferry boat with similar lines (no outriggers of course) but with a slab sided deck house built aft and a single mast forward with a very long boom. If the wind is right they may fly a sail. That would be to help out the seemingly universal engine which is a one cylinder gas powered contraption which sounds like an old John Deer tractor. Engine size is variable with the boat, maybe. Into these boats 50-100 local people pack in and head over the horizon. They have no safety gear, no radios and no navigation equipment. They have local knowledge and a lot of faith. It is common to see a couple of ferries traveling together which might be for safeties sake. I can't believe these guys don't break down once in awhile and a tow might be very handy. The most amusing boat we see is the local "hot rod". This is always a young guy with a very long, low, narrow, clipper bowed but very flat shear boat with the same one lung engine. However, it has no muffler and it is always operated at full throttle and it actually moves the boat along to maybe 20 knots. Because of the shape the bow throws impressive bow spray, especially when the operator keeps his weight shifted to one side or another to maximize the effect. The boat seems to be good for nothing except ramming around the local bay in fine style whilst making the greatest possible noise and disturbance. Not an unknown vehicular activity in our own culture.

The land equivalent of the ferry boats is the "beamo". This is a small van built by Suzuki or Mitsubishi and heavily customized for local use. They are about half the size of a US built passenger van and are covered everywhere with chrome do-dads and where there's no chrome there are decals and over the windows there are one way decals. They travel the roads as public transport. The crew consists of a doorman who is usually hanging out the side door waving down possible customers and taking money, a co-pilot who seems to do nothing but provide moral support and occupy a front seat and the beamo captain himself who drives like a maniac while honking the most imaginative horns I've every heard at every possible inspiration. The interior of the beamo consists of a wooden bench down each side of the back of the van upon which as many passengers as dare to enter are seated. But it's what's under the seats that is the heart and soul of the beamo. These are huge stereo speakers that run the full length of the seats and are operated at only one volume. You guessed it, full blast! In honor of western guests who might sign on for a passage the music is usually switched to rap played at a volume which has the passengers floating on air above the speakers for the length of the journey. There's no air conditioning. There's little ventilation. The beamo is packed full with mostly young Indonesians. It costs about 30 cents to go anywhere. It's a kick and I actually like beamos. They are so utterly without redeeming values that you just have to except them for what they are and go along with the fun. It's faster than walking, usually, and always entertaining.

Probably tomorrow the 11th we'll depart and move along the north coast of Flores towards Labuan Bajo. This small city is the capitol of western Flores and a gate way to Rinca and Komodo and the famous Komodo dragons. We'll probably anchor near Bajo-Komodo Eco Lodge for a few days. (#26 )We certainly intend to go see the dragons, which are the largest lizards in the world, but we're told dragon viewing is actually better on Rinca than in the Komodo National Park. We'll see. The diving around the islands is also supposed to be spectacular and that's a major draw. The Alor folks never got it together for the dives although we had some world class snorkeling. I'm pretty sure things will be a lot more professional around Komodo. We're traveling in loose company with several other boats which is always fun. The weather has been very consistently warm to hot in the days with a good southerly breeze and cool enough at night to sleep comfortably. We could use more wind for sailing, especially at night.

All in all this is as interesting a beautiful an area as we've ever seen, right up there with Vanuatu and with greater variety of experience possible and we've really just started the Indonesian phase of this voyage.
With a little luck we can find somewhere, sooner or later, with fast enough internet to allow us to upload photos. This is a beautiful place.
Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream
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